The dangers of dry and cold

Well, regular readers know that I’m skeptical of storage conditions that are too dry or too cold. The combination of these two things is generally not good news for puerh tea. It makes for bad tea.

I recently bought a few cakes through Taobao from a vendor in Tianjin. I’ve bought from them before, years ago. Their tea is not that bad. These teas I got are not bad tea per se, but the storage on them has made them pretty poor. Specifically, the cakes (all different) all share a slightly sour, thin, and unpleasant note. Two of the teas are themselves very decent originally – the base tea still shines through, a bit, but without any of the thickness and richness you’d hope to see from teas that are 7-10 years old. Instead, they are just…. sour and a bit bland. If I have teas that old that taste like this, I’d be disappointed.

One of the cakes is a nice Yiwu that I know didn’t taste like that when first made, because I tried it way back when it first came out. I never bought any, because it was out of my budget at the time living on grad student stipend. I wish I had some, and was hoping that this cake would be ok, but it’s not – not in this condition.

Tianjin is typical north China – cold, not too damp, although probably damper than some of the more inland places like Beijing. This is why I normally don’t like to buy teas that are stored in any of these drier climates – they taste bad. The damage in taste is also not obvious when you’re buying online – the cakes, even when held in person, look perfectly fine. There’s no really obvious sign that something is awry, until you put it in water and try it.

This is not to say the tea hasn’t changed – it has. The colour has changed, the taste is also not what you’d see when it’s new. But as a tea that is getting better with age? No, not really. Just because a tea changes over time doesn’t mean it’s changing for the better over time, and a lot of people in these areas have never had a good tasting 10 year old to compare against, so it’s not obvious to them what’s wrong with teas like this.

Now the next question is whether some wet weather storage in Hong Kong can salvage the tea. I’ll let you know in a few years.

Temperature, humidity, and storage

I just got back from Southern Germany, where the land is flat and the beer is good. The weather was beautiful. I also came back with chapped lips, which led me to think about storing puerh tea in these places.

There’s a general consensus that the higher the temperature and the humidity the tea is stored in, the faster the tea changes. People disagree as to whether that’s a good thing or not, and some of it comes down to personal tastes (some people like their tea young tasting for reasons I don’t understand). Above a certain point, the high temperature and humidity will induce mold, which is generally seen as less desirable this day and age. However, under normal circumstances in natural settings, it is difficult to generate enough moisture to attain the level of humidity and temperature used in traditional storage facilities (we are talking +30C and relative humidity of 90% or even higher, in a tightly packed enclosed space). If you store your tea naturally, in an environment in which human beings are comfortable and not exposed to the elements, your worry shouldn’t be mold.

Instead, I think the worry should be too low a temperature/humidity. The problem, at least on an anecdotal level for me, is that tea stored too dry will begin to exhibit undesirable traits such as roughness, thinness, and lack of aroma, in addition to just not changing (or changing very slowly). I am presuming that the whole point of storing your tea is that it changes and ages – for those who want their tea young and fresh, you can stop reading now.

The dryness-induced changes are usually not very obvious problems, and may not even be apparent until you tried it side by side with a tea stored in a more optimal environment, at which point it becomes really clear that the tea stored in really dry climates is lacking something. Opinions are mixed on whether that can be revived, but it’s not at all clear that it is easy to do so without running risks.

Leaving aside why exactly higher temperature and humidity seems to allow teas to age in a more interesting manner, I suspect that it is not as simple as pointing to your humidity gauge and saying humidity is high in you neighbourhood. Since both of these factors are actually related to one another, I will attempt to talk about this in more absolute terms.

Hot air can hold more moisture than cold air. That’s just a matter of fact. Relative humidity in general is a poor indication of the amount of moisture in the air at any given time, unless you also give a temperature reading. So, if you look at this chart, you’ll see that at 30 degrees Celcius and 50% relative humidity, the air still has more moisture in it than 15 degree Celcius and 100% relative humidity. At the same time though, we know that the air has more capacity to suck in moisture – so it can dry things out faster. Experienced hands here who have long stored tea all believe that it is important for the tea to breath through the seasons – meaning that it goes through wet and dry periods. The winter, when it’s dry and cold (relatively) here, is when the tea rests. Then spring comes, when it’s quite wet, and then the summer, when it’s hot, and by the fall, it starts drying out again. And the cycle repeats itself. Slow changes in the climate seems to beget changes in taste.

I remember when I came back to Hong Kong one time during my study overseas, I noticed that one of my tongs of tea was moved to closer to the window, and this being early spring, it was extremely wet and warm in Hong Kong. The tong was almost wet to the touch – the tea, while not quite soaked, was certainly not dry. I moved it to a higher location on the shelves and, now, years later, the tea is no worse for wear, and in fact is quite nice last time I tried it. It has also certainly aged from when it was first purchased, when it was a green, young, rather bitter thing. That’s what we want after all – for that bitterness to recede and slowly replaced by aged tastes of sweetness.

So when I was in Germany, I noticed that the weather was quite warm, but it was very, very dry. It also gets cold rather quickly at night. Of course this is far from desert like climate, but it reminds me of Beijing, where the weather can also be pretty dry and warm. In my experience, places like that produce really badly stored cakes – they literally feel dry when you drink them, and are usually devoid of fragrance and flavour. Heat with too-low humidity is no good – the ones I’ve tried where they have been stored in high heat, low humidity places tend to be really, really nasty. When people use the term “dry storage” they really meant it in relation to “wet storage” or what I like to call traditional storage. It’s not “bone dry” storage. That’s what you do for mummies. I think the reason it’s dry during the day is because of the low temperatures at night, the moisture condenses, and over the course of the day as it heats up, the humidity drops because temperatures go up – and before there’s a real chance for the moisture to be evaporated again, temperature drops again at night, keeping things fairly dry during the day. I’m not sure what this does to tea, but I suspect it’s not a great environment.

Having said that, I generally think it’s not very wise to build elaborate pumidors to try to artificially inflate humidity for your storage. The reason is simple – it’s very risky, and you can easily cause mold or other undesirables. What you can probably do without much harm is to take precautions – don’t let too much airflow into your storage area, maybe add a little water container that has little risk of spillage. I really wouldn’t do more than that.

Not all old tea is good

We are always told that older teas are, somehow, better. Imagine if your old tea came from here though

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This is a tea display from a grocery shop not too far from my home. They sell some pretty dubious teas, not sourced from this little display, of course. Nevertheless, if you ever need convincing that storage environment matters, this is it – it’s exposed to the sun, probably really hot, and hasn’t been cleaned in decades. God forbid you end up with a cake from here.

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.

 

Microclimates

First of all, I wish you all a happy lunar new year, and that the year of the snake may be a fruitful one.

Continuing the theme from the last post, I thought it is also worth mentioning that storage climates are not just dependent on big things – local climate of the city where you’re at, or even the area you live in, but also heavily dependent on how your room, your closet, or even that cardboard box on the ground where you put your tea – how those things may affect your storage conditions.

One of the things that I see people asking sometimes on tea forums and the like is whether or not it is safe to drink from leaves that were left around overnight. Usually, the answer offered by myself or others is “it’s probably ok”. In my personal experience, that has most certainly been the case.

There are, however, differences that may even affect that answer, and consequently, probably affects how one stores teas as well. For example, in my old office I normally drank tea grandpa style, and I would usually leave the spent leaves until the next day to clean up in the morning when I get there again. No problems there. At my current office I do the same thing, except now, at my new office, after a weekend the tea leaves would get moldy, quite seriously so in fact. It does make me wonder how safe it is to drink leaves that have been sitting here for a whole day.

More importantly, I’d imagine something like this is indicative of significant differences in how tea stored in these different environments will behave, especially if stored over long periods of time. Right now, I have one small cake I am storing here for immediate consumption. That won’t show much change, I think, at least not before I finish it. However, if I say store some teas here long term, I’d imagine this is a much more humid environment, and the tea will probably age a bit faster – but at the risk of getting moldy more easily. Maybe I ought to try it out and see what happens.

Storing is for the long haul

A few months ago a reader of the blog emailed me with a problem. She is newish to puerh, and has been buying some cakes since 2011. She bought some clay jars to store the teas in, and in the hopes of speeding up the aging process, decided to try to add a bit of humidity to the jars to make things go faster/age better. This much sounds familiar – lots of people do similar things, especially if they live in drier climates, because, well, they worry about the tea not aging properly. These are the jars.

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Then the inevitable happened – first, signs of yellow mold, which can be dusted off easily and stopped the addition of humidity to the tea (by some method of adding water to the clay and let the clay soak it up, I believe). Then, a more invasive problem appeared – bugs, little bugs, that were all over the cakes, especially one, but it was showing up on others too. She threw out the most heavily infested one, but now almost all the cakes have bugs in them, and they move fast and run away from light, what to do?

In desperation, she emailed me to ask – what’s a good way to handle them? She threw one of the cakes with bugs away, but there were more. Another she put in a freezer, hoping that it will kill the bugs. Was microwave a possible way of killing them? Something else?

I think a little perspective is useful sometimes, because I’ve met others who have had similar reactions before. Puerh, when you buy them new, are, well, an investment of sorts. If your plan is to store them and drink them in the future, chances are your time horizon is years, if not decades. If that’s the case, even momentary infestations of all kinds of nasties will go away. Some, like mold, may leave a permanent mark on how your tea tastes. Others, like little bugs, will barely make a dent in your tea, if you manage to get rid of them. So, when you run into problems like this, the first thing to do is not to panic, unless you spent your life savings on the tea and your life depended on it. If it’s just a hobby – there are ways to fix the problem. What not to do is to overreact and put the tea in, say, the microwave and permanently destroy it. That will really end the tea’s aging potential and cause irreparable harm.

Since in this case it was obviously the wet jars and the attendant humidity that was causing the problem, I suggested the reader to take all the cakes out of the jars, and then separate the cakes into two piles – ones with bugs and ones without. The ones without, just store them on a shelf or something. The ones with the bugs I suggested perhaps putting them somewhere, spread out, and just let them air out. Usually, bugs like these that live on puerh cakes tend to love the humidity, and are mostly after the paper. Once it gets too dry they will go away, especially if it’s not a dark humid space. I had bugs like this on some bricks I bought some years ago, and after a few months all the bugs were gone, and I didn’t even do anything special to get rid of them.

So, happily, the reader wrote back to me a few weeks ago saying that the bugs were, indeed, all gone. No more problems, and the tea is probably a bit dry, but certainly better off than in some uncontrolled humid environment with a high risk of mold and bugs. They’re going back into the jar, but without any added humidity this time. I think the aging will be slow, but there’s only so much you can do with natural climate.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered folks with storage problems that were man-made. Usually the root of the problem is the desire to somehow replicate a more humid, hotter environment so the tea will age faster, but that is not so easy, and the risks of failure also increases dramatically when you pursue such projects. I am an advocate of simple solutions, such as, say, adding a bowl of water to a storage cabinet, but anything more and I’d be weary. If you do pursue such projects, monitor the changes very closely. Mold can grow on all kinds of places, but on tea cakes, they generally start at the end of the stems, so watch those carefully. They can also be in some corner of your storage unit in that long forgotten tuo sitting in the back – and that can fester and kill your whole stash.

You can never really replicate the storage conditions of a giant warehouse with hundreds of jians of tea. Just today I was walking by Lam Kie Yuen and saw them loading up a truck for delivery. There were probably 200 jian of puerh in that truck, meaning there were close to 17000 cakes in there. Storage that amount of tea and storing 20 at home are not the same thing, and they have decades of storage management experience to back them up. So, proceed carefully, and if anything goes wrong, don’t panic. Airing out the tea for six months will solve most of the problems.

The sample conundrum

I’m a fan of sampling, and I think it’s a good way to learn about teas. Whether it be greens, oolongs, puerhs, or whatever, sampling gives you breadth that you otherwise won’t get, and exposure to things that are otherwise hard to get (imagine having to buy 357g of something even if you just want to try). One of the problems with sampling though is this: what do you do with the leftover?

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Every time I move, it seems, I create a new box for samples that are leftover. Now I have four of these things (the above is just one of them). There are always, always, more samples to drink than time to drink them, and oftentimes the samples, if they are not very good, very memorable, or interesting, are never touched again. This leaves lots of small, open bags of tea that sit around, and eventually get collected into boxes, never heard from again. Since I moved back to Hong Kong and before this particular move, I don’t think I ever took out those three boxes of samples I had sitting on the top shelf of my tea storage cabinet.

These samples come from three sources. The first are ones that I bought myself. You can see, for example, a lot of Yunnan Sourcing samples in this particular box. There are also samples given to me by friends, sometimes very generously. I am still sitting on some samples that I haven’t had a chance to drink, sometimes because they’re valuable teas and I don’t want to waste them on an individual session. Then there are the worst kind – the ones that I get from vendors while shopping, for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s because I want to try something, sometimes it’s because they’re pushing something, but inevitably, I come home with a little plastic bag, maybe try the tea, and then…. it’s forgotten, with no labels, identifying marker, or anything. Two years later, I find it in a box, and I have no idea what it is other than the general type. Once in a while, with teas that look distinctive, I can remember where I got them, but that’s not so easy when you’re looking at a small chunk of some green leaves.

There’s a good Chinese expression, “chicken rib”, to explain this. Chicken rib (雞肋) featured in a story in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where Cao Cao, one of the warlords, was contemplating retreat and was brought some chicken soup, and he repeated “chicken ribs” a few times. Chicken rib represented the part of the chicken that was “tasteless to eat, but regretful to throw away”. I feel that way when looking at a lot of my samples.

Packing and moving

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This is the sum total of my tea life, at least in terms of stuff. The boxes in the far back are teaware of various sorts. Boxes of tea are here and there, and some have been unpacked already into the cupboard you see on the left.

Packing up your tea life is actually quite an interesting exercise. You rediscover pieces of teaware that have been relegated to the B-team, and haven’t been used for years. For example, I found my little tieguanyin pot that was sitting in the back of my cupboard, not having had a drink of tea for probably four or five years, at the very least. It was the first yixing pot I bought for myself, so in many ways it does hold some significance. It’s not something I would buy now, and I even debated whether or not I should let it go and sell it to someone where it will be used and loved, but I can’t quite get myself to do it, so into the back of the cupboard it may go again.

There are also teas that I forgot I bought, or that I haven’t tried for years because they have been difficult to access because of their storage location. The retaste project is meant to try to remedy that, but the progress on that is very slow, mostly because of the constant stream of stuff I have to drink. I will, however, get to every one of them, eventually.

I also learned a few things while packing my tea this time. For example, loose cakes are a real pain to pack, but they can be made considerably easier to deal with if you do this

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A giant plastic bag or something similarly sturdy, and all of a sudden you’ve got a tong of tea. It has the added benefit of keeping all the loose tea that will inevitably fall out inside the bag, so that when you’re done, you’ve got fannings that you can grandpa easily. Similar arrangements can be done for bricks and tuos as well. They do make packing the tea much faster, and more importantly, there’s less bumping against each other, less crushing of leaves, less losses overall.

Now I’m trying to put together an inventory of teas that I have – something I’ve never actually done before, since I kid myself that I don’t have that much tea, when in fact I do. Likewise, for my burgeoning collection of yixing pots, I think I also need a list as well. Otherwise they all become undifferentiated and I can’t even tell you what I’ve got, which is probably a bad thing.

Perils of shopping online

One of the perils of shopping online for tea is that you don’t get to try the stuff you’re about to buy. A little while ago I recommended the 2005 Chenguanghe Tang Menghai Yesheng to Hster as something worth buying. The only place online that sells it is Hou De Asian Art. I recently procured a number of this cake from Taiwan directly, and I’ve always like this cake. Since I am fairly sure Guang from Hou De sourced his teas from the same place I bought mine, I was rather confident in recommending the cake.

Well, Guang, rather unhelpfully perhaps, doesn’t offer samples. So when I sent Hster a bunch of teas recently for her to try, I included a sample of this 2005 tea for her as well. I didn’t realize that another tea from, Ira, also sent Hster a sample of this, but his sample is from a cake he recently purchased via Hou De. The result is this rather interesting post. Seems like while the two cakes are from the same batch, they are not quite the same after all.

So now, time for some pictures to compare the two. First up are Ira’s pictures of his cake, published with permission.

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Other than the first picture, I didn’t white-balance them because it’s difficult to do without any good reference point, and the picture looks like it might have two light sources, one natural and the other one not. Ignoring the colour of the leaves, there are a few things you can notice from these pictures. The first is that the surface of the leaves look dull, and not very shiny. The leaves also seem to have copious amounts of white dots on them, a sign of mold, perhaps, unless it’s an artifact of the camera. More importantly, the dots seem to be present on the leaves that are inside the cake, not just on the surface. All this is slightly difficult to draw conclusions from, but it seems as though this cake has seen a lot of moisture and perhaps some mold grew on it. Whether or not it is controlled in a traditional storage environment, or bad storage that caused mold, is harder to say.

So I took some pictures of the cake I used for Hster’s sample as a comparison

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What you can see here are a few things: the leaves are shinier, without the slightly furry look of the other cake. The sheen on the leaves is indicative of a drier storage, although I think the cake should best be termed as having undergone natural storage – just left around in a relatively humid environment generally, such as that of Taiwan. More importantly, you also see no obvious indication of mold growing on the cake – there are a few stems that are slightly white, but generally speaking, they are absent.

I obviously cannot comment on what happened – who knows. There are possibilities – perhaps the cake at Hou De was poorly stored to begin with, due to excessive moisture or some such, during a part of its storage somewhere. Sometimes it is quite possible even for cakes within the same tong to develop somewhat differently, especially the cake at the top or the bottom of a tong – they can get moist easily and grow mold while the other cakes are fine. I don’t know if Hou De’s entire batch was bad, or if it’s just one cake out of many. I also have no way of knowing if this problem developed before or after Hou De acquired their cake.

It is quite possible that even Guang himself doesn’t realize there is a problem (if he considers it a problem at all, that is). After all, a customer might feel weird if they receive a cake that was opened prior to purchase, but that is in fact sometimes what must be done to ensure that you’re getting something decent. Just yesterday I bought two cakes from Sunsing, and before taking the goods the employee there actually encouraged me to look at the cakes to make sure they’re ok. For teas that have been aged some years, it is usually a good idea to do so, because you never know what’s happened under the wrapper. It doesn’t help that this 2005 Yesheng has a particularly thick and inflexible wrapper – the thickness of the wrapper may also trap any moisture and cause higher likelihood of mold than otherwise. So you can’t even see through the wrapper to see what’s going on underneath.

Obviously, sampling wouldn’t have helped either, because the samples come from one cake, and the full cake you receive is another one. They could very well be the same, and very often they would be more or less the same. There is still, as always, the risk of something wrong having happened. I suppose this is not too different from corked wine that you end up with once in a while at perfectly well meaning stores. The important thing there, I guess, is to make sure they have an ironclad return policy. Although, in the case of tea, a bit of moisture often doesn’t kill, and if aired out sufficiently and properly, the tea can actually taste quite good.

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Poof! It’s gone

Back in the heady days of 2005/2006, when everyone was getting interested in puerh, there was a plethora of new workshops, tea merchants, and factories that sprung up around this new craze. Everything from tiny workshops of a few people, to individuals going up the mountains, to big investments in big factories were going on at the time. There are actually two levels of manufacturing puerh tea. There’s the farmer who does all the pre-processing, and then there’s the presser, who collects the tea and then gets them pressed into whatever shape s/he fancies. When we talk about producer of a tea, we’re really often talking about the presser, whose function is basically that of a middleman – they collect maocha and then press them into cakes. Technically speaking, there isn’t a lot of skills involved, and the amount of involvement a presser makes in his or her cakes is entirely up to them. They can spend months living in Yunnan and hike four hours every day to go to the forest where the trees are and watch the farmers harvest, making sure everything is right. Or they can just stop by the side of the road, try two or three maocha from a farmer, and pick one they like and just press those without having actually any idea what’s in the bags. As you can imagine, the former type is rare, the latter is common.

So when we look at the market structure of puerh, there are actually two kinds of markets involved. The first is the market between the farmers and the pressers. The farmers don’t generally directly see the end consumers – they sell, primarily anyway, to the pressers. The presser then resells what s/he buys to the collector/consumer (via intermediaries, or not). Back then there was really only one kind of farmer – the smallholding farmer who has a plot of land that he controls, and who sold to whoever they wanted, usually for the best price they think they can get. The pressers, however, are much more varied, and ranged anything from Menghai factory to the individual tourist going in for a few tongs.

It is pretty obvious where the value added for the farmer was – s/he tended to the trees, harvested the leaves, and processed them to the point where it became maocha, ready to be pressed into cakes. Some did the pressing themselves with what they had, other sold their tea by the bag in loose form. The pressers’ value added, on the other hand, is much more varied. As I mentioned already, some really do provide a valuable service, while others are nothing more than people who got the goods from A to B, a typical middleman, with the added step of hiring someone to do the pressing and the transportation. There’s no real skill necessary for pressing – it could, but it need not involve any. The most skillful are the ones who can discern what’s good and bad tea, who took careful steps to ensure that their tea was exactly what they thought they were getting, who protected the process to make sure nothing went wrong, and who, in some cases, blended the tea and created new things from a collection of maocha. That’s what factories like Menghai make their money too – they have the know how to blend teas, and also the ability and skill to amass large quantities of tea so to achieve their blends’ unique tastes. Production of cooked puerh, of course, involved another set of additional skill and input, but we’ll ignore that topic for now.

One of the most interesting thing about this market dynamic is that the chief producers of the tea, namely the farmers, don’t really get a lot of direct feedback from the consumers, at least not in 2005/2006. All they saw were the prices that the pressers were offering, as well as, sometimes, specifications from the pressers. The farmers varied in their skill in processing, the tools they had at their disposal, and also their experience in handling tea. Some have been at it for decades. Others were relative newbies who, until the mid 2000s, were living off their family’s rubber trees. All of a sudden, the influx of demand for young, raw puerh outstripped supply greatly, so prices went through the roof, increasing more than tenfold within the space of two years. As farmers rushed to meet this demand, as you can imagine, a lot of things were done that were not necessarily good.

One of the things I remember the most about trying new cakes back in the day was that out of every three or four cakes, at least one was intensely smokey. They can smell and taste like someone just lit a fire under the cake and roasted it for hours. The smoke can be so intense that even after many infusions, you can still taste the smoke and not the tea. This was a really regular occurrence back then, and there were always issues surrounding whether or not these teas can indeed age into something decent. The belief is that over time, smoke will dissipate and what is underneath will shine through. The question, of course, is how, and how long.

I am reminded of this because I tried a sample today sent to me from Hster, of the 2004 Tailian Youle. She drew a cigarette on the label she provided me, because, well, the thing does taste like cigarette. You can’t tell by looking at the leaves though

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The tea looks great on the surface, but when you brew it and sniff the cup, there’s an unmistakable smell of smoke. The taste confirms that. Ten cups later, smoke is still in your mouth.

It really struck me today when I drank this, because I haven’t had a smokey tea for a while, certainly not a new tea. It seems like the transmission mechanism that I talked about a little earlier does work, in a certain way – consumers don’t want smokey tea, and so over time, smokey teas get phased out. Obviously, farmers now also have better skills and more practice, and are oftentimes equipped with machines that they did not possess back in 2006, so that they can do things to the tea that wasn’t possible before. Chief among the reasons for smoke, at least from what I have seen, are either bad pan frying process so the smoke from the stove was getting in the way, or they used fire to dry leaves because the weather was too wet, causing it to be smokey. Whatever the reason, the technical issues that led to smokey teas are no longer present, or smokey teas are selected out because the market no longer wants any of them, so that these days, of the teas that make it to market, very few, if any, are smokey.

Smokey tastes do indeed fade, but the problem is they can take a long time. Hster’s cake has been in Bay Area storage since 06, I believe, and 6 years hasn’t really done much for the smokiness of the tea. I’d suspect another 20 years won’t do much either, maybe only dissipating it slowly. Is it worth the effort? Probably not. People have said that many of the older, classic recipes from the 80s or earlier were often somewhat smokey, but I think people no longer tolerate that. I can tell the tea underneath this Youle cake is pretty ok, but when there are better, non-smokey alternatives out there, it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for this tea. In more humid or wetter climes, the smoke might go away faster, but maybe not.