5 Ways Tea Shops Bend the Truth
There are a lot of tea stores out there and a lot of different prices, pictures, and conflicting descriptions for the same products. Whats a tea buyer to do?
Where does marketing turn into deception? That's not for me to decide, but I do want to show you how tea shops bend the truth. Some of these techniques may just be part of marketing, but others give me a bad felling so I want you to know what I look out for. Even truly honest shops can get wrapped up in a tall tale since they have to trust their suppliers, who have to trust their farmers and tea makers. Deception can get into the supply chain in many locations, but I want you to be able to do the best you can to assess a product.
What follows are some of the things I look for when assessing a product description. Examples will be about Wuyi teas, since that is what I know best.
1. Marketing Fluff
Any product description is written with one thing in mind: to positively influence a purchase decision. There will be more information than you need, and you have to filter it out. One thing that bothers me is when the description puts in true information that is not about the product. In descriptions of Wuyi teas I often see things like how top grade tea should taste or information about historic auctions of the most prestigious harvests. Without knowing the intent of the author you can never be sure why the information was included. It could be just to provide more information or a historic background to increase the intrigue of the product on sale.
"Top quality ___ tea is known for its ability to ____." Great, how about you tell me how well this tea does that?
"Da Hong Pao tea once sold at auction for prices higher than its weight in gold. True statement, but completely irrelevant to this product description.
When you compare products between vendors, strip away the marketing fluff and find out as many concrete details as you can such as where the tea is from, when was it harvested, and how was it processed. If the description has a lot of fluff, put a little more care into determining what you are really going to get.
2. Pictures of Famous Tea Gardens
Many product descriptions include pictures of famous tea gardens. These photos could very well be descried as more irrelevant information, but I will discuss them separately. Product descriptions should describe the product. Product photos should photograph the product. Adding photos of famous tea gardens is deception. You are creating a fantasy in the customers mind that the tea they are buying is from that garden, or at least one of similar quality. Many Da Hong Pao descriptions include a photo of the original historic bushes. This is fine if well described; and I have seen many product descriptions that talk about how this tea is from a line of cuttings that originated with one of those bushes. What is unacceptable is photos of other gardens in the zhengyan area attached to a description for tea that is far too cheap.
3. Location Doesn't Match Description
Many teas carry a premium based on the location they were grown. Wuyi teas in partiucular are known for the yan yun (岩韵, rock rhyme) which comes from the conditions the trees are grown in. In comparison to an open field, the locations which yield the best yancha have rocky soil and steep cliffs on both sides that limit light and capture moisture and fog. The rocky soil has lower nitrogen content and higher potassium, zinc, and selenium than normal cropland.
Da Hong Pao described as top grade and authentic having a listed origin of Tongmu. Tongmu is the authentic location for Jin Jun Mei, not Da Hong Pao.
I get suspicious when the locations are particularly vague. I've seen descriptions for Wuyi tea as being from "north Fujian". The Chinese standard for "Wuyi tea" specifies that it must have been grown within the land belonging to Wuyishan City. Similarly when you see a description for Wuyi tea with a specific location that is outside Wuyishan you should be more careful.
4. Perceived Scarcity
Any time you see the following sentence you need to look sharp: "x is one of the only y left who still does z", is this plausible? How does this product compare against others on the market? If the product looks the same, and costs the same, then it is unlikely that this producer is the only one who still follows some ancient labor intensive procedure.
Another phrase to increase the perceived scarcity is saying that a vendor "purchased the entire crop" of a particular tea. There are hundreds of tea farmers and tea factories in Wuyishan. A particular farm might make a few hundred kilograms of tea in their main harvest. That will be broken up across four or more cultivars. Its not particularly extraordinary for a single purchase to make up all or the bulk of a particular variety and grade of tea from a particular farmer. Don't let these techniques succeed in making you feel like you have struck upon something special.
5. Does the Price Match the Product
Sometimes you will see a product of a lower grade with the price of a higher grade. The vendor is hoping you will think that this product is the higher quality one. This happens the other way when a low price is described as being a higher quality product than it is. Sadly you won't find any Zhengyan Da Hong Pao for $5 per ounce. If the price doesn't feel right, then something is likely wrong.
Sadly, the best way to get a quality honest product is to get experience and learn which vendors are worth trusting with your business. Purchases that don't meet your expectations should be thought of as tuition; you are still learning more about tea. The only way to get quality tea is to learn what makes a particular tea good or bad and buy samples to try before committing to a larger purchase.