$25,000 for a bag of tea? Seriously?

This was posted on 23 Mar 2012

I got the news today that farmers in Hangzhou have just sold a 500g bag of the famous Long Jing tea for over US$25,000! The big question on everyone's lips is, "is it worth it?"

Read the full article on china.org.cn

So here's the background. Long Jing is one of the most famous types of green tea in China. It's grown near Hangzhou on the east-coast and every year a special type of pre-Qing Ming tea gets snapped up for ever-increasing amounts.

Pre-Qing Ming means the tea is picked before the Qing Ming (Tomb Sweeping) festival which usually falls around the 4 April. Leaves picked at this time are smaller and more delicate than those picked later in the spring, and so many consider them to be 'the best'.

But let's take a reality check here - are they really $24,940 better than the average green tea you can buy?

Probably not. For one, the high end tea culture here in China is fuelled by lavish gift giving in the higher echelons of government and business. It artificially inflates the prices because often giving a gift like this is a calculated business decision that could mean the difference between winning a huge business contract or not. (eg. like this guy making Panda poo tea - often tea farmers are just looking for gimmicks to sell their tea for higher prices).

Another reason is the Chinese 'face' culture. Spending a huge amount of money on a generally unobtainable product gives the purchaser a huge amount of face. It's not so much about the quality of the tea, as it is about the ability of the owner to pay for it.

Finally, there's the thorny issue of taste. The actual taste and visible difference between a 500 RMB Long Jing and this 180,000 RMB version will be fairly miniscule - in fact, most of us would struggle to perceive the difference if we did a blind taste test. Similar to a good wine vs. a fine wine, it requires a pretty refined palette to distinguish teas, and even many Chinese tea-lovers struggle!

I'd love to hear your opinions on whether you'd pay this much for a tea (assuming you are Bill Gates for a day). Would you actually enjoy it, or would you lock that tea up in a bank vault somewhere?