In 2004 I bought myself a box of Dahongpao from the Best Tea House. I told myself that this was going to be a tea that I will keep for the duration of my graduate studies, and that, when done, I’ll celebrate by opening it and drinking it. The original plan was that I will leave it sealed until then, aging it for five or six years, and have something nice to drink at the end of it. Since my school’s official colour is crimson, I thought it’s the most fitting tea, in many ways. I ended up opening the box for MadameN‘s graduation two years ago, but finally, after many years of sweat and toil, I have a reason of my own to do so.
Now, owing to administrative silliness, I actually got my degree in November last year, but since it’s rather impractical to have three occasions a year that has people dressed in large, crimson coloured bags, everyone does it in May.
Likewise, the actual tea drinking didn’t happen the day of the ceremony. Rather, it took place two days later, when I was in New York visiting the Mandarin’s Tearoom and friends. It’s been two years since I took this tea out, and even when I was opening it, I was quite aware that I no longer hold this tea in as high regard as I used to – I don’t think it is that great anymore, certainly not for the price. Whereas many years ago, when I bought it, it was something that I thought was truly good, now the tea seems merely decent. The brewing confirmed it. The tea still has nice qi, I think, which warms, but the mouthfeel is a little flat, and the taste slightly muted. While I didn’t pack the pot to the hilt, it was enough leaves to make a decent cup. Yet what came out seemed a little flat.
This, then, is also a graduation of some sort. We all have moments like this at some point in our tea drinking career. Teas that, when we were younger, we thought were great, full, and flavourful will almost always appear less interesting, less full over the years. Some of us got started drinking flavoured teas but have long since swore off such things. Others may occasionally return to the qingxiang oolongs or green teas that got us into tea in the first place, but find far more pleasure drinking different types. Still others will turn to cooked puerh from time to time, but would much prefer aged teas, even though cooked puerh may very well have been the “gateway drug.” The same can be said of vendors too. Vendors who, early on, seem to offer great selections would often, upon closer inspection and more experience, look like overpriced teas for mediocre quality. Drinking this dahongpao this time, some of these thoughts definitely crossed my mind.
While I don’t think I will buy another box of this dahongpao from the Best Tea House anymore, it doesn’t mean I will toss this tea — certainly not. It’s still good tea, just not great, and factoring in the price, there are better options. There is one more calculation involved though. Even though it may not be the best tea, it was what I wanted myself to have all those years ago as a graduation celebration. I have kept it all these years, hauling it around with me while I moved from place to place, and that sentimental value is not something that a far better dahongpao can replace. Perhaps I’m overly sentimental, but even if someone offers me some dahongpao from the original three trees in exchange of what’s left in this box, I don’t think I’ll take that trade. This is why many of us, even when we already have shelves full of teas of dubious quality aging, still have a hard time parting with them. They are pieces of personal history and memory that, once gone, can never truly be replaced.