Updated: Aug 6, 2020
So, you have fallen in love with tea. If you are like me, you are one of those people that buys tea everywhere you go; not just on holidays, actually, EVERYWHERE YOU GO!!! But sometimes is not easy to find what you are looking for or, you are presented with a crazy and difficult situation where you cannot leave your home (yes!! You know what I am talking about).
So, the next step is to buy online. But… and this is a big but, how do you know what and where to buy loose leaf tea. The million question, not even The Chaser will know how to answer it.
You have learned how to tell your high mountain oolongs from your shade-grown gyokuro. If you are not, I would highly recommend attending one of our courses.
Now, you are in front of the laptop or with your phone in your hand and, you want the good stuff, and you are willing to pay for it, you deserve to get it. But you do not know where to start. This post is here to help you sort through the many, many tea sources out there to find one right for you.
ALWAYS TRY THE FIRST OPTION
Now first things first. Despite the headline, I try to buy tea in person whenever I can. The only way to know if you will like a tea is to taste it, and any tea shop that is proud of its selection should be happy to brew you a sample and talk through what is interesting about it. If you are in a tea shop and the time that the seller spends with you is less than 5 minutes, do not come back. If the person does not ask you about your preferences, do not come back. If the tea retailer does not offer you to taste the tea or a sample of the tea, do not come back.
The tea business is all about relationships, not just between farmers and buyers, but between consumers and tea merchants.
OK, LET’S BUY ONLINE
1. ASK YOURSELF WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR
What do you want to try? a pure tea, a tea blend, an herbal tea? Knowing your taste and preferences is the first step to decide what type of online tea shop you will search on the Internet. If you are a tea connoisseur go for the websites that offer a wide range of options; if you are just starting, choose a website that have only a few options but with a better selection of loose leaf teas. This means that for sure, they will have “the basics” (although I hate this concept) varieties of the 6 types of teas.
2. RESEARCH THE TEA TYPE AND THE VARIETY YOU HAVE SELECTED
If you decided to buy Silver Needle white tea, for example, now research the main characteristics of the tea, prices, flavour profile and compare what you found with your preferences. Sometimes, we think we would like to try a trending tea but it does not match our own preferences.
If you are a big black tea drinker, normally, a white tea will have a taste like water for you. On the other hand, if you are used to drinking green or herbal tea, a more delicate flavour will go with you.
Trends are great to keep the market moving. Tea-wise do not follow trends, follow your palate!!!
3. RESEARCH THE COMPANY
Beware the chains: You see them in shopping centres abroad and major tourist shopping districts. They carry more chocolate chai or lavender-lemongrass blends than straight tea. And they have online stores too!!!
Instead, think small. My favourite online tea shops do not have huge selections. That is because the teas they sell have been picked out by the owner or some stake-holding staff member who is 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.
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.
4. ASK FOR INFORMATION
Do not 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 is no better way to learn more about what you are buying. Of course, not every shop is willing to chat or will have the time, but if it is staffed by tea fanatics or is well trained with tea knowledge, they probably like to share the tea love.
5. ASK FOR SAMPLES
Be prepared for 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 will pay at the supermarket. This does not mean that the tea you can buy at the supermarket is bad quality, it is just a different quality of tea.
Premium loose-leaf tea could be expensive to buy, and online shopping sometimes puts you off. You do not want to buy 100g of tea for €20 not knowing how it tastes. ASK FOR A SAMPLE. Any serious and professional tea retailer must allow the consumer to ask for samples, for no charge or a minimum price. 10g of tea could make the difference between a satisfied customer or a lost customer.
6. NOW, GO ON BUY TEA!!! AND ENJOY IT FOR MONTHS
A single serving of tea uses just a few grams, and many can be re-steeped several times. Do the maths and even pricey teas translate to just a euro 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.