Buying puerh is a crapshoot. We’re basically making investments about how these young cakes will age after being armed with two pieces of information.
1) What we see now in the cake along with all the necessary info about it — production year, factory, location, origin, type of tree, etc
2) What we know about teas that are like this before, and how they have aged over time.
With point 1, we are on decent ground. I think most of us can probably find out something about particular mountains, factory, etc etc, so long as the cake in question is a newer vintage. They are getting better about disclosing such information. The manufacturers know that people want this kind of information and are providing them more and more often. Just because it comes from the manufacturer (or the vendor) though, it doesn’t mean it’s correct.
So, this involves out skill in determining what is really in the cake, and what is being claimed. For example, Hobbes’ sample of fake 7542 didn’t lie — it sucked. It looked terrible, it tasted terrible — it is terrible.
Not all cakes will be so clear cut though. Say, someone tells you they have a Lao Banzhang from 200x, sun dried, stone pressed, arbor trees, the works. How much of it is true? Is it really 100% pure sun dried high quality arbor tree leaves from the Lao Banzhang area? Or is it mostly that? Some? A little? What else is mixed in it? Is it even from the Banzhang area? What about the processing method? Is it any good? Did they do funny things with it? Was the “kill-green” process done at the proper (i.e. low) temperature? All sorts of unknowns abound.
So this is where information 2 comes in. We taste the tea, and by our previous experience with other teas, we compare it with what we already know and try to see if we can determine whether what is being claimed is what is actually in the cake we’re seeing. It is not only the taste, but the appearance, the smell, the feel, everything. Down to the paper quality, in some cases, as we all know there are plenty of faulty claims.
In terms of the tasting, we’re looking for a lot of things. We look for the aromas, we look for the colours, we look for the wet leaves and signs that it tells us, and of course we look for the reactions that our mouth has to the tea (or our body after you swallow it). Lots of things are going on, almost too many. Most of us can only keep track of a few things at a time, and the rest get lost.
This is partly why it’s so fun to play with puerh… every cake, even from the same production, can be a different beast, and until you’ve uncovered it, dissected it, you really have no idea what it holds for you. Two cakes that look remarkably similar in initial appearance can taste vastly different. Two cakes that look very different come sometimes come out tasting rather similar.
This is also why it’s frustrating when looking for good puerh, as Bearsbearsbears and I recently did on Maliandao. We tasted at least two dozen puerhs, and out of them, only two or three of them were truly in the “good” category. The rest… some were acceptable, some were so so, some sucked. Mind you, they suck for different reasons. Some are just bad tea, some have no strength, some are too expensive for what it is (but could be a great tea if the price were, say, 1/10). It all depends.
I think the biggest problem is in terms of what to look for, and also in terms of how to predict changes. Taste and aroma is not, supposedly, what you should look for. This I’ve gotten from a few people already. Rather, one should search out the tea that has the strength and the overall good-feeling that it gives you, and also in terms of mouthfeel and that sort of thing. Taste in a young puerh is fickle, and what you taste now will not be what you taste in 3-5 years. Look no further than Cloudstea’s Yiwu cake and the picture of the young liquor to know that the tea is changing, very fast. The underlying quality of a cake does not lie in the present aromas, but rather in the other more intangible things.
I am by no means an expert yet, but I do know I am learning. I can, for example, now predict the taste of the cake in question a little bit by looking at the leaves, although it is still a bit iffy. It gets harder when you get into the aged category, but at least for younger stuff, I can roughly envision how they taste. But, how they ACT in the body is not the same. Whether a tea that tastes sweet initially will close up your throat and make you feel sick, or whether it will moisturize your throat and make you feel good, is difficult to predict. Some of that is due to storage, some of that just in the tea itself.
And besidesÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ what do I know what to look for? I have no idea, at the end of the day, what makes for a good puerh 20 years from now. All I can do, and the best I can do, is to hopefully drink more older stuff, look at what those cakes have, observe how cakes age, how they change, what shows up, what don’t, and then hopefully will have enough information to make wiser purchases in the future. Which means paying a lot of tuition right now.