So you've fallen in love with tea. You've learned how to tell your high mountain oolongs from your shade-grown gyokuro. Now you're ready to buy some tea of your own.
Whenever I buy tea these days, I think back to a story from Verdant Tea's David Duckler:
When I was studying tea, one tea master forced me to drink only the foulest, lowest grade tea he had until I could describe and appreciate its flavor, aroma, and texture. Only then was I allowed to drink the "superior" tea. If someone brings you an ordinary tea bag and you can't find anything good in it, that's your fault, not the tea's fault.
It's a good reminder for tea lovers to not take themselves, or their tea, too seriously. Judging is easy. Appreciating is hard. And even seasoned experts have something to learn from tasting teas across a wide range of quality.
But when you want the good stuff, and you're willing to pay for it, you deserve to actually get it. This post is here to help you sort through the many, many tea sources out there to find one right for you.
Now first things first. Despite the headline, I try to buy tea in person whenever I can. The only way to know if you'll like a tea is to taste it, and any tea shop that's proud of its selection should be happy to brew you a sample and talk through what's interesting about it. The tea business is all about relationships; not just between farmers and buyers, but between consumers and tea merchants. I've learned more about tea from talking to tea sellers than from any book or article, and tasting your way through a shop's selection is the only way to get a sense of your merchant's own tastes.
But specialty tea is a niche market, and a good shop is hard to find, even in big cities like New York. So us tea-loving folk have to take to the internet to find our tea. Start searching for sources and you'll get flooded by options at all kinds of price points, along with crowdsourced websites full of reviews.* Who's trustworthy? What tea is really worth the cost? It's often impossible to tell until it's too late.
*I'm always wary of tea reviews since you can't control for a huge variable between you and the reviewer: the water they're using, which can have a profound effect on a tea's nuances.
What to Look For When Buying Tea Online
When cutting through the digital clutter of online tea stores, it helps to have some guidelines. Here are mine.
Beware the chains. I don't need to name names, but you know the ones I'm talking about. You see them in malls and major tourist shopping districts. They carry more chocolate chai or lavender-lemongrass blends than straight tea. By and large, these chains just don't carry quality tea. They buy leaves in vast quantities through middlemen brokers, then add so many spices and herbs to their blends that it's often impossible to taste the tea underneath (see here for more thoughts on flavored tea versus flavorful tea). The straight tea these chains do sell tends not to be particularly great, either. Better than teabags to be sure, but hardly first-rate stuff. You can do better.
Instead, think small. My favorite tea shops don't have huge selections. That's because the teas they sell have been picked out by the owner or some stake-holding staff member who's visited individual tea farms. Some of the best tea in the world is sold entirely through personal deals and never makes it to wholesale accounts.
A shop owner who flew halfway around the world to wander through the mountains, meet with farmers, and taste tea, who then brings back just eight or so teas to sell that season, is likely a true believer in those products. She's proud of them. She wants you to love them as much as she does. By comparison, if a website's offering you 100 types of tea from 12 countries, they're likely buying them through brokers, not directly. That by no means dictates that the company isn't selling quality tea—many absolutely do. But as with any specialty food, following a discerning fanatic's personal recommendations usually yields superior results.
When reading product descriptions, look for detailed descriptions of farmers' methods for growing and processing their tea, evidence that company buyers have seen the tea fields with their own eyes and have a good relationship with their farmers.
Seek out specialists. No single tea shop can handle all your tea needs. While more established companies may offer wide selections obtained through networks of skilled buyers, others are fanatically devoted to single types of tea, like Japanese greens or Taiwanese oolongs. Not only will these companies have more in-depth and diverse selections within that category, but they're also more likely to be experts who really know their stuff.
Don't be afraid to pick up the phone. You might have questions when trawling a tea website that no FAQ page can answer. So if the site is an online store for a physical shop, try giving them a call. Many tea shop employees are happy to answer any tea questions on your mind, and there's no better way to learn more about what you're buying. Of course, not every shop is willing to chat, or will have the time, but if it's staffed by tea fanatics, they probably like to share the tea love.
Prepare for some high prices. Not all expensive tea is good tea, and not all good tea is wildly expensive. But quality tea leaves, grown on good land and processed with skill and care, undoubtedly cost more than what you'll pay at the supermarket. Some may give you sticker shock—prices as high as $500 a pound (or higher).
Think of it this way. A single serving of tea uses just a few grams, and many can be re-steeped several times. Do the arithmetic and even pricey teas translate to just a dollar or so a cup. By comparison, you can drop $500 on a single bottle of wine. One luxury will last you an evening. The other will last months.
Tea Companies to Seek Out
With all that in mind, here are some of my favorite online sources for tea. The list is by no means comprehensive—there are many, many shops out there—and it's certainly shaped by my personal tastes. But taken together, these 15 companies cover a wide range of tea styles and origins.
Song Tea: Peter Luong's San Francisco tea company is pretty new. So much so that he hasn't set up an online store yet. You have to visit his website, download a PDF tea list, and call to make an order. Is the tea worth the fuss? Absolutely. Luong's Chinese and Taiwanese list commands high prices, but he doesn't sell anything less than beautiful, resonant tea in styles from green to oolong to black. His 2014 Dragon Well was some of the best I've ever had: brilliantly green with several dimensions of nuttiness beyond the usual chestnut. A Taiwanese black tea called Twenty One suggests cherries soaked in whiskey, and a Gold Peony white tea is impressively crisp with citrus and honey notes.
T Shop: Don't let the barebones website or small selection fool you; shop owner Theresa Wong is serious about her Taiwanese oolong, and she's happy to tell you all about it in her New York tea room. The Four Seasons Spring is a great everyday oolong, light and vegetal with a lovely floral perfume that's sweet but not cloying. Wong is a big appreciator of oolongs charcoal-roasted the old fashioned way, and her Cui Feng is special stuff; the roasting adds woodsy and burnt sugar flavors that tease out the tea's fruity twang.
Verdant Tea: David Duckler, the proprietor of Minneapolis's premiere tea company (plus recently a brand new tea shop), came to tea as an academic doing field research who fell in love with Chinese tea culture. His particular passion is for the little-known teas of Laoshan in Shandong province, relative bargains compared to more famous teas; a summer Laoshan green brews up so creamy you'll sniff it and swear someone's baking biscuits. Verdant also takes farmer relationships and freshness seriously; they only sell small-batch teas that sometimes hit the market just days after they were processed, and their stock updates every few weeks rather than once a season season.
Ippodo: Ippodo has been selling tea in Kyoto since the 1700s, and their selection of Japanese greens is excellent. Their matcha varies by season; the current New Year matcha is intensely nutty with a prolonged sweetness. Sencha offerings are listed from "rich" to "light," and the richest, the Kaboku, is precisely structured with a remarkable seaweed kick and subtle sweetness. And don't miss the Kanro Gyokuro, which is astonishingly intense and sweet, a thick, soupy brew with a prolonged finish.
Crimson Lotus Tea: Glen Bowers and his wife Dawa Lamu, who are based out of Seattle, never expected to get into the tea business. Bowers was a home-roasting coffee obsessive until he got a taste of the funky fermented Yunnan tea called pu-erh. Now he's crazy about it, and his mostly-online business is dedicated exclusively to unique pu-erhs aimed at new drinkers. A lovely bargain-priced 2005 "Top of the Clouds" raw pu-erh has an airy taste true to its name with wintergreen and sour fruit accents. On the funkier side, the 2008 cooked Bulang Imperial Grade brews as inky as coffee, with an earthy sweetness that'll last a dozen steepings.
In Pursuit of Tea: One of the few companies that sells a wide range of tea without sacrificing quality. The 16-year-old company's selection spans from Himalayan to Japanese, while the Chinese options focus more on oolongs and pu-erhs. If it's in stock, try the downy-leafed Dai Bai Hao, or Silver Needle, a delicate tea that glides across the palate. The oolong selection doesn't offer too many surprises, but one rare find is the lightly oxidized Spring Fortune, an unrolled Taiwanese tea with a bright, almost juicy kick.
Eco-Cha: This Taiwan-based company exclusively sells small-batch Taiwanese oolongs from family farms, and their 13-tea selection explores the incredible range of this country's amazing tea. I'm in love with their organic lightly roasted Dong Ding oolong; the delicate roast brings brothy, almost meaty flavors to the pumpkin-accented leaves. A low-elevation unroasted Jin Xuan is buttery and intensely floral, while the Shan Lin Xi high mountain oolong captures high-elevation teas' airiness coupled with cassia, marigold, and a vegetal backbone.
Simpson & Vail: I'm a sucker for Nepalese teas, the underdog of the Himalayan tea world. Everyone goes gaga over Darjeelings, but the best of Nepal's teas can be just as good, with the same telltale citrus and pine notes in spring pickings and deeper, richer brews in later-season harvests. True, they don't capture the same muscat grape vibe, and their flavors tend to be a little more rustic, but they can be wonderful everyday sipping teas. The Connecticut-based Simpson & Vail has a long tea list with varying quality, but I'm big into their Nepalese offerings. Try their Mist Valley, full of cocoa, roasted fruit, and hay; or the bright and piney first flush Sakhira. Other rewarding teas include the well-balanced, not-too-malty Nepal Ilam and the orange-inflected Sri Lankan Ceylon Pettingala, perfect with or without milk.
Fang Gourmet Tea: This Flushing tea shop offers one of the finest tea-tasting experiences you can have in New York, with a focus on Chinese and Taiwanese oolongs, blacks, and pu-erhs. Their website isn't updated frequently or maintained particularly well, which is why most of their customers place their orders over the phone. But it's worth calling in to see what rare teas they have in stock, like ancient tree pu-erhs, picked from centuries-old tea bushes, that practically reverberate in your mouth. Also ask about their pomelo tea, a rare Hakka specialty made by hollowing out a pomelo, stuffing it with tea leaves, and aging it for decades before brewing. The 1979 has a sweet viscosity and long, impeccably smooth citrus-accented finish, a totally unique brew.
Breakaway Matcha: Eric Gower's San Francisco-based company sells some excellent matcha, vividly green even by premium standards. His "hyper-premium" matcha varieties (four at present) emphasize intense creaminess and a bitter-free sweetness in a way that almost may have you thinking of Chinese green tea. The company also sells matcha designed for cold-brewing, as well as less expensive "culinary" matcha for cooking.
Everlasting Tea: Sammy Levine loves to explore the funky and long-aged sides of Taiwanese tea, and his 1972 Bao Zhong oolong is remarkable, with jammy fruit and dark wood notes that exhibit all the nuances and pleasures of well-aged tea. It's rare to get good aged oolongs like this; rarer still is to find ones that haven't been roasted to death prior to selling to taste artificially more aged than they are. Everlasting's younger teas are certainly worth trying too, and many reflect Levine's curiosity about and fascination with the funky side of floral oolongs. Disclosure: the owner of Everlasting has a personal relationship with a Serious Eats employee.
Rishi: Rishi's scope of tea is even wider than In Pursuit of Tea's, and in addition to straight tea they also sell blends and teabags. But when it comes to big tea companies, Rishi is surprisingly solid, and several of their teas hold their own with others on this list. Another virtue: Rishi teas find their way into several supermarkets, so you don't even need an online order to get your hands on some.
Dachi Tea: This enterprise completed a round of funding on Kickstarter, and owners Simon George and Nicholas Palumbo have a cool concept: They took one batch of excellent fall harvest Taiwanese leaves and invited four tea masters from across the country to process them into four completely distinct (and splendid) products. The teas range from the floral and misty lightly oxidized Sky High oolong to the heavily oxidized and nectar-sweet Honeysuckle oolong. There's no better way to see how terroir and post-harvest processing interact in a single tea.
Red Blossom Tea: This San Francisco company covers a wide range of Chinese tea styles with some nice approachable pu-erhs good for those getting their toes wet in the world of fermented tea. I'm also especially fond of their delicate Silver Needle, a premium white with a gentle creaminess less heavy than what you get in more oxidized oolongs.
Té: Another small, obsessive source for great small-batch Taiwanese oolongs, Té offers a range of oxidation percentages, elevations, and roast levels for you to compare and contrast. The electrifying lemon zest kick of their Dongfeing Meiren (Oriental Beauty) is a dead ringer for Lemon Zinger, but far more smooth and velvety with deeper fruity nuance. I also love their Graceful Hill, a lightly roasted oolong that's incredibly buttery and oily with notes of toasted hay that remain on the palate long after the cup is empty.
Disclosure: Several companies listed provided samples for review.