You are quickly becoming a pu’erh-head and have been diligently been studying and drinking pu’erh. It is a complex online marketplace due to the added dimensions of age and storage. What brings the best bang for buck in the pu’erh world? We obsess and look at factories, regions, storages, teas of various ages, vendors, shipping, blah, blah blah. What region should you go for? What age? The answers are subjective and depend on what brings the individual drinker enjoyment… However, one way to find great deals is to buy white labels or off-brand, judging the tea on its own merits. In pu’erh, what does this mean exactly? Finding deals for Dayi or tea sold as as Lao Banzhang is extremely unlikely. But for drinkers that are OK with more ambiguity, shopping for white label cakes or teas with a lack of relevant information (age, factory, region, etc.) and purchasing simply on the basis of quality can be a simple and effective way to buy good-quality tea for a good price.
How Pu’erh is Marketed
Let’s first examine how pu’erh is currently marketed and sold. New school pu’erh is usually marketed with a few different factors. Below are the major factors in pu’erh marketing. Some combination of these three usually determine the price of a pu’erh tea.
- Age (also storage)
Factory usually plays a major role. There is a distinct tier system to this, with hot or higher-profile factories charging more money on the basis of their brand. Menghai Tea Factory/Dayi is the most obvious example of this, but there are also high-end boutique labels (i.e. Chen Sheng Hao) as well.
There is also region. If the tea is a factory plantation recipe, region will sometimes be omitted. In many cases, the tea producer or marketer will feature the supposed region prominently in their marketing especially if the tea’s region has lots of hype. Areas like Lao Banzhang and Yiwu are both geographical regions and marketing terms that cause a quick bump up in the pricetag before quality is even considered. The village name can also cause prices to rise straight through the roof. Sellers and middlemen of tea having ample reason to mislead and fake tea. Information is passed downhill through several layers before finally reaching the drinker. As a result, it is difficult to tell how much we can even trust this regional information by the time the tea arrives at our door.
Age is also a major factor. The older the tea, the more it will cost. All of these factors can usually be determined, verified (or faked) via the wrapper, neifei, and neipiao of the cake. Storage also plays a significant role in the pricing and quality of the tea if it has any amount of significant age.
Note #1: All western vendors qualify as no-name vendors. You won’t be paying much of a premium on their name compared with Dayi or a famous Taiwanese pu’erh label. One cause of this markup is the difficulty in reselling no-name cakes.
Note #2: In many ways, this is the counter article to our previous piece on why to buy from a big factory.
White Label, No-Name Factory, etc.
So what happens when one of these major factors cannot be verified. The prices goes down.. And if essentially nothing about the cake can be verified.. The prices goes way down! The more uncertainty about the tea, the lower the price. Why? A no-name, ageless pu’erh is really difficult to sell in a marketplace dominated by marketing buzzwords. This is further emphasized by the marketplace being flooded with faked regions and faked factories. These marketing terms can often be nothing more than empty language that speaks very little towards the actual quality of tea.
A good example are the CNNP “Tiepais”. These are famous for being of unverifiable factory and region and are usually priced lower than genuine CNNP productions. While you may or may not qualify these as true “white labels”, there is plenty of ambiguity associated with “Tiepais”. Buying a white label doesn’t guarantee quality and forces the drinker to pay close attention to the tea quality for purchasing decisions. The tea quality in these cases has a huge variance as there are also plenty of mediocre and bad white labeled tea around. A bad policy would be to blindly buy large quantities of white label cakes without ever tasting it. Sampling, then buying policy is more prudent, pending your trust in a vendor. Shopping on Taobao is another way to buy white labels, although buying in this matter will likely generate more varied results compared with western facing vendors.
Note #1: Aged oolongs are all white labels to some extent. Age is difficult to verify and they are not sold by their labels/wrappers/neifeis as pu’erh is.
Note #2: One disadvantage to white labels is a lack of liquidity (resale value).
Note #3: The name of the factory doesn’t have to be unverifiable, simply small enough that its name has very little impact on the market price of the tea.
Note #4: These characteristics have helped to make white label or Tiepai’s staples of curated vendors like White2Tea’s selection.
There are varying degrees to this. These principles can apply to varying extents on buying pu’erh or other teas. Buying white labels is simply buying tea where there is less or no information and hype. Perhaps the teas age can be verified but nothing else. Or the storage is uncertain. Maybe the tea has been long forgotten at the back of a tea shop or in storage. These things don’t guarantee any sort of quality but add to the ambiguity and increase the marketing difficulty. In these cases, increased ambiguity will usually mean a lower price.
Buying from less-hot regions or smaller-name factories is also a good way to avoid paying a premium on marketing hype or the label of the tea. Laotian tea is commonly sold as Gua Feng Zhai. Simao. Jiang Chen tea is often masqueraded as Yiwu. If you are uncertain about the origin of your tea anyways, why not sample and buy tea directly from less-hot regions. Even buying an unusual Menghai recipe that isn’t 7542 or 8582 can be a way to avoid paying the hype cost.
Note: There are plenty of other reasons why you might want to buy from a big factory. Consider your own motivations for buying. Are you looking for a specific taste for your own education or are you looking for the best tea for your money?
Additional Reading: Confessions of a White Paper Hunter, Marshaln