A Tea Addict's Journal

What to do in a Chinese tea shop

July 5, 2011 · 7 Comments

I’ve covered the topic of shopping for tea in China before, and what to do, generally speaking, when going into tea stores of various types.  At the time I divided the stores into two categories – puerh shops, and non-puerh shops.  Generally speaking, I think my comments there still hold true.  If I can distill these into shorter principles of tea purchasing, I think it comes down to this

1) Don’t let them show you what they want to show you, make yourself the director of the action.  Now, this is much harder if you don’t speak Chinese or are unsure what you want, but if you have a pretty good sense of what you’re looking for, and, say, if they offer you Jasmine while what you’re really looking for is shu puerh, then you can just flat out refuse and, if they keep insisting, walk.  If you’re shopping in a big tea mall, there are a billion stores just like the one you’re in right now, and they all know it.

2) Establishing a good rapport with the person selling you tea is often a good thing, because sometimes they won’t show you the good stuff until they start to like you – once they’re convinced that you’re serious, they’re much more likely to be willing to brew you a sample of that expensive tea because they think you might want to buy it.  This is especially true if you’re obviously foreign, in which case their assumption is you’ll want nuclear green tieguanyin or jasmine. That 10 years old puerh won’t show up (or won’t be available) until they think they have a chance you’ll actually buy.

3) Number 2 means that while you should be assertive, you shouldn’t be a jerk.  Being too picky about how they brew the tea is one thing that can make you seem like a complete ass, especially if they think you have no clue what you’re talking about.  Also, bargaining for what is an essentially meaningless amount of money is not a good idea, generally speaking, both from your perspective (you’re wasting shopping time) and theirs (they won’t like you much if you push hard, or unreasonably).  If you want to bargain, which you probably should especially if the item is not very cheap and you’re obviously foreign (i.e. you might get quoted higher prices) you should at least save it till the very end, when all is done and you’re about to head out.  Bargaining for each individual thing before you’ve settled on something is a bad idea.  Indicate you want to buy larger quantities (even if not necessarily true) may get you a better initial quote.  Prices have risen a lot in the past few years, and a lot of premium items in China are no longer cheap, even by Western standards.  Don’t assume that because you’re in China things must be dirt cheap – that’s simply not true anymore.  Also, if you were referred to the store by a friend and the storekeepers know that, you might already be getting a better than average price — driving too hard a bargain may get your friend in trouble and may burn bridges.

4) Walking around before entering the store is almost always a good idea — you get a survey of prices and items and know whether or not what they’re offering is unique or not.  Unique items, be it teaware or tea, will command higher prices, and vendors generally know it and won’t budge much.  If they pressed it themselves, expect higher prices.  Also, just because a store is the “official” distributor of a tea (say, Dayi) doesn’t mean they’ll be cheaper.  In fact, sometimes they might be more expensive because they have a wider range of products and they’re less likely to sell fakes.

5) If you’ve got a few weeks and got to know a few vendors, don’t bother trying to get their opinion on someone else’s tea.  They’re almost invariably going to tell you the tea’s bad.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • Jackie // July 5, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Reply

    Great article, one of many! I shall print this out and take it with me next time I’m in Beijing. “Next” time would be a “first” time, and I don’t have immediate travel plans. However, your posts are very enticing!
    I have found myself in all Chinese/Vietnamese tea shops here in the US but I’ve struggled. On my last visit the small shop was bursting with teas but it was only manned by one very old man who didn’t speak a word of English. I felt at a loss. There were vast amounts of tins all with lettering completely unreadable to me. There was no question of bargaining because I didn’t even know how to start the conversation. I couldn’t ask him to open every single tin for me, so I confess, I gave up. And I regretted at that moment that I couldn’t read a single word of Vietnamese. If had been able to I’d have tried out some of your tips.

    Looking forward to more posts,

    • MarshalN // July 5, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Reply

      I think in those cases — sign language of the “I can’t speak your language” type may work quite well, and bargaining always works as long as you have a calculator – or even just a pen and paper. In shops where they line up the tins in the back it can indeed be a little intimidating, but know that a lot of times those tins are more or less for show — inherited from an earlier time, and many of them often have the same stuff in them.

  • Jackie // July 6, 2011 at 7:27 am | Reply

    Thanks Marshal. Between those large tins on rows of shelves and me, was this tiny man. On the surface it seemed little separated me from the leaves, but in practice they might as well have been back in China, or wherever they came from.
    I think the seller realized I couldn’t speak a word. It’s just that neither one of us knew were to start. Too many teas to ask him to open, with me not being able to understand a word of explanation. I still think about those teas and wonder which ones he was selling.
    Perhaps I need to bring some tea flashcards of some kind. 🙂

  • Chris // July 6, 2011 at 8:08 am | Reply

    @Jackie – maybe that’s something…tea flashcards! What would be useful? Names of teas, and then a big one that says “too expensive, lower lower!” on it 🙂

    @Marshal – great post, as always, and really spot on tips. Definitely, being ready to sit down and, even just for an hour or two, build a relationship makes a big difference to the price and quality you will get in the end.

    • MarshalN // July 6, 2011 at 9:46 am | Reply

      Yes, but that’s also a formula for getting lulled into false comfort and get screwed, so be on guard as well

  • Justin // July 15, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Reply

    Great post! My personal experiences were very much in line with what you wrote Marshal. I was lucky enough to study abroad in Yunnan for nearly four months and tea shops were where I went almost every day I was there in every area I went (Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, Zhongdian, etc), to practice Mandarin and of course get to taste some puerh.

    The three tea shops that I believe in the end proved to be of the highest quality, were the ones where when I initially walked in and looked around, I was almost completely ignored. I’m black (thus obviously a foreigner) so I really had to almost prove that I knew what I wanted, and that I wanted to learn more about tea and its place in Chinese culture. Essentially I feel I had to prove that I was worth the good stuff. I don’t really think this is a bad thing, more just part of the journey, and a way that store owners ensure they don’t waste their best tea giving it to someone who may not care to learn any better, and will likely never return. Hopefully I can say this without sounding arrogant or self-absorbed, but I think most westerns are lost when it comes to high quality tea, and although one could argue it may be in the shop owners’ best interest to educate, I can understand their position.

    I really did have to do my homework, and probably went in over 30 tea shops during my four months. Over this time I tasted some really mundane tea. I was moderately proficient in Mandarin at the time, thus could at least attempt to describe that I wanted raw puerh of various ages but all of high quality. I was told at the time that most westerners prefer cooked puerh, which seems logical I guess.

    Early in my journey it’s quite possible that I ventured into shops with very good tea but I was simply too low on the learning curve to get it out of them. However, the few where I feel I was really successful, I was rewarded with the ability to learn a great deal about tea and teaware. In addition I got to taste what I believe is some very high quality tea, made some friends I remain in contact with to this day (and continue to purchase from), and I even became a part of their community for a few months.

    I found that as long as you take the time to sit down, drink some tea, just relax and enjoy the moment and become part of it, eventually many tea shop owners and “customers” are very accepting and hold nothing back. Much I my experience was simply sitting with others who lived in the area, drinking tea and talking when I could, without any expectation to buy. I was even fed a few times. It’s an experience I have searched for in the west, with little luck.

    My experience may have been drastically different if I spoke no Chinese, or was in Beijing or Shanghai or some of the other much larger cities, but I think following Marshal’s advice, and keeping in mind what you want and what you want to spend, and just generally allowing yourself the time if you have it to become more than just a customer (Marshal’s point 2, although I certainly appreciate the idea for some shopkeepers “playing friendly” and then ripping you off), will provide a great experience in many Chinese tea shops, and give you access to some great puerh!

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