The subject of this vendor won't end. The back-story should be familiar: Mei Leaf is either regarded positively, as a good source of tea and informational videos, with a personable owner (Don Mei), or else negatively, as a vendor prone to exaggeration, overcharging, PR mis-steps, or even lying and making false product claims. Some people see Don Mei as annoying instead, as a tea vendor version of a used car salesman. Can both perspectives be right? Probably, in this case, but I do settle more on the second myself.
I've written about Mei Leaf before, reviewing their teas, and speaking about this controversy, and about published product details that look a little off. Really all this takes some unpacking. In general I'm not the person to tell people who not to buy tea from; I have no interest in that. The problem comes in that I do discuss tea issues in a variety of places, and informing people of options also overlaps with conveying negative impressions of some of those. Let's start with an example that's not Mei Leaf, and unpack the Don Mei controversies one by one after that.
Some of all this maps onto either mentioning, or else not telling people, that Harney and Sons is a limited range option in beginner tea groups. It's probably not bad as the actual tea products go; probably as good as tea that comes in tins tends to get, selling at a good value. But moving past cinnamon spice flavored versions and mass-produced conventional types is a standard step people take in tea exploration, or else don't, if they never really dig deeper and branch out.
First, for further reading in this post I said a bit about a tea issue, obvious contradictions in that product listing (not directly related to the roasting sheng issue, but indirectly related). And I've reviewed a tea from Mei Leaf here, a long time ago, 5 years ago to be specific, back when the brand was named China Life. I went to a tasting where a number of their teas were served in February of 2017, 4 years ago, and I'm not sure if the re-branding had went through then or not, but at a guess it already had then.
It doesn't matter, to me; changing a company name doesn't wipe the slate clean, related to then selling different things or using a different approach. Obviously sourcing could have improved since then (it really should have), and pricing strategy could have changed (although it probably didn't), so let's start there.
1. Sourcing, quality level, and pricing
The typical discussion claims aren't that Mei Leaf tea is bad. The often expressed theme is that their tea is overpriced for as good as it is. There's an easy answer to that, but it's a little too easy: teas sold out of physical shops are almost always higher in cost, because you pay extra overhead for the site rental, staffing, related costs, etc. I'm open to paying a bit more in physical shops from time to time, to support all that, and keep shops open as a valuable option. Luckily it doesn't work out that way related to Bangkok Chinatown shops, because overhead there is so low, but that's a tangent I won't address further here.
To me a primarily online business cannot use that as justification for describing teas as better than they really are, or selling well outside a standard price range. But then there is no standard price range, to some extent; vendors can charge whatever they want for tea. Vendors can state how good they think a tea is but that's always vague, and every tea is always described as good tea, in one form or another. Pricing tends to imply a quality level, but it's not a direct connection.
Let's look at an example of how one particular tea type stacks up related to this, to get a feel for how well what I'm claiming really works (which is partly based on echoing a hearsay claim, and partly on making that same claim based on personal experience). I picked a standard, well-known tea type to compare across different vendor sources, a type of Dan Cong (Chaozhou, Guangdong origin oolong). This wasn't an example cherry-picked to show this difference, but instead one that should be easy to find versions of elsewhere, since no single tea type has been the subject of as much hype as this one:
Mei Leaf Duck Shit (Ya Shi) Dan Cong oolong, 1.14 cents per gram (30 gram quantity)
Wuyi Origin Ya Shi / Duck Shit Dan Cong, 48 cents a gram (25 gram quantity)
Tea Drunk (NYC shop) Ya Shi / Duck Shit Dan Cong, $2.25 / gram (28 gram quantity)**
Seven Cups (online shop) Yu Lan Xiang Dan Cong, 56 cents per gram (per 50 g; the most expensive Dan Cong they currently list, with no Ya Shi in stock now)
Yunnan Sourcing King of Duck Shit Dan Cong, 55 cents per gram (per 10 grams)
**Note: this Tea Drunk citation was an error in the first published version, mixing up a 7 gram and 28 gram pricing for the calculation. $2.25 is getting up there for tea pricing, but for the highest physical shop overhead cost range and most expensive tea type it might be a more reasonable value than it seems in comparison. Really tea pricing depends on quality, and it's not as if there is any clear ceiling on those levels (quality or market price), as if $3-4 per gram for an unusual type of rare and high-demand product couldn't possibly make sense.
some Wuyi Origin already brewed Ya Shi / duck shit leaves
See a pattern? The "two" physical shop locations are priced higher (with an error in the original write-up related to one), and the rest around 50 cents a gram. The Seven Cups example isn't actually Ya Shi, but since they sold a half dozen types of currently listed Dan Cong, and that was the most expensive example, it probably works to assume their Ya Shi, when back in stock, would be around that range. If it was really 10-20% higher that doesn't change the story being told here.
But what about quality level? That's really what determines value in relation to price for any tea. Is it possible that Mei Leaf sells the best Ya Shi version of these five vendors? Technically yes, but in practice no, not really.
Anything is possible, but Wuyi Origin is an incredibly well regarded, award winning direct from China vendor (don't take my word for that; do a search in any tea forum or group of that vendor name and confirm it yourself). Seven Cups is a very well regarded online US site; the owner of that business played a formative role in developing current specialty tea awareness and culture to what it is now.
Tea Drunk I'm a little less comfortable making claims about. That shop name comes up, as one of the best positioned shops in NYC, but someone would have to try the tea versions to get any decent input. Nicole Wilson of Tea for Me Please says that their teas are good; that means something to me (even mentioning this type in that post). Yunnan Sourcing probably isn't buying Dan Cong of the same quality level as Wuyi Origin and Seven Cups (which Wuyi Origin is making, not buying), but again tasting the teas would be better input than anyone's guesses. It's standing in here as an extra comparison anyway, as a standard online vendor example.
Let me be clear on part of this context: hearsay is valid input; it just has limits. A longstanding tea acquaintance who lived in London passed on his evaluation that Mei Leaf teas aren't bad, but also not good, and definitely not worth what they cost. That kind of input needs to be evaluated in relation to the source, and I trust that guy's opinion about as much as any others. He said that Post Card Teas (a physical shop there) are also a bit pricey, but at least better in quality level.
I've tried more than a half dozen versions of Mei Leaf teas myself, some just before the roughly 4 year back re-branding, and that really described all of them; good but not great, and not a good value. To be clear if I don't like a tea I typically won't review it, so everything appearing in this blog doesn't represent everything I've tried.
That reminds me to look up the first tea I ever tried from China Life (re-branded as Mei Leaf), a Dian Hong (Yunnan black) version, to check on cost and value for that buds based tea, reviewed in 2016, so 5 years ago. I didn't mention value then; as is common for most bloggers I will only do so when a tea seems to be a great value, or if there is a concern that one is outside a standard pricing range on the high side. I wouldn't have as easily evaluated value 5 years ago, especially for a less common tea type. I looked up that pricing on the Wayback Machine internet page history: it was selling for 14.50 British pounds for 30 grams, or equivalent to about 65 cents per gram converted today. That's a good bit for a black tea, even a buds based version, but 5 years ago that would've been sky high pricing. Over time people have acclimated to approaching $1/gram for rarer, higher demand versions, but it wasn't always like that.
This dated pricing issue--all these personal experience references from 4 years back or older--brings up an obvious problem: no one who has spent years figuring out sourcing preferences and has noticed that Mei Leaf's pricing runs high, per quality of tea, or just in general, really, is going to have sampled a lot of their prior Spring lineup to keep on confirming that. Unless they just figured this out. They would move on, source-wise. Let's check one more tea type that is familiar to me, Jing Mai sheng pu'er, one of the main origin regions, known for approachable character and somewhat moderate cost versions.
2. Second tea type comparison, Jing Mai origin sheng pu'er
A bit of a problem, since Mei Leaf only lists a blended version, but in a sense that should be instructive.
Paradise Snapper, He Kai & Jing Mai Sheng Gushu Spring 2020 (47.5 cents per gram, $95 for a 200 gram cake)
One of the most crisp, physical and zesty PuErh teas, made from a blend of He Kai and Jing Mai Gushu trees (estimated 300-400 years).
We wanted to create a tea which was bright, bracing, physical and delicious. Jing Mai is well known for its bright, high and zesty aromatics and we love this area for this character. This year we wanted to add a more adult edge to this lighter tea region by blending with another of our favourite regions - He Kai.
He Kai is in the West of Xishuangbanna and has a resinous, creamy and mineral character. Blended with the Jing Mai, the result is a very unique and powerful tea. The orange, apples and sweet flowers of Jing Mai combine with the mastic cream and rocky quench of He Kai to make a tea which is one of the most engaging teas.
Bright, zesty, crisp and quenching with plenty of physical bite and a deep Hui Gan sweetness. A wild and untamed tea with potent effects.
Who knows about the colorful description part; we can really set that aside. Both teas are estimated to originate from 300 to 400 year old tea trees; that's dubious. It's just not possible to date tree ages like that, for reasons that are explained in that video. Good gushu versions of sheng are typically sold for around $1/gram, and I've never heard of a gushu version being used in a blend; that just doesn't happen, typically. Blending is usually used for moderate quality material, to offset flaws in multiple versions, and to create something better than more than one limited-appeal input.
I've recently reviewed Jing Mai versions selling for around $30 (kind of low) and $70-some per 357 gram cake, and bought one sold for closer to $90 last year, but this "gushu" issue throws that off. I just doubt that it is that. Let's check in with a standard, known, reasonably well-regarded source on what their high-end Jing Mai is selling for, and in what form, from Crimson Lotus, a main US vendor:
Elemental Puerh - 2020 Jingmai Old Tree Sheng Puerh Tea Dragon Balls $ 16.99 (6 8-gram dragonballs, so 48 grams of tea, selling at 35 cents a gram, or $126 for a standard sized cake).
To start, I wouldn't buy dragonballs. Those never brew well, related to the first several rounds brewing the outside layer while the middle unfurls. This is described as from "old tree material" but that's it; I would assume that means "gushu," in excess of 100 years, or however one uses a timeframe cut-off for that term, but not necessarily 300 to 400 years old plants. That comparison really didn't help a lot, but it is limited input, an indirect sort of baseline.
A reasonably well-regarded Jing Mai based vendor, Farmerleaf, tends to sell "wild arbor" presented teas from Jing Mai in the $80-100 per cake range, with gushu material selling for that more standard $1/gram range. Here's an example of that, maybe a great-value tea for selling for $58 per 100 grams (so 58 cents per gram):
Every Spring season, we're busy making tea in Jingmai Mountain. We pressed most of our ancient garden productions into the Jingmai Gulan cake. We also keep a few batches from our favorite gardens in loose leaf form.
Ai Ban is located on the South-Eastern slope of Da Ping Zhang, it is cultivated by one of our uncles and grows leaves of consistently high quality.
This tea has an amazing mouthfeel, a mix of minerality and flowery freshness that makes it distinct from other tea gardens in Jingmai. On top of this special mouthfeel, you'll get a deep and lingering sweetness in the throat and a complex fragrance.
That "Gulan" cake they just mentioned had listed for $268 for 357 grams; not quite $1/gram but approaching that, 75 cents instead.
So what should we make of a blended, well-known source area cake, with old plant material selling for 50 cents a gram? It's open to interpretation. It sounds fishy to me, related to this needing to be a high-quality blend versus a mix that compensates for flaws, but if someone wanted to believe it is "real" they could. And that is really the gist of the last blog post I wrote that talked about Mei Leaf; if someone is looking to accept what any given vendor says they don't need a lot of evidence to just go ahead and like a tea, maybe even especially an expensive one.
About blending, I don't mean to imply that it's an invalid practice, or that results can't be spectacular, with great material used as input. That's seemingly the theory behind Farmerleaf mixing sources for that Gulan cake, and Crimson Lotus specializes in making sheng versions based around this principle, as White2Tea does, and Kuura (an Australian source); lots of vendors. To me it's not unrelated to how very good Cabernet can be sold on its own or else blended as a Bordeaux style blend, not necessarily considered a lesser wine for being mixed with other grape type inputs, or necessarily selling for less. In the world of tea a 50 cent per gram blended sheng is unconventional, but it's not as if it couldn't possibly make sense.
Of all these Jing Mai versions I've discussed (that I've tried) this second one listed from Tea Mania, a 2016 tea without the age shown, might be the best (per my judgment, which is a bit subjective). But then different versions have different strengths, and are at different places in an aging cycle, making it harder to judge a favorite. It was a great value at $65 per 357 gram cake, reviewed here along with a Moychay version comparing the two. But then I liked the freshness related to being newer in the Moychay version, and the Tea Mania version has settled and aged really well since that tasting. I think the two were just made in different styles.
3. Exaggerated tea descriptions
I don't care about that part. Description is a subjective process, and obviously Don has a good imagination, and continuing on and on with tea description is up to him. Maybe it's even accurate. In general vendors, bloggers, and people just discussing tea tend to only list a few main aspects of a version, maybe up to a half dozen, often including some feel and aftertaste coverage, so it's atypical.
You can't really criticize the elaborate "cha qi / feel" descriptions, unless you are very sensitive to such things yourself, and have tried the teas, so who knows about that part too. I suppose it's all a bit much.
4. Scandals, obvious lies
I really want to include this part in order to mostly set it aside. One of the most recent scandals related to Mei Leaf related to them including Native American image themed stickers along with products, which of course caused outrage. In a sense that's not even about tea.
An earlier claim that tea came from 1600 year old tea plants was the highest profile claim problem. The oldest documented tea plants are right around that age, so to say that a moderate cost produced tea is from essentially the oldest tea plants in existence reflects a clear lack of awareness of that background. Maybe the source was over 100 year old plants (gushu), and maybe it wasn't, but anyone making 1000+ year old tea plant claims is just pushing fictional story lines to an absurd degree, most likely just repeating what some farmer told them, which never made sense originally.
Then almost every sheng pu'er Mei Leaf sells is gushu (old plant sourced), even if it's blended or roasted, or shu. Some matches a price that might make sense, and some is obviously too low, because source area wholesale costs do settle to known levels. The general price levels are high enough to cover some relatively exaggerated claims (like selling Ya Shi for $1.14 per gram; if it was great tea that would be high enough, but not unfair), but once the claims become outrageous enough the $1 a gram range no longer applies, for example trying to say a Spring LBZ is selling for that (which I don't think Mei Leaf would do, but other somewhat related examples do come up).
The roasted sheng I mentioned in the earlier post works as an example: supposedly that starting point material was 500 year old Lao Man E plant source sheng, which they were selling for 80 cents a gram, which they then roasted on a whim. The source and pricing claim is a bit of a stretch (kind of absurd to the point of impossible), but then using a roasting step for a tea like that makes just as little sense. It's conceivable that it was flawed tea, explaining the unlikely rare source origin and for-type moderate cost, and roasting it "saved" it, but that's not much of a practical story line that makes sense of an odd mix of ideas.
I don't see the obvious scandal issues as problematic as these other details not adding up. If you watch Don's videos you can spot obvious mistakes or errors, if you know what you are looking for, and in essentially all cases those are sales points for his own teas. This is a bigger problem, that small omissions or bigger errors point towards details not always being right.
5. Taking advantage of tea "newbies"
This bothers me. People claim that "I've learned a lot from Don's videos," and I agree that well over 95% of the content is completely accurate, maybe 99% of it. He has done a lot for tea awareness. Then he also exaggerates tea descriptions, includes errors obvious enough to spot in some product descriptions, and surely includes many errors that you can't easily identify in others (although some you can spot, if you know the content as well as he does). Would it matter if most sheng he sells is really from the next village or region over, instead of as described, or from younger plants instead of older ones? Sort of. Maybe not, in a different sense.
It makes sense to use vendors that you think you can trust to help identify those issues for yourself as you learn, and if a vendor is including obviously false claims then they are also probably including harder to identify ones.
Setting that aside, the value issue alone makes Mei Leaf a bad source of tea. At a guess his Ya Shi version really probably is on par with Yunnan Sourcing's (it's probably harder for a business based out of Yunnan to source great Chaozhou origin tea), and not as high in quality as the other three sources I listed. Two of those three sell tea that's probably better for around half as much. At best the quality level is equivalent, but I doubt that's true, given the reputation of at least two of those vendors. This is back to where you can benefit from following the input of others who have been through this vendor review process long before you ever even started.
One problem with that approach is that if you ask around in places where most people are new to tea, like in this Reddit question, you won't be drawing on that kind of experience. People on the newer side of the experience curve are active there, in general, with notable exceptions in a more experienced core group there.
Someone could raise the argument that all this isn't fair to Don, that if he's going through a learning curve himself then his business practices and tea quality level from 4 to 5 years ago don't apply to what he's doing today. Maybe. That still requires that someone accept that he's selling tea versions that are so much better than the best regarded US sources that they are worth twice as much, per that one Ya Shi oolong example. Or it shifts emphasis to wanting to support Don, to pay extra to help him, for producing good online content (let's say), like a tea vendor Patreon sort of theme. I follow that line of reasoning myself, in supporting local shops, I just see Mei Leaf's main business as online sales.
To be clear I have nothing against Don personally. He runs a business, he's trying to make a profit, and that's valid. As I see it my role of trying to support tea awareness--which he also does--directly contradicts his apparent business practices, which as I interpret it relates to charging higher than normal market rates for tea. Again, it's possible, just seemingly unlikely, that Mei Leaf is selling the best quality tea available on the Western market, and that pricing practice is justified. More likely it's that physical shops tend to charge more to cover overhead, and they hold to that.