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Rule #6 - Great Tea Doesn’t Have to be Expensive

The internet is filled with fun facts. Here’s one for your next curiosity-driven google, What’s the world’s most expensive tea? The top search results leave a lot to be desired in terms of completeness and accuracy. For example Tie Guan Yin is reported in the top ten. But, Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess Oolong Tea) is readily available and often among the most reasonably priced oolongs. So, while I have no doubt, that there is some insanely expensive Tie Guan Yin out there, the article doesn’t draw any distinctions between the commonly available kind and whatever kind there is that topped out at a reported, $3,000 / Kg. 

But it’s a fun list if you don’t take it too seriously. It includes, diamond studded tea bags filled with Darjeeling tea at $15,000 a bag, tea fertilized exclusively with Panda droppings at $70,000 a Kg and some yellow tea supposedly harvested one day a year with gold scissors and coated in 24 carat gold for a measly $3,000 a Kg.

Once someone catches the gourmet tea bug it can become a very expensive hobby. If you are a millionaire and have the means to indulge yourself, I salute you. If you want to celebrate in person over a cup of panda poop tea, I’ll clear my calendar.

But, the reality is that not all great teas are expensive. We sell some moderately expensive teas but we also offer some very reasonably priced ones, literally pennies per cup. I can’t say that the more expensive one is “better” then the least expensive. It is purely a matter of taste and personal preference.

We price our teas based on what it costs us to procure them for you. That cost can vary widely and is influenced by a host of factors that often have nothing to do with how the tea tastes. Those include, what the tea growing season was like any given year, how widely available that specific variety of tea is, what certifications the tea estate has invested in and cost of shipping and local labor.

For example, in some countries a tea master responsible for crafting the process for drying, shaping and preparing a quality tea may earn over $200/hr. In another country, that same profession may earn as little as $10/hr. Is the $200/hr person necessarily better trained or more knowledgeable than the $10/hr person? In my experience, not necessarily. Even the greatest tea master will produce a mediocre tea if she’s asked to work with a mediocre leaf. On the other hand, some of the truly famous varieties require almost no processing at all.

So what cost factors really do influence a tea’s quality?

First, organic products usually produce a smaller yield. So organic products are more expensive. The organic certification process also adds expense, but in my opinion does not add anything to the quality. When we are working with suppliers we trust and/or I can personally put my feet in the furrows in question, we often skip certification.

Second, processing does make a difference in both taste and quality. I recently had the experience of a wholesale customer asking me to find inexpensive dried white mulberry for a non-tea project. I found dried white mulberry leaf for 1/10th the cost we normally pay. But that less expensive product had a two step preservation process, pick and dry in the sun. Our white mulberry tea, in contrast, has a 14 step process! The difference in quality is immediately obvious when you compare the two side by side. But all that extra care in processing does add expense.

Third, where the tea is grown makes a big difference. The purity of the air, soil and water strongly influence the taste of tea. A tea grown around pollution tastes of the contaminates. Unfortunately, usually these pristine conditions are only found in remote places. So, while the cost of actually growing the teas is about the same, the cost of harvesting and transporting these teas is more expensive.

So what about all the famous expensive varieties of teas, darjeeling, white cloud, da-hong pao, the list goes on and on? Yes, the variety of tea plant does make a difference and some are quite rare. It is one of the great pleasures of tea drinking to experience and appreciate the endless varieties of tea and find your personal favorites. But it is not correct that the most expensive is necessarily the best tasting. That is a very personal decision based on your palate and preferences.

Let me give you an example. One of the great oolongs is a variety called, Da-Hong Pao (Big Red Robe). Da-hong pao is a delicious tea robust and flavorful. The most expensive tea in the world is da-hong pao picked from just three old tea bushes supposed to have survived since the Ming Dynasty. If you could buy it, it reportedly would sell for around $1.2 million per Kg. I haven’t had the pleasure. But I have had other da-hong pao teas that I paid a lot less for. They were great and I’d be really surprised if I personally could taste the difference between those and the $1.2 million kind. Maybe someone can and maybe for that someone the difference is worth the price. But, my guess is that mostly it’s about bragging rights not taste.

The bottom line, yes, there are some factors that influence the quality of teas that do make good quality teas more expensive than your typical tea bag brand from the grocery store. But, there are truly GREAT teas out there for a song. (shameless plug - try our White Peony for example). Don’t let someone else’s palate or opinion or plain snobbery influence your tea preferences, try as many different teas as you can, pay attention and cultivate your own palate and it won’t be long before you have found the tea that for you is priceless. 

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