Storing Pu’er tea – You are the final master

As long time readers of my blog know, I’m pretty allergic to marketing-speak, especially when the vendor is spewing disinformation. Well, I got an email a couple days ago from an outfit called Misty Peak, which I’ve never heard of but who had somehow harvested my blog email to put on their mailing list. The title of the email is the title of this post – Storing Pu’er tea – You are the final master. Yes. You can read the email here.

Basically, the email tells you how to store your tea, which seems informative enough, until you actually read it. To summarize the five points:

  1. You need circulating air – apparently the tea needs to breath or it’ll suffocate.
  2. There are two kinds of storage – dry and wet. Wet storage is when humidity is 50% or higher. Dry storage is “much drier condition.” No, 50% is not a typo.
  3. Temperature – between 55 and 80F (that’s 13 to 27 real degrees for the rest of the world)
  4. Store tea with other similar teas, turn over your tea every six months so “the leaves are getting exposure to the elements” and store it in porous containers, like wood or clay. If your got your tea in bags, throw away the bags or drink them quickly. The perfect place to store tea in a house is the top shelf of your closet – put it near a bowl of water and introduce a humidifier if it’s too dry. “There should be plenty of fresh air coming in as you open that door often and perhaps leave it ajar from time-to-time with a window open.”
  5. “Caravans of horses and mules travelled thousands of miles by foot over snow-capped mountains and through sun-heated desserts [sic].” So have fun. “Place some in your cabinet, some in your closet, and maybe even some on your porch. Just remember, this tea was cared for and crafted with absolute mastery and now it is up to you to learn to store it with care and prepare it with patience. You, my dearest tea friend, are the final master in this tea’s journey.”

Now, if you haven’t figure it out already – do not follow any of this “advice” if you care about your tea at all.

Let’s start with point 1. Airflow is pretty much a bad idea, and the theory that puerh needs fresh air to age is simply bogus. Fresh air can do a lot of things, but most of it will destroy your tea. If you want your tea to retain its aroma and age well, stick it in a place with low airflow that isn’t too damp. The fastest I’ve ever seen mold grow on my cake was on a coffee table with good airflow. A few days of continuous rain and it started growing stuff. Don’t do it.

The definition of dry and wet here is so off it’s laughable. Wet (I think they mean traditional in my usage) is a lot wetter than “50%” humidity – in fact, 50% is positively dry. Anything drier is going to kill your tea, and even a constant 50% will pretty much ensure your tea never really age at all. The idea that 50% or higher is wet is… simply amazing in its ignorance coming from a vendor. Certainly no vendor in Asia will call that wet.

Temperature – well, this is a sort of reasonable, if somewhat low, range. Temperature is not going to kill you here, but if it’s too cold for too long your tea won’t change much either. The reason Malaysian teas age a bit faster is because they’re generally hotter there. If your temperature is a constant 15 degrees your tea once again won’t age much at all.

Point 4 pretty much repeats what comes before, except that as people who have tried storing teas in clay can tell you – clay is very, very dangerous, and can easily kill your tea by helping mold grow. It’s not a porous material at all – certainly not porous enough. Wood, even, is pretty risky, and wood has the additional risk of smell coming from the wood itself. Sometimes simple is best – paper box with a tiny opening, a closet that is almost always closed in an area that isn’t too damp, avoid direct sunlight, etc. You can experiment with additional moisture via bowls of water if your area is dry, but humidifier is a pretty risky thing to use and I’d caution against it. You only need to screw up once to mess up your whole stash.

Point 5 is so comical as to invite laughter, or if I’m less charitable, I’d think they’re actively trying to get you to screw up your tea so that you’d have to buy more from them. Put your tea on your porch? Really? Caravans traveled through snow-capped mountains and sun-heated deserts? Not really – not usually anyway. They mostly traveled through passes (instead of over the mountains) and on plains through oases. You’d avoid deserts if you can help it at all. And don’t get me started on the bit that I haven’t quoted about dead horses and coming back to the tea years later.

So with this email, I was curious who these guys were, so I went to their website. I see they only do puerh, which is disappointing – for an outfit that only does puerh, the advice they’re giving you is astonishingly bad. I went to their “About” and “FAQ” pages, and noticed a few interesting things

“Our tea is the only tea on the market grown and processed by one family from trees planted in Yunnan China before the advent of electricity, 200-500 years ago.”

Pretty sure this statement is not true. There are lots of people selling single family teas from old tea trees in China (real or fake), but I guess if it’s in China it’s not happening?

“In 2014, the online tea community on the world’s largest tea review website, Steepster, rated us the #1 Pu’er Tea in the world out of over 5,000 different Pu’er teas with over 10,000 voting people!

Oh, Steepster…..

“Now the tea is available in over 370 select shops in the North America, Europe, Asia, and South America.”

Let’s see… 370 shops, but only one farm, and only 200-500 years old trees. That’s A LOT OF TREES FOR ONE FARM. Does this pass the smell test? You be the judge.

“First company in the world to change the shape of Pu’er Tea.”

You clearly haven’t bought any gongyicha before. You made a triangle in 2015. These guys made an elephant in 2013. There are also countless examples of other people who did this sort of thing way earlier. First in the world? Really? Have you ever been to a tea market in China? Obviously not.

Anyway, I think I’ve made my point. Avoid these clowns, and stop putting me on your junk mail list.

Nowhere to buy tea

A few days ago a group of Korean students came as a delegation, and during lunch we somehow got on the topic of tea, and specifically, where one could buy some Chinese black tea in Hong Kong. Funny enough, after thinking about it a little, my answer was basically – nowhere.

It’s of course not really true that there was nowhere to go. You have your choice from supermarket tea to specialty food stores to specialized tea shops, but a place that I can truly recommend for good, reasonably priced, Chinese black tea? It doesn’t really exist.

That in and of itself is sort of odd – after all, Hong Kong is big on tea drinking. However, people here don’t drink much Chinese black tea. When drinking black tea (hongcha) they generally prefer “western” teas – usually from the Indian subcontinent, but often probably mixed in with stuff from Africa or elsewhere. They are drunk in more formal settings, such as afternoon tea service at cafes and hotels, or they are drunk in the Hong Kong style mixed drinks – in which case the teas are blends created expressly for the purpose, and are usually devoid of origin. They also come in containers meant for food service, like these guys. I doubt anyone wants 2 packs of 5lb teas for home use.

So when you want to buy loose leaf black tea, other than the usual suspects at the supermarkets, you have your choice of overpriced foreign vendors and overpriced local vendors. Buying keemun from, say, Whittard of Chelsea, seems exceedingly silly when you’re in Hong Kong. Local stores either don’t stock very high grade black teas, because there’s no real market for it, or they stock reasonable quality ones but then charge you through the roof for it. Also, Hong Kong tea stores are not great for packaging. It’s fine when you want it for yourself, but if you were going to gift it, it’s not so good.

Similar dynamics are at play when looking for tea elsewhere in greater China as well. When you’re in Taiwan and you want green tea, you either buy Japanese green tea or you go home. Chinese greens in Taiwan, from what I’ve seen anyway, are in pretty much the same position as black teas in Hong Kong – you can either get really low grade stuff or you can be prepared to be charged through the roof for teas that are often not that great anyway. Local taste is not in it, so there’s no real market demand. You can say the same for puerh in Shanghai, for much the same reason – much of the puerh I’ve seen there is not great, or too expensive. I’m sure there are more private vendors in Shanghai who deal in this stuff, but as a visitor looking for stores, it’s terrible.

In the end, I took the students to a local tea shop that I like and they were quite happy to buy some white tea and some tieguanyin instead. Everyone went home happy.

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.

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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.

The death of a tea fair

I’ve been going to the Hong Kong International Tea Fair for maybe six years in running now, and every single year, it is getting smaller and sadder. The fair is part of the larger Hong Kong Food Expo, where mostly food vendors show up in force to sell people stuff – a lot of food producers, mostly processed food of one type or another, but also foreign firms, come here to set up stalls and sell anything from prosciutto to instant noodles. Locals, many private individuals (as opposed to businesses) flock to the expo to buy food – literally boxes of noodles, sauces, etc. It’s crowded and it’s one of the biggest fairs of the year (the other probably being the book fair and the wine fair).

The tea fair used to take up an entire floor of the food expo. This year it takes up less than half a floor. Scenes like this are quite common:

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What’s going on?

Well, first of all, from friends who do exhibits there every year, they say that the price of a stall is simply too high. Depending on the size, it could cost you a couple thousand dollars (USD) or more to buy a place, and the place you get may not necessarily be in a very good area. Obviously, to reap the benefits, you’d have to make some business contacts and maybe also sell some tea on the side. This is where it seems the problem is. For a local vendor, this is mostly a chance to showcase their stuff and to get their name out. Except, for many local stores, they already have a storefront – people who would go to the tea fair tend to be the same people who would roam the stores anyway, and since Hong Kong is not huge, most people know most of the stores. So, the tea fair ends up being a chance to simply meet your regulars. You can do that in your own shop, and save a few thousand dollars.

For people coming from overseas, there’s obviously more at stake – not only are you paying for the stall, you’re also paying hotel, airfare, etc. Some, it seems, obviously think it’s worth it to come every year. Jukro, from Korea, for example, have always been here. I always buy something from them, partly because it’s the only time I get to do so. But tellingly, I didn’t see them this year.

Others are government sponsored, so someone else is footing the bill. There are various provincial governments in China that send delegations. The Japanese government is generous in sending tea suppliers here to promote their tea, especially some organization from Kyushu tend to have a big presence here. This year was no different, and at least 4-5 manufacturers came, featuring teas from Kagoshima and Miyazaki. They also setup a nice tearoom to showcase their culture, not just the leaves

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The problem is that it’s really not clear what this tea fair is for. After all, it only runs for three days, and for two of those days, it’s open only to people in the industry – regular visitors for the food expo (which is already drawing big crowds) aren’t allowed into the tea fair. I never quite understood why – I suppose the idea is to make it conducive to people discussing business, but as far as I can see, there isn’t a lot of that going on – most of the people visiting are people like me, who get in through some vague claims of professional status – I am, after all, researching tea culture – and who are then going around essentially as someone who is a regular consumer. Only on the last day are the regular shoppers allowed in. This is the day when a lot of random business gets done by the vendors – selling the samples they brought, getting their name out to regular consumers who are not going to have heard of them before, so on, so forth (it also is the only day of the tea fair that falls on a weekend).

When you think about it though – who are these tea professionals, exactly? Who in Hong Kong is going to be prowling the tea fair looking for new suppliers? There are plenty of tea fairs in China – just in nearby Guangzhou and Shenzhen there are multiple tea fairs every year, so people in those areas really don’t need to come here. Locals – who exactly are these professionals? There are no tea shops to speak of that will look for special suppliers. Everything from China can be bought through Taobao, and is regularly done so. The ones that aren’t bought through Taobao are purchased either in person during trips, or at shops in Hong Kong. In other words, locals really don’t have a lot of demand. Then there are the misguided firms that come here for no good reason – like the first picture, if you are selling farm equipment in Hong Kong, you’re really in the wrong city.

If you run a big restaurant or hotels, chances are you already have suppliers. The suppliers, who are the importers, could of course go to the tea fair to discover new teas, but are there really enough of these in Hong Kong to make it worthwhile for these people to come here? Judging by what I saw, not really.

Nor is it really that useful as a branding/outreach sort of venue. Because it is only open to the public on one day, that day tends to be crowded. It’s also not very fun when it’s crowded, because tasting becomes difficult. This is not for want of trying – a few years ago I remember there were big stalls from Dayi, Xiaguan, a few tieguanyin producers, etc. Those are pretty much all gone – I didn’t see anything like that this year. Even the stall for the Hong Kong milk tea  company that holds a competition every year has shrunk considerably. It also doesn’t help that the location is really tucked away into a corner of the exhibition center – it’s not going to attract crowds. So, in that sense, it’s not doing a good job attracting regular customers either who might move the needle for firms to decide to exhibit here.

So what we see is the slow but obvious death of the Hong Kong tea fair – which is sad, because it’s nice to see some interesting vendors selling weird stuff. I remember fondly when a couple of years ago an Okinawa producer came here with some really nice black tea. I bought a little bit for fun, but they have never been seen since. Maybe if the trade council, which runs the fair, moves it to a dedicated day, with lower rates for exhibitors, we can revive this – after all, Hong Kong is quite convenient for people from other places to visit, but it’s also an expensive city, so it has to be worthwhile for them to do so. The current format for the tea fair simply isn’t good enough, and with competition from mainland, if they don’t do something soon, I predict that in a couple years we’re going to see this fair fold altogether. That will be too bad.

Tea fair in Kyoto

While I was doing research and waiting for my books at the Urasenke School‘s library, I discovered that there was, that day, a tea fair across town at the Yoshida shrine near Kyoto University. Since the library closed at 3 anyway, I decided to hop over and take a look.

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The tea fair was a decent size – about 20-30 booths from various sellers. What was perhaps the most surprising was that about half of them were selling Chinese teas of various sorts. Like these guys:

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Or something like this:

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The Chinese tea they sold and were pushing were mostly oolongs of various sort, with some greens and puerh thrown in. Many are Taiwan based or Taiwan inspired. But I wasn’t here for Chinese tea.

The Japanese tea sellers were mostly from the area – selling Uji produced tea. I tried some and bought a few bags, although given my glacial rate of drinking Japanese greens, I don’t know when I’ll ever get to them. More interestingly though, I ran into a stall with sellers from, of all places, Miyazaki prefecture. Miyazaki is next to Kagoshima, which is now a major producer of Japanese teas, but Miyazaki, relatively speaking, doesn’t do much tea. These guys claim to be organic and all that, and more importantly, they make black tea. The few I tried were quite good – one almost reminiscent of Darjeelings. Needless to say, I came home with quite a few bags of tea.

Having a tea fair at a shinto shrine has other advantages too. It’s nicely shaded but still feels like a park, it’s got a hill behind it and I actually hiked over the hill to get to the fair, and it’s reasonably accessible. There was also a sho performance while I was there.

There are also some things that I’m reminded of as someone who doesn’t drink a lot of Japanese tea – first, that Japanese greens are brewed strong, and the idea is to coat your mouth with the taste, at least when they make it for you. It’s a sharp contrast with Chinese greens, which emphasize that refreshing lightness. Second, these people shake their teapots violently to get every last drop out. No such thing as a gentle tip – they literally hold the kyusu with two hands and shake the thing like it’s going to drop you money to get every last bit of water out, usually stopping when the last shake produces a lot of tea leaves. Finally, Japanese greens, in the grand scheme of things, are pretty cheap, even decent grade shincha. This partly has to do with the yen dropping like a rock in the past few months, but also reflects how prices have really risen in China, which is the other main source of green teas. They are also so different that direct comparisons are basically pointless.

So about those choices

Well, when buying things there’s never a real “correct” answer. There is always someone who’s willing to buy a beachfront property in Kansas. The first thing you might notice about those choices is that they are largely anonymous – the stuff on the left side are mostly cooked puerh, and the right side are raw. The cooked pu are mostly CNNP wrappers, which doesn’t tell you much of anything. The stuff on the right are named, but only just – they are anonymous named tea cakes, in the sense that nobody would’ve heard of them anyhow. The green big tree you see half of is not the real deal, so it’s more or less the same as a CNNP wrapper.

The prices seem good – quoted in HKD, they are from about 180 to 500, with the 500 actually a cooked cake. The thing is, while these are sort of cheap (for this day and age), they are terrible value. The tea is likely to be bad – of the “this is awful” category. I tried a few of these while looking over these, just for the fun of it, and wouldn’t choose any of them, at any price. The rest – well, if the samples I tried are no good, chances are the others aren’t gems either.

To be honest though, I didn’t need to try to know that these were going to be bad. A few friends have commented to me privately after I posted this photo, basically saying “uh, these are all terrible”. If there’s anything like a general rule, it is that anonymous CNNP wrapper teas are going to be bad – you may find one out of a hundred that’s decent. The rest are just, well, horrible teas that were made in the dog days of the puerh industry, and ever since.

No-name brands like the ones on the right are no better. They are, 99% of the time, bad teas that are no good for aging. Some may be ok for current consumption, if it’s cheap enough and you’re not picky enough. The days of when no-name brand could be decent tea is behind us now – in the early to mid 2000s that may have been possible, because there were so many new outfits that were making tea. Now, however, it is most likely just trash tea that will age into nothingness.

Vendor choices, or lackthereof, is really a problem with buying tea. It is possible to choose a “best” tea within a given selection, yes, so even in this heap of what is basically no good tea, there will be one that seems better than others. It does not, however, mean it is a good idea to buy it – best among a bunch of junk is still junk. Within the online world, it is harder to make that judgement. I think a good way to try though, is to compare across vendors as much as possible. Even then, as I’ve said before, what’s available online is only a small fraction of total teas available in the real world, and much of the best teas never even leave the confines of China simply because the market demand for them is the highest there. The prices that online buyers will be willing to bear is simply not high enough for vendors to realistically bring the best goods to them. So, the pool of available choices are already poisoned, so to speak. Sometimes saying no is the best choice.

Hong Kong teashop ecology

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Despite its historical roots as an important trading post for tea, the Hong Kong of today is not that friendly towards teashops and the tea buying public. There is a lot of tea around – you encounter the drink everywhere. The default drink at a lot of places is weak, watered down tea. The favourite drink to order at a local restaurant is Hong Kong style milk tea. You can’t avoid the stuff. Yet, if you want a more “refined” experience drinking tea, or if you want tea that can be considered more specialized, this isn’t a friendly place.

The chief enemy here is really one that plagues the city for almost everything – high rent. The lack of land, the influx if large number of mainland tourists, and the sheer density of the city mean that every store front is precious. In a city that has always been built vertically to the extent that is possible given whatever current technology we possess, street-level stores are a precious commodity. When you stroll down some of the busiest shopping areas, you will see rows and rows of jewelry shops, luxury clothing stores, and pharmacies that cater to the mainland trade. Shops that cater to local needs are usually relegated to back streets and residential neighbourhoods. It’s a very strange sight.

In this context, it is very difficult for stores specializing in selling tea to survive. The first challenge is to overcome the rental market. Owners of stores often charge exorbitant rents for very small spaces if they happen to occupy good locations. Some even charge rent according to the amount of turnover the store does – so the more money the store makes, the more money the landlord makes. Unfortunately, tea businesses in general aren’t going to be that popular. There are really two paths to survival – one is to lower costs as much as possible, the other is to charge sky high profit margins to make the rent.

So for the cheap side, there are a few ways to do that. The first is to somehow own your own store – a number of older stores in Hong Kong do that, and are therefore impervious to rent increases. A lot of the shops on Bonham Strand, for example, are in this model. They bought their place fifty years ago, and aren’t looking to move. They make a decent living selling tea, and are happy doing it instead of, say, closing shop and renting it out to a fancy new restaurant. So they keep up their business and sell decent tea for cheap. They are, however, probably not profit-maximizing and shops like this are prone to closing when the older owners pass it on to their descendants.

The other option is to “go upstairs”, where the shops no longer operate on the ground floor, but move to a building inside. These are usually located in cheaper, older buildings, where they occupy what is basically an office space but renovated to be a teashop. Rents for these are much lower, and can often be supported by a small tea business. There are now a number of these in operation. I just visited one recently, called the House of Moments, where I took the above picture. The tea was all right, but it was rather expensive for what it was ($30 USD for an ounce of Taiwan roasted TGY). You pay for the space you occupy basically, and in Hong Kong, space is expensive.

The other option, which is to charge high margins, is really geared towards the gift/tourist trade. The Best Tea House has increasingly gone that way in recent years. There’s Fook Ming Tong, which is also just an expensive gift shop that happens to sell tea. Then there are things like TWG Tea, which shamelessly puts 1837 on their logo even though the company was founded in 2008, and whose colour scheme is an obvious attempt at ripping off Mariage Freres (whose 1854 on the logo is at least real). They usually occupy nice malls and have prominent displays. These places are really to be avoided by those of us who really want to buy decent tea – only visit if you want something with decent packaging.

It’s really rather unfortunate, but given the local infrastructure, there isn’t much that could be done. There’s a reason Taiwan has a relatively thriving tea scene – it’s cheap to set up a good shop and cheap to keep it running, where in Hong Kong it’s the opposite. If you were an alien visiting the city you’d think we all eat gold here, but in fact, it’s a place where small businesses have a hard time surviving. If you want to buy good tea when you’re in Hong Kong, visit Bonham Strand to try your luck. Otherwise, just skip right on ahead to somewhere else.

High and low

At the Hong Kong Tea Fair yesterday, I saw this

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There’s a few hundred thousand USD in this cabinet here. But in case this is a bit too rich for your blood, you can get something a little more suited for the commoner among us.

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Or maybe this version is clearer?

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Yes, Hello Kitty is here

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Finally, a really beautiful bug dropping tea.

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It’s better than the one I have – after all, what you get out of it depends on what you put in, and in this case, it’s pretty obvious the input for this tea is better than the input for the one I had. It’s very, very fragrant, with a good medicinal taste and just really sweet. Lovely stuff.

Going to tea expos

Tea expos are funny things. There are a million of them, at least here in the Greater China area. There’s one here every year in Hong Kong, and this year’s is coming up. Tea expos are funny because they, for the most part, pretend to be trade shows, but a lot of the exhibitors are really there to do retail. I think for shows like World Tea Expo it’s really much more of a trade show – Vegas isn’t exactly filled with retail customers for tea, especially an expo that size.

In Hong Kong, and many cities in the mainland, however, the tea expos are really more about connecting sellers with buyers, mostly in small to medium sized orders. What’s interesting is that for a lot of vendors these days, tea expos in China are an important venue for them to get publicity out to the customers and to also do some business. For example, the Best Tea House is very active on the circuit, and Mr. Chan travels around to various cities (at least the main ones) and do all the big shows. In Hong Kong, his home base, there is also a group of what can be called posse who hang around their booth. The booths that these vendors set up tend to be pretty big and spacious, and are meant to be seen from far away. They are showcases, basically. It makes sense – you don’t necessarily want to set up shop in second tier cities, but you want to sell to them, so going to a trade show where the locals come in to buy tea is a pretty good compromise. They can always get your contact afterwards and keep buying from you.

You also find, in Hong Kong, the big factories – Dayi, Xiaguan, and the like are usually here, but a lot of the medium sized ones are missing. Part of the reason is because they simply don’t have much business here – whereas a lot of Hong Kong vendors find better prices in the mainland, mainland outfits coming to Hong Kong will have a hard time finding buyers. Hong Kong buyers are not as willing to pay top dollars especially for new tea, so they’re usually better off selling stuff in the mainland.

Then you have the smaller exhibitors. Readers of this blog know that I’m more partial to finding stuff in the rough – shunning big brands in favour of the small and more interesting outfits. These things run the gamut, sort of like when you’re in a tea mall. There are small factories that you’ve never heard of that make pretty decent tea, but far more likely are companies that sell things that you’ve never heard of and really have no reason to try. I think quite often these are just junkets for the people in question and a chance to visit Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong there tend to be a lot of big vendors of green tea from lesser known provinces – I don’t even know why they come, because Hong Kong is a relatively small green tea market, and locals don’t like drinking it. Their booths are almost always empty. I suspect they come because they have a marketing budget and it’s just on their standard circuit, and maybe they can find some overseas buyers who are here to source stuff, but I really have trouble imagining they are going to recoup their costs this way. The booths they have tend to be big, flashy, with a few employees. I don’t know how they justify the costs of coming down.

The fun part of going to an expo is actually the weird stuff you never see otherwise. Last year here there was an Okinawa outfit that sells black tea made on the island. It’s delicious, but as you can imagine for a place with limited land and Japanese prices, the cost of the tea is very high. There are a couple Korean vendors, including Jukro, who come every year, and I almost always buy something from them. The black tea they made last year was really quite good. That’s also where I discovered Zeelong, and other weird tea ventures, some of which are very good, others not as successful as a product. And then you have the “friends of tea” side of things, as the expo organizers call it. These are things like canisters, teaware, and other related items. Sometimes you can buy some cans for cheap at expos.

If you ever have a chance to go to a tea expo, do go. I’d imagine at WTE in Vegas the scale is quite large and it’s a fun event to visit if you’re interested in tea. The HK Tea Fair has been getting worse the past few years, but even then it’s still nice to see what everyone’s up to. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing some old friends and maybe make a few new ones this week.