Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Into the Dragon's Mouth: Shopping for Tea in Maliandao


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 ?


Austin said...

Excellent article Warren. Shopping in the vast Chinese big city tea markets is a challenge, and probably Maliandao is the most challenging. China Daily reported earlier in the year that as much as 80% of the people shopping there were getting scammed. http://bit.ly/8hiwTJ

I especially like your explanation of the variables to consider when buying DHP. There is talk about speculators pushing up the price of DHP. The rumors around Wuyishan put the blame on business men located in Beijing. Outrageous prices where reported by CCTV recently. Xiamen has the biggest concentration shoppes pushing these prices, but consider the number of shops in Wuyishan that have more than doubled in the last year, all selling 'authentic' DHP to every tourist that walks in the door. Is that happening in Fuzhou as well?

I don't buy tea in the city markets, but I can say that the competition out in the countryside has becomes as intense as the competition is in the big city markets. The buyers are Chinese, and are representing younger tea entrepreneurs that are feeding the growing domestic market for better tea, and tea that is coming from outside the traditional local markets.

I think the fashionable Fujian hongcha, Jin Jun Mei, Yin Jun Mei that you mentioned are a good example. Those tea spiked last year in Beijing with the government players in Xiamen driving the speculation, with cooperation from Tong Mu village tea makers. These teas were first made in 2007 by Lapsang Souchong makers. Those teas really spiked in 2009, but in 2010 the price was reduced by half, and a DHP spike was generated fueled by the same money.

You also mentioned that the market in Guangzhou is primarily puer. In 2002, there were just a few puer dealers there, and when the puer bubble expanded puer came to be the primary tea sold there. Now there is a lot of over priced 2007 puer sitting on shelves there. I mention that just to point out how dynamic the market in China is.

I agree with you that the middle of the market is where the value is to be found. Still the 'Famous' teas are famous for a reason, and if you get the real thing, it will always be on your mind even if the money isn't in your pocket.

It is cool that the Chinese tea makers or putting energy into inovation by creating new teas. I had a hong cha in Yunnan recently that was new, it was also spicy, complicated, sweet and rich. It was remarkable but to expensive for either me or my customers. I'm hoping that it will follow the path of Jin Jun Mei, Yin Jun Mei. So I can afford it.


corax said...

EDITOR'S NOTE: warren cannot access blogspot.com directly from the PRC, so i sent him austin's comment via email. here is his reply:

Austin, tea prices are certainly higher now; even higher from say last year for maocha. That has made distributors unhappy as they either have to swallow a portion of the bigger price or unload the costs onto their customers. But inflation in China has raised prices all around, and tea is not exempt from this inflationary pressure. You are right to say that some tea prices seem outrageous or even a scam. In Fuzhou there are many fancy retail tea shops throughout the city, most selling super-expensive teas. I have sat in these shops and countless times seen customers fork over thousands of yuan for a pound of gift tea meant to be as a payment for business favors, though I myself didn’t taste the value in the tea they were buying. But keep in mind that many tea-store clients are business people, or work in the government, where tea purchases can be deducted as a business expense. There are also, however, rumors that some of these tea stores are a front for money-laundering schemes and other types of shady business deals like kickbacks – which is perhaps why some stores have prices that seem outrageously high. The Chinese tea-store business model is also quite unique: a lavishly decorated store is staffed with pretty, young, unmarried girls who serve and sell tea to mainly a male clientele. If the girls are charming and have much charisma, they can captivate their customers into purchasing more tea. And for the men, it’s a pleasurable experience to be served tea by such pretty girls. In China, some people jokingly say: “tea tastes better when steeped by a lovely hand.” Or they might also say: “in a tea store I can steep tea, and also be steeped in beauty.” As I said in my blog post, these pretty tea stores have high overhead – and that is also reflected in the price of the tea, as also is the fancy packaging (the inner tea containers, the outer box, and the matching paper gift bag).

But what does that mean for the budget-conscious consumer or anyone unwilling to hand over a few thousand kuai? Look at it this way: the real value in tea is what you feel it is worth to you. If you happen to experience a tea that is beyond compare, then perhaps it is worth thousands of yuan; and you might happily spend such a sum. On the other hand, if a tea doesn’t meet your expectations when you taste and compare it to other teas or previous experiences of the same tea, then perhaps it’s not worth the asking price. Can you taste the value in your tea? That's the main question.

When I buy tea, I usually have a price range in my head and certain expectation of quality. I then either work my way up or down in price – depending on what type of tea I’m buying and its intended use. And of course, I avoid shops with outrageously high markups.