I had some tea with Tiffany, YP, and a few others today. We were talking about buying puerh, buying other teas… and such. A few topics came up
1) How puerh used to be so cheap nobody wanted it. Even just a few years ago, a really good grade cake would only cost about $5 USD (all prices here will be USD) or so when it first comes out. It was pretty much unthinkable for a new, raw puerh cake to cost more than about $10. Back in the day when YP bought her first 88 Qing (now quoting about $1200 or thereabouts, depends on when, where, and what) it cost her about $10, which was considered a high price already. A Red Label maybe 15 years ago was something like $500 (now entering the $10000 territory). Most green cakes back then were only about $1-3. She said the first time she looked for the 88 Qing, she went to some wholesaler to try to get some. Asking them, they were like “what? why do you want this stuff? This stuff is so green!”. She wanted a cake? “No, you need to at least buy a jian!”. Those were the days. But even now, she agrees with me on this one point — no good reason to pay big money for aged cakes, because for the most part it’s not worth that much given the alternatives. Of course, she’s in a position of somebody who has a bunch of old cakes to drink, but even then… food for thought.
2) How the conflation of “tea masters” and “tea sellers” is a dangerous thing and buyers need to be cautious. This is something I’ve although thought about recently — how many boutique shops are opened by supposed “tea maters” out there who really don’t necessarily know anything more than anybody. There’s no certification for such status, and there’s definitely no requirement for somebody to open a tea shop. Many so called “masters” come from other trades; their former employment having nothing to do with tea. Most of them did not learn their trade from some other “master” either — they acquired the knowledge (whatever there is) through drinking, reading, thinking — just like all of us. Starting a shop doesn’t make you a master. Sourcing good tea does not make you a master. It does, however, make you a tea salesman.
YP and another tea friend present related to me how over time, they have heard 100% contradictory things from the same “tea master” who shall remain nameless. At first, they’ll tell you one thing, and you, as student, will go buy tea (expensive tea from the same master, of course) according to that. Then…. a few years down the road, suddenly the tune changed, and now they tell you another thing. If you were around the first time, you’ll notice that it’s totally different and contradictory from the first. They simply cannot both be true. Yet… this sort of thing happens all the time (I’ve seen the same thing happen myself). Why? Because at these times, they’re not acting with the “tea master” hat on — they’re wearing the “tea salesman” hat. When the two roles collide, the tea salesman almost always wins. Another thing you will notice over time is that many “tea master” disagree with each other on some very fundamental points, especially when it comes to puerh. This isn’t terribly obvious to those who don’t know Chinese and don’t have access to these people either in person or through print, but the fact that such fundamental disagreements exist means only one thing — nobody really knows the true answer and are all fishing in the dark. Beware of “tea master”.
3) Which leads me to the third point — puerh production has changed significantly over time. The few experienced people present agreed on one thing — puerh production has changed about once every decade — the leaves, the mix, the way they press the cakes…. everything’s different, and there are distinctly different tastes that come out of the cakes. Theories of what made a good tea in the 80s might not apply to the 90s, and what made a good tea in the 90s will not apply to the 2000s. As YP said today when I first walked in… “I can say I know something about 70s or 80s tea, but I don’t know much about 90s tea, and I definitely don’t know much of anything about teas made in the past five years”. She’s not being too humble either — I think it’s more because nobody has had enough time to tell yet.
And at the end of the day…. tea is still a matter of taste. Some people just won’t like a certain taste, no matter how refined it is, supposedly. Two buck chuck has won blind competitions for wine. I’ve tasted aged baozhongs costing $50/jin that are far better than stuff costing $250/jin, regardless of the price. Do I have a screwed up tongue? Perhaps. But then… maybe it’s just because I am the only person who knows what I like and dislike, and whatever other people tell me… I will listen, I will certainly learn. Everytime talking to somebody about tea is a learning experience, even if that person knows nothing about tea. But I am the only one who knows what I prefer in my cup, “expertise” be damned.
I’d imagine the same to be true for everybody. I know somebody who likes her tea be Twinings Earl Grey teabag dunked into a cup for about 15 seconds, add milk. That’s it. I liken it to sewer water. But somebody thinks it’s great, so… who’s to say who’s right? Just hope the Twinings Earl Grey teabag wasn’t sold for $250 and masqueraded as the Best Tea On Earth.