How to Shop for Chinese Tea

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4 years ago 5 mins read

The first time going to a Chinese teahouse or tea shop is one of most exciting moments for a tea lover. You step into a shop with shelves upon shelves of tea containers, each singing a soft song of temptation. Whether it’s in China itself, or in the numerous Chinese specialist teahouses that have cropped up overseas, within the often hundreds of different tea tins you’ll encounter lies the possibility of one tea that you will just absolutely love.

The question is, how do you find that one tea?

KNOW WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR

Most shops have tons of teas. Sometimes the shop will focus on one particular type, such as red tea, or sometimes they will pride themselves in their vast array of varieties. Even the ones that are focused will often have a wide selection of varieties and quality.

To bypass tasting a bunch of teas that you have no interest in, you should know exactly what you want — the more specific the better. For example, it’s good to go into a store knowing you want red tea, but it’s even better to go in knowing you want Qimen red tea. And even better than that is to know that you want Qimen Mao Feng. This will not only save you a lot of time but will be appreciated and maybe even impress the shop owner.

This leads to my second trick….

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IMPRESS THE HOST

In a shop with countless teas, staff members are often like the gatekeepers. While you walk in not knowing what the shop has in store, they’re familiar with all of the teas and will sometimes know about teas that are not even on the shelf.

A key aspect to getting the best teas a shop has to offer is to impress them with your understanding of tea. Especially if you are not Chinese, the workers will often think you know very little about tea and will be happy with the lower grade. A short conversation about tea, in which you drop a few facts or names of famous locations, can let them know that you are an experienced tea drinker and are looking for something on the higher end of the selection.

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Often, staff at tea shops are excited to meet other tea people and will usually share the better teas with someone they think will appreciate them. However, if neither of these tricks has worked and you’re still being served basic tea, it’s time to break out your own leaves.

BRING YOUR OWN TEA

The absolute best way to get the best tea out of a tea shop is to bring some of your own tea. This may sound counterintuitive but it has multiple benefits.

The first is that you begin to build a relationship with the staff member. Tea shop workers spend so much time giving other people tea and trying to sell, they are often caught off guard when you in turn offer them some tea to try. This will begin to build what will feel more like a friendship between you and they will more likely bring out the better teas in return.

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The more interesting benefit to this trick though is that it shows them what sort of standard you are used to drinking. When I first moved to Tunxi (near Huangshan, or “Yellow Mountain” in Anhui Province) I was visiting a shop I now frequent regularly and they started off by showing me the more basic Mao Fengs. After trying a few that were good but not great, I offered them some of my green tea to try. It was also a Mao Feng from the town of Tangkou (a town at the base of Huangshan). They tasted it and were surprised how good it was (I intentionally brought my best). After that, the real teas started coming out. We tasted better Mao Fengs, Hou Kui’s and an old tree red tea that is now a constant part of my collection.

Tasting a tea I had brought had not only been an act of friendship that they appreciated, but had also shown them the quality of tea I was used to drinking and looking for, which in turn allowed them to get a better idea of what to give me.

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SOMETIMES, IT’S NOT YOU IT’S THEM

Looking for really good tea is no easy task. You can use all the tricks above and still fall short. Sometimes you can’t find good tea for the simple fact that the shop doesn’t have any. This is another skill, learning how to judge a shop as soon as you walk in, but this can only be taught by experience.

When you are at a good shop though the key is to build a relationship with the person helping you. Be friendly with them and show them that you know what you are talking about and that you can appreciate the better things they have to offer. This is the real trick to getting the best teas.

I always say real tea drinkers are only looking for a good enough excuse to bring out their very best teas to be shared.

More top tea tips:

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