While my article Online Tea Shopping, A Primer gave tips for that Web surfer version of hunting down just the right tea, this time I turn to those brick-and-mortar shops, especially in light of a certain coffee retailer that seems to be everywhere now getting into the tea shop business. I present my 5 tips to keep you safe when buying tea in a tea shop, no matter who’s running it.

The ghosts of purchases past. Will you be happy with those purchases once you get them home? (Photo by A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

The ghosts of purchases past. Will you be happy with those purchases once you get them home? (Photo by A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

1 Stay Clear of the Dry Tea Aroma Trap

You might find the aroma of a dry tea enticing, but if it’s a tea you haven’t tried before, ask if they can steep some up for you to taste. Ever walk into a grocery store and get the aroma of freshly baked bread? It’s not an accident. I was walking through a shopping mall in Chicago years ago and caught a wonderful whiff of vanilla coming from the shop of a major tea retailer. Again, most likely not something that just happened. And the last time I went into a tea shop the aromas of their flavored teas were so strong that it was hard to smell the other teas. This is a marketing ploy, an appeal to your sense of smell. I call it “the aroma trap.” The better shops will be happy to let you try some tea steeped, usually a small amount. It’s especially important for flavored teas where the flavoring will dominate the aroma when the tea is dry but can sometimes disappear when steeped.

2 Know Which of Those “Teas” Are Really Herbals

Don’t go by the labels on the containers or even by what the tea shop clerk tells you. Do a bit of homework first. Even if you love rooibos, honeybush, chamomile, etc., you’ll surely want to know that that’s what you’re buying, not true tea made of the leaves of a Camellia Sinensis varietal. Or you may be wanting to avoid caffeine and/or theanine and so want to be getting something that is free of them. Some tea vendors label things appropriately while others do not. That foreknowledge will come in very handy when you step into that tea shop.

3 Don’t Fall for the “This Is an Exotic Tea” Routine

There are certainly some very special teas out there, but you’ll want to be sure that the tea you’re buying is one of them (or know if it’s not and save yourself a lot of grief). A few years back the growers in Darjeeling succeeded in getting a restriction on what could be labeled “Darjeeling tea” since far more was being sold than was being grown and processed. Tea blenders would buy some of the leaves and blend them in with leaves grown elsewhere. Fake pu-erh teas are also out there, since pu-erh is becoming quite an attraction to tea connoisseurs. Sometimes this fakery is done by one tea factory putting a fake label (from a competitor) on some of their own inferior grade cast off teas that they would otherwise practically give away or outright dump. Unsuspecting buyers would buy this inferior tea and associate it with the competitor (a way to ruin that competitor’s reputation).

4 Their “Special of the Day” Might Not Be That Special

Reputable tea shops will still need to draw you in with a tea that has a stronger aroma (especially a highly flavored tea – vanilla, jasmine, fruits, spiced chais, etc.) and so will offer one of them as a special to attract your attention. You can go for that tea or you can take advantage of that tactic having worked (that is, getting you into the shop as described in #1 above) and explore some of the truly special teas they have. They may even have something stashed away for customers just like you. Who knows?

5 Know What the Return Policy Is

Yes, you will occasionally find that a tea that was tasty in the shop doesn’t taste right when you get it home. (Sort of like that swimsuit that looked so good in the dressing room lighting but not in the lighting at home that you are more used to.) I have experienced this once or twice, even though I rigorously followed the vendor’s steeping instructions. [Side note: be sure to get steeping instructions with the tea you purchase, even if it’s one you’ve tried before, and follow them so that you have the best chance of getting a great taste experience.] You will want to know if the tea can be returned or not. If it can not be, I recommend that you buy a small sample size package, enough for a tryout or two.

Hope this helps when you are next in a tea shop!

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

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