26 April 2011

China Tea Report 2011

I have recently returned from a 2-week trip to China, including Shanghai, Suzhou, Zhangjiajie (Hunan), and Beijing. My last trip to China was a 6-month adventure in 2006-2007, and I must note that much has changed since then. My purpose here is to highlight some of the major changes I noticed in the tea markets.

Store appearance
First, stores have become prettier, even in the wholesale markets like Tianshan in Shanghai and Maliandao in Beijing. On my last trip, maybe 1 in 20 stores had really great decoration, and by this I mean traditional, carved wood furniture, wood floors, hung framed paintings and/or calligraphy, decorative urns and bric-a-brac, and the like. Now, perhaps 7 of 10 stores in Shanghai and at least 1 of 2 stores in Beijing had invested heavily in their decoration.

Now tea stores strive for a unique character where before they appeared like photocopies of one another. For example, one might have all lacquered furniture and frames, while another might be going for a rustic look, while another goes for an ethnic minority look, and yet another looks more Japanese in decoration.

Some of them are quite beautifully done. One had large low urns filled with koi fish and big light wood bench tables, carved antique (or distressed) bookshelves and display cabinets, and calligraphic scrolls and brush paintings of substantial size. Dotting the shelving were display stones--some water-weathered, hole-ridden large chunks of rock and others slices of marble whose color pattern implied a mountain scene.

Others yet are quite tacky. I recall one store with wax-resist indigo fabrics and tin Miao minority jewelry, a theme that could have worked if done more sparsely with costumes and jewelry of better execution, and without a folding card table and an ugly laminate floor.

But still, stores are striving for uniqueness and (finally!) using decoration to craft the ambient mood they want to associate with their brand. This made walking around the tea malls more visually interesting than ever.

Previously one found only cheap mass-produced porcelain alongside yixing teawares of a great varying quality. Only one or two stores in 2006-2007 in Shanghai had longquan and other kinds of Celadon, some produced locally and much imported from Korea. But now, increasing business ties with Taiwan has effected a great change in the teaware being sold in China.

Foremost noticeable are Japanese tetsubin tea kettles, a Taiwanese affect formerly unknown in China. Now, nearly every store sells them, all of them claiming them to be antique (rusted means antique!) and selling them for upwards of 10,000 rmb (currently approximately US$1,500). Many of the better decorated stores also had one or two silver kettles and teapots of Japanese make. The tetsubin, now ubiquitous in China, can even be found at on the blankets of Beijing's famous Panjiayuan ("the dirt market"), an "antique" market featuring stalls, tables, and blanket sellers of various new, antique, and reproduction items such as ceramics, cast bronze, wood items, jade, and the like. I even saw a new breed of Taiwanese-made testubin, which is lined with some other silver metal and made to a very different aesthetic, including some external enamel and more rough surface patterns.

Another Taiwanese import, literally, are Taiwanese ceramics. In particular, Taiwanese-style matte celadon wares, although some porcelain as well. Many teaware shops now sell these, and a few even specialize in Taiwan wares.

Yixing teapots have become larger, overall. I do not know why this is, but I speculate two possible reasons: more wealth has meant more teapot collectors, who buy larger pots, or more wealth means casual tea drinkers can buy into traditional tea items, but they need them larger. Good quality xiao pin ("small product") Yixing teapots of 100ml or less were uncommon before, and are now a rare find in teapot shops.

Higher quality hand-painted Jingdezhen qinghua and fencai/doucai porcelain have finally expanded beyond Jiangsu and Shanghai and are now found in Beijing and even Hunan province. Overall, this expansion of the availability of good porcelain echoes the larger trend of better, finer teaware being more readily available.

Lastly, nearly every store now uses the gourd filters, where a small dry double gourd ("hulu") is halved lengthwise and a small nylon circle stitched into a hole cut into the bottom of the larger half of the gourd, the smaller half becoming the handle. Many teaware stores around China sold this type of filter in 2006-2007, but at that time teashops still used metal or porcelain filters.

Pu'er is no longer the most trendy tea in China. In 2006-2007, every tea shop in China had pu'er, and most had a lot of it. Even in Xiamen city in South Fujian, home of Anxi tieguanyin oolong, most tea shops stocked as much pu'er as they did the local favorite iron goddess and variants. Now, in Beijing and Shanghai's markets, every store still carries pu'er, but most non-pu'er specialty stores now carry only a few. Where before every store carried Dayi, Xiaguan, Haiwan, or Mengku teas and perhaps 2 to 4 other brands, stores have moved away from the large pu'er factories and into smaller brands. This is true of both pu'er specialty and non-pu'er specialty tea shops.

In fact, tea from these four brands was somewhat difficult to find on this trip; MarshalN has suggested to me that many of these larger factory stores have relocated out of the wholesale markets and into nicer locations. I had hoped to taste the 2011 productions from these factories, but none were to be had:

  1. By the time I found a Mengku store in Beijing, it was closing. I could not find one in Shanghai.
  2. The Haiwan stores did not have 2011 productions.
  3. The Xiaguan stores only had 2011 tuo, no cakes.
  4. Dayi stores did not have 2011 productions. Only one store had 2011's rabbit year, 7542, and 0532 cakes. They would not let us taste them, saying so little had been released to them that they couldn't spare a cake for people to taste. They literally had one display cake and one tong to sell.

This is pretty big news, and the message is that collectors, the drivers of the pu'er market, have slowed their buying and factories are responding accordingly by making fewer productions and making them less available. [By collector, I mean someone who buys teas by the jian (6 to 12 tong, 42 to 84 cakes) and holds onto them to resell at a markup when aged]. Relying on the old trick of artificial scarcity to keep prices up, factories are trying to weather what I think is a dry spell in collecting caused by collectors owning piles of pu'er they know they can't sell yet, while Chinese tea drinking trends have moved on.

This has been a longstanding market evaluation held by me and other pu'er fans: at some point, pu'er has to be sold cake by cake to people who actually drink the tea. Each cake lasts upwards of 6 months. Every 20,000-cake production is 10,000 years or more of tea. Even assuming hundreds of thousands of dedicated pu'er drinkers, the literal millions of cakes held by collectors certainly represent a vast oversupply. Like any collectable, the longterm value of pu'er to collectors depends on the strength of the secondary market, and it might be scaring collectors to note that tea trends are changing.

Chinese tea fad followers have moved onto two other teas: fenghuang dancong and gongfu black tea. Every shop now sells at least one or two dancong teas, usually in those sold in rustic, paper-wrapped blocks. Even in the remote outpost of Zhangjiajie city, Hunan province, the vendors of tieguanyin and heicha all had paper-wrapped dancong on the shelves. Beijing and Shanghai tea markets now have stores specializing entirely in this tea, once rarely found outside the Pearl River basin.

Moreso in Shanghai, but to some degree in Beijing, gongfu black tea had tea vendors talking. China's black tea can be roughly classified into two types: lower grade black teas such as zhengshan xiaozhong (lapsang), jiu qiu hong mei, yixing black, etc., and higher grade "gongfu" black teas such as tanyang gongfu, bailin gongfu, jin jun mei, etc. Gongfu black tea has come into vogue, with fairytales of tea producers venturing into untamed forests to harvest buds from wild trees--sound familiar? This is the same romantic idea many pu'er fans have, imagining hiking up misty mountains to hunt tea trees, stumbling across the mossy-trunked ancient relatives perhaps first harvested hundreds of years ago by wandering medicine men and local tribes.

One last surprise: you can find aged pu'er almost everywhere in China now. Pu'er specialty stores now stock traditionally stored cakes from the 80s, 90s, and 00s, even in places like Beijing, where markets previously saw anything but the driest stored teas as undrinkable and unhealthy. Their tunes have clearly changed, and these teas run into the many hundreds of US dollars, perhaps 2 to 5 times their market price in Guangdong and Hong Kong, assuming bargaining the vendor's price down.

Final notes
It fascinated me to see how much had changed in 4-5 years. While many other features of China appeared unchanged since my last visit, the tea markets indicated a substantial development and evolution of the Chinese tea consumer.

If you have any questions or curiosities about what tea is like in China at the moment, feel free to post them in the comments section. I will give whatever answer I can.

Errors at Vital Tea Leaf

After reading a news piece online about a vendor called Vital Tea Leaf, I visited their site and found a few...let's call them "errors" to assume the best...in the listed ages of their pu'er teas. I wrote the following letter via their contact us page:
There are some significant errors in your pu'er catalog regarding the ages you approximate for your teas.
Qiang Ming "Yiwu Zhengshan" - 2002, you say "15-20 years"
Pingxiwangfu - 2006, you say "12 years"
Ruipinhao "Qiu Xiang" - 2008, you say "5 years"
It's important to have credibility and build customer trust when selling teas that are so often faked and misrepresented. I would appreciate it if you would work to that end and correct these errors.
Also, many of the cakes you list have broken picture links. With such short descriptions, it's difficult to have any idea what tea you're selling.
I have not heard back.

It's disheartening to see such errors nowadays, when all one needs is a dictionary and Chinese auction sites to get some idea of a (post CNNP) pu'er's age. Even if I assume Vital Tea Leaf bought these teas believing the ages their supplier indicated, my opinion is that they don't select pu'er well and/or that they probably didn't pay the right price for it.

Also, the Ruipinhao and Pingxiwangfu cakes probably have date stamps on them. This is equivalent to seeing a website selling a 2007 Bordeaux wine as a 2001--when the bottle says 2007.

So, as always, buyer beware. Choose your pu'er vendors carefully, and do your own research.