Friday, September 15, 2017

Advice to beginners about tea

This subject has been coming up more than usual lately, related to talking about tea in two different places online, in the Tea Drinker's group on Facebook and the Reddit tea subforum.

It occurs to me in editing this that I would consider someone who had been drinking tea-bag tea for 20 years (Lipton's, Red Rose, PG Tips, Twinings, Celestial Seasonings blends) as a beginner when it comes to better, loose-leaf tea, or maybe even not yet introduced.  Tisanes, also known as herb teas, aren't even essentially the same subject, almost as unrelated as coffee.  I have nothing against those; I drank tisanes for a very long time before getting into tea, and still do from time to time.

I never felt like I was the right person to map it all out, how someone might or should approach tea.  I'm all over the place myself, trying different things, combining brewing process elements between the two main approaches (using hybrid styles), adjusting steeping time from infusion to infusion, messing with water temperature.  It's not as if I'm even rigid on the basics, and vary all that within a narrow range to judge the effect, I kind of tend to wing it.  That is based on four to five years of drinking lots of teas, and research and discussion, and a few years of background with loose teas prior to that.  Related to just the point about brewing of course some types of teas more or less require a standard Gongfu approach on their own (sheng pu'er, wuyi yancha, or dan cong, for example).

All the same I've been mentioning some basics, and cover more here.  This runs long so I'll summarize it all to start.

-Answers to two social media group questions on tea basics, one an overview of issues related to tea (general types, brewing categories, etc.)

-Thoughts on perspective evolution in tea, how the experience curve tends to go

-Tea references:  a summary of some favorite online tea references

-Tea sourcing:  some thoughts on sourcing issues (vendors), with more specifics on direct sourcing options

I might say a little about my background with tea, not along the lines of bragging about depth of experience, but as an example of one more random path into it.  Around seven years ago we visited a small coffee grower in Laos, and I bought tea there, not at all appreciating seeing those plants grow since I was more into coffee then.  Since I live in Bangkok tea is around here, but not as popular as one might expect (beyond the matcha, bubble-tea, and such).  A work trip to China five years ago really got it started, seeing a Huawei company presentation of Gongfu tea preparation, and later picking up some tea at a shop while I waited on others in a market / mall area.

That brewing presentation seemed a bit much, complete with a lot about pouring tea over small "tea pets" to enable making wishes, and drinking wispy-thin light-brewed tea I wasn't accustomed to appreciate.  Tea can be about what you want it to be about though, relating to ceremony, or religion, collecting teaware as a form of art, or just about drinking something healthy and interesting in the morning.

a Huawei tea presentation (not the one I was at, photo credit)

Reddit tea sub-forum question:  How can I step up my tea drinking?

I'll let an edited version of the question serve as the introduction:

I bought 4 different green teas from Tee Gschwendner in Germany. They are called "Japan Sencha", "China Gunpowder", "Südindien [=South India] Singampatti Spring", "Nepal Ilam Mao Feng". I was told they are all pure green tea leaves (no additives). Did I get some good teas for a start? Anyways, I love them and I am starting to get better and better to distinguish the differents between those teas.

At the moment I brew my water in a normal electric kettle, wait an estimated time and put the tea in. I put the tea leaves into something we call a Tee Ei (in english: Tea egg) [editor's note:  seems to be an infuser ball]... 

My question now is, how I can improve the tea drinking? I see you people post a lot of pictures of different 'cups','kettles' and all that stuff, but for a new tea drinker this is an overwhelming amount of information.

That's already a much better start than one might expect; a clear description of a starting point, clarifying some background issues, getting a little specific about trials and process, pointing towards brewing device issues as a particular interest--just great.

Initial comments went in different directions, as one might expect.  One main split seemed to be that two people recommended using a gaiwan and yixing clay pot and others weren't clear that made sense initially (to move into Gongfu style brewing versus Western style).  Instead of picking a couple of specifics I tried to map out a range of general subjects, the basic themes that come up.  I sort of regretted that by the time I was half finished, since the whole general scope of what tea is all about is too broad to summarize.  Here is is though:

It is funny how fast the input diversifies, isn't it? Any one of these ideas is fine but taken together it all includes some contradictions. You need to sort out a landscape of some basics, to get a feel for how many different sub-themes and branches within those you are up against. Related to the tea itself you've got a start on green, and black tea and oolong would make sense to explore next. White and pu'er are the other main categories, and those can wait.

Black tea branches into CTC (ground up, more machine processed) and orthodox, and there's nothing wrong with CTC tea except that it's more astringent (it's what is in tea bags), and you'll probably move past that quickly. Oolong splits into rolled styles, which are then either lighter / greener or roasted, and twisted styles, generally roasted. You might try a rolled style lighter oolong first then go from there (a Chinese Anxi area Tie Kuan Yin or something such; Taiwanese oolongs often fall in this category, or roasted versions of those are also nice).

Picking out one style / type of black tea is harder than it might seem at first, although they're not as complicated as they seem (a bit of a contradiction). If you pick them randomly from lower end sources you could be at it awhile before you find one that suits you, but decent versions aren't necessarily that expensive. I don't mean this as a purchasing suggestion but I like Dian Hong, Yunnan (Chinese region) black tea, with some listed here (and pu'er; you'll get to that):

Western-style infuser basket based device (lid doubles as basket saucer)

On to brewing: there are two branches, Western style and Gongfu style. You are using Western (a low proportion of leaves to water, in a teapot, or infuser device, or even a french press / plunger would work, at something like a teaspoon of tea to a cup ratio). 

Gongfu uses a higher proportion of tea to water, multiple infusions (a lot, versus only 2 or 3 for Western brewing), and different devices (a gaiwan or clay pot, of which "yixing" is a type). Western works ok for black and green tea, pu'er is touchier, not as suitable for that. Oolongs vary some by types but in general rolled styles would work fine brewed Western style, maybe some a little better Gongfu style later.

black tea infusing in gaiwan (Gongfu style brewing)

Reddit tea subforum temperature guideline

Besides proportion (which ties to the two types of equipment) temperature and timing are the other main factors. Green teas brew better in cooler water, maybe around 75 C / 170 F, but it's never that simple, the ideal varies by tea type and preference.  There's no need to overdo it with optimizing brewing, getting the proportion, timing, and temperature perfect, just get it all to work and adjust from there. Preparing oolongs and black tea at boiling point would work, or often a little under for both, maybe 90 C or so (again varying by tea type and personal preference).

No matter what you do don't try to drink the ocean. It's nice to botch brewing and try so-so teas at first because it helps support a path of continually drinking better tea for a long time. Those Mei Leaf introductory youtube videos [that another comment mentioned] are fine but a physical shop is good if you can find one for purchasing. Then you can talk to a human about teas and brewing tea, and once you narrow things down just a little more buy teas online. If things feel strange related to buying a tea just back off or only buy a small amount, or even samples if that works (even 15 grams would let you try a tea more than once).  Sources vary a lot in terms of price and value, and match to preference is always an issue, and you don't want to stockpile tea you don't like.

A next comment rejected part of that input as valid, claiming that person wasn't a fan of the Tee Gschwendner shops or other local German shop options (which of course I have no opinion about; I'm an American living in Bangkok).  I did agree that online sources of both information and tea may be superior.  That brings up a funny point, doesn't it, related to what different people might be looking for in teas.  For some value is a main concern; for others it's not really an issue at all, and quality is the main focus.  People tend to experience a preference and experience curve related to tea, and it probably doesn't work to say that tea quality is experienced in the same ways by everyone, or that it should be.

at a Bangkok Chinatown shop (Jip Eu) with the owners and a local tea celebrity

One reason online advice could be really hard to gauge is that every statement and idea could be clearly right in one context and wrong in another.  It's quite possible that visiting a shop is one of the best ways to discuss tea with someone who is knowledgeable about the subject, and to try teas, and also that all the shops in a certain area could be very poorly suited for that.  There isn't much scope for discussion where the same kind of problem can't turn up, a direct contradiction in a most likely best approach.

that Bai Ye "dan cong" black tea

As an example related to brewing, I just said in that comment advice that black tea is typically fine prepared Western style, not so different than prepared using a Gongfu approach.  I last reviewed two completely different black teas that isn't true for, a "dan cong" Bai Ye black from the Guangdong province in China, and a "honey black" tea from Taiwan.  I had prepared the Taiwanese tea a few times using Western brewing and was surprised how much better it turned out using a Gongfu brewing approach instead, and at a guess the same result would apply to the Chinese "Bai Ye" tea as well.

As a general rule the better the black tea the more it might make sense to use Gongfu brewing instead, but there would probably be counter-examples to that as well.  Trying different approaches tells the story.  Before going too far with those lines of thought, lets switch back to the original subject of tea types, related to comments and discussion somewhere else online.

Tea Drinkers FB group discussion of black teas, and exploring tea in general

Someone asked about others' favorite types of black teas in post, saying that theirs is Earl Grey (bergamot orange oil flavored black tea).  In a lot of tea enthusiast groups, or the Tea Chat forum, or to some extent on the Reddit subforum, that would lead straight to discussion of the types of teas I've been reviewing (if not the specific examples).  These would include Darjeeling, Dian Hong (Yunnan China black teas), Lapsang Souchong and Jin Jun Mei (Fujian China black teas), and similar range Taiwanese types.  I've been reviewing Assam lately; that wouldn't be as common, in either beginner oriented groups or those closer to the opposite of that.  In that discussion most answers were closer to the Earl Grey starting point, about breakfast blends, flavored teas, suppliers of blended black tea types, and from there onto Darjeeling, Ceylon and such.  Someone even mentioned Lipton; that is an option.

As I see it two distinct levels of tea experiences and preferences emerge, two extremes, really, with most people grouped closer to one end or the other.  Closer to the range of Lipton commercial versions and blends tend to be more widely available, many in grocery stores.  These are perhaps more suitable for people starting to explore the subject, but of course it would be possible to drink these types of teas all your life.  There seems to be a relatively distinct other approach to tea, related to trying to explore the original, foreign tea drinking traditions, and to pursue experiencing other types of teas.  I mentioned that in response to a recent question about exploring types of teas further (not so different than the Reddit thread idea):

One thing that might seem strange is that if you look at the responses recommending types of black teas (for example, since someone just asked here) in this group and in another one the answers will be completely different. I don't want to say that tea drinkers are on different levels but the perspective on tea can vary a lot. In a lot of circles "tea enthusiasts" tend to only drink plain, single source, orthodox, better quality teas and this group is more inclined towards people that drink commercial products (grocery store versions versus specialty vendor versions), blends of teas, more CTC versus orthodox, more blends of teas (with other teas or herbs) or flavored teas versus "plain" versions. 

It might seem natural for me to try to move this background observation towards some conclusion, but that's not the point here. After enough exposure someone would probably prefer single-type teas, and not drink versions from grocery stores or flavored teas at all, or much in the way of blends, but in one sense they're not better (although in a different sense they sort of are). I guess all of this is by way of explaining that "which loose teas are the best?" isn't really as simple a question as it first seems; one possible answer is that whichever tea you like best is best for you.

Farmerleaf vendor black matai (Dian Hong, Yunnan black tea)

Perspective evolution:  where the subject leads from there

So two different themes are coming up:  people are in different places related to types of tea, prior exposure, and current preferences.  The same sets of concerns apply for people with different interests or levels of exposure (where they are in a preference development curve), but the details vary a lot. 

Not only simply related to tea quality expectations, two natural ranges of perspective seem to emerge:  

1.  tea should be a simple thing, being only a beverage.  Although experiencing a lot and preferences changing is normal--and positive--the "more is better" approach isn't justified, and the tea-master related themes are off-putting.  Some people want to find and brew better tea but they don't necessarily want to embrace foreign tea cultures or move on to collecting anything, or take up a study habit.

2.  tea is a positive thing, the more positive the more you experience of it.  Going further with knowledge and exposure is better, and much further is much better.  Based on this starting point perspective it would make sense for a complete beginner to use a gaiwan or to begin to collect yixing clay teapots, or to try to buy the best teas they could possibly find, even if limited awareness makes understanding types, sourcing them, and optimizing brewing problematic.

Of course some people are in the middle, embracing a limited range of complexity instead, not just going with the all-in "more is better" approach.  There are people moving beyond grocery store teas and blends into plain tea types that aren't necessarily reading tea blogs or taking up aspects of Taoism.  I do recommend reading the Tao Te Ching but it's sort of a different subject.  Expense comes up as one potential limitation, at some point, and shelves of art-quality gear or aging pu'er really do represent investment-level commitment.  The divide comes up well before that, but a tangent helps put it in perspective.

The $5-7 a cup of coffee might cost--here in Thailand too; Starbucks is now a global standard for that--goes pretty far towards dry loose tea.  To be more specific, most medium quality loose tea costs in the range of $8 - $14 per 50 grams, or even lower, so that cup of coffee expense equates to 25 grams of medium quality loose tea.  It's not as simple as it might seem to say how many grams of dry tea equate to one cup but roughly speaking it would prepare at least a dozen cups of tea.  Move down to the lower cost end of that loose tea range and the cost is more equivalent to that of soda, or even much less than soda bought from a vending machine.  But of course it's not just about expense, or not even mostly about that.

shou mei compressed white tea cake (so many types to try)

I can relate to both takes.  Since this is a tea blog and I review somewhat uncommon types of teas every week I've broken towards embracing the complexity, but even for me there are limitations to that.  I don't have shelves of tea gear at home; I tend to use the same half dozen devices all the time, and I didn't spend a lot on those.  When people talk about how many pounds or kilograms their tea stash might amount to I can't really relate.  In some of those cases people are discussing owning significant quantities of types they are no longer so interested in, not just about holding onto teas that improve with age.

I try to keep it simple, and keep drinking what I have, roughly as fast as I buy tea (or at least give some away to balance that part back out).  I would have a couple of kilograms worth of pu'er, shou mei and other compressed white tea, hei cha, etc. around for longer term storage but not much at all as pu'er enthusiasts go.  I've been meaning to ramp that up for awhile.

Trying teas and hoarding are only part of the landscape of ideas, though, with the early learning curve more about other basics, gear, and how to brew it.  Is it ok for that guy to stick with using a tea-ball infuser, or not?  It's up to him, of course, and again the answer depends on perspective.  I suppose even an English-style ceramic teapot may prepare slightly better tea than an infuser ball, related to giving the leaves more space to mix freely with the water.  Or an infuser basket, or French press, or any other equivalent device should work better.  Really it seems equivalent to use a coffee mug with a saucer placed on it (to prevent volatile compounds from evaporating off), strained into a second mug, but you never hear anyone admit that.

I guess I'm saying people should be fine with where they are for preference, and perhaps be aware if there are options just beyond that range that might suit them well.  Drinking tea-bag tea is pushing it; producers put low quality tea dust in those things, and dust doesn't brew well for a set of different reasons.  It gets to be a long story but the health claims people make about tea--which can also be problematic--probably apply less to the lowest cost, lowest quality commercial versions.

From here I'm going to move past this type of general perspective and offer suggestions on references, and after that touch on the subject of tea sourcing, which I won't get far with.

Tea references

There are many!  I'm not going to try to establish a comprehensive list, just to sketch out some ideas, with focus here on my own favorites.  Really it's not necessary to study the subject of tea to enjoy drinking tea.  It does help to know how to brew it, and trying less familiar types requires some degree of knowledge of what those are.  For me the study is almost like a separate interest than the tea drinking experience.  Discussing tea online could be viewed as a third interest, and the reviewing and writing is a fourth (although I really break it into liking the experience of tea and also all the rest).

This would probably be most helpful separated into what a beginner should know first, related to basics about brewing and types, and then on from there.  This section mentions what sources cover what but it's not divided up in experience-level sub-divisions in that way.

Of course the discussion groups I've been mentioning are references of a sort; someone could ask questions or take part in tea-themed discussion there.  Facebook tea groups and a Reddit sub-forum already came up, and I helped found and admin for one Facebook tea group, International Tea Talk.  Tea Drinkers works as an example of a good beginner-oriented FB group, and Gong Fu Cha represents the opposite end of that spectrum well, for people already well-introduced to the subject.

Steepster site tea review listing

Some other favorite reference sites include Steepster and Tea Chat.  The first is primarily a site designed to retain, organize, and share tea reviews, also with a discussion section.  Tea Chat is a subject themed forum site, the standard version with individual threads grouped by section.  Both are searchable, so both work a lot better for subject reference than Facebook tea groups.  There is a search-function bar in Facebook groups but of course the topics scroll down related to when each was last posted or commented on, without any subject sub-divisions.

Blogs are another type of reference.  These are typically related to individual tea reviews, but themes for them vary.  One of my favorites, Steep Stories, does reviews, but also introduces novel tea origin sources and tells stories.  Tea Geek and World of Tea are reference blogs instead (both well worth a look).  Tea for Me Please is a blog review site that also includes a lot of introduction reference, review of types, brewing coverage, etc.  I also contribute to TChing; that's an unusual type of tea blog, a multiple contributor site set up more like a news page than a personal blog, except the posts vary, and most aren't news.  "Classic" blogs are a personal favorite type of mine, perspective references that have been around more than a few years.  Tea Addict's Journal is a good example, also a good subject theme reference that's set up to be searchable, with that one more focused on commentary than tea review (and more inclined towards pu'er).

Sometimes vendor blog pages include a lot of good information, or sometimes those are just marketing content.  The Mei Leaf / China Life introduction videos, already mentioned, are a good example (a mix of both themes, I suppose, but the basic information content there is good).  There are lots of others.  If someone really likes one they might follow that as with personal blogs or news-page sites, but these also tend to come up in Google subject searches if a reference is particularly good.  Hojo's content seems better than average, to cite an example, although in some cases that tends to adopt minority positions on some finer points.  Farmer Leaf's Youtube videos are a good example of intermediate content, more related to pu'er background.

There are other types of references but not that many exceptional examples that require a long list to cover.

Global Tea Hut (long story what that is) publishes a magazine that's quite good, but I'm not familiar with an index or search function that helps organize that.  It's really designed to be a part of a subscription program, so something like a typical magazine subscription but along with tea.

Tea Journey is a by-subscription tea magazine, with some free content available.

World Tea News is a tea news site, associated with training services and the main annual tea expo event.

Teapedia is a tea themed wiki site.  I've seen at least one other one before but as I recall that didn't stay active.

I'll leave it at that; those would represent the main tea sites I would end up visiting regularly.  Google + groups had a lot of potential before that whole social media platform essentially went dormant.  Of course tea themes come up in places like Instagram and Twitter, not usually related to groups or reference sites.

Vendor sources

It's a bit odd to talk about sources without doing more with discussing types, regional origins and other broad categories (black, green, oolong, white, hei cha), and what doesn't fit well into those categories, or the main specific types of teas (Longjing, a Chinese green tea, Taiwanese high mountain oolong, etc.).  All that is just too much, so I'll not include it.

I'll keep this general, related to discussing source, because otherwise I'd list out my own favorites, and that biases heavily towards vendors who send samples for review.  Along that line it's important to keep biases in mind when considering references to vendors; some of those wouldn't tend to lead to bad recommendations but that could come up.  I will drift into more specifics here related to discussing a subject of particular interest to me:  more direct sourcing.  In some limited cases it's possible to buy tea from vendors that are the tea producer or one step away from the production, versus through longer supply chain based sources.  Specific recommendations here are meant to represent potential general channels as much as endorsing these sources, but based on my own experience the vendors I do mention are all good options, within the range of types they sell.

Per the other earlier discussion I think local physical shops make for one main starting point.  Searching those isn't as simple as it might be.  Adagio (a vendor) included a Tea Map section along with that Tea Chat discussion forum but it seemed focused on the US, and doesn't seem to be completely up to date (Steepster's version also seems a bit limited, based on checking Bangkok listings there, or maybe it just doesn't work as a reference in Thailand).  Google search or even Google Map search are a bit rough but those would work.

Google Maps "tea" search in Bangkok

It's repetitive for people to keep asking for shop leads in different groups but that is another path to take.  Local Facebook tea interest groups make for an interesting alternative; if you live in NYC or LA groups based out of those places would be a more natural place to ask around, or there is one for Colorado.  Those kind of groups tend to be smaller (very small, really), and less active, but you would really only need input from one good contact to find out about shops.

Pittsburgh Tea Association map (credit their site; I guess Google might mention such group leads)

There are literally countless online tea vendors.  Sometimes for a specific subject or type a couple tend to emerge as more standard options (as for Yunnan Sourcing--now with a US branch--and White2Tea for pu'er, both of which I'm not going into further detail about here), but more typically that doesn't happen.  Teavana and David's Tea would stand out as larger corporate options for purchasing blends, both associated with physical shop chains, but per relatively widespread recent news Teavana is closing up shop.

From there less standard, larger scale options emerge than one might expect.  There are few cases where online discussion of well-established, major sources doesn't lead to positive comments and also claims the teas are generally low quality, a poor value, and deceptively marketed.  It seems better to try and compare alternative sources and sort things out that way, and to not get locked into using only one supplier since it may turn out that better teas are available elsewhere for less.

More direct sourcing is a particularly interesting subject theme, to me.  Of course it's hard to find any vendor that doesn't make claims related to them being a relatively more direct source, supporting ethical and sustainable production, etc., etc.  But it's very rare that a tea producer would actually sell tea.  I'll mention some exceptions, which would serve as good leads, also intended here as an indication that other exceptions do exist.

A general word of warning first:  if someone claims to be a foreign tea farmer in a social media group there's a good chance that they're not one.  Why does that matter?  If you are buying tea directly from a farmer they know under what conditions it was grown.  Perhaps even more relevant, if someone is buying tea through a typical wholesale distribution channel (from a local market or wholesale vendor, for example) that tea may have been bought and sold a few times already, with each step adding cost.  And it's less likely to be higher quality tea, because those sorts of outlets will sell low to medium quality level versions for a lot less, enabling a better mark-up.

one way to be sure there are no false claims:  don't make any (White2Tea)

If a vendor isn't who they say they are it also becomes a lot more likely that online contact or a reseller at a prior step is buying tea that's one thing and selling it as another, or that any one vendor in the chain may not even know exactly what it is (where it was really grown, for example, or what year it was produced in).  It's relatively common knowledge that more tea is sold as products from Taiwan and Japan than those countries actually produce.

Just because a tea has definitely only been bought and re-sold once before you buy it, or even if you happen to really come in contact with a farmer, that is no guarantee that the tea is better, or that the description of it is accurate.  I guess this is sort of where knowing more about tea than is really necessary can come into play; the more you know and have already experienced the more you can watch out for.

On to mentioning some relatively direct-source examples.

Cindy with tea

Wuyi Origin:  an online friend, Cindy Chen, is a tea farmer in Wuyishan who now sells teas directly.  They're not just any teas, but local award winning quality teas, much better versions than tend to turn up in tea shops, at least per my own experience.  There must be other examples of a real tea farmer setting up a direct sales site, but I'm not aware of any.

If Wuyi Yancha (roasted twisted oolong) or Fujian black teas aren't familiar her site is a good introduction to what they are.  They also sell Dan Cong due to her husband's family producing tea there.  That relates to another good way to identify if a vendor is who they say they are:  someone carrying lots of types of teas from lots of source areas is almost certainly not closely linked to all the producers of those teas (although there are exceptions to every generality).  If someone has never tried any Wuyi Yancha (a general oolong category from there) it wouldn't be right to start with Wuyi Origin teas, much better to try a few in a normal range to get a feel for what some typical flaws are like before trying a better version.

Farmerleaf:  this is more typical of how relatively more direct sales would go; a French tea enthusiast moved to Yunnan and married a local woman involved in the tea industry there and started a resale business, with some pu'er processing input of their own.  That last point relates to an intermediate step other vendors take in production:  commissioned production of tea, particularly pu'er cakes.  In that limited sense lots of vendors are now tea producers, hopefully with sufficient control and oversight in place so that what they describe is actually what they are selling.  In some cases it's obviously not; rejecting unrealistic tea-tree age claims is a favorite recurring theme in tea groups.  I've tried and reviewed some of their teas (which also leads back to the bias I'd mentioned) and their black teas (Dian Hong) are worth a look, and pu'er seemed good for the value-oriented pricing.

Hatvala:  this vendor represents another variation of direct sales, as a Vietnam based reseller of local small-producer tea sources.  It's not direct sales, in the sense that farmers aren't selling the tea, but teas are not passing through a multi-level aggregator and wholesale vendor supply chain.  It's a bit subjective but per my take their teas are great.

They also commission production of some truly unique versions of flavored teas:  jasmine flower infused tea (the real versions, including a black tea type I've only seen commonly consumed in Indonesia), Earl Grey, and lotus flower infused teas.  To me it wouldn't make sense to buy only 100-200 grams of tea from them, although an online contact here in Thailand just did exactly that, but since that link is a sales site it's easy to click through and see how lower tea pricing and higher tea shipping costs work out in the end.

Gopaldhara and Toba Wangi are two other direct producers (in Darjeeling and Indonesia, respectively) that represent both options and limitations in buying tea directly.  Gopaldhara sells tea directly in India, and through other supporting external suppliers in all other locations, through various supply chains.  It's worth noting that large plantations anywhere will produce and sell a variety of different teas, related to different small growing areas experiencing different micro-climates, to growing different tea plant types, etc.  Toba Wangi is a smaller producer in Indonesia that does sell teas directly (good teas, I might add), but mainly relies on other vendors and other types of supply outlets to sell their teas, few of which probably make it out of Asia.

101 tea plantation is an example of a main Thai producer that also sells tea directly.  Per my understanding there are only a half dozen main tea producers in Thailand, and although end customers wouldn't typically know it small online vendors are mostly selling comparable products from those few sources.  Someone could click on that site link and buy tea, a couple hundred grams or 100 kilograms, I'd expect, but the names of such sources tend to just not come up.  The same type of thing happens here in Bangkok:  tea is resold without the source being cited, but more frequently through tea-booth sales (physical outlets) instead of websites, or Aliexpress (Amazon/ Ebay-like shops), etc.

there are lots of online sources for fake pu'er


That's a lot to cover; I hope some of it is helpful.  This blog serves a number of different purposes (eg. a way for me to keep track of reviews of teas, or references), but helping others with their own exploration is a part of the hobby.

I could address other specific questions through message through a FB page for this blog, or in comments here.  Or routing a more public version through Quora might be interesting (my profile there), and then others could answer it too (or in that International themed FB group).  I've already talked a little about basic tea issues there in Quora, and caffeine and fluoride, two subjects I researched related to other posts here.

Good luck with your own exploration.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! A lot of this is just basics but hopefully it's clear to someone who is newer to the subject, and not too biased towards my own approach to tea.

  2. interesting article. Just recently I found out , there are many "tea farmers " on FB or generally on internet and its hard to say who is real. Unless you buy a ticket and pay visit to them yourself. People in China can make you believe that they are tea farmers even if you arrive. There are all "brothers & sisters " , it comes from the language " jie jie, mei mei , ge ge " etc. So if have longer conversation , you might find out they are not relatives at all and the person just resell their tea. Avarage Yunnan farmer ( include tea farmers ) can't speak proper "pu tong hua " Mandarin , not even mentioning English. In fact to be able get them selfs a VPN to be able log in to FB from China, makes me really wonder.

    1. That's exactly it; they're two completely different skill sets, growing and producing tea, and communicating and selling it online. The only way it really makes sense is if there is a niece or nephew in the family that branches into English and IT use. Cindy Chen is completely an anomaly; you could meet 100 people online that claim to be who she really is, with some of both sets of skills, and under 10 of them might be that. And there's no guarantee any of them are selling good tea at anywhere near market rates, fair pricing for what the tea is. Even if they really are fair-minded, English-speaking, Facebook-using tea farmers nothing is stopping them from selling what they produce themselves through prior distribution channels to get the most return and then reselling tea they buy wholesale at a 50% mark-up instead to you. How would you know, unless you can brew the tea and know for sure what it is? I wonder how many Western tea vendors have that level of experience and skill set, never mind casual tea drinkers.