Relative Price & Tea

I have two friends, MS and SK, that I occasionally drink tea with. If I’m at a 9 or 10 (out of 10) as far as tea fanaticism, they’d both be around a 5 or 6. They drink daily, but have a more normal (healthy) appreciation of camellia sinensis. MS’ tea of choice is usually Yancha or occasionally a Dancong. SK is a little more broad but is similar, usually opting for darker, roasty oolongs (Yancha, Dancong, Taiwanese). Neither one has particularly gaudy/expensive tastes and they both pay similar amounts on rent, food, and living. Both also got introduced to tea around the same time and are willing to spend some spare money on acquiring reasonable quality loose-leaf tea.. That’s where the similarities end.. SK just graduated from nursing school where she accumulated student debt and has just started to work it off. MS graduated with a technical engineering degree five years ago and has had consistent, decent-paying engineering jobs since.

Ripe Pu'erh

Wet Leaf.

They also have very different opinions on what teas are expensive or not. If we were to compare strictly off of available resources, it’s a no-brainer. MS has been graduated longer and has been working/making money for far longer. From an outsider’s perspective, he should be far more willing to spend on tea. But that’s not the case. It’s actually the total opposite. This is an example of pricing benchmarks and relative price and how we frame the price of tea (and other things) in our head.

After both had their initial exposure to tea, they had different forays into exploring and actually buying tea. SK was proactive and explored a few local tea shops. She eventually settled on one in Seattle’s international district specializing in Taiwanese oolongs. This means SK was buying at 150g quantities (standard Taiwanese size) with teas that were priced around the ~$50 range or $0.33/g. MS on the other hand has done group orders, principally through Yunnan Sourcing and a rather adventurous Taobao order (see note below). As he’s settled into Yancha, he buys firmly from the $7-10/50g range (~$0.15/g), often opting for higher quantities for big discounts (~$0.11/g). SK has also done a few of these orders but acquires most of her tea locally.

When I was asking what they each wanted for another group order, they had very different reactions to the same teas. Things like YS ripe tea $14/357g Man Tang Hong III came across as inexpensive to both. More expensive teas like the $7-10/50g Yancha was acceptable for MS but still seemed very cheap to SK (remember, she’s comparing them to Taiwanese oolong prices!). MS balked at any teas above $10/50g whereas SK bought several teas in that range.. The signal that triggered the expensive ringbell in their head had almost nothing to do with how many resources they had and alot more to do with their past experience buying tea and by extension their standard for tea pricing.

Note #1: You could also make some argument about SK having higher-level taste, but having drank with both of them several times I’d argue against that notion.
Note #2: That Taobao order was unintentionally pretty wild!! MS ordered two tea trays. Both tea trays retailed for $15-20. He placed the order thinking he was getting just the trays in the picture. It turned out that each came with ~25-30 random assorted goods (teapots, teapets, etc.). It made my four cakes + fangcha look very modest in comparison. The package took three months and was the largest tea-related one I’ve ever received (shipping cost ~$55 for surface!).

Yunnan Sourcing, White2Tea Yancha

At what point do you consider a tea too pricy? Source: Yunnan Sourcing, White2Tea.

How we perceive cost is complicated and depends alot on how we mentally frame it and what we compare it to. Sticker-shock from the $$ we spend on an online order of tea can be quite shocking. A different friend about to jump down the rabbit hole once remarked. “I’m about to spend $60… On tea!?” Companies are constantly trying to frame buying tea in loose/cake form as relatively. One popular framing is the per cup measurement. Why? Because it ends up being a fairly favorable comparison. You might spend $29 at once, but it’s only $0.15/cup. Another popular comparison that’s used for high-end tea is the bottle of wine comparison. Again, tea easily wins. There’s also the coffee comparison which I’ve made in the past. An operation like Tea Drunk in NYC thrives on the cocktail vs. tea price. Against any relative tea/quality measurement compared with other tea it’s overpriced, but compared to cocktails or a bar it’s right in line. Cwyn likes to also take # of steeps and volume of consumption into account.

Note: With cake sizes decreasing it’s very important to do a $/g comparison. Those old-school 400g cakes might actually be pretty competitive.
Note #2: When moving from oolong to pu’erh, I perceived the majority of pu’erh to be absurdly cheap!

Giant Taobao Box

Giant Taobao Box.

Premium Tea

Of course, there’s the question of where to draw the line. What tea is premium vs. not? Maybe premium only means 50s Hongyin (God help you and your wallet). In that case, the per cup measurement and bottle of wine measurement don’t do well at all. Most likely, reach tea or premium tea is also a subjective qualification. It may just mean tea that is a little out of what someone thinks is a normal price for tea. In MS case, it might simply be YS Yancha that falls in the $15/50g range.

In the past, I’ve been surprised at how much money new tea drinkers are willing to spend on tea. This is especially true when presented with a per cup comparison. Without sticker shock and much of a conception of tea prices (perhaps a good thing?), people are often willing to spend a decent $ amount per gram.. They have a positive experience at a tea shop, get told the tea sells for $50 and are then told it comes out to $2/session. Without any other tea buying experience to compare it to or other alternatives to lookup it can be a pretty easy sell.. This all helps to explain how an operation like Teavana could use the per cup measurement to push alot of mediocre product.

Tea Sess

Tea Sess.

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