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Internet Tea Merchants: What do you like/dislike?

Richard Kilgore

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There are now many tea merchants on the internet. Some have B&M tea shops; some have their own sites; some are on eBay. Their websites differ considerably in the range of teas and tea-things they offer and how they are presented. Some English language sites are based in the tea producing countries and more are based in tea importing countries.

So, I am curious about what everyone's experiences have been and what your preferences are. Do you prefer ordering from merchants in your country or from those overseas? Or after buying on-line have you decided you prefer a B&M shop? What kind of informational content about their tea and other products do you like to see on their sites? What do you expect in terms of shipping times and customer service?

I have my own take on this, but I'll wait a few days to add my 2 cents.

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Although I don't use them now, when I lived in VT I used The Cultured Cup (which I know Richard uses, too).

I thought the service was much more personable than most online merchants.

I now live near a Mariage Freres tea shop, but when I move back to Canada I imagine I may be using The Cultured Cup again.

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Buying tea in a tea shop like McNulty's on Bleecker St. in the West Village is such a pleasurable experience that I've never felt inclined to purchase tea over the internet. I'm sure I'm missing out on some excellent tea, and I would definitely buy tea over the internet if I had no other options, but I love being able to go into the shop, see the tea in the large glass apothecary jars and take in the aromas as I decide what to purchase. I usually get the Heavily Smoked Lapsang Souchong (there is also a lightly smoked version), the Golden Darjeeling, and one or two others. Right now I also have the Flowery White Pekoe. I like the elderly Chinese man who stamps the bag with one of the rubber stamps they have for each kind of tea they sell and then scoops the tea into the bag on the scale. With so many businesses shutting down in lower Manhattan due to high real estate prices it would be such a travesty if a century-old institution like McNulty's were to be turned into another Gap or Starbucks or a chain pharmacy that it feels like a duty to shop there whenever possible, though my wife and I don't drink enough tea to do that more than once or twice a year, and then I might stop in occasionally to buy tea as a gift for a friend who likes tea.

They do have a website at http://mcnultys.com where you can download a catalogue, but no e-commerce portal on the website.

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You are very lucky to be in NYC where you enjoy the pleasure of looking at, perhaps even smelling, talking about, tea, before finally making a purchase. The large turnover, and the presence of a Chinese staff probably ensure fresh leaves. Most of America cannot dream of what you have, although reasonably good coffee may be had. Therefore, mail-order remains the only recourse, and the internet has been a boon here.

Following the late Laurie Colwin of Gourmet magazine, I once drove up to northern Connecticut where a delightful lady from England and her partner had created a shop serving "tea", although not quite on the traditional English pattern. But good nonetheless, and with charming manners. I remember asking for their signature Tomato Pie, a favorite of Ms. Colwin's, and apparently derived from a Little League recipe.

From that time on, I became somewhat aware of a growing subculture, as it were [and I do not have quite the right words to desribe this phenomenon] of a small number of British expatriates opening such "tea shops'' in the New England area. Then I had the good fortune to chance [sheer serendipity] on another such near Tarrytown, once upon a time very much on my way from New Haven. White Plains to NYC.

Since I come fom West Bengal where Darjeeling is located and had grown up with an uncle who was a profssional tea taster with an amazing palate and nose that I cannot even imagine approaching, I became qute excited upon discovering this place to tbe the lair of Makaibari teas. It sells a great many other teas, from China, Nepal, Africa, other parts of India, and many styles, but for me, the exciting thing was to discover the owner to be the sister in law of the Planter, aka Resident Deity, Makaibari Estate in Darjeeling.

This place is like one of those special patches of Burgundy that produces famous vintages year after year. Their Silver Tips has been auctioned for some of the highest prices in the world, an this Tea Shop in Tarrytown bears that name. It is the sole distributor of Makaibari Teas in the US, and a mailorder vendor, plus a retail tea store and a grand tea shop.

I am bemused that so-called experts have failed to mentioned the place in their 10 [or is it 20 best Tea Shops of America]. I urge you to visit one day with your wife & friends and form your own opinion.

The reason why I have become such a self-motivated advocate for this mail-order vendor is the quality, the prices , the value for money, and the extremely gracious behavior o the owner. When I see top quality teas in the $22-24/lb range, and again in the $34-45/lb range here whose equivalents are sold or at least twice or thrice that EVERYWHERE ELSE in the USA & Canada that I have looked, I begin to wonder why?

All Makaibari teas sold in America originate from this distributor. Therefore, Ms. Anupa Mueller always has the freshest stock, as far as an individual customer is concerned. A freshly opened tea chest is an exprience not to be missed. Teas from such is the next best.

Perhaps I am quite unable to understand or taste INDIAN black teas, specifically Darjeeling, to which I shall gladly admit. Or something else is going on. Anyway, I have no idea on what basis the "expert" formulated his list of BEST TEA SHOPS in America, but I regret that I have crossed him off my list of experts for good. Since I am merely a satisfied customer, with the tiniest bit of regional pride about Darjeeling tea produced in a socially enlightened manner, I have no qualms about recommending the Silver Tips Tea Store http://www.silvertipstea.com/fusionecommerce/browse/

DO try it once in person, and experience what excellent FRESH Darjeeling is all about. Brew it very light, and enjoy the floral bouquet in delicate porcelain cups that are almost transparent.

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  • 2 weeks later...

My tea knowledge and experience has benefited hugely from having The Cultured Cup shop available locally. Although I have been drinking loose leaf teas for many years, being able to walk into TCC and smell the leaves of teas in 90 or so cannisters and buy just an ounce at a time, has made exploring fine teas much more interesting and accessible. Their tea pairing dinners at Sharon Hague's York Street restaurant have been a revelation. Not to mention, their monthly T-Bar Club meetings have added immeasureably to my tea education and curiosity over the past four or five years. And they're nice folks.

I think that many who are "into" tea have had similar experiences and become big supporters of their favorite shop.

B&M tea shops are widely different one from another. TCC is a sophisticated European style salon, and I love it, but I would love to have a Japanese or Chinese shop nearby that would serve tea in traditional styles.

All that said, I am also a supporter of high quality web-based shops in the US and in other countries. I have ordered from on-line dealers I have come to trust from China and Japan, and sooner or later I'll order directly from India, too.

So why use an internet shop if I have a great local shop such as TCC available? Even though they carry a large number of teas, Kyle and his staff at TCC are very selective in the teas they carry, both at the highest quality teas and the value-priced teas. Buy their Phoenix Mountain Dan Cong Oolong and I know I am going to get a very fine tea - easy, no risk. Buy their inexpensive (Blood) Orange Roibos, and I know I'll get a very good tea at a very good price. So I continue to frequently buy many Chinese and Japanese teas and tisaines from "The Cup", and I always recommend TCC to friends and family locally and at a distance who don't know a lot about tea, but who are interested in broadening their tea tastes and experience, rather than directing them to a website in China or Japan. Easy, accessible, quality assured.

But as my interest and knowledge has deepened, I am willing to take more risks in order to understand tea better. It's much like wine...grape variety, blending, vintage, terroir, processing. How a tea from one mountain in China differs from one grown on another nearby or in another region. How different processing affects the tea. How a tea harvested in the Spring, Summer and Fall are different. How this year's Spring harvest of a specific tea differs from last years. And I can get that kind of tea experience by dealing with highly specialized tea merchants in the US and other countries, who provide that kind of in-depth detail about their focused tea stock. They also offer quality Yixing teapots and Japanese ceramic teapots that are difficult or impossible to find locally.

So when it comes to tea merchants, web-based or b&m, here are some of my preferences as to the information and service they provide. And few, if any, offer all of them.

* Tea names translated similarly to what they would be called in their country. region and specific area of origin, with date of harvest, hand-harvested or machine harvested, processing type and roasting level, notes on dry leaf aroma, wet leaf aroma, tea liquor taste, and brewing recommendations.

* Info on historical background on the tea.

* Photos of dry leaf, wet leaf and tea liquor.

* Maps

* eMail, in-person or phone accessibility, and willingness to answer questions. Sometimes lots of them.

* For b&m shops, ability to smell leaves and drink small samples or order cups or pots of tea.

* For b&m shops - offer tea classes.

* Quality teapots and accessories at a range of price points.

* Competitive pricing, considering level of quality.


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Here's a good example at jingteashop.com of the level of detail and context I like from tea retailers.

Seasonal Da Hong Pao



Net weight : 100gr/3.53 oz

Harvesting : Spring 2009

Plantation varietals : Da Hong pao

Origine : Wuyi Mountain, Fujian Province.

Plantation attitude : 600 meters above sea level.

Certification : ISO 9001

Organic Certification : OTRDC (China)

Storage Recommendation : Ready to drink

Roasting method : Hard wood charcoal roasted

Dry leaves appearance : Tender leaves are very well processed into even curly stripes. Dark color leaves with deep brownish-green touch at the edge of the leaves.

Aroma : Warm roasted aroma combined with layered of sweetness, milky and fresh floral aroma.

Flavor : Warm and roasted cacao taste combined with delightful floral flavor, which is creamy and sweet. Its wood charcoal roasted method gives a profundity to this tea.

Body : Medium-bodied, good tea taste

Texture : Thick and mellow

Length : Long and sweet

Zi Sha Recommendation : Zi Ni, Qing Shui Ni, Xiao Hong Ni

Wuyi Shan in Fujian province is known as the birth place of oolong tea and Da Hong Pao is probably one of the most famous among Chinese oolong tea worlwide. Because of its unique character the Da Hong Pao oolong tea is often praised as "Tea King". This wuyi Da Hong Pao will be a perfect choice for people who want to discover Wuyi Rock Da Hong Pao teas or for oolong lovers that want to find a Da Hong Pao for their daily teas. The tea presents characteristic such as its high and long lasted floral fragrance, smooth, rich, sweet and refreshing aftertaste.

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Here's another example at Houde de of what I like in an on-line tea merchant's description of a tea. Historical context, notes on the flavor profile, and photos of the leaf and the tea liquor. I am not focusing on this specific tea, which I have not tried, just the format, description and detail, which I think provides helpful information.

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But as my interest and knowledge has deepened, I am willing to take more risks in order to understand tea better.

I wonder if this statement describes most of the clientele of internet purveyors. I live near enough to Teaism that I can go in and see, smell, touch, and ask about different teas. I can see myself ordering some day, but at my current level of knowledge I'm hesitant to do so.

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Nothing can compare with the retail experience, for most food lovers, be it purchasing cookware, jams or tea. There is an entire sensory universe, or series of universes, not excluding that of barely suppressed anticipation which makes this personal contact incomparable.

Mailorder is, to me, much like one of those black and white East European highbrow movies of the Iron Curtain days, an intense, portentous, nerve-wracking experience. Anticipation there certainly is, but fraught this time with anxiety, that robs one of the delight of the retail experiece.

So you are quite right about your misgivings. However, one possible middle path could be to start with relative bargains: go with the cheapest offerings, and see how they taste to you. Build up a taste vocabulary and memory, the foundation of a pyramid, as it were. This need not be too punitive, because many decent teas are to be had for $11-12 per 8 oz, which you could split with a friend [create a tea-buying club of 2, not very difficult!! Tea of the month, subscription, $5 each per month or every 2-3 months?]

Sharing the costs with another friend allows one to sample a wider variety with a proportionately smaller risk of gettting stuck with something one does not like. One can graduate to the $60/kg material in 100 gram lots with no problems with this system. Here we are talking 1st Flush High Altitude Darjeeling Tips, and good Oolongs.

Incidentally, the name Silver Tips refers to a grade made famous by buyers like the Shah of Iran and similar tycoons, who in the valuation of those days, often used to pay around $1444/kg for the Silver tips; especially the Makaibari one holds some sort of record as being the most expensive auctioned somewhere [i don't like to keep track of extravagant people!!]

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I agree that it is wonderful to have a good local tea shop. As several other people and I have posted up-topic we love our local shops and support them. Unfortunately some people don't have a good local shop and have to rely on the web.

I shopped in the store, smelling the leaves and asking questions for many years (and still do) before trying a web-based tea merchant. And for many people - for most drinkers of whole leaf teas - that's all they will ever need and want if they have a good to great local tea shop. The only reason I shop with merchants on-line is because they carry teas, tea pots and other tea accessories that I can't find locally...or in some cases, in the US at all.

As Greg Glancy at Norbutea.com once said to me, "It's all about trust." I think that's true for a b&m shop, too, but even more so for a web-based merchant. My suggestion for anyone wanting to checkout a merchant, b&m or on-line, would be to buy small 25 gr to 2 ounce samples of a few teas and ask whatever questions you may have.

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David & Holly,

You are welcome. Since you both are quite the adventurers where food is concerned, I am sure this thread would enjoy your thoughts on a visit to Silvertips, i.e. the tea experience there, especially the associated tea foods, baked goods, & service. Does the whole ensemble & place come together harmoniously? That is asking a lot from the owner, but psychologically one goes in to a tea shop expecting that very thing, a pleasant interlude.

I remember my visit to the place I wrote about, in northern Connecticut. It was a busy social center for the area, and the tea et al. were not necessarily topnotch [to my taste] but the owners were so utterly charming, gracious and personable, that the afternoon stands out in my memory after more than 2 decades. So the total experience was excellent [on a glorious fall afternoon], and met the goal of a tea house in the finest sense of the term. Having spoken to Ms. Mueller over the telephone, I have great hopes that you might have a similar experience, which is a major reason for my egging people on. So a crystal clear day, when fall has us in its thrall....

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The first tea i started regularly preparing for myself was a particular brand of Ti Kuan Yin my father learned about from a chinese friend. I have been buying this particular tea for years, but in the last two years have run out of my previous supply and been unable to find it in local markets. I have tried some from various local tea shops and chinese markets that are nice, but not quite the same; yesterday I brewed one of these substitutes for the third or fourth time and was not entirely satisfied.

Looking online, I was able to find this image, that helps to identify the tea:


or tinyurl


but that is not a retail site.

Does anyone here know where I might find this tea online? Or can anyone suggest a local source in the LA area? (have not seen it at ranch 99, or wing hop fung, and do not know enough to identify which if any teas sold in bulk by other suppliers might be the same thing)

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One thing that is important to me is responsive communication on the part of both b&m shops and their websites, as well as web-based shops.

I like to be able to get helpful information and advice in a b&m shop, but don't like pushy sales people who will not leave you alone to browse. I like phone calls returned and emails replied to by b&m shops and their websites. While I would prefer a response the same day, I am okay with 24 hours.

From web-based tea merchants, I very much appreciate in-depth replies to phone calls and emails and willingness to go back and forth a number of times to answer a question or place an order. Actually, I sometimes find some advantage in email communication over in shop communication in that the discussion is spread out over time and additional questions typically come to mind in between emails about a tea or tea-thing I am considering purchasing. Somehow a half dozen phone calls about a product would seem odd to me, but a half dozen emails is okay.

I just checked my emails and for a recent order at Yunnan Sourcing, Scott and I had a series of 18 emails in order to get my questions answered about several items and make the final cut on the order. And even more for Greg Glancy at Norbutea.com and most recently Dan at Yuuki-cha.com.

I am sure there are other tea merchants on-line with exceptional communication. These are just the people I am most familiar with. What are your expectations of b&m shops and on-line shops regarding good communication? What has your experience been?

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  • 1 month later...

In the past few weeks, inspired in part by this forum, I've ordered a bunch of teas and tea samples online, to complement those I can find at my local tea shops. I even ordered from one of them because their online store has better parking!

I found all of them delivered as expected. The teas were as described, the quality was high, and service was generally quick and efficient. I won't be reordering again soon from most, however, because my tea shelf and drawer are now quite full, and it will take plenty of diligent drinking and sharing to have room for more again.

I've ordered twice now from Norbutea.com, and when I found a glitch in the shopping cart (corrected first thing the next am), I got a couple of bonus samples in my order. Wonderful teas, excellent service. I went a little crazy after a recent brewing of their wonderful Diamond Tie Guan Yin spring harvest and ordered a slew of additional packages--that's going to be my little christmas gift for some of my tea buddies at work. The variety is wide and while that happens to be one of their more expensive teas, I've gotten some lovely pu erh quite inexpensively.

I enjoyed my samples from Harney & Sons and was mostly disappointed that they were only enough for a single pot per sample. Need to drink more before I have room for some of that Fanciest formosa oolong, however, while the others were excellent, I have pretty good tea shops closer to me so probably won't order a lot from them. If I didn't have ten ren and chado and tea hop fung, I might make more use of them.

Vital Tea Leaf in San Francisco sent me a yellow tea that is not quite the same as what I thought I bought there once before. I will have to figure out where that other tea came from while I enjoy this one. There was a 'small order' fee tacked on, because I only ordered a few ounces of hte one tea, but at 2$ it was less than a trip to San Francisco.

Chado's online tea shop is the one with easier parking than their Los Angeles area stores. I'll go back to this site as often as to the stores because it is just so easy, and I think I'm less tempted to keep ordering more and more when I'm at home within sight of the collection already here. There's a wide selection especially of what Harney calls the 'British Legacy' teas, and less variety but very high quality of the chinese teas I prefer.

I haven't heard yet if my nephew has gotten the gift of some tea I had shipped to him from Ten Ren, to match the tea I brought on our trip together, which he just loved. It is quite lovely to be able to share this with him. Their selection is a little more limited as to tea varieties, but I've been perfectly delighted with even the 3rd grade Pouchong.

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  • 1 month later...

Having recently started drinking tea regularly I was in search of a local tea merchant to work with. I was sorely disappointed by what was available in Cleveland thus turned to the internet.

After looking at several sites I came across Ten Ren. I found their site the easiest to use and least confusing because of the way they list their categories then divide and sub-divide them. It just seemed less confusing and easier to use for me than some of the other sites that were mentioned in this post (which is where I started looking for on-line sources).

I also liked their site for the broad selection. I guess that was particualary true of their dragonwell (my usual drinker) offerings. Maybe I was missing something but at least two of the other sites I looked at had very few dragonwell teas.

Anyway, I have a feeling that as I get more familiar with tea I may not need the detailed break down that Ten-Ren's site uses but for a beginer it has been very helpful.

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  • 2 months later...

Today I opened my second packet of tea from Jingteashop.com, and the tea was just as wonderful as the first one. I am very pleased with the quality of their tea. I have several more unopened packets to look forward to.

The service was also terrific, as my package got returned to the post office because I was not home to sign for it, and I did not see a delivery notice. I thought perhaps the tea was delayed because I'd asked for surface shipping during the holiday season, but because of a computer glitch, had lost my confirmation e-mail with the details of the order. Sebastien e-mailed me to tell me the package was at the post office, so I knew to go pick it up.

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In Guangzhou China, there are thousands of tea shops with delicate chinese style decoration. Consumers would rather like to go to a tea shop to taste different kind of tea before buying. People in China dont like to buy tea from the internet, which can be summarized in several points: 1) Chinese e-shopping is still not as popular as US; 2)Chinese buying habits is to check or see before closing the deal. 3)the biggest tea consumption group in China is those guys over 30 or 35, so they are too busy to buy teas on internet.

Providing fine teas and promote tea culture is always a pleasure job. JK Tea Shop

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People in China dont like to buy tea from the internet, which can be summarized in several points: 1) Chinese e-shopping is still not as popular as US; 2)Chinese buying habits is to check or see before closing the deal. 3)the biggest tea consumption group in China is those guys over 30 or 35, so they are too busy to buy teas on internet.

These are rapidly changing in the last 3 years, with the development of taobao (Chinese version of ebay, but no fee) and a few online payment system (Chinese version of paypa, but little fee). Many of my favorite Chinese tea sellers (including farmers, dealers and retailers) are from the internet. Some sellers are not the typical "ebayer" kind and may not even have most of their business online, but they still have taobao store, because they would be asked frequently "do you have a taobao store" :smile:

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  • 1 month later...

Sebastien and Jing at jingteashop.com have an interesting selection of fine (and pricey) Chinese teas, as well as some lower-priced ones that are good value for the money. Customer service over the last couple of years has been variable in terms of response to emails and providing tracking numbers, but the quality of the teas and service overall is so good that I tend to overlook it.

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  • 6 months later...

It's been a while and a few new orders since this topic was active. But as another topic reminded me of it, here's an update. I've gotten more adventurous with my purchases from my local chinatown shop, Wing Hop Fung, but still am wary of some classes of offerings there--expensive puerhs without much description in English, Japanese green teas and some of the fancier green oolongs teas, sold from those large jars where they can hardly be as fresh as those vacuum packed at the source, and despite all of those jars, they don't actually carry every tea I want to try, so.....

I decided I wanted to try Rou Gui oolong tea after reading about it in several places, and the online shops I'd previously dealt with and my local B&M stores didn't have any--several were sold out. I found HouDe seemed to have a good reputation in several different forums and I ordered some of their Rou Gui, and a couple of other teas while I was at it, and all were very nice, well packaged, easy ordering and quick shipping. I like their detailed descriptions as well.

I've also ordered a couple of times from The Cultured Cup, teas that I discovered through tastings here, and while the online store is disappointingly low in variety of offerings, the teas all seem to be excellent examples of whichever type of tea they are. I bet the full retail experience is much better, because they seem to carry a huge number of teas that are not routinely listed online, and though they do offer pretty much everything if you call them and ask for a specific tea by name, it's not as accessible for late night internet browsing that way (and I make most of my online tea purchases at night!).

Dens Tea happens to be very close to me, and I've had good experiences ordering from them--quick shipping, good prices, and as I'm figuring out better what I prefer in Japanese teas (lightly steamed senchas), my satisfaction with my purchases has improved.

I made one order from Yunnan Sourcing, and while it did take a while for the surface-shipped tea to get to me, it did make its way eventually, and the tea was worth the wait. I now have a quite good stock of puerh, enough to last several years, and if I do not order from them very frequently, that will probably be why. I did get some other very interesting and inexpensive teas, yunnan versions of some otherwise very expensive teas like Oriental Beauty oolong and a couple of very nice green teas, including one (Bao Hong) that has a bit more camphor but otherwise quite satisfies that itch for Dragon Well.

My most recent new source was Yuuki-cha, another I discovered through tea tastings here. The online store didn't provice the level of description I was looking for, to help me identify which teas might best fit the sweeter, lighter flavor profile I prefer, but direct e-mail to the shop at the "contact us" link led to a very helpful dialog with Dan at the shop and the confidence to proceed with several delicious orders since. Now must go get my morning Sayamakaori sencha ready!

Edited by Wholemeal Crank (log)
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  • 3 weeks later...

I was hoping that someone could recommend some good online tea shops and maybe some oolongs as well.

I prefer oolongs that have a green infusion, strong floral aroma when brewed and that lingering sweet aftertaste with light astringency. The leaves should be small, young and tender.

I bought some in Beijing at Ten Fu on Qianmen that fit that description above but haven't been able to find anything like it since. Unfortunately during my trip there this year, they were out of the spring oolong teas.

So, any recommendations?

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www.InPursuitofTea.com Has some of the best teas around. A bit on the high side, but excellent.

www.svtea.com Simpson and Vail has an excellent selection. One of my favorites is their Cream Assam.

www.UptonTea.com Here is the best way to try all kinds of teas at a reasonable price. They have a huge selection of teas and you can order a small sample of almost every tea in the catalog for a dollar or two. I have often ordered thirty or so different samples to try. Their catalog makes great reading.

www.Adagio.com Again, large selection at reasonable prices. Some excellent blends here.

www.TeaHabitat.com Some very high end Oolongs from ancient trees hundreds of years old. I bought one of their orchid oolongs a few months ago and it is a beautiful tea.

I have a lot more sites. Let me know if you would like them.



'A person's integrity is never more tested than when he has power over a voiceless creature.' A C Grayling.

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