Unintentional scams

One of the scams I’ve come across, as related to me by another tea seller, goes as follows.

You walk into a store with tins lining the wall. The tins are not labeled, and the store specializes in yancha. You go in, wanting to buy, say, shuixian. You ask for some. They ask you what price level of shuixian you want – since they have lots. You throw out a number, say 300 RMB/jin. They take one of the tins off the shelf, take out some tea, show it to you, and brew it for you. You sort of like it, but it’s not too great, so you ask them for something better. So they take the next tin out, and say “this is 400 RMB/jin”. You try it – it’s different from the last one, seems a bit better, but you’re not sure yet. So you try another one, this time from yet the next tin over. The tea is 500 RMB/jin now. It’s a bit similar to the first one, but not quite the same. Yancha, after all, share a lot of similar notes and are hard to differentiate just on visuals or taste alone. You end up settling for the 500 RMB/jin one (or any one of them) because it seems like it’s a good fit.

The trick, of course, is that there are only two kinds of teas in the store. They are stored in alternate tins in an ABABAB pattern. The 300/500 RMB ones were, say, tea A, while the 400/600 ones would be B. So when you try two that are just one level apart, they are indeed different. When you try ones that are two levels apart, well, by that time you’re on your third tea, and it’s been an hour since you tried the first one. You don’t remember it all that well anymore, and by manipulating some of the brewing parameters, the vendor can easily make it so that you think you’re drinking a similar, but different tea. Besides, we all know that more expensive wines taste better, so the same should apply for tea.

That’s not why I wrote about this scam, of course, although in and of itself it’s a cautionary tale of buying tea. One of the things in hster’s post that I linked to two days ago is that one should avoid Western reseller. There’s a good reason for that – because you can be an unwitting victim of the above-mentioned scam.

There are generally three ways a Western hemisphere based vendor can get their tea for sale. One is to go directly and source it – either from wholesale markets or resellers based in Asia, which is probably the most common way, or buy from farmers in the area, which probably also happens but less often than you think. The vendors can also buy from consolidators/wholesalers based in the West as well, with SpecialTeas (now Teavana…) and that type of thing. In that case, you’re basically buying teas for a markup for no good reason. The last is that they have some special connections for some reason, such as Guang of Hou De, who, from what I understand, has family members who are tea farmers. There aren’t too many of those around. This above list excludes those who are based in Asia but primarily sell to a Western audience, although for the most part, they are also just falling into the first category – someone like Jing tea shop in Guangzhou is basically buying teas from the Guangzhou market and then selling it to you at a markup.

What’s going on though, is that for those who are selling in the West, unless they take frequent trips to Asia or have some special connections, are generally just buying from some wholesaler and reselling said tea to you. The markup can be slight, or it can be very heavy. The problem with tea, and it’s the problem that enables the scam that I talked about earlier, is that tea is not labeled and is remarkably difficult to judge if you’re not in the right frame of mind. Let’s say you buy two tieguanyin. One’s marked at $15/100g, and has an interesting description. The other is marked at $25/100g, and has a breathless description. The pictures, of course, don’t tell you all that much, as they’re all about the same – some rolled, green leaves. You try them…. and then, unless you happen to compare them side by side, would you really know the difference? Is it going to be that obvious? What is the $15/100g’s seller’s markup is 100%, while the $25/100g’s is 400%, both of whom sourced from the same dealer? In other words – the more “expensive” tea is actually cheaper originally, because the person you bought it from is selling it for more?

There are endless possibilities for things such as this when you buy from Western based vendors. This is not to say that it is always a better deal to buy from Asian based ones, but at least there you’re more likely to run into unique things that other sellers aren’t selling – each local market is indeed a little different, and will offer you things that others can’t find. I even wonder if one might have better luck buying oolongs off Taobao – I haven’t experimented widely there, but even that could be a better deal than buying a “monkey picked” tieguanyin from online store X.

I’m not trying to say that every single Western based vendor is going to be terrible. By all means, if you find a tea you like from a certain vendor, then it’s perfectly fine to frequent that shop, but knowing full well that there’s always the possibility of a cheaper, better alternative out there. That’s why I have always advocated not getting sucked into buying from one vendor exclusively, regardless of what they have done for you in the past, and also to experiment widely in both providers and also the range of possible teas out there. This is true not just for us consumers, but also even for the tea vendors, who sometimes seem to form exclusive relationships with their Asian providers. That is also a dangerous path – one which can lead one’s customers to drink lots of overpriced, bad teas. Life’s too short for that.


Comments

Unintentional scams — 19 Comments

  1. So. Damn. True.
    Jakub

    P.S. I wonder of the methodology of Goldstein et al. – how knowledgeable were the volunteers who have tasted the tea. Good wine is, to an extent, good only to those who understand it a bit. This is similar to some subtle puerh not being as fancy as Mi Lan Dan Cong for the first tasting.

    Also, a lot of good wine may be ruined by bad glass – I have seen/tasted a rather fine wine served in bad, too open and too small glasses. The wine, indeed, did not taste like much. However, I am quite certain that in larger, more closed glasses, one could tell easily which wine is good and which is not that good.

    Interesting reading nevertheless.

  2. Well, with puerh, you generally only know how good a tea is by having a cake and drinking from it regularly for about six months. Samples don’t offer but a general idea of what the cakes give, and they very often tend to be overpriced (aside from zhizheng tea, but then…)

    The bigger issue is that reliable western vendors that stock so well, such that you could reliably buy cakes blind, are as rare as hen’s teeth. Most vendors with a wide variety of sources have poorer quality control, and you have the added necessity of samples. When you buy from a reliable vendor, you *do* in effect, buy from their networks. Buy that network’s sensibilities, and buy the consistency that it offers you.

    Moreover, the impression that I get online reading sino-sites is that it’s difficult to have conversations about reasonably priced good tea. In fact, forget reasonable…it’s hard to find blog posts about genuinely good teas that are not super-famous, regardless of how expensive they are. One only gets an idea from mentions in discussions, and pictures of stashes (like all the Yangqinghao Ulumochi has in one of his blogposts). In other words, only boasts. My impression is that if I went over there with the idea of trying to beat Puerhshop Jim at his game, I’d have a terrifically hard time getting the wholesaler to let me purchase any of his/her good teas (especially pre-2009)at a price that affords me margin/quality in the US. I’d sample trash, and when I complain, I’ll sample better trash. If I were to be indignant, I’ll get to sample something good, but the price would be bad. Along with other games about as sophisticated as the one mentioned in this blogpost.

    The other issue is marketing. After I finally find a nice raft of abandoned products of decent quality, I’d still have to let my customers know what it is, and somehow manage to get people to have confidence in these products. That means substantial expense in terms of selling samples, and effort in terms of advocating for your products (which invariably has some degree of awkwardness).

    Of course, if you manage a swing through Asia, and are buying smaller amounts for personal consumption, it’s a great idea to be prepared with the idea of spending a thou or two on puerh while you’re there.

    • Do keep in mind that I’m mostly talking about oolongs and other loose leaf tea. With pu, the wrapper/cake does provide a modicum of uniformity.

      • Well, do we honestly have trouble with anything but yancha and maybe korean oolongs in the US? There seems to be a much wider pool of reliable vendors when it comes to oolongs.

        Green and black teas, whoah mama! Codespeak**JinJunMei**Codespeak

        • If you have a wide selection, there’s only more room for error. One person’s cheap, reliable shuixian can be someone else’s old bush virgin monkey picked spring choice select shuixian.

  3. Hello Shah,
    I don’t think that buying a lot of samples is necessarily a bad thing. Two years, I was buying stuff from local vendor – pretty much everything he had was good back then. But when I started to buy from other shops, even though I got to a lot of not that great tea, it was very beneficial and the depth of my understanding of tea, although still limited, became much deeper. One does not know what he likes unless he has a fair knowledge of what he does not like too. Furthermore, in such a small market as is in the Czech Republic, no one is really able to stock a lot of different teas so if one is unwilling to buy from foreign eshops, his choice is quite limited.

    I think that what you describe (marketing and all that) is probably reasonable if the vendor offers something you can not buy on the internet. I do not have any issue with Jingteashop reselling stuff from Guangzhou market – I can not buy that anywhere and I am not really keen on going to Guangzhou to buy 50g of green tea.

    I believe that the real problem is with purely reselling resellers. For example the vendor I mentioned in another thread – selling Jingteashop’s teas for double of their retail price. It really is that scheme “find a fine tea, write a great description of it, kick the price to the sky and thats it”. Of course the vendor has to fund his marketing and all that – but why should I sponsor his marketing at all? The added value borders with zero (ok, he does some health certificates, but so does Jingteashop itself). With puerh, his margins are better, but still, why should I pay 30% more? Of course, when one buys from resellers, he does not have to go to the customs office, but your post does that for you for a small fee (when one makes an order up to 150 EUR, he does not have to pay the customs fee). Then you get even better “money train” when he sells to Slovakia. So it is farmer->at least one chinese merchant without a website ->someone in China with a website (that is where I would stop) ->the tea goes to the Czech Republic ->and it is sold to Slovakia. That is how money is made, isn’t it?
    Jakub

    • 1) It’s great to buy samples! On the other hand, samples costs a lot of money, and are a profit center for many folks. You can get a broad view of what many different puerh are like, and you can figure out what sort of puerh you like best. It’s also a nice entertainment for a rainy Sunday.

      2) Samples as a means of figuring out what cake is genuinely good and worth paying money for is not a great idea. It’s way too easy to have an unrepresentative experience. Also, even a generally accurate experience would not always translate to what the bing does in your home.
      Take:
      http://www.yunnansourcing.com/store/product.php?id_product=1366
      for example. I bought a cake blind. I got it because I was confused about its similarity to the 2005 SE Memorial 300g bing made by Changtai and offered by HouDe. When I first tasted this cake, it left me a little nonplussed, because it had a fairly different approach than most other puerh I’ve had. A very yang (I think I’m using it correctly) aroma and taste. Nicely complex, especially aroma-wise, but not at all especially friendly or agreeable in taste. I’ve since figured out that:
      a) I’ve grown to appreciate the yang aspect
      b) This is one of those teas that *has* to have a little wakey-wakey in a jar for a couple of weeks for best performance. I grew to love it after I had broken some of it up for daily-ish drinking, thinking that it was at least drinkable if not a great buy.
      c) This tea likes my climate here in Atlanta far more than it did in Kunming. A year’s worth of age here has made cakes far more willing to be rich (even if not nearly as rich as some of the Dayi from the same time period).
      d) I’ve got better at tasting tea over the time-period that I owned that first bing, so I was far more able to pick out the higher quality aspects.
      e) At the same time, I can always get better. I have had way too few early 2k teas, especially of the higher quality lincangs. Of the ones that I’ve tried, like the YYX wet-stored, I really did not know how to taste that tea at the time. Therefore, having regular cake consumption against the background of further sampling tends to make you more discerning of what samples offer.
      f) Also at the same time, I can always find more out about any specific tea. In this case, I’ve found that there has always been a background respect for this cake. It was involved in tea-tastings of 2002 teas by Puerh Teapot Magazine. Toki even has a bing (which he put besides Nannuos). I’ve found that that the price I got it was a price that was pretty stagnant for years, that it used to be fairly expensive relative to other teas, and that most teas that are comparable are priced at some multiple of even the $60 it sells for now. Lastly, I’m pretty sure that it uses Lincang (and maybe Jingmai) material that costs much more when fresh today. Even if it’s retarded and on an alternate aging path by Kunming storage, it’s still good by 2006-2007 age standards. So all the while you have a bing that you’re drinking, you’re always learning more about it, and you always have more ideas about what its qualities are and how to extract it. Samples are nice, but they are extremely limited in comparison for serious evaluation.

      3) Much of what Jingteashop offers are fairly famous teas, excepting the CNNP. Xinghai was pretty big way back when. The Xiaguan using maocha that was originally used to make a popular factory bing in 2006. The Fuhai brick has been sold by other Western orientated sellers like Stephané way back when. That makes it all pretty obvious, just as obvious as not really taking 7 Cups seriously as a puerh vendor. This sort of problem is pretty much self-fixing. It is, after all, fishing for suckers, and not for someone who wishes to be a knowledgeable tea consumer. So, you do, in fact want to be respectful of vendors *who introduces you to tea you don’t already know about*. Like, oh Ginkgo talking about unusual Hubei green teas just now, and respectful of the costs (including opportunity costs) of bringing the show to you. In the end, it’s easy to evaluate whether a vendor is blowing smoke up your bum. Just use the almighty Internet, and a sample if you can get one. No one who shops has to pay big margins.

  4. By the by, while we wait for the longer comment in moderation, JT, it looks like there were some positive reviews of a Jinuo Shan tea, some kind of eco-tea from 2004, in the blind tasting @ Puerhteapot mag, the one that just came out.

    • Hello!
      Ugh, is there any way of viewing it in English? Or viewing it at all? I find their website somewhat confusing 🙂

      Not all of their stuff is that good probably (Honza of Chawangshop could say more about that as he tried a lot of their teas), I had some rather ordinary and too bitter Yiwu, but their Youle production is very enjoyable.

      Thanks for the info too!
      Jakub

      • It doesn’t seem up yet on the teapot website. Ulumochi gave his take on his blog, second to latest blogpost. No link because it’d just get moderated. From the pic of the page, it does seem to have more smiling judges, so to speak.

        Of course, I don’t take it too seriously. What was kind of interesting was that the Xiaguan Hong Yin reproduction (which was ’03, but seems to be included with the other ’04s) got top numbers from him. I’ve had that tea, and from the description, I’ve had it way too dry stored! Good, but pretty limited to what plantation offers. On the other hand, the ’04 Menghai Dayi One Leaf and Chen Yuan Hao got turrible reviews!

  5. MarshalN,

    What should be a reasonable markup for Western vendors? I understand that the vendors need to have a profitable business. When I was shocked by the prices on Verdant Tea and blogged about it, the owner David Duckler wrote me to state that “Our markup is extremely low.”

    Their prices are as follows:

    * brick $156.00 Star of Bulang ’06 Sheng From Yong Ming
    * brick $159.95 Artisan Revival Banzhang ’06 Sheng Pu’er
    * 8 oz. $80.00 Peacock Village 2004 Shu
    * 1 lb. $90.00 Shu Nuggets Xingyang
    * 1 lb. $144.00 Cornfields Shu Mini-Tuocha 2009
    * 1 lb. $198.00 Golden Fleece Dianhong

    Either the $160 Shengs are the most amazing sheng in the world or they are hugely overpriced. Do you know what the current China price of the 2006 “Star of Bulang” made by Yong Ming is? I cannot seem to find it except the low cost cousin, the Yong Ming Bulang YinHao for $10.

    Because Verdant Tea’s prices seem so much higher than premium shops like HouDe and Essence of Tea, I am somewhat skeptical. Actually you can get a 1997 Heng Li Chang Bulang for ~$180 on EoT so charging $156 for a 2006 sheng seems a huge huge upcharge.

    Hster

    • Verdant tea’s website has it so that you have no way to tell what they’re actually selling. However, everything from Yongming is dirt cheap – there are some 2003 teas that cost a bit more, but anything 06 is about 100 RMB. Which means that they’re marking it up by about 1000%, and judging by the way Verdant seems to run their business (zero clarity/transparency) it suits them well.

    • Let’s leave it at this…

      For awhile, you could buy a Chen Guanghe Tang Lao Banzhang Man’E made with ’05 leaves that has a very pleasant early set of brews for $175/357g. Moving on, there are very few non-Banzhang Bulangs that can command very high prices. Essentially, Guang Bien Lao Zhai, Lao Man’E, and Ban Pen. There are various XXX years aged tree Bulangs of no name but Bulang. All of these are done by outfits that are quite a bit more famous than Yong Ming. Verdant Tea has always seemed to be dubiously “marked up”. Another example of a place that marks up tea (but somewhat more honest) is Puerpuerh.

      There is no easy way to tell a markup, because it all depends on the vendor’s supplier and the vendor’s selling habits. Reliable vendors that sometimes have good prices *wobble* between very good for the price and expensive for the price. For older tea, the storage issue becomes pretty important–therefore, you’ll almost always pay something towards the vendor’s experience in not selling poorly stored teas. So really, aside from howlers easily checked, it’s about experience and lots of window shopping to hone that intuition.

  6. Whilst I don’t want to generalise, there does seem to be something with Chinese people and ripping people off. I’ve even had Chinese people themselves tell me about this culture that seems to exist there. Now one can find rip off merchants in all cultures and people but it seems to be much higher with many Chinese people than others. My wife, whose mother is ethnic Chinese, and who has live in Asia has always warned me of this. Very sad as the best tea in the world comes from China!

  7. Yeah, this is why I found buying tea (and things) in Taiwan a hugely more enjoyable experience than doing so in China–Taiwanese don’t try to rip everyone and their whole family off constantly.

  8. I will be staying in Beijing for one week at the end of October and I would like to know if you can recommend a few trustable stores in Maliandao Street to buy Pu-erh cakes as well as loose tea. Thanks.

    • You can try Xiaomei’s store, but trying to tell you where it is is going to be hard. Their address is:

      北京市西城區馬連道14號天福緣茶葉批發市場A2-09號

      That’s Tianfuyuan Tea Wholesale market, A2-09 store (second floor). The store’s called Fangmingyuan, but that’s not going to help you much. You can try looking around my Maliandao geography post to figure it out.

      Other than that – there really isn’t much out there that I can easily recommend. Walk around and try not to get lured in to the street-side shops.

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