The vendor profile for White2Tea is a part of our Pu’erh Tea Vendor Series, covering a number of Pu’erh-centric vendors that sell to the west. This interview was conducted with TwoDog of White2Tea.
White2Tea is the prototypical curated vendor. It is run by tea blogger turned vendor (TwoDog), who sells a relatively small but diverse selection of predominately small brands and white labels, a stark contrast with the huge, warehouse-like selection of Yunnan Sourcing, Cha Wang Shop, and ebay vendors. Despite being inherently smaller, White2Tea’s selection covers an impressive range of teas including various ages, areas and storages (both wet and dry). The price range also caters towards different consumers, some teas geared towards beginners and others to experts. Cakes range from $12/beeng to $1,000/beeng.
White2Tea is based in China’s capital Beijing and the home of one of China’s largest tea markets (Maliandao). TwoDog travels to Yunnan seasonally for sourcing, producing, and pressing pu’erh. He is also highly active in the community on reddit and writes a separate blog about tea, apart from White2Tea.
How did you get your start into tea? How about as a vendor?
I began drinking tea in 2004, a year before I came to China. I bought some low grade oolong teas at a local Asian grocery store in Texas. I would put about 20 grams of tea into a yellow Dickey’s Barbeque pit 32oz. plastic cup and steep it with boiling water. It was fuel for my World of Warcraft playing. Brewing those trash oolongs in a plastic cup, it is a miracle I am even alive.
I moved to China in 2005, which was also the first time I went to Yunnan and my first exposure to pu’erh tea. From there, I slowly spiraled out of control and became a pu’erh tea junkie.
After a couple years of drinking beginner level pu’erh I started seeking out better and better teas. I saw a disconnect between what was available in the market and what I wanted to drink. At some point I was buying so much tea and getting deeper and deeper into pu’erh, so I felt the need to turn my passion into vehicle to share better tea with other people like me.
You have some of the most creative names for your pu’erh cakes. Many of them are named after albums, others are inside-references reputation as a deal hunter (White Whale). How do you pair a tea to a name? Is there a method to the madness?
Tea is deeply personal. The things that have touched my life, like albums or video games or song lyrics; naming my teas after them seemed like a way I could pay homage to artists in other mediums with a medium that I understand. Other times the tea names are just playful. With teas like the White Whale it was a joking nod to Hobbes’ blog, saying, “Look, Hobbes! I got one!”
With other teas like New Amerykah, Erykah Badu’s work has always been meaningful to me. The wrapper’s cover is a character, Gogo from a Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game that I was enthralled with as a kid. There is something about the songs on that album, this obtuse character, and the idea of a New America, which tied something together for me about that tea. Or maybe it is just my way to nod in the direction of the art that other people have created.
Editor’s Note: Hobbes has referred to TwoDog as the Captain Ahab of hunting tea bargains.
CURATING & SOURCING TEA
Many pu’erh vendors, like Yunnan Sourcing, Cha Wang Shop, and many of the ebay stores have an overwhelmingly large selection. White2Tea’s selection is a fraction of the size, yet still manages to cover a diverse range of teas (i.e. factory tea, gushu, cheap ripe, aged ripe, dry-stored raw, traditionally-stored raw, etc.). What is your philosophy as a curator? Are balance and diversity things you strive for when choosing teas to offer?
My philosophy as a curator is to offer what I always wanted when I was wandering tea markets in Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. I would often mutter, why is their so much shit tea here?! Sometimes I would only have a day in a market and had a limited amount of time to drink teas. It is easy to wander a tea market, try 10 different teas, and not find anything worthwhile.
The fact of the matter is that most tea is average to below average quality. When I started White2Tea I wanted to curate focused on quality and value. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of buying tea. I still have shelves full of trash tea that I bought when I was learning. I hope other people can avoid that and just skip to decent stuff.
20 years ago people never really consumed young raw pu’erh. Now there’s an increasing demand for raw pu’erh to be consumed immediately. Some people seem to want drink-now pu’erh, while others are more focused on a pu’erh’s aging potential (many also want both!). When you are sourcing mao cha and pressing pu’erh, how do you balance these two desires? Do some of your cakes cater towards one end of the spectrum vs. the other?
This gets pretty far into personal preference, but I think that certain regions lend themselves to aging better than others. Similarly, some teas are best consumed now, or at mid-age. Wine drinkers get this. You will often see a vintage with a peak time recommendation. Certain wines are best opened at 15 years, some at 30 years. It behooves most people to drink what they like and store enough (see: two tongs plus) for the future.
When I am making teas I always consider aging, but there are teas that I press that I think should be consumed by year ten (i.e. my new cake Apple Scruffs). Then there are other teas that you can give to your grandkids.
There’s alot of propaganda in the pu’erh world. It is often difficult to separate marketing speak from actual truths. One aspect that sometimes gets demonized (in new school pu’erh) are blends (especially those that combine multiple regions). White2Tea has pressed a couple blends, notably the Giant Steps/Amerykah series. In your opinion, is blending a good use for mao cha (high-end or low-end)?
The current market trend towards single region seems silly to me. What about all those teas that are so sought after from the 70s , 80s, and 90s? Are any of them single mountain? Most of the respected teas from past years are blends. Blending gives depth. There is clarity from single region (or even tree), but for aging purposes, I still think blends are the more interesting. In the end this is a personal preference thing. Many, many people would take issue with the above statement.
If I had my way, I would be blending experimental stuff like old arbor Laobanzhang and Guafengzhai, but I have yet to get a letter from the wealthy dowager who wants to invest in it. If she reads this, hit me up.
Editor’s Note: Laobanzhang and Guafengzhai are two of the most high-profile regions and are usually sold as being “pure”.
What do you look at when determining what the best use for mao cha is?
Drinking fresh maocha is a skill in itself, as it is very different from tea that is even a few months old, but here are my basic criteria: Base material quality (how big and healthy are the trees, surroundings, and environment), good processing (correct roasting levels), stamina (how many brews can you get out of the leaf) and there are a laundry list of other visual cues regarding the coloration, size, sheen, rolling, clarity of the soup, and other factors. There are a few people who could write books about this, but none of them would.
ORDERING FROM WHITE2TEA
If someone had $80 to spend (excluding shipping) on their first pu’erh order from White2Tea. What recommendations would you give them?
I’d tell them to buy samples of several cakes to see what they like. Get a couple of aged cakes, one dry and one wet. Get a newer old arbor sample. Get a plantation sample. And probably a shu or two. Maybe a Rougui oolong to drink in between pu’erhs.
Any specific advice you would give this friend?
If you find a tea that you really like, buy two tongs. Good puer teas doesn’t wait for anyone. There are a few teas from years back that I still kick myself over. I didn’t spend the $200 it cost for a few tongs. Now those tongs cost $2000. What did I use that $200 on? Probably nothing. I should have hit it. Note to all you young people out there. If you are in your 20s and like Puer, skip a night at the bars and buy some cakes. Your 50 year old self with thank you for the good tea and the lack of liver damage.
Further reading: How to Buy Pu’erh: Three Tenets.
On the TwoDog Tea blog you wrote a post on the thorny topic of storage recommending a middle-of-the-road sort of approach. Beijing and the west have a reputation for being both cold and dry (as far as storage is concerned). Do you add any humidity, seasonally or otherwise, to the pu’erh sold on White2Tea?
Absolutely. I keep our storage room humidified beyond what Beijing natural storage is because Beijing is too dry. It’s actually very hot in Beijing during the summer, but far too dry for my taste. Teas that I have extra stock of I keep in South China (more humid), especially if I am not planning to sell them immediately.
One last caveat, this is all personal preference. Some people I know in Beijing hate anything stored in even remote humidity. People near Guangdong despise dry storage. And then there are people who drink anything and everything, like me. Storage is just a means to different outcomes, like choosing how to prepare a potato.
The pu’erh world and marketplace have been incredibly dynamic in the last 20 years. You’ve compellingly written about what you think the market might do (notably drawing a distinction between the markets of plantation and gushu). Any bold predictions of what the future pu’erh world might look like?
This is one of those questions where I should avoid going on the record, so that people won’t blame me if I steer them wrong, but to hell with that.
High quality gushu pu’erh will become increasingly difficult to find and the price will not drop much for famous mountains. In all likelihood it will continue to rise do to low supply and high demand.
Gushu teas will continue to be faked and misrepresented by many, see above.
Genuine teas circa 2000 will become increasingly scarce and people will pine for the days when a cake of good 90’s tea cost under $1000. This is already happening now.
Plantation teas will probably drop in price whenever the Chinese or global economy falters. Especially lower quality teas or teas that are mass-produced with little regard for quality.
The pu’erh community in other countries will have a lot of growth. I get a lot of emails from young kids starting tea clubs at high schools. New tea bloggers are everywhere. I see a new post of “I want to try pu’erh tea” every week in forums. I just met a group of 16-20 year old guys in Slovakia who started a group to meet and drink Puer. This thing is just getting started. Pu’erh is a tea that people fall deeply and madly in love with. There are a ton of potential pu’erh drinkers out there in the world. They just haven’t been on their first date yet.