When to give up

At what point do you give up on a cake that you have kept for aging?

I ask this because it is an important question for those of us sitting on tea. If you are a buyer of puerh and have stored some for aging, at some point you need to take them out and start drinking – after all, that’s the point. When you first start, it is likely that you bought more or less indiscriminately. You may have purchased teas based on recommendations by others who are supposed to, perhaps, know more than you. You may have bought because of the reputation of the vendor. You may have also bought because you liked how the tea tasted then. Afterwards, a few years later, perhaps, you take out that same cake again and discover that it’s changed, but not necessarily for the better. What do you do? You tell yourself “well, it’s just going through that awkward phase; it’ll get better” and put it back in storage.

What if the same thing happens two years later? Four? Ten? When do you just tell yourself “this was a terrible purchase and it’s never going to get better”?

I have a bunch of stuff like this. Some I bought because they were cheap at the time and I figured I could afford to gamble. Some because, well, I didn’t know better. Some because they seemed decent at the time, but subsequently has turned out to be quite terrible. I know my aging environment is fine, because I have a number of teas that I stored myself for ten years now that are quite drinkable. So the aging environment isn’t the problem; the tea is.

It’s true that sometimes teas do go through an awkward phase. They have lost that initial sweetness/floral fragrance that are characteristic of new teas, but have not yet developed old tea taste. It’s that weird in between state where it’s really a pretty bad thing to drink. However, I also think that there are many teas out there that simply cannot and will not age. This is mostly because of bad processing to start off with. If your tea was processed like a green tea, bad news, it’s not going to get better. Aged green tea will never develop that complex and rich flavour of puerh that you should be striving for (and if you are one of those people storing tea to preserve its flavours and fragrance, you’re in the wrong business). A telltale sign of a tea that is processed like a green tea is a beany taste – think a fresh biluochun, a classic beany tea. If your tea smells like a longjing or a biluochun, it’s time to drink it fast because it’s not going to get better.

There are, I think, storage environments where the tea will also die, and I suspect (although without firm proof, because I haven’t tried) that once killed by bad storage, the tea will never recover. There are of course two types of death by storage. The first is the obvious – heavy mold, bad mold (golden flowers), extensive sun exposure, etc. The second is more subtle – environment that has strong odd smells (medicine cabinet, for example), too close to the sea (it will get salty), too dry (the tea will taste thin), etc. Some of these in the second category need not be fatal, if recovered sufficiently quickly – a week in a medicine cabinet won’t do anything bad to your tea. Three years, however, and you have a different problem.

So if your tea is aging poorly either because it was bad to start off with, or because it has had bad storage, at some point you should just give up on it. Even though it may taste great initially, it’s no guarantee that it will age well – many well known teas were terrible when they were young, being very bitter, astringent, smoky, etc. When you want to give up is of course up to you, but I think by year five, if the tea is getting thin, more and more bitter, or otherwise exhibiting signs that it is not aging well at all, it may be time to reconsider the value of keeping it long term. As a comparison, it is useful to keep a cake of Menghai 7542 around as a control. It is, after all, the standard puerh cake. If your 7542 is aging badly, then it’s your environment. If your 7542 is aging well and your other cake isn’t, well, it’s the cake. Hope is, of course, what keeps us alive and living, so hoping that your tea will recover is a natural thing. Sometimes though, it is useful to admit defeat, drink up the tea (or get rid of it) and save some space. You’ll thank yourself next time you move.


Comments

When to give up — 11 Comments

  1. Nice post! I found it funny because I went through it with a few cakes. I had about 5-6 of each and I managed to get 3-4 of each to that ‘awkward phase’ or the ‘teens’ of Puerh where I didn’t know if I liked what I was tasting. I have to admit I’ve developed a bit more of respect and understanding of this age range where the wood notes are setting in and some honey/flower might remain, even ghosts of the fruits, but back then I though ‘wow… I I think just wasted about 8-9 years and several hundred dollars.

    To be fair, some of them are coming along pretty nicely and I’m glad I kept them, some them I had to end up throwing away, wishing I had drank them when I still liked them. But I learned that the cakes I LOVE now may not develop as I hope, so I just drink them sooner than later, while others I see only as potential aging candidates, I think it has served me better than to age everything I like.

  2. Yes but having ascertained that the tea is bad n no amount of storage is going to make it any better , what do you do with it ?? If it’s a tea that is not particularly good n which you don’t like and has some market value and followers (amazingly there are teas like that with a following even though they are not going to age well!!!!) , you could sell it. But what if it’s one of those teas that are not worth a lot and you know will not age ??? You can’t sell it and you wont give it away to a friend , because he wont be your friend anymore if you did . I used to give mine away to a recycling center but the people there have become friends too so I feel bad about giving them bad tea :-D. So what do you do with it ???
    Su

    • I think there’s prime opportunity for selling a kit- “Teas which won’t age well according to MarshalN and Su”. Then people can compare it against their own collection. I’m sure it will sell out.

      I gave away pounds of gross shu to a lovely lady who sent me French chocolates in return. Somebody out there will clamor for your bad tea!

      h

  3. Ah, the stresses of tea collecting.

    At this point… I try not to worry about it too much and just drink. Right now my collection isn’t so big as to warrant a cleanup, but one thing I do suspect is that my environment is too dry. It is hard to say without some tools I don’t have, and I have yet to figure out a reliable method of introducing an ideal amount of humidity. I keep my puerh in boxes that can breathe well enough, but not too much, and that have aired out for a while. It seems to be alright, but I think the aging process is very slow and, given where I live, similar to the MarshalN Portland cakes.

    Personally, unless it did not resemble tea at all, I would probably just drink the poorer teas as a less mindful “everyday” fix.

  4. MarshalN
    Useful post – thanks. Can you (or anyone else) offer any generalities as to how charred tea will age? Or is it so dependent on a zillion other variables that it is impossible to answer? I am interested to know how various processing faults impact the tea over time.
    Thanks
    John

      • I mean tea that has been pan fried for too long or too intensely so that it has a slight burnt flavour. I have a cake that I like otherwise but dislike the slight burnt favour. I am wondering how this burnt flavour will evolve with time. Should I just toss it now? That got me thinking about other faults at the time of processing. As a newer pu erh drinker I am keen to understand the link between early processing faults and later aged drinking experience. By the way…tea does make excellent compost for the garden if it is time to give up on it!

        • Don’t toss it unless it’s bad tea . A lot of the older puer teas tasted really smoky in the beginning but the smokiness goes away after abt 10-15 yrs. 88 qb was one of the smokiest teas I’d ever had when I bought it but it had a strong robust brew with a very nice aftertaste discounting the smokiness so I kept it , sampling every year after the the first 7-8 yrs. It is now immensely drinkable.
          Su

  5. It is a good discussion! I am at 5 years with my oldest and I am not yet ready to let any go…but if I have some that don’t make the cut, I will try composting in the garden!

  6. “and if you are one of those people storing tea to preserve its flavours and fragrance, you’re in the wrong business”.

    I see that the respect for others’ positions and preferences is always a key component of your posts.
    Regards.

    • That’s an odd position to take. Just because I express disagreement with someone else’s position makes it disrespectful?

      The idea that one should store young, new make puerh to preserve its flavours is like saying one should preserve the taste of the freshly distilled alcohol when making whisky, or freshly made wine when they’re right out of the fermentation vat. It’s wrong, to say the least. These are things made for at least some aging, and puerh is the same.

      Puerh derives its value and unique taste from aging. It could be artificial (cooked) aging, and it could be natural aging. Either way, the point of the tea is to age it into new and different flavours – ones that are different from the original. A Red Label from the 50s aren’t worth $150k USD a cake because it preserves the freshness of a newly made cake – it’s because over the last 60 years of aging it has acquired new and deep flavours unattainable otherwise.

      There are people out there on the web who claim that storage of puerh is to keep its original flavours. If you like newly made puerh’s taste, buy them when they’re new and drink them. There’s no point in aging. If you’re aging, you are hoping it will change into something better – usually something sweeter, more complex.

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