Converting to tea in my middle fifties has been so much fun!  No matter how many coffee drinks Starbucks comes up with (Peppermint Mocha Latte, anyone?), the world of coffee will never outdo the world of tea.  So many beautiful names!  From “dragon balls” to “hairy crab” to “bird’s tongue”…the monikers are numerous and descriptive.  There are hundreds – maybe thousands – of varieties.  Not only that, each year’s harvest has infinite variables, from climate to soil to handling.  Then, there is the art of blending tea with flowers and fruits, herbs and roots.  Wow!  Like a three-year-old jazzed up on ice cream and let loose in a ToysRUs, I lament that life is just too short to try them all.

Imagine the dilemma of the online tea seller. The goal is to sell tea, which is time-sensitive.  Even under ideal storage conditions, at some point, you can’t sell tea that is too old.  What will your customers buy?  How do you keep the majority of the browsers buying from you before they click off to one of the other 989,112 tea vendors on the web?  What accessories will you offer?

Being something of a tea evangelist, I find myself delighting in turning others on to tea, and making gifts of tea and tea accessories every chance I get.  When a dear friend or family member tells me they are crazy for Earl Grey or Lapsang Souchong, I file the information away for a well-timed and thoughtful gift.  This zeal, combined with my own curiosity, has led me to six online tea vendors in the last year.  I’ll rate them in alphabetical order, comparing the following traits: user-friendly website; communication with the consumer; shipping fees; and product quality.

Harney and Sons has one blended black tea, Paris, which is to die for.  I’ve not tried their other teas, but Paris is a winner.  It is primarily a black tea, but does not have that tongue-clove-to-the-roof-of your-mouth bitterness of many blacks.  My students remember it as “that one that tastes like root beer!”  The website, like the catalogue, is extensive and easy to use.  Shipping fees are very reasonable, and the tea arrived within three days of placing the order.

Lochan Teas, located in India, has an extensive offering of whole leaf teas.  The tea prices are so reasonable that the higher shipping fees are easily shrugged off.  Half a kilo of whole leaf – divided between an oolong and a Margaret’s Hope – was under $50.00, including shipping.  The tea was on my doorstep in one week after the order was placed.  Both teas were delicious.

Mighty Leaf, located in California, offers an interesting variety of loose and bagged teas.  I went to this website because they offered jasmine balls.  I stayed for the Assam and the Orchid Oolong, because the shipping fees were the same for four ounces of tea as they were for twelve.  The jasmine balls are wonderful, and make a refreshing iced tea as well as hot.  The oolong, a fisted type, can be steeped multiple times.  Each steeping seems like a new tea!  I had the tea three days after ordering.

The Tea Spot, located in Boulder, Colorado, just expanded their offerings to include several loose leaf teas.  Previously, they offered seven blends and a lovely Vintage Oolong.  The website is attractive and easy to use, and contains several excellent recipes and advice about tea and food pairing.  They sent me a lovely T-shirt that would have fit me forty pounds ago.  I made a nice gift of it to a properly slim tea lover.  Shipping fees are moderate, but can be minimized by ordering more than one container.  If you like Earl Grey, you will adore their Earl of Grey blend.  The teas arrived three days after ordering.

Last February, I wanted to order Lapsang Souchong as a gift.  This pine-smoked tea reminds me of a forest fire, but aficionados are crazy for it.  After several minutes looking online, I found this tea at Teavana.   The website is kitschy, busy with graphics that are supposed to look like they were made in India.  Ordering is very confusing; confirmation was a long time coming; and I ended up placing two almost identical orders.  Because shipping begins at a flat rate, I ordered eight ounces of Lapsang, a tea tin, and a lovely mug with each order.  A week after the order was placed, the boxes came.  The tins and mugs arrived, but the tea was back-ordered.  There was no email to inform me of the change of status.  What is the point of two tea gifts if there is no tea?  In Teavana’s favor, they shipped the tea to me – no shipping fee – as soon as I called their attention to the snafu.

Saving the best for last…T Ching is the new kid on the block, and very small.  They have an excellent, if limited, selection of teas.  The tea is fresh, and every one is tested by the owners before being offered for sale.  Communication with the customer is excellent.  If you live in or near – or are passing through – Hood River, you can avoid shipping fees entirely by arranging a rendezvous with the owners.  Why don’t you browse the store while you’re here?

Buying tea online is a fun adventure, and all the companies I’ve mentioned are very generous.  Several sent me free tea samples or an extra bag of tea, or offered a discount.  The world of tea is a community!  Share with us…who’s your favorite tea company?