A while back I was reading through some industry documents from 1900s English tea merchants. There was an article explaining that it was important to convey to customers that higher grade loose leaf tea not only tastes better, but is actually more economical because it is good for multiple infusions. They explained that it was paramount to understanding the value of a tea that you understand how much tea can be brewed from a volume of leaf. I’m glad to know that my predecessors of the industry were fighting the same good fight that I do these days. Many times when someone new to tea sees a price tag on a brick or bing of Pu’er tea they have an immediate aversion. “Wow, $100!! This tea is incredibly expensive!” I’ve heard this statement more times than I can count. I even regularly have customers enter my shop and say “I heard there was incredibly expensive tea here. What is that all about?”
I’ve learned to be excited for the opportunity to explain the economics of tea to new people. While it is a complicated subject to fully understand what makes the value of a tea, a simple lesson in price per volume is invaluable and, to myself, serves a consumer well in any marketplace (especially the grocery store).
So, how much does a cup of pu’er tea actually cost?
First I’m going to start with the familiar. A tea bag on the shelf in a grocery store. A pack of 20 tea bags can sell anywhere from 7-15$ depending on which company you went with and whether or not the product is actually tea (Camilla Sinensis). [I need to make quick side note and mention that I assume a certain level of tea interest/ knowledge for this blog and don’t always write on the totally introductory level, so if you don’t know about the difference between the tea plant and herbal infusions take a moment and consult google before you continue reading.]
So, now let’s be honest, tailored pre packaged tea bags contain the lowest grade/ least expensive tea possible. When mechanically processing tea the two lowest grades are called fannings and dust. This is what goes into tea bags. Yes, even the ones in the fancy looking box. First off broken leaves produce bitterness faster than whole leaves so you will miss out on the complex flavor, mouthfeel, and aftertaste of a quality example of the tea. Secondly small pieces of leaf unfurl and infuse very quickly in hot water. This is why even a more expensive tea bag will not make more than 2 cups of tea. All of the flavor comes out right at the beginning. So if we apply a little basic math here if you used a single tea bag in a mug you are paying $.35-.75 per cup of tea. Even if you factor in that the more expensive tea bags may make two cups, I think we can safely say that the second infusion is diminished greatly and set the average value for a cup of tea bag tea at around 50 cents. Now if we move on to talk about quality loose leaf tea and particularly compressed pu’er (as it is my main area of interest) I am going to, for the sake of simple clarity make some rather generalized statements. Hopefully a disclaimer that there are thousands of types of tea and innumerable variables that can enter into trying to make any sort of definitive statement, can absolve me from any transgressions my more politically correct tea friends may find in my writing.
Most of the time when you find quality compressed Pu’er tea for sale it will be in the form of a Bǐngchá (a flat “cake or discus”) or a Zhuānchá (a rectangular brick). For both of these forms the weight and price can vary greatly but for sake of simplicity I am going to say that 357-400 grams is standard for a bing and 250-300 grams for a brick. Price in the US for a quality, but base level, compressed quantity of tea can range from $60-300. Yes I know there are many exceptions to this as you can find $20 bing that taste like shrimp the tea sat next to and $10,000 iron cakes from the 1970s, but like I keep saying, simplicity here.
So when when you go to brew Pu’er tea I recommend using a vessel that is 150-250ml and putting in 3-8 grams of tea (depending on the tea). *Whew* Okay. That was a lot of numbers and variables even for an explanation I keep ironically saying is going to be simple, but perhaps that is testament to just how complicated this whole tea thing actually is.
Luckily now is the time where I make a conclusion that will, hopefully, clear all this up.
One of the wonderful things about compressed Pu’er tea is just how much life the leaf has. Because the leaf is whole and compressed it takes many infusions to open up and release it’s variety of flavors. As I am writing this I am drinking an aged sheng Pu’er (2000 vintage 7532) out of a YiXing pot. I have 5 grams of tea in there and am enjoying one of the most full flavored infusions so far, which happens to be infusion number 18. This is my second day drinking from the same pot. I know from experience with this tea and many like it that the flavor of the tea can last 20/ 30 even 40 infusions into a tea.
Now it’s time for some more math. If we average out to 5 gram pots of tea and stick to the average weight a pot of quality Pu’er tea can range from $.84-1.40. Now each of those pots can steep all those infusion/ many “cups” of tea. If it’s tea from that $300, 357 gram bing that comes out to $1.40 a pot and it infuses 30 times that is not even 5 cents a cup of tea. The range is somewhere from 2-6 cents per cup. Now that is if you are not using small cups and sharing tea, which I might add I highly recommend.
So in summery: tea bags that do not have full flavor and can come from questionable growing conditions (clearly another post all together) come out to:
35-75 cents a cup
Quality Pu’er tea that most people view as “incredibly expensive” at first glance, that has complex developing flavors, beautiful history, and exceptionally more pronounced health benefits when compared to it’s bagged counterpart (I forgot to mention that scientifically documented fact until now) comes out to:
2-6 cents a cup.
So you might not expect me to be selling you a bargain when I point you towards that $200 brick of connoisseur tea, but some simple math and a little know how about brewing technique can find you with a delicious, and inexpensive cup of amazing tea. Now you can put all that extra money aside and pick up some incredibly expensive Chinese antiques to drink your inexpensive tea out of!