[[EDITOR'S NOTE: Continuing our series on storing and aging pu'er teas -- of which the first and second parts can be read here and here -- are three essays by Warren Peltier, known to tea aficionados the world over as Niisonge. Today's instalment is the first of his three contributions.]]
A Brief Historical Perspective
Not so long ago, aged tea could be had for pretty cheap. But all of a sudden, a lot of people in Asia got pu'er crazy, and started buying up all kinds of aged pu'er -- any pu'er -- regardless of quality or price. Let’s take a glimpse at some of the historical highlights of all of this:
Hong Kong has a long history of Pu'er drinking. Pu'er is used here for its medicinal properties, and has long been a favorite tea for consumption during dim sum meals in Hong Kong teahouses.
People’s Republic era: Hong Kong became the “tea storehouse” for pu'er tea. It was sent from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, where some was consumed locally by Hong Kong people, and some was exported to South East Asia.
1950s: one tong of good quality pu'er bing cha cost just a little over 3 HKD. By that time Guangdong people knew that the older pu'er gets, the better it is. But at that time, even old pu'er was only 1 yuan per pound more expensive than newer pu'er.
1986: One 30-year-old aged Hong Yin (Red Label) bing was selling in Sheung Wan-area tea stores for a little over 170 HKD; some Lao Hao bings aged to 50 or 60 years were selling for 800 HKD. At that time it was already considered very expensive. But today it would be worth in the tens of thousands of HKD.
Starting in the 80s, Hong Kong’s economy started to boom, creating wealth, and a wealthy class of people. Some of these people started collecting pu'er teas as a kind of investment speculation.
In the mid and late 90s, some of the big teahouse owners went overseas -- because of uncertainty about Hong Kong’s future. But after 1997, they came back, started to clean their storehouses, and discovered that there were many kinds of good-quality aged pu'er in their stores. They then proceeded to sell off these stores to collectors in Taiwan and overseas. And two teahouses in particular -- Gam San Lau (金山樓) and Long Moon Lau (龍門樓) (see end-note) -- had stores of Tong Qing Hao Lao Yuan Cha (同慶號老圓茶), aged to almost 100 years in their possession.
Pu'er collectors, especially from Taiwan, would go to the tea farms and factories in Yunnan, sometimes buying up whole crops of tea leaves before they could reach market -- and thus securing their own private stock of tea to be privately pressed into bings for aging.
And that is what kicked off the big pu'er mania -- where everyone who was anyone had to have 100-year-old aged pu'er in their collection. And then supplies of good pu'er, even recently produced, became scarce. Of course, the likelihood of finding 100 year aged pu'er nowadays is virtually impossible.
Just assume that there were some real, verifiable 100-year-old aged pu'er available for purchase to lucky you. And best of all, that you could actually afford it without going broke. Would that particular brick or bing of pu'er be worth it? That’s the question that has to be asked with any aged tea. Is it worth it to buy this tea? First of all, you probably don’t know the whole history of that tea. Sure, you can research wrappers and factories and batch codes. But that doesn’t tell you anything about how Person A, who first bought the tea, stored it. It doesn’t tell you whether the tea happened to come in contact with any extraneous odors. It doesn’t tell you that Person B stored the tea on a shelf next to a pair of his stinky shoes. It doesn’t tell you that Person C, who then bought the tea, brought it home in a rain storm, and it got all soaked. It doesn’t tell you that Person D doctored the tea by adding extraneous scents from camphor wood to the tea, just because that person thought that the tea smelled kind of like stinky shoes and mold, and thought that it would smell better (and perhaps taste better too) if it were scented with camphor wood.
Since you don’t know the exact storage methods used during the history of that tea, and since you haven’t tasted that tea, how will you know if that tea, aged 100 years is really good or not? You can’t know. And you also won’t know if it’s worth the price you paid. It just may be too big a risk to take.
So how pu'er teas are stored is important, not just for drinking, but also for resale value, if one were to ever be insane enough to sell part of his/her pu'er collection. Of course, pu'er manufacturers know how to age and store tea. And they know how to ship it. So you don’t have to be worried so much how the tea was stored in some warehouse at the factory.
But whether a tea is aged 10 years or 100 years, how the tea was stored is an important factor that will affect the quality of the tea over time. The longer the period of aging, the more important how a tea was stored during all those years becomes. And because of this, one should keep in mind that just because a tea is old doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. Of course, Chinese have a saying with pu'er: “the more aged, the better the tea becomes.” But that’s all relatively speaking. If the pu'er was stored improperly, or under non-ideal conditions, then it may be mediocre -- or bad -- aged tea.
In the past few years, in Mainland China, many extremely wealthy people (including many who don’t know a thing about pu'er) got into collecting pu'er as an investment. They speculate in pu'er, driving up the prices -- and driving real pu'er lovers out of the market. There are now many pu'er drinkers who are extremely negative about buying aged pu'er. And they refuse to buy any pu'er until the prices start reflecting the actual value of the tea.
I myself refuse to buy any aged pu'er, partly because of outrageous prices, and partly because I’m not sure how that particular tea was stored; and also because there are so many fake and forged aged teas that it’s too complicated to keep up with. Now, when I buy pu'er, I visit several reputable dealers where I can sample many relatively new (aged 3 years or less) sheng pu'er bings; and compare prices. If I taste a particular sheng pu'er and I like it now, then when I take it home and store it away for say 7-10 years (or even longer), surely it will taste much better after proper storage and aging.
Did the Pu'er Bubble Go Bust?
Pu'er prices rose dramatically in the first half of 2007, with prices of mao cha doubling. But this didn’t last long. By the end of June, prices had fallen dramatically as the following examples illustrate:
2007 Price Comparison Prices of Mao Cha
April 1, 2007
Banzhang Ancient Tea Tree: 1400 yuan/Kg
Bulang Shan Ancient Tea Tree: 600 yuan/Kg
July 1, 2007
Banzhang Ancient Tea Tree: 600 yuan/Kg
Bulang Shan Ancient Tea Tree: 300 yuan/Kg
According to market reports, in July 2007, pu'er mao cha prices remained calm, but tea farmers in Nan Nuo Shan (南糯山) and Bu Lang Shan (布朗山) were unwilling to ship their harvests because the going price was so low. And factories in Menghai stopped receiving shipments of tea; many factories reduced the production of shu pu'er.
So overall, the market was in a bit of a turndown in 2007. No longer were consumers driving the market based on quantity: by the end of the year, they were demanding quality. And that drove prices back down. The demand just wasn’t there anymore.
Today’s Pu'er Market
At the end of June 2008, in Guangdong’s Fang Cun Tea Market, we see pu'er tea prices going down -- sometimes dramatically. A 357-gram 2008 Da Ye 0622 Sheng Bing is selling for 350 yuan per tong. With seven bings in a tong, that comes to 50 yuan per bing. Don’t take my word for it -- see for yourself at this page.
If the prices of pu'er continue to fall, that will be good for consumers. And maybe now is the time to start stocking up on pu'er. A recent trip to the Dong Pu Tea Market, in Fuzhou’s Jin An district, seems to verify suspicions. Tea vendors there say business is slow. Shu bings were selling for a mere 30 yuan. A 400-gram 2007 Meng Ku Large Tea Tree shu bing sold for 80 yuan. And that was the vendor’s asking price. I didn’t even try to bargain him down. If I had bought a tong or two, I probably could have got them for 60 or 70 yuan each. Keep in mind, Dong Pu Tea Market is a backwater tea market with only about 20 vendors. Much larger Pu'er markets, like Guangzhou or Shenzhen, or even Fuzhou’s larger Five-Mile Pavilion Tea Market, probably have stores of sheng bings at a much lower price point. Pre-2007 bings however, and the more famous brands of pu'er are still selling for a relatively high price. As the 2008 bings come onto the market, though, I suspect they will sell for relatively cheaper prices than in the past.
If you want further proof, you can check online auction sites like eachnet.com. The lowest price for a 250-gram 2000 sheng zhuan (brick) was 21.8 yuan. Shu bings are going for as low as 18 yuan. You see similar low prices on online tea vendor sites in China. And that leads to another question: with prices so low, what will the future hold for the new huge tea markets that sprouted up overnight in places like Shenzhen during the days of Pu'er Mania?
Pu'er Reality Check
What makes people go so crazy about pu'er anyway? Is it the moldy smell that people find so captivating or what? What’s all the mystique surrounding pu'er? And why would individual pu'er collectors go out of the way to buy a whole tea farm’s crop and hoard it? Why? Tea Hoarder! That’s tea insanity! And why would anyone be willing to fork over hundreds to thousands of yuan for a single bing? If you compare the quality of leaf in a bing to that of any other kind of tea (say Tieguanyin, for example), are you really getting value for money? For the most part, the pu'er leaf that is used for bings comes from the 4th to the 8th leaves on the bush (or tree). These are pretty large, coarse leaves that are used. Don’t fool yourself: those leaves aren’t big because they come from some thousand-year-old “ancient tea tree.” So why would anyone willingly spend large sums of money for teas that are made with so-called inferior quality leaves? I find it ironic that the teas I buy actually cost as much as, or even more than, the teaware I buy. It’s an expensive lifestyle.
So my advice is: Wait awhile and see if cheaper prices make their way through the supply chain. And then, buy pu'er because you like the taste, not because of fame or reputation, or because of the duration of aging. Tea should be enjoyable, not an aggravation. If some of your pu'er tastes good now, then drink it now and enjoy it. Why wait to store it? But if you can wait, then store some away and see what happens. So, enjoy some now, enjoy some later. Maybe that’s the best way to buy and store pu'er.
"A Brief Historical Perspective" is based on information found in:
Zhang Hong, ed. 普洱茶 (Pu'er Cha). Beijing: China Light Industry Press, 2006.
Hong Kong's 100-Year-Old-Pu'er Tea Houses:
金山樓 Kam Shan Lau Restaurant
地址 : 油麻地新填地街78-86號閣樓至2樓
類別 : 廣東菜、中菜館、酒樓、點心
消費 : $41-$100
M-2/F, 78-86 Reclamation Street, (Yau Ma Tei)
龍門樓 Long Moon Lau Restaurant
地址 : 鑽石山鳳德道60號南蓮園池龍門樓
電話 : 3658 9388
類別 : 廣東菜、素食
消費 : $41-$100
Long Men Lou, Nan Lian Garden, 60 Fung Tak Road, (Diamond Hill)