The Incense Market

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be bringing up incense issues that have to do with the way the market is operating currently. One of the main issues we’ll be talking about is the wave of companies who are changing their incense formulas unexpectedly and how this affects the incense business. This is happening more and more frequently, where we’ll review an incense here favorably only for a new batch of it to come in and be a completely different and inferior incense.

This is a complicated issue that affects everyone from buyers to vendors. It’s completely understandable that the rarity of ingredients is causing some companies to change their incenses, but unfortunately a lot of these companies aren’t telling their distributors they’re doing this. The problem for ORS is that in order to be as honest as we can about what incenses you’re buying, when a company makes this change without telling the distributor and we have to report it, we’re essentially killing the stock of those companies who are taking the risk to bring good incenses to the country.

So we’re going to explore these issues more visibly over the next few weeks because generally speaking there’s no easy fix to this, other than the companies informing the distributors. Of course with all the language and cultural differences this probably isn’t easy either. But I am considering a hall of shame for companies who do this. I’m looking at Purelands, R-Expo and Highland for starters.

Keep also in mind that we often hear about incense changes and don’t always experience them ourselves. In the above instances someone was kind enough to send along samples. As time permits we will be sharing this information, but given the complexity of these issues and how they affect everything, these will be controversial issues to discuss and deal with but not too controversial that we can’t all be civil and understanding about it.

Anyway until we’re ready with more writing, discussion of this is open on this thread.


  1. Alan said,

    September 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    There’s an annoying strategy that exacerbates the sensation of quality
    dropping. The not uncommon (?) practice of a new start-up company,
    in an effort to gain a market foothold, to introduce its product at a higher
    quality level than they intend to maintain.
    Of course, we are lucky to have Mike’s lead to follow and get products
    while they are hot.
    At least the incense world doesn’t seem to exhibit the full blown psychosis of major corporations. I’m sure I’m not the only one who cringes when a
    favorite product appears with a “new and improved” sticker on it.
    Or when my bank cuts back on services “for my convenience”…
    No need to thank me.

    • Alan said,

      September 27, 2012 at 7:21 pm

      I burned some of my 2010 Highland and chilled out.

  2. Jimmy said,

    October 20, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Thanks for giving us a heads up on the changes. Maybe it’ll be a good change.

  3. masha7 said,

    October 17, 2011 at 11:50 am

    The same thing has been happening in perfumery, and we perfumery bloggers have been trying to document what’s going on. A lot of it has to do with skyrocketing prices of certain fundamental naturals. In perfumery, unlike in incense, another strain is large globals buying up smaller brands, then cheapening the formulae! Yuck!

  4. apsara said,

    October 16, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    Thanks to this blog, I started exploring Tibetan Incenses a year ago. I have been a very good customer of the vendor that has stocked a lot of these. I understand fully that importing and stocking incenses must be, in all likelihood, a very cash intense business. I can’t even imagine what it takes to get all these products shipped here, especially from Tibet.

    However, at $ 32, I consider the price for the current Highland to be simply ridiculous for Tibetan that is at the most average. In my view this is a less than average incense. I smelled cheap wood and not much else at all, and have not detected any of the premium Tibetan ingredients in it. My opinion of this is much less favorable than Mike’s.

    • Beth Johns said,

      October 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm


      Please keep in mind that I price my incenses based on what they cost me and how much it costs to get them into the US. I don’t price my incenses based on how well they sell or what I ‘think’ they are worth.

      The Highland has always been an extremely high quality incense with a high price tag. It is also VERY costly to import. (Same with Holy Land and Samye). That is why it costs what it does.

      And it is a shame that my costs have remained the same, or gotten higher, and the quality has gone down. But since I am not able to go to Tibet and inspect all the batches before they are shipped to me I have to trust that I am getting what I paid for. Certainly I did not with this batch of Highland.

      Hopefully this makes sense.


      • Mike said,

        October 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm

        I just want to underline this point since I think it’s particularly relevant to what’s happening:

        “But since I am not able to go to Tibet and inspect all the batches before they are shipped to me I have to trust that I am getting what I paid for.”

        This is the risk taking element I’m referring to. Highland was in every way worth this price before they pulled the rug out.

        • Lars Olav said,

          October 19, 2011 at 6:42 am

          I just recieved a shipment containing Samye Samanthabadra from you Beth.
          Has this incense always smelled like this?
          I was expecting more, much more for the price.
          I love the Holy Land Grade 1, but Samyes just smells very cheap, like a campfire with spices.

          Maybe it’s just me, I’m not used to Tibetans, except Holy Land.

          • Jacob Holmes said,

            October 19, 2011 at 2:57 pm

            Campfire with spice is how Samye should smell. It’s worth the price to me; perhaps it is just not your thing. 🙂

          • Emmett said,

            October 20, 2011 at 9:03 pm

            I fell in love with Samye after ordering a bag of the powder from EOTA last year. While waiting the many months for EOTA to get the sticks back in stock, I found some in-stock elsewhere (a week or two before EOTA got them, and Highland, back in stock, as my luck would have it), and the sticks are a mere shadow (at best) of what the powder I have is.
            The powder’s notes are clear and vibrant, whereas when I crush the sticks, and warm them on my burner, the notes are significantly muddled and attenuated. They’re a faded ghost of what my old powder is. I can tell that it’s Samye, but when I burn/ignite the sticks, the profile is nowhere-near the quality that the powder had me expecting.
            “Campfire with spices”… Yeah, that about describes what I’m getting from my sticks, too.

            • apsara said,

              October 21, 2011 at 8:54 pm

              If you found them in the same little Tibetan store that’s part of some little monastery (New Mexico, I think) where I found mine earlier this year, the ones I got are definitely just very old.

              • Emmett said,

                October 22, 2011 at 9:47 am

                apsara; no, I bought them online from:

                When I ordered them, he informed me that he was awaiting his supply, which was on its way from Tibet, and I had to wait an additional week or two. It turned-out that he got his stock right around the time that EOTA got their (current) re-stock.

                I do recognize that comparing sticks to powder might be slightly suspect, but the difference between the two (when crushing the sticks into powder, and warming it just as I do the proper powder) is significant.
                I might need to order a box of the sticks from Beth to see if the sticks she has in-stock live-up to the excellence that the powder I got from her provides.

                • apsara said,

                  October 22, 2011 at 8:19 pm

                  That’s where I got mine, they have a stupa in New Mexico. The sticks I got were OLD. Infact, I mistakenly had raised the heater knob to about 23 (am usually using the heater at very low temps) and they started burning – the pieces went up in flames! – they were so dry.

                  • Emmett said,

                    October 22, 2011 at 8:22 pm

                    a-Ha! This is actually good news to me, then… there’s hope that the (non-old) Samye sticks will be up-to-par with the powder that I love so much.
                    Glad you caught this, and happened to be able to confirm that the sticks I have are just old.

          • Gregg King said,

            October 21, 2011 at 3:40 pm

            I can only speak to the current batch of Samye powder that I just got from Beth, but I am sending in another order as we speak. Quite exceptional and I could sit in clouds of this stuff for days and never come out. Haven’t tried it on my heater yet, so no comment there, but I don’t believe this type of incense was really designed to be used in that manner. Same goes for the blends I make, some are great on the heater, but suck on charcoal and vice versa and it’s rare to have one good on both.

        • Jacob Holmes said,

          October 19, 2011 at 2:54 pm

          I have a box of older Tibetan Highland with a few sticks remaining. I ordered two more boxes of this recent incense from Essence of the Ages.

          My biggest problem with Highland is it isn’t rolled tightly enough, and there are too many broken sticks in the box. (That was always the case with it though.)

          After reading some of the posts here I burned a remaining stick of Highland, then after letting the air clear, opened one of the new boxes and tried burning one of the new sticks.

          I *think* I can *kind* of see what you are talking about… it’s almost kind of like a “grade 2” sort of thing going on, but maybe not that intense. More like about a “grade 1.5” or maybe even “grade 1.25”.

          It *STILL* smells like Highland, and IMHO is *STILL* worth the price. I would HARDLY call it “pulling the rug out.” That is WAY too harsh.

          Just my opinion.

          • Mike said,

            October 20, 2011 at 7:02 am

            Well good, I’m glad someone thinks it’s worth it!

      • apsara said,

        October 19, 2011 at 9:44 pm

        This makes perfect sense – glad you chimed in, Beth.
        When I said that *in my view* the price is not warranted, I meant the manufacturer, and not you.

        What I figure in my own mind is that some of the very rare materials that were available in Tibet not too long ago, due to its remoteness, are in high demand by rich Asians. If indeed there were Pangolin scales in the previous Highland version, the former are being bought up by Chinese through illegal trade. What comes to mind is an article about the Pangolin trade that I saw not long ago, I think it was linked in Huffington Post. It is a sad story because these animals are now killed by the thousands for their scales. I did ask myself how previously (incense making in Tibet is many centuries old), these scales were obtained, and if they were obtained from dead animals only. I don’t know.

        Similar for musk, Mike has an article here on his blog, I think.

        I can live with the fact that I may never smell these ingredients, although it seemed that not long ago, these were indeed present in some high end Tibetan incenses. Some of the higher end Tibetans do contain material that I have never smelled before, that’s for sure. Would I want to make a habit of purchasing a product that contributes to the extinction of a species? No. Would I want a Tibetan monastery to get into trouble due to this? Certainly not.
        So, whatever Highland may have put in before, they don’t use that anymore, iit seems. I believe strongly that the above is a large part of the reason. But then, adjusting the name, package and price may be the thing to do.

        There are still many nicely smelling ingredients in the world which one can enjoy without a crisis of conscience.

  5. Jacob Holmes said,

    October 14, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Not just formulas, what about availability? Essence of the Ages, which is where you *have* to go if you want Tibetan incense beyond the usual Red Crystal / Chandra Devi offerings, has dropped availability for a TON of treasured incenses lately. They’ve even removed some of them outright from their site. Dzogchen, Dzongsar, Medicine King, Mindroling, all out of stock. Of the four LungTa, two have been removed completely, while one is sold out.

    They will not say anything about this as they refuse to reply to e-mails about it.

    I have to wonder what affects the sporadic availability to the US markets. Is it because of the complex political issues involving the Tibetan regions? Or, is it to drive up sales unfairly? (Sporadic availability triggers hoard buying behavior.)

    • Mike said,

      October 17, 2011 at 8:29 am

      Jacob, I’d guess the reason you’re not getting e-mails is just that there isn’t any news other than they have the incenses or they don’t. My guess is things aren’t any more complex than having the outlay for incenses. Outlay trapped in dead incenses prevents other outlay for other incenses. Right now there are major changes going on in the incense and especially agarwood markets, so there will be a lot of uncertainty until the markets settle out.

    • Beth Johns said,

      October 17, 2011 at 9:19 pm

      Hi Jacob,

      Sorry, I don’t remember receiving any inquires from you. I checked all emails received over the past several years and I can’t find any emails from you.

      A lot of the incenses that are out of stock are just that … out of stock. I am not always able to make a purchase of incense for various reasons: Lungta is no longer made as the Brazilian Govt. has enacted laws preventing both the import of the raw materials, which they purchased from me, and the export of the incense that they did make. I am no longer able to get that incense.

      The Mindroling is no longer available as the factory shut down. It was a temporary shutdown that now appears permanent.

      Dzogchen sent me a batch of incense last October that was moldy when I received it as it was not properly dried before it was packaged. I had to throw away all 200 rolls of it and have been waiting for the Monastery to send me more. However they are in a battle as to who was at fault concerning the drying. So I wait. I have been promised a new batch and have been waiting now a year for it to actually be delivered.

      Believe me, there is no holding back to drive up the prices and thus encourage my customers to buy large quantities and ‘hoard’. Many of the regions that I make purchases from are truely in god-forsaken areas and communication is, at best, a trial. Not to mention that in Tibet no incense can be transported out of the country on any public transportation. No trains, no buses, no way out other than the people that I can find to help me get the incense out of the country.

      I do not feel that I need to disclose anything on my web pages other than the incense is ‘out of stock’. I do happily answer inquires, if specifically asked, when a product will be back in stock.

      You did mention I’ve ‘that dropped availability for a TON of treasured incenses lately. They’ve even removed some of them outright from their site.” I would be happy to know what those are and would also be happy to explain them to you. Oh, and uless you are ordering under a name different from the name you used on your post of Jacob Holmes, I don’t see where you have ever made a purchase from me. : )

      Essence of the Ages

      • John S said,

        October 18, 2011 at 12:59 am

        MINDROLING is gone for good?!?!?!

        THAT SUCKS!!!

        That was one of my all time favorite incenses. :*(

      • william273 said,

        October 18, 2011 at 3:31 am

        Very interesting Beth…that sheds some light on the behind the scenes on the Tibetan end…still my favorite.

        I know that 200 rolls you had to get rid of wasn’t any fun and frustrating for sure… and waiting for a year? OUCH!!!

      • Beth Johns said,

        October 18, 2011 at 1:20 pm

        Yikes, John!

        My error. I meant to say Medicine King Mandala. That is the factory that I believe has permanently shut down. Which is really too bad as their Saffron Medicinal Incense was wonderful.

        Mindroling is alive and well… just can’t get their incense in right now.

        Sorry to frighten you. : )


        • John S said,

          October 18, 2011 at 7:22 pm

          That *really* isn’t much better as Medicne King is another all time favorite!

          That sucks just as much!!!

          Isn’t the manufacturer Mtmeru? is still online and still shows it on their Incense -> Our Products page and other sections of their site.

          • Nyung said,

            October 18, 2011 at 11:54 pm

            Medicine King was made by one guy. Mtmeru packaged and distributed it.

            This guy has disappeared. So, no more incense.

            Mtmeru is trying to find someone else to make it for them. When and if they can do this is anyone’s guess.

          • Beth Johns said,

            October 20, 2011 at 9:16 am

            Mt.Meru was simply a distributor, like I was, of Medicine King Mandala. (The company/process was actually run by a woman, not a man) I have left the Medicine King page up on my site so that in the event the incense factory does start up again I don’t have to redesign my page from the start. Perhaps Mt. Meru is thinking the same way. : )

        • Jacob Holmes said,

          October 19, 2011 at 2:59 pm

          Thanks for clearing a lot of that up. I guess it’s just frustrating for customers who are used to too much of a good thing. I meant no disrespect! 🙂

  6. Kevan said,

    October 12, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    I could see some Indian companies doing it for sure, since it’s happened several times now. But Tibetan sticks…I guess I don’t know enough about the market but it seems hard to believe that monasteries would compromise recipes that are hundreds of years old (in some cases). I realize that’s not the case with Highland and I’m not doubting these reports, just saddened at the state of affairs.

    • Mike said,

      October 13, 2011 at 10:39 am

      I can’t imagine the monasteries probably consider their incenses as brand names like we might in the US, so I think it’s quite possible from their perspective that changing it without notice is fine. The situation is complex, we get most of our incense from countries where English isn’t as dominant as it is in the west, from cultures that are completely different than the US, where communication is probably very limited

  7. Laurie said,

    October 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Oh no, Purelands changed?! I was going to order some of their sandalwood for X-mas presents… But now that I look I see Essence has everything on closeout and there isn’t even any of the sandalwood left… And I always meant to get around to trying their Nag Champa too!

    • Mike said,

      October 13, 2011 at 10:36 am

      Laurie, not long after I reviewed them I started getting reports of people who didn’t like the Saffron and Rose. Eventually I got a sample, it’s a totally different and much inferior incense and it’s no surprise people don’t like it. I tried one other and it was the same thing, a totally different incense. In a case like this, if Purelands couldn’t get the old incenses they should have just started a new line.

    • C.J. said,

      October 20, 2011 at 11:29 pm

      ARE YOU SERIOUS?! No More Purelands? Aw (sorrowful head-hanging). THIS was a BRILLIANT incense! Beth, my heart goes out to you right now. There has GOT to be a better way…if only we werem’t all so dependent upon supply and demand. But we are…it is the human condition. 😦

  8. October 12, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    It is hard question.
    That is the reason our prices keep inching up. At Mermade we can hardly make any profit and sell at prices my friends and customers can afford. You have to “make it for the gods” these days as the materials needed get more scarce and more expensive. It is always a challenge to keep the quality high and consistent.

    I hope the recent incense I sent Mike and Ross meets with the same response as when they first were created.

    • Mike said,

      October 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm

      Hi Katlyn, I think your model does work though because I think it’s implicit that you work with smaller batches and it’s easy for the buyer to understand that, say, your Deep Earth will be different in 2009 than 2011.

      When we review something favorably, it’s not at all uncommon for there to be a run on an incense. But when the vendor sells out, reorders major stock and then is sent a completely different incense without being forewarned then it creates problems for everyone in the chain. I have to reluctantly spread the word that it’s not what it used to be, which doesn’t make anyone happy. And I’m also hesitant to shame the company sometimes because as far as I know the people who create, say, Highland Incense, might periodically change that incense all the time because that’s part of the culture. Then again I’m hesitant to give the benefit of the doubt when an incense that was previously very high quality is now adulterated with cheap wood.

      • tacololo said,

        October 15, 2011 at 12:57 pm

        But you still have Highland on top of the tibetan hall of fame list.
        I am planning to place an order somewhere in the next few month. Do you still advise me to try highland or not?

        • Mike said,

          October 17, 2011 at 8:31 am

          I wouldn’t take any of the lists here as personal advice tacololo. I also wouldn’t expect this site to reflect every change in the incense market the second they happen either. There’s a lot of work pending on this site and as always we get to it when we have the time.

  9. Happy Hari said,

    October 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Hi there, Happy Hari here,
    I thought I’d just add my two-pennys worth to this thread which is simply to quote the man who produces most of the incense I sell including Nag Champa GOLD!! and Oud Masala:
    “There is no compromise” says Sri D – The poet of agarbattie – “I make my incense for the Gods”.
    What he meant was that to him it doesn’t matter how much a particular ingredient may increase in price, if that is the ingredient a particular God requires, then that is the ingredient which will be used.
    I can personally guarantee that each of the incenses on my new website – – are always made to the same formula and all have exactly the same fragrance as when I used to sell them in the 1990’s.
    Free samples are available for anyone signing up for GOLD!! Membership so you can judge for yourselves.
    I look forward to seeing you there.
    Happy Hari

    • Mike said,

      October 12, 2011 at 1:24 pm

      Thanks for the commitment to quality Paul. No compromise indeed, that Oud Masala may have been made BY the gods. 🙂

  10. Ricardo said,

    October 12, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Sorry, I meant Highland from the doctor who use to work at Tibetan Medical College. Is that the one?

    • Mike said,

      October 12, 2011 at 9:55 am

      Yes not Tibetan Medical College itself but Highland incense which has one stick and powder. They’ve both changed a great deal (I can vouch for the stick) and from what I can tell most of it is they’re cutting everything with a lot of juniper.

  11. Ricardo said,

    October 12, 2011 at 9:40 am

    When you write about Highland are you referring to Tibetan Medical College? I never had a chance to try it out when it was good. Too bad 😦

  12. william273 said,

    October 12, 2011 at 9:26 am

    This sounds like an interesting topic and something I’ve been wondering about for awhile.

    In the Tibetan area I’ve noticed a good bit of that going on but have given the people that make the incense the benefit of the doubt. I’ve been wondering if some of what I bought was maybe alittle old and lost some of its scent and or given them room to “vary” the mix a bit but alot of what I have of the same incense seems to be 2 different incenses completely…one not having anything to do with the other yet just a new order of what I already have.

    • Mike said,

      October 12, 2011 at 9:51 am

      Exactly the issue William. Incenses are showing up completely differently than what we originally reviewed.

      • william273 said,

        October 13, 2011 at 4:27 am

        Well since some incense names have come up I’ll give a few examples.

        I had a tube of Mandala Art&Incence Yellow Jambala and noticed it was oh soooo close to smelling and trying to be something…almost there but not quite….mmmmm. Maybe it’s me….maybe I’m not getting it like I should. The tube is alittle faded…maybe it’s an older one.

        Anyway so I ordered another 3 actually and to my suprise the new ones were nothing at all like the 1st tube I got. This is really good stuff! Problem is when I reorder…what am I going to get?

        The next one is Mandala Tradings Ribo Sangtsheo. The new boxes I recently got do not have the “coppery scent” at all. I have to say also that I really love the way it smells now…completely over the moon with it. Smells alot like the Relaxense Incense that comes in the gift pack. The new Ribo doesn’t smell like the others I bought.

        On the other end I have some Kalachakra, Potala and Shambala. When I first tried these they were similar but did not have much of a scent…very subtle. The latest boxes I have are VERY potent and
        almost identical. Makes me wonder if they are the same incense and put into different boxes.

        Well that’s my take on it for now. There are others but these are a few examples of what I’m experiencing.

        • Mike said,

          October 13, 2011 at 10:42 am

          William, ah some good news! There definitely is no complaint when a recipe change lifts the incense.

          • Sam said,

            November 24, 2011 at 5:24 pm

            Came to this thread late: it’s good to see some helpful commentary on the changes going on.

            One more bright spot: the current batch of Chagdud Gonpa’s Unsurpassable Healing Incense seems to have changed its profile very slightly, but it’s still excellent. I believe that sandalwood has been dialed down in the mix somewhat, but it’s made up for by a somewhat boosted musk/jasmine presence. Like the better Tibetan style incenses, this one is more than the sum of its parts and it’s definitely still a great buy at $12 a box.

            I am beginning to see that current reviews are going to be very important in the near future in deciding which incenses are worth trying. Fortunately this is one thing blogs and the Internet are great for, so I’m very thankful for ORS!

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