Many beginning tea drinkers are confused with overwhelming selection of teas, and specially pu-erh teas available on internet. Finding difficult to decide based on what to choose right tea. We summarized few elements which we believe are important and can lead to the right choices.
1.Spring and Autumn Tea
2. Factory and Private Tea Production
3.Aged and semi-aged Pu-erh Tea
4. Understanding Value and Price of Pu-erh Tea
5. Buying Tea – Value appreciation
1. Spring and Autumn Tea
Is commonly known that spring tea is the best and specially the first flush ( in China called “tou chun”. Well, not true for all teas. Of course green teas or most of oolongs are great when “fresh made” , but many Yunnan Dianhong black teas are better few months later or even next year. Black tea “shai hong” is even better after 2 years and can be stored up to 6 years.
Especially “tipsy” Dian Hong teas like : Jin Si, Jin Ya etc. are not really great in “tou chun” edition. You might experience grassy notes “qing wei” which tastes not really well in black teas. Also many “gong fu” style black teas need time to settle the taste / let the processing taste fade away. 6 – 12 months. Dancong Lao Cong Shui Xian is the oolong which can be stored for few years and has quite good maturing ability.
Well,..pu-erh tea is completely different story ….
Spring vs Autumn
Spring tea material is rightfully ranked above the autumn one ( or summer with winter ) for it’s “strength” and holding more infusions, however the taste spectrum doesn’t differ much in massive scale produced bush teas, which are processed same way for any season. So you might save your self a bit money if you do not require brew many steps but just looking for the few cups daily and still tasty drinker.
In pu-erh teas is very common , as mentioned before, to keep the “huang pian” in autumn tea and that changes overall flavor spectrum. Many pu-erh drinkers prefer this tea more than spring one , avoiding excessive bitterness and possible astringency which is not that intensive in autumn “mao cha”.
2. Factory and Private Tea Production
I would say that most of the foreign pu-erh tea drinkers ( just in our experience so far ) still would choose some famous brand over the small pu-erh tea producer . Of course many reasons like that more aged are available these days on market than small private production , quality standards for new production , investment ( like DaYi, Zhong Cha etc. ) if you are interested in re-selling it later. But generally tea material is the cheap bush tea or mixtures.
In general factory teas are good and solid with their technologies , do not mess with the processing ( like New Concepts – Smart Tea Drinker ) and keep it traditional way , which is good for aging. Speak of shu puerh, they usually have better hygiene standards , so all that “common” rubbish being pressed into the cakes is less expected. Some of big producers , like Meng Ku Rong Shi , are brilliant with blending ( personal preference, so please take it as subjective opinion ), at least with older teas made by founder. That is very difficult to find in small production and I mean by that not just mix arbor with bush tea , but actually achieve some interesting taste or aging ability.
The downside is the price. Actually the margins they have on their products and that’s caused by much higher expenses they have compare to small producers. Yes, the buy in much bigger quantities for much cheaper prices ( which is not a golden rule some tea has it’s minimum baseline price for everybody ) and some of them even have or rent their own gardens / plantations , which not necessarily brings costs much lower and it’s rather being done for having is under control ( like organic purposes for example ) . Many tea factories found much effective ( time & money ) to work with cooperatives who source their tea from various places and there is always a space for negotiation or versatility of sourcing ( if price or quality in certain area not suitable for business ) .
The biggest part of expenses takes marketing ( adverts , participating on exhibitions etc. ) and running factory and shops ( if they own some ) costs. Semi – big tea factory has no problem to throw 10-50000$ for a week in Tea Expo to cover the expenses for such a presentation in cities like SZ, SH or BJ. Some of them annually organize advertising programs which involves invitation of something like 100 of customers in some presentation hall in hotel, where apart of their tea also free food is provided. Some models dressed up in Tang or Qing dynasty clothes walking on the build pear like in fashion show and present the new products. All that is finished by long speech about “How great and successful we are ” 😉
Tea Factories are also rather wholesale oriented business so the gap between the retail prices ( presented on internet or tea shops ) must be very “interesting” for tea re-sellers. So if you see very cheap factory tea , imagine the wholesale price and then production price, calculate price of dry tea leafs out of it , than fresh leafs and labor ….and you get the picture what is being pressed inside.
If factory owns their shop/s ( not a franchise ) , mostly it’s not a small few square meters shop ( but they are some like that , we personally know one ) but bigger on in some hot spot in city or tea market.
We had an opportunity to see some marketing strategy of one well known tea factory and figured out the price of the same tea material can be even doubled from what small private producer could offer.
Small private producers have a limited range of customers therefore usually focus on higher grades / quality teas in order to compete with big producers. Of course not every small tea producer have the same strategy, but it is very common thing ( at least in Yunnan ) to go some mountain every spring / autumn and personally select the tea to your business based on quality = price. Costs-wise might not be that effective as sourcing from contracted cooperated places , but certainly more versatile since you are not bounded with promise ( contract ) to buy every year certain amount from anybody.
3.Aged and semi-aged Pu-erh Tea
Many pu-erh tea drinkers can’t stand new sheng pu-erhs and don’t even call the tea “pu-erh tea” unless it’s at least 5 years old;-) Well yes, there is something about it. The downside of it is that price is higher than new ( if exactly the same tea ) , storage can be various ( wet / dry ) , availability is limited ( older – less ) and of course genuine age issues ( in GZ tea is maturing faster than in KM ) .
For eliminating all those problems there is a one simple solution. Make them age in your stash. Buy a new pu-erh every year and in 5-6y you have semi aged ( 100% not fake ) every year right in your home.
a) price – it’s difficult to write in some “%” of how much pu-erh price is going up each year because of many factors are involved. Quality tea material, storage, availability on market and with factory teas, also their marketing strategy. Big factories sometimes purposely up-marking their teas every year much higher than it’s worth in order to keep investors interested. And that’s the one of the concepts on which is pu-erh tea business built on.
b) storage – sometimes the tea might be good but because of bad storage it’s just not drinkable or very poor taste. Many pu-erh tea drinkers experiencing an issues with Guangzhou stored tea which loses the scent / taste after some time. “Have I done something wrong with storing the tea?” ..common asked question in those cases. Not necessarily. The water is naturally vaporizing and so the wet stored leafs ( absorbed more water than dry stored ones ) reveal the scent much stronger due to that natural effect of vaporizing. So effect is that tea cake smells very intensively and nice ( if not too long and bad stored in wet environment ) woody, fruity etc. Also the taste is softer, less astringent , much sweeter ,more fruity etc. While that excessive water vaporizes out ( the tea “dries off” ) , you start to experience , lets say :” the real taste / scent of this tea ” . It still could bet be good , but also bad. Which way is it , is very individual. Depends if drinker is just upset with changed characteristics of the tea and counting it as a faulty , or if the tea is actually dull and colored bitter water with no any pu-erh tea characteristic like “sheng jing” or “hui gan” . In any case , making your own aging is the best way to avoid those problems ( unless you are fan of wet stored teas and your place is dry or vice versa )
Is’s also good to know what is the difference between dry and wet stored pu-erh tea in matter of further aging. There is no particular standard of humidity and temperature for optimal aging of the sheng pu-erh tea. Said that, the excessive humidity causing the fast natural aging influence the tea leafs for further maturing, especially when changing the environment ( moving to dry or semi-dry place ) . You can think it of it like shu pu-erh which is not changing as significantly as sheng pu-erh stored in same environment. That’s why lots of vendors can get away with not genuine age of shu pu-erh.
More details in Tea Storage article – here
c) availability – which makes sense not only with the tea but in most of the products. Not only big tea factories but also small producers would adjust the tea price based on how much left in stock. If you can approx. calculate how much pu-erh tea you drink per year , you might as well keep refilling your stash and keep your overall budget lower than before.
d) fake age of pu-erh tea – is the probably most common problem of buying a pu-erh tea. The common practice is to buy the “mao cha” loose leafs , usually summer or autumn cheap harvest of bush tea material. Leave it 1 year mature bit in Menghai , press it into the cake and wrap it with dates as 4-10 years old tea ( depends on idea / selling concept of the vendor ) . Then send it to Guangzhou / Shenzhen for 2 -5 years to get matured and then to Kunming to get dried out. Output is the nice dark color leafs semi aged sheng puerh with whatever years old label with Kunming storage tag price. This is the still “reasonable” example , the most ridiculous cases are usually happening with shu pu-erh. ( more about that further down )
There are also other methods of fake aging which will be content of separate article.
In that case, as mentioned above, is safer to buy new pu-erh and make them age in your place. You can also buy 1-3 years old tea which is more than likely not to be fake aged.
11. Understanding Value and Price of Pu-erh Tea
a) The value of the tea leafs is commonly in China judged on type ( bush tea, arbor tea ) . If bush tea the organic certificate will naturally gain on value , since not much around ( quite expensive to make the cert. and harvest is lower ). If arbor tea tree , than age of the tree is taken in account. Also the tea origin has influence on value , like 200y old arbor from Yiwu would be more expensive than same tree growing in Lincang area and that is usually bounded with flavor / taste characteristic , which of course still might be very individual.
b) The value of the tea product is usually rated by quality / grade of tea material pressed into the cake , brick or other form. If tea product contains single estate tea material or mixed from other areas. Ratio of tea leafs and tips , stems, broken leafs etc. Products like mini tuo cha are mostly made of broken bits and pieces which still can taste amazing, but in the matter of market value this is rated much lower than other products. 100g tuo cha produced by famous factories are also usually just simple hard pressed bush tea material but there are some private made tuos consisting of bigger arbor tea leafs.
Storage value is the very considerable aspect especially with older teas ( dry / wet ) and it also can be very individual depending on consumers preference. In general the dry storage is rated higher due to it’s transparency of the age and preserving original flavor spectrum. Yet, do not take is as a golden rule , because other factors are also involved.
Collection value is mostly associated with factory produced teas but it also can be bounded with other producers of rare tea. It all depends on consumers demand so it’s very personal.
Processing value is the factor which is used a lot for not only pu-erh tea. Of course that all fresh tea leafs must to be processed somehow, but this paragraph is not about that. This would mean something like post-processing where good example is shu pu-erh tea. From relatively cheap sheng pu-erh is possible make very good shu pu-erh if fermentation is right. Also black teas are processed different ways and some of the specialties like “Zhong Guo Hong” are rated higher not only for the material selection but also for mastered processing ( right timing and temperatures for achieving unique taste ).
c) The price of the tea leafs is very variable and lately is very far from their actual value as this has been manipulated by many ways ( more mentioned in Tea Marketing article ). Some famous places / villages which got promoted either by outstanding tea or just by some business people , would rise their price each year based on boosted demand caused by “chain reaction” of advertising. Bad previous year/s sales can cause price rise up due to the necessary cost coverage of tea farmers production. Also bad weather has influence on harvest ( amount ) and therefore the price.
d) The price of the tea product is very confusing and has no any absolute guidelines , at least not in China in matter of pu-erh tea. The common misconception of judging a grade / quality of tea by price tag which is often applied not only to the tea. More expensive = better quality.
Packaging of loose tea leafs can raise the price a lot and that’s on what are mainly not only bigger companies focusing on due to the grading selection appeared not to be effective enough ( it is already wildly known that this has been misused ). Especially Tao Bao tea buyer can experience the fact of 100g of very same loose tea leafs could be priced very differently based on the company name and type of the box. In pu-erh tea field this is being abused by labeling Gu Shu ..etc. ( mentioned later in this article )
Collection price comes usually from bigger producers , as mentioned before , and it is also been sometimes manipulated like bounds on stock market which doesn’t necessarily being connected with natural value – quality , availability & demand .
5. Buying Tea – Value appreciation
The term “daily drinker” doesn’t come out only from being able to drink some tea every day because it’s not to “heavy” ( too bitter, smoky..etc ) , which is also very individual preference, but also because the price allows it. Same with any other thing, like wine for exmp., the price would rule the consumption. There is only “slight” difference between those two , accept the tea is not going to make you drunk ( although some tea can make you tea drunk ) . The bottle for 30$ or bottle for 100$, both would last same time after you open it and drink with your friend. ( you might have longer sips with the expensive one 🙂
But with 357g sheng pu-erh tea for example ( if 30$ comparing the bush tea material and 100$ old arbor / gu shu ) the case is different. From “Gu Shu” ( old tree ) tea you make much more infusions than from “Tai Di” ( bush tea ) based material. Therefore you gonna have longer fun , and given the fact that brewing 6g in gaiwan for 2 people is enough for each session….you do your math;-)
Not mentioning the fact that for 100$ you can get 1kg of very nice black tea , which is around 4-5g per session.
Also buying old sheng for 100$+ make sense although it’s only “tai di cha” ( bush tea ) , because that taste is developed by natural aging ( time is money 🙂 and well stored tea is distinguishable from the fast maturing “fake” old tea.
So the value of the tea is about your perspective , how you looking at it.
For some people the tea is only the hot beverage for breakfast or “cure” helping to get trough the cold or flu. Since you got so far to read this article, I believe you are not one of them:-)
Samples, samples and again…samples.
As mentioned before, the best way to buy any tea is to try it first in small amount. Good vendor will offer the samples. In Kunming tea market people usually don’t buy less than 50g of tea and some vendors wouldn’t even bother to give any samples unless they can feel further purchases from you. Of course many tea drinkers prefer small samples like 6-10g in order to try as many as they can in certain budget. Same time being afraid of buying tea which they don’t like and stuck with ” waste ” later. It is good idea if you think that you will eliminate good tea from very bad tea, but not good idea if you try to eliminate tea you like from tea you don’t like , because the tea in certain way is same as a food – you don’t like it now , but might like it later ( or some of your friends might like it even now ) . When we tasting a new tea ( especially pu-erhs ) , we try it few times , different days. Sometimes the very same tea tastes different in morning and evening , sometimes tastes different if it’s cold rainy day outside or sunny hot weather. Also tastes different based on what were you eating that day , how is your mood, blood pressure and actually speak of the weather before , the air pressure can influence your taste buds as well ( specially if you live in higher elevations ).
Buying very small tea samples can get very expensive and not coming from the quality of the tea but from the actual work of the vendor. You can try it your self. Take a big 10kg box out of the shelf , take out 10g of tea, weight it , pack it into the bag , print and stick the label on. Worse is chipping of the pu-erh tea cakes where you have a wastage of broken / crushed leafs . Make 20 bags like that and pack them in small box the way the tea would survive 1- 2m free fall ( post office offloading the truck ). Measure your work time and add the possible costs of the tea. You will get an approx. idea.
Smart tea buyer will buy tea samples which can try at least 3 times , if don’t like it 1st time, put it away for a while and try later ( days, moths..depends on tea ) , then try again ,maybe with friends this time. If like sample, then decide if buy bigger amount / full cake / brick or invest and buy full tong for example. Very good teas are flying out of the shop, so next year might not be available ( speak of the particular batch of pu-erh tea ) .
Unless you are doing some tasting research , we suggest to brew your samples the way you usually drink your tea. After all ‘it’s just a tea’ and should bring you a pleasure from drinking it. Some teas require different water temperatures or brewing times / gram . Those values can vary based on many factors, so we do not provide any brewing details on our website in order to avoid any misleading information. Plenty blogs and forums about the brewing methods are on internet already.
At the end , how much you believe in your vendor and your senses it’s only up to you.
There is no need to buy some expensive , luxury branded / named tea to get a good tea. As you can follow, that all has being misused in favor of the vendors not the tea drinkers.
Understanding pu-erh tea
There is a misconception among the beginning puerh drinkers within the factors like: grade – quality – storage – age – value – price – taste – effect , that just because the lack of patience and thirst for learning as quick as possible usually starting from the end rather than beginning ( buying so called “aged” teas on recommendations ) , since they believe that’s the best way to learn / understand the point of puerh tea ( because not clear about those mentioned factors above at the first place ). Learning to distinguish the things is done by comparing the things , step by step where gap between the steps ( the smaller is better ). Creating dense understanding of particular things rather than overall illusion about ” now some 40y old puerh should taste like” . Of course each individual has a very personal reason of drinking and learning about the puerh tea so this thought is just targeting one of them.
Follow your instinct , use common sense and buy samples before making any bigger purchase 🙂