Pasha Puerh Tea

What tea should I bring back from China?

Advice on What Tea to Buy in China

A common question I see asked on tea forums goes something like this, “My great aunt Hortense is going to China. I like tea. What tea should I have her bring back from China?”

My stock answer, “Probably none.”

This makes  a lot of people angry. They want tea from the source. If they are going to China, shouldn’t they get some tea? In a perfect world, they certainly should. But alas, China and its tea markets are not a utopia.

A handful of maocha from Pasha
A handful of maocha from Pasha

The Exceptions

First, let me qualify the above “Probably” with a few ifs and maybes. There are a few circumstances where you can correctly throw my advice out the window. If you or your relative:

  • Speak fluent Mandarin
  • Have the name/address of a trustworthy vendor
  • Know tea prices and quality well enough to avoid being duped
  • Don’t care about the quality of your tea
  • Don’t care how much you pay for said tea
  • You think I am an idiot and read my blog only to fuel your hatred

In these cases, maybe  my advice is useless to you, but keep reading anyway – you are here and all.

Tea tasting puerh tea
A tasting of a few teas in Pasha at a farmer’s home

So, Why Shouldn’t I Buy Tea in China?

First, full disclosure, I sell tea. I just wanted to get that out of the way. This article is not a devious plot to discourage people to buy tea in China and instead from vendors like myself. Rather it is me sharing of my own knowledge and experience after 8 years in China drinking puer. Take it how you will.

So, there are few broad reasons why buying in China is rife with peril. Here is a short, non-exhaustive list:

  • Small tea shops and wholesale markets are often middle men with a limited knowledge of tea
  • It is difficult to discern the “true” price of tea, even if you are an experienced buyer
  • There is a lot of tea with dangerous chemicals and processing and very little regulation of either
  • Many tea sellers do not know the source of their tea

I mentioned in my article about three strange things in Yunnan a man from Henan province who was a tea seller. He has a stall at a Henan wholesale tea market and was making a journey to buy puer. His non-stop commentary  led me to believe he knew nothing at all about puer tea or tea in general. After we embarked on a trip to a tea mountain, he proceeded to start pointing at huge trees and saying, “Wow, look at that tea tree!” These were of course not tea trees at all, just giant trees. Anyone who has seen a tea tree wouldn’t have made such an error. The point is not that you need to have seen or touched tea trees to understand tea (though it helps), but that this is the person in charge of distributing tea (and the knowledge of said tea) to smaller tea shops in his area. Imagine playing the game telephone. One person whispers into another persons ear, on down the line with several links in between you and the message. Now imagine the people in between you and the message barely have an understanding of the language of tea. It would be easy to purchase a cake of puer tea from a random small shop and be completely misinformed about its origin, quality, or price. After all, the small shop owner might have bought from this fellow from Hennan, who fed them faulty information from the starting line.

One more anecdotal story, in Yunnan this Spring I also encountered a couple who were purchasing tea for their small shop. They similarly knew almost nothing about tea. Their only goal and motive was to purchase the cheapest tea they could and mark it up and call it something else. They would ask questions like, “Would this pass for Laobanzhang? How much could I sell this for?” These people own a tea shop. Your great Aunt Hortense might stumble into their trap. Which brings us to the next point, if your kindly old auntie wanders into a shop like this, then what? If they offer her 10 grades of oolong tea, will she be able to determine a fair price? Or will she be at the mercy of people who are trying to make the biggest possible margin on their already shitty product? As if this situation weren’t hopeless enough, if you throw in a language barrier and a tourist with no tea knowledge, you are just begging to be swindled.

The third issue is safety. Eugene from Teaurchin recently wrote a post on his tea blog on the subject of pesticides, and I encourage you to read it. Keep in mind, he is mostly discussing gushu [old tree] puer, which is on the low end of the list of concerns in my book. If you want to be appalled at pesticide spraying, visit terraced bush tea areas in Fujian province. Even a careful vendor has a lot of guessing to do about chemical use and finding safe teas. I won’t speculate on specifics, but if somebody who doesn’t know much about tea gifts me neon green tieguanyin [Iron Buddha Oolong] I refuse to drink it. It ends up in the trash bin. Apologies to anyone who gifted me tieguanyin and reads my blog,…I surely drank yours. I am referring to everyone else.

Which brings us round full circle to the last concern on my list, the origin of a tea. I outlined a typical supply chain in my post on packaging. The quick and dirty version is that between the tea farmer and the final seller there are several links in the supply chain. In many cases, a seller might not know the exact origin of the tea they are selling. This becomes an issue with both safety and price. And if the seller is unclear on the specific details of origin, what chance does your surrogate buyer have? Hopefully your visiting relative has something more to inform their decision than a glittery puer cake labeled Yiwu Tea King.

Puerh Maocha
Another mystery handful of maocha from Pasha. Gushu? Plantation? Who knows.

You Shat on my Dream of Buying Tea in China, What Now?

My advice would be to buy from a person who is based in China and cares about the tea they source and sell. Shameless plug, you can buy from me at White 2 Tea. Honorable plug (and suspect business decision; please, buy from my competitors!), you can buy from Eugene at Teaurchin or Scott from Yunnan Sourcing. These are vendors who have a lot of experience with tea in China, and live here full time. If you are a gambler, take your chances at a random shop, but you will probably save money and get better tea buying from a China based Western vendor.

*Pics in this post are from my Spring trip to Pasha Mountain
  • Alfi

    Respect for this article!

    • TwoDog2

      Much thanks!

  • Gingko Y. Seto

    There are numerous brand-name vendors in China that sell high quality and reliable teas. The prices are usually high. But if one doesn’t want to spend time but want to spend money, there are tons of good options for tea by going to brand-name stores instead of unknown vendors. It’s easy to say “don’t buy” but it’s not that hard to have good purchase options either.

    • TwoDog2

      It is true that if you can check off the “don’t care about price” box, you can get some decent tea. For puer, did you have particular famous brands in mind?

      • Gingko Y. Seto

        Oops, I didn’t realize you were mainly talking about puerh :-p But sometimes it’s even easier with puerh because there are producers’ names and brands to recognize based on one’s tastes. I have a few >3000¥ cakes in mind that I don’t buy but guess few people would hate. As for price tags, I think one needs to either spend money or time, ideally both, but it can’t be neither. I bet in the future there are people who won’t even spend time googling to find your or other people’s advice, and would post a one-line question to expect quick answers. There is nothing wrong about it, But this, I suppose, is a choice of spending money and not time 😉

        • Your point can be valid for any tea – I definitely agree that if you know a good source (or brand) and have the money, then there is good tea to be had and my “don’t buy” advice is not valuable. However, there are a lot of really dodgy shops and brands – so uneducated folks will have a tough time discerning. For example, Tenfu appears to be a very good shop and brand, with major locations and brand recognition, but their tea does not have the quality or value of most Western dealers I know in China.

  • shah8

    I disagree with brand name vendors in terms of puerh. If you have an aunt Hortense off to go to China, what works best are well known tea shops. You’d overpay at a place like Sunsing, and really pay through the nose at Best Tea House, but you’re not going to have your aunt poison you by mistake. Additionally, there are other places like Wistaria that are potentially a great place for free-time aunts to visit, and make the favor a bit less of a burden.

    It *can* work, though. I’ve gotten awesome teas vastly cheaper than it should be this way, but it originally involved teashops who are well known and has web presences (with an international customer base), and it involves substantial amounts of phone and email tag.

    So when it comes to Aunt Hortense, what you do is direct her to physical shops with English speaking personnel (and big reputation), armed with a list of (young young YOUNG!!!) teas you know the place has, and have her solicit bids (all the while, working with her over email or phone). Most of the time, it won’t really be cheap(er). However, you can get really lucky.

    Although, the real bottom line? This is a real hassle for your Aunt. Let her have her free time to enjoy being in China. If you want the job done right, do it yourself. Especially for aged tea.

    • TwoDog2

      If it is a well known tea house in Taiwan or Hong Kong, I agree it is much easier. You pay a premium for price, but the reliability of the vendor is significantly higher. The market is also more mature. Generally a well known tea house has more to lose by damaging their own brand reputation than say than they have to gain by selling one bad cake. This is often not the case at a random stall vendor in Fangcun or a shop in tourist market in Beijing. Hell, a lot of those shops their entire business model is bilking Aunt Hortense out of $150 one time, and never seeing her again.

  • ChengduCha

    Pretty spot on. Your average tea seller in China knows very little about tea, thinks the crap he has is actually good and / or is trying to get the most cash out of you for whatever he has to offer as it’s a business (with the aim of making the most money from anyone) without fixed prices (in most shops) after all.

    China in my opinion is a giant “get rich quick” scheme in which your average consumer ends up with overpriced products (for the quality on offer) that are either of inferior quality at best and dangerous to ones health at worse.

    It never ceases to amaze me how hard it is to find good quality for the money with any kind of product in China, as people just want cheap cheap cheap without any regard to quality and safety aspects.

    • Gingko Y. Seto

      Well, “how hard it is to find good quality for the money with any kind of product in China”… if it’s hard for you, it’s not necessarily hard for others :-p Wish you better luck with time being.

      I’m not trying to defense China. As a Chinese living in America, I heard Chinese drawing conclusions on US all the time, and American Chinese drawing conclusions on Chinese Chinese, and Chinese Chinese drawing conclusions on Canadian Chinese… and Chinese, Indians, Americans, Europeans, etc. drawing conclusions on each other. Eventually most of the conclusions become jokes and I don’t take them seriously anymore :-p

  • David

    On the positive side of tea shopping in China, you can buy your tea paraphernalia in China with a much greater selection and cheaper price.

    • TwoDog2

      You will get no argument from me there.

    • Guest

      Very true. I just spent some time in China and came back to the US with some awesome yixing pots and beautiful gaiwans and a bunch of tea from Yunnan Sourcing 🙂 Teawares from the average US online vendor cost a fortune compared to what I found in CHina, and I don’t like spending a ton of money tea stuff I can’t see and feel (and listen to) first.
      Actually the best tea I tasted tended to be from smaller shops that specialized in nicer teaware and ceramics. You can kind of tell right away the places that are just doing their thing and aren’t trying rip people off. That said, if you don’t speak Chinese people are probably going to assume you’re an average tourist wanting cheap ripe puer or dragon well for a gift. One nice thing though is that in my experience, in pretty much every shop you can taste before you buy.

      • TwoDog2

        Tasting before you buy is very helpful. I still get a lot of e-mails from people asking me to identify gifts their relatives purchased. In the majority of the cases people have paid $50 for $5 tea.