; Cwyn's Death By Tea: 2021 ;

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Non-Linear Perceptions of Quality in Puerh Tea

At the beginning of December I had an intestinal surgery, and as a result I have been off puerh for the month. Nothing stops me from thinking about it, however. Recently I watched an interesting video by Mark Darrah, a former video game designer at BioWare, a video in which he talked about consumer perception of quality [tea] of games as "non-linear." He speaks mainly of aesthetic aspects of games such as the game's UI, as opposed to more linear counts of technical problems. He made a graphic that I thought might apply very well to discussions of quality of puerh tea, which are also aesthetic and therefore non-linear. 

We puerh drinkers have often discussed how linear quality measures like rating scales or grades are arbitrary and not very satisfactory, such as those on Steepster and elsewhere. Scales and grades are better than nothing when trying to rate which teas people like more, or less than others. But really we are talking about qualities which are not numerical themselves. Tea qualities are non-linear perceptions, they are subjective aesthetic opinions, "questions of taste." Even if we reach a common consensus about certain teas and questions of taste, someone inevitably comes along and says "I hate that tea," or "Hey, that's my daily drinker you are knocking." Perceptions of quality also take into account the tenure of the tea drinker, how long they have been drinking puerh tea, for as we know our tastes change over time. What we enjoyed yesterday is not what we prefer today.

There is no singular body of opinion on puerh tea, no committee, no oversight, no one other than ourselves discussing puerh teas. And every year more and more people discuss puerh tea. The whole scene has exploded in recent years into myriads of online discourse. On the positive side, we now have lots of forums and discussion groups consisting of people from around the world. People are mixing together and fumbling as best they can in languages they don't speak well. It's a beautiful thing to see. But even more difficult to wade through when trying to figure out what to buy. 

All we really have to answer our "questions of taste" are discussions. We know with teas that perceptions of quality spread like wildfire and any teas perceived to be "good" can lead to a frenzy of buying and teas sell out or become too expensive and scarce. We also know that a tea perceived to be "bad" can go the other way, where few people buy it, or perhaps those who do look for teas that others think are bad hope they can take advantage of the noise and get a deal. 

Mark Darrah said that consumer perceptions online also sink video games. He proposed that a basic starting model of non-linear quality can look like this, as a solid bar with no numbers or lines, just space. I will link the video here, I could embed it, but watching the whole video really is not necessary unless you are interested in gaming. I will just use it with tea discussions as the example instead.

All graphics by Mark Darrah

The idea I have about this quality perception graphic is that a tea may be thought to be Bad, or Great, but probably the vast majority of it is neither bad nor great, but most teas do not have anything particularly notable about them. Bad tea can have any number of undesirable qualities stemming from processing problems, storage issues, poor leaf quality, on and on. Great tea will of course have qualities that stand out, such as mouth feel, or body feel, or complex flavors. Un-noticeable tea will have none of the bad qualities, but nothing particularly Great either. 

The quality perception graphic almost gives the impression of a Bell curve-like notion that most opinions will fall into neither Bad nor Great but the Un-noticeable "middle." And, that Un-noticeable middle might be somewhat a default if nothing bad or great stands out. 

But most discussions online really don't fall into the Un-noticeable middle, do they? Mark Darrah notes this too, that we are so polarized now online. People get very loud about the Bad and the Great, and this is where the bulk of the discussion ends up, either a rant or a rave. Mostly with puerh tea the discussions tend toward the rant end, if not an actual rant then the idea that most puerh teas sold now are Bad. So the quality perception graphic looks more like this.

Obviously with truly Great puerh tea so scarce a resource, we cannot expect in reality a mostly Great scenario. We tend to feel skeptical of the raves. Or we think a group of silent collectors exists who holds truly Great tea, but they don't feel the need to opine online. They buy the Great, and the rest doesn't matter so much.


We can envision a type of graphic with tea vendors. They market all their tea as Great, which of course we know it cannot be. At the same time nobody expects a vendor to say "this tea sucks so buy it" or even "eh, this is okay tea, so here you go." But then no matter what the vendor says in marketing, none of it is really helpful. The same might be said of any discussion, especially if the discussion is so polarized that every tea too often Bad or too often Great cancels out any helpful take-away. 

Tea Buying

So how is this quality perception graphic useful? I think it can help parse the discussions a bit when looking at tea shopping. Specifically, if you find a discussion about a group of teas trending large on Bad, or large on Un-noticeable, or large on Great, spending more money within that large section is probably not going to gain you anything. For example, if a group of teas skew the perception to mostly Bad, then a $100 tea is not going to improve your buying any more than the $50 tea will. You won't be buying your way out of the Bad, so maybe stick with the $50 tea. 

Spending higher within Un-noticeable
may not gain you much in quality. [stars added]

The same is true when the perceptions are mostly Un-noticeable. Nothing particularly Bad or Great here. Can you spend your way out of the Un-noticeable into the Great? Will spending $150 more still leave you in the Un-noticeable, with just "okay" teas, rather than Great tea? The tea might not have bad qualities like wood smoke or oolong processing, but nothing too great either. If this is my issue, I might as well look to other aspects when deciding what to buy, such as how many steeps I can get from a session of a tea. I might be better off asking those rant-ers and ravers how many steeps they got rather than asking for more about good vs. bad.

We can also see that with Great teas, for those who have the money to spend, these folks may not need to stew so long over whether to buy either that particular XZH beeng or the special CSH tong, because both teas are perceived to be Great. We don't need to ruminate over the quality so much as look to other factors, such as which one might do well in our tea storage, or which one the wife enjoys more. Or just which tea you can get your hands on with the least amount of trouble. 

Tea Selling

The same quality perception graphic might be useful to tea sellers as well. Buying leaf every spring to press is a challenge to the wallet as well as to how that tea will sell later on. A tea vendor certainly wants their tea to be, at minimum, Un-noticeable in terms of processing. Realistically not every tea will be Great, perhaps the vendor can only afford a small amount of Great leaf. But here is where the graphic might be useful. Will buying X quantity of Great leaf to add to the blend really move that tea from the Un-noticeable to the Great? 

What are you gaining by adding the amount of Great leaf to your beeng? If your tea goes from $100 a beeng to $200 a beeng, is that a jump from Un-noticeable to Great, or are you really just moving your tea further along as an Un-noticeable? The question is how to explain to your buyers the difference between your $100 tea and your $200 tea, is this really a jump in quality, or is it just reflecting what you paid for the leaf? Or is the jump in "quality" really more of a $25-like dollar jump or a $50-like jump? In that case, maybe adding that Great leaf won't distinguish that tea enough with buyers for them to justify the higher price tag. The buyers will just go online and rant about how that $200 tea really isn't worth the money, and that they didn't like it much better than the $100 tea they bought from you. 

But maybe you have just enough of that Great leaf and can stretch it a bit further with adding some Un-noticeable tea without losing any of the qualities of the Great tea. Vendors need to think about their pricing in terms of buyer perception, particularly if most of their tea falls into the Un-noticeable range. Any leaps in price need to reflect a clear difference to justify a buyer who spends more. Otherwise, they won't trust you and won't be back. Or they will stay safe and buy on your low end, because all your teas are perceived to fall into Un-noticeable drinkers, still decent enough for a vendor but of course never Great. 

But if you really do have some nice leaf, and can add some Un-noticeable tea without much effect, then maybe that $200 tea will really reflect the price tag. If not, then perhaps a small pressing of that Great leaf alone for just a few buyers is the better way to go, or selling it loose or just keeping it for now.

If I was a vendor in a scenario of mostly Un-noticeable but okay teas, I would then focus on things like flavor differences or steep qualities. I would keep my beeng prices fairly close together instead of trying to fool people with creating higher priced teas that are really not that much better at all. 

I hope this is helpful in parsing the discussions online. When people say things like "all Dayi is bad after 2011" or some such, what do you do? If Dayi after 2011 is really that bad, then maybe you shouldn't buy Dayi at all. Or perhaps most of it is really in the Un-noticeable range and you won't get much better quality spending $100 more within that line of teas, so spend $50 and call it a day. Of course we are all skeptical of Great tea raves, especially on the low end of the price tag. Instead of falling for tea hype, assume the tea is probably at best Un-noticeable so you can buy or not and have realistic expectations of what you are getting. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

2020 Chen Sheng Hao Lao Ban Zhang

2020 CSH LBZ

Chen Sheng Hao is currently in the midst of their "Black Friday" sale which includes some good deals on samples and other teas in their collection. Until November 29, most samples are 20% off. The site is offering 10% off on teas older than 2019, excluding Lao Ban Zhang. Lao Ban Zhang is offered on sale for email subscribers at 5% off using promo code 5OFFBFCMLBZ. I had hoped to offer this review in time for the sale, but turns out the 2020 LBZ sample is not included in the 20% off sample sale, but appears to be included in the 5% off using the promo code. 

In the past week or so British Columbia has had record levels of flooding which has washed out roads and rail access to Vancouver where Chen Sheng Hao has a warehouse. I don't see any messages on the Chen Sheng Hao website indicating that shipping is affected by the flooding, but hard to imagine there are no snags if roads are under repair. Anyway, I think it's safe to suggest that if you plan to order from the Black Friday sale, expect some additional delay on top of what is already a busy shipping season. On the plus side, CSH does ship to Europe so order away if you can afford to wait. 

I bought this 2020 LBZ sample last summer when I ordered a box of samples and the box included another sample of this tea as well. As I have said before on my blog, just having the chance to buy these teas in the west is a wonderful opportunity we now have. Though I wonder if the flooding in Vancouver has got CSH thinking about heading back to China! I hope not. 

The 2020 LBZ purchased as a 357g beeng will set you back $932.00. The "short" of this type of pricing, if you are new to puerh, is mainly due to Lao Ban Zhang tea considered as the "best" puerh tea leaf. Chen Sheng Hao has a virtual monopoly on the location, so they can charge whatever they want. Market demand, collecting and other market behaviors are things we can discuss in endlessly long blog posts. There are people for whom $932 is less than they pay for a pair of sneakers. A tong costing $6207.00 is probably what a Chanel tweed bag will run you if you buy one of those every season. 

I don't think prices like these are part of any so-called puerh bubble. Lao Ban Zhang is fairly resistant to price falls because of the monopoly that CSH has on the tea, and how small the harvest is. I could say that "catastrophic market forces" might budge the price, but we are already in a catastrophic market situation with the pandemic and the prices have not moved at all, sale price aside. 

I think it's fairly safe to say that the vast majority of western puerh fanatics are not going in for the $932 beeng, at most these buyers are in for a 10g sample like mine at $38.30. In a way, this really impacts how to talk about a tea like this. If the vast majority of people reading this post are not customers at the $932 beeng level, any conclusions about the tea are completely binary. The question is simply whether or not the tea is "worth" $932 and the qualities the tea has are either stellar and worth that price point, or they are not and the discussion is no longer nuanced, it is done. For people who can afford this price range with little difficulty, a more nuanced discussion might affect a decision on purchasing this 2020 tea, maybe in tong form, instead of another purchase, such as maybe a 2020 Chen Yuan Hao upper end Yiwu in the same price range. This assumes that comparing "apples to apples" defines the apple by price only, without raising any question of whether this kind of pricing is appropriate at all. 

This question sort of bothers me, because from a purely puerh perspective I probably should have a nuanced discussion of a tea like this and leave it up to the reader to know whether they are a buyer at this price range or not. However I have a feeling that most people reading this are not a buyer, and the tea is going to be viewed in a simple fashion rather than a nuanced one. I think I can maybe do both sides a bit of justice and still keep it short. 

I brewed 5g in a Lin's porcelain teapot with one quick rinse. The first and second steepings show a remarkable color in the brew, it's that pinkish hue that you can find in some rare teas and that I have seen for example in Chen Yuan Hao's 2016 Mansa, and white2tea's 2016 Treachery of Story Telling. It's not easy to photograph but you can see it somewhat in the lower left corner of the cup. 

First steeping. The pinkish hue is more
evident in the lower left of the cup.

The first steeping looks somewhat watery yet is surprisingly bitter nevertheless. Subsequent steeps increase in bitterness, yet at the same time the tea is also sweet. The flavor notes are fruity, but also sweet like the smell of the white chocolate-coated pretzels my son was eating yesterday. The tea coats the mouth completely and instantly, and hangs up a bit on the throat, but I am not noticing long legs into the stomach. The caffeine and theanine levels are quite mild. The tea is overall very subtle. I did not get any feelings of intoxication or euphoria, just a pleasant mild warmth and a sweet aftertaste. 

Third steeping. Still a little pinkish.

Really this is excellent puerh tea, and the bitterness increases until about eight steepings, after which the flavor falls off quite sharply. I extended steep times to nearly a minute for steeps nine and ten. At no point did I really feel I was drinking too much tea, this is quite a gentle tea on the body despite the bitterness. I have found that higher quality teas, even when green, are often very gentle on the system. I didn't experience any gastrointestinal distress either, but I am mostly recovered from my recent medication fiasco so drinking puerh is easier for me now than a month ago. 

Looking at the spent tea, I see some chop and quite a few sticks in my sample. The leaves disintegrate when rubbed. The tea appears to be from younger tea trees. I would say the tea overall compares favorably with other teas in the same price range, such as from Chen Yuan Hao, and anyone who can afford these teas will want to purchase them over and above the gut-bomb, lower-end factory teas. I would take a session of this tea over really most factory teas I can think of, even though it's not the old-tree magic. 

At the same time, I do feel this level of quality is possible from western vendors, such as some of the offerings by white2tea, and even in the past from Bitterleaf and others. You are just going to pay more for the reputation offered by Chen Sheng Hao and Lao Ban Zhang and for many collectors this decision is easy. Most of us will not drink teas like this as a daily beverage and so look elsewhere for something more in our price range. It's worth the education, however, to give a sample of this tea a try if you can. Experienced puerh drinkers are likely to enjoy the session for the subtlety, if nothing else. 

Friday, October 29, 2021

Monitoring My Purchases: 1 Kilo Fu Brick and Teforia

2012 CNNP Fu Zhuan Brick

Two more days left of October. Well, slightly less than three actually. I cannot wait for this month to be over. This month cost me so much money and I didn't even buy puerh which means a waste of money really. At the start of October my furnace got condemned as a carbon monoxide hazard and the local heating guy disabled it even though it was working perfectly fine. He said he called the company about trying to replace seals or some such and they all accused me of having a 1970s furnace which was no way the case. But disabling it is a little unfair and it plunged us into one cold October. Took ten days just to get a quote on a new furnace, then another ten days to order and more days yet to wait until the guys could come out to install it. Thousands of dollars later I can stop heating up the corn pillow in the microwave for a bed warmer.

Then the cat got sick and vet bills. I sound like an excuse and I really agree. Spending money on someone other than yourself is really hard to justify when life is so short and a pandemic is on. I might still have more vet bills, and then I have a need for a new tooth crown. My Russian dentist says my current crown is not broken enough for insurance to cover it, but with a discount she will do it. I can choose to grumble, wait out the crown to break more, or just suck it up in the wallet and get it done. 

Now, are you waiting for things to get worse? I saved the best for last, because yes my Teforia died. I can do without the furnace, the crown and the vet bills but I really really need that Teforia. To be fair, it actually still worked, it just had a problem with the the globe on top where you put in the tea. The globe is detected via a pressure sensor, even though the globe locks in place manually. That pressure sensor gave out. The machine gets an error because it thinks the globe is not locked in place properly, and so it will not begin brewing. This is a safety feature, since the tea is expressed with a fairly high pressure into the carafe. 

The Teforia

The problem with getting old is that accepting and dealing with change becomes difficult. I got to a new level of spoiled, a gold standard of morning tea with the Teforia by brewing from my bed using an app. If you want to read the details, I wrote about it all back in 2018, only 3+ years ago. So the Teforia craps out and all of a sudden I cannot seem to figure out how to brew my morning Fu Brick tea. 

I did not want to give up the convenience I had with the bed brewing. I'm not a morning person. I don't get up at the crack of dawn like perky nuns happy to greet the day with song. My brain is actually okay but my body feels like sludge. I can't even walk straight without bumping into things. I am capable of nothing in the morning except eating breakfast in bed with tea and emails. Or maybe some Twitch because I am a modern girl. You can imagine the level of ego beating I got from those perky nuns for my lack of morning bounce. Not only was I forced up early, but I was made to walk out in the cold of winter 3 blocks to chapel in the dark, blah blah blah. I got through that and now I deserve a Teforia, and I don't care if Mother Antonia herself rises out of the grave with a big stick to come after me. 

Now, Teforia was supposed to be making a new model since 2018. Then the date got pushed back to fall 2020, then spring 2021, then fall 2021, then spring 2022. Adagio's website is still showing spring 2022,  but the actual Teforia website is a dead url. Oh, and I messaged Teforia on Twitter about the pressure sensor and got crickets for my trouble. So it's over. Fini

The Teforia is famous as the $1500 tea machine. I paid $140 for mine on eBay and got more than my money's worth. Quite a few articles were published on the failure of the Teforia and they all were mostly wrong, mainly because none of the authors actually tried the machine. Here is the real set of issues with the Teforia:

1. The company does not have the capital. That's number one. It happened back in 2018 and apparently they still could not raise it for another go-round.

2. The price. Though I would have paid the $399 planned price for a new one, given I was happy at $140, you can always wait for eBay too. $1500 isn't worth the comment because at that point I need a tong of something thrown in.

3. Marketing criticism. Everyone had it all wrong, loftily saying the Teforia "does not replace gong fu brewing." That's off, because you don't brew gong fu teas in the Teforia, silly. You brew teas you don't NEED to gong fu. That means all hongcha, green teas, tisanes and, well, heicha. These types of tea are straightforward timed brews. They taste fine in a machine. It is not for puerh despite the sheng setting. That is because puerh has two types of gong fu brewing: the lightly leafed over-watered under-boiling floral lite, and the boiling water with heavy leaf where it will kill you. Ideally you want to aim for the latter. But anything else, like my Fu brick, doesn't need that level of care. It's fine in a machine. The problem is, "making your crap teas taste better" is not exactly a great selling slogan.

4. No "Start" button. My machine would be working right now if I could bypass the stupid pressure sensor. For some months I got around the glitch by turning the globe back and forth until the error light went out, but then this trick stopped working. 

5. Goes with #4. Use a manual locking mechanism minus the pressure sensor. 

6. Forget the app, a remote control is better. Requiring a network is just daft. I do agree with the reviewers here, the whole "smart kitchen" thing really never took off. I hear the landfill dumps are full of LG fridges these days. I put my Teforia on top of the garbage can and luckily it was curb picked within the hour. If not I would have paid the electronics recycling fee, but it will end up at least partly in the landfill someday, sadly. In the meantime some tweaker will probably find a few bits of heavy metal in it to sell. Okay…on many levels the Teforia is just wrong, but I still want another one the same way anybody should want a Dyson.

I could go on, and I really feel like going on. The best part about being a nearly 8 year blogger is when you stop caring about the reader experience and things like essay-crafting, and fully indulge your own bullshit. (You have to get there, Geoffrey. It's all about you, and only you. Nobody who blogs in reality does it for other people. The self-gratification garbage dump is everything. It's way cheaper than therapy. Well, I will miss you.)

All right fine. The Fu brick. I actually boiled water in the microwave and stirred in freeze-dried Mexican coffee crystals for three weeks before remembering I have a Kamjove tea pot. That is second-best lazy to the Teforia. I did explore buying a new electric tea brewer, but not many of them on the market. All those models Gourmia still has on their website and showed at the 2017 World Tea Expo are not sold anywhere now. I have several water boiling kettles, so I resumed the Fu brick brewing using the Kamjove. The mechanism in the glass Kamjove pot is a gravity steeper, basically. I cannot recommend it except for the irretrievably contaminated because the brewing "basket" is plastic. 

Brewing Fu brick in a Kamjove pot.

Now, can you guess how much Fu brick I have left? I missed my October estimate for finishing 1000g, the full kilo burrito. The breaks I took in the summer for the heat, the hongcha days, the borked Teforia confusion all ate into my progress. I'm down to 232g of the 2012 CNNP Fu Zhuan brick as of today. Essentially, about two months of progress lost, all told. I have consumed (or wasted) 768g. I will continue drinking down the brick, and should finish at the start of the new calendar year. Oh, and I bought another Fu brick. There is no help for some people.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

2021 Gas

I literally have it. Gas, I mean. This last month has sucked big fat bowels as I struggled to drink this tea and get this review done. I take some medications that are ripping me a new one and I waited far too long trying to tough it out. Finally I went to the doctor to say I just don't feel good, and she identified the medication culprit and switched me. Took three weeks to heal and I am not fully there yet, but I am on the mend. Still I wanted to get something out on this tea, but I am limited in the kinds of sessions I can do, and I will note these limitations. 

Over the summer my bland diet really got to me, and while shopping for a tea towel on white2tea I decided to toss in 2021 Gas to my purchase. I saw the description of the tea as having an "in your face bitter character" and all of a sudden everything in me craved a bitter green tea. They got to me at a moment of weakness with this one because I have plenty of bitter tea to choose from, just nothing fresh. In the hot muggy summer green tea just gets too appealing for me to resist. 

The tea towel, I have to say, is pretty but not what I was looking for. I have teaware in sufficient quantity to open a shop but I actually don't own any tea towels. I have cloth dish towels for drying dishes, but some of these are 30 years old and used only with water. I don't want to mess up my relics with tea stains. But the new towel is more like thin scarf fabric and I was expecting something thicker for $15 with a microfiber backing maybe. Just really a user error on my part not reading the listing carefully, perhaps, but since I don't own a tea towel per se and not knowing what to look for, I guess I should have looked around more or just bought a regular microfiber cloth. 

2021 Gas is a very green tea at the moment with big-ass leaves. I wanted to do a bunch of sessions with this thing and hoped to spend the entire month of August drinking it. So I started out doing Teforia brews to see how the tea performs just as a bitter green tea. The Teforia on the sheng setting brews just under boiling water temperature. I brewed several sessions of 2021 Gas through the machine which does 3 gongfu brews and expresses the tea with some force. I brewed 3-4g of tea at a time because that is about what the globe can hold. 

The tea did not perform as I expected in the Teforia due to the lower temp of the water. Let me say the tea is actually quite lovely brewed at sub-boiling, the profile is unexpectedly sweet and honey-like with green tea and hay notes. It's not what I wanted, but the takeaway here is that 2021 Gas can be controlled using water temps below boiling. The tea just won't get bitter if you brew it this way.

After recovering from my health mishap, I finally completed a true gongfu session using boiling temps. Well, completed a session with some caveats. I am still not about to tolerate the massive style session I prefer to have. I brewed 3g of tea in a Lin's porcelain pot with about 40 ml water and did 5 brews which is all I can tolerate. 

Happily, the tea lives up much more to its bitter promise with boiling water temps. No sweet introduction, the tea starts out bitter and kept right on through five steeps. It's a tongue-coating bitter. The brew has a greenish tinge, so we are really getting green tea from this at the moment. It has some of the honey vanilla note I found in the machine brews, but otherwise it's more green tea, mowed grass, some floral and a bit of apricot fruit. The tongue coat remains and is fairly slow to transition in the mouth to sweet, with the bitterness lingering for me up to about a half hour before changing over. I am not finding much here for throat and I am not getting much of a tea high, but I just don't think I will brewing this small of a session. 

White2tea prices tend to be relative to one another, so this 200g beeng is $45. At this price point, white2tea is providing a fairly basic tea and it will not have some of the spectacular mouth feels and body sensations their higher tier offerings do (or have done in the past, because I did not buy any other sheng this year from them to compare). 

On the plus side, the tea lacks any tobacco notes and no char or smoke. The spent tea has the large leaves, some stems and a few buds. I could imagine this batch of maocha used in blends with other better teas, or perhaps all this tea was purchased for is an offering for people who want a basic bitter profile at a budget price. Twodog asked me on IG how my health was doing, and I mentioned I wanted drink this tea, and he said "oh, you are going for the ultra bitter?" 

Well, ultra bitter for me is still the 2008 Haiwan LBZ from Wilson. That tea is still the standard for personal pain. No other tea I have had before or since caused me to violently fist punch my leather sofa. This tea is easily controlled with brew temps. It's what I wanted out of a bitter green tea, but I am probably going to pay for this session and it will not feel good later. If you have issues with too-green sheng for other reasons than medication, you might want to give this a pass. But anyone else wanting to avoid the smoky factory profile, and out-of-control factory prices these days, while still needing a bitter tea for aging, this one might be an option. I hope someone else who can drink it out will post a better review and photos for you.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

2020 Chen Sheng Hao Naka

Chen Sheng Hao sampler box

I have had a bit of a break on my blog here, mainly due weather. We have had a very hot and humid summer this year, living on the edge of the western heat domes plaguing the nation. In the north where I live, houses are built to hold in heat in frigid winter which is misery in a hot summer. My AC is barely tolerable, and drinking hot tea late in the day holds little appeal. I continue to enjoy my a.m. tea, but by midday I am quickly turning to iced beverages to keep cool. Finally we have a few days break in the heat and humidity so I can get in a nice evening session without feeling like I am dying from overheating. 

The blue bags are blends,
the brown are single-origin teas.

Thank god because I have been looking at my tasty new sampler teas from Chen Sheng Hao with some anticipation all month. I could not resist getting this sampler set. For one, just the box alone is tea Disney for me. I know fancy packaging is ubiquitous factory fare in China, but ordering anything in this kind of packaging direct from China is just asking for crushed boxes. Most of my tea orders arrive from China all accordion-pleated. Once, I ordered some Dayi shou cakes in a metal tin, and the tin arrived crushed even with the whole box wrapped in layers of bubble wrap. That tin was so smashed one of the bottom corners split open. So when I opened my CSH sampler box shipped from the new Vancouver warehouse, I felt like I'd ordered a perfume bottle from Saks Fifth Avenue. The presentation is just gorgeous. 

Naturally I am starting with the 2020 Naka because over the years I have covered some Naka teas in this blog, and want to see how this tea compares. The sampler packets contain 7-9g of tea, and this Naka sample weighed 8g. I can see right away this is the small leaf Naka varietal, the real local varietal and not imported plantation tea. Chen Sheng Hao signed a "cooperation agreement" with Naka village in 2012, and first produced their 357g label beengcha starting in spring 2013. You can buy 2013-2021 vintages from the Canadian website, which means they moved a lot of tonnage to this location. I note that years 2020 and 2021 are 250g teas pressed into a square shape. If you want a 357g round beeng, you will need to buy 2019 or older. The 2020 square costs $73 currently, and the 2021 is $68.

CSH Naka area factory
photo cspuerh.com

A few years back LiquidProust organized a Naka sampler tasting on Steepster featuring CSH Naka teas from a range of years. Quite a few people participated in that opportunity, but few posted any notes on how they liked the teas. That is rather regrettable because we could have a real catalog of notes to help with choosing teas from this new Canada warehouse, but we have nothing to go by really. I have some blended CSH tea samples in my stash that I didn't think are particularly wonderful, but they also have storage issues. 

I brewed my entire sample in a porcelain gaiwan as I always do when testing a tea. The tea is completely separated with no chunks, it's all loose tea. Brewing loose tea like this affects how the session brews, so steep 1 the tea is already presenting strongly rather than slowly loosening up. 

The tea hits the tongue with strong bitterness and very quick huigan, and more fruity than floral. The wet leaf smells like cantaloupe rinds left to sit out in the heat. Bit of a dark whiskey undertone, but no smokiness and very little char in the strainer. Processing is top notch, I am not seeing any oxidation nor oolonged sweetening. 

Steep 2

Five steeps in the tea hits with eyeball and face numbing. Clearly I have been off the sauce for a few weeks now. My fall from the wagon probably makes me love this tea more than I probably should, I really enjoy the hot heavy fumes in my throat and stomach. There is a reason I love puerh tea, at its best I feel like I am drinking a toddy rather than tea. So I might be a tad over-enthused, but this Naka is very clean and the processing is less..shall we say...traditional. It lacks the wood smoke processing notes my older Naka teas have, and none of the tobacco-ish finish. One of my Naka teas is of course bamboo-pressed, so I have a really traditional one. White2tea's older 05 Naka has all that traditional wood processing, but the body effects are so nice one can overlook that. But Chen Sheng Hao is a premium factory charging premium prices, and so I am glad to see the processing is at least up to scratch.

Steep 5

Overall the tea is quite peach fruity with a slight floral note and a touch of hard liquor and vanilla. Very tongue coating and bitter. After steep 6 I got hit with a strong astringent mouth reaction, and a glass of water did not dispel a squeaky-clean tongue sensation. My face-numbing dispelled after about 15 minutes. Most of the action was over by steep 8. At this point I was brewing at about a minute per steep, but the leaves started to get a little bit overcooked and stewed. The gaiwan smelled a bit compost-y like old fruit peels. My 8th cup still retained some bitterness and the tea can clearly brew longer. With loose leaf like this it just won't have much left in terms of flavor. 

I really like this tea for $0.30/g, and anyone enjoying fresh sheng or looking for something to hold might enjoy this single-origin Naka. You can keep your forum '"factory" creds rather than fessing up to buying something boo-teek, but this is every bit as good as boutique, if lacking somewhat in leaf quality. I see some buds in here, however the tea is mainly chopped with a bit more stems than a boutique tea offers. But really all of the Naka small leaf quality is in here and it matches the price quite nicely. 

More important to me is what Chen Sheng Hao is offering us who live in North America. I am not going to quibble over anything when we have the ability to order small leaf Naka, or any of the other teas this company is selling. I don't care what the price is, whether it's this $73 2020, or an over $1000 beeng of Lao Ban Zhang. The important thing for me is that by opening this warehouse in Canada, we can be sure that China is taking sheng customers in North America seriously. We are no longer a potential market for dumping excess summer shou tonnage. Chen Sheng Hao is one of the premium factories, one of the best really. 

I do wonder if there is any other motivation for the company to move this amount of tea to North America, whether costs of storage are part of the issue, or maybe drier storage. Because it seems to me that although we have a decent sheng market here, I am not sure we have the market for the $1000 beengcha and $6000 tongs. Their market is really in Asia for these prices. Even if we did do this kind of buying, servicing our market here would not require a full range of Naka vintages, the last year or two would do nicely. That's why I wonder about the storage issue, because we know about the current preference in Asia for drier stored tea. Apart from storage I can't think why else CSH would move years of tea vintages over here only to ship them back to Asian customers. Unless warehouse storage is just so much less expensive here, but I cannot entirely believe that when the company has every capacity to build a warehouse anywhere in China. Maybe I am missing some essential knowledge here and somebody else knows more. 

What is important to me is that really for the first time we have the opportunity to buy factory tea direct without any Taobao nonsense and no middleman. I am not sure the prices are any better, but I appreciate that Chen Sheng Hao is here. I am glad to access premium factory teas, new and aged, without needing to order from China and getting a mashed box and agent fees. I don't have to worry I am getting fake tea. This is a long time coming, when you think of the 20 years or more we have waited to buy anything direct in our locale other than shou bricks at a local Chinese food market. 

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 7g x 10 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.