Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Upton Tea Imports - Featured Tea Company

Today's featured tea company is Upton Tea Imports. I've mentioned Upton time and time again on this blog, and I think it's time I write a detailed post about this company. Upton Tea Imports is not only my favorite tea company, but is a major source of inspiration behind my becoming more seriously interested in high-quality loose-leaf tea, and creating RateTea. You'll notice that Upton's listing on RateTea was the first, and that it is also the company that I have personally reviewed the most teas from. This is because I was drinking Upton's teas from well before I created RateTea.

Pictured above is Upton Tea Imports's Website.

What I like about Upton Tea Imports:

Since this is my favorite company, this list will naturally be a little longer:

  • A clear focus on single-origin teas - Although Upton does carry a few blends and flavored teas, these occur at the back of the print catalogue, and are also not emphasized on the website. Upton's focus is clearly on single-origin teas. The catalog covers a wide range of different countries, although showing a strong focus on India and China.
  • Unusual offerings - There are many teas and a few herbs that I've tried from Upton that I've rarely or never seen for sale anywhere else. Among teas, this list includes a Thailand long-leaf green tea, and an orthodox black tea from Tanzania. For herbs, this list includes green honeybush, lemon myrtle, pure vana (wild) tulsi, and Yerba Mate Buds processed like tea. One thing I especially like about Upton's herbal offerings is that they tend to focus on tea-like herbs, including rooibos, mate, honeybush, and other pure herbs that are likely to satisfy pure tea enthusiasts.
  • Very good prices - Upton has a wide range of prices, but I find that their prices are consistently lower than most other companies. I've purchased more bargain buys and teas that I would consider to offer exceptional value from Upton than from any other company. The company truly shines, in my opinion, in the number of offerings that cost well under $10 for about 1/4 pound (sometimes under $5), yet compete on par with teas selling for well over twice this amount.

    Another interesting point, related to prices, is that Upton carries a lot of "low-end" or "low-status" teas that I think are overlooked by other companies, but that offer exceptional value. Although these teas are cheap, price-wise, their quality demonstrates a careful selection process, whereby Upton is choosing inexpensive teas that compete in quality with much pricier offerings from other companies. Some examples include Upton's offering of 4 different Shou Mei (longevity eyebrows) white teas, an inexpensive grade of Chinese white tea that is rarely sold at all by companies in the US, and a very good selection of broken-leaf first flush Darjeeling teas, some of which have been top-notch, and many of which are extraordinarily inexpensive. I also find some of their inexpensive Chinese oolongs really shine, including their green Se Chung oolong, an osmanthus-scented version of the same tea, and some of their cheapest Tie Guan Yin offerings, like this medium-roast Tie Guan Yin. They even surprised me with a Chinese-produced gyokuro, which was not bad, not to mention both cheap and organic certified.
  • Affordable, usually generous-sized samples of every tea in their catalog - Most of Upton's samples are $1 or a little over $1 for as much as 15 grams. As someone who loves trying new teas, this sends the message that Upton is oriented towards people like me. One small caveat about the samples, because Upton uses a fixed-size sample pack, the large-leaf teas come with a smaller weight of sample, which I don't like for the largest-leaf teas (often coming with as little as 6g of leaf). These teas, however, tend to be pricier so it usually works out that these are the teas I'd be happy buying a smaller sample of.
  • Functional, no frills website - I've heard some people say that they're not crazy about Upton's website, but I really like it (it follows many of my recommended best practices for tea company websites). I like the site, not only because it conforms to all the conventions that I think make a site easy to use and navigate, but also because it does not have any obnoxious javascript automation, flash, and unnecessary visual features. It's a simple, functional, old-fashioned website, and the more busy and overly-interactive other websites get, the more I appreciate sites like this. There is a page for each tea, with pictures of the loose-leaf, with a grid for size comparison. I also like that the site is organized by region and by tea type. However, I will say, their website is not a substitute for their print catalogue...I especially like the way the catalogue is organized, by region. If I could offer any one suggestion for Upton to improve their website, it would be to also allow people to browse their print catalogue online, by paging through as if it were a book. Upton does link to a PDF of their full catalogue; I recommend reading it if you don't have a print catalog on hand.
  • Honest, concise, yet informative descriptions of each tea - I like the length, style, and focus of the descriptions of each tea in Upton's catalogue more than the teas from most other companies. More so than with any other company, I've found that Upton's descriptions fit my own personal perception of the teas. When Upton says "citrus" or "mint" or "apricot", I'm pretty likely to detect these aromas when I brew the tea. I recognize that different people perceive taste and aroma differently, so Upton may not be a match for everyone, but I get the sense that the people behind the scenes at Upton have a similar sense of perception to me, and this also keeps me coming back because this match helps me to pick teas that I am likely to enjoy.
  • Affordable shipping and great customer service - I've never had anything go wrong when ordering from Upton. Orders are packed and shipped promptly, and I never had a single mistake happen. The company also has responded very quickly to my email inquiries, and they are also equally responsive when engaging them in more casual conversation on social media, see Upton's twitter and Upton's Facebook. And shipping is very affordable, low enough that it's pretty clear Upton is eating a small loss on the shipping rate on some orders.

With such a big catalogue, there will inevitably be some "misses" if you sample a large number of their teas. I can't say I've liked everything to come out of Upton. But I've been really surprised at how few teas like this there have been, given how many I've sampled. I do think that Upton excels in some areas more than others; I would say that their largest strength is in inexpensive, pure, single-origin teas and pure, single-origin, tea-like herbs.

When I recommend people a single company to buy loose tea from, Upton is the one I point to. When I recommend a single company to look into when "getting into tea", Upton is the one I point to. And when I look at the company that I've ordered the most tea from, and keep coming back to, it's Upton.

What is your experience with Upton?

I know that many of you are also big fans of you like them as much as I do?


  1. I've always liked them as well, especially for the sample sizes. Not keen to get stuck with 50 or 100 grams or more of a tea I don't like.

    1. boggles my mind how companies can offer such large minimum sizes without offering samples. Some companies though, do offer smallish (1 ounce, or 25 gram) sizes which are larger than Upton's samples but still small enough that they can function as samples.

      Because of the samples, I've never gotten stuck with a tea I didn't like from Upton! I've only in a few rare cases tossed or given away the rest of a sample that I didn't like. But these cases are very rare.

  2. Love, love that I can get the samples from them. They make it easy for me to taste a lot. And they're easy to work with, too.

  3. Agree with you on almost everything here Alex because I think Upton Tea is a wonderful company!
    With one exception: I don't enjoy their website design at all. It's my one peeve. I wish they'd update the site. When I go there to browse, it feels like a bit of a burden. Navigation is cumbersome. The design is visually so unappealing, and far too cluttered. At first glance, I'm overwhelmed and don't know where to look first. The text body is too narrow, what's with all that distracting white empty space on the right? Clearly web site design doesn't rank high on Upton Tea's list of priorities, but I can't help wishing it did.
    I do like the grids, and the options, but if it didn't feel so awkward to look at and use, I'd remember to go there more often.
    Their print catalog is wonderful. Pure pleasure.

    1. I find it interesting how people have such different opinions on web design.

      I definitely do not think Upton's site is perfect. The layout is very narrow, among the narrowest of websites I encounter, and I think this may be responsible for the crapmed look. And there are lots of nifty features that are buried within the site, or which are not evident because the links to them are very discrete.

      In the end though, the site has the things that *I* value most, which might not be what other people are looking for. There are many sites which, at a glance, look more pleasing than Upton's. But, for example, when sites rely heavily on javascript, and things like right-clicking on a link to open it in a new tab, do not work, I find this strikes me as really bad, whereas a look-and-feel that I don't like strikes me as only slightly annoying. Also, Upton's site loads almost instantly...I'd rather have a slightly cluttered site that loads very fast than a very easy-to-navigate site with 2-3 second page load times, because I can learn to navigate a site more quickly, but I can't do anything to make a site load faster.

      So, while I actually agree with you about the visual elements, I think that Upton's site still has the qualities that matter most to me. Many sites excel at the visual elements but don't deliver the qualities I most want (simplicity, speed of responsiveness, and the content / information that I want).

  4. I have been buying from Upton tea for about 3 years now. Every once in a while they throw in free samples which is great. Another great thing is they are located in mass, and I live in Boston so it only takes a day or two for me to receive my order.

    I highly recommend Upton's Ding Gu Da Fang Organic green tea, its consistently good every time I buy it.

    1. I also really like this tea! I tend to like richer, darker green teas like can read my review of it on RateTea's page for this tea.

  5. For selection and value, you can simply not fine a better company. Also, I really enjoy reading the stories about the tea trade that comes in each catolog.