On contradictions among Tea People

I remember when I was a kid, puerh was some nasty, bitter stuff that nobody sane should drink. Going to eat dim sum and having puerh…. I’d skip the puerh and just eat the dim sum.

Now, of course, things have changed, and puerh is no longer so bitter. I had some traditionally stored stuff from Hong Kong today, and it was smooth, sweet, and quite good for an afternoon (and evening) of tea.

Very often such teas are described as musty, but I tend to think that the properly aged ones, especially if given suitable time in a dry environment, should not be musty at all. Earthy, of course, but not musty. It is often difficult to resist the temptation to drink such things right away when one has acquired them, because, well, they are purchased with money and nobody really wants to sit on things they bought and not touch them. Yet, I think sometimes anyway, such things should indeed be left alone even after purchase. The tea I had today was, I think, more musty when I first got it — coming straight out of a very traditional storage condition where the teas had plenty of time to rot. Two years later, drinking it now, I think it is much better — smoother without the strong storage taste. Traditionally stored taste will never leave the tea, but smooth, aged puerh taste doesn’t have to be musty.

That, in fact, is what I worry about when I read pages after pages of talk, both in English and Chinese, about how traditional storage is no good and how one can’t stand such musty taste (very common among Chinese drinkers from drier climes, such as Beijing and Kunming) and how teas must be “clean”. When given a truly old tea, traditionally stored, to drink, they often think it is cooked. Therein lies the irony — cooked tea was, in many ways, an attempt by man to approximate the taste of aged puerh. Yet, now, aged puerh is mistaken as cooked.

The other more obvious irony is, of course, how cooked tea is just as, if not more, unsanitary as traditionally stored tea, especially if it’s coming from a smaller factory with unknown procedures for doing these things. I was just talking with my friend L from Beijing today, and he said after his visit to a puerh factory’s cooked tea section, he will never ever drink a small factory cooked cake again — it’s just too disgusting. Yet, out of sight and out of mind, I never hear any of these tea drinkers who demand “clean” tea telling me that cooked tea is dirty. Instead, cooked tea is wonderful — rich, smooth, good for your stomach — everything a raw tea is not (and there’s really no need for me to go through the usual arguments for raw tea, is there?).

The usual retort from those who don’t subscribe to such heretical views that traditionally stored tea is bad is that they are usually espoused by people who don’t own any old, traditionally stored teas. If you only sell cakes that are 5 years old or less, all stored in a dry climate, then why would you promote a tea that you don’t have access to and that can’t be produced in your location? Indeed, it’s like a longjing seller telling you that longjing is really not that good — you should drink sencha instead. Doesn’t happen. Of course, the same people who criticize are also the ones who do the exact opposite — dry stored teas or young teas, so I have been told, are no good. They are bad for your body (that’s actually true), and they taste awful (taste depends on individuals, as everybody discovers at some point). Therefore, only what they have is good.

While it is not as common in the online world, but I know some cases of “tea master”s out there who have, over time, changed positions on a number of things that they used to hold true. A case I’ve heard was actually regarding storage of oolongs — first, tea master said, only high fired oolongs can be stored. Then, after a while, tea master said low fired oolongs can also be stored. The person who told me about this noted that the change in position somehow coincided with a change in the composition of the oolongs on sale at said tea master’s store. You probably don’t need me to tell you how the composition of the teas on sale changed.

I know I often seem (ok, am) quite skeptical with any sort of claims made by almost anybody regarding tea. I do have long held beliefs, but am not completely closed to changing of my mind given enough evidence. I do think, however, that it is very easy, especially when one’s source of information is only the internet, to buy too much into one side of the story without hearing another, or to treat information given by some authoritative individuals as somehow better, especially if said individual happens to sell some teas that fit right into the description of whatever is being taught. I remember being trapped that way before, and perhaps it is a case of once bitten, twice shy. I’m not saying the internet is full of snakes, but snakes can come in all forms — sometimes involuntary ones who are merely passing on bad information from others. Challenges to claims being made is generally a good thing — after all, that’s how we advance our knowledge on any given subject. If I ever make grandiose claims you think is hot air, please let me know. It’ll help keep me honest.


Comments

On contradictions among Tea People — 7 Comments

  1. I’ve been a lurker to your blog for a little while now, and I really enjoyed this post. I haven’t been drinking pu-erh too long; just shy of a year now, and my collection, while growing steadily, consists of teas that are between 3-5 years old. The oldest I’ve had has only been about ten years of age; stored wet for a few years, and then dry stored after that. I liked a majority of the wet-store I’ve had, but most of the cooked I’ve sampled has reminded me of leather. It’s for that reason I have strayed from cooked. To be quite honest though, I rather enjoy the taste of raw pu-erh. Also, I’m noticing differences in many of the teas that I have had over the last year.

    The topic of ripe and cooked pu-erh is still a bit of a mystery to me so I’m glad I have people such as yourself to learn from so that when I do delve in to that world, I feel that I’ll at least know how to pick a good starting point.

    I think you’re absolutely right though when it comes to sellers recommending what is currently available in their shops. It’s very much in alignment with how many retail stores sell electronics. “We’re sitting on 50 of this laptop, so recommend this to everyone.” However, once that laptop is gone, there is a new favourite to sell for several other reasons, availability being at the top of that list.

    Jamus~

  2. Since the rest of my post is not directly tea related let me start by saying that in my limited experience I have yet to taste a shu with the depth and qi of a related (by date or mountain) sheng. I do have a large number of samples as yet untasted, so by no means is this a final generalization. But as an example, I was dissappointed with the 1997 xiaguan shu sample I tried last week. It brewed a very dark cup but was surprisingly bland.

    Nice post. As with any topic, increased access to a glut of information (aka. the internet) just requires that an individual be more focused on separating the wheat from the chaff so to speak. A large amount of suspect, incomplete or biased information is more harmful and confusing than a small amount of accurate, objective information.

    For a while now, I have taken a methodical scientific approach to online research. That is, gather as much raw data as possible, sort it, disregard the contradictions and pay more attention to the verifiable, proven information. In the end, one’s interpretation of a data set is only a theory waiting to be disproved.

    When it comes to buying tea, a free market economy combined with the minimal investment it takes to setup an online “store” places the entire burden of proof with the consumer. “Truth in advertising” in the US is only a loosely defined regulation. In practice and in much of the rest of the world it doesn’t exist.

    With the cost of living ever increasing, it’s important to stick to a budget, be aware of what’s a staple versus a luxury and be an educated consumer.

  3. I have a theory about shu.. and why it’s usually a flatter flavor than aged.

    I think it has to do with the rotting process.

    We know that pu stored very dry, and air tight/sterilized does not age.
    We know that shu is composted quickly, and that sheng is not.

    So.. that implies that the bacteria that grows imprints the flavor we taste.

    From a biological standpoint, what happens with shu will encourage a particular kinda of bacteria/fungus/etc to grow alot faster than the rest. When a particular environment favors one organism, it blooms, and crowds out the rest. I think with shu, the flavors are limited because the things causing the flavor are limited.

    With sheng though, the playing field is more even, which lets different things grow. Also as changes happen over the years the environment may favor different organisms at different times, allowing them to add their own signatures.

    So.. in keeping with that idea, I would think having a variety of conditions would favor complexity, rather than strictly dry store, or strictly wet store.

    On the otherhand, that’s just a theory. In practice, all my sheng sits in a pretty static environment, slightly on the humid side. Maybe I should move them to different rooms every couple of years?

  4. That sound’s like a logical speculation. I’ve been considering storing my pu outside (I’m in north Fla, so moderate humidity) to let it experience the change of seasons and fluctuation of humidity.

  5. Walt: I think that’s the idea behind storing it wet first for a year or a few years, and then dry storing them — that’s how traditional storage works. It’s not “wet till you sell”. Also, the variation in seasons (as djn pointed out) is part of the equation too.

  6. I still don’t quite have a grasp of wet store.

    I’ve gotten such a wide impression of what wet storage is, mostly bordering on voodoo, or deceit.

    Just higher humidity
    Super damp, in a cave.
    In a wooden/bamboo something buried in wet dirt.
    In a basement.
    Sprayed with water
    Sprayed with shu/aged tea
    Holding in front of a water fogger/humidifier

    What exactly is wet stored?

    As far as I can tell, it’s anything not dry stored.

  7. Proper wet storage, from what I understand anyway, is high temperature (30+ C) high humidity (80%+) in a basement storage unit that isn’t ventilated. You don’t actually spray water on the tea. In fact, sometimes they put chalk or some other powder (can’t remember what they use exactly) so that the tea wouldn’t get TOO wet — it’s actually quite controlled. You rotate the stock every few months so that the stuff at the bottom now go on top, the stuff on top go on the bottom, etc, so as to make sure the aging happens evenly, because teas that are near the bottom tend to be damper, etc.

    The spraying with water, burying in wet dirt, etc are all ways to make tea seem aged and is usually meant to deceive the consumer.

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