A Tea Addict's Journal

Blend vs single mountain

November 22, 2007 · 8 Comments

The blend vs single mountain debate is an ongoing one in the puerh market. There are a number of different arguments over this, but basically it boils down to “which one is better?”. The single mountain teas are generally produced by smaller factories. Sometimes it’s even by individuals. They often cannot afford the time nor have the resources to haul large amounts of tea with them from mountain to mountain, so instead they buy maocha at each place and then press them into cakes, making single mountain cakes as they go to each different place and collect tea. Blended ones, on the other hand, are more likely to be made by larger factories that have the ability to collect teas from far and wide and then carry them back to their factory to be mixed and then pressed. It requires more resources to do and thus are difficult for small producers to pull off, unless you are somebody like Chen Zhi Tong who spends a lot of time in Yunnan and who ultimately has the help of some big factory.

We have precious little experience of single mountain cakes aging — everything produced pre-1990s was blended. Expert opinion on the antique cakes (pre- Red Label) are divided, but generally speaking many agree that those are also blended — with different mountain teas, and not from a single region. So… there is a theory that single mountain cakes are no more than a gimmick for smaller producers to sell their tea. Just because a tea is from a single region has nothing to do with its quality being high or low, but somehow it is sometimes taken as such in marketing information or in consumer response.

Think about this: I think most whisky drinker will agree that a Johnny Walker Blue Label (blended) is going to be better than a poor single malt. It is not the most distinctive, but I think it does what it does very well — a smooth, enjoyable, and generally well regarded drink. There will be the malt-snobs who think any blended whisky is crap and refuse to drink such things, but that is more likely to be a status thing than anything else.

At the end of the day, very few of us (myself included) can say with any certainty whether or not something is blended. There are many who sell cakes that claim single-region status, and then consequently justify its existence by saying that single-region is better and pure and all that. There are also those who espouse the greatness of blends, how they are rounder, have less flaws, etc. If whisky is a guide, then what it really will be is simply that single-region teas are more likely to give you all the characteristics of that region, flaws and all. Blends will be smoother, easier to drink, and (at least to novices) tastier, but perhaps less interesting or less engaging for the devoted. Still, a blend made with top notch tea will always be better than a poor single region, and vice versa. There simply isn’t a quality correlation there.

And since whiskies are blended after they’re aged… what’s stopping us from blending teas after they’ve aged as well? Somebody told me he puts in a bit of very young puerh when he brews his wet stored stuff. It gives the tea more liveliness and makes the drink more interesting. I can certainly see how that’s the case, and there’s really nothing stopping us from doing so. Drink what you like, not what gives go status.

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8 responses so far ↓

  • lewperin // November 22, 2007 at 7:48 pm | Reply

    We have precious little experience of single mountain cakes aging — everything produced pre-1990s was blended.

    As far as I know, this is very close to the truth, but what about the 1960s Gaoligongshan (高黎贡山) tea? That’s single mountain (range), though not from any of the canonical mountains.

    Think about this: I think most whisky drinker will agree that a Johnny Walker Blue Label (blended) is going to be better than a poor single malt. It is not the most distinctive, but I think it does what it does very well — a smooth, enjoyable, and generally well regarded drink.

    Strange you should mention this. Just last night I was over at a friend’s house. He’s a caterer, and sometimes he takes home freebies from gigs. Last night he had a bottle of JW Blue and a bottle of some limited edition of 25-year-old Chivas Regal I had never heard of, supposedly a run of only 500. The Blue was way better: smooth and subtle. If I’d been told it was a single malt with an unpronounceable name, I would have believed it.

    This was a great post: lots to think about.

  • Anonymous // November 22, 2007 at 8:55 pm | Reply

    Lz, your summation hits the nail on the head.
    I question the industries (tea) ability to produce a consistent single source tea, year after year. There is a high probability of an exceptional, single source, vintage tea, but not year on year. Blending is necessary in Pu-erh production and it is hoped that the “Blend Master” gets it correct, based on the evaluation of “this” years crop. Nothing wrong with some young stuff (tea) mixed with a mature base tea. Try this one: JW black label will be sufficient .. “wet” the inside of your tea cup with a splash of the good stuff, then top up with a good Pu-erh … john

  • MarshalN // November 22, 2007 at 11:18 pm | Reply

    Lew:  The Gaoligongshan I have never tried, and until I have, I should withhold judgment.  However, let me just say that it is highly unusual for a tea purported from the 60s to carry that sort of label.  Also, the pictures of the tea I’ve seen (wet and dry) tell me that it isn’t really a 60s tea — in fact, it sort of looks like some of the blended, wet stored loose puerh that I can easily get from Hong Kong for a little bit of money.  But of course, I haven’t seen the tea in person or tried it, so I can’t say for sure.

    As somebody just pointed out to me off-blog, the greatest sin of the Blue Label is its price — it’s expensive.  There’s obviously a lot of huff and puff built into the bottle, the package, the name, and when paying for one (they’re oddly cheap in Taiwan) one’s paying for all those things.  That said… it’s got some very charming qualities.

    John:  I find Black Label boring 🙂  Year on year is indeed a real problem with these single sourced teas, especially when many of these smaller producers don’t necessarily go back to the same people for the materials.  That’s why it’s necessary to try out every single one…. which is such a pain.

  • Anonymous // November 23, 2007 at 3:28 am | Reply

    Slightly OT: Blue Label is ok, but for that kind of money (120-150 pounds a bottle!) I could get several bottles different single malts which are as good. FYI they claim that there are some single malts in the blend from now defunct distilleries, and so the price keeps increasing with time.
    Fortunately you cannot buy that for aging 😉 At least we do not care too much for defunct pu-erh factories 🙂

  • MarshalN // November 23, 2007 at 3:44 am | Reply

    But we do!  Defunct Songpin, Tongqing…. prices keep going up!

    Blue Label is $110 here in Taiwan.  Somehow I think it’s priced too low here.

  • Anonymous // November 23, 2007 at 3:58 am | Reply

    Interesting comments. As a pu-erh and malt drinker from Scotland…
    I don’t know if the analogy stands up.
    Blends like Blue label are fine – but there is so much complexity and depth from single malts that no one would really choose a blend of over a malt. Period.
    A bit like having three complex perfumes you like and deciding to wear a little of all three at once – they are all lovely- why should they not all combine to something amazing….?! The reality is somewhat different and a bit stinky
    Now a poor single malt vs a nice blend – a bit of a no brainer that one – who wants to drink anything poor?
    A malt is the end product of a very specific unique distillation process.
    I guess with pu-erh we are working a little further back (a good thing maybe!) in the formation of the drink. As you say we can experiment with the ingredients (water, temp,leaf etc). This makes it so much more interesting!!
    Cheers Marshal – you are finally getting all us lurkers to say something.
    Keep it up – great blog!

  • MarshalN // November 23, 2007 at 4:05 am | Reply

    Lethargus, you lurkers are difficult to lure out 🙂

    I’m not sure if everybody will agree with you with regards to single malts vs blends… which means it’s a matter of taste….

    I think I was trying to point out that single-region does not in and of itself mean higher quality.  That’s something that sometimes get confused in all the stuff out there.

  • anotherteablog // November 24, 2007 at 2:00 am | Reply

    That was interesting, thank you.

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