Friday, April 2, 2010

Three Unusually Good Inexpensive Teas

In the world of high-quality loose tea, it's often true that you get what you pay for. I've often tasted several grades of the same tea and noticed the increasing complexity corresponding to appropriate increasing price--and it's also important to mention that many of the higher-priced teas lack unpleasant characteristics present in their cheaper counterparts.

But it's also true that there are deals out there. Today I'll share three teas that I personally think are unusually high in quality relative to how inexpensive they are. If you're price-sensitive but still want to try something really good, I'd recommend checking out these offerings.

Upton Tea Import's Se Chung Oolong:

Se Chung was a bit of an enigma to me; it has been tricky to figure out exactly what it was, and I'd still like to find more reliable sources to back up the page I wrote on Se Chung. (Thanks to the many forum participants who informed this article.) From trying a few se chungs, they can be quite diverse. This particular one is a greener oolong, strong and bold in flavor, complex in aroma, and the leaves can be infused many times. I like this far better than any Tie Guan Yin I've tried in a similar (or considerably higher) price range. Detailed review of Upton's Se Chung. At $4.90 for 100g, this tea is an absolute steal.

Hampstead Tea's Darjeeling (from Makaibari Estate):

This is a lighter, gentle Darjeeling, not a first-flush but with a noticeable first-flush character. It's also fair trade and organic certified--and beyond this, it's a biodynamic plantation (which includes in this case the fact that most of the area of the estate is left as wild forest). But even setting these things aside, I think this tea competes with considerably more expensive teas on its flavor and aroma alone. The aroma is very pleasing and has a lot of things going on. Detailed review. I'm not sure if it has an official price but I've seen it for sale in stores and online retailers for as low as $4 for a 125g canister; typical price is closer to $8 but it's still a great deal.

Ten Ren's Pouchong 3rd Grade:

This is by no means a top-notch Pouchong / Bao Zhong. It has a number of subtle qualities that connoisseurs and everyday tea-drinkers alike will most likely object to--a fishy quality, a certain harshness. But it's hard to find inexpensive pouchongs, and this one is the only one I've found in this price range that's worth trying. It has a honey-like sweetness, a floral quality, and yet has a pleasant bite to it, and I find it quite enjoyable to drink. Detailed review. 4oz. for $7.00; I actually bought it in Chicago for less than this in the Ten Ren store but the prices may have gone up since then.

Always looking for more ideas!

I'm always looking for more teas that people think are an exceptionally good deal, so if you have anything you know of, please let me know!


  1. In the San Francisco Chinatown I stopped by a Ten Ren store and purchased some Baozhong. I tried this 3rd grade one which you mentioned, and I tried their grade A.
    I ended up going with the grade A because I enjoy a more creamy, smooth Baozhong but the 3rd grade was not bad at all! It is certainly out of the norm for what a baozhong is perceived as far as taste goes.

  2. Hey - thanks for the suggestions! Regarding Austin - I think it's definitely worth a visit. I didn't get time to check out the music, but I DID see the bats depart in bulk from under the downtown bridge. There are lots of tea venues, too.

  3. Thanks for these reviews. The purse is always looking for good stuff. I love to try Upton's stuff - their samples are all so cheap. Have you tried Mark T. Wendell's Hu Kwa - Lapsang Souchang? I think it is simply the best of them.

  4. Thank you all for commenting!

    Now I want to try Ten Ren's grade A pouchong, and Mark T. Wendell's Hu Kwa Lapsang Souchong...I haven't tried anything from Mark T. Wendell yet but I've heard good things about their teas.

    And the bats in Austin are really fun. =)

  5. Hi Alex, and thanks for stopping by! I do expect to continue to research U.S. tea history, especially as regards Pinehurst, and when I get a decent bit of information in order (either in blog or book form) I'll be sure to let you know. Thanks again!

  6. Hi your blog! I wrote a long reply yesterday to your "marketing/descriptions post" but then I lost it. Sigh. I gave up. Now here's another attempt to post. Not as long though, just a few questions.

    How come you recommend Hampstead's Makaibari tea? Couldn't we just use any retailer that sells the same Makaibari, as long as the price is right? Upton sells their teas too. Just wondering. I'd have thought that Hampstead's tea packaging would add to the price.

    After I read your post, I found Makaibari's website online today, which was interesting. You can even rent a room there. As to their online tea sales, it looks like they don't sell direct to the US. Anyway, here's the link

  7. Thanks for the link about Makaibari's site...I had not found that yet!

    I have had Makaibari's teas from different sources, including Upton, and they've been consistently excellent. I picked the one from Hampstead tea for this post because that particular one of the lowest prices I've seen out there, and is also, in my opinion, unusually complex and with a lot of first-flush character, which can be hard to find unless you're buying first-flush. Upton to my knowledge only sells the (higher-priced) first- and second-flush teas.

    Although...I also think it's worth paying the premium to try some of their other teas. I especially love their long-leaf green: my review of a previous lot/batch of Makaibari's long-leaf green. I said at the beginning of this blog post "often true that you get what you pay for" and I think Makaibari's teas are one example of this.