Tuesday, May 16, 2017

White2Tea & The Post Truth Era of Puerh


Before I dropped off the radar you could count the number of Western puerh vendors on two hands.  On my return to puerh buying, there are so many more out there.  To me this is a good thing but a little overwhelming at first.  To be perfectly honest, I have mainly purchased all of my puerh either in person in Korea or on Taobao.  Essence of Tea and Yunnan Sourcing might be the only exceptions.

Even old, reliable sites like the classic red and gold Yunnan Sourcing website have recently made major changes (saw that one turn over recently).   Other sites like Puerhshop have really slowed down as well.  Change happens and more selection and competition is always welcome.

I’ve been trying to check out all the new vendors out there.  This article by James of TeaDB has really helped me out.  The new puerh vendors out there that I am finding the most interesting are two American puerh vendors Crimson Lotus Tea and White2Tea.  They are really taking the puerh market in different directions, no doubt, in response to past issues with buying puerh in the West.

I think Crimson Lotus is brilliant for marketing to and branding their puerh to the science fiction niche.  I have also noticed that many many people who drink puerh also enjoy science fiction- most of my puerh drinking buddies in Victoria and Korea fall into this category, I think.  Overall, it’s an interesting concept but, as always, it comes down to how good their tea is… puerh can’t lie no matter what planet it’s from!

It sounds like White2Tea is really shaking up the puerh tea world… Tea with no region, no explanation, no story, no background, no pictures of farmers, no context what so ever.  All these values line up squarely with my own tea philosophy- “A blog that is the tea’s”.  However philosophy and reality often don’t align and as I begin my search for puerh once again I find myself looking for regions, mountains, factories, producers, and vendors that I know and that have a certain characteristic, quality, profile, tack record and “house taste”.

With the White2Tea’s decision to go in this direction basically you have to either trust the brand, trust the curator TwoDog (Paul), trust others who have tried the tea and recommend it, or sample all the tea yourself and decide for yourself.  I find lots of problems with this system.

I find it eerily familiar that TwoDog has basically based his marketing of Puerh on a similar strategy as Donald Trump… has anyone else noticed this?

Firstly, he has picked up on the discontent/ dissatisfaction of many Western puerh drinkers.  Secondly, he has discredited the old system of selling puerh as basically dishonest.  Thirdly, he insists that everything that is claimed about the origin of puerh or even a singular quality of certain areas is a lie.  Forth, he is thriving off of the idea that “controversy is good for business”.  Fifth, and most importantly, he offers a solution to the problem- just simply trust his puerh.  I guess we really are living in the Post-Truth Era of puerh!

I think the only fair way to assess puerh in this Post-Truth Era would be to sample puerh from all vendors, factories, and areas blindly.  Then decide on purchase based on how much the tea was valued in the blind testing verses the actual price.  The problem is that that no one would have the time and energy and money for that type of extensive sampling.  So quite naturally we try to narrow it down to certain brands, areas, factories, and vendors from either past experiences, others recommendations, or from simply brand identification.

With all this being said, I am most compelled to try White2Tea’s young puerh over any other vendor … so I guess all this smart marketing works… I kind of feel like I want to support his vision for tea on its own merits.. I guess even if you identify the marketing strategy at hand that doesn’t always make you immune to its effects…

If we know only one thing to be true it is this- that old MattCha was probably GongFuing to Drake long before Paul (TwoDog) even knew who he was.

Peace

17 comments:

Ninja [Johnnie] said...

Very acute observations of the Pu Erh world... I think in China, the change is even more dramatic given the popularity...

World Tea Podcast said...

Interesting read and take on the pu'erh situation. I'll tip my hat to White2Tea's marketing. Very entertaining, the Snapchat is always a watch, and those labels on the bings. Credit to the direction, effort, style. Saying this, I'll side with you on the origin details, etc that Id want to know about. But I still don't find myself asking those deep questions when buying my beer.

Matt said...

Johnnie,

I really don't know what is going on in China. The info mainly comes from what vendors are telling us or what we are reading on their blogs. I wish we had an objective English opinion there.

World Tea Podcast,

Agreed- the marketing is something brilliant the puerh drinking world has never seen! It would be interesting for Paul to go even further and have all the puerh in plan white wrappers with just typewriter font names then he would literally be "White2Tea"!

The difference between puerh and beer is that puerh only has one ingredient and is minimally processed. So where it comes from is supremely important. Also, historically puerh has always been classified by location not a certain flavour or profile.

The beer I drink I usually know the hops going into it and a bit about the processing but in the end it all comes down to taste.. maybe you should start asking deep questions... or maybe I'm just too damn serious about my beer drinking...

Really the question is- Are you drinking the product or the brand?

Peace

David said...

Hi Matt! I'm really happy to be able read your blog again. It's nice to read humble and honest reflexions on tea.

I'm not going to make some proseltysm, I'll just say that I seldom recognize myself in the tastes of others on the web. I guess at some point, even if it doesn't sound appealing, one has to try and make his/her own opinion (which means samples). But once you've found the seller that matches your expectations, no need to wander anymore if he is consistent in his lineup, which will be the case if he's serious.

Good luck with your puerh quest!

Matt said...

David,

Welcome back. Thanks for all the thoughtful commentary you have added over the years. Much appreciated.

You are right- the puerh vendor or factory has to earn or match your expectations of a certain quality to price ratio. Once trusted, if you deem the quality to price to be consistent over the years then you have found the right one for you. You need not look any further.

However, there are also problems with being complaisant, settling, and only ordering puerh from a few vendors. I think Marshal'N warned of this in a post on his blog.

Peace

David said...

I believe I have read this article from Marshal'N. In the end, you have to ask which are you criteria for selecting teas. Is it price first, age, factory, terroir, Qi? Some sellers are very specific about the way they select teas, for example : https://www.essenceoftea.com/blog/2012/09/29/criteria-for-tasting-teas/

I only drink teas that are naturally farmed. No chemicals whatsoever, even if possible no compost nor organic fertilizers. These teas give me the best drinking feelings. Therefore, the list of trustworthy vendors, who select themselves and test their teas, and who I implicitly trust, is fairly limited.

Matt said...

David,

Thanks for pointing me to that post it is a good one. It has helped me frame what it is exactly I am looking for.

When I was buying puerh 10 years ago there were no gaurntees of Organic. You pretty much had to try it and listen to your body. So for some of the first stuff I have ordered it's pretty much just that. I didn't know that there were some vendors pretty much focused on Organic productions.

Peace

AtlasAirborne said...

Interesting parallel with the whole Trump post-truth thing, but I'm not sure it's at all accurate.

With W2T, the point being made is that the assertions being made by vendors regarding provenance are often *inherently unverifiable* (which is accurate) and that to accept them you must trust the word of people for whom complete honesty is necessarily a significant disadvantage (also accurate).

Additionally, the only comment I've seen that amounts to "trust ME instead" was something along the lines of "I only sell tea that I would drink myself", which is pretty tame. More often, I've seen TwoDog say "trust your tongue - if you like the tea, it's good tea". This is a completely reasonable statement unless you hold that tea has value based on provenance even if that provenance is not verifiable - ie that a 20yo tea that tastes "good" is objectively worth more than a 5yo tea that tastes "equally good".

That TwoDog has noticed dissatisfaction among consumers and attempted to market a solution to their perceived problem has nothing to do with politics - it's the basis for pretty much any reactive business premise.

Matt said...

AtlasAirBorne,

Welcome to MattCha's Blog.

What is interesting is that ever since I remember the providence of puerh has always been questionable. You always had to "trust your tongue". Really nothing here has really changed this is always the way it was. However, it was always the factory or vendor's responsibility to guarantee the providence as best they could. It seems like TwoDog has given up on this traditional model.

Peace

Scott Wilson said...

I basically agree that the merit is in the tea itself. But there are also a ton of people who want to learn about the regions, aging conditions, age of trees, etc, etc. I do find this can be a distraction and can create bias, but people want to learn and I am doing my best to oblige them by providing atleast some information. It's really hard to learn about pu-erh with no information about it. It helped me on my journey immensely when I met people that I could trust to tell me where the tea came from, is it old tree (or not), single-estate or blended, storage history, etc etc. Without this information, it would have been hard to learn as much as I did. I also encountered tons of liars through the years who would intentionally give false information to make their teas seem more attractive. As I broadened my contacts and "drinking" experiences it was easier and easier to weed out the "bullshit" sellers in favor of the legit sellers and growers.

Teaching customers about the teas and why they are the way they are is a double-edged sword. As they learn more and decide (for example) that they love Yi Wu teas, they are inevitably going to find more Yi Wu teas regardless of the vendor, I can only hope that the Yi Wu teas I sell will be amongst the ones they enjoy and choose. Not only that, but as the customers get more and more educated the more disciplined the seller must be with his/her offerings and his own tea drinking prowess.

By not sharing any information at all it makes the customer dependent on "the cult of the master" to choose their teas for them. I see it as a dead-end for people who really want to learn and explore teas. I am not faulting w2t and their approach, as it works for them and they have plenty of good teas, it just doesn't reflect my values and seems like an incompatible format for those who want to grow their pu-erh knowledge and explore the huge offerings that exist out there.

Scott Wilson said...

AtlasAirborne,

I don't agree at all with this statement:

"assertions being made by vendors regarding provenance are often *inherently unverifiable* (which is accurate) and that to accept them you must trust the word of people for whom complete honesty is necessarily a significant disadvantage (also accurate)."

In fact it's very much a good idea for a vendor to be truthful about provenance, since there are many other vendors and brands out there producing teas from famous areas. As I mentioned in my other comment, consumers are becoming more and more sophisticated as they sample and compare teas from the same provenance from multiple vendors to make their choice. Honesty has been a huge advantage for my business and will continue to be in the future. Of course it's not possible to prove in every instance that such and such tea came from such and such garden but why is something that's "inherently unverifiable" automatically inaccurate?

Matt said...

Scott Wilson,

Hahaha... I think you are a bit more blunt than I.

I find it interesting that Paul (TwoDog) of White2Tea has found other unique ways of educating his patrons such as giving them tea experiments through his tea club.

I've been reading about it from OolongOwl here:

http://oolongowl.com/april-2017-white2tea-club-feat-dancong-drinking-experiment/

He also offers other educational opportunities such as his sister/brother bricks:

https://white2tea.com/product/2016-sister-brother/

This is all good and well and very interesting and creative but I find it also problematic. First of all, it is basically Paul/TwoDog telling you how to learn about puerh instead of doing the work on your own and drawing your own conclusions. Secondly, do these educational experiences actually equip the buyer at selecting better tea? Or are they just about processing, brewing tea, and storing tea but nothing about educating the buyer in tea evaluation in helping them select better teas for the money they spend?

I would much rather learn about the latter. The easiest way to do that would be to sample teas from different vendors from the same region and compare the quality and cost... Oops can't do THAT kind of learning with White2Tea!

Recently David (Nada) from Essence of Tea has made comments on his blog about how time consuming and difficult it is to guarantee the providence of the puerh he is pressing. His solution to the problem was to stick to trusted farmers by forming long term relationship (and buying agreements?) with them. By the sounds of things it seems quite difficult for Western vendors (likely Chinese vendors as well) to guarantee providence these days and it seems like Essence of Tea and White2Tea have simply devised different models to deal with this issue. Thanks for giving us the Yunnan Sourcing perspective to this problem- a long history, experience and trusted relationships.

Aside- I just wanted to add that there is a very similar discussion taking place about vendors and providence on James' blog TeaDB on tree age for anyone who is interested here:

https://teadb.org/tree-age-puerh/#comments

Peace

Matt said...

Readers,

This is another recent article and discussion about truth in the puerh industry that you might find interesting:

http://deathbytea.blogspot.com/2015/04/this-much-is-true.html

Peace

Scott Wilson said...

Matt,

Well imagine the wine industry evolving along the lines of not wanting or being able to provide provenance for the wines they sell? You'd have bottles of "It's Good, Drink It", or "Yummy Red" with no reference to whether they came from Oregon, or California, Napa or Santa Ynez. The level of sophistication we see now both in the wine market would never allow for that approach because educated buyers of wine very much enjoy the experience the regions and vintages. It's not to say there are not blended wines that are good or wines that do not refer to the area but they are not the majority, simply because people enjoy that comparison.

In the last 5 years I have seen alot more small producers (including Hai Lang Hao) who produce teas with no reference to the area at all. The most basic motivation in the Chinese market for small pu-erh producers to do this is that they cannot be compared with other teas. If a producer makes a Jing Mai Gu Shu cake, then it will be one of hundreds of choices and people will be able to compare all the Jing Mai's and the prices being charged and make a choice. It's a tough business and to have a tea that nobody else has (atleast in name) makes alot easier to sell, and for a higher price as it has no peers in the marketplace. It alone is unique! From a producer standpoint this makes alot of sense to remove yourself from having to compete with the vast Chinese market to sell your teas.

I certainly don't blame other vendors for taking this approach. Depending on their customer base and sourcing situation it might well be the best choice. I created my own brand because I wanted to be able to sell teas that nobody else had. I could have taken it a step further and stopped sharing the provenance of the teas and giving them pretty names but it would be a hard sell to the customer base I developed. I am a collector by nature and so if I was collecting YS teas then I'd be much more likely to want to do so if I was able to say... I have the Spring and Autumn Da Qing Gu Shus from 2014-2017, and the 2009-2014 Spring Yi Wu Man Zhuans... etc etc. It's just how my brain wants it to be.

The pu-erh market is vast and the consumers are varied, so I really think that there is room for all kinds of approaches. In the case of YS, W2T, EOT, Crimson Lotus, etc... I think we are people trying to live out our dreams through our work. I think it's a wonderful that we are able to do it, and even more wonderful that people support us in it.

https://youtu.be/rpkNJTJBSPI

Matt said...

Scott Wilson,

I suppose that is one of the reasons I really want to support White2Tea by purchasing or at least sampling their puerh. To support his very unique vision and alternative approach in diversifying the puerh market.

Peace

Cwyn N said...

This is a good piece, and discussion. And I think Matt gets the point of Post-Truth, as does Scott, the market has room now for a number of approaches. You can buy or not as you choose these days, we are lucky as buyers to have so many choices.

The successful puerh vendor requires qualities of an exceptional human being: a high intelligence, sensitivity and subtlety in dealing with people in general; the same in selecting tea, and not least a willingness to self-critique and accept the critiques of others. There is no room for mental illness or arrogance because people simply won't deal with such a person. By comparison, a far different person can get away with critiquing.

Supporting the efforts of a puerh vendor usually means more than just good tea, especially when considering a monthly tea subscription. I think people who join a tea club are not necessarily requiring more tea education or knowledge about regions. Instead, club members recognize that the puerh vendor has what it takes to select good tea, is incredibly talented in all aspects of the business, and is about honing their craft.

A buyer might say, "well I don't want to support someone's learning process," so then buying the finished product is probably the way to go. But it's a unique opportunity to support the efforts of talented vendors to join a tea club, which is a way to participate in the current thought process of the vendor, to go along for the ride, and be in a position to offer feedback. Not to mention that many tea club subs include a discount when buying the full teas along with access to teas not for sale.

I currently don't belong to any tea clubs mainly because my money only goes so far, and I had to put my preference for buying full finished products ahead of other ways to enjoy tea. I can spend my money more widely but I'd join all the clubs if I could!

Matt said...

Cwyn,

If someone reads this post and discussion and thinks it's in anyway political, they have completely missed the point.

Paul's tea club looks like a blast! If it was focused completely on raw puerh I would at least consider it. I think people looking to learn a bit, be involved with the brand and the process of the vendor will enjoy this one.

Peace