A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from June 2007

Market fragmentation

June 17, 2007 · 5 Comments

I went to Maliandao today, and saw my friend L who came up from Shanghai. I think he had some business to deal with.

He did bring something good, supposedly, anyway. It’s a sample of a Yellow Label from, ostensibly, the 70s. We tried it… nice, but in almost the exact same way that my loose GYG pieces are nice. They taste virtually identical. I’m sure the person who got the Yellow Label cake paid many multiples of what I paid for my pieces. It was a happy thing to know.

I also tried a number of other things, both at L’s store and elsewhere. They include an 03 Yiwu that’s been in Yiwu storage, which is reputably pretty wet and which shows when I tried the tea — there’s a sort of mustiness to it. I also had an 07 “rainfall” (aka summer) Yiwu maocha. Very bland, relatively speaking. Pleasant enough to drink, but not good enough for anything else. There’s a reason summer teas are used for cooked puerh. In fact, I think it’s a waste to bother to pick them – the taste is boring and flat, despite long infusions and generous amounts of leaves. It was definitely interesting to try though. I also had a mass production cake from Zhongcha this year. Smells nice, decent aromas, but a little too aromatic and too little bitterness for me to feel like I’m drinking young puerh.

Then I went on to the store that sells Douji puerh. I tried two things there. One was their 06 Fall “Yu Pin”, which literally means “jade product”, but is from the fringes of the Bulang area. Another cake is a self-produced cake by the owner of the store, who went to Yunnan this spring to press the tea himself (500 cakes of it) and who doesn’t really sell it except as gift packs. The cake is a Guafeng Zhai spring first flush. He pairs it with a real Lao Banzhang, and the set sells for a staggering $330 USD. Not cheap by any stretch of imagination, but then, he had high costs as well as real financial backing (I think tea is entirely a side business for him — he runs some other company). The teas were collected at above-market rates, and he only used first flush tea. The Guafeng Zhai tea is nice, but somehow, I don’t think it’s spectacularly nice to demand such high sums. I mean, it’s got good qi, but only so so huigan and not a lot of throatiness. I’ve read that sometimes for puerh it is better not to use first flush, which is sometimes too tender. Perhaps that explains the relatively subdued nature of the tea. The qi lasted a good bit, and the tea made my stomach hurt, but really… a lot of teas can do that for far less money. He also used an extremely generous amount of tea, which makes me think it has something to do with the strength involved.

One interesting tidbit the owner of this store told me today though is that he’s tried a number of 07 teas so far, and he thinks they are all weaker compared to the 06 version. There’s been talk that because of low rainfall, the tea this spring should be better, but he thinks that when rainfall gets too low… the tea suffers in quality. He might have a point. I haven’t really seen an 07 cake thus far that has made me feel like it’s worth buying. Prices for cakes this year are also much higher than those of years past, simply because the raw materials have gotten so much more expensive. When a lot of 03-05 cakes can be had for less money, why buy 07? It makes almost no sense to do so.

He also told me that many factories are pulling in tea leaves from other provinces to cut cost as well as to keep production going. After all, the total capacity for producing puerh in Yunnan right now has far outstripped the supply of raw maocha in Yunnan, especially given the low production yields this spring (one reason why maocha prices are up, supposedly, and also why a lot of factories haven’t produced much 07 teas yet). Like the story I posted about a week ago of Li Jing, who started a factory but has received few orders, most factories need to make tea to stay alive. Overcapacity, however, is a real problem, and I think many such small factories will be heading for a fall. What that might mean for the owners of such factories… who knows.

Right now there’s a lot of uncertainty in the market. If you’re a bull, you will cite the fact that puerh is still 1) very cheap, relatively speaking. 2) It’s only popular in the coastal cities. 3) Brands are still forming. 4) The tea’s inherent advantages, like rebrewability, ageability, etc. If you’re a bear, then you’ll cite 1) overproduction/capacity. 2) High, bubble like prices. 3) Unpalability when young. 4) Extremely volatile market.

How it goes only time will tell, but I think we’re seeing now a healthy segmentation/fragmentation of the market going on, with real consequences for us regular buyers. On the one hand, you have the big factories producing regular stuff that are, more or less, known items. Menghai and the like are prime examples of that. On the other hand, you have these small, boutique shops that make high priced teas catering to the wealthy and (perhaps) knowledgable. These are the ones with very well defined terroir, limited quantities, and high prices to go with it. These are also shops that can’t possibly do this on a grand scale for simple reason of economy and supply.

One huge problem though is that nobody, as far as I know, has good access to a steady source of such tea production areas. Everybody who is in the business rely very much on contacts in Yunnan, trying to score good maocha from the farmers. The way land ownership and production works in such areas is that nobody can buy out a whole mountain — the most I’ve heard of is somebody securing the promise of local farmers to only sell to him. Even that is difficult to enforce/police, and creates problems for a sustained level of quality, especially in a difficult to manage agricultural product like puerh tea.

Another factor that is complicating the issue is the appearance of drink-me-now puerhs. The oolong-ized or the green-tea-ized puerhs taste great now, but nobody really knows how well they age in the long run, and very few (myself included) can really tell them apart with good certainty. Whether such teas are worth the money depends on your tastes — do you want to buy it for aging, or buy it for drink it now?

I know I buy puerh hoping they’ll age into something great for the future. I’m more of a fan of aged teas than young teas, even though my current drinking habits would seem to indicate that I like them young. Rather, I’ve been trying them as much as I can while I have good access to it, and I expect myself going back to more oolongs in the near future when I won’t see as much young puerh. It creates a lot more work for me, and I noticed I’ve gravitated to small production, higher priced, but more individualistic puerh. Soon, however, I’m afraid I’ll be priced out of that market, if current conditions continue, and I think I will, because, as I’ve said before, I think old tree teas, the real ones anyway, won’t drop significantly in prices. Can’t say the same for the mass produced stuff.

Maybe I need to nurse my collection and hope they will all age to greatness, because I might not be affording some of them anymore a few years down the line. Let’s hope I’m wrong on this one!

Categories: Information · Old Xanga posts

Revisiting a Yiwu maocha

June 16, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I thought about this tea after drinking the Yiwu Zhengpin a few days ago. As I noticed an obvious change in the Yiwu Zhengpin, I wondered if this tea I’m drinking today has changed as well since I last had it, probably sometime in December in Hong Kong with Tiffany. I got this from the Yiwu girl when I was dealing with her, trying to get the tong of tea from her that I wanted. The tong is now with me, and I still have some of this maocha left. Not a whole lot, mind you, but enough for a few more sittings.

I duly measured 7g of tea.

Last time I drank it and actually posted a full set of notes, I thought it was nice, very nice, in fact. Of course, back then my experience with young teas was considerably less than what I know now, purely because I’ve had so many more teas in the past year 8 months (wow, it’s been that long). I think this tea is memorable for the fact that it was the first time when I felt all those things that people talk about but I have only seen glimpses of — the throatiness, the huigan, the qi, all mixed into one. I’ve since had other teas that are like that, but this one was the one that first allowed me to taste what I now seek in young puerhs.

I’ve really liked the results of me taking pictures of the liquor of the tea in my little clothes-drying area — the lighting in the afternoon works well to give it a consistency that I needed, and looks more natural than artificial light. Too bad I’ll be leaving Beijing soon and have to find some other way to replicate this.

The colour of the liquor, I think, is comparable to the last time I tried it. Although the dry leaves do look a touch redder than the last time, the tea doesn’t taste that way. It’s slightly bitter, sweet, an obvious Yiwu taste, and good huigan as well as qi. The tea is medium bodied. There’s some throatiness as well, more, I’m sure, if I brew it for a little longer, as I employed fairly short (5s or under) infusions until about the 7th.

The tea is smoother than last time, I think, and only displayed some minor roughness when hitting the 5th or 6th infusion, but it died soon after as the tea turned to a sweeter taste. Bitterness is more obvious if I employ longer infusions, but I’ve tried avoiding that.

A very interesting thing is the way the different teawares smell after each infusion. After I pour the tea out from the gaiwan into the fairness cup, I smell the bottom of the lid, which smells like that slightly sour, slightly off smell of young puerhs — some have called it “stinky green” in Chinese parlance. It’s not an aromatic smell. Rather, it’s more like an odor. Some have said this is the sun smell. I’m not sure, but I have taken it to be a typical young puerh smell. The leaves themselves don’t display much of a smell at all.

Then, pouring the tea from the fairness cup into my drinking cup, I smell the fairness cup, which, in this case, smells quite floral. It’s that Yiwu smell. After drinking, I smell the drinking cup, which is sweeter than the fairness cup.

It’s quite fun smelling all the different things. I think a wenxiangbei will only give you one kind of smell. I am personally not a fan of those things, as must be obvious, and it seems my preference against it is shared in some circles, more in mainland and Hong Kong. In Taiwan they seem to employ it more often.

After quite a number of infusions, I poured our the leaves

Since it’s maocha, it’s pretty.

I should note, at this point, that I no longer think thick center veins have anything to do with the age of a tea. I’ve seen plantation teas with very thick center veins. I do, however, think that if the secondary veins are obviously popping, that could be an indicator of the fact that the tea is from older trees. Don’t ask me why, and I don’t know if biologically this makes any sense, but among the teas I’ve seen, obviously popping secondary veins are pretty rare, and seem to happen most often with old tree teas. This picture might make my point clearer

In the pictures for the 6 mountain maocha series that I drank (link to the left), you can also see this in action. Although, I don’t think that is universally true and certainly shouldn’t be used as a reliable indicator. Rather, it’s more like an observation….

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Red Thunder

June 15, 2007 · 4 Comments

Rummaging through the samples I have today, looking for something to kill, I found a blue box with a label on it saying “Gopalhara Tea Estate — Red Thunder oolong”. Hmmm, I’ve neglected to taste this tea! It was kindly given to me by DH, a Boston area tea friend. He got it from somebody in New York, who apparently buys these small lots of premium Indians teas and resells them. There was a few grams in the tin left, perfect for a session with my small gaiwan.

The leaves look a little like oriental beauty, with the mixture of colour and type of leaves.

The tea brews a deep orange, with clear and somewhat thick liquor. The taste… is intensely floral. The first two infusions, as I’ve noticed with these Indian oolongs, coat your mouth with whatever taste the tea has. I was expecting this thing to drop off after a few infusions, as some other Indian oolongs I’ve had tend to do, but this one stayed strong — I brewed probably 10 infusions, and it still had decent taste. I’m impressed.

The floral quality of the tea reminds me of a dancong, actually, or at least the non fruity dancong. The affinity to dancong is most obvious around infusions 2-3. Later on, it came back to a taste that is mostly like a first flush darjeeling. In fact, I wouldn’t know this one’s supposed to be an oolong were it not for the floral qualities in the early infusions. It’s got less of the astringency that one gets from regular darjeelings, and but in some ways, I prefer those more. I think there’s something weird to me when I drink one of these teas — perhaps it’s the fact that the floral/fruity qualities are so concentrated in the first two infusions but then fade away. When I drink teas like this, I always wonder if they’re coated with a layer of artificial flavour. I’m sure they’re not, but it just seems that way sometimes.

This is easily the best Indian oolong I’ve had though. Depending on the price, I could get some of this. If it costs more than what I have to pay for reasonable dancong though, I’d pick up the dancong instead. The novelty value isn’t enough to keep me that interested over time.

You can see the wet leaves also look somewhat like an oriental beauty… I wonder how they did the fermentation, kill-green, and rolling/drying.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Yiwu Zhengpin revisited

June 14, 2007 · 6 Comments

I actually finished a sample today — the sample of Yiwu Zhengpin that Phyll gave me back in October, when Bearsbearsbears brought it over. I had it twice, and then just let it rot in its little bag while I moved onto other things. It’s time to finish this one up.

As you can see… this is even more chopped liver than yesterday’s. Among the small compressed pieces… I also noticed that there were some very fined chopped leaves pressed into the cake, perhaps leaves that were crushed when pressing.

Since it’s so broken, I tried my infusions very very short… any shorter, and I’d have to pour the water directly into my cup.

The resulting tea though, came out pretty dark

Much, much darker than I remember them. Last time I tried it on its own I said it’s a little odd. I think I will maintain that stance, although the oddness is a little clearer this time, no doubt partly due to me having had a lot more young puerh in the past 8 months. The tea, like I said last time, came out a little rough, and drying. There’s a definite note of sourness that wouldn’t go away no matter how many infusions I brewed — up until pretty much the end. The tea was astringent, but it had decent aromas and also gave a sweet taste. It’s just that the sweet taste was accompanied by some not-so-sweet taste. It’s bitter to a point, although the bitterness fades a bit, but also never entirely going away. There’s a sharpness to the tea that is a little unpleasant. I’m sure the heroic amount of leaves for the gaiwan has something to do with it, but the fact that a lot of it got washed out in the first few infusions in the form of really tiny bits, as well as the fact that most of that flavour should’ve been brewed out in a few infusions, mean that the remaining sharpness must be from the tea itself and not from the amount of tea.

Why is the tea darker now than what I remember last time? I don’t know. Perhaps age has something to do with it. After all, it’s been sitting around for 8 months without anybody touching it. But is it enough to give it such a big change? I’m really unsure.

Phyll suggested, at one point, that I should try it out, but somehow I couldn’t find a 2004 version of this cake, having only seen mostly the 2005 ones. Perhaps it’s the 2005 one that had the big production run, whereas the 2004 was more limited. Who knows?

It was fun to drink this tea again after having tried so many other things. I guess this is one thing we can all look forwrad to — trying teas again after a long break from them, seeing what has happened to them. I noticed that I didn’t say much of anything about the sourness in the tea, but this time it came out much more pronounced… I wonder if it’s a function of me not having noticed, or it not being there…

The wet leaves were very chopped, but I did find a few that were a little more complete

Thanks again Phyll for the sample 🙂

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Bangwei Fall 2006

June 13, 2007 · 3 Comments

I think I probably have a month or more worth of samples to drink, so eradicating them is really not entirely possible. Right now I’m just trying to pare them down, and to drink up the little bits or broken leaves that are in each bag. At least this way the shipping that I have to do soon can be done a little easier with less mess.

Before I go on about today’s tea, I should mention this: If anybody has experience shipping a fair amount of tea, or has any ideas about how to pack said tea for medium term storage (a month or two) please let me know. Right now I am thinking of sticking the tea in a cardboard box and ship it over to Hong Kong. The tea will be divided into tongs, and be wrapped in plastic bag (perhaps double plastic bag) that are odorless and tightly knotted so that they are more air tight. This way I hope to keep the tea from absorbing any excessive moisture or funny smells. If anybody can see a big problem with this arrangement… let me know that too.

Digression aside, today I took out one of the older bags of samples I got last fall. This is from a guy who makes tea in Kunming. He goes up to the mountains, collect maocha for old tree teas, and then presses and sells them. He seems to sell a lot through Sanzui, although he probably has other channels to do so, as well as having a store in Kunming. The teas he makes are consistently of decent quality, but the prices are not low. In some ways, this is definitely one way for a tea merchant who can’t compete on cost to do well — the boutique teashop that makes great tea. It’s nice to know, at the very least, that when you buy from this guy the tea won’t have funny problems like green-tea or deliberate pre-fermentation or anything like that.

So the sample I tried was the Bangwei mountain 2006 fall tea.

As you can see…. it’s really the shavings, broken bits, and loose leaves of the piece he sent me. There’s still probably 20g of the piece intact, but since the shavings is about 6g, I brewed that.

I only drank this tea once or twice, and my memory of it is faint. I think both times it was drunk in a long tasting session with other people, so there was never an individual, clear impression of the tea. This is my chance, I suppose.

The tea brews up slightly dark.

The first infusion…. was strong. The second stronger. The tea reminds me of the days when I first started drinking young puerh without knowing much about them… there’s that strong, bitter, taste with that slight hint of sourness to it, hitting you head on and reminding you that this tea really shouldn’t be drunk right now. I think the fact that the leaves were so chopped up has something to do with the harshness of the tea. The bitter does turn to sweet, and rather quickly too, but the first second or two was powerful. I did feel a bit of throatiness, but the strength of the tea was most obvious when I got up with my cup to take a picture of the liquor with natural light at the third infusion. My heart was pumping — this was more caffeine than qi, but either way, it was making its presence known.

The tea didn’t last that many infusions, having endured about 10 before just becoming sweet water, although the tea taste remained and I brewed a further few infusions after dinner to clear my mouth of MSG. I tried finding leaves in the chopped liver, and eventually found a few more complete pieces…

I got two cakes of the spring 2006 after trying this sample. I still haven’t opened the spring cakes to drink yet, and probably shouldn’t for a while yet. I think this will make pretty interesting tea in a few years.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

An old favourite

June 12, 2007 · 5 Comments

When I was trying to think up what to drink, I saw my little pot for nongxiang tieguanyin. It’s been underused this year… so, why not, I still have some of that tea.

I brewed it simply, filling the pot about a quarter full, and then just going through the motions. About 6 or 7 infusions later, the tea was done. It’s a tiny pot, so each cup takes only a little time to drink. I can be done with it in half an hour.

The tea was fine, not great, as it is pretty low grade stuff. It’s also been aged just a little. There is also a slight note of sourness, although managed properly it won’t show up at all. When I was done with the tea though, I felt dissatisfied… I think the infusion after infusion of puerh is, in some ways, quite nice, and an oolong, especially a tieguanyin or the like, just don’t cut it.

Looking at the wet leaves, I have my suspicion that this is a pretty thoroughly mixed tea, with some benshan involved, if not mostly benshan. I am terrible at telling apart the various varietals that are used in these mixtures, and it is not a surprise that almost nobody will label their tea benshan, or maoxie, or something other than tieguanyin. I really ought to go to a reputable store and learn. Yet… it’s a difficult question to ask. “Do you have benshan?” Sometimes I think even the vendors don’t know what they’re selling.

I did conduct an experiment today — I brewed the tea again, using fresh leaves in a gaiwan, and then pouring it into a fairness cup. Half went into my drinking cup, while the other half went into the now empty pot. I wanted to see if I could tell any difference between the two. I must say that it seems the tea that went through the pot comes out a little softer, and a little of the edge seemed to have been taken off. Yet, I wonder if it’s placebo. I really ought to do a blind test.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Trying to get the old price back

June 11, 2007 · 5 Comments

It seems like everybody who deals with puerh is trying to get the old price back, although which old price depends on your vantage point.

I went to Maliandao today. I was there to buy some gifts for somebody, as well as buying some tea for myself. I had planned to buy some of the Bulang cakes (aka sample 1), which I only have one of right now. So I went to the store — the only store on Maliandao that has it — and hoped to get some more.

It was on the shelf, just like last time, although the girl who sold the two to me wasn’t there, which isn’t a good thing, as I had hoped for a smooth and quick transaction. I asked the girl working there how much the tea is, hoping for an easy quote…. but I got a quote of more than four times what I paid last time.


Incensed, I started telling her in a rather angry tone how I bought two cakes last time at my previous price, and I didn’t even bargain about it because I was only buying two cakes (I didn’t tell her that also because I thought it was really good value). No no no, she said, it couldn’t be. There’s no way they sold that tea to me for so low. It must’ve been another one. It’s below their cost, etc etc….

I will spare you the whole details of our discussion and arguments, but about two hours later, I got her to agree to sell it to me at the price I paid last time. I was hoping for a better price than last time before I went, partly because I was buying more this time than last, but at this point, I really didn’t have it in me to continue any further, and I really have no reason to believe she will budge any further.

Then… apparently, she couldn’t find it in the store. We looked, and looked, and looked… and indeed, no tongs of this tea was to be found. They might have it in their warehouse, but trying to find a tong or two of a tea in a warehouse is a pretty meaningless exercise, at least on such short notice. I ended up leaving just with the four bings that were in the store… less than what I had hoped for, but alas, this is what I had to live with. At least I got my old price back.

While there, I did try a cake that she purports to be a Shuilanyin from the 80s, which sounds fishy. The tea couldn’t be more than 10 years, and most likely is less than 10 years. Smells of storage, but not wet storage. Not great at all, and asking for far too much.

I then went to Xiaomei’s store to ask for information on something. While there, two people came in whom I’ve met before. Turns out after some discussion that one of them actually owns a lot of tea — something I wasn’t aware of previously from our prior conversations. The guy has jians of, among other things, Menghai’s Classic 66, Gongting Qingbing, Yiwu, “Big Bokchoy” (a nickname for a Banzhang tea that sells for something like 1000 RMB a cake)… etc etc. From the sounds of it, this guy has at least a million RMB worth of tea sitting in storage. I think he’s at Xiaomei’s store to try to push some teas on her to sell for him — he brought along samples. Xiaomei, from what I understand anyway, thinks Menghai tea is too risky now to enter the market. The only time she does anything with them is if she has secured a buyer already, and then connects the buyer and seller and essentially takes a small commission. Holding any Menghai tea is very risky.

Anyway, this million RMB Menghai owner was saying to me how this current dip in the market, with Menghai prices being about half of what it was early this year, is just an opportunity. New spring teas are, once again, starting to arrive from the factory. Guangzhou already received new teas — first time in two months, and the 702 batch of 7542 is all sold out already. There’s rumblings that prices will rise again, and this is a great time to buy some more Menghai tea again and catch this wave.

Somehow, I could almost feel this guy was trying to get me to buy some tea. Perhaps he thinks I actually have that kind of money to spend on tea, and perhaps he’s just getting desperate. Very early on in the conversation I already said Menghai is too pricey for my tastes, but he kept going on and on about how great their teas are. I could feel a sales pitch.

I escaped with a phone call, but it’s clear that some other people — those with great stocks but nowhere to sell them to — are hoping for the old price. It’s just that in their case, they want the higher one. I can imagine many, many, many people being in the same boat, having bought a boatload of tea a while ago and now wondering how they can turn it into cash, unless they want to start cooking with the tea leaves for food. This makes me think that whatever rise in price we might see in the next few months might be quickly quashed by some people who will be eager to use the slightly higher price to get rid of stock on their hands. I also can’t imagine the same fervour in buying that has gripped the market in late 2006. People are now very, very aware of the risks of this investment (as evidenced, among other things, by yesterday’s article), and are, in my opinion, unlikely to jump in with the same enthusiaism.

I ended my trip today with a stop at a Wuyi tea shop, since this was the stop for the gift buying. I went in, told them how much of their 200 RMB/jin shuixian I wanted, in what kind of packaging, paid, and left… no fuss, and all done in minutes. I sat down just to chat with the owner a bit and try one of their new teas while the packing was being done. No bargaining either — prices, at least at this store, are more or less fixed. I didn’t even try the shuixian I bought, since I’ve bought a bunch before and know it’s quality. I must say it was a welcomed relief compared to the endless testing, bargaining, doubting, and regretting in the world of young puerh.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas
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Buyers don’t buy, sellers don’t sell

June 10, 2007 · 5 Comments

The following is an article that I saw on Sanzui (unfortunately, you need to register to see the original text), which was in turn reposted from sina.net, a Chinese web portal. I’m trying to stick as close to the original text as possible, so some places might read a little awkward. Also, note that 1 USD = 7.7 RMB at current exchange rates. I should also note that coincidentally, I’ve actually met Li Jing at the Shanghai tea expo.

Buyers don’t buy, sellers don’t sell: Today’s puerh in a frozen state

From Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna, to the tea country of Menghai, one must pass through Nannuo Mountain.

On the west side of the highway is the wooden house of Qiuhe. The people live on the second floor, and on the ground floor there’s a huge bag of tea, totaling some 250kg. This is freshly produced spring maocha. Right now it’s May 9th, and the price for old tree Nannuo maocha is about 280 RMB/kg. At this price, just this bag of spring tea is worth 70,000 RMB. Adding in the summer and fall teas, making 100,000 RMB this year is no problem for Qiuhe.

Yet he hasn’t sold one single kilogram of tea. He said he’ll wait — he’s hoping for 300 RMB/kg.

Qiuhe has a reason to wait. This Hani ethnicity family has been living in Nannuo Mountain for generations, and have always relied on tea as a living. From what Qiuhe remembers, in the 80s the price for all teas, plantation or old tree, were the same, around 0.4 or 0.5 RMB/kg. It wasn’t until 1999 when the price rose to 3 RMB/kg. Then after 2004 came around, the price went far beyond what he imagined possible. Two years ago, it hit 40 RMB/kg, and last year at the beginning of the year it was already at 55 RMB/kg. This year it zipped past 200 RMB/kg in no time.

Yet, just across the road, the general manager of the Menghai Shagui Boma Tea Factory, Li Jing, said as soon as I met her, “this year’s no good. Renminbi (RMB) shrinks as soon as it sees tea leaves. What do you think this is?” Her factory didn’t receive an order until very recently for two or three tonnes of tea. “You see that factory down the road? They haven’t even lit their furnace (for making tea)”

Li said that the prices this spring for various famous mountains rose about seven to eight times for plantation teas, and more than 10 times for old tree teas. Take Banzhang village of Bulang mountain for example, last year it was around 100-200 RMB/kg for old tree tea. This year, before May 1st, the price shot past 1250. Hu Wang, who came from Beijing to buy maocha, said he’s even bought some for 1600 RMB/kg.

Banzhang village is almost like a fairy tale this year. When Li came here in April to buy tea, she agreed on a price of 1100 RMB/kg on the first day she arrived. The next day, it went up to 1150. She decided to wait a little, but when she got up the next morning, it was 1200. She decided not to wait any longer, and bought 60kg. The tea cost more than the car that carried it home.

Away from Qiuhe’s home, on the other side of Nannuo mountain in the hamlet of Shuihelao, Xiao Zhixin, a graduate student in anthropology from Beijing University is also seeing the effects that the puerh tea craze has had on the people here. “A few years ago the people here just grew their own rice and corn to eat, some families didn’t even make enough food to feed themselves. Even last year, when the tea prices just started rising, there were only two motorcycles in this hamlet of 240 people. Now most have at least one, if not two motorcycles. There are even some new karaoke bars, and some girls from out of town who just loiter in front of them.”.

Pazheng village, to which Shuihelao belongs, produces mostly plantation teas. They neither have the old trees of Nannuo Mountain, nor the miracle of Bulang mountain’s Banzhang village.

Li Jing said other than families that only have old people and kids, almost every family has a car these days, mostly pickups of some sort. As long as you have an identification card for Nannuo or Banzhang, put down the ID card and sign a contract, you can take home a motorcycle or even a car right away. According to a tea merchant from Beijing, a farmer in Banzhang could make a few hundred thousand RMB easily, and during the harvest season, just one day’s picking would be a few thousand RMB.

But, as one can see from Qiuhe’s old wooden house, the wealth that has suddenly arrived is only affecting one corner of Yunnan. According to Yang Shanxi, the director of Yunnan’s Tea Bureau, on the whole Yunnan fresh (unprocessed) tea leaves prices rose about 2-3 times this year, from last year’s 3-4 RMB/kg to this year’s 10-12 RMB/kg. Even then, it is still far from Zhejiang province’s prices, as maocha for Yunnan is around 62 RMB whereas Zhejiang has reached 182. Zhang Jun of the Tea Institute of Yunnan’s Agricultural Academy thinks that as long as the market develops normally, there’s still ample room for growth in puerh tea prices.

Statistics also show that even though Yunnan farmers have had a substantial increase in their income in recent years, they are still ranked in the bottom when compared with the rest of the country. But the stories of Lao Banzhang has attracted the attention not only of people from Menghai or just the puerh production areas, but the whole country as well.

When asked about her thoughts when she joined the puerh tea industry as a kindergarten teacher in 2005, Li Jing said “when I saw other people making money, I wanted to make some money too”. She has natural advantages, having lived in Nannuo for almost 50 generations. Her father teaches in Lao Banzhang. “I was naive back then. There are lots of relatives, so it was easy to buy maocha. When we got maocha we just made it into finished products and sell. It was easy to make money”.

The same thought went through everybody’s mind. Li said that this year, in the local bank in Menghai, there were four lines of people who were lining up to take out cash. The local branch didn’t have enough money to pay all of them, and had to get cash transferred from Dali to meet the needs. Everybody talks about puerh when they meet. A parent of one of her former students, who used to be a garbage collector, asked when seeing her “Teacher Li, you want puerh? I have all sorts of teas.”

“Prices for rice went up. Prices for vegetables went up. People who used to grow vegetables went to collect tea. People who used to work in restaurants are now working in tea factories. Even nannies are impossible to find” Li said, noting things that outsiders don’t see. “Many tea factories can’t begin production because they can’t find workers. Last year we paid 30 RMB per day for wages. This year people won’t even work for 50”

Li’s problems are not limited to these. She planned to make a tea factory in 2005. In 2006 they made about twenty to thirty tonnes of tea in the spring. With the money she and her partner made, as well as the money loaned to her from her distributors, she expanded the factory’s capacity to 500 tonnes a year, and owed a million RMB in debt in the process. The factory was finished early this year, but prices of maocha is already so high that nobody wants to risk putting down a big order. “If our customers don’t send us money first, we don’t do the order. What if the market crashes? We’ll be dead.”

Factories like Li’s are very common. She said that last year there were only about 50 factories in the area. This year, there are 170. In fact, in the whole of Yunnan, according to Yang Shanxi, puerh processing capability is already approaching 200,000 tonnes a year. Last year’s production of all teas was 138,000 tonnes, with puerh accounting for about 80,000 tonnes of it. This means that there’s already a large distance between capacity and demand, which caused the prices of tea to rise quickly this year. The
other main reason is that rain came late this year, lowering overall production of tea leaves in the spring.

Late night on May 11th, in the lobby of a hotel in Jinghong sat a group of tea merchants from various placing, drinking together. Some of them have already been in Xishuangbanna for two or three months, but they still haven’t placed a big order. After May 1st, the price of Lao Banzhang has already dropped back to 800 RMB/kg, but still, nobody was buying and nobody was selling.

“Right now the situation is quite funny — buyers don’t buy, and sellers don’t sell”, Hu Wang said. He said that on the one hand, tea farmers want a better price. On the other, merchants are worried about risk, so they have been delaying their purchase, which then freezes the market.

A Hebei tea merchant bellowed out “do you bet high or do you bet low?”

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Zhongcha Bulang Fall 2006

June 9, 2007 · Leave a Comment

Rummaging through my samples, I found a small bag with a little piece of paper, written by me, saying “Zhongcha Bulang Fall 2006”. Why not, I thought to myself. So, I took out the pieces and measured 7.3g

I’ve been using the amount of tea I use these days to give myself a more uniform way to taste the teas, as well as giving the readers an idea of what I do with them, generally speaking. I realized, after the notes for the samples I sent out, that brewing parameters vary greatly, and it is more meaningful if I provide some sort of parameter when I talk about my tea tastings. Otherwise, they’re less useful.

For this tea, infusions were kept short (5s or so) until about the 7th or 8th infusion, after which it lengthened. The tea went through some pretty interesting progression. It started in the first two infusions in a very mild manner, sweet, fragrant, but with a decent “hit” in the back of the throat. Very promising. Then it sort of went through a transition period in the next few infusions, when the tea gradually got a little more astringent and also a little more bitter. Then, it hit the final stage, when if I brew with a short time, the tea comes out tasting sweet and nice, like a good young puerh should, or unpleasant and bitter, like a fake green-tea puerh would.

I should perhaps explain again what I mean when I say green-tea puerh. Somebody asked me today what I meant. I think what I mean is what Chinese would call “hongqing”, or baked green. This is different from “shaiqing” or sun-dried green. Hongqing basically means tea that was processed/dried at a high temperature, while shaiqing is that of a low temperature processed tea. The difference between the two is that hongqing brings out aromatics that shaiqing won’t, but at the expense of ageability. Think of a typical longjing — the first infusions (or the first minute of infusion) would bring you a highly aromatic, sweet, and nice cup of tea, but oversteeped green would taste astringent, rough, and bitter. A proper young puerh, on the other hand, has the reverse order — bitter first, but turns into sweet water later on. This is probably not the only way to tell, nor is it the surefire way to tell the two apart, but I think it is one way, and I feel that having tasted a whole bunch of younger stuff… this has generally held. I have especially noticed among the 2007 cakes I’ve tried that the proportion of green-tea puerh has been pretty high this year. This is also the concensus in online forums like Sanzui — that this year’s puerh production has been uncharacteristically green for some reason. Don’t know why — some speculate that the farmers all got richer and bought drying machines instead of just leaving it to the whims of the weather.

I should now caveat this all by saying that much of this has been knowledge that I have gleaned from various sources, online and offline. I have, however, tasted a few hongqing samples of a few years old that… are bitter and nasty (think stale old green tea). So, given that to be the case, what I say here should be taken with a grain of salt.

That said, I don’t feel confident enough with the tea I drank today to ever buy it. It’s probably a mix of the two, and the mix of hongqing tea is probably less than the “Banzhang Zhengshan” I drank about a week ago. Yet, it’s still enough to deter me from thinking of buying this tea.

The wet leaves

As Lew has pointed out in a recent comment on the day when I mixed the Yiwu with the Banzhang — trying to pick out which of these leaves have been improperly processed is going to be a mightily difficult job. In fact, I doubt it’s at all possible. Buyer beware, I suppose.

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas

Mixing teas again

June 9, 2007 · 4 Comments

Continuing my sample eradication, yesterday I drank the remaining piece of Zhongcha traditional character bing given to me by my friend YP in Hong Kong.

A really clean, but unremarkable, piece of tea. It’s about 5g, not really enough for my pot. So I decided to add a few small pieces of the Guangyungong broken bits that I bought in Hong Kong and see what happens.

The tea first brewed very lightly

But it then deepened into a nice red colour

Notice, though, that you can still see the sediments. The liquor, though dark, is very very clear. The picture doesn’t really do a good job of showing that.

The taste of the tea is a mix of the two. There’s the more fragrant plummy taste of the Zhongcha cake, and then the blander sweetness mixed in with the bamboo wrapping taste of the GYG. My girlfriend thought it was an unsuccessful mix, as they lost their individual characters and turned into a mix of taste. I must admit it probably could’ve been mixed better, but I thought in some ways the tea wasn’t bad at all.

The pieces were too broken for good pictures of the wet leaves, although it is obvious that the Zhongcha tea was better stored with more flexible/nicer looking leaves, while the cheap GYG pieces had darker and stiffer ones. I also think it could be partly a function of the different varietals used, with the GYG using Guangdong tea leaves that age differently compared with the Yunnan ones.

Now I’m wondering what to drink for today….

Categories: Old Xanga posts · Teas
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