Monday, March 29, 2010

How and Where You Can Buy the Best Teas

Most people have strong opinions on how they like their tea, but fewer people know how or where to buy the teas they enjoy the most. With hundreds of tea companies, some of which offer staggering catalogs, how does one know what to buy? Even going to the supermarket to purchase teabags, one is presented with a huge variety, and when ordering loose tea by mail-order, the selection can be even more overwhelming.

Learn styles and varieties of tea
Tea comes in many different varieties, and learning which of these styles you enjoy most is a good starting point to finding out what you like best. Tea is broadly broken into the categories of black, green, oolong, white, and pu-erh. A few popular black teas include English breakfast, Irish breakfast, Assam, Ceylon, Keemun, and Darjeeling. Pu-erh is available in ripe (black) and raw (green) forms. Similarly, gunpowder, dragon well, and sencha are a few popular green teas. Tie Guan Yin (Iron goddess of mercy) and Bai Hao (Oriental beauty) are two popular oolong teas. White teas include silver needle, white peony, and shou mei. These are only a few of the hundreds of named varieties of tea. Pay attention to what you are drinking - the particular style you are drinking can often be more important than brand, in terms of how much you enjoy a tea.

Learn tea-producing regions
The flavor, aroma, and overall quality of tea is greatly influenced by where it is grown. Even within a country like India, different regions (such as Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, or Sikkim) produce teas with broadly different characters. China's provinces are similarly diverse; Yunnan, Zhejiang, Fujian and Anhui are only a few of the major tea-producing provinces. Other important countries include Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Japan, Kenya, and Taiwan (Formosa).

When you find a company you like, try many of its teas
Tea companies are not created equal. Different brands sell similar teas at vastly different prices, and most companies do a better job of sourcing certain types of teas than others. Shop around a bit to get a sense of prices, but when you find a company whose products and prices you like, consider trying more teas from that company.

Form your own opinions by trying as much tea as possible
Many companies offer sample sizes: buy them. Trade teas with your friends, and whenever you are served tea, ask what it is that you are drinking. Keep a journal, create a tea blog, or use an interactive website to keep track of what you are drinking. Read online reviews and look at ratings, but take them with a grain of salt: each person has unique taste; just because a tea is someone else's favorite doesn't mean you will enjoy it.

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