Sample Upwards! Why You Should Consider Trying Teas You Have No Intention in Buying

When I’m buying cakes of tea I tend to gravitate towards certain price ranges and have a mental ceiling of how much I’m willing to spend on tea. It’s not really based off of anything well reasoned or rationalized and I’ll occasionally break it, but more of an innate psychological barrier. This $/g line ends up being a pretty modest $0.25/g-$0.30/g. Occasionally I’ll spend up but if I look back at the purchases I’ve made in the past few years, the vast majority fall in this range or lower. This to me, seems like natural behavior and I think most folks will have impulses on what they’re willing to spend, especially once they’ve had a couple years of drinking and buying. People’s own price tendencies and intuitions undoubtedly vary person to person. Many have yet to convert to the $/g school so these decisions may manifest itself in $/cake numbers as well. For some, this could be $30 cakes or $100 cakes. For those who think in $/g, this may  be $0.50/g or $0.10/g.


Why Sample?

There’s a couple obvious reasons to sample tea. An obvious one is to (a) try and learn from the tea’s session. Another is to (b) evaluate the tea and determine if it’s worth buying more of. Sometimes, both reasons may apply. One thing I noticed back in my second year of drinking pu’erh, once I started to wind down from the tea of the month reports, is that I started to focus disproportionately on (b) and start to neglect (a). Most everything worth sampling was something I would consider buying. I’ve come to think this was a mistake.

Sample Upwards. Early On & Later

Pu’erh per session isn’t necessarily expensive at the high-end. If we’re willing to spend what we would spend going to an inexpensive restaurant (say a modest $10), we’d actually have a pretty limited selection of tea at the top of the western market. At 6 grams, that’d be over $1.50/g. It is the cake quantity that often makes high-end pu’erh seem expensive. Even a $1000 cake comes out to under $3/g, and under $20 for a session if a sample is available. That’s not cheap and I’m not suggesting you do this everyday or even at all, but $20 is nothing outrageous.

Sampling Early On. I’ve talked in the past about trying not to cheap out. With samples, not cheaping out is even more important. Sample up, including teas you know you will not or should not buy full cakes of.

There’s no big need to accumulate a ton of tea early on, learning should be the primary goal. Higher-end teas offered usually come out around $1-$2/gram, which puts a 25 gram sample at $30-50. Most people buy $50 cakes at some point. Consider buying $30-50 samples instead of those cakes!

You can learn from $7 samples and/or $50 cakes, but at a certain point there’s more value in learning from something that is more special and uncommon. This is true even if your takeaway is that you find a certain category of higher-end tea to simply not be worth your while.

Sampling Later On. In year 8 of tea as a hobby, sampling widely isn’t nearly as appealing as it once was in years 1 or 2. Early on, partly thanks to big orders and thanks to TeaDB I’d regularly have a few hundred samples sitting around. For a couple years I’d drink through the majority of young tea produced by western vendors. This would amount to approximately 100 samples of young pu’erh per year. Now, I am drinking out of my stash very often and sample less. This allows me to be pickier when I do actually sample.

Even though the teas I’m drinking come from my stash probably hover around that $0.20-$0.30/g mark, sampling from this price range isn’t always terribly enjoyable. In my opinion, I’d actually be doing myself a disservice to limit samples towards this lower range. Having an above average, positive VOATO (Value Over Average Tea Owned) is more difficult than having an above average, positive VORT (Value Over Replacement Tea), so if I sample in the $0.20-$0.30/g range there’s a high likelihood I would enjoy a session from a tea in my stash more than the average sample. 

If I’m scouting teas to purchase, there’s a reason to drink cheaper samples. Otherwise, there’s a clear incentive to drink teas I own or sample upwards towards teas I will enjoy and learn more from. With a tea stash that’s already too big, sampling upwards makes a lot more sense than buying high-quantities of inexpensive samples.

  • The amount I’ll spend on cakes tends to average out around $0.25/g, but if I were to add up my sampling that $/g amount would go way up. I’d estimate around $0.50/g.

Sample Up! Try Teas w/No Intention of Buying A Cake

There’s an inherent collection building appeal to those in the pu’erh sphere. I’ve even seen some people unwilling to sample, because they always want to buy a cake. There is value in getting many repetition with certain teas, but I think it puts a silly handicap on ourselves by forcing such a huge quantity of tea (357g cakes are ~35-70 sessions) for every tea.

Not everything needs to be about accumulation. Other types of tea, oolong, hongcha, and greens don’t have the same aging sheen to them. I think there’s often value in doing our best to avoid this mindset and treating pu’erh like other teas with less aging desirability. That includes trying teas with essentially no intention of buying a cake or large quantity. Avoid falling into the trap of only sampling teas where you can afford a full cake.

Cake Splits & Group Buy

One related form of participation is in cake splits and group buys. I think these are great, partially because it offers a chance to try a tea and reduces the appeal of collecting. Instead of a nice, new cake, you end up with a picked apart and likely imperfect chiseled off piece. Much of the same reasoning as sampling applies, and I think it’s worthwhile to shoot upwards as well.

Increasing Access & Offering Samples

If your goal is to get more people to try these teas, offering samples is important. I understand why vendors don’t like to offer samples for every tea, it’s annoying and not fun to break up cakes. But there’s probably a pretty good portion of people that are willing to sample a $100+ cake and another portion that will buy a $100+ cake after sampling — but the segment of those willing to straight blind buy it is substantially less. Teas of this price already come with pricing barriers and asking someone to take a leap of faith is often too much.

I think Scott (YS) is a bit ahead of the curve compared with other vendors in offering smaller samples. He’s well setup to scale and offering smaller than 25 grams for particularly expensive teas is a good service to his customers. I wouldn’t expect most vendors to do this, but offering 10-15 gram samples instead of a full 25 grams is a nice way to nudge drinkers towards trying otherwise expensive and less accessible teas..

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8 responses to “Sample Upwards! Why You Should Consider Trying Teas You Have No Intention in Buying”

  1. James,

    Good article, very thought provoking. I folow the above philosophy but for those reasons listed in the article but one additional one. I like to test these high end teas against my collection to help evaluate my teas…how they stack up. Also, I have run into the situation where I was considering an expensive tea from a certain area and determined that what I had in some volume was just as good so no need to buy more.

    • Hi Karl,

      Good point and thanks for sharing. If I didn’t sample, I’d probably have a lot more dumb purchases in my collection.


  2. To offer another reason to sample high: If you are trying a new category of tea (whether broad, like puer generally, or specific, like a particular Dancong cultivar) sampling high reduces the risk that you will get a dud tea that turns you off the category altogether.

    For example, when I first tried tieguanyin I tried some very cheap stuff that was not good, and I thought the problem was tieguanyin so I didn’t try any more for ages. Eventually I gave it another go, and since then I’ve found tieguanyin to be one of my favourites (especially aged) and realized that the problem was just that one tea.

    If you sample in the higher ranges, say $0.5/g then I think you are much less likely to get turned off by poor processing, bad base material and other faults.

    Once you know you like a good version of a type of tea you can go bargain hunting with a good idea of what flavour you are looking for.

    • Thanks Toby. That’s a really good point. I think a lot of people get turned off by pu’erh in particular due to the crappiness of the ripe that’s peddled in Chinatowns.

  3. I sometimes struggle with the concept of samples as I feel impelled to drink them when sometimes they aren’t a tea that is either enjoyable or I would drink in any big way. The benefit of them is that at least I can get through them quicker and I haven’t spent a lot on them. However, equally, sometimes you get a great sample where you wish you’d bought only to find out its sold out before you’ve had chance to purchase more.
    The other concern with samples is the bing hole issue with cake samples. You might end up not getting a true reflection of the tea.

    • Hi Jonny,

      Reasonable points. Personally, I view sampling as an imperfect but good way to try teas. I used to have that issue of feeling forced to drink something but have gotten a lot better at just cutting my ties and giving away teas I don’t think I’ll ever drink.


  4. Great post, James. Sampling up with raw puerh is also a great way to evaluate teas that we already own. Often a side-by-side comparison of a higher end tea with a similar tea from our stash will enlighten us to qualities of both teas that are not apparent when sampled individually. The results can be both positive and negative. One may find that a highly praised and equally highly priced sample may far exceed one’s current tea stash in enjoyability, and will result in a desire to buy the higher end tea and possibly regret some previous purchases. But in some cases, there can be quite a different surprise when the highly praised and highly priced tea sample fails to possess qualities that differentiate it from much cheaper teas already in one’s possession. I suppose both of these scenarios can be interpreted as positive or negative depending on one’s outlook. If I find a highly praised expensive tea is similar to a $25 cake I bought, I’m thrilled to have the $25 cake and may buy more of the inexpensive cake. I’m not concerned with the branding or market value–I’m only concerned with the true appraisal of the tea. Either way the evaluation goes, the education is well worth the relatively small price of admission for samples.

    And of course tastes differ. While one tea aficionado may prefer bitter, strong, eye-blurring, face-numbing tea, another may only want sweet and soft teas and may dislike any kind of body reactions.

    Finally, I think sampling the teas covered by multiple bloggers can be a great way to determine how one’s own tastes compare to the blogger’s tastes. If we’re lucky enough to find a blogger with closely aligned preferences to our own, we have a high probability of liking the same teas that the blogger reviews positively, and then a sample becomes less necessary, and we can order a cake with the confidence that we will enjoy the tea.

    • Thanks for the comment John. Especially when getting started, I think sampling is very necessary and a great gauge to figure out where you and your tastes might be.


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