11 January, 2011

2004 CNNP - Jixing "Yuechen Yuexiang"

Were one sufficiently cynical and minded to create an on-line tea business for the acquisition of currency, there are two current schools of thought concerning the direction one could take:

i. Sell old pu'ercha, "vintage" pots, and wulong, with a limited selection of younger shengpu, typically via a nostalgic-styled web-site.

ii. Sell cheap-and-cheerful, typically via eBay.

Most vendors come down on either side of that distinction.  The first is typically motivated by selling "rare" goods (actual value unquantifiable, large profit margins), while the latter is typically motivated by selling cheaply and in large volumes. The first method is easier - pick up some suitably "rare" goods from your last holiday in the orient, knock up a web-site that conveys a suitable impression of vintage quality, and hike up the prices.  The latter is hard - it is the cut-throat world of small margins and large distribution.

2004 Jixing Yiwu
Yuechen Yuexiang - "Will improve with age".  An unproven sentiment.

While most vendors in (i) benefit from the opacity of their product's pricing and debatable market value, there isn't anything innately wrong with buying cheaply and selling high - it is the basis of commerce.  Most pu'er drinkers are no strangers to a bit of sport concerning price gouging - we've happily been buying Taiwanese bingcha from Houde for years.  However, there is an insidious sub-class in type (i) vendors that actively tries to capitalise on consumer ignorance.

The formula for this sub-class is to hunt for accessible cakes from rock-bottom labels (modern CNNP, Haiwan, and their ilk), pick a small selection of around a half-dozen cakes (to suggest careful selection), pop them up on a web-site with plenty of white space, then turn up the prices above maximum and sell to the hopefully-ignorant public.  For special effect, utilise plenty of vocabulary from the wine- and cigar-tasting spheres ("premier cru", "vintage", etc.), to reinforce the illusion of quality.

2004 Jixing Yiwu
As shown on the wrapper, this was released by CNNP - the place where pu'ercha goes to die

Such practices are a time-honoured tradition, particularly amongst England's mercantile classes.  Prices here are astronomical, for most things.  Trainers [sneakers] sold in England are often 200% the price of their equivalents elsewhere; music CDs (remember them?) when bought in shops were typically extortionately priced; wine almost doubles in value the moment it crosses the Channel from France to Blighty.  The Economist recently ran an amusing piece on the "expensive, tiny" houses of England.  I was reminded of a long-time friend who, upon emigrating to California (the poor fool), bought a vast house with the money made from selling his tiny city property in England.  My little brother tried the same trick, but he soon came back to our humble university after failing to negotiate eight-lane highways of Californian traffic on his bicycle.

Tea shops are no different.  Indeed, they have the advantage that most English people know tea that can be an item of wonderful quality (it seems to form part of a long-neglected folk memory in our collective unconscious), and yet almost no-one knows any better than the dreary muck available from Whittards of Chelsea.  Witness the success of Jing of London (not to be confused with the eternally-excellent Jing Teashop), which I recently bemoaned in a piece on - quelle surprise - modern CNNP sold at eye-watering prices.

So, then, to a new outfit, named Canton Tea Company.  

2004 Jixing Yiwu
I cannot be the only one who hears the voice of ODB when looking at these leaves

Tears well up in my eyes as we see that the 2004 Jixing "Yiwu" (no mention of CNNP) appears at the bottom of the list, weighing in at £78 ($121).  I dare you to have a quick Taobao search for cakes from the Jixing factory.  (Type "Jixing" into the mighty Babelcarp, then copy the resulting characters into Taobao.)  This is a factory whose products are, as anticipated, rock-bottom in price, seldom reaching above 200 RMB (£19), even for cakes with some age on the clock.

Contemplating the pretty sample packet at my tea-table, kindly provided by Edgar of Canton Tea, my mind is filled with the above prior assumptions, which are not complimentary.

The cake is made from smaller leaves, and has a dark, pungent aroma that reminds of modern Xiaguan.  The presence of reddened, processed leaves confirms my suspicions, and further strengthens my unkind assumptions.

I like to think I'm not entirely close-minded, however.  The tea itself surprises me - it is really very enjoyable.  Delicious, in fact.

You will love or loathe this cake depending on your attitude to modern Xiaguan "special" productions.  I love them, because they are as dark, blackened, and husky as the contents of my withered soul.  They are stuffed full of faux-tobacco flavours and scents that bring to mind my father's pipe, and all the vicarious enjoyment that comes along with sniffing the smoke of a pipe-smoker, without being brave enough to smoke it yourself.

This is so much like processed Xiaguan that I would categorise this as more than an "homage" - it is, in fact, a direct copy.  It has the blackened heart of Baoyan, but retains the cereal, grain-like charm of that Xiaguan area's unprocessed, raw leaves.  It is absolutely akin to the 2008 Xiaguan "Duling Fengsao", released under their premium FT label.

(Note to self: "Ouch", has caused me to read this as "Duelling Banjos" whenever I write it.)

2004 Jixing Yiwu
Delicious tea, for fans of Xiaguan

For £78, one would hope for single-mountain charm, carefully aged for a few years, probably from some highly-reputed producer.  To charge £78 for something as immensely, almost overpoweringly, processed such as this cake...  well, my dear wife described it as "criminal".  Presumably, as with Jing of London, such teas are not aimed at you and me, but at the Whittards crowd.  The danger is - when people know better, they'll buy elsewhere - hence the dependence on consumer ignorance.  It's like the export wine market in the 1980s.

I should add, however, that Canton Tea also provided us with an entirely wonderful lapsang souchong, which is precisely everything I have been looking for, if you recall my old article on my quest for such a tea.  The price is shocking for the Canton Tea lapsang, too, but I think it's worth it.

Thanks again to Edgar for two fascinating samples.


I've had a surprising amount of feedback in the short time that this has been published - thanks to all correspondents.  The general consensus is agreement, but I suspect this is more a function of the fact that those who know my e-mail address are usually on the same wavelength as me when it comes to tea, and agree with my assessment of highly-priced CNNP...

I had some excellent comments from one source whom shall remain anonymous, which led to a particularly lengthy and interesting discussion, of which I can summarise my part below.  There's nothing that gets me going to work each morning like the prospect of a good, reasoned debate.  If you don't like walls of text, then we'll see you in the next article...

[It's unfair to single Houde
out for criticism.]

Class (i) vendors are wide and varied - anyone who isn't selling in high volume, but who focusses on quality, falls in this category. "Boutique" vs. "quality".   There will always be disagreements in price, of course, given that everyone has a different budget. The subject of Houde's perceived high prices in some categories is well-documented, and I mentioned it here as a reference to previous discussions had around the on-line "tea-sphere". Hence, I don't find it at all unfair to cite Houde as being highly-priced - we buy from Houde because we prefer the quality that comes with the high prices, as I mentioned. You know, I have spent more money at Houde than I care to recall, and will continue to do so because I (i) like Dr. Lee's tea, and (ii) like Dr. Lee. I have to be honest and say that I don't like his prices - it's not unreasonable to do so, I believe.

(I should add that I cite Houde as being an example of a good boutique vendor - quite definitely not of the sub-class that the article discusses, in which low-quality products are sold to a hopefully-ignorant public.)

I prefer direct criticism rather than sideways implication, and hence you can always rely on the grumpy fool at the Half-Dipper to tell you his opinion. I like to think that I've arrived at my conclusions through reason, though, and am happy to back them up with a good discussion.

In the same section, I described charging high prices as being entirely acceptable - it is the basis of commerce. Tea used to cost more than gold, at one point, and was bought with glee. If one doesn't like the higher prices, then one looks elsewhere.

The purpose of this article is that I believe that there is a sub-set of normal vendors who actually require consumer ignorance in order for their business models to function. I described how, in my opinion, certain vendors have such requirements in order for them to operate as businesses successfully, and then described how they arise naturally from cultural expectations of pricing in England.

[The value of many goods from a
"boutique" vendor is far from unquantifiable, 

because they are being increasingly sold 
to buyers from Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.]

The pricing may not be opaque to those from Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, given their proximity to the market, but it is entirely opaque to Westerners, whom, I suspect, form the major market for such vendors. Opacity is a simple product of geography - we've been importing opaquely-priced goods for centuries. I believe it entirely fair to say that vendors in this class benefit from such opacity - it is a logical and indisputable fact. I have tried to look up the prices of so, so many products that I've bought from "boutique" vendors, and fail to do so 90% of the time. Such opacity is merely a function of the items being sold, and hence, I believe, my point is entirely fair. I'm happy to support it with further debate!

["Boutique" shops have a very hard time - 
it's not easy compared to "high volume" sellers.]

My comments refer to the oft-played-out battle between "boutique" and "high volume". The latter, with their paper-thin profit margins, are particularly hard to make work due to their requirements of scale. The former enjoys higher profit margins, by definition, and is therefore afforded more flexibility in marketing. Whether or not either could be made to work as a source of primary income without difficulty isn't under discussion. I'm sure both require effort.

[What purpose does your post serve? 
Who would find it useful?]

I rather like reading candid posts about people's opinions. If someone buys an overpriced kitchen, it gets installed badly, and then they have to sue to get it corrected, I would like to know about it if I were buying a kitchen. (I've been doing this recently, and benefitting from candid assessments.) The "free press" is a time-honoured method of enforcing honesty on our societies, through critical writing.

It has to be fair writing, but I would stand by my assertions as being both reasonable and based on personal evidence. If you don't agree, I'm happy to continue this well-argued debate.

Who would find it useful? The Half-Dipper is fortunate enough to attract a rather large quantity of readers from the more casual end of the spectrum, and I've had some good e-mails on the subject from a couple of new-comers who experienced similar frustrations when dealing with the sub-class of "boutique" vendors that is the subject of the article. They found it useful.

Looking further afield, it's also useful for tea companies. Bizarrely enough (and I have no idea why such a thing would occur), I've given advice to over half-a-dozen start-ups over the past few years, and the text of this article came from my correspondences with them. The found it useful, apparently.

Most of all, I'm writing for my dear Half-Dipper readers, who are people just like me. We support both types of vendors, and we love nothing more than to share opinions, information, and gripes in order to get us to our goal: good tea.

Thus, the article is simply one man's assessment of a market, how one would progress within it were one of the mind to do so, and a critique (and warning) of those whom I believe have got it entirely wrong.

(Certainly, as the market becomes more knowledgable, tactics will at least have to change.)


Matthew said...

Mr Hobbes,

I thought I'd sneak a comment in before the outraged responses from Jing and Canton flood your blog.

Nice to see somebody write so honestly, but for the Jing and Canton virgins outs there (who may be put off by your righteous fury), I wanted to say that whilst Jing are outrageously expensive, their oolong is really good compared to other Europe-based companies (Da Hong Pao, Dan Cong, Oriental Beauty). Certainly much better than Canton's, which are however cheaper.

I'm not shilling and I can't speak for their pu-erhs, but once you factor in VAT and custom duty and what not, the gouging doesn't actually remove the whole pound of flesh.


Hobbes said...

Dear Matthew,

I buy rooibos from Jing of London, actually. It's expensive, but excellent. For uncaffeinated afternoons in my office, it hits the spot.

I'm not tempted by the rest, given the availability elsewhere, more or less.



Lew Perin said...

Thanks very much for your recent mentions of Babelcarp! By the way,
the recent redesign of the user interface, which you describe as
“dashing”, wasn’t done for the sake of appearances, at least not
mostly. What happened was that a teahead who is a professional Web
usability specialist was nice enough to tell me what parts of the old
interface were making it hard for users to get the information they
wanted. Basically, I just took his advice.

Anonymous said...

That was an interesting update!

I just roll my eyes when you get on your hobby horses and read on...In any event, I think it's just a matter of tastes and what you prioritize in your tea performance. If it's 1) Mengku/Lincang 2) Fruity 3) Expensive, then I can almost expect a harsh review contrary to my views, it seems. I also check age of the bing vs age of the review--ESPECIALLY for blends, because I don't think anyone should judge unproven blends a year out.

As far as Boutique, I'm probably wrong, but I think Houde might deemphasis puerh, like Jing Tea Shop has. Prices for known good puerh is pretty dang crazy over there. For example, the '05 Mengsong Peacock that Houde sells is twice the price on Taobao. I have tried that tea, and there is no way I'd pay $75 for it. I don't think Taobao really makes very many pre-2006 and especially pre-2005 teas available. There was only one seller of a known good Changtai Yin Jing Gu, and that was about $42, if I recall correctly. Most of the teas I might get on TaoBao, like the Tianlu/Yisheng/Mengku '02/etc, are in the $40s or more, where I really kind have to be very sure I like it... Early bings that Houde offers like the '01 Red Dayi are also twice Houde's price on Taobao. That suggests resupply of older tea is precarious, and difficult to offer at worthwhile profits.

Moreover, while, if you're in Taiwan, you can get those '06 bricks I love so much for $25, 2010 Xizihao is very, very expensive. The top stuff are over $200 for the name mountains. The cheap gift set stuff isn't as good as the '09s and costs $15 (but with 100 more grams of tea) more.

Also, the proliferation of micro-batches, you know, only 40 bings ever made! cannot make a big deal for profit margins, because they are so few, so an alert shopper knows that with, say, HLH '10s, either the top stuff is horrifically overpriced, or the mid-priced bings are intended to sucker the price conscious. The whole scheme of offering value, even at the high range, seems really precarious for a boutique shop. If Houde has a deep warehouse, then they'll keep going and add little stuff over the years. If they don't...

Because of my estimations of how out of whack the market is over in East Asia (it seems that all the segments, Malaysia, HK, Taiwan, China, Korea--are all seperate markets), I spent what is a huge amount of money for me. I'm treating this as a inflation hedge, because I think until AOC happens (and plenty of Chinese really want this as well, given my readings of google translated threads), prices will continue to go up, selection will, in practical terms, go down, and lie/cheat/steal will march apace. Better to get one big batch while I'm most familiar with my choices now. If I thought that a nice Yiwu would always be easily available (and detectable as good quality, cheap), then I probably wouldn't have made such a commitment.


Hobbes said...

Dear Lew,

I don't know where we'd be without the mighty 'Carp - for those of us who are less confident with reading and writing Chinese, it's absolutely invaluable. I even struggle with Pinyin-entry systems... :)



Hobbes said...

Dear Shah8,

Thanks for the detailed comment. Let's tackle 'em one-by-one.

You mentioned Mengku/Lincang, fruity, expensive teas as being something that you can expect me not to like. While there are certainly some types of pu'ercha that I don't enjoy (usually the heavily-processed kind, watery and charmless), I tend to enjoy most cakes. I seem to recall someone commenting recently that my articles can often be too complimentary: "you seem to like everything"!

Just for the record, you actually selected teas that I actively enjoy in your description! Lincang's cereal-like nature is really appealing to me (I invite you to check out my previous articles), while Mengku, being very different with a sometimes earthier feel, is also very much my cup of tea. I have a bunch of both on my shelves!

Regarding "fruitiness", it can be arrived at through processing. This can be thoroughly enjoyable (say, for example, in the Shouyix purple-leaf cake that I recently enjoyed from China Chadao), but it can sometimes be overdone and border into "gift tea". Gift tea can be nice, as long as we don't expect to age it.

"Expensive" - well, sadly for my wallet, most of my favourite teas are expensive. Heh.

Of course, one can go too far with being fruity or expensive. If a tea is fruity and expensive, then it's probably something that's intended to drink now, made by a boutique producer. Not bad in itself, but these usually represent bad value, and that's where you'll see me comment (typically at the end of an article).

Come to think of it, I can't recall very many "real" cakes that I haven't enjoyed. No matter how bitter, or roasted, or generic, most teas usually have something going for them. If they cost $200, then that's obviously a different story. However, modern 6FTM, even modern CNNP, Haiwan, Shuangjiang Mengku, and all of the other mainstream labels all appeal in their own way - as long as they're appropriately priced.

Hobbes said...

On Houde prices - the Houde backcatalogue is brilliant. Guang doesn't seem to change his old prices, and I have written on several occassions on how bargains are to be had from his list of old teas. I've picked up some great old Yichanghao cakes, for example, which are still being sold at (or near) their original price. While that was very expensive back when those cakes were new, they are now significantly cheaper than Taobao, in places, and I've snapped a lot of them up - and invited readers of the Half-Dipper to do the same.

On AOC / DOC - don't hold your breath. :)



Anonymous said...

I focus on the lincang stuff, because it's a strong false note in what is a fairly harmonious sensibility in tastes. I don't really like shicang as much as you do, but I certainly agree that a light touch is wonderful.

In general, part of the reason I read you is that we're about as similar as a US black southerner and a english guy with rural roots can get. I've studied many of the same subjects you presumably have, lots of engineering, neurology, et al. The books on my shelf contains works by Peter Watts, Andy Clark and Gerald M. Edelman. I don't have any works of old-timey chinese philosophy and classic novels, but I know who they are, and have heard of the classic authors and books in Chinese and Japanese literature. In turn, I bet I can hand you something like "The Great Divergence" by Kenneth Pomeranz, and guess you'd be pretty fascinated. I have various forms of history rather than philosophy/novels on my shelf.

And cheech, you just look and act like every other nerd I've ever associated with at Georgia Tech.

Yeah, "real" cakes are enjoyable, especially if you can get them a few years down the road. I don't really mind light oxidation, but I most certainly can tell that it damages the ultimate taste. However, I do think Nada, XZH, boutique makers in general *have* to oxidize it a little. Just read a frenchman's reaction to Nada's most straight cake, that Bulang! So long as it's not too much, I just accept it as a hint of what it will be like in the future. I have more tolerance for oxidation than you do, especially for meatier teas that can take it, but I suspect that your attitude has been "cultivated" by experience, so I'm cautious as well.

-->addressed to the audience

The biggest thing is that you *like* your teas, and that you *itch* to drink your tea. Don't buy boutique tea just because it's boutique! I buy Xizihao because I like what the brand consistently (to me) tries to do, and I'm rarely disappointed for my money. That's not true for other people, and spending alot of money on tea you don't really want is a tragedy. On the converse, don't ever try to cheap out on what you want. Buy the cheaper version *only* if you really like it, for itself, and not because it's just what you can afford! A bunch of $40 teas that you don't really want and is diffident about drinking is just as bad!

For me, the most fustrating thing about puerh is the lack of grades. I can buy a cheap grade of Phuguri or Jungpana, and get cheap Phuguri or Jungpana. I can't buy any sort of mid-grade puerh without drinking samples up and down Maliandro given the prevalence of adulteration from other places.


Hobbes said...

Dear Shah8,

Hah - you certainly have a good idea of the man behind this blog. Nerdy, rural, engineer - spot on.

I always take book recommendations very seriously, and so will look into The Great Divergence - thanks for pointing it out. I assume it's about the dot product of the differential operator, nabla, with a vector field? (Boom)

By accident rather than design, I find myself drinking mostly older teas for pleasure now - where I mean "> 5 years". Just enough to have taken off the brutality of youth. It's not intentional - I just find myself reaching for stable, slightly older cakes when I'm in relaxation mode. I still love drinking Essence of Tea Bulang, but nowadays it seems to be the exception rather than the rule, when it comes to "fun" time.

(I drink lots of young pu'ercha to work out what to buy, though.)

Today, for example, I started with a brusque 2009 Changtai and didn't really enjoy it (the tea was rough and too heavily based on plantation leaves, rather than any complaint about its youth). I quickly reverted to a 2001 Dingxing.

All the best,


Hobbes said...

P.s. How do you know what I look like?! :)

Anonymous said...

There is a picture of your scruffy self in that series where you try to (not really) haggle your way through Maliandro. Right above the skit where you try to talk down the dude with the Menghai Yiwu Zhengshan '01 and other nice cakes, when he quietly insists on his one price...


Hobbes said...

Is there?! Haha... OK, I will try to find it.

Hobbes said...

Do you mean this post? That's not me! Those are the various owners of various tea-shops in Maliandao :)

I'm a red-headed Englishman, and usually behind the camera, because I'm taking the pictires!



Anonymous said...

Oops! I mistook Blake for you!


MarshalN said...

Please don't waste your time reading the Great Divergence -- I can sum it up for you in one line, if you wish. There are better books out there.

Anonymous said...

Please, then, don't sum it up! I'd like to know of the better books for reading! Especially from a historian!

I am deeply aware of the tendency for popular works of non-fiction to suit the biases of its potential audience, and Pomeranz certainly has written more overt easy reading economic history.

On the other hand, it's quite hard to sift through stuff and get something *good*, and I am unaware of very many good economic histories of the Far East. A couple of years ago, I looked pretty hard (or so I think) for a economic history of Meiji Reconstruction. A good book on that and Taisho era economic activity would be welcomed.


Hobbes said...

I can recommend Lin Yutang's writings, if you're after a delightfully-written (if nostalgic) observer's opinion of pre-PRC China. The cover blurb calls him "the last great Chinese scholar", which depends on your assessment of modern Chinese scholarship >:)

Either way, I do live his books.



Hobbes said...

While replying to a comment on an old article, Induction 101, I noticed that you can see me in the background, in a rugby shirt. :)



Anonymous said...

You wouldn't happen to be a fellow rugby player, now, would you? Did some intramural in high school.


MarshalN said...

Pomeranz is respected in the field. The problem is that the Great Divergence is such a one-liner.... and really doesn't need a whole book to make the point he does. It's one of those books that has caught more attention outside than among historians.

China's Own Critics is a great read -- the Lin Yutang chapters are especially wonderful.

Hobbes said...

I suspect China's Own Critics would be very well-received by the ladies in my house, so I'll find a copy - thanks.

Shah8 - sadly, it has been years since I've had the time required for a full game of rugby (or any other sport for that matter - my other games being real tennis and cricket). I look forward to seeing the next generation of Hobbesfamily take up their games, while their father cheers them on :)

MarshalN said...

You will discover that China does not have bedbugs.

A Student Of Tea said...

More an aside question - I think you mentioned before that you like rooibos in the later part of the day, enjoying it's maltiness.
I often get dissapointed with it, finding a nasty, aggressive fruitiness in it (attacks the necks of my teeth). Might be a) the tea b) my brewing. What differences do you find in various rooibos teas/ in what is the Jing good? And what style/ parameters do you brew rooibos?


Hobbes said...

Dear Martin,

I'm really lo-fi in my brewing of rooibos - the Jing version is solid and interesting, without losing flavour too quickly. I brew it roughly in a gaiwan, without much thought. The Jing version also seems quite tolerant of errors, such as me getting distracted and returning to my desk ten minutes later :)

Best wishes,