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.

This entry was posted in Article, Raw Pu'erh and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Karl says:

    James,

    A depressing narrative to be sure. Do you think that the recent slowdown of the Chinese economy and the devaluation of the currency will make these teas more accessible, if at least for a short time, to the west? Also, has the constant search for more tea growing areas helped keep high quality material reaching the west, albeit from new unheard of tea growing regions? Or has all tea available (quality wise) been on a downward slope…?

    Regards,

    • James says:

      Hi Karl,

      Those are good questions but also well beyond my understanding. At the top-end the sheer scarcity of the market, tends to make me more pessimistic than not.

      If we’re willing to pay, I think stuff that is available now from western vendors will continue to be available for at least a bit. Will it go up in price at the higher-end? Hard to say.

      -James

  2. marco says:

    “Never reaches the western market”, “Closely held and only released to select clientele”, “Only six tongs ever produced”, “It is almost completely bought out by mainland buyers”…

    All of it is tired BS used to sell tea at high prices to people with “fear of missing out”.

    Is it true that there are rare teas, excellent teas, teas hand-made with ever-higher levels of skill? Sure. Are they impossible to find in the so-called “western market”? Not necessarily. But the key thing is : does the law of diminishing returns hold? Yes.

    Is it “worth it” to spend upwards of 40$/g on a cake of 88QB? Only to a tiny fraction of people anywhere, whether in the “west” or “east” whatever those words mean. We all see the guys racing down the main street revving the engine of their lamborghini — we draw our own conclusions about them.

  3. MattCha says:

    James,

    Although your data can’t tell us that much, it is a great conversation starter about what top end puerh means and how it is represented in the West and why that might be. This stuff is never really talked about in depth, it’s usually just one comment stating something mater of fact when, as Karl pointed out, the issue is actually much deeper.

    Some thoughts…

    Value and top end…

    There is always more risk involved for these western vendors in pressing puerh with a higher priced maocha because there is no guarantee that the high price can equate to high value.

    Sometimes its just relative to the area. In this way the value inherent in the high cost is only applicable to area comparison or comparison of a particular characteristics that you value.

    Peace

  4. shah8 says:

    Okay, some generalities.

    1) Westerners has never had much direct access to elite teas. Pretty much all of them worked with more established eastern vendors. For example, the first YS label stuff was in partnership with a Korean brand in 2009. White2tea was a little tight with Taochaju brand. Teaurchin’s best tea, that 2012 Xikong, was in partnership with a guy who already had a thing going. So for the most part, especially until about 2014, it seems to me like Westerners piggybacked on established vendor networks. Another issue is that Westerners tend to be behind when it came to new elite areas. Not quite so much that *no* attention happened–Yunnan Sourcing pretty much got on the small-leaf train and non-“GFZ” Mansa more or less when other high end tea brands did, with that 2010 fall Xikong and Wangong–but in not really centering effort in acquisition and marketing on such micro-area gushus until a few years later. Of course, 2014 and 2015 were the inflection point, by the time western vendors like W2T got around to handling their own “Last Thoughts”, really great teas started spinning out of reach for virtually every vendor, West and East.

    2) Over the time period that puerh has been active in the West, I think it’s important to say a couple of things–One, the West has *never* been behind when it came to gushu teas, with the small exception of Taiwanese elite brands and the people around them ~2009-2014 or so. When it came to newer teas, post 2005,2006 the West basically discovered teas at the same rate as the East. What the West has been behind on, and always will be behind on, is in aged teas in good shape.

    3) We talk about the idea of teas that will never leave China way too much compared to the truth when it comes to puerh. That sort of thing has always been true of elite yancha, longjing. The thing is, even for elite puerh, first, there is quite a bit of production–a couple of tons is a lot of tea for elite teas, we just think of them in terms of cakes. Second, most young puerh doesn’t really “pass the mom test” in terms of agreeable taste and tummy. Third, the sort of puerh that elites chase, again, is aged teas. Now, especially today, elite puerh is oversubscribed, but it still far more democratic in distribution and access than is the case for longjing or yancha, and in not too distant past, ridiculously so. We westerners have not had *no* chance at getting spoiled.

  5. Jonny山內 says:

    I think we have to also consider branding, many boutique teas don’t necessary have the market confidence so there is some consumerist psychology going on when a “unique pressing” is released with a clever brand signature or story that hikes up the price.In this sense I suggest that many boutique productions and Western facing vendors don’t reflect the general trend in the broader market. For example I was able recently to purchase the same 2010 pressing of Bulang origin from a Chinese facing vendor at the same price as I did 2 years ago, whereas I see phenomenal hikes in cost in other more “boutique” vendors.

  6. John says:

    Marco said:
    “Never reaches the western market”, “Closely held and only released to select clientele”, “Only six tongs ever produced”, “It is almost completely bought out by mainland buyers”… All of it is tired BS used to sell tea at high prices to people with “fear of missing out”.

    I tend to agree with Marco’s line of thought. I’ll add that maybe that elusive incredible sheng puerh we all have in our mind simply doesn’t exist. Maybe the reason we’re all continually seeking a higher grade and more elusive cake of puerh is because we aren’t entirely satisfied with the puerh we’ve had. What if there isn’t anything better than the best puerh we’ve already had. What if there never will be a puerh we would score a perfect 10. What if the holy grail isn’t puerh at all, because puerh tea processing was never about achieving the best product possible for consumption, but was about overcoming logistic challenges. What if aged yancha is indeed the holy grail, and puerh will always be found lacking, even if someone with more money than sense is willing to pay six to seven figures for a rare cake for the bragging rights. Imagine a field where puerh cakes have been placed in rows, each colorful wrapper grouped together from different vendors. From a distance would it look so different from a field of tulips?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulip_mania

    • Jonny山內 says:

      This is an interesting and valid point and I often wonder when I host sessions how much is it about the tea and how much is it about the story around the tea. We only add to these stories ourselves in how we present them or filter them through out own subjective experience.

      I wonder if a tea that can be challenging to many tastes would be less palatable without its story.

      Additionally, we can all maybe recognise that some of the most humble teas can with age or attention become so special in the brew in absence of a “story” but might not ever receive the attention or value they deserve.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.