Reading Between the Tea Leaves
Originally I was going to play hooky on the state of the union for Puer in 2018. I haven’t fully accepted the fact that I am no longer a citizen of the Puer world, able to freely comment on this or that as I please with anonymous internet impunity. I have yet to fully embrace my identity as a dreaded vendor. Every word carries mysterious ulterior motives. If I say the weather was good, am I trying to sell tea? If I say the weather was bad, am i trying to sell tea? Even reporting seemingly objective factual information must have a villainous commercial motive. What do you mean there are no one thousand year old trees in the Laobanzhang I bought?! Well, whatever. Motives and perceptions be damned, here come some anecdotal musings on the 2018 tea year. Read between the lines as you will.
Astonishingly, I am still in Menghai as I write this tonight and will be here through the autumn tea season. Having arrived in mid-March, this is one my longest stints in the mountains. Usually I take a break from season to season, leaving after spring tea before returning for the autumn harvest. However, this summer was full of new teas being pressed and extenuating circumstances that have kept me in the tea mountains for most of the year. It’s been a long haul, but I really love a lot of the 2018 teas, so all in all it has worked out well.
On to the state of the union.
Puer Tea Price Considerations
Someone asked me, “Can we expect year over year increases in prices in Puer tea?” In order to venture a guess, please allow me to conveniently sweep aside large scale considerations such as the Chinese economy, tea market prices, tariffs from some fuckwit and other X factors that nobody but the most enlightened diviners can scry. While there is no clear cut answer to such a complex problem, we can assume a few influences will have notable impacts in the years to come.
What to expect in the future
First, labor costs will continue to rise in the foreseeable future. China is a developing economy and the people here need rising wages for the economy at large to make any sort of sense. Several tea producers in Yunnan mentioned they were having increased difficulty finding laborers, both in the most skilled positions such as wok frying, and the less skilled (but also crucial) positions of tea picking or general labor. When I first started buying Puer tea, most of the labor of picking and processing was performed by local villagers. Over the past several years, many villages have sought migrant laborers from neighboring areas such as Myanmar. Increasing unrest and border security have contributed to this labor shortage and it seems to be on track to continue for the time being.
The labor of making Puer tea is difficult in that it both requires skill and it is physically demanding. For example, a person frying tea will have to work late into the night over a very hot wok, continually tossing large amounts of moisture laden leaves. This duty used to be performed by someone within the family, but more and more often I see people hiring outside help to fill the position. It’s no wonder why; if you had a windfall of cash and limited time to court your tea customers, sweating over a scorching iron wok for hours at a time does seem like one of the first jobs you’d take a pass on. The same goes for tea picking, which is also tough labor. Picking tea in the high altitude sun might sound like a romantic thing to do – and it totally is – for exactly 20 minutes. Picking tea for an entire day is tough work. It’s no wonder that year after year the people doing this labor see the costs of tea going up and say, “Hey, I see you’re making money. Pay me or i’m out.” One day this spring I picked tea in Laobanzhang for roughly 3 hours and I was exhausted. The heat is enough to make you build a small shrine to pray to the people who have made your tea possible. Next time you have a cup of tea, pour a little on the curb for the people who did the hard work to make it happen.
In a few instances villages gathered to make formal pacts on how much they would pay for labor in an attempt to keep costs down. For example, village X decides they will only pay Y amount of money for laborers this spring. The outcomes of that sort of behavior were entirely predictable. In most cases the workers left to go to other villages where the farmers were paying better wages. In other cases, someone in the village broke with the pact and raised the set price out of desperation. This was frowned upon, as they not only broke the deal they had with their fellow villagers, but they also started bidding wars within their village to hire the few remaining workers. All in all this was a good lesson for many villages; even when the tea farmers conspired to keep wages down, it totally backfired and most of the workers figured it out anyhow.
These increased labor costs will be reflected in the 2018 teas you purchase. On the one hand, consumers might bristle at increasingly costly tea. Puer costs rising 20% sucks, when barely any job in the Western world gives a 20% raise out of thin air. However, if you take a different perspective, the people involved in Puer production are (save for the most famous villages) living a modest life and just beginning to experience an uptick in life quality which many in the developed world take for granted. Obviously, higher prices do not do tea sellers/consumers any direct favors, but it’s a great thing that Yunnan’s labor operates in a competitive marketplace where workers can ask for higher wages or decide to do a different job. It may not be a utopian paradise, but China’s tea production and workers’ life situations are still far ahead of many other tea producing countries. The economic growth is also a boon for migrant labor coming from Myanmar or labor from neighboring cities where jobs and decent pay are in short order.
And as a quick side note, if your Puer seller’s prices have not risen year over year for the past several years, that should be a red flag. The costs from every direction have risen, both in terms of labor and market demand for high quality material. The higher prices are a natural movement of the market. If a vendors prices are somehow the same as several years ago, that is a major issue that indicates cutting costs on quality or not paying people a reasonable wage; both of which should be of concern to people buying tea. There simply is not a way to keep costs the steady or reduce costs when labor and demand have both steadily climbed every year in the past decade.
The second factor to consider is that there is increased demand for limited quantities of high quality tea. These trends predictably end the same way; increased amounts of “rare tea” in the market that aren’t accurately labeled or rare. It seems in the last few years, teas from “national forests” or “ancient trees” (where it would often be questionable/illegal to buy tea in most cases) and villages with extremely limited quantities of tea have all surged in quantity. The truth of the matter is that these teas are in such limited quantity that no retail tea customer should assume they could ever purchase such a tea. This trend is also nothing new. Years ago it was Bingdao and Laobanzhang, now it has moved on to Mansong or other such locations. The same mantra that I have always preached rings true. Drink what you like and can afford, and ignore the stories of people who tell you why they have the thing that nobody else does. If you like the tea in your cup and can afford it, you win. If you’ve spent over your budget to buy a story, you lose.
How was 2018 Spring for tea and weather?
Last time I answered this in 2017 I caught a bit of flack, so best to keep this short and sweet.
2018, in a vacuum, was better than 2017.The weather was better, the tea was better. That being said, nothing exists in a vacuum. The quality of tea that any particular person procures is directly related to their effort, connections, experience and abilities. As a consumer, it’s not about which vintage, its about whether the tea is good or not. There are amazing teas from 2017 and shit teas from 2018 and vice versa. Again, buy tea that you like that fits your budget – beatdeadhorse.gif.
One way to apply this knowledge would be choosing to purchase the 2018 vintage over a 2017 vintage if you tend to buy single origin teas that have a high level of consistency from a singular vendor. If your favorite vendor makes the same tea from a specific village year in and year out, go with the 2018.
Anecdotal Story about Fake Puer Tea
I went to Laoman’e a couple of weeks ago and there were several factories buying tea at a set price. I happen to be particularly close with several people from Laoman’e, due mostly to reasons of basketball. We went to see what kind of tea their relatives were giving to these factories. One of the relatives had brought in over two metric tons (must re-emphasize – that is over 2,000 kilograms of tea) solely to fill the order of this factory. Fake tea is alive and well, within villages and in the greater market at large. The scariest part is that a two ton order is not large. The biggest factories wouldn’t barely consider making a two ton production.
And for the sake of clarity, this is not a new practice. I spent over a week living in Laoman’e in 2013 and similar practices were already common. If you haven’t taken my previous ten warnings to disregard the labeling of provenance to heart, heed this last one; Labels are mostly meaningless. When even showing up in the village does necessarily mean you can acquire a tea of proper origin, woe to those who buy through proxies and label on good faith. Even showing up to a village does not guarantee accuracy.
If you are concerned with accurate provenance labeling and purchasing single origin teas, one way to avoid this kind of trickery is to purchase tea from areas that are less well known. Instead of buying tea labeled Laoman’e, aim for Ailao mountain. Nobody is going to fake tea from Ailao mountain. This means making a sacrifice on quality in some cases, but it will ensure that you purchase something that meets your goal of being accurately labeled. Another way is to avoid larger factory productions. Large factory productions tend to work with an amount of weight that demands concessions on quality, as with most agricultural products scale and quality often have an inverse relationship.
Best Moonshine of the Year
This year I spent multiple days in the mountains next to a still making my own moonshine. I had a friend with a small plot of peaches that were popping in late April, so I went up with a couple of large containers and commandeered 100 kilograms of fresh peaches. A friend and I cut them up and set them to fermenting. The hotel where I was staying thought it was a bit odd that I had 100 kilos of peaches fermenting next to my bed, but they eventually chalked it up to me being an odd fellow and moved on. We later hauled the boozy peaches up to a still and spent the day drinking tea and moonshine while we waited for the wood fire to hit that critical temperature when the crystal clear spirits began to trickle out. It might not be the best moonshine on earth, but there is an emotional connection to the peach fragrance and thoughts of the hungry fruit flies that hovered in my room, waiting for a chance to swoop down and lick a bit of that peachy goodness.
And if I can declare a tie here, and I can, the plum moonshine that followed was also excellent. The first batch of peach shine got rave reviews, so we headed to a local plum orchard outside of Menghai and wrangled 400 kilos (split between a few people) for fermentation and distillation. The results were a beautiful plum spirit with a deep perfume that will be a joy in a few years.(spoiler: fresh moonshine is harsh as hell) Luckily I’ve got a few liters to set aside for the future. No wasp steeping necessary.
Stay loving, drink good tea and I’ll see you in 2019 – if I can avoid writing an autumn version, which i will try to since it is practically autumn already.