I’ve been drinking a lot of drain cleaners these days, or in other words, puerh that are between 3-7 years old. These are often the nastiest tasting things. Whereas very young puerh (1 year or younger) are often quite pleasant to drink, and older things (7+) are usually fairly mellow, things that are in between can be disgusting. They also begin to show their true colours. Whereas younger puerh are often quite fragrant and light, once you’ve given the tea a few years, it can develop all sorts of flavours, from citrus to mint, and every conceivable taste in between.
The good thing about drinking something of this age is that you begin to have an idea whether it is any good or not. If it’s already losing strength, as some do, then chances are it’s not going to get any better. There are also ones that are intensely bitter without any sort of huigan, or just taste foul, strange, or, worst, hongcha-esque.
The linkage between a good tasting tea when young and a good aging tea when older is one of the biggest problem for those trying to evaluate and buy tea to press, and of course, the customer who eventually purchases them for storage. Too often a good young cake turns out to be horrible after a few years, with no redeeming features and simply fades away. In the puerh boom (and the post-boom world of today) there were many tea makers who popped out of nowhere to make tea. Many of them used to be makers of other types of tea, be it green (guys from Shanghai area), oolong (a lot of Taiwanese tea guys), and hongcha (Fengqing factory, among others). Then you have people who really didn’t know much about tea at all, or who never really made any tea, who jumped into the fray. I have met a car dealer who became a puerh maker/merchant, and was selling some premium maocha pressed Lao Banzhang for a pretty price. They will all tell you that they have had many years of experience in drinking tea (very often untrue, or including the time they had tea when they were three) as if it means anything.
Drinking, as we should all remember, has nothing to do with making. A guy who can tell you if a shirt is well made or not probably has no idea how to start making one from scratch, unless he also happens to be a tailor by trade. What makes tea any different? A person who’s been growing tea for twenty years will, no doubt, have a pretty good sense of how it should be made. A person who’s been drinking tea for twenty years will have some idea of how it ought to taste, and in the case of puerh, perhaps also how it ought to be stored. Even to this date, very, very few people have actually taken a cake of puerh from its inception, through storage, to its mature state, and can attest to knowing how all these stages ought to be. Many of the people whom I’ve met in Beijing and elsewhere who went and pressed their own cakes had, at best, mixed results. Some of them had cakes that were obviously flawed. Others had cakes that seemed all right, but after a few years of aging, turned out to be quite questionable.
It’s a pretty depressing thought, but I am increasingly of the belief that only those who live and work in Yunnan full time, year round, or those who have had a long working relationship with some of the farmers or factory owners there, will have access to good tea. When my friend L visited Yiwu and spent a few weeks there with some contacts he had from CNNP, he said that all of the old tree farmers in one village were binded to long term contracts with this one person from Guangdong. Everything else that goes on the open market as tea from this one place were all either “imported” from somewhere else, or were simply from inferior, plantation teas masquerading as better things. If you’re a visitor who they don’t know, the farmer will show you a few bags of different teas. You will try them all. You will find that one of them is better than the others, with a suitably higher price. All is well until, of course, you realize that there’s a vastly superior tea out there that you never got to try because the farmers won’t sell it to you. The price will be right for an old tree tea (otherwise you’d think it’s too good to be true) but the tea won’t be.
Which is why I’m subjecting myself to the drain cleaners and trying to pick a winner among these, instead of going with the lottery of brand new teas.