The loose Chinese teas of the past and today - what has changed

Tea was once a local produce

Bi Luo Chun green teaTeas have been consumed in China for at least 2000 years. For a long history they were largely produced and consumed locally as local produce. I still remember the days of my grandmother going to the local farmers’ market to purchase her tea supply. As the result, most of them have been typically named with two components: the name of their birth place and the name of the tea, such as Wuyi Da-Hong-Pao, Anxi Tie-Guan-Yin, Fuding Silver Needle, Suzhou Bi-Luo-Chun, Xi-Hu Longjing, Keemun black tea and Yunnan Pu-erh etc.

It was not long ago that one would have been assumed that it had come from Anxi if Tie-Guan-Yin was mentioned, or Suzhou if it was a Bi-Luo-Chun. Or for example there are a few pocket areas in the Fujian Province of China that produce the exclusive grade Fujian Silver Needle (white tea), Fu-Ding, Zheng-He and Jian-Yang. When Silver Needle was sold, the price was, and still is, ranged in the sequence according to their production areas which are believed to be directly associated with the quality of the teas, Fu-Ding Silver Needle most expensive, Zheng-He and then Jian-Yang.

The increasing interest in premium teas world wide

The interests in premium loose teas have been increasing world wide during the recent years, mainly due to the increasing exposure and the health benefits reported.

Teas once were not known outside of their local areas are now being sold internationally, accelerated by the recent internet and fast, convenient and relatively cheap international transportations.

The art of making the finest teas

The arts of producing the finest teas have been developed over a long period.

For example, Wuyi Rock tea has had a product and consumption history in the Fujian Province of China for at least 1000 years. Da-Hong-Pao has been the most well-known and highly sought after Wuyi Rock tea. The very original Wuyi Da-Hong-Pao was produced in a clearly defined area of the Wuyi mountain of the Fujian province ‘Jiu-Long-Zhai (九龙窠)’ . It is believed there are about 6 of original tea plants (or parent tea plants) are still existing in the wild and producing very limited amount of tea each year.

While the production area is constricted and the demand is growing, the natural approach is to cultivate and expend – the new generations of the tea plants have been successfully cultivated from the original and have been used for extended production.

Top quality Chinese tea production is a work of art, including:

  • The special tea plants
  • The unique environmental conditions of the tea plantation: the geographical location, the sunshine, the rain fall and the soil conditions etc.
  • The processing skills

Ways of increasing the production to meet the demands

The tea plants can be cultivated and the skills can be leant. We are however not able the replicate a unique environmental condition known to be ideal for a particular tea variety. With time, the cultivated tea plants under different environmental conditions will change to adopt their new environment and become ‘not exact the same’.

To further increase the production output, I have recently read a report that the tea farmers in the Wuyi area blend a few local teas together to mimic the Da-Hong-Pao flavor, close enough for the naïve tea drinkers to believe that they are the ‘real stuff’.

For the purpose of discussion, let’s call the limited availability of teas produced from the original site and plants ‘original tea’, and the teas produced from the cultivated tea plants under the similar environmental conditions but elsewhere or blended versions ‘reproduced tea’.

While the prices of the ‘original teas’ have sky rocketed, the ‘reproduced teas’ are far more available and affordable. For example, 20g of Da Hong Pao tea from one of the mother tea plants was sold for ¥208,000 in 2005 – that is ¥10,400 (or $1485 USD) per gram, while one can purchase nearly 15kg of the ‘reproduced tea’ with the same price.

This phenomenon is observed across almost all tea categories and varieties: green tea, white tea, Oolong tea, black tea and Pu-erh tea.

Discussion

Consumers drink teas mainly for two purposes: to enjoy tea as a beverage and lately their health benefits. There has been no research to suggest there is difference in health benefits between the ‘original’ and ‘reproduced teas’.

The taste difference is therefore the focus of the discussion: is the astonishing price difference reflecting difference in the flavor?

Tea consumption in traditional tea consuming countries, such as China and Japan, is very similar to the wine consumption in the west. Time and experience are required to differentiate and appreciate the subtle differences of the various quality grades.

The questions the everyday tea consumers need to ask are:

  • Have I had enough experience to differentiate the fine difference between the ‘original’ and ‘reproduced teas’?
  • Is the difference worth of the extra cost?

Conclusion

The way the traditional teas have been developed and consumed is increasing becoming a thing of the past.

There have been a few relatively ‘new’ tea varieties developed during the recent years. Not so much focus on their birthplaces, but more as a variety/flavor which reflects some unique characteristics, for example:

  • Jin-Jun-Mei, a fine black tea developed on the back of the traditional Lapsang Souchong. Jin-Jun-Mei, is not longer associated with the Lapsang area, but more a unique technic developed to produce a new fine tea variety.
  • Ying Hong No 9, another top end black tea developed on the back of the traditional Yunnan black tea Dian-Hong. The tea was researched and developed in the Guang-Dong Province by a group of tea researchers over the last a couple decades, using certain carefully selected premium Dian-Hong plant species and optimized over time.

Teas today are becoming more of a flavor/processing type than a local produce. For example, the Longjing green tea is now widely produced in many areas around the Zhe-Jiang Province; countries like Vietnam and Myanmar are attempting to produce the renown Yunnan Pu-erh using the ancient tea trees found in the adjacent forests. Will this expansion inject a new life to this traditional product? Or will it kill the culture and tradition that has developed over a long history? Only time will tell.

 

 

 

 

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Right price for the right product? Only if you know the products well.

A gold question in the tea community

fresh dragon wellThere is a gold question in the tea community – does the price of a product reflect its quality?

It is generally expected there is a relatively linear correlation between a product quality and its price. 

I have however come across two separate incidences recently, one relating to Pu-erh tea and the other to Yixing Zisha teapot, that this correlation is put into serious test. Before event referring to the product quality, the consumers in both cases believed the prices were too cheap for the products to be genuine or of premium quality or authentic – in these cases a fair judgement. On the flip side however, it implies if the vendors were to simply put an additional ‘0’ at the end of the price tag, the products would attract immediate attention without any value added. 

It then comes down to the crucial element which is the consumer’s capacity to discern the quality of a product. It is not only subjective, but also influenced by multiple factors such as personal experiences, preference, cultural background and marketing strategies by the vendors etc. 

Premium loose teas (including all six categores: green tea, white tea, Yellow tea, Oolong tea, black tea and Pu-erh/Hei Cha) and certain tea accessories (eg Yixing Zisha teapots) are largely hand processed or handmade and quality graded, but not standardised. They are then traded under the ‘free market’ conditions which means the selling price is negotiated between the vendors and buyers, and highly sensitive to demand and availability.

Various efforts have been attempted to standardise the qualities of the products in order to better regulate the industry. It has however been difficult as the products are not as clear cut as for example the machine-made industrial products with a clear set of criteria to be measured against.

Summary:

Tea consumption is lifetime personal journey. It takes time and experiences for the individuals to appreciate the internal quality of certain products, and subsequently the right prices for the products.
For the beginners however, it is important to be aware that what you pay is not always what you get.

 

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Pu-erh Dai-Di-Cha vs Gu-Shu-Cha

Some terms

wild Pu-erh tea treeTai-Di-Cha (台地茶): Pu-erh teas produced from tea trees of cultivated tea fields/gardens

Gu-Shu-Cha (古树茶): Pu-erh teas produced from the forest ancient tea trees that are of at least 100 years old.

The admiration of Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh tea and thus the sky rocketed prices

There has been a recent economics report by CCTV (China) on the current Pu-erh tea prices in comparison to that of last Year as such:

  1. Tai-Di-Cha increased by 20%;
  2. mid-age tea tree teas increased 20-40% (presumed from tea trees of less than 100 years old, but not Dai-Di-Cha) 
  3. Gu-Shu-Cha increased 100% (price doubled)

Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh tea myth

A different report also by CCTV last year reported the following findings.

How much of the Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh on the market is real Gu-Shu-Cha

It is estimated that the volume of actual Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh tea produced each year in the Yunnan province is about 4% of the total Pu-erh tea production:

  • Total Pu-erh production volume about 139,000 tone, harvested from 6,200,000 MU (or 413,333 hectares) of the Pu-erh tea fields.
  • Gu-Shu-Cha production is about 5000 tone, from only about 650,000 Mu (43,333 hectares) of tea fields according the estimate of the local authorities. (The yields of the Gu-Shu trees are relatively lower than that of the Tai-Di-Cha.)

A survey of the local market (to supply mainly to the tourists or retailers outside of the region) in Yunnan however reported 95% of the products sold on the market are claimed or labelled as Gu-Shu-Cha.

False claims

It is clear that many false claims are being made.

The unreasonable profit margin is the drive

There are various benefits of consuming Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh teas. Driven by the obsession of consuming Gu-Shu Pu-erh by certain consumers, the price gap between the Gu-Shu-Cha and none Gu-Shu-Cha has been increasing to the point that it is not longer reflecting the quality/value difference. (More information at the question section of this article.)

The Pu-erh tea production in the Yunnan Province of China has been and still is largely family based. The families own the tea fields/ trees, especially the Gu-Shu-Cha tea trees in the forests as the result of the long history of family-based tea farming and production. Driven by the ludicrous profit, the tea farmers are naturally drawn to maximise the yields of their Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh.

Difficulties to regulate

Many tea merchants label their products as Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh tea when the claims are not backed by facts through various practices, from straight false labelling Tai-Di-Cha as Gu-Shu-Cha, to mixing Tai-Di-Cha with Gu-Shu-Cha and label it as Gu-Shu-Cha. As intangible as it is, here are the gaps to allow the fall through:

  • There are no feasible and practical evaluation methods available to systematically verify if a Pu-erh tea is Gu-Shu-Cha or not at the sales point.
  • The Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh tea trees in Yunnan are not systematically certified and recorded. The local authorities sample and identify the areas (buy not individual tea trees) of the Gu-Shu clusters and report on estimates. The actual Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh tea status is finally decided and labelled by the tea farmers, often based on a good guess or suggested by older family members. This allows a major opportunity for false identification, exaggeration and even deliberate false claiming.
  • Packaging. As suggested, 95% of the Pu-erh tea sold on the local market are marked as Gu-Shu-Cha, largely done by the packaging paper they are wrapped in. There is however no local regulation to associate a packaging with a product. It is effectively as such, any local tea farmers can approach a printing business to request to put on anything information on the wrapping paper without any backing of the claim. The is the cause of the peculiar phenomenon in Yunnan: the base price of a real Lao-Ban-Zhang ( 老班章, the most pricy Pu-erh of the current market) Pu-erh is $2000/kg, while there are numerous full cakes (357g) labelled as ‘Lao-Ban-Zhang’ sold on the market, some as low as $6. The merchant explained the only association of the tea with ‘老班章’ is the words printed on the wrapping paper. Her words are, people see the words ‘‘老班章’’ and buy.

Confusion from the consumers end

The consumers’ love affair with the Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh teas has been fuelling the price hike. At the same time, the endless variations of Pu-erh teas have made it almost impossible for even experienced Pu-erh consumers or experts to distinguish between a real Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh and a none Gu-Shu-Cha at the purchase point, let alone a beginner.

For example, there has been a blind test conducted recently. Two Pu-erh teas, one from an over 100 years old tea tree and the other less than 50 years were sample by 4 participants. The Pu-erh experience of the participants range from a consumer of just 12 months to a Pu-erh shop owner of over 12 years in Yunnan. The participants universally picked the younger tea tree tea as Gu-Shu-Cha based on it taste. Opinion of experts: the quality of a tea is more determined by how the tea trees are managed and the environmental conditions of the tea trees than the actual tea tree age. In other words, the age of a tea tree is not indicative of its quality automatically.

Questions to be asked

There are therefore a few questions to be asked:

  1. It is believed by the Pu-erh tea experts the main difference between a Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh and a non-Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh is in their tastes. There are no other significant differences in other aspects such as health benefits and functionality if everything else remains the same. The questions is therefore if a consumer is not experienced to detect the subtle difference in their tastes, it is cost effective to pay the much higher price for something that is not noticeable?
  2. How does one know if a purchase is an actual Gu-Shu-Cha Pu-erh?
  3. It is believed with the continuous improvement in the knowledge and techniques of Tai-Di-Cha cultivation, the quality of Tai-Di-Cha actually improves all the time. It seems to me that Tai-Di-Cha is a good alternative to Gu-Shu-Cha, value wise, without taking the consideration that the relief of the stress on the ancient Pu-erh tea trees due to the high demand.

 

 

 

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