Time Machine! Pu’erh Snapshot… 2008

If only I got into pu’erh 5 years earlier…
-Every single pu’erh addict (regardless of when they got into pu’erh).

The year is 2008. Obama was elected. Lil Wayne was weird but still OK to like. In the midst of the steroids crisis, MLB considered A-Rod the great clean hope. The world economy took a dump… And perhaps most importantly, the commodity known as pu’erh had just busted.. in the autumn of 2007. With the power of hindsight and the way back machine, let’s search the depths of the internet and see what the pu’erh scene looked like in 2008…

Note #1: I wrote about 60% of this report, before I ran into/remembered this TC forum post from a few months back. Likely an unconscious inspiration to that point. Read it! Shahs a provocative thinker when it comes to pu’erh, and a good writer.
Note #2: In 2008, I entered my final year of college. About a month in, the economy hit and it quickly became apparent that despite a supposedly safe and secure degree (EE) I was going to graduate in the wrong year.

Preface: The Bust

The pu’erh bust in 2007 is well-covered and documented in Zhang Jinghong’s book. The bust occurred in mid-late 2007, after the record-setting spring harvest. It’s elegantly put by Hobbes in movie voiceover mode (source):

We witnessed the dark days of countless hundreds of factories opening almost overnight – I met one chap in Beijing whose uncle had just opened a factory, admittedly knowing nothing of pu’er, because of the boom. (“Buy leaves, compress leaves, ???, profit”, as they say…) We witnessed previously respectable producers capitalising by quadrupling their output (17+ Xizihao productions in 2007, and counting). We witnessed the cheapening in quality of favourite brands in order to meet demand.

Prices inflated, the middle-men got out early with their fortunes, the financially-foolish sheep pumped in further capital, before the bubble inevitably burst, leaving the aforementioned latecomers sitting on warehouses of low-quality bingcha.

-Half Dipper (post on the 2008 Menghai Peacock)

What was hot?

This was a quiet year compared with 2007. In the mid 2000s, Taiwanese boutique labels like Xizihao and Chenguanghetang really started to pickup steam. While prices took a hit across the board in 2007, in the long run lower-end tea ended up bearing the brunt of it. Despite what was then dubbed as unrealistic prices, areas like Lao Banzhang had setbacks, but quickly regained steam and never really fell off the map. Lao Banzhang in particular was infamously locked down by Chenshenghao (a mainland China brand) in 2008, creating a chaotic situation that had a rippling effect to nearby areas. Inevitably other areas (i.e. Bingdao, Naka, Wangong) began to take advantage of the single village/mountain sourcing/marketing trend and put themselves on the map.

What were the factories doing?

Transitioning. CNNP and all the small factories pasting on tiepais got blasted hard by the pu’erh bust and most never really recovered. With the CNNP label overused and exposed, there was alot of turnover in the industry.

How about the big brands? Dayi and Xiaguan? They got hit hard by the bust, but at least had a brand image to fall back to. It’s also no secret that Dayi and Xiaguan recipes have changed (mainly for the worst) throughout the years. Many (correctly) point to 2004 as a pivotal turning point, the year where pu’erh was watered down to satiate growing demands. However, many of these teas continued to decline well beyond 2004. Many of the special production cakes (Big Green Tree) of the late 1990s to mid 2000s were also slowed down. Importantly, not all big factories really bounced back. Just take a look at 6FTM.

In today’s prices the 2005 801 8582 sells for ~333RMB at its approximate wholesale rate (~$54). The 2008 sells for ~124RMB (~$20) (source: Donghe Tea). That’s a pretty fast price drop-off and much faster than it would be given identical base material. 2008 puts us right smack in the middle of this transition. A similar pricing gap happens in the 7542 as well.

Current Prices of 7542 & 8582 Through the Years (in RMB, Donghe Tea)

7542 8582
2003 1571 928
2005 488 (402) 333
2008 208 124
2011 123 98
2014 109 N/A
Where were western vendors up to?

There were less. Yunnan Sourcing was an ebay store that mainly focused on big factory tea. Essence of Tea was called Nadacha and mainly specialized in older pu’erh. Tea Urchin, Chawangshop, White2Tea, Mandala Tea. Didn’t exist. All launched much later.

Where could you buy pu’erh as a westerner? As is still the case today, alot of the factory tea was sold at ebay stores (Dragon Tea House or Yunnan Sourcing). Still, the kingpin of them all at the time.. The one offering all the cool, hip, boutique Taiwanese labels. The one putting on pu’erh tasting events with traveling pu’erh people. A constantly updated site whose premium products sold out quickly, often on pre-order. Ladies and gentlemen… The now thoroughly unhip, Hou de Asian Art.

These days western-facing vendors are all about their own private pressings. It’s a logical step forward as it eliminates extra middlemen and goes along with the current market trends. This wasn’t the case in 2008. Essence of Tea (Nadacha) and Pu’erh Shop were some of the first western-facing vendors to press their own cakes. Nadacha’s 2008 run were largely a trial run, with a more full lineup in 2009. His experience was documented in his blog.

Where were people talking?

Two long-running blogs about serious tea, Marshaln and Half Dipper were alive and well in 2008. Blogs like the Mandarin’s Tea Room, Ancient Tea Horse Road, Phyll’s Sheng, Tuocha Tea, BBB, and Chadao were still active. Hster had just gone on what would be a 5-year hiatus. The pu’erh live journal community (now very much defunct) and Teachat (still active) were also buzzing. The massive Badger & Blade Sheng of the day was posted at the end of 2008.

What was being reviewed/talked about?

Options were a bit different than they are now. Much of the conversation today revolves around the young teas that western vendor’s produce and whatever teas they stocked. Because virtually no western vendors were producing their own tea, what were people actually drinking?

  • B&B forum was perfecting their masochistic, iron-chest toad style with young Menghai and Xiaguan..
  • Better old tea was more accessible and affordable.
  • There was alot of grumbling about the price of young teas going up, although not as much as 2007.
  • Marshaln, being much closer to the Asian market, discussed odds and ends not available to the west.
  • The currently very pricey brand, Hailanghao was affectionately referred to by Hobbes as “Good old Hailanghao”. Times have certainly changed.
  • The rest of the community was drinking a mish-mash of young factory tea, middle-end brands like Douji and Hailanghao, some boutique label teas (most frequently Xizihao) and the occasional older tea.

What would’ve been the best to buy?

This is a fun section to speculate about. It also questions your true intentions. Are you looking to drink or invest. As someone who’d like to be identified as a drinker, I’m more sympathetic to the former category. Even if you’re a Xiaguan-hound who can be satisfied with $5 tuos (nothing wrong with that), it’s still important to spend our theoretical future bucks in places and channels that are no longer available or much more expensive in 2015.

With the power of looking back, there’s a few options here. The most obvious places to look are: hot areas, aged tea, and areas where they intersect. To simplify, we’ll bar ourselves from traveling and assume that we’re restricted to the western market.

Hot Areas

According to Chensheng, Lao Banzhang spring prices dropped from 1700RMB/kilo to 400RMB from 2007 to 2008 (source). Newsflash.. It’s 2015, and Lao Banzhang gushu prices are closer to 6000RMB and beyond. In addition, much of the best base material never sees the open market. Those “insanely” priced 2008 Chenshenghao Lao Banzhang are all of a sudden starting to look pretty good for investment purchases. It’s a big brand and a landmark production. Not sure if any western vendor sold them, but it’s a visible brand and you could probably track it down somewhere. Other LBZ like Xizihao’s 2006 Taichi Yin and Yang were sold on Houde for the seemingly exorbitant $145 (they’re not easily available now, although murmurings say they sell for ~$1000 in TW).

In eastern XIshuangbanna, there’s the 2006 CGHT Chawang and 2007 CGHT Chawang (both sold for the mind-blowing $85/357g on Houde), as early examples of Guafengzhai. Similarly big 500g YQH Yiwu Chawangs could be acquired for ~$60-75. These now vary in price, with the 2004 (sold for $139.50 in 2007) being particularly expensive.

Note: In 2007, there were also grumblings about expensive young tea (Marshaln, Hobbes). Hindsight is 20/20 in this case. Many of these cakes were relatively expensive (for then) and were priced around $80-100/357g cake. Consider that these days, the middle-chunk of W2T’s 2015 Spring lineup costs $50/200g.

Factories, Aged Tea, & Famous Productions

Another area where you could make a decent $$. Let’s hop over to Houde’s Aged Pu’erh selection in 2008 and Green Cake categories and open up our futuristic wallets.

Most eye-poppingly, there’s the 2002 Banzhang made by Dayi, a tea that helped sound the conch for Lao Banzhang. This is basically triple jeopardy. It’s Dayi, Banzhang, and very famous. It sold for a humble $57.50 at the end of 2007 and $75 in 2008. Yes in a western online tea store. This is an early example of a  200g xiao beeng, putting it around $0.30/g-0.40/g. What’s it go for now? A full 357g cake on the wholesale market sells for 12,500RMB or $2000 USD (donghe), coming out to ~$5.50/g. That’s 14-18x return on investment. Not bad.

Most non-numbered legit Dayi purchased in 2008 was probably a pretty good investment, especially the special productions. The 2008 peacock series (originally ~$10/cake) now sells for ~$350+ on Taobao. Older peacocks have appreciated even more. There’s also the 1997 Shui Lanyin and Menghai Peacock Tuo which Houde used to sell… Recently the 2001 Jianyun has popped back up at White2Tea. It sold for $94.50 in 2008. Now it sells for a slightly more expensive $1090 at White2Tea. Non-Dayi that would’ve done well with resale value. The YYX was sold at Houde, where both thick and thin paper sold for under $100 (now they’re ~$500).

Still, this wasn’t a can’t miss situation. You could pick the wrong horse. Noone wants to be the guy left with jians of 6FTM.. Take for instance a pair of 1999 Yiwus, the 1999 Big Green Tree and 1999 Daduguang. if you got a little too cute and went off-brand and bought the 1999 Daduguang for $320. That production still sells for under $300 at Sunsing. You wouldn’t have lost much, but it would’ve made a relatively mediocre buy. Conversely the seemingly overpriced 1999 Big Green Tree ($475 at Houde) now sells for a gotta-sell-your-kidneys $1608 at Bana Tea.

Note: Other mediocre investments. Young plantation tea from no-name factories. You’d be sitting on a bunch of $10 beengs with very little resale value.
Note #2: In the case of Dayi, investing in the older/more premium teas would’ve been ideal. Cheaping out and buying 2008 7542s and 8582s would’ve resulted in far more modest gains, as they haven’t appreciated much in value and can still be had inexpensively.

Size Then Now % Increase Source (now)
2007 CGHT Chawang 357 $85.00 $300.00 252.94% Taobao
1999 Big Green Tree 357 $475.00 $1,608.00 238.53% Bana Tea
1999 Daduguang Yuanbao 357 $320.00 $283.00 -11.56% Sunsing
1997 7542 357 $255.00 $746.00 192.55% Best Tea House
2001 Jianyun 357 $94.50 $700.00 640.74% Donghe
2008 Peacock Set 1785 $50.00 $375.00 650.00% Donghe
2008 7542 357 $12.00 $33.58 179.83% Donghe
2008 8582 357 $10.00 $20.00 100.00% Donghe

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9 Responses to Time Machine! Pu’erh Snapshot… 2008

  1. Uncle Larry says:

    Try going back to 1999. The only guide on line was Pu-erh, A Westerner’s Quest
    Which is now a ghost site and, He is now drinking Coffee!!! It told you nothing. It made puerh a very intimidating tea. Very few vendors. Not sure back then who to trust. No real info on yixing or gaiwans. It was a dark place.

    • James says:

      Aha. The mystery of Mike Petro reveals himself. Now a coffee drinker… I hope the future of the rest of us pu-heads isn’t quite so dreary (kidding).

      Cheers,
      -James

  2. brian says:

    Interesting read. I’ve thought about this before… I had been an oolong drinker for so many years, but only got into puerh a few years ago; I felt like I had missed the boat on what now seems like amazing prices. It would have been significantly easy to stock up your home storage.

    It also causes me to really want to hit it hard now and stock up as much as I can, of the good stuff. Who knows what “quality” 10-15 year old tea will cost 10 years from now…

    • brian says:

      We may long for the days of the $320 ’05 Naka, or even $650 90’s blue mark

      • shah8 says:

        Without substantial new people with lots of disposable income entering the hobby, I don’t think this will be true. As some people in Asia are saying, puerh is in that five year stagnant phase where most people have their stash and new people haven’t discovered puerh yet.

    • James says:

      Thanks for the post Brian! I agree completely and it’s also something I think a lot (/obsess) about.

      Cheers!
      -James

  3. shah8 says:

    A couple of comments.

    1) It shouldn’t be underestimated the extent to which puerh required the internet to happen. Too many types of puerh, that does too many different things. Too few people with experience talking face to face with the few others who have it or are learning it. With a drink where you have to actually learn to appreciate, as opposed to greens, blacks, or oolongs that deliver fairly standard flavors. Not to mention all of the fakes on the scene. You might think that old puerh.net/livejournal was crude and full of misinformation and adulation of bad tea back in 2006, but eastern internet sources weren’t that much better! It was probably worse given the dominance of generally reputable tea sellers in the West, like Best Tea, Houde, GrandTea, etc back then moderated the scams generally present in puerh.

    2) If you went as far back as 2006, when you could get all of these boutique teas relatively cheaply, the information environment was such that you didn’t really know why you should buy such teas rather than cheaper factory teas that were stronger tasting. “Not much difference!”. It was a lot of trouble buying old teas unless Houde had it–you had to have people over in China buying it for you and trusting that they knew what they were doing. If you could deal directly with a shop, you had problems getting money to them and getting tea out of the country. For some reason, for example, it seems not be possible for taiwanese tea sellers to sell teas to Malaysia or elsewhere directly as you would a Taobao outfit.

    3) Back then, in 2006-2008 or so, famous teas, like the 1999 yiwu teas, 88qingbing, Yuanyexiang etc, dominated the conversations here and in Asia about what were the best teas, even though they’re not necessarily the best. They simply were what people were most familiar with and could talk to each other intelligibly about. Puerh Teapot Magazine kept focus on these teas as did internet personas like Cloud or Ulumochi. Thus the gravitation of expectactions slowed the appreciation of not as famous tea for its own qualities, until finally they were mostly just too rare and expensive to be part of the conversations today.

    I think this might be a cool article for some people: http://www.nicolastang.com/tea/articles/201011astringency.html

    • James says:

      Hi shah,

      Thanks for chiming in. Interesting thoughts and insights. Hadn’t considered the internet factor, but I think that’s a good point and definitely true for the west.

      Cheers,
      -James

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