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
|Young Raw Pu’erh||66||80.49%|
|Semi-Aged Raw Pu’erh (>7 Yrs)||6||7.32%|
- 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|
|Young Raw Pu’erh||66||357||296.95||$77.00||$106.94||$0.25||$0.41|
|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.