Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ma Lian Dao Prices Are Impressive; the Tea, Not So Much

Are you having a mid-life crisis and self-doubt or a general case of low self-esteem? You're lonely and starving for attention? Just having a tough day at the office and need to see a welcoming face? I can recommend a place that'll cure all those ills: Beijing's Ma Lian Dao wholesale tea district! I spent the day roaming around and was only able to finish ONE building. I ended up so exhausted that I fell asleep in the car going home. I am again forced to admit that I'm getting old!

I can't remember anywhere where hundreds of people showered all their attention on me (weekdays are very slow at the wholesale markets). Everyone is ready with a big smile and an invitation to come into their store for a look-see or a free sample of any of their teas. They scrambled to open freezers to show me their best tie guan yin (green style tie guan yin are typically kept in a freezer to retain freshness) and if I even looked like I wanted to stop at their store, they snapped to attention and were ready to serve! If I could import this kind of work ethic and attitude for my employees I'd be rich (sorry Michael).

What impressed me most was the fact that no one was going "psssh, come over here, my tea is better than his," or "my tea is cheaper, come over here!" All they're doing is smiling and inviting me into their stores and if I looked even a bit hesitant, they assured me, "don't worry, you don't have to buy anything. Just come in and look and sample our tea!" If that kind of attitude doesn't help your self-esteem, I don't know what will.


After many stops and cuppings and observations, I came to a shop with many big tins with signs reading "Aged Tie Guan Yin." I paused and the young man whisked me into his store with a big smile, asking "Uncle, what can I make for you?" I hated the Uncle thing, but he seemed like a nice kid so I asked him to show me some aged tie guan yin. After looking at three or four I asked if we could taste them. He responded with a big "yes, of course!"

After cupping three teas I felt like my welcome was wearing a little thin (but only in my mind, since I didn't plan to buy anything; he had a great attitude). He offered to show me his best stuff. I selected two samples for cupping; one was at the whopping price of 4,500 yuan per half kilo (about US$700/pound). After shaking my head on that one he said he had one even better. I gasped at the price of 7,500 yuan per half kilo (over US$1,000/pound)!

He assured me that he wouldn't call the police if I didn't buy any, but the sad fact was that the kid hadn't caught on that I'm in the business (I have to work on my swagger). The tea wasn't worth anywhere near that price. It was high-fired but not fermented (oxidized) enough, so firing it over and over again didn't improve the taste or color. It produced a darkish color instead of a bright reddish color that a well seasoned and fermented oolong would typically yield. I hate to be like this, but psssh, come over to my store, I have an aged oolong that you can steal...

3 comments:

Jason Witt said...

Oh no! They were all smiles and gracious friendly, communal attitudes and then the one you chose tried to trick you. I suppose that could happen anywhere, in any country. Reading about these adventures gives me a good taste of what it's like to shop at these wholesalers. I don't know if I'm expert enough to not be taken advantage of, though.

--------------------------------------- said...

Low self-esteem? A mid-life crisis? Second guesses? I suspect there are others on the blog who will assure you that you have made a huge difference in their lives.

A few hours you spent with my wife and I earlier in the decade changed how we approached tea, and your passion and knowledge began a life-long journey into the mysteries of boiling water, finding the right temperature, getting to know a tea, adjusting a hundred variables...

I grew up among master craftspeople and have spent my adult life among colleagues who are teachers and scholars, you taught me how to combine all three with a love of tea. Before, tea was something one drank and, yes, enjoyed, but coming to see it as a craft it takes decades to understand...not to mention the pleasure which now comes with sharing a well brewed cup.

I can only guess how many others began to understand tea through what you've done with your life, and how your understanding and passion has rippled out.

We are all getting older. If you have figured out a cure, please share, but I shouldn't characterize it as a pathology. Without the experience and knowledge age brings, our reach and effect would be smaller. Think of all you have to teach and can do you couldn't have a decade or two ago. This blog, the tea courts, and how the folks in China (and America) are approaching you and courting your knowledge and business are evidence of your extended reach.

By the way, is it possible there are places in the states where you could establish a tea farm and help get others thinking about growing tea? It would go a long way toward establishing a culture of tea here.

Steve Brandon

Roy Fong said...

Hi Jason, in big cities like Beijing, the cheating isn't nearly as bad as it can be, my sense is that no many are trying to cheat but rather, most of them don't really have the right info themselves, arm yourself with experience is the best way to go and where else can you get it for free?

Hey Steve, thanks for the remarks and yes tea keeps me going everyday of the week and thanks to you and many others who help me continue, thank YOU!

Roy