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On Tea Prices

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We drink a lot of tea and developed a strong preference for qualitative loose leaves over the years. Most Belgians don’t know what good tea is, their knowledge being limited to the well-known Lipton/Pickwick/Twinings pre-packaged teabags. Unsurprisingly, many people I know don’t like tea because it’s too bitter. It certainly is if you follow the instructions on the packaging! Even most cafés love ripping you off with bad tea for €3 or more. It’s clear that our country is a coffee (or beer?) country, not a tea one. A 2018 Statista report claims that the average annual expenditure per capita on hot drinks in Belgium is €43 for coffee and only €9 for tea.

Most “cheap” (we’ll get to that) teabags are filled with what is called dust: there’s an extensive tea (leaf) grading system, which are broken down into categories like whole leaf tea, broken-leaf tea, fannings, and dust. For instance, if you spot a packet with the acronym FD, it means Fine Dust. On the other hand, if you spot whole leaf tea marked with TGFOP1, it means Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Grade One. I’m far from an expert at grading tea, but it boils down (ha!) to this: dust is finely crumbled leaves, meaning the tea will be much more saturated, quicker steeped, and generally speaking has an anything but refined taste. Does your teacup look black? You’re doing it wrong.

Loose leaves then. Another adventure filled with hurdles to take, as the quality greatly varies from brand to brand, or even from season to season. Since discovering two dedicated shops in the heart of Paris, we are big fans of Mariage Frères tea. In December, I thought I’d go wild and ordered a very expensive looking fresh harvest of black Darjeeling tea (Bloomfield SFTGFOP1), costing €39 per 100 g: the most expensive tea I’ve ever bought. We don’t drink alcohol so it’s a lot cheaper than an aged Single Malt as it took us several months to work our way through all the leaves.

Today, I wanted to make a simple price comparison between supermarket store-bought pre-packaged teabags and more expensive loose tea. These teas are usually in our cupboard/drawer:

Our 'loose tea leaves' drawer. It's a bit of a mess currently.

The Mariage Frères stock got consumed From January until the end of May when it was depleted. That is five months for 300 g loose tea, or exactly 2 g each day. We drink three cups each day. For brevity, I’ll stick to the three—both loose tea and teabags are frequently brewed in a teapot to enjoy with several people. The total purchase price was €61.

Suppose we drink the three cups a day with a Lipton teabag. That would require 450 teabags or 22.5 packets of twenty bags for five months, totaling at €58.28 for the whole period.

That’s a difference of less than three euros! And we’ve enjoyed a perhaps ridiculously expensive tea, like a true connoisseur. More modest people shopping at our local dedicated tea store TeaStation in Hasselt usually walk out the door with a variant of Earl Grey for €7 per 100 g. Suppose they buy three packets and drink it all up in five months. That’s €21, which is 36% of the price of those four hundred Lipton teabags!1!

Funny detail: 22.5 packets multiplied by 36 g (5.4 g for three cups/day) equals to 810 g tea dust in five months, compared to just 300 g of loose tea (2 g for three cups/day): more than triple the weight of the leaves. Are you still surprised steeping those bags results in undrinkable bitter stuff?

The numbers might not completely add up (I left out shipping costs) but it’s scary to see that what we initially called “cheap supermarket tea” turns out to be very expensive supermarket tea. When buying boxes of Twinings Green Jasmin tea, things are slightly worse: 18 packets are needed to get to 450 teabags, setting you back for €62.10, even exceeding our Mariage Frères €61 cap. Yoink!

Conclusion? Next time glancing over the exclusive tea selection at the Mariage Frères webshop, I can safely say to myself: Go on, be a big spender, it will all be worth it in the long run.

Enjoy your tea, but remember: do not let it steep for too long!

  1. This reasoning does not completely add up, as most cheaper loose leave packets such as the ones at TeaStation actually contain smaller pieces of broken tea leaves, meaning you’ll unintentionally use more weight per teacup and burn through it in perhaps four months instead of five. ↩︎

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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