Basic Tips for Buying Tea in China
Know what you are looking for
The most important thing when buying tea is to know as specifically as possible what you are looking for. If you know what you want, you can keep the seller focused on finding you what you are looking for instead of what they want to sell you (based on what they think foreigners like or whatever they can make the most profit from either because the tea is low quality, overpriced, or a combination of both).
Do you want a floral green tea, a lightly sweet white tea, a pu’er tea cake, or a black tea similar to teas drunk in Europe and America? Being as specific as possible will help. For example, I want a “qimen black tea” is better than “black tea” and of course even better than “normal tea.” (I have heard that before!)
Knowing how much you want to spend up front is also helpful. In most Chinese tea stores, they will have different grades of the same tea. So if you said you were looking for a “qimen black tea”, they can probably show you “qimen black teas” from at least three different price points.
Learn to recognize some basics of tea quality
You want to look for whole leaves that are as intact and fresh as possible. Lots of broken pieces, stems, and twigs are a sign of low quality tea. You also want to smell the batch to see if you detect any “off” smells.
In general, you want to find un-scented teas because usually Chinese tea producers reserve the lowest quality teas to scent and mask the low quality. Also, tea blends are not in China’s tea tradition.
Understand how prices work
In most Chinese tea shops, teas are stored in canisters with prices on the canisters listed per 500g and you buy tea in quantities of 50g (a liang). So whatever the price on the canister, just divide by 10 and you have the basic price. 50g is plenty of tea for a gift or for yourself to drink.
Teas in the 800-1000RMB/500g range should be really good, which means you should be able to buy some GREAT tea for 80-100 RMB.
Know what questions to ask
The three most important aspects that distinguish different types of teas from each other are: terroir, cultivar, and processing method. You should be able to ask the tea seller questions regarding these three aspects and if they can’t answer them, that is a big red flag!
Another key question is to ask when a tea was harvested. Some teas are better in the spring harvest and others during the fall harvest. Knowing when a tea was harvested also tells you about the freshness of a tea. Except for teas prized for their aged qualities, ideally you would drink a tea within a year of its harvest date.
Other illuminating questions are the sellers relationship with the tea producers, suggestions for how to brew the tea, why the seller likes or suggests this tea, and what the difference is among the various grades of the same tea.
Find a tea seller you trust
In the end, the most important thing for all the elements above is buying from a tea seller you trust. Obviously, there is no point in asking questions to someone you don’t trust anyways.
Tea in China is a vast, deep, and complex subject that can at times be overwhelming—but it doesn’t have to be! A trusted tea seller should be like a great guide navigating you through all the complexities with ease.
In China, you have access to some of the world’s best and freshest teas that are prized for their natural flavors. In Beijing in particular, you have access to most of China’s wide varieties of teas from all over the country and working with a tea seller you trust, you should be able to find whatever tea you are looking for.
You can spend a lifetime learning about tea and still just scratch the surface. In the end, the best way to learn about tea is to drink a lot, explore, try new things and experiment with brewing and what you like. Finding a tea seller you can partner with and trust is crucial for your exciting journey of tea discovery, taste, and learning!
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