A Tea Addict's Journal

Going lower and lower

March 24, 2011 · 7 Comments

One of the peculiar things about my tea shopping habits over the past few years is that I have been buying cheaper and cheaper teas.  I am quite literally paying less money overall for the tea I am buying, and on a per gram basis, I am definitely paying far less than I used to a few years ago.

I think tea shopping, in general, falls into two categories.  There are the teas that are for general consumption — stuff you drink regularly because they’re good, and then there’s the special stuff, teas that you bring out when you have tea friends coming over, or when you feel like you want a special treat.  What these things mean, however, depend on the person.  I find that the gap between my “daily” tea and my “treat” tea is quite slim, and I find very little difference between them.  I have a few things that are old and aged and expensive, but I find very few reasons to drink them.  I don’t even have much of an urge, for example, to dig into my cake of Traditional Character.  It just doesn’t excite me enough to do so.

There is, actually, a lot of tea out there — far more than anyone of us can consume in many lifetimes.  Whenever a vendor tells you something is “rare” or “exceptional” or what not, chances are whoever is reselling the tea (usually on the internet) bought it from someone who has a virtually unlimited supply of the tea.  I just had a great tieguanyin the other day that I thought was complex, deep, and well balanced, and it was quite cheap for the quality.  I’d be more than happy to drink it every day.  In fact, it has revived my interest in tieguanyin, because I can see that good ones still exist and they don’t all have to be nuclear green.  Yet, there’s no story to this tea, no “I got this from farmer X who did Y to get this tea”.  It’s a blended, roasted tieguanyin, made year after year by this teashop, sold to locals who got accustomed to the taste and will refill their jars when they run out.  For a lot of people who live far from a tea producing country, this is definitely a luxury, but the internet should make it easier to acquire such things.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  Cheaper teas online tend to be very bad, and the expensive things are often not a lot better.  Things priced as “treat” are often just slightly higher grade “daily tea”, especially when it’s attached to some story, which is pretty unacceptable.  I’m pretty sure that the loose puerh that some of these stores sell can beat any loose puerh sold online these days, but alas, nobody can find them.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • vladimir lukiyanov // March 24, 2011 at 11:22 am | Reply

    Possibly same story as wine in the UK? In any supermarket, the wine from about £5 to £15 can taste exactly the same. In the online tea world, this must be just part of the game. I recently tried some wuyi oolong from an eBay shop (dth) that was literally horrific, think it sells for about £8 or 9 for 100g, but it is just crap, supermarket grade stuff, yet even it had a rather alluring product description.

    • MarshalN // March 25, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Reply

      I think on the lower end it’s really a crapshoot — if you try enough of them, you’d find something nice. Otherwise, well ….

  • ABx // March 24, 2011 at 11:26 am | Reply

    That really is the biggest problem with getting into tea from the west, and when you do find a good vendor online it can be hard to trust them. I hope that more of those shops can get online in the future; I’d love to have a good, inexpensive source for that kind of TGY.

  • Jason F. // March 25, 2011 at 11:26 am | Reply

    Standard retail markup in the US is 4x; that’s not exaggerative or even an estimate. It’s textbook standard for items bought at $2 to $50. Markup goes down as price goes up, and markup goes up as price goes down (markup on items bought for under $1 can be 800-2000% or more). Wholesale markup is 2x.

    Track the progression: farmer sells a tea for Y100/jin to a Chinese retailer, who sells it for Y200/jin to a US retailer, who sells it at the equivalent of Y800. Add a US wholesaler like TeaGshwendner or SunGarden, and the retail price becomes Y1600. You’re paying $120-$240 for 500g of tea that would have cost you $30 in China. So when you see a tea sold at a US vendor for $80/lb, you can guess it cost them $20/lb. When you see a tea retailed in the US at $20/lb…

    The advantage of China-based eBay vendors back in the day (2004~2008–the Good Old Days) was they sold tea to the US at Chinese wholesale or retail prices, sometimes even below. This appears to have changed, and if they want to keep US business, they’ll have to compete with Taobao prices as auction proxy services gain in popularity and increase in number.

    • MarshalN // March 25, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Reply

      Indeed — with the proliferation of Taobao proxies, there are really less and less reasons to buy from any vendor not based in China.

  • John Grebe // March 25, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Reply

    Yeah I agree with you about the price games a lot of vendors play. While I’m not a liberty to say the company name, one of my relatives worked for years at a whiskey distillery plant and the company took the same whiskey and put it into 3 different types of bottles under the names of different companies with the brand images of a bargain everyday brand, a better brand and a premium luxury brand. I have a strong feeling that the same types of price and label games goes on in the tea industry as well especially when it comes to oolong. If it was only for the online vendors I would have written off oolong as highly overrated for its price long ago, as quite honestly the best darker oolongs that I have had came from small Chinese grocery stories when at times I was the only person that they spoke to in English instead of Chinese at the checkout counter. Not to say that every tea was good at the Chinese grocery store just that I knew enough to pick out what were more likely to be the good ones and they turned out to be much better than I had hoped.

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