There are hundreds of tea companies in the U.S. alone. From one-man operations to mid-size organizations and giant corporations. But how can one distinguish what is good, what is bad, and what is worth drinking?
It’s important to buy from producers that have cultivated solid relationships with farms and tea makers to ensure that they are getting the best of each harvest. Like wine, not all tea farmers produce the final tea product. Often times, the farmers grow the plants and sell them to tea makers, and it's the tea makers who then process the leaves into one of these five different tea types.
While small family farmed teas are great, don’t discount the larger estates which dominate production in countries such as India.
Also vital is to choose companies that have high turnover. Determine this by looking for brands that change their offerings each harvest season. Tea never actually expires but loses flavor over time. While small family farmed teas are great, don’t discount the larger estates which dominate production in countries such as India. And try not to get too fixated on teas carrying an organic label. Many small producers operate under organic practices, but don’t want to bother or can’t afford to pay for certification.
That being said, lots of regular tea is grown with pesticides, most often cheap supermarket brands and obscure companies who buy through big distributors. The companies mentioned in this article source on a smaller, boutique level. Since many of these farms are small and family-operated, they don't have the budget to pay for organic certification. When it comes to tea, many other countries see the fixation on "organic" as a "very American mindset," as a farmer in Taiwan once said. So, better to know your farmer or buy from a farm you trust (which, for the consumer, means buying from brands/companies with strong farmer relationships) than to search out only the organic label.
Below, 11 great tea companies to know.
Headquartered in Kyoto, Japan, Ippodo is recognized as one of the the top companies specializing in Japanese tea. Luckily for US residents, in 2013, Ippodo opened its first US location in New York City. Tucked in the basement floor of a townhouse, this retail space offers a wide selection of beautiful Japanese teas and teaware. Matcha aficionados will find a variety of different grades in addition to all the equipment needed to whisk a bowl at home. And don’t forget about the menu of teas to-go. Looking for a cup of matcha, hojicha, or sencha on the run? This is the place.
Song Tea & Ceramics
San Francisco-based Song Tea & Ceramics is run by Peter Luong. He was a partner and tea buyer for Red Blossom tea (below) for over a decade before opening Song Tea, a retail tea boutique with a soft, clean vision and style. Instead of offering a range of all teas, Peter sources what he personally drinks ... and that means a lot of oolongs. From the light, fruity oolongs to the aged, robust oolongs, a visit to the shop or sampling of multiple types of oolong is an education in itself. Song’s retail tea space is designed so that guests can taste each tea before making a purchase.
For a wide range of teas encompassing all five tea types plus a selection of herbals, Red Blossom is a reliable source. This is a great stop for those curious to learn the basics of pu’erh teas (Wild Leaf Lincang Pu-Erh 2006 is good starter pu’erh). It’s the one tea type not as frequently found at the other recommended brands. Red Blossom is also a good place to stock up on quality teaware, they’ve got everything from yixing pots to tea trays and gaiwans.
Oolongs are the draw at Té company. Specifically, oolongs from Taiwan. Owner and founder Elena was raised in Taiwan and though she is based in New York, she heads back to Taiwan frequently to purchase from farmers throughout the country. Té company’s offerings are split into three sections: rare and reserve teas, a classic premium section, and artisanal blends which gently blend quality oolongs with herbs and flowers like shiso and roses.
Japanese teas are the focus at Brooklyn and Fukuoka, Japan-based kettl. From sencha to gyokuro, sobacha to genmaimatcha, owner Zach Mangan personally sources each tea from Japan. Think high quality, small batches. kettl’s sobacha is delicate and sweet with roasted caramelized notes, while the competition gyokuro is savory and intense. Best part, there’s something for every budget.
Oolong is the most complicated type of tea to make (mainly because of the numerous steps in processing), but ask any serious tea drinker what their favorite type of tea is, and odds are they’ll say oolong. So, it makes sense that many newer companies are oolong-focused, including Taiwan-based Eco-Cha. Eco-Cha’s tasting sets are an ideal way to explore and taste a wide variety of oolong teas (all produced in Taiwan), without having to commit to a large quantity of any one tea.
Silver Needle Tea Co.
Based in New York and founded by Lucy Yung, Silver Needle Tea Co. focuses on education as a large part of the tea drinking process. Silver Needle offers two types each of white, green, oolong, and black teas at any given time. Each tea type is packaged in a matching color-coded canister. The teas switch out seasonally so that regular customers can taste their way through the different teas in each category. The highlight of the spring collection is a fresh and buttery long jing green tea from Hangzhou, China.
In Pursuit of Tea
Sebastian Beckwith’s In Pursuit of Tea has been around since 1999 and supplies a large number of restaurants throughout New York like Gramercy Tavern and Épicerie Boulud. Sebastian travels to each tea regions every year and buys primarily from small farms and collectives. He covers the basics well, but keep your eye out for treats like Moonlight White, an uncommon white tea from Yunnan, in addition to Mt. Olympus, a peppery herbal from Greece.
A tea salon, retail outlet, and educational center all rolled into one, Montreal-based Camellia Sinensis has been around since 1998. Offering teas sourced from throughout the world, the company manages to be a good starting point for people curious to get into teas, while simultaneously sourcing leaves that are still intriguing to seasoned drinkers. Try First Flush Darjeelings as well as the Darjeeling Avongrove, a white tea grown in Darjeeling.
Tucked away behind a fortune teller’s shop in Nolita, New York is Theresa Wong’s T Shop. Theresa worked at Fang Gourmet Tea in Flushing for six years before leaving to open her own boutique. For the full experience, head to the shop to taste with Theresa herself. The tea selection is tiny but exquisite and well-chosen. Her selections often favor oolongs (there are currently six teas available: five oolongs and one white) but you can trust that she’ll choose one to suit your mood and cravings.
Maison des Trois Thés
A flight to Paris and walk to the 5th arrondissement is necessary to taste tea at Maison des Trois Thés. There’s no online shop, but this alone is worth a trip. Madame Tseng is a Chinese tea ceremony master and curates a very specific selection of Chinese teas. Buy the teas by the gram, or stay for an afternoon of endless steeps in her tea room. The atmosphere is moody and mysterious. And as for the quality? High. Definitely worth splurge on her vintage teas.