What is Old Tea?

We describe old Puerh tea as having clear, transparent liquor, rich and changing mouth feel (kougan), distinct layers of flavor, mellow and soft texture in the mouth, distant and prolonged aroma, sweet and refreshing flavor, saliva promoting quality, and the ability to delight the taste buds. These descriptions are sufficient to make tea lovers’ mouths water. But exactly what tea is considered old Puerh? There is no standard answer to this question. There is not even an agreed upon convention for addressing it.

According to Deng Shihai, 50-year-old Red Stamp cakes “have not yet completely surpassed the period of unripeness and astringency.” Today drinking later-stage Red Stamp cakes is “little short of foolishness, as the tea has not yet reached the ideal point” (Puerh Tea 141) Today some in the business describe 1970’s and 1980’s teas as middle period teas, while others define tea produced between 2000 and 2005 as middle period Puerh. Once when shopping in the Kunming tea market, I asked a shop owner if he had any old Puerh. His response: “Yes, I have lots of old Puerh. I have tea from last year. I also have some from two years ago.” When even business people who specialize in sales of Puerh have such differing opinions, it’s clear that this notion of old Puerh tea means different things to different people. Ordinarily a Puerh tea drinker defines old tea according to the depth of his or her experience drinking tea. If he or she has never tasted tea of a certain age or older or has tasted tea of a certain age but never experienced its subtle charm, then his or her experience of old tea is confined to tea of that age or younger. His or her understanding and concept of old tea is only partially formed and biased.

I once met a tea drinker, an entrepreneur, who was infatuated with Puerh tea. He claimed to drink no other tea besides Puerh, but he repeatedly stressed that five or six year old tea is old enough and has the best flavor. Clearly his tea drinking experience is still shaped by his impressions of other lightly fragrant types of tea.

The Puerh tea world has long classified Puerh teas as Haoji tea (or antique tea), stamp tea, Qizi cake tea, and so on. I do not intend to come up with another definition of old tea. Rather, for the sake 0f discussion in this article, I will call tea produced in or before the 1990’s “old tea”. No one will disagree with calling Haoji and stamp tea old Puerh. As for tea’s produced last century during the 1970’s and 1980’s, based on the fact that these teas are increasingly rare, they offer charm of age (chenyun) that increases with each passing day, and their sn^lling prices are very high. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with calling such teas old tea. With respect to tea produced during the 1990’s, this tea has already entered the period of drinkability and. possesses a certain chenyun. Furthermore, it is vigorously sought out in the market and commands high prices. I believe it can also be called old tea.

Rise of the Market for Old Tea

The past several years have brought widespread publicity to Puerh as well as increasing first-hand knowledge of Puerh among tea drinkers. The level of acceptance of Puerh in society has consequently grown substantially, and the number of consumers buying Puerh has continuously increased. Furthermore, expectations of Puerh quality have also continuously risen, and consumers have gradually come to accept the concept that new Puerh is stored to be later consumed. Driven by these consumer requirements, old tea has become the favorite of the maret. One can only sigh at the dramatic speed at which prices have risen. According to a 10 year market survey, prices of old tea have risen year after year; moreover, the rise in price has essentially been independent of changes in the greater economy and of fluctuations in the rest of the Puerh tea market. During periods of slowdown in the outside economy, sales of old tea have at worst been sluggish but prices have basically never fallen. The following description focuses on the recent market performance of tea products that have been correctly stored and are of fine quality.

The most prominent example of Haoji tea, Red Label Songpin Round Tea, sold at the 2009 Jiade quarterly auction for 504,000RMB (approx. $85,000USD), and buyers have recently offered as much as 700,000RMB ($111,000). Likewise, the price of Chenyun Hao Round Tea has already exceeded 500,000RMB ($80,000) per cake. Today these teas are extremely rare and can only be obtained by accident. Other Haoji teas have also risen in price accordingly and are selling for equally incredible prices.

The representative stamp tea, Red Stamp, sold at the 2009 Jiade quarterly auction for 145,600RMB (=$23,000) and sold in 2011 for 200,000RMB ($31,700). A cake of Blue Stamp Grade A and Grade B tea, which sold in 2010 for around 60,000RMB ($9500), has now risen in price to over 100,000RMB ($15,850). Yellow Stamp Round Tea has benefited from the rise in price of Red and Blue Stamp tea and is also in high demand. It is now selling at prices approaching 40,000RMB ($6340) per cake.

The 1980’s star 88 Qing Bing sold at the 2009 Jiade quarterly auction for 16,000RMB ($2500) and was selling for over 20,000RMB ($3170) per cake in 2011. Likewise, the popularity of 1980’s Thick Paper 8582 Round Tea goes without saying and has approached that of the 88 Qing Bing, which has enjoyed over a decade of popularity. Because of the increasing scarcity of Haoji and stamp teas, these 1980’s teas are gradually claiming the dominant position in the market for old tea.

In terms of the degree of aging and apparent quality, 1990’s tea were still somewhat lacking just several years ago. Most experienced Puerh tea drinkers believed the tea had yet to reach the best stage of development for consumption, but prices were already quite high. New Puerh tea drinkers had difficulty accepting these conditions, and so the amount of tea sold in the market was limited. However, as the supply of 1980’s and older teas has sharply fallen, demand for these 1990’s teas has understandably risen. Teas including 93 Qing Bing, 96 Purple Dayi, and 97 Blue Water Mark 7542 Qing Bing have sold vigorously over the past several years. Of these, 97 Blue Water Mark has achieved particular prominence. It has already developed significant chenyun. It brews up a transparent golden-yellow color and has strong orchid fragrance. The bitterness of youth is no longer pronounced and its kougan is soft and slippery. Finally, its sweetness and Qi place it at the top of 1990’s teas. Prices of dry stored cakes have already doubled since 2010, with asking prices of 6,000RMB ($950) and brisk sales. Many people believe that 97 Blue Water Mark is the tea most likely to achieve a status similar to the 88 Qing Bing. I personally feel that the quality of 88 Qing Bing ten years ago was lower than that of 97 Blue Water Mark today. This is truly a tea worth anticipating.

Based on the broader perspective of old Puerh prices over many years, today’s prices definitely appear to be extraordinary. Prices of Haoji and Stamp teas are now higher than those of the most precious of Chinese medicines (Ophiocordyceps sinensis or caterpillar fungus). If the CPI were based on the price of old tea, it would cause problems for any government. In reality, the price of newly harvested Puerh is extremely low. After several years as the most famous tea growing area, the most expensive pure Lao Banzhang raw tea material sells for approximately 2,000RMB ($317USD) per kilogram which cannot compare with the prices of high-grade teas of other varieties. Only the prices of old Puerh teas have begun to progressively increase to such heights. This is because newly harvested Puerh tea is only a type of raw material. It requires many years of aging to become a finished product. The price of Puerh is widely considered to include the initial cost, commodity inflation, the cost of time, the cost of space, and profit. Here, profit is undoubtedly the most significant factor, but what is driving these high profits? This is worth considering.

Cause of High Price of Old Tea

A thorough investigation into the cause of these high prices of old teas must go beyond the fact that the teas require long periods of time and have excellent flavor. We should also avoid the simple answer favored by outsiders of market speculation. Based on the fact that old tea is now extremely dispersed and those who hold the tea are unwilling to sell, who can control the quantity and price of tea in the market? I suggest the following points, which I am pleased to share with fellow tea lovers:

First, old tea is generally regarded as a healthy beverage. Food safety has become a hot-button social issue. The abuse of harmful growth hormones, additives, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers has caused people to question everything that enters their bodies. Tea is no exception. In recent years the tea market has seen a constant stream of businesses selling organic tea products, reflecting the fact that tea has not been spared from the food safety crisis. However, old tea has a significant advantage. The older the tea, the less concerned one need be about these issues. Based on the level of technology and sale prices of these teas when they were produced, use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers would have been extremely extravagant. When someone suggests measuring the pesticide residue of Haoji tea, I can’t help but feel that this person is extremely unaware of the big picture and is just trying to be irritating. Old tea has also undergone many years of aging, which breaks down stimulating substances in the tea such as caffeine and tannins. It thus counters oily foods without: harming the stomach. Its ability to cool the body, lower blood cholesterol, and soften the arteries is widely accepted by consumers and the medical community. These factors give old Puerh an advantage over other types of tea when it comes to appealing to Chinese requirements for health products. In the supermarket, organic products generally command a substantial premium over non-organic products. Consequently, the environmental, safety, and health benefits of old Puerh contribute to its high prices.

Second, old tea is a consumable product. Tea is made to be drunk and old tea is no different. No matter how high the price, someone is always willing to pay. One of the most significant defining characteristics of tea lovers is that, upon drinking fine tea, a tea lover’s standard of tea quality will never return to where it was before. In this sense, Puerh exerts an even stronger hold over tea lovers than other types of tea. Consumers of old tea can primarily be divided into two groups. The first are tea drinkers who have collected tea over many years and possess teas that were purchased years ago at low prices. They are able to enjoy the old tea as a reward for their painstaking care and financial investment. The second group is composed of tea drinkers with substantial Puerh tea drinking experience and strong financial means. Someone with the financial means, but who lacks both sufficient understanding that comes from research as well as personal experience tasting old tea, will find it inconceivable that someone could spend tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands on a single cake of tea. The endless pursuit of quality among drinkers of old Puerh drives them to continuously taste and experience different teas. By continuously accumulating experience and sharing with others, their understanding of Puerh grows. They are able to better enjoy the sensory pleasures and spiritual relaxation that comes from drinking tea. This is the cycle that Leads to ever increasing spending on old tea. The tea produced in a certain year is, after ail, limited and the number of consumers of old tea increases each year. The amount of stored old tea is continuously decreasing, so it is unavoidable that prices continue to reach new heights.

Third, old tea is a limited product. Ordinary, tea can be considered a renewable resource. It is produced each year and multiple harvests are possible each year. In green tea and Tie Guan Yin areas, it is traditional to stop drinking last year’s fall tea as soon as this yearns spring tea is available. Tea drinkers seek out the fresh energy of tea. Puerh, however, is entirely different, because the quality of Pucrh is very much related to its age. This is Puerh’s so-called characteristic of Yuechen Yuexiang (flavor improves with age). There is no substitute for the passage of time. No matter how it is scored, the degree of aging of a tea produced more recently cannot compare to that of a tea produced earlier. The flavor, likewise, cannot be compared. Consequently, if you would like to drink old tea but have not personally stored it, you must pay the price. For example, no matter how much you spend, there is no way to produce Red Stamp Round Tea. Even by finding and pressing unprocessed tea of the same grade from the same mountain, the resulting tea will not be Red Stamp, because climate, soil, storage, and other conditions cannot be recreated. I once discussed tea with a gray-haired elder of the tea industry who said, “Everyone knows that money can’t buy time, but spending money to buy old tea satisfies our desire to purchase time.” Lovers of old Puerh are perfectly happy to spend a bit more money to buy this time, so old tea prices have naturally only risen and never fallen.

Fourth, old tea is a collectible item. Today we are able to taste aged tea from different periods thanks to the early efforts of Puerh tea lovers to store and protect Puerh tea. They collected this tea to satisfy their own desire for tea to drink and for investment purposes. Since the tea represents an investment, obviously sellers expect to make a profit, Old tea is different from other collectible items such as antiques and traditional paintings. The number of antiques and paintings in the world ordinarily does not decrease. Because they are so precious, these items are well cared for and protected. Furthermore, paintings in good condition by famous contemporary painters continue to increase in quantity. Old tea is different, however, with tea of a certain year only becoming more and more scarce. The tea industry describes tea as a “drink-able antique.” In fact, based on that fact that quantities only decrease, tea is even more precious than other types of antiques. The fact that it is expensive and does not generally follow greater economic trends is not surprising.

Fifth, old tea is a cultural product. The implicit portion of culture is its value system and significance. Its external form is primarily composed of its material substance and behavior system. When modern people refer to the culture of a certain object, they are referring to culture with a small ‘c’. Tea culture is a type of small-c culture, which is typically characterized by the following three traits: historical, group-based, and influential. Tea fully encompasses these three features; however, over the nearly 2000 year course of Chinese tea drinking history, the form and heritage of tea culture is primarily exhibited through “drinking tea.” Old tea, on the other hand, is based on the material substance of tea itself as the carrier of culture with a profound flavor of accumulated history affecting the daily lives of modern people. Marketers of various products today use every means available to refine product packaging to inject cultural elements into these products. For products that lack historical heritage or are not produced by long-standing brands, they attempt to inject a commercial spirit or corporate culture. In short, when a product encompasses “culture,” its added value increases and demand rises. Old Puerh tea does not require painstaking refinement or packaging. It is filled cultural significance.

It is not difficult to see that old teas from different periods are marked by time. For instance, although Haoji tea has undergone nearly 100 years of change, we can still see artistic value and commercial history through its tea pressing craft, packaging technique, and inner wrapper (nei fei) design. From Stamp tea and Qizi Bing tea, we can see the development process of block printing and paper making technologies and can also witness the societal background and political environment of the past. This historical flavor provides vast space for imagination to those able to taste this tea, which has been transformed by the endless passage of time into high quality old tea. It transports you back to a distant time and place and fills the heart and mind with a profound calm and reverie. This is precisely because old Puerh carries numerous cultural elements and fulfills the need of modern people to enrich their lives through cultural meaning. Thus high prices are unavoidable. The fact that old Puerh is often given as a refined and tasteful gift also serves to drive up its price.

Sixth, old tea serves as the material foundation in elevating tea drinking activities to the level of “tea ceremony.” Tea drinking is generally divided into four realms. The first level is “drinking tea,” that is drinking tea as a beverage out of large cups. The primary goal of drinking tea is to quench thirst, counter oily food, and cover up unpleasant flavors. Tea drinkers do not have high expectations regarding their tea. All that matters is that it is tea. The second level is “tea tasting.” Those drinking tea at this level begin to seek out the quality of tea and are able to differentiate between teas of different grades. They focus on the color, fragrance, and flavor of the tea and are particular about water quality and tea ware. When drinking the tea, they carefully experience its flavor, enjoying the sensory comfort that comes from good tea, good water, and good tea ware. The third level is “tea art.” It builds on the foundation of a focus on color, fragrance, and flavor but also stresses the spiritual significance of tea. Tea drinkers at this level seek a comfortable tea drinking environment and a relaxing and harmonious tea drinking atmosphere. They seek music that matches the mood, environment, and atmosphere. They seek the ideal water quality, temperature, brewing time, and quantity needed to brew the best possible cup of tea. The fourth level is the “tea ceremony.” Tea drinkers at this level seek out spiritual enjoyment and personal cleansing. Tea serves as a vehicle to build character, shape higher sentiments, savor life, and practice meditation and experience truth.

The process of moving from one stage of tea drinking to the next requires a foundation of fine tea. Old Puerh has excellent color, fragrance, and flavor. It is capable of bringing peace and calm to tea drinkers and is precisely the type of tea that can satisfy these sorts of demands of tea lovers. One tea drinker objects to the classification listed above; instead he believes that the highest realm of tea drinking is “nothingness,” He says you reach the highest realm of tea drinking only when you are able to walk through a crowded street drinking a cup of plain boiled water and still taste the best tea flavor while finding peace in your heart. I would suggest he has read one too many Chinese kung fu novels. In Chinese kung fu culture, those who fight with swords and other weapons have the weakest kung fu. They are always beaten by those who fight with hand-held fans or horsetail whisks, while those who fight with fans and whisks can never defeat the master who sits motionless with closed eyes. When it comes to tea, however, I don’t imagine anyone would be very interested in discussing the Tao of Tea if you took away the fine tea. Ten years ago I witnessed a Korean monk spend 120,000RMB (=$19,000) to buy a fifty-year-old Qianliang tea and knew that, when it comes to tea, “nothingness” is nothing but a fictitious state.

Finally, old Puerh is a luxury product. Given that it is a luxury product, it must have the following characteristics: scarcity, high quality, brand appeal, high prices, and, most importantly, the ability to satisfy the psychological requirements of consumers. Everyone has heard of classic luxury products like Rolex and Louis Vuitton. These items have high quality, brand appeal, and expensive prices and achieve the objective of creating scarcity through limited production. However, in terms of utility, there is no real difference between a $20 handbag from a road side shop and a several thousand dollar Louis Vuitton bag. However, after achieving a certain level of affluence, people tend to seek enjoyment in other ways and are often driven by psychological desire for approval, respect, and attention. Luxury items are able to satisfy these types of psychological needs. To put it nicely using luxury items can increase a person’s refinement and express his or her ability and status, or, not so nicely, luxury items can satisfy a person’s vanity and desire to obtain possessions. This is similar to the motivation that leads second generation wealthy men to enjoy pursuing relationships with female celebrities. Of course, first generation wealthy men enjoy the same thing. They know that their new love is likely someone else’s old love. Moreover, these female celebrities are not necessarily superior to non-celebrities in terms of individual character, level of education, physical attractiveness, and virtue or generosity. However, these celebrities have fame, attention of society, and are very few in number, which is more than enough to appeal to the vanity and desire of rich men.

Returning to the subject of old Puerh tea, there is no need to repeat the fact that old tea is rare, high quality, and expensive. I’m also fairly certain that no one would disagree that old Puerh possesses brand appeal. Nearly everyone who has some familiarity with Puerh tea knows about Red Stamp, Blue Stamp, and 88 Qing Bing teas. Tea drinkers fear that they will appear ignorant if they cannot name these teas. Once I was introduced to a fellow tea drinker who, upon our first meeting to drink tea, pulled a half-consumed Red Stamp cake out of his bag immediately after sitting down. I instantly felt as if I had met a tea master and was suddenly filled with respect. I nearly addressed him as “teacher.” Clearly the reputation of old Puerh is something that is deeply impressed in the minds of Puerh tea lovers.

In light of these similarities, does old Puerh satisfy the psychological demands of tea drinkers in the same way as other luxury products? I believe it absolutely does. Red Stamp is nearly ten times as expensive as 88 Qing Bing. There’s no doubt that Red Stand is superior to 88 Qing Bing in terms of kougan, flavor, and fragrance, but the difference in quality in not sufficient to account for such a large difference in price. Most of the price discrepancy is due to the fact that Red Stamp is even more expensive and more difficult to acquire than 88 Qing Bing. For a tea drinker, being able to taste and possess Red Stamp tea is worth feeling proud or honored. Once I joined several tea business colleagues in tasting a Longma Tongqing cake. It was extremely well aged with flawless quality, and the experience of tasting the tea was unforgettable. What I remember most clearly, however, were the words of Mr. Zhang, who said: “We’re destroying a national treasure!” As tea lovers, who wouldn’t want the chance to “destroy” this type of cultural treasure?

Old Puerh carries such a high barrier to entry that tea drinkers who do not possess old tea or new tea drinkers who have only experienced the taste of old Puerh for the first time may feel conflicted. They are both intrigued and puzzled. Likewise, tea drinkers who possess old Puerh tea are also conflicted. High prices tempt them to sell, but they are loath to part with their tea. Tea lovers and those of us in the Puerh tea business, however, see everyone having old Puerh tea to drink as the ultimate ideal.

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