Taobao price controls

I was just randomly browsing through Taobao the other day, looking to maybe buy a couple cakes of those mid-2000s Dayi that I finished up during the pandemic. Except, they’re all gone, and the seller that I bought them from no longer sells any Dayi of any kind. This was unusual, since he used to have quite a few of them and it’s unlikely he’s sold out of all. Now his store only sells stuff like Nanqiao… and nobody wants to buy mid-2000s Nanqiao when Dayi is only a little more expensive.

So I DMed the guy and asked what was happening. Turns out, recently something was going on and Dayi basically managed to get Taobao to kick off all these small time tea sellers selling Dayi. Now when you search for Dayi, the only people who sell them on Taobao are the official stores, and at prices that are way higher than what was possible only a few months ago. If you look for, say, 7542 from 10+ years ago, you get less than 20 hits. Previously, you’ll get literally endless pages of the stuff. Granted, there was a fair amount of fakes in there, and you have to be careful, but there were also lots of sellers selling real tea among them. Now they’re all gone. I can still get the tea from the guy I DMed if I want, but that’s not really something you can do if you don’t know Chinese or if you don’t already know who has the good stuff.

This means that if you are bargain hunting on Taobao, that door has just closed. It’s possible to find older teas from small producers that could be good, but those are a real lottery ticket and it’s very risky to do so. If you just want some cheap Dayi, chances are finding a vendor who is located in Guangdong and has physical access to a place like Fangcun is now the better bet.

This is a troubling development. It’s probably done in the name of protecting the brand and to kick out counterfeit goods, but also ends up stopping people from undercutting officially set prices. So, just know that if you now go on Taobao to check prices… what you see is not what really happens in the market place. A lot of these teas from the big brands are being traded at a level lower than what you see on retail there. You can go to or something like that to check wholesale prices, but that still doesn’t give you access to the retail market unless you already know someone who’s there.


Since there’s no travel or anything of that sort in the pandemic, tea buying has to go online (well for those of us who used to do it in person anyway). One thing I’ve done recently is try about a dozen different 7542s from 10+ years ago. These are all from about 2006-2010. The advantage of this is that none of them are too expensive – the most expensive one is still under 1000 RMB, which, for a 10+ year tea, isn’t so bad. The cheapest is around 300 RMB, which at $50 is a lot cheaper than even a lot of newer teas. All of them I bought off Taobao. Retail is usually not much above wholesale prices, which you can get a rough check on with sites like Donghe. They even have an English version of the site.

The prices are reasonable because there just aren’t a lot of buyers. Some years ago I was musing about how in ten or twelve years, there will be a lot of people sitting on a lot of aged tea and they are going to let them go at prices that weren’t too far away from what they paid. The supply is too large and demand relatively small for these teas to rise astronomically like the stuff from the 1990s. If you are an “investor” and looking for capital gains on your tea, you buy those special production stuff from Dayi instead of 7542s. If you’re a drinker, you’re probably not storing 7542s en masse. There were a lot of these made, and the volume drinkers (restaurants, etc) aren’t using Dayi anymore in their teapots.

Storage for these tea is paramount – if you go on Taobao and you buy the same production from Kunming, the taste is a lot younger than some guy selling it from Guangdong. Location is no guarantee – a seller in Guangdong could’ve bought his lot from some guy in Kunming, or Beijing, or whatever. So finding the right guy with the right storage at the right price takes a bit of guesswork and luck, but once you find it, it’s worth it.

What’s the result of my tastings? Well… they’re all pretty decent. 7542s, from batch to batch, could have fairly obvious differences, although these differences are more obvious the more experienced you are drinking pu. One of the teas I bought, from 2007, has a distinct fruity taste up front, while another one costing double does not, but is instead stronger and lasts longer in the cup. Is the more expensive one a better tea? Yes, certainly. Is it worth the extra price? That’s much harder to say. It probably depends on how much those $50 is worth to you.

There is also the risk of buying fakes, that’s unavoidable when dealing with Dayi or any of the major factories. You could try to get yourself a black light and play with the labels, you could do comparisons, but at the end of the day, once you’ve had enough 7542s, you can tell the basic 7542 taste almost immediately – fakers don’t normally use decent tea, otherwise they can’t make money (they’re better off selling it as “ancient tree single village tea” or some such). There was a point in time when fake teas could be as good as real ones, but not in the 2006-2010 timeframe (or later).

2018 Shenzhen Global Tea Fair

I haven’t been to a mainland Chinese tea fair in quite a few years. Back in the day, I’d go when I get a chance, although in general, they’re all rather samey – a lot of big displays from big producers, plus a whole bunch of smaller stalls from smaller, no name sellers and producers that seem to exist on the sidelines just because. This year I got asked to give a talk at the 2018 Shenzhen Global Tea Fair, originally by Livio Zanini to be part of a panel. However, as that fell through, I figured… why not, I’ll go anyway, so I ended up going anyway to give a talk based on A Foreign Infusion.

One thing to note is that all these tea fairs around the country are done by the same company – Huajuchen, who have a rotating schedule of tea fairs all around. So there really is something to the idea that once you’ve been to one, you’ve been to all – because they’re all organized by the same people who travel around China to do these. Shenzhen is one of their biggest, and it’s big – about six halls worth of tea stalls. This is what parts of one looks like

I got there early, before they formally opened, so I took a quick walk around before any customers showed up. Tea fairs in China are part trade show, part consumer expos. For the bigger producers, I think it’s a branding exercise. For the smaller guys, it’s an important retail outlet. Last time I went to a Chinese tea expo, probably ten years ago or so, it was mostly puerh. These days, there’s a lot more white tea and liubao, although puerh is still quite important. Interesting to note though, some of the biggest brands in pu, like Dayi, don’t seem to be there – perhaps there’s no real reason to splash a bunch of money on what has to be a lavish stall (because they’re the biggest brand after all) and the return on such a stall is minimal, since everyone already knows who they are.

For someone like me, the more interesting stalls are always the small ones. The big brands you can find everywhere, the small ones you never see. Unlike in the past, however, when I’d happily spend hours sitting at stalls drinking this year’s production, these days I’m really not very interested in new-make puerh. Instead, I looked around for older stuff – there isn’t much that is interested in the older puerh category, since they look kinda like this

Which are stalls that claim to sell “old tea, dry storage”, mostly pu from the 90s or 2000s, at pretty inflated prices and questionable quality. I can find cheaper or better elsewhere, no thanks.

There are also some interesting, new concepts like this one

What the hell is “Tea York Hub” you ask? Well, the Chinese name makes more sense – “Haochacang” or “Good Tea Storage”. Basically, this is a rent-a-storage service. They’re not aiming to make money from selling you tea (although I think they dabble in that too) but they’re there to sell you tea lockers where you can store your tea in a climate controlled environment. Pretty brilliant, actually, capitalizing on people’s collections without taking on the risk of actually holding onto 1000 jians of Dayi 7542s. Dayi prices in recent days, for example, having been taking a bit of a dive.

After I gave my talk I ended up doing a few more rounds and ended up trying out some aged oolongs at a few stalls. Whereas I have a lifetime supply of old Taiwan oolongs, aged Wuyi, good ones anyway, are much harder to come by. I did end up at a guy who had some decent 15 years old aged Wuyi, and I bought a couple small cans. He’s one of these smaller producers with a store in Shenzhen. Maybe I’ll talk about the tea another day.

Not your average bottled tea

So, bottled teas are, of course, everywhere these days. Most of the time, they’re some cheap, crappy tea in a PET bottle. In a pinch, it’s good for a caffeine fix. That’s about it.

Not this one

I saw this at a local fancy supermarket. It’s in a wine bottle. It’s tea. You can read the description yourself. What I didn’t shoot was the price – one bottle of this “Queen of Blue Deluxe” is $800 HKD, roughly $100 USD, and you thought your $2.49 bottled green tea was expensive.

This company exists on the web. It’s Japanese, unsurprisingly. The tea “Queen of Blue Deluxe” also exists on their site, for about 4500 yen, which is like $40 USD. Quite a markup to sell at $100 instead, of course, but they do have to pay Hong Kong rent, shipping, etc.

Supposedly, the tea was extracted over the course of seven days in a kind of cold brew. Pro tip: you can probably do this at home in a fridge, for a lot less than $100 a bottle. If anyone wants to buy me one to try it, I’d be happy to give it a whirl. But at these prices, I’d rather buy this.

Buy less, buy better

These days I’m not doing much buying – there’s just no good reason to. Part of it, of course, is the slow realization that I no longer need anything. There’s only so much tea one can consume – assuming 10g a day, you’re talking 3.6kg a year, which isn’t that much more than 1.5 tongs of tea, roughly. That’s 15 tongs for ten years, or 60 tongs for basically 40 years. You really don’t need that much.

Of course, this is coming from someone who already has a lifetime supply of tea, so I suppose it can come across as one of those posts where someone rich is telling others to live simply. However, looking back, I think there’s something to be said about buying less but buying better, for the simple reason that the crap, the stuff that isn’t very good, will never be revisited. If you’re buying and storing puerh, and are holding onto that cheap tong of whatever that you picked up hoping that it’ll turn into something better, chances are it’s not going to happen – it will stay terrible, and you’ll never drink it, and ten years from now you wonder why it’s still there because it’s still bad and you have other better teas to drink.

I know I’ve talked about hitting hard with a hammer, but there’s a big caveat with that – you only do that when you know something is good and something you’d want to drink. Having a whole bunch of stuff that you hope will turn into something you may want to drink years from now is a terrible proposition – and will usually end up with just wasted space. There are warehouses full of crap in places like Guangzhou. Those will eventually have to come to the market. The price for old but mediocre tea will never go up much, even if it’s old.

Getting rid of the tea also presents a problem – I have no idea what to do with the tea that I don’t really want. If it’s something I wouldn’t want to drink, chances are I wouldn’t want to sell it – because it feels wrong to sell off tea that I know is no good. Tea also costs money to ship, which is not great. What exactly does one do with unwanted tea? Compost? It’s a problem and there isn’t even really a good solution.

The same logic can apply to teaware, which, of course, I also happen to be sitting on a lot of. My normal rotation of yixing pots, for example, consists of only about half a dozen pots. The rest of them just sit there to look pretty. It’s fun collecting, and I enjoy every piece. However… there comes a point when you have too many. I probably long crossed that line, so these days, only stuff that is really special are worth collecting. Otherwise….. forget it.

So, when choosing something to buy, buy less, but buy better. Better, of course, is the hard part. But eventually that will pay off in the long term.

Is Dayi or Xiaguan worth it?

So reader Serg asked in my fake Dayi post if it’s worth it to navigate through the sea of offerings on something like Taobao looking for real Dayi or Xiaguan teas. There are actually two parts to this question – the first is if it’s worth it to navigate it through the sea of fakes, and the second is if something like Dayi or Xiaguan is inherently worth it.

First of all, buying teas off Taobao, especially if you have to go through an agent who then re-ships it to you, carries an inherent risk. What is sold is not necessarily what you see on the page, and if you go through an agent there’s no real recourse. I can at least talk to the sellers myself and get refunds, maybe (usually not) but with an agent it’s definitely impossible. Basically, if a tea normally sells for 1000, and you find it for 900, you really have no way to tell if the tea is being sold a little lower because the seller wants to get rid of it, or if it’s a fake that wants your attention. As I mentioned in my fake Dayi post, on the product page you have no real way of telling if the cake is real or not. I knew it’s fake because the price was obviously too low to be true, but it’s not going to be obvious if the price is about right.

The only way around it is this: buy from the official stores. For Dayi, you can visit the Dayi tmall store (tmall is the more respective division of Taobao). For Xiaguan I believe it’s here. They’re not going to be a deal, or have older teas, but at least you’ll know you’re not getting fakes. In short, no, don’t bother buying from random sellers on Taobao unless you’ve gambled and bought stuff from them that’s real (assuming you have a decent idea what real tastes like) and you are willing to spend that money that may end up with fakes.

The more important question is: are these teas worth it in general?

Well, I think this question is harder to answer. I generally think less of Xiaguan teas, so let’s focus on Dayi. The thing with Dayi is there are different kinds of Dayi products. There are the cooked puerh – which I will absolutely endorse so long as they’re not the special, limited production stuff that cost an arm and a leg. The regular stuff that they put out, like 7452, are quite decent and taste better than most cooked puerh out there. If you are into that sort of thing, buy them.

Now, for raw puerh, there are also the regular productions and the special ones. The ones that generate buzz these days are the special productions. Usually they give a reason to come out with them – a special event, an anniversary, or whatever. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they are producing teas that are usually one-off, and are usually limited in quantity. This has a few effects. People who buy up a lot of these early on can quite easily scoop up enough and control some portion of the market. They are easily identifiable, and so easy for consumers to notice. I think much of the reason for pumping out these special editions is to drive up market demand. If it’s just the same 7542 every year, there’s no reason for people to plump down money to buy them. Getting out these special blends that are a bit different every year will ensure that people who already have too much tea are going to keep buying – many are just stamp collectors who buy because they want some of everything, not necessarily because they want to drink them.

In the aged market, things are a bit trickier. Before about year 2000 things were simpler, there weren’t as many special pressings and what not, and teas are generally identifiable by recipe number and maybe a vague year range. That market is probably not what Serg was asking about, because the prices for those cakes are high. For the later stuff, starting especially around 2002 or 2003, you see a lot of these newer pressings that are one off. There are the hyped up stuff – Green Big Tree, Gold and Silver Dayi from 2003, etc, that are quite expensive now. There are also the less celebrated ones – teas that nobody bothered to hype. Those can still be pretty reasonable.

Why do people buy Dayi though? Well, I think there are a few reasons. First of all – if you buy something that you’d like to, maybe, resell one day, Dayi is probably better than anyone else, because there’s always a secondary market for it. A lot of people buy a lot of tea that they will never finish drinking. If you buy a private label whatever, chances are you can’t sell it off at a price that means much of an appreciation, if at all. On the other hand, if you have a whole jian of some Dayi tea from 2009, chances are you are sitting on some paper profits there. It’s just a matter of market forces.

The other thing is among all the brands, Dayi has one of the longest track records for producing tea. This is of course mostly due to history – there were only three factories making puerh back in the day, and Dayi is the one that has made the most out of it, with Kunming having died and Xiaguan generally producing teas that don’t age as well. So, in that sense, buying Dayi is the safe choice – it will age fine, into whatever Dayis tend to age into. You will probably be sitting on tea that will be decent in ten, fifteen, twenty years. It’s not going to be that ancient tree, single mountain stuff that commands top dollar these days, but that’s not why you buy Dayi. Also, there’s definitely something to be said about blends – they are more interesting and more complex. I have had many aged (now ten years or more) single estate teas that can be pretty boring and flat because it’s so one-note. Dayi will help you avoid that problem.

Ultimately, the question of whether something is worth it or not is really quite subjective – some people think it’s totally worth it to shell out thousands of dollars on a bottle of wine. Others will cringe at the idea of spending more than $20 on a bottle. It’s the same with tea. Without knowing how much money is worth it to you, and how much you value certain attributes for a tea, it’s impossible to say if something is worth it. With Dayi, you pay for a brand premium (which, of course, translates into that reselling premium). You pay for some certainty with aging characteristics. You pay for some certainty in reliability. Whether any of those are worth it… is really up to you.

Different shades of fakes

When we say a tea is fake, what do we really mean? This is really an interesting epistemological problem because not only are we asking what “fake tea” means, but also how we can determine when something is fake. As is the case with a lot of things, there are varying shades of fakeness. I’ll try to go through them from most severe to least severe.

1. Bad tea as good. This is the worst of the worst – tea that is spoiled or been brewed or otherwise ruined being sold as good, new tea, so on so forth. The possibilities for this category are really endless, since there are a million ways to make something out of nothing. Among them is the cake I blogged about recently where it was a mix of raw and cooked puerh, and the raw leaves were completely tasteless and flavourless – probably leaves already brewed and then dried again to be pressed.

2. The selling of non-teas as tea. In the West these would be called tisane, but are then sold as teas. This happens more in China than anywhere else. I still remember way back when I was still in high school, I was in an organized group tour of Fujian province. We visited some places, including Wuyi mountains. We were taken to a tea shop, and of course we were served some teas. One of the last things they showed us was this thing the guy called “one leaf gan“. Gan, of course, is Chinese for the sweet sensation you get from drinking tea. The tea was sold as something special, etc etc, and how only a couple leaves in a cup will leave a nice gan taste in your mouth. Since this was a tour organized by the local government authorities, I thought it would be ok to buy some of this as a souvenir (i.e. not too likely to be cheated). Needless to say, I way overpaid for what I now know as kuding cha. Rookie mistake there.

There’s a lot of other types of things that get sold as teas even though they’re really not, with Yunnan being a particularly rich source of these alternative plants that people then harvest to make into tea in order to capitalize on the puerh craze. One that you might see more often is yabao. These are buds that look a little like tiny bamboo shoots, and is most often sold by puerh vendors as wild, ancient tea buds. In fact, quite often these aren’t even from camellia sinensis trees. These buds are quite cheap but are often upsold as rare, wild, etc, and with a price tag to match. They don’t age, so buying them for aging is really a bad idea. They are also very cold in nature in Chinese medicine terms, and can cause stomach problems for some people. You can even find them in cake forms, like this and this for example on Taobao. Similarly, you might see “teas” like camellia taliensis being sold as puerh. My suggestion is avoid all these pseudo-teas unless you explicitly want them.

3. Obscuring origins. This is where things get tricky. When you think about it, nothing is stopping a vendor from heading down to the nearest Chinatown supermarket, buy up a bunch of tins of tea that cost $5 each, empty them, and repack them as premium teas and reselling them to you at 4x the markup. If you’re buying tea at $20 an ounce, you’re probably not buying $5 cans of tea from Chinatown, so you would be none-the-wiser. There’s also the rather common practice of intentionally selling something as something else. For example, in Nantou county the only place you can probably name as a tea producing area is probably Dongding, which is famous for its oolong. You have probably never heard of Mingjian, which actually produces a lot more tea but is on lower elevation with flat land and mostly machine-harvested. However, better teas from the Mingjian area is often, if not always, sold as Dongding. Try go out and find a Mingjian tea – you won’t find many vendors selling that.

The reason is of course money. Dongding gets a better price. Unless you know the areas well and the teas well, you probably can’t tell the difference if you just drink them. Because tea has no inherent labels, anything can be sold as anything else. For things that are obviously far apart, it’s hard to do, but for things that are closer together – location, style, etc, it’s not hard to do at all. Witness all the uproar in Taiwan about imported oolongs from Vietnam, for example, or all the maocha being imported to places like Lao Banzhang which are then sold to outsiders buying them to press into their LBZ cakes when in fact the teas are not LBZ at all. Because there is so much variation in tea from cup to cup, it’s very easy to obscure this sort of thing and sell one tea as A when it’s in fact from B. Unless the person doing the buying knows the area intimately well, and in the case of puerh, follows the tea their entire way from tree to cake, it’s very easy to get sold something completely different.

4. Inflating statistics. This is sort of similar to the previous one, but in things like the age of the tea, the age of the tree that produced the tea, that sort of thing. For example – how do you determine age on an aged oolong? There are ways – the shape of the leaves, the taste, the colour, but those things are subtle, and unless you’ve seen and drunk a lot of aged oolongs, it’s not going to be easy to judge. If a vendor says their aged oolong is 30 years old, what do you do with that information? I can tell you right now that it’s not hard finding aged oolongs that are 20+ years old, but it’s a lot harder to find nice aged oolongs 30+ years old. The price difference is pretty significant, but so is the taste. Someone selling a tea to you claiming it’s over 30 years old is going to be charging you a lot more money than it would be at 20+ but unless you can objectively judge it yourself, the room for, well, inflated claims are high. I’ve had some aged oolong from Taiwan that are almost certainly faked – but done quite well so that it’s very hard to spot. If I hadn’t had hundreds of aged oolongs, I would’ve fallen for them too.

It’s even worse with age of trees, and we’ve seen plenty of controversies in the past few years with vendors making somewhat outrageous claims with the age of tea trees. The much harder to verify claims is when someone moves up one age bracket – going from, say, 100 years old trees to 2-300 years old. Or having teas that are actually mixed being sold as pure old tree material. Again, the room for error is quite large here.

In a funny way, pressed puerh tea is probably the most transparent in the market for this sort of thing. Especially for older teas, there’s a pretty good record of documentation for a lot of productions, and this is information freely available on the web. There’s good agreement on what different era teas look like and the type of packaging they come with. Loose leaf tea is a lot harder to judge as a result, but aged puerh is relatively easy to spot fakes for in the eyes of the experienced. So even though aged puerh is one of the most heavily faked areas, because of the promise of money, it is also where one could, if one does enough studying, relatively safely navigate the waters. Staring at a bag of loose oolong and trying to figure out how much it’s worth is actually quite a bit more difficult.

5. Finally we’ve got stories. I think it’s safe to say that there are now two kinds of online vendors in the West. The first are the no-story vendors. You have people like White2Tea who is now eschewing any kind of story-telling. He might as well just give his teas Greek letters as names and just put “tea” in product description, since tasting notes are generally worthless anyway given the infinite variation of water, brewing parameters, and teaware producing different kinds of tastes. You have people like Yunnan Sourcing who just describe the item without much fanfare. I tend to prefer this style of tea selling – you’re, hopefully, buying just the tea.

Then you have story-tellers. Vendors in this category tend to focus on personalities – either the vendor him/herself, or the people who supposedly are making the tea they are selling. The former type tend to be marketed as some kind of tea-master, tea-monk, or whatever pseudo-religious type of personality you prefer. You see this in Asia and you see this in the West as well. All I can say about them is this – it’s always a healthy idea to shop around, because the truths that one person has discovered about tea cannot be the only truth. All too often, I see people who have gone down the rabbit hole and follow their master into some pretty dubious territory of paying top dollar for inferior tea and teaware. When you have identified one “master” to follow and believe every word they say about tea, this sort of thing tends to happen. There are always ones who then “wake up” from this slumber and discover that they’ve been conned, but usually that’s only after some time and a lot of money spent. I certainly think I spent more money than I should have at the Best Tea House, although thankfully I never bought that much tea from them either owing to my discovery of cheaper, better sources relatively quickly, and not spending that much time in Hong Kong in my formative years of tea drinking.

The type of vendor that focus on the tea farmers I only really see in the West. I think there’s a certain exoticism that comes attached to this marketing ploy, and the consumer is paying for what they perceive as authenticity. If I buy from this vendor, then I’m pretty much buying direct from the farmer who made this tea I’m drinking with their bare hands! Or so the thinking goes. There’s definitely a certain attractiveness to this idea. I personally like visiting tea farms as well, if for nothing else than to talk to the farmers and see what they’re up to. They are, generally speaking, nice people (but of course, I’m also always a potential customer). The problem is, most of these farmers are also making teas that are, well, mediocre. I can’t tell you how many forgettable visits I’ve had of farmers whose teas are just “meh,” or worse. Just because a tea is direct from some farmer doesn’t mean it’s good. Traditionally, nobody bought direct from farmers. In the old days teashops in major cities would buy from middlemen who went to the mountains to purchase maocha from the farmers. These shops would then blend, process, and package the tea. and then resold to the end consumer. The processing often includes additional roasting and that sort of thing. There’s nothing inherently “authentic” about buying direct from the farm – if anything it’s a pretty recent phenomenon from the past few decades as transportation to a lot of tea farming areas improved so that any random person can drive up and visit.

There are also those pictures – oh those lovely pictures of tea plants in neat rows with mountains in the back. What they might not show you is how the person taking the photo might be standing on the ditch next to the highway that’s 10ft behind them, or the undergrowth that are all yellow because they just sprayed herbicide on them last week, or other similar things. Farmers are also vendors, and quite often some farmers will also carry teas made by others for one reason or another. Farmers, I hate to say, also tell lies to sell their teas, and these lies are then retold to the Western consumer in “authentic” form through instragram-filtered photos and neat little videos. Are these fakes? Strictly speaking, no. But it’s important to remember that what you’re buying and drinking is the tea. There are genuine farmers doing interesting things with their teas, but those are pretty rare. Most of the time, the teas are replaceable and paying extra for the story you’re told is really nothing but smoke-and-mirrors.

Someone pointed out to me that much of this marketing of farmers is quite similar to what’s been going on for far longer in the wine industry. There’s certainly a bit of parallel there, but also important differences. The first is that wineries tend not to sell other people’s wines, for obvious reasons. It’s also not that easy (nor profitable) to fake newly produced wines from other places – unless it’s a Romanee Conti or something equally exalted. Appellation control is nonexistent for tea. So…. yes, there are similarities, but also important differences. What works for the wine industry may not be such a great idea for the tea industry, because the nature of the products are inherently different. Maybe we will see things evolve from here that works better for tea, but a farmer-focused approach is, I think, quite misguided as currently done.

The advice I have for newcomers is the same as always – drink around. Talk to people – different kinds of people. Don’t get too attached to one vendor. Compare and be critical. The internet makes all this possible. Use it.

Taobao lottery: The raw and the cooked

Every so often I buy some tea from Taobao. Sometimes it’s a cake I already know and like and am just stocking up a little more. More often it’s something random – given that there’s MiniN and MicroN in the picture, my days of roaming the tea market for days on end is more or less over (at least for now). So, instead, I get to virtually shop online through the wonder that is Taobao, where Jack Ma claims the fake goods are better than the real deal.

Well, here’s a fake that isn’t better than the real deal. The reason I bought this cake is because the wrapper suggests that this may be related to a small boutique whose tea I have some faint interest in, and that this tea is sold as a 2003 tea. Given the lowish price (under 100 RMB) I figured I can buy a lottery ticket. Worst case, it’s just a bad tea and I chalk it up to eating a bad meal somewhere, or something. The cake looks ok-ish in person

The smell though put me off. When I smelled the tea after it arrived it smelled like cooked puerh, which is odd, since this is supposed to be a raw tea. There was no hint of rawness in the smell – none of that sweet aroma of aging tea, or the youthful greenness that you get with a younger tea (as befits a Kunming stored puerh). Instead, just a faint whiff of cooked puerh. I chalked it up to potentially the couple bags of cooked puerh samples the seller threw in with the cake.

There are some oddities on the cake itself – hard to see with any kind of picture but apparent if you examine it in detail. There are some leaves that look funny, with little white dots that are uncharacteristic of dry Kunming storage. But, that alone isn’t going to be enough to warn anyone.

Then I brewed it, and that’s when everything became really obvious. The tea is actually a mix – a mix of raw and cooked leaves, to be exact. The tea brews brown, like a cooked tea, and smells of cooked puerh. There’s no hint of rawness in the tea. The wet leaves look like this

You can see that there’s a mix here – the cooked tea is the dark stuff, and this is the variety that is very cooked – they’re carbonized, hard leaves that don’t really bend, not the soft stuff you might see from Menghai. In other words, this is cheap stuff. The raw tea is probably worse – I suspect it is brewed tea leaves that are then dried again, because if they were using new leaves there’s no way that the tea doesn’t impart any taste, but as it is there’s almost no raw, new tea taste to it despite the tea consisting of mostly raw leaves. I only took a couple small sips before dumping the whole lot.

What’s the lesson here? Well, anything is possible, even stuff you thought impossible. Judge a tea on its own merits and not on what the vendor is telling you, and sometimes the truth is pretty disgusting. And Jack Ma is wrong at least when it comes to tea – the vast majority of the fakes are horrible things that should never be drunk.

Competition trouble

Many of you know that in Taiwan, they have tea competitions. The basic idea is that farmers would submit sample teas (ranging from 5 jin to 20 jin – one jin is 600g, depending on where, what, etc) for the competition. These got started by 1930 or so under Japanese rule. These days, some allow multiple entries while others only allow single entry per member of whatever association is holding that competition. The teas are judged anonymously, and then after multiple rounds of tastings a winner is declared with multiple winners of lower ranks underneath. Some teas are thrown out as not being good enough (and returned to the farmer). The teas that win a certain grade will then be packaged in sealed containers inside sealed boxes with dated labels, and then they would be returned to the farmers to sell.

The whole thing was supposed to encourage farmers to up their game and create better teas, and top winner for the big competitions, like the Lugu Tea Farmers Association one, could fetch prices of over 30,000 NTD (about 1000 USD) per jin in that special packaging. Compared to a normal price or about 3-4,000 NTD a jin for a top grade Dong Ding tea, that’s a big upgrade. For those 20 jin of tea the farmer is making 10x the normal amount. It also helps his sales for other stuff. Farmers who win the top prize can get a big wooden plaque to commemorate the win, and they frequently hang these in their shop to showcase their abilities. Some have so many they just stack them on the side of room because they don’t have enough space to hang all of them.

So this is all great right? Well, not so fast. There are troubles beneath the surface, some of which were topics of conversation between myself and some tea farmers/sellers that I have talked to in the last week I spent here in the middle part of Taiwan. The first is this: what you see is not really what you get. For example, when you see teas coming out of the competition for the Lugu Farmers Association, does it mean that all the tea came from Lugu? No, not at all. Many entries, if not most, use teas from higher elevation as the base for their entry. In fact, if you use local Lugu tea, you’re probably going to lose because the low elevation tea from Lugu simply don’t stand up to the much higher quality teas from higher areas. The thickness of the tea, the aroma, etc, are not up to normal judging standards. In other words, you can’t compete. So, when you end up with, say, Lugu Tea Farmers Association competition tea, know full well that the tea might be Dong Ding style (higher oxidation and roast) the base tea is probably not from the area.

Then you have the silly part – many (though not all) competitions allow multiple entries. So what happens is that a farmer can enter the same tea multiple times. This has a cost – when you submit 21 jin of tea, they only give you back 20 jin + 200 grams. They take a bit of the extra as a bit of profit, plus whatever entry fee they charged. Today someone told me that he entered a competition with ten entries, all with the exact same tea. Why? Because you never know. With just one entry, if you got unlucky and the 3g sample they picked out from your bag isn’t so great for whatever random reason, then you will get kicked out in a flash. If you were unlucky and got lined up (randomly) between two really good entries, then your tea is going to look bad in comparison. For his ten entries, he said three got rejected and the rest, some scored higher and some scored lower. It’s all a crapshoot to a certain extent. The top prize is going to be excellent, the top few levels are going to be pretty good, but there’s still a fair amount of randomness in there.

As a buyer, there’s definitely some value in these competitions – like I said, the quality of the tea that won a high level prize is going to be pretty good. You also need to pay through the roof for that – it’s going to be expensive, more than the normal stuff anyway. At the lower grades (three or two plum blossoms, for the Lugu competition) they are going to be comparably priced to the normal price for these teas. It’s a bit of an assurance, in some ways.

At the same time though, there are problems. First of all, you don’t really know exactly what you’re getting – unless you happen to be with the guy who made the tea, you’re not going to get to sample it. So you’re buying blind, really. There’s also that price premium, which for a normal drinker is really not worth paying – you can usually get good quality tea for less money if you know what you’re doing. Of course, since all oolongs look similar, it’s quite hard to do in practice, especially when it’s through multiple layers of middlemen and repackaging. People buy competition tea partly for this assurance. Partly though, it’s also for gifting – when you gift someone a box of unopened competition tea you’re basically telling them exactly how much you paid for the tea, since the prices are set.

There’s also the even more confusing competition for things like aged oolong. Here it’s really a crapshoot – you don’t even know what style of tea you’re getting. There are so many possible permutations – original roast level, age, area of origin, etc – none of which will be apparent to you (or anyone else, for that matter). It’s one thing to have aged competition tea from the past that are now old, it’s another to have a competition for aged tea. Unless you can sample from the source (that’s what the extra 200g is for) buying aged oolong competition tea is a fool’s errand.

Maliandao, ten years later

My first ever visit to Maliandao tea market in Beijing was in 2006, when I first arrived there as a young PhD student doing research for my dissertation. This was the heyday of the puerh boom, when prices of teas could literally double every week or two. As a budding tea addict, I spent quite a few weekends visiting the tea markets since the archives and libraries were closed on Saturdays and Sundays (well, they still do, mostly). I wrote my first physical description of the street here, with an update four years later here – and photos here. You can see how the street changed in the four years between those two posts. Some older malls died, others sprung up. Things, as they do in China, changed very quickly.

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to go visit again after a day of meetings. This was getting late by tea market standards – most malls/shops closed by 6pm, so me arriving right around then meant that most of the malls were shut. There are two important things to note though. The first is that now you can take the subway to Maliandao – a huge improvement over the previous arrangement, where only a bus or a cab would do. If you get off at the Wanzi station on line 7, you’ll be right at the entrance to Maliandao. Back in the old days there was a gate with a horse on top marking this entrance (as you can see in my first post on the street). Alas, that gate has been demolished.

The stores lining the two sides of the street are still there, many of them the same stores as before. I am actually rather amazed that given the high turnover of the tea stores in general, that these ones have such staying power. Maybe that street-front location is actually more valuable than I think.

I don’t really see many new developments this time – I think there’s one on the right hand side that’s new, but otherwise things have stayed more or less the same as before. When I first came here, you felt like you were on the outskirts of the city – there were some highrises, but most of the buildings were low and old. The tea malls were mostly either glorified sheds or, in many cases, open air rows of stores. Nowadays, those have mostly been replaced by highrises and especially residential developments. There’s also a fancy mall now right across the street from Chayuan at the end of the street. Back then when I visited eating was always a bit of a problem – the restaurants were pretty dodgy. Now the options are quite varied.

I did visit Xiaomei’s store. As I mentioned last time I saw her, she’s now the mother of three and has actually returned to her hometown to help take care of her kids, with her brother now manning the store (and soon to be father himself). Business, he said, is slow, especially after the anti-corruption crackdown so that people are buying less gifts than before. So he’s taken to selling stuff, including tea and teaware, on WeChat through an auction service. I notice that many of the stores around him look dead – maybe not quite literally, but tired, old, and not doing a lot of business, it seems. Their store is basically no longer selling any newer puerh – they still have some old stock from years ago, but nothing new since about 2011. Instead, they mostly sell white teas, focusing on the lower end stuff that sell for less than 100 RMB per 500g. He also mentioned how a lot of stores that borrowed money a few years ago are now having trouble repaying the banks – they take a pretty high interest rate and if you have most of your capital tied up in overpriced tea, you’re in trouble.

I walked around a bit more, peering into some fancy looking stores that were still open but not going into any. I know that most of these places would have exorbitant price tags, with new cakes selling for 1000 or more a cake. I honestly don’t have any interest in stuff like this – I can find teas like that anywhere, and I’m not that confident in finding stuff that is actually worth buying. Whereas in my younger days I probably would’ve happily sat down at any and all stores, asking to try some of their teas, I no longer really feel the need to bother tasting. The prices of new teas are so out of whack that I often find cheaper stuff that are a few years older. Since that’s the case, why do I need to chase new teas?

I did sit down at one store that looked interesting in Chayuan, at least among the stores that are still open (used to be that all the stores would be open pretty late – not anymore). I tried a couple things there – unimpressive 2007 teas that don’t have anything special over any other tea I can find easily, for the same kind of price.

As the market sorted itself out, I think the tea market is increasingly similar to other consumable goods – there’s the high end, the mid end, and the low end, and the lines are quite clear. A store like Xiaomei’s is very much in the low end – cheap tea, sold at a small profit, and going for volume. There are lots of high end stores in China too – teas that are supposed to be rare, exquisite, etc, selling for ridiculous sums. There’s also the vast middle – most of which is mediocre, but offered at mediocre prices. Thing is, back in 2006, when the market was probably best described as frenetic, there was a lot of mixing going on – and in a way, there were a lot more opportunities to find hidden gems. Now there are not going to be many hidden gems anymore – if you want good quality, expect to pay for it. Except, of course, you’re in China, so even if you pay you’re never sure if you’re getting what you were promised. That’s true of the food in front of you, and certainly true of the tea you’re buying. If someone sells you a tea and tells you it’s from ancient trees in Guafengzhai, for example, and wants 5000 RMB for that cake, could you really tell if the story checks out just by drinking the tea?

So in some ways I left Maliandao this trip a little sad – I felt a strong sense of nostalgia for the old, crazy tea market that was always abuzz with price changes and people hunting for good tea. That energy has gone, and is probably never coming back. I miss it.