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.

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.

 photo Verdant screen grab.png

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.

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.

 photo 6af8e69f-8725-4aef-b861-ace6f98d4d6b.jpg

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.

 photo IMG_6864.jpg
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.

 photo IMG_6867.jpg

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.

 photo IMG_6869.jpg

 

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

 photo F244BD2A-810A-4785-8C73-0943378E355C.jpg

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.

 photo 8b18e19a-1a97-4f69-b49e-7f0798ab15b4.jpg

Or maybe this version is clearer?

 photo 4a5d849b-53a0-4e54-8fc6-e225de4f4167.jpg

Yes, Hello Kitty is here

 photo 6529EDD5-FAB2-49D4-8CEE-55405C6E5129.jpg

Finally, a really beautiful bug dropping tea.

 photo 97FE5A91-A570-4FFC-AF2A-8B0835462CDA_1.jpg

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.