A lesson in tea buying.

I  don’t like to assume the worst when it comes to tea sellers. From the day I first told someone I was buying tea from farmers I was warned of being ripped off because I was white. These sort of comments I choose to ignore because I believe most of the tea farmers are honest people. I believe most will give me what they say they are and for the same price as everyone else. Most of the time I have been right….most of the time. There have been three times where I things have been fishy or down right deceitful. Where they tea I paid for and the tea I received were not the same. This will be the first part in a three part series telling of three times I found myself is questionable or dishonest situations. I am telling these stories not to bash tea makers or give the idea that they are dishonest, because of the many tea makers I have met only three have left me questioning their integrity. My aim is to give people an understanding of some of the situations and realities of buying tea in China.

Fu Ding:

I first became suspicious of this man when he tried to deter me from trying other peoples tea. “I have the best and most traditional tea!” he said in a tone of voice that was out of character for him. I paused for a minute but didn’t think too much of it. This man seemed to be on the level. He said shown me his fields, I had seen his family members moving around sunbaked tea, and his brother seemed especially knowledgable about tea science.

I had tasted a few teas from him, and found myself fond of a non-wild silver needle. He had tried to push the wild a bit, telling me wild tea was the best tea, but I liked the non-wild more. The non-wild flavours were more balanced and soft. I paid for my tea and I asked him ship it to me so I wouldn’t have to carry it.

The tea arrived and I sat down with a friend to taste it. We sat in the hostel I was staying in and I began to brew the tea. From the first sip I knew something was wrong. The flavours were bold and unbalanced. There was no soft complexity that I had enjoyed so much. The flavour had this soft bitterness that is sometimes referred to as being raw, as in it is under processed. I immediately knew I was drinking the wild.

What could I say? Had he cheated me or was I mistaken? I couldn’t tell for sure and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by making a thing out of nothing. I sent a quick message to the farmer asking him what I bought and he assured me it was the non-wild. I must have been mistaken I thought.

I went to visit him a few months later and he was happy to see me. We drank tea and laughed. At one point he pulled out his phone handed it to his wife and asked me to say a few good things about his tea on camera. I obliged and acted as the happy forgien customer. “This tea is really good right?” He smiled. I smiled back and nodded to the camera. “You really like the wild silver needle and bought a lot” He laughed.

……

With out realising it, he had admitted to giving me the switch.

I chalked this up to a language misunderstanding, but I wouldn’t have to wait much longer for the next “misunderstanding”.

That same day we were tasting a 2014 Bai Mu Dan and a 2013. The 14 had the warm bread notes I look for in an old white tea, the 2013 had the dry bark flavour that I don’t enjoy. After a day of tasting I had decided to buy the 2014. When I asked for a pound of it though I was politely informed that there was no 2014, only a 2013. Had I misunderstood something? Had the language barrier caused a confusion? I assured him that I clearly remember tasting it and even pointed to the box he got it from. He assured me in return that there was no 2014 and only a 2013. Confused and increasingly suspicious I bought some of the 2013 thinking maybe that was what I had enjoyed. It wasn’t.

It was only when I got back to the hotel and I found a text I had sent during the tasting  clearly saying that I was tasting a 2013 and a 2014 that I knew he had been dishonest.

You would think that after the second time I would stop going to him. Unforetunetly his stuff was still better than anything I had found yet and I went to him for what would be a third and final time. This time I wrote down in a message exactly what I wanted so I could refer back to it later. I was preordering teas a few weeks in advance that I would go to pick up myself so I could taste to make sure it was the same. I went to Fuding a few weeks later with pre-orders from customers already coming in. I sat down at his table and asked for the three pounds of non-wild silver needle I had ordered. He apologised, told me he didn’t have anymore and once again told me I could buy some very good wild silver needle.

No.

This time I was not having it. I refused to buy anything else, but what I ordered. We went back and forth for a bit neither one budging. It was eventually his wife that persuaded him to “find” some non-wild he could sell me. “He’s a good friend” she urged him in chinese.  Luckily I had picked up enough Chinese since our last meeting to understand her with out them knowing. I took my tea and left.

Later this tea maker would find out that I was buying from another tea seller a block away from him. He messaged me acting betrayed at our broken friendship. I brought up all the past instances of sneakiness, to which he would deny all.
In the end this is the problem with getting the wrong tea, you can’t really prove it. You can make accusations and even send the tea back from them to try again. (As I would later do) But to this day have yet to be able to get a farmer to admit that, even mistakenly, he sent me the wrong tea.

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