Hindsight

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. For those of us looking for aged puerh teas, I think we all wish we have the gift of seeing into the future, to learn how a tea will age over time and whether or not it will become great. Some will, many won’t. It might be useful to remember that not all teas will age well – the ones that are commanding high prices today may have done so, but there were more, probably far more, that were produced, consumed, and in some cases, tossed out. We know for a fact that not every cake will turn out great. Figuring that out is the difficult part.

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A couple years ago I retasted a cake that I bought when I lived in Beijing. At that time I thought the cake was ok – not great, but not horrible. I did note, however, that it was a bit thin. I drank it at the time brewing gongfu style, probably adjusting my brewing parameters as I went along. After that retasting, it went back into the storage and hasn’t been seen since.

Well, I’m on a trip now, and I pulled out a cake randomly to take with me on this trip to drink. This was the lucky draw. Drinking the tea grandpa style, I have to say the tea is not very good. It has that thin, metallic taste indicative of lower quality tea. It’s aged, yes, but not in a particularly pleasant way. The overall outcome, I think, is wanting. I have a lot of tea better than this, and there really isn’t a single reason why I would want to drink this now, or ever. If given a choice, a black tea from any decent coffee shop will trump this one in terms of pleasure it can deliver. My previous evaluation was too generous – I think I was giving it a chance, and this tea has blown that chance.

I’m sure I have many cakes like this one. We all do. I’m wondering what I should do with these – throw them away? Drink them? Keeping them is sort of silly, because they are really not going to improve at this point. Drinking them – well, they’re not really great and there are so many other, better things to drink. Since my consumption of tea is finite, drinking one of these necessarily means I’m not drinking one of my better teas. Throwing them away seems like the most logical and rational choice, even though it’s hard to get myself to do that. Perhaps I will thank myself later when I move and have less tea to carry.

When to give up

At what point do you give up on a cake that you have kept for aging?

I ask this because it is an important question for those of us sitting on tea. If you are a buyer of puerh and have stored some for aging, at some point you need to take them out and start drinking – after all, that’s the point. When you first start, it is likely that you bought more or less indiscriminately. You may have purchased teas based on recommendations by others who are supposed to, perhaps, know more than you. You may have bought because of the reputation of the vendor. You may have also bought because you liked how the tea tasted then. Afterwards, a few years later, perhaps, you take out that same cake again and discover that it’s changed, but not necessarily for the better. What do you do? You tell yourself “well, it’s just going through that awkward phase; it’ll get better” and put it back in storage.

What if the same thing happens two years later? Four? Ten? When do you just tell yourself “this was a terrible purchase and it’s never going to get better”?

I have a bunch of stuff like this. Some I bought because they were cheap at the time and I figured I could afford to gamble. Some because, well, I didn’t know better. Some because they seemed decent at the time, but subsequently has turned out to be quite terrible. I know my aging environment is fine, because I have a number of teas that I stored myself for ten years now that are quite drinkable. So the aging environment isn’t the problem; the tea is.

It’s true that sometimes teas do go through an awkward phase. They have lost that initial sweetness/floral fragrance that are characteristic of new teas, but have not yet developed old tea taste. It’s that weird in between state where it’s really a pretty bad thing to drink. However, I also think that there are many teas out there that simply cannot and will not age. This is mostly because of bad processing to start off with. If your tea was processed like a green tea, bad news, it’s not going to get better. Aged green tea will never develop that complex and rich flavour of puerh that you should be striving for (and if you are one of those people storing tea to preserve its flavours and fragrance, you’re in the wrong business). A telltale sign of a tea that is processed like a green tea is a beany taste – think a fresh biluochun, a classic beany tea. If your tea smells like a longjing or a biluochun, it’s time to drink it fast because it’s not going to get better.

There are, I think, storage environments where the tea will also die, and I suspect (although without firm proof, because I haven’t tried) that once killed by bad storage, the tea will never recover. There are of course two types of death by storage. The first is the obvious – heavy mold, bad mold (golden flowers), extensive sun exposure, etc. The second is more subtle – environment that has strong odd smells (medicine cabinet, for example), too close to the sea (it will get salty), too dry (the tea will taste thin), etc. Some of these in the second category need not be fatal, if recovered sufficiently quickly – a week in a medicine cabinet won’t do anything bad to your tea. Three years, however, and you have a different problem.

So if your tea is aging poorly either because it was bad to start off with, or because it has had bad storage, at some point you should just give up on it. Even though it may taste great initially, it’s no guarantee that it will age well – many well known teas were terrible when they were young, being very bitter, astringent, smoky, etc. When you want to give up is of course up to you, but I think by year five, if the tea is getting thin, more and more bitter, or otherwise exhibiting signs that it is not aging well at all, it may be time to reconsider the value of keeping it long term. As a comparison, it is useful to keep a cake of Menghai 7542 around as a control. It is, after all, the standard puerh cake. If your 7542 is aging badly, then it’s your environment. If your 7542 is aging well and your other cake isn’t, well, it’s the cake. Hope is, of course, what keeps us alive and living, so hoping that your tea will recover is a natural thing. Sometimes though, it is useful to admit defeat, drink up the tea (or get rid of it) and save some space. You’ll thank yourself next time you move.

Seven years in Portland

Some years ago, I gave my cousin living in Portland, Oregon this cake. I bought about a dozen of these when I was in Beijing, and I sent them one. I think it was 2007 when this happened, although it could also be in 2006. Either way, it’s been some years, and every time I visit them I would try a little bit of it. It’s gone through natural storage in their kitchen pantry in a ziploc bag. When I open it it usually smells of nothing.

The rest of my cakes, ever since I left Beijing, have been stored in Hong Kong, also in natural home storage. They were mostly in tongs, although I had a few loose cakes. I didn’t put them in any ziploc bags, so they were just sitting out there. I didn’t really drink that much of it over the years, so I still have about 10 of these. It’s actually rather scary how they’re all soon to be 13 years old teas now.

Recently I grandpa’ed a cake of the ones I stored in Hong Kong, so I got to know the taste of my tea really well. When I visited Portland over Christmas, I tried a little of it as usual, and I noticed that it’s obviously different from what I have at home. So I asked them for a little sample of the cake, and took it home. It’s impossible to tell if the teas tasted different because of the water or if it’s because the tea itself is different. My impression in Portland is that it is a little more fragrant, but also a bit thinner and sharper than what I have at home.

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So I brought it home, and decided to brew them side by side. The left one is the Portland one, the right one is the Hong Kong one. You can see that the Portland one is a bit lighter in colour.

So I took 3g of each (this is 3g you’re seeing, minus a little extra) and then brewed them. I brewed them for two infusions of five minutes each. The colour of the brew is not very obviously different in the first infusion, but somehow for the second it actually became more obvious.

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So the right one is a bit darker, surprise surprise.

The tastes of the teas are, as I expected, a little sharper, a little more floral, more “high” notes but less “bass” for the Portland stored one. The Hong Kong one is a little bit darker in tone, a little smoother in the body, and a little bit sweeter. Are the differences obvious? Yes. Are they still recognizable as the same tea? Also yes.

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Not a lot of information from either the dry leaves, the liquor colour, or the wet leaves visually. The effect of storing in Hong Kong, versus storing in Portland, is a bit like using different casks for scotch. Portland, in this case, would be the oak cask from start to finish, whereas Hong Kong is a little more like a sherry finished one. I think the Portland tea has definitely transformed less – it’s closer to the original, with a bit more bitterness retained and a little less change over time. The Hong Kong one is still bitter as well, but a little less so. I suppose preference for one or the other is really a personal choice, but to me the biggest knock against the Portland tea is that it feels sharp and thin. It’s not as pleasant when compared against the Hong Kong stored one.

The differences are solely due to storage – they were bought together and until I gave it to my cousin, the teas were stored together. This was a pretty interesting natural experiment.

Childproofing

One of the consequences of having a child who is physically mobile is that having tea the usual way, which means with a piping hot stove, with various breakable teaware, is becoming a bit less practical. I could close the door and drink to my heart’s content, but I prefer not to do that. What it means is many more teas that are drunk grandpa style than ever before.

Doing so has affected the choice of tea I drink. One of the things I reach for most frequently now is actually the cheap tuo that I bought a lot of – one reason, of course, is that I have kilos of this tea, but it’s also because it does very well in a grandpa setting. Tea, as we know, is sensitive to preparation methods. When the tuo is drunk with a gongfu setup, it is mediocre – not very interesting, a bit boring, a bit bland. It doesn’t quite have the punch of better teas, and while it has 10 years of age, it’s not particularly exciting. In a grandpa setup, however, it actually brings out some nuances that are easy to miss in a gongfu setting. I would in fact say that the tea has improved doing so – I am rather happy drinking it day in, day out. It’s a joy.

Another tea I’ve been reaching for a lot is a 2002 Mengku cake that I bought years ago in Beijing, back when this blog was first starting. I have two tongs of this tea, and can get more at reasonable prices simply because there isn’t a huge demand for this tea. It’s not the best either – but certainly quite decent.

One type of tea that I do not grandpa, almost as a rule now, is newly made puerh. They are, by and large, terrible in that context. That is partly because most of the teas that I would subject to grandpa drinking tend to be on the cheaper side, and cheaper newly made tea is usually just horrible things. It’s also because without any aging, the rough edges are still, well, rough. You end up with really astringent, bitter, and unpalatable teas. If you add just a bit, then it’s nice and soft, but not as nice and soft as a fine green tea, which I would infinitely prefer to a new puerh as a grandpa option. In other words, they are never picked first.

This may also go some ways to explain why puerh has always been considered an inferior tea – when new they are simply not very good. When aged they are fine, but with prices now astronomical, they are no longer practical drinks for most people. Already, aged and new puerh tea of decent quality are being priced out of the market for regular tea drinkers. That is really a tragedy.

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.

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.

Price dislocation

I remember when I first started drinking puerh seriously almost ten years ago, a common argument that you see around the internet (Chinese, mainly) and among drinkers is that it’s cheap, so it’s worth bothering with. Oftentimes the comparison was with longjing – one jin of longjing was probably somewhere in the ballpark of 1200-2000 RMB back in the day, whereas the equivalent of good quality puerh was only a few hundred RMB. It was simply a lot cheaper to drink puerh, and so even if you have no intention of aging the tea, of dabbling in the aged tea market, of wanting to drink that taste, you can still enjoy good quality tea for a lot less money.

Fast forward ten years, the price for longjing has probably doubled in this period. At the same time, however, the price for newly made, good quality raw puerh has probably risen by about tenfold. Old tree teas from famous areas harvested during the spring now routinely command 2000+ RMB (and often much higher) per 357g cake. The value argument for buying new puerh to drink compared to other types of teas in the market has simply vanished in the past ten years. Yes, there are much cheaper cakes out there. You can still find, albeit with some difficulty now, cakes that sell for under 100 RMB a piece, but those appear far less frequently than before, and you can rest assured that the chances of finding quality tea among that pile of nameless and faceless cakes is quite low, much worse than before.

The interesting thing here is that prices for teas you can buy off websites that sell teas in English have risen by much, much less than what you can find in the markets here. Prices for some vendors have edged up a bit compared to previous years, and they have, just as mainland vendors have done, used tricks like making smaller cakes to make the sticker-shock less shocking. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a sort of glass ceiling for prices for new make puerh that is somewhere in the ballpark of $150 USD a cake. You almost never see that price point breached. Even for older teas, I very rarely see things that cost much more than about $200 a cake, which severely limits the options of what can be sold. In casual conversations with a few vendors about this, it’s pretty apparent that the market simply isn’t really ready to pay this kind of prices for tea, and when they do, it’s overwhelmingly in samples sales only, which doesn’t amount to much.

When you think about it, this necessarily means that something is going on with the quality of the leaves going into the cakes. One would be to lower the cost basis by using leaves from cheaper regions, but by and large, cheaper regions are cheaper for a reason. Laoman’e is cheaper not just because it’s less famous, but it’s seen as less age-worthy because it’s bitter. Vendors can also mitigate the rise in cost by using leaves from lesser trees from the same region. Whereas gushu teas are very expensive, you can often find leaves from younger trees (50-100 years old ones, or even younger) that cost a lot less.

It’s not just the price of raw materials that went up. Labour costs for everything in China has gone up. When I stayed in Beijing in 2006 for a year, the going rate for a teashop girl (and they’re almost all girls) was about 600-700 RMB a month, plus room and board. These days you’d be lucky to find someone for much below 2000. So while it is most certainly the case that the raw materials of the tea going into the cakes have gone up in prices, everything else has adjusted up too. You also have to remember that whereas in 2006 one USD was worth about 8 RMB, these days it’s only 6.24 RMB, which means everything, automatically, has gone up by about 25% before you even lift a finger.

The situation is definitely worse in the cases of vendors who have high cost structures – the need to maintain a brick and mortar shop, the need to buy long haul international plane tickets (and shipping the tea back to their home base), so on so forth. If the price for the tea they can sell hasn’t gone up much, and if the cost of any of these other things haven’t gone down much (they haven’t) then the only place they can squeeze out a profit is to lower their cost by using cheaper raw materials.

This kind of inflation is of course a direct consequence of China’s rapid economic development. There are very few things in our normal day to day life that has price rises of this sort – the only thing that we normally buy that goes through severe price fluctuations is oil. Even then, it’s only in the US where the gas prices reflect real changes in oil prices – in most developed countries tax is such a big part of the price of gasoline that the net effect of oil price changes resulting in an increase in pump prices is smaller. In other words, none of us, on a day to day basis, buy anything in our daily life that has shifted in cost and price as much as the puerh we’re buying.

So whereas in 2006 if someone posts on an internet forum, saying they want to buy a decent cake of tea for under $50, there were a lot of decent options, these days if you want a cake for under $50 that will age well, chances are you really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel, and even then the likelihood of finding something good is slim. As I’ve mentioned previously, the best bet is for teas that are 1) from before 2010 and 2) from vendors who don’t know current prices, and even then, one has to be very selective. Trying to find a new 2014 tea that’s under that price? Well, as a point of comparison, my new 2014 Dayi 7542 that I just bought cost me a bit over 30 USD. Dayi, of course, commands a premium over other brands, and I didn’t bother bargaining for one cake, but the fact is this cake, 10 years ago, would’ve cost about maybe 4-5 USD a cake. High prices are here to stay, so while it pains me to say this, as consumers we have to be aware that a dollar now is not like a dollar a few years ago, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. Otherwise, all you’ll get offered to buy are from the trash heap that nobody would want to buy in China itself.

The dangers of dry and cold

Well, regular readers know that I’m skeptical of storage conditions that are too dry or too cold. The combination of these two things is generally not good news for puerh tea. It makes for bad tea.

I recently bought a few cakes through Taobao from a vendor in Tianjin. I’ve bought from them before, years ago. Their tea is not that bad. These teas I got are not bad tea per se, but the storage on them has made them pretty poor. Specifically, the cakes (all different) all share a slightly sour, thin, and unpleasant note. Two of the teas are themselves very decent originally – the base tea still shines through, a bit, but without any of the thickness and richness you’d hope to see from teas that are 7-10 years old. Instead, they are just…. sour and a bit bland. If I have teas that old that taste like this, I’d be disappointed.

One of the cakes is a nice Yiwu that I know didn’t taste like that when first made, because I tried it way back when it first came out. I never bought any, because it was out of my budget at the time living on grad student stipend. I wish I had some, and was hoping that this cake would be ok, but it’s not – not in this condition.

Tianjin is typical north China – cold, not too damp, although probably damper than some of the more inland places like Beijing. This is why I normally don’t like to buy teas that are stored in any of these drier climates – they taste bad. The damage in taste is also not obvious when you’re buying online – the cakes, even when held in person, look perfectly fine. There’s no really obvious sign that something is awry, until you put it in water and try it.

This is not to say the tea hasn’t changed – it has. The colour has changed, the taste is also not what you’d see when it’s new. But as a tea that is getting better with age? No, not really. Just because a tea changes over time doesn’t mean it’s changing for the better over time, and a lot of people in these areas have never had a good tasting 10 year old to compare against, so it’s not obvious to them what’s wrong with teas like this.

Now the next question is whether some wet weather storage in Hong Kong can salvage the tea. I’ll let you know in a few years.

Priced out of the market

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Island of Tea

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

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

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and this

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and best of all

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other channel was selling something a little more conventional

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

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

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Yes, welcome to Taiwan.