The term “rare tea” is being bandied about a lot these days on Twitter and Facebook, and it has been touted by tea vendors for quite a few years. But what are “rare teas” and when you get sucked into buying them, are you getting what some call a “raw deal,” that is, buying something that is not as advertised?
To answer that, you need to know what “rare tea” is. Let’s start with what “rare” means, since you are probably aware of what tea is (we’re talking about the stuff made from the Camellia Sinensis plant, not other stuff such as rooibos and herbals). My OED defines “rare” as:
Of a kind seldom found, done, or occurring, uncommon, infrequent, unusual, exceptional; few and far between.
Phil Mumby, the Rare Tea Hunter, thinks that scarcity is a key to a tea being rare. Makes perfect sense to me and certainly agrees with the OEDdefinition above. That would eliminate as “rare” the bulk of the tea crops from large tea gardens, even if they are advertised as a particular flush and year. It could include teas from these gardens and others that have been grown in very limited amounts from special tea plants. This is where someone like Phil comes in, since the importance of the source of the tea is paramount, and folks like Phil work closely with producers, often in direct contact.
The key to getting “rare tea” and not a “raw deal” would seem to be getting to know the tea vendor, either personally or through social media sites. So many are claiming to offer “rare teas” but also use such terms as “limited edition,” “specialty,” “choice,” “exotic,” and “gourmet” somewhat synonymously. Sorting the “wheat from the chaff” can be quite challenging if you want to take a detour from everyday teas.
Some teas that I would consider “everyday” such as Genmaicha are listed on several tea sites as “rare.” Odd since one theory on the origins of this particular tea is that some enterprising tea vendor was trying to get rid of some rather lesser quality green tea by mixing it with toasted rice. Other teas I have seen on vendors’ sites’ page of “rare teas” (most seem to have such a page) are also fairly commonly available: Jasmine Pearls, Matcha, any White Tea, Russian Samovar (Assam/Sumatra blend), Ceylon Kenilworth (often used in blends), and Nine Bend Black Dragon Tea (a personal fave). I have seen very good quality versions of these teas available from other vendors who do not first slap the label “rare tea” on them and then double the price. One vendor claiming that their tea was picked by monkeys is an example of this practice! (I looked into this monkey phenomenon awhile ago.)
A truly rare tea could be the one produced by those of you who grow your own tea plant from the leaves you harvest. Thomas Shu is one of these growers. A few other truly rare teas are: Dahongpao (a Chinese tea that is produced from about only six trees about 350 years old that grow in the Fujian Province), 2012 Tumsong Silver Tips (but not other teas from this estate in Darjeeling, India), and pre-Qingming Longjing (some of this style tea sold in March 2012 for about $57,000 per kilo, about $4,000 above the gold price at that time).
True to my “buyer beware” philosophy, I encourage you to do your homework and get a “rare tea,” not a “raw deal.” Happy hunting!
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