Getting What You Pay For - A Rant Against Bargain Hunting


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Getting What You Pay For - A Rant Against Bargain Hunting

Postby GeoffK » May 22nd, '08, 17:05

Let me preface this post with the fact that it's a little bit of a rant, don't mean to step on anyone's toes and if you think I'm completely off my rocker here... it's not a problem.

Having said all this, I have decided to halt my bargain hunter's quest for Pu erh. I don't think I've ever tasted more crappy tea than in my misguided pursuit to find pu (both shu and sheng) that gives an unbelievable bang for the buck.

The conclusion I've ultimately come up with - you do really get what you pay for. Hoping that some 2000 mini bricks that cost a few bucks is going to be anything but swill was misguided. $5 for 2006 Menghai Yue Chen Yue Xiang 250g Tea Brick. How could you go wrong?! Well... you can go very very wrong. Heck even the 250g 2003 Xiaguan Tuocha for $16 was painful.

The thing is good Pu Erh often isn't sold at a cut rate, what is sold on the cheap is more often the low grade - sorry if there's a cigarette butt or some rocks in it, big leafs hiding the crap underneath. Also in terms of the young pu erhs it's a hodge podge of semi drinkable sludge that may or may not be unpalatable after carefully storing it and patiently waiting 7-10 years to drink it.

I think there's a huge push in the Tea Chat forum towards finding a diamond in the ruff, discovering that $11 cake that stands up against the one that's 10 times the expense. I don't want to come off like a tea snob, but I really feel that if you add up all the crap many of us have tossed our money away on (not to mention the bad tea we've ingested) we could have put that money towards less but much higher quality tea.

So for me, I'm done with the bargain hunting. I'm planning on saving my money up to buy two extremely high quality cakes a year and for shu some real high quality loose leaf that is more than a couple years old.

....End Rant :)
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Postby tenuki » May 22nd, '08, 20:52

Couldn't agree more GeoffK. Telling someone to get a bunch of crappy samples to explore puerh is just cruel. Everyone should start their puerh journey with a couple of aged good quality samples. I have a feeling a lot of people buying samples and reviewing don't even know what puerh is supposed to taste like. If you haven't had a good quality 20+ year old puerh sit down and shut up.

My strategy is to get 2-3 green cakes from reputable factory and source (menghai, etc) from the current year, and one or two very good aged cakes and a decent shu. Store the green, drink the aged and shu. Then in about 10 years time start sampling the stored and if I'm lucky stop buying the aged.
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Postby ABx » May 22nd, '08, 22:29

I'd say it goes for all tea. There are some gems that are not at all expensive, but they're probably more the exception.

The tricky thing is that puerh used to be a lot cheaper, and probably will be again. Thirty dollars for a bing of something young was unheard of not too long ago (though it was before my time). Prices have been driven up since the turn of the century, but should probably be going back down again before too long. This has also caused a lot of crap to flood the market as well.

There are still some factories that sell good stuff at low prices, though. My advice would really be to try to find reviews on anything before you buy, when possible. You can usually just Google what you're looking at. Besides, you don't want to buy too much of something you intend to keep around for some years, otherwise you could end up needing a dedicated storage room (for stuff you might not even like, or might not turn out well) before anything even has a chance to age.
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Postby GeoffK » May 22nd, '08, 22:41

ABx wrote: My advice would really be to try to find reviews on anything before you buy, when possible.


Hey ABX! It's been a while.

I'd actually respectfully disagree with you. The quality of some of the tea reviews out there are sketchy. Again there are a number of sites reviewing young puerh without the real depth of knowing how what they are tasting will translate after aged. I'm absolutely no expert in this space, but I've been spending more time with people who are and the result has been an awareness that it may be more important to find a place that sells great tea that you really trust and get some pointers from them or find someone here in TeaChat whose had some real experience with really exceptional tea for pointers. You're a great example of this, I know if I had a query of where to pick up the best GABA, you'd be able to point me in the right direction.

In the end, I just think life is too short to waste time on crappy tea and I'd caution new pu erh drinkers not to go on a bargain rampage and get a flood of samples of pu.
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Postby tenuki » May 22nd, '08, 23:07

GeoffK wrote:
ABx wrote: My advice would really be to try to find reviews on anything before you buy, when possible.


The quality of some of the tea reviews out there are sketchy. Again there are a number of sites reviewing young puerh without the real depth of knowing how what they are tasting will translate after aged.


QFT - I totally concur with GeoffK on this point. I've been lucky to stumble across some people knowledgeable in puerh ( some of them here on teachat, most of them at teashops locally ) but not until I was about 40 samples into crappy madness. What I've learned was that a lot of the people who's advice I was taking were almost as clueless as I was. Which is about as clueless as you can get.

Another point I would make is that relying on vendors for your sole source of info may not be a wise idea - news flash - they have a vested interest in selling their warehouse of tea as soon as possible.

TomVerlain wrote:...economic theory of "efficient markets"...

Great points Tom Verlain, thanks for sharing your perspective!
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I love to read rants ... and to rant myself! Soapbox, pls

Postby Salsero » May 23rd, '08, 00:13

I am happy to see this enormously valuable discussion taking place. Certainly the sheng puerh market is the most problematic of all tea markets. It is also an extremely inefficient market, however. The efficient market theory is based on the idea that everyone shares all the relevant information. The US puerh market is one in which pu consumers have access to virtually NO information. Most purchases we make are essentially made blind. I have heard of people picking a pu because they like the vendor's description, the design of the wrapper, the name, and all sorts of irrelevant info.

Price is not by any means a direct indicator of quality. I think that newbies who read this thread so far could conclude that if they stick to more expensive bings they will achieve greater quality. That simply is not true. I have bought maybe 20 or 30 teas in the $40 to $60 range that I would never have bought had I had the opportunity to taste them ahead of time, tea that is, frankly, no better than the unexceptional stuff I have paid less than $20 for. And I purchased many of those disappointing teas because someone on the internet whom I regard as an expert had praised the bing.

If you have a vendor or a friend who steers you reliably to the right stuff, good for you. If you can go to a shop and taste the pu before you buy, more power to you. These options are not available to me or to most US pu consumers.

My feeling is that the best hope for us living in a world of tea ignorance is to form tea communities like this one, and share our experience. Ten people can share ten bings at a very reasonable price each, including mailing. If those ten people share their impressions, there is a body of information about those bings that has some meaning, and on which those ten people (and others who read the results) can make informed buying decisions. Ten such groups of ten people could review an enormous amount of tea in a year. It could be expensive tea or cheap tea, but the most critical issue would be that after a number of people pass judgement, it would not be an UNKNOWN tea.

I think the effectiveness of this approach is demonstrated in the sticky threads devoted to Puerhshop tasting. All of us (except Bears) are newbies to puerh, some drinking it for the first time ever. Yet there is substantial agreement among these drinkers about which are 1) good or might be worth buying, 2) which are interesting but worth skipping, and 3) which are just not good at all.

I agree that bargain hunting may not be the best way to find the gold standard tea, but it is an inexpensive way for a lot of people learn about sheng and one should never start out at the top anyway. Does someone want to organize a hunt for, say, $50 bings or $100 bings that might be worth buying? That would be a great idea. On the other hand, if the plan is just to pay $50 or $100 and assume that you have a good tea, that is delusional.
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Postby PolyhymnianMuse » May 23rd, '08, 00:24

I have to agree with Sal. I'm very new to pu so my opinion doesn't carry much weight, but some of the cheaper pu's I have tried are just as good or even better than older stuff from more well known places. Some factors are deff more important than others and a collective opinion is much more reliable than anything else, thats why its so great to not only share information but tea itself.
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Postby ABx » May 23rd, '08, 01:34

GeoffK wrote:I'd actually respectfully disagree with you. The quality of some of the tea reviews out there are sketchy. Again there are a number of sites reviewing young puerh without the real depth of knowing how what they are tasting will translate after aged. I'm absolutely no expert in this space, but I've been spending more time with people who are and the result has been an awareness that it may be more important to find a place that sells great tea that you really trust and get some pointers from them or find someone here in TeaChat whose had some real experience with really exceptional tea for pointers. You're a great example of this, I know if I had a query of where to pick up the best GABA, you'd be able to point me in the right direction.
I actually don't see that as counter to my point at all - of course you should be selective about the advice you take. There are some very knowledgeable people out there actively discussing puerh, however. As I mentioned to Tenuki on almost the same subject the other night, the better reviews will give you the information to make a more informed choice rather than just telling you "what's best". There's a lot of ambiguity and subjectivity in the world of puerh, so none should be taken as gospel, but the long-time puerh bloggers with significant experience will often explain why they feel the way they do about something. They may include their opinion as well, but often give you the information to understand why.

In the end, I just think life is too short to waste time on crappy tea and I'd caution new pu erh drinkers not to go on a bargain rampage and get a flood of samples of pu.
I agree. It's just too easy to go overboard with puerh, which is something that really takes some long-term patience IMO.
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Postby tenuki » May 23rd, '08, 04:55

Another interesting observation is that market experts tend to use their insider knowledge to manipulate the market for profit not share their knowledge for the good of newbies. Even as a newbie, if I found a good source for reasonably priced good quality puerh I have to admit I might protect that knowledge against all my internet friends buying out the good stuff before I can afford that last bing for the year. Note wesli's dismay at finding his beloved golden melon sold out after he opened his big mouth.

So the drivers are all in the favor of the knowledgeable not fully disclosing IMO, the people on this forum and places like the livejournal puer blog not withstanding.
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Postby hop_goblin » May 23rd, '08, 09:57

I can totally agree with concepts found in this thread. It took me lots of trials and errors before finally coming to the conclusion that price is indicative of the quality; there are of course exceptions to the rule. Farmers and vendors are not stupid. The farmer understands that his trees are in a prime agricultural location and manufactures will pay crazy prices for it i.e. Banzhang, YiWu. The manufacture undstands that they will have to sell the pu-erh at higher rate to make up the difference. Buying from relatively unknown factories can be dangerous. Since the pu-erh boom, there have been hundreds of small factories setting up shop trying to capitalize on the hot market. However, they of course do not have the assets needed to buy premium mao cha. Some of the mao cha is inferior from crappy regions and in some cases imported from Vietnam. They of course will try to entice you to buy by claiming that the pu-erh is premium or Banzhang, YiWu etc., However what is not known to many consumers is that China does not regulate much of the pu-erh business. As a consequence, when you purchase a "YiWu cake" the cake may contain only as little as 10% YiWu or none at all. A $5 dollar beeng for a standerd 357g or 400g beeng, well, it is gonna taste like it as well. The best advice is to stay away from small factories (of course there are exceptions such as in ultra high premium small factories i.e. Xi-Zhi, YanChing Hao, DouJi etc, but you will know this by the price). You might pay a bit more for a beeng from a larger factory but it is worth it. At least you will have something that is drinkable. Remember, most large factories own their trees and plantations and as a result they are able to produce a consistent product year after year. Take this for what it's worth, BUT STAY AWAY FROM ANYTHING THAT HAS 'MINI' ON THE LABEL Yes, this includes mini tuos and bricks! They always sux! NO exception!
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Postby MarshalN » May 23rd, '08, 10:57

Mini tuos indeed usually suck. Mini bing can be good once in a long while... but not often.

I think we need to caveat all this with two things in mind

1) There are lots of people out there who are not really that interested in aged puerh. Unfortunately, this includes quite a few of the people who write a lot about them online. Their primary experience with drinking puerh has been of the 5 years or less variety. In many cases, it is that freshness and fragrance that they like, not the old, musty, sweet, slick old puerh that they're after. Saying all this is really just saying that there's no accounting for taste, and some people have fundamentally different tastes.

2) Similar to point one, but a little different -- teas that you think are good now are not always going to be good 10 years down the road, and teas that you think are awful now can, in fact, be great 10 years (or 20, or 30) down the road. Most of the "great" old puerh these days were unbearable pieces of crap when young -- nobody would willingly drink that stuff. They were bitter, sour, nasty. Over the years, they have turned into nice, sweet cakes of tea, but that's only after they were aged in a decent environment for such things. I've had cakes that tasted rather sweet initially turn nastily bitter with no aroma after a few years. Don't let first impressions fool you.

And the point about not trusting vendors -- can't emphasize that more. Vendors are there for a reason -- they're out to sell tea. It's not a charity. No vendor will ever tell you their tea is bad. Instead, they'll say "interesting character". It's never sour, it's "fruity tartness". It's never bitter, it's "strength". Things like that. You get the drift.
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Postby Geospearit » May 23rd, '08, 11:37

MarshalN wrote:Mini tuos indeed usually suck. Mini bing can be good once in a long while... but not often.


My first mini tuos were some of the best shu I've ever had. I think they were Menghai, not sure... but so smooth and a special taste that I have never experienced with a shu. http://www.teaism.com/TeaShop/ProductDetails4-13.html
And that was at my local teashop in DC. (Teaism)
I got some "premium" mini tuos from YS more recently and they are not nearly as good... although not bad. The shu has ginseng flowers in it, the other is sheng. Both not bad... especially for the price.
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Postby Salsero » May 23rd, '08, 12:10

I think that mini-tuos of shu generally compare very favorably to teabags. Given a choice, I think I would almost always rather have the mini tuo than the teabag.
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Postby augie » May 23rd, '08, 12:31

MarshalN wrote:And the point about not trusting vendors -- can't emphasize that more. Vendors are there for a reason -- they're out to sell tea.


They get hosed buying tea just like the rest of us! I love looking at vendor's websites with every description reading "premium", "excellent quality","superior quality". They have to have some nasty sh@#$t somewhere!

The biggest problem I have is that I live in the boonies. Tenuki has access to local places to purchase, taste and leave with great tea. There are a few tea shops in Indy, but it's mostly obese women looking for "weight loss tea" browsing around. I went to one tea place downtown and the owner was almost in tears telling me, "you are the only person in Indianapolis who knows about Pu Ehr"! I know that can't be. Even if I did live where 'Nuki does, I just don't have time to drive all over and read everything there is to know. I just buy and try. Reviews help but everyone likes something different and tastes tea differently. And there is so much puehr and a lot to learn

GeoffK wrote: Let me preface this post with the fact that it's a little bit of a rant, don't mean to step on anyone's toes and if you think I'm completely off my rocker here... it's not a problem.

Rock on Teabrother!
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