A Tea Addict's Journal

Why do we bother?

March 24, 2007 · 9 Comments

Sometimes I wonder why we bother at all with young puerhs.

I’m attending a conference these next few days, and today during lunch with some current and former colleagues, the topic of tea came up. Eventually it got onto the subject of puerh, and aged puerh, and other aged foodstuffs, and one person asked “can’t you just buy a bottle of scotch and age it too?” Well, you can’t, because you need to buy a whole barrel of the stuff to age to make it even drinkable, or something like that. I have never heard of anybody drinking raw whisky.

And in some ways, this is more similar to puerh than the usual analogy of wine. After all, a fine Bordeaux is still, from what I understand, very drinkable now, even when new. It just gets better with age, but it doesn’t need age to be a good drink now.

Puerh, however, is not quite like that. Sure, there are some puerhs that are decent to drink now, and I think generally speaking people are acquiring more of a taste for younger puerhs, but the fact is that the drink is designed to be aged — it’s the aged stuff that you’re after, not the young stuff. Many of us who buy young cakes are not buying for the “drink it now” category, but rather the “let it sit and get better” category, and it dawned on me that in some ways, it’s rather absurd. This is not like buying a case of wine and let it sit at home. Rather, it’s more like buying a raw barrel of whisky and hope that in 10, 15, 20, 30 years, it will get better with age and become a great barrel of whisky (yes, I know, that’s only the minimum age of the whisky in the bottle). The young product, with a super high alcohol content, etc, is not really what you will call whisky. The law, at least, governs that scotch needs to be aged for at least 3 years, and generally more…

Now…. the difference is that nobody ever buys full barrels of whisky or wine, take them home, and age them in their own rooms. That’s insane — the costs, the trouble, and the risks. Yet, we do it all the time with young puerh cakes. We run all the risk, and we don’t even know for sure, in many parts of the world, whether this stuff will age well at all. A Hong Kong tea merchant told me that he’s sold a container of puerh to Australia before, and within a year he took it all back, because the tea’s quality went down… it got worse over time in the rather dry climate there. Lots of people from Hong Kong believe that a tea only ages well in a wetter environment.

Who’s right? Who knows. People in Beijing think that maybe in 10 years, in addition to HK storage, Taiwan storage, Malay storage, we will have things like Beijing storage with a distinctive taste to it. I’m just afraid that Beijing storage might be bad, dry, rough young puerh with funny tastes. I’ve had one or two of those, and I’m afraid of seeing more.

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9 responses so far ↓

  • HobbesOxon // March 24, 2007 at 5:31 pm | Reply

    “Raw” single malts are pretty much unobtainable, and undrinkable. It isn’t so much that one is aging it to reach an optimum, it’s more that unaged single malts have zero cask – they are entirely transparent, and deeply unpleasant.

    On the other hand, raw pu’er can be fine. One can opt to mature it to improve it, in many cases, but it can exist as a drinkable (and, some would say, enjoyable) beverage before it is aged. At least, it exists as a beverage and some folk seem to like it.

    Try and find a Laphroaig less than even ten years old: it’s impossible, simply because it is not a beverage until that stage – unlike young pu’er (some would say).


  • MarshalN // March 24, 2007 at 6:09 pm | Reply

    The existence of new puerh as a “drinkable” thing is really a development of the past 5-10 years.  10 years ago, almost nobody drank raw puerh that are of zero age.  In fact, technically speaking, raw puerh with no age isn’t even considered puerh at all, much like a scotch cannot be called a scotch without 3 years of aging.

    You did have Yunnan green tea made with the raw maocha that we now classify, sort of, as raw puerh.  They came in packs that were marketed as a drinkable green tea, but they were considered very low quality tea that is inferior to many others.  For a good reason too… it’s bitter, astringent, rough, tannic… unpleasant in almost every way. 

    I had a Laphroaig last night, of the usual 10 year variety.  It’s not an easy drink and I think many would find it very unpleasant.

  • kibi_kibi // March 24, 2007 at 7:55 pm | Reply

    Well, tastes and standard change aren’t set in stone…

    A lot of the “drinkable” raw teas I’ve tried and like a lot have been stored for three to five years, that is they’re still quite raw but a little more balanced and earthy. Certainly some teas are created for long term storage but perhaps others aren’t and I can’t see why that is such a problem as long as they show quality. Isn’t that one of the appeals of Pu-erh, having such a broad spectrum of tastes depending on age, processing (all the way up to raw & cooked), storage etc?


  • Phyllo // March 25, 2007 at 12:03 am | Reply

    “The existence of new puerh as a “drinkable” thing is really a development of the past 5-10 years.”

    Actually, top tier wines (B’dx, Burgundy, Rhones, Germany, Vintage Port, Spain etc.) used to be — and still are in many ways — “drinkable” only after many years of botlle aging (in addition to many years of barrel aging in the wineries’ chais). There are oceans of immediately drinkable wines, of course, but the classically made ones are not meant to be drunk immediately.  The internationalization and the demand for more approachable young wines has resulted in new techniques to make young wines more approachable (e.g. letting grapes hang in the vineyards longer to achieve higher ripeness level, microxygenation techniques, etc.).  Like the development of drinkable young pu’er, this is a rather new approach of making wines, too.  Plenty classiscist winemakers still make wines that are too tannic and acidic if drunk upon release…these are wines that will stand the test of time.  Of course, they are “drinkable” if you like heavy tannins and stomach-corroding acidity…but it would be a waste of good wine.

    I’d have to disagree that it is absurd to buy young pu’er.  I think that if the buyer understands what a good young pu’er should be like (is it possible?), and that person knows how to store/age them properly, then it would be a sound investment.  Certainly, nothing is predictable…and the best thing that a collector can do is to taste the tea once in a while along it’s aging timeline.  I think to chuck the tea away in the corner and forget about it for 10+ years is not the right approach either…you might miss its peak level.

    For better or for worse, I’m keeping my small pu’er and liubao stash in temp/humidity controlled (58F/75%) off-site facility with most of my wines.

  • MarshalN // March 25, 2007 at 12:58 am | Reply

    I’m not saying it’s entirely absurd, but that the process of storing and selecting has to be done very carefully.  Many of the teas we see today, I suspect, will not stand the test of time.  Which ones in particular will is really anybody’s guess. 

    Even with Menghai products, some say that it is good because we know what it is — and how it tastes like when 20 years old, which is partly why prices are so high.  Yet, there are those who have been buying Menghai stuff for 4-5 years who keep saying that 7542 was way better a few years ago than they are now, which means that they are, after all, not the same thing.

    One thing that I see a lot among all the vendors is the universal claim that “this is a tea worth aging!”.  Have you ever seen anybody selling a tea that says this tea is NOT for aging?  Probably not.  Can the claim be universally true?  Perhaps, but more likely not.  The fact is, we don’t know, so I think it is unwise to just blindly cling to the faith that the teas will age into greatness without wondering exactly what one has to do to achieve a good old tea.

  • MarshalN // March 25, 2007 at 1:02 am | Reply

    Oh, and I think over time we are seeing puerhs that are made precisely for the consumption of the current market — they are buying it to drink now, not later.

    But those aren’t marked as such.  Most vendors will still tell you this is a tea worth keeping, in the hopes that you will buy more than you can consume.  We don’t have the equivilent of a beaujolais appellation in puerh, so it’s really a buyer beware market.

  • Phyllo // March 25, 2007 at 1:14 am | Reply

    “But those aren’t marked as such.  Most vendors will still tell you this is a tea worth keeping, in the hopes that you will buy more than you can consume.  We don’t have the equivilent of a beaujolais appellation in puerh, so it’s really a buyer beware market.”

    Yep…yep…this is where YOU come in…inform us what’s crap what’s not.  🙂

  • kibi_kibi // March 25, 2007 at 2:37 am | Reply

    “But those aren’t marked as such. Most vendors will still tell you this is a tea worth keeping, in the hopes that you will buy more than you can consume”

    Ah now I think I see what you’re saying. I think that must be one of the biggest if not the biggest problem for Pu-erh at the moment.

    But then again the idea of aging Pu-erh is used in other ways, especially as some vendors continue to sell really low quality Pu-erh with the usual sales pitch of “age-able”, “reputable” etc. I’m not saying there isn’t a market for such Pu-erh, but really some of the stuff is really rather terrible and it might certainly put people off Pu-erh.


  • MarshalN // March 25, 2007 at 5:21 pm | Reply

    Well, I don’t know if I can come in and help…

    The thing I know is that a lot of these terrible tasting current puerh might not get any better with regular storage, especially in a dry area.  One of those HK tea merchants was saying somthing like “in the old days when my dad ran this place… if a tea was bad, we just leave it in the storage until it gets good”.  The storage he’s talking about is what we consider now wet storage — dug into the hill, high humidity, etc….

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