EDITOR'S NOTE: Warren Peltier, known to our readers as Niisonge and in China as 夏雲峰 Xia Yun Feng, is one of the blogosphere's most prominent authorities on tea. His new book, The Ancient Art of Tea: Discover Happiness and Contentment in a Perfect Cup of Tea, is due out next March from Tuttle. Here he reports from Maliandao, the renowned town-sized tea market -- a place like no other -- with tips for the non-Chinese tea buyer visiting Beijing.
First of all, Maliandao is a huge tea market. Whatever you are looking for in terms of teas or tea equipment, you're sure to find it there. There's just so much choice. If money is no object, then ignore the following. But I usually like most of my money to stay in my pocket, so I know how to restrain myself -- if you're like me, then this should be especially useful:
1. As a foreigner, in China, you have a big, invisible dollar sign on your forehead. Expect to be charged a higher price just because you're a foreigner (or look like a foreigner). But don't be afraid to bargain, haggle and complain. Every Chinese knows how to do it. It could be as simple as "Is there any discount?" (有没有打折 ?, you mei you da zhe?). It's actually useful to have a Chinese friend inquire first about prices and then negotiate a better price for you.
2. People in China are now becoming more and more affluent -- especially in larger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. They have increased spending power and a bigger appetite for fancy teas. This means tea prices (like most other goods in China) have also increased quite dramatically. The so-called "best" teas currently sell for 10,000 yuan per pound or so (500 g) in Fuzhou (price may be much higher in Beijing). Just ask what the most expensive tea sells for, then you will know.
3. With the rise in affluence and interest in tea in China, certain teas have become more sought out recently than others. Right now in Fujian, hongcha, such as Tanyang Gongfu (Tanyang Congou), Jin Jun Mei, Yin Jun Mei, and others are quite fashionable.
4. Fashionable teas, as well as the famous teas (dahongpao, tieguanyin, longjing) because they have a higher demand, fetch a higher price -- often an astronomical price -- which is not reflected in the actual quality of the tea.
5. Relatively unknown tea varieties, or unpopular teas, though equally delicious, enjoy a lower markup, and thus are economical buys.
6. Each region of China has regional tea favorites. Thus in Guangzhou, there tends to be more puer tea shops than vendors selling other types of teas, in Fuzhou, hongcha and yancha tea shops predominate, for example.
7. Beijing is a regional center for tea supply to China's north. Expect that tea prices will be higher there, simply because it's far from the tea producing regions.
8. Avoid tea shops that are large and lavishly decorated. They look pretty -- but their cost of doing business is much higher. Decoration costs, for example, are reflected in the high prices of their teas. Don't expect to bargain in these shops either. Most of their clients have the cash and pay the asking price. They also brag about it later -- "This tea cost X yuan".
9. When purchasing tea, avoid fancy packaging and boxes. The vendor has to purchase these themselves, and the cost is quite high -- perhaps adding 100 to 200 yuan into the price of the tea. Chinese like to be pampered; and much of the tea purchased is intended as a gift, which is why they like fancy boxes, which seems to be overkill.
10. Do seek out small, plain-looking tea shops -- don't be put off by shipping boxes on the floor. These places are where you are likely to find excellent tea at a reasonable price.
11. Tea utensils, like zisha teapots or fancy glazed ceramics also command a very high price, simply because there are more people around with the money to pay the asking price.
12. If you have the chance, visit a Tenfu tea shop -- not for teas or utensils, but for their wide assortment of tea snacks, which are produced in Fujian. Their tea snacks are all reasonably priced (around 40 yuan) per box. Most are quite delicious, and made with/contain tea or tea leaves.
13. Use common sense and exercise your better judgment. Don't be taken in or swindled by a fancy sales pitch or the salesperson's charisma. Just about everyone says their tea is the best; or will insist that a certain tea can't be found at a better price; etc. Most of these people know how to say the right words to get you to spend more money in their shop. Of course, if you can't understand much Chinese, then they won't have much power of persuasion over you.
14. There is true dahongpao (DHP) to be found, but there are so many distinctions, it's hard to keep track. There is zheng yan cha -- grown in the original growing area -- the famous mountains; there is Wuyi DHP -- grown in many of the tea villages in the Wuyi area (which may be on high mountains or lowland farms); there is outer Wuyi DHP -- grown in mountains outside of the traditional Wuyi area. In Wuyi, there are so many small, family/farmer run factories, which account for differences in taste of the various DHPs -- the processor's skill, growing area, amount of roasting, roasting method all come into play. As end consumers, we're mostly unaware of the nuances: to us, it's all just DHP.
15. If you like Yancha, ask if they have other varieties on hand that you probably wouldn't normally ask for. You might be pleasantly surprised.
16. Tea vendors generally tend to introduce their in-demand teas, but of middle-grade, and expect customers to work their way up from there until they find a grade/style that's satisfying. But remember to ask about the other tea varieties they have on hand -- the less popular and therefore cheaper.
17. Look for teaware wholesale shops (茶具批发) where you can find relatively cheap, but nice tea ware and sets. I have found really nice tea sets in Fuzhou for around 200-250 yuan. Hand-painted, fancy Jingdezhen tea ware, or Ru glaze tea ware sets, though, are very expensive. The cheapest Ru set I saw was 600 yuan, and most were 1,500-2,000 yuan. Don't be afraid to check every piece of teaware out of the box. They expect it, so you don't come back wanting a refund. They will substitute a piece or set on the spot. The cheapest, reasonable zisha teapots sell in Fuzhou for 200 yuan; but there will be little selection. Most good zisha sell for 300 yuan and up. I saw lots of good pots in the 300-500 yuan range. The more highly refined and artistic teapots sell into the thousands of yuan. For zisha teapots, make sure they do a water test: pour with the pot first.
18. If you go to a teahouse, don't expect the tea you order to be really good. They normally buy lower-grade teas, cheap teas, because they have to tack on their markup (2-4 times wholesale price, depending on overhead), and still make the price acceptable for customers. They usually buy teas that are 50-100 yuan a pound. You could bring and substitute your own good tea, but would still have to pay the price for their cheaper tea.
19. If you're buying a lot of merchandise, ask shops about shipping it. Most are able to do it, and have the packaging and know-how to do it without breaking anything.
20. Don't forget: always ask if there's any discount -- 有没有打折 ?