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|
|The cake is a bit greener than my photo.|
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.
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
|Cha Hai by the incomparable Hong Seong-Il|
No-san Clay Studios, Korea
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.