What, precisely, is the relationship between price and quality? Having conducted experiments on blue jeans, laundry detergent, and – surprise, surprise – tea; I can tell you that the answer is “No correlation,” when it comes to jeans and detergent. Tea is another matter altogether.

A few months back, I found myself in Wichita, Kansas. I woke up each morning muttering, “I’m still in Kansas, Toto.” One manifestation of my quest for a cup of decent tea can be read in a previous post, “How does the serious tea drinker handle travel?” What has not been revealed is my desperate attempt at the retail level. What follows is a tale of confession, disappointment, and finally . . . a personal truth.

The confession. Sitting on an impossibly lumpy bed at a Holiday Inn, thumbing through the local yellow pages, I found a listing for “Tea, retail.” The business had an authentic-sounding name and was located just a few blocks from the high school where I spent my days judging policy debate rounds conducted by the best high school debaters in the nation. At lunch on Tuesday, I took myself to the market in question. Walking through the doors, my olfactory organs were overwhelmed by at least a hundred different choices of incense and scented candles. The very large brick building was filled, from floor to ceiling with textiles, ceramics, spices, gifts, packaged foods, and toys. A voice pierced the closely spaced racks,

“May I help you?”

I found the source of the voice. “Yes. Thanks. Do you have bulk tea?”

“Over here.” I followed the young woman past a long counter of religious books. “What kind were you looking for?” In front of me was a case of shelves, at least nine feet tall, filled with 86 gallon-sized glass jars of bulk tea.

“Oolong.”

“We have eleven different Oolongs, right here.” She pointed to a group of jars. “Were you looking for something toasty-smoky, sweet, grassy – ?”

I looked at the choices. What’s in a name? I chose one called “Hairy Crab,” another called “Magnolia.” Each of these was priced at $1.80 (Wichita) per ounce. A dollar-eighty? The store itself spent a whopping ninety cents for an ounce . . . three cents per gram? I purchased an ounce of each. Looking at the large glassine bags of weighed tea, I splurged and bought an ounce of a third Oolong which retailed for $3.60 an ounce. The name of this third tea escapes me, but the woman assured me that it “is a little smokier than the others.” Having a nice piece of change left from a ten-dollar bill, I decided to buy a box of incense. The clerk warned me not to store or pack the incense near the tea. I left the store feeling that I had somehow cheated on my friends at T Ching, whose Frozen Peaks Oolong is not only exquisite in taste and smell, but a bit more dear to the pocketbook.

As luck would have it, it was two months before I tried the tea. This is the disappointment part. “Hairy Crab” has one endearing feature: the tea leaves do, indeed, unfurl like a crab trying to escape the strainer. If you purchase this tea, steep it for the show and throw the “brew” to your carnivorous plants. “Magnolia” smells and tastes like a dried flower arrangement.  Neither of these teas has any staying power, or patience: one cup, and the leaves have given up the ghost. A second steeping hardly colors the water. The third, more expensive tea –let’s just say that the name I bestowed upon it, “Dusty Burning Dung Pile,” is accurate.

The personal truth? Frozen Peaks Oolong ends up being comparable in price, but far superior in flavor. Because I can get five to six cups from a single teaspoon of rolled leaves, the cost per cup ends up being about the same, if not a bit less, than the teas I purchased at such a “great” price. I wonder if more experienced tea drinkers have found this to be true: when purchasing a product, such as tea, with thousands of years of history in India, China, Japan and other countries in the temperate tropics . . . do price and quality, indeed, correlate?