Some of the really bad tea samples I have encountered have been quite horrendous. Tea can easily absorb odors and I have encountered foreign smells of plastic, chemicals and a variety of unpleasantness in the dried leaves. I have stopped getting surprised by what I find in my tea samples. The list including insects, hair, cigarette butts have all made their appearances. – This is not to say these problems won’t surface when placing a larger order of teacakes and tongs but it should be noted that many shops have separate first and secondary storage. The higher risk associated with samples is that some shops can be rather careless when it comes to their secondary storage of tea and this can compromise their tea samples.
As someone who has handled and drank a lot of tea samples it is my experience that tea samples often do not provide the best representation of the given tea. There is an increased vulnerability to a tea sample that leads to greater deterioration that must be taken into account. The diminished quality in the product can come in many forms. It can be caused by flimsy packaging material, poor handling and less than ideal secondary storage, broken and crushed leaves from shipping and postal service, etc. To take this further all these harmful elements can be amplified when dealing with the small quantity of tea that make up the sample (ex. commonly between 10 to 25g) in addition to any lengthy duration of time for which the compromised tea is left overexposed to external conditions.
The 2005 Gan En Nannuo is a tea that I consider myself very fortunate to own. It is an excellent tea and one that almost got away. The first time I drank this tea was so underwhelming and bad I had dismissed it in my mind. It would be over a year when I would accidentally have my second encounter and the experience was night and day. Storage makes a big difference in puerh tea!
Something that I find to be quite prevalent amongst tea samplers (and myself included) is that tea samples encourages us to develop an “I TRIED IT!” mentality that can cause us to be dismissive of a tea. Personally I always try to remind myself not to be too quick to pass judgment as this has caused me to overlook some very good tea in the past. For older tea whereby storage and handling can have a greater impact on the quality of tea it is astute to be open minded towards exploring more than one source. Moreover it is not uncommon for the same shop to possess varying quality of a given tea. Attention to detail and asking questions can go a long way towards minimizing faulty samples and obtaining better tea.
The extra handling for tea samples generally comes at a cost and means you are paying more for your tea per gram comparative to buying a teacake and placing larger orders.