The west is a tiny blimp in the Chinese specialty tea market. Having had the experience of traveling and shopped for tea in Taiwan and Hong Kong it gives me some idea of how the market looks in parts of east Asia where tea culture is strong. There are some teas where the west does generally well and gives some access to. There are others where we have to pay a bit more and have limited access. And then there’s blind spots where the market where what we have access to is a pale shell of the real deal.
- It should be noted that some of these blind spots also exist in Asia. For instance, it would be hard to find the same level of quality and price for aged oolongs in Beijing as in Taipei.
Areas where we got it Pretty OK
Young Pu’erh – We don’t have the full market but fortunately for the consumer there’s plenty of competition. In this case, competition is mainly a good thing as young tea is the bread and butter for several western-facing pu’erh centric vendors. Are the options as good or as abundant as the east? Certainly not. That all being said, this is one area where westerners have reasonable and accessible options.
Ripe Pu’erh – We have a large number of vendors that drink the shoops and source decent quality ripe pu’erh for a reasonable $. Places like Yunnan Sourcing, White2Tea, and Crimson Lotus all have ripe under their own labels that seems to satisfy most avid compost drinkers.. Similar to young pu’erh we don’t have the same sort of access as the east, but you can find and buy ripe pu’erh without breaking into a bank. It’s also probably a better curated, albeit more limited selection than visiting a Chinese tea market.
Areas Where The West is Typically Marked Up and Suffers from Less Access
Factory Tea – Generally speaking, you can find some factory tea but it’s nearly always priced at least 2x the price it would retail for in Asia. This is mainly OK and you can find some productions from places like Yunnan Sourcing or Chawangshop around the same price.. But there’s also scores of different factory productions every year and the west only has easy access to a few, and often the cheaper stuff.
There are also traps in the market where you significantly overpay.. This is more complicated when buying from vendors in ebay or aliexpress because for many of these teas it’s not immediately obvious what the price should be. An example would be a 2005 Xiaguan 8653s. There’s several different 2005 productions of that recipe some with significant variation in quality and a large price variation. And that’s one supposed recipe in a single year.. There’s also the trap of unknown market value that you’ll see from certain vendors especially on ebay or aliexpress. In these cases, tea will usually sell for some markup with free shipping.. Without knowing the market, factory tea can be tricky to figure out and easy to buy mediocre tea for a high $. If a beeng is selling for $100, it’s hard to know if the vendor paid $40 for it or $3 to source it.
- Where to go? Taobao (if you know what you’re doing).
More Premium Semi-Aged Pu’erh – This market is very limited. Some brands (i.e. XZH, CYH) have gotten very expensive. Western vendors just haven’t been around long enough to sell their own pressed tea with much age and usually end up as resellers. It’s an extraordinarily hard task to source something paying $100USD or more, because the resale price would realistically need to be over ~$200USD/piece. This is a hard sell for vendors without deep pockets and most won’t really bother.. The sparsity of options is a big reason 2004-2007 Yangqing Hao has generated attention in the west. It’s generally decent tea that’s different from your numbered Menghai recipes. This is a real shame because maocha prices have risen and teas in this age range can often represent decent value compared to younger options.
- Where to go? Hunting between the cracks.. Scrounge around premium vendors that have been pressing a while.
Older Pu’erh – Very similar to decent semi-aged pu’erh, there’s problems with accessibility and simply finding decent tea at an OK price. Because everyone is pretty much a reseller, teas get pricy quickly and it’s hard to find anything particularly decent beneath $150 and even then you’re mainly just getting functional enough tea.
- Where’s the market/where to go? Places with deeper stocks of mature pu’erh. HK, Taiwan, Malaysia.
Areas That are Extremely Subpar
Aged Oolongs – The western market for aged oolongs is terrible. Other than a couple odd exceptions that will usually sell out quickly, pretty much everything is either subpar or outrageously overpriced and likely both. Of course the market really is mainly just in Taiwan and not as developed/available in many other places.. Still I don’t think this is a great excuse as the west has a disproportionate amount of vendors based in Taiwan, I’d expect a better showing overall. In the west, $0.50-$0.60/g for an average, not too wet stored aged oolong is a good deal. In Taiwan, that’s a rip-off.
- Where’s the market/where to go? Taiwan.
Traditionally Stored Pu’erh – No, I’m not talking about just more humidly “wet” stored pu’erh. I’m talking about traditionally stored pu’erh where the tea is deliberately introduced to a wetter environment and then dried out for some amount of time.
This sort of tea is available in Hong Kong and it’s quite possible to find decent examples for ~$100 where $200 can buy good quality tea. While not cheap, it’s a reasonably attainable price. This high starting point is part of the access problem and is a pricing conundrum for western vendors who want to resell. Hong Kong isn’t exactly known for deals and if someone wanted to resell to the tea they’d need to mark it up. This was a problem for Origin Tea and likely also for Jay of Tea Life. Alas, it’s rare to find any sort of traditionally stored tea available.
- Where to go? Hong Kong.