Sunday, September 17, 2023

How fasting affects food cravings


A Reddit discussion theme brought this up, related to me practicing and following discussion about fasting.  I've experienced limited changes in food preferences that seem to relate to fasting, but then I've only ever fasted three times for 5 full days, and two other times when I stopped earlier, after 2 or 3 days, mostly related to getting electrolyte input wrong, I think.  I've wrote about that here.

That starting point input is this, from that post and discussion:

I have been fasting for a couple of weeks and apart from losing a bit of weight, realized I obsess less about food now. Anyone else experience this. If so, what are the reason for it?

I don't think I ever did obsess about food so much, but it will work as in intro to describe what I think changed.  I had snacking habits before that seemed to mostly drop out.  I would eat just a little chocolate regularly, and for awhile (even after the two rounds of fasting) I had switched to snacking on mixed nuts between meals.  It wasn't really a negative thing, as I saw it, or an obsession, but I feel even more inclined to just eat three light meals a day now, which really isn't far from how I saw my diet a year ago, before the fasting trials.

Someone mentioned a good reference on food craving experience, the psychology of that, which is a summary of lots of other reference materials.  From scanning their definition of food cravings maybe I never did experience what they describe as that.  I was more into ice cream before, which I would sometimes eat when it was around, but I never saw that as a craving experience.

Rather than go through a summary of the research paper contents, building up from background and definitions, it could be more interesting to start with what they say about fasting changing food experience or habits:

One area in which food cravings appear responsive to dietary reductions is fasting. The direction of change is unexpected. There is evidence that fasting, in both the short-term (Lappalainen et al. 1990) and the long-term (Harvey et al. 1993), is associated with fewer food-craving experiences. This decrease in craving is generalised across all food groups and does not rebound during re-feeding (Harvey et al. 1993; Martin et al. 2006). While such interventions are effective at bringing about weight loss, there is no relationship between the amount of weight lost and reduction in food craving.

This suppression of food craving is consistent with other observations of reduced appetite during weight loss on very-low-energy diets. The paradox ‘less food, less hunger’ is the headline of a study by Wadden et al. (1987)...

Interesting, right?  I'll consider some perspectives from comments in that Reddit discussion and then come back to tying it together with these ideas based on my own experience.

Reddit discussion inputs, versus my experiences

Let's just start with the first two comments, I guess sorted by Reddit karma (upvotes, their version of FB likes):

I usually go through a phase in my fasts where I obsessively scroll r/FoodPorn... so, I guess everyone is different. I do feel more control over my eating though. I use to need to eat every 3 hours or I might punch a baby for looking at me the wrong way. Now 16h is hardly noticeable.

It is interesting how people react to hunger or cravings in different ways, or take the whole experience very differently.  There seems to be a divide between people who avoid any contact with food or the idea of food and others who actually keep in touch with the subject while fasting, as that person does.  Some contact with food exposure while fasting is fine but it seems as well to avoid that, and scrolling the internet related to food content.

There's probably several reasons why this happens (biological, psychological, changes in environment, etc) but I think biologically it's because fasting has a powerful moderating impact on hormones related to hunger.

Hunger experience, and how it changes with fasting exposure, is one of the most interesting parts of exploring fasting.  Not just for abstract self-understanding either; it plays into enabling a different form of control over a main bodily input like eating.  Not just related to not eating, also tying to managing inputs, to eating healthier, to placing snacking in relation to meal inputs differently, and better.

These two inputs tie together quite well with a very general exposure theme I experienced, that links to the point about fasting causing less hunger experience in the end.

The first 2 or 3 times I tried fasting the experience of hunger was very intense.  It just seemed normal to me that people would always experience that.  I might also mention that I decided to fast once when I was 10 or 11 or so (I was a strange kid; I had no exposure to the practice of fasting at all at that point), and only made it through one nearly complete day.  Related to how people fasting count the time that probably was 26 hours or so, maybe 28, so one full day.  I didn't know what to make of the experience then, beyond that hunger experience would be intense.  I wanted to go a full day then, so more like 36 hours, but hunger was driving me crazy, and I ate some cake my family had eaten earlier.

Fast forward 40 years and I tried it again (with some juice fasting in the middle; that's easy enough to do for a number of days, because in a sense you are still "eating," ingesting calories).  Experience of hunger was intense.  The worst of it lasted 3 days or so, easing up after that.  It came in a few different forms, as a base-level feeling of emptiness, as gnawing desire to eat, and as cravings, as immediate urges to eat something I normally would at that time, or triggered by seeing or smelling a food.  The very first day--I don't remember if for an attempt that didn't work or the first 5 day duration; I think the latter--I visited a food market with my wife, and it wasn't so bad, beyond the smell.  Visiting a local fair and restaurant with her the next day also was fine; somehow working through the expectation of eating was no problem.

I was a four days into fasting at this street festival last year

I ended that fast late into my birthday so I had cake and ice cream

Then on the last 5 day fast hunger had dropped out relatively entirely, at least related to those earlier experiences.  My body seemed to adjust, perhaps related to the hormone experience mentioned in the second comment.  I think expectation at the mental level was also a factor; it was easy to just not attach to the idea of eating, to not try to not think about it, since that cycle of avoiding thoughts or desire can be problematic, to instead just accept it and let it go.

Back to the "craving" idea I'm not sure to what extent I ever fit the criteria in that paper, which explicitly describes that there is no singular clear definition of that.  It's a research review style of paper, so it talks around how different studies interpret cravings a little, but then mostly just sets that aside.  I picked up the habit of mostly eating three small meals a day so many years ago that it's hard to keep track; I don't snack that much.  In college we had cafeteria meal plans set up that way (freshman and sophomore years in the dorms), and my parents always tended to eat like that, with an evening desert as an exception.  

It's hard to summarize how it works out related to "less food intake equals less hunger," but thinking back I have some history with that.  I was really thin for my entire 20s and through most of my 30s, in part because I was vegetarian, and because I led a very active lifestyle, for work and sports, and fueled that by eating three moderate meals a day.  Through habit I mostly only ate when hungry, channeled down to those meal times, with some evening snacking included.  Maybe as much related to the vegetarian diet theme I think I kept caloric intake to an absolute minimum, to the extent that whenever I wasn't working or exercising if I would just sit down my body would crash.  Reading was a favorite hobby interest then, which matched well with that.

I tried to practice what I later heard referred to as "intuitive eating," which I didn't have a name for.  I tried to eat what I felt hungry for, adjusting for tuning into what my body needed, versus letting ice cream, potato chips, and McDonald's food become that default.  I didn't drink soda or eat candy much, even though I think I was cutting it close on caloric input, so it would've been natural to crave that.  Maybe a work-around was eating foods like trail mix as a snack, eating just enough to fuel the exercise and other processes.  I kept busy so I never noticed being hungry, until the next meal time brought it up, and by then I needed more food intake, so it all seemed quite natural.  I was 5' 8" and weighed 150 pounds or so, as skinny as could be, but my body was fine with the cycle.

camping in Canyonlands in Utah in the 90s; I would've hiked 10-15 miles a day back then

what that looked like, but this was across the border in Colorado

I'm an inch shorter now (people do tend to shrink as they age), and weigh 15 more pounds, but I seem to eat less than ever.  We seem to get into equilibrium states, and then change to become heavier or lighter isn't as natural as continuing on, if it all balances.

Fasting as a diet reset

One other part links, that is so distinct that a new section seems in order.  Even though I've just described eating a fairly healthy diet in my 20s (and I'm in my 50s now, and that never completely changed) fasting has seemed to help serve as a positive diet reset.  More than ever I appreciate and desire eating healthy, nutrient dense foods, like fruits and vegetables, complex salads, and healthy versions of soups and stews, or plain grilled meats and vegetable.  I've been eating a lot of pumpkin and sweet potatoes for years; that didn't change.  

It's not really directly related but I've been supplementing protein intake for about a year, drinking powder mixed into milk or juice, because I try to not eat too much meat, eggs, or dairy, but my protein demands seem considerable related to running a good bit (15 to 20 miles a week).  Why wouldn't I crave meat, dairy, and eggs, if I'm implying here that natural intuition can guide more ideal diet inputs?  I don't know.  Maybe it all doesn't actually work, and I'm only experiencing what I expect to experience.  I don't crave the protein shakes, at all; I have to remind myself to include that, and often skip it when I planned to but forgot (like with breakfast recently, and yesterday's).

Where I go (physically) seems to partly guide diet as much as these mental factors I'm bringing up.  In visiting malls or shopping complexes I walk by Dairy Queen (which is still more popular here than back in the US), and in the past I'd eat more of that.  

some product offerings are a little out there but I like others

I'm separated from my kids now, and my normal routines, because they're in Honolulu in school and I'm working in Bangkok, so I've not been in malls much for six weeks, and haven't eaten any ice cream in that time.  Thai foods tend to be fairly healthy but I'm almost entirely off those now too, cooking simple and basic food versions at home more.  I go to work in an office infrequently, about once a week, and what I eat there is mixed; sometimes food I bring, sometimes just a pastry or snack out doing an errand, or a couple of times fast food (back to McDonald's, once in that month or so).  It's not like I'm on an ideal diet; I saw Oreos on sale at the grocery store and picked some up, and since I was craving chocolate (maybe from mentioning it here) I bought chocolate covered digestives too.

So what really changed for me, related to this "reset" idea?  I had mentioned that when fasting I noticed a few layers of triggers of what or when to eat, and a snacking response was part of that.  My main version had shifted from chocolate to mixed nuts, eating a small handful a few times a day, but that was probably based on immediate triggered impulse as much or more than a real dietary need, caused by an intake gap.  It's not problematic, eating a half a cup of mixed nuts a day, so it doesn't really work as an example of "corrective action," but the theme isn't different than if it had been chocolate, ice cream, chips, or whatever else.  I've eaten a lot of salads at different times, but cycling back to that as a habit is another example.  

Living in Honolulu with my wife in grad school (where we met) if I ever asked her what she wanted me to make for dinner she would always say salad, every time.  Then I would make an elaborate version of that, with greens, lots of vegetables, extra inputs like raisins or sunflower seeds, home-made dressings, something like soy and sesame, a fruit input, homemade croutons from seasoning and toasting bread, and often with chili seasoned fried tofu.  She loved it because it's not a typical Thai food, and no Thai would ever experience such an elaborate version.  Even if they wanted to vegetables are different here (I'm in Bangkok now), and the set in the US somehow seems really well suited for that.

People in that Reddit fasting sub are more concerned with dieting than I am, naturally.  They will use rotating fasts (rolling 48s or 72s, two or three day cycles on and off eating), or 2 or 3 week long fast durations to maximize that.  I could also stand to lose a few pounds, I guess.  Some people in that group talk about shifting habits even more than I've described, cutting out more negative inputs.  Here's a typical example, from the thread I mentioned as a main starting point:

It’s because the ultra processed / sugary stuff that most people eat is addictive. If you cut it out you won’t crave it anymore after awhile.

That probably works.  Two separate comments second what I've said about the fasting experience time-frame shifting with exposure:

I also have noticed that I lose my food cravings as well after day 3 😜

The first few times I fasted I obsessed really bad, that was the most difficult part. Over time it has mostly gone away.

There isn't that much discussion input in that post thread because that sort of question comes up over and over, and people tire of answering the same question.

The linked article says a lot more about study input about related patterns: 

So it wasn't only a research review paper, it summarized a series of papers and ideas presented together, back in 2006 ("The Summer Meeting of the Nutrition Society, hosted by the Rowett Research Institute and the University of Aberdeen").  An excerpt of the abstract points to more overlap with what I'm considering here:

Cravings are hedonic responses to food, characterised by their intensity and their specificity.  Food cravings are extremely common, reported by the majority of young adults. They are closely associated with liking but not synonymous with increased intake...  Taking dieting as an example of an assumed influence on food craving, the outcomes of cross sectional studies are mixed and unconvincing. Prospective and experimental research shows a clearer relationship. Dieting or restrained eating generally increase the likelihood of food craving while fasting makes craving, like hunger, diminish. Attempted restriction or deprivation of a particular food is associated with an increase in craving for the unavailable food...

It's all worth a read, just a little dry.

To add one more experiential observation before closing I've noticed since fasting that I tolerate short term hunger experience better, seemingly less triggered by expectations.  I can skip a lunch and I get hungry, as anyone would, but if I eat a good sized late breakfast that doesn't apply, so it's not just about expectations.  Expecting a meal input and actual hunger, bodily demand for calories, seem to be two different things.  

One supposed benefit of fasting is "metabolic flexibility," the ability to use body fat as an energy input, and to some extent it seems to work out like that.  I can go quite light on eating for a day and still run 10k (6 miles) and don't really notice much difference.  Doing light runs during fasts may have helped with acclimation for that.  Before the fasting exposure it seemed like draining glycogen reserves during such runs triggered even more immediate hunger response, and now as long as I eat something later it doesn't really matter if it's calorie dense of not; a large salad will do.  

My phone health app says that I "only" burn 600 or so calories on a 10k run (actually 529 for a 10.1 k run yesterday), and supposedly we store 2000 calories of glycogen reserves in our body, which is why running a 42 km marathon has people hitting a wall when that supply runs out.  Runners can avoid that by eating energy gels and such, or drinking Gatorade, or even by acclimating to use body fat as energy better, back to the metabolic flexibility idea.  I suspect that there is a huge difference in running efficiency at different paces, that my phone app really isn't "in on," and someone running a 3 hour marathon versus a leisurely 4 1/2 hours adds extra caloric demands.  But what do I know; that's just a guess.

For me fasting is about experiencing the experimentation, along with limited interest in health benefits that I could never really confirm anyway.  My own shift in eating patterns and the experience of hunger seems moderate, but it's still interesting.  

In the long run I think it can be valuable to switch around how we see food, to change from considering only what would be pleasant to experience as a next flavor input or satiation experience and instead also consider nutrient intake, what balance of foods may support that.  Of course that process can start at the grocery store, for people stuck in the past who actually prepare foods, or it would extend to what is purchased through an app for many others.  Over time it's easy to appreciate healthier food inputs, or I suppose even to crave them, depending on how you define that.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Comparing ITeaWorld Shui Xian and Wuyishan park origin Rou Gui


Shui Xian left, in all photos

Trying one of the last of the ITeaWorld oolongs, a Da Hong Pao, led me to giving review of those one more go.  This isn't that; it's their Shui Xian, or branded here as Minnan Narcissus, which that translates to, a reference to a flower type.

That Da Hong Pao was pretty good:  intense, earthy, deep with mineral tones, and clean.  A heavy roast input and good base of minerals gave it a really inky mineral effect, a bit heavy-handed but nice.  It was what I see as one part of the range of being type-typical.  Some versions sold as that can be more refined and balanced, less intense, but it's probably the more common type theme for those to be heading towards that heavy roast input and high degree of mineral tone, almost rough natured for being so intense.

These will be different.  This Rou Gui is from Jip Eu, that Chinatown shop I never stop mentioning.  They gave me this sample in a recent visit there.  It's presented as from grown inside the Wuyishan park / nature presever area, and it probably is that, since it's passed on from the brother of Kittichai (the owner).  His brother and other family lives in that area, and still produces tea there (I think; I suppose it could be that he's only a vendor instead).  We talk about his family history from time to time and I've seen a picture of him at a family tea processing small factory within the Wuyishan park area, that had to be removed when they changed the area use restrictions a long time ago.  So I guess that would be 50 years back, and he would be getting along in age now?

I think Jip Eu may not even sell this tea version, it may just be something they shared that they picked up.  It's interesting a recent review also related to that context, the one about frozen oolong, tea that was never dried.

This isn't mainly a claim about what this Rou Gui is, or developed support for any of that story.  It should be good, and the style could vary quite a bit.  I've lost track of the unique name they use for "within the park area" in Wuyishan, which there's a word for (Chinese terms don't stick with me), but in unsuccessfully looking that up I found an interesting reference about that area:

After harvest, fresh tea leaves require four months of processing -- they're baked for more than a month -- before they're ready to serve.

In addition to Da Hong Pao, Shui Xian (Narcissus) and Rougui (Cassia) are two Wuyi cliff teas recommended for beginners.

Shui Xian is elegant and smooth. Rougui has a spicy and fierce kick.

Tea at Chun Hui ranges from $45 per 500 grams to $450 -- each brew takes about 8 grams of tea leaves.

So not the term I was looking for but that summary is interesting, given what I'm about to compare.  I think Rou Gui could be elegant and smooth and Shui Xian could be a bit rough or the opposite (which I would typically call refined) based on growing conditions input and maybe even more so processing choices.  Anyway, it's interesting.  

The price range is too; $9 per 100 grams up to nearly $1 a gram.  That sounds right; that's how we tend to buy it in Western outlets too.  Stopping at a $1 a gram might be a little low, but beyond that.  It's nice that they say you should brew using a heavy proportion; I think so too.  That's assuming they mean 8 grams in a 100 ml range of infusion; of course it would also be possible to use a much lower proportion and adjust timing, or even brew Western style, but I don't think that works out as well for this tea type range.

I looked up selling price and description in the ITeaWorld site and this is $20 or so per 100 grams (which is fine, maybe a really good value depending on quality), and there isn't much text description.  It says "tea leaves from 60 year old tea trees with distinct orchid aroma," from Dongguantown, Yongchun, Fujian (which means nothing to me).  Since they're using a graphic to describe the tea further I can include that:

Oxidation level and perceived sweetness mean something to me but the rest doesn't.  Let's actually try it then.

To be clear this is probably an unfair tasting, because these were presented as completely different quality level versions.  ITeaWorld teas have been above average in quality level, some maybe slightly better than that, but they're selling them for normal market rates for ordinary range tea, implying they're not some unusual quality level version.  If you can find $9 per 100 gram versions of Wuyi Yancha, based anywhere, in online outlets, Chinatown shops, wherever, those tend to be rough edged and limited quality teas.  $20 is more normal range.  I've bought versions that fit more of the $20 profile (expectations) for under $5 in Bangkok, but usually you get bad tea trying that buying approach.

If the two teas seem similar in quality level this is really either an impressive outcome for the ITeaWorld Shui Xian or a disappointment for the Rou Gui.  If I happen to like one better than the other related to personal preference for aspects that's wouldn't necessarily relate to a clear judgement one way or the other, related to quality scope.


ITea World Shui Xian:  the dry leaf smells really nice.  I'm not getting all that much intensity from the brewed liquid, the opposite effect from the Da Hong Pao, which started really fast.  This is a more refined version, it seems, and probably lower in oxidation and roast level.  Not that this is a direct opposition; more oxidation and roast level might make a tea brew faster, and come across as more intense, but different styles could have flaws or rough edges, or balance really well.  

I suppose mineral base and floral range does come through.  I should do a flavor list next round though, since this is quite light.

I'm brewing two of their samples, so 7 grams in total, and it looks like the other sample is more than that, maybe 8, maybe with larger, more whole leaves making it look even bigger.

Jip Eu Rou Gui:  this is more intense but also still opening up.  I brewed these for around 20 seconds but people tend to use a rinse step in part because the first round is slow to get going otherwise, even if you soak the leaves for awhile.  There is heavier flavor range to this, and maybe it does include cinnamon.

It goes without saying, since I've said it so often, but brewing 15 grams of tea at one time is a lot; I won't get far for infusion count, and will try these again later in the afternoon.  It's fine to brew 3 1/2 or 4 grams at a time, that sample packet worth, it just requires adjustment, and I'm accustomed to this range of process.

ITea World Shui Xian, 2:  that's more like it.  This is actually pretty good.  I wouldn't say that an intense floral character comes across but depth of mineral tone standing out more isn't a bad thing.  Feel is fairly full, and aftertaste experience carries over, mostly settled on the mineral tone.  Sweetness is fine, and flavor range, but it's the way the mineral tone serves as a base and feel and aftertaste supports the rest that make it work well.  

Oxidation and roast level do seem to be moderate; it's that lighter style of Wuyi Yancha.  I like that, but when the other range is perfectly balanced--medium level for both--there's a sort of magic to that, but it's far more common for the roast to go a bit far, to take on a char effect.  There's a perfume-like aromatic tone that good Wuyi Yancha can express that this taps into some, almost like cognac, but it's not so pronounced in this version.  For 20 cents a gram tea this is fine, maybe slightly better than I would expect.

Jip Eu Rou Gui:  cinnamon is really standing out in this now; that's quite pleasant.  It's not as if this gives up anything for refinement to the other, but the style is quite different.  They seem to have oxidized this a bit more, not in that modern light range, more in a very well-balanced traditional form (as I take it, but what do I know?).  

Feel and aftertaste are ok, and mineral depth, maybe even directly equivalent to the other, but for flavor range being a bit stronger those come across as weaker.  Does it make sense what I mean by that?  The other is refined and light in terms of flavor intensity, with decent floral range and mineral present, but a shift in higher intensity after you drink it makes aftertaste stand out all the more.  The initial punch of sweet, warm, and rich cinnamon tone in this other version is a good bit more intense, so the same level of flavor carry-over, comparable to the first, seems lighter in comparison.  Interesting!

This might be gaining flavor intensity through the inclusion of a wood tone, in between green wood and truly aged dryer range.  Of course the cinnamon is spice instead, with mineral base.

color difference is apparent in the leaves, lighter Shui Xian left

ITeaWorld Shui Xian, 3:  brewed slightly longer to zero in on feel differences an aromatic wood-tone picks up in this version too.  Floral range is still there, but the mineral is so much more pronounced that it would be easy to miss it.  Rich feel and aftertaste stand out all the more.

Jip Eu Rou Gui:  that cinnamon note is really dominant.  It's pleasant, so that completely works.  As far as quality level there isn't much gap between these, so I guess in one sense the Rou Gui falls a little short of expectations.  Maybe it's more that the other exceeded them; these are pretty good teas.  There seems to be at least one more level beyond these both, I think, but they're good.

The character of that cinnamon input and how the rest balances is so positive that I actually like the Rou Gui more, but I think that's down to preference for an aspect set, more than it being better.  It seems slightly sweeter, which balances well with the mineral base and cinnamon tone.  It might give up a little in terms of rich feel.

ITeaWorld Shui Xian 4:  evolving further to wood tone, not necessarily positive transition, at least in terms of flavor.  It's still good though; the supporting feel, mineral base, and aftertaste range are all nice.  

Jip Eu Rou Gui:  intensity is stronger than ever; this is evolving in the other direction, improving.  Even stronger mineral base picks up along with the sweeter cinnamon tone, and aftertaste / finish duration improves.

This reminds me of a comment by a tea maker friend once (Cindy), that it's possible to make Wuyi Yancha versions even from other tea plant types, grown in different areas.  The main trade-off or limitation isn't initial flavor profile, necessarily, since those can still be pleasant, but she said that they tend to brew out really fast, that they lack the same durability.  

I remember seeing an online comment once about how Wuyi Yancha always tend to brew out really fast, and wondering what went into that, since sometimes that is absolutely true, and in other cases it's the opposite, and they can brew a dozen very pleasant rounds.  I think alteration by using higher oxidation level and more roast input comes at a cost, related to this factor, that intensity and differing aspect range also relates to teas brewing out a bit faster.

ITeaWorld Shui Xian 5:  it's still ok.  It's funny how the heavy mineral tone picked up so much that this is much closer to the Da Hong Pao version character (the sample version I didn't review).  That's not a bad thing; I like that inky, slightly rough, heavy mineral input.  Wood tone picking up to a higher level than floral tone input is less positive, but that's still ok.  Aftertaste is really pronounced still, and feel is fine.

Jip Eu Rou Gui:  higher sweetness level stands out at this point, and that cinnamon tone, as it has the whole time.  This is definitely staying more refined and balanced over these middle level rounds.  I think even the aftertaste range is more extended than it had been; that's odd.  Feel might still be a little thinner than for the other version.

There is a good chance that this Rou Gui will evolve more positively, or decline less, over the next 4 or 5 rounds, but this is enough of this story told already.


Some of what I expected, some I didn't.  I think the quality level is a bit higher for the Rou Gui version, as it should be, given initial expectations and context, but it was interesting how some of the positive aspects that generally tie closely to quality level were equivalent or even superior in the Shui Xian version.  Feel is richer, smoother, and thicker in the Shui Xian, for example.  Rou Gui might be slightly more intense related to using a bit more tea material, and equivalent brewing process, but the Shui Xian held its own ok even related to that.

I liked the Rou Gui more, as I only barely mentioned in one place in this, but I think that was as much about liking typical Rou Gui style more than the general lighter Wuyi Yancha preparation range.  That related both to flavor range, that cinnamon, and the overall balance of all the rest.  That part probably varies by person, which character or aspects are best.

Again this ITeaWorld product is slightly better than I expected.  There's a trend where  a new broad type vendor outlets, supporting sales through limited background content, usually sell fairly mediocre teas, and these have seemed decent.  Maybe what I'm saying seems contradictory, since in another place I've said that they're only of above average quality, which isn't high praise.  Quality and value tend to couple together; I would expect something different from a 20 cent a gram Wuyi Yancha version than one selling for 40 cents per gram, or 80.  

I think this context is already clear enough, but let's go a step further, and consider how a well-regarded US vendor sells two Shui Xian versions at different levels / types (from Seven Cups):

Shuixian (Narcissus), Organic Rock Wulong Tea 2022 (50 grams for $28.50, so $57 for 100):  

A richly floral rock wulong with an aroma reminiscent of narcissus flowers and a deep full flavor. Traditionally charcoal roasted to develop sweetness while still preserving a high aroma. A great tea for new rock wulong tea drinkers due to its inviting fragrance, rich taste, and relatively low price.

Laocong Shuixian (Old Bush Narcissus) Rock Wulong Tea 2022 ($19.74 for 25 grams, more like $80 per 100 grams):  

A truly distinctive high-end rock wulong that showcases the unique character of teas made from mature tea plants. Made from old growth Shuixian tea bushes on average 60 years old. Mature plants provide a smoother, more layered full flavor and more complex nutrition than tea made from younger plants. Fragrant wood and toasted grain aromatics accompany a soft body with persistent minerality and sweetness that intensifies with each sip.

This Shui Xian sells for less than half of their lower priced range version, but then buying directly from China tends to cost less.  How shipping factors in varies, and sometimes adding $30 at the end for that evens things up, but they've followed the standard practice of building in shipping in these listings since it's free for $40 orders or over.

Probably both of these Seven Cups Shui Xian versions are even better; I'd be surprised if that wasn't the case.  But value tends to be all over the map for different vendors, price in relation to quality level.  I'd expect that you can buy versions just as good as these listed ones for half as much through Wuyi Origin, a well respected direct from producer sales outlet.  For this more ordinary range of quality level ITeaWorld seems to be a decent source, across most of what I've tried from them, and for this tea.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Pu'er vendor source options and branding

kind of an ad image version copied from a FB page

Recently discussing how tea vendors use social media led me to consider branding theme issues, what it is that makes some vendors appealing, or to stand out.  This is mostly about pu'er vendors, and it does make a difference, related to different tea types being perceived differently, and target audience varying.  But this is also just more familiar range to me, and it supports narrower discussion better by just focusing on pu'er, even though the same themes repeat for all types and vendor specializations.

A Reddit comment, in a post discussing starting points for switching from coffee to tea, recommending sheng pu'er vendors, works as a start on this context:

Top vendors for puer tea: - I'd vouch for anything they sell and their monthly club is also great - totally trustworthy as well, also happens to be #2 candidate for monthly club if you want a second one in addition to W2T - great samples and diverse teas

Mr Mopar (reddit user, track him down)

(All of these are 100% trustworthy IMO)

It's always odd not seeing Yunnan Sourcing make such a list; it's probably the main outlet in terms of being known and their total sales volume, both in the US and globally.  Maybe not within China but that's a different subject.

Why are these top vendors?  They're trustworthy, this person thinks, and they've had good experiences with all of them.  They're into tea clubs, and a sample set theme from Liquid Proust is sort of related to that.  Mr. Mopar is a tea enthusiast who sells some teas; he's a nice guy, and a good reference, and probably is a reliable and good-value source.  He joined one of the online meetup sessions we held awhile back, and has been helpful in answering questions about teas for years prior.

The style or type of all of these vendors is completely different.  That kind of contradicts the approach I was initially going to take here, claiming that people probably relate to a certain form of vendor, one who presents their vendor role, ethos, and brand in a certain way that resonates with them.  It could instead be that after exploration people cut across such thematic divides to use whatever sources have worked out best, with more focus on the teas they are buying.  Or maybe a shared theme, like tea clubs, does link these sources, and only the rest of the form is different.

At any rate I'm going to outline how I see vendor branding and type here, what seems to work for each vendor to communicate to customers that they are a good source, and even more so what else they represent.  

To be clear a lot of what I'm communicating about brand themes and the tea versions being sold is hearsay I'm passing on; I'm not a routine customer of a dozen different pu'er vendors.  I've bought tea from Yunnan Sourcing, Farmerleaf, and Liquid Proust related to who I'm discussing here, so surely parts about typical offering range, quality levels, and brand themes are either limited or partly wrong.  I've been active in discussing tea themes online for a decade, longer than really makes sense to stick with that.  Maybe that's partly related to being a main Facebook group moderator, and I guess it also could tie back to tea blogging.

Yunnan Sourcing:  the original online broad market source, based around Scott, the owner and founder, working in the Kunming tea market awhile back in the early 2000s.  If I remember right they started out as an EBay outlet, and quickly moved to independent website sales, back when that wasn't really so common.  Browsing their sales site is like a visit to a large market space, where you will never cover most of what is there; they must sell over 1000 version of teas.  They wouldn't be "reliable" in the sense of 1000 (or 2000?) tea versions being consistent; that doesn't match the market theme.

In part growing and building up a customer base as pu'er (and other tea types) awareness and demand also ramped up sets them apart as unique.  It's interesting considering what even existed before Yunnan Sourcing, how people bought tea in the very early 2000s.  I think local shops played a larger role, and that the specialty tea industry in general was much less developed 20 years ago.  Just as individuals only now exploring better tea have trouble knowing where to start entire enthusiast circles were surely a lot less grounded in background experience then.

That part isn't entirely hearsay, or guesswork.  We can still go back and read old tea blog posts from 2000, if they're still "up."  In one of a series of meetups friends and I met with David Lee Hoffman of The Last Resort and Phoenix Collection, and founder of Silk Road, one of the oldest tea sourcing businesses from the 1990s.  His take on tea options and vending in the 1990s could easily be biased or adjusted by later perspective filtering, but a shop manager friend confirmed that there just weren't very many options to buy specialty teas we now see as standard options on a wholesale level in that decade.  I'm talking more here about relatively directly sourced endpoint retail vending, but surely that came even later; that's what Scott of Yunnan Sourcing helped develop.

A Facebook Yunnan Sourcing fans group works well for discussion, and brand promotion, but Yunnan Sourcing was a well-established business long before that came up.  Youtube videos also made Scott seem relatable, and their product descriptions are generally good, quite clear if a bit short (in product listing versions; the video reviews go into detail).  

Altogether it seems like they really know and understand their product scope, which I take to be accurate.  I've bought bad versions of tea from them but the proportion that were quite positive was very high, so that reliability carries over to what you purchase.  Unless your luck is bad, or you have no idea what you like yet, and then maybe not.  It's conceivable that tea scope outside their core (Yunnan versions) could be less reliable, but I wouldn't know.

a shu version separated out candy-bar style; normal enough now, but quite novel earlier on

White 2 Tea:  It's my understanding that along with Global Tea Hut White 2 Tea initiated the monthly tea subscription theme awhile back, a decade ago or so.  It was a good way to bump sales, charging $30 or so back in the day, I think, letting people try unique offerings and feel like they're a part of something, exploring tea without putting lots of review and discussion time in.  

Then their product theme ventures into selling blends of different inputs, and a broad range of offerings at different price points, in different styles, along the line of what the owner happens to like.  Oddly not including any information about the products worked around controversy or complications with that range; the products are named in abstract ways.  So maybe many aren't blends of different materials?  Mention of hearsay information about what versions really are come up in online discussion, but the accuracy of those would be hard to evaluate.

Catchy new pressed forms or mixes of product inputs add more novelty.  It all seems to work as a counter to the oversold traditional themes approach, making dubious claims based on individuals' authority and tea culture history.  For some side-stepping a long (endless) learning curve must be a main positive outcome; if you generally like what they sell you only need to interpret how they describe products, which isn't based on much background description content.  They would still pass on some idea of what things are, experienced aspects and such.

It seems possible that not adapting what other vendors present as traditional cultural forms may resonate with many; no Chinese terminology, no one is wearing a robe in marketing content, little discussion of cha qi (but some), no need to memorize production areas and typical types.  Teaware and tea drinking are two different things but some other content could imply a degree of buy-in to aesthetic themes, owning gear, emphasis on setting, and elaborate brewing process, and some people might want to stay distanced from all of it, to focus on the tea, without memorizing a broad matrix of background information.

This drifts off topic a little, but it's interesting to consider that selling conventional tea types as something unique makes them unique, as the only place across the entire internet they can be purchased.  An example:  Jing Mai sheng pu'er often has a bit of a pine flavor aspect, and if a vendor took that and presented and branded it as "Pine Forest" product, not Jing Mai, you could only buy it from them, even if it's common enough.  Some people might sort out what it is, but even then if you are selling a good quality, good-value, extra piney version even in that case they might not have any interest in shopping around for a different character or better value version.  Maybe most of what White 2 Tea sells really is narrow source origin material, the most common current theme.  Some background hearsay accepts they sell a lot of material blends, but that could be wrong.  It's not that unusual for typical online discussion to be off the mark.

Essence of Tea:  to me this was a clear example of part of that older theme White 2 Tea was reacting against, a traditional style vendor offering clear information about products, selling versions based on curated quality levels and trueness to type claims.  Pricing was always on the high side, adjoining an implied or direct claim that the quality level justified that (and the tea probably is good).  For White 2 Tea it can be hard to compare pricing to standard market value, since the products are identified as unique and abstract individual offerings.  

Maybe it's more accurate to say that White 2 Tea was reacting against other vendors, who tended to come and go, who really leaned into the Tea Master / old plant material version / wild growth / highest quality level / most authentic themes.  Essence of Tea draws on some of that, but they're mostly only presenting products as much better than average tea, tied to quality, not so much framed in those other catchy story-oriented ways.  

This would be a good place to "name names," and blame a couple of vendors for excessive reliance on those themes, or being caught out lying about them, or at least getting parts wrong, but I'll skip that part here.  Vendors sharing authentic interest in parts of Chinese or other background cultures can work, but it generally comes to light at some point when those angles are being manipulated instead of genuinely appreciated.  Of course there's a grey area between the two, or both can happen at once.

Liquid Proust:  Andrew Richardson is basically some guy that got into selling tea, not that the founding of Yunnan Sourcing and White 2 Tea weren't a lot like that (and Crimson Lotus, and Bitterleaf, etc.).  He was into making up novel blends at first, Dian Hong French Toast and such, then passed through an aged oolong phase, getting mixed up in pu'er, the main natural end point for tea preference.  

He was focused on bringing tea to the masses through sample sets, early on giving those away, I think it was.  One is about to come out soon; they're still very value oriented.  It's possible to critique the practice by saying that they're just ordinary tea versions, but that's the point, that you can try a half dozen different ordinary, decent sheng versions for very little expense, many aged.  You can get started, without going through a learning curve or spending much.  Sample sets through other vendors serve a similar purpose, but that tends to cost significantly more, and to not capture the same random sample of standard and unusual offerings.

Now that I think of it I wrote an interview post about Andrew's subsidized sheng sample set theme (the Sheng Olympiad, before that naming dropped out) back in 2017, and we did an online meetup with him in 2022, so together those might capture his perspective transition over 5 years of selling teas.

Mr. Mopar joined that day too, included in summary

Is Andrew more reliable than Yunnan Sourcing, White 2 Tea, or Essence of Tea?  Hard to say.  They're all doing different things.  EOT is more of a curator vendor, and they may be the most consistent, selling the most uniformly high quality teas, which comes at the cost of them costing the most (although I've never tried teas from them, so I really wouldn't know; again I'm passing on general hearsay here).  

White 2 Tea might be a little all over the map; that ends up getting mixed into the limited information they provide about their teas, that they are exploring or even creating new options.  For Yunnan Sourcing selling a thousand or more teas you have to sort it out yourself.  Maybe their in-house brands work as a short-cut to narrowing that quite a bit, or buying samples can offset exploration costing hundreds of dollars.

Andrew is sort of curating, just in a different sense.  He sells what he likes.  This reminds me of an even better regarded modern vendor form and example, Teas We Like, with the theme mentioned right there in the name.  I expect what "they" like is pretty consistent, in line with what experienced tea enthusiasts like (I've tried at least one version of what they sell, but if the same tea is from a different source, as in that case, storage input differences can mean the tea from the same production batch wasn't actually the same).  

In the past tea blogger reviews and online group discussion would serve as ample background reference, but text blogging is generally finished now.  You can check out Mattcha's blog for an example that ran late in ending, or maybe hasn't yet.  Just bear in mind that any tea enthusiast, including bloggers, builds up bias towards vendors selling what they happen to like.  If your own preferences somehow match very closely you can draw on those opinions directly, but otherwise some sorting is required.

Other branding themes tied to social media marketing:

So we have a website version of a Chinese market, a personal choice and style blended creation outlet, a traditional vendor form, and guy who sells what he likes, passing on his own exploration outcomes.  Surely "Mr. Mopar" is close to the last; he literally is a guy selling some of what he has collected over a long time to fund buying even more.  What else could work?

I think Crimson Lotus may not be too far from the White 2 Tea case, just more open about what teas actually are, and more centered on a limited style range (drinkable when young sheng and shu pu'er, which the business founder has mentioned in tea podcast discussion before, so that's hearsay from a decent source).  They make blends of inputs and surely also sell narrow-origin products, but I have no idea which matches their most standard product theme.  I think I've only ever tried one version from them, in a sample set from Liquid Proust, appropriately enough.  I've only ever tried one version from Kuura too, an Australian outlet that's more or less an interpretation of White 2 Tea, offering blends that aren't marketed based on what the inputs actually are (or at least they had seemed to be that earlier on).

Farmerleaf is maybe the main brand version I've not mentioned yet, related to general awareness and buzz (or Bitterleaf; I could mention that I'm also skipping them).  William, the Farmerleaf founder, ran an earlier vending outlet closer to these other forms earlier on, and became more location-based after moving to China.  And marrying a Chinese woman; it's unusual how most of these other vendor cases are structured around that form, I guess except for Andrew, and I don't know the W2T backstory.  That helped William to present teas as tied to Jing Mai origins, with lots of source information, so that he could also produce ample video information content about the background and products.

This is a shift from brand-theme (image) to marketing forms though, right?  The two end up linking naturally.  The type of vendors who passed on second-hand information about old plants, traditional tea styles, and Tea Master inputs could only make that so convincing, based on showing a photo or two and quoting people.  If any of it was ever proven to be inaccurate, which kept happening in isolated incidents, it would all come into question.  William is there in the videos on-site, talking to people, showing the plants and processing steps.  Some of that could still be a little off--what those people say doesn't necessarily have to be true, or the whole truth--but it's quite convincing, and almost all of it matches my understanding based on experience and other source input.  That makes exceptions more interesting, but there are already too many tangents here.

The same happens with group forms and communication outlets, beyond Youtube informational videos showing background.  Crimson Lotus produces and interesting podcast version, not at all focused on their own products, but learning and feeling a connection to them as a source vendor can go together.  Farmerleaf hosts a Discord server, as others must now (Liquid Proust also does), a place for vendor source "fans" to discuss experience, an indirect form of promotion.  

For a more traditional form outlet like EOT a tea club fostering connections would also seem to make sense.  They have a website blog section; that's traditional.  In their About Us section essentially every paragraph mentions their focus on selling good tea, a good summary point for a curator vendor.  Their tea club description probably works as a general summary of what those tend to be about, how they can go beyond selling some samples on a monthly basis:

As with our web store, the tea club has a focus mainly on Puerh tea, but also features Liu Bao, Wuyi Yancha and other interesting teas.  We try to make it enjoyable and educational, with exclusive pressings, comparison tastings & small batch teas.  There are also discounts for club members on featured teas and special promotions.

Other themes:

What else is even possible?  Wouldn't there be a way to reach out to younger people, to combine tea and technology themes, or to couple tea interest with other social sub-themes?  Not so much, for a few reasons.  Let's start with an exception though, of a new type of communication or social networking channel.  Tea apps tend to replicate what other forms of groups had been doing for awhile, with Steepster and Tea Chat standing out as main earlier examples.  Adding a timer or notes function could seem different, but those don't change much, since there are plenty of ways to time infusions or take notes.  

I've ran across discussion of three tea apps under development, and I've written about one in this blog, but as far as I know only one experiences significant uptake, with that one shifting from function themes and networking onto also selling tea.

Steepster still exists, but it's quiet now

Tea interest and potential customer base is still narrow enough that vendors would need to keep focus on that shared interest, and could branch further into source variations, or outlet character themes, but they would have to avoid filtering potential audience, eliminating appeal to broad ranges. 

Global Tea Hut had sort of did that, by mixing the Eastern religion and "progressive" perspective themes, but they never really were a conventional vendor, limiting sales to their subscriptions, as I understood it.  Branding would always involve themes that attract or put off potential customers, but for tea vendors it would seem best to not have that point towards a narrow target group.  I suppose that could still work, if targeting and reach was effective enough, if that group was big enough or enough of them bought in.

photo credit this FB post by Sergey

Moychay, a Russian vendor, maybe their equivalent of Yunnan Sourcing, successfully combines interest in tea itself with aesthetic interest in teaware and specific forms of tea drinking spaces, and to some extent with "Eastern" perspectives.  I think this works better for them related to the intersection between Russian cultural perspective and tea, or more generally to Eastern or Asian themes.  They include tea tasting areas in stores and run "tea clubs," not all that close to a Western cafe, I suppose hard to describe in theme.

To back up a bit I'm in Asia right now, having lived in Thailand for most of the past 16 years, only not being here for 4 or 5 months over the past year (and I've visited essentially all of the main producer countries, except India and Nepal).  Does Thailand seem generally Asian, as people might interpret abstract Asian culture themes?  Sure, or maybe of course not, depending on what someone would mean by that.  It's absurd to narrow cultural patterns down to one broad strand of mixed themes like that.  

So what is Moychay tapping into, related to Asian culture, that may or may not be authentic?  Do people sit on cushions on the floor and use low tables, and use bamboo matting or soft and warm natural colors for background?  Are the elaborate Gong Fu equipment set-ups something any significant number of Chinese people use?  Not really, although the first part of all that probably works better in Japan, sitting on the floor.  Same for emphasis on wood or rock aesthetic, use of natural building materials.  I might add that traditionally people did sit on floors quite a bit more in Thai culture, and made use of outdoor spaces for meals or places to rest, covered patio areas, which later converted to enclosed and more Western indoor AC cooled rooms.

Wooden paneling could come up in lots of places, in a barn in the US, in an old Chinese teahouse, or in design of Thai houses from 50 years ago.  It's comforting and pleasant, regardless of how traditional a designed form ends up being.  Maybe the style being traditionally grounded doesn't matter as much as there being a consistent and pleasant style.  Regardless of theme people need to "get it" and connect with it.

Here in Bangkok a local vendor tried to do something a bit equivalent; Peace Oriental tried to combine general Asian forms into one non-distinct aesthetic style, selling a range of traditional teas.  To me it ended up being pretty close to a modern adjusted form of Japanese aesthetic.  I'd rather have tea in a garden than in a wood paneled or off-white walled space, and at home instead of in a shop, so it's not relevant to me.  It's my impression that such local businesses generally end up selling flavored, sweetened take-away tea versions to draw on better overlap with current local demand.

I think the first Peace Oriental shop iteration; this is the place I visited

later location aesthetics may have evolved a bit

A Westerner might wonder, why use "oriental," a term now rejected in the West as negative in tone?  Political correctness doesn't have the same reach and influence in Thailand.  They're not going to go out and rename a bunch of hotels and spas--and tea shops--because some progressive Americans cancel a word.

Unique vendor themes, support by content

What if a vendor had already established sales of good, basic, well above average quality teas through an online outlet; what could they draw from all of this, or what could they add to a brand theme or story to support that range of options?  It would really depend on what they value.  I like that EOT keeps it simple; they sell "good tea" (and they probably really do).  Or that Andrew sells what he likes and finds interesting.  And that Yunnan Sourcing makes a broad range available to customers, not narrowing that in any helpful way for them, adding work to their selection process, instead offering a crowded market as a unique resource form.  All these approaches are their own thing, based on communicating what the vendors are about.

The other parts and background that can be added, about sourcing themes, organic teas, valuing traditional styles, or non-traditional styles (those blends, different pressed shapes); all can condense into brand theme patterns.  Something simple like cake (bing) wrappers can add to that.  A tea wrapper should say what the tea is, or else it's confusing, requiring a customer write on them or add another label, but beyond that artwork is arbitrary.  

a Crimson Lotus cake; this one

Subscriptions or sample sets are great examples of how to make the same product themes unique, and even more attractive.  Discussion group spaces can do the same, adding background and a sense of community without adding anything substantial at all.

Content is something else though, isn't it?  With text on the way out and photos vying for attention among millions of Instagram accounts it's now down to video.  In a way this is ideal, because the personal perspective connection comes across best in this medium.  Who is William of Farmerleaf, or Sergey of Moychay?  They're right there in their Youtube videos, telling you what is interesting to them, and what they value.  William is a tea geek and Sergey is into Asian culture (Chinese, mostly); if that resonates with you maybe their teas will too, or the opposite influence could occur.  Don Mei of Mei Leaf is the most divisive example of this; to some his persona and enthusiasm really sell his teas, and others feel the opposite effect.

Note that very little of what I'm describing relates to anything like a "cult of personality" effect, as Don Mei is drawing on (not necessarily in an entirely bad way; he's personable).  Andrew talks about himself quite a bit, maybe more so than the teas, but in general these are all unconventional individuals promoting the teas more than their own charisma-based pitch.  Paul of White 2 Tea has shared his own perspective in a tea blog but in general he is all but Google-proof, not putting any focus on himself versus the business.  It's admirable, to me; that also demonstrates consistency and commitment. 

One thing that doesn't seem to work well is keeping it all too generic.  10 years ago having a developed website, broad product selection, decent value, and limited descriptions of products was enough.  That was already a theme.  Now there are hundreds of similar tea outlets in different places.  Offering just a few catchy products can go much further, something that seems unique and attractive, mixing product brand themes, uniqueness, and tie-in to general branding.  

I suppose the industry can thank White 2 Tea for helping develop that, for positioning a lot of what they sell in such a way, even without the same degree of product descriptions.  Back at the beginning that comment on Reddit said about them "I'd vouch for anything they sell."  Can it even work that way, that everything one vendor sells can match well with any set of preferences?  Not really, but one customer's likes can match unusually well with one vendor's sense of taste.  Or bias could also enter in; if you think you'll love every single tea you try under some circumstances some just seeming ok could still spin as more positive.  

People are also inclined to sort themselves into teams in all sorts of odd ways now, in many cases related to liking certain product ranges, or owning certain things.  If you like wearing a Japanese robe or martial arts clothing why shouldn't your tea vendor look like that too.

This must be a main factor in how branding now resonates with customers, right?  Do the expressed values align?  Two vendors with very different look and feel, brand images, could sell identical teas and they could be perceived much differently related to that context.  Value gets folded into that; in some cases selling good quality tea at good value is a main selling point.  Now it's even more common for extensive claims of exclusivity to seem to be supported by high price points, almost more than the opposite, the quality justifying cost.  Those two things aren't necessarily complete opposites, quality and value, since some teas selling for over $1 a gram can still be a great value, but to some extent they can be.  

Related to video content, a vendor presenting content in an aesthetic backdrop might charge significantly more than a Westerner wearing normal clothes in a normal room.  Sometimes the tea would be better in the first case, but it's also possible that it might not be as good.  Again a half dozen examples come to mind related to this very thing happening, to the hype just being hype.

Do people seem to tend to get it all sorted out, trying different tea sources and teas, eventually "seeing through" these less supported claims and context additions?  Yes and no.  Vendors have definitely faded from prominence for weighting brand themes over what they actually deliver, and not offering great quality or value, but even most of those are still around.  In the long run I think vendors who really walk the walk fare better, but the few exceptions where the opposite is true are interesting, where it can be broadly understood that a vendor is selling ordinary tea for a poor value based mostly on spin; how can they do it?  By mastering branding, and use of social media channels and content development, accepting that customer turnover is a part of that approach.  

Disruption of earlier centralized tea discussion--back to Tea Chat, Steepster, and a half dozen main text blogs--limits a narrowing of shared interest that had occurred before.  There are still a couple of dozen main vendors that come to mind, or come up in discussion, as respected and high quality sources, but the field seems more open than ever for well-developed, novel sales approaches.  Standard modern marketing might work better than ever now, using Google and Facebook ads to get the word out.

Building a large Tik Tok following might be enough, even though that's an especially odd example.  A more standard path is probably what Farmerleaf did; start as a conventional source, add in more of a narrow theme (regional tie-in, source-type related, or other), develop content and social media marketing channels, move from sales based on value to much higher price points and focus on quality over time, and put a face on all of it through a main founder image and backstory.  If you can get that to resonate with one or more specific customer types or groups all the better.

Can a brand or source skip all that and put all of the focus on tea (as White 2 Tea isn't actually doing; not using a standard approach can still be a theme)?  Maybe.  Have you ever heard of Trident Cafe and Booksellers?  Probably not, but they source the best possible tea, and go really light on any form of brand-image or broad online promotion.  I would imagine their sales volume would be double or triple where it currently stands if they had taken up a couple of these approaches, putting more of a face on their business, letting online content communicate who they are, expanding reach through social media exposure, giving people more to go on for self-identification connection.  Maybe taking a longer path and letting the tea remain the focus is positive; all the image themes only go so far.

As I read back through this maybe one critical distinction isn't really clear:  a divide between background information and stories or imagery tied to cultural context.  William of Farmerleaf is showing how tea is grown and processed in videos, talking to farmers or people who make the tea.  That's different than emphasis on ceremonial brewing practices, aesthetic teaware or elaborate trays and tables, or historical or mythological stories.  Each could seem attractive to different people, or some people wouldn't care about either.  For sure all tea was made from very specific plant types (even if it was several), grown in one or more micro-climates, and processed according to a number of steps, so the difference here is that you can either value or ignore all the background that made your tea into what it is in the end.

What I'm seeing as the main central theme here is that as long as a vendor can communicate their own genuine, developed tea appreciation forms that can resonate with some others, just not everyone.  Examples come to mind of people (vendor sources) "tapping into" both sets of ideas and themes entirely for marketing purposes instead of communicating their own experience and interest, to actual production background and other parts that can be added.  It always ends up seeming a bit thin, watered down, in comparison with what is presented by more genuine and experienced enthusiasts and vendors.  They're trying to copy something.  In common cases they're literally copying content and images, the equivalent of a high school kid using AI, Wikipedia, or image search to fill in what they should've actually researched on their own.  It's not hard to spot.

To be absolutely and completely clear I'm not blaming anyone I mentioned here for any of that; I think they all did the exact opposite.  Even Don Mei is communicating a slightly exaggerated version of his own experiences, and mixing valuable and functional background information in along with sales pitch.  He doesn't push culture-based aspects; historical stories barely enter in, and he advocates use of simple brewing approaches.  These other vendors I don't intend to critique even to that limited degree (the reference to some exaggeration in descriptions).  

I think they all communicate their own genuine interest in tea, in different forms, and it works, it really comes across.  Surely product uniqueness, consistency, pricing mark-ups, and final value varies for all of them, maybe even within their own range, but sorting all that out is part of the fun of exploring pu'er.