An interesting debate has been raging over the past few years among the tea literati – how do you define quality in tea?

The uninitiated might expect the definition to be something as simple as: “A quality tea is one that represents the ideals of its varietal and production style and offers superior taste and aroma.”  But you’d be wrong…that definition no longer applies to a large percentage of tea drinkers.

Today it seems as though “quality” has become all tied up in grey areas of emotion and perception.  For many tea drinkers, the mental experience trumps the taste of the tea.  I’ll give you three examples:

1.    Visit any high-end grocer and a lot of tea shops and you’ll see teas packaged in elaborate containers that often cost nearly as much as the tea inside.  Apparently, many tea drinkers have yet to truly appreciate the differences in taste and are still making their buying decisions based on packaging.

2.    The incredible explosion of tea options in the U.S. over the past few years has created a group of tea drinkers that are on pilgrimages of discovery, savoring teas for their unique characteristics and nuances rather than their taste.  A rare pu-erh, for example, may lose just about every blind taste test among the larger population of tea drinkers, but is prized because it is rare and its flavor profile is so unique.

3.    For reasons of world-view and self-image, many contentious tea drinkers are only able to truly enjoy an organic, fair trade tea purchased from a local, independent retailer.

Aside from those retailers that put a $1 worth of tea in a $2 package, I don’t really take issue with any of these.  I do worry, however, that the power of marketing may be slowing the spread of tea that actually tastes good.  I worry that someone new to tea will be sucked in by packaging, story, or certifications and buy a tea that they don’t really enjoy.

I had the privilege recently of talking at length with the buyer for one of the most respected premium tea companies.  He made a statement that shocked me and really gave me a different perspective.  He said that this is the first year that he has consistently seen organic green teas that approached the quality (taste) of conventionally grown teas.  Now, I was well aware that organic teas cost a lot more (the tea he was showing me retails for more than $25 per ounce).  I had not, however, realized that it was nearly impossible to grow top-quality teas in any meaningful volume using organic production techniques.

So it’s good news that organic production techniques have improved to the point that the taste differences are difficult for even an expert to discern.  But it’s concerning that all this time people have been paying a significant premium for a tea that just doesn’t taste as good.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not out to destroy the environment for the sake of a rapidly growing industry – but it’s also possible to focus so much on secondary definitions of quality (such as packaging, marketing, and certifications) that the experience of actually drinking the tea disappoints and deters future purchases.

So what does quality mean to you?  Are you willing to sacrifice quality for ideals like sustainability?  And how much extra are you willing to pay?  There’s really no right answer, but it’s been interesting to watch the debate unfold.