How to Buy Puer Tea: The Three Tenets

Tenet One: Walk Before you Can Run. Then Sprint.

How to buy Puer tea might not seem like a topic that needs instruction. Click the pay button and you are done, right?

A lot of new Puer drinkers make a common mistake, which is getting too much tea before they really understand much about Puer tea and their own personal preferences. Your ability to judge other people’s character is like your ability to judge Puer tea. We all begin as novices and improve over time.

The ability of most Puer beginners to judge character is the equivalent of a 12 year old’s ability to judge people. Remember that time you thought you were in love with Susie Johnson in 7th grade? Your puppy love in full swing, when she walked into the room you heard Close to You as the room turned rose colored and began to spin. You were certain that you were meant for each other and destined to get married! Soul mates. You’d move to an island together. Start a family. Build some sort of tree house with a coconut phone and monkey butlers. How’d that work out? In hindsight it is probably better that you (or they) called off the teenage wedding.

2003 Gold Dayi

Gold Dayi from 2003. A tea that is so oft faked and so expensive that it is barely attainable

As time goes on we all improve our ability to discern who is the best fit for us. The same development happens after drinking pot after pot of Puer tea. You date around with some people/samples and start to recognize which traits are meaningful for you and which can be left by the wayside. When you mature into your 20’s or 30’s you begin to realize what you want in a relationship… or what you desire in a pot of tea.

This is the first tenet of buying Puer tea; Walk before you can run. Take a few dates to the movies. Get in a couple of cake-term relationships. Heck, buy a tong [stack of 7 cakes] and move in together, only to realize you have made a horrible mistake and break up with that tong after it cheats on you with your roommate Jeff. Well, hopefully that last part doesn’t happen.

After you finish this dating period, you are ready to move on. You can walk. You understand your own preferences. And now that you are comfortable judging what you like, start sprinting. On to tenet number two.

Tenet Two: Understand the Economics of Puer

A couple of years ago Planet Money recorded a story titled “Why Coke Cost a Nickel for 70 Years“. The story begins “all prices change, that is basic economics…”, but most price changes are gradual. In the case of Coke, there were several decades where Coca-cola prices never shifted. One nickel for a bottle. Even during my lifetime, the price of Coke has remained relatively stable. Coke is a reproducible product with seemingly no limit in terms of scale of production. Factories all over the world crank out as much Coke as the clamoring masses will consume, the more the better.

Gushu

The trunk of a mighty old arbor tea tree (Laoman’e, Spring 2014)

The seemingly infinite supply of Coke is in stark contrast to gushu [old arbor] Puer tea and aged Puer tea. Old arbor Puer trees need a hundred years or more to become mature and develop deep root structures. Aged Puer has a supply that dwindles as the years pass by. For example, If an initial 100 ton production of Puer tea sells half of its stock each year for the first ten years, by the tenth year there will be scarcely enough tea left to distribute to retail, not to mention the value will usually will have risen far beyond its initial market price. When we start discussing even smaller productions of 100 kilograms, purchasing almost has to occur when the production is first released, lest the opportunity to buy be lost and gone forever.

Now, which teas legitimately have a limited supply and which do not? This is a rich topic for a separate article, but there are two major categories of teas which will not be around in abundance; gushu teas and aged teas.

For example, most of the white2tea productions from 2014 were under 20 kilograms. Some of the teas are already gone. Aged teas, such as some of the smaller production teas sold on our website two years ago have tripled in price or become sold out altogether.

Tenet two can be summed up in one sentence; The better the material or the older the tea, the faster the buyer should take action. This brings us to the third tenet.

Tenet Three: Hit it Hard

Last year an article written by Marshaln called “Hit it Hard with a Hammer” hit the nail on the head. (har har) Marshaln laments the fact that he had not purchased some of the teas he loved back in 2006, and then goes on to describe how he learned his lesson and picked up 50 tuos [nest shaped tea] of a bargain tea that he stumbled upon. This exchange in the comments sums it up nicely:

Marshaln_Hammercomment

The last sentence of the reply is the key. “This is something you learn only after drinking tea for awhile.”

The only real problem I have with Marshaln’s article is that a hammer seems like an inadequate weapon. Puer drinkers need to bring out the artillery when they find a tea that speaks to them.

Fu Hai 7576

Fuhai 7576

There are many examples of this phenomenon, but as an anecdotal case study, let’s look at this 2003 Fuhai 7576 Ripe Puer tea. The Fuhai 7576 sold on the White2tea site between 2012-2013 for $37 a cake. Since then, an innumerable amount of e-mails have flooded into my inbox asking for this tea, but alas, it is gone. The current market price for this tea is over $70 (in China, on Taobao from a 3 crown vendor – whatever that even means anymore) and that is before we mention that the market has since been doused with a hefty amount of fakes of the Fuhai ripes from that era, both red and yellow mark variety.

When the disappointed (and sometimes angry) e-mails get replied to, I try to use measured courtesy and sympathy; but what I will write in the future is You should have tenet 3’d!. Teas like the Fuhai 7576, which was in its 10th year of age at that point, will not be around forever. Quality teas are continuously being consumed by thirsty drinkers and hoarded by wise collectors. Should you happen upon a tea like this, find its traits to your liking, and have the financial capacity, buy it in bulk. One cake is not bulk. Hell, even a tong is not bulk. If you drink a lot of Puer, how long will a tong last?

Put another way, if you surveyed a group of veteran Puer drinkers and asked, “Given what you now know about the price of gushu Laobanzhang, if we had a time machine and could go back to 2009 to buy some quality Laobanzhang, how much would you buy?” or “Given what you know now about the 88 Qingbing price, how much would you buy in the year 2001?” The answer would not be a cake. And the answer would not be a tong. The answer would probably involve the words second and mortgage.

When you finish the cake that you loved, you can’t go grab another one off the shelf like a Coca-cola. If you manage to find the cake, the price tag will be very disappointing, and that is if the shelf isn’t empty.

Let’s end with a sage quote that concisely sums up how to purchase Puer tea:

“A cake is a sample.” -  Ouch, moderator from the Badger and Blade forum

And to go a step further, a tong is a cake. Hopefully these words won’t fall on deaf ears and new puer drinkers can learn from the venerable wisdom of mistakes made in the past.

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23 Responses to “How to Buy Puer Tea: The Three Tenets”

  1. Peter Stanik August 5, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

    Paul, this is well written article, well done, maybe some will learn a lesson. Not even a year ago I was selling BGT Yiwu 2004 400g for about 80 USD, some said it is a good tea but just few bought, now the price is double and still its cheap, the same with BGT Yiwu 2001 that is sold now for about 350 USD. Such tea in 10 years will cost at least 1300 USD and in 20 years you may nearly buy a car for it. These were just a few examples for the random pick taobao hunters.

    • TwoDog2 August 5, 2014 at 6:37 pm #

      Thanks Peter! Someone recently asked me for advice about that 2001 BGT YIwu, and I told them I think it is worth $350. (or more) This kind of older Yiwu cake becomes less and less and less available. More and more fakes, and less and less high quality material.

      Speaking of the random pick Taobao hunters, even this 2007 Yexiangwang cake, which used to be $32 on my website a few years ago, now has people selling it for between $150 and $250 dollars.

      http://item.taobao.com/item.htm?spm=a230r.1.14.4.9EdI2E&id=36349099295&ns=1#detail

      I had many customers who jumped on a tong when they first tried it. And I would wager that they think that $200 was well invested, considering some people are having to pay $150 or more for one cake!

      • DougWSL August 13, 2014 at 3:51 am #

        That explains it – I was wondering why the price jumped from the $34.50 I paid recently. I was wondering if you were on your last cake or something.

        • TwoDog2 August 13, 2014 at 8:43 am #

          I still have a bit of the cake, but the “big supply” is gone forever. I think the reason for this price jump is partially scarcity and partially the realization that making a new Spring cake with Naka material would cost a huge amount of money. In my opinion, it was far underpriced at $34.50!

          • DougWSL August 13, 2014 at 9:09 am #

            Well, hopefully next time I run into something like that I’ll buy more than one cake. Somebody should write an article… oh, yeah.

  2. Peter August 5, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

    Yes, this is a fine article, Paul. Lots of good info for us rank newbies to puer. Please keep them coming!

    • TwoDog2 August 6, 2014 at 9:24 am #

      Thank you!

  3. Cwyn August 6, 2014 at 12:28 am #

    Enjoyed this very much! I am not lamenting sold out cakes so much because I know TwoDog will find me more tea. He will be selling tea long after I expire, so I am all set. :D

    For those concerned about the values of their cakes, as a former EBay Powerseller, I would caution people against the idea that a listed price= the current value. An item is only ever worth what people will pay. The internet is full of listings, but do those listings actually sell? People might jump on $37 a cake, but will they buy at $150 or does the listing sit there, and sit there, and sit there. Maybe the actual value will appear when that $150 gets dropped back to $79, or some such. Just as an example, look at generationtea.com. Their site is full of ghastly expensive cakes, but many of them sit there for years. Sellers will often pull a listing for awhile if it isn’t selling, so the too-high price is forgotten, and then list is again like a fisherman with a baits hook to see if anyone bites. Point being, check prices of what actually sells, not what a seller hopes to sell for.

    • shah8 August 6, 2014 at 4:39 am #

      I loved your blog, even though I winced a bit at your description of your son. That could be me!

    • TwoDog2 August 6, 2014 at 9:24 am #

      This is excellent advice. The example above of the 2007 Yexiangwang on taobao holds true. I don’t think this cake is REALLY worth $250 (yet), but apparently that is where that seller has decided to place it. And on the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be that much left.

      It is always best to search out a few sources if possible and compare to see what is the best option.

  4. shah8 August 6, 2014 at 4:36 am #

    Tenet one is not emphasized enough. It’s not that you need to date any one puerh. It’s that you have to DATE PUERH. Maybe MARRY IT. Most truly good teas are not obviously good to n00bs. Most obviously good teas are priced to the general societal limits and beyond, and only people who understand what they are drinking think that it’s expensive. Well, that last sentence has gotten less and less true over the years as more and more people become experienced puerh drinkers. Now, genuinely good teas are expensive, and you pay what you have to pay. It’s the next step down, now, where experience can get “good” teas at a good price. Anyways, the following two tenets are fundamentally about getting the first one down, and as fast as humanely possible.

    • TwoDog2 August 6, 2014 at 9:33 am #

      You are right, but actually, I don’t think tenet 3 is emphasized enough either. Mainly a space constraint issue. The flip side is that as long as new drinker has a rough idea what they enjoy, they can make educated guesses, which is a better strategy than buying a bunch of shit tier $20 cakes that they will hate later. (see: Twodog’s 2005/2006 buying strategy)

      To your second point, I think the disconnect occurs with Western concept of “what you have to pay” for good tea and what one actually has to pay for good tea. There are still a lot of vendors with $25 Spring cakes that claim to be gushu. It’s just not the reality of the situation. The base cost of real gushu is higher than their retail price.

      It would be great if 200 year old tree material cost this little, but alas, it is not 2008 anymore. If it was, I’d be buying Google/Apple stock and Laobanzhang.

      Like you said, genuinely good teas are expensive.

    • shah8 August 6, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

      error on the expensive, meant “not that expensive”, or rather “not overpriced”.

      • TwoDog2 August 6, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

        “and only people who understand what they are drinking think that it’s not that expensive.” Right?

        For the amount of tea, a 357g cake of old arbor tea is inexpensive compared to the prices that some other high ends greens, blacks, and oolongs fetch.

        • shah8 August 7, 2014 at 8:23 am #

          yes

  5. ian August 8, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    Nice article and some good points. I personally got into puer a couple years ago when I was going to school in Kunming, before that I only really nerded out about green tea. I had only tasted crappy shu before that, and from what I read online, good puer seemed hella expensive and the whole it’s-a-whole-world-in-itself thing kind of scared me away. It’s a really different mindset buying puer compared to most other tea, and it’s good to have articles like this for us semi-noobs.

    I think the point made by TwoDog in the comments section about good puer being *still* relatively cheap compared to other good teas is very valid. I would also add to this the fact that you can buy a bunch of something you’re digging on and just let it sit and it will probably (if it’s good to begin with) only get tastier is an underrated aspect of puer buying. If, say, you spend a lot of money on some really nice longjing or gyokuro, not only are you probably getting less tea than the average a puer cake, but you also have to think about drinking it as quick as you can while it’s still fresh. A good puer purchase can be savored for years, but that said, it seems like a lot more money at the time.

    As for the point made about needing to just buy and taste a lot of puer to know what you like, as I said before it’s what initially kept me from diving into the puer world. I had no idea where to start. I also would consider puer/heicha to be the most acquired taste of the major tea categories. For those of us who are not rich and are not in China where one might find a decent and honestly-run teashop and taste away, there are informative blogs and samples from online vendors. There’s obviously a balance between needing to learn by just tasting as much as possible, and to avoid buying a bunch of crap that you’re stuck with once you have acquired more discerning tastes. I personally think the dating metaphor is perfect. And who knows, maybe that cake you broke up with five years ago will mature and get way hotter than you remember and still want to hang out :)

    • TwoDog2 August 8, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

      I certainly hope some of my ex-cakes that I broke up with will clean up and act right. A few of them have meth habits and one just violated their probation. I really couldn’t pick ‘em when i first started

  6. JC August 13, 2014 at 12:16 am #

    Nice post! I’ve done this for a few cakes and even made a sacrifice to buy a full tong of a favorite around two years ago. Well worth it; the prices have keep going up to the point were the full tong price then would only buy 2-3 cakes now, so number #3 is really important.

    To me the most important part is definitely the experience. I’ve fallen in and out of love with teas several times, but those experiences help you define your preferences and expectations in tea.

    • TwoDog2 August 13, 2014 at 8:41 am #

      JC, that is an excellent way to look it. The experience itself is worth some of the price of admission. Some of the cakes I purchased tongs of when I first started were integral in my learning experience. Not a total waste, just wish I would have bought higher end!

  7. Bai Long August 27, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

    Hi-all fascinating!–thankyou!–Can someone pse tell me why there appear to be no really well-known brands of tea in China, comparable to wine?– for example –where pu’er = cabernet–not Bordeaux, not St Emilion, not Cheval Blanc—thanks Alan

    • TwoDog2 August 27, 2014 at 4:13 pm #

      Hello BaiLong,

      There are famous brands, but very little oversight. Many famous brands outright lie about the quality and origin of the material in their cakes. Also, few brands control a large area of tea forest or plantation. Many of the regions are owned by local ethnic minority groups. In almost all cases of old arbor teas, small pieces of landed are family owned. These farmers usually sell to the highest bidder, or sometimes to stable customers. In either case, there is zero oversight. So, someone can claim “this is Bordeaux and that is Burgundy” when the claims are totally false and their is zero fear of reprisal. This is one of the main reasons why the market is so overrun with fake tea.

      For example, a brand like Dayi has almost zero old arbor tea in any of their blends. On top of this fact, the market is flooded with fakes of almost all of their teas. Many people’s entire business model is to sell fake Dayi. So, although they are a well known brand, they rarely/never produce exceptional quality, and buying their tea is a mine field of fakes.

  8. bai long August 28, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    many thanks–curious how capitalism with western characteristics creates more honesty than Socialism with chinese characteristics—the pattern of vineyards is exactly how you describe tea–Petrus is 2.7 hectares!!–and many Burgundians regard themselves as a minority group–!–what fun!

    • ian August 29, 2014 at 7:08 am #

      I for one sincerely hope that puer-producing regions can avoid the AOC/DOC thing like with French/Italian wine. For one it’s hella political and often arbitrary, also I think that prices would only become more inflated, and it would probably do very little to stop fakers and would probably actually encourage them. And I think the best way to find good tea (or good wine for that matter) is to find a producer/distributor/vendor that you trust. We can all agree that not all well known Yiwu/Bordeaux is uniformly amazing and worth the money, and a lot of cheaper teas from lesser-known regions (or even tiepai/shanzhai teas)/vins de pays are actually really enjoyable. You just have to know where to look and be confident in your own ability to taste and judge.

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