; Cwyn's Death By Tea: When Tea Gets Ugly, and other 2018 Puerh Predictions. ;

Friday, January 26, 2018

When Tea Gets Ugly, and other 2018 Puerh Predictions.

The online tea world just gets nastier every year. I look back to a couple of years ago and the conflicts in the puerh world seem warm and fuzzy by comparison to what is going on lately. We are well past the point now of joking over 1800 year old tea and all the great things puerh will do for your diabetes. What is new is a consumer backlash, in my opinion. This backlash has a number of elements, some of which have more to do with the consumer than with tea or tea vendors. The biggest factors in play right now are: 1) shift in marketing preferences by consumers; 2) increase in puerh tea prices, coupled with 3) continuing stagnant purchasing power of consumers.

Marketing Shift

For the past decade or more, tea marketing has focused on health/wellness side of tea drinking in hopes of converting coffee drinkers and selling a lifestyle image. Largely this wellness marketing focus has aimed for and appealed to financially well-off persons over the age of forty. These people are primarily responsible for the success of gyms, spas, and high tech devices. Aging always drives spending money in staying healthy and youthful, and lines the pockets of wellness gurus worldwide. Now we have a younger buying cohort who is not yet preoccupied with aging, and has less purchasing power per person and prefers lower tech living. Consequently we see gyms on the decline, and high priced tea brewing devices fail.

Along with this, the wellness marketing trope feels tired. It smacks of privilege not felt, along the lines of wishful thinking rather than reality. The consumer is aware that tea with a Zen lifestyle is not provided by hard working, benevolent vendors. These are experiences consumers create for themselves. Tea is an ingredient of experience in the daily actions of the buyer, but not the entire experience bought in one huge package.

With a more “ingredient,” nuts and bolts focus, people are impatient when they feel someone is trying to sell them an image or lifestyle when really the purchase is tea. I consistently read consumer complaints over marketing which includes “image” based tea labels, with no real information on the actual tea. This scheme is all the more obvious when accompanied with tea photos taken from a wholesaler stock catalog and the consumer recognizes the repeated usage from one vendor to another. 

The term I see more and more on tea forums is “marketing schtick.” Consumer backlash is increasing against teas sold via images or lifestyles, rather than a description of what the product is, “objectively,” origins and so forth. Consumer discussions continue for months along these lines, for example the Mei Leaf 1000 year tea discussion on Steepster. Consumers also see through the schtick of vendors who “name drop” on labels, naming conventions like “Little Bingdao” on teas that are about as close to Bingdao as Milwaukee is to Chicago. 

Online discussions stemming from a "disconnect" between vendors and consumers now get really ugly. An example of the worst might be one about a monthly tea subscription company selling lifestyle when the teas do not measure up to expectation, and consumers taking to social media to complain, resulting in threats by the vendor to sue. Even bloggers are starting to hear threats of lawsuits for negative reviews of teas, an unlikely scenario but certainly not pleasant tea meditation. Another ugly discussion continued for days over the alt online names of a tea vendor presumably anonymously self-promoting teas and bashing the competition.

All the disillusioned discussions online point to a decline or shift in social marketing of tea, with too many tea companies using social media in the exact same way. Too many tea companies focusing on image, lifestyle or boasting a guru lead inevitably to consumer weariness, whether via photos, blogs or podcasts. Tea marketing is in a sort of reductionist phase, the thing rather than the image of the thing. But we have a few more factors at play in 2018, the picture is not quite so simplistic.

Increase in (Puerh) Tea Prices

Tea is more expensive in large part because more people are demanding a premium product, and the amount of premium tea available cannot possibly meet the demand. In addition, weather plays a role in how much premium tea is available in a given year, and the past few years were affected by unusual climate events. Governmental policies such as in Taiwan have made high mountain oolong more scarce as well.

In the past four years the cost of a nice puerh tea has literally doubled, and that is not including the increases in puerh tea costs before or even after the big bubble of 2008. Ghastly price increases are coming at a bad time too, because on the one hand long-time collectors have plenty of tea and are not likely to open the wallet except for increasingly rare tea experiences, and people new to collecting are priced out before they even start. Over the past year, one of my blog posts has consistently remained in my top six “most read” posts, the post called “How Can I Afford this Hobby?”  I suspect that the people finding this post are new to puerh. They are dealing with sticker shock and want recommendations. The same can be said about oolong and many other premium teas as well. Buying premium tea is increasingly out of reach for most of us, myself included. We can still find decent budget teas, as I wrote about in that post, but decent is not the same as premium.

Continued Stagnant Purchasing Power

Premium tea was once an affordable treat, but while teas are increasing in price and scarcity, the consumer is ever more aware of how little their money buys. Crypto currency is a huge topic right now, in part because people are frustrated with how little cash they have and how little their cash can buy. I think this is the real anger in the ugliness of the tea scene. How dare vendors pitch “schtick,” lie about tea, sell lifestyle tropes, mark up prices more than 10% a year, use social marketing to find customers when the reality on the ground of the consumer is so damned painful?

Along with this pain is the realization that change is not going to happen anytime soon. The whole notion of “change” is political, and politics are more stagnant than a wet pile of shou. Consumer anger peaked over the past year or so and now people are onto what they hope are solutions, whether it is crypto currency or changing buying habits. I propose a few concepts that will be key in this year’s puerh buying.


Budget teas rumored to have good quality will sell out quick. Yes, they always sell out quick but we have more buyers now than four years ago. More people are seriously looking for decent budget teas. The high end collector side is likely to remain stable with a few people able to afford the best of the best. I believe the successful vendor to the western market will either focus on the budget end or scale back significantly and cater to a small group of high end collectors. The middle tiers will be slower to sell, especially and unless “better” drinkers are vastly different year after year, which for the most part they are not, so the middle may be the most stable price-wise, and perhaps the toughest sell.

Chinese Factory Teas

Western ignorance of the Chinese language and myths about Chinese politics favor factory teas more this year, with budget so much of a factor. People cannot read the wrappers, so they are essentially “empty” of marketing imagery for the western buyer. Even if the wrappers are all about the tired health and wellness tropes, people cannot read them. Even if the wrappers lie, anyone who cannot read Chinese will not know.

More importantly, Chinese puerh wrappers have the nostalgia factor politically. They project the old-time state owned factories with emotionless number recipes. The bland sameness of the old CNNP label suggests a society with no elites, when premium tea and bad tea shared the same wrapping. Now of course the old reality had elites, despite the “worker” philosophy. But for a customer with stagnant purchasing power, abandoned by the state, left to the mercy of corporations, essentially the customer in “capitalist” countries, a factory wrapper suggests a political change that needs to happen even if it does not. Chinese wrappers simply do not push the sore buttons, and one can find a lot of budget-friendly factory teas for under $50, full-size cakes too, not these bottle-cap sizes that we see more and more of.

More Auctions and Group Buys

The middleman is not responsible for the mess, and may carry an advantage of coordinating budget-friendly group tea buying. Personally I see this as an expensive way to buy tea in the long run, but in the short term might be the only option for folks who hope their current budget will change for the better in a few years.

Along with this, more and more people buying tea means more tuition tea, not merely bad tea. People need time to learn what they like in tea, and so the secondary market is not yet kicked in as much as it will be in a few years. More people will decide to sell teas they do not like in order to buy other teas. Right now this has not yet really started in the west, but it will and maybe 2018 is the year it really starts to increase. I bought some very good tea last year this way, and sold a few I knew I would never drink.

More Interest in Storage

Tea storage is rather low tech, as inexpensive as you like. I believe this is the real meat of the puerh hobby, and obsessing over storage rather than shopping is the healthy direction our hobby needs to go. I see more and more discussions of storage than ever before, and the ideas are grand. I applaud the failures too, because we learn more from failure in the short term than anything else. Long term storage is still anyone’s potential success story. I see far more marketing potential in storage than in lifestyle or wellness. Unfortunately I think the tea vendor world will continue marching along with the tired lifestyle stuff rather than stock up on storage solutions and custom thermoses.

Overall, I think 2018 is the year of the Testy Customer and I will be interested to see what emerges from this on the vendor end. Of course these are merely my own observations and predictions. Anything can happen and probably will.

Happy drinking!


  1. Awesome article - all sorts of good points. Let's see what the vendors have up their sleeves!

  2. Hi Cwyn,
    Love the article.
    I agree with some of what you are putting out there and disagree with other parts.
    “The online tea world just gets nastier every year.” I think it’s getting more critical (but is definitely not as warm and fuzzy as it used to be). This is because people have both a deep knowledge source as well as much more experience in puerh than they ever had. This, coupled with the fact there are more Western vendors on the scene, gives the consumer more power. This can only be a good thing, not a nasty thing!
    As a result there is also a split between those who have been drinking for a long time and those new to puerh. Marketing to these two somewhat separate interests is a challenge. Within these groups there is also the split that you have mentioned between budget/ everyday drinkers and premium drinkers.
    I agree with you that marketing has completely changed over the years. Partly utilizing modern marketing strategies and partly to take hold of these different chunks in the market.
    “I think 2018 is the year of the Testy Customer” Actually, I think 2017 was the year of the Testy Customer which coincided both with increased prices and purportedly lower quality along with a more educated customer.
    The big factor that you failed to mention was the global uncertainty surrounding an inaugural presidential year. If things become a shaky, impeachy, or war-stancey. 2018 will be the year of The Very Testy Customer.
    Thanks again for the great discussion.

    1. Hi Matt, a lot of puerh fans who stop by here are not from the US. I'm not sure some readers are all that focused on American presidential politics. I am convinced that the currency issues I mentioned are of more general interest.

  3. Cwyn,

    I think Yunnan Sourcing accepts some of those crypto currencies. I wonder if other vendors will follow?

    I wasn't so much speaking about US presidential politics but rather global uncertainty.

    The currency issue is probably a topic of a whole blog post (stay tuned) but I think it influences puerh purchases a lot more than you are giving it credit for.

    I generally agree with your observations on Marketing, Pricing, Purchasing, Budget, Factory Tea.

    Storage will only start to be an consideration issue if more people get interested in Semi-aged which might happen more quickly if prices increase year to year and if people can get past that marketing.

    PS I really appreciate your links to discussion forums and charts because as much as I try, I just can't get into that.

    I can especially relate to the guy in the "marketing schtick" link!

    I always enjoy your predictions. It's not as funny as previous years but probably contains a lot more truth!


    1. I think w2t accepts Bitcoin? Not sure.

      I guess if you aren't on forums or Slack much you are missing a lot of storage conversation. People are trying some really out there ideas. Lots of fun!

    2. YS et al. accepts bitcoin through a service that immediately converts it into USD, takes a small fee, then gives them the USD. I bought some tea off Taiwan Sourcing with bitcoin once. That was a mistake. It was 75 dollars worth of tea then, 150 dollars today.

  4. I think a lot of these issues stem from a large influx of new tea drinkers. Some of them are quite vocal about their tastes, but in reality they haven't even grown into their palates yet because they've spent maybe $500 total on tea and are just parroting what others say about vendors in their price range because they don't know any better.

    Which can be irritating for people that are trying to delve deeper, past the "good" and into the premium and it creates a strong disconnect.

    1. Yeah, the parroting is just... rampant and unhelpful to all involved. When someone can read something one month and then be authoritatively stating it the next it really muddies the waters.

      I'm a year and a half in and it seems like every few months I realise that I didn't know jack.

    2. I’m much much much longer and still know jack. That is why I call puerh the black hole of tea!