Scour a store for tea and you will probably find that the prices for the teas offered can vary wildly. The best comparison for this kind of variance can be found in the world of wine, where a bottle of two buck Chuck can be procured as well as bottles that run in the range of several thousand dollars. Caviar is expensive. Fish sticks are cheap. Let’s explore expensive whole leaf tea to consider the cost.
To start off, expensive teas equate to better tea. But that’s also like saying a Rembrandt painting is better than a Japanese wood block. The flavor characteristics and quality of one kind of tea- say a first flush Indian Darjeeling black tea differ dramatically from that of a Japanese Gyokuro green tea. The attributes and what is highly desired in one fluctuates from the other. This also leaves room for the matter of personal taste. That question of quality and cost comes fully into view though when the origin is consistent. Pair a first pick Darjeeling to be tasted alongside one that is subpar. What you would find is that you can pick up that one is better from the other. A low quality tea is bitter, harsh, looks ugly, and has no aroma or sweetness. When you come across a high quality tea, it can surprise you with its interesting flavor, aroma, sweetness, and color.
In mulling the cost of expensive tea, Darjeeling black tea provides a good foundation from which to illustrate the idea. You can look at tea books from the 1920’s that mention Darjeeling. It has developed a reputation as the “champagne” of the tea world. Darjeeling black tea is three percent of India’s total tea output. First flush Darjeeling is produced only once a year and is prized as the first growth with unique character. Why is it expensive—because it’s rare. A lot of work goes into making a tea at that level versus a tea that is sold at $1 per pound. Let’s say there are 10 estates out of 72 which produce top grade first flush Darjeeling. We receive samples from the 10 that we taste to winnow the pool down to three, finally ordering our top selection. Darjeeling lots are very small (about 100 to 200 pounds), which might sound like a lot of tea. One hundred pounds equates to 400 4-ounce tins of loose tea. You could argue that the first flush Darjeeling selected is the best in the world and only 400 people get to drink it.
Down the road from the estate where we have bought that exquisite first flush Darjeeling, perhaps there is a factory where tea leaves plucked with hand shears are processed in a CTC machine to produce a strong cup of tea at a low price of $1 per pound. Where the first flush facility is wary of damaging the bush, the factory aims to pull as many leaves as possible that accounts for a disparity of 2 pounds plucked at the first flush estate versus 20 pounds plucked at the factory. First flush Darjeeling is weather specific: knowing when to pluck the leaves is contingent on climate. It can’t rain too much. It can’t be dry. It can’t hail. The leaves have to be plucked in the morning before it gets too hot, which in the spring yields smaller leaves because it’s cold. Tea estate managers know the first flush leaves can go for a good price, but there are eight or nine things that can go wrong and mess up the batch, making it drop to a lower grade tea. So much skill is involved in ensuring the natural changes in the leaves are manipulated well. This also speaks to why some estates consistently produce better teas; it’s like dining at a restaurant where you enjoy the steak. So much of that enjoyment stems from the skill of the chef.
Now, think about the cost of tea offerings at a store by the cup. Let’s say you walk into a market and see a box of 100 tea bags that costs $6. Each cup of tea costs six cents per serving. That’s amazing. When you taste a cup of the tea, it’s not horrible, but it’s ordinary. Perhaps instead you eye a 4-ounce tin of first flush Darjeeling loose tea for $24.50. Each cup of the champagne of tea will cost you 61 cents. You can’t even get a glass of wine for that price. Tea is one of the last great food deals anywhere. The math is compelling and if you consider the per cup cost, you can drink the best tea in the world for not very much. Life is too short to drink six-cent cups of tea. So, go ahead and treat yourself.