Taobao lottery: Baxian special grade dahongpao

With my new magic card, I think I need to start a new running series called “Taobao lottery” where I chronicle my misadventures in buying tea blind, online.

A recent purchase, in collaboration with Brandon, is a bunch of yancha.

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I’ve actually never bought any tea that isn’t puerh on Taobao. There are, as of right now, over 800k listings in tea, with about 175k listings in oolongs, 85k listings in green tea, 64k listings in black tea, 125k in flower teas (jasmine, chrysanthemum, etc), 205k in puerh, 24k in Fu bricks and other heicha, 8k in white tea, and 1294 listings in yellow tea. The rest are random fruit, herbals, etc. In other words, there are a lot of teas on Taobao.

The problem with all this selection is that it is virtually impossible to know whether what you’re getting is great or crap. Tea is impossible to shop for visually – a great looking tea can turn out to be crap, whereas the most ugly tea can sometimes be great. Without trying it, buying blind is highly risky.

This means that the wisest course is 1) buy samples, if they exist, and 2) buy cheap stuff that you won’t regret. With this purchase of yancha, the cheap route seems to make the most sense. I browsed a bunch of yancha shops on Taobao, and settled on this one called Baxian (eight immortals) mostly because they are relatively cheap, and have a high number of good reviews.

Cheap it was too – with three 250g bags of dahongpao, shuixian, and rougui (one each) the total cost only came to about $50 USD, plus a free bag of black tieguanyin (more on that another day). So this is all for about 850g, or almost two pounds of tea. It’s really a pretty cheap affair, when considering how much yancha costs online, for example, or even in Hong Kong.

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So far I’ve only had the dahongpao, and the results are encouraging. It’s what I would call a medium roast – the tea has the distinct smell of charcoal roasted oolong, with a solid mouthfeel and a nice cooling effect, with plenty of the “rock aftertaste”. It’s way better, for example, than the Sea Dyke dahongpao that I sometimes quaff at work, grandpa style. It’s also probably better than most yancha that can be easily purchased online. This does make me want to see if I can buy other things on Taobao that might turn out to be quite ok though, for prices that are really pretty low. For those of you who are adventurous enough to shop on Taobao, throwing in a small order or two of non-puerh might not be a bad way to experiment.

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.