The Western Pu’erh Scene is Really Dominated by Modern Young Pu’erh

For people looking to learn about pu’erh I usually recommend picking a western-facing, pu’erh-centric, vendor and ordering a bunch of samples that cover a few different categories (my suggestion: young raw pu’erh, semi-aged raw pu’erh, and ripe pu’erh). Most pu’erh vendors feature teas from two or all three categories but the focus of pu’erh-centered western vendors has drifted towards just one of those three — young raw pu’erh.

Vendors Might Start by Reselling Older Teas But Tend to Move Towards Pressing Tea in Yunnan

One of the most currently popular vendor is White2Tea.. Twodog, the proprietor, broke into the scene in 2012 as a blogger and began to resell tea from his connections in China. This included some young tea (pressed by Taochaju), but also quite a bit of semi-aged tea. In 2017 he’s now focused on W2T full-time but the type of tea has narrowed to predominantly tea pressed under the W2T label. Since he just started selling his own label in 2013 this means he mainly just sells young pu’erh and ripe pu’erh. That’s a somewhat common case, with many other vendors following similar trajectories and whose inventories reflect this focus.. Yunnan Sourcing started out as an ebay pu’erh seller before starting his label five years later.. Others go straight to the mountains. Crimson Lotus, Tea Urchin, and Bitter Leaf Teas were pressing pu’erh within a year of their existence.

Indeed, the data reflects this vendor narrative. If we look at pu’erh teas added to some of the most popular pu’erh centric vendor’s inventory for sale in the first 7.5 months of 2017, the amount of young pu’erh is overwhelming. As of August 12th 2017, 82 teas were added to the vendors on our list. Of those teas, 79.5% (66) of the teas were 2017 raw puerh. Diving deeper into the individual data, we can see that there are still options for ripe or semi-aged — vendors usually follow the strategy of stocking a whole lot of young pu’erh with maybe a few teas from the other categories.

You could argue a higher-volume vendor like Yunnan Sourcing skews the data. Indeed, YS does press a comparatively higher amount of productions when put against other vendors. Filtering out YS makes very little difference on the proportions of the dataset, in fact it actually raises the % of young pu’erh, to 85.7% (36 of 42) young pu’erh.

  • Dataset: I took pu’erh added to the inventory of the more popular pu’erh facing vendors that were added from January to mid-August. Vendors included: Bitter Leaf Tea, Essence of Tea, Tea Urchin, White2Tea, Yunnan Sourcing. A few vendors were left off because it was too difficult to determine what was added in 2017 vs. not. The data can be viewed here.

Teas Added to Western Vendor’s Inventories in 2017

# Teas %
All Teas 82
Young Raw Pu’erh 66 80.49%
Ripe Pu’erh 8 9.76%
Semi-Aged Raw Pu’erh (>7 Yrs) 6 7.32%
Some additional points/caveats:
  • Ripe pu’erh tends to be a big production sort of tea, whereas raw can really vary. For example, a vendor may stock 50kg of ripe and 50kg of raw. The raw might be spread across 5 different teas, whereas the ripe is just one tea. This has the potential to skew the total amount of productions for raw pu’erh upwards and ripe pu’erh downwards.
  • We’re only dealing with the first 8.5 months of 2017. It can be argued that this biases the data towards young spring tea. There’s truth to that, but we’re also missing autumn tea which tends to be a moderate amount of tea for year-round pressers like Yunnan Sourcing or White2Tea.
  • Other vendors (for example Essence of Tea, Chawangshop, or Yunnan Sourcing) supplement their young pu’erh selection with heicha. Liubao for instance. These sorts of heicha will typically have more in common with ripe or older pu’erh than young pu’erh.
  • There’s also outlier vendors like Bana Tea or Tealife.hk, that are the inverse of these vendors. They don’t focus on the traveling and pressing aspects of the tea business. Bana Tea’s catalog has been relatively stagnant and likely would not have affected much of the data. Tealife.hk is newer on the scene and it is unclear to me if they’re as popular as the vendors I looked at.

Young Pu’erh is Often More Expensive & Pressed into Smaller Beengs

An argument for buying tea when it’s young is that it’s difficult to get the same quality of source material for slightly older teas. Tea is theoretically at its cheapest right off the presses… However, with maocha prices rising there’s deserved pushback against this notion of young pu’erh being the cheaper option. This sort of conventional wisdom is still pretty prevalent in some circles. Vendors selling predominantly young tea also don’t necessarily have much of an incentive to push back against the notion that it’s a good value to buy young tea.

The data supports the notion that young pu’erh is comparatively expensive. Young pu’erh has a median cost of $77/beeng and a median per g cost of $0.25/g. The six semi-aged beengs have a median cost of $57.50 and a median per g cost of $0.18/g. That’s a pretty significant difference of ~25%. Filtering out Yunnan Sourcing (which skews towards a lower $/g) exacerbates the price difference, with a median cost of $86.50 and a $/g of $0.38/g for young pu’erh. Per gram, that’s over twice as expensive as the semi-aged tea in our dataset..

The trend of the Xiao Binging of the pu’erh industry is very much real. Factoring out the old-school, big cake-pressing, Yunnan Sourcing, puts the median cake size at 200g and the average at 237.69g.  That’s substantially smaller than your apparently old-school 357g bings and both our ripe and semi-aged pu’erh averages.

Cake Size & Cost of Tea Types

# Teas Median Cake Size Average Cake Size Median Cost Average Cost Median $/g Average $/g
All Teas 82 357 299.32 $70.25 $97.32 $0.22 $0.37
Young Raw Pu’erh 66 357 296.95 $77.00 $106.94 $0.25 $0.41
Ripe Pu’erh 8 303.5 259.75 $32.50 $34.06 $0.13 $0.16
Semi-Aged Raw Pu’erh 6 357 335.17 $57.50 $68.67 $0.18 $0.21
Young Raw Pu’erh (minus YS) 36 200 237.69 $86.50 $116.03 $0.38 $0.52

My Own Reflections & Final Thoughts

My own buying runs in direct contrast to these trends.. I don’t drink the young stuff very often and despite doing so in the past am not too interested in buying these teas.. There’s also evidence that I’m not the only one. 85% of the teas covered in reviews are definitely not just young raw pu’erh. I hear of increasing number of people taking the plunge and buying stuff from taobao. LP, YQH, and Toby’s curated boxes have gained traction over the past couple years. These buys all tend to focus more on semi-aged raw tea rather than strictly young pu’erh..

Vendor’s have real and significant advantages over these buys. They can make samples and have their operations setup to handle selling and shipping without as much clunkiness.. These group buy opportunities have their own hurdles, specifically of trust, and given equal options consumers will nearly always choose the one with less hoops to jump through (the vendor).

It’s of course possible to buy tea from the other two categories, it’s just a shame that it’s not as much of a focus for vendors. I do know that if I were to ever open a pu’erh selling site, I’d poke around a bit for some semi-aged tea before booking my flight to Kunming.

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28 Responses to The Western Pu’erh Scene is Really Dominated by Modern Young Pu’erh

  1. Lulu says:

    As you noted, you hear of people buying semi-aged, suggesting that what vendors are selling is not the same as data on what people are buying. Neither would seller data clear up anything, if vendors are selling 80%+ new tea, then of course their sales figures will show the vast majority of their buyers are buying new tea. It’s no surprise when the vast majority of Mr. Johnson’s students are taking his math class when Mr. Johnson teaches math. Might be worth polling some tea heads and find out more!

  2. Peter Lista says:

    I discussed some of these trends in a blog post last week about the relationship between age and price of puerh.

    For puerh (sheng and shou) sold by Yunnan Sourcing, you do find that older teas cost more (per gram) than younger teas. (Each additional year of age is associated with an average increase of $1.28/100g, controlling for a number of other variables.) The same holds when looking at Yunnan Sourcing Label puerh. However, when you look at a specialty vendor like White2Tea, these trends flip. For example, among White2Tea Label puerh, newer pressed teas are much more expensive than older pressings. (In addition, the average price of W2T Label puerh is a little over two times higher than YS Label puerh, $47.89/100g versus $22.31/100g).

    In the post, I attributed these differences to a bifurcation of the western-facing puerh market — between “budget” and “specialty” vendors. For now, there is still a lot of overlap between YS’s and W2T’s customers. However, if this price gap for new tea grows, it may lead to a more bifurcated community.

    You can find more information on my own data collection here: http://peterlista.tumblr.com/post/164795887846/age-and-puerh-prices

    • James says:

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for the comment. I saw your post right when I was finishing up work on this one. Very interesting. I think YS is fairly easy to predict because of their yearly 15-20% price hikes around March.

      In larger terms, I think price per age is kind of a tricky part to pin down because of all the variables but it’s interesting to investigate nonetheless.

      I’ve got two other data posts somewhat similar to this one I’m working on.

      Cheers,
      -James

  3. Tiago says:

    Amazing article James but aren’t you comparing older plantation tea prices with young gushu?

    • James says:

      Hi Tiago,

      Yeah I agree. It’s definitely not an ideal comparison for price in that regard. Sample size is also incredibly limited if we’re just looking at semi aged teas added in this calendar year.

      I would still argue that semi-aged options trend towards not being necessarily more expensive. Most of the young raw sold by western facing vendors isn’t gushu, even though it is processed in a more modern style. Looking outside at what both boutique and factory teas from 7-15 years cost. It can compare pretty favorably with young tea prices these days.

  4. Bob says:

    How much does the quality of older and even semi-affordable cakes pale in comparison to a new tea? Tiago rightly points that out. Maybe White2Tea philosophy is that now he can buy maocha and sell it at 100 dollars that is going to be significantly better, in its own young way nonetheless, than the older cakes he is able to find.

    I think of Yangqing where the entry level is $175 right? And I think of someone like Shah8 who has connections and experience who really doesn’t like the cheap YQH. Shah8 also clearly is willing to spend more money than what the impression I get from most western drinkers. So it is a sortve conundrum. You mentioned Bana who has quality older tea, tea that is 14-20 years old for $1000. Now Xizihao and some other Emmett filtered botiques are here and honestly those prices are painful, not matter how appealing those teas.

    Pu-er.sk is doing something interesting right now, selling its 2011,12,13 cakes that are probably good quality material for not the worst prices. Maybe more vendors should consider doing this? Single origin tea aged by themselves released 6-8 years later? I personally love that period of a puerh’s life so this would be nice to see and would really change the market I think.

    • James says:

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks for the comment. Some good points.. Comparing source material quality across multiple years is obviously a major challenge. A couple quick responses.

      Entry level of YQH is the $80 jincha which is pretty good for the price and compares well to younger options. There’s also a few other options from that year that are certainly good and cheaper than a lot of young tea. I also think a place like Wistaria which isn’t cheap can compare well with current year options.

      I understand the logic behind the stocking of young pu’erh, I just think it is a real shame that it is such a huge focus. It’s also not all about the boutiques, something like semi-aged factory tea isn’t terribly well represented in the west and can often be pretty cheap.

      Cheers,
      -James

    • shah8 says:

      I got a number of really good teas when such things were cheaper than today, and I generally want to buy similar level tea, which is much more expensive today. I am, though, getting very tapped out and overextended in purchasing such things, though.

      Another issue from the consumer side is that many aged boutique teas have been stored too wet or have some other processing issue. More than that, some areas were not prominent before 2010 or so, and those that became prominent around that time, has never had high quality picking/procesing and originally cheap manufacturing cost before then, and grew famous at a time of high maocha prices. So there can be good reasons to buy something from W2T.

      Western vendors face persistent information asymmetries and cartel-like behavior from potential wholesale sources. They also face the vagaries of storage as well. Lastly, tastes differ between western and eastern audiences, and frankly, Mainland puerh dynamics has some really problematic aspects in terms of determining what is good and what isn’t. Therefore, there is a substantial labor involved in getting good materials in worthwhile quantities and a lack of control. Even in marketing, older puerh will often have lots written about it before the vendor gets to hawk it. If the vendor presses his own, she or he gets to craft the whole story.

      By and large, no vendor is selling good aged puerh cheap. The best you can do is Tai Lian ’02 from YS at $125 a 357g cake. Most quickly approach Banatea prices, even when it’s fairly anon. And when it comes to Dayi and other very famous teas, the price/value relationship is very far out of whack, because of how liquid, financially, these teas are.

      Again, if you are willing to participate in Facebook auctions from Taiwan, you can get fantastic five to ten year old teas (boutique TW labels, not Dayi or famous factory teas) between $100 and $200. To be snobbish, but not *that* snobbish, if you are going to complain about proper sized tea cakes costing more than $100, you are simply not in the market for excellent teas. You can find good stuff, like mid2k Dayi 8582 and other cheaper numbered teas, mid2k Changtai Jinzhushan, and even some really good stuff like the first SE Asia Puerh Commemorative (300g) for like $70 or less.

      The really good stuff, most of them? Say a mid2k decent Dayi 7542? Gonna be more than $100. It gets very irritating (not that you’re doing that, Bob), when people demand more consideration to cheaper teas. This is because usually, I’d not want to drink teas like that too regularly. Not even because I’m a snob–so many of these teas either have serious faults that makes drinking difficult, or are hard to describe in any useful way because of their mediocrity. Frankly, given that budget, most people are better off exploring on their own, rather than seek expert advice on specific teas (ask for directions, don’t ask for taxi rides, guys).

      Again, if you want great tea, cheap, go to the Taiwan auctions, please! Expect that it be cheap compared to current vendor prices, and not cheap as in below even the original purchasing prices of these teas back in the day! And plenty of respectable factory teas from the likes of Xiaguan, Shuangjian Mengku, Fuhai, etc, are available for your cheap and cheerful quaffing! Just pick one out and try it! Have the courage to go to foreign places or risk tuition teas!

      Typically, and personally, I have not found pu-erh.sk to be a particularly good value in either their own pressings or resale of older teas (and I typically think this of most European vendors).

      • NicolasV says:

        Hi Shah8,
        thanks for your detailed and very interesting comment!

        Regarding Taiwan auctions, are you referring to https://www.facebook.com/groups/108307992909324/ ?

        Are sellers more reliable here than in Taobao?
        Is it possible to make a deal and get to payment/shipment without writing Mandarin?

        For an expensive tea, how one can guarantee no fake or bad storage? It takes a lot of trust to pay a multi hundreds dollars cake without knowing the seller and sampling…

        Thanks again!

        • shah8 says:

          There are three auctions sites:

          https://www.facebook.com/groups/714943465338982/?ref=bookmarks

          https://www.facebook.com/groups/108307992909324/?ref=bookmarks

          https://www.facebook.com/groups/718998394815953/?ref=bookmarks

          The sellers have to be more reliable than Taobao, as these sites are run and moderated–there is oversight and people that you can complain to. They are less professional, though.

          Use these guys to pay the sellers: https://www.facebook.com/ezstar.taiwan

          They can also hold tea for you while you continue bidding on other stuff.

          Typically both the buyers and sellers are fumbling around with google translate, but the job does get done in terms of necessary communications.

          Fake tea…well, there *has* been at least one big issue with that, but keep the ears to the ground and you’ll hear what specific teas aren’t on the up and up. Usually, though the teas are genuine, and again, you can complain to the mods. Get a sense on which seller skirts ethics lines and which ones don’t. Watch some teas to get a sense of what high bids usually are for such and such a tea. As for storage, Taiwan tends to have heavy humid storage. It works great for factory teas, doesn’t seem to impact northern puerh boutique teas too much, but can really mute mid and high tea notes in ‘Banna tea.

          It does take a lot of trust, and I am careful when buying and worry about every shipment. I have not had any problems, but other people have had problems with (one seller at least) people being sent the wrong items and having to forward it on…

          The flip side is that I can get things like 2011 XZH Hi Pro World for a bit over two hundred dollars when it retails for over a thousand. Risks and reward, my tea guzzing people!

          (and for the haters already in the pool–Dudes! More money that gets into the auction probably more and better teas starts getting put out there and sold. Bids may rise, but choices probably will rise even more!)

          • NicolasV says:

            Thanks a lot shah8!
            Thanks to you, I made a huge progress in my tea buying journey 🙂
            And I finally found places where I can see what the famous “market” is. Always wondered how people could get this information!

      • James says:

        Thanks shah.

  5. nonen says:

    Great post James. Thank you.

    @shah8: I found a lot of value in your comment so thank you too, for that.

  6. Nick says:

    Thanks for the article James and for crunching the data!

    When I started drinking pu eh I was drinking nothing but young raw and then ripes, but as it has slowly become a daily drinker for me I have been buying only semi-aged stuff. I quite enjoy the young stuff still but almost never reach for what I have left in my stash. I certainly wish more semi-aged stuff was sold by western facing vendors but there’s not much we can do I suppose.

    Cheers man

  7. kyf says:

    Ha ha ha… looks like a tea vendor gang has shown up here in the comment section …

  8. Thanks for the article James.

    I began to write a comment to provide a little perspective as a vendor to explain why this situation has come about…. then just before hitting send I stopped & thought about it for a while. It suddenly occurred to me – instead of justifying it why not just offer some more aged and semi-aged puerh? It’s a lot more work for less reward but, living in Malaysia, we’re in a good position to be able to offer these teas.

    I have some candidates in mind – I just need to retaste them and make sure of the quality. Hopefully we’ll have them online later in the week and more over the coming weeks. It looks like your article might have had the desired effect James!

    • James says:

      Aha. Thanks David. I see a few of them on there now!

      • You’re welcome James. Actually I need to thank you… your post gave me a bit of a push to go and find some new things. We’d been meaning to add some cakes with a little age for a while now… it just requires a lot of legwork and drinking of bad tea to hunt out the good ones. It’s not so much fun as driving around the tea mountains 🙂

  9. TJM says:

    Excellent article James. Semi-aged and aged puerh is really what I am interested in, not young sheng.

    I think there is very much a market for semi-aged and aged puerh in the west, especially from trusted vendors. Kudos to David for his responsiveness. His site already has a few in that category. Looking forward to his new listings. He will have me as a new customer.

    • James says:

      I think there is too. There’s some good reasons why people press and sell young tea, but it’d be nice if there were more options.

      Cheers!
      -James

  10. just another tea peep says:

    I think this largely is a byproduct of what was touched upon already; the risk to reward for a vendor to seek out and sell aged puer tea is simply not worth it for many people. In order to get the necessary margins to earn a living income and run a healthy business, I think it is significantly more difficult to allocate time and energy to seeking out good, non-famous/well known/faked teas to resell, especially if people will simply buy it from somewhere else. The opportunity to make a good margin is significantly lower, and thus the value of doing this vs. sourcing and pressing your own material (which as we know, is difficult and time consuming enough!) is significantly less.

    Not to say that it means its not worth it at all to find aged teas, and certainly there is some available, but I think this is one of the main reasons.

    I think the other big factor is simply that the scene has changed so dramatically in the past 5, 10 years that the processing etc. for a lot of regions has gotten better and better, even some places in the past 3 years. I will boldly stand by the claim that in general, (boutique) puer material has gotten better and better over the past years as more demand for high quality, unique teas drives prices for the top end of the market up, and value of the bottom down or stagnant. I think there is also bit of a gap in between when Dayi was still good, to when high quality boutique productions really ramped up. That awkward 2004 ish to 2010+ ish timeframe. In my personal experience, whilst I would love to have more, high-quality aged tea, the effort and expense (most often a really high opportunity cost, even if the $/g isn’t that high) required is simply too much compared to reliably buying a quality young tea, and putting it away for a few years.

    Of course some drinkers are older and don’t have the time to age their own teas, and some people can’t stand drinking young teas. I do long for a world where we could easily access and buy from a nice, curated selection of premium/high end aged teas for good prices, but such a thing will never exist. Pick two: good tea, low price, easy access.

  11. kyf says:

    There are antique dealers & tea vendors; you put them together you get puerh sellers! Tea business is in a very sad state indeed.

    Why spend time & effort to offer quality products at a reasonable price when people don’t know any better anyway & you can also easily confuse them?

    One example of constant misinformation is the claim that boutique tea vendors offer better products (better leafs / better processing). As far as I know a couple of big conglomerates own most if not all of the famous single malts. Why don’t you go to Scotland and moonshine your own single malt? Porsche is owned by Volkswagen. Would you trust your friends to tune your BMW or buy a M3 from the factory?

  12. Philip Lee says:

    The western market is maturing and will slowly move towards buying more semi-aged and aged teas. There’s a lot to learn and experience before understanding the value related to aged or semi-aged cakes and the increase of knowledgeable vendors and bloggers help a lot.

    The price of Puer should be reflected in the end product but there are also many other factors that affect the cost. Consider storage cost, insurance, vintage, sampling, demand, marketing, etc. It’s unfortunate that some vendors use this to over-price teas through misinformation, which makes it more difficult to market aged teas to the west. The education of what makes a good product and how much it may cost vendors to put it out there makes it a viable market.

    With reference to the comparisons to single-estate wine/whiskies, Puer is marketed in a very similar manner. Some of the best material from each ‘estate’ will be used and stored in special productions by those who know how to market it many years down the road. Lucky for us that it’s not all corporate owned and there’s still enough production of great tea that can be negotiated from farmers hands for the right market price. This means that reputable boutiques are competing with big companies are paying extra to bring the best/most in-demand material to the global market at more affordable prices.

  13. Robert (mcrdotcom) says:

    My opinion, at a glance is simply that, with most of the western leaning vendors being young companies, who want to focus on their own brands (what’s the point in every vendor just reselling factory cakes?), not enough time hasn’t passed for aged tea to be available.

    Yes, you can find aged material to buy and blend for your brand, and white-wrapper productions sitting in the back of warehouses do exist, but that’s still not an easy strategy to rely on!

    White2tea have posted a photo of an aged production yet to be released, and I’d be confident that they have a certain amount of already released productions in storage for release again as aged cakes in the future! I think things will change over the next 5-10 years in this respect, as the scene itself comes of age 🙂

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