to know the origins of your tea you should make it yourself (credit Tea Mania blog)
This is kind of an odd subject, transparency related to online tea sources. I left that word out of the title (transparency) since it's not the most typical use of it. Usually when transparency comes up it relates to something else, to tea vendors being completely clear about what products they are selling, and where those are coming from, which producers, if pesticides are used, and so on. The idea is that falsified product information could be limited through conveying more information, or use of chemicals in production, and that would support fair-trade issues, getting the farmers better compensation. I'm not sure how much difference any of that ever makes in practice; it probably varies case by case, and is often just marketing spin.
This is something else. Transparency in online discussion of sourcing options has been discussed lately, specifically by tea bloggers about themselves and other bloggers telling others where they are getting teas. Not vendor provided teas for review, instead about secret sources and such.
The latest post in an ongoing discussion works as an intro, but it's not quite as clear as it first seems:
Matcha's Blog: Elitism, Illuminati, and the Secret Inner Circle of Puerh
It's a little more dramatic than things actually seem, and less revealing, but the main theme seems to be that in the past people openly discussed source options for pu'er (or other teas), and now there are newer foreign based channels that have developed that don't get mentioned, which represents a change in online tea culture. These are sources like Taobao outlets (like a Chinese version of Ebay), foreign vendor site stores, or auction groups, with some of those on Facebook. All fair enough.
There's a bit of an internal contradiction in that post content because it essentially said that there had been only a half dozen main sources in the past, so that earlier openness wouldn't have been remotely comparable to people using modern forms of overseas sources that are hard to even find out about. Mentioning a favorite tea on an already known source--the earlier form of transparency, when there were less options--would have been a different thing.
All this really makes more sense in the context of a few other posts, along with comments, since it seems to have come up in discussion through Tea DB blog posts instead. This latest one mentioning this issue works as a summary, with no one version really filling out the issue:
Tea DB blog: What I’ve Been Buying Recently (The Past Couple Years)
James (Schergen) does mention one online foreign site source there, a rare case of this discussion becoming more tangible (or transparent, if you want to look at it that way, which really does apply). As the title promises he mentions where he's been buying tea, just leaving out foreign travel purchasing, which wouldn't apply to people who didn't go to the same places anyway.
Why do I mention all this? Mostly because it's interesting, and I rarely get around to mentioning interesting online discussion here, unless something really stands out, and usually not even then.
It would be nice if I could say I'm much more "transparent," that I spell out everything I know here, but really I'm not in those sorts of inner circles, and don't buy teas through Taobao, foreign websites, or auctions, or whatever else might not be known about. Those two bloggers are both more exposed to a lot of range in the world of tea than I am, but then everyone only gets to what they get to, regardless of which scope gets more focus.
I have mentioned lots of sources that wouldn't make it onto most people's radar in posts, some great options, but for the most part I'm either talking about the main half dozen or so set of Western vendors (maybe now slightly expanded, with Yunnan Sourcing, White2Tea, Chawang Shop, and others on that list for awhile). Or physical shops it would be hard to get to, like favorites here in Bangkok, or wherever I travel, or online exceptions lots of people already know about (Liquid Proust, King Tea Mall, Farmerleaf, Hatvala, Wuyi Origin, etc.).
Moychay doesn't fit in those categories, but as a Russian version of varied form perhaps loosely equivalent to Yunnan Sourcing--except they sell only their own brands or sourced versions, not factory teas--their name is getting out there. Sometimes I make connections with smaller vendors and review their teas too; Tea Mania is a good example of that, a vendor based out of Switzerland. Peter Pocajt, that owner, travels to Asia and buys tea relatively directly--in at least some cases--and can offer interesting products at great value related to that.
That background seems clear enough but I'll spell it out; if a vendor really does buy teas from a producer then there could potentially be more leeway for selling at lower costs, since the cost of tea being bought and re-sold a couple of times wouldn't have occurred within that particular supply chain. That doesn't mean the tea would have to be good quality, or a good value, but it could add some potential.
I really shouldn't mention much for personal opinion on this original issue, the "transparency" theme, since I'm too far outside it to have an informed take, although of course I will anyway. It seems worth pointing out that if someone went through a couple of years of sorting out potentially unreliable sources, buying plenty of teas that didn't work out along the way, and making foreign contacts, you wouldn't expect them to mention it all online.
Calling out someone like James of TeaDB (how this seems to have started, in post comments on a related theme long ago) makes for a special case, because he is talking about teas and sourcing on a weekly basis, and to some extent those contacts would be more freely available to him through having more connections. That doesn't necessarily make sense to me either though; whatever James wants to communicate is exactly the right amount and type of information to pass on. If he had "secret sources" and didn't want to share them that would be up to him.
This connects more with main-vendor stances on pricing and value than it might seem at first. I've already mentioned a Tea DB post awhile back citing Yunnan Sourcing mark-up over the last 8 years, and for some types of teas prices are doubling every 5 years or so, based on 15-20 % annual increases. That's on releases of similar in-house produced versions, but mark-up of semi-aged teas is also significant in many cases.
This discussion isn't so much a critique of vendors for charging too much for new productions, or a problem with related trends, tied to pricing for any range not being fair. Again the main idea seems to be that semi-aged versions of factory teas (Dayi, etc.) are available through different sources overseas, and online discussion of options falls short of discussing those.
In doing a round of tea purchases this year I've ran into my own concerns about how a lot of new teas that are only slightly better than what seemed standard not so long ago (4-5 years back) are now selling for $70-90 per standard sized cake, instead of half that much back then. It's normal for supply and demand to shift, and that seemed to happen. Vendors costs must have increased too, but of course one wonders if those main vendors aren't earning a lot more profit than they were 5 years ago, based on volumes going up and profit per unit also increasing. I really don't know how all that factors in together, and that's certainly not intended as an accusation.
It comes up in these discussions that it's the "hot" or most in-demand versions this relates to most, versus more standard offerings (or probably both, with that an interesting special case). If someone is interested in digging as deep as possible reading all the comments in those posts I cited adds more of others' opinions on the related issues. I just read an interesting account explaining a little of how all that works (in one case of an "in demand" tea), which overlaps with a group-buy theme that I won't spend time on, here: Dead Leaves Club; A Brown Mystery: Stamps and Skidmarks.
An interesting sub-theme in that particular story is that storage factors in a lot. That's a given, but the form is informative and interesting in that account. The same exact original cake can be stored differently and can vary a lot in present-day value.
Other solutions to a similar problem
Instead of speculating any more about foreign sources or spikes in demand for certain ranges of tea or versions I'll switch back to talking about a much more mundane, less sophisticated topic, about options for buying normal-range teas (sheng) that aren't expensive. Someone just mentioned that King Tea Mall seemed to represent a good option for this for semi-aged Dayi and other factory teas, to them, but I won't get far with that idea. I've been reviewing some teas John--that owner--has passed on recently, but nothing along that line though; not semi-aged commercial / factory teas. The teas I have reviewed were interesting and pleasant and seemed to represent a good value, to me.
We're back to a familiar starting point I've been saying a lot about, since the example of the Chawang Shop 2012 produced tea I just reviewed (a Da Xue Shan version) will do to review this issue.
in the middle of that list
It's not a "factory tea," not from one of the limited set of main producers, more in the range of commissioned versions instead. Various more-directly sourced teas span a range of paradigms along that same line, with typical stories told and claims ending up settling on common themes. Again storage issues probably factor in a lot with those teas; the environment they were stored in within the Kunming area was probably a bit cool and dry, which is the subject of a lot of speculation about causing specific aspect features in the versions I reviewed from that order list (almost all of them; the teas were interesting and generally quite pleasant).
That last order price for that tea seems too low. I tried to look up the price in earlier years but that takes a lot of paging around, and with the current pricing version that low there could hardly be much mark-up. I didn't find an old listing for it, looking up archived copies of their website.
This 2012 Internet Archive site listing came up related to another tea on that order list, one I liked, which will cover how to approach that type of review:
That went from $7.80 to $10.50 in 7 years. I'll not mention this post to Honza, the shop owner, just in case it might work as a reminder for him to adjust that sort of thing further.
To some extent the filtering of what's still around could make this approach less promising, checking out what a smaller scale vendor tends to still have, because favorites may well have been sold out, and teas people reported on not liking could be available longer. Sticking with this example, I liked that 2011 Xiaguan FT cake a good bit more than the 2010 Xiaguan tuocha version also listed, and it seems possible that even more promising versions of similar age sold out of stock earlier.
This would affect those so-called secret sources too, one would expect. Better versions would also be more highly regarded, would cost more, and would be more difficult to find.
All this doesn't necessarily reduce to a summary claim that main vendor pricing isn't competitive with in-China sourcing, even though at a glance that is what is seeming to be discussed. There are also other layers of complications involved with those types of broad-stoke comparisons (eg. all the fake tea and bad sources to sort through; it doesn't make sense to compare only best-results cases when that wouldn't be typical of people's initial experience). If an atypical level of awareness of options could suddenly become broadly known--kind of the objective, looking at the discussion from one perspective--then that would seemingly also extend to exceptional tea version cases (related to both character and value), not just vendor options, and those would vanish faster.
These concerns about other options, in a different form, reminded me of re-trying a Moychay tea that seemed an incredible value. That was after seeing a post about that tea online, and seeing the cake moving around versions looking for something. No mini-review here, but I really liked that tea for having interesting, positive character (probably just quite different from the other I've just reviewed), even though it was younger than I'd prefer drinking it most. It was this:
2016 (pressed in 2017) Moychay Meng Wan Shan sheng
I couldn't find my own review of it, although I must have written one, maybe for an article within the Moychay site since I wrote some there. I did turn up this aptly named Puerh Blog review looking for that, also mentioned on Steepster:
Heavy-spicy, bitter-fruity, discreetly kräutrig [?] and slightly astringent with very beautiful, intense citrus notes and a long-lasting sweetness. As the 2017 Bangdong rather coarse in processing but delicious and diverse. The citrus notes are reminiscent of Bada or a mild Lao Man E version, very good! A perfect daily drinker for a more than fair price.
That leads me to consider if citrus might have transitioned in the two years since that was written, and onto a tangent about refined / higher quality teas versus daily drinkers, but this is too long already. I really like that tea, and I suppose that description matches my impression well enough, whether it's aspect-for-aspect or not.
These two example versions together (the Chawang Shop and Moychay unusually low priced options) highlight that you don't necessarily need local sources based out of China and Taiwan to drink interesting versions sold at unusual values. Maybe to find the lowest market priced semi-aged Dayi you do need to take those extra steps, but then to some extent that discussion is still playing out, and I've only mentioned what may be some opening rounds in bringing up related issues.