I recently visited New York City and although it was a short visit I did some tea shopping there. I wrote a travel-blog theme post about it here, and related reviews for a shou pu’er and lapsang souchong. This article will cover some store options and only share a little of my own experiences in Manhattan’s Chinatown. It covers some of the same ground as that first post, with more background and links for these places in that version.
Shops I visited
Ten Ren: a Taiwanese tea chain shop. They sold teas labeled as general types like “black tea,” so I didn’t stick around or buy tea there. Of course, that doesn’t really imply that the tea wasn’t good.
Chung Chou shop, Chinese herbs and tea shop: This is a tea and Chinese medicine shop with some jars of tea in one section. I bought two very reasonably priced black teas that are better than I expected, not typical higher-quality black teas, perhaps, but both versions I really enjoyed relative to having modest expectations. The first was typical, on the earthy side, with some fruit, not astringent, with reasonably clean flavors. It was only average for Chinese black tea but a decent version of that is still a couple of levels above anything sold in a tea bag. The second had a bit of sour-cherry tartness to it–different, but nice.
Sun’s Organic Garden: the theme here was carrying one of every type of tea, so the crux is how well those work out in tasting. So far I’ve tried two, and so far so good, both better than I expected, a half-step up from the Chung Chou teas. The two I tried were a low-priced black from Kenya and a shou pu’er tuocha (5 or 6 years old), and I bought a Russian black tea and modest-level sheng which I haven’t tried yet. I don’t think the teas are supposed to be teas-that-never-leave-China versions, or maybe even specialty supplier hard-to-find rare teas, just good quality range teas.
Since I bought moderately-priced types there—in part due to visiting Taipei the next week and limiting my purchases before that—I can’t evaluate how their other teas, like more interesting oolongs, stack up. Based on trying two, I suspect the owner’s tastes lead to a range of options working out well, but tea preferences and types are so relative I’d imagine different people would have different takes on that. She was clear about some teas being organic and others not, and carried a huge selection of herbs (which she would pass on limited information for use about, based on eavesdropping on her conversations with other customers), so a range of tea lovers might find some interesting things there.
New Kam Man Chinese grocery shop: Lots of commercial boxed and tin teas and large-jar stored teas, selling at low prices. Some people wouldn’t appreciate the options, seeking a different general quality range of teas, but I bought a smoky lapsang souchong and a peony / Bai Mu Dan, and bought a gaiwan. It seemed still worth a look even if someone isn’t really on that page. It might be better to try other teas than I bought, to gamble on a pu’er, rolled oolong, or typical black instead, or maybe jasmine pearls. Given the storage conditions it makes sense to consider how the loose teas would stand up to non-ideal aging. About pre-packaged commercial teas I don’t have much advice; it would help to have more background with that, and my related experiences haven’t been generally positive.
T Shop café (a bit further up Manhattan): I only bought one Taiwanese rolled oolong that I’ve not tried. This shop is set up more as a café, so it may be a better place to grab a pot of tea than to shop for loose tea.
Shops I didn’t visit, but would have
Te Company: someone mentioned in a group this is the right place to buy Taiwanese oolong, and the website content looks great.
Tea Drunk: this shop appears in internet reference best-of lists, with the only obvious downside from web advertising that it’s frightfully expensive, selling teas up around the range of $1.50 per gram. Tea quality varies across a range, and for some that’s normal pricing, but that’s beyond my tea budget.
Bellocq Tea Atelier: a special mention, since this is in Brooklyn instead. The interior looks beautiful and based on online tea information it looks like a great middle-ground for standard or more unusual options at well below investment-grade pricing.
This is far from a complete list, and Google search turns up different best-of lists as input that include others. I chose what to visit based on where I was (Chinatown) since time there really was that tight.
It just occurred to me in writing this that I didn’t taste a single sip of tea while visiting those shops; odd. That type of practice varies by shop but in other cases it’s been one main advantage of buying tea in stores versus online. It comes up less in value-oriented outlets, which some of those were, and more in small owner-run shops, or more corporate outlets where they make it a point to develop that practice. I still enjoyed checking out a broad range of types of teas in those places.