A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries tagged as ‘aged puerh’

When to give up

March 2, 2015 · 11 Comments

At what point do you give up on a cake that you have kept for aging?

I ask this because it is an important question for those of us sitting on tea. If you are a buyer of puerh and have stored some for aging, at some point you need to take them out and start drinking – after all, that’s the point. When you first start, it is likely that you bought more or less indiscriminately. You may have purchased teas based on recommendations by others who are supposed to, perhaps, know more than you. You may have bought because of the reputation of the vendor. You may have also bought because you liked how the tea tasted then. Afterwards, a few years later, perhaps, you take out that same cake again and discover that it’s changed, but not necessarily for the better. What do you do? You tell yourself “well, it’s just going through that awkward phase; it’ll get better” and put it back in storage.

What if the same thing happens two years later? Four? Ten? When do you just tell yourself “this was a terrible purchase and it’s never going to get better”?

I have a bunch of stuff like this. Some I bought because they were cheap at the time and I figured I could afford to gamble. Some because, well, I didn’t know better. Some because they seemed decent at the time, but subsequently has turned out to be quite terrible. I know my aging environment is fine, because I have a number of teas that I stored myself for ten years now that are quite drinkable. So the aging environment isn’t the problem; the tea is.

It’s true that sometimes teas do go through an awkward phase. They have lost that initial sweetness/floral fragrance that are characteristic of new teas, but have not yet developed old tea taste. It’s that weird in between state where it’s really a pretty bad thing to drink. However, I also think that there are many teas out there that simply cannot and will not age. This is mostly because of bad processing to start off with. If your tea was processed like a green tea, bad news, it’s not going to get better. Aged green tea will never develop that complex and rich flavour of puerh that you should be striving for (and if you are one of those people storing tea to preserve its flavours and fragrance, you’re in the wrong business). A telltale sign of a tea that is processed like a green tea is a beany taste – think a fresh biluochun, a classic beany tea. If your tea smells like a longjing or a biluochun, it’s time to drink it fast because it’s not going to get better.

There are, I think, storage environments where the tea will also die, and I suspect (although without firm proof, because I haven’t tried) that once killed by bad storage, the tea will never recover. There are of course two types of death by storage. The first is the obvious – heavy mold, bad mold (golden flowers), extensive sun exposure, etc. The second is more subtle – environment that has strong odd smells (medicine cabinet, for example), too close to the sea (it will get salty), too dry (the tea will taste thin), etc. Some of these in the second category need not be fatal, if recovered sufficiently quickly – a week in a medicine cabinet won’t do anything bad to your tea. Three years, however, and you have a different problem.

So if your tea is aging poorly either because it was bad to start off with, or because it has had bad storage, at some point you should just give up on it. Even though it may taste great initially, it’s no guarantee that it will age well – many well known teas were terrible when they were young, being very bitter, astringent, smoky, etc. When you want to give up is of course up to you, but I think by year five, if the tea is getting thin, more and more bitter, or otherwise exhibiting signs that it is not aging well at all, it may be time to reconsider the value of keeping it long term. As a comparison, it is useful to keep a cake of Menghai 7542 around as a control. It is, after all, the standard puerh cake. If your 7542 is aging badly, then it’s your environment. If your 7542 is aging well and your other cake isn’t, well, it’s the cake. Hope is, of course, what keeps us alive and living, so hoping that your tea will recover is a natural thing. Sometimes though, it is useful to admit defeat, drink up the tea (or get rid of it) and save some space. You’ll thank yourself next time you move.

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Seven years in Portland

January 18, 2015 · 16 Comments

Some years ago, I gave my cousin living in Portland, Oregon this cake. I bought about a dozen of these when I was in Beijing, and I sent them one. I think it was 2007 when this happened, although it could also be in 2006. Either way, it’s been some years, and every time I visit them I would try a little bit of it. It’s gone through natural storage in their kitchen pantry in a ziploc bag. When I open it it usually smells of nothing.

The rest of my cakes, ever since I left Beijing, have been stored in Hong Kong, also in natural home storage. They were mostly in tongs, although I had a few loose cakes. I didn’t put them in any ziploc bags, so they were just sitting out there. I didn’t really drink that much of it over the years, so I still have about 10 of these. It’s actually rather scary how they’re all soon to be 13 years old teas now.

Recently I grandpa’ed a cake of the ones I stored in Hong Kong, so I got to know the taste of my tea really well. When I visited Portland over Christmas, I tried a little of it as usual, and I noticed that it’s obviously different from what I have at home. So I asked them for a little sample of the cake, and took it home. It’s impossible to tell if the teas tasted different because of the water or if it’s because the tea itself is different. My impression in Portland is that it is a little more fragrant, but also a bit thinner and sharper than what I have at home.

So I brought it home, and decided to brew them side by side. The left one is the Portland one, the right one is the Hong Kong one. You can see that the Portland one is a bit lighter in colour.

So I took 3g of each (this is 3g you’re seeing, minus a little extra) and then brewed them. I brewed them for two infusions of five minutes each. The colour of the brew is not very obviously different in the first infusion, but somehow for the second it actually became more obvious.

So the right one is a bit darker, surprise surprise.

The tastes of the teas are, as I expected, a little sharper, a little more floral, more “high” notes but less “bass” for the Portland stored one. The Hong Kong one is a little bit darker in tone, a little smoother in the body, and a little bit sweeter. Are the differences obvious? Yes. Are they still recognizable as the same tea? Also yes.

Not a lot of information from either the dry leaves, the liquor colour, or the wet leaves visually. The effect of storing in Hong Kong, versus storing in Portland, is a bit like using different casks for scotch. Portland, in this case, would be the oak cask from start to finish, whereas Hong Kong is a little more like a sherry finished one. I think the Portland tea has definitely transformed less – it’s closer to the original, with a bit more bitterness retained and a little less change over time. The Hong Kong one is still bitter as well, but a little less so. I suppose preference for one or the other is really a personal choice, but to me the biggest knock against the Portland tea is that it feels sharp and thin. It’s not as pleasant when compared against the Hong Kong stored one.

The differences are solely due to storage – they were bought together and until I gave it to my cousin, the teas were stored together. This was a pretty interesting natural experiment.

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December 3, 2014 · 11 Comments

One of the consequences of having a child who is physically mobile is that having tea the usual way, which means with a piping hot stove, with various breakable teaware, is becoming a bit less practical. I could close the door and drink to my heart’s content, but I prefer not to do that. What it means is many more teas that are drunk grandpa style than ever before.

Doing so has affected the choice of tea I drink. One of the things I reach for most frequently now is actually the cheap tuo that I bought a lot of – one reason, of course, is that I have kilos of this tea, but it’s also because it does very well in a grandpa setting. Tea, as we know, is sensitive to preparation methods. When the tuo is drunk with a gongfu setup, it is mediocre – not very interesting, a bit boring, a bit bland. It doesn’t quite have the punch of better teas, and while it has 10 years of age, it’s not particularly exciting. In a grandpa setup, however, it actually brings out some nuances that are easy to miss in a gongfu setting. I would in fact say that the tea has improved doing so – I am rather happy drinking it day in, day out. It’s a joy.

Another tea I’ve been reaching for a lot is a 2002 Mengku cake that I bought years ago in Beijing, back when this blog was first starting. I have two tongs of this tea, and can get more at reasonable prices simply because there isn’t a huge demand for this tea. It’s not the best either – but certainly quite decent.

One type of tea that I do not grandpa, almost as a rule now, is newly made puerh. They are, by and large, terrible in that context. That is partly because most of the teas that I would subject to grandpa drinking tend to be on the cheaper side, and cheaper newly made tea is usually just horrible things. It’s also because without any aging, the rough edges are still, well, rough. You end up with really astringent, bitter, and unpalatable teas. If you add just a bit, then it’s nice and soft, but not as nice and soft as a fine green tea, which I would infinitely prefer to a new puerh as a grandpa option. In other words, they are never picked first.

This may also go some ways to explain why puerh has always been considered an inferior tea – when new they are simply not very good. When aged they are fine, but with prices now astronomical, they are no longer practical drinks for most people. Already, aged and new puerh tea of decent quality are being priced out of the market for regular tea drinkers. That is really a tragedy.

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Not all old tea is good

June 5, 2013 · 6 Comments

We are always told that older teas are, somehow, better. Imagine if your old tea came from here though

This is a tea display from a grocery shop not too far from my home. They sell some pretty dubious teas, not sourced from this little display, of course. Nevertheless, if you ever need convincing that storage environment matters, this is it – it’s exposed to the sun, probably really hot, and hasn’t been cleaned in decades. God forbid you end up with a cake from here.

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Storing is for the long haul

January 29, 2013 · 13 Comments

A few months ago a reader of the blog emailed me with a problem. She is newish to puerh, and has been buying some cakes since 2011. She bought some clay jars to store the teas in, and in the hopes of speeding up the aging process, decided to try to add a bit of humidity to the jars to make things go faster/age better. This much sounds familiar – lots of people do similar things, especially if they live in drier climates, because, well, they worry about the tea not aging properly. These are the jars.

Then the inevitable happened – first, signs of yellow mold, which can be dusted off easily and stopped the addition of humidity to the tea (by some method of adding water to the clay and let the clay soak it up, I believe). Then, a more invasive problem appeared – bugs, little bugs, that were all over the cakes, especially one, but it was showing up on others too. She threw out the most heavily infested one, but now almost all the cakes have bugs in them, and they move fast and run away from light, what to do?

In desperation, she emailed me to ask – what’s a good way to handle them? She threw one of the cakes with bugs away, but there were more. Another she put in a freezer, hoping that it will kill the bugs. Was microwave a possible way of killing them? Something else?

I think a little perspective is useful sometimes, because I’ve met others who have had similar reactions before. Puerh, when you buy them new, are, well, an investment of sorts. If your plan is to store them and drink them in the future, chances are your time horizon is years, if not decades. If that’s the case, even momentary infestations of all kinds of nasties will go away. Some, like mold, may leave a permanent mark on how your tea tastes. Others, like little bugs, will barely make a dent in your tea, if you manage to get rid of them. So, when you run into problems like this, the first thing to do is not to panic, unless you spent your life savings on the tea and your life depended on it. If it’s just a hobby – there are ways to fix the problem. What not to do is to overreact and put the tea in, say, the microwave and permanently destroy it. That will really end the tea’s aging potential and cause irreparable harm.

Since in this case it was obviously the wet jars and the attendant humidity that was causing the problem, I suggested the reader to take all the cakes out of the jars, and then separate the cakes into two piles – ones with bugs and ones without. The ones without, just store them on a shelf or something. The ones with the bugs I suggested perhaps putting them somewhere, spread out, and just let them air out. Usually, bugs like these that live on puerh cakes tend to love the humidity, and are mostly after the paper. Once it gets too dry they will go away, especially if it’s not a dark humid space. I had bugs like this on some bricks I bought some years ago, and after a few months all the bugs were gone, and I didn’t even do anything special to get rid of them.

So, happily, the reader wrote back to me a few weeks ago saying that the bugs were, indeed, all gone. No more problems, and the tea is probably a bit dry, but certainly better off than in some uncontrolled humid environment with a high risk of mold and bugs. They’re going back into the jar, but without any added humidity this time. I think the aging will be slow, but there’s only so much you can do with natural climate.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered folks with storage problems that were man-made. Usually the root of the problem is the desire to somehow replicate a more humid, hotter environment so the tea will age faster, but that is not so easy, and the risks of failure also increases dramatically when you pursue such projects. I am an advocate of simple solutions, such as, say, adding a bowl of water to a storage cabinet, but anything more and I’d be weary. If you do pursue such projects, monitor the changes very closely. Mold can grow on all kinds of places, but on tea cakes, they generally start at the end of the stems, so watch those carefully. They can also be in some corner of your storage unit in that long forgotten tuo sitting in the back – and that can fester and kill your whole stash.

You can never really replicate the storage conditions of a giant warehouse with hundreds of jians of tea. Just today I was walking by Lam Kie Yuen and saw them loading up a truck for delivery. There were probably 200 jian of puerh in that truck, meaning there were close to 17000 cakes in there. Storage that amount of tea and storing 20 at home are not the same thing, and they have decades of storage management experience to back them up. So, proceed carefully, and if anything goes wrong, don’t panic. Airing out the tea for six months will solve most of the problems.

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Saturday tasting with friends

December 1, 2012 · 3 Comments

I was going to meet Tim from the Mandarin’s Tearoom today at this place, but by the time I got there Tim had to go already, so missed him. On the menu today:

1) Some random, new puerh that’s pressed into these chocolate shaped squares. Awful, awful tea. Tastes like green tea, and completely lacking in any sort of real aftertaste. It’s probably Lincang tea. Not sure of its cost, but this isn’t going to end well. Avoid newfangled pressing techniques, really.

2) Chenyuanhao 07 Laobanzhang – this tea is a disappointment. After last week’s pretty awesome Yiwu, I was expecting quite a bit, but this tea, well, isn’t that good. It’s not awful, but it doesn’t compare to the Yiwu offering. Well, I guess Mr. Chen does spend all his time in Yiwu overseeing his productions there, because clearly he wasn’t in Lao Banzhang.

3) Mid 2000s private pressing Yiwu from some shop in Macau. This is a private pressing, made with probably Yiwu materials. It’s nice, expensive, but also a bit off – it’s a bit rough and thin, and not very interesting. The person who brought the sample said this is not how it usually tastes, and we suspect the prolonged wetness in the weather recently has something to do with it. I wouldn’t buy it based on this one tasting, but maybe there’s more to it than that.

4) 2003 Henry Trading “Serious Formula”. Hou De had this tea for a little while. This is not a bad tea. It’s punchy. This is a naturally stored version. It’s still relatively cheap, I believe, for a lightly traditionally stored version, but I’m not sure how much it is now for the natural storage ones, but I’m pretty sure it’s cheaper than some newfangled gushu cakes from 2012. It’s nice, but there are lots of teas like it and so if it’s expensive at all, might not be worth the trouble.

5) 1992 Brick, unknown origin. Nice, decent aged taste. Not the best thing in the world, and considering it’s a brick… not much you can ask for. Supposedly a private pressing, although seems a little early for that sort of thing. I only got to try the tail end of the tea, so my comments on this is skewed.

6) 1950s Red Label. It’s hard to comment on something like this, since it’s THE benchmark for all subsequent teas. This is probably the driest stored Red Label I’ve had – no hint of traditional storage. It’s very refreshing, still, and quite nice. Reminds me of some of the gushu stuff that you can get now, but of the best quality – really a tea that is worth drinking, but maybe not at the price that these things now go for. It was brewed a bit weak. Nevertheless, good tea, obviously.

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Saturday tastings with friends

November 24, 2012 · 16 Comments

For the past few months I’ve been spending some Saturday afternoons with a couple who run a small tea shop and who press their own cakes every year. The wife is the 3rd generation from a tea family, and they have been in this line of work for a long time, with the tea to go with it, I should add. I enjoy drinking tea with them, partly because unlike lots of people in the tea business here, they’re quite willing to share their thoughts on particular teas frankly. I drink a lot of samples of various things with them, since it’s always good to get second and third (and sometimes more) opinions on teas.

Yesterday I went as usual, and had five teas, in chronological order of when the teas are supposed to have been produced:

1) 2010 Youle, producer unknown, private pressing – nice, strong, a bit rough, but pretty good tea, if it weren’t so damn expensive (something like 700 RMB for a cake)

2) 2008 Chenyuanhao Yiwu Gushu mushroom – awesome, juicy, thick, very Yiwu, maybe slightly too soft in approach, but very good and full. Stored in Malaysia throughout, it still tastes young, probably because it’s a mushroom, but it’s going to turn a corner soon and it’s going to be a good tea.

The Henglichang in a cup

3) 1997 Henglichang Bulang. So we meet at last. This is a sample from a friend, and I believe the whole cake is now sold out. There are lots of reviews online, so colour me prejudiced. The tea is bitter, very bitter, without the bitter transforming into anything sweet. It is not traditionally stored, as some have suspected – it has the colour, but none of the taste. Something is weird, and my friend commented that it might be a mix of different teas pressed together to make something look more aged. We stuck with it for many infusions, although the later ones we only had a small sip each. There’s no real complexity and offers none of the surprises of a well aged tea. After trying this, now I know why this tea is a complete unknown this side of the Pacific. There are lots of options for late 90s teas, and this one isn’t a representative example of a good one.

4) Early 90s Yiwu from David Lee Hoffman. David Lee Hoffman probably needs no introductions. I’ve had a few teas from him before, usually coming via friends who send me samples of what they bought, although the last time I tried his teas was before he started the Phoenix Collection. I can’t seem to find this on his tea list, and I think it’s this thing. This tea has very little taste, and what little it does have suggests something no older than 3-4 years. It has a very thin body, no aftertaste, and no real aroma to speak of. Calling this “tea” is a bit charitable. There are two possibilities – either you believe Hoffman’s claims that this tea is from the early 90s, in which case you should never buy aged teas from him because (judging from this and other examples I’ve had) his cave is where puerh goes to die, or you don’t believe his age claims, in which case you shouldn’t be buying this in the first place. Either way, the conclusions are the same. I don’t care how many years he’s been in the business, but I’ve never had a tea that tastes anything like what a puerh can be given his age claims. You’re better off buying something three years old from Yunnan Sourcing.

Top right – Henglichang, bottom right – Chenyuanhao, left – Hoffman

5) 80s 7582 cooked. This tea has been naturally stored, and frankly, not terribly interesting. It’s nice, smooth, tasty, and the leaves were originally relatively lightly cooked, but really, I’d rather pay $25 USD for a two or three years old Dayi that has lost its pondy taste than paying hundreds for an 80s cooked that tastes only slightly better. The value proposition is just not there for old cooked tea, especially if it hasn’t been through traditional storage. It’s for people who like to burn money.

6) 1960s Guangyungong. This is a tea from my friend’s family storage. Stored naturally throughout without ever having been in traditional storage, and it shows. The liquor is a golden colour, and aroma is quite nice and intense with a smooth aftertaste and good qi. Very elegant and pleasant to drink, and much more interesting in many ways than the usually heavily traditionally stored GYGs out there. Too bad it costs an arm and a leg, but it’s very nice tea.

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Taobao Lottery: “1995” “Cheshunhao”

November 2, 2012 · 2 Comments

Tea, unless it’s a gift, costs money. So when we talk about tea, like it or not, we have to mention the cost of the tea. When we say a tea is “good”, do we mean it’s good, full stop? Or is it good, for this price? Or good, at any price?

I am guessing when most of us are writing or reading reviews, we read “good” as being “good at this price”. So when someone writes about how a tea is very interesting, stimulating, multi-faceted, etc, and is really good, I suspect s/he is saying that it is really good at the current prices at which the tea is obtainable. It may also be written with no reference to prices at all, and may simply mean that “this tea is good in comparison with others of this type I’ve tried”. There are probably some teas that fall into the category of “good at any price”, but those teas, I’m afraid, are few and far between.

So when I am writing about tea, even when unspoken, I tend to be writing with the idea of “good, at this price” in mind. Some are unequivocally good, others need to be qualified, and when such qualifications are necessary, I usually state them clearly so that there is no misunderstanding or inflated expectations, especially if that’s a tea that can be had easily.

Such is the case with a cake I found recently on Taobao, and then I have briefly recommended on Teachat. This supposed Cheshunhao is basically a white-paper cake, which means that it provides almost no info on the maker. Sure, it has a name, and the seller claims a date, but as far as I am concerned, I’m buying the tea on its merits alone.

When I picked it it was almost a pure gamble. The vendor has a lot of impossibly cheap cakes. This thing’s claim of 1995 is, at best, questionable. Then again, it’s offered at a price that, at worst, represents a loss of $25 USD. I probably wouldn’t have bothered if I were still in the US, but since I now own a magic card that lets me buy direct, $25 isn’t the end of the world.

What I got was a cake that tasted old – old enough, anyway, for it to be more than worth the cost of admission. It has had some traditional storage, but that storage was a long time ago – at least 8 -10 years past. The cake takes like some similar cakes I’ve had from early 2000s, so while the claim of this being from 1995 may be a bit exaggerated, it’s not terribly far fetched – certainly not a three year old tea claiming to be 17. In Hong Kong, if I find a cake like this, it might cost me $80-100 USD. So, this price is very, very good, and the tea, while it has its flaws, is quite drinkable.

Is it the best tea out there? Heck no. I told TwoDog about this cake, and he bought a cake (or more?) for himself to try. He reports the tea also as being more than worthwhile, but he also found a lot of foreign objects in it. I haven’t yet – only a bit of human hair, which is almost de rigueur for older cakes that are cheap. The leaves are long and big – too long, in fact, and has a lot of woody stems. That aside, it’s not too bad.

What I would recommend this cake for are the following: 1) quaffing at the office, 2) drinking if you want something that tastes aged and does not break the bank, and 3) getting acquainted with something that has had a touch of traditional storage without an overpowering sense of storage mustiness. I think this cake fits the bill for those jobs, and I would strongly recommend it – based on the cake I tried and so long as it stays at this price.

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Aging puerh

October 22, 2012 · 21 Comments

Why do we store puerh? Why do you store puerh?

Let’s say you consume 10g of puerh a day. That’s a pretty generous amount for most people, since you’re likely to drink other kinds of teas, and 10g for personal consumption, assuming you don’t drink with others on a very regular basis, is quite a bit. So in a year, that’s 3.65kg, or just around 10 cakes of 357g each. In other words, to satisfy your annual puerh consumption of 10g a day, you need 10 cakes. If you are sitting on 100 cakes, and quite a few of us are, you are sitting on a ten year supply of tea. Clearly, that’s not tea meant for immediate drinking.

So many of us, if not almost all of us (shu drinkers who buy one or two cakes at a time and only re-up their supply don’t count) are buying puerh to age. There are of course a few possible reasons why that’s the case. The first, and is probably the most often cited one, is because we want to drink aged teas, but don’t want to pay aged tea prices. If we look at what the aged tea price involves, I think we can break it down to the following components

Aged tea price = original tea cost + time value of money + storage costs + scarcity premium + additional value of aged taste

So, naturally, a cake of tea that cost $100 in year 1 should, theoretically anyway, cost a little more in year 2, because the opportunity cost of forgoing the investment income from the $100 plus the storage cost should be worth something. In this current environment, the opportunity cost is pretty negligible, unless you happen to be a financial wizard. Storage cost, depending on your location, is always non-zero, but is also relatively negligible. So in year 2, your tea might be worth $102, and in year 3, $104, so on so forth. Of course, you may feel that a fairer measure would be inflation-indexed, so maybe you should benchmark the opportunity cost to inflation, rather than the returns on treasury notes. That might bump it up another percent or two, but still, not a whole lot.

The other things, however, are the kickers. The first, scarcity premium, is a real problem. For example, for teas that are well known but which were relatively limited in production, the price of the cake can be driven almost entirely by this premium. The Yuanyexiang that was made famous by a bunch of magazine and other writers online took off that way, and the prices are now something like 1000 RMB, for a tea that really isn’t all that great, even now, ten years later. When I bought them, it was almost 200 RMB. That was six years ago, and I thought it was pretty expensive. Has the tea improved so much that they are now worth 5x as much? No. It’s all about scarcity, and the fact that there are more people chasing the tea than there are teas available, so the prices keep going up and up, even though in recent years folks have started chasing other things and its price rise has stagnated.

We see similar movements in teas from regions that are considered good and low in production volume. Lao Banzhang old tree teas, for example, are in that category. There isn’t much of it to begin with, and so now anything that has a whiff of Lao Banzhang in it is priced astronomically, even when new. A lot of times they’re not even very good, or simply fake (using teas from neighbouring villages, etc). While the quality is there for the real stuff, a lot of it is not of that quality and is instead something inferior, but the scarcity premium is applied anyway.

Then there is the aged taste term, which I think is what we are all actually looking for when we store our own teas. We want our teas to age, and to age well, so that twenty years from now we have nice aged teas to drink. Many of us, especially those of us from or live in Asia, got started in this hobby because we tried incredible aged teas, and want to replicate that experience. The problem with this is twofold. The first is, in a lot of cases those aged taste may not be what you’ll end up getting in the end. Storing crap is not going to land you with a well aged tea, because crap only age into aged crap, not aged nectar. Picking out teas that will age well is not easy, and there are conflicting theories as to what will make a good aged tea. That’s a difficulty.

The second problem is that there are lots of risks with aging, and it has real costs disassociated with the time value of money and the storage costs. For example, you run the risk of ruin – mold, fire, flood, mice, children, among many other possible bad things that can happen to your tea. Some are recoverable, others not. A kid drooling on your cake is probably ok; the same kid decorating your cake with permanent marker, not ok. I know of at least a handful of friends who stored teas and have met unmitigated disasters during the process. It’s a real threat, not imaginary.

There are two other problems related to this. The first is one that I think will start manifesting itself in the coming years – some areas of the world just aren’t very good for storing tea. Kunming, for example, falls into this category, and I think some places, like Los Angeles, will as well. Hster’s samples from the Bay Area are not promising either. However, these things don’t show their colours until you’ve tried storing it there, for years, before they become apparent. Also, exact locations in the house, where the house is situated, and other micro-climate issues may affect the tea, positively or negatively.

The other problem is more fundamental – that the aged taste may not be to your taste. This, I think, is a real risk among many who come into this hobby not through the old tea way, but who start out drinking young teas and then only occasionally have access to one or two samples of older teas. Such drinkers might have a great appreciation of what younger puerh offers, and may very well be a very sophisticated drinker of young puerh. However, if they buy lots of tea, by definition not all of it will be consumed, and when aged, they might not be to the taste at all.

I’ve encountered folks like this in China. Some can tell me, with great precision, which village a tea is from. However, for the most part, they drink younger (10 years or less) teas on a regular basis, and have little experience with older teas, regardless of provenance or type. So they can get confused when presented with something older, aged in a more humid climate (not traditionally stored) or not of single village origin. For drinkers like this, I think the fun is in trying to figure out where things are from, in learning the different characteristics of the villages, etc, and not so much in the aging process. I’m not sure if it’s such a good idea for them to buy a lot of tea to age, because, frankly, they might not end up liking it.

To many, this is of course anathema to what puerh is about – puerh needs to be aged, and I generally agree with that. We do also need to recognize that the hobby is changing a bit, first from traditional storage to the proliferation of home natural storage, and now, to a different way of enjoying the hobby – trying to figure out origins, terroir, etc, things that are generally absent from the older teas because they were almost all big factory blends, unless you go all the way back to pre-1949 teas. I do think there’s a need to recognize and perhaps even separate the different sides of the hobby. When we say a tea is good, do we mean good now? Good later? Good to age? Under what conditions? For whom? I’m pretty sure a bitter, smoky tea stored for decades in, say, Alberta, is probably still going to be bitter, smoky twenty years hence. How many twenty years does one have in a lifetime?

Categories: Teas
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Digging for gold in basements

July 25, 2012 · 7 Comments

The best and the rarest teas that you’re ever going to drink is most likely to come by serendipity, unless, of course, a few hundred thousand dollars to you is spare change that can be blown on tea. For those of us not in the 0.05%, that’s not really an option.

Thankfully, these chances to drink nice tea come more often than you think, especially if you hang out with the right people and get to tag along when someone with a lot of tea happens to invite you over. Or, you can get lucky.

During a recent visit to a friend’s place I was given a 3/4 of a puerh cake to examine. I was told that this was given to them by one of their moms, ostensibly for stomach issues. The cake looks like this


The center is loose because I had to pry it open to see the neifei. Unfortunately, the neifei decided to stick to the surface leaves that I pried open, instead of sticking to the leaves underneath. Either way:


And closeups



And the back



When I saw the cake, I thought this is something very old. There are traces of a bigger ticket on the surface of the cake that fell off. Everything about the cake, from the type of neifei to the leaves to everything, suggests to me that this is something quite old. I was tasked with taking it home and trying to determine what it is.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a back story for this tea, other than that this is a cake from a family that’s been in the US for decades, and that some member of the family (the grandfather, I think?) was a customs officer in Yunnan before the war. Ok, sounds good.

Now, I do not profess to be an expert in antique-era cakes, namely cakes produced prior to the nationalization of the tea firms post 1949. I’ve had somewhere between half a dozen to a dozen examples of these things, at various places in various conditions. Prices for these things these days are astronomical – a full cake, retail, would probably set you back about $100,000 USD. That’s not a cheap tea, and one brew will easily cost $1000 or more. These are not teas that mere mortals drink, not on a regular basis anyway. They also do not offer the greatest bang for the buck. But, you try them because they are what they are – rare teas that offer a glimpse to the past, because they offer unique tastes and qi that other teas simply do not possess. So many things have to happen for these teas to survive – and chances are, many of these aren’t even the best examples of teas, because the best ones have long been consumed. So, take it for what it’s worth.

It is in that spirit that I tried this tea. After all, I had no firm idea what it is. Searching around, I think the very faded neifei looks very much like the horizontal ones used by Tongqing hao, with the few characters that I can make out and the border decoration. The tea brews dark, very dark, like they are supposed to.


The taste is very hard to describe – the first few infusions have a very strong, unique taste that I find to be common among these very old teas. It’s smooth, and full bodied. The tea is still very slightly bitter, with a clear cooling sensation down the throat. The qi is strong, soothing, and obvious. Very often you see people bandy about qi as if every tea has it – well, not really. This is what you’re looking for when you drink a tea for qi, and when someone tells you that the 10 years old cooked puerh they were drinking has qi, well, please take it with a grain of salt. This is what good, strong qi should be. There’s no faking it.

It’s really rather luxurious drinking this tea by myself. The only other time I had an antique tea mostly for myself was when I had Tongqing at Wisteria, but there their tea was loosened up years before, so the qi and the taste were both less immediate. This tea, for some reason, is slightly more compact than other antique teas I’ve seen – possibly because it’s never changed hands in the past decades and has been stored in a drier environment than Southern China. The leaves are very brittle, and break on command. In retrospect, I probably should’ve been more careful peeling the leaves away to check the neifei, but at that time, I had no idea what this was.

Teas like this fade quite quickly – within about ten infusions the initially intense taste will die down, but what replaces it is a very consistent tea that lasts much longer, with the same throatiness and soothing sensation. In some ways, I think these antique teas have gone over the hill a bit – they are not as strong as, say, a Red Label. On the other hand, there’s a soothing calmness to these antique teas that make them very attractive. Twenty or thirty infusions later, when the taste from each individual infusion becomes very weak, I grandpa’ed a few more cups of the tea, which also allows for good shots of the wet leaves. You can see the tea is still brown, not black, and the leaves are not stiff or carbonized in any way – they’re still very flexible. Also, unlike cooked puerh, they retain their shape and consistency when lightly rubbed.


And finally, you can boil these things. Boiling old teas will yield a strong jujube taste, but once you do it, the tea is spent and there’s nothing left to do with it other than send it to the garbage bin or the compost pile.


Two kettles later, I called it quits. I think I wrung everything there is to wring out of these leaves. Is it great tea? Yes, maybe, depending on your perspective. It’s not as exciting as an oolong or a newer puerh. It’s not as impressive as a 30 years old puerh. It’s not as fragrant as a green tea. It does, however, possess an old man’s quality to it – it has depth and strength. This is also probably the most potent of the antique teas I’ve had – again, might have to do with its storage conditions in the United States, rather than Southern China. Having said that, it’s not a tea you’d drink every day, or even every month. It’s also not a tea you buy to drink, unless you have too much money to burn. For the approximately five grams I had, this tea cost somewhere in the vicinity of 1200-1500 USD. In other words, it’s worth more than its weight in gold. Having tried it is already good enough.

Categories: Teas