This is what I wish somebody told me when I first realised how great but how hard to find old Puerh is and I started to buy it.
As usual, nothing in Tea is certain, don’t blind-believe anything I say but use it as a line of enquiry to explore whether you believe it’s true or not (or to which extent). Contributions and comments are welcome.
You can use this advice to buy Puerh from anywhere. I hope it aids a worthy quest of understanding old Puerh, it’s been one of the most satisfying of my life and I wish you the very best in it!
If you’re only going to remember one thing it should be this: There is only some correlation between the price of a cake and its “real” quality.
(Also: do not believe the stories, when you hear “gushu” often it means nothing, but hopefully you’ve figured this one out already)
There’s a companion article on panic buying tea.
In general, if a cake has a high collectible value*, there generally is a good reason why that is so. But among the cheaper cakes there is a 1-5% that is significantly undervalued, this is what any puerh lover will find themselves hunting.
* I say collectible value because some cakes might simply have a higher price because by the time they reached a western vendor, they marked it up up to 6-8 times from current market value. To be clear this is not puerh rising in price each year, this is buying and selling at a 6-8x markup in the same year, it’s particularly possible with younger sheng puerh.
When you don’t know much something, you tend to equate price with quality. I’m about to explain a few reasons why you can tell very little about the true quality of a cake by its price only.
Before we start talking about the various ages, a few clarifications:
- I’m talking about puerh cakes, it’s impossible to verify the age of loose leaf puerh and because of this the market value is much less defined. Good thing about this is you could find great Tea at a reasonable price. Bad thing is it’s so easy to ferment loose leaf and make it look more aged than it is, one doesn’t even need to fake the cake wrapper and compression.
- There’s so much disinformation and mystery in the puerh world, expect to be misled by anyone – you can only trust your experience of the actual Tea, the story is worthless.
- My definition of quality tends towards tea that come from ancient and clean trees, this is mostly in line with “market value” for older cakes but there a lot of more recent (2010-now) cakes the market “likes” and I think are not that great.
Anything before the 1980s is expensive, there’s a small amount of it, and the prices always go up. In fact they’re already so high that unless you know what you’re doing or get a good deal from a friend/collector, I’d suggest not buy cakes this age (some loose or samples to try are a good idea though).
There are a lot of fakes, too. It’s relatively easy to get some maocha (loose leaf), age it in a humid climate, press it in cakes, wait for a few years for storage smells to go away and voila, a 1980s lookalike-cake.
If it’s on the internet and it’s famous, it’s probably fake or at least the age is likely exaggerated. Try a sample first if you trust yourself to be able to tell.
Unfortunately it’s a bit of a catch-22: until you taste really old Tea you can’t tell if what you got it’s real. Until you can tell if it’s real you can’t really buy old tea without risking getting scammed.
Friends and people that you trust that have old Tea are your best resource here. Perhaps a physical shop in Malaysia or Taiwan (definitely not all of them, but there is definitely 2 or 3 in Yingge or KL), a private collector or someone that either bought the Tea at the time of production or has access to people that did is your best bet for anything that looks remotely affordable.
Hystorically, Puerh was made mostly with ancient trees that were very clean, prices were low and therefore there was no incentive for agrochemicals so genuine old puerh is all clean.
Some plantations were started in the 1980s (as far as I know, it’s quite hard to tell exactly when) but the more we go back in time, the more only ancient tree material was used.
When loose leaf can be had at around $1.50-2.50/gram ($3-3.50 for truly exceptional and old), a cake needs to have storage dry enough to retain its own characteristics for it to be worth its price. This is generally not the case, a lot of old puerh sort of taste like… old puerh. Magical Qi, but not that different from a good real loose leaf.
Very dry-stored cakes will retain some character and would be worth the price because at least they’re different from old loose, but in practice I haven’t found any old cakes with storage dry enough to be worth buying at the price, most of them I’m happy to leave to collectors that are happy to “drink the wrapper”. I hope to be proven wrong and find something worth buying in the over $500 range soon!
Almost everything I said about 1980s applies but there is one exceptions: generic wrappers.
Trees used in this age are almost always clean, generally puerh cakes would be made from mixed regions with a high percentage of high quality material (older trees).
Particularly towards the late 90s there are a lot of “replica” or generic wrapper cakes. They are not the same as the highly collectible cakes they have a similar wrapper to, but the material is still great because most of them are made from very good old clean trees (the market demand is only starting to really boom at the end of the 90s).
As a result, you can still find great great Tea in the $150-300 range. But at this price range it will come in a generic wrapper that could have anything inside (including some kind of much younger artificially aged tea), again you need to be able to trust yourself to judge the Tea. In this price range they’re also likely to come with some storage flavour, not perfectly dry-stored.
90s cakes easily go into few hundreds or thousands, I don’t think it’s worth to spend more than $500 on a cake this age (it’s very interesting to sample smaller amounts of older teas to learn though). Again, I’m hoping to be proven wrong and find something so exceptional I want to spend $500+ on it.
No one will sell actual collectible cakes of this age (or any age really) much below their market value, they’re just too valuable and easy to sell near the market value or hold for more value increases. Same for loose Tea at less than, say 0.3$/gram, it’s likely not 90s but more recent.
Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong imported a lot of puerh from China in those ages, as a result the same tea is often much cheaper in those countries than mainland China. To put in context cakes were maybe a dollar per piece then, and has risen in value of 100 or sometimes 1000 times since. Clearly if you’ve had it for long enough, you can afford to sell it for less.
The vast majority of puerh sold as old is fake, specially online and in China. Genuine old puerh online generally only reaches end-consumers at mainland china or often, much higher prices.
We’re trying to offer some properly old puerh at affordable prices but it’s hard, we can only get small quantities (1-2 tongs, sometimes just a cake) from private collectors that like what we do. As a result we tend to offer this to friends and people we have previous relationships with only (or that come to visit us at the temple). If you are interested you can submit interest for our group buys.
In short: an old tea lover may have a bit of very old puerh at affordable prices, and they may be able to sell you some if you have a personal relationship with them and/or they like you. But be wary of anyone that operates a medium or large scale operation (even having more than 2-3 tongs for sale is suspicious) selling old tea, very likely prices will be high and/or tea will be fake or younger than its claimed.
Late 90s-Early 2000s
While in earlier ages, most puerh cakes were made of tea from a few different areas, in the 2000s there start to be single-origin productions or ancient-trees-only productions (so called “gushu”, although as I said today gushu and to an extent “ancient trees” are just marketing terms and in most case mean nothing at all).
The price of puerh rising exponentially in late 90s and early 2000s means that there’s now a lot of plantation tea used, which produces unremarkable cakes (basically anything from early 90s and before was great).
Among larger-scale productions/collectible cakes Dayi has silly prices, Changtai and Xiaguan a bit less, Liming a bit less still.
In general 1998-2004 collectible (factory) cakes usually have very high prices, a bit more reasonable from 2005 on, but this lower price is because the quality of the material diminishes each year, so don’t expect a 2006 cake to age to become the same as the 2001-2004 version from the same factory.
Prices for some cakes being still comparatively low means fakes are very unlikely.
In this climate of increasing distinction between “ancient trees” and “plantation/bush” there are a lot of medium-scale productions which are identified as very high quality and have today a high price to match.
However, the 2007 puerh crash left some cakes with great material undiscovered and unappreciated.
Some small productions and wild puerh in this age can really shine compared to the cost of collectible cakes. I’ve been hunting for Tea like this for a while and have found a few great examples.
Good Tea can be had at $150-$200, sometimes also $100 for wild tea (a post specifically about wild puerh will follow, but I talk about it a bit in What is good quality Tea?).
Generally, for an excellent 357g cake in this age there’s no need to spend more than $300.
I don’t mean that you can find decent stuff at $300, I mean you can find close to the very best quality material cakes at $300, the ones that cost more just happen to have a very collectible wrapper, there are options with same quality available. In fact, two of my very favourite sheng puerh cakes of this period sell for $150 (Goddess of Clarity and Mystic Wood)!
Collectible cakes cost much more than this but except in rare cases where the Tea is really unique (Like a Xiaguan iron disk) you can find same quality material cakes at much more affordable prices with enough looking around.
It is possible that there are significantly better cakes over $300, however you should have a lot of experience before you start considering those. I tried many cakes priced over this mark and I haven’t found any that are significantly better. I’m still trying them however, I hope to be proven wrong!
Late 2000s to now
After the puerh crash, things go back to booming, prices of Puerh both old and new go up and up each year (with a small halt during the pandemic, but they’ve resumed going up now).
There is more and more demand —> More and more plantations, more and more agrochemicals, the vast majority of the puerh produced now is not clean and imo not worth drinking.
More people are drinking sheng puerh fresh —> Producers start making sweeter/easier Puerh that can be drank now, but will not age into traditional puerh or develop very much over the years.
There are much less clean trees available, as agrochemicals vastly make old trees produce more yield —> The few cakes with ancient clean trees have a very high price.
The little percentage of puerh material from ancient trees is increasingly made into “elite” productions, with very high prices (we’re talking $300-1000 for a new cake of good material and much more for famous areas like lao ban zhang etc).
As a result, I don’t think it’s worth buying new puerh to age as you’re likely to get less quality material at a higher price than what you can find in the early 2000s range.
The early 2000s cakes are also already 15 years old, and you can check how it aged already and you don’t have to do all the guesswork and try on trying to age tea yourself.
Personally I only know of two 2008 cakes I think are worth drinking (and both of them are wild, which are a bit of an exception to the ever-raising puerh prices as explained in Tea quality), a few 2007 and there starts to be much more from 2006 and before.
I’ll go into aging process in another article but in short: it’s quite complex, it’s a risk, it’s expensive over the years… I’d say just don’t bother when you can buy a great cake of already partially (of even fully) aged puerh with storage you like.
If you do like to drink fresh sheng puerh, go ahead and enjoy some, but don’t hope they’ll develop into something much better over the years. The reason they taste good now is processing that make them unsuitable for proper aging (they don’t have enough strength left to mature like classic old puerh did).
When vendors make their own productions, markups between quality of same material changes dramatically. Buy samples from different producers/vendors and check yourself before committing to large purchases.
In fact, ideally don’t make large purchases of recent sheng puerh at all because you’re likely to overpay for tea that doesn’t develop well into aged puerh. Drink it fresh if you enjoy it, experiment it a bit with aging but don’t invest a lot of money.
Also: don’t hope mediocre tea will get better with age, it likely won’t. If you really want to do this, I can sell you my stash of mediocre puerh I bought when I was a newbie hoping it would get better (it didn’t).
An essay about aging and ageability will follow, I’m not talking about it in depth here.
You really can’t compare prices across sources, you have to try the Tea. The differences are too huge. Try many vendors and see what you like!
I’ve seen people selling the same exact cake for x and 3.5 times as much. I’ve seen people selling the same quality material for x and 10 times as much (particularly on new sheng puerh).
Tea shops in the west
Running a tea shop is expensive (rent, staff, etc), online sales subsidise physical tea shops. You may or may not want to do that, just be clear it’s happening.
Physical and online shops that don’t specialise on Puerh (or at least on chinese Tea) tend to have a few overpriced options only.
It makes sense a lot of sense to sell young (after 2010) sheng puerh commercially because the margins are so much higher, but be aware this kind of Tea is very far from the best that Puerh has to offer (in my opinion, of course).
There’s also a question whether young sheng puerh can be consumed often and still be healthy, and certainly it’s very different in this regard to aged puerh. Further writing on this point will come as well.
In general, if it comes in very pretty packaging, that’s where the effort and most of the cost went. I’ve learned quite quickly that sexy packaging equals unremarkable tea.
By the way, 100g and 200g cakes might be a nicer proposition than buying a full 357g cake but you end up paying even more per gram than you normally would, often a 200g cake is clever marketing to sell overpriced-by-a-lot tea.
General tea merchants, Etsy, Amazon and eBay tend to have a lot of poor price/quality ratio puerh, either very pricey or medium price but lower quality (depending on how fancy the platform is).
So many tea vendors claim to have direct relationships to farmers, dealers and to have access to ancient trees in famous areas. Maybe. What I know is that if everyone that said that was saying the truth, there should be around 100-1000 times as much ancient, clean trees as there actually are. Do not trust the stories, try the Tea!
I’ll repeat again: the puerh world is so full of marketing, half-lies, misinformation. Sometimes the vendors themselves don’t know they’re perpetuating misinformation because they believe the person who sold them “2000 year old trees gushu”. Try the actual Teas!
There is a market opportunity in the Puerh boom in the west for unscrupulous and/or business-focused people to make very high profits.
In a sense there’s nothing wrong with that (to each their own) and it’s happening in China since a long time already, but at least you should be warned that’s what going on and then you can freely choose who you buy Tea from.
I’ve had my best experiences with private collectors that bought Tea in the 90s or earlier and with physical vendors in Malaysia and Taiwan that I’ve been personally introduced to, people that loved Puerh and didn’t see it as a business but as something to be shared and revered. Kind people that understand we’re all connected and there’s very little point in trying to get advantage from others, basically.
Oh, and did I mention to sample from a lot of different sources and don’t believe the stories to really understand quality?
Is older Puerh worth its price?
The whole reason this essay exists, and the whole reason I sell Tea to start with (I’d really rather not, I like to drink tea with friends, not the commercial aspect of it) is because of a sad fact: Prices of puerh rising means traditional puerh is not accessible to western consumers.
Puerh is already 100+ times more expensive than it used to be. The Chinese have more demand each year for aged and ancient tree puerh and the western market has more demand for puerh in general. This will possibly continue to unsustainable levels, where any good Puerh, aged or new, will be much more expensive than it is today.
We can feel really sad about this (I certainly did!), mourn the loss of an era where you could drink old puerh easily and take advantage of its amazing meditation, healing, self-transformation benefits and its taste.
We can feel like it’s too late to get into puerh right now, or we’re doomed to only drink new production sheng puerh. So allow me to give you some good news:
Is it worth trying some very, very old (properly stored) Tea to see what puerh can be like?
Yes. Definitely yes, it will really enhance your understanding of Puerh and the possibilities, and give you a better idea of quality in more recent Puerh as well.
Is most tea from early 90s and before “better” than early 2000s ?
I used to think so, but now after having tried enough of it I see I was wrong. While it’s very nice and I’ve been very, very fortunate to try very old puerh and great 2000s puerh, they’re quite different things and I can’t say for sure that either is “better”.
I want to be able to experience different teas (also for different times of the day and the year) so also having old tea suits me very well.
But in practice I find myself drinking more natural-stored early 2000s (which can be affordable) or dry-stored 1990s puerh (which is not) than anything else, it’s got so much more complexity and interest to it than very old puerh.
In short: hunt for old tea, drink a lot of it, and then you’ll be able to see yourself whether this is something you prefer or not.
Also: you will learn what you like more as you drink more Tea, and you likely will find Teas you really love. Some will have sold out, it’s ok, there are many. Hold on for what you really love and don’t fall into panic buying.