I talked to a couple of vendors about thoughts on a rapid increase in pu'er pricing, the average levels doubling over 5 or 6 years, related to this post, about Context and concerns related to high quality level sheng pu'er. A few clarifications are required, ideas I thought generally covered in that content, but which may not have stood out or have been explicit enough. The general theme was that consumer demand for better tea versions, coupled with overall demand volume shift and increased costs, have caused pricing to increase. Then vendors or producers are probably making more profit too; that's how it would go when demand level (as volume, and also demand for higher quality range) and pricing both rise.
Vendor costs are rising too. Not just for the tea material, which increases year to year, but nothing stays at the same price level, for processing costs, transportation, marketing related, etc. Consumers would expect more sophisticated packaging and presentation, because that evolves too. It's not possible to guess if, related to costs and demand volume increases, a general mark-up level remains the same, so that profits would rise as fast or faster than any other input. In a sense it doesn't matter; market demand supports better quality cakes selling for $80 to 100 now, so that's what they cost, without any supply side correction pushing that pricing downward.
Geoff of Hatvala mentioned a special case of changing pricing, which I had known about but hadn't considered as factoring in. He adjusted shipping cost so that it's free past a certain volume level, a common practice now, which of course bumps the initial listed product pricing a little to compensate, just moving it from one place to another. It's funny how that psychology works, that most people would much rather pay for a $150 order that has free shipping included than a $120 order without an extra $30 of shipping cost already included, resulting in the exact same total cost. At some point in the volume purchasing range someone's order pricing went up a little and someone else's down, so that people buying $200 or more worth of tea at a time now probably are paying slightly more, and someone right over that volume threshold--whatever it is--a bit less, but it's all not so different.
I'm thinking of how all this works out in relation to what I was trying to describe as options, as ways to work around this rise in demand and pricing. In that post I suggested that South East Asian tea (sheng) might provide a temporary lower cost alternative, with rising demand for that likely to offset that as being much of an alternative better value later. So what else is there? Factory tea comes to mind, buying what is considered to be a lower quality range instead, and a generally different type and style. There would be other alternatives, like exploring more direct purchasing through Chinese and Taiwanese markets, or looking for other small-vendor exceptions, the first of which I've never really explored much myself. I suppose King Tea Mall could be seen as a reseller option version of that; they buy from within normal Chinese market sources and resell teas, per my understanding (not retail buying to retail purchasing, necessarily, but closer to that form).
To back up to clarify the problem, it's partly like someone complaining that the cost of cars is sky-rocketing, because they bought standard sedans for much lower prices in the past, and now their SUV costs $50 or 60k (or hybrid, electric car, whatever it is, with those costing even more). You can still buy a Honda Civic for $22k (of course I had to look that up), but it's not what they want. The car companies aren't "taking advantage," they are selling at supply and demand rates, just in a broad range of options. Tea is a small enough niche industry that temporary market rate positions can happen, so it's a little different. I guess it is possible that in both industries there could be a higher profit potential to playing up bells and whistles, to adding marketing spin to make catchy, attractive features seem all the more so. Maybe almost no tea sold as gushu really is gushu, and "wild arbor" doesn't actually mean much in some cases; who knows.
So I wanted to review what an option might be like, where factory tea offerings would get you if you try to drink those as "middle aged" versions, here also in relation to a modest quality starting point. Obviously buying 15-20 year old, ideally aged sheng pu'er puts you right back in a supply and demand crunch, back in the $150-200 cake range, even for teas that were selling for $20 back at time of manufacture in the early 2000s (see future post correction comment about that being wrong, right?).
So I'll re-review a couple of moderately transitioned, inexpensive, large producer teas and see what they're like 7 to 10 years after production. It's hard to find these teas at 7 to 10 years old, compared to buying them new, but someone very concerned about costs could buy a bunch that are a year or two old or so, and still around, and hunt for other exceptions closer to this range, maybe just not from Xiaguan and Dayi (what these are). Within a half dozen or so years they could be having this kind of experience, which may or may not be a good thing. I'll try to comment here to compare that to what different styles of tea better when drank young are like, and to what the aged versions I've been trying are like (without so much focus on the latter; that's too complicated for a complete mapping).
Let's get one last detail out of the way: do I think these are higher risk teas related to pesticide, chemical fertilizer, or heavy metal contaminant risk, one selling point for more "natural origin" versions? No, not really. I think if you buy random $10-20 Ebay cakes you run the risk of that contact, since you would be intentionally buying the lowest cost and quality versions you could find, but I don't expect there is much greater risk from these versions than for the foods we all eat. For sure many more chemicals were used in producing these teas than some real forest grown version, so I'm also guessing that limited exposure to traces of that would come up, but per my guess it's largely a non-issue, or at least not a greater risk than for foods. But then that risk is hard to place; it might be common for people to suffer from the cumulative effect over decades.
One last, last detail: this Xiaguan has been here in Bangkok, held by the vendor, for a long time, and this Dayi tuocha spent part of its life in Kunming and more than the second half here, so storage conditions aren't identical, but they overlap a lot. I've reviewed both before, years ago, but comparison with those earlier impressions wouldn't be so helpful. The "Jia Ji" branding term is more or a less a version tied to a somewhat consistent style, in theory, and Xiaguan makes a lot of tuocha versions, so really there is a lot more to be unpacked about what that version was like initially, and where it stands in relation to others, it's just not included here.
This Xiaguan version (right in all photos) is a lot more compressed, so it looks smaller for being left as chunks (and maybe it is less tea material; I didn't weigh these). It'll be interesting to see how that factors into fermentation level, once both have a few rounds to open up, and the related slower start for it works out. I'll compensate with slightly longer infusions for the Xiaguan for the first two rounds but transition pattern still won't be completely identical.
2015 Dayi Jia Ji tuocha: the pleasant effects and limitations of drinking this tea only this fermented stand out right away; it would be normal to give it another decade. At the same time warm tones are developing, and the earlier astringency edge and harsh level of bitterness have subsided. Pronounced taste is a bit like pine resin smells, with a sappy feel to the tea matching that. I like it, and I drink this version from time to time, just not very often. I picked up a sleeve of these some years back and per usual I'll probably finish them right about when they're ready to drink, in 10 more years. I have a small chunk of a 2014 version stashed somewhere but it seemed as well to emphasize the age difference for this.
It's hard to compare this experience to younger, different style tea, or older versions. I'll hold of on making any start on that.
2012 Xiaguan tuocha: it's more age transitioned, that's for sure. Much more; warmer, softer tones stand out. The sappy, harder edge feel to the Dayi, which included limited vegetal range, just isn't expressed in this. 10 years stored in Bangkok is probably more like 25 stored in a dry place in Kunming, beyond the type of transition never being identical, with that not working out as one equal, linear level.
There is an equivalent to the pine-tree sap range in this too, but a lot of warmer, smoother, towards-spice range stands out instead. I suppose it could be interpreted as similar to aromatic wood or leather, with some dried fruit input, closer to Chinese date than dried tamarind, but not exactly either. Going back and retasting the Dayi after this makes that seem all the edgier, with bitterness and a lean towards vegetal range a bit harsh (with floral tone included; it's not just like eating a dandelion leaf).
After repeated tastings of expressing how using a maxed out proportion is problematic for getting through caffeine contact and other feel range you'd think I would've learned. I'm feeling these teas after one round. It just doesn't make sense to brew 8 or 9 grams (10?) of two versions of tea and see how far you get through that. Live and not learn, it seems.
2015 Dayi, second infusion: pleasantly intense. Bitterness is at a higher level than I prefer but it's a lot lower than in a new maocha (2021) Myanmar version I just reviewed (although I may post these out of order). It's transitioning, but to keep this readable it will work to do a next flavor list next round, once it has opened up and loosened up a little.
2012 Xiaguan: intensity is at the other end of the scale for this; interesting it worked out that way, but compression level is reducing infusion strength too, in spite of going a little longer. Bitterness and astringency largely transitioning is a lot of that, but tea quality may have factored in to, or other initial character at time of production must have. This is pleasant too but some of that warm tone is towards wood and cardboard instead of spice and dried fruit (with the flavor list for both next round). It seems like I might've used less tea for this version but chunks are still unfolding, so it might even up for intensity level over the next couple of rounds.
2015 Dayi, third infusion: it's in a nice place now, with vegetal range, and even floral tones, swapped out for deeper and heavier range. Lots of warm mineral joins in, and sappiness similar to pine sap informs both flavor and feel. The feel and aftertaste effect are cool, the way this really coats your mouth, and continues on as a taste experience that seems to happen all throughout it. One part is a little like that edge in Ceylon tea bags, a black tea warmth and bite, not unlike Lipton, just framed in a completely different experience context. It's crazy thinking that a Lipton tea-bag tea drinker might relate to this, but maybe, if they could tolerate the bitterness. Intensity fading and feel softening will bring this to a nicer place, over the next few infusions and also years, if both work out like that.
2012 Xiaguan: this finally opened up to it's normal range character, I think. Feel did pick up a lot of intensity, in part probably related to letting the infusion run longer, out at 15 seconds or so ("long" is relative when proportion is this high). These flavor tones are a lot warmer than people accustomed to drinking dry stored teas might expect for this aging time-frame; I tried 2005 or 6 versions from that Chawang Shop set that were much less progressed in fermentation level. I'm not as opposed to dry storage as is conventional among pu'er drinkers, seeing it as a slowing of transition more than a clearly inferior form, but then again I'll know more about optimum transition patterns after another 10 years of trying teas, and I'll be able to place claimed negative outcomes better. I just tried a half dozen dry stored sheng versions I've kept posting about, but it doesn't help not having tried the exact same tea versions a dozen or more years ago.
There's an unusual aromatic wood tone / spice aspect in this that works to tie the rest together, as I see it. On the other side, I can also interpret this as showing potential for a full aging transition that's just not there yet.
2015 Dayi, fourth infusion: positive transition continues, but for sure I'm tapping out early in this cycle. A couple more rounds will tell two thirds of this story, and that'll be enough. Sappy, towards pine-resin character is nice, but warm tones will be better in a few more years, more developed and dominant.
2012 Xiaguan: better in relation to aging transition placement, but there's a funkiness to this the other doesn't have. It's not musty, but vaguely towards that. It seems like part of the range is missing, since the brighter and more vegetal range, and bitterness, in the other has largely dropped out, but it's only at the threshold of starting to express deeper tones and different character.
It doesn't sound like I'm describing these as a good, inexpensive replacement for what to drink right now, does it? They're drinkable, and I think keeping one of these in the rotation could make sense, if you like that range, and can keep picking up $10 or $15 versions at a Chinatown outlet. It probably makes more sense to buy them faster than you drink them, or grab a large set and hold that for a half dozen to ten years. I don't love the "locking it down" idea, someone thinking that if $10-15 is a good value and these should age well why not buy 100 and sell them for $20-25 later on, or maybe more. That would be possible, not exactly a get rich quick scheme, but probably a workable business model. And a way to keep other tea drinkers from having the same access, unfortunately.
2015 Dayi, fifth infusion: I'm brewing these out towards 20 seconds, to give an idea of how slowly I increase timing, although the point this time is to try them stronger than usual. They would match my preference better, and probably most others' preferences, brewed for around half that long. After this round and a faster infusion I'll leave off. I've been drinking these teas for an hour, since I don't rush while also making notes, and my kids and my cat keep interrupting. It's 98 F out now, the one temperature I can easily convert to C, 37, which is also human body temperature. I've gotta be the only person drinking hot tea outside in Bangkok right now.
I like that sappy, piney character, although it is a little much tried out brewed strong. This longer infusion approach probably works better for the other version.
2012 Xiaguan: it's hard to really describe this flavor impression, either by breaking it into a set or as a general impression. As a set it includes warm wood range, towards spice, with some dried fruit undertones, and some mineral base. As a general impression it's like drinking the essence of that smell of really old books in a tea version. It wouldn't be for everyone. Again it will seem to soften, deepen, and sweeten over the next few years, becoming more subtle and pleasant (I think, as I would interpret changes). It's definitely not fading away, but it's much milder in intensity than the other tea.
2015 Dayi, sixth infusion, brewed around 10 seconds: to me this is a more standard brewed intensity. Character balances as well as it's ever going to for this, with bitterness and feel edge strong but moderate compared to earlier, with warm tones a much more pronounced effect. This needs another 7 years to really move into aged range though, as long as it has had already.
2012 Xiaguan: that one odd edge becomes more pronounced as rounds go by; strange how that works out. Quite often odd character, that might be seen as a flaw, comes and goes in early rounds, but this is the opposite. It's towards a mineral effect, or that taste that I often describe as of aged furniture, or maybe less positively summarized like old books or cardboard. I think it could potentially decrease and soften over time, as character keeps shifting, but I also think it's probably a side-effect of relatively wet and hot storage, so that it won't fully drop out, it'll stay like that. It's not so separate from what I've experienced from heavy and wet Malaysian storage input, which I suppose I don't love, compared to other area forms I've tried different examples of (all a work in progress to map out). It is what it is.
I definitely don't see 7 and 12 year old tuocha-form factory teas as a good alternative for daily drinkers, but both of these are drinkable. Higher quality, whole leaf, more natural growing conditions origin teas (or at least those typically presented as such) tend to be better brand new, as newly made maocha, or even more so after 2 or 3 years of moderate aging transition.
There must be another range of "factory" (high volume production) versions that would work better for this purpose, to drink within the first 7 years of being made. Origin area and other factors enter in, plant types, processing styles, and all the rest.