Alchemy doesn’t work

Chinese alchemists of the past were trying to create elixirs that will prolong your life, or even grant you eternal life. Western alchemists, generally, were trying to turn other metals into gold. Either way, what they wanted to do was to turn something crappy or mundane into something extraordinary (of value, or use). It doesn’t work.

Likewise, unfortunately, bad teas almost never turn into good ones. I had a tea recently, a supposed “Nannuo Wild Tea” from the factory Six Famous Tea Mountains (liudachashan or 6FTM). Old timers like me will remember in 04-06 in the English online circle of tea drinkers, 6FTM was, for a while, pretty popular – Yunnan Sourcing stocked them, and generally, they were pretty cheap and seem to be a bit different from Menghai factory stuff. Generally, however, they were not exactly high quality stuff – mostly mass produced, large factory fare, and I think in many cases, what’s on the wrapper often had little bearing with what’s actually in the cake. This is still quite common, but already pretty evident back in those days. Nowadays 6FTM is mostly known for commemoration cakes of various sorts – basically, same tea, different wrappers, sold for various odd reasons like “3rd Annual XXX Conference” or “6FTM factory 8th anniversary” or whatever they can think of.

Anyway, this cake in question was gifted to a friend of mine recently and I was lucky enough to try it with her. The tea has been stored in Hong Kong for most of its life. You can see the wrapper here

 photo 96EDC5EE-4B16-4EE1-87C8-1D39B0E55C20-683-00000060D2DD21B5.jpgStuff like this sold for about 40-50 RMB a cake, retail. Although I can’t find this exact thing on Taobao, similar stuff go for somewhere in the ballpark of 200-250RMB a cake now. It’s gotten more expensive, but mostly just because it’s gotten a few years older. It was probably pretty crappy back then. Is it any good now?

Unfortunately – no. It’s boring, thin, weak… nothing to recommend itself. If you stored this for 7 years and this is what it gives you now, you’ll probably regret having wasted money and time on the tea. The fact is, crappy, weak teas don’t turn out to be great teas down the road just because it’s stored and aged. The idea of “I’ll put this aside and maybe it’ll get better” only applies to teas that are difficult to consume, but not because they’re weak and bad. Rather, “it’ll get better” should really mean “it’ll get easier to drink” because the bitterness, roughness, etc are all changing into something sweet and nice. A tea that starts out with not much substance is not going to develop substance over time. That, unfortunately, is like alchemy. It just doesn’t work.

I’m sure I have some things in my own collection that fall into this category. Most of them I think I purchased out of pure curiosity – one cake here, one cake there of stuff that I thought maybe I can try aging. I hope that things I have bought in more volume won’t fall into this trap. If I have – it really means they should be drunk, or something. Nothing is more disappointing to try something that you think has aged well, only to find out that it has nothing to offer at all.

 


Comments

Alchemy doesn’t work — 20 Comments

  1. Thanks M, nice write up!
    Hmm, I’ve never seen that cake before … But I’ve tasted lots other of crap released in 2004-05 by SFM. On other hand they have some very decent stuff released before and after that period.

  2. hihi,

    It’s me again,
    I’m currently drinking “7558” from “Lao Tong Zhi” from “2005”,

    I went to taobao and found it very cheap there,
    for around “RMB 188″ or so,

    whereas from my local vendor,
    I bought it for double the price almost “RMB400″,

    I was shocked about the price difference,
    but I’m curious about the storage difference and the weather conditions in China,

    are they better than my country’s storage ways?
    So I ordered 3 discs, I’m waiting for it to arrive first,

    I’ll tell you the difference when it arrives,
    I have other expensive “puerh” in stock,

    but can’t seem to find any info about them online,
    it seems to be from some guy “邹炳良” and I bought 7 cakes 1 tong, with 1 extra for testing through the years,

    but are DAMN expensive “RMB800″ / cake!
    my local tea house told me they only had some as it’s only for distributors…….

    Can I upload some photos here? and see if you know any info about them?

    Thanks

    • Where are you located? 400 is expensive for the tea, and 800 is way out of line. 150 sounds about right. This tea is extremely common, it is very mass-market, so I really wouldn’t pay more than about what you’re paying for your taobao cakes for this tea.

  3. Doesn’t the “easier to drink” point apply mostly to blended teas? A lot of single area puerh tea, you actually do want to drink pretty green, and other single area puerh, you pretty much have to wait for it to get interesting. It’s only certain things like Bulangs losing bitterness or Bada losing grassy, or Pasha losing tobacco–then a single area tea becomes easier to drink…

    Betcha that 6FTM becomes a decent disposable drink in another 15 years!

    I do believe the fundamental basis of the next puerh crash is when Mainlanders truly realize that the only puerh tea that will actually be truly valuable in the future are the special teas. Not even ChenShengHao, man.

  4. Drats! How am I ever to offload my stash of 6 FTMs now that you’ve dissed ‘em. I have seven of the entire ’05 Yinji series brought by a friend who paid $20 for the lot.

    I’ve only opened up the Yiwu and it’s not bad for ~$3. It’s leaps more interesting than the Tazo green tea at work. Too bad it roughs up my insides too much to drink it.

    h

  5. Can I ask you a random tea ware question here? I’m just curious about something – how do you clean your cups/pots and how often? I’m worried that washing with just water might not be all that’s needed.

          • Honestly, if there’s actually smell, its subtle and probably not affecting the taste of anything. My only concern was something kind of rancid or unpleasant developing over time. I think now that cleaning with slightly soapy water every so often will calm my worries. I was just wondering what your personal experience was.

  6. Hi. Thanks for your thoughts on aging tea. A good comparison between alchemy and the wishful thinking tea collectors (or anyone. For that matter) can sometimes engage in!

    I just discovered your blog in the last few days and am thrilled to have done so. I’m fascinated to learn more about tea from a more experienced taster (addict!) and am particularly happy to find a blogger whose writing ability matches his enthusiasm for tea!

    I noted your curated samples project. I hope you’ll consider doing a second one at some point. It’s a phenomenal idea and I hope to take part next time.

    Greetings from New York, and keep the great posts coming. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue working my way through your previous posts. I look forward to reading about oolongs–that’s my area of greatest interest at the moment. (Actually I find you blog in searching for a satisfying explanation of the character 欉.)

      • I do certainly know of it, but I haven’t actually gone. When I learned of it several months back, it seemed they were on some sort of hiatus. (It might have been due to hurricane Sandy, which made a lot of trouble downtown.) I should definitely make a point of heading down there–thanks for reminding me.

        For any other New York readers (or for you, should you visit New York in the future), a couple of other spots I know (though certainly not of the same caliber or variety as Mandarin Tearoom, from what I understand) is the Japanese teahouse Cha-An, which I happened upon quite by accident. A beautiful little place that is Japanese through and through. Another tea hangout for me, which is only blocks from my home, is Radiance Tea, a Midtown Chinese tea salon. Certainly not highly traditional, but it does have some beautiful teas and a truly extensive menu of fine teas.

        • I believe they are by appointment only, so you might want to contact him ahead of time.

          Cha-An is nice – I’ve been there a number of times. Radiance Tea is a bit… odd, but a good place to sit nonetheless.

          • Your reaction to Radiance Tea made me chuckle. Yes, it is admittedly a bit on the odd side (the Falung Gong factor doesn’t exactly help), but it’s a few minutes’ walk from my home so too convenient not to frequent. Glad to learn you seem to know New York pretty well! (And, yes, you’re right about Mandarin–thanks.)

  7. It will be interesting to see what we learn about tea from ongoing research around the world. People in Asia have been consuming tea for such a long period of time now. The rest of us are just catching up.

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