The learning curve

If you are serious about tea, meaning that you are spending time thinking about the teas you’re drinking, learning about their nuances, and doing things like reading this blog, then chances are you have discovered that there’s a pretty steep learning curve to tea drinking in general, and puerh teas in particular. With any kind of tea this is hard enough – the different types of teas that exist, with different locations of origins, processing, and grades. The different ways to brew them, and what water to use with what, and the brewing parameters. There are so many moving parts that to say that you have “mastered” tea in any form is a claim that can serve as Exhibit A of human hubris. There’s always a learning process, and there’s always something you can discover about a tea you’ve already had many times before. This is what makes the hobby fun.

There are, however, ways to speed up the learning process and allow you to delve deeper into the art and science of tea appreciation on various levels. What triggered the writing of this particular post is a recent tea session I had at one of the stores in Hong Kong that sells puerh. Over the course of an afternoon, I drank, with some of my friends, about five or six teas. The youngest of the lot was from 1998, and the oldest was about 30 years old. The fact of the matter is, for tea drinking in general, and puerh in particular, it is important to sample a wide range before you really have a clear idea of what’s out there, and what’s possible given the complexity of teas. The tea aficionado is really building a mental library of teas that s/he can recall and compare against. In so doing, s/he is learning about the different teas and whether something is good, bad, or just different.

Likewise, for aging teas, it is crucial to know what you’re trying to get to before you even know what you’re aging for. I see people talking about building their young puerh collection hoping to age them into something great, except the only aged teas they have had may be some third rate 1990s teas that are, at best, poorly stored, or sometimes even none at all. This is not to poo-poo those who have not had the opportunity to try these things, but if you haven’t had a properly aged tea from a variety of storage conditions and starting points, how would you even know what you’re trying to get to? Is it a “wetter” taste that you’re after, or do you want a dry stored taste? Do you want something sweet, or something smokey? We had a brick from 1997 that was still, even as I drank it with the friends a few days ago, extremely powerful. It was strong, smokey, very active, and got us all tea drunk. It was, in other words, a very potent tea, but even now, 15 years after production, it is still too harsh to drink. Sure, it has great aging potential, but how many 15 years do you have that you can just hold on to these things forever? When new, the tea must have been extremely smokey and also super-strong – to the point where many might give up on it all together. Also, keep in mind that this brick has been aged 15 years in Hong Kong, a pretty hot and humid condition. If it’s aged in, say, Chicago, how long would it take to just get the tea to its current condition as I tried it? More than 15 years, I can guarantee you. Then what?

The same can be said of aged oolongs. Many aged oolongs I’ve seen for sale, both in Asia and online, are really terrible teas that have been roasted to death. They are not so much aged but charcoalized. They’re sweet and nice, sure, but they’re also not what I’d consider a great aged oolong, which should be fragrant, active, and isn’t one dimensional. For example, how much sourness is acceptable, and how much is too much? Sure, individual taste plays a part in this, but there’s also some basis for a universal yardstick. Alas, unless you’ve walked through Taipei and tried dozens of aged oolongs from different stores, ranging from the amazing to the terrible, it is impossible to say with any kind of certainty “this is a great aged oolong”.

What I want to say is that while it may be very tempting to just drink lots and lots of new teas and read other people’s blogs, books, and magazines to learn about tea, there’s nothing that will prepare you for a lot of these deeper questions except personal experience. One could theorize all they want with regards to aging potential, durability, etc, but a crucial question is – what will it age into? Is it going to be soft and sweet? Harsh and smokey? Fragrant and floral, or woody and deep? There are many possible endpoints (unknown) in addition to the infinite starting points (known). Unless you have tried many potential endpoints, how, if at all, can you determine which start points link up with which endpoints?

So the life of the foreign tea aficionado is made considerably harder by the lack of availability of good, aged teas, which are distinctly absent from the market. For example, how many versions of Menghai factory (not some other imitation) 7542s from 2000 or before are there on the market? In what condition? How about 8582? Or 7582, of which I bought one cake while shopping, and which one of my friends said “this will be an interesting reference piece”? Or how about Xiaguan’s 8653 from the 80s and 90s? Here you can find them ranging from dry to very wet, with different batches (which all taste somewhat different, if you pay attention) and with varying quality. I certainly haven’t figured it all out – not by a long stretch, but I feel at least I am lucky to have access to things like this, through stores that sell them and friends who have them. It greatly flattens the learning curve of figuring out aging of tea and what not. When your access to old tea is limited to second string products and, in many cases, discards from the Asian market, what does that mean for your learning of how to age teas?

Alas, I don’t think there’s much to be done in the way of solving this problem. This post is, unfortunately, a negative one – I don’t have any solutions to propose, other than to try more tea, except that the availability of old teas is such that this is not really possible as an option. I can count on one hand the outfits that offer aged teas for sale, and of these, I think only one or two are actually worth bothering with. So, until then, I’d advise travel to parts of Asia with good, aged teas, as a temporary remedy. There really aren’t many other ways, unfortunately.


Comments

The learning curve — 30 Comments

  1. I think that was a really good post. Infact I think most of the people who’ve started drinking tea in recent years would not have had any aged tea at all and will probably just develop a taste for new sheng. That may mean that the market for aged tea will diminish and the price of these teas may eventually come down hopefully. But I guess that’s only wishful thinking on my part.

    • I think access to truly great young sheng has been going down, too. For example, forget all those super expensive, but crappy examples of LBZ, and wonder, how many top flight Youle do you see lying around in the West? I see HLH, a YS, and a couple of European vendors with their own self-pressed Youles. None of them, as I understand it, are great examples of Youle. Good, some of them, but not great, in the same sense that it’s rare to see certain endpoints of aged tea in the West. We have had more camphor teas, but relatively few red-bean teas…

  2. Hi,
    Very interesting subject as from my newbyness this question is central. I think that we have to orientate our tea tastings in order to avoid trying all existing teas for getting some knowledge out of them. Having essential reference teas are very useful but I think it is not enough to flatten the learning curve.

    I also think that personal experimentations are tremendously important (e.g. have an idea of the importance of temperature, water, …). In that domain a “Tea Teacher” is a good way to orientate the experimentations and help analyzing their results.

    What is fair with tea, it is that whatever your craft, the learning curve will remain a life span!

  3. Very interesting post as always, thanks! What are the few places you would recommend for buying aged teas? I travel often to HK and the Orient in general. Thanks!

  4. I’m afraid that aged tea will go up in price rather than down…as all tea probably will. The slower it currently happens compared to 2007, the longer it may last.

    I agree that it is difficult to get a sense of long term aging – even short term aging is sort of difficult to foresee, but it is at least quite possible even in Europe. Without travelling to China, I really do not see where to buy the hundreds of samples necessary to get a reasonable knowledge of aged tea though.

    Anyway, we may still enjoy a great deal of fun with young and mid-aged tea, so things are not all that bad I’d say 🙂
    Jakub

    • Well, I think 5 years is not really “mid-age”. That’s just starting to age – 10-20 is mid age, and the selection there is pretty spare.

  5. Another wonderfully insightful (if disheartening, for some of us) post. I cherish the extremely narrow avenues I’ve found for decent aged teas, and am acutely aware of the limits of my experiences as a result. As I’ve made my way into the price-point of some of these few aged cakes available to me I’m starting to wonder if my funds might be better spent on a plane ticket to China.

      • Hah! You’re funny shah8 🙂 I wonder if the venerable Marshal and Madame N would be keen on having a tea noob crashing on their couch for a week? 😉

    • A flight is definitely the best way to spend your money. You can fly EVA to HK for around $1000 or add a stop off in Taiwan for $100 more. Easy direct flights. Another $3-400 or so for visa/flight to mainland China. Hostels are $10-25/night if your willing to sacrifice a little comfort. Still expensive but well worth it.

      Shah8 is probably right about the Paypal link being a good way to generate some cash from your readers.

  6. well, i think you can skip the trip to china altogether when we are talking about aged pu erh…. you might just get “distorted” over there… and if your new, they will eat you alive! =D

    again, this is really a nice and honest post!

  7. Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post on what is a great blog.
    Can I ask what the situation would be like for, say, a Hong Kong resident new to quality pu’er?
    Is it also fair to say that because pu’er is so much more popular in China, it is substantially more difficult & expensive to get good 20+ years stuff now than it would have been 10 years ago?
    I also wonder if the increased demand has led not just to a lot of nasty stuff being sold, but also to an increase in good-but-not-great sheng being produced, which will mean lots of aged pu’er coming on stream in 10 or 20 years time (not that this is any help to people buying now)?

    • There are lots of people who drink quality puerh here. I remember when I first started out, there are myriad outfits that will enable you to learn more about the tea – groups of drinkers, shops where they hang out, even online forums just for HKers. It’s enough of a scene so that you can easily get your hands dirty very quickly, if you so choose.

      Yes, it is now more difficult to buy quality aged tea, and the price increase is I think largely a product of a vastly increased market for such teas, plus the greatly enhanced ability of these people (i.e. they got rich) to buy them.

      There’s more being produced now than ever, although also in greater variability. So, in order to be able to spot and locate the good stuff, in some ways it takes far more skill now than I used to. Back in the day your options were basically stuff from factory A or factory B. There wasn’t much of a choice and you had very few variables. Now just the name of the mountains can give you a headache, not to mention all the other things that one must consider before buying new teas. So, in that sense, it’s gotten more difficult to get familiar with the market. It also means that it is probably safer to buy teas that are at least a few years old, insofar as by then you have at least some idea of where they’re going. The problem, of course, is that when they get to that point the good stuff will cost a lot more. You do, however, eliminate some of the downside risk of buying teas that turn out to be horrible.

      • Interesting. I guess what you say about HK reinforces what you said in the main post, that drinking on your own and reading blogs is a poor substitute for the breadth and depth of experience you’d get from meeting and drinking with real people. I suppose that’s a paradox maybe common to lots of online things: without the internet there’d be almost no way for me to *develop* the interest (living in the UK), but without the real world it’s super-hard to *satisfy* that interest.

        Can I also ask specifically about ageing young shengs: surely no one can be at all confident that a young sheng will turn into a nice aged sheng unless either they have been drinking pu’er seriously for 15+ years, or they’ve asked/learned lots from someone who has.

  8. Great post. I do have a solution though… simply quit being a university professor, and start selling your best finds to us westerners online! 😉

      • I’d have to sell a fair amount of tea every month to make it. I also greatly dislikes the idea of tainting my blog with commercial interests. All of a sudden I can’t say a lot of the things I say now with the same honesty because I might be selling you the tea I’m reviewing, or I might seem like I’m attacking a competitor. So, no such thoughts at the moment.

        • Wow, I didn’t know you had given it that much serious thought already. With the right policies (denying unsolicited free samples from vendors, not verbally trashing any specific teas on your blog, etc.) maybe you could at least offer a “MarshalN’s Tea Discovery of the Month” club or something? We’re hungry for more great teas over here bud, help us out! 🙂

          • Well, people are always asking. No plans for such things at the moment. Isn’t Tim’s joint enough to satisfy your cravings?

  9. Dear MarshalN,

    I am always amazed at your ability to draw depth out of this topic so endlessly. One aspect of drinking sheng which I am fascinated by but don’t see too much coverage is the mental effects of certain cakes. I’ve experienced that drinking certain shengs brings about heightened clarity and mental alertness that is not necessarily related to the quality of the beeng, other shengs make me a bit jittery. I have one rather mediocre sheng(taste wise just minty) that appears to boost my focus and attention more than any other. Have you noticed such variations?

    Humbly,
    hster

    • Blast from the past – assuming you’re the same Hster? Still drinking pu eh?

      I think you’re right – some cakes make you jittery, others are calming and nice, others yet give you stomach aches and that sort of thing. Age tend to affect that, although not always. It’s rather hard to pinpoint anything with regards to those kind of traits.

      How are the cakes that you bought way back when doing now?

      • Good memory! I am at a crossroads on what to do about my pu collection which is stuck in a Berkeley timewarp. Most of my cakes which are from 2002-2006 feel disappointingly unchanged- some feel like they went through reverse aging. I’m pretty sure it’s the cold (it’s rarely above 60 degrees) that is retarding the process. I can’t seem to give up the fantasy of drinking true aged pu-erh in my eighties so I’m still willing to wait out some serious number of decades. But if the aging is ho-hum even after 15 years of waiting (~2020), I really should reconsider and I’ll probably remember your excellent post on home storage. I sort of knew pu-erh storage was not meant for amateurs but we all keep trying and hoping, hoping and trying.

        Due to stomach issues, I can’t drink sheng except rarely so I am relegated to the purgatory of shu. After having taken a hiatus for a few years, I find your posts still refreshing and insightful. The only major change in my pu appreciation has been using an ipad to manage the collection.

        hster

        • That’s very disappointing to hear indeed, but not too surprising, especially given the weather in your area. 2002 cakes should be pretty decent, no? At least, they should start to feel aged and lose some of that rawness. How are you storing them?

          • I tried the 2002 Menghai yesterday and it definitely is less smoky and brews darker than the last time I drank it 4 years ago but it doesn’t feel to me that this cake is 66% on it’s way. If one graphed the aging process, is it more evenly distributed or there is some acceleration past it’s first decade? The taste was a little flat(perhaps it is the awkward stage drinkers mention). I don’t really know how this cake compares since I haven’t drunk other 10 year old’s aged in different regions for reference. I sniffed and inspected all my open cakes and even among the 2002 and 2003 cakes, there appeared to be noticeable variation. I think loose compression definitely helps.

            Most of my teas are in an enclosed china cabinet which is opened almost every day, the humidity being 50-60.

            Hster

          • Hmmm, that might be too low in humidity. Any way to pump it up?

            I think some 2003 cakes are ready to drink now, if you’re into that sort of taste.

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