There is Nothing Wrong with a Middle Man
The following article is based on my experiences and the experiences I have seen others go through when it comes to buying tea. As I continue to gain experience sourcing tea my opinion may evolve and change. This is where it stands now. This article is directed mostly toward tea sellers, but the consumer can benefit too.
We all like a good story. We like to tell ourselves and we like to tell other people the trials we had to go through to get what we have. For tea buying, this often comes in the form of someone sourcing tea by going straight to the farmer, no middlemen, to get the best teas. While in theory, this is the best way to do it the reality, especially for those who are coming to China for the first time, is that this way of buying tea is romanticized and is not the best way to get good tea. I know this from experience.
When I first came to China I had this idea. I went straight to the best locations, talked to farmers, and sat in their living rooms having tea. I did this in regions from Tai Ping to Fu Ding. It often yielded one of who results. When I first started I would be so excited by the whole experience and so proud of myself for going to the farmer directly that I would buy the first decent tea I came in contact with. Once I was back home though I would realize the tea was pretty basic and not all that special. Once I got a little pickier though and didn’t just take the first tea I could find I ran into the second problem, I started going home empty-handed.
I have been to Anxi looking for Tie Guan Yin at least six times, I have never once found a Tie Guan Yin that I wanted to put on the website. Often I got teas that were standard and lack any characteristics that made them stand out. This is a problem I still have today, the only difference is that I have come to expect it. The truth is that sourcing tea is hard. If you truly want the best teas you are going to need help.
We seem to look down on companies that use middlemen. We assume that at the very least the prices are higher. But what is a middleman exactly? A middleman is a person who specializes in buying and selling one thing. A Qimen (Keemun) middleman only buys and sells Qimen. An Tie Guan Yin middleman only buys and sells Tie Guan Yin. So while yes the price may be higher, not usually by that much since it’s wholesale, what you are getting is a fast track to quality.
Last year I added the Savory Qimen to the website. Qimen is located in Huang Shan but it took me three years of living in Huang Shan and more than one trip to Qimen before I find a Qimen that not only I wanted to sell but that also changed the way I see red tea. I bought the Qimen from a middleman. A nice man here in Tunxi who has a shop and is so specialized in local tea that he teaches tea judging classes.
At the end of the day, the point of tea buying is to get good tea. Buyers though are so focused on being able to say they sourced the tea without a middleman that they end up buying average or subpar tea. I have seen this more than once in Huang Shan.
Huang Shan is a big region that includes areas with tall mountains as well as areas that are a little flatter. The flatter areas are closer to Tunxi, the city where the high-speed train lets off. On multiple occasions, I have seen either in person or via their sourcing videos tea buyers come to Huang Shan looking for Mao Feng and going to sub-par fields. Why is this? My guess is time and understanding.
The biggest problem with buying tea during tea season is time. If you are jumping all over China to get all the teas, you don’t have enough time to spend in one area and truly find good tea. You are in Huang Shan for three days before you move on. You can’t afford to go out and come back empty-handed. That being said I know some companies who are very ok with coming back empty-handed because they are looking for the truly good stuff. Most though want to sell Huang Shan Mao Feng so they go out to find the first person who will take them to the fields and then buy that person’s tea even if it’s not too good because, to be honest, they don’t always know what good is.
Huang Shan Mao Feng, as I have said before, is an underrepresented tea. Many people know the name but have never really had it or have only had it a few times. This lead to tea companies coming to Huang Shan and not understanding the flavor profile they should be looking for. Especially for Huang Shan Mao Feng which is a very delicate tea, it is easy to get a tea that has no flavor thinking it is just “subtle”. For tea sellers who don’t have a lot of time and don’t understand the tea the chance of getting really good tea by yourself is very low. Enter the middleman.
The middleman in a tea region is a person who has extreme knowledge of a specific type of tea. They have had years of visiting villages and talking to experts to form this knowledge as well as amass their collection. The teas they select to sell are chosen from a large pool of teas. They have the knowledge and the access to procure good teas. So why not buy from them? Why be so focused on doing it yourself empty-handed that you sacrifice the chance at really good teas?
I am not saying, by any means, don’t go the villages. There is a lot to learn from the villages and while I usually come back empty handed I sometimes don’t. The Hou Gu was found by knowing on random doors during tea season. As was a white tea that I don’t sell, but I personally love. It is possible to find good teas by going straight to the farmer but it takes time and it takes failure. Be ready for that. In the meantime check out some local tea shops and middlemen. I can’t promise quality in every shop or middle man, but it’s a much more efficient way to try many teas and possibly find the one you like.