Felix Salmon is a great finance blogger, and I’ve been reading him for a while now. He also writes about other things from time to time, and his latest entry, on tasting wine blind, is quite insightful.
He describes, with pinpoint accuracy, the problem with tasting things blind — you’re always trying to guess what it is, you always wonder what’s going on, and you always gravitate towards the few (usually not very subtle) clues and use that for guidance in the guessing game. I think in addition to the problems he already presented, there’s another issue at hand with puerh (where much of the blind tasting occurs) as well — unlike wine, many of which were made to be drunk within a few years, relatively fewer people are buying puerh for immediate consumption. Even for those who enjoy the taste of a new puerh cake, the assumption and expectation is that the cake will age, and hopefully, age well.
This presents a problem, because most people have no clue how a tea will age in five, ten, or twenty years’ time. If there’s any doubt, one could turn to the “expert panels” that are sometimes assembled by various shops or magazines who review a number of teas — the differing opinions on teas among them will tell you right away that there is simply no agreement as to what is or is not good.
What has happened in the past few years is an increasing number of cakes that seem to be geared to the “drink it now” community, and much like the lament in Salmon’s blog entry, among aficianados of puerh we often hear the same thing, that so many cakes are now made for drinking now, rather than age later. Immediate pleasure becomes more important than longevity, and depth sacrificed for ease.
To the extent that this is simply an individual choice, it does not really matter. If you knowingly buy teas for a “drink it now” purpose, then there is no problem at all. Just like people who buy Beaujolais Nouveau expect to drink it fresh, there are many out there who buy their puerh fresh and drink it fresh. The only issue happens when you buy it fresh and expect it to be great in ten years. In my experience that has generally not been the case for many teas of recent vintages. Rather than turning better, many simply become flat, or worse.
The question of how to spot such things is a constant struggle, and one that I’ve yet to come up with a good solution. What I do know is that price and make have basically nothing whatsoever to do with ageability. What I also know is that I trust the opinion of those who have tasted, say, Yellow Label or Red Label while they were younger teas much more than the others, oftentimes newcomers to the tea-making scene. The almost unanimous opinion of those teas, when they were younger, is that they were harsh, strong, bitter, had depth, and were hardly a pleasure to drink. It’s hard to find such things on the market these days.