A Tea Addict's Journal

Rare? Boutique?

November 30, 2012 · 7 Comments

What, exactly, does it mean when someone says a tea is rare? Or boutique? Is that a word that is completely meaningless, or does it actually mean something?

I ask because these are words (along with competition, artisan, etc) that we see, all the time, when people describe the teas they sell. They all suggest a degree of care and quality that you shouldn’t find in what we can call “mass-produced” or factory made teas. But are these terms really what they seem?

Tea farms in China and Taiwan are, still, to a large extent, run by smallholding farmers who all have a small plot of land and farm their own land in their own method. Since the 1980s, there have been an increasing concentration of land in the bigger corporations that sell tea, such as Ten Ren, but generally speaking, most of the teas that people like us drink are coming from smallholding farmers. They are sometimes tea families that have been making teas for generations, but in other cases, they may have just happened to be farming tea somehow – such as some families in Yunnan, who were sitting on tea trees that were more or less worthless a few decades ago, but are now printing money with their teas.

Since that’s the case, it is quite safe to say that a lot of teas are, by definition, rare, because you’re not going to get the exact same thing anywhere else, never mind next year. On the other hand, that’s a definition of “rare” that completely defeats the purpose of the word – it’s only rare insofar as it is a tea that you can’t easily obtain anywhere else, but rare, in and of itself, doesn’t mean anything regarding quality. I can produce a rare oolong by getting some fresh leaves from a farmer and doing my own processing, but I can assure you it’s going to taste terrible. It’s rare though.

The other definition of rare can be that it’s a tea that is uncommon, and thus of higher quality. Something like Oriental Beauty may fall into this category, but I can also tell you that there are varying grades of Oriental Beauty – only the best ones are really sort of rare. The rest are a dime a dozen. Likewise, an older puerh may indeed be rare, and applying that term to, say, an 80s Traditional Character bing is probably not very accurate – things like this are still available easily, if you know where to look, and you can still buy these things by the kilos so long as you have the money to pay for it. Is that rare? Maybe.

Likewise, boutique (or using related words, such as workshop, etc) is just another way of saying “not big factory”. Words like this have been abused by some vendors. Calling a factory that makes tea by the ton a “workshop”, for example, is probably not very accurate. What, then, qualifies as a boutique? Personally, I’m really not sure. I suppose a one-man operation pressing cakes is probably a boutique. People like the couple who press their own cakes probably also qualifies as a boutique, even though I’m pretty sure they end up pressing more than a ton of tea a year (2500 bings – not that hard to do). Again, since so many tea farmers are small time, small plot farmers, boutique is a term that can be widely applied without meaning very much. I’m not sure where that line is, and I think it’s a term that is best avoided.

As for artisan (OED just informed me that artisanal is not a word) – what is that, exactly? I suppose all tea makers are artisans of some sort, even though many of them now use machines almost exclusively for processing, rather than doing it by hand. In areas where hand-made tea is more common, such as Yunnan, it is perhaps useful to use that to denote something hand made – but wouldn’t the term “fully hand made” be much more descriptive? After all, some guy who uses a machine to roll his tea but does everything else by hand is still an artisan, even though he uses tools to assist him. Or is he?

Sometimes these words are unavoidable. It’s rather hard to describe a non-factory making some puerh cakes, or when you are trying to talk about a farmer making his own oolongs. It’s a fine line between reporting what a tea is, and hyping it to goose sales. After all, just like prices, where higher is not always better, not all artisan-made and rare tea is going to be good.

Categories: Teas

7 responses so far ↓

  • JakubT // November 30, 2012 at 5:06 am | Reply

    Yeah, these things are quite overused and awful. “Very rare tea” indeed. I think that these vendors giving these big claims should concentrate more on the availability too. There’s a vendor here selling all kinds of “extremely rare and precious, unbelievably complex (add 10 lines of exaggerated superlatives here)…” – while these teas are simply available via Jingteashop… well, they would be, had he not the exclusive agreement with Jingteashop – so the Czechs can’t buy directly from there, but they have to pay up to 70-80% extra to the local reseller.

    But the point is – ok, it’s rare? And? So? I can produce an ultra-rare tea, taking a single small ball of Dong Ding, roasting it in a certain special way that no one sane would do. It sure is going to be rare.

    Besides, all this “rare” stuff is strongly connected to how good a vendor is and what contacts he has. If you know the right people, a lot of “rare” becomes “not that rare”.

    Another great formulation is “we have managed to secure XYZ tea for you”… which is quite funny when you know that the “we have managed” ment two minutes of VISA card transaction.

    Or “extremely limited quantity, order as soon as possible” – imo meaning simply “I need money quickly, buy this and don’t think, don’t sample” Or “I do not have enough money/confidence to buy more of that tea.”

    It’s a difficult life with some of those tea vendors…

    • MarshalN // November 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Reply

      There are genuinely rare teas, like pre 1950s puerh, but aside from those…. yeah.

      As for sourcing, none is funnier than vendors who obviously buy their entire stock from one or two sources.

  • TwoDog // November 30, 2012 at 7:56 am | Reply

    The meaning of words becomes diluted with overuse. Not long ago, the word ass could not be uttered on television. Now, it has made its way into common prime time sitcoms. When Clark Gabel said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” in Gone with the Wind, it meant something. It had guts. Damn was a serious word. By today’s standards, ‘Damn’ is crippled; void of any shock value.

    These words probably had meaning; boutique, artisan(al). Now, they do not.

    With tea vendors claiming tea as rare, farmer produced, or investment grade. After awhile these words are thrown around until the whole world is numb from hearing trite advertisements. Loud Jersey Shore barking about who has the most rare tea, picked on whatever sacred mountain, with only 40 grams in existence. Their descriptions becomes noise. And the only real poetry in a sea of noise is silence and brevity.

    2013 Spring Laoman’e.

    Sounds good, no?

  • Eric H. Benoit // November 30, 2012 at 8:39 am | Reply

    All of these terms have been misused and abused at nauseating length within the culinary world. At this point they are IMPOSSIBLE to escape should any product require any degree of marketing within the full scope of the culinary practice. Sadly, however, their meanings have since been neutured to oblivion.

    They are often no better than the word organic, which somehow over the past decade or so has become some sort of declaration of product superority to some minds. As opposed to solely implicating that ‘this product doesn’t use x, y or z chemical additives, fertilizers’, etc. which was what is was meant for. In raw product this is wonderful. A producer using organic ingredients, however, does not automatically equate good final product. I have had many an organic bar of chocolate that left me pawing the taste off my tongue. And really, there are many problems within the world of organic, with the certification, etc.

    Artisanal, sadly, is perhaps the most abused of all. It once implied a producer who’s manual skills were above and beyond. It was supposed to implicate years of mastery, where their refined output was indicative of their learning and inherent talent. I saw it most used with cheese producers and certain bakers when I first started my culinary journey in the late 80s and early 90s. Now, it is coined by anyone who puts their hand in a friggin’ mixing bowl. Just like self proclaimed artists, if YOU need to announce it to the world, chances are, you’re not. It should be applied to you by others who are able to truly discern artisanry. Which, in and of itself, is a whole other discussion.

    I have become so numb to these terms, they don’t factor in my head at this point. It would be best if everyone tried to do the same until they regained some assemblance of root meaning once again. Quality should speak for itself without the assistance of buzz words.

  • Darius Wilkins // November 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply

    What’s rare is not tea.

    What’s rare is taste. If you have it, you can consistently find the truffle, because there’s a lot of tea out there. If you don’t, you’re reliant on some kind of media to tell you. In any event, what matters is becoming a knowledgeable consumer, as there will always be a market for people not so easy to exploit, who are still willing to spend. Let that billionaire show off that one cake pressed from the now dead Nannuo Chawang. In the larger scheme of things it doesn’t matter much beyond keeping score.

    Right now, puerh tea has a fairly vicious Gresham’s Law dynamic as a certain breed of “premium brands” like Guangya, Fujin, ChenShenhao, Diancha, Hai Lang Hao, and their like flood the market with tea whose primary value lies in the marketing effort that enables sellers to find suckers. They get lots of posts in chinese blog and discussion forums, particularly among the lower class set.

    On the other hand, this post http://half-dipper.blogspot.com/2007/09/postcards-from-orient.html pretty much shows the contrast. Quanji is quite available (and still plentifully available now) and really expensive (at least for Mengla County teas), but come across something that’s flat out good, and there is just no willingness to sell, except at very high prices. However, while ChenYunHao has some chinese reviews, YangQingHao has just one substantive review (for a 2005 top of the line cake that sure as heck wasn’t available in the West), a few ads, a cover in Puerh Teapot Mag, and some side mentions in Sanzui forums. Yet, you’ll find the 2004 cakes coyly placed in various blog photos, for example. Nobody’s trying to sell that sucker, thus no marketing. Sold out, and most every cake is in pretty firm hands (unless you wanna pay $$$$).

    In a way, the concept of rareness is plastic, and hinges on a matrix generally comprised of suitability of purposes and agencies. If the purpose is to be rare, then it’s simple, underproduce the item like you’re DeBeers or a sports card company, and use that as a selling point to people who don’t intend to consume the item in any permanent sense (display, favors, laundering). If the agency seeks quality, especially with cost as a consideration, what’s specifically “rare” is *information*. Take those ’07 Dayi Secret Fragrance cakes. Those guys were pretty well made, especially in ’07 when there were many crappy Dayi formulas introduced. Up until sometimes in 2011, the sheng was quite a bit cheaper than it probably should be, in the scheme of Dayi’s expensive little world. There was a bit of initial promotion, and Dayi diehards knew about its quality. There wasn’t that much of it made, measuring the number of cakes found on Taobao vs the 7742 701 and others, and the initial wholesale price was fairly high. Yet, it was easy to aquire until quite recently, and at very decent prices. Nobody ever said it was rare, and few people touted it’s quality. People had to work hard to tell their customers (heh, I remember one Taobao vendor strongly stating that the shu is really good) that this is good tea, and most vendors did not try. Think that was a problem for the Dayi Yiwu Zhengshan 901, regardless of the actual quality OR rareness?

    And agencies that do not have cost as a consideration, but does have quality as a consideration? Heh, well, you know how that is, they get hooked up. Sometimes it’s to scammers with fake products, but most who are hip to their thing find their way to exclusive supplies. And if you have to have someone explain the product to you, or if you have to inquire to how much that costs, you’re probably swimming in a pond that’s a little bigger than you intended to swim in. Ahhh, a most rare and haute couture person! I know my place, and I’m content with Valrhona and XZH.

  • Hektor Konomi // December 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply

    Amusing, but quite simple actually: if you want to sell something at a higher price, call it ’boutique’. Other words ‘gourmet’, ‘upscale’ used to have that function in the past.

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