I had an opportunity to drink some old tea the other day with the King of pots and some others. It was an interesting experience, going through the decades and trying something that’s your grandfather’s age. During the conversation, one of the things that inevitably comes up is the price of tea – how much such a tea might be worth on the market now, for example, and how much standard bearers like the Red Label is going for these days. A well stored, well aged Red Label might cost something like $200k HKD (prices vary wildly depending on who you talk to, condition of the tea, etc), which is about $25000 USD. Per gram, we’re talking about $70/gram, so a pot of Red Label using 10g of tea is probably going to set you back about $700 these days. Antique teas that are older than 1950 are going to cost you three or four times more. So, at what point is a pot of tea worth $700, or even $2500?
Nicolas’ notes on the Blue Label captures this really well – he thinks the tea he had is probably 10 times better than a 2010 tea, but the cost is 200 times more. Is it worth it then? By that measure, probably not, although by that measure, the only tea anyone should ever drink is probably a nice, dependable Yunnan black tea that costs $5 a pound. So clearly something else is going on here.
I think one of the things that we love as tea drinkers is the variety that teas offer, and there is a premium that we pay for access to that variety. It can come in the form of different types of tea, different terroir, different season, different processing, and different ages. Of these, however, the price differential is quite wide, and age is, by far, the most expensive type of “variety” that anyone pays for. Is it then worth it to buy very old teas?
The answer to that clearly depends on whether or not you have money sitting around. As Nicolas mentioned, if you have lots of money, then buying a tea like the Blue Label is no problem. If you only earn $30000 a year, then buying a tea like that is pretty stupid. Given a choice between a family vacation and the tea, the person who has to choose may very well choose the vacation. For the person who can have both, however, that is no longer a problem.
I think as tea lovers it is very easy to fall into the trap of wanting a particular tea badly because others have told you it’s great, or it’s special, or some such. While many of the much older teas are out of reach of the ordinary drinkers, the impulse is to go for everything that is available and priced reasonably. The problem, at least for my readership here, is this: the supply of good, reliable, well stored old tea to the English speaking population is really very limited, much of it more or less discards from the Asian market, or at least the second tier stuff. The reason is quite simple – because the market that can bear such prices remains primarily in Asia, and I think many people would balk at paying, say, $1000 for a cake of 90s tea. Yet for the more famous makes, that’s what the market rate is. Even for early 2000s teas that are well known, prices are also astronomical. As I mentioned recently, a big market for expensive teas is the gift market here. For them, cost is not really a problem, and may in fact be a good thing. For the tea lover who actually wants to drink the tea (as opposed to hoard it for profit) this is very much a problem indeed.
One solution is to try to find the odd bargain that can be had here and there, through channels such as Yunnan Sourcing or Taobao – teas that are essentially still cheap because they’re not famous and yet still retains a good quality. To be able to do that and to discern quality in not-famous teas, however, is no easy task. This is further compounded by the lack of good, aged teas for comparison purposes. If you don’t even really know for sure what a well aged puerh that’s 20 years old tastes like, how can you pick out a good 5 years old tea?
While I can probably afford at least something from an earlier period, increasingly I find myself not wanting to spend such sums, preferring instead to use it for other things. There are simply too many substitution goods out there for me to find it worthwhile to chase down earlier teas that are great in some way or another. For $2000 I can buy a good cake of say early 90s tea, or I can use it for a variety of things such as kilos of good aged oolongs, and a decent teapot, and a gift for MadameN, and a trip to Taiwan, all together. Do I really want that early 90s cake that badly? I personally don’t, even if I have the money to spare. I can’t even say I’ll enjoy the puerh more than I do the aged oolong, so why should I spend that much money on such things? I also derive great pleasure in the act of hunting down teas and finding things that are out of the way. If I really want that cake, I can march down to the shop tomorrow and buy it, but I’d rather find obscure teas that are good. Maybe that’s what distinguishes those of us who treat this as a hobby and those who take it more as an investment or a business. We do it for love, not treasure.