A symbol of culture and a beverage with remarkable ageing potential, fine tea has become a luxury collectable of inestimable value, says tea connoisseur and collector Kenny Leong
It was a tea to remember. Dark, mellow and just slightly nutty, it dissolved in the mouth, leaving behind a viscous sweetness that seemed to linger forever. By the appeal of its palate alone, this vintage Pu’er from Hong Tai Chang – a brand with roots in the Qing dynasty – stood head and shoulders above all other teas served at a recent intimate tea social. Its kingly status was only possible with maturity that comes with decades of ageing – this particular wedge of Hong Tai Chang dates back to the 1960s.
Grown and made exclusively in the province of Yunnan in southwest China, Pu’er enjoys royal prestige in the world of tea. The finest Pu’er is made from tea trees that are at least a few hundred years old. The harvesting of these tea trees of antiquity can only be carried out by hand; each spring, pickers scale ladders or scaffolding to pick the season’s tender buds and shoots. Such Pu’er is popularly known as gushu cha – literally “ancient-tree tea” – which is esteemed for its ageing potential.
It’s no wonder that in the Chinese world, Pu’er has come to mirror the Western fetishisation of wine. At the high end of the quality spectrum, both are products of exceptional raw material, terroir and craftsmanship. With their value often dependant on provenance and availability, they become more desirable and precious with age. Naturally, like wine, Pu’er – and by extension, several other types of tea – has become an exotic and delectable option for investors and collectors to park their assets.
As with wine investment, tea investment in the form of a loosely organised sale and resale for profit by private individuals only started taking shape towards the end of the 20th century. Among the teas traded, the most notable example today is arguably what is colloquially known as the 88 Qing, a batch of Pu’er produced in the late 1980s to early 1990s that has achieved legendary status among tea collectors for its reputedly immaculate condition and taste.
“In the 1990s, a piece of 88 Qing costs a little more than NT$1,000 (about S$45). Today, it would set you back about NT$445,000,” says Joseph Wu, a Taiwanese tea collector and owner of tea retail shop Yan Ling Tang. Further fuelling the tea’s price and adding to its prestige is the fact that over the years, a certain amount of this tea has been consumed, further depleting its availability and pushing its cost even higher.
But even the 88 Qing pales in comparison to veritable Pu’er the likes of Hong Yin and Song Pin as well as other renowned Pu’er of the 19th and 20th centuries. No one knows this better than seasoned tea collector Loh Peng Chum. “In the 1990s,” he recalls, “I sold seven pieces of Song Pin to a visitor from Beijing for S$70,000. A similar batch of Song Pin was auctioned not long ago for 2.7 million yuan (nearly S$535,000).”
Loh, 76, formally a principal lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic and the inventor of purple gold, started drinking and collecting tea in the 1960s. Most of his collection is made up of Pu’er, Liubao and Liu’an teas, of which a portion was taken to Guangzhou in 2005 and auctioned off to Chinese traders and collectors.
GOING, GOING, GONE
It has in fact become increasingly common for tea to be put up for sale at auctions. Hong Kong had its first rare tea auction in November 2013, where the highlight was a 20kg box of Wuyi Shuixian oolong – valued at HK$1 million – that was exported to Singapore in the 1960s before it went to a Malaysian Chinese collector in Penang. Auction organiser and tea expert Vincent Chu Ying-wah likens Wuyi tea to a 1982 Château Pétrus, noting its soft, silky texture and persistent aftertaste.
“The fact that auction houses have been sitting up and taking notice of tea is a sign of international recognition, and lends credibility to the idea of tea collecting and investment,” says Alex Lim, 31, owner of Eagle Tea Merchant in Singapore, and purveyor of high-end Pu’er and Wuyi teas. “Tea auctions carried out by specialists are a regular feature especially in Hong Kong, China and Malaysia, where old and new teas alike are put up for sale.” Indeed, the prices of new Wuyi teas from prestigious appellations and brands easily rival and even surpass those of premium Pu’er. Earlier in May this year, numerous brands of Wuyi teas, such as Jiu Long Ke Da Hong Pao, Yuan Xiang and Kong Gu You Lan, that were retailed in Shanghai cost anywhere from 30,000 yuan to 5.2 million yuan per 500g, once again placing Wuyi oolong in the lead as the most expensive tea in the world.
But the problems that afflict the wine investment market are similarly encountered in tea, the most crucial of which is fraud. The big question every collector faces: how do we know if it’s genuine?
KEEPING IT REAL
Once again, modern tech comes to the rescue. “We have developed a system where we use comparative metabolomics combined with chemometrics to identify unique data points in tea, representing each variant of different origins, cultivars and harvest age,” reveals Alan Lai, co-founder of Teapasar, the first global tea marketplace featuring local and international tea brands. “By comparing the metabolomic fingerprints and matching them against those in our database, we are able to ascertain a tea’s authenticity.” Teapasar currently does not deal with investment-grade teas or aged Pu’er, but Lai says it is something the company is looking into. So perhaps one day in the near future, whenever the question of authenticating high-end tea rears its head, we can quip: “There’s an app for this!”
To minimise or eliminate the risk of fraud altogether, it is best to buy from respected and reputable producers, merchants and collectors. “A trader who deals with large volumes of tea may not necessarily know a lot
about what he or she is selling,” says Vicky Chien, 33, tea collector and founder of Taiwanese tea retail shop Hermit’s Hut. “Go to someone who is experienced, able tell you about origins and quality, and happy to share accurate information and insider knowledge with you. Also, train and sharpen your own palate so you can taste and discern for yourself.”
For a start, Chien suggests building a personal collection around what you enjoy. “A high price tag means nothing if the tea doesn’t bring you enjoyment or pleasure,” she says. “After all, not all expensive teas are worth investing in, so trust your palate.”
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
In recent years, Taiwan’s Dong Fang Mei Ren (also known as Bai Hao oolong) has quietly but steadily garnered attention for its collectability and investment value. As the tea can only be produced in certain seasons, when all climatic factors are right, and its processing is a highly unforgiving affair that demands precise skills, high-quality Dong Fang Mei Ren is naturally scarce and expensive.
In 2004, an award-winning Dong Fang Mei Ren typically went for about NT$30,000 for 600g. In 2010, it increased to NT$90,000. Just this year, the Dong Fang Mei Ren that bagged the championship title at a national competition in Taiwan was released to the market on August 15 for NT$64,000 per 600g, and by September 26, it had gone up to NT$96,000.
The increase in price mostly results from demand far outstripping supply. “The struggle producers of Dong Fang Mei Ren face is that the volume of production every year is limited by what nature provides,” says 46-year-old Teng Chi Min, founder of Da Zi Zai Kong Jian, a specialist retailer of Dong Fang Mei Ren and high-end Taiwanese teas. “It can only be made when the tea green leafhopper feeds on the plant’s tender shoots, which gives the tea its characteristic notes of honey. You can plant more tea trees, but that does not translate to increased output.”
So desirable is the tea that producers and buyers have started to trade “en primeur”, where the tea is given a price and sold even before it is produced. It goes without saying that older vintages – which Teng says he is happy to buy back from his customers – fetch handsome figures.
Of course, as with Pu’er and Wuyi teas, not all Dong Fang Mei Ren are as prohibitive – you can, for instance, get a 150g tin of Dong Fang Mei Ren for NT$4,000 or NT$8,000. “Prices are merely indicative of a certain standard or quality,” Teng says. “The more you taste, the more experience and discernment you gain. But high-end tea will always be rare and difficult to obtain, and the earlier you buy them, the better the position you’re in. As long as you’re in the lead, your returns will exceed those of others who come after you.”
While the prices of high-end, quality teas can seem daunting, Loh believes that there is nothing to lose: “If you enjoy the tea and it is of inherently good quality, there is no way you will make a loss on it.” So long as the tea has ageing potential, and is properly stored and matured under ideal conditions, its value will only appreciate. “A 10 to 20 percent returns on it should not even be a problem,” he adds.
While tea is relatively less liquid ( pun intended) than other conventional assets, the fact that it can be consumed only makes it more valuable, Lim adds. “With every bit that’s consumed, whatever that’s left becomes even rarer.”
For a naturally scarce asset that is as delicious as it is culturally rich, there are more ways than one to appreciate it.
“Prices are merely indicative of a certain standard or quality. The more you taste, the more experience and discernment you gain” – TENG CHI MIN, FOUNDER OF DA ZI ZAI KONG JIAN
Above: Old Shuixian tea trees in Wuyi Mountains produce tea with a rich aroma, textures and density Right: The Sun Yi Shun Liu’an tea in Loh Peng Chum’s collection, believed to be about 100 years old and considered a “drinkable antique”
Pu’er tea leaves drying in the sun, which would later be pressed into cakes or bricks before release