A Tea Addict's Journal

Old tea

June 28, 2011 · 5 Comments

I’m in Beijing at the moment, visiting my friend L and drinking tea with his friends.  One of the teas I had today was a mixture of a some bits and pieces from a Mengjing mushroom tea from Republican days, and a good chunk of leaves from a 60s Blue Label iron cake.  While the tea is quite nice and has obvious qi, at the same time I can’t help but think that all the cost of this tea is not necessarily worth it.  After all, at over $100 USD for that brew if you were to pay for it, the tea is nice, but not that nice.  The qi is certainly something you don’t get with younger teas — an aged tea of enough years is going to be different from your young stuff, no matter what.  Yet, I’m really not sure if this is really worth it for a lot of people.  So many people chase this stuff so that now they are priced out of pretty much everyone’s range.  But if you drink it, and compare it to something like say 1960s Guangyungong tea, the difference is not so earth-shatteringly big that it merits the many multiples of price that it commands.

This is really a dilemma not only of aged tea, but all teas in general.  Is that dahongpao that is very good really worth 10x that dahongpao that is only so so?  Sure, perhaps.  At some point, however, every individual will hit a threshold above which they will not go in terms of cost/benefit.  While it is not always a good idea to measure a tea’s worth in how much pleasure it gives you per dollar spent, at some point that does come into play, and at this moment, for me, I think that many of the aged puerh on the market today are simply not worth the amount of money they command for me to want to actually buy them for drinking purposes.  I’m quite happy with my current selection of tea that I possess, and find little compelling reason to chase such expensive teas.  To buy them is to buy something rare and unique, something not easily found, especially if we’re talking about pre-1970s tea.  That rarity, however, commands a huge premium.  The reasons for purchasing these teas quickly leave the realm of “this is a good tea and is tasty” to “this is something that I can use to show off with” or “this is something that displays my knowledge of tea” or something similar.  In my opinion, those are not good things to pay for.  Nor, I think, should we expect that any tea produced today will command a similar level of prices come their 40th or 50th anniversary – the production level is so much higher now than it was back in the day, and so much more care has been put in to preserve these teas, that I think decades from now we will still have a relatively large supply of such things.  The only good reason to buy a tea is because you like to drink it.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • Will // June 28, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Reply

    Of course, there’s a point of diminishing returns, but as you say, it’s at a different place for every person (not to mention that tastes differ also).

    I think it’s worth pursuing both if one can afford it – of course, most of us can’t drink 50s lan yin on a daily basis, and it’s worth seeking out teas that are a better value. Plus, a tea that’s so expensive and built up can sometimes be a letdown. But, all that said, I’ve also derived satisfaction from some of the old teas I’ve had the fortune to try (famous and less famous) that goes beyond simply bragging about having tried them. Some of it may be the story, the history, and the mystery, but I think it’s more than that too. There’s a point where certain teas really transcend storage condition, sheng or shu, mountain of origin, and just taste like “old tea”. And that’s something I’ve had a hard time finding at much lower price levels. I think it’s also worth considering that, cup for cup, tea is still a relatively affordable luxury compared to some of the vices people like to indulge in.

    Does he have any more of those pots bears3x got one of?

    • MarshalN // June 28, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Reply

      Yes, there’s a value in trying these things at least once or twice, but owning a cake is an entirely different matter. Compound the problem with the possibility of fakes, then I’m not so sure whether it’s really worth it or not. It’s always interesting, for example, to see that a 50 year old tea still retains a hint of youth with a bit of sourness around the tongue. That’s something you find in the Red Label more forcefully, but still present in the Blue, and which is hard to replicate.

      As for the pot – I don’t know which one, exactly, BBB got, so I don’t know. L sells lots of different kinds of pots.

      • Will // June 29, 2011 at 12:07 am | Reply

        Oh agreed – I definitely don’t have the confidence to buy cakes or tong of these extremely famous teas, even if I had the financial resources. If I were going to buy one, this is one case where I’d definitely consider paying the premium for buying it from a reputable source. And even when buying from a reputable source, old tea is pretty difficult to ever know for sure if it is what it’s supposed to be.

        An old tea I have from a reputable source (sans wrapper) – all I have is the seller’s say-so that it is what it is. But I like the taste of the tea, and generally speaking, that’s all that matters. But it is a lot of pressure to make those kinds of decisions, and sometimes it’s a struggle to decide whether or not you made the right decision.

        It would be nice to have enough of one of these teas to have the luxury to enjoy them in a more relaxed way. Too, it’s always hard to know how close to the supposed “market price” all of these teas go for. Partly, it will depend on storage and the quality of the tea, but enough of these deals go on behind closed doors that it’s hard to say whether sellers can really get, say, $15-20k+ US for hong yin vs. $10-12k.

        Aside from bragging rights, one other reason that it’s amazing to get the opportunity to try these famous cakes (whether through the generosity of tea friends or from buying small samples) is that they serve as some sort of reference point.

        The pot is one of the series that he and that other friend commissioned. Old clay, good clay (dark zisha), kind masculine shape, your style of pot, with the short spout, urn shaped kind of, but low profile. I think he might remember it.

        Hope to catch up more when you’re settled.

  • charlene // June 30, 2011 at 3:32 am | Reply

    Hi Marshall,
    I’ve been following your blog for a while–love it–especially when you went all out and tried to prepare tea Tang Dynasty style according to the Cha Jing! Just wanted to say hi since your blog says you’re in Beijing and I’m based in Beijing, so would love to meet up if you have the time!

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