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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19 Responses to Relative Price & Tea

  1. Bef says:

    I personnaly use coffee as a comparison for daily drinkers, and wine for higher end teas that I tend to drink only over the week-ends.

    Even a tea like Last Thoughts is pretty cheap, compared to good wine.

    • James says:

      Hi Bef,

      Thanks for the note. I like that! Very functional approach. Coffee for everyday and wine for the weekends.

      Alas this is true. We can get so caught up with sticker shock that if we step back it’s really not a terribly egregious yearly investment. It sure as heck beats a few bottles of nice wine for me.

      Cheers,
      -James

  2. Tessa says:

    That is a beautiful tea tray. Where did you buy it? Was it from the aforementioned Taobao purchase?

    • James says:

      Hi Tessa,

      Thanks! This tea tray has been a humble part of my tea and teaware collection for ~3 years. It’s usually quite a mess. I do appreciate the compliment.

      Cheers!
      -James

  3. Fiona says:

    It really depends for me what I find cheap I just bought a few sheng cakes and tuo for about 320 euro’s. A few years back I found spending 30 euro’s in one order much but what I bought then was vastly different, then I would buy like 4-5 different green/black tea’s and some mixed tea’s that could only be brewed about 2 times and 3 if I was lucky.

    Now I try to buy mostly pu erh and oolong because you can steep then a bit more and they can be aged instead of getting worse with age. It really has a lot to do with my perceptions about a sort of tea, if it is for example a black or green tea I will not go often above 10 euro’s for 100 grams but for an oolong I will pay about 15 to 30 euro’s.

    So most of the time I will try to use a price per gram of tea and guess a bit to estimate how many steeps I can get. I’ve changed quite a bit in my tea buying habits because now I’m more temped to spend a bit more but it still feels somewhat weird paying about 70 euro’s for one cake. That amount is not much if you think about how many working hours it would be but it is a learning process I guess for what I like to drink and how much money I’m willing to spend on it.

    • James says:

      Hi Fiona,

      Thanks for the comment and sharing your own experiences! For me it started out quite similar. It’s very difficult to force yourself to buy 2.5 months of tea all at once. My current issue is having the discipline to prevent myself from buying the next 250 years of tea for myself :).

      Cheers!
      -James

  4. Rie says:

    Fantastic write-up as always. Always enjoy the discussions into other aspects of tea culture, especially informal, often unfashionable topics like pricing. Hope you both are faring alright up there in Seattle, will you be at the Tea Festival?

    • James says:

      Hi Rie,

      Good to hear from you and thanks for commenting! Sorry we missed you when Tealet traveled through. Unfortunately the tea festival falls on the same weekend I will be traveling to Taiwan. Alas, Denny will also be abroad during that time. Hopefully soon…

      Cheers,
      -James

  5. Cwyn says:

    My writing has been geared toward older people who have yet another view of tea expenditures. If your kids are grown, your debts are low, you no longer need to eat as much, and/or upping your food quality (lobster over chicken) no longer appeals, then you’ll spend more on tea. A young woman might spend $500 on a purse or shoes, or $100 on tea, but she doesn’t have time for lunch and watches her weight with salads. Or another guy eats the same sandwich every day and buys the same tea to drink everyday just like the sandwich.

    Amongst my friends, I have some who like to buy the Paris teas and who are into the beautiful tea table and displays these create. Others buy a dirty basket of Liubao and call it a day. My point is none of these purchases have anything to do with money. It is all about lifestyle, and the place that tea has within it. For some, tea is a pragmatic purchase, for others it is about creating a beautiful scenario in which to unwind. What are the aesthetics, if any? This dictates what we spend because tea can be super cheap and a beverage, or it can be aesthetic.

    • James says:

      Hi Cwyn,

      Thanks as always for chiming in. As always it’s much appreciated.

      As someone with admittedly poor aesthetic and design sense (I think I reviewed the 2014 Last Thoughts in pajamas), I’ll admit to falling into the clueless tea nerd/socks & sandals category when it comes to such things.

      Cheers,
      -James

  6. Zach Wolf says:

    Do you think that Red Mark on Best Tea House is real haha?

    • James says:

      Hi Zach,

      Thanks for the comment. Personally speaking, I’m not sure and it’s not too important as the tea falls firmly out of my price range.

      I (haphazardly?) assumed a org like Best Tea House wouldn’t pull any funny business. As someone who has never tasted it (or anything close), I certainly wouldn’t be able to differentiate a well-made fake from the real deal. Will let others chime in to the legitimacy of their Red Mark.

      Cheers,
      -James

    • shah8 says:

      The storage might not be the best, but the red mark is probably real, just like the samples of the Red Mark that was for sale for a long time after the Pasadena ’07 puerh assembly at Houde.

      Best Tea House is not a ghost site. It’s basically one of the longest running teashops around, and was one of few Mainland tea brands focusing on gushu puerh (among all the other teas they provide). They used to press the most gushu of gushu teas, that 2700yo tree in Fengqing in the mid aughts.

      Here’s a blogpost about a visit to the very real shop: http://listeningtoleaves.blogspot.com/2011/07/best-visit-best-hosts-best-tea-house.html

  7. Richard says:

    Good article, James. You’re absolutely right, it’s all about relativity.

    I have been thinking about relative pricing since I started drinking loose-leaf tea. A coworker of mine is from Taiwan and each year would buy spring high-mountain oolong from a friend who ‘knows a guy’ and would extend the order to me and a couple other people. I was drinking dayuling that cost ~35$/150g that, when compared to dayuling that I’ve bought from western-facing vendors that charge closer to $125/150g was only edged out by the more expensive tea in extremely subtle ways.

    “Is it worth it?” is a question so subjective it’s ridiculous. What makes anything we spend money on ‘worth it’? So long as we are enjoying the things we purchase, who’s to say there’s anything wrong?

    • James says:

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks sir! Totally agreed. Price is really challenging and some of the $ we spend on cakes these days look damn silly compared to 5 or 10 years ago.

      Cheers,
      -James

  8. Andrew says:

    Interesting post! I’m still an undergrad, with meager financial resources, but like your friend SK, I tend to prefer somewhat more expensive teas. I usually prefer not to settle on a tea that isn’t very satisfying, but to go ahead and get something I know is good. (Samples and/or experience with the vendor are helpful here.) So overall I buy less tea, but it’s of a good quality.

    What I can’t really afford, but would like to do, is to put away tea for aging…

    • James says:

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for the comment. Buying less but good quality tea is a good way to go. I think most pu-heads start out and swing the other way.

      Cheers and happy tea drinking!
      -James

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