A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from January 2010

Appellation control for tea

January 20, 2010 · 9 Comments

One of the most confusing things about buying tea is that there is virtually no naming scheme and standards.  I can go buy some green tea from a wholesaler and resell that as “jade green spring”, which sounds awfully like biluochun “green snail spring”, and perhaps lead you to think that it might have something to do with biluochun, even though my tea could be some cheap Sichuan green of no notable character.  Tieguanyin from Fujian and tieguanyin from Taiwan are entirely different beasts — the ones in Fujian are generally named for the varietal of tea plant from which the tea came, while in Taiwan tieguanyin also includes specific sets of production procedures.  Likewise, Longjing is a famous tea, and is supposed to be from the Hangzhou area, but somehow, Taiwan has Longjing too, and no, Taiwan’s Longjing does not taste anything like the mainland version, at least the good stuff.  And then you have things like “Zhejiang Longjing”.  And let’s not even get into puerh naming conventions….

It seems like what really needs to happen, at least with Chinese tea, is a strict regulatory regime that makes it possible to tell something about a product when it comes to its name.  When I see the word “longjing” I should know that it is coming from a defined area, with a defined characteristic, and maybe even certain defined manufacturing procedures.  This is like how appellation d’origine contrôlée is done in France, and it works pretty well.  When you see Epoisses de Bourgogne, you know what you’re getting.  It’s going to stink, it’s going to be creamy, and it’s the same every time.  If you put that name on, and you didn’t make it there or follow the proper rules, then you are going to get sued.

This is of course part of the problem — the lack of a robust legal system that can handle problems such as infringement on these names, and the lack of an authority established to deal with such issues.  I remember reading about a Chinese town that wanted to copyright their namesake alcoholic beverage, because other people from a different town started making it, and it was being bastardized and worse, its reputation was damaged because the other product was not as good.  For people whose hometown has a product which has a name-recognition value, it is in their best interest to have a system that will protect such a product.

It is, of course, also in the interest of the government to do so, because goods that can command the trust of the consumer is going to be able to command a higher price.  The lack of appellation control means that when I see “Yiwu” printed on the label of a puerh tea, I actually have no idea what’s in it.  It could be indeed the best leaves from Yiwu, it could be really bad leaves from Yiwu, it could be leaves from other places in Yunnan, or worse, it could be from places that are outside Yunnan.  There’s no way to tell, and the only way I can even guess is to drink and see what I think of it.  Nine out of ten times, however, Yiwu and other famous places like it will have tea that isn’t really produced from materials made from that area, just like “Anxi tieguanyin” is often not Anxi tieguanyin at all.  Really experienced drinkers will know the difference, but for the vast majority of consumers, no such possibility exist.

One of the inherent problems with tea is that it is often made by small farmers, and sold to larger distributors/consolidators/wholesalers who blend, process, and resell the tea to the consuming public.  The leaves themselves are anonymous, and farmers are usually only selling bags of tea they carried to the factory with no distinctive marker of any kind at all.  When you look at the raw leaves, you really can’t tell very well whether it’s from Yiwu or not.

The Taiwanese have come up with a rather interesting method of dealing with this problem, namely, regular tea competitions among farmers.  Farmers are asked to submit batches of tea for these competitions, and the teas are then graded, winners announced, and the teas are then resealed in government authorized packaging with the grades accorded to the tea.  The point of these competitions were twofold — to encourage better tea, of course, but also to grade and sell them in a way that guarantees some level of quality.  For an entry into the competition, the farmer has to submit a certain amount of tea (13.2kg for Lugu) and the judging panel basically takes a random sample out of this batch to evaluate the tea.  The whole batch eventually gets sold, and because of the labeling and the grading, they are usually sold at prices much higher than they would otherwise command without such certification.

Now, doing so would be hard for all levels of tea, and in all fairness, there’s probably no good reason why this needs to be done for the large scale, commercial, and mass-consumed tea that slosh around the market every day.  At the same time, some basic form of appellation control that at least gives a modicum of origin assurance would be nice.  Just like how for wine there’s AOC, Vin de Pays, Vin de Table, etc, one could imagine such stratification for different kinds of tea.  Some farmers might go for the highest rating and aim to produce high quality, but possibly lower yield, tea, while many will be content to make tea for the mass market.  Some will do both, and it is up to government authorities to build an infrastructure to support this kind of choice.  What we have right now, however, is nothing, and nothing is damaging the entire market.

Western buyers are not alone in this either, as Chinese buyers are just as confused as everybody else.  Most experienced tea people know that when you buy Dahongpao, oftentimes the tea in the bag is not really Dahongpao.  On top of the varietals you have all kinds of other things, such as Monkey Picked, etc, that are often used by shops to denote their own blends or processes.  If there’s an appellation control, at the very least they can tell you it is “roasted in house using x leaves” or something along those lines.  As it is, we have none of that luxury.  For the Western buyers who have to deal with names like Snow Monkey, Leopard Monkey, Naked Monkey, or whatever else, the situation is only worse.

Categories: Old Xanga posts


January 8, 2010 · Leave a Comment

I opened a bottle of spoiled wine yesterday.  It was not a great loss, as it was only a cheap Cotes du Rhone that I had kept for a few years.  It went through various types of poor storage, including a year and half in a U-Haul storage facility.  The cork probably dried out at some point, and nature took its course and turned it into vinegar.

This reminds me of the risks inherent in storing tea as well.  Humidity, for the most part, is not a risk factor in much of the US, but depending on the environment in which you store the tea, it can affect the tea negatively, perhaps fatally.  I am always reminded of this accident and wonder if the tea I have stored in my parents’ home in Hong Kong is safe and sound.  Granted, it’s not a shed on the hill, and so it’s probably not nearly as humid as the storage conditions of those tea, but Hong Kong can get somewhat wet at times, so it’s still a bit of a risk factor.  I tried to minimize the risk by having the teas stored on a few shelves near the ceiling and away from the windows and light, so that they are, for the most part, shielded from excessive moisture, heat, and sun.  Yet, since I am not there, it does worry me that some, if not all, of it might turn out badly.

This is of course one of those risks that we all have to take when we decide to keep things like tea or wine at home.  They can age poorly.  If you leave it to others, they assume the risk, but then you have to pay them for assuming that risk in the form of higher prices.  Nothing is free in life, after all.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

Buying tea from taobao (2)

January 7, 2010 · 2 Comments

So last entry we stopped at actually looking at listings.  Let’s now turn to those.

Over the years pictures on Taobao has really improved.  I remember when I was in China in 06, very often the Taobao listings would have no pictures at all, or a really bad, grainy, and small picture that might as well not be there.  Since then, most listings have gained multiple pictures, and now as long as you believe what’s in the listing, you can find some pretty decent looking photos to rely upon.  When you scroll down from the “search” menu to look at the listings, it’ll look like this

The ones in the center are whatever listings that show up under your filters, while the ones on the right sidebar are “related” or “promotional” products, which means they might have nothing to do with what you were looking for.  Obviously, go with the ones in the middle.  Now, let’s try one of these listings.

Now, once you’ve been through a few listings, you’ll notice a few things.  First, the listing layouts change.  Here, the sidebar is on the left, while the listing info is on the right.  That’s not always true, and it seems like Taobao allows seller a great deal of flexibility in customizing their listing.  This is, I suppose, both good and bad, in the sense that it can make it a little harder to navigate, especially if you don’t know Chinese.  There are a few things that are constant, however.  The circled area above is a seller’s feedback.  This is in the newer system of stars, sort of similar to eBay’s.  The older system just shows feedback rating numbers, which, of course, is pretty useless.  A seller with low feedback is not necessarily worse — he’s just a lower volume seller.  So far, I haven’t been socked in buying things in the sense of having my money taken but no goods delivered.  I have, however, bought not very good tea, but that’s an entirely separate issue.

Now, most proxies will do this for you, but this is the part that really matters, the price:

Along with other vital info, that is.  The big red number is the price of the cake (which is almost always per cake), with the shipping cost right under it in small print.  The number in yellow, though, is the number of times this item has already sold.  So for this cake, they’ve sold 120 through Taobao, which is relatively high, especially since Taobao often operates off-site when it comes to final transaction.

Now, since you’ll be using a proxy, you won’t be doing the actual bidding.  However, right above the bid button is another piece of info that usually nobody will tell you about — the number of items remaining that this merchant has on hand.  In this particular case, it’s 185.  So you know that if you bought one cake, there’s more where this came from.  This is actually somewhat useful, as sometimes they’re only selling one cake and one only, while others you can tell the seller has lots of it.  If the proxy service you use is good, and you are buying in bulk, you can sometimes ask them if they have bulk pricing.  Taobao merchants often do.

The third thing to look at, in this case, is a feedback on the specific item

The rating here is close to five stars, and 8 people have rated this item.  If you can read Chinese, you can click on the link and read it all.  Otherwise, it’s fairly useless.

Now, for the actual item description:

Just make sure the first tab is the one highlighted, and if you keep scrolling down, you’ll see the item description, complete with pictures, all that.  Often times the description that a seller posts is very generic and the only thing that matters at all is the pictures.  The rest are all useless, repeated info.  Sometimes you can try scanning the description for dates, but even then, they often don’t mean that much.

The sidebar on the left has other functions too, besides telling you the seller’s rating.  If you looked at a cake and like the seller’s goods, you can click on one of the links on the left to go through a particular category of tea that the seller has.  Oftentimes in a standard seller page, there’s a big orange button that links you to the whole store, but that’s not present here.  That’s often a good way to browse for cakes, instead of searching for them.  You can see how the seller has sorted them by year of production, and then by the different “series” that they have produced.

Now, some of you might recognize this cake and say “hey, I’ve seen this one before….”  Yes, that’s correct, if you are one of those who hound sites that sell puerh, then you might have seen this cake from Yunnan Sourcing. This is the Guanzizai 09 Banzhang/Man’e cake, and if you look at the prices….

A comment on my last entry suggested that it’s not always cheaper to buy from Taobao, and this pretty much shows you why.  The Taobao price for this cake is only marginally lower than YS’ price, but if you factor in the proxy fees and the potential for a higher shipping cost, then it’s really not a worthwhile venture.  In general, I find Taobao to be good for things that one cannot find online, or can only find online at very inflated prices at certain vendors.  Price comparison is always good, and it’s useful to do your homework.  Most of the things I look for are not available online anyway, but when browsing, it’s good to check to make sure you got the right thing from the right place.

Now….. how do you pick cakes?  Well, that’s a harder question to answer.  Unfortunately, there are lots of cakes out there that look good in pictures but don’t taste very good, or have low potential.  It often comes down to trial and error.  There is also the possibility of fake tea, although that really has diminished over the years.  I find that the most likely brands for fakes are still Dayi and Xiaguan, while the rest are either not expensive enough to be worth faking, or small enough so that nobody bothers.  There are usually some signs that a tea is fake, starting from a “too good to be true” price.  What I have done in the past is to buy one cake first from a vendor to make sure the cake is genuine or good, and then if I like it, I can always go back to buy more.  This is where the “items remaining” number is handy.  I have had some finds there, and also a few duds.  In that sense, it’s not too different from the online tea buying experience in general.  Look for good looking cakes, preferably with pictures of the liquor of the tea, as well as the brewed leaves.  They all give you signs of what the tea is up to.

Maitre_tea also ask about buying Yixing on Taobao.  I’ve looked at the selection, and I think I can say that if you’re looking for a new, modern piece, and if you are willing to take the risk, go ahead and give it a shot if the price is right.  However, Yixing involves a lot more complexity, while puerh is more of a standardized product.  I will avoid all claims of “antique” on Taobao, but as long as you know you’re buying a new piece and it’s advertised as such, it’s again not much different than buying online in general.  In these cases, I would say that usually the merchants who seem to provide more pictures and information tend to be the better ones and will be more reliable.  Good luck!

Categories: Old Xanga posts

Buying tea from taobao (1)

January 5, 2010 · 4 Comments

So it seems like those crafty Chinese finally found a way to make some money by acting as middleman between that emporium of all things Chinese, Taobao, and the Western buyer who wants stuff on there.  For those of you who don’t know, Taobao.com is basically China’s eBay, only worse.  Since it does not charge listing or final value fees, anybody can list pretty much anything on there, and much of the business on Taobao is conducted off-site.  What it is, then, is basically a huge online catalog, and if you like something there, you contact the buyer and arrange a deal, often with a discount off the Taobao listed prices.

That is if you’re in China.

Since I am not in China, and most of my readers are not either (by definition, because Xanga is still censored,) buying from Taobao requires more work and less discounts.  In the old days there was just no way, unless you want to arrange a bank transfer, etc, which are all too much hassle and too much risk.  These days, there are a bunch of new proxy service that have sprung up that will help you buy stuff off Taobao.  They charge a 10% fee on the value of the item, and will help you arrange payment and shipping.  I’ve used one before and it worked quite well, and from what I’ve heard, other services (some in English) will also do the job.

For the tea drinker, this is quite a boon, because for the first time it is possible to have a selection far, far wider than whatever is available through a select number of vendors.  Places like Yunnan Sourcing have been providing a fairly wide selection for a while now, but this expands the selection by multiples.

How, though, do you buy and choose tea from Taobao?  That’s always a hard question.  I thought it might be useful to talk about it, since I’ve talked to people who are getting quite excited about the prospect, and rightly so.

Let’s talk first about the scope.  What I think Taobao is good for, mainly, is puerh, especially cakes of a more recent (past 10 years) vintage.  While you can find more oolong, green, wuyi, and all other kinds of tea there, in general I would be very cautious buying those off Taobao.  The main reason is because by and large, the other kinds of tea are immensely difficult to distinguish between one and another.  Physically, the difference between a $10/kg and $1000/kg dahongpao, for example, isn’t really big enough so that you can tell right away on pictures, especially when you consider the potential for photoshopping, bait and switch, and other things that can happen.  If you really want to buy loose leaf tea, buy small amounts, ask for samples, and in general, buy at your own risk.

So, you don’t read Chinese.  How do you get to the tea anyway?  Here’s the link in its full glory


This is the link to Taobao’s puerh section.  If you want to go to the section for other teas, with over 400k items, you have to navigate there, but once again, I’m really not sure if it’s such a good idea.

So you’re in the puerh section.  Where do you start?  Well, let’s take a look

This is the basic screen.  The bottom is where the listings start.  The top, however, is where you navigate, and it’s much more important.  There are three categories that they use to subdivide the cakes, and I’ll go over them one by one.  The first, circled above, is the type of puerh.  They are, from left to right, round cakes, tuocha, bricks, mini tuo, melons, loose tea, and what they call “artistic” tea, which really means super compressed junk (they’re called that because they are used as decoration.)  Now, the second category:

These are the brand names.  If you know what you want, you can select one of those to narrow down the list of items you have to go through.  The list is long, and the orange icon with the + sign will give you a full list of brands, which includes a list of 28 major brands, plus a “misc.” that includes more items than the rest of the brands combined.  I generally don’t search by brand, especially since I like the smaller factory stuff.

The third category is the most useful — raw, or cooked.  Cooked comes first, raw second.  This will instantly half the number of items you need to look at.

Now, what they don’t show you is that if you pick a style (i.e. cake, brick, melon etc) you will have one more option:

This lets you select the age of the cake.  If you know you want something that is, say, from 2007, then you can use this to narrow it down.  However, this is self reporting, and since listing stay on the site for quite a while, I can imagine some needing update and never gets it.  It’s useful for narrowing down the list further though.

Once you’ve narrowed your list down a bit instead of the tens of thousands of cakes, you’re ready to browse.

There are some navigational tools that you can use right above the cakes, but most are fairly useless.  You can specify what type of item you want (i.e. auction, buy it now) but I don’t think we need to go into all that.  If you need to, you can go to the dropdown menu I circled above and choose the option you like — arranging it by highest or lowest price first.

Let’s leave this for now.  Next entry will be about actually looking at items.

Categories: Old Xanga posts