Travel with no tea

Normally when I travel overseas, I bring my own tea. This way I have an assured supply of decent tea, so long as I can find hot water. On my most recent trip, however, I decided to not bother and see what happens. Granted, I was going to Japan, so things are a little easier in that it’s a tea drinking country. I know I’ll be able to find tea here and there. With a one year old in tow, it’s just easier to travel with as little as possible.

It also ended up being a good look at how normal people can consume tea. I think doing this across many countries can also tell you, generally, how much tea that place drinks. In Japan’s case, the answer is obviously a lot. The kinds of tea that I ended up drinking include a large number of bottled teas – from cheap roasted oolong to sencha ones, bought from vending machines or in some cases convenience stores. I consumed a number of hotel teabags, which include a Lipton Darjeeling (doesn’t taste like anything from Darjeeling), a Lipton Ceylon (what you’d expect), some unbranded oolong tea (cheap Chinese restaurant tea) and some unbranded sencha (meh). At various restaurants tea is offered as a matter of course, with hojicha being the most likely beverage given.

One of the rooms I stayed at, this one at a ryokan, also gave me this

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Which is a basic sencha kit. You can see the kyusu is cheap, but if you’re going to let regular guests use it, it’s probably wise to use cheap kyusus. It has everything you need – two cups (more if there were more guests, I believe), a pot, a water container, two chataku, a towel, and two types of tea – a sencha and a hojicha. The sencha is bagged, while the hojicha is not. I suspect it mostly has to do with the fact that the sencha was going to be difficult to clean out of the kyusu so they bagged it for convenience. The teas are actually decent quality.

Now, this is all in a country that produces a large amount of tea, where every hotel room has a water kettle, and generally is friendly to tea drinkers. If I had brought my own tea, I would’ve just drunk those plus maybe some bottles, which is not too bad.

Contrast that with Korea, though, and you can see that Korea, in general, is not a tea friendly place. Hotel rooms at two pretty decent hotels have no provision for good hot water – you need to either use the coffee machine, which is mostly a horrible idea, or you ask the hotel to bring hot water to you, which they do but in carafes that have carried coffee before, thus defeating the purpose of asking for water in the first place. Restaurants do not routinely offer caffeinated tea as a beverage. I brought my own tea there, but it was a frustrating experience. Your best bet is to go to the nearest coffee shop and buy that anonymous black tea they have. It’s a much sadder place for a tea drinker. It’s at more or less the same level as traveling to the US. Koreans drink coffee.

From my experience, if you’re not happy drinking anonymous bagged black tea all day long from paper cups, only Japan and Taiwan are safe places to travel without any tea of your own. Even mainland China is dicey - you need to hit tourist spots to find those tea stands that sell you cheap but decent green teas. Although at least in China, good hot water is to be had everywhere, so bringing your own is made much easier.

High and low

At the Hong Kong Tea Fair yesterday, I saw this

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There’s a few hundred thousand USD in this cabinet here. But in case this is a bit too rich for your blood, you can get something a little more suited for the commoner among us.

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Or maybe this version is clearer?

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Yes, Hello Kitty is here

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Finally, a really beautiful bug dropping tea.

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It’s better than the one I have – after all, what you get out of it depends on what you put in, and in this case, it’s pretty obvious the input for this tea is better than the input for the one I had. It’s very, very fragrant, with a good medicinal taste and just really sweet. Lovely stuff.

Going to tea expos

Tea expos are funny things. There are a million of them, at least here in the Greater China area. There’s one here every year in Hong Kong, and this year’s is coming up. Tea expos are funny because they, for the most part, pretend to be trade shows, but a lot of the exhibitors are really there to do retail. I think for shows like World Tea Expo it’s really much more of a trade show – Vegas isn’t exactly filled with retail customers for tea, especially an expo that size.

In Hong Kong, and many cities in the mainland, however, the tea expos are really more about connecting sellers with buyers, mostly in small to medium sized orders. What’s interesting is that for a lot of vendors these days, tea expos in China are an important venue for them to get publicity out to the customers and to also do some business. For example, the Best Tea House is very active on the circuit, and Mr. Chan travels around to various cities (at least the main ones) and do all the big shows. In Hong Kong, his home base, there is also a group of what can be called posse who hang around their booth. The booths that these vendors set up tend to be pretty big and spacious, and are meant to be seen from far away. They are showcases, basically. It makes sense – you don’t necessarily want to set up shop in second tier cities, but you want to sell to them, so going to a trade show where the locals come in to buy tea is a pretty good compromise. They can always get your contact afterwards and keep buying from you.

You also find, in Hong Kong, the big factories – Dayi, Xiaguan, and the like are usually here, but a lot of the medium sized ones are missing. Part of the reason is because they simply don’t have much business here – whereas a lot of Hong Kong vendors find better prices in the mainland, mainland outfits coming to Hong Kong will have a hard time finding buyers. Hong Kong buyers are not as willing to pay top dollars especially for new tea, so they’re usually better off selling stuff in the mainland.

Then you have the smaller exhibitors. Readers of this blog know that I’m more partial to finding stuff in the rough – shunning big brands in favour of the small and more interesting outfits. These things run the gamut, sort of like when you’re in a tea mall. There are small factories that you’ve never heard of that make pretty decent tea, but far more likely are companies that sell things that you’ve never heard of and really have no reason to try. I think quite often these are just junkets for the people in question and a chance to visit Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong there tend to be a lot of big vendors of green tea from lesser known provinces – I don’t even know why they come, because Hong Kong is a relatively small green tea market, and locals don’t like drinking it. Their booths are almost always empty. I suspect they come because they have a marketing budget and it’s just on their standard circuit, and maybe they can find some overseas buyers who are here to source stuff, but I really have trouble imagining they are going to recoup their costs this way. The booths they have tend to be big, flashy, with a few employees. I don’t know how they justify the costs of coming down.

The fun part of going to an expo is actually the weird stuff you never see otherwise. Last year here there was an Okinawa outfit that sells black tea made on the island. It’s delicious, but as you can imagine for a place with limited land and Japanese prices, the cost of the tea is very high. There are a couple Korean vendors, including Jukro, who come every year, and I almost always buy something from them. The black tea they made last year was really quite good. That’s also where I discovered Zeelong, and other weird tea ventures, some of which are very good, others not as successful as a product. And then you have the “friends of tea” side of things, as the expo organizers call it. These are things like canisters, teaware, and other related items. Sometimes you can buy some cans for cheap at expos.

If you ever have a chance to go to a tea expo, do go. I’d imagine at WTE in Vegas the scale is quite large and it’s a fun event to visit if you’re interested in tea. The HK Tea Fair has been getting worse the past few years, but even then it’s still nice to see what everyone’s up to. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing some old friends and maybe make a few new ones this week.

The best $6 I’ve spent

Most of the time when buying unknown teas, the gamble doesn’t pay off – there’s more crap tea out there than good tea, so luck is rarely in your favour. Once in a while, especially if the setting is right, the gambles can turn out right.

In this particular case, I took a gamble with this one

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A bag of tea, really, nothing too fancy. You can see the bag is quite old. Few shops package teas this way now. I found this in the back of a cupboard of puerh in a local shop. It’s their only one. I asked how much, and the owner clearly has no idea, and just said “uh, whatever, 50?” That’s about $6 USD

I bought it because it’s got a pretty good chance of being an aged oolong. I can smell that aged taste through the bag. I’ve actually held on to this for a couple years now, and decided to open it yesterday when I was rearranging my tea closet.

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Aged oolong, all right. It’s somewhere between 20 and 30 years old. The fact that it’s a private company in Shantou that packaged it means that it couldn’t have been made earlier than maybe the mid 80s. The tea is not heavily rolled like new tieguanyin tend to be, and looks traditionally processed with high firing. It’s wrapped in two sheets of paper. Given that it’s been just sitting around in a cupboard, the tea is actually in pretty good shape.

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It’s got a nice, aged taste to it. It’s not the most full bodied or fragrant aged oolong I’ve had – open air storage probably has something to do with it. It’s only minimally sour, and is in very good shape. The only knock is that the tea is somewhat chopped up – probably because of repeated handling over the years. For $6, it’s a steal.

Guide to buying tea in China: Part IV – Negotiations

So this is probably the most and also, in some ways, the least important. A lot of you probably know of something called euphemistically the “laowai special”. Laowai being the term applied to (mostly white) foreigners, laowai special means that people who are foreign to China often get a special price, although in this case, a specially inflated price. Tea shops are not immune to it, especially smaller operations that tend to quote prices based on the whim of the shopkeeper or owner, rather than to pre-set prices from corporate headquarters. So, buying from the mainland has its special problems (Hong Kong, for example, doesn’t suffer from this problem)

The laowai special is one reason why, in the first post about buying tea in China, I suggested that one should just head to the local chain teashops and buy the tea there – it’s a lot simpler, and the tea you’re likely to get is probably going to be no worse than whatever you end up locating in the tea market. If you are in a tea market, and you’ve tasted some stuff, and you like what you saw, you want to take some home with you. How much should you bargain, and what should you do?

I would suggest that as a general rule, you can pretty easily expect a 10-15% discount off the price quoted. If you are persistent and have loads of time, you might even be able to negotiate a much deeper discount – I’ve gotten prices slashed to up to about 70% off the original quoted price, and I don’t even get the laowai special in the first place. The problem is, you have to be able to tell from the beginning whether the price you’re getting quoted is severely inflated or not, which means you need to have a fairly good sense of what you’re tasting and what prices are normal for the type of tea you just tasted. This is not knowledge that is easily acquired if your primary source of tea is from Western vendors. If your counter-offer is far too low, some people might even think it an insult (or at least feign one). So tread carefully.

Related to the above, you might also need to consider your opportunity cost – if your whole order consists of kilos of tea, and you’re quoted thousands, then negotiating is probably worth it. If you are only buying a little bit – a few ounces, one cake, etc, and you have limited time, saving that extra 30RMB by wasting half an hour (or more) of your time might not be the best idea. I hear of stories of people wasting their time trying to get the 30 RMB they’re paying for a gaiwan down to 20 or 25… really? Please, do yourself a favour and spend that extra dollar so you can get on with your tea shopping. Time is limited (if you’re visiting and don’t live there). It probably cost more than that just to get to the tea market.

There are a few things to remember when trying to get a good price. First of all, ignore all signs for prices of the tea, and always ask how much it is even when it’s labeled. Sometimes you get a different quote right off the bat – the number on the tea/pot may or may not be the actual price. This is pretty common – they just need something to have a price, but it is usually just a number to be ignored most of the time.

Being nice does count – some people I’ve met go in with the mentality that the shop owner is out to scam them, and think everything is either overpriced, bad, or fake. Aside from the philosophical question of why they stuck around if they think that way, it is really not a good atmosphere if you want to then try to negotiate down prices. If the seller hates your guts and you were acting like a jerk the whole time, you’re increasing the likelihood that they’ll try to screw you. So, the more paranoid and skeptical you are, the more likely you’ll get scammed – it’s a self-reinforcing mechanism. Be always alert for scams, but don’t tell them in their face that you think you’re being scammed.

If you are buying in bulk for one particular tea, you should be able to expect bigger discounts. This is true almost everywhere, but especially in China. There’s a small exception – for some teas like puerh, keeping a whole jian intact can sometimes actually be valuable in itself. So, in the past there have been instances where a jian of Dayi cakes was worth more than 42 single Dayi cakes – it’s crazy, of course, but true. I don’t think we’re currently in those market conditions (Dayi prices having recently corrected) but it does happen sometimes. Larger amounts mean a few jin of tea if loose, and at least a tong if compressed. Anything less is really just a small order.

Prices are also not cheap in China these days. Top grade teas are actually far more expensive than teas you can find online – they just happen to be better. So if you’re used to paying, say, $200 USD for a jin of tieguanyin as whatever the best your vendor is selling you, don’t go to China and think $50 USD a jin will get you the best grade – you can easily find stuff that costs way, way more than your usual prices. The difference is really in the quality. No amount of words will be able to teach you how to tell the difference – it’s all in the tasting, and as I mentioned before, there are all kinds of tasting tricks that vendors can use you to confuse you.

Aside from these notes, you’re down to the usual tricks of getting prices down – paying in cash, showing them the cash (as in, putting the X amount of dollars you’re willing to pay down on the table – sometimes it works), being patient, sounding like you know the market, etc. All of these take skill, time, and knowledge. If your order is under 1000 RMB, and you’re only visiting, chances are it’s really not worth your time and you should get on with trying other teas.

Guide to buying tea in China: Part III – tasting tricks

Note: A friend noted that what I’ve been saying here can be mostly applied even for web-shopping online from Chinese or Western vendors alike. I suppose that’s sort of true.

Let’s say you’ve gone through the hassle of finding a shop, sitting down, finding a tea you want to try, and didn’t get jasmine pushed on you in the process. Now what?

Well, presumably, they will now brew you the tea. So far, so good. There are a number of things to be aware of, at least. I’ll list them

1) The brewing vessel – while I only use pots for my own consumption, when trying a tea I will usually ask them to use a gaiwan, because a gaiwan is more neutral, it makes it easier to compare different teas, and is basically a “fairer” way to taste tea than using a pot. With pots, there are simply too many variables involved. This is especially true if you’re going to a shop you’ve never been to before and know nothing about. Get them to use a gaiwan.

2) Water – what kind of water are they using, and how hot is the water they’re brewing with? All vendors in China use some kind of bottled/delivered water. What they use can make a big difference. This isn’t usually something you can do anything about, but it’s a good thing to be aware of. Check out the bottle they’re using if you can see it. If not and if you can speak, ask. Some places use cheap Nestle purified water, which is pretty bad for tea. Others use things like Nongfu shanquan, which may or may not be ok, depending on which source it’s from. Water in China is a big issue – and will change how you perceive the tea.

Another thing about water is the temperature at which they’re brewing with. These days, especially with a lot of puerh vendors, they will often brew teas for you at less than boiling temperature. This produces a much thinner, but sometimes more fragrant and certainly less offensive tea (bitterness etc). I personally find that to be rather bad for tasting when trying to evaluate whether or not to buy a tea – I want to know what’s in it, not what the person making it for me produced. So in some ways, the standard 5 minute competition steep is the best way, but most vendors are not equipped for that and you’ll have a hard time getting them to set it up right. Normal gaiwan brewing using boiling water is usually the best you can hope for.

3) The ABA trick – if you’re in a non-puerh shop, and you’re trying the teas, be careful of what they’re serving you. A trick I’ve heard some stores have used is the ABA trick – they only really have two (or three) versions of the same tea. They will show you A, then B, then you’re back to A, but you aren’t aware of it because they changed the parameters slightly, and besides, the last time you tried A was over half an hour ago and it was the 10th infusion. You forgot what it’s like already, especially since they’re now telling you it’s 300 RMB more than the A you tried earlier (taken out of a different canister, of course). For some teas, like yancha, this can be hard to spot, especially if you’ve been involved in a tasting marathon.

4) Similarly, an easy way to upsell you on a tea is to serve you something bad first. All of a sudden, what you’re having now is so much better – it’s a great tea! Except, it isn’t. It’s just something mediocre, but in comparison, it’s really much better than that first thing you had. So, you buy it, thinking it’s a top grade whatever. Buyer beware – you can only avoid falling into this trap if you’re really familiar with the entire style and also the different possibilities that exist. If you’re a tourist who doesn’t frequent the markets too often, it’s very easy to overpay for mediocre tea this way. I’ve had stuff from Western vendors that were clearly bought on premises like this – they think they got something top notch, when in fact it’s not.

So what do you actually look for? Well, for one, it really helps if you’re intimately familiar with the type of tea you’re trying to buy. This is sort of like people’s advice for buying stereo speakers – you want to bring music of your own that you know really well to give the speakers a test run, so you can see how the speakers are performing. Likewise, if you have a few teas in your current collection that you can refer to, mentally, while tasting, then you will be in a much better position to judge what’s being offered in front of you. If you’re trying to buy a type of tea that you’re not familiar with – don’t. Your chances of buying a dud is infinitely higher, unless you don’t mind overpaying.

In general, any marketing-speak from the vendor can be ignored. Almost all pieces of information they provide you are designed to get you to buy the tea, so listen but don’t pay too much attention. If someone tells you this tea is something rare, it’s gushu, it’s 2003 vintage, it’s from this special area in this remote mountain – ok, sure, brew me and we’ll see. In a country with fake table salt (and every other food item you can name), too much caution is not a bad thing.

There are a few etiquette things worth mentioning – in general, if other guests are present at the store (whom you don’t know) refrain from commenting on the tea, especially negative comments. You can hate it and think it’s trash, but there’s no need to do it in front of other people who are not running the shop, especially when you don’t know their relationship. It’s safer to do that when the person brewing the tea for you is alone – one reason I suggested not to bother going into stores with people already in them. Smoking might be ok, depending on the shop, but it’s best to ask. Taking phone calls are rarely a problem. Walking away is ok too if you decide you don’t like the shop or the teas, but be nice about it – there’s sometimes some pressure to buy, but if you’re at a tea market, they also know that you’re surrounded by hundreds of shops. Even if you think they’re trying to scam you – thank them, and go away.

Guide to buying tea in China: Part II – what to do

So let’s say you settled on a tea store and you’re about to go in. What then?

First of all – if a shop already has some patrons in there, and I don’t know the shop owner already, I don’t go in. There is no rule that says you can’t walk into a store with customers, but generally, unless it’s a big store with more than one tea table and more than one free storekeep, I’d avoid those and wait for them to clear. If you can invest multiple visits to the same market, then by all means go in and get to know them, but if this is your only visit, it’s usually not a great idea.

For the purpose of “what to do” there are really two kinds of shops that we’re talking about. There are puerh shops, and there are everything else.

Puerh shops - These are relatively simple. The reason is because the teas they sell are all on display – they are usually part of the wall decoration, so you know exactly what the shop sells. There are shops that only sell a single maker’s cakes, and there are shops that sell from a variety of makers. Either way – you know what you see in front of you, assuming you can read Chinese, and you can just point and say I want to try this, or at least look at it.

For stores that refuse to give you an opportunity to try a tea, unless said tea is in the extremely expensive (i.e. 3000 RMB or above per cake) territory, you should probably just walk out now. Of course, walking in and demanding to try an expensive cake right away may rub people the wrong way as they might think you’re just mooching tea off them, so some diplomacy is usually useful here.

I’ve said before that it is sometimes useful to demonstrate that you’re not a complete neophyte when it comes to buying puerh. Being able to wrap a cake properly helps that, as is sounding somewhat knowledgeable. However, that’s not necessarily that useful. Unfortunately, it comes down to tasting.

There is always going to be a bit of song and dance when it comes to trying new cakes with a new store – the owner is trying to figure out what you like, you’re trying to figure out what the tea is like (and the owner too). Sometimes it doesn’t work and you just have to bail and go somewhere else. Sometimes you get to engage a bit more. It kinda depends. Remember though – you have a lot of tea stores around you and you’re not at a loss for options. If the first place you picked end up pushing terrible teas on you, or keep insisting you should drink cooked when you want raw, go somewhere else.

Picking the right tea in the store to try is always hard, and is made a bit easier if you read Chinese. Picking something that will radio your interests to the owner is useful. If you are interested in big factory teas, choose one of those. If you want something from a smaller outfit, do that. If you want Yiwu, ask them what Yiwu you have. These are also ways in which you can show you know more than nothing.

Non-puerh shops - These are infinitely harder. The first problem is you can no longer see what’s on offer. Assuming you took my advice and walked into a store that only sells one type of tea, say, yancha, you know that the vast majority of the teas they have are yancha (they might dabble in a few things on the side, but that’s usually not advertised). The problem is, they have all these cans, or boxes, or whatever they choose to contain their teas in. There are labels on them, but by and large, labels on boxes or cans in Chinese tea shops have nothing to do with their actual contents. In a giant cardboard box with the words “Dahongpao” on it, for example, you might find smaller bags of tea of various sizes. Only the owner knows what they are. So your only way to get to try whatever it is is to ask.

A very common question that an owner would ask you, once you tell them you want to try some yancha, is some variation of “what price range are you looking at?” This is the single most annoying question in the entire tea tasting process at a tea shop in China. It’s difficult to answer. Telling them a high number basically tells them you’re there to be skinned alive. Telling them a low number might mean time wasted drinking crap. It’s also a place where they can easily manipulate the teas they show you to get you to pay what they want you to pay.

One way perhaps to circumvent that is to first ask to look at multiple teas. Learning how to judge teas by look, at least a little, is useful here. Unfortunately there’s no hard and fast way to learn how to do that – and some teas can look ok and taste like garbage. After you looked at a few, try the one that looks the most promising.

There are a number of things they can do to sell you the tea they want to sell. By starting you off with a bad tea, for example, the next thing you taste will be amazing, even when it’s actually just an ok tea. They can also do it the other way – show you something that’s ok, then a bunch of stuff that’s no good. After the third one you’d give up and buy the first, even though it’s entirely possible you’d find much better tea next door, or they have even better stuff that they haven’t shown you. Prices is also a problem – three teas that they are willing to sell you at, say, 300, 400, and 500 a jin can also be sold at 1300, 1400, 1500 a jin, and you wouldn’t know the difference unless you know what a tea that sells for 1500 should generally taste like. Shopping for good loose tea is not easy and is a lot tougher than shopping for puerh. It takes real practice.

More on teashops and tastings next time.

Guide to buying tea in China: Part I – where to go

Traveling to China soon? Want to buy some tea for yourself or someone else? I thought I should do a guide on what to do when you’re in China and looking for tea. Note: things I say here do NOT apply to Hong Kong or Taiwan. China’s commercial landscape for tea is pretty different from these two places and so they operate under separate rules.

First of all, we should start with the question of where to go to buy said tea. Now, if you can answer a few quick questions

1) Do you speak any Mandarin?

2) Are you buying for yourself?

3) Do you have a lot of time this trip?

If the answer to any of these three questions is a “no,” especially if you answer “no” more than once, then the answer is easy – you should go shop at one of the big chain stores for tea, such as Wuyutai (state run) or Tianfu (Taiwanese owned tea conglomerate). Buy whatever suits your fancy there, and move on to do your tourist thingy.

Before you say this is mercenary or too ismple – let me explain. If you don’t speak any Chinese, your likelihood of landing good tea at a local shop is pretty low. There might be some local specialty tea store that can deal with you in English, but your run of the mill tea shop on the street corner probably can’t. You may be able to get away with some sign language, but you need some luck and goodwill from the store owner to not get screwed in the process. Granted, even if you don’t speak Mandarin you can still go to see a tea market, just don’t expect any great bargains or a guaranteed positive experience doing it.

If you’re not buying for yourself – it’s hard buying tea for friends. If your friend is so unkind as to stick you with a tea buying mission while you’re on your trip to China, especially if you yourself are not too keen on buying tea on the trip, well, they pretty much deserve whatever you find convenient. Also, places like Wuyutai or Tianfu won’t screw you with fake tea – they’ll just screw you with higher prices. Lastly, the tea they sell will come in decent packaging, relatively speaking. This may be important if you’re buying a gift or for the unwashed who judge teas by their packaging materials.

If you’re on a short trip and barely have time to fit in a visit to the Forbidden City, then wasting half a day just to get to a tea market is probably not the best idea. You can buy tea online from your own home, but you can’t visit sites online (not really anyway). Go do your touristy thing and ignore the tea.

Now, if your answers to all three questions are “yes”, or if you feel adventurous enough and seeing a tea market is your idea of fun, then you should try to investigate what your city’s local tea mall is (there’s one in a lot of major cities). Some are pretty far from city center, while others are right inside the city. Big cities often have multiple markets. In Shanghai, for example, there’s the Tianshan tea market, which is not huge or great by Chinese standard, but it’s certainly more teashops than any visitor would’ve seen in person, and it’s very close to a subway station.

There are also a lot of small, local teashops. These fall into two categories. One is the run-of-the-mill kind, which are basically your neighbourhood tea shop. They will sell regular stuff – often lower end. Prices are probably not bad here, although if you look like a foreigner it’s quite possible that they will give you a “foreigner special” and screw you in the process. If you just need some basic, no name tea, and if you don’t care about packaging or what not, these might not be bad options. These stores look grubby, basic, usually sparsely decorated, maybe just with some tea canisters on the sides, and not much else. The owner likely lives in the store as well with his family.

There are now another kind of teashops – these are the high end stuff, and you’ll know it if you see it. They have nice decor, pretty sales girls, good looking teaware, and generally are trying to sell you “art” instead of “tea”. I’d personally stay away from all of these. They do sometimes offer nice tea, but they will never be a bargain. There is also a high likelihood that they’re merely dressing up very average tea as good and exclusive, and so you’re really no better off than just buying online.

The decision to go to a tea market is a little more complicated than that. If you hate green tea, only drink puerh, and you’re in Shanghai, you are probably better off trying to see if Eugene of Tea Urchin wants to meet up with you instead.  The thing is, puerh isn’t that popular in Shanghai, and while they will certainly have some at the tea markets, the selection will not be great, and prices may not be good either. If you are looking for green tea, you’ll have an endless supply there. If you want something not popular at the area you’re at, then it’s more of a crapshoot.

If you go to a tea market though, there’s a secondary level of “where to go” that now enters the equation. You will be confronted by rows and rows of teashops. You only have a day, or half a day, or whatever. Where should you go? Which shop should you enter to spend your precious tea shopping time at?

Obviously if you have something specific in mind, like a specialty store you read about, or a contact you made, then by all means go there. But if you are just visiting for the first time with no reference, then you should first consider what kind of tea you are interested in. You should almost always head into a store that only sells one kind of tea – if you want tieguanyin, look for a tieguanyin store. If you want white tea, try to find a white tea specialist. While this is by no means a guarantee that you’ll find great tea, it’s better than heading into one of the many generic stores that sell everything under the sun. To this end, learning what the characters for your favourite tea looks like could be useful, especially when you’re not looking for puerh. If you’re looking for puerh, stores that sell only one brand tend to have better stuff than stores that sell a hodgepodge of brands. However, stores that sell a hodgepodge are more likely to have bargains, provided you have time to find them and know what you’re doing. This usually require repeated visits. There is the same divide between high end store and grubby store at many tea markets. It is directly related to what your shopping experience will be like – whether it will be pleasant or not. This is hardly a good guage for quality though – grubby stores often can have very good tea, while a high end looking one can actually be selling inflated crap. So for these cases it’s really a matter of you being able to taste the difference.

These are basically your options for buying tea in China. There’s never really any reason to buy from a department store or anything like that. I will cover what you do once you enter a store in another post.

Price dislocation

I remember when I first started drinking puerh seriously almost ten years ago, a common argument that you see around the internet (Chinese, mainly) and among drinkers is that it’s cheap, so it’s worth bothering with. Oftentimes the comparison was with longjing – one jin of longjing was probably somewhere in the ballpark of 1200-2000 RMB back in the day, whereas the equivalent of good quality puerh was only a few hundred RMB. It was simply a lot cheaper to drink puerh, and so even if you have no intention of aging the tea, of dabbling in the aged tea market, of wanting to drink that taste, you can still enjoy good quality tea for a lot less money.

Fast forward ten years, the price for longjing has probably doubled in this period. At the same time, however, the price for newly made, good quality raw puerh has probably risen by about tenfold. Old tree teas from famous areas harvested during the spring now routinely command 2000+ RMB (and often much higher) per 357g cake. The value argument for buying new puerh to drink compared to other types of teas in the market has simply vanished in the past ten years. Yes, there are much cheaper cakes out there. You can still find, albeit with some difficulty now, cakes that sell for under 100 RMB a piece, but those appear far less frequently than before, and you can rest assured that the chances of finding quality tea among that pile of nameless and faceless cakes is quite low, much worse than before.

The interesting thing here is that prices for teas you can buy off websites that sell teas in English have risen by much, much less than what you can find in the markets here. Prices for some vendors have edged up a bit compared to previous years, and they have, just as mainland vendors have done, used tricks like making smaller cakes to make the sticker-shock less shocking. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a sort of glass ceiling for prices for new make puerh that is somewhere in the ballpark of $150 USD a cake. You almost never see that price point breached. Even for older teas, I very rarely see things that cost much more than about $200 a cake, which severely limits the options of what can be sold. In casual conversations with a few vendors about this, it’s pretty apparent that the market simply isn’t really ready to pay this kind of prices for tea, and when they do, it’s overwhelmingly in samples sales only, which doesn’t amount to much.

When you think about it, this necessarily means that something is going on with the quality of the leaves going into the cakes. One would be to lower the cost basis by using leaves from cheaper regions, but by and large, cheaper regions are cheaper for a reason. Laoman’e is cheaper not just because it’s less famous, but it’s seen as less age-worthy because it’s bitter. Vendors can also mitigate the rise in cost by using leaves from lesser trees from the same region. Whereas gushu teas are very expensive, you can often find leaves from younger trees (50-100 years old ones, or even younger) that cost a lot less.

It’s not just the price of raw materials that went up. Labour costs for everything in China has gone up. When I stayed in Beijing in 2006 for a year, the going rate for a teashop girl (and they’re almost all girls) was about 600-700 RMB a month, plus room and board. These days you’d be lucky to find someone for much below 2000. So while it is most certainly the case that the raw materials of the tea going into the cakes have gone up in prices, everything else has adjusted up too. You also have to remember that whereas in 2006 one USD was worth about 8 RMB, these days it’s only 6.24 RMB, which means everything, automatically, has gone up by about 25% before you even lift a finger.

The situation is definitely worse in the cases of vendors who have high cost structures – the need to maintain a brick and mortar shop, the need to buy long haul international plane tickets (and shipping the tea back to their home base), so on so forth. If the price for the tea they can sell hasn’t gone up much, and if the cost of any of these other things haven’t gone down much (they haven’t) then the only place they can squeeze out a profit is to lower their cost by using cheaper raw materials.

This kind of inflation is of course a direct consequence of China’s rapid economic development. There are very few things in our normal day to day life that has price rises of this sort – the only thing that we normally buy that goes through severe price fluctuations is oil. Even then, it’s only in the US where the gas prices reflect real changes in oil prices – in most developed countries tax is such a big part of the price of gasoline that the net effect of oil price changes resulting in an increase in pump prices is smaller. In other words, none of us, on a day to day basis, buy anything in our daily life that has shifted in cost and price as much as the puerh we’re buying.

So whereas in 2006 if someone posts on an internet forum, saying they want to buy a decent cake of tea for under $50, there were a lot of decent options, these days if you want a cake for under $50 that will age well, chances are you really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel, and even then the likelihood of finding something good is slim. As I’ve mentioned previously, the best bet is for teas that are 1) from before 2010 and 2) from vendors who don’t know current prices, and even then, one has to be very selective. Trying to find a new 2014 tea that’s under that price? Well, as a point of comparison, my new 2014 Dayi 7542 that I just bought cost me a bit over 30 USD. Dayi, of course, commands a premium over other brands, and I didn’t bother bargaining for one cake, but the fact is this cake, 10 years ago, would’ve cost about maybe 4-5 USD a cake. High prices are here to stay, so while it pains me to say this, as consumers we have to be aware that a dollar now is not like a dollar a few years ago, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. Otherwise, all you’ll get offered to buy are from the trash heap that nobody would want to buy in China itself.

Notes from Beijing

Writing after a trip to Beijing, I visited some old friends and made some observations of what’s going on here

1) Maliandao is growing up – literally. There’s another one or two new tea malls that have popped up – with rather empty storefronts. I think it is safe to say that at some point the malls have oversupplied the amount of space people really need/can sustain. While some stores that were around when I lived here in 2006 are still here, going strong, many others have died. Some others yet have migrated out of Maliandao to other places in the city – usually these are the higher end places that do more of their own custom pressings, etc. Some of my old contacts are now no longer there, and some of my tea friends in the city also no longer visit Maliandao.

2) Among the stores that have stayed is Xiaomei’s, an old friend whom Hobbes has blogged more about than I. I go see her pretty much every time I visit Beijing. The amount of tea she has stocked up in her store grows every time, to the point where now it’s just a narrow corridor going in with boxes on the sides.

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You might also notice junior there, learning the trade (and yes, drinking tea) at the tender age of one. She’s been busy having a family too, now the mother of three. Time flies! Alas, she has no more of the Yisheng cake, but some of her old pressings are still available (though, oddly, not all on her Taobao store). I bought some, as it’s not bad and for teas that are about seven years old, not a bad value.

3) White tea is still the tea of the month. It all started with the tieguanyin craze, some ten plus years ago. Then people caught on to puerh, and that went on for a while (still going on, sort of). And then you have the black teas – things like jinjunmei were sold at astronomical prices, and now every other store in Maliandao seems to sell white tea, from Fuding and other places. Xiaomei has also started doing a lot of white teas from a few years ago - puerh raw material prices are such that business is difficult to do, as you need to spend a lot of money on inventory. For smaller operators like her, that’s a big risk. White teas are cheaper and the sales more reliable, so she, like many others, have gone and pressed white teas into cakes (that’s what some of the cakes for sale on her Taobao shop are). I tried a couple, which were not bad, including this one. She gave me a couple for me to store in Hong Kong and compare, and I’m supposed to report back in ten years. I guess we’ll see.

4) New teas, as we all know, are increasingly unaffordable. The bargains are still in lesser-known brands from 5-10 years ago, preferably from secondary sellers who are selling what they bought up a few years ago. The thing with buying from official vendors is that while you’re sure of its authenticity, you have to pay (usually) the MSRP, which the producers raise every year to make it possible to continue selling young teas. So you have the situation where 5 year old teas are now easily over 600-800RMB a cake, even if it’s relative crap. New make old tree teas easily bust 1600 RMB a cake these days retail, regardless of region. To protect their market, they have to raise prices for older teas to be above that, otherwise nobody would buy them. So, the key is to find those bargains from a few years ago, and try to snap those up. Not easy to do when you only have a few days in the market, but in the long run that’s where the value is.

5) Dayi’s new 7542 is interesting. They have loosened their compression a bit, so the cake isn’t a hard-as-stone disk anymore. We’ll see how that experiment ends. I bought one just for laughs.