So you want to stop drinking tea dust and get real tea – now what? I personally know buying tea can be hard.
Even if you manage to find a pack of loose-leaf tea among hundreds of boxes of tea bags in a supermarket, how do you know if it’s any good without being able to open the package, see inside or taste anything?
I know I had these questions myself.
The truth is, you can never be entirely sure if you’ll like your tea until you actually taste it. However, there are certain signs that hint at the quality of tea, if you know what to look for.
This guide will teach you how to find the best tea – both in-store and online.
Why is finding high-quality tea difficult?
We’ve all been in this situation: you find a great-looking pack of tea, promising “a fresh taste of Darjeeling”, so you take it home enthusiastically. Only to be left disappointed after the first sip…
When it happens time and time again, naturally you become wary and stick to the first palatable tea you managed to find. Good tea is hard to find if you’re unsure what to look for:
- Supermarket shelves are saturated by various tea bag brands. However, most of them sell a mixture of tea dust, that brews into the same bland and weak infusion for everyone. It is better for the business to prioritize consistency over taste. As a result, most people who drink tea made from tea bags don’t even realize how different it tastes from loose-leaf tea.
- You can’t smell, touch or sometimes even see what the tea you’re getting looks like. When placed side by side, it’s easy to pick a whole-leaf tea over tea dust. But when you put everything in tea bags and wrap them in an eye-popping package – the task becomes much harder.
- There’s a lot of unfamiliar lingo. If you’re not a tea lover, Darjeeling, Assam, or Ceylon may only be fancy words to you. And poor-quality tea producers prey on people like you. Don’t get intimidated or swayed by fancy terms like “orange pekoe” – they don’t indicate quality.
It’s necessary to know a little about tea if you want to enjoy it to its fullest, but you can learn everything you need to know on my blog. If you want to skip the search and just want to get great loose-leaf tea – head to my online tea shop at Viston Tea.
What to look for when buying tea?
If you’re not purchasing teas from specialized teashops, chances are, you will not be able to taste-test your tea. Don’t worry though, there are still some universal signs that will help you identify teas worth your attention.
Look for loose-leaf tea
If you don’t want to drink leftovers from tea production, skip tea bags. Sure, they’re a bit more convenient and more accessible – but taste-wise they don’t even compare to loose tea. And you’re drinking tea for its taste, right?
I have talked before about why tea bags aren’t great, but in summary:
- Tea bags mostly contain ground-up tea – dust or fannings, which offers only a hint of the real taste of tea, at best.
- Tea bags contain a mixture of different teas in order to create a consistent taste. However, that muddles it and the result hardly even resembles the taste of fresh tea.
- Tea bags all taste kinda the same. Certainly, you’ve heard about how good Japanese green tea is, or how Chinese tea is true to its ancient roots. But you will never experience it with tea bags. Loose-leaf tea can offer you a new kind of tea drinking experience, and a much greater variety.
- Loose-leaf tea stays fresh much longer, with proper storage. Tea dust that is in tea bags, has a higher surface area, losing its freshness more quickly (if it even had it in the first place).
- There’s plastic in commonly used tea bags, even if they look all-paper. The plastics melt in your cup and get into your body.
Look for unflavored teas
Loose-leaf tea has subtle notes that are fun to discover. Artificial flavoring often overpowers them.
Much like wine, real tea can have a delicate flavor, that’s reminiscent of wood, smoke, grass, fruits, and more. It can taste of chocolate or peach on its own, without either actually being present in your tea.
Initially, it may be hard to identify those subtle notes, but with practice, everyone can. And I guarantee you’ll love discovering new tastes. If you want to develop your palate – get my tea tasting journal.
Flavored teas such as Earl Grey are a great starting point though, and if you love them – keep drinking them.
Look for established brands
Brands that have been around for a long time will often be somewhat good. They wouldn’t have lasted that long if they provided inferior products.
Established loose-leaf tea brands will often have a wide selection of teas at reasonable prices. In addition, they usually offer good shipping costs, sometimes you may even be able to find them in supermarkets. However, don’t blindly trust a big name, they should still prove themselves. In fact, some of the best teas will often be found only in niche tea shops.
My recommendations for reputable loose-leaf tea brands:
Look at the tea’s description
The description of tea is the most important factor when buying tea. Not only does it hint at the taste, but also at the quality of tea and care with which it was produced.
I tend to categorize teas based on what the description tells me about the tea.
It’s the tea that dominates supermarkets. If you drink teas from this tier, I encourage you to look for something higher-quality. Here’s how you can identify them:
- Not enough indication of what to expect taste-wise in the description;
- A vague description of the source, region, and contents of the tea, especially if it’s a blend. For instance, saying it’s green tea, but not specifying exactly what kind and where it was harvested;
- Most of the time it’s in tea bags – loose-leaf tea brands have more respect for their product;
- Usually cheap.
- Example: Lipton Black Tea
Most of the time it’s the optimal choice for most people considering its price and quality. My tea brand Viston Tea falls into this category. Signs to look for:
- The description gives a good idea about the taste;
- Specifies at least a region the tea is from – Assam, Darjeeling, Ceylon, etc.;
- Specifies the exact variant of tea or the blend’s contents. For instance – Earl Grey blend with Keemun black tea base and bergamot oil.
- Usually, it’s loose leaf tea that ranges from inexpensive to expensive.
- Example: Viston Earl Grey Tea
This is excellent tea that has the capability of blowing your mind. However, due to their rareness and complexity, it’s quite expensive and is best appreciated by expert tea drinkers.
What to look for:
- They are usually single-estate or single-garden teas and will tell so in the description;
- The description will usually give the exact year and flush the tea was gathered in;
- The brand or tea shop will often have a close relationship with the farmer and work directly with them. Usually, they will tell you some sort of story about that.
- It’s a premium tea and most of the time expensive, never found in tea bags.
- Example: Mr. + Mrs. Chen’s Sequel
Look at the tea leaf
Producing whole-leaf teas inherently requires extra care, and that usually results in better tea. The appearance of the tea leaf is the basis for the tea grading system. Even though it’s not a foolproof sign of good tea, whole leaves have a higher chance of brewing into something delicious than dust.
Finest teas will not have debris among the tea leaves. Also, the amount of stalks decreases as the quality of tea gets higher. This means that extra care was taken when plucking and sorting the tea.
Loose-leaf tea leaves should all present a similar appearance. When incorrect rolling pressure is applied during manufacturing, tea leaves will be inconsistently rolled. This can cause imbalances in the flavor of the final infusion.
Two leaves and a bud
You may have heard the saying “two leaves and a bud” to describe teas. In fact, it’s a standard of plucking that high-quality tea producers strive to meet. Tippy teas will have a generous amount of tips in them – silver or gold-looking, hairy leaves.
The two youngest leaves are considered the best for tea and tips are a premium feature. As the quality of tea goes down, so does the amount of tips.
Look at the reviews
Reviews can tell you a lot about what to expect when you can’t inspect the product yourself. Other people who have tried the tea you’re considering may have left reviews that you can find online.
However, I suggest you look for independent reviews, not the ones on the product page. Many brands moderate their reviews, and they don’t necessarily leave them unfiltered. If possible, look for reviews from tea blogs, like my review of “Opern Wiener Melange” for the best information.
Don’t look at the price
Price is not an indication of quality. It’s true that better teas tend to be more expensive, but that isn’t a given.
Generally, black tea will be the cheapest, green more expensive, and others, such as Puerh and Oolong teas – the most expensive. Look at the signs I listed above and decide for yourself if the price is worth it.
Where to buy tea?
There are several places you can get tea from, all with their pros and cons.
Get tea from a supermarket
- Convenient and accessible;
- Lowest price;
- Lowest quality;
- A tiny selection of loose-leaf tea (mostly tea bags);
- No detailed descriptions or reviews;
Visit a physical tea shop
- Can usually inspect the tea leaves;
- Sometimes allow you to taste the tea;
- Can give recommendations and answer questions;
- There may not be many tea shops around, depending on location;
- Don’t necessarily sell the best tea;
Buy tea online
- Highest selection of teas;
- The very best teas can usually be found online;
- Can get detailed information and reviews;
- Can’t inspect the tea or packaging beforehand;
- Online shops sometimes use confusing terminology;
- Can be damaged in transport;
- Not easy to find the best, most reliable tea shops;
I personally prefer to order tea online, because of the vast selection of teas available. With a little experience, the cons become insignificant. If you want to skip all the hassle of finding a great tea shop, visit my tea shop at Viston Tea and get yourself some great loose-leaf tea.
Recommended online tea stores
Finding a reliable tea shop is hard, but it’s well worth doing it. To make the task easier for you, here are my personal favorites:
- Halmari – great single-estate Indian tea, it was the tea shop that introduced me to loose-leaf tea.
- Tea Mail – they cultivate relationships with tea gardens and offer excellent Puerh and Smoked (Lapsang Souchong) teas. They’re based in Poland and Belarus, but ship globally.
- Mei leaf – the owner is an expert on tea and has his own Youtube channel, they also source their teas directly from farmers.
- White2tea – is a synonym of excellent Puerh tea.
- Tezumi – west-facing seller of excellent Japanese tea.
- What-cha – UK-based tea shop selling a wide range of great loose-leaf teas.
- Yunnan Sourcing – excellent teas from Yunnan province in China.
- Palais des Thés – a great French tea shop founded by François-Xavier Delmas who personally builds connections and visits the tea gardens they source from.
- Viston Tea – my own tea shop where I’ve personally selected loose-leaf teas that are great for beginner tea drinkers.
Not being able to taste-test tea before purchasing doesn’t prevent you from identifying good teas.
The golden rule to follow is – to get loose-leaf tea. Nothing else matters if your tea is low-quality dust from tea bags – it won’t magically brew into a good cup of tea.
If you’re able to closely inspect the tea leaves – choose whole-leaf, uniform, tippy teas. Make sure they’re devoid of debris and have little to no twigs. Tea makers put more care and attention into producing such teas, which can mean better taste.
You can tell a lot from the packaging and the description – make sure it at least specifies what region it’s from, what type of tea it is with the exact variant and what to expect taste-wise.
Look up reviews whenever you can and if you’re feeling lost, just stick to established brands or reputable tea shops that focus on loose-leaf tea.
There you have it! Next time you’re buying tea, keep these tips in mind, and you will always get tea that you’ll enjoy. If you want to skip the search and just get excellent tea – visit my tea shop. Even good tea will taste bad if it’s prepared incorrectly – learn to make tea by reading “How to Make the Perfect Cup of Tea – 7 Easy Tips“.
Let me know in the comments – which tea shop or brand is your favorite one?