Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Guest Post: Proving Your Worth by Derek Chew

I'm always excited to share wise words from my knowledgeable friend +Derek Chew of +Peony Tea S.. Today's guest post was doubly exciting for me because it discusses both tea and horses, two of my passions.

Proving Your Worth

In most industries, the merchant would try to impress the customer with their best wares- their house specials that would blow the minds of the customer and leave an indelible impression.

Not so with tea houses in China.

My observation is that the opposite is true. With most tea vendors in China, you have to impress the merchant before he will show you his best.

This curious phenomenon probably explains why many claim that the major tea markets such as Maliandao and Fangcun sell mediocre stuff while others swear by the gems they found there.

After a year and a half in the tea business, I think I have a clearer picture of why this may be so:

Bo Le and the Thousand Li Horse

There is a Chinese saying “A Thousand Li Horse (Chinese expression for a fine steed) needs a Bo Le”.

In Chinese mythology, Bo Le was a legendary judge of horse and was valued for his ability to discern the finest stallion from middling ones.

To an experienced tea drinker, a high grade Dancong might have a multi-faceted fragrance, brothy full mouth feel and heady aftertaste.

Someone new to Dancong, it just tastes bitter and astringent.

Particularly if the merchant is also the producer, seeing their handiwork unappreciated is not a sensation any artist would relish.

Also appreciating the quality of the tea is also linked to valuing the tea.

An uninitiated tea drinker might just say:

“Why is this Tieguanyin so expensive when I can buy one off the net for $10 for 4 oz?”

More often than not, if you need to ask this question, the answer will never satisfy you.

Limited Supply

In China, the best teas- especially oolong and green tea- tend to be handmade and in limited supply.

Furthermore, for non-perishable teas- such as oolong and puer, many seasoned buyers buy in bulk once they find something they like.

Hence, the treasures of the shop are guarded as such, not to be wantonly offered to anyone who pops in.

For most cases, the merchant would start to assess the preferences and buying patterns of the consumer before deciding what to offer.

No sense in depleting a limited stash on the non-target audience.

Changing One’s Mind

Tea, at least true artisan handmade teas are a work of art.

How the producer controls the ‘zuo qing’ process to compensate for weather conditions and harvest quality, how thorough the ‘sha qing’ is so that the leaves have a substantially uniform level of oxidation, roasting to impart the taste.

Yet like all works of art, you can only change an open mind.

If you come in with an attitude of “show me what you got”, most likely you won’t be impressed.

For instance I once had a lady who asked me to show her my Xihu Longjing at an event. The moment she saw it she said “the one I have at home is better. I bought at Hangzhou, I knew you guys wouldn’t have anything better.”

After I brewed it for her, she still went “not bad but the one I have a home is better. You want good Xihu Longjing, still have to go to Hangzhou.”

Notwithstanding the fact that from what she said earlier (her tea leaves being uniformly green and had chestnut fragrance), it was obvious her Longjing was not Xihu Longjing.

Most of the time, you can’t change a mind that is already made up especially for something as subjective as art.

Finally…..

I will leave you with a final story.

Bo Le was tasked by the King of Chu to find a ‘thousand li horse’ to accompany him on his battles. Not taking this commission lightly, Bo Le travelled far and wide but found no suitable stallion.

One day he saw a skinny horse struggling to drag a salt cart along the road. The relentless whip of its master only managed to elicit a plodding pace from it.

Bo Le circled the horse and signaled to the salt merchant to stop. He whispered something into the ear of the horse and listened to its neigh.

He then told the salt merchant to sell that suffering beast to him.

The merchant laughed: “Can’t you see this brute is no good for anything. Sometimes I think it might be less strenuous for me to drag the cart myself than to whip it into action.”

Bo Le calmly replied: “Since it’s so useless, why don’t you sell it to me for the price of a donkey.”

Done deal, Bo Le brought the mare back to the King of Chu.

Not exactly impressed, the King ridiculed Bo Le. “This is a fine stallion but it was not appreciated. Give it 2 months and nurse it back to health.” Bo Le replied calmly.

True enough, the mount more than proved its worth, joining the King of Chu of numerous conquests.

Many a tea merchant in China will only show their finest stuff to a Bo Le, not the salt merchant.

Author’s Bio: 

Derek Chew runs an online tea shop based in Singapore and shipping worldwide. He counts oolong tea- especially Dancong and Tieguanyin as the ‘Thousand Li Horses’ in his stable.

Photo credit: Painting of Archer and Horse attributed to Yel├╝ Bei (899-937), Wikipedia