Anonymous teas

In the Western hemisphere people who reads blogs like this one and drink mostly Asian teas in loose-leaf form are a distinct minority, and shops that serve our kind of needs are, by and large, niche players who get relatively little business from those who are not so serious about tea. I suspect that the largest source of loose leaf tea consumption in retail format comes from places that serve loose leaf tea as part of a cafe style operation – with cakes, scones, snacks, and the like.

There are different ways in which such teas are served. On a national scale, the large chains almost all serve teabags, and for good reason – teabags are easy, they’re cheap, the margins are high, and they’re consistent. Anybody can stick a Tazo teabag in a cup and throw hot water in it, and out comes a breakfast style tasting tea that is going to be the same everywhere you go. Smaller shops, on the other hand, especially higher end shops, tend to serve loose leaf teas these days to distinguish themselves from the big chains. If the teas are taken in store, they’ll come in big pots and cups. If you order to go, you’re going to get a paper cup with a t-sac of tea. That’s much harder to do for the average shop – you have to make sure your employees have some idea of what they’re doing, otherwise the teas can be quite nasty. When done well, the teas can be quite decent, and for a traveling tea addict like myself, it can be a welcomed caffeine fix, and it can also be a good introduction to loose leaf tea, or a great place to experiment with teas that one’s unfamiliar with, for people who are otherwise not so tea inclined. Two days ago, I found myself going to a tea and macaron place called Soirette in Vancouver while I was visiting the city for a quick trip before heading to Portland OR. I had a “Wuyi Rock Oolong” which turned out to be quite ok, even though it was made a bit too weak for my taste. But then, any tea in a paper cup is going to be too weak if it were a yancha, so I’m not complaining.

The thing though is that teas are anonymous. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the difficult things are tea purchasing is that two shops can sell the same tea under different names, and you could be none-the-wiser even if you tried them one after another. Unless you do a strict comparison tasting side by side, it’s not always obvious that they’re from the same source. Places like Soirette must source their teas from somewhere – I have a hard time imagining them purchasing teas in bulk from a number of different sources, for that would require a level of work beyond what is necessary (unless, of course, the owner is a tea addict). So, the question is, where?

I tried looking through the web to see if it is possible to find out who they source their teas from, and it turns out to be quite difficult. There are really two possibilities – some big, national stores, or local shops that supply teas for them. Alas, after searching, there’s no real way of knowing with any certainty. I think the only time when you can tell for sure is if some more or less branded teas are used wholesale, without any type of name change. On Soirette’s tea menu, for example, there’s a “Harbour Morning”, which is some type of breakfast tea and named in reference of Coal Harbour, where they’re located. Pretty obviously they named it for their store’s location, and very likely it used to be called “English breakfast” or some other generic name. Then there are things like Jade Oolong, Organic Iron Goddess of Mercy, Marsala Chai, etc etc…. at first I thought it might be Mightyleaf, which has a lot of similarly named organic teas, but then, they also didn’t offer a lot of what Soirette had either. Some look suspiciously similar, but…. the point is, barring some amazing discovery of identical names, etc, and a tea I recognize by taste, there’s just no way to tell.

Perhaps in some ways, that doesn’t matter. However, I do think it speaks volumes about the kind of difficulty faced by newcomers to the hobby – having to deal with the byzantine naming conventions of the trade, and the idiosyncracies of individual shops. If you really love that Harbour Morning blend, you could certainly ask the shop where they get their teas from. In this case, they might tell you, since I don’t believe Soirette sells tea in bulk (although I could be wrong). Try asking a retail tea store, however, and they’ll probably spin some story about sourcing the best teas from the best places, etc. You can go on a quest trying dozens of breakfast blends and not finding the same tea, and even if you end up with the same tea, you might miss it because you feel it’s somehow different. It’s tough when you try to hunt specific teas down, and it all comes down to the problem of teas not bearing names when they’re in loose form. Which is why it’s probably always a good idea to not get too hung up on “the XXX tea I tried at Y shop” too much, because chances are you won’t find it anywhere else.


Comments

Anonymous teas — 7 Comments

  1. Hello,

    Thank you for taking such an interest in our teas here at Soirette.

    When the thought of combining fine loose leaf teas with macarons came to mind, I had a steep learning curve to overcome in terms of teas. Though an avid tea drinker, setting up the retail end as a business was a different challenge for me altogether.

    I was determined to give our teas the same attention I gave to our macarons. It was important to me that the tea pairings with our macaron flavours worked. As a pastry chef and a tea lover, I am relentlessly passionate about sourcing ingredients, and it was no different when it came to our teas. I cupped about 450 different teas before settling with around 30 teas to stock. I also wanted to be able to switch out teas for the different seasons, as our flavours of macarons change as well, and thus so will the pairing.

    Apologies for surprising you, but I do actually have several different sources, most of them come directly for the farm. Our “Harbour Morning” tea is our own version of an English Breakfast Tea. It is hand blended here at Soirette and consists of 2 single origin black teas directly from Assam, one being more tippy and the other being a full bodied leaf. We created this blend as it pairs beautifully with our Amandine macaron.

    We do sell all our tea in bulk, and you can purchase them in 25g, 50g or 100g bags. I find a 25g bag is perfect for around 8-10 cups of tea, and it is a great introductory amount, especially for those who like to try different ones. Our aim here is to provide our customers with a unique experience, each and every single time, and to enlighten their palate and senses as they find their favourite macaron and tea pairing.

    Thank you again for your thoughts, and I hope you are happy to know that Soirette takes pride in everything we offer and there are businesses out there that do believe in sourcing the best for their customers. Hope you see you the next time you are in town!

    Kind regards
    Shobna Kannusamy
    Owner and Pastry Chef

    • Ah, most fascinating! Thank you for your comments. It’s actually quite interesting to hear where you got your teas from. I didn’t get to try it, but I suspect Harbour Morning is going to be pretty punchy. That might explain why the one tea I tried didn’t taste too bad (as is too often the case at what look like high-end joints selling tea). Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Hi MarshalN,

    I came across your tea blog today and I’ve been reading several of your posts with interest. Could you recommend me some good tea shops in Hong Kong and Taiwan? I would deeply appreciate it!

    Regards,
    Pamela

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