A Tea Addict's Journal

The drain cleaners

June 2, 2009 · 3 Comments

I’ve been drinking a lot of drain cleaners these days, or in other words, puerh that are between 3-7 years old.  These are often the nastiest tasting things.  Whereas very young puerh (1 year or younger) are often quite pleasant to drink, and older things (7+) are usually fairly mellow, things that are in between can be disgusting.  They also begin to show their true colours.  Whereas younger puerh are often quite fragrant and light, once you’ve given the tea a few years, it can develop all sorts of flavours, from citrus to mint, and every conceivable taste in between.

The good thing about drinking something of this age is that you begin to have an idea whether it is any good or not.  If it’s already losing strength, as some do, then chances are it’s not going to get any better.  There are also ones that are intensely bitter without any sort of huigan, or just taste foul, strange, or, worst, hongcha-esque.

The linkage between a good tasting tea when young and a good aging tea when older is one of the biggest problem for those trying to evaluate and buy tea to press, and of course, the customer who eventually purchases them for storage.  Too often a good young cake turns out to be horrible after a few years, with no redeeming features and simply fades away.  In the puerh boom (and the post-boom world of today) there were many tea makers who popped out of nowhere to make tea.  Many of them used to be makers of other types of tea, be it green (guys from Shanghai area), oolong (a lot of Taiwanese tea guys), and hongcha (Fengqing factory, among others).  Then you have people who really didn’t know much about tea at all, or who never really made any tea, who jumped into the fray.  I have met a car dealer who became a puerh maker/merchant, and was selling some premium maocha pressed Lao Banzhang for a pretty price.  They will all tell you that they have had many years of experience in drinking tea (very often untrue, or including the time they had tea when they were three) as if it means anything.

Drinking, as we should all remember, has nothing to do with making.  A guy who can tell you if a shirt is well made or not probably has no idea how to start making one from scratch, unless he also happens to be a tailor by trade.  What makes tea any different?  A person who’s been growing tea for twenty years will, no doubt, have a pretty good sense of how it should be made.  A person who’s been drinking tea for twenty years will have some idea of how it ought to taste, and in the case of puerh, perhaps also how it ought to be stored.  Even to this date, very, very few people have actually taken a cake of puerh from its inception, through storage, to its mature state, and can attest to knowing how all these stages ought to be.  Many of the people whom I’ve met in Beijing and elsewhere who went and pressed their own cakes had, at best, mixed results.  Some of them had cakes that were obviously flawed.  Others had cakes that seemed all right, but after a few years of aging, turned out to be quite questionable.

It’s a pretty depressing thought, but I am increasingly of the belief that only those who live and work in Yunnan full time, year round, or those who have had a long working relationship with some of the farmers or factory owners there, will have access to good tea.  When my friend L visited Yiwu and spent a few weeks there with some contacts he had from CNNP, he said that all of the old tree farmers in one village were binded to long term contracts with this one person from Guangdong.  Everything else that goes on the open market as tea from this one place were all either “imported” from somewhere else, or were simply from inferior, plantation teas masquerading as better things.  If you’re a visitor who they don’t know, the farmer will show you a few bags of different teas.  You will try them all.  You will find that one of them is better than the others, with a suitably higher price.  All is well until, of course, you realize that there’s a vastly superior tea out there that you never got to try because the farmers won’t sell it to you.  The price will be right for an old tree tea (otherwise you’d think it’s too good to be true) but the tea won’t be.

Which is why I’m subjecting myself to the drain cleaners and trying to pick a winner among these, instead of going with the lottery of brand new teas.

Categories: Old Xanga posts

3 responses so far ↓

  • cha_bing // June 2, 2009 at 7:54 pm | Reply

    This makes me sad. There are so many unknowns in puer that I’ve all but given up trying to get more heavily into it. But today I did drink what I considered to be a great 2001 yiwu cake bought from puerhshop.com last year. It had this lingering sweetness that I haven’t tasted with any other tea (I’d almost suspect it was adulterated, except the sweetness was stronger in later brews). In any case, given that this tea is very close to your “drain cleaner” age, I remain hopeful that all is not lost for persons like me who aren’t really in a position to buy and drink cakes made much before 2001. I still see something great and unique that puer has to offer. I just wish it wasn’t so hard to buy.

  • MarshalN // June 3, 2009 at 9:52 pm | Reply

    Well, something from 2001 is a little more likely to be decent than later stuff. Especially in the last two years, there’s been a lot of “closing up” in the maocha market, where big players monopolize most, if not all, of an area’s tea.

  • Better brewed in paper | A Tea Addict's Journal // February 10, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Reply

    […] What I’ve found sometimes though is that some teas are actually better brewed in a cup, grandpa style (it seems like this term is now in much wider circulation than I thought possible), than actually trying to make it in a smaller pot, etc.  Young puerh, especially, seems good for this treatment.  Whereas the tea may be very bitter and somewhat acidic when brewed intensely in a small pot, in a larger cup with a higher water to tea ratio, it actually can come out pleasant, with a nice but not overwhelming sense of bitterness, and the young tea’s acidity is not overpowering to the point where you wonder if you’re drinking drain cleaners. […]

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