15 January 2012

What tells YOU that a tea is worth buying?

My recent tea inventory led to panic (not enough!), then to a frantic pursuit of more product.  Storing tea for my retirement…it’s not too early to think about the future, especially with green pu’ers that need to mature.

I’m continuously curious about what other tea lovers are buying, wanting to buy, and most importantly, what they’re currently enjoying.  Many tea lovers have particular tastes and search for favorite teas that roughly fit their list of requirements (myself included).  Tea enthusiasts read about what’s popular, try them, and either add to their collection or blast them in their reviews.  My non-scientific “research” shows that review blogs and posts consistently get the highest page views, leading me to assume that buying trends for certain types of tea follow the preferences of the more popular review blogs (not uncommon in any interest group/product) and that many enthusiasts are both trying to learn about new products to acquire as well as to validate their own thoughts about a certain tea.  I rarely review teas, so the fact that I have managed to maintain your attention thus far, dear reader, is something that I am quite grateful for!

I grew up drinking Ten Ren, restaurant tea and various gift teas from Asia.  We had old pu’er at home (until I drank it all) that stayed intact only because no one wanted to drink it for 20+ years; its popularity as something to savor is relatively recent.  I randomly share various samples of my tea – both the rare and the very common – with anyone I sit down to drink tea with wherever I happen to be and I will tell you that no one I’ve had tea with is always right about the particulars of what we’re drinking, nor do people usually agree on all of the flavor notes they taste, the aromas they detect, or their preference for the brew.  Differences in opinion shouldn’t offend most people (though the sometimes heated debates online might seem otherwise), unless, unfortunately, you made the tea.  It can happen with retailers that custom-press their own pu’er, for example.  The staff of just such a retailer told me that it makes them reconsider their profession every time they read or hear about a bad review, though they remind themselves not to take it so personally.  Several years ago, I finished the roast on a summer Dong Ding that I sent to a friend to distribute as “educational” samples from his shop.  My friend emailed me earlier this week and said that one of his customers randomly brought a sample of that tea in (with my label on the vacuum pack!) and said the tea tasted a bit like – no joke – goat’s milk.  Goat’s milk oolong is a rather unique taste identifier that I use, so it was no surprise to learn that my friend’s customer learned about it from this blog.  Sigh…and ouch.

In my most recent quest for tea to buy, I decided to add more “cheap tea;” I need the quantity for long-term storage.  I bought a lot of good value stuff (low price, lots of potential, needs patience), high price/good taste, and then just OK, everyday tea.  With few exceptions among even fewer blogs, I don’t agree with tea reviews online, especially when it comes to oolongs and green pu’er. 

So what makes a tea worth buying?  Good value can be tasty tea that is well-priced.  What is well-priced?  Harder to pin down.  I subordinate pricing to personal preference, so I’m not especially focused on getting good product at the lowest price (though of course, that doesn’t mean I enjoy buying expensive crap).  If the tea is very good and not easy to obtain, I accept that I may have to pay more for it.  There is also a limit to how much time I want to spend searching for and trying samples until I find the right one, though the process itself is fun.  I look for tea specialists that I like, trust, can learn useful info from and consistently have product that I enjoy.  It does require that at some point I explore parts of Asia with a giant bag (to fill with tea samples) and a giant lunch bag (full of snacks to soak up the tea in my stomach) until I find something that suits my needs.  Those initial encounters were the original inspiration for this blog, though there are many older stories that have yet to be told.  For everyday teas, good is good enough and I can drink an affordable oolong (the Four Seasons varietal is cheap in Taiwan and pleasant enough).  But as I find myself having less free time to enjoy a brew, I especially appreciate a session with a solidly good tea for which good-enough won’t do and for which value is not a priority. 

With most of my posts, I sign off by saying drink good tea and enrich your life.  Good is whatever you think is good at the time you enjoy it, and I hope it adds to your life by way of the friendship that comes from sharing a brew, the clarity of mind you may receive from contemplation, or the internal harmony you may experience. 

Drink good tea and enrich your life.