Where to buy tea online, + pu-erh
November 16, 2009 8:24 AM   Subscribe

Tea Filter: what's your favorite online tea store? Bonus question: tell me about pu-erh.

Stores I already know about, but haven't necessarily ordered from:
Adagio Teas
Tea Gschwendner (teamerchants.com in the USA)
Upton Tea
Maeda-en (Japanese green tea only)

Which of these is the best, for quality or price? Is there a different one that you prefer?

Bonus: I'm interested in trying pu-erh tea. What does it taste like, in comparison to more familiar kinds of black/green/oolong/white tea? What kind do you suggest I try first?
posted by k. to Food & Drink (36 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
I am not a huge tea groupie, but I have had pu-erh. It's very earthy... the smell reminded me of a barn, but it a really good way. Mostly the scent of warm hay. The taste was actually quite mild, and probably most like green tea. I couldn't tell you what brand or type it was though.
posted by kimdog at 8:37 AM on November 16, 2009

I think pu-erh tastes like dirt as compared to other teas, and I think it's delicious. On retailers, many people love Adagio but after using them for a while and comparing what I got to actual Chinese and Japanese teas direct from the source, I prefer the latter to Adagio. I've got to believe there are other, cheaper sources of tea online that don't have stuff like blooming teas and fruit-flavored teas, but rather just focus on tea itself. I'm not a tea ordering expert or anything, but instinctively the Maeda-en site looks best to me - maybe there are some Chinese tea sites that have good ratings. I have a stash of tea in tea cake form (like the ones pictured here) and it's delicious and seems to last forever. Don't know anything about that retailer in particular but I'd be looking to buy stuff that's packaged like their products, because it looks more likely to be tasty than someone who buys and repackages teas like Adagio does.
posted by lorrer at 8:43 AM on November 16, 2009

I ordered from Adagio in the past and was always very happy with them but it has been a few years. At the time they shipped in tins, which is nice, and I'm still re-using them. I actually ordered Pu-erh from them. It smells, to me, kind of like rotting leaves, like in autumn, but has a pretty mild taste. It's not really anything like a black tea but is more strongly flavored than many green teas I have had.
posted by ghharr at 8:46 AM on November 16, 2009

Give TeaSource a try. This is a Minneapolis/St. Paul store and the proprietor is the most knowledgeable Tea guy I've ever encountered. They carry Puerrh too...
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:50 AM on November 16, 2009

I love Tea Zone. It's a little shop in Somerville, MA, and when I lived in Cambridge I went there all the time. But he seems to do a good fraction of his business online, and the prices are good, service is fast, and selection is large.

In fact, I need to stock up on Monk's Blend tea... hmmm....
posted by wyzewoman at 8:51 AM on November 16, 2009

Upton tea has been good to me and has a very nice website. Their paper catalog is earnestly cool retro.
posted by chairface at 8:53 AM on November 16, 2009

I usually go to the TeaGschwendner store here in Chicago, but my mother swears by there online service once I introduced it to her. They have my recommendation, both because I love their tea and think it is good quality, but also because from what I understand they have really decent online service. Price-wise, I wouldn't be able to give you a good comparison, but for most teas I have never felt that the price was excessive. There higher-end stuff, Edmond's Reserve I think is really pricey, but their lower end stuff is good quality and decently priced.

Also, I know in stores when you buy tea you get a free sample, I don't know if they do this online, but it is a really great way to try out new teas or more expensive ones. I have found that I can try out something without committing to a whole bag and it has really helped me hone my own preferences. YMMV of course since I can't tell if this is an option online, or if other companies do this as well.
posted by Carillon at 8:55 AM on November 16, 2009

This is my favorite tea person, Postcard Teas, a lovely person who knows and loves teas. Also, he makes sure about the provenance and pesticide levels of the teas. He ships worldwide.

Another well places for product is Peets who do both coffee and tea. If you know what you are looking for it is a fine establishment though quite frankly, their strength is in coffee.
posted by jadepearl at 9:16 AM on November 16, 2009

Oh, god, we love Uptons. Everything we've ordered from them has been of extremely high quality (we drink mostly black teas, but all the herbals we've tried have been nicely balanced and fresh-tasting), the packaging is cute (you can buy a big or small tin and then refill it with loose tea in bags), and the shipping is improbably fast and cheap (one day from NH to CO, for $4.99? I'll take it!). They do 15 gram samples for a dollar, and we have a lot of fun picking some every time they order. Their prices are not bad at all - more than grocery store tea but nothing like what you would pay at a boutique-y neighborhood store. Bonus: they have very active and vocal customers, and pretty much every tea listed has dozens of reviews from people who've actually tried it.

We love them!
posted by peachfuzz at 9:38 AM on November 16, 2009

Tao of Tea. I've also ordered from Adagio and Uptons and liked them as well.
posted by kbuxton at 10:03 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: About pu-erh: is there a big difference between the cheap kind, the expensive kind, and the really expensive kind? Is there a difference between lose-leaf and the kind that comes in a brick?
posted by k. at 10:10 AM on November 16, 2009

To be honest, the first time I had pu'er cha I thought it tasted like a very light seaweed soup.
posted by extramundane at 10:14 AM on November 16, 2009

I absolutely adored The Teacup while I lived in Seattle, and am glad that they have an online store now that I'm across the country. I stocked up before I moved, so haven't ordered from them long distance, but may well when my stash runs low. Everything I've ever had from there is delicious.
posted by Sublimity at 10:34 AM on November 16, 2009

I really like all of the teas that I've ordered from TehKu. Every time I go to visit my sister in Columbus, I insist that we stop in there and have a couple of pots of tea and their totally yummy green tea scones.
posted by amarynth at 10:36 AM on November 16, 2009

Teaism from DC is nice. Not the best interface, but great tea.
posted by asuprenant at 10:46 AM on November 16, 2009

Oop, http://www.teaism.com/
posted by asuprenant at 10:46 AM on November 16, 2009

pu-erh is generally fermented and aged in bricks, wheels or pucks. The really inexpensive stuff is chemically fermented, the good stuff is fermented and aged a bit and the really good stuff has been around for 10+ years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pu-erh_tea Personally the taste reminds me of a musty old bookstore. I generally break of bits either by hand or gently pry from the side with a butter knife and try not to crush it too much.
You should be able to buy a wheel of it for not too much money (~=$15)from a chinese supermarket or tea/herb store. I don't tend to drink it loose or in teabags so i wouldn't know the quality.
posted by captaincrouton at 10:51 AM on November 16, 2009

I don't buy tea online, but about puerh--it often smells like fish. Tastes like dirt. Some people (myself included) like these things, some don't. I would sample several varieties before committing to a whole wheel.
posted by opossumnus at 10:57 AM on November 16, 2009

posted by jockc at 11:04 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I made a post about tea a while back that might be helpful. This is a great source for information about pu-erh teas; it probably answers just about any question you could think of.

My favorite tea shops are SevenCups and Jing, both offer a great selection of teas and are trusted sources for high quality (and very expensive) teas. There are many ways to 'fake' high quality tea, and its good to be able to have a conversation with the dealer and feel confident that what you're buying is what is described.

Good pu-erh should not smell like fish and taste like dirt. It is a bit of an aquired taste, but part of that aquiring means getting the right tea. I've dabbled a bit in some of the more expensive and aged pu-erhs -- there is a definite difference and it's worth tasting, but for everyday drinking there's plenty out there that's reasonably priced (around $50 for a 100gr cake). In this way, pu-erh can be a bit like wine, with the top end really being for special occasions and for the people snooty/refined enough to be able to tell the difference.

A major boost in tea enjoyment can be had by brewing your tea properly. Use whole leaves, not bags, get the right pot (described in the earlier post), and brew to get the most flavor out of the leaves.
posted by cubby at 11:06 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like Murchie's Tea Co in Vancouver. They have a few brick & mortar stores in BC but I've never been to those; I order online or by phone. Their teas are very good in my opinion (but I only order Indian-style teas; I don't care much for Chinese-style teas and can't speak for those).

There's no problem and no customs duty shipping tea across the border into the US (at least in typical household quantities), in case this applies to you.
posted by Quietgal at 12:12 PM on November 16, 2009

Gong-Fu Tea in Des Moines. Very knowledgeable and high quality. I'm fortunate to work just a few blocks from them, but they have great online ordering.
posted by webhund at 12:24 PM on November 16, 2009


Todd & Holland Tea is my local shop and I am local so I like it. I have no idea how much smarts they have - I just buy my tea there. Did I mention I like it? Because I do.
posted by zenon at 1:35 PM on November 16, 2009

Another vote for Upton. They have an excellent website and offer samples for a buck or two. I always end up ordering a few samples with my standard stuff. Also, they often throw in a free sample which I really appreciate. Top-notch company/service.
posted by nnk at 1:36 PM on November 16, 2009

also, while not as nice as loose tea, I find the mighty leaf tea pouches to be almost as good and way more convenient. They're sorta expensive, but if you figure out which ones you like then buy the 100ct boxes on sale it's not too bad.
posted by mercredi at 1:45 PM on November 16, 2009

My favorites are Upton Tea and SpecialTeas.

SpecialTeas has a smaller selection but their prices seem to often be slightly lower, and they give a free sample with your order. They also sell my favorite single-serving teapot.

As far as puer, I still haven't tried the green stuff, which is supposed to be the best. I enjoy "cooked", or oxidized, puer a lot anyways. I have never heard of anyone doing this, but I often make it with milk and sugar just like black tea. It's very underrated.

You can get green puer at the following two stores, for what seems to be the best price:

posted by Earl the Polliwog at 1:57 PM on November 16, 2009

Oh, and as a note - the more reasonably-priced online tea sellers like Upton and SpecialTeas are actually less expensive than many grocery store teas, so long as you're not ordering from the upper end of the price range. When you buy looseleaf, you really come out ahead in terms of cost as well as taste. The decent teas you can find in shops (Harney and better) are very much more expensive than the same tea from Upton, etc.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 2:03 PM on November 16, 2009

Nthing Upton. I've been a customer for many years and have been very happy with their teas, information, and customer service. I particularly like their Celestial Tribute pu-erh. Complex, earthy and silky. Samples are the way to go.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:12 PM on November 16, 2009

I love Adagio. I've loved nearly all of the tea I've had from them. My current favorites are the black dragon pearls, the apple chai, and the kai hua crescendo. In addition to awesome teas, they have really good customer service, sometimes throw in a free sample tin when you make an order, and have a system where you get points every time you order and eventually earn free tea.
posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel at 3:45 PM on November 16, 2009

I too love Upton, but I also love Harney & Sons. They're uniformly awesome, and I order tea from them probably every few months.
posted by zusty at 4:24 PM on November 16, 2009

I've enjoyed Malabar Trading Company's teas. No online store, but it looks like you can email them what you want and they'll send you a PayPal invoice.
posted by DakotaPaul at 4:25 PM on November 16, 2009

My boyfriend is partial to Rishi Tea, which is sold at our local natural foods store and also has a good selection online (including pu-erh).
posted by hellogoodbye at 5:31 PM on November 16, 2009

Just popping in to mention Tealuxe; I've had good luck ordering from them online in the past.
posted by reptile at 7:35 PM on November 16, 2009

Back when I lived in Beijing, I spent a day at Beijing's MaLianDao (tea city) shopping for pu'er. I seem to recall that it was also sold in tiny individual cakes, which were average/mediocre quality but more convenient. No idea if it's available online. You won't be able to notice the difference in quality until you grow accustomed to (and like) the taste of everyday pu'er, so don't buy an expensive kind.
posted by acidic at 8:42 PM on November 16, 2009

SerendipiTea is easily my favorite. Lots of interesting flavored blends, if you can dig that. Fiji (Papaya, Wild Pineapple & Organic Green Tea) and Colonille (French Vanilla & Vietnamese Black) are favorites of mine. The term flavored is almost a disservice as in this case it means is that there a large chunks of whatever flavoring mixed in, not some sketchy "natural and artificial flavors.' Their non-flavored teas are great too, though I think the delta is smaller there.
posted by yeoldefortran at 4:38 AM on November 17, 2009

Just popping in to mention Tealuxe; I've had good luck ordering from them online in the past.

Just checked out their site- they sell a lot of the same teas as Upton, only for more money. You might want to see if Upton carries the teas you like from Tealuxe. Their ordering and CS is really good too.

Since there are so many options here, this is what I look for in a tea seller: explicit information about origin, flush, and grade (size of the leaf, and whether it is "broken" or "fannings". Broken leaf is cheaper, and needs to be brewed for much less time. All tea bags are broken leaf tea). Ingredients in blended teas should also have the origin of the tea- "black tea" is not helpful, and usually means poor quality (I'm not saying I don't enjoy drinking cheap blends or that one should only drink the best tea- only that a lack of disclosure is something to avoid in online vendors). Samples are a big plus, as is tea sold in bags to refill tins (tins are costly and I don't need a dozen of the same kind. That's just IMO). Prices (shipping included) should be comparable to other sellers. Brewing information should always be provided for each tea; this may seem anal, but a broken leaf ceylon is going to taste nasty brewed for the same time and temperature as a full leaf oolong. Good tea vendors are well aware of this and make it explicit.

If none of this stuff is important to you, that's OK too. There's absolutely nothing wrong with buying a box of Barry's and enjoying it. However, buying a sample of multiple teas of the same type, like Darjeeling or Earl Gray, can really demonstrate how teas of the same name can vary. Once you discover this, buying a tea simply marked "darjeeling" is going to seem like a crapshoot.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:54 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

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