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.

Really young puerh is not really puerh

The title of this post is perhaps slightly confusing. When is puerh not puerh? Let me explain what I mean…

What I’m talking about here only pertains to raw puerh. For cooked puerh, the whole process is different and the tea is puerh (cooked) as soon as the post-fermentation happened. For raw puerh, however, the tea does not go through such a post-fermentation process where it is basically composted to create the flavours you find in cooked tea. What you have instead, at least in theory, is a long period of aging where the tea changes from young to old, and in the process, transforms itself from a very green looking thing to a dark, brown or black cake of tea, with flavours to match.

Presumably, we buy young tea to age because we want aged flavours and profile. Cooked puerh is also an attempt to recreate the aged taste without the time – at least that was the original intention of the process, although now it has taken on a life of its own. Puerh, at its core, is a tea that requires post-fermentation of some sort. It is that process of aging which gives the tea its unique flavours, complexity, and aromas. It’s what makes it different from all other teas.

So it is a bit confusing when we use the term puerh to denote anything coming from big leaf varietal trees in Yunnan compressed into cake or brick or tuo form. This is partly because we don’t have a name for such things – what, for example, do we call current year products that are meant for aging? For whisky, we can call them “white dog.” I’m afraid I don’t know the name of what you’d call wine that hasn’t gone through barrel aging – but the idea is the same. When we have something that is newly compressed and newly made, but hasn’t gone through that post-fermentation yet, calling those things puerh can be a bit misleading. White dogs aren’t really whisky – they are more like dirty vodka. The colours, aromas, and taste profile are not the same as whisky that has gone through aging. Likewise, wine that hasn’t been aged at all is going to taste funny. In those cases, there are legal limits to when you can call them by their names – in scotch whisky, for example, it’s three years. For cognacs, it’s two years.

Puerh, unfortunately, has a very confusing definition officially, so that such nomenclature is all jumbled. The official definition of the tea (at least in the 2006 update) makes room for both raw and cooked tea, but leaves out post-fermentation for raw tea completely, perhaps at the behest of producers who want to be able to call newly pressed raw teas puerh as well (note the date of 2006 – at the height of the first bubble). So we are left with a definition that is wholly incongruent for raw tea, all it requires is shaqing, rolling, sun drying, compression. For cooked tea, it includes “special techniques” that will cause “slow or fast post-fermentation.” So, the first is really a green tea that is only distinguished by the sun drying process, and the latter is what puerh tea probably should be – post-fermented tea.

I have been drinking a sample series of teas made by the same producer but from different years – ranging from 2006 to 2013. Since they were (and still are) stored in the same condition, it is possible to compare them against each other in terms of aging. The experience of this matches what I think to be true – that it takes about two to three years for a young puerh cake to lose the “greenness” of the tea and to start taking on some of the aged characteristics. Of course, the whole thing is a gradual process of change, but it is clear that by about three years old, the initial green flavours of the tea disappear. Of course, this depends also on compression strength, type of tea, storage environment, etc, but generally speaking, it takes a few years for a tea to start taking on aged flavours.

It also takes a few years for the wheat be separated from the chaff. I personally no longer buy anything younger than about three or four years. Yes, it is possible that you will have to pay more, but actually, I haven’t found that to be the case really. Considering how expensive new cakes are this year, with reasonably good tea often costing over $100 or $150 a cake, teas from 2007-2009 are actually quite competitively priced. Sometimes they are even cheaper, with the added bonus that now you can sort out the ones that are turning bad or bland. Not all tea will age well, just like not all wine will age well. It is a lot easier to pick and choose at the three year mark, with much higher probability of success, than picking them when they are brand new. I think that’s a good cutoff for when we can call them puerh.

Of course, some people just prefer them green and new. That’s all good – drink them if you want. You can buy new ones every year to satisfy that need. No need to store though – because unless you vacuum seal them (which some people apparently do right from the beginning) the flavours will change. If you are vacuum sealing the tea, you’re treating it as green tea. That’s fine, just don’t call it puerh.

The retaste project 17: 2005 Yichanghao Mansa

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, tea was cheap. Puerh was considered very cheap tea, and things like the Laotongzhi, admittedly a very regular cake, would fetch about 25 RMB on the market. The vaunted Dayi, which is now attaining mythical status, was only slightly more expensive. In those halcyon days of plentiful and cheap tea, Yichanghao was among the new stars that promised greatness. They rapidly expanded from their initial foray into tea production in 99 to an important player by 2005. Times were good.

Fast forward half a dozen years, and now there are persistent rumours of imminent collapse of Changtai Group, the company behind Yichanghao. Fact is, ever since the 2007 bubble burst, Changtai hasn’t been doing much – at least, not much that anyone has paid any attention to. They still produce tea every year, but they haven’t had a “hit” for a long, long time.

It was in those blissful days when I bought this thing

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Compared with the photos I took right after I bought this cake (romanized as Mengsa, because that’s how the characters are sometimes written, but not on this particular cake), it’s pretty obvious that it has aged a little bit over the years. The tea was stored in Beijing for a year, then for the rest of its life has been in Hong Kong. I haven’t had a chance to drink it since buying it, until a few days ago, anyway. I bought two cakes, of course, and this seems to be not the one that was pictured, but I’m sure they were similar in colours. The liquor is suitably dark.

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I thought, when I bought it, that this cake has aging potential. Well, six years later, I can report that the cake has indeed aged. I think my taste is a little more… picky than it used to be, so I am not judging the teas with the same yardstick. Having said that, it’s a cake with this age that’s still generally better than most of its counterparts from relative big factories from 2005. It hasn’t gotten worse, and it has a nice, rounded taste. It’s a bit on the thin side, all things considered, but since I didn’t pay great tea prices for it, it’s hard to expect great tea from it. I seem to remember paying something around 60-80 RMB for one cake at the time, which was ok, but not terribly cheap. Well, now you can find this tea on Taobao for about 300, but RMB has appreciated by almost 30% since then, so it’s actually about 5x the price I bought it for. Is it still worth it at these prices? In the context of new tea prices, absolutely – for a couple cakes anyway, and for more immediate consumption. I wouldn’t invest thousands for tongs of this stuff, but as a drinker and something to be had casually, it’s not bad, so long as the storage conditions are broadly similar and the tea hasn’t been dried out or been stored way too wet.

There is a taste among many Taobao cakes I’ve bought that are of this low-mid price range with 5-7 years that I really hate – I suppose it might be what people describe as “straw” which I find to be the precursor to thinness and blandness. I can see a hint of that here – just a hint, whereas a lot of times that is the dominant taste in cakes. I wonder if it has to do with the temperature and humidity that it’s stored at. I don’t know what the Taobao vendors’ cakes will taste like, it might be interesting to compare, but I don’t feel like throwing 300 RMB at it just to give it a try.

Here, there, and everywhere, at the same time

Recently I received a pricelist for a puerh vendor’s new offerings. This is one of those higher end outfits that purport to sell gushu teas and which are priced anywhere from a few hundred RMB a cake to a few thousand, all for 2013 new teas. The owner, like many owners of such shops, was already a successful businessman in other ventures, but because of his love of tea (what else?) has gone into tea making and now presses his cakes every year for sale. You can probably find half a dozen such outfits in every major coastal city these days in China.

Also like many such shops, the offering is vast – in fact it’s so vast that it’s completely unbelievable. There are about twenty single origin offerings of various mountains, from Guafengzhai in the east, to Mangfei in the west, and everything in between. For some villages there are multiple offerings, while for others there is only one. This is not counting the dozen or so blends that they offer as well – blends of different mountains, some of which have single origin counterparts, and some don’t.

I say unbelievable, because for it to be top notch tea (and the prices definitely scream top notch) the person making it had to spend some time in each of these places to buy the maocha – maocha, at least of a certain quality anyway, don’t really come to you, especially if you’re not a particularly big outfit with enough muscle to do the buying. Conservatively, if we say the owner needs to spend at least 3-4 days per village to at least gather enough material for pressing the cakes, sort out the logistics, travel etc, that’s already over 70-80 days needed. If he started on one end in late March, by the time he gets to the other end it’s already June. The good tea is not going to wait three months – someone else would’ve bought it already.

It is also unbelievable, because unless you spend an inordinate amount of time in one of these places, being able to tell apart real versus fake (or at least, inferior quality) maocha from various village is difficult. Maocha smuggling – the practice of shipping cheap maocha from cheap production area to expensive villages to sell as the expensive place’s tea – is very common. It’s also not unheard of to pass plantation tea off as gushu, or to adulterate spring tea with fall tea, or other such practices. Just because you got to the village doesn’t at all mean you got the real thing, and even if you’ve gone a few years in a row doesn’t mean people stop trying to cheat you. I have talked to experienced vendors who have been going for a dozen years who still have people bring them inferior tea, hoping to pass muster. If you’re in a hurry and are not picky, you will get scammed, and the tuition gets passed on to the consumers.

Nor is the much vaunted “buy-out contract” model going to work, not well anyway. Over the years various brands and individuals have claimed to have signed contracts with local farmers of some village or another, buying up all their production for the year for a fixed price, limiting production to spring only, etc. In almost all of these cases, there are reports (and confirmed) that the farmers are still selling the tea on the side to others. The fact is, these contracts are basically impossible to enforce. How do you prove that a bag of maocha is indeed covered under the contract in question? In a court of law? How do you prove they harvested in the fall when they were not supposed to under the contract? You can’t, basically. It’s also hard to fault the farmers, who, until about 2006, have sold their teas for virtually nothing. Ten years ago a kilo of raw maocha from gushu material in a not-so-famous village might fetch you 10-20 RMB a kilo. That’s when 8 RMB equaled one USD. Many cut down their old trees to plant rubber instead, because rubber was more profitable. So, it’s hard to fault the farmers for wanting to cash in when the going is good.

It takes skill to press good cakes. It’s not a matter of just going to a village, meeting a few farmers, trying a few different bags of maocha, and buying the best of the bunch – that’s in fact almost a guaranteed recipe for getting scammed. The best cakes I’ve tried all tend to be from people who have had decades of experience drinking tea – all kinds of tea – and who also know the area of production intimately well. This means they spend weeks, if not months, there, often pressing only a few cakes a year or have a regional specialization – only Bulang, say, or only around Yiwu, because you need to control for quality and that takes time and local knowledge. For local producers who are, say, based in Kunming or further south, it is probably possible to have enough contacts and access to do more, but for these fly-in-fly-out type of cake pressers, claiming to be able to do a dozen, or in this case, two dozen different villages, and do them all justice, is pretty much impossible.

Going back to the teas of this outfit – I only tried one, the Wangong. Oddly, it tasted like some Bulang area tea and nothing like a tea from eastern Xishuangbanna, and compared with Zhou Yu’s Wangong, which I also had recently and also from 2013 – it’s not even close. Yet, the tea from this outfit costs almost double what Zhou Yu wanted for his tea. I don’t know who’s buying the story, but you certainly aren’t paying for the tea.

2007 Spring Xizihao Yiwu Chawang

Some of you might remember this, or even have it

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Yes, this. There was a time when puerh cakes were selling like they were going to run out – which they did, promptly, when Hou De put them up. At least it happened for Xizihao teas, which were (and still are) made by Sanhetang in Taiwan. Back then they were basically the first of the gushucha wave available in the West. The 2007 ones sold out rather quickly – some as soon as within a day. There have since been some newcomers, of varying quality, but even now, I think some of the Xizihao remain the better ones that were sold as gushu puerh.

This cake, however, I did not get from Guang. I bought this at the Best Tea House in Hong Kong. For some reason, they had a tong of this – for 750HKD a cake, which is a bit less than $100 USD. This was in 2011, which makes this extremely underpriced – the cakes came out around that price, and so weirdly, it was selling for a pretty low price for some reason. I dithered for a while, and when the other six cakes were sold (to a single person) leaving this one display one, I snapped it up at a discount. Why not?

I haven’t tried it since I bought it – it’s been sitting in my storage. Unfortunate wrapper aside, the leaves themselves look good

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The tea is a nice, solid performer – definitely has gushu material in it, good body, nice balance, etc. It isn’t mind blowing, but it’s really not bad. Although a bit on the weak side, it may very well have to do with the fact that my cake was the “display” that was sitting out on a store shelf for more than a year. I’m not sure if Sanhetang themselves have this tea available anymore – oftentimes these outfits no longer have their past runs, or the supply left is so limited that they are not making it available for the public (instead, dripping it out as a “favour” for important clients). I didn’t buy any back in the Hou De days, mostly because, well, they were sold out before I saw them. I probably should’ve bought the whole tong of tea when I had the chance, especially since it’s a pretty good price. But then, I already have a lifetime supply of tea, so maybe I don’t really need more. Or, maybe I can stock up for “the future,” but I think that’s usually just rationalization for an otherwise unhealthy hoarding behaviour…

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