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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

2016 Yibang


I wasn’t planning on buying this 200g cake of Yibang from Chawangshop this spring when I ordered a bunch of teas. Yibang is a small area in eastern Xishuangbanna that quite frankly I find confusing amongst tea vendors selling puerh. You can read quite a bit of information online about Yibang using Google, because a number of tea vendors have ventured there in the past. But it is difficult to sort out these teas. Despite the small area, the teas vary vastly in price between vendors and production years. I can find a 357g 2010 spring harvest Yibang from one vendor for 18 Euros, and then a 200g Autumn harvest cake from the same year from another vendor for $82. What accounts for such discrepancies in pricing?
Yibang has several types of tea, one is from scrubby, “untended” tea bushes on the hillsides, and then there are cultivated tea gardens as well. I’ve seen “small leaf” varietals here and there for sale, which are supposedly the more “wild” tea. Puerh hoarders kvetching on forums have hinted at some difficulties in aging Yibang cakes, but again I don’t know whether they are referring to the cultivated tea or the uncultivated tea. So with many confusing factors to consider, I’ve steered clear of Yibang area tea in the past. I hit the Buy button this year, however, after a photo on Instagram caught my eye.

I follow about 75 people on Instagram, and a few of these tea friends bought the $700 tea subscription from Essence of Tea this year. A photo of the EoT spring club shipment showed a 200g cake of Yibang. The person posting the photo typed out information about the tea that said the tea was "limited." Chawangshop wrote that Yibang suffered a drought this year in April, and by the end of April the tea in Yibang had all dried up and died. The area produced very little tea, and what got harvested early escalated in price. So a vendor is fortunate this year to get any tea at all from Yibang.

Having read the Chawangshop listing already, I was rather surprised when I saw a similar "limited tea" story from a club member belonging to Essence of Tea for their club cake. Now, Essence of Tea is a vendor who has been around for a number of years and in the past sold some rather pricey cakes. As a company they enjoy a good reputation among puerh collectors. The $700 club is certainly no small investment. But here is Chawangshop selling their own 2016 Yibang for $28 for 200g. And both teas share a common thread of "limited" availability.

2016 Yibang by Chawangshop
Essence of Tea is not selling their Yibang tea outside of their club membership, as of this writing. Perhaps they plan to add it to their site or maybe they just got enough tea for those who bought into the yearly club offering. Also, I have no idea whether EoT’s cake is the same tea as that of Chawangshop. But now you can understand why I might be interested in trying Chawangshop’s tea, even though I am unable myself to do a direct comparison with EoT’s club cake.

The cake is a bit greener than my photo.
Chawangshop house teas are firmly in the $12-$50 price range for 200g. As a whole this teashop vendor tends to search out the best flavor within this price range. I also find that their puerh teas offer a contrast from one another. That is, each tea is a very different flavor profile from every other tea offered (Lao Yun repeat productions aside). Chawangshop teas are single-origin as well, and are not usually blended from a variety of regions. Some vendors who do a lot of blending end up with teas that are difficult to distinguish one from the other. If Chawangshop offers loose maocha from a pressed production, the listing will say that the tea is the same as the pressing.

200g cake
So I’m never left wondering what I’m getting, and for the most part the teas are decent drinkers rather than collector teas. When I order a $28 tea from them, I expect it will be drinkable, and I might get a pleasant surprise if I’m lucky but I won’t be out a chunk of change if the tea is just okay. 

Chawangshop also offers farm/craft teas, like the Lao Yun cakes and some of the heicha teas that I like because I am a rural woman, and I enjoy a bit of rougher tea produced by farmers themselves. Just so you know that I can appreciate tea products on the high end and the low end too!  

In fact, I’ll brew up my low-end tea here in high-end Korean tea ware and hope for all things equal, a blend of contrasts which says more about me as a ridiculous and insane person than I want to admit. Back in the convent when I was young, a much older Sister Pauline laughed at me one day. She said, “You know, you can be so very elegant when you want to, and then all of a sudden you rip a celery stalk apart with your teeth.” I suppose my blog is full of such contrasts, and Sister Pauline might feel either amused or appalled, maybe both, at how little I have changed. But I am aware of the blessings of the nuns completely dissecting me at a young age and pointing out absolutely everything, no matter how small, in their dear effort to instill in me some sort of mature humanity. Sister Pauline made wine in the basement, by the way. And she shared the exact same birthday as my son and his father too, calculate the probability of that. She also sewed me a zafu meditation cushion for no reason other than she loved me. I can tell a hundred stories like this, and oh, I’m spoiled beyond imagining when now I sheepishly brew my tea.

Zafu meditation cushion
 聖方濟各永久朝拜聖體修女會

Where was I? I need 8g after all that nostalgia.

8g, is it just me, or the drought? Wiry leaves
Boiling rinses, I did two only because the tea hadn’t opened on the second boiling steep so I began drinking on third steep. A bit of acrid smoke and hay before the tea opens, a few bits of char in the gaiwan to explain all that. These are gone after a couple steeps. This tea is straight up Yiwu on the floral and honey top notes, with some Menghai strength underneath. I like the punchier bitter Menghai base notes and these last about three or four steeps, giving me a nice strong cup. Thickness is rather good for this tier.

Teapot by Lee Chi-Heon
Gallery Daunjae, South Korea
Later steeps are dominated by the sweet floral Yiwu. Unlike many of the Yiwu teas I’ve seen over the past year affected by a wet season, the drought shows in this leaf. It doesn’t cook up in the hot water, but is stronger and a little wiry. I found several bud plus two leaves combinations in the teapot, and a few larger and dark green leaves. Tea brews out a pleasant 10-12 steeps.


Chawangshop also offers loose Yibang “gushu” maocha from this production that I’m now more interested in trying. It would lack the pressed-in char, which actually isn’t a whole lot of char at all, but if I can avoid it in young tea I try to because I can taste it all the way through the aging process. This Yibang tea doesn’t disappoint in the Chawangshop line-up, yet another little shiny gem of a tea for this price tier, and yet another instance in which this vendor gives the most flavor for not a whole lot of money. I don't know if I've cleared up any of the confusion for myself about whether Yibang is a good one for aging, this seems like a drinker to me. If you like Yiwu teas and want this profile without the expense, this is definitely one to consider. I’ll be interested to see if any other shops offer Yibang for sale, and to compare the price because I doubt you can find better in the western online market.

Cha Hai by the incomparable Hong Seong-Il
No-san Clay Studios, Korea
Next time I’ll feature a few of the loose maocha teas I’ve ordered this year, a few for Old Cwyn’s crocks!

Addendum to this Post 4 August 2016

As you can see from the comments below, David C. of Essence of Tea stated that he did not send any information to his club members about the Yibang Tea cakes. However, the Yibang tea he has was very "limited," such that some club members only got a sample of "ancient" tea, and got other tea instead. These were members who mainly joined up "late," presumably there was no more tea left from the EoT Yibang buy at that point. Club members who did get Yibang cakes got two of them, one "ancient" and the other "regular," or tea garden cultivated tea, in order to compare the two types of tea grown on the same land.

I'm still left with some questions about Yibang and tea pricing, however. Honza from Chawangshop states fairly clearly on his $28/200g cake listing that I reviewed here, and on his $1/gram Yibang "gushu" maocha listing that the prices he paid for his tea are drought prices, or price impacts from a longer drought, not just April. Presumably, this means that the prices he paid for his supply are higher because A) Yibang tea is limited to begin with, and B) long term drought pushes prices even higher. Based on the listing for the $28 tea cake, Chawangshop reported that this tea was purchased in early April, before yet another month of no rain killed off Yibang tea leaves by the end of April.

I looked up the square miles of Yibang, and found an article stating that together Yibang, Manzhuan, Mang Zhi and Gedeng are an area of about 386 square miles (1000 km). This doesn't give a precise size for only Yibang, but presumably it is a smaller chunk of this area overall. Certainly this area is similar in size to a county in my part of the world, and it is not unheard of here that part of a county gets adequate rain showers, while another part gets missed entirely. I find it reasonable that two tea vendors buying tea from different farms might find one farm adequately watered while another farm is dry.

But returning to the issue of pricing: Chawangshop's $28/200g cake is a retail price. Presumably, Chawangshop adds a reasonable mark up for this tea and for their $1/gram Yibang "gushu." But I have to say, if $28/200g cake is a retail on top of direct price, this price is still pretty damn low. In fact, Honza reported he felt the price he paid was a bit high, and he hung around Yibang hoping for a lower price, but by the end of April the tea was "gone" in Yibang due to drought, driving the prices up even more.

I can accept it if a vendor like EoT wants to say "our tea is better quality" or "our tea cost us more." We don't have any information, because these teas were part of a larger club buy for people who have it, and not available for regular retail. I was offered the opportunity to try a sample of EoT, and I have to give some credit to the vendor at EoT for offering, even though the suggestion is that I don't "compare" the two. But I can hardly see how to avoid the comparison. And I know people will ask me. I'm just not sure if I want to accept a sample under these conditions, and I'm not out to make a shop look bad. For the sake of transparency, EoT surely gains buyer cred for offering samples publicly.

However, I'm not sure I want to make a comparison I can hardly avoid. The point of my blog post here is to showcase a less expensive option for a nice tea, for people on a budget who cannot afford to join a $700 tea club, or even for people who can afford other options. I think anyone who chooses to purchase either the club or go with budget teas have their reasons and different issues around tea buying. My intention is to show that buyers need not feel left out because they cannot afford tea clubs or high priced teas. I'm aware that I've already written about higher priced teas for 2016, and hope that I can focus attention on teas that are more in the budget range.

I simply cannot help doing the numbers though. If Chawangshop's pricing is drought pricing, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, then either EoT also paid drought pricing or they didn't. If EoT paid drought prices, then I am not wrong in my post suggesting that drought did indeed affect Yibang, even if club members were not explicitly informed. And if EoT paid drought prices, based on Chawangshop's $1/gram Yibang Gushu which makes a 200g cake retail at $200 minimum, then EoT club members spent nearly 1/3 of their membership, at a minimum, on Yibang tea. If EoT did not pay drought prices, because there was no drought where they bought their tea, then I wonder if their price should be even lower than Chawangshop's, and for a $28 cake starting price, this might a little disturbing. Either there was a drought or there wasn't.

Whether or not I try Essence of Tea's Yibang isn't important to me, necessarily. But I have a feeling other bloggers are going to take up this topic of what's going on with Yibang. Someone is likely to do a comparison, even if I don't. Someone will flush this out, even if I am not the one to do so. As we've see written on another cake this spring, the "tea don't lie." I'm happy to continue updating this blog if more information gets posted, or if any of these issues are clarified.

Cwyn



15 comments:

  1. I think you may have made a mistake Cwyn, this Yibang story wasn't included with our Spring tea club shipment - in fact I've never heard it before.

    On another note about pricing - in every village I've been to, there's a range of teas available and at different prices. It's possible to go to Yiwu for example and buy one tea at 50 cny/kg or another at 5000 cny/kg. In the end, you need to taste the tea to decide if it's worth the price.

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    1. The post I referred to here was from the IG user Qaantar who posted 2 weeks ago according to the IG mobile app I use. He wrote: "The last of the Essence of Tea club teas, the Yibang. Two x 200g cakes, one 'ancient' (smaller leaf, left), one younger (also smaller leaf, but noticeably larger than the other cake, right). This tea was limited and apparently ran out. My 'ancient' cake is marked 18/24. Both good teas, the 'ancient' does have more depth to it..." Qaantar goes on to compare a 2011 Yibang provided by a friend.

      This jives pretty well with the two offerings from Chawangshop, their Yibang "gu shu" which is $1/g and the $28 cake. Are they the same teas? I didn't say they are. Qaantar is a blogger which is why I'm comfortable sharing his post, otherwise I wouldn't publicly post a friend's social media. Seems to have information though about the limited nature of the tea that is clearly in the Chawangshop listings.

      I did update my post to clarify the drought story is from Chawangshop to explain why Yibang is so "limited" this year. I am not making any comments in the post about EoT's cakes. My post is similar to saying "I found a dress that looks just like one that Jennifer Lopez wears, but mine is $28 from KMart. I know it's not the same dress, but for $28 I'm pretty happy with it."

      Thanks for commenting!

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    2. Actually, the "ancient" Yibang is so limited, that it wasn't enough for all club members. Who signed in late got a YiWu cake and some mostly bud maocha as replacement. I like that maocha a lot, so I'm happy with the trade.

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    3. Chawangshop's Yibang "Gushu" looks limited as well. The farmer who hiked to get it only had 4 kg himself and sold less than that, he was keeping the rest.

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  2. Don't worry, I didn't think you were comparing the teas, my comment about prices was just limited to your comparison of general prices of yibang teas available in the first paragraph.

    Our tea was just limited in the amount we were able to acquire, both for the ancient tree and smaller tree tea that we included in the spring tea club shipment. We don't plan to sell these teas, but if you'd like, I'd be happy to send you some to try.

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    1. Yeah I definitely couldn't figure out why some Yibang teas are priced so much higher than others, even in the same years. I can certainly understand the hillside tea selling for more, but not the regular tea garden.

      If some club members missed out, maybe they might have a chance to request it first?

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    2. Those who didn't get a cake got a sample of the Yibang ancient tree tea with their package, so hopefully no-one feels like they missed out. They also got a replacement with a couple of other teas that should be a very nice alternative. So far everyone seems happy with what they received.

      I was offering you a little from the small quantity that I kept for myself, not as a comparison against the Chawangshop teas, which I'm sure are very good, but since the ancient and smaller tree teas are from the same piece of land they offer an interesting insight into the effects of the age of the tea tree when soil, weather and processing are reasonably constant.

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    3. Okay then, the contact form on the right hand side of the blog page will send me an email that I can reply to. Thanks!

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    4. So if there wasn't enough "ancient" tree for the club members, does this mean there was enough of the "regular" tea, and drought wasn't a factor in Yibang causing limited harvest all around this year?

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  3. Yibang is a mountain and general area, like Yiwu. There are many several villages and gardens. In terms of inner price discrepancies, suffice to say that the Mansong gardens are in Yibang.

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    1. Interestingly, the Chawangshop listing for the Yibang teas said that the farmer they buy from, as well as other farmers there, sell their tea to dealers as Mansong.

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  4. Yes, it's exceptionally faked, like LBZ etc.

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  5. Looking at the addendum, just to reinforce what I had said, even though it's a small part of Mengla, Yibang isn't taken as an area as a whole, in terms of pricing or "terroir", only in that now vague sense where one can say "Yiwu tea" or "Menghai tea". It's confusing because there is indeed an older general tendency to simply name the teas "Yibang", but even some western vendors like YS and TU have especified villages (in a few cases, it's more like gardens, really) in the past, such as Xikong or Malishu. It's like two vendors naming their teas "Yiwu", with one being from Chawangshu and the other from Mahei, the latter being expensive and the former even much more so. I get not doing so, because very little Yibang has been sold in the West anyway.

    The teas from different terroirs there can be vastly different too. Some of the teas there are very Yiwuish, like the one you had. A few name places: Malishu, Jiabu, Xikong, Xiyaozi, Dachayuan, Jinshan Shiya. There are also even smaller gardens and places that you can only get a name from a handful of specialized sellers. They are on virtual lockdowns and go for ridiculous prices. It's not that hard to project a fetish on tea from there, since Mansong is around.

    About the varietals: the older trees there are generally small leaf (like what's used for green tea), but not wild varietals. They are cultivated camellia sinensis. The thing is that many gardens are mixed and have daye and zhongye camellia sinensis varietals too. There are also pure daye gardens (from older trees, I mean) but they are few. Deeper in the mountains one encounters a small number of "forest teas" too. I've never seen one from a wild varietal per se. They are like the forest teas from Yiwu, that were formerly in gardens and then were left untended through a century or more. All daye, as far as I know.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. But I'm not sure if what I'm reading here clarifies anything or just actually illustrates the notion of Yibang tea as even worse a situation for consumers.

      Is there a Yibang tea or not? You seem to suggest that while actual Yibang are tea gardens are quite small, what is referred to as Yibang is perhaps from a much wider surrounding area. Does that mean greater than 1000 square kilometers?

      All this starts to render Yibang, as a term, rather meaningless, which points to TwoDog's assertion that region names on teas are meaningless. Whether you or I might agree or not, we still have vendors selling tea labeled Yibang, and more vendors than just the two examples cited here.

      I think most of us agree that puerh is a "buy at your own risk" type of hobby, and the points you are making here underscore this notion.

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