This article 'Whose Tea Is That?' by Michael J Coffey of 'Tea Geek' has been getting quite a bit of kudos in my Twitter stream - deservedly so. Michael points out that most of the time we just don't know where our tea is coming from - and what's more, can you really say that one company's tea is better than another if they originally came from the same source? What is there to like about one, but not the other, in this case?
The issue is not just confined to single-origin unblended teas, either; in fact perhaps it's even more problematic in the case of flavoured teas. Take this quote from Charles Cain, who writes a fascinating blog about the process of opening a bricks and mortar tea store for a large US tea company, Adagio:
The supply chain for most teas sold in the US is ridiculously incestuous. Half of wholesalers buy from other wholesalers. It's not uncommon to find the same flavored tea, blended by the same large wholesaler, sold at dramatically different price points under the names of quite a few smaller wholesalers. Many independent retailers pride themselves on choosing only the finest teas for their collection. As proof of this, they buy from many different tea wholesalers. I've heard shop owners boast of having more than 30 tea vendors. The incredible irony is that I've also heard tea wholesalers boast of selling to the same shop owner under the name of a half dozen different companies.Read the rest of Charles' article here. Kind of depressing, isn't it. I suspect that things are not that different in Australia, although perhaps on a smaller scale; I know that in most retail tea shops I see a whole bunch of very similar blends, sometimes under slightly different names (think Monk Pear-type blends, French Earl Grey variants, Blue Mountain blends etc etc) that almost have to be imported from a bulk tea supplier somewhere in the world. They're just too similar to be individually made by each of the shops concerned. I'm not saying that these shops have NO originality because most of them probably do in some areas. I've just always found it a bit disappointing I suppose when I find that something I thought was unique actually isn't.
On the plus side it does mean you can shop around til you find the tea you like at the best price! Cloud, silver lining, etc.
Enough with the grumping, I didn't mean for this to be a depressing entry. Let's cheer ourselves up with a post from the awesome Stephane at Tea Masters (if you can't read the French, he does post a lot in English, and his photos are always worth a look). In this one he brews up a low-mountain oolong from Zu Shan and explains how important it is when starting out with tea to really get a feel for it. It can be so tempting to get a lot of small amounts of different teas and not really learn how all the variables (water, temperature, amount of leaf, even time of day) affect a single tea and your enjoyment of it. This is really sound advice and something I am going to pay more attention to.