; Cwyn's Death By Tea: Flip Flops and a Rock: the Truth is Still Relative ;

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Flip Flops and a Rock: the Truth is Still Relative

Relativism continues to hold sway in the western facing puerh market in 2016. When I speak of relative truth, this is defined as a self-contained “narrative” or set of facts that only holds true in a single case or limited cases. So relativism in regard to tea facts means statements which are true to the person who espouses them, but not to anyone else. Furthermore, relative “truths” cannot be questioned, because the “narrative” cannot be understood to anyone outside of that reality. In recent US news media, racial experiences are front and center touting facts that supposedly anyone outside a group cannot understand. These narratives cannot be generalized outside of a particular group of people. In a similar fashion, we tea heads are faced with statements made by tea vendors defended by “you either get it or you don’t, but you can’t question something you don’t know.” Specifically, we get relative truths about puerh origins: that cake contains Menghai, but maybe only a few leaves sprinkled on top, the rest of the cake is of unknown or untold origin. Relativism is a case study you either understand or you miss out.

Unfortunately, puerh in 2016 continues to be rife with relative truths. Not that anyone is really surprised, in China the market is always full of narratives, and consumers have little ability to change that. Despite the spate of forum and blog posts toward western vendors where we might hope to exert change, truth seems to slip another notch yet this year. But change is in the air.

A few facts so far:

Misty Peaks sold a 200g brown cake as spring tea back in March, and a fresh green 100g cake after April.

It's green!
In addition, MP offered to former customers to “buy back” spring productions from previous years at twice the original selling price. They gave no reason for doing this, maybe just offering some kind of refund to unhappy customers? But I wonder if, based on this and the fact that their “real” early spring production is only 100g, this company might be getting a bit of a cut off from the farm, as it were. My best guess is the spring tea from the farm has risen significantly in price back in China. Truth is probably the most relative to MP itself, but the 100g cake is much better this year than the same tea last year, in my relative opinion.

Yunnan Sourcing continues to advertise 300-400 year old tree teas.

A bit of a stick in the craw of a lot of customers. Some wonder about the ages of YS trees ever since Scott Wilson went after Verdant and Misty Peaks so strenuously on public tea forums. And then I've heard other beefs regarding perceived overcharging on shipping and bad feelings about the tea club samples costing more than the full size. I myself got some blow-back on the 2006 Chang Tai wet storage cake I reviewed a couple of posts ago on the morality of shopping at YS, as opposed to actual steepage or whether the tea is decent. I don’t belong to the tea club so I can’t speak to that experience myself, and I don’t find the shipping charges out of bounds. But this stalwart of the puerh vendors is getting some serious challenges from buyers these days with questions that won’t quickly go away.

White2Tea eschews origins entirely this year.

While TwoDog writes quite clearly on his blog of the complete degradation in tea marketing with regard to lying about tea origins, this year he is going a step further and omitting even vague descriptions about regions. The Storytelling/Treachery cake is the most egregious, with the wrapper art stating “This is not old arbor tea” but with a price tag suggesting that it is. I think TwoDog is right on the money in his blog posts when he talks about the outright fakery so clearly. But a lot of tea heads are confused when approaching the 2016 lineup.

“How am I supposed to know what to buy?” complained more than one tea friend. “At least last year we got a general idea of the region.”

Does eliminating all information about the origin of the tea contribute anything to a more honest and transparent tea market, or does it just add to the confusion and reduce the idea of transparency yet another notch? White2tea appears to have embraced a fully relativist universe where you either get it, or you don’t. You drink the tea and believe in it despite the absence of any information, or you are missing the “truth” about it which is to accept knowing nothing.“Trust” is the strategy with white2tea and many other vendors. The customer buys on faith. The “trust” strategy is even more apparent at Essence of Tea this year.

Essence of Tea starts a $700 club.

This marketing is directed to the buyer who fully trusts the vendor, and is likely to purchase the vendor’s entire lineup regardless of what the tea is. The $700 gets the member most of the spring cakes, some loose maocha, and also a buy-in for autumn releases this year as well. Since I didn’t buy in myself, I can’t judge whether EoT’s Wuliang cake is any better than Yunnan Sourcing’s Wuliang offerings. But I’m sure we’ll find out. Or maybe we won’t, because a sincere comparison and critique may be painful for people who spent the $700. Maybe they don’t want to question this investment. The trust strategy is almost a no-fail for the vendor, no matter the tea. The customer is less likely to ask for an outright refund because doing so means admitting an expensive mistake. Not that EoT is more or less likely than any other pricey vendor to offer so-so tea, just that the $700 up-front buy is a leap of faith no other vendor is currently asking for.

By coincidence, the “trust strategy” employed by pricier vendors here is the same strategy in play at Amazon.com. Last week the New York Times reported Amazon's change in pricing, which requires total faith in the Amazon universe. Amazon is eliminating “list” prices on their site, the so-called “regular” price of items. According to the aptly named TruthInAdvertising.org, Amazon has faced numerous lawsuits when “list prices” were actually higher than the manufacturer retail price, in order to give the impression the buyer is getting the item on sale. But in fact customers paid the manufacturer’s price and didn’t get a deal at all. The lawsuits aren’t the reason Amazon is ditching list prices though. Amazon is ditching list prices because they have customers who buy from Amazon anyway, without comparing any prices. These customers are Prime, and Amazon is betting that they own shoppers in their retail “universe” and the “Prime” shopper won’t look elsewhere.

The same strategy holds at EoT or white2tea, where the customer is already “bought in” to the retailer in general. Like Amazon, these vendors are asking customers to trust in them or their vision or their connections, however you want to put it. The customers aren’t questioning the tea. Either you “get it” and are in the club, or you don’t. And price probably isn’t an issue for the customer in the “universe.” This is a risky strategy for the small vendors, because caveats can throw a wrench, such as when

Puerh Head Opens Website

Last time I mentioned blogger Wilson opening a website to reduce his stash of tea and tea ware. Jayinhk, a long time tea forum member living in Hong Kong has also opened a website. His situation of living in China already mirrors somewhat CrimsonLotusTea and BitterleafTeas, vendors who already have current family or lifestyle in China and used these to start up selling. Both Wilson and Jayinhk already live in Asia and collected tea for years. Now they are putting their advantageous locale and buying knowledge to work for them, or maybe just selling off excess stash. We also have newer re-sellers, like BeautifulTaiwanTea.com who sells a few white2tea teas with yet a higher mark up.

You can consider these new and after-market sellers a picture of things to come. After all, bloggers and tea hoarders eventually quit collecting. Or maybe they’ve collected enough to hone their preferences and find some of their older teas less desirable now. I can't help but note that many people who bought back in 2006-2010 no longer buy anything. Maybe they bought enough tea back in those days, or don’t want to pay the higher prices of puerh today. Regardless, nearly everyone reaches a point when they have enough. I don’t have a huge collection, but surely I will stop at some point. Opening a website to sell off stash isn’t difficult, and an option we’re likely to see more people try. A whole potential exists out there for people buying tea to reduce the stash and open a website for a short time, even if the seller doesn’t intend to turn pro or make much of a profit.

If tea lovers get into the game in greater numbers, this spreads out the puerh dollars from new people just getting started with buying. Pro vendors might find their customers wandering over to new tea sites opened by bloggers or former customers. I wonder if Tea Heads as Vendors might be perceived as more transparent or honest because they share where they got the teas they are selling. Wilson marks his tea with the price he wants to get for it, and he definitely has a true story to offer about how he acquired his teas, and blog posts to back it up. How many people will decide to avoid the confusion of designer wrappers and clubs, and buy tea from fellow tea heads this year, or next year? Maybe the Tales of a Tea Collector are more attractive to some buyers than deciphering teas with characters or rap references.

Group Buys and Buddies proliferate.

The buddy system might just pay off this year. More and more tea heads on vacation trips are dragging home kilos of tea they tested and bought for friends back home, splitting the hoard and doing the shipping themselves. The forums are full of people now offering to do group buys from numerous sources, employing their own sets of connections. Social media among tea people is much more congenial than so many online social groups, people establish trust quickly and keep lists of reliable swappers.

Will people seeking truth and honesty turn away from actual vendors, and buy tea from friends instead? I'm not immune to this idea. I have a friend who wants more of a shou tea that is now sold out, and I happened to own more than a little bit. I offered to sell some of mine to this friend, simply because he wants more so badly. Mostly I’m not looking out to sell my stash, but I am in a position to help my friend. Since he is willing to pay, it’s a win-win for both of us.

So, a new wrench for vendors to contend with is non-professionals selling to peers, directing their tea budgets away from current vendors. Furthermore, the line between professional and re-sale is blurry. If honesty and truth are really what buyers want, the non-pros might have an advantage. And who knows when the day will come when tea farmers decide to get into the action themselves, and sell online to the highest bidder. I am certain at least some farmers or people with tea gardens will at least test the waters away from the factory/vendor buying system, as the farmers behind Misty Peaks are trying to do. Flip flops and a rock…

I think people are going to demand a story behind each and every tea, a story they can verify for themselves, as they did for the 1800 year old tree at Verdant. The real reason Misty Peaks gets so much flak for their marketing is not just because of the content, but the fact that the vendor has been entirely checked out by both buyers and vendors in China and the US. The secret behind a tea isn’t a secret any more than politicians in the US think they are hiding finances by withholding tax returns. You can count on the fact that enough people will talk to flush out a story. Customers might find that non-professionals offer more story and origin behind teas than the professionals. Certainly non-professional dealing will put pressure on pro vendors to offer more narrative, real or otherwise.

While truth might be as relative as ever in 2016, the demand for at least some notion of honesty and transparency won’t go away. I think the days of “private connections” and “secret sources” unique only to professional vendors are numbered. The fact is the world is getting smaller every year with non-professional tea heads living and traveling in Asia and opening their own shops, and with insta-news on social media.

Just keep your eyes open, people. The best way to find good tea and navigate sellers is by word of mouth. Hone your social media if you are buying and selling, because this is where the real action is. Make tea friends! This next year will be interesting.


  1. Hey Cwyn,

    When can we expect you to open up shop with your extremely valuable/one-of-a-kind crock storage!

    The EoT club really caught me in limbo, and after seeing an instagram post of the haul I can't believe I am saying this ... but I wish I took the plunge! This might have just outpriced me though since I don't think I could sit patient and watch all my other favorite vendors list tea without wanting to buy some of their lineups.


    1. I don't plan to open a store myself! I think the $700 club is good if the buyer is planning to get the teas anyway. I hope some other vendors consider doing this next year. Maybe it isn't for everyone, but it is a fast way to acquire a stash. I like to see how the year shakes out though, and focus my money on unique experiences of tea I don't have.

  2. Couldn't agree more with just about everything. Even vendors many assume to be completely safe and reliable need to remember they're under a microscope in a changing climate.

  3. I look at the W2T strategy as basically saying "You can't trust anything anyone says, so just judge for yourself. Want Yiwu/Menghai/Lincang material? Sorry, can't help with that, I'm just another wanderer in the jianghu, but I've found some good tea." You either trust his taste or not. This approach works for me, and I hope for enough others to keep him in business.

    As for YS, I suspect his attitude is that he repeats what people tell him as long as it's not offensively obvious that he's being BS'd. Some guy offers him tea, says it's from those trees over there, they look like the might be 300 years old, or at least it's not obvious that they're not, who is Scott to call him a liar if the tea is good?

    1. Yeah I'm definitely down for good tea no matter who has it. But I get more flak when I've ordered that good tea from some companies more than others, and the flak is about people's moral opinion of the vendors rather than how good the tea is.

    2. Labels at this point have become nothing more than a marketing scheme. Be it gushu, million year old tea trees from Mars, some random obscure tea village that no ones every heard of but has the "BEST" tea. Up next is people claiming that this branch from this tree is in village is the best and all their cakes come from this 1 branch.

      Let the tea speak, the good ones will speak loud and clear I can promise. I couldn't be happier with Paul's decision to eliminate regions and tree age and it would great if other vendors followed suit. Then you could only go on the tea and it would become clear very fast who leaves are really up to snuff. Cheers!

      - Grill

    3. I love Paul's approach to this year's tea, I wish more vendors did that, though at the same time I can see how the minimalist approach can be daunting to those new to W2T. The fairly short descriptions honestly kept me from buying from there for a while, until a friend (*cough* Grill, enabler) did a swap with me allowing me to see first hand that yeah, his teas are top notch.

      My life motto is 'all knowledge is worth having' but with the way marketing lingo has exploded in the puerh world it is hard to actually get accurate knowledge. Makes me miss being a jeweler (another place where trade names and outlandish claims are a constant) because I can just pull out my gemology tools and tell if the gemstone is what it claims. :P Dang it, I just traded one shady, beautiful, full of problems obsession for another, but at least this one usually tastes good.

      Keep being awesome Cwyn!

  4. The tea usually speaks for itself. I trust Paul and Scott and Glen, and Garret pretty well. They have all been straight forward and honest to me. I know I will buy from them all this year or already have. Albeit I am a bit low on space so it may not be as much as previous years.

    I guess one day I will have to let some of mine go. That is where the swaps will pay dividend. If they liked it then when it comes time to sell I think the market will be there.
    Wilson and Jay should find success as they are right in the middle of where we all want to be.
    Oh well I guess us pu heads will still all be together no matter how the market shakes out.

  5. Thank you Cwyn for this smart and insightful article. It certainly seems that the puerh market is going to become more open.
    If I think back a decade or so, when I started drinking tea, there was hardly an internet market to speak of. You had to go to your local vendor and stick with she or he had to offer.
    How crazy did everything go when the first internet vendors appeared, and then of course the whole market went Wall Street. There was a time when I didn't drink much Pu anymore because of all the crazy that went with it.
    Is the competition going to make the market more transparent? Good question. Normally, competition isn't a bad thing, its just all so opaque at this point.
    Theoretically, it would be the best thing to have all the information, then one could judge how much tree age is actually worth. Since this is not going to happen anytime soon, Paul's approach is indeed an interesting one.
    Lets hope that it will be as you say, that the farmers themselves will access the market more directly, this could remove some confusion. Since the farmers are only human, this could also go the other way round, who knows?
    Anyway, let us hope that some structures will emerge which will produce reliable information - for example, to really know whether a tea has been produced without pesticides. But i'm getting ahead of myself....

    1. Thanks for chiming in with some history and thoughts for the future! Cheers!

  6. A lot of what you've said related to paradigm shifts in selling approaches rings a bell, with a lot of examples coming up. Another part of atypical sourcing and selling approaches relates to teas that weren't really available a few years back, or some even more recently, being brought out by small sellers, who use more and more sophisticated approaches, eg. better website development and use of social media for marketing. A vendor like What-Cha adds a more typical retail outlet layer to the same process, but a lot of their formerly inaccessible teas are surely going to be more widely available through other channels as well, related to more direct sales and through other providers carrying the same teas. Relatively small vendors in Thailand and Vietnam (and surely elsewhere) are bringing out traditionally made products that weren't widely distributed, native-tribe sourcing and such, or newer versions of teas created based on processing knowledge and experience expanding to where lower quality products or just different types were only made until relatively recently. As an example, an exceptional Thai Oriental Beauty just came on the scene three years ago, and I've tried two other versions since, and just saw the first such from Vietnam in the last week.

    1. Well now, this is interesting. I'm curious about some of these teas.

  7. If you look at my offerings where I claim 300-400 year old trees it's a small percentage of my own label... I'd hazard to say 5-10% and they represent the most expensive of my offerings. I have visited the source gardens and I am confident of their age. As far as the tea club goes... remember that I have to put shipping in there. Typically the value of the $30 club is $24 tea and $6 shipping. I don't see what all the hubbub is about. The prices we charge for our shipping are actual and reflect the lowest rates available from Kunming. These rates are going to be higher than sellers in Shanghai, Guangzhou, etc etc. We don't make a penny on shipping and never have. I don't see why this could possible be a controversy?

    1. All this was a big discussion on tea forums back when I wrote this post. One reason I wrote a post on shipping elsewhere was to address misconceptions about shipping costs. I almost need to update that piece after the huge shipping increases in the US in August of this year. But the truth remains that huge online marketplaces have trained buyers to look for free shipping. Buyers are often unaware that shipping cost is built into the prices and really isn't "free."

      I also think James at TeaDB has tried to address the issues of mark-up. The buyer responses to his posts show the issues tea vendors are facing, and I don't think misinformation about retailing is the whole picture.

      I think some of the customer blowback is a negative side effect of social media between vendors and customers. Vendors use social media to connect with buyers, but what can happen is buyers start to think of vendors as pals, as friends. They cannot reconcile the friend with charging a profit, or with hidden profit, or with any "secrecy," even when realistic from a business perspective.

      In this scenario, I think the customer is more vulnerable in the sense that vendors are more savvy, by virtue of professional expertise. Vendors know what they are doing. All I can suggest to buyers is remember this is a business relationship, and to vendors straddle the line between "friend-like or friendly," but not friend. In other words, both sides need to keep boundaries in mind.