Ma Lian Dao Prices Are Impressive; the Tea, Not So Much

Are you having a mid-life crisis and self-doubt or a general case of low self-esteem? You're lonely and starving for attention? Just having a tough day at the office and need to see a welcoming face? I can recommend a place that'll cure all those ills: Beijing's Ma Lian Dao wholesale tea district! I spent the day roaming around and was only able to finish ONE building. I ended up so exhausted that I fell asleep in the car going home. I am again forced to admit that I'm getting old!

I can't remember anywhere where hundreds of people showered all their attention on me (weekdays are very slow at the wholesale markets). Everyone is ready with a big smile and an invitation to come into their store for a look-see or a free sample of any of their teas. They scrambled to open freezers to show me their best tie guan yin (green style tie guan yin are typically kept in a freezer to retain freshness) and if I even looked like I wanted to stop at their store, they snapped to attention and were ready to serve! If I could import this kind of work ethic and attitude for my employees I'd be rich (sorry Michael).

What impressed me most was the fact that no one was going "psssh, come over here, my tea is better than his," or "my tea is cheaper, come over here!" All they're doing is smiling and inviting me into their stores and if I looked even a bit hesitant, they assured me, "don't worry, you don't have to buy anything. Just come in and look and sample our tea!" If that kind of attitude doesn't help your self-esteem, I don't know what will.

After many stops and cuppings and observations, I came to a shop with many big tins with signs reading "Aged Tie Guan Yin." I paused and the young man whisked me into his store with a big smile, asking "Uncle, what can I make for you?" I hated the Uncle thing, but he seemed like a nice kid so I asked him to show me some aged tie guan yin. After looking at three or four I asked if we could taste them. He responded with a big "yes, of course!"

After cupping three teas I felt like my welcome was wearing a little thin (but only in my mind, since I didn't plan to buy anything; he had a great attitude). He offered to show me his best stuff. I selected two samples for cupping; one was at the whopping price of 4,500 yuan per half kilo (about US$700/pound). After shaking my head on that one he said he had one even better. I gasped at the price of 7,500 yuan per half kilo (over US$1,000/pound)!

He assured me that he wouldn't call the police if I didn't buy any, but the sad fact was that the kid hadn't caught on that I'm in the business (I have to work on my swagger). The tea wasn't worth anywhere near that price. It was high-fired but not fermented (oxidized) enough, so firing it over and over again didn't improve the taste or color. It produced a darkish color instead of a bright reddish color that a well seasoned and fermented oolong would typically yield. I hate to be like this, but psssh, come over to my store, I have an aged oolong that you can steal...