Many people are put off exploring good quality whole leaf tea because they see it as very expensive in comparison to the standard tea bags and blends in tins. So they ignore, say, a Niligiri, high-grown Ceylon or Assam black tea that sells for $50 a pound and stick with a supermarket package of 15 branded English Breakfast tea bags at $4.29. But they are exactly the same real cost, 24 cents per cup.
Good whole leaf tea is far less expensive than is generally assumed. High end tea bags look cheaper than they are. Many of the blends in tins are more expensive than much better loose leaf options. And, most of all, many of the apparently most expensive gourmet teas are paradoxically actually cheaper than ones that are priced lower.
What disguises the price/quality/ value trade-off is the units that tea is sold in: boxes of X tea bags versus ounces or grams of loose tea. The only base for comparison is price per cup. There are two basic figures to keep in your head here:
- Tea bags: the cost per cup is the same as the cost per bag. That’s not always apparent since they come in so many assortments: 15, 18, 20, 24… The average for the best-rated brands is 20 cents. High end gourmet packages offer better leaf than these low end fannings and dust, plus complex fruit and floral ingredients and muslin pyramids that provide more porous flow. These are mostly in the 40 cent range. So, about 8o% of tea bags cost 20-40 cents.
- Loose whole leaf artisan-crafted teas: about 8o% of good grade teas cost 25-40 cents a cup. Premium ones are 50 cents and rare and special ones can cost as much as $2 a cup – or 50 cents.
The relative cost figures are disguised by the multiple units that tea is sold in which so often make the unit price look intimidatingly high – and the tea bag comparative ones deceptively low. Tea is priced per ounce/pound or grams:
Ounces: On average, an ounce of whole leaf makes 12 cups. A pound equates to 200.
Grams: the two main units of metric measures, for tins and loose teas are 100 grams (3.5 oz) which makes 40 cups, 125 ((4.4 oz), for about 50 cups.
Here’s just one instance of perceptual distortion. A top quality Silver Needle white and excellent Darjeeling are typically priced at $120 a pound. If you want a really good tea but not at that gourmet price, here is a box of 12 muslin sachets offered in Your Well-Known Coffeeshoppe for just $9.95. Translated into price per cup, the choice is: top end whole leaf 60 cents, and not very good tea bag 90 cents. The $120 and $9.95 are not comparable; the price per cup is.
For any tea bag, you can find a better whole leaf equivalent in the same price range – maybe 5 cents a cup more but sometimes less. If you browse the catalogs from really good suppliers (from which the figures here were derived), you’ll find plenty of good grade and varied teas in the 30 cents a cup range: $3-4 an ounce. You can stock your whole home inventory at this price.
If you drink four cups a day, which is 30 a week and 1,500 a year, here are the relative expenditures (adding in the broader range of options around the two main ones of branded tea bags and good whole leaf):
The top end teas generate an intriguing paradox. The more you pay for them, the cheaper they are. The best teas will provide multiple infusions, mostly depending on the size of the leaf. Small leaf teas, as with tea bags, are good for a single cup, since they release their flavor quickly. Oolongs, puehrs, whites and broad leaf greens by contrast preserve elements of their aromas and flavors in such a way that additional infusions are subtly softer, deeper or more mellow. In general, a really fine white or oolong will hold up well to at least two resteepings and puehrs to as many as fifteen. That turns a Silver Needle white from a 50-60 cent a cup gourmet drink to an average tea bag in price. What these figures suggest is that if you regularly drink a medium number of cups a day – four – then over a year you will lay out $100 more if you shop around for good loose leaf teas than if you stick with the supermarket stuff. If you mix in some occasional really special teas (the typical unit purchase is two ounces), that goes up to maybe $200 more than for Twinings Earl Greys and comparable English Breakfasts and flavored greens.
If you are exploring special teas, reckon to pay 40-60 cents a cup. That buys excellent Darjeelings, the best Assams and Nepalese black teas, most China Keemum Mao Feng black congous, superior grades of you-name-it China greens, all but the very top end whites, most oolongs, and non-collectible puehrs. There are still the rarities: Big Red Robe, Gyokuru, Adam’s Peak and Castleton Moonlight white. They are more in the $1-2 range per cup – if you just drink one and don’t rebrew them. If you do – and you should – then they are about 50 cents a cup.
Obviously, all the figures reported here are approximations and averages and there are many exceptions and adjustments. Some teas need extra leaf per cup and your own preferences will affect if you use a flat or heaped teaspoon. There are many differences in grades plus, alas, faking of quality and pedigree. The excellent top China oolong, Ti Guan Yin, has lost some of its reputation because of counterfeits and jasmine green is regularly enhanced with a little extra chemical sheen to make it bright, shiny and not the grade it is claimed to be.
Packaging, too, very often distorts price and value. That is especially the case with those elegant and beautiful tins of blends, with all the Royal, Imperial, Harrods, Downton Abbey and other names on them. They can sell for $20 or more for four ounces. In most instances, they are blends offered by contract packagers who will make you – literally you – your own Earl Grimwold or Mountain Green Horizon, branded and in fabulous tins that cost you under $1 each.
Enjoy shopping for the tea that is best for you in terms of price, quality, variety, flavor and daily experience. If you keep in mind the following, you will find plenty of value and choice:
- Price per cup is the only meaningful financial metric.
- Expect to pay 25-30 cents a cup for your everyday loose leaf teas, 40-60 cents for the more special ones.
- For rare and really excellent ones, take into account how many times they can be infused.
- Don’t pay more than 25 cents for any tea bag. Be very wary of fancy tins. They are rarely even a decent buy.
- Use the approximations provided here as alerts. If a tea is attractive but outside the range, check why. An overpriced mall specialty store loose leaf Earl Grey blend at 50 cents a cup is to be avoided, as is a 20 cent teabag Darjeeling or Silver Needle “bargain.”
The key point to consider is that specialty “gourmet” tea is not pricy. Plan on paying about 30 cents a cup and you will transform your daily drink routines. You’ll then probably add a few more expensive ones and develop a portfolio of choices. Maybe, you will discover a few ultrasuperfab teas – a, Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearl, Castleton Darjeeling, Bai Hao oolong, Japanese Gyokuru green, or Kenilworth Sri Lanka black…. Then it is Big Spender time and you will be putting down a whole dollar bill for a cup.