Sampling Pu’erh. A Few Considerations

What’s in the bag?? For people trying to explore pu’erh, sampling is inevitable. A sample is a good, albeit imperfect way to learn and get a feel for a tea. Pu’erh is an endless subsection of teas with various makes, source materials, storage etc. and while repetition is also very important, it’s also a good idea to sample widely to experience the breadth that pu’erh offers. Here’s a few considerations to keep in mind while sampling.

This post is intended for the anal-retentive pu’erh head who likes to (over)think through things.

Tea Samples

Samples & a Big Bag of Samples!

Sample Markup (or sampling ain’t cheap!)

Nearly all vendors charge a sample markup. If you were to calculate the cost/quantity for a sample vs. the cake, it will nearly always be higher for the sample. This is completely understandable. There’s a cost of labor directly tied in with breaking a cake and there will be a little loss of materials that occurs when chipping away at a sample. The actual sample markup varies tea to tea and can be anywhere from minimal (5%) to quite significant (200%).

Note: The sample markup is usually pretty consistent for each vendor, although some vendors seem to price their samples fairly arbitrarily (Houde)

Examples of Standard Sample Markup:

Tea Standard Quantity $ $/g Sample Markup
2013 Dashu Bulang (Cheap Plantation Tea), W2T 357 $12.00 $0.03 N/A
2013 Dashu Bulang Sample, W2T 25 $1.50 $0.06 78.50%
2013 Nanpozhai, YS, better quality 400 $86.00 $0.22 N/A
2013 Nanpozhai Sample, YS 25 $7.75 $0.31 44.19%
2014 Yibang, TU 200 $86.00 $0.43 N/A
2014 Yibang Sample, TU 30 $14.00 $0.47 8.53%
1990s HK Style Raw Pu’erh, W2T 357 $149.50 $0.42 N/A
1990s HK Style Raw Pu’erh, W2T Sample 25 $14.90 $0.60 42.32%

Did I get the center of the Beeng again??

Except for special occasions or for some smaller animals, when you goto the butcher you usually won’t buy an entire animal. Instead you’ll buy a specific piece of the animal. If you want a fatty cut of meat, you might ask for the belly or if you want something leaner maybe the tenderloin. It might all be from the same animal, but not all pieces are created equal and each has their own separate market price.

Scott of Yunnan Sourcing has commented in the past on the buying tendency of Russian customers who tend to place much larger orders into his shop, stating that a cake is just a sample. There’s some truth to this. When you are sampling you almost always get a specific part (or two) of the beeng. You’ll rarely get to pick what part of the beeng you’re getting when you buy online. It might be from the upper edge of the outside or the dreaded center of the beeng. Unfortunately just like an animal purchased from the butcher, not all pieces of a cake are created equal.

Why are these pieces not created equal? In most cases, the center will be more tightly compressed. This makes it more difficult to break apart, which results in an uneven brew or more broken leaves. For teas with any sort of age, the level of compression also affects the aging. As a result, the center can often be biologically younger or less mature than more loosely compressed pieces around the edge.

One final consideration is that some producers of pu’erh will vary their material around the beeng. This is especially true for factory recipes where different grades of material are mixed together for different parts of the beeng..

Note #1: This consideration is most cynically done when the best material is laid out visibly around the edges of the cake. The purchaser is in for a nasty surprise when they break off a piece and find the trashy leaves beneath the beautified surface.
Note #2: In my experience, most western vendors use relatively uniform material to make their cakes and don’t necessarily vary the leaf grade/material throughout the beeng.

Not Enough Tea!

In addition to the problem outlined above, samples may just not be enough time with the tea. While bad teas can be pretty easy to pick out after a single session, good teas are more complex and can take a few sessions to figure out. When buying in quantity for the long-haul, a 10 gram, 25 gram, or 30 gram samples may simply not be enough to properly evaluate a tea. Oftentimes, you’ll also end up with a bit of tea dust in your bag. You can choose whether to brew it or simply toss it out, but a few grams of dust can reduce four good sessions to three, or two good sessions to one. This is covered in more depth by Marshaln in this post on tea learning.

Center of the Beeng

The Center of the Beeng.

How’s the Bag

Most samples are sent in mylar/paper/plastic bags or pouches. Ever wondered how long it’s been in that little baggie? Maybe you let the tea sit in the baggie for a few months (or a year) or perhaps the vendor broke up several cakes into samples a year (or more) ago. By the time it reaches your table, it’s hard to know the complete story behind the tea you’re brewing. Unsurprisingly, samples age quite differently when they’re already broken up and in some sort of bag.

A few considerations:

  • Was the tea broken up into loose form or is it in one big chunk?
  • Were your leaves handled well (are they broken)?
  • What material was your sample sent in?

A Few Takeaways

In the end, these are a few things to be aware of when drinking your tea/sample. One session doesn’t really tell the whole story of one tea and a 25 gram sample has its limitations too. Barring the risk of the tea selling out, it’s often a prudent strategy to go from samples to single cake to more cakes or a tong. There’s alot of considerations that can be important when buying a cake (and sometimes a cake isn’t even representative). Sampling is an important, but definitely not foolproof way of learning and experiencing pu’erh.

Yunnan Sourcing Cakes

Cakes. The Real Samples?

This entry was posted in Aged Pu'erh, Article, Raw Pu'erh, Ripe Pu'erh, Tea Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Sampling Pu’erh. A Few Considerations

  1. Uncle Larry says:

    How fast do you get an order from White 2 Tea and Tea Classico?

    • Phil says:

      My experience with White 2 Tea is that it ships pretty fast, depending on the weight of the package and the shipping method used. I made the mistake of placing my first order with them at the start of the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival, when packages are not moved for about 10 days, and winter storms were shutting down the US east coast. It took about a month to arrive. But my last order made it to Vermont in 8 days. Information about shipping is on the White 2 Tea site: http://www.white2tea.com/shipping-returns/

    • James says:

      Hi Uncle Larry & Phil,

      My experience has been 1-3 weeks. Has nearly always arrived before I expected it!

      Cheers,
      -James

  2. Honza says:

    True words about tea samples. Very agree with you guys! Hope I can finish some day post about tea samples from my experience as vendor and tea drinker too.

  3. Klara says:

    Russian customers buy more beengs, because it’s a status symbol. Pu’erh was made widespread popular by celebrities and upper class. In Russia many people are attracted by the teadrunk properties of that tea and all the mystery around it. Weight loss, too. Scott has realized these needs and offers special information for the Russian speaking audience.
    The typical customer here in Europe ist different.

    • James says:

      Hi Klara,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m quite unfamiliar with the Russian tea audience, but it certainly seems like there’s a decent-sized pu’erh culture based over there.

      Cheers,
      -James

  4. Honza says:

    Russian customers are regular tea drinkers. From young to old people, whole families. Like here in China. Buy whole cakes is not problem for them. If is good, buy more , if not, drink the cake as daily tea.
    People in Europe, US, many of them , just try samples around all of online shops on the World, to see what is the taste of tea, then share the experience online on blogs or some websites as teachat.
    One nice guy Tony from Origintea told me, “You western drink and buy so little but talk and ask too much about tea”.

    • Bef says:

      Honza, just curious – are you based in Russia? Do you have an online store?

      • Honza says:

        I am not in Russia and from Russia and yes I have online store with customers from whole World so I think I can compare it, who from where buy what 🙂

    • Cwyn says:

      I would drink up more tea if I had friends.

    • Makyo says:

      There are western countries, where tea consumption ist higher than China. I think particularly westerners who are interested in Pu’erh have a very high tea consumption. I think these tea nerds have an enquiring mind to discover everything what often results in buying samples. One more point is, that people who live in market societies for decades simply don’t accept every thing they get. For example I wouldn’t drink a bad cake on a daily basis.

      • Honza says:

        Sure, try sample and then buy more, is normal. Buy some bad cake, pay expensive post and then be not happy, is not the best way.
        But I wrote about some special sort of online buyers, who only drink samples. Is kind of orders like 30 samples in one order. They buy here and there large quantity of samples, most of them search very randomly without any idea what puer – in taste or region they want to try,
        And you can see some of them are bloggers or teachat/others tea website members and from the little sample of tea they wrote number of words and opinions about the tea. Thats sort of sample drinkers not make me too happy, But is may personal opinion as vendor.
        There is too many factors which can make the sample different in quality with whole cakes, Puer tea is very different tea with DJ or green tea where you can by 15g sample buy 100kg the same batch without any worry,

        • Cwyn says:

          Honza, what you are missing is this: the talking and this type of buying is a phenomenon of a people who are Just Getting Started. The kids are starting to drink puerh now. The day of big puerh buying in the west is coming.

          • Honza says:

            I know, they are in the start. Some of them. But I am not sure if puer tea is good to study from 30 samples from each vendor. Study puer tea will still take long time (I know we western guys not have time and want know all fast, be masters NOW) and people will need drink several whole cakes to understand the taste. In summer, in winter, morning, afternoon, the same tea, for more times.
            25g samples not tell you too much specialy if people are beginners. In my opinion is better buy few cakes here, few cakes there, in middle to high quality, yound, 5 years old, 10 years old, some samples of aged tea. drink them and study. It´s will cost maybe the same price with 150 samples from eshops around the internet. Just my opinion. If I get samples from suppliers, specialy in plastic pack, the taste go down very fast, after month, taste is sometimes bad. I am not sure what beginners can know from samples.

          • James says:

            Hi Honza,

            That’s a good observation. I’ve wondered about how to balance variety vs. repetition. There’s certainly a compelling argument to be made for trying 5 teas 50 times (with cakes) vs. 100-200 teas 1-2 times (with samples).

            -James

        • James says:

          Hi Makyo & Honza,

          Thanks for the comments. Yes, I suspect many of us westerners drink primarily by ourselves, which slows our rate of consumption down compared to a Chinese or (apparently) Russian family.

          As evidenced by the overflowing boxes of samples in my apartment, I’m afraid I’m an offender of sampling widely and talking loudly. The trend of decreasing cake-sizes makes the “cake as a sample” is a decent way to combat that. A 200g cake is alot less overwhelming than some of those 500g (or even 357g) ones!

          Cheers,
          -James

          • Honza says:

            Hi James,

            the trend here in Yunnan is also 200g, or smaller size cakes, I saw 50g STONE PRESSED cakes , lovely . If price of maocha is too high, Chinese also start with small size puer products.
            For me big cake is something very nice, big cakes are more pretty in hand, is just something. But 200g cakes are much more friendly for beginners and it´s still whole cake, not like a little broken sad stuff in ZIP pack 😀

            Cheers,
            Honza

      • James says:

        Hi Makyo,

        Thanks for the comment. This is a good point, although I suspect us western pu’erh heads are still very niche (and small), compared to the Asian audience.

        Cheers,
        -James

  5. Tealizzy says:

    You make some good points. I’ve noticed a difference in leaf on the outside and the inside in some of my cakes. Never thought about samples that way before, but it makes sense.

  6. iGo says:

    Bef,
    In case it’s not apparent, Honza is the proprietor of chawangshop.com, a well respected on-line shop.

    Cheers.

  7. Phil says:

    One thing I’ve picked up from you, James, is the idea of using a spreadsheet (or database) to keep tabs on my stash, especially the samples: what I have, what I’ve tried, how much is left, the vendor, price per gram, brief tasting notes. I don’t know how I’d keep track of it all without good note-taking. But the unlabeled free samples present a huge mystery. Someday, when I’m feeling brave, I might actually try the unmarked plastic baggies of what look to be shu from a vendor on Alibaba…or I might use them as mulch.

    I’ve wondered about the issues you raise here: (1) which part of the cake is the sample from, (2) how long ago was it broken from the cake? In response to these variables that I cannot control, I do try to use similar brewing parameters for similar pu’erh samples, at least the first time I try them, so I can better assess how each one compares to others of a general category, based on whether it is ripe or raw, and the age/strength of a raw. Once I get a sense of the tea, I can adjust the parameters in response to how the tea reacts to my initial test. This involves a lot of leaf in a yixing pot around 150 ml to 160 ml.

    And I’ve definitely noticed a difference in the tea that results from the outer part of a cake and the center. The first time it happened was with one of my favorite ripe pu’erhs, when I got to the center of the cake and wondered why I had thought so highly of it just a few weeks prior. Ah, the vagaries of pu.

    • James says:

      Hi Phil,

      Thanks for chiming in. Yes, I have no clue how I’d keep track of it all without my inventory and tasting spreadsheets. Even after just a year of pu’erh buying, I find it to be fairly overwhelming. It does make me tempted to hit harder and avoid my stamp-collection tendencies.

      Cheers,
      -James

  8. Konrad says:

    These are some good insights, quite similar to my own.
    I work at a teashop, and we only break cakes into 50 or 100 gram samples. This way, the customer gets a bigger chunk, the possibility that he gets only the centre is not that big, while it still does not cost him an arm and a leg.

    Like Honza noticed above, European (and probably American customers too, I don’t know) tend to buy smaller quantities. Maybe producers should try to accommodate to this a bit – by pressing 100g and 200g cakes, beside the traditional 357g ones. The customer gets a whole cake, the price for a gram is probably higher, but I guess most people would like to buy three different 100g cakes much more than one 400g cake for the same price. I would. Also, when the tea turns out to be crap, one is left with 50g of tea he does not want, instead of 300g.

    • brian says:

      Personally, I’d rather see producers stick with 357g cakes, otherwise I’d just end up buying twice as many smaller cakes =)

      I really don’t go crazy with sample buying though. Probably 3 samples to every 5 cakes each month. End up with a lot more cakes rather than dozens of samples.

      • brian says:

        And the nice thing about EoT is that you can choose your sample size buy the gram. Get as much as you need to evaluate a cake, and it ensures that it was packed fresh, not stuck in pre-weighed 25g bags for who knows how long

        • Phil says:

          A quick look at EoT’s site…and another batch of samples will be headed my way. (Thanks, Brian!) Even as I stock up on the cakes, bricks, and tuos that tickle my fancy, I’m still trying to develop my palette for the various regions, ages, and storage methods. And I think I’m beginning to figure out which pu turns my crank, and why. But I could live off of samples alone for a long time now (he writes, while sipping a free sample cha tou shu).

    • James says:

      Hi Konrad & Brian,

      Thanks for the comments. While, I don’t have strong feelings I find myself leaning more and more towards the 200-250g range. I prefer to slowly chip away on a xiao beeng over something larger. Can easily buy two (one for storage, one for drinking) and end up with a healthy stack of tea. It’s also small enough that you won’t feel bad about blindly buying the cake as a sample.

      Cheers,
      -James

  9. John says:

    Another issue to consider…what to do with all the sample packages. What do people think about leaving pu erh and oolong samples in the vendor packaging for an extended period of time? Bad idea? OK? Does it matter what the packaging is made from? I would be interested in hearing different opinions and experiences. For example, at Hojotea they recommend aging pu erh in vacuum sealed packages; an idea that does not make a lot of sense to me – but I am no expert. On the other end of the continuum Stephane at Tea Masters talks about the need to decant newly acquired samples into some kind of ceramic/stone/porcelain (does the difference matter) container for a period of time before consuming.
    John

    • James says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks for chiming in. Very interesting stuff. I usually just leave it in the original packaging. While I have mixed feelings on Hojo’s opinions on aging pu’erh, I think sealing up samples in some respect will maintain it. This probably doesn’t matter much if you consume the sample relatively quickly.

      For others that have more storage taste, I’ll opt for something closer to Stephane’s method.

      Cheers,
      -James

  10. For our samples we try to keep the inner compressed part out of what gets in the bag. Sometimes I break it up small and all bags get a little bit. Overall it takes a LOT of time to make samples. Usually I just keep it to brew for ourselves.

    Some customers have messaged us with special requests for samples in the sizes they wanted. We’ve obliged. I’m sure other vendors will do the same.

    Our samples are packed usually the week before they’re sold. Some sit around a little longer, and others are made the same day.

    • James says:

      Hi Glen,

      Thanks for stopping in! Sounds like the definition of good handling of samples.

      Now that you’re back in Seattle, we’ll need to have you back on the show sometime soon!

      Cheers,
      -James

  11. MzPriss says:

    Greetings!

    I am just discovering this incredible site and I love this topic. I will chime in here and say I am one of the offenders Honza spoke of. I sample a LOT and I write a tea blog. I am a baby in the puerh universe – but an enthusiastic baby. I am learning all the time, but there is so much to learn. And the only way to learn is to taste. I have narrowed down the vendors I like so far. The ones I feel are reliable and I can believe what I read.

    But I am not a “techincal” and fully knowledgeable puerh drinker yet. And neither are the people who I assume read my blog. My blog is about exploring and accessibility. I’m a newb of about 2 years. I’m buying what I feel is higher quality tea all the time, but tea is already shrouded in so much mystery and legend – I’m trying to fumble my way through and share what I find with others who might be intimidated like I was before I decided to just jump in. In my dreams, I hope to someday to write as well as oh, say Cwyn and to know as much as some of you here. Consequently, I have a ridiculous amount of samples. Probably approaching 200. Clearly I also need a spreadsheet.

    I’m only putting decent cakes in my shengidor but the boxes of samples are now taking up space previously reserved for cute shoes. Bless my heart. Thanks again for this topic.

    • James says:

      Hi MzPriss,

      Thanks for stopping in and the comment. Glancing halfway across my living room at the mounting boxes of samples, I am also an offender (a pretty bad one) of the principles that Honza outlines. A reminder that it’s probably better to be someone that’s tasted 20 teas 5x, rather than 100 teas 1x.

      Cheers,
      -James

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