We’ve all been there. Whether you’re visiting a hip, local neighborhood for some window shopping or you’re strolling down the aisles in the grocery store, inevitably, you will find some commercial grade tea. Indeed, we’ve even discovered this tea in glass containers in both coffee roasteries and chocolate boutiques.
Just how good is commercial grade tea? Though the price might be tempting, is it even right for you?
Commercial grade tea is often purchased in bulk by a larger company before it is distributed to smaller, local businesses. Although this results in significant savings for the purchaser, like any common and sound business model, this company will turn around, divide their inventory into smaller increments, and resell it at a higher price point for the sake of making a profit.
Of course, since you’re at the end of that transaction, you ultimately pay more depending on how many hands are exchanged. But this is just business 101.
Now, you may be wondering, “If this is true, why is this tea so often inexpensive?”
In this case, it is helpful to remember the old adage, “You get what you pay for.”
The reality of the tea industry is that this business model often requires that bulk distributors purchase lower elevation, commercially farmed tea. This is because there’s more of this lower-quality tea available (remember: the more you buy, the more you save).
Imagine for a moment that you’re standing in an apple orchard. In the middle of this orchard is the best two trees on the farm, and although the orchard is filled with apples, only Braeburn apples grow on these two trees. And the apples are everything you expect—immaculate, juicy, amazing. Radiating out from these two trees are all sorts of other apples in varying quantities, such as Fuji and Granny Smith, but above all, there are far more Red Delicious apples than any other.
Now, if your job is to deliver apples to local businesses, then although you’d love to give them the highly-prized Braeburn, there simply aren’t enough to go around. You could purchase the Braeburn along with the Fuji, Granny Smith, and Red Delicious, but your buyer at Local Shop A will be frustrated when they order apples and you deliver an assortment. After all, if Local Shop A is promising their customers apples, they can’t give the good apples to some customers and bad apples to the rest. Their customers need to get the same kinds of apples to know what to expect.
Ultimately, then, the bulk distributor is trying to buy as many of the same kinds of apples as possible, and so they find a reasonable tradeoff between high-quality and high-quantity, settling for something lower-quality that can be produced in high amounts.
This is thus why commercial grade tea is inexpensive. It just isn’t very good tea.
Like a lower-grade apple, the flavor from commercial grade tea is one-dimensional, unable to withstand multiple infusions without a significant drop-off in taste. Having been machine-processed, this tea is even stored in less-than-ideal conditions in warehouses for significant periods of time before reaching their destinations to be sold. Worse still, the tea leaves are mutilated, making for lower surface area (which means you extract more of the bitter flavors more easily) and more dust and fannings in your cup.
So to reiterate, while commercial grade tea might be less expensive, you are most likely to purchase an inferior grade of tea that lacks a complex flavor, enticing aromatics (unless perfumed), and freshness.
For these reasons, we always strongly advocate for purchasing teas from smaller batches or specialized farms at higher elevations who practice sustainable farming techniques. There’s little risk of pesticide contamination, and the tea tastes so much better. When you also factor into the equation that you can steep high-quality tea multiple times without losing much flavor, you’re actually getting much more for your investment than you realize.