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Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The Sample Life


Here is yet another tea sample I pulled from my stash this spring that I wanted to try. I am not sure where this is from, maybe Mr. Mopar? Anyway, it is labeled 1990s Menghai 8592 which is a shou formula, and if it is really 1990s I can't throw this out without trying it. Now is not really the time of year for shou for me, but I'll try it anyway. I get to thinking about how samples really are not a bad way to drink tea. Sample drinking has a bad rap on forums from tea snobs who feel that a sample is not a sufficient amount of tea to really know a puerh. Or that a cake size is really a sample, and the ideal purchase is a tong. I don't entirely disagree with that notion, but at the same time I feel a sample is sufficient to at least experience a tea in some fashion, and in this sense could be better than never trying a tea at all. 

I don't know why it is, maybe the pandemic or the economy or tricky shipping, but suddenly the idea of a sample stash has a prudent feel to it. I do feel like the negative view toward samples is pervasive enough that people whose stash consists entirely of samples feel the need to hide that fact when conversing on forums. The opinions of those drinking from samples appear to stigmatize them when they express an opinion, "oh you just tried a sample," rather than recognizing the fact that the person actually tried the tea before opining on it. Seems to me trying the tea first matters more than opining when you haven't tried the tea at all. And plenty of opinions get aired on teas people haven't ever tried! I can find plenty of reasons to own sample teas.

Just starting out.

You have taken the plunge into puerh, and are tasting around to find out what you like. In this case, sampling is a great idea. I think especially if you are looking for daily drinker teas, the best thing to do is crunch a lot of samples to find that sheng or shou which suits and sits well in the tummy for every day. Certainly sampling ahead makes sense if you are thinking of dropping a larger amount of money, or are checking whether the claims surrounding a tea are genuine. 

Your Budget.

Let's face it, teas are expensive. You can participate in a puerh hobby, but only to a certain degree because you don't have money to waste. Still, this is better drinking some tea than none at all, right?

No one else in your household drinks puerh.

If you are sharing living space with another person or even a full family, that space is subject to some resentment when one person uses more than their fair share. How many partners complain not about the tea, but rather how much space that tea takes up in the living space, and how loud is that complaint because they don't share in the hobby? Nagging gets annoying. Also, a strategy to try more teas is do-able when you are getting just samples, the partner is not so likely to sniff at an envelope arriving in the mail rather than a big tong box. 

You move around frequently.

Owning a stash takes up space and increases exponentially when you have tongs and when you need specialized storage solutions. Puerh is a long-haul hobby, and hauling just is not conducive to a lifestyle where you need to move every year, or even two or three times a year. Maybe you have no home at all and live in temporary situations. Having a stash of samples means one box as opposed to hauling multiple plastic tubs, crocks and tong bags. Feels good to travel light.

You don't want to bother with storage.

Space is part of the reason perhaps, but another very valid reason to go with smaller amounts of tea is because you have no interest in storage. Some people do have the space and the money, but don't want to bother with storage solutions and babysitting tongs. Is your opinion as a taster of teas really worth less because of this? Someone drinking samples for two years may have a better idea of puerh teas than a person with two years of drinking one tong. Many people find storage challenging or uninteresting, and feel they have to hide this when talking about puerh. 

Opportunities arise in sample form.

Many of the best teas simply are not available any longer as full beengs or tongs, and the only way to get your hands on a tea is when a collector is willing to break up a beeng for a few friends. Any amount of that tea is a gifted moment. Also, many superb buying opportunities from vendors are samples. We all know about Houde's sample sales. Let's see who is sleeping...did you sign up for Chen Sheng Hao marketing emails? If so, you woke up to this in your email box yesterday.


CSH is offering a box of 10g x 7 samples, or a box of 28g minis, or you can get a 10g sample of 2020 Lao Ban Zhang for $38 and change. Better run along quick if you want any of these. Might want to sign up for emails first, you can get a code for an additional 10% off everything except the LBZ.

One criticism of samples is that they may not be in the best condition, or taken from a bad part of the beeng, such as the beenghole. But a beeng may not be in the best condition anyway, and the chances of this are just the same as for a sample, it depends on how well the tea was kept, whether a beeng or sample. I guess someone has to get the beenghole, no one throws it out, it is just more compressed. Aesthetically the beenghole is less pleasing, but if one feels the experience is diminished, perhaps ordering another sample is the remedy. Even if the tea is sold out, I've heard of many instances when a vendor was willing to send out another sample, so if you don't like your beenghole just email the vendor.

Quantities of "gushu" teas are small.

Even if you can get your hands on some nice tea, chances are the amount is small because the harvest is by hand from a small stand of tea trees. 200g beengs are more common now than 357g outside of big factory productions of drinker teas. Some vendors have 100g or even smaller beengs. The quantity of some of the best gushu teas frequently consists of a small bag of loose puerh. The quantity harvested is so tiny that a pressing is not possible, and the leaves are lovely such that the whole leaf may be appreciated rather than potentially broken away from a pressed form. 

You want to taste widely.

After the pandemic year I think people want to make sure they have the experiences they crave. Time is already limited by how much we work and put into family life. I think the whole "stamp collecting" criticism is a bit overdone, especially now when we can find more important places to put time and money. Yet drinking a bit of an experience is valuable time spent, and you can taste your way around 10 teas much more easily with a sample quantity than buying 10 tongs you then must store. 

We have many other beverages in life we may wish to indulge in, perhaps your partner likes wines or whiskies or other drinks, or you do, and you want those beverages as well as your tea. No reason to miss out on a memorable experience of a particularly good tea just because you don't want a whole tong of it. 

You can't fit a beeng down your pants.

Showing up with a gym bag at a tea shop is a guaranteed way to be watched the entire time. 

I think a perfectly valid way to live the puerh life is to get the tea you can afford and have room to keep. One doesn't need to drink an entire sample in one go, a bit can be saved in the bag and tried again in a few years for a renewed experience. You still get the benefits of tasting changes in the tea without being saddled with bulky storage. At some point, even a collector has to stop hoarding. At that point, acquiring any more tea makes little sense except for a sample.


This "1990s Menghai" 8592 consists of slivered chunks taken off a beeng. They opened up nicely with a couple of rinses and started out sweet and thick like apple juice. But I could only get down two steepings. My stomach was hurting from pills when I started. I had hoped the shou would help the pill belly, but it didn't. The tea had more fermentation flavor than should be the case for a 20 year old tea, and I noticed the leaves were small and chopped, they didn't look like grade 9 leaves before the chopping, they looked like better leaves frankly. I started to wonder if the label on the bag wasn't accurate. It could be the gifter re-used a sample bag without changing the label and I have forgotten what the tea actually is. Oh well. It's a decent enough shou, and I am glad I tried it, but also happy I only have a sample. That's another reason to live the sample life, a lot less waste.


I think we need to get rid of the gate-keeping around tea quantity, and stop making people feel their opinions on a tea are less valid because they own a sample rather than a tong or beeng. Plenty of opinions abound on teas given by people with no experience of those teas whatsoever. So how is your sampler life somehow less valid than these total virgins? Enjoy your wide-ranging experiences of puerh tea along with all the other indulgences you can fit in. Stand up and give your opinion on teas and let's welcome the view of someone who definitely has tried a tea. 







Monday, June 14, 2021

One Year, One Kilo Fu Zhuan Brick

On January 1 of this year I started a project of drinking up my 2012 CNNP Fu Zhuan brick tea. A full kilo (1000g) is about the same size as 3 regular size beengs of puerh. I chose to drink this Fu brick as my morning cuppa this year with the idea of paying attention to my tea purchases and whether or not buying a full kilo brick is a wise purchase. In terms of dollars, Fu brick is very much a value purchase and I paid around $65 for this brick, or 6.5 pennies per gram. 

When I started the tea back in January, I estimated drinking this brick up would take me until May if I drank 7g per day, or October if I drank 7g every two days. As it turns out, I have been drinking around 7g every two days because I can get 6 steepings from a portion and so one session lasts me for two days. Based on the size of the remaining brick, I still feel I'm on track for finishing the tea in October. 

Comparing my current photo of the tea with the one I took for my last update, I can see a real difference in the level of golden flowers. The last photo I took was in back in March at the driest point of winter in my house. The flowers are tiny so click on the photos to see close-up.

March's photo

Now in June, my new photo shows improved growth of golden flowers. 

June photo

We had a few weeks of very hot and muggy weather in late May. While I do have a window air conditioning unit in the house, the AC unit does not get all the muggy water out of the air and my house is still quite warm. The Fu brick sucked up all that heat and moisture. The brick is not as heavily encrusted with flowers as it could be, but the current state is definitely an improvement. Having a Fu brick in the house might be a good gauge to judge my storage conditions, because I can see actual results quickly. It's a "good" fungus, and better a good fungus than a bad mold! I feel reassured that a tea can bounce back from dry winter conditions. The brick has also loosened up some, the tea comes off now in these odd rounded-ball chunks that I have to break up. 

Now well into six months of drinking this tea most days, alternated here and there with a bit of hongcha, I am fairly accustomed to this tea. When I drink something else on a day or two, I find myself missing the Fu brick and feel glad to go back to it. On the other hand, this tea is also somewhat bland and simple compared to puerh tea. It is not very interesting and not complex. I have to give my respect to CNNP teas for the workhorse daily teas that they are, and in terms of puerh doing better for $65 a kilo is probably not possible. For Fu brick tea, however, I feel Mojun's Fu tea is so much more flavorful for not much more money. If I feel inclined to buy more Fu Zhuan tea, I will definitely buy something else over this CNNP, but it's a really small complaint for the amount of tea I am getting with this one purchase. 

Because the tea is not terribly interesting, finding more to say about it is rather like a coffee drinker trying to talk about Folger's. I like to think Fu brick tea is helpful for my digestion but I honestly don't notice any difference on the days I drink hongcha instead. Maybe the gut aspect of it is more noticeable for people who don't consume anything else that might help the gut, but I eat yogurt and kimchi on many days too, so I have a gut luxury in my diet. 

If my Fu tea looks vastly different by the end of the warm summer, I will do another update here and post a new photo. But if the tea looks fairly similar to my photo here, I will just update and give some last thoughts when I finally finish off the brick. 




Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Gushu Goes on Sale


In one of my earlier posts this year, I cleaned out my boxes of samples and got rid of a few teas I know I will never drink up. I kept a few of the samples to try out over the summer, and one of these is a 2017 Autumn Yangjiazhai, which I assume is from the Baoshan area of western Yunnan? This tea is sold by yiwumountainteas.com currently for 207 GBP/357g cake. I got the sample free a few years ago along with a couple of other teas that the site offered to some bloggers when getting started with their online store. This website sells decent teas for fairly high prices. I never really felt I got a good handle on their offerings in part because they sent samples of teas that are probably not the best ones. I'm not including links here because I don't need the vendor chasing down traffic to my blog after this post. I did review a tea from their samples in the past, you can check that out here.

YiwuMountainTeas is another example of a western husband with Chinese wife, and his father-in-law is a tea farmer in Gaoshan providing tea to this married couple to get started, rather like how MistyPeaks got started with a personal connection to a farmer. I notice that the more recent spring teas from Gaoshan are the teas that sell out on the website, and I suspect they are one of the best offerings they have. However, the Gaoshan tea was not included in the sample teas and so I haven't tried the father-in-law's tea. 

The company operates out of Guangzhou, but the couple closes down this location and goes to Yunnan in the spring to scout teas, including some they claim on their blog to acquire through introductions to other farmers via the father-in-law. They claim to offer these farmers prices well "above market" in order to guarantee the selling arrangement year after year and keep the farmers from selling their land blah-blah, but also to provide a better living for the area, paved roads etc. I asked another vendor how much above market price you'd have to pay for this kind of arrangement, and the vendor replied about 8-10x more than a large factory would pay a farmer. 

All this sounds well and good, except their prices are on the high side as mentioned. But all spring-long this year the website offered "sale prices" on the teas during the time they were in Yunnan scouting out 2021 tea. These sale prices are now mostly gone except on a few teas. But the sale prices this spring were very steep sale prices!

A screenshot I captured in late April

It's all good to say you pay the farmers more than factories would, and I believe that to be true, but how much is available for discount? I looked at these sale prices which approached nearly 50% markdown in some cases and wondered if they are showing their hand a bit too much. If they have room for this much markdown, one of two things must be true: either they have an incredibly steep markup 100% above what they are paying the farmers, or they fire-sale-d the tea below cost, possibly in order to raise quick money to fund their spring tea buying. 

The business just posted a blog update on the site titled "Why is Yiwu Tea so Expensive?" In this post along with the usual reasons Yiwu tea costs so much, they note that their business is primarily wholesale. That suggests a lower price is available for wholesale buyers, and presumably the website is more of a retail price. They also note that some of their "gushu" teas are not wholesale because of low quantity. Except that the website teas are almost all labeled gushu teas. Even the autumn ones. 

I suspect that most of the teas are actually tea gardens of various types, and not the trek-into-the-mountains-large-tree actual gushu teas, but whatever. I will just call them gushu because they do, and because who cares? At this point the rabbit holes are so deep and so long there is no way a casual buyer like myself, and probably you, can possibly sort out truth from fiction. 

The reality is that this seller is really no worse than any other at this point. I can ignore all the BS and just deal with the tea in front of me, which isn't Yiwu, but still costs 207 quid (more in my underperforming American dollars) and I wonder why I should pay this much money for a non-Yiwu tea and Autumn tea to boot, when I can pay that much for fairly decent Spring Yiwu tea from my choice of other vendors. We aren't at the point yet where decent spring Yiwu is so out of reach that autumn teas are the only affordable option. Though that may well change in coming years, who knows? 

It was getting dark out 
so I did brighten the image a bit.

Here we are in spring 2021. So, Father, how is this year different from other years? We are still at it with a lack of real transparency and really every vendor you look at has these issues yet. Whether it's outright rabbit hole, or a lack of clarity, we always have something of confusion when buying puerh tea and no possible way to remedy that confusion. Go ahead, message a vendor and see how far you get. 

At the same time, I kind of feel for vendors because they all have to advertise in some way, and what's different in 2021 is how truly distasteful puerh tea buying is this year. The usual vendor BS along with the price BS pressured onto factory teas sit alongside coming increases in shipping costs, and everything sits alongside job losses, funeral pyres and refrigerated trucks of dead people. Everybody who is lying or even just sardonic on Twitter comes across as distasteful. The puerh scene itself is distasteful with all the hazing and jockeying for positioning by people who feel ego-bruised if someone doesn't like their overstored factory tea. You can't even show off your proud purchases without someone nailing you for something. 

Just advertising your tea for sale comes across as blithely ignoring the ugly reality so much of the world is now in, even though we know commerce needs to continue or we are all screwed. Even my ex in Guangzhou writes "the pandemic seems so far away" outside China though he is lining up this week for an acid Covid test after a neighborhood Covid cluster was found. Normally I can channel my anti-social tea buying self into taking advantage of online confusion or negative chatter to scoop up what others deign to ignore, but the dead bodies and distasteful tea scene are too much even for distasteful me to chatter happily as I usually would. We also have rising meat prices and outright cat food shortages, gas is going up and so are my utilities. Wisconsin store cow butter is not softening at room temperature, suggesting possibly palm oil meal feeding, an outright consumer betrayal which absolutely sends me into a tizzy. Along with that horror I see prices of stuff going up that once up don't go back down. The US postal service is talking increases again and you know that once they go up, they don't go back down either. 

First steep after the rinse.

Maybe some people can shut out all the din and continue their happy tea buying. But what else can redeem the tea scene at this point? We do have the Enlightenment and Daoist people, though mostly puerh is free of a lot of this perspective unless you consider the Qi Hagiography picked-by-monks etc. But I suspect that many puerh peeps prefer a scientific view, one narrowed down to exclude even the health gurus proclaiming the blood pressure benefits of puerh. If that's the case, then all you're really left with is what the vendors tell you, or what the online tea scene tells you, and all of that kinda sucks right now.

The only thing left to possibly redeem the puerh people here is the aesthetic of a really extraordinary tea year. One that exceeds any of the past 7 years plus, just randomly putting that number out here because we haven't really had an extraordinary tea year in at least that long, despite what prices did last year. If the tea is truly amazing in quality this year it might rise above the funeral pyres, prices and all the BS. It would be worth the price to some extent. The only other possibility is a price fall I don't think is coming. I really don't think gushu goes on sale. Not without a whole lot of mess in it.

My sample of the 2017 Yangjiazhai still smells fresh even after a few years stored in the bag. I brewed 11g in 100-120 ml water and had to push the tea to get a cup that was never strongly bitter despite these parameters. The tea brews up a nice orange color which is more typical for an autumn tea, especially loosely pressed as this one is. I got a strong sweet brown sugar top note followed up by a boiled celery seed backdrop. The tea is a bit bitter on the back end, but nothing uncomfortable. Leaves are tight and I had to keep pushing to nearly a minute even on the early steeps. I quit after five. Not much qi to speak of, but I found the drink pleasant after dinner on a summer night, had a bit of a brandy feel, warm in the stomach and coats the tongue well. I wouldn't pay 207 quid for this mainly because I can get a decent spring tea for the same money. But if you want to try it, the tea is still available.

What can vendors do to get me to buy this year? I guess it's too much to ask to be more transparent, so instead try not to show your hand so much in how much markup you are charging. Remember that we buyers have factory tea price BS to deal with in addition to your BS. Make me feel better about buying a completely discretionary beverage rather than being so cryptic or up-front sales-man-ish. Right now I'm replenishing my shirt wardrobe buying shirts from bands and musicians out of work for so long due to the pandemic. Or even dead in some cases, as I picked up a few items from John Prine's site after he passed from Covid. I'm trying to keep local restaurants going by ordering out. I am forced to buy organic butter now. I'm trying not to waste food. So maybe consider donating some of the proceeds from tea sales to a "cause" I can feel happy to support along with a purchase. 


Saturday, April 17, 2021

North American Puerh Buyers

 


Recently Lew Perin sent me some photos of a beeng date stamped 2004 pressed through the efforts of one of our earliest North American puerh bloggers, Mike Petro. The "Just Puer" logo and simple-style wrapper were designed by Mike, and he arranged for the pressing and wrapper printing with a factory in China. An order for custom tea was placed and the communication with the factory required using "an early translation software." This relatively early effort to order factory tea from China reveals to me how little has changed with puerh buying for people in North America. Nearly twenty years later, people interested in buying new and recent factory teas from China are still working channels and translation software. Yet puerh tea consumption and buying has exploded since then. 

While outlets for buying proprietary fresh teas from online boutiques grew tremendously during this same time, markets for people interested in factory teas are still mostly inaccessible and at best inconvenient. With just about everything available online these days, including products from China, I am amazed at the poor access to Chinese factory puerh teas with the size and monetary power of North American puerh buyers. Chinese factories express interest in accessing North America as a market, but perhaps not in a way that currently matches the interests of buyers.

How Many Buyers?

The pandemic, if anything, increased the number of people trying puerh tea at home and looking to buy. Once down the rabbit hole, puerh buyers are additive, no one really goes away. A significant route into puerh tea for the North American buyer is through green tea consumption. Green tea has permeated everywhere in North America. Even where I live, in the middle of nowhere, my very basic grocery store for some reason carries at least a dozen fresh kombucha teas. People are drinking green teas of all sorts and raw sheng puerh is an easy jump to make from green tea. 

This is an important characteristic of North American puerh buyers coming from green teas. The leap from green teas to raw sheng puerh tea is much easier for the cultural palate than it is to go from green or red teas to shou puerh. The path to shou puerh is often through aged sheng. This factor is important to note when looking at the mismatch of puerh marketing further.

But how many of us are out here? The horde of North American buyers is large enough at this point that I struggle for a comparison. I am reminded of the size of specialty cannabis strain buyers back in the 1990s before cannabis became legal. We always had cannabis users in the same way we always have tea drinkers, but a subset of these had an interest in gourmet hybrid strains, hydroponic growing and efforts to develop legal markets. In other words, people no longer buying ditch weed bought gourmet strains of cannabis basically underground for a couple of decades before states made this market legal. Nowadays of course this market is mainstream. I would say that puerh buyers are at least the size of the early days of hybrid cannabis devotees. How big is that? Big enough that current avenues for buying new and recent factory teas are long inadequate.

Current Outlets for Factory Puerh

Right now puerh buyers are fairly well served if a buyer is looking for fresh, proprietary blends of tea from small, individually-owned online puerh vendors. These are house teas and they form the bulk of easily available teas to the American buyer. Really these teas are an incredible gift to puerh buyers. But I have to say that a large contingent of puerh buyers, maybe even the majority of buyers, are also interested in factory puerh teas, if not exclusively so. Even buyers who purchase fresh boutique blends still dabble a finger into factory teas now and again. But the reality is very few vendors sell new and recent factory puerh teas. Very few vendors sell semi-aged teas also, but aged tea is always going to be a secondary re-sale market, unlike for new and recent teas. 

Hard to believe that all these years later, anyone wanting to buy new or recent factory teas is still looking to Yunnan Sourcing and primarily their China location (the US shop currently has one raw Dayi beeng for sale). Aside from Yunnan Sourcing, the few vendors offering factory teas dwindle to a handful of tea shops, with a handful of teas, or enterprising individuals doing special orders or even Taobao buying. Just as Mike Petro worked the translation software all those years ago, nowadays people are plugging in Google translate just to access new and recent vintage factory teas. Western vendors have little to no interest in selling factory teas, and the few people who do offer these teas do so as a courtesy rather than as a focus. Buyers are left to work Taobao or buy teas from other collectors rather than via official or tax-legal market channels. 

What the Buyer is looking for.

North American puerh buyers develop a sophisticated set of preferences for puerh very quickly. The buying community learns fast that spring raw sheng puerh is more desirable than summer or autumn harvests. People want teas with strong bitter and astringent profiles, not the sweet, drink-now versions that some factories are trying to market. People want to age their teas and enjoy their development with varying degrees of success, and this is the fun of the hobby for many. 

Buyers are well versed in the history of puerh teas, and know that the best vintages from the past are factory made, and some are recipe teas and therefore people want an amount of factory tea in their collection. Access to these teas is not as straightforward as might be the case, due to several issues.

Mismatched Markets.

Chinese puerh factories have no need to sell sheng puerh teas to the western market because the Asian market is more than adequate. When the Taetea 7542 of the year reaches over $300/beeng in resale we know the market has little impetus to offer retail 7542 anywhere outside of China. Not to mention the rare special edition teas which rarely see the light of day in western buying outlets. By western buying outlets, I primarily mean Yunnan Sourcing. We also have a few sources like King Tea Mall from Guangzhou, which is a fine seller but again located in China and not in North America. Here too we don't find special edition teas and we pay a premium for resale and shipping, again to be expected.

The biggest mismatch, however, is the actual interest Chinese factories currently have in selling to the west. When reading puercn news and meeting with tea factories at events like the World Tea Expo, the main interest factories have is in selling shou puerh and also "excess tonnage" of tea to the west. Excess tonnage includes summer and autumn tea and anything leftover from late spring which probably also means shou puerh products. Yet where the real money is right now is for sheng puerh products, rather than shou puerh. People want access to the same sheng products factories are producing primarily for Asian markets. 

Non-specific Warehouse Vendors.

Sheng puerh teas can be found in warehouse model vendors like Awazon at Amazon. Occasionally teas sell on eBay but most buyers view eBay as a less desirable way to purchase tea due to the possibility of fakes. Aliexpress had factory puerh teas at one point, but Aliexpress banned the sale a few years ago which was a loss of access for North American buyers. Taobao is even more difficult now, and sometimes boots online accounts from the west, and requires a buying agent and navigating in Chinese. 

People are still buying from Yunnan Sourcing after so many years. We have to give props to Yunnan Sourcing for offering at least some factory teas, even if most of these are ripe shou teas. But Yunnan Sourcing is a large vendor with their own house teas and equal if not greater emphasis on other types of Chinese tea. Scott has spoken about looking for a way to retire someday, and so this single outlet which barely meets the demand will not be around forever. 

Boutiques and Tea Shops.

Small outlets like these are not able to adequately serve buyers looking for factory teas. I would include possible ideas like franchising, such as when Taetea licenses small dealers as official retailers. The problem here is the lack of access to capital to purchase stock up front and then sell it. We don't have a retail loan structure for puerh vending because the financial world by and large is still ignorant of Chinese tea. 

Then we have a problem experienced by nearly all small boutique retailers. The further away distance-wise the retailer is from the factory source, the lower the priority for stock. This is an issue in every designer goods sector. The retailer has plenty of buyers, but is not getting in the stock needed to satiate the buying appetite of the customers. Most designer boutiques have this problem, lots of buyers but the shop doesn't get priority from the factory label for shipments. This is where a franchise model in the US is likely to fail. Not only is retail space expensive, but a US location is on the low end of the totem pole compared to Asian locations. A franchise won't get enough stock for the size of the puerh buying community.

And how big is that buying community again? We are large enough at this point with enough dollars that a single retail location shipment could be bought up entirely by one buyer. Just think if that 2021 7542 had made it to a retail location in the US at the original retail price. One person easily would swoop all that tea up in a single buy, and any appearance online would result in inquiries from overseas buyers as well. This is yet again why a small shop or boutique-style vendor or franchise cannot possibly keep up with customer demand for factory sheng puerh, even if that shop had adequate access to stock which it likely won't at such a distance. We have all too many buyers with the money to buy up tongs and tongs of tea, single-handedly. Then we have huge group buying efforts to pool money and split tong purchases. Good luck to any retailer looking to keep up with this kind of behavior. It won't happen. 

Addressing the Mismatched Market.

We want more than the dusty tea brick from a local market shop. But we can't simply apply more pressure to existing outlets. Something has to give in the Chinese market to improve sales and access to North America. We have the buyers. We have plenty of money to spend. What can be done to improve access to sheng puerh tea?

Warehouse-model selling.

Chen Sheng Hao has taken the step of opening a warehouse in Vancouver. North American buyers can now access these teas through this warehouse. However, their pricing and products are on the top tier end. Right now I am sure the customers in this market need convincing that CSH teas are worth $1000/beeng. I don't think buyers are certain CSH teas are of a quality to merit this price tag, and if the teas are, then people need experience trying the teas to find out. The main market is looking to buy lower, at the under $100/beeng price point but in bulk.

Yet the warehouse model is precisely what is needed to meet consumer demand because the small boutique does not have the capital nor the priority. More factories will hopefully follow the example of Chen Sheng Hao and open warehouse options in North America with teas at a lower price point.

Develop and sell new recipe teas and teas with a picking standard.

Do what you do well. Customers want spring teas and especially teas with a bitter and astringent profile designed for aging and warm humid weather. Factories could develop new recipes and productions for everyone, everywhere, that could incorporate some of that excess summer and autumn tonnage blended with spring tea. Or offer more premium blends that adhere to a picking standard, such as the one-bud-two-leaf, rather than the chopped over-oxidized mess that many productions use. 

Once a customer develops a taste for aged raw puerh, they are more open to drinking shou and other heicha teas like Fu Zhuan and bamboo stored Liu Baos. Cultivate the raw sheng customer with the carrot of what they want, and other teas are likely to benefit from increased sales. 

Open up factory-direct and Taobao with English service and shipping. 

I realize this is a diplomatic stretch involving many cultural factors. I know China does not need our puerh business. But North American puerh buyers are a well-educated and gainfully employed lot, in a variety of industries, and they drink tea at work. Sommeliers are more popular in food service and we have thriving $100/session puerh service in fine restaurants in places like New York City. Many unknown business connections into the future may be gained in North America in the same way as puerh enhances business relationships and diplomacy in China. 

Support the secondary puerh market by offering factory teas.

More factory teas in the hands of collectors means more tea for potential resale later as aged teas in our own markets, which leads to more interested tea drinkers buying new. It's a cycle. To expand our aged offerings so we don't need middlemen in Asia, we need to buy teas direct when they are new and recent and more cost-effective. 

Over the past year, we read lots of bad news about Chinese-North American relations and attitudes. Yet I can assure the reader that the opposite is the case with regard to Yunnanese sheng puerh tea. More and more people are attracted to this tea and yet the buyer opportunities, especially for factory teas, have hardly changed in the past twenty years. Tea is consumed and gone forever, and so the market only increases in demand. The buyers here are legion and ready to spend money when opportunities arise and we need more legitimate and direct sales options to meet the increasing demand.

Photo credit: photos shown are by the kindness and permission of Lew Perin (photographer) and Mike Petro. 




Monday, March 29, 2021

Bad Connection


Been three years now since the ex-husband moved to China and we got a divorce over Skype. That first year he lived in Hefei, so before he left I made sure he tried plenty of Anhui heicha just to prepare, but then he drank zero tea the entire time he lived there. To be fair, the smog got awfully bad that year in Hefei and he stayed indoors much of the time. The next year he moved to Shanghai where the tea scene is better, and I gave him some emails for tea people to meet for dinner and tea shopping. But then the Coronavirus arrived, and he again spent much of his time in his apartment . When things opened back up again he preferred to go to Disneyland rather than follow up on the tea leads I provided.  

Last fall he moved again, this time to guess where, Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. Yes, the home of Guangdong storage where puerh tea ages nicely whilst retaining its integrity. He doesn't have coronavirus restrictions to keep him home, and he is out and about daily in Guangzhou and could be spending his considerable free time scouting the tea scene. Now I am not entirely self-centered in my endeavors to provide him with connections of tea collectors and vendors to meet with. In fact, I have told him not to buy me any tea. 

The ex is constantly complaining about money, even though he has a pension, teaching pay and gets free housing from his employer. Tea could provide a lucrative side hustle. Especially because now we have so many people looking for cheap factory teas. Yet another vendor option in Guangzhou willing to slap on a shipping label to the west could make some nice cash. I am thinking in particular of his live-in girlfriend who is of course unemployed. I am uncertain if she speaks Cantonese but with all the free time she has I am certain she can learn. 

"Amy is busy, she is doing lots of painting of oil and pastels." He objects. 

Of course Amy is not her real name. I don't think he knows her real name. 

"Her style at the moment is like Modigliani. We plan to be like starving artists."

"So what will she do after you leave China in two years?" I wonder. 

Crickets. Bad connection. I message him that nobody has taken his 88 year old mother for a vaccine. More crickets.

Naturally it's a big fat nothing again when tea friends of mine offer to take him (and her) out for dim sum, and he doesn't bother to answer the invitation from them. Meanwhile the money situation is getting serious. He misses two car payments for the car he owns currently residing in my driveway, which I was forced to take for storage by the divorce judge. 

I send him a screenshot of the 2021 7542 sold by the competition. 


You read that right, $319 and change.

"Look at this, you find a few of these to sell, even a hundred bucks less and you're still making money. All you have to do is find anything Taetea, in any condition and we've got a market here. I can set you up with plenty of buyers." Even the hurricane/flood-destroyed tea must be cheap and people will surely think it tastes like Hong Kong stored.

"I've seen TV commercials for Taetea," he says. "They seem like a huge company."

"They’re like the Oscar Meyer of wieners." 

My ex used to live just across from the Oscar Meyer plant in Madison. 

Joshua Rainey Photography, Shutterstock

"Ew." 

Oscar Meyer occasionally leaked waste water into Lake Mendota and globs of meat fat rolled up on the beaches. 

"You don't have to drink the tea," I say. "I certainly wouldn't. The important part is the wrapper, people want the Chinese wrapper more than the tea in some cases."

I start to explain about the stickers and needing to buy a black light but his VPN disconnects.. 

Next I see on Facebook he spent money on a computerized sound board. "I'm starting a career in writing film music, I met a local actor in the movie business." He posts.

Another payment notice arrives in the mail for the car. I email reminding him about Taetea.

Just imagine yourself in this situation, you are a puerh head, right? Otherwise you would not be here reading this. Imagine you have someone in your life that you have known for more than thirty years who is now in Guangzhou. More than that, you have a child with this person. A grown child, even. Can you think of any better connection to the puerh world than this? He has an unemployed girlfriend who speaks the language. Well, one language anyway. Could be two if she applied herself. But of course they need money to start up considering expenses like: 

ex's expenses

Yes. Coffee. He goes out for coffee in Guangzhou. Probably like most everyone else. Are we seeing a pattern here? What are the chances he does anything related to tea?

"TaeTea is a company like Starbucks," I email. Starbucks is heavily invested in Yunnan. Look it up. 

"You said it's like Oscar Meyer wieners."

"Okay yes, nobody here who drinks factory tea eats Oscar Meyer. They probably eat Tofu Pups from Whole Foods, but for some reason huge factory is okay when it has a Chinese wrapper. Look I can't explain it, but do you guys want a decent side hustle or not? I'll put up the money to get started but not for the car."

He calls on Skype. 

"I don't know about the tea thing, but I could use the money. We are looking to book a house for the summer in Kunming."

Of course he is. 




Thursday, March 18, 2021

Spring Cleaning a Puerh Collection


Management issues come up with a tea collection when one has so many teas that some level of organization and possibly curating down become necessary. Various reasons for organizing or reducing the collection can happen based on life events, or maybe just wanting to use the sofa. Incoming life events, such as moving house, getting married or having children sometimes result in needing to make space in one's life for these. One blogger not long ago got rid of almost his entire collection when he got married. That's a fairly drastic decision, most people probably are not getting rid of everything if they need to curate. 

I am at the point where the number of years I have left to drink tea are not enough time to age a new tong. I base this estimate on my worsening health conditions which are the same as my parents had, and I am approaching the age of my father when he passed. The pandemic year has added an additional sense of impending time, although I have received a first vaccine now. The jury is still out on how well the vaccines will do against virus variants and while I am not especially worried, it adds to the concerns I already have. So, I prefer to focus on my best teas along with a nice curation of drinkers for morning medication time when I need a mild tea. My evening tea time is now completely lost to bowel-harsh medicine, so that leaves early afternoon for enjoying a session of puerh tea. 

In any case, it's spring cleaning, every year just gets more important for me to do this, so now is the time for me to sort out my teas.

Keeping a Blogging Collection

Making an inventory spreadsheet of teas is a great idea but does not substitute for going through the collection to do a spring sort-through. It's curious that people seem to equate my blog posts with my entire tea collection. Even more interesting that tea bloggers will assume this when they don't show the contents of their collection. 

Like most general tea bloggers, I have focused the blog posts on teas that are either interesting to write about or people are planning to buy. No one emails asking "can you review the 7542 because i want to know if it is good so i can buy it." Insert the name/number of pretty much any factory tea. At this point, very good reviews exist on those types of teas and what more can be said? Doesn't mean I don't own a few, or more than a few. They just are not in my blogging stash.

More importantly, like most tea bloggers in general I prefer to focus my blog posts on teas that are easy for people to acquire. That's because as a reader nothing is more disappointing than reading about a good tea and it is not available to buy. I also have teas which are some of the finest I own, but they had a requirement that I not post anything on either a blog or social media, or else I am not going to get in on the tea. This is fairly common, I've heard from a number of collector people recently who said things like "if I get access to a really fine tea, I don't tell anyone." Bottom line, if a tea is sold out/impossible to acquire easily, I generally don't write about it. 

Many of my very fine teas are in maocha form
The haul is small. You have to take loose tea
sometimes to get the best, and stay quiet.

Many teas I wrote about over the years were of interest because at the time people wanted to buy before the tea sold out, and for budget reasons needed a tasting note from someone first, so I did it. It wasn't a big deal for me to pick up the tea or I got some blogger samples. I try to post before a tea sells out, but sometimes it does and I still might post anyway because a number of people bought the tea and we had fun reading everyone's notes. Someone in our group might post a steep-by-steep rundown on their blog, Steepster or IG, so I didn't do the exact same thing myself. Mainly I look for teas to wax on about for the sake of enjoyment, and many of these teas have been very good for my blog. A number of teas I don't own anymore, and that leads to the first category of teas to sort out. 

Teas to Sell

Might surprise some but I no longer have the first two teas I posted on this blog. I sold them to TeaDB fairly soon after those posts. In this case I was selling to someone I thought had been a tea friend. So even though the teas had sold out by that point, I came up with a figure that took into account the tea I took out but no profit of any kind. Every year after my spring clean I sell at least some teas to tea friends who are looking for something long sold out that I happen to have, and I can part with some or all of it. These are teas I bought with my own money, not teas I got for free. I am usually open to selling during the rest of the year if I see somebody in my tea circle looking for something. 

Another category of teas to potentially sell from a collection are teas that have wrapper value more than anything else. An extreme example of that is the 2011 Dayi Gold, which I sold and in this case took a profit. Such teas are a dilemma because their value lies in being untouched. Do I really open a tea like this just for a taste or just for a blog post? I usually decide nope. Right now we don't have a ceiling on where prices go for some wrapper teas, and I am at an age where I probably won't see the ceiling. So it comes down to a decision every year whether or not I will drink the teas or just babysit them. I don't like the image of the old person in complete denial who thinks he will live forever sitting on his riches, that life is not for me. Not when someone younger can enjoy watching prices for far more years than I have. Some tea collectors my age plan to open a shop but that life is not for me either. So, I have maybe only 6-12 of these wrapper-dilemma teas left and I will contact a few tea peeps to see who might want what I'm culling this year. 

Teas to Toss

I wonder if people find tossing more difficult than selling. Maybe, because people send me teas they really need to toss and can't do it. I still have a few of these sloshing around my collection and it's time to dig them out. I usually give some time to them to see if shipping sickness or temporary storage were issues. Really the main criteria here is whether I will drink them. If not, then why hang on to them?

Culled contents of one area of the stash

Some teas are actually perfectly fine, nothing wrong with them, but they are not great and I will not reach for them. I have to face facts and get rid of at least some of these every spring. One excuse I tell myself is I will experiment on them but I don't, will I let them sit another year?

Then I have experiments I am done with. Usually these teas have undergone conditions like molding and drying a number of times to see what happens. The tea might actually still be fine but realistically I won't reach for it to drink. 

Samples

Finally we have tea samples. Some of these need to be tossed because they are old or I know I won't drink them, or write about them because the teas are sold out. I have a hard time going through tea samples, it's the most boring task ever. 

More samples...

Teas to Donate

Except for last year in the pandemic, I usually donate some tea to a new tea drinker or maybe a student on a budget. Some of these teas are blogger freebies, some are just bits of things I thought were nice, and some of the better samples as well. 

Teas to Prioritize

This is really the goal of my spring clean. I sort out the teas that make me happy and are my best teas for drinking this year. They need to be within reach, not at the bottom of a pile that got turned over and over during the winter. Some I may break up into tins to get ready to drink. I also have teas that lacked storage and now I have room for them. Come summer I will put these teas out onto my three-season porch for some heat and humidity. 


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Social Media Fu Zhuan Tastings

My 2012 CNNP Fu Zhuan kilo brick

Last month I received a packet of Fu brick samples from Oolong Owl who had completed a review of Moychay's Fu brick teas. Moychay is a Russian tea house who had sent her Fu Zhuan teas for review, and they sent not just samples but entire 800g bricks! So she reached out to a number of people via social media offering to send samples. She asked that I do some tea notes. The samples are well-timed for me because of my project to drink up my 2012 CNNP Fu Zhuan 1 kilo whopper brick this year. So I am very familiar now with that brick and can compare it to the samples. I consider my notes here to be addenda to Oolong Owl's post. I did not photograph my samples because her brick photos especially give a better idea of the product than my small samples. 

But first, an update on my CNNP brick. I have been drinking this in the a.m. since the first week of January, although I took a week to consume the samples from this social media sharing, and recently I have been drinking a bit of hongcha in the morning. You can see from the photo above that the brick now fits in my square tea tray rather than draping over the edge. So that is progress, but I still have quite a bit of tea left to go. When I break off chunks I get a lot of tea dust that cannot really be brewed so that is some loss which will mean going through the brick a bit faster. I admit that while I am chugging along fine on the brick, I feel a little bored drinking the same brick tea day after day. The CNNP is clean and pleasant, but Fu is a bit on the bland side compared to puerh tea. 

Moychay has several Anhua Fu Zhuan Teas, you can check out the bricks for yourself. The prices compare nicely with the Mojun Fu Zhuan bricks at Yunnan Sourcing. I brewed all my samples in my Teforia as I have been doing with the CNNP brick.

First I drank the 2017 sample, which comes from the 800g Anhua Fu Zhuan brick. This tea is very green with large leaves, and you can see from Owl's photo the number of thick sticks in the brick. I feel as though my CNNP brick has a better leaf quality with smaller leaves and fewer sticks. The sample is large enough for two different Teforia brewings, and I brewed each sample for two days for a total of six steepings per day, or twelve times two (24) for the full sample. The green flavor dominates the profile, like freshly cut weeds and green olive. After four days of drinking this tea, I really could not stand it anymore. It is just too green for me to enjoy. The tea has healthy golden flowers, and some warming qi but I could not get past the weedy profile. I really like my Fu teas more aged, and some tea factories age their Fu brick teas for a couple years before selling, so they are already a bit browned. 

After the 2017, I just could not bring myself to try the 2016 sample, although this one was Owl's favorite of the three Moychay samples. It is green like the 2017. So I moved on to the 2014 Shou Zhu brick. This tea has a browned appearance, with smaller leaves and fewer sticks than the 2016 and 2017. I did the same four days of 24 steepings total on the sample. This tea seems rather comparable to my 2012 CNNP brick with a nutty flavor and hints of fermented shou. I can't think of a reason to prefer either tea, except my CNNP brick at 1000g for $65 was a better value at the time when I purchased it. 

Owl included a few other samples in the package she mailed me, fortuitously one of them was the 2018 Fu Zhuan from Mojun purchased through Yunnan Sourcing. I am right out of Mojun Fu brick tea, having drunk all mine up since we met with the company at the 2017 World Tea Expo. Brilliant that she included a sample from Mojun along with the Moychay, because Mojun's Fu is still my benchmark for good Fu brick. Steeping up the Mojun sample, everything about it is a clear difference from all of the above teas. Mojun's Fu brick teas feature small leaves with the fewest sticks. The flavor is much more nutty and full bodied. Their teas are aged to a bit of brown before selling. The Mojun sample had the best qi and a sweating effect on me. 


Owl's package also included a couple of tea bags and instant powdered Fu teas. The T-85 teas are by Tea Garden, a company Owl met up with at the 2019 World Tea Expo, I believe. The teabag Fu did not contain enough tea for my Teforia steeping and came out rather weak and flavorless. The Premium Tian Jian, however, is a very nice tea. I did not realize it was not Fu tea at first because I did not look at the bag carefully, and the tea has so much flavor by comparison to Fu brick I was startled drinking it. The T-85 Tian Jian is similar to Zhu Xiang Ji bamboo-log Tian Jian teas that I notice are back in stock at Yunnan Sourcing US, also of Hunan-Anhua origin. 

Fu Zhuan is a pleasant tea on the body and probably beneficial for the digestion. It hits a bit of a wall, however, in that Fu just does not have the fine aroma and complex mouth experience that puerh tea has. However much that Fu Zhuan lacks in the flavor department, very often it can offer similar qi experiences as puerh tea for a lot less money than great qi costs in puerh. For these reasons Fu is worth considering as part of a tea diet, especially if you are not fond of shou puerh and want an alternative. 

I just do not think I have the storage set-up to handle a really green brick of Fu Zhuan, because I don't want to store it with my puerh tea. Even with my 2012, I did not use any special storage and so I cannot get the highly encrusted flowers on mine except in summer. In winter time, the drier air shrinks the flowers somewhat. Setting up storage for Fu brick just isn't worth the trouble for me and I prefer to purchase Fu tea already brown and then age it until it hits 7 years or so. The younger Moychay samples are just too unrealistically green for me to consider a purchase. 

The Mojun Fu tea tops them all including my 2012 CNNP. The leaf quality is good, the qi is great and flavor is nutty. Yunnan Sourcing just added a third Fu brick from Mojun to their offerings, I know the Yi Hao brick is good and at $51 for a half kilo, can't be beat. I hope Yunnan Sourcing is able to offer the Mojun brick teas via their US site at some point, because the shipping from China is pricey, but I cannot expect it this year with the freight issues affecting imports from China. If however, YS is able to offer them on the US site, I am sure they will sell out fast. Our encounter with Mojun Fucha representatives at the World Tea Fest has got around the tea community now, mainly because Oolong Owl has sent samples to so many people these past few years. 

My thanks to Oolong Owl for the samples! I will get around to trying the instant Fu teas one of these days. Or maybe I will save them for a sick day.