Priced out of the market

As everyone knows, the prices of puerh has been rising, rising, and rising. The reasons are many – more people are drinking it than ever before, and moreover, there are even more people who think it might be a good investment. I still remember when many cakes, new, could be had for a dollar or two. Well, those days are long, long gone. Back then, buying puerh to drink was a real value proposition – you can get decent tea for a small fraction of the price of a good oolong. These days, a good puerh probably costs more.

The problem is, like many other such goods, these days they are priced in such a way as to make it simply not worth it anymore. For example, recently I tried the Wisteria and Baohongyinji that was offered at both White2tea and Origintea. It’s not a bad tea – it has qi, for one, which is rare enough. It’s full, etc. It’s also ridiculously expensive, right in line with a real Bingdao gushu tea, and is absolutely not worth the money if you are thinking of buying cakes of it. These days real gushu teas routinely cost 2-3000 RMB a cake, and plenty of fake ones claiming to be real at least have real gushu prices, even if the leaves are not the real thing. This puts the tea simply out of reach of most people – ordinary or even not so ordinary folks. If you want, say, a tong of tea that costs 3000 RMB a cake, that’s 21000 RMB, or $3300 USD a tong for tea that is new. Frankly, that’s a lot of money, and given all the risks of storage that you run yourself if you store it – water, fire, mold, sun, etc etc, it’s almost insurance worthy.

Some tea producing areas are also slightly more worthy than others – Lincang, where Bingdao is located, happen not to be one of them. I find Lincang teas generally to be rather boring and subpar when compared with teas from the Yiwu or Menghai regions that are of similar level of quality. The prices of teas from Lincang used to be dirt cheap. Well, that isn’t true anymore.

I also get nostalgic when drinking some of my older teas that I myself bought and stored over the years, thinking that sadly, unless I pay through the roof, I won’t have teas of this type of quality to drink in the distant future. I had a Spring 2006 Bangwei the other day that I bought back when I was living in Beijing. It’s a wonderful tea, full of flavour and body and aging nicely. It cost me something like 150RMB a cake back then, which was a king’s ransom for a cake of new tea at that time. Now, the same thing, if made in 2014, would probably cost 1000 RMB or more a cake. It’s insane.

I wonder if this is sustainable – at some point, we’ll run out of buyers for these crazy prices and things might at least not get more expensive exponentially every year. It doesn’t mean prices will come down – we’ll never see 150RMB a cake for that Bangwei again. We might, however, see some of the more newfangled tea regions that command extraordinary prices come down a bit, especially if the aging isn’t going so well. For example, the Yuanyexiang which some of you know has been stagnant in price in the last few years, despite a heavy ramp up in prices of a lot of other teas. It can be found for about 1300 RMB a cake on Taobao, and they look to be the real deal. That’s a much cheaper price than a lot of new teas for a cake that’s over 10 years old now with some age. Why? Because it hasn’t really changed much in the last few years, and hasn’t really gotten much better. It’s a fine tea, and given the relative prices of new teas versus old, it might actually be a reasonable purchase again. As more and more older teas like this appear on the market, I wonder if it will keep a lid on new tea prices as people simply stop buying them. Of course, the same thing has been said years ago, and it hasn’t happened yet.

This is why I almost never buy new teas these days, and have also not bothered to sample many new teas – what’s the point if I am not in the market to buy them? I try a few every year, just to get my tastebuds going, but by and large, I no longer bother. I also find myself increasingly disliking the taste of new make puerh – when there’s so much older stuff I can have at my fingertips. Hopefully, perhaps, pricing adjustment will come, and not a moment too soon.

Good teas are all alike…

.. and bad teas are bad in their own special ways.

Paraphrasing Tolstoy only gets you so far, but in this case, I think it works. Good teas are indeed mostly similar – they are strong, have good body, last a lot of infusions, hit all parts of your mouth when you drink it, and most importantly, taste good. Some might throw in good qi as a bonus, but not every tea has qi, not even good ones (good luck finding qi in a longjing). Nevertheless, like A student papers, there’s not a lot to say other than “it’s good”. You can wax philosophical about how good it is, but that’s not strictly necessary.

Likewise, true failures of the worst kind, the Fs of teas, are also easy to deal with. They’re so bad that they do not merit any kind of time to examine – everything is wrong. They are easy to dismiss.

It’s really the middle ground – the Bs and Cs and Ds of teas, that take the most time to analyze, to grade, and to judge. They have flaws, sometimes minor, sometimes major, but they are flawed in different, diverse ways. Most importantly, for those of us buying teas, they might be bad in ways that are not easy to spot right away. Using the metaphor for paper grading, it’s like a ten pager that starts out strong and then, by page 4, falls apart, contain plagiarized passages, has no proof, can’t spell, etc. You wouldn’t know it if you only read the first couple pages, but if you look more carefully, the problems can be there and be really obvious.

I just tried a few cakes I bought off Taobao recently, and they are all bad in different ways, which is what prompted this post. One, a supposed Yiwu that’s got some name recognition, is bland – seems to be a product of bad, dry, and aired-out storage, even though it has good throatiness. The other, a bulang, packs strong flavours but is intensely, intensely bitter. Yes, it might go away eventually, but probably not, not fast enough anyway. A third has a weird flavour that I associate with strange mainland storage – it’s a sample the vendor threw in, and it’s just, well, strange. Unfortunately, none of them were worth my time, and all of them were bad/strange in their own ways.

Then there was a dahongpao I received a while ago as a gift. These days, all mainland yancha arrive in pre-packed packets, and they are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Gifts can run the gamut from really great tea to really poor. This one, unfortunately, leans on the latter. It’s bland – just not rich and full enough to be called a dahongpao, and is probably just some cheap yancha from the outlying areas.

Learning to spot these things take time, effort, and usually some tuition. It’s very easy to be led down the wrong path by the wrong vendors. This is especially true if you happen to visit mostly one vendor for your teas – if all the teas are bad in the same way, it’s not easy to figure out that it’s actually a sign of poor quality, as opposed to just the way it is. Take bad storage for example – you won’t notice a storage problem if all the teas you have share the same type of storage problem. In that case, you’d just think that’s how things are. Unless and until you’ve tried something else, and it’s totally different, do you realize that something is wrong with the original teas you’ve had. Figuring out what that is takes even more time. The same can be said of teas that claim a certain place of origin, but isn’t actually from that place, or teas that are supposedly processed a certain way, but isn’t. Then there are just the teas that are bland or low quality. All of these require comparison to highlight. So comparison is the key to learning how to spot bad tea.

The job of any vendor is to sell you the tea they’ve got, so in tasting notes you’ll always see things highlighted – aromas, mouthfeel, or worst of all, qi, that ephemeral quality that most people have never experienced, or only think they’ve experienced. For that bitter bulang I just talked about, for example, the vendor might say it’s long lasting and powerful, never mind that it’s like swallowing a bitter pill every time you take a sip. For that Yiwu that I thought was weak, you’ll get notes like “floral and penetrating” because it’s got a bit of throat action going on. The dahongpao I just referred to as bland would be “fruity” and maybe “delicate.” As for qi, out of 100 teas 99 have no qi to speak of – drinking chicken soup can equally give you that rush of warmth and sweat that some point to as evidence of qi. Qi does, I believe, exist in some teas, but they are rare. That’s another post.

Artisanal ≠ Good

It’s pretty common to see listings of tea with the word “artisnal” thrown in there. What does the word really mean in these context? Obviously it’s derived from the word “artisan” and generally mean that the tea you’re about to buy was made by an artisan. Ok, so far so good. So what?

More specifically, when is a tea not made by an artisan?

I suppose you can use this term to apply to teas that are purely hand made, farmed without machinery, and so on. I can assure you, however, that any tea you buy online does not fall into that category – teas like that are exceedingly expensive and very rarely done. Lots of farmers in China and Taiwan are independent farmers, but almost all of them use machinery as aids in the process of producing the tea. This can be large scale farming equipment, to something as simple as a roller and a shaqing machine for their teas. For oolongs, for example, rolling is a particularly backbreaking task – takes forever, lots of work, and hand (or foot) rolled teas are not as pretty as machine rolled ones. So these days they’re all machine rolled. Those balled up oolongs you love so much from Taiwan? It’s thanks to the machines that you have that shape.

Nor should we romanticize the past as some golden age when people made everything by hand. Sure, they did that, maybe, but that’s mostly because they couldn’t afford the machines that would make their life easier. Nobody prefers to spend hours rolling a ball of tea or sweating in front of a giant wok frying the tea when they can just do it more evenly, more predictably, and with less effort by the possession of a machine. These contraptions exist for at least a century now. I’ve read colonial period Taiwanese books on tea horticulture that detail the use of these things – rollers, shaqing, shakers, whatever you need. The problem was not so much invention – that’s the easy part. The problem was access. It was too expensive to afford a lot of these things. So at first, a whole village would invest in one and people would take turns using it. Then, as the cost of the machinery got lower over time, everyone had one.

We saw this type of change happen in Yunnan as well in the past decade. Before 2004, and before the crazy boom of puerh prices, Yunnan farmers were dirt poor. People cut down tea trees, sometimes really old ones, to plant rubber trees instead, because rubber was worth a lot more. Those who kept their tea trees got lucky, and now many of them have machines to aid them in the processing of teas – shaqing being most common, but also other measures. Tea picking has also been farmed out, often times, to people from poorer areas or villages. It’s hard work, and those farmers lucky enough to live in rich tea villages don’t really want to do that stuff anymore.

There’s also the relative skillsets involved – just because you made it by hand doesn’t automatically make it better. An old tea hand I know in Taiwan told me that a certain tea farmer in Pinglin used to be good – in the days of their grandfather, but the skills have either been lost or just not there, and so this generation’s teas are so-so. Some people are just better at some things than other, and variation is to be expected. Within a whole group of people, some will be better at a task than others. They can all do things basically the same way and the outcomes will be different. An artisanal tea grown in, say, Lantau Island in Hong Kong is still going to be terrible, because the climate just isn’t right and the tea is grown in a pretty bad environment. The skills of the artisan also just isn’t there (yes, I’ve tried the tea). Artisanal doesn’t mean anything.

Even long history is no protection – yes, they might have family secrets passed down if the family’s been in the business for a long time, or they might not. In fact, think of it another way, a family might be in a tea business for so long not because they were successful, but because they weren’t successful enough (and thus didn’t make enough money) to move into other more lucrative ventures. Very few people choose to remain smallholding tea farmers if they had a choice – tough work and low reward even with machinery as aids, especially in a rapidly industrializing society with lots of new opportunities. Better off going to school and becoming an engineer. Before you say I’m just being cynical, I have family relatives whose families did make tea and then moved away from it. It’s a very real option and most people, when given the choice, will choose to leave the farm.

Then you have stuff like this

Yes, some of you will object that this is large scale industrialized tea made for mediocrity. That’s right, but there’s lots of skill here, and the fact that a tea blender can easily re-create a recipe given the raw ingredients just by tasting is nothing short of amazing.

So next time you see that description of the tea you want to buy as “artisanal”, please remember that it means basically nothing.

Explaining the impossible bargain

Sometimes when shopping for tea, one comes across the impossible bargains – prices that are simply too good to be true. Over the years, I’ve found those to fall into three main categories.

1) It really is too good to be true. This is probably something that isn’t what it claims to be, or possibly, not the whole truth. There’s often some fudging going on with these – an aged tea that isn’t quite aged, old tree tea that is, well, not that old, high mountain tea from areas that really don’t qualify, etc. “Revivals” or “the area of XXX” or “1990s” are all labels that may pertain to these sort of teas. So, in other words, these are trying to upsell as much as possible. There’s a reason they are so cheap.

2) The seller has no idea what s/he is selling. This happens most often in smaller shops, out of the way shops, shops with really old stock, or personal sales – people who don’t know what they’re doing. They are also invariable teas that are older – if it’s new tea, and s/he had to buy it and resell it on the open market, they’re not going to get good prices that you can pass on to the customer unless they operate at a loss. You have people who inherit old puerh cakes by the boatload and throw them away thinking they’re stale tea. You have people selling their own collection on the cheap because they’re in a hurry to get cash. You have sellers who just want to get rid of something and don’t care what prices it goes at. These are real bargains, if you can find them, but they are pretty rare. It also takes a lot of energy to seek these out.

3) The seller knows exactly what s/he is doing and doesn’t care. I’ve met some of these before, and these are the most interesting cases.

Modern economics has as one of its basis the assumption that actors are, by and large, rational. They generally do things that are in their own best interests, and sellers of a commodity like tea would, normally, behave that way. If the market price is $100/jin for a given tea, then a seller who sells it for considerably less must have some reason to do so – the reasons should include some return on the lower price they accept. That could be liquidity (like the guy who needs cash now) or relationship building (selling you something cheap so you’d come back for more). Or maybe it’s part of the business strategy (hypermarkets). There’s a good reason they do such things.

But over the years I’ve met a few sellers who don’t care, and whose motivations for selling at below market defies economic logic. I’ve bought cakes before from people who know it sells for, say, $250 a piece on the market, but sold to me for half the price. I’ve bought aged oolongs that are quoted at the same price they were sold 30 years ago (granted, prices for Dongding in the mid-80s was high), when the same tea can only be had at other joints for 3x the price. Why?

Oftentimes the answer I’ve gotten goes something like this: I sell this tea for cheap because I need to sell to my own customers. However, these are customers who generally don’t do a lot of business. For example – I only go to Taiwan a few times a year, and I buy, at most, a few jins (one jin = 600g) at any given shop. My total purchase within a year at any one shop will probably not exceed 10jin. That’s peanuts. While I was there this time, one of the shops was readying a shipment of 20jin of Dayuling for a store in Tokyo. I’ve sure that order alone outpriced whatever I bought by a factor of 5 or more. What’s the point of keeping customers like me happy?

The answer to this rather silly question is that to some, wringing maximum amounts of money is not quite the point. It’s somewhat interesting, as the rationale told to me is usually something like “well, I have to make sure I have stuff for you guys” or “I don’t know how to just mark it up like them.” There are also others who do it to stick it in people who change prices monthly for their tea – although in these cases selling tea tend to be a sideline of sorts to something else. Also, if they know that the buyer is a vendor, the price is not as friendly – therefore in these cases, buying small quantities through retail is actually better than buying dozens of jins of tea wholesale.

I’m not complaining about this, of course, if I’m the beneficiary. It’s just an interesting case where the textbook assumptions in economics fails. I think for these sellers, they derive pleasure in actually selling to retail customers who are loyal and come back year after year. Earning an extra 200 HKD or not on that sale is not that important to them. This is also why I have, over the years, stopped going to places that keep their prices very current – there’s something cold and unfriendly about places like that. I might not get the latest fashionable tea from them, but what I do get is a very nice reliable supply of teas that I like. That’s good enough.

Back to the Island of Tea

How do you know you’re in the Island of Tea?

Well, not immediately, but when you check in to your hotel, and you walk around a bit, and notice that less than a block away at the street corner, there’s this

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and this

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and best of all

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Did I mention this is all on the same street corner? And of course, within the same block and half radius, there’s at least two or three more shops that only sell tea.

But still, this could be just the one district where there are a bunch of tea shops. Well…. until you get back to your room, flip on the tv, do some channel surfing, and while doing so, finding that two of the tv shopping networks sell tea (among more normal things, like women’s underwear). Yes, they sell tea via tv.

In retrospect, I really should’ve recorded it via video, but I’ll spare you the hard sell, since it involves a lot of yelling about how great a deal is. The first channel was selling puerh.

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As you can see, only 3 and half minutes remaining, so I didn’t catch the initial pitch. In any case, they were too excited about this amazing deal to actually tell me how much tea they were selling for the price they were quoting, and they had to keep reminding me how there’s only a few minutes left. From this chart, I figured the following:

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It seems like they were claiming that they had this great cake from year 2000, somehow broke it up and made them into mini-tuos – don’t ask me how, why, or whether that’s even possible. Anyway, that’s the claim, and for the low, low price of 1980 NT (about $60 USD) you can get a can of these minituos. If you buy five! You can even get a free ceramic cup! In case you want to see what cake it is:

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As the last line said, the preciousness of this tea does not need to be said.

The other channel was selling something a little more conventional

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Yes, Cuifeng, in Hehuan Mountain, winter harvest. What sounds like half a jin (300g) for 2760 NT, about 90 USD, which is really not very cheap at all. To prove that it’s really high, they of course had to bring out the maps

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Oh, and if you buy 4 jins total, they’d give you a free 4oz sampler of the same tea!

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Yes, welcome to Taiwan.

2003 Zipin hao

There are lots of cakes out there made by famous personages, most of whom are from Taiwan. The quality of these things vary from very good to very poor, especially when factoring in the price involved, which is almost always high, because there is usually a substantial premium charged for these things, precisely due to the fame of the person who made them. This cake, the Zipin hao from 2003, was made by Zhou Yu of Wistaria House.

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I distinctly remember seeing this at Wistaria the first time I visited in 2005. Back then, my thought was “my god, this thing is expensive”, which it was. I can’t quite remember how much it was, but it was heads and shoulders above what a normal cake sold for back in the day, and being a poor graduate student, I balked and never bought it. Nor did I try it at the time, because instead I spent my money drinking some loose Tongqing hao from Wistaria instead. It was good, and the Zipin was forgotten.

I had picked up a cake of their 2007 Hongyin last time I visited, and this time I went back to Wistaria again during my most recent trip to Taipei, and remembered this cake. When I inquired how much, the price was shocking – shocking low, relatively speaking anyway for something approaching 10 years and made by a famous tea master. At 4200 NTD, it’s not cheap for a single cake, but compared to a lot of new stuff, its price is more than reasonable. I bought one.

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The dry leaves really don’t look too good. The cake’s front looks like someone stomped on it. Six Famous Tea Mountains’ pressing skill was never great, and it’s evident here too. But then, we don’t judge teas by their looks.

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How does it taste? One word – good. It’s got this nice, long lasting aftertaste. It has qi. It has body. I brewed it pretty light, because these days I’m trying to limit my caffeine intake, but the tea still delivered. It’s no longer youthful, and exhibits a taste that is typical of something that’s been around for its age and stored in a wettish climate. The wet leaves look good too.

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At this point, one must wonder – why bother buying new cakes of teas that are the same price as this, when there’s something like this to be had? At the same price, you can have something from a reputable tea master aged 10 years, or you can buy some new cake of supposed old tree material (a sometimes questionable claim) and chance it ten years from now. To me, the choice seems pretty obvious.

Taobao Lottery: “1995″ “Cheshunhao”

Tea, unless it’s a gift, costs money. So when we talk about tea, like it or not, we have to mention the cost of the tea. When we say a tea is “good”, do we mean it’s good, full stop? Or is it good, for this price? Or good, at any price?

I am guessing when most of us are writing or reading reviews, we read “good” as being “good at this price”. So when someone writes about how a tea is very interesting, stimulating, multi-faceted, etc, and is really good, I suspect s/he is saying that it is really good at the current prices at which the tea is obtainable. It may also be written with no reference to prices at all, and may simply mean that “this tea is good in comparison with others of this type I’ve tried”. There are probably some teas that fall into the category of “good at any price”, but those teas, I’m afraid, are few and far between.

So when I am writing about tea, even when unspoken, I tend to be writing with the idea of “good, at this price” in mind. Some are unequivocally good, others need to be qualified, and when such qualifications are necessary, I usually state them clearly so that there is no misunderstanding or inflated expectations, especially if that’s a tea that can be had easily.

Such is the case with a cake I found recently on Taobao, and then I have briefly recommended on Teachat. This supposed Cheshunhao is basically a white-paper cake, which means that it provides almost no info on the maker. Sure, it has a name, and the seller claims a date, but as far as I am concerned, I’m buying the tea on its merits alone.

When I picked it it was almost a pure gamble. The vendor has a lot of impossibly cheap cakes. This thing’s claim of 1995 is, at best, questionable. Then again, it’s offered at a price that, at worst, represents a loss of $25 USD. I probably wouldn’t have bothered if I were still in the US, but since I now own a magic card that lets me buy direct, $25 isn’t the end of the world.

What I got was a cake that tasted old – old enough, anyway, for it to be more than worth the cost of admission. It has had some traditional storage, but that storage was a long time ago – at least 8 -10 years past. The cake takes like some similar cakes I’ve had from early 2000s, so while the claim of this being from 1995 may be a bit exaggerated, it’s not terribly far fetched – certainly not a three year old tea claiming to be 17. In Hong Kong, if I find a cake like this, it might cost me $80-100 USD. So, this price is very, very good, and the tea, while it has its flaws, is quite drinkable.

Is it the best tea out there? Heck no. I told TwoDog about this cake, and he bought a cake (or more?) for himself to try. He reports the tea also as being more than worthwhile, but he also found a lot of foreign objects in it. I haven’t yet – only a bit of human hair, which is almost de rigueur for older cakes that are cheap. The leaves are long and big – too long, in fact, and has a lot of woody stems. That aside, it’s not too bad.

What I would recommend this cake for are the following: 1) quaffing at the office, 2) drinking if you want something that tastes aged and does not break the bank, and 3) getting acquainted with something that has had a touch of traditional storage without an overpowering sense of storage mustiness. I think this cake fits the bill for those jobs, and I would strongly recommend it – based on the cake I tried and so long as it stays at this price.

Taobao lottery: 2011 Douji “Yudou”

A recent development in my tea consumption is the fact that I got a new credit card that allows me direct access to Taobao – whereas previously one needed a mainland bank account to pay for things on Taobao, which means dodgy bank transfers and annoying paperwork, with this card I can use it directly without any hindrance and get a bill at the end of the month. This, as you can imagine, is a very bad thing.

Among the things I bought recently is a total surprise. It’s a surprise because I didn’t buy it – I was buying something else entirely, but somehow the vendor sent me the wrong thing – something he doesn’t even lists as being sold, but he obviously has. The cake in question is the Douji 2011 Yudou (jade dou).

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The dreaded sticker – which, I’m happy to report, is no longer as sticky as their 2006/2007 teas, which means less damage to the paper when you try to peel it off.

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And a complete surprise when I opened the wrapper – you can tell where a major market for Douji tea is, and it’s not China.

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The Yudou is a blend. Any of Douji’s “xdou” cakes are blends. Whereas prior to about 2008, they listed clearly what their teas were, starting around then they came out with a large series of “xdou” which were various blends of various things. I believe Yudou is one of the higher grade ones. I’ve never had any of these, mostly because ever since about 2007 Douji’s prices have slowly crept up as they got more famous, and also because there’s just such a dizzying array of them. I’d rather spend my time drinking some of their higher end products and so never actually tried these things.

The cake, as I discovered, sells for $47 at eBay through China Chadao, which is about the same price as the Taobao prices. Douji is an outfit that has been able to maintain a fairly good grip on its secondary vendors, and keeps the prices of everyone’s teas about the same – if you go to Taobao and search, you’ll find that most of their products are sold in the same tight range of prices, as there’s a clear floor under which you’re not allowed to sell. I talked to one of these guys last year when I went to Beijing, and he said if they discover you’re selling under the floor, your franchise as a Douji distributor will be immediate revoked. So you don’t risk that.

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It’s not a bad looking cake, and it smells ok too. China Chadao claims it’s a blend of four teas – Mengku, Hekai, Mengsong, and Youle, probably in that order.

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The tea tasted that way – a lot of high notes that reminds me of Mengku tea, with some Menghai undertones and maybe just a hint of Youle. It has a decent throatiness, but somehow, at the end of the day, delivers a relatively unsatisfying cup – it’s nice and all, and has a lot of bells and whistles, but after a few infusions, it’s a bit thin and boring, and doesn’t leave me wanting more. This is quite unlike a lot of what I’ve been drinking recently, which are mostly supposed gushu samples from a few different Taobao vendors. Even the bad ones are interesting, at least. This tea checks the boxes, but isn’t that interesting.

I was lucky, since I got this tea at 49 RMB – the cake I paid for was 98, and the seller gave me half refund for sending me the wrong thing. I only realized afterwards that he probably lost money on this trade. At the price I paid, this tea is quite fine. At $47 though, I’d have to think about it. That, unfortunately, is the larger story of a lot of newer teas these days – they are expensive, but often without anything to show for it. A friend recently bought a 2012 Douji “Banzhang” cake recently to try at a not-very-low price, and the tea is all Laoman’e – bitterness to infinity. That, unfortunately, is not really what you want in your tea, and certainly not if you’re paying good money for it. It’s hard committing to new productions of puerh this year. We can always hope that prices will come down again after a few years of nonstop rises, but hope, alas, does not make it happen.

Perils of shopping online

One of the perils of shopping online for tea is that you don’t get to try the stuff you’re about to buy. A little while ago I recommended the 2005 Chenguanghe Tang Menghai Yesheng to Hster as something worth buying. The only place online that sells it is Hou De Asian Art. I recently procured a number of this cake from Taiwan directly, and I’ve always like this cake. Since I am fairly sure Guang from Hou De sourced his teas from the same place I bought mine, I was rather confident in recommending the cake.

Well, Guang, rather unhelpfully perhaps, doesn’t offer samples. So when I sent Hster a bunch of teas recently for her to try, I included a sample of this 2005 tea for her as well. I didn’t realize that another tea from, Ira, also sent Hster a sample of this, but his sample is from a cake he recently purchased via Hou De. The result is this rather interesting post. Seems like while the two cakes are from the same batch, they are not quite the same after all.

So now, time for some pictures to compare the two. First up are Ira’s pictures of his cake, published with permission.

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Other than the first picture, I didn’t white-balance them because it’s difficult to do without any good reference point, and the picture looks like it might have two light sources, one natural and the other one not. Ignoring the colour of the leaves, there are a few things you can notice from these pictures. The first is that the surface of the leaves look dull, and not very shiny. The leaves also seem to have copious amounts of white dots on them, a sign of mold, perhaps, unless it’s an artifact of the camera. More importantly, the dots seem to be present on the leaves that are inside the cake, not just on the surface. All this is slightly difficult to draw conclusions from, but it seems as though this cake has seen a lot of moisture and perhaps some mold grew on it. Whether or not it is controlled in a traditional storage environment, or bad storage that caused mold, is harder to say.

So I took some pictures of the cake I used for Hster’s sample as a comparison

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What you can see here are a few things: the leaves are shinier, without the slightly furry look of the other cake. The sheen on the leaves is indicative of a drier storage, although I think the cake should best be termed as having undergone natural storage – just left around in a relatively humid environment generally, such as that of Taiwan. More importantly, you also see no obvious indication of mold growing on the cake – there are a few stems that are slightly white, but generally speaking, they are absent.

I obviously cannot comment on what happened – who knows. There are possibilities – perhaps the cake at Hou De was poorly stored to begin with, due to excessive moisture or some such, during a part of its storage somewhere. Sometimes it is quite possible even for cakes within the same tong to develop somewhat differently, especially the cake at the top or the bottom of a tong – they can get moist easily and grow mold while the other cakes are fine. I don’t know if Hou De’s entire batch was bad, or if it’s just one cake out of many. I also have no way of knowing if this problem developed before or after Hou De acquired their cake.

It is quite possible that even Guang himself doesn’t realize there is a problem (if he considers it a problem at all, that is). After all, a customer might feel weird if they receive a cake that was opened prior to purchase, but that is in fact sometimes what must be done to ensure that you’re getting something decent. Just yesterday I bought two cakes from Sunsing, and before taking the goods the employee there actually encouraged me to look at the cakes to make sure they’re ok. For teas that have been aged some years, it is usually a good idea to do so, because you never know what’s happened under the wrapper. It doesn’t help that this 2005 Yesheng has a particularly thick and inflexible wrapper – the thickness of the wrapper may also trap any moisture and cause higher likelihood of mold than otherwise. So you can’t even see through the wrapper to see what’s going on underneath.

Obviously, sampling wouldn’t have helped either, because the samples come from one cake, and the full cake you receive is another one. They could very well be the same, and very often they would be more or less the same. There is still, as always, the risk of something wrong having happened. I suppose this is not too different from corked wine that you end up with once in a while at perfectly well meaning stores. The important thing there, I guess, is to make sure they have an ironclad return policy. Although, in the case of tea, a bit of moisture often doesn’t kill, and if aired out sufficiently and properly, the tea can actually taste quite good.

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