A Tea Addict's Journal

Young puerh prices (2)

February 16, 2007 · 3 Comments

I went to Bonham street today and looked at, among other things, a bunch of loose puerh. That, I think, is also an important thing related to prices. Loose puerh in general do not come with packaging, at least not in the “this is vintage xxx from xxx factory” way that cakes/bricks/tuos do. So when you pay for it — you’re paying for the quality of the tea, with no reference to who made it, etc.

Unfortunately, the lack of information I talked about earlier makes it so that there is a serious hunger for any sort of information. I remember recently reading an article in the Economist, I think, that says studies show that human behaviour is easily affected by those surrounding them. A music store online that shows how often a song has been downloaded will see sales gravitate towards the few “winners”, whereas stores that don’t show such information will have a more even spread of sales. The herd instinct is alive and well.

The same is true for puerh, especially in a marketplace as crazy as puerh market is right now. Any sort of hype surrounding any sort of product will often create a buzz among puerh collectors. An article in a magazine, a good review from an “expert”, or even just a well documented thread on a place like Sanzui can create a buzz for a particular product that will drive the price up. I’ve fallen into the same trick. When BBB and I bought the Mengku stuff partly because I heard about it from online sources, etc, which in turn came from an article in a magazine. Prices for said tea shot up over the past few months, as far as I can tell, and somebody’s profitting from it.

Is that tea necessarily that good though? When we tried it, the Yuanyexiang was not that much better than the 2002 cake we also tried, but the price was much higher. The price differential is even larger now. Why did these people buy it though? Is it really because the tea is that superior? Or is it just because somebody talked about it, written a good review, and …?? I’m not so sure anymore. These products that are featured are also often used as a “guiding” product, and the prices of EVERYTHING produced by said factories will tend to go up after an episode of such a price rise. It’s unfortunate, but in an arena with such a lack of information…. price changes in one thing is often the only piece of info that is seen by the general consumer, and will affect a lot of other things and pull prices up all over.

So the loose tea offers a good lesson. Buy the tea based on how the tea is, not on what other people have to say about it. It’s extremely difficult to do that, however. Doing blind tests help. Doing head-to-head tastings help. It’s not easy to be objective when you know that one of the teas you’re brewing is going to cost you $90 and the other is $10.

The other thing is that it entirely depends on what you want to do with the tea. Are you buying it for drinking now? Drinking later? Trading for something else later? Selling? Investment? Those all affect the purchasing decision. If one were to buy something for investment, for example, you would want to buy a tea with a brand name, a pedigree. Those command a premium right now, but those will also have a more reliable future price. On the other hand, if one were to buy teas for one’s own consumption in the future, then it might be best to buy cheaper teas right now.

Are these “wild”, “old”, “arbour” teas really going to be 10x, 20x better than the plantation tea, 20 years down the road? Does anybody know? After all, most of the classic teas that are so highly valued today are plantation stuff. I personally don’t know the answer to this question, and I’m not sure if anybody really does. Those who claim they do generally have a heavy financial stake in the business, so I’m not even sure if any of those words can be trusted. The claim is that these old tea trees will yield a better product, will age with more qi, more depth, more complexity, etc. I’ve had some 10 years old “big tree” teas, and while they’re decent…. I’m not sure if the price differential now between old tree and plantation tea will really show in the future anymore.

Which is why these days I’ve been buying some cheaper stuff…. I think at this point, where I don’t know the answer to such questions, I am just going to have to apply the shotgun method and buy something of everything so that I will have something good to drink down the line, and also I will have learned something useful. It is also why I tend to buy teas that aren’t made by big factories, because they command a premium that I don’t think necessarily reflects the quality of the tea itself. Maybe 10 years from now, I will know better what will really age well, and what won’t. Right now, however, I am afraid I don’t have a good grip on such questions.

Unfortunately, nobody who knows something about this seems willing to talk about it. I have rarely, if ever, seen real recommendations on how to select tea without talking about specific products. Or, they are phrased in such vague terms that they are hardly useful. Perhaps at the end of the day, it takes experience to do such things…. I wish I could offer more, but at this point, I don’t want to mislead anybody 🙂

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3 responses so far ↓

  • xiaolaoke // February 16, 2007 at 2:19 pm | Reply

    Hi Marshaln –

    Thanks, I enjoyed this two part post and almost bounced my comment over to the pu’er livejournal but thought it deserved credit where credit is due – right here on your own page. One thing I’ve appreciated about your postings is that they’ve been providing insights into different markets – mainly Beijing vs. HK. A short story in that regard:

    In Kunming last Spring, I bought some tea from a friend (late 30’s male) connected to a relatively new factory. Afterwards, I took a 2004 Yiwu zhuan to two others to taste with me – (one was a girl in her early 20’s and the other a late 40’s to early 50’s female laoban of another shop.) The assessments given me by the two women were basically the same. They said the tea was sour, poor ganjue, and not worth the price. The laoban further claimed that it was taidi cha. She brewed one of her own teaas to demonstrate how fragrant and sweet it was and how pleasant it felt in the throat. This tea consisted primarily of Banzhang leafbuds and was quite expensive. I politely bought a couple of bing from her out of appreciation for her time and effort and she graciously gave me an assortment of samples from her barrels of maocha. Leaving the shop, I had a dilemma – was my friend who sold me the Yiwu zhuan taking advantage of me? I pondered whether I had been played as a stupid white boy even though I knew in my heart that our friendship was genuine (it had extended well beyond the teashop – into his home, family, and highly knowledgeable circle of pu’er friends.) I was unsure how to broach the situation with him without seeming distrustful, rather conveying my desire to cultivate my knowledge.

    When I brought the situation up with him the next day, he used the Socratic method in eliciting answers from me instead of being overtly responsive. I assessed the situation as such: he had taught me that a good tea with long-term aging potential should have four basic qualities – ?????? ? – in that respective order. If these were out of balance, it would affect the potential of the tea. Furthermore, I continued, the tea given me by the other laoban had been primarily leafbuds and, while fragrant and pleasant to drink, did not have a foundation on which to age. He elaborated on my words, saying that ? was the effect of bitterness migrating out of the stem as the tea fermented and was a necessary byproduct of the aging process that would dissipate in time. I have since come to understand this more clearly as i become familiar with the difference between 2,3,4,5 . . . year old teas as they reveal different stages of fermentation. A tea with good aging potential is not always going to taste great right away, but there are criteria by which we can qualify the taste along the way.

    It is obvious that there are different schools of thought regarding pu’er. As you’ve stated, wet or dry storage, ganjue, etc. are emphasized differently between Beijing and HK. The market being as unstable as it is right now, I would anticipate that the next few years will reveal much and that this will lead to a more transparent pricing scenario. Many of these new teas will be given the test of time, access to the limited sources for higher grade leaves may be secured by certain individuals or factories, regulatory policy will have both positive and negative effects on the industry, and pu’er afficionados pallets will be conditioned by time and tasting. Therefore, I tend to agree with you in that I don’t buy nearly as many big factory teas, as they tend to be higher priced largely on account of reputation. Instead, I temper my pallet and my pocketbook on reasonably priced teas from trusted sources and patiently drink away the time.


  • MarshalN // February 16, 2007 at 10:25 pm | Reply

    Yes, the puerh market is definitely going through a transformation right now, and that what comes out in a few years is anybody’s guess… let’s hope for the better.

    I guess one thing I should’ve noted is that while there are nice items among the smaller factories with no name, there are also a lot of duds out there, and that one must beware of them.

    Your story of bringing a tea from A and showing it to B, only have B pan it entirely is quite common, I think. I personally have had it happen to me a few times, and I have now learned not to believe anything anybody says about anybody else’s tea, unless it’s somebody who I know really well (like my friend L).

    I might say something about Yiwu tea today…. depending on how the day goes 🙂

  • runrabbit6 // February 20, 2007 at 11:17 pm | Reply

    Interesting article.  And response.  Well done.

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