Pu’erh Budgeting. Buying Psychology, Hoarding & A Calculated Strategy

Ripe Pu'erh

Due to its reputation as a tea that improves with age, pu’erh and the buying culture surrounding it are different than other teas. This makes sense. People are (rightfully) more comfortable buying larger quantities of pu’erh than dragonwell or green gaoshan. However, it is also a buying culture filled with hoarding and constant procrastination (over drinking the good stuff). Other tea types have a natural timer that regulates purchases. Drink it soon or it will get worst. This urgency and rate will vary tea to tea, but most teas are not stashed away in the same way pu’erh is. This article aims to take a step back and compare pu’erh purchases with both other teas and other consumable beverages.

Note #1: While aged and aging oolongs are becoming a thing, it still doesn’t hold much of a candle to pu’erh.

Yunnan Sourcing's Selection
Pu’erh Shopping. Source: Yunnan Sourcing.

Buying Tea Online is Traumatizing +Two Examples

Buying tea online can be traumatizing. It is fundamentally different from buying a number of other consumables, i.e. coffee at a coffee store or a cocktail at a bar. Much of this psychology has to do with spending a lot of money all at once. Spending $100-500 feels like an awful lot of money. This is further exacerbated in the pu’erh sphere with higher quantities and international shipping costs. Let’s take a look at a couple other consumables and how they are purchased.

Coffee vs. big tea purchases. There are countless people spending $3-5/day on mediocre coffee daily  at Starbucks (or elsewhere) without blinking an eye. Over the course of a year this adds up to $1000-1500. Seeing or spending that much all at once would almost certainly cause the coffee drinker to cringe. Even though the amount a tea drinker may be spending is the same or less it is far less traumatic to spend the money incrementally.

Cocktails vs. special occasion tea. A good quality cocktail after tax/tip will often end up costing $11-15 (more if you are in New York or London). What will $11-15 buy you in the tea world if you were to consume it in one gong-fu session. Assuming ~7g pot size, $11-15 will put you firmly in the realm of very good tea for nearly any tea genre. Think about this rationale when you are buying Lao Banzhang, Aged Pu’erh or a particularly expensive tea/quantity.

Why not buy tea in smaller increments? Alot of people do this and it tends to be a bit more palatable. However, because most pu’erh shops are internationally based and will have significant shipping cost, this will usually end up being less cost-effective in the long run compared with fewer but larger orders. Despite the cringe-inducing $300-600 spent on orders, this is usually the most efficient way to buy tea as the relative cost of shipping goes down considerably as the size of the order increases.

Cost of Commonly Consumed Beverages

Item Cost Cost (+25% Tax/Tip) Weekly Frequency Monthly Cost Yearly Cost
Grande Starbucks Coffee $1.95 $2.44 7 $73.94 $887.25
Grande Starbucks Latte $3.65 $4.56 7 $138.40 $1,660.75
Grande Starbucks Mocha Frap $4.25 $5.31 7 $161.15 $1,933.75
A Nice Cocktail $10.00 $12.50 2 $108.33 $1,300.00

Relatively OK Pu’erh is Not Expensive!

So pu’erh compares well with other beverages that are closer to the social norm. How does it compare with other teas? Really, quite well.

Taiwanese high-mountain oolongs, range from ~$0.40/g on average for Alishan to ~$0.71/g for Da Yu Ling (probably not even real). How about Yancha? Anyone that drinks really good Yancha knows the really good stuff costs an arm and a leg, easily $1+/g.

Spending $0.50/g for a tea seems like alot to spend on pu’erh, and it is. Relatively. The relative cost is much higher. Relative to all the available pu’erh options, $0.50/g will place you firmly into the upper-end of pu’erh options. Why does this seem like so much? Much of this stems from the multitude of cheap options available for the drinker. The bottom-end pu’erh available to the western market is much cheaper (and debatably worst) than the bottom end of the oolong market available. However, comparing pu’erh sample prices with small quantities of other teas can even make Lao Banzhang seem reasonable!

Note #1: Buying a cake instead of a sample can reduce the $/g considerably. Do this calculation. Samples will nearly always have an additional markup. This usually ranges from 10%-300% vs. the actual cake or tuo. It is usually a good idea to look at this when considering a purchase. It can sometimes be prudent to simply purchase the larger quantity. Consider your overall purchasing goals. Are you trying to maximize value or to learn and try different teas?
Note #2: An obvious caveat in this comparison. Oolongs are purchased in small quantities, whereas that is less assumed for pu’erh.

Cross-Tea Price Comparison

Tea Standard Quantity $ $/g Sample Markup
Standard Alishan (from price post) 28.35 $11.29 $0.40 N/A
Standard Da Yu Ling (from price post) 28.35 $20.01 $0.71 N/A
Standard Shui Xian (from price post) 28.35 $7.45 $0.26 N/A
Qi Dan (average priced), Tea Urchin 60 $36.00 $0.60 N/A
2003 Orign Tea Hui Yuan Shui Xian, Very Good 25 $26.00 $1.04 N/A
2013 Dashu Bulang (Cheap Plantation Tea), W2T 357 $12.00 $0.03 N/A
2013 Dashu Bulang Sample, W2T 25 $1.50 $0.06 78.50%
2014 T8653 (Cheap Plantation Tea), CLT 357 $20.00 $0.06 N/A
2014 T8653 Sample, CLT 25 $4.00 $0.16 185.60%
2013 Nanpozhai, YS, better quality 400 $86.00 $0.22 N/A
2013 Nanpozhai Sample, YS 25 $7.75 $0.31 44.19%
2014 Yibang, TU 200 $86.00 $0.43 N/A
2014 Yibang Sample, TU 30 $14.00 $0.47 8.53%
2014 Lao Banzhang, TU 200 $323.00 $1.62 N/A
2014 Lao Banzhang Sample, TU 30 $50.00 $1.67 3.20%
1990s HK Style Raw Pu’erh, W2T 357 $149.50 $0.42 N/A
1990s HK Style Raw Pu’erh, W2T Sample 25 $14.90 $0.60 42.32%
Note: This table was assembled to compare the price of different types of teas, not to make specific statements on the sample markup vendor to vendor.

Overbuying, Hoarding, Space & Storage

TwoDog of White2Tea posted on The Three Tenets of Buying Puer. In the third tenet he quotes MarshalN, specifically a post on buying certain teas in large quantities. This can be sound advice. However, taken out of context the advice of simply buying a ton of tea that you find pleasing at the time can also be a really bad idea. It should be noted that the first two tenets involve understanding both pu’erh as a tea and pu’erh economics and should not be ignored.

One thing that can go wrong is messing up the storage of the tea. You really shouldn’t be buying large quantities of pu’erh haphazardly, assuming it will age well. Without some sort of storage plan to at least maintain (and ideally improve) the quality of the tea, it’s probably better to sample widely or seal up tea. Otherwise, your tea will get worst and possibly ruined. In the west this often means making sure that your tea doesn’t dry out. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Guangdong are far more hot and humid than nearly every place that western hobbyists store tea. Tea simply getting years under its belt is meaningless. Storage matters. Natural storage for any extended period of time in the desert will be a waste of money and tea. Unless you have the knowledge and the capacity or a plan to store your pu’erh, it is best to forget tenet 3d.

Another temptation when purchasing pu’erh is looking at the bargain bin and stocking up heavily on teas with really low price per quantity. This is tempting because pu’erh has many teas whose price is extremely cheap. There are $10-20/357g beeng or $4/100g tuo. Don’t buy into this relative cost idea too much. Tea bought in this manner frequently result in buying loads of mediocre tea. This also conveniently disregards one of TwoDog’s tenets. In the case of plantation tea, TwoDog asserts that it will always be inexpensive and easy to acquire due to the sheer quantity being produced (he draws the comparison with mass-produced coke, see Tenet 2).

Pu’erh takes up space and the cheap stuff may never end up being that good. Perhaps most importantly, unconsumed pu’erh is a waste of both money and space. Tea isn’t meant to be left hoarded and unconsumed, it should be enjoyed. Even though it might be tempting to wait and sit on tons and tons of cheap pu’erh, storage is never a 100% guarantee and tea should be drank. If you are buying tea at a far faster rate than your consumption, you should consider buying better tea and consume most of it!

Pu'erh Stash

A Simple, Approach, A Case Study

This case study uses some calculations and numbers that I use to determine my own purchasing habits.

For the drinker, assuming you have the capacity to store tea, it’s best to make a couple simple calculations. How much are you spending on tea and how much are you willing to spend?

In this case, I’m going to approximate it to about as much as a daily coffee drinker ($3-5/day) amounting to $100-150 (my budget is ~$150). If you are reading this article and don’t know how much you spend on tea, I’d highly recommend that you pull out the credit bill and a calculator!

Now figure out your rate of consumption in terms of dry leaf. How much tea do you use per session and how many sessions/day do you do?

I usually average about 1-3 sessions/day and will consume anywhere between 4-20g a day. I approximate this at about 10/g on average.

How much tea would you like to age in relation to your consumption?

I’ve decided I’d like to consume ~60% of what I buy. This still leaves plenty to stash away. While one could rationalize buying larger quantities by saying they’ll stop buying later, I find that sort of rationale unlikely for myself.

Crunching these numbers (10g/.6*30), I should be buying about 500 grams/monthly (or 16.6 g/day).

Doing some simple math, this means I should be spending approximately $0.25-0.40/g on average. That kinda, sorta drinkable $4/100g tuo ($0.04/g) and factory pu’erh seems awfully unnecessary. This also means that some teas you may’ve written off as hopelessly expensive, might be worth trying after all!

(If I wanted to consume everything in the order I drank, I should be buying about ~300g of tea, or $0.50/g. This sort of a calculation is applicable for those looking to sample heavily, oolong drinkers or those without the capacity or desire to store tea.)

In the case of most pu’erh drinkers with similar budgets, this likely implies they should either be buying better, more expensive tea or spending less on lower quantities of tea!

Note #1: If you like the cheaper tea the same as more expensive tea by all means go for it! Just be aware that you might be able to afford better!
Note #2: Budgets are usually best spread out over a few months. This allows you to spend larger amounts in a single order to avoid paying unnecessary shipping.

Additional Reading: Aging Pu’erh [Marshaln]

18 responses to “Pu’erh Budgeting. Buying Psychology, Hoarding & A Calculated Strategy”

  1. Great analysis that will help people determine how much tea they really need and what price range is acceptable. Good stuff!

    I still want to do the math of volume of liquid and cost of Puer tea versus Starbucks, just for the sake of further argument that Puer is a relatively inexpensive beverage.

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the comment and all the valuable resources you’ve been making on your blog! I agree. Looking at Starbucks drinkers makes me feel great about my pu’erh buying :).

      Good point re:volume. Another factor that this report disregards that a reader pointed out is the # of steeps + volume. Unsurprisingly, I suspect many “expensive” teas would look quite good in comparison with your regular Starbucks.


  2. Thanks James, a lot of points here to ponder. One that gives me some trepidation is the storage question. There seems to be a very wide range of opinions on the subject. One vendor based in the desert once posted on the net of how well one of their puer teas had been aging (over something like 7 years I think). I asked what kind of storage they had in place and they indicated that it was nothing special, a storage room behind the shop.

    Personally I’m adding a little humidity to my storage area (cabinet space) but may soon go with something resembling your setup.

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for the comment! What does your RH get to it? I don’t think my setup is too far apart from a simple cabinet with some basic added humidity.

      Storage is a very difficult topic for me too. So many strong opinions, many conflicting. I think I opt for a sort of middle-of-the-road approach.


    • Maybe this is where a tightly compressed factory tea (eg. Xiaguan) can play an important roll as a daily tea. My speculation is that the quality should be consistent if not spectacular and relatively immune to aging. As long as you don’t expose it to abusive storage conditions, it won’t degrade or improve too much over time.

      It would be interesting to hear from someone with experience.

      • Hi Charles,

        Thanks for the comment. Perhaps that could be effective. Those things are so compressed that I doubt it’d develop much maturity.

        Either that or just do what Hojo does and vacuum seal it!


  3. Nice post!

    I don’t have a set budge for myself, but I usually go back at what I’ve already spend in the year vs what I have ‘in stock’, but I agree that spreading your budget over a few months is a great idea. For one, like you mentioned it helps keeping down the shipping costs, but another reason is that if you spend too much in one purchase or buy too often, you are more likely to be over budget when good opportunities show up and have to pass on them.

    • Hi JC,

      Thanks for the comment. Some good points. Despite trying hard, I find myself hopelessly overbudget :). Such is the life of a tea addict!


  4. Thanks a ton for the post James, youre kind of lining out lots of thoughts Ive been wrestling with recently. Its great just to know other people are also asking similar questions and looking for good answers. Now if I could just jump ahead in time and tell how sheng is gonna age here in KY where I live!!

    • Hi Double B,

      Thanks for the comment and kind words. Glad the post resonated with you! I learned alot of these lessons the hard way.


  5. Great post, as poer usual James! Keep up the great work!

    I am very wary to implement Tenet 3, for the simple reason that my tea tastes and preferences change over the years. I would not want to get stuck with a large amount of tea that I subsequently do not like anymore.

    Re budgeting. I take a slightly different approach. I have a set dollar limit to how much I will spend per 100 g. of tea ordered / bought. This figure includes not only the cost of the tea itself, but all shipping, taxes, exchange costs, etc. This makes it challenging (yet fun!) to find good-to-great tea that stays within that limit.

    • Hi Peter,

      Interesting approach and probably a good way to get lots of reasonably priced tea. If I followed your method, I would probably end up hoarding lots. Too much impulse buying!


  6. My struggle is that my taste preference has changed over the years and it seems like i am buying more and more higher price tea. I have a simple approach, as long as i avoid spending my daughter college fund, i think i have stay within my tea budget.

    • Hi Mengchiu,

      Thanks for the comment and sharing your approach. I agree. Tastes definitely change and I think there is a real danger in overbuying, especially with people newer to pu’erh. I know I’ve been tempted by many a tea where I am glad I didn’t buy (or regret the purchase). At the same point, I also have regrets of not buying.


  7. Hi James
    This was a particularly great post! Very useful. Based on your purchasing formula (40% storage) how much tea will you have stashed away by the time you are 80 years old? Perhaps max storage capacity and age (see some Cwyn’s blog entries on age) should be part of the equation? There seems to be a number of mathematically inclined pu erh drinkers in the blogosphere…perhaps someone could create a mathematical model for optimizing tea purchasing behaviour. There are a number of other psychological variables to consider such as: the joy of finding that great deal; the pride of that expensive, exceptional tea stashed for an unspecific special occasion; the ability to placate a long-suffering spouse/partner; the restless search for variety; etc. How should these non-rational factors be weighted in the model? What other factors drive our tea buying behaviour? This post will help me with my long-suffering spouse – she has been know to frequent Starbucks, and now I can better justify my tea expenses! Heading off to browse some vendor sites now.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for the comment and kind words! Lots of great points. I suppose someone’s own purchasing strategy should change as they get older. Early on buy more stuff to age and as you get older you would ideally be consuming your stash and only buying higher-end tea. Kinda like asset allocation shifting from stocks over to bonds as the investor ages. Or retirement planning. I am a young guy, but for those without the time or storage to age I suspect something like setting 0-10% to age is more prudent.

      Glad this post will help you to rationalize some more higher-end tea purchases. This was my real goal behind this post :).


  8. Thanks for an interesting article. I am still shy when it comes to buying pu’erh because I live in San Francisco and who knows how the tea will age! I have steam heat in my apartment, which seems a lot better than dry conditions. Could you comment on how shu ages differently than sheng?

    • Hi TeaBrat,

      Thanks for the comment! Shu is generally thought to be a bit more forgiving than sheng. That being said, you can still definitely mess it up.

      On a sidenote, Hster over at the Tea Closet has several years of aging pu’erh in SF. Results have been pretty slow. Might be worth a read if you haven’t already.


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