So we covered the puerh stores yesterday. What happens when you walk into a non-puerh store? This covers, basically, green tea shops and oolong shops.
First of all, unlike puerh shops, non-puerh shops do not really display their teas in any meaningful way. What you might expect to find in a non-puerh store is basically rows and rows of bags or tins, all of which may or may not be marked. It is typical, for example, to find a tieguanyin store that has a dozen of those big (3kg?) vacuum bags sitting on the shelf. Are they all the same grade? All different? God only knows. A Wuyi tea store will more likely have boxes that all say Dahongpao, or perhaps tins that name the teas (but not necessarily correspond to the stuff in the tin). A green tea store will have similar setups.
So… you, as the consumer, has basically no idea what a store actually offers. You can, of course, know the general genre of teas they sell by looking, but that’s about it.
Which also means… you are at the mercy of the store keeper.
When you walk in to one of these stores, there’s not a lot of looking around you can do, since there’s not much to look. You basically sit down, and start drinking. What to drink though? Obviously, you have no idea as the customer. You only know they sell tieguanyin, for example…. which begs the dreaded question
“What price range of tea do you want to try?”
This, ladies and gentlemen, is a killer question. You can see the obvious problems in this one, I think. You are basically telling them how much you’re willing to pay. It doesn’t actually mean anything when it comes to what tea they give you. I think these are stores that are more likely to test you to see if you know what you’re doing, and whether or not you’re easy to scam.
So, say, you say “I want to try teas that are 600RMB/jin” where jin is 500g, then… you’re going to get what they show you as the 600 RMB tea. Most likely, it’s going to come out of a bag/box that looks just like any other. For all you know, it’s the 50RMB/jin tea.
This is where taste comes in. While I don’t think of myself as well versed in any of these teas in necessarily the same way as a younger puerh, I do think I know enough to tell between a good and bad one. Building one’s tongue to try these things out is important. Drinking the teas in direct competition with each other, with the same setup (two gaiwans, two cups) and the same amount of leaves/water is also important. Very quickly, one learns to distinguish between a good and a bad tea.
Of course, it’s one thing to know between a good and a bad tea, and it’s another thing to know whether the bad tea is a 500RMB tea or a 50RMB tea. That, unfortunately, takes time.
One usually not buy the first thing they try, not only because of the abovementioned problem, but also because it is a good idea to try out the teas of that shop before committing to buying. Usually it’s good form to at least give two or three a try, more if you’re in the mood.
Since prices are stated early on, it takes one thing out of the equation, although, now comes the bargaining. Almost all of these teas are bargainable. The marked/quoted price is never the real price. You can get it down to at least half, usually, although some stores abide by a no bargaining policy. You gotta figure that out… I find tieguanyin stores to have higher markups, whereas Wuyi stores seem to be closer to their real prices. I suspect that has to do with market demand, and since this is mostly observed in Beijing, and since Beijingers tend to drink more light fired tieguanyins… that might explain the “extra” they put in their prices.
I usually buy small amounts first, and come back for more next time. That’s one thing about these shops though… since none of the teas are labeled, you need to go back to the same store to find the exact same tea.
There are pitfalls to these shops too. I’ve heard stories of how one store actually only has two or three kinds of teas. They put them in different bags, and whichever price you ask for, there’s a corresponding bag… but only with the same two or three teas. If you’re imaginative about it, you can see how that can work….