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The Cart before the Horse
Consequences in the Online Market
By Jason Fasi

In my time surfing English-language online I forums for tea drinkers, I came across some I interesting reactions from tea drinkers in Asia who had browsed the site. I started and moderate a community blog for Puerh fans, and on this blog a handful of tea drinkers literate in English from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China expressed surprise when reading posts written by Puerh fans in the United States who bought tea without trying it first, who considered certain young sheng Puerh to be "drinkable now" rather than for storage, and who consider mid-1990's tea "aged" and 1970's tea "very aged." Traveling through Asia myself and seeing the enormous Puerh market here, I understand the shock a resident of Malaysia, Taiwan, or Hong Kong might feel when reading the opinions and reviews of Puerh drinkers in the United States. I believe that this surprise will turn to understanding through a brief look at the online marketplace: for better or worse, the online market often determines what Puerh drinkers in the English-speaking world can enjoy.

The limits of sampling and consumer response

It is safe to say that in Asia it is considered foolish to purchase tea without tasting it first. After all, how do we know how much we are willing to pay for a tea or how much we want if we do not first judge its quality? As a consumer, I agree with this sentiment, but my beliefs cannot always guide my purchases because of the limitations of buying teas online. A few online vendors - thankfully! - offer small samples of their products for a small fee, and this helps inform my purchases as well as refine my palate. I appreciate this and often recommend these vendors to friends looking for suggestions about where to buy tea. But some online vendors are located abroad, and the delay between ordering their samples and receiving them can be three weeks or more. Then, if the tea merited purchase, another three weeks pass before the sampled tea arrives. Buying tea online according to the try-before-you-buy method, therefore, often means waiting a month or more to have the tea in hand. But I'm thirsty now!

Lamentably, not all vendors offer samples. Stores that are on auction sites such as eBay rarely offer the consumer the option to sample. Considering that these stores sell perhaps two-thirds of Puerh available to the online consumer, a significant amount of tea cannot be tried in advance. Most eBay Puerh stores sell direct from China, which further complicates any purchase with the high cost of international shipping. Consumers respond to this higher shipping cost by purchasing larger quantities to lower the per-gram shipping cost. Regrettably, clients of these online stores may buy a gross of tea they never tasted. Even more remarkable, the cost sometimes totals as much or more than an aged tea cake!

Consumers, however, do want to be informed about the tea they purchase, and react to this market condition online via reviews in blogs and forums, sometimes even sharing tea samples through the online networks they create. It works thusly: often, we consumers resort to purchasing one "sample" cake to gauge our interest in purchasing more. We taste the tea, take photographs and post our description, opinion and photos of it to online communities. Other consumers read reviews of teas by people they trust, which help inform them about what to buy or avoid. While some vendors include customer review areas on their websites, the reviews remain mostly on nonvendor websites, which consumers consider more honest because they are unassociated with any store. Occasionally, people on the forums arrange to swap tea samples or offer samples of their tea for free. There is no better way to gauge a tea than drinking it; but if drinking the tea is not an option, trusting the opinion of a friend is better than nothing at all.

Aged tea and "aged" tea

The aged tea market online determines its consumption. Despite demand for high quality aged Puerh, few online vendors sell it, and close to none sell it in brick-and-mortar shops in the United States. In turn, this limits the exposure of Westerners to aged tea. Online stores that do sell aged Puerh offer small selections, perhaps one or two teas from each decade with the exception of the 1990's, of which there are more. Furthermore, vendors often mark up what little aged Puerh they sell beyond what most people can afford; it has traveled through too many middlemen on its journey to the Western consumer, each intermediary sale resulting in a higher final price. In my opinion, no online vendor offers an affordable Puerh for "everyday" drinking from the 1980's or before. Hardly any sell aged loose-leaf Puerh or aged tuo cha - usually the aged Puerh cheap enough to buy in quantity. Lack of available product and high prices limit the purchase of aged tea online by Westerners.

Conversely, consumers purchase what vendors make available and market to them. When an online vendor offers an affordable mid-1990's tea and markets it as "aged," consumers react by purchasing and believing. As mentioned, tea purchases often create reviews in communities, which often reify the idea that 1990's teas are indeed "aged"; ironically, the consumer response developed to help inform and empower the consumer can only respond to what is offered and has not changed the nature of what is not offered. When we eat what we are fed, then compliment the meal, the chef won't change the menu.

A skeptical bunch

Until now, the Puerh market online remains a curious amalgamation of the experienced and the novice. On the same website one can find posts asking the difference between sheng and shou alongside posts delineating the differences in flavor and leaf appearance in tea from different regions of Yiwu. Some have tasted tea as old as fifty years, yet others have never tasted tea older than two. Skepticism forms the common denominator amongst consumers online, and this makes sense in light of the limited market, limited information, and the fakes and lies that abound in the aged tea market, no matter where it is sold.

Imagine you are a consumer with only $150 to spend on tea. You realize that some of the information online is incorrect or contradictory. You have little access to aged tea, and what aged tea is available you cannot afford; even a sample costs one-fifth of your budget. You cannot taste the teas before buying, so you cannot be sure you will enjoy them. Add fear of fakes and untruths, and you have an equation for a skeptical consumer. Multiply this by a few hundred people, you have the online consumer community.

So what do we skeptics buy? We can only buy tea we have access to, and we feel comfortable buying Puerhs whose information we can ascertain: teas whose year, manufacturer and leaf are clearly labeled. High-priced aged teas without sampling opportunity are usually too risky. Almost always this means we purchase young Puerhs, as they are the most transparent, widely available and affordable. We feel more comfortable buying a tea that someone we trust has reviewed and rated positively. As a result, we own young Puerh whose origin and year we concretely know, teas that will hopefully age nicely in 30-50 years. Perhaps we splurge occasionally on aged tea to hold us over for those three decades. Myself, I decided to travel Asia to experience, purchase and learn about tea firsthand.

Thirsty for tea, hungry for information

Information and knowledge empower the consumer to make purchasing decisions. Information and knowledge about aged Puerh - Puerh in general, really - is almost nonexistent in English. A few helpful cross-linguistic tea drinkers have helped make information once only in Chinese available to the English-speaking world, but otherwise access to texts and tea teachers remains limited to drinkers fluent and literate in Chinese. Furthermore, what information does exist online in English often includes contradictory or incorrect information, mistranslation, misquotation or selective quotation. Also, when the sources of information are tea vendors, It is necessary to think critically when reading what they say.

As a Westerner who loves tea, I believe the most important role that this English-language magazine can play is that of information resource to a market of consumers hungry for accurate information from trustworthy sources. Also, I hope that information and reviews about high quality aged tea in this magazine will create demand for older teas in the Western market. This magazine and future English-language publications on tea can return the horse to the front of the cart by creating knowledgeable consumers who increase demand for high quality teas at affordable prices, who can determine quality themselves rather than simply trusting the flowery language and claims of vendors. Only when consumers have access to accurate information and a wider variety of teas will the situation improve.

Real Improvement

The online tea market, bleak though it may sound, has improved greatly and continues to improve. New vendors have started businesses offering new selections, and more vendors offer more varieties of Puerh - Including aged Puerh - than ever before. More websites house gigabytes of information, textual and photographic. If nothing else, consumers have been drinking Puerh and gaining experience for that much longer, and English-language websites have attracted more knowledgeable Asian locals; when new Puerh drinkers go online today, they find more selection, information, and global tea compatriots than years past. A great improvement from when I began drinking Puerh three years ago!

Still, work remains to make the online world a "buyer's market". Vendors must offer more variety of affordable aged teas with the opportunity to sample them, consumers must do their part by taking more risks in tasting older teas already available, and bilingual drinkers will hopefully work to share more information usually only available in Chinese. There is a kind of "catch-22" in the aged Puerh market, in which the aforementioned skepticism of consumers often makes vendors feel that selling vintage tea and vintage tea set is too much of a hassle, especially in light of the financial disputes that may arise. This problem can only be solved if vendors and consumers both become willing to try more varieties and accept, at least to a reasonable extent, to resolve any differences of opinion with as little annoyance as possible. This magazine can help along all of the above by exposing consumers to a wider variety of teas, information, and informed opinions. Tea in the West will continue to develop and improve, and I look forward to watching the developments with one hand on my keyboard and the other on my cup!