Yet again, I’m sampling some expensive aged puerh cakes and I fail to see what’s so good about them.
Yet again, I feel like I wasted a morning drinking not-that-worthy tea and I come back to my personal favourite, and think again about how it’s one of the more affordable teas I have.
The more I drink different puerh, the more I realise how price is so disconnected from the actual drinking experience.
The more I see the prices various ‘collectible’ tea go for (and the price premium that an intact wrapper has compared to one with bug holes), the more it all seems like a huge joke: I want to drink good tea, I don’t want to bother with investment values, collectible cakes and all the high prices and faking that they generate.
By drinking a Tea, it’s very clear to me immediately when either there’s something off (pesticide, fake, etc), or I’m simply not interested. Once I started seeing more and more how price is disconnected from value, the result of my sampling sessions often is a big laugh and wondering why I bother.
In a guide to buying old puerh I talked about ideal price range for aged puerh ($150-300 for early 2000s, $300ish for 90s tea).
(To be clear I’m not saying you should expect “nice” aged puerh to cost $250-300, the higher part of the range is for actually memorable tea, for a drinking experience you will remember clearly a year after. If you feel stuck with having to buy “ok” tea at $200+ look around more, better Tea exists.)
I concluded that if you want to go above this price range you should really have a good reason to, that’s to say: you really like this specific tea.
You tried a sample and drank it a few times, really loved it, know you can’t get similar tea elsewhere, now that’s a good reason to buy something over $300.
But just because it seems like a good deal or the source is reputable or someone else loves it is really not a good reason imho. The tea may really be a good deal compared to market value, but it doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
I see many people trying to get “good value” and getting excited about high discounts over tea with high market value. But the thing is the drinking experience of these teas can still be much worse (or worse for you personally) than other less famous tea.
If it wasn’t clear, this article is dedicated to people wanting to drink good aged sheng puerh, not for “investment purposes”.
Why would you buy DaYi? The brand is pretty much only an investment vehicle, anything of some quality costs 3-10x of comparable quality tea that’s not branded DaYi (much more for 7542).
DaYi 7542 may be the reference tea but do people actually drink the stuff or just buy it for investment and show it to each other? I’ve had some 2000s 7542, it’s good but not that memorable, not 500-2000$ memorable, definitely.
Because of this, DaYi is one of the most faked brands. So not only it’s more expensive than its quality, it’s also likely to be faked. Really, why?
Other “collectible” brands and cake
Generally when a brand or specific cake is first recognised to be good there’s a good reason: the tea was very very good at the prices it had when it first became famous. But often either quality goes down-hill with the years or prices skyrocket to where it’s not good value anymore but it’s another pretend-DaYi.
I’m currently experimenting with some premium taiwanese and chinese puerh producers. After a while I can tell just by looking at a wrapper “this is a fancy cake meant to be collectible with nothing interesting inside” or “this has the possibility to be very good at the price but people don’t care because it’s not a sexy cake”.
I can’t really explain it too well, it’s a felt sense (like the one I have when I look at the leaves on a cake and I can sort of tell what the drinking experience will be like), it comes from having drank a lot of this kind of tea and eventually my mind starts to make the connections subconsciously “looks like this –> probably experience will be like that”. This is not very useful, but what I want to communicate here is: after enough drinking of different puerh you will learn this “skill” too!
The wrapper, how people talk about it, the name of the tea, what you know of similar tea from same producer, the leaves on the cake. This is what I use to select the tea I actually want to try from thousands available on wholesale (the descriptions are generally useless and just marketing speak).
Of course after the initial selection it’s time to try them, and not many Teas survive the impact with the cup, most are “meh”, even in the more expensive range. Don’t get your hopes up too early!
There’s also the fact that some brands are famous and thought of as being very high quality in western circles only because some westerners promote them since many years… but really, they aren’t that great. Doubt the hype, trust your drinking experience only. And if you can’t trust it yet… don’t rush buying a lot of premium tea.
Anything with wholesale price below $100 and not famous is extremely unlikely to be faked, below $200-300ish and not famous still unlikely.
It takes some time to make a convincing fake, the maocha needs to be fast aged for 1 year or so, look somewhat similar to the original cake, have some time for weird smells to dry out after it’s been compressed.
To be clear, it’s possible to make bad fakes, but vendors that sell those you can spot quite easily, they look dodgy, they have dodgy reviews. Low effort fakes === low effort deception. Like all the stuff you find on ebay, you can tell it’s fake just by looking at the ad can’t you?
I actually found that for lesser-known cakes that are not that expensive, there is very little fake tea around. If you drink the tea for taste, you’re generally safe from fakes. This is because for a non-famous cake the value is in the unique drinking experience… if that’s not there when you drink it, why would you buy a more expensive tea?
It’s a lot of work to convincingly fake a tea, the price needs to be high enough to warrant this work. 90s DaYi… sure, 2010s Changtai? doubt it.
Now for some tea like say xiaguan T8653 iron cakes late 90s/early 2000s because of the compression and the quality of the leaf not being that high to start with, there are “fakes”/”replica” that taste quite similar to the original.
But this brings me to my main question on fakes:
If you can’t tell by taste/drinking experience, why do you care about buying “original” puerh cakes? This is a honest question, not a leading one. You may still care, I’d just love to know exactly why.
My approach to fakes is that I personally stay clear of (almost) anything that people have a reason to fake, because even if it was good tea, it’s likely to be overpriced for what it is because of the collectible value.
I found out that most of my fear of buying fakes was largely unnecessary.
I bought a few questionable cakes in the past but invariably it was because I was listening to “greed”/FOMO (as in a thought telling me “buy this famous tea at $cheap, it’s a good deal”) rather than my actual drinking experience of the Tea.
Generic/no wrapper fakes sold as older sheng
This is basically wrapper-less or generic wrapper puerh made recently, and sold as much older, but without trying to make it look like a specific cake.
You actually can tell this, it’s not that hard after you tried a few.
I’ve got a cake that was sold to me (in person) as “1995 sheng puerh”, but really it’s a more recent shou cake. It’s quite nice, and cheaper than a few other branded cakes with less quality. I bought it because the drinking experience was okay, half-believing the ’95 claim. When I look at the cake now, it’s quite clearly shou.
I’m not that disappointed. I tried it, I knew what it was (to an extent), and I got exactly what I drank. The claims about the Tea are ultimately useless. Do I love this Tea or not?
Simple advice here: until you’re sure you can tell an artificially aged “shou” from a proper old sheng, don’t buy that much old sheng! Trying many will help, you’re likely to stumble upon some “shou fakes” anyhow, so just use it as an opportunity to learn.
To make two extreme examples: Yang Qing Hao is known to have a “unique” storage that many consider too wet, and on the opposite end of the spectrum a lot of other collectible cakes from boutique taiwanese producers (XZH, CYH, etc…) are kept in “super-dry” conditions.
These are really hit or miss! They may have a lot of value for some people but if you don’t like that kind of storage, they’ll be useless to you. Even worse, you may buy one and convince yourself you like it because you spent a lot of money on it.
This is a (famous) 2004 cake! Are you sure you like storage this dry?
Conversely: about buying old cakes from Taiwan/Hong kong/Malaysia/etc, some people just can’t tell what they’re even drinking if it’s got even a bit of storage flavour or the generic “too aged/flat” sheng taste.
What’s the point of buying 80s or 90s cakes (with their high pricing) if you can’t tell it’s different from a loose or other humid-aged cakes? The loose has got the qi and similar flavours and costs much less, why bother with the cake?
Clean cakes of very old tea are astronomically priced, not-clean ones are frankly not that great… really sure 70s-80s tea is worth it?
Again, no leading questions, you may like these… just be sure you do!
Another note about storage: yes it’s important to find storage you like, but sometimes you may find the same cake at 100 somewhere and 200 somewhere else with slightly better storage… question the “good storage” marketing as well, see if the price difference is worth it for you.
I’m not going to talk about it here because there will be another series on storage but I believe another major mistake new and intermediate drinkers can do (and I certainly did it myself!) is buying more recent tea thinking it’ll become similar to older tea they tried. So much to say on aging tea yourself there’ll be a series of posts on it.
A buying strategy
So what can you do?
One of the common advice is going to “trusted sources” but I’m questioning this one more and more. To start with, the longer a vendor has been around, the higher their markup seems to be (because they have the “trusted source” marketing).
The more I drink Tea, the more I realise how much mediocre overpriced tea I’ve bought from “trusted sources” that have been around forever, mostly because that’s what people before told me and I didn’t know any better.
To be clear: the fault is only mine. Not being experienced enough, I believed what other drinkers (in their best faith) said, when they said “such and such has good tea and no fakes” and I didn’t trust my drinking experience enough, this is why I’m writing this post ultimately: I’d like to spare you or at least warn you about this mistake.
To be clear: there is a lot of awful puerh, indeed most puerh is mediocre, and I don’t think you can trust anyone else to tell you what’s good, you really need to experience it yourself.
This is also because even if a vendor indeed is trustworthy, doesn’t sell hyped brands/tea, hasn’t raised their markups over the years, etc… you still may not have their same taste (you may not even know different tea styles exist if you’ve been loyal to them only).
I like clean natural stored puerh with strong qi, someone else may like extremely dry stored, someone else may love tea with strong huigan only, someone else still likes their tea as dark as it gets, etc… it’s not that some are better than others, it’s that we have difference taste preferences.
This taste preferences are both because of our body type (in TCM sense) but also because of what we’ve been exposed or has been marketed to us as good Tea! Really I believe we underestimate how much other people’s ideas of what good tea is have influenced us.
Taste preferences also change over the years, I tend to favour slightly drier stored tea as I get older. What will I do with the wet stored puerh I used to love years ago? If only I wouldn’t have bought tongs and tongs of it… 🙂
It’s really liberating realising how arbitrary the definition of good tea is, it really cut a lot of my anxiety about needing to get the best Tea – actually what I had to do was finding out what I consider is the best tea for me, and this quest is much more satisfying than getting “good deals” on tea with high market value.
If you want to spend over $300 for a puerh cake I believe it has to be because of taste, if you don’t know what your strong taste preferences are yet, you can find plenty of good stuff in the below-$300 range.
Also don’t cheapen out too much though, it’s rare to find actually good tea much below $150 for a 2000s or more recent (I think there’s much better value available in the mid-2000s than today’s tea, by the way).
I believe it’s worth sampling widely to really learn what you like, it will save you a ton of money in the long run.
My main advice is to buy small samples from trusted sources and only trust your drinking experience, trying to distance yourself from the market price of a certain tea as much as you can when you think about it.
Do I love it or not? Simple.