Friday, April 27, 2012

Side-by-side Comparison: Teavana Monkey-Picked Oolong vs. Life in Teacup Bai Ya Qi Lan

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.

My impression:

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.

Price comparison:

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?


  1. I wasn't sure I'd like the idea of pitting a tea "giant" against a small tea vendor, especially as I really like Gingko, her business, and her tea writing. I suppose I wasn't sure what to expect. Anyway, the review was interesting and I needn't have worried - it seems like a fair description. If both teas are good, I guess it comes down to who the buyer chooses to support.
    By the way, I didn't realize you know Evan, as in actually know him. Or did you write about that a while back? It rings some sort of bell, but not very loudly.

    1. Ah, yes, I do know Evan!

      No worries, I am biased towards small businesses, so I'm unlikely to pick and choose a comparison to make against a big corporation like Teavana, unless it's a company whose products I feel compare favorably against it. But to be fair to Teavana, there are tons of small companies whose products don't. This would be true, even given that I tend to think that Teavana's teas are overpriced. Even with their high prices, at least their products are consistently very fresh...and that's where, unfortunately, a large number of small tea shops and small tea retailers have really lagged behind, at least in my limited experience. In the case of these shops, I would nearly always prefer Teavana.

  2. Alex and Jackie, thank you for your kind comments!
    I feel we can't simply say Teavana (or some other large company) is overpriced, because it really depends on what a customer looks for in a store. I have to admit that Teavana's website and onsite stores both have state-of-art outlooks! It costs a lot of money to hire full-time staff to maintain a professional-looking website, as well as other aspects in operation. And shopping experience is part of the value a customer may prefer.
    On the other hand, I'm very grateful to people who like our store in spite of our simple and not-so-organized website (I have to admit it's sometimes hard to navigate and I continue working on it). We have the obligation to offer good quality/price ratio to compensate the constant support of our customers.

    1. Hmm, you're right that it costs a lot of money to have a full-time staff a storefront, and all the infrastructure that Teavana has.

      The reason that I say that it is overpriced is that, overall, I have not had positive experiences when going into Teavana stores. Although it hasn't happened a majority of times (and I've been in a number of different Teavana locations), I have encountered very pushy behavior, and I find pushy behavior unprofessional. If I'm going to pay a premium, I want the premium to be reflected in treating me, as a customer, with respect, and respecting the normal boundaries that my friends, acquaintances, and professional contacts normally respect, and the boundaries that employees in most retail chains respect.

      Also, I feel that it is worthwhile to pay a premium to support brick-and-mortar stores, as I feel like these are important in communities. But Teavana does not locate its stores in places that I feel are healthiest for communities--it nearly always locates them in high-end shopping malls. The rents in these malls can be very high, and I know that a certain portion of the high price of their teas is going to pay these rents. The malls in which Teavana chooses to locate are nearly always in car-oriented areas. As an example, downtown Philly, a highly walkable area, has numerous high-end shopping locations, but there is not one Teavana store. There are, however, Teavanas in the car-oriented King of Prussia mall, Cherry Hill Mall, Deptford Mall, and Willow Grove mall.

      Meanwhile, urban areas have numerous vacant storefronts. So my money is going to support shopping areas that are strictly car-oriented, when many pedestrian-oriented areas are hurting for tenants.

      I don't like that. That's not value. I'll pay a premium for a brick-and-mortar location, and I'll pay a premium for full-time staff, but I want my money to be used in ways that support my values, not that are opposed to it.

      Perhaps I can write a detailed blog post about this. You raise good points and I think this topic would make an interesting extended post.

  3. I love to compare similar teas from different companies. Price definitely does not always indicate quality and every once in a while you'll get a real surprise. I've had similar experiences to the ones you describe with Teavana. I do feel that their tea is overpriced. Especially since when buying in store, they try to convince everyone they need to buy the two types of tea they've blended for tasting that day along with a ton of rock sugar.