- Plantation Tea (台地茶, or tai di cha in Chinese) 0 – 50 years old
- Arbor Tea / Yellow Mountain Tea (黄山茶, or huang shan cha in Chinese) 50 – 80 years old
- Old Arbor Tea (大树茶, or da shu cha in Chinese) 80 – 200 years old
- Ancient Tree Tea (古树茶, or gu shu cha in Chinese) 200 + years old
Plantation tea usually consists of small bushes growing in rows on terraces. Arbor tea can consist of larger bushes or small trees, and can either grow on terraces or in wild areas. Old arbor and ancient tea trees are wild trees of various sizes that can grow in various locations.
Because many people believe that older trees produce better teas, selling tree age is a very common marketing strategy in the world of Pu’er tea. I’ve seen different vendors market tea from 500, 800, and even 1200 year old tea trees. This is despite the fact that trees much older than 300 – 400 years old are becoming exceedingly rare, sometimes protected and prohibited from being picked, and produce less tea material due to their old age.
For my blog post today, I drank two different Pu’er teas from 2011. The first tea is called the Yiwu Sheng Bing (易武生饼 ), and was supposedly produced using material from 20 year old plantation tea bushes. The second tea is called Mu Shu Cha (母树茶 ), and was supposedly produced using material blended from 100 – 300 year old tea trees. I drank each tea with an hour break in between, and recorded what my thoughts were about the flavors, aromas, and sensations of these teas produced from tea trees of different ages.
While looking at the dry leaves of each tea, I noticed that the Yiwu Sheng Bing included mostly medium & large leaves, and had a high proportion of stems. The Mu Shu Cha included a blend of medium leaves, large leaves, buds, and had less stems. Here are images of the dry leaves of each tea:
After drinking these two teas I noticed that the tea produced from older trees was more complex, smooth, energizing, & vibrant in appearance. This is not to say that the tea made from plantation trees was bad, it just lacked some of the complexities and energizing qualities of the older tea. The plantation tea was still enjoyable while being more accessible than the old tree tea. I say it is more accessible because it was roughly 3x less expensive than the tea from 100 – 300 year old trees. A pot of the plantation tea that could be re-brewed roughly 6 – 8 times cost $0.88, while a similarly sized pot of the old tree tea cost $3.00.
Thoughts on Buying Old Tree Tea
- Find a vendor you trust – Over time I’ve found certain vendors that I perceive as trustworthy in what information they communicate about a tea. I’ve seen vendors try to sell teas solely based off of their age. This kind of marketing makes me skeptical. I’ve also seen vendors list Pu’er cakes supposedly from 1200 year old trees at $80. Pricing that seems too good to be true also makes me skeptical.
- Price can be deceiving – I’ve found enjoyable teas that I’m aging at $20 / cake, & at $70 / cake. In each case it has depended on what I was looking for, and how I defined a ‘good’ tea. If we clarify what qualities we want from a good tea, through evaluation of different teas we can find ones that fit our definition of a good price to value trade-off.
- Samples are a low cost way to evaluate tea – If interested in buying old tree tea, it is good to find a vendor who will let you purchase small samples. This allows you to evaluate teas without the cost barrier of purchasing a whole cake or set of cakes. It also allows you to plan whether or not you want to make a strategic long term purchase that will give you a larger quantity of tea to enjoy throughout the future.
- Famous regions are more expensive – Certain Pu’er producing regions that have become famous often come in at a much higher price tag. This could mean spending more for the brand name of a region, rather than for objective qualities that make a given tea better than the tea from a less well known region. There are also higher numbers of counterfeit teas made to try to swindle uneducated tea buyers. Some times I’ve tried old tree teas that were cheaper because they came from lesser well known regions. However, these teas still had the enjoyable qualities of old tree tea.