If anybody I know asks me for advice in starting a business selling tea, I’d suggest they pick up a job in a kindergarten telling stories, because they’ll need the practice. I think there are few businesses out there that tell as many stories as a tea store generally does.
Let’s start with the simple ones that everybody buying tea has heard — Monkey Picked oolong. “They’re really picked by Monkeys!” I’ve seen a website saying that, which….. bothered me. Do they believe that? Do they think their customers believe that? Really? Do they consider what kind of message this sends to people browsing their website?
Then you have the “premium”, “reserve”, “special reserve”, “limited edition”, and that sort of thing. This is nothing unique, since most retail industries have them — they’re everywhere from cars to magazines. The thing with tea though is that very often I find these to be merely ok teas… if even. Tea is a difficult thing to judge. A top end longjing look very different from a low grade one, to be sure, but only if you know what to look for. Otherwise, they’re just some green hairy leaves (low grade, of course, has less hair and is darker, generally). Couple this problem with online sales, where you’re at best treated to a high resolution picture, and it becomes nearly impossible to tell one from the other. Kudos to the vendors who sell samples, and woe to those who don’t.
The same sort of thing happens in puerh, where cakes are slightly more distinguishable by production number, factory, etc. So what do you do? You commemorate. 66th anniversary of your brand? Why not. Trade fair? You need a commemoration cake. A China-US Summit? Of course. 10th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong even though you’re a factory in Yunnan? Hey, it’s a day of national significance. Except that when every year you have a commemoration cake for the same event, it gets old fast. I think when they first came out, these things did often mean something. Now, though, every other cake I see commemorates somthing… and they are often made of the same tea (or similar quality) but cost more because they’re “special”. C’mon. Time for a new pitch.
The more egregious and IMO annoying stories are the “this is a special tea only through so and so”. In some ways, this is an extension of the “reserve”, “special reserve” stuf, but with more specific details aimed at making you think this is somehow a special tea. The more common is something like “this tea is made/stored/found by Tea Master X and I have secured a bit for sale here”. The less common is “this is from a deceased Tea Master Y who had a secret way of making this tea taste so good”. Even less common are more convoluted stories such as “this was a tea that was stored in the warehouse of a factory in exchange for cash payment back in the day when puerh was worthless and the factory had no money to pay, and was just rediscovered last year by us and we bought up all of it”. All these, by the way, are stories I’ve heard in person. The first one you’re probably all fairly familiar with, the second conceivable, and the third are usually one of a kind, involving details that are so minute they almost have to be fake. Of course, back in the 70s or 80s, these stories could indeed be true, and I don’t dispute that even now some of these things could potentially be true. However, it is very important to remember that for tea, scarcity does not always mean quality. I can make 2kg of oolong by sneaking into a farm and picking tea at night and making it however I do. That tea will be very scarce, it’ll be one of a kind…. but it doesn’t mean it’s good.
It’s surprising how often the above happens — and I think quite frequently, the person pitching the tea to me him/herself believes the story to be true (told to him/her by whoever who sold it to him/her in the first place). It justifies the higher price being charged, but also helps give the store an air of quality, rarity, etc, all that. Sometimes, these teas are genuinely interesting or good. Other times… they’re just run of the mill. These pitches can also combine with the bait and switch — knowingly providing a tea that is quite regular (say, a Menghai cake or some middle grade tieguanyin) but dressing it up, mixing in something, changing the wrapper, putting it in a nice box… and here you go, a super special reserve limited edition tea provided only through me from some mystery person who I can’t tell you about (this is why I don’t have original packaging/neifei/bag/whatever for you!). Expensive, of course, but it’s worth it!
How many people pay good money for a bottle of wine that has its label obviously ripped out? Probably not many. How come people are willing to tolerate that kind of story when a neifei has been ripped out of a cake of puerh? More than a few, apparently. I’ve received a gift cake that’s sort of like this…. a store-brand cake that is obviously just some regular cooked puerh bing, but I bet the person paid big money for it because the wrapping is nice and the store is upscale (with a functional and pretty website — a rarity for a mainland Chinese store). They probably told him that the tea is very special and old and specially sourced, when it’s obviously just some regular brand new factory stuff that’s been rewrapped.
And don’t even mention Wulong for Life…. if I see one more of their ads when I check gmail, I’m going to kill somebody.
Don’t get me wrong, stories in and of themselves are fine. In fact, they give some “flavour” to the teas and make it more colourful, and I’m fine with that. It’s when things don’t add up, when quality isn’t there, and when they are way too common and transparent (like commemoration cakes) that’s when things start to bother me.