En Jie Rudd

Why are white teas so expensive

Chinese white teaWhite tea is a germ among the premium Chinese teas. The premium white teas have been traditionally produced in limited pocket areas of the Fujian Province of south-east China, such as Fuding, Zhenghe and Jianyang. Fuding (福鼎) white tea is considered to be the best in quality and a 35% price hike was recorded in a year in 2017. The market price of Fuding Silver Needle has tripled during the last 10 years.

Many reasons have contributed to such a price hike of white teas in recent years in comparison to other teas, for example the cousin green tea.

Like all highly sought after products with limited supply, increasing demand is the main driving force.

The limited production

White tea plants 

The tea plant used for producing the authentic Fujian white tea is unique, the most famous one being the ‘Fu Ding Da Bai Hao’ (福鼎大白毫 - Fuding Big White Down). The tea leaves are characterized by being strong, full and bold with needle shaped tip buds and covered with the white down fur - where the name Silver Needle is derived from.

White tea plants take years to gown into maturity before yielding corps of rich nutrients and flavor. The harvesting typically starts 3-4 years after the new plants are planted. Many prime tea plantations are however over 50 years old and have been harvested by many generations.

The areas that are suitable for producing the premium white teas are also highly constricted. The pocket areas of the Fujian Province mentioned above are known to have the ideal soil and climate conditions for the white tea production.

For example, the famous Tai-Lao-Shan (太姥山) area of Fuding is known to produce the best of the best Fuding white teas. The area and the tea plantations have been established for a long time and is effectively not expandable.

Fuding white teaWith both the limited geographic space for growing tea plants and the time for the tea plants to grow and mature, the supply falls far behind the increase in demand.

What is a white tea

White tea has traditionally been defined as:

  • Mainly produced in the pocket areas of the north Fujian Province
  • Made of tea leaves harvested from the tea plant Fuding Big White Down
  • Processed by a simple yet highly skillful technique called Wei-Diao (萎凋-withering) then dried
  • Traditionally dried in the shade or under the sun depending on the weather conditions, some using low temperature charcoal (below 50oC)

White tea grades

Unlike other categories of Chinese teas, white teas are graded in a quality hierarchy:

  1. Top grade Silver Needle - made of only the young bud leaves of the tea plant.
  2. White Peony - made of one bud leaf plus a couple green leaves beneath.
  3. Shou Mei/Gong Mei - made of mostly mature tea leaves.

The techniques to perfect a white tea are considered as intellectual properties and carefully guarded by the local tea producers. The fine details are obsessively monitored and controlled during the tea processing.

White tea 'new products'

Due to the increasing demand, there have been some ‘new products’ on the market during the recent years: some are white teas produced from tea plants other than the Fuding Big White Down; the others produced from the tea plant Fu Ding Da Bai Hao, but recently cultivated elsewhere than those areas in the Fujian Province where the soil and climate conditions are different.

There is also the Yunnan white tea, which is produced based on a traditional Yunnan tea product Yue-Guang-Bai, processed with slightly different techniques and use tea leaves from Yunnan tea trees instead of Fujian white tea bushes.

These white teas are considered as ‘mimic’ white teas and are mostly considered to be of lower quality than the traditional Fujian white tea. The market prices of these teas are lower, but some merchants market and price them as the traditional white teas sold to the naive white tea consumers.

The reason behind the fast-growing demand for white teas

Health benefits associated with drinking white tea

Many health benefits have been reported during recent years associated with white tea drinking. As a result of their unique natural state, white teas are believed to have preserved the most of the anti-oxidants found in the tea leaves.

The reported potential health benefits include:

  • Lowering blood cholesterol level, blood pressure and thus cardiovascular diseases
  • Cancer preventive
  • Weight loss
  • Anti-inflammatory & infections
  • Enhancing body immune system
  • Lowering blood sugar level and increase glucose tolerance
  • Improve bone density
  • Preventive of Alzheimer's disease

Increasing accessibility

The popularity of white tea is increasing not only in China but worldwide. People around the world now have the access to both the information and the supply of white teas, credit to the wide use of the internet.

Aging potential

Most of Chinese teas are consumed fresh, such as green tea and Oolong tea. White tea is one of the few that the quality potentially improves with aging.

This is a local rhyme about white teas: tea for the 1st year, medicine after 3 years and treasure after 5 yeas. The white tea's value therefore will only increase with time.

It works as such: The tea prices have a baseline upwards movement due to the general constricted supply and inflation. The value of the teas with aging potential increases faster than average. For example, the value of a Pu-erh tea (a classic aging tea) is generally expected to increase by about 10% per year. This is because through careful collection and storage, tea merchants and consumers can avoid the two fold increase of both the baseline upwards trend and the value increase as the result of aging.

Conclusion

A pure white tea, by name and nature, appears to those who are health conscious and after an enjoyable life style. Since the supply of the best white teas are strictly limited, the increasing demand will inevitably drive up the prices.

From a tea supplier point of view, my opinion is that there are some alternative options than paying the top prices. For example, the Fuding Shou Mei is at a much lower price on the market than the Silver Needle, as the result of its longer harvesting time and higher production volume. They are not as delicate when fresh, but with similar health properties and a huge potential for aging. The aged Shou Mei is highly sought after in some south-east Asian regions for its mellow taste and valuable health benefits.

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It is possible to discern a Yixing Zisha teapot quality at the point of buying

Yixing Zisha teapot

Yixing Zisha teapotMany tea consumers are fascinated by Yixing Zisha (宜兴紫砂) teapots. The clay is believed to be the premium clay for brewing the premium teas, especially the fermented teas such as Oolong teas and Pu-erh teas. It is mainly due to the porous nature of the clay which facilitates the brewing process by being able to ‘breath’ through the teapot wall, thus bring out the best of a tea and eliminate certain not so desired elements if presented.

The original Yixing Zisha teapot is defined as the items made with the clay produced in the Huang Long Shan (黄龙山) area of the Yixing City. Due to the increasing demand of the product, limited mine deposit and human exploitation, the Chinese official has closed the area from mining since 2005. Any symbolic mining since has been on a very limited scale.

There are however similar mine deposits in the surrounding areas, which are now the main sources of the current Zisha clay supplies. This also opens up a discussion that if these can be called Yixing Zisha and if the quality is comparable.

Zisha products follow the following formula which applies to products of limited resources:

Increasing interest and demand -> increasing prices -> human efforts to increase the production -> substitute products

The Zisha clay itself is in many styles and quality grades. Discerning the quality of a Zisha item at the buying point today is difficult.

Substitute products

Following are some of the methods used to create the ‘substitute products’:

  • Using clays mined from elsewhere than Yixing
  • Re-composed Zisha using low quality clays mixed with artificial colouring and granule ‘ingredients’
  • False claims to appear to naïve Zisha consumers, including clay type, origin, quality and the maker of the Zisha item etc, who have difficulty differentiating.

Following are some of the techniques developed to make the Zisha items look ‘genuine’, which will only add to the confusion:

  • Super fine clay, which is lack of the quartz granules, is mostly considered to be of low quality (a topic for a different discussion). Some manufacturers have half fired these clays till they are hard, machine ground them into small particles and mix them with the original clays to achieve the ‘coarse’ appearance. The granules are not the quartz particles as in the genuine Zisha clay. It serves only the appearance but not the functionality of the quartz particles.
  • Certain producers mix sand particles and artificial coloring into low grade clay to produce the consistence and texture look like of the high grade Zisha.

As a tea consumer and Zisha lover myself, the one aspect that is of most interest to me above all others (design and details) is the quality of the clay, which is what makes the Yixing Zisha teapots different from others.

Going through a good number of the information available, from both Zisha producers and collectors’ perspectives, it appears there is not a defining set of criteria to guide the Zisha consumer to genuine Yixing Zisha. Experience seems to be the only reliable source. This however can take many years to develop. At the meantime, the ‘substitute products’ are getting better and better at mimicking the genuine products.

Many indicators, buy lack of defining criteria

There are many articles discussing how to differentiate handmade, semi-handmade and industrial machine made Zisha teapots. The implication is, if a Zisha artist is to spend the effort to handmake or semi-handmake a Zisha teapot, the quality of the Zisha clay he/she uses must be at least in reasonable quality to make the effort worthwhile. The quality of the Zisha clay is assumed to go down with the reduction of the level of the ‘hand work’.

This assumption leaves many unanswered questions, even confusions:

  • Let alone there are not objective criteria to measure the level of ‘hand work’, there is also not linear correlation between the level of ‘hand work’ and the quality of the Zisha clay.
  • What is the difference in the clay quality between the teapots made by different Zisha artists as they use different clays? (The Zisha artists are graded in China based on their experiences and skills. There is however not universal supply of the clays – they simply use what they believe is appropriate among what is available.)
  • How about the semi-handmade Zisha vs fully handmade ones? Some of the semi-handmade Zisha items on the current market can easily look as good, even according a pair of experienced eyes, as the fully hand-made ones if not better.
  • How about those teapots made by ungraded Zisha artists (民间艺人)? (Like craftsmen of all traditional products, the skills have been passed down by their ancestors. They use the family stock pile of the Zisha clays in their backyards to make the Zisha teapots - in other words the under marketed products.)

The list can keep expending.

The ultimate information and control

The only ones with the ultimate control appear to be the Zisha teapot producers. They decide precisely what goes into making a teapot and how to make them. Without being given the full information, it is rather difficulty for the consumers at the buying end to judgment the quality.

For example, it is relatively easy at the buying point to see the differences between a $40 teapot and $400 teapot, with a bit of the experience of course. It is however not so easy to answer the question if a $2000 teapot is worth of the price tag.

The worst happens when the naïve tourists buy from the shops at the tourist locations. The products are often overly decorated by fancy designs, most come out from machines. It is entirely up to the merchants how much they want to charge as there are not set criteria to label the quality.

Conclusion

Yixing Zisha teapot is fascinating. A good item is absolutely worth collecting. To know if one has a collection value and how to achieve a high money value ratio is however a tricky question for most of the consumers.

 

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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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