I recently engaged in a tea trade and tasting with a few friends who are casual tea drinkers, in which I brewed up Life in Teacup's Bai Ya Qi Lan alongside Teavana's Monkey Picked Oolong Tea, which is a Tie Guan Yin. I found this comparison very interesting to me because the two teas were actually quite similar to each other in certain ways, but the companies selling them were about as dissimilar as one could find. I have already reviewed both of these teas on RateTea, and you can find them here: Life in Teacup's Bai Ya Qi Lan, Traditional Green Style, Superior Grade, and Teavana's Monkey-Picked Oolong, along with some other people's reviews as well.
Although the two teas were from different varietals, both teas were greener oolongs, traditional sytles (not the modern green style), from Anxi County in Fujian province of China. Teavana is the biggest loose-leaf tea retailer in the U.S., a publicly traded company, with stores in high-end shopping malls. Teavana does carry a number of pure teas, like this one, but the company's focus seems to be more on blends. Life in Teacup, on the other hand, is a tiny company, run by one person, which focuses on pure teas, particularly Chinese teas.
People liked both teas a lot:
The reaction to both teas was generally very positive. People seemed to like the Qi Lan more, but the general feeling was that the teas were quite similar to each other.
When I drink greener Tie Guan Yin on its own, I often feel that the aroma resembles orchids. However, drinking it side-by-side with the Qi Lan, I will say, although the Teavana Tie Guan Yin did smell strongly floral to me, it struck me as much less orchid-like than the Qi Lan. Qi Lan is sometimes translated as "profound orchid", so it makes sense that its aroma would be more orchid-like than the Tie Guan Yin. This is the first time I ever sipped two similar teas side-by-side like this, and it was interesting to see that the varietal named for orchids actually did smell more like orchids to me.
I found the Teavana tea to be more multifaceted. Its aroma was not just floral, but also had more woody tones. However, in the end, I liked the Qi Lan better.
I thought these two teas were similar in quality; by taste alone, I preferred the Qi Lan from Life in Teacup, but only slightly, and there were aspects of the Teavana tea I liked more, notably, that it seemed much more complex whereas the Qi Lan was a bit simpler. Both produced multiple infusions, and with a similar amount of leaf and similar steeping lengths, they produced cups that were about equally flavorful and aromatic.
However, Life in Teacup's Qi Lan sold for $3.99 for one ounce, whereas the Teavana Monkey-Picked Oolong sold for $25.00 for 2 ounces, well over three times the price. Is this because Teavana is overpriced? This may be part of the story, but another possible explanation, to share my own personal opinion, is that I think Tie Guan Yin tends to be overpriced relative to other varietals. Life in Teacup sells a Tie Guan Yin of the same grade as this Qi Lan for $9 for one ounce, still less than this Teavana tea, but only slightly so.
Notes on other teas:
As a side note, I brewed up some other teas, including Harney and Sons' Sungma Second Flush Darjeeling, and a 2009 Shou Mei from Life in Teacup, and they were generally well-received, with the exception of Teavivre's Mao Jian green tea, which people found too bitter. I must partly take responsibility for the brewing of this tea, as I think I brewed it on the bitter side, but on the other hand, I really love the bitterness. I recently had enjoyed a cup of this, brewed Gong Fu style by Evan of Pluck Tea. This tea, even when brewed with great skill, has a bit of an edge to it. I like this, but I understand it does not appeal to the broadest tastes, especially here in America where there is a pretty strong tendency to avoid bitter flavors.
What do you think?
Do any of my remarks here surprise you? Or do they seem to fit with your experiences?