A Tea Addict's Journal

Drink your tea now

April 4, 2014 · 10 Comments

Many of you reading this are probably sitting on more tea than you can consume in your lifetime, or at least some multiples of years, if not decades. For those of you who fit that description, I have a story for you.

A relative of a family friend recently passed away due to a heart attack. It seems like he was interested in a number of things, tea being one of them, and teapot being another. I was called in to take a look at what’s there, to see what can be done about it. I brought along a couple of friends who are tea vendors, since I wasn’t going to buy what could be a couple hundred cakes of stuff.

Turns out there weren’t a couple hundred cakes – there were maybe 60 or 80, plus some random liu’an, so on and so forth.

You can see some of the cakes here. You might notice a few things, one being that almost all of the tea is still shrink wrapped. The second is that they all look old. These teas seem to be purchased from multiple vendors over a number of years, but probably bought no earlier than maybe the early 2000s or so. Some of the teas are supposed to be 70s or 80s tea, more are 90s or maybe early 2000s. Some are cooked, others raw. It’s not a big collection, but it’s a collection.

And the guy never got to drink any of these.

Among these cakes is one, placed in a box on its own. We opened it, and before us was the classic Red Label wrapper. When I picked it up, however, it felt funny – too light, and the cake’s shape is not right. Upon further examination, it is pretty clear that this must’ve been a fake, and not a very good one either. The price he paid, however, was real – the price tag was still on it from a department store in Hong Kong, for the grand price of $120000 HKD, which is about how much a cake of the 50s Red Label would’ve cost about 8-10 years ago. These days it’s more like $100000 USD a cake.

It’s still shrink wrapped too.

It’s hard to tell what kind of condition most of the cakes are in, since they’re wrapped so carefully from the vendors. It’s pretty obvious that most of them are pretty wet – some terribly so. The cakes that were not shrink wrapped were on the heavy side of traditional storage, to the point where they would be rather heavy going for those who are not used to the taste, and would depress the relative resale value. But it seems like the guy liked it that way – he has a lot of cooked tea, and heavy-going seems to be his preferred profile.

Of course, I don’t know what he’s drunk, so maybe he consumed most of his teas already. He passed before getting to 70, so while he wasn’t exactly young, he wasn’t very old either by today’s standard. The Red Label, I suspect, was a pride and joy, and he kept it separately because he paid dearly for it. Even though it’s a fake, or maybe precisely because it’s a fake, he was the only one who was going to be able to really enjoy the tea – he would think he’s drinking the real thing, and since we know that paying more for wine gives you more enjoyment for it, I think the same pattern probably applies to tea. He would’ve really loved the taste of the cake, thinking that one session is costing him upwards of $2000 USD.

Many of us sit on tea that we say to ourselves “I’ll drink it for that special occasion” or “I’ll wait till later before I enjoy it” or “I can’t bear the thought of drinking all of it.” Well, don’t let that hold you back, because chances are you are the only one who’s going to enjoy it. We can always delude ourselves to think that maybe our kids, or relatives, or whoever, will like tea, but more often than not, it’s just not the case. At least here in Hong Kong, there’s the option of selling it back to people who are in the tea trade (my vendor friend seems to do it a couple times a year – called by various friends of friends, etc). Good luck doing that in the States or Europe. So, drink up!

Categories: Teas
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10 responses so far ↓

  • ira // April 4, 2014 at 9:28 am | Reply

    Thank you for reminding us that we have unknown expiry dates :). I have known families thrown out very old puerh from China after grandfathers passed away and now they are kicking themselves as these friends are finally into puerh. I worry about my small stash of hobby collections. I once was invited to a garage sale where the son was selling his mother’s crazy collection of fabrics, art supplies for pennies! There and then was a wake up call, almost! :). Yes, no saving for later. Enjoy ourselves and drink the good ones. Forget about drinking those bad teas at work!

  • MMM // April 4, 2014 at 10:46 am | Reply

    Or maybe it’s the other way round : you can enjoy buying and owning teas for the sake of buying and owning them, more than for the actual joy of drinking it.

    Few people would dare to admit it and the balance must varies between people, but I think there is a bit of all of us in this stereoptype.

    • MarshalN // April 5, 2014 at 11:14 pm | Reply

      I find that pretty unlikely. People who do the “buying for the sake of buying” tend to hoard – this seems more like a collection meant for personal consumption.

      I know, because I’m a hoarder with pots

  • Balthazar // April 5, 2014 at 10:03 am | Reply

    Thanks for sharing the story.

    Regarding the 50s Red Label, the fake cake bought by this person was only a little under half the price of one for sale at Best Tea House (HK) today… I wasn’t aware that teas in this price class were actually successfully sold fake, since one would expect prospective buyers to be extra careful in assuring the authenticity at those rates.

    Anyways, as long as he was in the belief that this cake was the real deal I guess it doesn’t matter all that much (notwithstanding the fact that it can’t be resold with nearly the same value going back to those left behind), and as you say he would probably have enjoyed it a lot had he brewed it. On the other hand I think certain personalities have a very hard time actually enjoying the consumption of such valuable objects, and for these breaking up a vintage Red Label would probably just be a guilt-inducing experience. It’s sort of a paradox plaguing “spendable” yet highly valuable items, that they are sometimes doomed never to be consumed even though this was the intention behind their creation. I sometimes wonder whether I would allow myself such “indulgence” if i owned one (I sincerely hope I would), although I don’t think there’s any chance I’ll ever find out.

    • MarshalN // April 5, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Reply

      So that’s how, say, a nice vintage bottle of wine goes bad, because people don’t want to consume them and by the time they’re 50 years old they’re brown and disgusting. Tea doesn’t have THAT problem, but a lot of other things can go wrong, most obviously death.

      We all have cakes like this – cakes we deem too valuable, for whatever reason, to consume. It doesn’t have to be a Red Label. It can just even be that first great tea you bought that you still have half a cake of – you might be keeping it because of whatever reason, and you think it’s good, and you can’t find more of it. Well… drink it up. Keep the wrapper, that’s enough for memories.

  • Tobias Müller Tobias82 // April 5, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Reply

    Hello MarschalN, just a question in general… on the pictures of your post, most cakes were in plastic… to protect the level of aging? Can it be done with any sheng, or just at some years?
    As I read on another page, young sheng were wrapped… to speed up the aging process?
    Thanks for sharing information… Tobias

    • MarshalN // April 5, 2014 at 11:17 pm | Reply

      In this particular case most of the shrink wrap was done by the vendors. With older tea you often do want to wrap them up to make aging slower. In this case, however, many of them were extremely wet at some point in their storage, and would actually probably benefit from airing out.

  • John Grebe // April 6, 2014 at 12:35 am | Reply

    I hope you were able to find a few open teas as evidence that the guy got to at least enjoy some of his tea during his life. Also thank you for the inspiration to drink from my 2 HK wet storage puerh cakes more often. The vendor no longer deals in wet storage any longer so in my efforts to stretch something that I’m not sure if I’d be able to buy again (or at least at a price I’d be willing to pay) I had fallen into the trap of not touching it for over a year. Best to make sure that I enjoy it myself now and hope to be able to find more latter. If nothing else I can always pick up more Nor Sun puerh which is at least a wet stored shu/sheng blend that is available and affordable in the USA.

    • MarshalN // April 7, 2014 at 9:35 am | Reply

      That should be easily available, maybe not at a price you’d want to pay, but traditionally stored tea certainly isn’t going out of business.

  • Jaye- Cardiff in a Tea Cup // April 18, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Reply

    That’s sad it was a fake. At least he didn’t know. I have bits of tea I know I can’t get again so have left for a while. I’m drinking them up now so this advice has spurred me on. 🙂

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