In 2007, it was estimated that as much as 95% of the pu’erh purchased was for storage and speculation, and not actual consumption (Zhang, Ancient Caravans). Psychologically free of tea going bad, pu’erh-heads are known to go a little purchase crazy. People buy and store pu’erh for many different reasons. Some of us buy as we go. Others store pu’erh as a hobby to see what might happen. Others simply store pu’erh because we bought too damn much of it!
Prices (usually) Rise Around Chinese New Year
Most vendors will raise their prices for their existing stock of pu’erh around Chinese New Year (either in late January or February). There’s two primary reasons for this. The first is pu’erh is usually considered more desirable with age and you are now paying for a year of presumably decent storage where the cake took up the vendor’s inventory space. Raising the price also helps to make their next years batch (usually becomes available in May/June/July) more appealing. Finally, part of this price adjustment will often just be market recalibration. The amount prices fluctuate depends on the supply and demand. Some teas may remain the same price while others may be raised by 2-3x! This has been trended and prices will generally rise for young tea by ~10% and older tea by ~25%.
Note #1: Pu’erh prices have gone way, way up in the last two decades. Shopping at vendors that haven’t raised their prices in a few years can be an effective strategy. What was previously fairly (or even overpriced) can suddenly seem quite appealing in the current market place (see Houde, Fine Pu’er).
According to the vice head of the Yunnan Tea Association, pu’erh production hovered around 1,000 to 2,000 tons annually from the 1970s until the early 2000s. This measurement used the 2003 definition, which oddly enough only included ripe pu’erh. With both the growth of the market and a more inclusive definition of pu’erh, production leapt to 52,000 tons in 2005 and 80,000 tons in 2006. This is a huge increase in production! Since the really good base material can’t be replenished quickly, productions have become watered down and are not the same as they once were. It should be no surprise that the 2003 7542 is several times more expensive than the 2013 7542. It’s not just its age, it’s a totally different tea.
A Few Approaches
Buy Drink Nows
This is the simplest way of buying pu’erh. Buy pu’erh that you’d like to drink! Well, duh. For some this might mean aged/semi-aged pu’erh or maybe even young pu’erh (if you’ve got the stomach chops). If you’re consumption matches your purchasing, then you don’t even really have to worry much about storage. If you want to keep the tea in its drinkable state, just put it in ziplocks. Things get a bit more intricate when we’re talking about the pu’erh addict buying beyond their means of consumption.
Pros: Simple, probably affordable.
Cons: You can only buy as fast as you can drink!
Buying Same Year Young Pu’erh
This is a pretty common way to go. Just buy it when it comes out! The price is as low as it’ll ever be.. You don’t have to worry about it selling out.. Why not get it while its hot? This can be especially appealing for low-production areas, where the price isn’t necessarily as stable. There’s a couple problems with this. Pu’erh takes a while to settle and the taste will be dynamic and change a good deal in the first few years (especially the first). This makes it an inherently riskier approach than buying something with a few extra years…
Pros: Price, available.
Cons: More duds.
Buy ~2-4+ Years Old Young Pu’erh
The National Basketball Association (the NBA) is constantly battling the players union to increase the age limit to join its league. Why? It’s not necessarily because athletes can’t become excellent pros if they declare too early for the draft (see Lebron, Kobe). It’s because the extra year is an extra year of scouting and observation for teams, that increases the certainty that they can more accurately evaluate the player a potential draftee will become. There’s a similar strategy for buying pu’erh.
If your main goal is to age pu’erh, why buy the tea fresh when it is so uncertain how it will develop? Buying tea a few years later takes advantage of the fact that the price rises relatively slowly for pu’erh when it is young (~10%). Not only do you get a few extra years of age, but simply giving the tea a few years to develop will give you a much better idea what direction the tea will age in. This is especially useful for picking out teas with processing flaws that might become apparent given a year or two. You’ll probably pay a little more than when the tea had been freshly pressed, but it might only be marginally more expensive.
However, there are inherently a few problems. The risk of selling out (or dramatic price rises). Both are significantly higher risks when the supply is limited (old trees don’t grow overnight). This small supply also makes these low-production teas prone to more dramatic price rises (i.e. the next hot pu’erh area).
Pros: More certainty with the aging path. Especially good for filtering out poorly processed tea. Often only slightly more expensive than fresh tea.
Cons: More expensive than buying young tea. Risk of the tea selling out.
Buy ~8-10 Year Old Pu’erh
The idea is similar to above. Buy the tea before it starts to rise astronomically but after you have an even better idea what it is and where it is going. This tends to be an effective strategy for big factory or mid-end tea. These teas don’t suffer as much from the fluctuations of a small supply and will probably only rise by ~10%/yearly. Unlike gushu, the risk of selling out or the price going through the roof is largely non-existent. Because of the higher production volume here, this can be a good candidate to go through Taobao. Going that route, it’s best to buy a test cake first. You’ll need to be careful of both fakes and just bad storage.
Pros: Tea is already aged, clear direction of aging path!
Cons: Have to pay a bit more for the age.
Buy Tea With Different Storage Than You
Storage can make all the difference. Seattle will never be Hong Kong or Guangdong. A fan of more humid storage but queasy about replicating the high humidity? Since you might be unable or unwilling to replicate these conditions, deliberately seek out cakes that fit within these parameters. Find a taobao vendor that sells clean, but nice teas from Guangdong. Things like traditional storage are extremely difficult (and risky) to execute.
Pros: Diversifies your stash.