Boutique Pu’erh. How Much of a Story Does the Top End of the Western Boutique Pu’erh Market Tell?

If you follow what gets said about prices each year, you would end up with the impression that the average price of tea has gone up. But more specifically the price at the most sought after regions (say Lao Banzhang, Bingdao) have gone completely through the roof. A lot of this narrative is anecdotal. Tales of rich Chinese buying up all the top-end product from X area. Part of it can also be seen when someone in the Sinosphere posts the maocha prices per location. These lists come with all sorts of contextual caveats, but the trend seems real. I don’t see any red flags to really doubt this storyline, but I was curious if it’d show up by looking at some of the data of prices on production by western facing vendors.

The Highest $/g Product by Vendor in a Year

Scott and I discussed 2011-2018 pu’erh prices in the comments of a youtube video earlier this year, and he talked about how there’s been a greater willingness to splurge for tea that is more expensive per weight in the west. So I took the highest-end products per year by a few vendors and tossed them into a table.

Highest-End Spring Production by Vendor in Dataset

YearVendorTeaPrefectureGeneral RegionSizeLaunch Price$/g
2011ChawangshopGaoshanzhaiXishuangbanna6FM200$30.00$0.15
2011Yunnan SourcingGaoshan ZhaiXishuangbanna6FM400$105.00$0.26
2012ChawangshopYiwu ZhangjiawanXishuangbannaYiwu200$35.00$0.18
2012Tea UrchinXikongXishuangbanna6FM357$160.00$0.45
2012Yunnan SourcingJiabuXishuangbanna6FM250$78.00$0.31
2013ChawangshopShuang ShuXishuangbanna200$45.00$0.23
2013Tea UrchinLao BanzhangXishuangbannaBulang357$339.00$0.95
2013Yunnan SourcingWalongXishuangbanna6FM250$89.00$0.36
2014ChawangshopBan Komaen BlackLaos200$48.00$0.24
2014Crimson Lotus TeaYiwuXishuangbannaYiwu100$45.00$0.45
2014Tea UrchinGaoshanzhaiXishuangbanna6FM200$119.00$0.60
2014White2TeaLast ThoughtsXishuangbannaYiwu357$435.00$1.22
2014Yunnan SourcingMushuchaLincangMengku400$88.00$0.22
2015ChawangshopHekaiXishuangbannaHekai200$36.00$0.18
2015Crimson Lotus TeaSlumbering DragonSimaoKunlu200$120.00$0.60
2015Tea UrchinGuafengzhaiXishuangbannaYiwu200$149.00$0.75
2015White2TeaLast ThoughtsXishuangbannaYiwu357$439.00$1.23
2015Yunnan SourcingWalongXishuangbanna6FM250$126.00$0.50
2016ChawangshopManzhuanXishuangbanna6FM200$65.00$0.33
2016Crimson Lotus TeaSlumbering DragonSimaoKunlu200$125.00$0.63
2016White2TeaThe Treachery of Storytelling Part 2XishuangbannaYiwu200$369.00$1.85
2016Yunnan SourcingWalongXishuangbanna6FM250$124.00$0.50
2017ChawangshopZaoqiaodiSimaoJinggu400$65.00$0.16
2017Crimson Lotus TeaSlumbering DragonSimaoKunlu200$125.00$0.63
2017Tea UrchinLao BanzhangXishuangbannaBulang200$315.00$1.58
2017White2TeaThe Treachery of Storytelling P2200$369.00$1.85
2017Yunnan SourcingYibangXishuangbanna6FM250$132.00$0.53
2018Crimson Lotus TeaSlumbering DragonSimaoKunlu200$119.99$0.60
2018White2TeaThe Box200$269.00$1.35
2018Yunnan SourcingXiangchunlinXishuangbannaYiwu250$222.00$0.89

Noisy & Ambiguous Results

You could squint and see a few things (YS top-end product has increased in price and likely quality), but I think it’s hard to draw anything very interesting from this. The highest-end teas offered by western vendors haven’t spiked and most vendors top teas have remained constant. For instance, Crimson Lotus most expensive 2015 and 2018 tea was the Slumbering Dragon at $0.60/g and W2T’s highest-priced tea jumps around above $/g with no clear trend.

So why isn’t this more informative?

Issue #1. Most Western Boutique Vendors are Not Representative of the Top-End of the Market

One thing you should always consider is that we are looking at western vendors. It is a small group and it can teach us something about what is available. But it is also important to not read that as representative of the Chinese market. The western market is an inconsequentially small part of the overall market. The top-end of the teas available to the western market are not the same as teas you can get at the top end of the Chinese market. The highest end tea being produced by western vendors likely says more about what some of the spendier western buyers will pay for it than anything about the greater pu’erh market. In this sense, for those interested in quality regardless of cost, acquiring that tea is more of an access issue for westerners buying tea through the conventional channels.

Issue #2. Very Small Sample Size & Noisy

At the risk of being captain obvious, this is a tiny, miniscule sample size. It can also be further skewed because most vendor’s top-end tea will be smaller runs with lower quantity. If a vendor decides to make a super small batch of something fancy it can totally throw everything off. Tea Urchin in 2017 made some $1.58/g Lao Banzhang, something they certainly don’t do every year. If they had chosen to not press that production their most expensive tea of the year would’ve been at $0.47/g, under 1/3rd the cost.

Issue #3. Timeframe

Another reason why this is a limited and not a great way to interpret the high-end market is that we only go back to 2011. Many of the vendors like White2Tea and Crimson Lotus have only started pressing pu’erh relatively recently. It would undoubtedly give more interesting evidence if we looked back at top-end maocha prices by Chinese boutiques over a greater timespan (say 2006-present).

Miscellaneous Tea.

Anecdotal Evidence. Looking at a Case by Case Basis

One imperfect signal is watching when vendor signals that prices are high and they’ve been priced out of making a certain tea or are changing their patterns of production. It’s possible to see this in long-standing western producers like Yunnan Sourcing, whose prices probably most closely reflects the Yunnan market, and Essence of Tea who has been pressing high-end material for a long time. Or maybe even White2Tea who stopped pressing their highest-end tea, the Last Thoughts after 2016. We can also look at some of the Taiwan-based producers like Yangqing Hao and Xizi Hao shift away from where they were originally making more of their tea to other areas. In these cases, we don’t see the prices spike up as the company pressing maocha will switch sources once the price becomes too painful to pay or they don’t think they can sell it.

If you follow the comments of shah who frequently discusses available boutique pu’erh a lot, you’ll notice he has a whole array of teas that he’s tried that he’ll cite. He’ll point out early years where there were much higher-end tea made available and how these opportunities have slowly faded away. One might pop up (at uber prices), but the general trend is that very good quality modern productions have become more scarce, pricier, and less available for western buyers. These judgments are often done on a very case by case basis, where he’ll look at teas he has tried or their reputation and his assessment of the quality.

In general, I don’t see any reason to doubt the narrative that top-end teas have become rarer and more expensive. It doesn’t really bear out if we crunch the numbers for western vendors, but for many of the reasons listed above this approach is limited and won’t tell a complete picture.

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