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.