Be your own tea master

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.


Be your own tea master — 7 Comments

  1. I completely agree. Different people like different things, and that is fine.
    Just because some people like tea a different way (earl grey tea bags with milk), it doesn’t mean that they have bad taste buds. It just means they like what they like.

    All the same, that isn’t what I like. They can take their earl grey tea bags and milk over there and have a great time. I’ll be right here enjoying my gong fu cha.

  2. Just my two cents…these are the types of posts I enjoy the most.  You’re in a world over there that sometimes seems so similar, yet so different than my tea world here.  I love reading about the shops you visit or conversations like this.

  3. > no good reason to pay big money for aged cakes, because for the most part it’s not worth that much given the alternatives

    So what is your suggestion for somebody who is just starting with pu-erh? Ignore pu-erh, go for a different kind of tea? Or buy lots of young cakes and learn by your mistakes? Or can your recommend some reasonable cheap (and available!) cakes to start with?

  4. Much of your writeup I was nodding along to and certainly the more we see and ask and hear the more it all sounds like ‘we are all learning about it too’ among the tea mercahnts as well; the honest ones will tell you so, the hardup saleman will stonewall or make another spiel.

    There is however something I think should be considered when we consider the philosophy of  ‘Its a Matter of Personal Taste’ – I think that for a certain category there is normally a general consensus on the ‘better thing’. Why this is so? it can be perhaps the human condition gravitates toward a certain aspect of appreciation or maybe its just mass hypnosis, but it is like when you see a Michaelangelo or a Van Gogh, you may not agree that they are your fav artist but you can agree that they do have a certain aesthetic that is the ‘better thing’.

    And so for with tea, I think that a certain type of tea, or a certain kind of make, is not your fav tea but when it is the Best of The Breed there is a certain kind of aesthetic to the taste that draws people to it. It may take some cultural connect or learning of pointers to appreciate it but once switched on there is a common language to be said for distinguishing (if not The Best) at least between the Good and the Not Good.

    What I mean to say is that we should be careful not to get rid of the baby with the bathwater (as a matter of speaking) when we go the ‘Its All the Matter of Taste’ easy road.

  5. > no good reason to pay big money for aged cakes, because for the most part it’s not worth that much given the alternatives

    >So what is your suggestion for somebody who is just starting with pu-erh? Ignore pu-erh, go for a different kind of tea? Or buy lots of young cakes and learn by your mistakes? Or can your recommend some reasonable cheap (and available!) cakes to start with?

    To concentrate only on puerh limits your learning. Puerh is not considered to be a Tea of exquisite skill – as Marshaln points out it was considered a cheap rough tea. It is fine to buy and drink puerh but it would be good to go drink other teas to widen your experience. Please do not rush – to learn Tea and to want it in haste is, in my humble and limited experience, a kind of oxymoron and contradiction in terms of Tea culture.

    I like the Zen saying; First you think Mountains are Mountains, then you are enlightened enough to realise that Mountains are not Mountains, then when you are truly enlightened you learn that Mountains are just Mountains again. 

  6. I think for puerh — I’d say just drink a lot of different thing.  Take advantage of samples.  Maybe even try some aged samples from the places that sell them.  Not all of them are genuine or good, but it will give you an idea of the range, and it will also tell you what you actually like better than others.  Do that before you jump in buying lots of cakes.

    I like that zen thing.  If applied for tea… it’ll be like “you first think good tea is good tea, then you realized that good tea isn’t good tea…. and after lots of drinking, tuition, and false promises, you realize that good tea after all is just good tea” 🙂

  7. Thanks for the suggestions. In fact I do drink all the different kinds of tea, and I’ve been doing that for a few years. It’s just that the world of pu-erh (and to some extent the world of oolongs) is another thing altogether. With other teas I susually go for the “decent” option. I can get a decent (but not too expensive) Long Jing, Darjeeling, Tie Guan Yin … but not a decent pu-erh (hell can I really recognize a decent pu-erh?) With buying from abroad the shipping gets quite expensive and what happens when I go for the samples first is that if I like the tea, it has been sold out already (mind you, I want only a single cake, I buy tea for drinking and not for storage). So I would be glad if I had a good advice saying which pu-erh at Yunnan Sourcing or Dragon Tea House or … is worth getting a whole cake of.

    Missing that, I should go probably the way of buying more samples at a time [that’s actually quite reasonable advice, thanks for that!], and just skip the possibility of drinking the same cake every little so often. If only all sellers offered samples at the exact fraction of the price of the beeng (e.g. as Stephane does).

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