The misconception of puer business

After almost two years , since Covid started , getting ready for another spring tea sourcing trip. This time heading to two locations , Jing Gu and then Menghai. Starting early morning from home ( Kunming ) and getting to Jinggu bus station around 5pm with dedication to finish all trip ( to the 1st final destination ) today so getting on bus to the Xiao Jing Gu ( means small Jinggu ) , a small town few hours by bus from the city.

Just a few kilometers before reaching the town , I suddenly can smell an intensive chemical-sweet aroma from the opened windows and within few seconds it has filled all bus. I recognize that smell , it is very similar what I know from Kunming when they spray tress to protect them from some bugs. Just less than minute after I could see the tea plantations along the road and thinking my self , what the heck I’m doing here. Haven’t seen the tea trees yet , but already can smell the chemicals 🙁

Tea plantation by the road

In the bus I’m already getting an attention from middle age lady sitting next to me , asking me if I’m here for tea. Yes , exactly the reaction as I was expecting , her family are farmers. Getting of the bus and following her right away to their shop , which I later find out , is not her family but she is just worker of small tea company there. The boss, local guy , recently upgraded his tea shop to the tourist level ( as I call those fancy wood , big table etc design shops ) , not wasting the time and testing me by serving some tai di cha calling it Gushu 😉 I’ve already learned some good manners in Chinese tea shops ( tea market training ) so after 2nd cup politely asking if there is any other , more Gushu , he can offer 😉

For that one, I’m getting thumbs up with reaction ” ta dong cha ” ( means He understands the tea ). As it’s common in China , especially if you are foreigner who wants to buy some stuff , the vendor will try to convince you about the quality of his product by telling you that other foreigners also buy his things. So the boss throwing all names of foreigners who buy his tea, some of them I know even personally 😉

The second stage of getting the client, comes with dinner which I’m invited to. I do not refuse because I’m really hungry and on the way from the bus stop I haven’t spot any restaurant , only some small shops or tea shops. Typical way in China how to get to know you , is get you drunk. The truth is at the bottom of the glass. So during the dinner with the boss and all his friends , I accept two small glasses of local bai jiu , which unfortunately for them , do not provide any info from / about me, they were looking for ( as they are full of questions about what we do, how we do….etc. ) Again , training from our local tea market.

The third stage how to bind the client , is an invitation to his ( tea boss ) house after dinner where I can stay for free. I’m refusing that one as I do not see any potential doing any business with his company. They offering even pay for the hotel , which I also do not agree with ,in order to not feel obliged. At the dinner the boss was telling me ” if you walk on the street, be careful , some people will catch you and drag you to their shop or tea farm trying to sell you their tea”. ” They will hold you and not let go until you buy something” . The funny thing is , he was doing exactly that , just not aggressive way ( as he was exaggerating anyway ). But was very eager , keep messaging me and calling first 3 days , then gave up. The reason why I decided to not cooperate with this guy is my personal intuition and experience with such a people.

Next morning , getting up early and having some local noodles in the street shop , suddenly noticing bit quite lot of people running around here. It is the time when farmers coming down from the mountains and bring down their first harvest to the town. It is like open market , but without any stalls. They are selling it right from the car or motorbike. I’m standing in the corner of that sort of square where all that is happening and observing , taking pictures and videos. Funny situations happening, like farmer on motorbike just approaching and vendors are chasing him already from the bridge when coming down to the square. Before he even managed to fully stop his bike, they already opening the bags and looking inside . Asking the price and then going away.

I’m feeling bit puzzled ,but later finding out that this is the part of their buying strategy. They let the farmer ” cool down” and later somebody approaches to him with cheaper offer. I can not say in how many cases this works, but seems like it does, because same situation is happening over and over. The fact , that tea is sold and bought like a regular vegetables , without any trying it , means this is the real farmers tea market. Vendors just look at the tea leaves, smell it and they know. With some reason, nobody is interested with farmers who brought down puer tea , but only white tea is IN. Later I find out why.

All that market hustle is happening only few hours and then it’s gone. Me too. Walking in the streets of the town and observing all those wholesale shops doing their thing.

Each time farmers comedown from the mountain, they can bring only few kilos of tea. These various batches from various tea farmers are later mixed and packed in wholesale bags , later shipped to other tea markets like Kunming , Guangzhou ..etc.

Some tea shops also have an interesting concept , but in this case rather practical than tourist aim ,as it might seems. It was hard to take all perspective in image , so I took short video and shared on our Instagram.

Wholesale tea shop with puer tea processing area

Meeting one young guy who is finally not claiming to have some tea farm , neither his family ( because in this town even noodles boss will tell you his brother has a tea garden 😉 . He has some friends from his hometown ( he is not local ) who are interested to buy some tea , but he has no clue about it , so offering me go on motorbike with him and explore villages around together. He is sharing some tips and later we also go by my choice.

Exploring tea mountains on motorbike

First place we visit is a village called Bai Mu Qing. Meeting some local farmers , looking at their very traditional way of puer tea processing. I do admire those farmers who can do the kill green with bare hands. I tried once and no more again 😉 Yes, it does hurt !

We trying some recently made mao cha and I don’t feel much excited about what I’m drinking. In certain moments I feel / taste some flower notes, the strange sort of jasmine aroma appears in back of the nose during exhaling. Later I find out the origin of that note. It is a tree which has flowers quite like a jasmine , but tree is much bigger , grows in the forest and holds some quite strong aroma around. I was passing by such a tree and perfume like aroma was covering around 10m radius around ( no wind ).

Mysterious tree

Locals don’t know the name, but should they find out one day , that this is the “feature” what makes their tea special, I can imagine it will get involved into the processing / post-processing in order to increase the sales. Anyway, I’m going trough few different shengs offered for different prices , but I’m failing to taste / feel the differences at all. Taste quite dull , no power, no richness , no thickness , almost like some strange green tea. Later when bring home samples and drink on our water and with less stressed environment , also taste smokiness ( which hadn’t appeared back then ) .

After couple of hours of tasting , I’m not convinced that this is the tea we are looking for neither can offer to our clients ( not at least for the price is offered ) . Farmer’s wife preparing lunch and I feel like to have walk around. Finding another farmer and checking up situation there. Whole family gathers up and trying to convince me to buy their tea , seeing the same mao cha I’m not really interested but the white tea they have is interesting. Although the price they asking is the same I can get from wholesale supplier in town , I’m not negotiating ( I hardly ever do it anyway . If price is not about right, I just leave ) , as they have only few kilos and I’m happy to give them extra when I see the conditions they live in. I would love to buy more, but problem is that they make it by small batches which bring down to the town each time they make it.

Having a lunch with farmers and right after jumping on bikes heading to the forest to see some tea trees they were talking about each infusion I made of their mao cha. Around 40 minutes on rough road which can’t access even with good jeep and another 20min walk trough the forest on small path, we finally arriving to their organic tea garden. Although trees are growing fairly randomly , yet those are not wild . They were planted few years ago specially for the puerh tea business. I’m not qualified for judging the trees age , but I do estimate 5 – 10 years. In general tea business ( in this sort of level ) , the age of tea trees is not as important as the price and quality ( harvest , plucking, processing ). When walking trough the garden , I’m starting to realize where the issue is.

The efficiency. There is nothing unusual with fact that tea trees are far away from the processing area, but not for the level of tea they do. Despite of the beautiful and organic environment, those are still young arbors , yet not from some hyped area like Bingdao , so can not command high price. The production volume is also not big , so even there they can’t get any extra benefits. The farmer’s good friend dreaming and talking about starting processing tea cooperative. Although it’s not ultra expencive to built some simple building with few woks , maybe el.drum and drying area , yet ( at least in my opinion ) the numbers for this concept are not adding up. They are very nice people and I would love to help them , but this whole project requires more than make a wider way from trees to the wok. In such a concept , probably some investor has to step in , which might happen eventually.

Next day taking a trip to the different village with young farmer who started his business just less than 10 years ago ( his father actually started ) . They bought tea seeding from Mengku and planted in remote slope in forest. We driving his car around 40 min from his village trough the very narrow forest path , suddenly some guy jumps out from the woods in to the road to get on his motorbike parked there. The farmer stopped car to have a short chat and I’m curious what is in his bag.

Fresh leaves from wild tea tree

Around half kilo of fresh plucked tea leaves from wild growing tea tree somewhere deep in forest. He is getting my attention immediately , but I’m learning that this is all he could get today and bringing it home for cooking some local dish.

Arriving to the end of the mud road and then walk another 10min to the final destination. The tea garden at the edge of woods but surrounded with forest , nothing else. And again , same issue. The fairly young age of tea trees and not hyped ( not famous ) location , puts the mao cha produced from there into the lower price category on general tea market. Although has an advantage of being organic , yet the taste is not as good as from it’s origin ( Mengku ) where it’s sold for less than half price. This family has already managed to build up some processing building behind their house in the village, yet the efficiency still quite low. Their garden can produce only around 800kg of tea which is plucked and processed by the family members ( 4 people ) .

As they do not cut the trees and let them grow ,it is hard or impossible to pick the leaves from full tree. Short Yunnan people hardly can reach the top part of the trees. Limited work force , as hiring people would add more costs, makes their business much harder. From selling ( if they manage ) all that mentioned batch ,they trying to make living all year without any other work. Their life costs / expectations are not high, yet fixing the house , buying new car , new equipment for expanding business will require some extra spending. So the result is that those annual expenses are divided by 800 and you getting the price per kilo which is hardly competitive on general tea market. Same as you would grow your potatoes and by producing only few kg you would try to live ( all family + some additional spending for investment to the business ) without other work all year around . So you end up sitting on vegetable market with triple price tag of your potatoes than farmer next to you , with organic story which unfortunately doesn’t justify the massive price difference ( at least not on wholesale market ). That is the basic puer business misconception starting already from the tea farmers.

If you are a tea farmer and decide to do this kind of concept with such a small annual output , you have a few options.

  • Raising the price per kilo , which only promoted / tea touristic known areas can do ( like Bingdao, LBZ, Jingmai , Yiwu..etc. )
  • Finding an investor can help to hype up the price as he / she will look after the marketing / promoting part, yet it is questionable how profitable that would be for you as the farmer. More about in article Puerh Tea Business.
  • Increasing the volume , if you believe you can sell more. Your garden can’t expand over night ,so you buy mao cha from other villagers ( even in different area ) , blend it with yours and selling it under your name / location.
  • Opening a retail shop in some city like Kunming, Menghai , Puer , Xishuangbanna..etc. That has many other issues and complexity. Additional costs which have to dissolve into the final price of your products. Renting a shop in downtown is usually not cheap , your family member or close friend working in that shop , also has to pay rent for living there or you pay some employee ( which might end up same number in costs ). If tea shop and apartment same building, that might be even more expensive. You also finding out that selling only one type of tea from one specific place has a limited audience which might not cover expenses or not helping to expand. So you ending up to buy mao cha from other farmers / areas around , press it under your brand using marketing strategy ” we are tea farmers so you are buying directly from the source ” to generate sales. Despite of being at this stage just another general tea vendor / re-seller , this concept is much more successful because regular tea drinker / tea buyer doesn’t realize that fact. Buying from tea farmer gives the feeling of getting the best offer for anything what is sold in their shop.

With opening the tea shop you are facing another bunch of problems which I try annually reflect in our Tea Market News were another Puer Business Misconception taking the place.

Next stop is bigger remote village with some semi large tea factory which uses tai di cha from surrounding plantations , where the production efficiency makes sense and I expect the price to be right. Owner is loading the gaiwan over the rim and despite of X grams of the tea , I’m not getting any impression of rich spring harvest, but rather dull sweet water. We are testing their Bai Mu Dan which apparently was made for some US client. Yes, again typical concept how to convince another foreigner to buy their tea 😉 The price and what I have in the cup , is not equivalent ( in my opinion ) , so I’m not interested. Talking about another teas like shai hong or puerh. The prices I’m offered don’t sound right and at the end I’m learning why ( well , I’m assuming ). They have a shop in Kunming tea market , so since we are based in Kunming , the owner is not willing to give me the lower price than they offer on the market , as they need to protect the interests there. Well for this price I wouldn’t be even willing to buy on tea market , because much cheaper offers are there. I don’t know if the owner just misjudge my experience or have this type of deal for everybody , but in my opinion that doesn’t have much future…especially in these days.

Continuing random journey trough the mountains and stopping by some villages on the way. Trying their puer and it’s quite similar to what I had before. Usually quite smokey and dull in taste , lacking richness. Prices are more reasonable from the previous offers, yet I do not see any potential to make a business with such a mao cha. Reaching up to the highest point in that area – Kuzhu Shan , located around 2200m alt. This village is fairly tea production developed , few small or semi big tea producers are around. Some of them have even big trees in the back garden. I’m getting curious about those , although later finding out the size doesn’t matter here , as other farmer later showed me two different tea trees which he planted same time , one is 2m tall with 20cm diameter trunk and other has just few thin ( 5cm ) branches coming out from the ground up to 1m height 😉

I’m tasting the the tea from supposedly an old tree and now getting really confused! Absolutely no pleasure , heavy smoke , sour-ish taste ( not the pleasant one you get from ye shengs ) with no any other “out put” ilike hui gan or sheng jin. The price is equivalent to the old tea trees in Menghai area but not the taste / quality.

The two new SUV parked by the factory make me wonder how they managed to get into this level? They offer me another tea ,which is made in drum not wok, with comment ” this one is better , some customers say” . It was better and cheaper, yet the price was still very high and I’m kinda suspecting that the luxury car park with big house and tea factory is behind all that. Yet, I’m puzzled ,who would buy this tea for such a price on tea market ( let alone if middle man like me have to add his margin ) ? Later on , I’m finding out that lot’s of tea goes directly to Menghai for mixing or shu process , that definitely goes there for very very different price. So yes, you guessed right , some producers still hoping to get something out of the tea tourists ( tea tourism hype ) and unfortunately I was counted like tourist. I don not have another explanation for that.

Later finding another producer who tends to see things more pragmatically and we are having a chat about all that puer hype. He is laughing to my assessments of what I’ve seen here so far and telling to his wife : ” look , even foreigners can see this ” 😉 He is the guy who showed me those two different tea trees of same age , yet looking like couple of ten years difference. Visiting his tea plantation and getting familiar with Yellow leaf varietal he purchased from Yangta and planted here. I can not say exact difference between regular and yellow leaf in taste ( White tea ) as there is not enough of this tea to make it as separate batch so it’s mixed altogether. But I’m happy with taste and price , so taking some right-away for our pressing.

Last day I’m taking a walk from the down to the near mountain where I find more of those hidden tea gardens which are generally harvested ( and I believe also secured ) by the first boss I met on my arrival. They have processing factory just at the foot of the mountain so efficiency is there , yet the price is not ;-( And I suspect it is the new ideas for growing up their business , higher expectations which come with bigger dream. I wish them good luck and leaving the place after lunch.

Heading to south, destination Menghai. From Jinggu city getting at the bus going to Kunming but getting of at Ning Er junction. Thanks to the bus driver another connection to Puer is waiting for me there. Arriving late night to Simao and getting into the first hotel. Room for 10$ and with all perks like private bathroom , top end TV , luxury double bed and late night guest in size box of matches 😉

I’m generally not picky about the accommodation , so not complaining , just giving an example how tea sourcing journey might look like.

First think in the morning I’m heading to Jing Hong where meeting with Siran and we continue the journey to Menghai together.

We are visiting our Zi Juan tea farmer. Although his plantations are not in some high altitude but also surrounded by forest and his house is just less than one kilometer far. The fairly steep slope , on which tea bushes grow , is quite hard to walk on. Small narrow paths which after rain have to be pretty slippery. His small processing building is very basic and geared up with not second hand but I’d say fifth hand equipment. Mostly he makes black with white tea and some sheng puer tea. This year he got something purple from the forest , but found only couple of trees which provided just few kilos. Those we all took for our cake.

He also opened small shop at his factory which is along the small road, but not many tourist passing by this remote area. His daughter trying to do some sales on internet or on Ticktock. Those are probably the least expensive way s how to target / find some customers. Their spring ( around 2t ) production is enough to keep the family and business run if they manage to sell it , but that’s the problem in recent years. Because it’s ” just ” tai di cha , so the value on market is pretty low compare to other shengs made from small arbors , black or white tea are made in massive production in other regions ( Feng Qing ,Puer, Jing Gu ) , so hard to compete with those as well . Specific taste of purple varietal is also not appreciated with big audience , that makes their tea business even more difficult.

From there we are heading to the Pasha mountain to meet another farmer with whom we also cooperate few years. This guy is less ambitious ( probably also lazy ) , so he sticks to the regular concept , which is selling fresh leaves which he picks with his family in their tea garden. As he is not eager , or not experienced with large scale processing , he is renting the other part of his tea garden to cousin. That way he makes money for living and not working too hard .

Unfortunately we are quite late this year so buying last few kilos of maocha. Pasha , as many villages around , is going trough some reconstruction and development. Not only the access road but also buildings as farmers are upgrading their houses. Cleaner processing area with efficient cooling system for leaves before kill green and fancy tea shops with large tables , big wide window with view over the village. I haven’t taken picture of those as this is quite boring for me, but writing about that, makes me think , I should do next time.

The fact that some Laobanzhang tea farmers buying tea from this village ( mostly old tea trees ) shifting this place to the next price level. We are happy for them , yet not sure if this is any good for long term cooperation with any wholesale buyers. We do not buy tons, so for us is easy to just find other village , but for bigger tea business the stability in price is more important. Especially if they open the shop based on the name of the mountain / village. Like in tea market I can see as some Bingdao tea shops changing name to Lincang or Mengku , as they are not able to bare the costs of such an overpriced tea anymore. And those are the honest ones. The others keep the name but selling some mixtures with Nan Po or other villages which taking the fame of Bingdao and being “officially” called as Bingdao.

As we are in Menghai already, checking up some shu puerh tea. Meeting a shu puer master ( if that’s the way to call the producer ) , who is renting a small premises few km from Menghai for his fermentation. He is using only spring material for his batches , which are generally around 2t . His rule of the thumb is also do not ferment mao cha below certain price tag (CNY/kg ) . As we are tasting some previous batches in his small ,but nice designed tea shop , his wife telling us stories how he messed up many batches before starting to get some decent results.

He is paying attention to many details , starting from the water of course, trough the humidity and temperature inside of the pile , timing for turn overs till the end processing like shredding to make lao cha tou from naturally sicked big crusts. Where apparently , the classical drum shredder makes more mess than lao cha tou , so he uses the propeller one. He never presses his tea , unless special request from client , as he says : ” the high quality shu should be sold in loose “.

As an enthusiastic shu puer lovers , we do resonate with his mindset , yet on other hand I’m asking my self a question about the business efficiency. Although his shop is tiny and not in hot spot area , processing area is some cheap storage out of the town and from what we see and hear , they ( all his family ) are not eager to make big money , but just live peaceful and financially secure life.

I do admit , I’m looking at that from foreign market perspective , where mostly foreigners willing to spend max. around 20$ / 357g cake ( unless some serious collectors buying overpriced tea factory labels , or some hyped aged shu ) . The other factor is that foreigners who drink shu puerh , prefer mostly pressed stuff , despite loose leaf is the best ratio price : quality without wrapped marketing ( more about in article Shu Puer Master Class ). Well ,his clientele are only Chinese. I might be first foreigner , waiting to taste this year made batch which we had chance to try in the middle of processing for educational purposes.

So that’s pretty much it for 2021 spring tea sourcing trip. The article is quite educational and full of thoughts , rather than romantic story about old grannies picking up tea leaves from thousand years old Gushu 😉 Well, that’s my style though. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate and ask below in comments.

Have something to say?