Two Thoughts on Hitting Hard & Buying Pu’erh

Ripe Pu'erh

Find Tea Worthy of Hitting Hard (Aim High, & DO NOT CHEAP OUT)

Repeat that five times… Here’s a few buying scenarios…

  1. You buy too much of truly great tea and run out of money and tea. You end up in tea exile quaffing some crappy sea dyke or *gasps in horrs* teabags! We’re all deathly afraid of this but it almost never happens. I’ve yet to hear a single instance of this is happening.… it is also really not too hard for most of us, except for the most picky, to find drinkable tea for a not too ridiculous price.
  2. You hit it right and have a good chunk of tea to drink and a good chunk of tea to set aside. Good work!
  3. You buy a lot of cheaper tea. WARNING WARNING!!!! Not only do you have to worry about space but there’s a very good chance you’ll grow tired of your purchase.

From what I can tell scenario #3 is really common and about 1000000x more likely than scenario #1.. One danger with hitting hard is becoming attracted to the idea of buying lots of tea for the sake of buying. Wanting to buy a tong, because well it’s a effing tong! There’s bamboo.. And seven cakes.. Good shit.. This is where the risk of cheaping out is high for people choosing quantity over quality, especially for newer drinkers. Before impulse buying loads of pu’erh, you should think long and hard about the quality and availability of suitable replacements for pu’erh.

  • Despite indisputably spending a lot per gram on tea, I probably still fall into a combination of scenario #2 and scenario #3.
Oldboy Hammer
Hitting Hard with a Hammer? From: Oldboy.

What should you reconsider?? Big brands post 2004 are mass produced on high levels. Menghai, Xiaguan, Mengku, Changtai, principally work in big batches (peruse taobao using babelcarp if you’re not sure). Nearly all modern ripe pu’erh is also done in huge batches. There’s no shortage for these sorts of teas and scarcity should be a non-factor in the purchasing decision. There’s the exception of special productions, but there’s really very little reason to feel any sort of urgent itch to buy up standard factory tea in massive quantity.. Buying a cake will be more than enough. What about storage? There’s a lot of teas being stored all around the world.. In Guangdong, Kunming, Malaysia, blah blah blah..

Keep in mind. You are not buying for what you want to drink now… You are buying what you will want to drink in the future. Things like young pu’erh might hit the spot but are inevitably going to change.. Tastes change throughout the years and you should NOT CHEAP OUT. What does cheaping out look like?? In most all of these cases, the person will cheap out and buy too much of something that they will not want to drink in a year or two . Remember that the first tenet is Walk Before you Can Run. This is extremely, extremely important. You need to be able to judge the tea’s character as something you’ll want to drink for a very long time.. Many of us already own several year’s worth of pu’erh consumption. There’s very little point in padding our collection with an increasing number of mediocre $20-35 cakes. If you can’t actually stomach spending the necessary money to tong up or buy several cakes of a $150 tea (or even better, higher), I’d argue that it is still better to buy a cake or two of the $150-200 cake than a full tong of $35 cakes even if you don’t get tong bragging rights.

  • One of the most annoying excuses is It’s too expensive or I can’t afford it said by someone who is opting for quantity over and quality.. A person clearly on track to buying a lifetime’s worth of pu’erh in a year or two.
  • Another way to think about your own purchasing is Marshaln’s speed test.. For my own drinking, young pu’erh and ripe pu’erh do terribly. Almost as poorly as oolongs or blacks, teas that I spend $0 on yearly. This tells me that my money is best spent on teas that are at least 5-7 years old.
  • This post is more or less a letter to myself.. I have to constantly remind myself of all of these and still often find myself being tempted by these traps.

Chinese vs. American Buyers & Thoughts on Impulse Buying & Big Pu’erh Orders

I have a friend (DW) that works at Amazon on the check-out system. I’m able to drink tea with him on occasion and it’s always interesting discussing buying patterns. At a company that operates at extremely high volume like Amazon, a few milliseconds of downtime costs the company $$$$. Extreme volume days like Black Friday (~6x the volume of Monday, a normal peak day) are the most stressful, and require him and his team to be on call 24/7.

DW is also exposed to some pretty interesting buying patterns. For instance… Black Friday was recently surpassed by the Chinese shopping holiday (Singles Day), 11/11, as the largest sales day of the year. One key difference between shoppers from China and the US is that while American shoppers spend more money on shopping days like Black Friday or Cyber Monday than normal days the buying curve tends to be much flatter when compared with Chinese consumers. Chinese retailers have a far more difficult time getting their customers to buy regularly or consistently. Their consumers tend to wait, wait, wait until the biggest sale (i.e. 11/11) and make huge purchases.

This wait, wait, wait approach can be taken to varying extremes but there’s something to be learned from it, especially when it comes to pu’erh. It makes sense in terms of raw shipping costs and overall savings. For most pu’erh-heads there’s a secondary incentive as shipments from Taiwan, China or Malaysia can represent a serious amount of $$. If we spend, $15-20 shipping/month on one order monthly we end up spending ~$200 in sheer shipping over the year. If we combined it all into a couple orders, we’d end up saving a tidy sum. Yes.. even if we have to pay a $50 shipping charge. At least enough for a nice $200 cake.. This also doesn’t include whatever bulk discounts, perks or savings we can get if we toss everything into the same box.

While saving on shipping is nice, I find the most valuable aspect of the bide your time and place big order approach is the prevention of impulse buying. There’s a lot of teas that I consider at first but don’t hold up well when I have a second session. If I bought everything that I fancied initially I’d end up with a big ol stamp collection and a lot of paid shipping. It speaks well for the tea if it’s still lingering in your mind after trying it.. Breathe… Slow down… Finish your sample and think about it..

You might say, what about teas selling out or going up in price?? Well with a few possible exceptions… teas really don’t sell out that fast.. Remember Hobbes original review and the craze that accompanied the White Whale? That was about as much hype as I’ve seen in the western market for a pu’erh and there were a lot of whales that moved quickly.. but..  It’s ~1.5 years later and the tea is still around. You had a couple months (and a warning) to pick up more before the price went up from $15 to $23. Not really enough of a price differential to justify another order unless you were buying in huge quantities. In the end, buying from a place of scarcity can be a way to spend a whole lot of money for no reason at all. Online offers a whole ton of buying options.. Waiting and avoiding impulse buying encourages self-discipline and is a good way to remove yourself from the buying craze, and properly evaluate how much you really want a certain tea or not..

  • You might be asking if I’m suggesting that you start doing $600-800 orders regularly when you are ordering internationally? Yes, I think it’s worth consideration.
  • Ever wonder why vendors never really announce their sales until it’s actually there or why the sales tend to be short? It works well and helps to induce a scarcity mentality. “Oh shit, oh shit. I gotta buy in the next 48 hours.

18 responses to “Two Thoughts on Hitting Hard & Buying Pu’erh”

  1. Hello James,

    Hahaha, love those options!

    There was a time when I was contemplating buying the 1950s Red Mark. That perhaps would have taken me close to scenario 1 but wanting to ensure that I had enough quantity around to last a while, I opted to drop to 2. No regrets and as for the 1950s Red Mark, it appears to me every now and again when I am having a good dream. The problem is I always wake up before the first cup is served 🙂

    Best, Varat

    • Hi Varat,

      Thanks for popping in.. Dreams of red marks. Sounds quite wonderful!

      I struggle more with the third temptation of buying cheap, drinkable tea..


  2. Thanks James! Very nice article/blog. You made some excellent points and gives one lots to think about.

    – Charlie

  3. I love these types of posts. Thanks for all the work you do for our benefit!

    At the risk of simply reinforcing what you have written in this post, I have to say that I have quite recent experience with the struggle of accepting that if I really want to take that next step in appreciating puerh, I’m going to have to go for those more expensive cakes. I feel like I have done a good job of mining the lowest levels of good puerh with high value products (thank you specifically for recommending the Fengqing Zhuan Cha from Teavivre, for instance!), however I am now very well aware of just how big a 357 gram cake is and how long it takes for me to get through it, especially when I have a sizable collection of teas to get through.

    So while I may not be ready at this point in my life to drop $180 at one time on a cake (or most things, tea-related or not) I do think I’d rather have a large amount, at least in the western market sense, of a more interesting and impressive tea by pushing up the dollar amount of what I think of as an acceptable price for a cake by the highest amount I feel my budget can bear. A big part of this has been controlling my desire to simply receive more tea in the mail, being patient ordering and drinking samples, and making good decisions as a result. The only downside is that I will only have enough tea for 1 lifetime, instead of the 2 or 3 that I would have if I continued to obsess about quantity over quality!

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for stopping in and sharing your experiences. I understand the philosophy. There’s a certain price threshold that I’m also unwilling to cross, partially out of principle and partially out of stubbornness. Hope you are able to at least try some of the good stuff now and then via samples :).


      ps. Thanks for reminding me of those humble teavivre bricks. They’re probably due for a session.

  4. Great guidelines.

    I’ve only run into one scenario where these tips didn’t apply . . . and that was with Japanese white tea. Everything else, I wait.

  5. How would you advice people with small budgets? Since I am full time student at the moment, I can’t really afford more expensive teas. Should I just buy different kind of samples of them or invest to just one or two cakes when I can afford it?

    Also the shipping can be annoingly expensive. I am not from the US, and I have to pay like two to three times more than you guys, which of course limits my options. Gladly some sellers have fixed shipping rates.

    But much thanks for the article, it is excellent as always.

    • Corn Cake,

      Have you considered getting friends hyped up about Pu-erh? Having someone from your home country to split shipping costs might help negate those exorbitant prices.

      I started drinking pu-erh as student with a small budget myself. I would recommend first sampling (from one or two vendors) then saving up for one cake of the tea which meets your needs/tastes best.

      …It might take you longer to save for a cake but at least then you can be more assured of your purchase (and less tantalized by budget-breaking future purchases).



      • Hi bellmont, thanks for the answer!

        I have some friends that are interested in tea, but not in puerh or chinese tea in general, but I’ll try to convert them 😀 Splitting the shipping costs would indeed really help…

        I think I’ll keep buying those samples until then and maybe buy cakes every now and then. Nice to know that others started as students too.

        Thanks again
        Corn Crake

        • Corn Crake,

          Thanks for stopping in and a good question. I’d just spend within your means, and try to afford a couple samples of decent, premium teas. Buying in quantity and hitting hard will probably come later when you have more of a budget. Not much point in buying too much mediocre tea in quantity. Best to buy a sample of something nice.


          Thanks for the answer :). I can vouch for the man (Bellmont) and his budget. Despite my best efforts to tempt him into mortgaging all of his assets, he’s stayed hard and true to it.


  6. Hi James,

    Thank you for your article. What you describe in Option 2 is how I usually shop for tea, and it saves me a lot of shipping costs. The only problem with is called Customs. Different countries have regulations regarding the maximum value of bought items that can enter without having to pay customs, and one cake is already way above it.
    As long as Customs is ignorant about tea prices, all is fine, but I’ve encountered people who open the box and check the prices online. Therefore,what I save in shipping price, I pay for in taxes (who would have their order sent back, or worse, destroyed for refusing to pay customs?).
    So for some of us, “wait, wait and hit hard” doesn’t always pay off. I’d rather pay a bit more for shipment and have the package declared as 18$ worth, than put up with a customs officer who tells me “600$? that’s 19% VAT plus customs! Pay now or we throw the tea away”.

    • Squirrel, that is rough! I’m sorry that you have to deal with customs like that! Seems ridiculously unfair. I guess I, like James, take US customs for granted. I receive $6-800+ orders regularly with no issue

    • I completely forgot to mention the customs in my message. We have same kind of system here in my country too.

      Gladly sellers mark the price down under the maximum value nearly always. Because of that most of the time I do not have to pay 24% VAT since customs officers never bother to open small or medium sized packages (unless they detect drug residues etc.). I am also sure that they wouldn’t have any knowledge of chinese teas. So even if they open them, it wouldn’t affect me any way.

      I’ve still had to deal with them many times, mostly with other things than tea but I know the feeling when have to you plan your orders very carefully so that the customs wouldn’t be interested.

  7. James, I know this is an older post so I hope it’s ok to ask this here, but I wanted to know your thoughts on diminishing returns. I’ve been drinking tea for close to ten years now but I’ve only discovered puerh in the last six months or so. I have fallen victim to buying quantity over quality, although I can’t say I regret it as I do still enjoy all the teas I’ve purchased… well, almost all of them. I did just spend $72 on a 2015 sheng, which is definitely more than I’ve spent on a single cake so I’m excited to try it out.

    Anyway, to my question. With most things in life, at least in my experience, things have a level of diminishing returns. Though I don’t have a very refined palate, it’s easy to taste the difference between a $10 and a $40 ripe cake, but I’d imagine it’s much harder to taste a significant difference between a $40 cake and an $80, even less so $80 to $120. So while I know this going to be different from person to person, and a cake that’s 20% more expensive isn’t exactly 20% better, but I wanted to know your opinion on it.

    I agree with the theme of your post, that it’s better to slowly acquire great cakes than to quickly acquire crappy cakes, but for me, so far, I’ve really enjoyed my $25-$50 cakes, mostly from Yunnan Sourcing.

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