Why is the Western Scene so Dominated by Young Pu’erh, A Conversation w/Garrett [Inbetweenisode 146]

In this episode, Garrett and I take a look at one of the latest articles on TeaDB and some of the responses. We discuss why young raw pu’erh is such a commonly sourced tea for western facing pu’erh-centric vendor.

9 responses to “Why is the Western Scene so Dominated by Young Pu’erh, A Conversation w/Garrett [Inbetweenisode 146]”

  1. I’d like to help by summarising key points addressed in the video that I can validate from my own tea market experience:

    1. Puer tea lovers care about the culture, story and origin of tea, almost as much as the taste. It’s arguable that those who *only* focus on taste do not truly love Puer, e.g. from a cultural or academic standpoint.

    2. Aged and semi-aged Puer normally comes from existing wholesalers, warehouses and amateur investors meaning that:
    2a) story and origin is hard to verify (especially white wrapper)
    2b) fresh maocha is always cheaper (unless you trade poorly)
    2c) extra markup is necessary to make trade viable

    3. sourcing tea directly from farmers is not only more fun and interesting, it adds authenticity to the retailer and cuts out the middle-man markup whilst *somewhat* disrupting the current supply chains.

    4. Factory teas produce and sell in such large quantities that the markup should be and is very low – the only way to compete is to focus on a different quality level

    5. Puer tea storage – tea storage has a big impact on the end product and therefore risky. If a raw tea is good to sell already, then ageing it for many years comes at the cost of warehouse management, currency devaluation and demand, thereby increasing the markup further.

    6. Boutiques will offer products based on the market demand as they generally stock fewer lines – they don’t try to be supermarkets. For example, if the western audience had a large enough demand for aged tea, there’d be a hell of a lot more effort to source and market aged teas to them. In reality, that effort rarely pays off due to low demand whether it be a supply, cost or quality issue.

    There’s a lot more to say about the challenge of sourcing and processing, but as was mentioned, that’s another topic for another time.

    Here are a couple of ideas for people who love aged or semi-aged tea:
    – share your love of these teas! discuss tea appreciation with your tea-drinking friends and show them the wonderful complexity of well-aged Puer.
    – ask retailers you trust to see if they can find/stock aged teas and share what price range you’re willing to pay. Retailers/Online stores will likely consider it if commercially viable and may even actively find something for you or the market you represent

    • In regard to point 1:
      “Puer tea lovers care about the culture, story and origin of tea, almost as much as the taste. It’s arguable that those who *only* focus on taste do not truly love Puer, e.g. from a cultural or academic standpoint” .

      I don’t believe it is as simple as this and hence why this post and similar posts by James have attracted a lot of attention. Its hazardous to get into this dualistic argument between West and East. Whilst it is arguable that many western or westernised cultural drinkers do present with cultural behaviours around purchase and consumption, such as the notion that you need to also be able to consume this almost romantic notion of tea origins and culture, it is also arguable that these behaviours are difficult to reduce to one particular value system. Equally in China the rise of shanzhai products (conterfeit/fake) reflect the tastes and the need of the consumers. We have to remember that much of the “suspect” vendored is not for the western consumers but for internal markets and hence reflects the point that purchase of “culture”, “story” and “origins” is a phenomena that crosses many cultural and social statuses. The point I am trying to make is that the “branding” of tea that includes these romantic stories of tea origins is something that is not unique to the so called “western” scene. Before the interest in Puerh developed at the height of the millennial years (00s) small producers would try to sell their tea by wrapping it (literally and figuratively)in such ideas that then led to particular legitimate and well known brands being faked more than others. Now small producers don’t have to do this as the notion of “boutique” now sells itself , thats not to say it doesn’t still happen, but more insidiously.
      I feel we have to balance the argument also that “that those who *only* focus on taste do not truly love Puerh” as there are many great teas out there that are absolutely beautiful to drink and often I feel the overselling of culture and origins results in a proportion of drinkers ignoring the tea and drinking some real soup because of a psychological effect of consumer behaviour over-riding taste.
      That said we should ethically be mindful of what we buy, who we buy it from and why we are buying it.

      A great discussion topic and look forward to more inbetweenisodes like this!!

      • It’s great to see this point counter-argued since I did not really express what I meant with point one clearly.

        Firstly, to define what I meant by ‘Puer lover’ or the alternative ‘Pu-head’ – someone who is mindful about the origins, processing, storage and brewing of his/her beloved Puer, as well as the changeability of the taste. I didn’t intend to focus on ‘romantic’ notions despite very much implicated by using the word ‘lover’. What I really wanted to emphasize is that Pu-heads or Puer lovers, romantic or not, drive the boutique market.

        Interestingly enough, the online community for Puer, is one heavily balanced on Pu-heads. It’s probably easy to forget that the majority of Puer drinkers worldwide know little about Puer. For example, my Chinese parents have been drinking Puer and other Chinese teas their whole life but know absolutely nothing about tea and tea culture.

        As far as the western scene goes, young maocha is generally cheaper to source and it is much like any other tea – origin, season, processing, and the processing of Puer is arguably much simpler than some other artisan Chinese teas. It’s the ageing of the tea that adds all sorts of complexities to the flavour and story, e.g. dry, wet, aromas, etc. And you’d have to be willing to pay extra for that storage, which means a certain level of love for either the story of how it was ‘made’ (culture) or the science (academic) to effectively justify the extra price. My experience is that most tea drinkers still scratch their heads as to why Puer *should* go up in price by at least 5-10% a year (hints: opportunity cost & inflation, also exchange rates).

        This is very much comparable to similar industries of wine and whisky. Mass market (young) products dominate sales quantity, but it’s the boutique market provides a much higher quality product. However, premium products are priced appropriately because of their quality, rarity, and demand.

        That’s not to say that the western-facing boutiques aren’t storing up on some nice high-quality Puers at a reasonable price… and I’m sure these cakes will sell well. Why? Because the people making these cakes are putting a lot of effort into their product.

        The more mature the western market becomes, the more that ageing becomes worthwhile. As Scott mentioned in his latest video, it will take at least 10 years of sourcing, investment and storage to get a semi-aged tea out there.

        In the meanwhile, the Asian market will continue to heavily influence the supply and cost of western-facing aged teas.

  2. For those of us who like aged and semi-aged traditional/“wet” stored pu’erh, the predominance of young sheng and the relative dearth of traditionally stored aged sheng is very much a problem.

    Hoping to buy young sheng and age it into something wonderful in the west seems like a problematic proposition at best. Traditional storage presumably requires both relatively high temperatures and relatively high humidity. Having a pumidor that accomplishes both is possible, but not particularly easy. Then there is the potential issue of beneficial microbial beasties that may be present in traditional storage warehouses but perhaps not in the artificial environment of a western pumidor. For those with time and money it can be an interesting experiment, but it is that–a bit of an experiment. And there is the hope and concern that over a period of 10 plus years nothing goes wrong and spoilage does not occur.

    It is encouraging that some of the western facing vendors are beginning to offer more traditionally stored aged and semi-aged sheng. In response to your Septembert 9 article on the topic, David of The Essence of Tea stated he would make a few more available. I subsequently purchased samples of those he offered and then cakes of those I particularly favored. I very much enjoyed the more developed character of the Malaysian stored teas.

    Hopefully the more of such teas we enthusiasts in the west buy, the more will become available for us to buy, in a self-reinforcing spiral.

    • All very valid points.

      Credit to James for being able to influence the market and adding some diversity.

      I have to say whilst I have been thinking about doing a few things to promote traditional (wet) storage on my blog it has never really became the priority on my to do list. That article by James nudged me in also wanting to add my contribution, it this case an educational sample pack to broaden people’s experiences on the areas of age tea and the historical journey of the different storage conditions.

      For the future I suspect as the current drinkers of young puerh tea gain more experience and are confronted with the accumulative effects of potentially drinking too much young puerh tea, the body will one day rebel. It was this very response that pushed me to focus more on age tea and traditional storage. As I have been on this journey longer than most, what has happened to me some years back I suspect will occur to many puerh enthusiasts a few years down the line. These things take place step by step.

      • Thanks Varat and glad to see someone offering traditionally stored or more aged teas. Really underrepresented in the west. Good luck with the sample offering.

        • It was your voice that got this going. What I greatly appreciate since embarking on this tea journey is that it is really much more than simply tea. We also learn to cultivate ourselves for the better and through the betterment of yourself you receive a richer and more fulfilling experience all round.

          I’ll be happy to send samples your way, just send me an email with your address.

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