For­tune in the Tea Leaves

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

Prestige (Thailand) - - CONTENTS -

IIt 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,

“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

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.

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