Monday, June 18, 2012

Taiping Hou Kui Green Tea, and on Branding, Traceability, and Quality

I recently enjoyed tea with Evan of PluckTea. We brewed up some Taiping Hou Kui, and I took this photograph of the spent leaves, after we brewed several very flavorful infusions from them:

I loved the way the leaves of this tea looked after they had been brewed, and I could not resist photographing them. Evan broke most of the leaves in half before steeping, so they would fit in a small gaiwan; the huge leaves here are thus about half the length that the leaves originally were.

Taiping Hou Kui is a peculiar variety of green tea with exceptionally long leaves, pressed very flat. The leaves pictured here were 2-3 inches in length before being broken. Because they are so flat, it can be hard to intuitively measure out how many of them to brew. I've been struggling with this, as Evan gave me a bit of this tea to take home and enjoy on my own.

More unbranded tea:

I think this was the best batch of this type of green tea that I have tried yet. Unfortunately, Evan had no information on the tea's origins. A friend of his brought the tea back from China, and it did not list any brand or information about its source or how to buy more of it.

I've found that this is often the case with tea bought in China and Taiwan. The whole concept of branding and tracing products is to a large degree Western in origins, and although many Chinese companies and tea producers have embraced this practice (especially since it serves their interests when people like their products and want to buy more), many do not.

A relationship between quality, branding, and traceability?

The whole process of making your products traceable and adding a brand name to them is costly, and does not fit into the way the tea industry often works, with many layers of resellers. A small producer who has no role in the retail end of the tea industry usually must rely on whoever is buying the tea from them to ensure traceability, so they have little agency in encouraging traceability, even though they are the party who stands to benefit most from it.

Branding is a marketing effort and takes considerably time, energy, and financial resources, and traceability of products (with batch numbers, harvest dates, and other info on their origins) requires considerable resources for recordkeeping, as well as demanding a certain organizational know-how and structure which must be present at multiple levels in commerce. I think one can look at branding as a certain simple form of traceability or identifying of products, a first step along the continuum towards more detailed traceability.

One thing I've reflected on in the past is that traceability and brand name recognition has the greatest potential for paying off when the product is high quality. If the product is junk, all the effort will be for nothing, as people will either forget the brand name or form a negative association with it and avoid it in the future.

China, unfortunately, often has a reputation in the U.S. for low quality products. It doesn't surprise me that both branding and traceability of products are less common in China.

What does surprise me is the top-notch quality of some batches of unbranded tea that I try. I've especially noticed this in teas from Taiwan, but I've also encountered it in tea from China. Whenever a tea is top quality, yet offers no identification of its origins (or how to buy more) on its packaging, I see this as a lost business opportunity. Somewhere, some producer put in their work to grow and process some amazing tea. Hopefully, the process of auctions and tastings and competitions will reward them for their hard work, but, I think there is another level, the level of people like me trying their tea and having no clue how to get any more of it, on which there is a lost opportunity.

What do you think?

Have you thought about these issues? And have you tried Taiping hou kui?


  1. Some of what you say is true, but I think you're jumping to conclusions because I can't read enough Chinese! The Taiping Houkui we tried is branded by Huitea (, but I couldn't get the page to load). The Chinese version of the brand is 徽里, or Hui li. Across the bottom reads "Anhui Old Huizhou Tea Industry Limited Company Export Division." Note that this is the same "Hui" in all three cases: Anhui Province was named partly for its city of Huizhou, which is now called Huangshan. So the brand roughly translates as "Hui(zhou) neighborhood."

    There are a couple salient dynamics to remember: first, the good stuff is designed for the Chinese market (domestic and overseas). If it doesn't give us Americans the same mythic thrill as say, a box of Land O Lakes butter, remember how small a market segment we are for them! Second, the Chinese are relatively new to market capitalism. Some industries haven't come very far from their roots as state-owned companies. And I can imagine there are several varieties of tea that are grown completely within a single prefecture, are processed in a single factory, and are marketed by a single export company. If there's only one company that makes Taiping Houkui, well, they don't need to differentiate.

    And I can't believe you told the internet that I broke the tea in half! I guess I should explain that ever since I "learned how to do gongfu," I've been afraid to "ruin" Chinese tea by using anything resembling Western-style brewing. TPHK is one of those teas that are traditionally brewed in a glass tumbler, which I haven't really studied.

    But yes, great tea.... If I thought you were looking to search Taobao for more or something, I would have endeavored a translation earlier.

    1. Ahh yes...thanks for the corrections.

      And I hadn't thought of the state-owned origin of many of these companies but that explanation also makes a lot of sense. Are there really that many cases where only one company makes a certain type of tea? If so, then what explains the vast difference in quality of most Chinese teas I've tried here in the U.S.--is there one main high-quality manufacturer, and many imitators? Or one company selling different grades? Or, what I suspect may explain much of the tea that disappoints me in the US, tea that has been stored too long and isn't terribly fresh.

      I wouldn't worry about anyone judging you by how you brew tea, that would be rather silly. I think you are quite good at brewing green tea in always seem to coax out better results than I do whenever I bring green teas over.

      I have way too much tea to drink right now, so I don't think I'd want to order any of this right now. But I was just thinking about these things.

  2. There are quite a few interesting points in your post for further discussion!
    I see tea as an agricultural product, like apples. Brands don't mean much on them. Oh well, nowadays even apples have brands :-p But you know those are not as good as apples from farmers market anyway ;-)

    In China, brand names (on a lot of things) often mean that you would need to spend several folds of money on the same quality, and of course this way you get stable quality and save time. But the price is big. In China, people joke that the famous tea brands are "bribery tea", which is suitable to gift the mayor or some big wig, as the recipient would know it's an expensive gift :-D

    1. Hmm...this is interesting, because, I actually do notice brands on apples and other produce items. I also especially notice country of origin, but I notice brands, and increasingly I've been seeing local brands on supermarket produce.

      For example, when I lived in Delaware, I saw "Colora" brand peaches, and they were fabulous and very reasonably priced, and found that they were from only a few miles away, in Maryland. I kept buying them as long as they were available! I also regularly see various brands of apples from NY State, which is much more local than the Washington state apples, and I remember by the packaging which ones I prefer, although in the end I still look at the apple and judge by the smell too.

      I do think there's a problem though with the fact that branding works best when you have an economy of scale, and I think this encourages and rewards "bigness" of operations, which is not something that I want to encourage. Perhaps technology can make branding more accessible to producers, over time.

      One struggle that I have is that I like the idea of transparency, but I also like the idea of more profits going to the producer, and diversity of production, with many small producers. Branding seems to promote some degree of transparency but it seems to favor larger businesses where more profit is being taken high up in the supply chain. How to solve this problem?