Last summer I worked in the craft beer industry drinking some of the most sought after beers in the country. Friends of the shop would bring us Pliny the Elder, Heady Topper, Bourbon County Proprietor’s, Westvleteren XII, Hunahpu etc. These are beers that people wait hours in line for and pay big money to trade for online. I had desired some of these beers as I had read online that some were “the best beer in the world”, aged in specific bourbon barrels, or brewed by Trappist Monks with an exclusive recipe.
There is no doubt that these beers were delicious, but I had hyped them in my mind. Had someone served me a glass of Pliny the Elder without telling me what it was, would I have prized and analyzed every sip as I did thinking about what kind of hops and yeast strains were used to make the beer? Or would I have just enjoyed it as a good IPA as I would for something easily accessible to me such as Pipeworks Ninja vs Unicorn? Are people in California going crazy over Ninja vs Unicorn while they sip their Pliny the Elder every day? In my head the Pliny was incredible because I had put it on a pedestal. It was something rare, something I had sought after.
I was fortunate enough to later do blind tasting, and I far preferred my beloved Ninja vs Unicorn. There was nothing dubious about any of the claims made about any of these highly sought after beers, in fact they were delicious, but I had perceived a value that was much higher than what the beer was worth.
I was once asked to sell someone an invisible pen. I had to take something that had no value, and sell it to someone by telling them things they wanted to hear. This is a pen that will never get stolen, it is a pen that only you can write with. Once you have this pen, it will write anything that comes to your imagination. I had to make someone need something they didn’t even know they wanted. There is a disturbing trend in the tea industry where I am seeing vendors create an aura of rarity to sell their teas.
I recently was on the website of a popular tea vendor and saw a claim that they are selling tea from an 1800-year-old tree. Immediately my interest was piqued; however, I had to be skeptical. They claim the tea was hand picked by a tea master by a numbered tree that is 1800-years-old, and from that tree 100 puerh cakes were pressed. On the website, images of the farmer, waterfalls, valleys, and local flora grace the website while not mentioning much about the tea itself. This super-rare tea that comes from the land of beautiful waterfalls hand-picked by a tea master can be yours for the low price of $60 for 100 grams. Is knowing that this tea is from old trees and that is picked by a tea master near a waterfall actually going to make it taste better, or is it in my head?
I will not deny that there are puerh teas that can fetch prices this high. Authentic Laobanzhang can run over $250 for 100 grams, but they are not marketed towards the novice drinker. You do not see Laobanzhang marketed to the masses as some sort of mythical white whale tea that was plucked by a tea master who works in a workshop overlooking a valley of centuries-old tea trees. The tea speaks for itself, and one who would purchase such a tea has likely spent decades refining their palette. Most Laobanzhang tea trees are three or four hundred years old, certainly not 1800 years. One of my favorite tea bloggers “Marshaln” once quipped, “Yeah, this is something you learn only after drinking tea for awhile” in response to a comment about how old tea that is good is not cheap and not easily affordable to the average consumer.
The 1800-year-old magical puerh claims to be from the Qianjiazhai tea grove. This is a protected area where the the local government is very strict on which tea trees may be picked. In fact, the only trees that are allowed to be picked in that area are for scientific studies. It is highly unlikely that 100 grams of tea from such a prized tree could be sold for $60. It is also unlikely that the farmer would give away such a prized harvest to be sold on the Western market. It is more likely that this tea is from a much lesser quality tree being sold at a ridiculous markup.
A very effective marketing technique is called perceived value pricing where goods are valued on how much consumers are willing to pay for it in line with a perceived value by potential buyers. Rather than pricing tea based on a profit margin, the tea is priced based on the idea that the tea is very rare and buyers will pay a high price for it. However, if the tea is priced too high then the novice drinker may not pick it up, and a more experienced tea drinker will shy away from the tea.
To further enforce the dubious claims of a 1000+ year tree, a quick search on AliExpress led me to a Thousand Year YiWu puerh for $10.79 per cake. There is nothing special about these teas that claim to come from trees over 1000 years old because such teas, if they actually existed, would likely sell for exorbitant amounts of money. These teas would be so rare that it is likely the farmers would not even distribute it outside the village much less sell it to a wholesaler for such a low price.
So why claim that a tea is from 1800-year-old trees? This same tea, which probably does taste good, could be sold for a fair price, but the vendor has hedged that they can sell their inventory of 100 cakes at an extremely high markup while marketing the tea as something very rare and unique. They even keep a counter on their website of how many units are left so that the buyer can feel more inclined to buy the tea.
I recently read an article by James from TeaDB about how vendors use scarcity as a tactic to sell tea for the “fear of missing out.” While I’m sure the 1800 year old sheng puerh tastes good, it is not as rare as it is made out to be. Likely these were leaves from old trees that were either sold to the vendor by a farmer who was able to sell a story to a naive vendor, or the vendor is straight up making a story up to sell tea at a higher price.
Why am I bringing this up now? Isn’t the tea industry somewhat known for making false claims about tea? This is an industry with very little regulation or third party oversight. The vendor who is making claims of an 1800-year-old tea has tried making themselves pioneers in bringing transparency to the tea industry. They have written 8 articles on transparency, including one about transparency in pricing. They try to put faces of farmers all over their website along with stories of workshops in small villages across China that they work directly with. Several years ago, they were caught selling a puerh for $156 while the exact tea was available online for $17. They have also been caught renaming teas from low-end puerh factories by making up a workshop name and calling it exclusive.
This vendor is not alone in shady marketing practices, I have seen this sort of thing all over the internet, perhaps most famously with Wuyi Cliff tea. Wuyi Da Hong Pao is one of the most prized teas in the world. Even in China it is very expensive, yet I see vendors online selling Da Hong Pao at very affordable prices, while making claims that the tea came from one of six bushes in China. An affordable Da Hong Pao is almost certainly a counterfeit or mixed with other Wuyi tea, even though it may be delicious. The problem is when vendors claim that their tea is something it is not, people get caught in the hype that they have to try this super rare tea. I have also seen a well-known tea vendor sell a tea that claims to be rare and only plucked on certain nights of the year when the moon is just right, yet that tea has been in stock for 2 years straight despite being ultra-rare. Having tried that tea, it is no better than a good version of that tea that I have bought for half the price. Another tea vendor that sells Keemun claims that their tea is “One grade higher than what the Queen of England drinks.” I don’t look up to the Queen as an expert in tea, and maybe she doesn’t even like Keemun Hao Ya. The vendor sells this ultra royal tea for $13 per ounce, and just about anywhere else the highest grade Keemuns can be found for around $7 per ounce.
What can a consumer do? We can ask questions and be skeptical of claims of rarity. If something seems too good to be true, it most likely is. The same can be said with tea. We need to ask ourselves, what is a 1000-year-old tree supposed to taste like? Is a tea good because it is from a certain bush? If we need to ask ourselves these questions, it is likely our palates aren’t developed enough to appreciate such a distinction. Scott Wilson from Yunnan Sourcing once did an experiment in the perceived value of teas in China:
“[When I went to the] Fang Cun tea market the first time […] I went into 10 pu-erh shops and asked for 80’s raw pu-erh for 1000 RMB (approximately $150) or less per cake. All but one of the owner’s told me ‘yes’ and proceeded to find some hyper-wet stored tea in an old style wrapper. Real 80’s tea at that time would still have been well over 10,000 RMB per cake. The one honest seller (when asked the same question) laughed and said ‘there’s no real 80’s tea that cheap’, and proceeded to brew up a lovely Nan Nuo from 2004 that was affordable and good. He said, ‘don’t look at the wrapper or even worry about the age of the tea or tea trees. Drink the tea… when you know what good tea is nobody can cheat you.'”
If we appreciate a tea for the taste, we can stop chasing the white whale. Similar to the craft beer that I had sought after, there was a perceived value higher than the value of the beer. While the breweries made no false claims about the beer, there was hype associated with the beer that made me want it. It is wrong when a company tries to create a false preceived value in order to sell product rather than letting the product speak for itself. Some of my favorite teas are simple puerhs I know little about. I have no idea what village they came from, or how old the tea trees are; all I know is I like the tea, and that is good enough for me. When I do drink something special, I can appreciate the complexities and taste of the tea, but that is all that matters to me.