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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Tea look matters

The Chinese traditional wisdom has always told me that ‘you cannot judge a person by his/her appearance’ (人不可貌相).

How is the look of a tea associated with its quality

tea leaf shootsI was reading a tea book (one of my earliest tea books) quite some time ago on how to assess the quality of different green teas. Each and every one started from the ‘look’ of a tea – a good tea has to have the right shape. I puzzled for a long time trying to understand how the look of a tea can make it taste better.

A few years later, I visited a family at Dong-Shan (Eastern Hill) of the Tai Lake where the best Bi-Luo-Chun has been historically produced. It all made sense after a day’s visit.

The production of DongTing Bi-Luo-Chun at Dong-Shan is still family based. Of the crops produced each year, they are graded/priced by the strict timing of the harvest – the earlier (of the spring season) a tea is harvested , the better the quality and therefore the higher price. All family members are involved in the tea harvesting, but the priciest tea leaves are only processed by the most experienced family members (the mother and father of the family in this case). The less experienced members only get to practice on the less valuable tea leaves until they become as experienced.

The link between the quality of a tea and its appearance

The link between the quality and the appearance is therefore:

The better the quality of the raw materials -> more likely to have a more experienced/skillful person to process it -> more likely for the end product to have all the right qualities including the appearance.

This is the very reason that the shape of the tea is mentioned frequently in the quality assessment, for example: a Dragon Well green tea has to be yellowish green and tight flat; A Taiwan High mountain rolled Oolong has to be dark green and in tight rolled pearls; A Pu-erh tea cake need to be firm with regular edge etc. 

Other products with the same principle

With time I understand this also applies to other products with high level manual/skill work, such as Yixing Zisha teapots. The experienced Zisha artists will not spend time and effort working on the low quality clay, and the inexperienced ‘starters’ do not often get to work on the premium Zisha clay.

 

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