Saturday 10 September 2011

you pay more for appearance

I'm imagining someone shopping for tea in an excellent tea shop.  The customer is relatively new to tea, and has only recently gotten up the nerve to actually ask to smell the tea leaves before he decides which tea he'll take home.

Although he has a selection of quite a few different sorts of tea, he's been on a bit of an Assam kick lately.  He even forces himself to drink the other tea in his tea cabinet, but he's a bit concerned that he'd actually reach for the Assam every single time (day and night) if he thought it would be ok.  He's not at all sure it's ok.  

This customer's still quite uncertain when it comes to all of this tea and its paraphernalia. He loves so much about what he's learned about loose-leaf tea, but he has to force himself not to bolt out of the tea shop when there are too many other customers present or even worse when the tea seller asks him even the simplest questions.  

So he goes into the shop at times when he hopes no-one else is there.  Today's just such a day, and the nice thing is that the tea seller is the only other person in the shop.  He asks for 100g of his latest favourite Assam, and asks about several others.  The guy behind the counter happily opens each canister for the tea to be smelled.  And then the question.  This question comes eventually.  Every tea seller knows it'll appear sooner or later.

'Why's this tea more expensive than the others?'

Well, the easiest answer is that this tea demanded more at the tea auction.

Really?  Is that it?  That's the only reason?

Actually, no.  There're so many things that go into the pricing of tea, and it's quite byzantine all the rules and machinations that are involved.  When it comes to this Assam, people seem willing to pay more if there are little golden tips on the leaves.

Don't the little golden tips on the leaves make the tea taste better?

Not necessarily.  Interestingly, how they process the tea to create the golden colour might not even be the best way to process tea for the best taste.

Hm, that's a bit odd.  This tea that's entirely black might actually taste better than the more expensive one that's black with little golden-tipped leaves.  Is that right?

It might.  It's not as if all golden tea tastes bad.  And some tea with golden-tipped leaves can be really quite exquisite.

Well for the time being, I intend to buy my tea based upon how it smells and tastes not how it looks.


This blogpost began when I considered a conversation I overheard on twitter between Geoff Norman (@lazy_literatus) & Michael J Coffey (@michaeljcoffey) about this very topic of whether the golden colour in the leaves actually made the tea taste better.  Here's exactly what Michael said over on twitter:

'Short answer: "best" flavor may require wide range of processing req's, gold color req very specific processes....Therefore, if you process for gold color, you limit what you can do with flavor...BUT people pay $$$ for color.'

Wanted to bring up the topic partially because I'm fascinated with the way tea is priced and also because I like explanations that are quirky and counter intuitive.  This one has plenty of both of these things.

1 comment:

  1. Playing only as a slight detractor to the rule o' thumb, I've gotta say that I like Yunnan Golds (especially Buds) better than other Dian Hongs. Golden Monkey comes pretty darn close, though. Assam Golden-Tips have yet to impress me other than a fifty-fifty split.

    A good indicator is probably the glowing difference between Bai Lin Gong Fu and Superior Bai Lin Gong Fu (both out of Fujian as well). Regular Bai Lin is actually better than its golder cousin. In my opinion.