Looking for makers in tea producing regions is always a shot in the dark. You never know what you are going to get until it is too late. Sometimes you get lucky and they are really great produces and good people. Most often they are average farmers who are friendly who knowing lack good tea and are fine with you sitting down tasting a few things, then leaving. Everyone once in a while though you get one who have bad business practices and air on the side of dishonest. This story, is one of those times.
My trip to Panxi, Fu Ding started off great. I stepped out of the cab and into a town that seemed to be half-developed and half old school; clean storefronts next to wooden structures. I started walking down a random road and popped into the first tea shop I saw. Rookie mistake. I have learned its better to walk past a few, get the feel of the town, then go in. Inside this shop was a man and his wife.
They looked up as I came in and I asked for Silver Needle. The man went to one of the boxes and pulled out a silver needle that was hairy, too hairy. Now I know what you are thinking, “How can it be too hairy??”. This one was so hairy that it confused me. I had never seen so many long white hairs on the bud. It wasn’t just the number of hairs, it was the size of the hairs. They were much longer and bigger than I was use to seeing. I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad, but it was a clear outlier from any other silver needle I had seen before.
As I stared at it in confusion trying to guess if it was really good or really bad, the shop owner answered my question “this is our cheapest yin zhen”. “I’m not afraid of expensive” I replied. （it sounds better in Chinese, 我不怕贵) With that he skipped off to another room and brought back a more average looking silver needle which would have been fine if it wasn’t for the next thing that came out of his mouth.
“This is our most expensive silver needle,” He said proudly. “It comes from tea trees that are three hundred years old!”.
Now I had never heard of any white tea tree close to that old. Also according to Mei Leaf’s most recent video, white tea isn’t even 300 years old.
But who knows, maybe I’m wrong, maybe I just hit the jackpot. As he opened the box I was curious, and a little intrigued, until I saw the leaves. The leaves looked average, maybe even less than.
Once again I have never seen the leaves of a super old white tea tree plant, but I figured if I did they wouldn’t look so small and basic. In fact, these leaves had a slight bend to them which I was once told mean they weren’t strong enough to stand up to the drying. I tried to stay optimistic, but I knew what was coming.
We sat down to try the tea and within the first brew, the man and his wife were talking incessantly about how good it was. They talked about how sweet it was and how it had the orchid aroma. They talked about the mouth feel and the comeback sweetness. This was a red flag for me. Sellers who are confident in their tea will usually let you taste in silence, often with a cocky little smirk on their face. This coupled seemed to be trying to hard to sell this tea. Flavors shouldnt have to be explained, they should be able to be tasted.
It wasn’t a bad tea. But it was by no means a very good tea. The flavors were simple and lacked any clear characteristics. A good tea should have confident notes regardless of age. This tea seemed very middle of the road flavor wise.
I decided to try another tea next to this tea to taste. I asked to try another tea with the intention of doing a side by side comparison. Maybe this tea could really only be appreciated fully next to another tea, it had happened before. He happily obliged and without even thinking he took the gaiwan of tea and dumped it out in the garbage.
Usually, when you are drinking an expensive tea with a maker and you switch, they will put the tea to the side. Good teas are rare and shouldn’t be wasted. Tea makers especially appriecate how much work goes into a good tea and will rarely just throw it out. Usually when switching teas, they will put the gaiwan to the side to come back to later or for comparison. Him chucking the tea was a sign to me that he didnt care for it much. This is something you wouldnt do to a 300 year old tea tree plant.
We tried some other teas, none of them that special, and I listened to him talk about how authentic his tea was. I ended up buying samples at home so I could “taste them slowly” but mostly out of the awkwardness of being there for so long and not wanting to buy. (A problem I am getting better at handling but still comes up).
For every sketchy maker or seller, I meet three good ones. These sellers are by no means the average, but they do exist. Rarely though, are they as obvious and forward as he was. He seemed to take every page out of the sketchy tea seller handbook, he might have as well written it.
Buying teas from producers is no easy task. Tea sellers have a lot of tea they want to sell and they sometimes have an agenda. When a tea isn’t selling well they want to move it. This can come out in a few ways from simple suggestions to misinformation. What I found truly interesting about this tea seller is this was the first time I had heard the old tea tree claim in the white tea region. Usually the selling point for white tea is caked teas and old teas, two things that are popular in the region. Selling based on a tree age though, was a new one for me.