Thursday, July 14, 2011

Packaged or Loose? Which is better?

I remember when I was little my grandpa always took me with him when he went out to buy tea. This was almost 30 years ago in my hometown of Shantou China. Back then tea was rarely pre-packaged. The shops all had large barrel-like storage container to store their tea for sale. I can't remember what the containers were made of. But I remember grandpa always bought 1 kilo of his favorite 黃金桂 (Golden Osmanthus? Can somebody help with the translation?) each time, and the shop would wrap the tea in paper. That was the standard packaging for tea in the 1980's.

Loose tea wrapped in paper. This was, and in many places
still is, the standard packaging for tea.

Fast forward 30 years, with today's new technology and different lifestyles, tea storage and packaging has changed dramatically. Now there are tin cans, glass jars, foil bags, and even bio-degradable bags. You can even have your package vacuum sealed for longer shelf life. All of these inventions are great. But there is one drawback, a somewhat important one, that you no longer get to hold the tea in your hand to see and smell it before buying it. So how do you know what you are buying?

Packaged tea comes in all kinds
of fancy packaging

I was in China this June for some business. On one of the weekends I joined some old schoolmates in visiting a well-respected teacher of ours from elementary school. Of course I must not show up empty-handed. So I walked into a tea shop on my way to the meet-up place. Then guess what? I ran into a dilemma, one that many people run into I believe. Packaged or loose tea?

As a long time tea drinker and an insider, I knew I would be able to pick a very good tea at a decent price from the many loose tea in the shop. But as a gift, I knew loose tea wasn't very appropriate since Chinese people put great value on the gift's appearance. After all I was buying for a respected elder who also knows a lot about tea. So it had to look nice but at the same time be of excellent quality, two thing that don't always go hand-in-hand.

I ended up buying a packaged tea. But I asked the shop owner for recommendation. He was an honest guy. I was told that evern he didn't know the quality of every single packaged tea he had. But he would recommend a few he personally tried before. I picked a TieGuanYin with a nice large box - opened the package on the pot and had the owner steep a few rounds of gungfu tea to me. It turned out good, very good actually. and I bought another box for the actual gift.

Packaged tea? No. These are loose
tea when bought and later packed
and vacuum sealed. Typical packaged
tea look much fancier, like the ones
in the picture above.

So going back to the original question. Which is better? Well I think bynow we all can agree that it depends on why are you buying the tea. If you are buying for gift, then for whom? For you best buddy who you can share underwear with, then packaging doesn't mean much so go for the loose tea. For your future in-laws, you go straight to the packaged tea. On the other hand if you are buying for yourself, buy loose.

For those of you who buy tea on the internet, you don't have the option to hold the tea in your hand. So just buy small samples of loose tea like you have been doing already. Nowadays every online tea retailer offer samples. Buy a few samples and try them out. If you like it, buy more. Easy!

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