I had tea two days ago with two new friends in Hong Kong here. It was a pretty interesting session, with exchanges of ideas of the question of aging. One of the teas we had was a Mengku Yuanyexiang which was provided to me through a friend. This particular sample was stored traditionally, and exhibited a taste that the two friends said they had not encountered before in this tea. Considering that both of them have had various versions of Yuanyexiang before a number of times, this is surprising.
One of the most important thing that we all agreed on, I think, is that taste in a puerh is fickle, and changes constantly. Mr. L, for example, mentioned how he showed some friends from up north that there’s a significant difference between tea that has been properly aired out versus tea that has not. In the case of tea that has been through traditional storage, the process of airing-out is quite important in making the tea taste good when drinking it. Many who dislike traditional storage don’t know that breaking apart the cake and letting it sit for six months will greatly enhance the mouthfeel and the taste of the cake, and draw conclusions about traditional storage based on an erroneous understanding of the process and the result.
Likewise, even for teas that don’t go through traditional storage, the taste of the tea changes all the time. The condition of storage in each individual home, or in different cities, will alter the tea in obvious ways rather quickly. One hurdle for many newcomers to puerh is to get past that veneer of taste. This is something that I’ve written about before, but it still bears repeating. Chasing taste is futile. Mr. L told me a story of him buying a cake of 7572 back in the day from this one vendor here, and loved the taste. When he went back to the same store to buy a whole tong, what he got was something different – still 7572, but without that taste he liked. The owner insisted that it was the same batch, and he had no reason to doubt that claim. Turns out, after much searching for years for that same taste, that it might have been because that one cake was stored outside a tong that made a difference — the tea soaked up the storage smell of wherever that owner’s storage unit is, whereas the tong didn’t get as much “air time”. So, chasing such things get be quite futile, and expensive.
This is also important for those of us who rather enjoy the taste of some young puerh – just because you like it now doesn’t mean it’ll turn into something you’ll like even more. In fact, among those who love the floral and sweet and fragrant flavours of a young puerh, the aging process can be a real disappointment. It is really quite important to try real, well aged teas of proven vintage and provenance and to know whether or not you even like that taste to begin with. If you do, great, store tea. If you don’t, why bother?
It has been proven again and again that many currently good tasting teas often don’t age all that well, whereas a lot of nasty, sour stuff can turn out to be quite decent over time. I’m not saying only bad tasting tea becomes great when they age, but current taste and future taste are, in and of themselves, not particularly related. What’s more important is what we call “base” here, which means, roughly, the underlying strength of a tea. Without such a “base” a tea is doomed to mediocrity, and I think this applies not only to puerh, but all types of tea. It’s quite difficult to describe without confusing people how to identify “base” in a tea, but I think it is safe to say that it involves physically activating multiple areas of the mouth, throat, and body. It has nothing to do with whether or not a tea is sour, bitter, or sweet.