Buying tea in China is like buying a fine wine at home. You need to educate yourself about the qualities of the various teas, and then taste, taste, taste. In the end, taste is all that matters. The tea you like the best is the best tea for you.
Unfortunately, many visitors don’t have the time to educate themselves about the finer points of tea when they’re traveling in China. There’s no reason to be discouraged about this, as many Chinese don’t know the first thing about tea, either, but they know what they like.
Tea is served at restaurant meals, so if you find a flavor you like, ask your server to write the name in Chinese for you to use when you visit a tea store.
See our guide to Chinese Tea Types.
Some areas of China are particularly known for their tea. See Top Tea Cities.
Teas can be found everywhere in China, from street markets to supermarkets, from tea shops to tea malls. The more upscale the shop, the more expensive the tea will be, even if it’s not any better than what you’d find in a street market.
Loose tea: It comes loose in barrels where buyers just scoop out the amount they want. Buying tea this way offers tea drinkers the chance to observe the grade of the tea.
Quality: The highest grade teas have whole leaves while broken tea leaves are a sign of lower quality teas. Loose teas also come in foil packets tucked in decorative canisters that sometimes are more appealing than the tea inside.
Teas will be cheapest in street stalls and supermarkets, but it is more fun to buy teas at tea shops or tea malls. That’s because you’ll get to sample the product. China’s tea plantations also offer this.
Tea tasting: While you’re seated around a small table, clerks will prepare tea in small pots, then pour a sip or two of the brewed tea into tiny cups for you to taste. There’s no limit on the number of teas you can sample, but if you taste more than four or five kinds over an hour, you might consider buying at least a small sample of the tea you like best.
While many visitors will be content to buy tea from their hotel’s gift shop or corner market, devout tea drinkers will head to a tea mall. In Beijing, that’s Maliandao Tea Street or another of the top tea markets. In Shanghai, they head to the Tianshan Tea Market.
Maliandao: Hundreds of shops can be found in two blocks of Maliandao Street, with some buildings having as many as four or five floors of individual shops. Besides thousands of kinds of tea, you can also buy tea pots and other accessories as well as art made from compressed tea.
Prices are allover the place when it comes to buying tea. You may be able to find a package for as little as 10 yuan, but don't expect it to be a quality tea. In fact, it may taste more like saw dust than tea!
Minimum prices: Plan on paying at least 30 yuan for a drinkable tea in a supermarket. At a tea shop or mall, you could end up paying a minimum of 100 yuan for an ounce or two.
Once you’ve found the tea you like, be sure to bargain to get the best price. Vendors usually quote foreigners a price that may be three to four times higher than they’d tell one of their countrymen.
Using numbers: If you don’t know your numbers, pass a pocket calculator back and forth until you’re both satisfied with the deal. Remember, you will be bargaining in Chinese renminbi i.e. yuan.
Bring a Chinese-speaker: Clerks at tea shops and malls may not always speak English, so if you can take someone who speaks Chinese with you, you’ll have a better chance of getting just what you want.