A Tea Addict's Journal

To blend…

February 1, 2010 · 3 Comments

or not to blend?  That is the question.

Lots of people have discussed this before, and a long, long time ago, I think I said something about it too, although it’s been so long that it might as well not exist.  The thing here is mostly concerning puerh — whether or not these single mountain teas are really such a good idea.

We all know that traditionally, teas were blended.  I have seen evidence from the nineteenth century that clearly state how cakes produced in Yunnan were blended with different leaves, and it seems to be for commercial reasons too — nice leaves on the outside, bigger leaves on the inside.  This is very much like the blending that takes place at factories like Menghai, where they also did similar things.  There were specific formulas that they used to create these blends, and if you look at a proper 7542 you will see that the front surface of the cake has leaves that look different than the ones on the back, and if you cut it open, you’ll find that the leaves inside are, once again, different.

This says something not only about the cakes themselves, but also consumption of the cakes.  Traditionally, in places like Hong Kong, cakes were broken into bits, and then were again blended by the teahouse.  They don’t break one cake at a time for you to savor.  If they’re breaking cakes that day to prepare for business, they do it in a whole batch — dozens, if not hundreds, of cakes are broken at the same time into small chunks, bits, and loose leaves.  These teahouses have their own house recipes for how to blend cakes, and will therefore create different tastes according to these custom blends.  What you get at A Teahouse is not going to be the same as B Teahouse, and loyal customers swore by them, declaring that one was better than the other.

So that was how things used to be.  Individual drinkers did not drink cakes on their own.  They had it outside, in public teahouses.  The concept of storing your own tea was pretty foreign.  Tea was stored by those in the trade, and what you bought, you drank.  Most of the older texts I’ve read say nothing at all about puerh — it’s not a tea they consumed.  Instead, they all drank stuff along the coast, probably green tea of various types, or maybe some oolong mixed in it.  Puerh was not on their radar.

These days, however, most of the teas we see produced are various kinds of single mountain, even single estate teas.  Bulang this, Banzhang that, they are all locale specific (allegedly) and vintage specific.  Of course, given the appellation problems, there’s no guarantee that what’s in the wrapper is what’s advertised, but if we take it at face value, what we have right now on the market are a bunch of year and location specific teas.

So, isn’t that just like wine?  Winery, year, and varietal/region specific, right?  What’s wrong with that?  Or maybe we can compare them to single-malts?

I think neither of these are great comparisons.  Wines are often blends, even if it’s a bottle that says “Merlot” and “Sonoma Valley” on it.  15% of the wine can be not from Sonoma Valley.  It doesn’t have to be all Merlot either.  For the stricter appellation regimes, such as those of French wines, you still have leeway for blends depending on the region.  They often specify the allowable amount of blending, and each appellation is different.  If you don’t like it and want to make something outside of what’s allowed by the AOC?  There’s always Vin de Pays, a much looser set of regulations on what can go into the bottle.

Single malts also are rarely single-sourced, single year.  While they do come from a single distillery, say, Lagavulin, the “16 years” on the label is really the lowest age of the whisky in the blend.  Standard bottling of these whiskies are usually blends of various years, and not all from a single year.  If you want those, you can go for specific vintage bottling, or single cask, or any of those things.  By and large, whisky makers blend their whisky to create a fuller profile or whatever the desired taste might be.

That’s not what’s going on with puerh tea.  These days, the market is filled with teas that are mostly single year and single source teas, stored, generally, in the comfort, or danger, of your own home.  What I think will happen is that the taste of these cakes, many years down the road, will often be aggressive, sharp, and focuses on certain notes while completely missing others.  That’s the nature, I speculate, of such single-profile teas.

Does this mean we should all just buy Menghai 7542?  No, I don’t think so.  Even then, you’re still going to end up with 7542 of one vintage.  One of the things that the teahouses used to do when blending is to blend different ages and different types of puerh together.  They might also take into account storage conditions, cost, and other factors.  Someone who knew what he was doing would be responsible for deciding what to do with the blend.  So, 7542 is not the answer.

Instead, I think the answer might be for us to start blending our own tea — an aged Bulang with a young Yiwu might make for a pretty interesting combination.  Or, a blend of wetter stored teas with drier stored ones.  I am not convinced now that drinking these single sourced teas in 20 years will be our answer to the Songpin of yore.  I think we will be sorely disappointed if we wait that long.  Better start learning the art of blending now.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymous // February 1, 2010 at 6:04 pm | Reply

    After your post on Appellations I had a discussion with someone else, who was sadly completely against the idea, but more from an socio and economical standpoint then the idea itself. But I likened it more to a wider Whiskey in general discussion, with the attachment of the name Scotch on a Whisky made in Scottland. I used this as I see its sort of parallel with Puerh, in the sense that you can make puerh like tea outside of Yunnan, just like you can make Whisky outside of Scotland. I just think the problem arises when a Tea processed like Puerh from some other part of China Labels itself as say a “Bulang Puerh” just so it can get the price increase of that title even though its false. It would be like an Indian whiskey putting Scotch on the label, saying its processed similar to Scotch. Mind you I am making no judge of the quality of the tea cake made outside of Yunnan, or the Whiskey from India, they may be better then certain items that can legitimately make the claim.

    As for this you bring up an interesting point, and have me thinking about blending some of the puerh’s I have on hand to explore taste combinations.

    I also am curious, as to if any of the texts you mention are available in English?

  • Anonymous // February 2, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Reply

    I think wine -is- a great comparison. The diversity and specificity of various locations within Yunnan is really very close to that of a larger European wine appellation.
    And I think the tea market will further develop along those lines.
    Why until recently tea was consumed in the way you descrive was entirely a cultural aspect. It very much mirrors wine consumption until the late 1700s. Although the better locations were identified and valued, 99% of wine was blended from a broader base of origins, and very little wine was marketed under a more specific name. Burgundy or Rhine wine was what you got. What consumers expected of a wine was that it taste good.
    In recent decades there has been a huge shift in consumer expectation towards specificity and uniqueness. If you now create a cross-regional blend with the premise that it tastes better than an appellation wine, it will be of no interest whatsoever to advanced wine consumers. The same is happening for tea. There is so much good puer around that creating a balanced blend is not enough. As the consumer get more educated and more interested in the minutiae of location specificity, it is the unique character offered by the individual location that will be valued. To an extent, higher than ‘objective’ quality (it’s what we are witnessing with prices of the single origin cakes, regardless of whether they actually taste good).
    I understand your point about working on a cross-vintage and cross-location blend for a more complete profile, but I think it is will precisely be the “focus on certain notes while completely missing others” that will increasingly interest drinkers in the future (just as they are interested to get the grapefruit notes in one Chablis Premier Cru even if it lacks the butter notes of another PC).
    Or of tea follows the whisky model, there will be a very broad base of consumption where quality and consistency will be valued (= blends), but at the top end a narrow group of consumers will be ready to pay a super premium for location- and vintage-specific products.

  • lewperin // February 14, 2010 at 11:54 am | Reply

    Sorry to be commenting so late, but for some reason one of the things you said in your post just hit me. You said:

    One of the things that the teahouses used to do when blending is to blend different ages and different types of puerh together.

    Like you, I often drink old Pu’er bought in Hong Kong from a vendor who sells mixed pieces from old cakes. I like the result, but I’ve always been troubled by the nagging doubt about how a teashop could have got its hands on such large quantities of tea whose provenance is gone. Now I think I know. Thanks!

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