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Why don’t the behemoth tea retailers tell me the year and season of the pluck on their tea?

And why can’t they (Teavana, Adagio, Harney and Sons, etc.) at least give me detail on the location where it was picked (i.e. Dragon Well, where specific location within a region really matters: Dafo Village, Meijiawu Village, Shi Feng)?

The time and year of harvest seems to be most crucial with green, yellow and white tea (and Darjeelings, and maybe a few others).

Is it because the big shops sell so much of each variety that they use a blend of teas from different harvests/farms rather than selling single estate teas? Or is it that it’s too difficult to keep track of the exact date and location of where the tea is plucked? But Den’s, Tea Trekker, Seven Cups, and Jing Tea Shop can do it, just to name a few. So why can’t they?

9 Replies
Angrboda said

I suspect you may have hit upon something with your first theory there. I suspect they’re going for a uniform sort of recognisable flavour of that particular type rather than the harvest differences year to year or season to season.

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Sara said

I agree with your first idea! I also think it’s a matter of scale and customer expectation with large retailers vs. much smaller, more artisan-focused operations. Like how you get a hamburger from McDonalds and it’s made out of meat from god knows where and probably way more than one cow, vs. if you go to Chez Panisse and it says on the menu that your burger came from Magruder Ranch. Probably most people that go to the mall and get their tea from Teavana aren’t looking for estate-specific unflavored teas, so that information isn’t seen as necessary by the company. Because you don’t go to the mall food court expecting to find a Magruder Ranch veal burger, you know?

MaddHatter said

Bazzingah!

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Dinosara said

In the same vein, I really wish tea places would tell me what kind of tea the base tea is in flavored blends. Even many artisan tea retailers don’t do that.

Harney may tell you about their teas’ provinence if you email them; they did tell me the blend used in several of their teas. An annoying extra step, but if you really want to know…

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Thank you for your responses.

I like your hamburger analogy. That makes sense to me. Unfortunately, though, I’ve found that some speculations in life that initially make sense end up being untrue. :)

I also like to hear that H&S is willing to give out more information. I called Teavana once and they at least we able to tell me that their Three Kingdom Mao Feng green tea was a second flush.

And I too wonder about the age/quality of the base teas tea shops use on their flavored blends (I liked reading on a recent thread that 52Teas evidently go for quality base tea in their blends. Makes me want to buy from them).

I guess I’m one of those ‘likes to look under the hood’ kind of guys. I always have been. Why? Because I want to know what I’m buying. If I can buy Dragon Well from one vender who can tell me where, when and how the tea was plucked and manufactured (take one of Tea Trekker’s Dragon Well for $5 an ounce), or another vendor who offers roughly the same price for its tea, but can’t or won’t give me that information (take Teavana’s Dragon Well at $5.10 an ounce), then you can bet I am going to go with the vendor with more information about their tea (Tea Trekker ,or Jing Tea Shop or whoever).

As you mentioned, Sara, maybe most people don’t care (I recently asked these kinds of questions to a Teavana employee, and after she could not give me a straight answer, I asked if anyone else had ever asked those kinds of questions: “Never.” “Really, and how long have you been working here?” “Over a year.” Wow). Which reminds me, if you ever want to get a pushy salesperson off your back, put it back on them, and try asking them a lot of questions, not just any ones, the ones you really want to know about. Once you poke through their knowledge armor (which you will eventually), you may find them quickly backing off. And you just killed two birds with one stone! (ooooh, not a great saying; I love birds; but it fits.)

I’m an information junkie. I admit it. I’m sure there are a few of you out there like me. And yet I am starting to get the impression even among tea enthusiasts we are in the minority (I hope whoever chooses to read this take this is a light-hearted way, as I simply mean to inject in a little humor here, but I can’t help thinking, “Even amongst misfits, we’re misfits!” As a little fun trivia question, can you name who said it and in what show?).

So I won’t buy my green tea from Teavana, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t consider buying a flavored black or some oolong or other tea from them because of this.

Blah, blah, blah. In the end, who cares, right? As long as it’s all fun; it’s all good. I always prefer ending on a positive note :).

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Doug F said

I’ve been frustrated by this as well, but not just by the large retailers. Even reputable importers like Upton that market themselves to serious tea drinkers who would be concerned with such data, don’t give the complete story of every tea. You might read a review of a first flush darjeeling from a particular estate and not know that the tea was a 2010 first flush and had been around for a year and a half. Or you might not know if the Kenilworth Estate Ceylon (something they always have in stock) is the end of an older lot or the beginning of a new one. I think you do have to be proactive in this area and e-mail customer service to have your questions answered.

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Glory said

Definitely can sometimes be a tough thing to extract from a company. From what I understand it can be a difficult for these larger companies to define the typical blend of their teas, because sometimes it can be upward of 80 teas (in extreme cases) blended in order to achieve a certain taste profile. The reasoning behind this is due to the massive quantities shipped, and the fact that it safeguards against any product upheavals in terms of quality, regional problems etc so that any problems do not affect the final product. It is definitely an area where smaller companies can differentiate themselves again.

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I like and understand your idea that in a blended tea vendors don’t want to be overly dependent on any one specific supply line. I have read about this. And it most certainly is a logical reason for a vendor not being specific about the precise location of where they get their tea. But I thought that teas like Huang Shang Mao Feng or Dragon Well (which each of the retailers I listed, sell), for instance, were not what you would call ‘blended’ teas. Then again, maybe I have it wrong; maybe they are blended (or are a variation of the type of blending they use to make tea like English Breakfast or Earl Grey). But that’s not the impression I get. :)

Even so, then what about year? Do they ‘blend’ different years together (I doubt it), or do they at least keep track of which tea is fresher? Because if they don’t keep track then I could be buying a tea that has leaves that are several years old, and I don’t want that (at least not for green tea)! And if they do keep track, they why can’t the tell me they year? It’s a kind of catch 22. If they admit they don’t know they year, that’s not good. But if they admit they know the year, then why not tell me? I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something here.

I don’t know much about how businesses manage their perishable items, but I’m sure they must implement some kind of First In First Out system so they don’t let the older stuff sit around. That still begs the question: how old is the stuff they’re selling?

For example, I was able to compare two similar teas (based on their description) side-by-side from two vendors at similar sale prices (both had similar regular and sales prices): Three Kingdoms Mao Feng From Teavana (I bought in their 2010 end of year sale) and Meng Ding Mao Feng from Seven Cups (bought earlier this year on sale, and advertised as a spring 2007 harvest). Although the dry leaf of both looked and smelled very similar, overall the Seven Cups version was better (in my judgment): stronger/sweeter taste and in the wet tea leaves there were many more buds, less stems, and it had a more vibrant green color and overall looked fresher. That makes me wonder: is the Teavana tea even older than 2007, or is the Seven Cups tea somehow able to maintain its freshness for over 4 years (either way, the Seven Cups tea was pretty impressive!)?

So based on this (and other things) I am very leery of buying tea from vendors who do not want to tell me how old it is.

Finally, one theory I have as to why they may not advertise the date of the tea harvest is this: if they do, it draws attention of the consumer to the date of the tea, and in August 2011 people may hesitate to buy a tea labeled as ‘2010’ over some tea that has no year given at all. Makes sense, since most consumers (in my estimation/judgment) are not very educated about what they buy (for various reasons; it’s neither good nor bad – gathering information takes time and energy and it seems to me many people don’t want to invest too much in educating themselves about what they buy). And when it comes down to it, if most of the clientele of the big tea retailers don’t want that information, then, , I guess I really don’t blame them for not offering it up (as that’s another piece of information they have to manage). And as you said, “It is definitely an area where smaller companies can differentiate themselves again.” Good point.

I’m actually embarrassed at how much time I put into this. :>

Oh well. After all that I still love tea, and plan to stick around!

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MaddHatter said

Wow, this is really something to ponder. It is better to know exactly where teas are coming from. I do not frequent “SpecialTea’s” or “Teaopia” here in Victoria, unless someone has written an insanely great review of one of their teas. Mostly because when I asked a simple question about a tea I was interested in: “How do you steep this tea if it has green and black leaves in it? wouldn’t this flavour combination make this tea bitter?” – “Umm, I don’t know [snaps gum] it’s more like a fruit tea? There’s not enough green or black in the tea to matter [steeps a sample] see this one is pink!” (here is me turning around and walking away)

I stick to Murchies, Silk Roads, and Janet’s with DAVIDs as my (I want to say Yuppy Tea vendor) fun alternative to serious tea. Murchies knows exactly where their tea is from and can tell me when it was harvested. Silk Roads it depends on who is working as to what they know, but they are quick to look up any questions I have (this kind of service impresses me, since I used to work retail a lot!). I have only visited Janet’s once and that one time is enough to make me go back once my three tins are empty, she is so knowledgeable and willing to take the time to show me how a tea is to be steeped. Needless to say when I am ready for an unflavoured pu’erh I will be hitting her up for a little learning, to go with me tea.

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