Verdant Tea strikes again

Some of you may remember a little controversy over a cake that Verdant Tea used to sell , which wasn’t quite the amazingly special tea it claimed to be. Well, a new controversy has arrived through a Reddit thread. Calling these controversy is really giving too much credit to Verdant though, because in both cases the questions far overwhelm the response they gave – things, basically, don’t check out. The Reddit thread includes comments by TwoDog of White2Tea and Scott of YunnanSourcing – yes they are vendors but they are low-BS vendors, whereas Verdant’s BS meter is sky high. You should look through that thread.

The story is this – there’s this puerh that Verdant sells that they claim to be from a single 1800 years old tree. In general, people think that older trees are better, and are willing to pay through the nose to get it. I’m not going to link to the tea, which is sold out anyway, but will instead show you a screengrab.

 photo Verdant screen grab.png

First of all, you may note that for 100g, $60 isn’t a lot of money for a tea that claims to be as rare and special as a 1800 years old tree should. In fact, it is very cheap, cheaper than all old tree or ancient tree teas on the market today, by a pretty wide margin too. There’s a reason we say “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Well, this price is way, way too good to be true, especially coming from an American vendor who will naturally have a much higher overhead.

But that’s not the only problem. There are a lot of things that don’t really check out in this story. For example, this is one productive tree! 100 cakes were pressed, with 100g each, that’s 10kg of processed tea leaves. This means the tree would’ve had to have produced 40kg of raw leaves for this much processed leaves be available for pressing. 40kg for a single tree that is so old – it’s seriously risky and damaging to the tree if this were really done, because older trees that aren’t pruned regularly don’t really grow very fast, and to harvest this much tea from it would literally kill the tree.

Not to mention that it’s impossible. This issue was reposted on Steepster, where the wife of Verdant Tea’s proprietor, Lily Duckler, responded to the criticism. Scott of Yunnan Sourcing followed up with a response of his own (in the second last thread on the page). Basically, trees of this nature are now all under state protection, and harvesting from them is usually a serious crime. I have no illusion that some illegal harvesting is going on, but this isn’t 2005 anymore when anyone and everyone can harvest whatever tea they want from whatever tree they want. It’s a lot more difficult now to get access to the fields of ancient trees, many of which have been designated as protected and thus off limits (or limited severely in quantity). That a tree this old can be harvested with impunity and obvious disregard for its long term health is not going to happen.

Scott’s response also highlighted another issue that was obviously problematic for me when I saw the page – for a vendor so keen on producing photos and videos of their trips, conspicuously absent are good photos and/or videos of the tree in question. There’s one poorly shot one in the product page, but that’s it. Lily Duckler’s response beats around the bush about other trees (some of the photos there, as Scott points out, are of trees from different tea regions entirely and has nothing to do with this village, contra Duckler’s claim) and doesn’t actually talk about the tree in question. Why not? There are pictures of other trees, but no more of the ones for which they’re selling the tea? That’s very odd, to say the least. What there are pictures of, however, are plantation tea trees in the background – the picture with the hut at the bottom? See those rows in the back on the slope? Wonder what they are? Plantation teas.

I don’t really care about pictures all that much – it’s about the tea, after all, and not the tree. Even if there are trees of that age in the area, there is no indication at all from Lily Duckler’s response that they have any proof that the tea they got is from those old trees. She mentioned, specifically, that these cakes took up a whole year’s harvest, which would imply that when they got there to buy the tea and have them pressed into cakes, the teas were already harvested and in bags. As anyone with any familiarity with Yunnan tea buying knows, buying processed leaves from bags from vendors, especially if you’re new to the area and a foreigner, is a very, very risky business. Most likely, you’ll get low grade stuff taken in from lesser regions being sold as premium goods in the more expensive regions. This has been and continues to be a problem. The really conscientious tea makers go out there themselves and harvest with the guys, oversee the entire process in person (because otherwise their good tea will get swapped out) and take the tea away with them, leaving no chance for any kind of fishy business. A few friends of mine who are serious about pressing cakes all follow this to a letter, which means spending a month or more in Yunnan every harvest season to see this done. If you don’t, you run a pretty high risk of seeing your tea get changed into something else, or at least adulterated, which is bad enough given the prices of these tea. Yet, we have no indication that these teas are in fact from those trees. The only response is “trust us” which, unfortunately, is really not good enough for the Yunnan puerh scene.

Am I being overly harsh and assume the worst of human beings? Yes and no. Yes, because I do assume the worst in the case of tea growers in Yunnan. No, because I think they are perfectly justified in doing so. You have to remember – this is the first time in history that farmers in this region have a chance to live above subsistence. These are not Bordeaux wine makers living out of old chateaus with centuries of winemaking wealth behind them. This is the first time in history for farmers here to finally buy a nicer appliance, buy a car, send kids to school in a dependable manner, have a bit of money leftover for retirement – stuff that others in the cities have enjoyed for much longer. These guys have to be hard at work trying to get as much money as they can out of their tea. The boom in puerh tea has been going on for ten years now, so conditions are nicer than when it first started, but these guys are by no means economically secure, and it is crazy to think that a farmer would give up literally tens of thousands of US dollars (and that’s how much 10kg of tea from a 1800 years old tree would be worth on the open market) to instead sell to an American guy with an online shop for something like $1000-2000 USD (Verdant couldn’t have paid more than maybe $15-20 a cake given overhead and associated costs). Giving up that much money – money that can substantially improve lives, if not for the farmer himself then for his community – would be crazy. If they’re indeed in a collective, even if the farmer himself is super-altruistic and doesn’t care for money, he would probably sell the tea to pay for school renovation, public works projects, road repairs, etc. He wouldn’t virtually give it away to some American guy to sell online, unless of course the tea is not what Verdant thinks it is. As Scott said in the thread on Steepster, if the tea really is what it is then Verdant just ripped off this Mr. Zhou and should feel ashamed.

Finally, there’s the issue of vendor responsibility. If the tea is not what it is, and I most certainly think it’s not, then it’s the same old question – is Verdant the con man or is Verdant being conned? Given their track record, I’m leaning towards the former. After all, this is a shop that sells low priced Shandong (Laoshan) green tea as if they’re premium products, and which marketed that Star of Bulang as if it’s a special cake. I find no reason to believe any of these claims made by them. Whether or not they sincerely believe them themselves is actually irrelevant. If they do, then they are too naive to do business in the tea world in China and shouldn’t be in the market, because they are just passing on cons from Chinese vendors to Western consumers without weeding out the bullshit, which is what they’re being paid to do. If they do not believe their own marketing, then they’re the con man themselves. Either way, the conclusion is the same – stay away from them as there are better vendors out there.


Comments

Verdant Tea strikes again — 27 Comments

  1. There are two 2005 Tiandiren “Zhongcha” beeng at a postal sort center. This is a decent plantation tea(19.80 USD,per). I try not to be too particular in life.

  2. Thanks for the post Marshal!! I can see where your thoughts might sound a bit harsh to some, but personally, I thank you for being straightforward. There is too much BS/scams on the scene of tea and tea vendors, that’s for sure. I think we all need to hold tight to the truths that we know, whatever they are, and be willing to share our experience/knowledge to help keep the air as clear as possible. Thanks for doing that.

  3. You’ve been after Verdant for years. Some sick jealous vendetta that isn’t returned by Verdant towards you.
    One important part of what tea teaches is humility not vengeance.
    Without proof, without someone going to see what is going on (the Ducklers live in China and the gentleman who acquires the puer has worked for Verdant for years) you are speculative or slanderous.
    The last time, some of your friends insulted me calling me a liar…Not disabled, a fake working for Verdant. How sad for you to be surrounded by such negativity. I am known in my town and local tea house. Too old and ill to write about tea as I once used to.
    Consider the kind of person you aspire to be.

    • It’s only a vendetta if my charges are groundless. The fact is the Ducklers have a history of overselling their teas, repackaging low grade stuff with pretty pictures and fantastical stories and mark it up. You are, of course, free to spend money however you wish, but for my viewers who might want to find reputable vendors who aren’t out there to scam them, I’d steer them clear of Verdant. Them living in China means nothing – most tea scammers are from China, and that doesn’t make them any less scammy. As I said in my post, maybe the Ducklers are just ignorant and buy into the crazy story that’s being told to them, but as a reseller they need to be able to tell apart fakes and reals, and so far they have not demonstrated that they are able and willing to do so.

      And no, the tea farmers do not “work for” Verdant. If anything, they are the ones with the bargaining power. Anyone in Yunnan who sits on older tea trees have tremendous bargaining power and can sell their tea to the highest bidder. People like Verdant have to hope they get the real thing from the farmer. And you said “without proof.” The proof is obvious – teas of that age (800, 1300 years old teas, etc) sell for many times the price that the Ducklers are charging. There are only two rational explanations for this phenomenon – either the Ducklers are selling fakes, or the Ducklers somehow found a farmer who still lives in 2006 and sells his teas at a small fraction for the going rate. I bet it’s the former because the latter is simply not possible.

      And I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about when you say “some of your friends…etc” If you think these people insulted you (whoever they are – I don’t think I know who you’re talking about) you should take it up with them.

      • You misquote. The trees are old not the tea.
        Odd that the experts I know including PhD Tea students find no fault with Verdant or their tea. The tea community (those who are experienced) dismiss you and Yunnan Sourcing especially for the way you attack.
        People are laughing at you behind your backs, which is how I found out about this issue at my local tea house (the largest in the State, not a chain and nothing artificial!).
        What do you hope to gain by bullying? You sound like a tea Donald Trump.

        • That’s what I meant, the trees, but the point is the same – teas supposedly from old trees are easily selling for thousands of dollars a kilo. Verdant sells it at a fraction of the cost.

          I think it’s worth remembering there’s a much bigger tea community right here in Asia that has had far more experience and far more depth than the online one based in North America, with a selection of tea that most drinkers in North America don’t have access to and will never see for a variety of reasons. I’ll just leave it at that.

          • Verdant used to be based in North America but moved to China (you would know this if you knew the basics about Verdant). They still have some business in Minneapolis (sold the tea house) but all tea is shipped from China directly and the Ducklers live there. Their partners in China are listed on the website.

          • Actually that makes things worse – if they live in China they must know that what they’re offering cannot possibly be legit, given the prices. Unless they live in a cave and never talk to anyone who works in the tea industry.

        • I think that it’s worth noting that MarshalN is in Hong Kong, is a PhD and active researcher in Chinese history, and actively involved in the tea world in China, HK, and Taiwan.

          I don’t have a lot of experience with Verdant, but I see this post as a pretty well articulated set of observations of red flags with only tentative conclusions. It is, of course, up to the reader to decide how important those things are for themselves, but MarshalN brings a perspective that we don’t often see in the English-speaking tea community and it is worthy of serious consideration (above that of the average western enthusiast, considering his access too, and involvement in, the Chinese tea community and his academic research). While this issue doesn’t involve his professional expertise, he does still have a lot of experience that very few in the English-speaking tea community have.

          I’d also suggest that there is a difference between a vendor’s professional conduct and their personal character, and while this post approaches the border he does respect that line; it’s entirely possible that these are very good people that were duped by the kind of duplicity that is so very common in the Chinese tea world. How they handle these things moving forward will speak to their character far more than the current set of circumstances will, and I see this sentiment in this blog post as well (even if his confidence is low).

          At the end of the day, we come to this blog to see MarshalN’s opinions and thought processes, and it would be less ethical for him to obfuscate for the sake of politeness. It’s entirely up to you to decide what to do with these opinions, but food critics can be much harsher and with much greater consequence. My reading of this post is to explain the common pitfalls of the tea market and consider them with any vendor (including any that you might personally trust). I do NOT see this piece as an entirely subjective and/or unqualified screed made only to bolster his own ego. If you have other facts to add, I’m certain that they would be given consideration.

        • This is bordering on the ridiculous, accusations of slandering followed by nothing more than ad hominems and braggadocious grandstanding about your PhD (gosh!) friends and position in the “community”. Not just any community, mind you, but the one populated by “those who are experienced”. Let’s hope this year of the monkey either brings us an actual explanation from the tea vendor in question, or that one of these PhD friends of yours are able to refute some of the carefully argued accusations of Scott and others. I think we’re more likely to see more of this “please just be polite to each other and not bring any negativity into this nice little tea community of ours” line of thinking.

  4. Oh Marshall, such a cynic. I’ve know David and Lily for many years as friends with great kindness and integrity. All I’ve ever heard from you is ugly. I’ll end with this.

    • As I think I’ve said before, Steve Jobs was a terrible asshole but people love his products, which is what actually matters at the end of the day. I’m sure the Ducklers are appreciative of your business.

      • I lived on the Cupertino/Saratoga border in the thick of it from 1981 on as a Systems Analyst and yes Jobs was called names, but he was a genius.
        This is tea not Apple and I’m not stupid nor am I a tea rookie.

        • Nobody doubts Jobs’ genius, but we’re talking about products here. If Jobs promised people an iPhone that can also make you look better and cure cancer, while selling it for $200…. then it’s got problems. Well, that’s what these 1800 years old tree teas are. They’re pie in the sky promise that cannot possibly be true based on the price and market conditions here in China. You can like the Ducklers all you want as people, but their products simply cannot be what they claim it is. It’s simple market logic.

          You say you’re not a tea rookie, but this isn’t about how long you’ve drunk tea. First of all, have you ever tried teas not from the Ducklers that are also supposedly from 1000+ years old trees? Do you have any clue how much those kinds of teas sell for in China? Do you know how difficult it is to get access to them? Did you read Scott’s post and notice that geographically, what the Ducklers are claiming and where the trees’ photos were taken simply don’t add up? I think your answer to all these questions are no.

          • I suspect that after the last assault several years ago, they don’t owe an explanation considering the completely rude nature of the accusations by Scott.

    • Even the best and most virtuous people will occasionally make mistakes. Beyond your personal trust, do you have anything to suggest that MarshalN is wrong?

  5. They did not sell there tea shop and leave- here is the real story. The owners of Verdant Tea have sold their tea room and restaurant on East Franklin Street in Minneapolis, and will be opening a new, larger teahouse and brewery a few blocks south.
    Plus they do not live in china. Check out their twitter page for all of the events that they are involved in. How are they able to do it if they are living in China?

  6. Bonnie I asked the question how could they live in china? I also am in the tea club with them so… You also made it sound like they sold the store and moved: They didn’t not and they are working on other areas with tea also…. so just corrected what you had said. I like their tea- do I believe al that they write NO:.. but I know what I will get for that price.. Have been in this trade for over 28 years…..Once again I DO BUY FROM THEM!!!!! It is important for new buyers to know that it is IMPOSSIBLE with the puer tea to be that old of a tea let alone prove that it is….I will end it there because there is no point in fighting about this… you have your point and other people that has been in the trade a long time are just getting the info out there for new buyers.. once again I just buy tea that I like and don’t really give a “#¤%”# where it is from or weather it is organic…. bla bla bla.. Most isn’t true both in china and in India..

  7. Can you shoot me a link to some other vendors, then? I live in the small-town Midwest (USA) and we don’t really have any tea shops or tea vendors around here. So I need to buy online, but I don’t know enough about tea to know who is being honest with me or not. Thanks.

    • Try Yunnan Sourcing USA first because the overseas site shipping is expensive.
      I know Marshall HATES Verdant but I’ve never been disappointed. My friends who have reputable tea establishments and are collectors are fine with Verdant too.
      You can get samples for low cost and make up your own mind.

      • Now now, I don’t even know the Ducklers, so I don’t think I can rise to the level of hate. Do I think they need to do a lot better in terms of not getting scammed (and then scamming people on the internet as a result)? Yes, I do. Or if they are just outright telling lies, that needs to be remedied too. But hate? No, not really.

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