Tea Reviews and How to Find the Best

Scouring the Web for the Best Tea Reviews

What do You Want for Dinner?

I often see new tea drinkers show up to online forums and ask, “What should I buy from ____?”, seemingly not taking into account that the most important factor in the answer to this question is who will be providing the answer. I am as guilty of this as anybody. With all matter of purchases I rely on online reviews and research to figure out what’s what. The challenge for tea drinkers is that the online tea review landscape is a bit difficult to navigate due to an abundance of conflicting information and opinions. Finding a useful tea review can be a monumental task, especially when you consider the varying preferences of tea reviewers.

On a recent visit to America I met with a couple of different groups of friends, all of whom have very different culinary tastes. A few of them are what you might call meat and potatoes type eaters, where as others prefer to try the new Ethiopian restaurant down the street. If you asked the meat and potatoes group where to eat, the answer will invariably involve a restaurant where the greenest item on the menu is the parsley garnish, trailed in second place by the mint chocolate chip ice cream. This isn’t uncommon in  Midwestern townships that consist of one church, three bars, and one supper club.

For the uninitiated, supper clubs are a relic of the past that still exist in abundance in Midwestern America. A typical menu consists of steak, poultry, and seafood, all served with freshly baked rolls and a salad bar (iceberg lettuce, three types of potato salad). Supper clubs usually consider the olive in your happy-hour drink to be green enough to count as vegetable serving. They might also offer steamed carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower, as a side-dish. However, this never gets ordered because french fries are a more important part of a balanced diet. In the past I made the mistake of asking the meat and potatoes friends to recommend the best dinner haunts. Now, this is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good bi-annual supper club trip, but I do prefer vegetables and variety in my eating experiences.

There in lies the most oft overlooked point when asking for advice; considering the preferences of the person behind the recommendation is as important as considering the recommendation itself.

Tea Flowers
Tea flowers from Autumn, Yunnan

Quick Case Study from Reddit’s /r/scotch

For the (second time) uninitiated, /r/scotch is a lovely online community on Reddit where users enthusiastically review their whiskys for the world to see. Other users like me mostly lurk and browse reviews. In a recent thread, titled “What is the worst Scotch you ever tasted” there were over 300 comments in a single day from users declaring their hatred for various malts. The curious (or predictable) thing about the thread was that the comment section reads like this:

“Oh man, I hate _______.”

“You hated _____? It’s my favorite daily drinker!”

Now, keep in mind, the prompt was the worst you ever tasted, but despite the strong language there are people on both sides of the preference aisle. Users who are (mostly) experienced whisky drinkers both decrying and praising the exact same bottles. I had to jump in and defend Tobermory 10, which I think is a perfectly fine malt in its price range, although a little on the stank side of the flavor spectrum. The point is, several people would place that whisky in dreaded worst ever column, where as I think it is a solid whisky.

One man’s worst ever, another man’s treasure.

Whisky and Tea
A post tea session whisky pic. I don’t think anybody listed Springbank 10 as a worst ever

How to Seek the Right Advice

The variance in opinions might be daunting, but all is not lost when looking through online tea reviews. There are a few key points that can improve your chances of finding helpful information.

  • Seek out reviewers who have a similar palate. If you can find a review that you agree with from an online user or a blog it can act as a bellwether for compatibility
  • Seek out reviews from people with a similar level of experience. Reading reviews from someone with decades of tea drinking experience when you are brand new to tea might not be as helpful as finding a reviewer who is also newer to tea
  • Take reviews with a grain of salt. One person might love a tea that you dislike, or vice versa (See: Tobermory 10)
  • In order to limit a reviews effect on your own thoughts, attempt some blind taste tests and gauge your own thoughts more accurately
  • If possible, try teas before reading reviews rather that after. To the point above, the best way to find your own preferences is through unbiased tea drinking. You might be surprised which teas are most compatible with your taste
  • Seek out reliable sources. Easier said than done, as the internet is full of boisterous voices who claim expertise with very little knowledge. (Not a problem unique to tea, but particularly prevalent in the Puer world) The best way to avoid being fooled is to rely on your own preferences. Nobody knows what you enjoy better than you

The last point deserves repeating: Follow your own body. If a tea makes you feel good and the price is right, nobody’s review ought to be able to take that way. On the flip side of the coin, if everyone is praising a tea and you aren’t feeling it, don’t follow the crowd. Reviews can be a great help when searching out all sorts of products online, but remember that judging for yourself should be the final word.

  • Peter

    A great read as always, TwoDog! I would add that one should try to avoid reviewers who review tea given to them gratis by vendors, as this practice raises serious ethical issues.

    • TwoDog2

      That is definitely something to consider. Though in some cases I provide free samples for people, like a Steepster traveling tea box that is being sent now. I have no problem with anybody reviewing those teas onine, but i also don’t have any say in their review. I just ask that they review the teas honestly, even if they really hate the tea

      • Peter

        You are one of the very few vendors mature enough to accept negative / harsh reviews of your teas, TwoDog. Hats off to you for that!!

        The problem with reviewers reviewing free teas is the obvious conflict of interest. Some will stipulate that the gratis provision of the tea made no difference in their evaluations, but the reader can never be sure, of course. This is why many professions require their people to decline gifts from those with whom they deal (e.g., journalists).

        I know of no reviewer who refuses to review teas which they did not buy themselves, either at full price or via a sale open to all. If there are any, I hope someone will let me know.

    • Jakub Tomek

      I think that a good indication of the believability of a reviewer would be how his ratings/opinions are distributed. If it’s 50:50 in bought teas and 90:10 in gifted teas, something might be suspicious (then again, even this could be explained by vendor sending his best stuff, while the person itself might sample semi-blindly, picking crap).

      Conflict of interest… well, what of it? I think that actual wrongdoing is far more important than a theoretical conflict of interests. I think conflict of interest should be stated (i.e., a writer should write if a tea has been given to him), but that’s about it. Reviewers of tea are not professionals (a difference to the journalists you mention) – and I doubt that a seller of tea would pay them to write well about their teas. Besides, I think that those with well-enough read blogs do not really need to be gifted tea that can be bought – the potential of bribery seems quite low.

      When I was writing more about tea, I used to accept gifted tea from vendors sometimes (if it interested me), but the simple reason was that I like tea – and at the time, I wanted to sample as widely as possible! As mentioned earlier, not being a professional, why couldn’t I, after all? Actually, the vendors seemed to be quite well behaved to me – I think that I’ve been given quite a decent amount of tea and I thought (and written about) most to be poorly stored, overpriced (most common), and/or fake – and while I wrote that, the vendors did not interfere with it really, nor they even hinted at “please do not publish that you hated that and we’ll send you XYZ superior emperor king extra grade tea”).

      I.e., in my experience as a writer (and those writers I’m acquainted with), I found both vendors and writers to be well behaved with regards to the conflict of interest. I think that a tea gift (even if commercially-based – and I think that most vendors I know give samples to please the customer and widen his knowledge of tea) is a beautiful thing and it would be a pity if the writers were not supposed to write about them.

      And, from a wholly different perspective – I think that free samples allow new businesses to be established more quickly – if there is a new tea shop and it sells good stuff (or bad stuff) and it sends the teas to bloggers, people can get to know the shop a lot quicker than they could otherwise. This might have had a role even in White2tea’s rise, maybe?

  • Grill

    This why my advice to new drinkers (not that I’m a grizzled old vet myself but I’ve drank a couple hundred different puerhs by now) is to sample sample sample and learn their own tastes. Over time I’ve really come to like eastern banna teas especially Mengla county as well as some northern tea. Reviews were a good way to learn what was out there and gave at the least some basic info such as what kind of storage or region it may have come from. They are what lead me to your company and turned me into a total addict. Speaking of that, I hold you completely responsible and the medical bills are in the mail. More are coming as well cause it’s clearly not working.

    One more note, the age of some reviews are pretty old, to the point where the tea may be a completely different animal now for better or worse

    • TwoDog2

      That is a great point. A review of a Puer tea from 5 years ago almost certainly won’t reflect the current state of the tea. Puer teas are always changing, so current reviews are a must

  • Dianne Morgan

    I really had a good read with this one. Very informative! Thanks for sharing