How Steep a Price Should You Pay for a Cup of Tea?

How to Save on TeaConsumption of this 5,000-year-old beverage has been on a steady rise: Indeed, 2009 was the 18th consecutive year that consumer purchases of tea increased, according to The Tea Association.

But how does one find their cup of tea amid the sea of choices?

We surveyed the varieties of tea on the market, and where and how they're sold, to guide you toward options that suit your taste buds and offer the best bang for your buck.

Tea Through the Ages

Chinese emperor Shen-Nung is credited with discovering tea in 2737 B.C. Legend has it that tea leaves accidentally blew into the emperor's pot of boiling water, hence the birth of the cup of tea.

In the 1600s, tea gained popularity throughout Europe and the American colonies.

Five centuries later, tea drinking is seeing yet another renaissance in the U.S.

It's gotten a boost from the blossoming of the specialty tea market as well as evidence of tea's many health benefits, Joseph Simrany, president of the Tea Association, told WalletPop. (Studies have suggested that drinking it can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, to name just a few.)

And not only are people drinking more tea at home, they're also drinking more when they go out.

Tea has become cool. More young people are getting into the tea habit, and more and more teahouses are popping up throughout the country, Simrany says.

What Is Tea?

All tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant that makes black tea -- which accounts for 90% of the tea consumed by Americans. Green, oolong and white teas make up the rest of the market.

And contrary to their labels, herbal "teas" such as chamomile, are not teas at all; they're made of an herb or a mixture of herbs (as well as flowers and dried fruit) that are infused in water.

Tea is grown in thousands of tea gardens or estates around the globe, with China, India and Argentina among the leading tea-producing countries.

Generally speaking, mass market tea, the kind that you'll find at your local supermarket, accounts for most of the tea sold in the U.S, from big consumer products brands such as Lipton, Tetley and Red Rose.

These nationally-branded teas, sold in that familiar box of tea bags, are most commonly a blend of tea leaves from variety of tea gardens, estates and regions to maintain a certain flavor consistency associated with a particular brand.

By contrast, specialty tea, widely considered high-end or premium tea, makes up approximately 10% of the tea sold in the U.S. by it's the fastest growing segment of the market. It typically is tea from a single estate or region, such as Darjeeling, which is called "the Champagne of teas" and is grown near the town of that name in India.

Big leaves is another defining characteristic of specialty tea.

The Cost of Making Tea at Home: Bagging It

Most tea in the U.S is made using tea bags.

• Prepared in the home, the big mass-market branded teas cost about 3-cents per 6-ounce serving, using a single tea bag.

• A step up in cost are the mid-priced, bagged specialty teas, such as Twinings, Bigelow and Tazo -- which some tea purists wouldn't consider specialty teas, as they might not come from a single region. They are about 10 to 15 cents per 6-ounce serving and are available at some supermarkets as well as some specialty stores.

• The higher-priced bagged specialty teas such as Taylors of Harrogate and Harney & Sons average about 30 to 40 cents per 6-ounce serving. On Harney & Sons' website, for example, most of the 20-bag, or 20-serving, boxes of tea were $6 -- that's 30 cents a cup.

These bagged, high-end specialty teas can be found at some upscale supermarkets and specialty gourmet stores, as well as tea stores, but it's often easier to order them online from the companies' websites, Simrany says.

Loose Tea

Loose tea, by definition, is single-origin specialty tea, and is mostly sold per ounce through specialty tea stores online, as well as at some upscale supermarkets.

At these higher-end national supermarkets, the price can range from about 10 to 14 cents a serving -- but they also can be much more. (One level teaspoon of loose tea is what you need to make a 6-ounce cup of tea.)

Here are recent prices on four loose teas at a Whole Foods in Deer Park, Ill. (Prices are by the ounce):

  • China black, 81-cents
  • China green, $1.25
  • gunpowder green, $1.25
  • kukicha, $2.81

Its least expensive loose tea is about 7 cents a cup while the highest priced is about 23 cents a cup. Loose tea can go as high as 20 to 30 cents a serving and more "for what's considered really high quality," Simrany says.

At a Teavana shop, which has 110 tea stores nationwide, the least expensive loose tea was priced at $4 per 2 ounces, which translates into 35 cents a cup.

It's highest priced loose tea was $25 per 2 ounces, which amounts to 50 cents per cup because at that high-quality level, the tea can be re-steeped six times -- meaning the same leaves can be reused for six cups of tea, said a Teavana sales associate from a store in Syracuse, N.Y.

The Taste/Cost Equation of Home Brewed Tea

So what's the best deal for the best taste when making tea at home? That depends on your personal preference, Simrany says.

"From a taste perspective, you can get the finest and worst teas in the world from a tea bag," he says. And by contrast, "there are good loose-leaf teas and ones that you would run so fast from that your head would spin." What's more, "there are certain good mass-market teas."

While tea connoisseurs will tell you that single-origin specialty teas are the finest-tasting teas, blends can also be good, he says.

And although for years the specialty tea industry turned its nose up at tea bags, over the last five years that's changed. That's because tea bag manufacturers started using larger tea leaves, which is believed to produce a better tasting tea.

An Outside Cup

If you don't feel like making tea at home, or if you're always on the go, here's what you'll pay if you buy a cup on the outside from the big guys:

• At McDonald's, a small cup of tea in New York City costs $1.30, compared to $1.62 at Dunkin Donuts. Both cups would be on a par with a mass-market-tasting tea.

• At Starbucks in New York City, a small cup of Tazo tea was $2.45 -- nearly twice as much as McDonald's.

• A 12-ounce cup of green tea at a local New York teahouse was $2.85.

All prices will vary by location.

It's up to you and your taste buds to decide which of these venues is your cup of tea.

Find Perks Online

If you're a tea connoisseur and that cup of Lipton just won't do, check out the major online sellers of tea, such as Adiago, Stash Tea and Ten Ren Tea. Watch their sites for sales, special offers, rewards programs, and even closeouts -- not to mention huge selections of tea.

Emperor Shen-Nung would be proud.

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