A Tea Addict's Journal

Tasting blind

September 13, 2009 · 7 Comments

Felix Salmon is a great finance blogger, and I’ve been reading him for a while now.  He also writes about other things from time to time, and his latest entry, on tasting wine blind, is quite insightful.

He describes, with pinpoint accuracy, the problem with tasting things blind — you’re always trying to guess what it is, you always wonder what’s going on, and you always gravitate towards the few (usually not very subtle) clues and use that for guidance in the guessing game.  I think in addition to the problems he already presented, there’s another issue at hand with puerh (where much of the blind tasting occurs) as well — unlike wine, many of which were made to be drunk within a few years, relatively fewer people are buying puerh for immediate consumption.  Even for those who enjoy the taste of a new puerh cake, the assumption and expectation is that the cake will age, and hopefully, age well.

This presents a problem, because most people have no clue how a tea will age in five, ten, or twenty years’ time.  If there’s any doubt, one could turn to the “expert panels” that are sometimes assembled by various shops or magazines who review a number of teas — the differing opinions on teas among them will tell you right away that there is simply no agreement as to what is or is not good.

What has happened in the past few years is an increasing number of cakes that seem to be geared to the “drink it now” community, and much like the lament in Salmon’s blog entry, among aficianados of puerh we often hear the same thing, that so many cakes are now made for drinking now, rather than age later.  Immediate pleasure becomes more important than longevity, and depth sacrificed for ease.

To the extent that this is simply an individual choice, it does not really matter.  If you knowingly buy teas for a “drink it now” purpose, then there is no problem at all.  Just like people who buy Beaujolais Nouveau expect to drink it fresh, there are many out there who buy their puerh fresh and drink it fresh.  The only issue happens when you buy it fresh and expect it to be great in ten years.  In my experience that has generally not been the case for many teas of recent vintages.  Rather than turning better, many simply become flat, or worse.

The question of how to spot such things is a constant struggle, and one that I’ve yet to come up with a good solution.  What I do know is that price and make have basically nothing whatsoever to do with ageability.  What I also know is that I trust the opinion of those who have tasted, say, Yellow Label or Red Label while they were younger teas much more than the others, oftentimes newcomers to the tea-making scene.  The almost unanimous opinion of those teas, when they were younger, is that they were harsh, strong, bitter, had depth, and were hardly a pleasure to drink.  It’s hard to find such things on the market these days.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • lewperin // September 13, 2009 at 7:35 pm | Reply

    What I also know is that I trust the opinion of those who have tasted, say, Yellow Label or Red Label while they were younger teas much more than the others, oftentimes newcomers to the tea-making scene. The almost unanimous opinion of those teas, when they were younger, is that they were harsh, strong, bitter, had depth, and were hardly a pleasure to drink.

    That’s an important point to remember. But does anyone reliably remember tasting Pu’er teas of similar vintage when they were young, which teas aged badly? And there’s a related question: does anyone remember tasting a young Pu’er 30 or 40 years ago that was enjoyable then?

  • MarshalN // September 13, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Reply

    @lewperin – 

    Well, here’s the problem — back then, puerh were only made by two factories, really, so you’re talking about either stuff from factory A or B (Dayi and Xiaguan, respectively). There are no other choices, and both turned out to be pretty good, after all these years.

    So the logic of some might say “well, maybe all puerh tea will turn out just fine then, wouldn’t it?”

    To which I say no, because production volume was far smaller back then, and my friends report that the new teas they’re tasting now are not the same as the stuff they had back in the day.

    As for the second question — no, not that I’m aware of. The enjoyable stuff back then was the stuff that were already old.

  • HobbesOxon // September 13, 2009 at 11:17 pm | Reply

    It is indeed lamentable that we younger whippersnappers have no personal experience of what it tastes like to drink hongyin while young. However, even in our own humble collections, we usually have some new cakes that are moving in very positive directions over the past five/six years, and some that are not.

    Perhaps we have some cakes that we bought with age, which, when we bought them, tasted like our five/six-year cakes taste now. These slightly aged cakes now have a further five years on them, and some of them are moving in positive directions, some of them not.

    By sampling our teas across the aging spectrum and comparing progress after the “troublesome” period of adolescence (which you have previously called “drain cleaners”!), I wonder if we can’t gain a little insight. Necessarily limited and humble though that insight may be, I don’t think we’re entirely absent all information.

    Those cakes that are moving in positive directions have certain qualities, do they not? Certain similarities from which me might tentatively postulate conclusions. While we have no idea how they will turn out in thirty years, I think we could probably attempt the selection of cakes that will make decent “ten-year woody” cakes by now.

    Certainly, it is interesting finding out, no? And if we fail, and all of our tea suddenly turns out to be awful in year eleven after ten years of aging, then at least we will have enjoyed the journey.



  • MarshalN // September 13, 2009 at 11:27 pm | Reply

    @HobbesOxon – 

    Perhaps I sounded too pessimistic. What I merely meant was that I see the same tendencies in our current productions as the oenophiles find about their wines — that many products are now geared mostly for the immediate sensation of pleasure rather than the long term quality of the product. There’s actually nothing particularly wrong with that. Sellers of such teas simply should not market them as suitable for long term aging. I have yet to see that, unfortunately. At best you get a line about “great for drinking now and will be even better with age!”

    But of course, I would wholeheartedly agree with you that part of the fun is aging the cakes and seeing what happens. After all, I do have at least 200 cakes sitting around at various locales, rotting away and hopefully, getting better with age.

  • HobbesOxon // September 14, 2009 at 12:00 am | Reply

    Another of my favourites is “I don’t drink shengpu, but I think this will age well.”

  • Anonymous // September 14, 2009 at 6:34 pm | Reply

    Puerh and aged teas can have such interesting unpredictability.  I keep a couple of cakes around that I drink from every year or so.  One of them, a Menghai cake from 2003, has had some surprising changes.  Bitterness, fruitiness and astringency have given way to a roundness and qi that I didn’t expect would come from this one.  I also have an 06 oolong that was delicious then, but has lost mouth feel and flavors that no amount of my labors or skill have been able to re-invigorate.  Dually sad and enjoyable, reminding that sometimes, I should take care to live and breathe in the moment of each good cup.

    But what’s a good cup?  If the experts and expert panels can’t seem to agree, I’m won’t concern myself with the parameters either.

  • jasonwitt // October 5, 2009 at 7:16 pm | Reply

    I’m one of those guys who wants immediate gratification with Pu-erh. Give it to me now! I’ve tasted some older ones that aged well and they can be a good experience. But I’ve also been turned off by some of the more expensive aged varieties that impress other people. I just want an exciting spiritual experience from my Pu-erh drinking, and I’ve found I get it from young, raw kinds. I don’t want harmony. All that just seems like senescence to me. Forget about it. Young and wild is fun. –Teaternity

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