For more detailed info on how I rate places, check out my bio.
This tea company is very unique to the industry, and so merits a long review. If you don’t have the patience to read the whole thing, here’s what you should know:
Tea Quality: Highest – Phenomenal, truly unmatched in its excellence
Tea Selection: Large
Teaware Quality: High
Teaware Selection: Medium
Shop Atmosphere: Average – Cramped, unfitting music, fluorescent lighting
Employees’ Knowledge: Intermediate – Expert
Quality of Service: Mediocre
Offers Tea Tasting/Ceremony: Yes, Paid
Tea Price: $$$$
Teaware Price: $$$
Overall Value: Average
Recommend: Yes, because of the quality of their tea
And now for the full review:
I’ll start with the positives –
Depending on how much of a tea geek you are, the most important thing to look for in a tea company is not the branding, not the name, not how many years it’s been around – it’s the tea itself (the quality and the selection available). I can say with confidence that Tea Drunk offers one of the most impressive selections of traditional Chinese tea available in the world (I’ve been to many tea shops throughout both the U.S. as well as China and Taiwan, and what Tea Drunk offers is incredibly rare).
Backpacking alone to remote villages in rural China, the lengths to which Tea Drunk’s founder and owner, Shunan, goes to source each tea are truly unparalleled in the industry. They also afford the teas she sells the title of “true origin,” an appellation that makes terms like “single origin” and “superior grade” sound like child’s play.
True origin not only means that the teas come from a single farm, more impressively it means that that farm is located in the birthplace of that type of tea and that the tea is purchased directly from the small family farmers who make it. For example, Tea Drunk’s Dragonwell teas are from small farms on 獅峰 (Shifeng, or Lion’s Peak near Hangzhou), the birthplace of Dragonwell and respected to this day for producing the most desirable (and delicious) versions of this tea. Her Taiping Houkui teas are from the small village where the legend of Houkui tea began, and the list goes on.
And the selection of these “true origin” teas that Tea Drunk offers is far from skimpy, with over 90 different teas from which to choose – Shunan claims that, along with her partner store in Beijing, this is the largest single collection of true origin teas in the world.
Now, you might be wondering, does this whole “true origin” thing really make that big of a difference, especially compared with respectably high-quality single origin teas, etc.? The answer is a resounding YES! Firstly, in terms of flavor, there are notes in Tea Drunks true origin teas that I haven’t tasted in even the highest quality single origin alternatives. There is a richness and depth, a complexity and balance that simply has to be tasted to be understood. But there is a whole other aspect of the “true origin” philosophy that would merit their purchase even if they didn’t taste as incredibly delicious, and that is their sociocultural impact. Tea Drunk works with local authorities in rural China to promote traditional methods of harvesting and processing tea, ensuring that this cultural art continues to thrive even in the face of lucrative industrialized methods; purchasing from these small true origin farmers proves to them that the business is still viable.
I hope after reading this you have some understanding of what makes Tea Drunk such a remarkable company in its industry. You might even be wondering why, if I rave so much about the company’s virtues, I don’t give it five stars.
For that, I will move on to what I view as Tea Drunk’s shortcomings. If Tea Drunk was just a tea company – and by that I mean if they didn’t have a physical full-service retail location, but rather only sold their teas – I would have unreservedly given them a full five stars. However, they’re not just a tea company; they’re a tea house, and with that comes a whole other layer of expectations and responsibilities.
Oddly, a tea house’s success has almost nothing to do with their teas, and instead everything to do with atmosphere and service.
In the first of these categories, atmosphere, Tea Drunk scores average. Granted, space in New York is hard to come by, but the store is very cramped and the layout is not necessarily the most efficient. The color of the fluorescent lighting creates an artificial feeling and the music they play is anything but fitting to the product they sell.
My greatest criticism, however, is the service. Perhaps because of the store’s long, narrow layout, or for another reason, some of the employees have a knack for ignoring their customers’ needs (especially those seated at the cramped tables instead of the central bar). During my first trip to the store, where a friend and I payed $17 for a tasting of their Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid) Phoenix Oolong, we experienced multiple gaps in service when the employee should have been brewing our tea (as they were in possession of the water, not us).
A second problem with service is some of the employees’ brewing methods. When our server finally did pour our tea, they were clearly inexperienced in traditional tea brewing methods – the water they used was boiling hot (far too hot for an oolong) and they let the tea sit for too long, destroying what would have been an incredible flavor and effectively wasting our $17. I have seen other customers experience similar problems here, some going around ten minutes without service.
Finally, as a note separate from either the positives or negatives sections, the price of tea at Tea Drunk is VERY high. As an example, their “Rou Gui 2013 True Cliff” Wuyi Oolong sells for $56 per ounce which, if brewed in a traditional style, will last around 5 or 6 gongfu cha sessions. A similar Wuyi Oolong at the Chinese tea shop I usually buy from costs $10 more for 4 ounces. In all honesty, though, I must say their teas are worth it. Keeping in mind the praise I gave Tea Drunk’s tea in the previous section – with the amount of trouble they go through to source it and its incredible flavor – you really are getting what you’re paying for, so I’m not going to call this a drawback.
All in all, while I can’t say I recommend paying for their tasting service in-shop (unless you get Shunan herself to be your server, as she is incredibly experienced and knowledgeable in her field), if you treat Tea Drunk as more of a tea company and less of a tea house, what they do commands great respect. Their role as a tea house is only part of a larger picture – what’s truly important is the tea itself and the company’s impact in the community. From the sheer quality and flavor of their tea and the large selection they offer, to they difficulties they go through to source it and the way in which they promote and protect traditional Chinese culture, Tea Drunk is truly unmatched in the tea industry in both vision and product.