Provocative thoughts on Puerh

Puerh and other heicha
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Bok
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Sun Sep 01, 2019 10:24 pm

Had a long tea session last weekend with a tea ware expert. As so often in Taiwan, these are mostly also very proficient in tea. Interests do go along well. Following some random, quite possibly provocative thoughts.

Anyways, the topic went to Puerh – which is neither my area of expertise, nor my tea of preference – but the teas I tasted at this friends place are so far the only Puerh teas that I have ever liked. So we kept discussing how that came to be and of possible reasons for it. Most of what I had at his over the years was well Taiwan aged sheng. For educational purposes he also let me taste semi-sheng-shou.

One probably being that – apart from being an acquired taste I believe – that it is very difficult to even get to good Puerh and also very much intimidating for a newcomer.

No shop will let you break open a wrapper and break up a cake and taste it, you very much have to buy it blindly, high quality PE is too expensive to let people sample and an intact wrapper is demanded by the customers(Asia). On a side note, at the moment no one seriously into Puerh in Taiwan is buying, as the shops only have young Puerh and they customers own teas are usually older and had been a lot cheaper back then. So everyone is finishing their stash instead.

I mentioned how my own perception of the Western market is, that PE is popular, but I do wonder how that can be, given the crazy prices in China and ergo the likely low quality of what is available in the West. Further it escapes me how so many drink Shou, which in my own experience is just plain nasty and nothing else.

My friend mentioned to that, that back in the days when Puerh wasn’t popular, one could get aged Shou of good quality in HK, but that those time have passed, now that PE has become an investment toy for many. Hearsay has it, that Chinese look into investing in Puerh even more as a means of escaping market insecurity at the moment. Prices are going up!

He also mentioned, that compared to Yancha or Dancong for example, which involve a high skill in processing to produce premium teas, PE always has been a low skill kind of tea. Throw it in the sun, dry it, and press it, to put it very simply. So traditionally, before the boom, not a premium tea to begin with. So he argued that vendors rely on old-tree-old-age stories to market their tea as high end.


Food for thought, comments? Lively discussion anyone? :mrgreen: ;)

And please excuse my random listing of trains and bits of thought
mbanu
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Mon Sep 02, 2019 2:45 am

No shop will let you break open a wrapper and break up a cake and taste it, you very much have to buy it blindly, high quality PE is too expensive to let people sample and an intact wrapper is demanded by the customers(Asia).
To me this seems like a bad business practice; even if you trust the vendor to not carry counterfeits, storage conditions can change a good pu'er into a bad pu'er. I would have thought they would have a sample cake and then a tong or a basket elsewhere that is left alone. If it was so expensive that even the few grams needed to make a sample would sting, they could certainly charge some small amount for it.
I mentioned how my own perception of the Western market is, that PE is popular, but I do wonder how that can be, given the crazy prices in China and ergo the likely low quality of what is available in the West. Further it escapes me how so many drink Shou, which in my own experience is just plain nasty and nothing else.
I don't know about Europe, but pu'er is not popular in the American market, it is just wildly popular with internet tea-drinkers; I think this is an important distinction. In America, most tea-drinkers are Ceylon tea drinkers (or drinkers of Ceylon tea copies). The most common form is as iced tea, and for hot tea usually spiced Ceylon.

Internet tea-drinkers are a different bunch -- most Americans would not think to spend their time talking about tea on the internet if they wanted to talk about tea, they would go to a teashop with their friends. Part of it is gendered, as tea and teashops have a feminine reputation in America; the sort of person likely to go to a teashop with their friends is almost always a woman. So pu'er tea provides a sort of counter-culture that allows men to drink tea without anxiety.

Another reason is the collecting impulse. Collectors love of collecting tends to bleed over into any aspect of their life that it can, so having a tea that is also collectible becomes tempting, regardless of the underlying tea itself. Western vendors play on this by offering pu'er teas with artistic wrappers -- often I suspect it is the wrapper itself that is the prize, sort of like a comic book collector who is drawn to a cover but never bothers to read the inside.

A third is a love of gadgets -- I think this has to do with the fact that many of these pu'er drinkers are techies. For most Americans, telling them that they need to build or buy a special humidor for their tea would be very irritating, and they would not want to do it, but it is so common online that there is already a name for such a contraption, a "pumidor".

There is also a little bit of romance for Old China in pu'er that I think may blind people to the reality of the tea itself. (I have heard this sometimes happens in Taiwan as well -- is that so?)
He also mentioned, that compared to Yancha or Dancong for example, which involve a high skill in processing to produce premium teas, PE always has been a low skill kind of tea. Throw it in the sun, dry it, and press it, to put it very simply. So traditionally, before the boom, not a premium tea to begin with. So he argued that vendors rely on old-tree-old-age stories to market their tea as high end.
I think that is part of the fascination. Everything about pu'er is done wrong, yet somehow you get good tea. It isn't properly fired, and the underlying leaf doesn't seem like a good choice for green tea at all. Then it is stored in humid conditions that would be wrong for any other tea, and kept longer than would be right for any other tea. It ought to be a bad tea, but somehow it all comes together to make something appealing.
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Bok
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Mon Sep 02, 2019 3:01 am

mbanu wrote:
Mon Sep 02, 2019 2:45 am
To me this seems like a bad business practice; even if you trust the vendor to not carry counterfeits, storage conditions can change a good pu'er into a bad pu'er. I would have thought they would have a sample cake and then a tong or a basket elsewhere that is left alone. If it was so expensive that even the few grams needed to make a sample would sting, they could certainly charge some small amount for it.
It is not really. They can only ask for the best price for a cake if it is unopened, including the wrapper. Some might have identical cakes open for brewing, but then people here usually know what they want to buy and how it should taste. So the way here is by learning and drinking with friends who already know what they are doing. Not to forget that Puerh was still cheap when those guys started to drink it! It is in no small part due to the Taiwanese that the Puerh bubble came about in the first place, they sought out the aged cakes, when no one did.

mbanu wrote:
Mon Sep 02, 2019 2:45 am
There is also a little bit of romance for Old China in pu'er that I think may blind people to the reality of the tea itself. (I have heard this sometimes happens in Taiwan as well -- is that so?)
Not that I heard of… But then from my personal observation(by no means objective) there are mainly two kind of drinkers of Pu Erh in Taiwan:

First, the super rich tea aficionados, they won’t buy bad tea and they don’t have too, because they have funds and connections.

Second is the working class, like mechanics, cab drivers and similar professions, they drink low quality Pu-Erh. Often that doesn’t really matter as their taste buds are already numbed from heavy smoking and Betelnut chewing.
Noonie
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Mon Sep 02, 2019 7:37 pm

Bok wrote:
Sun Sep 01, 2019 10:24 pm
Had a long tea session last weekend with a tea ware expert. As so often in Taiwan, these are mostly also very proficient in tea. Interests do go along well. Following some random, quite possibly provocative thoughts.

Anyways, the topic went to Puerh – which is neither my area of expertise, nor my tea of preference – but the teas I tasted at this friends place are so far the only Puerh teas that I have ever liked. So we kept discussing how that came to be and of possible reasons for it. Most of what I had at his over the years was well Taiwan aged sheng. For educational purposes he also let me taste semi-sheng-shou.

One probably being that – apart from being an acquired taste I believe – that it is very difficult to even get to good Puerh and also very much intimidating for a newcomer.

No shop will let you break open a wrapper and break up a cake and taste it, you very much have to buy it blindly, high quality PE is too expensive to let people sample and an intact wrapper is demanded by the customers(Asia). On a side note, at the moment no one seriously into Puerh in Taiwan is buying, as the shops only have young Puerh and they customers own teas are usually older and had been a lot cheaper back then. So everyone is finishing their stash instead.

I mentioned how my own perception of the Western market is, that PE is popular, but I do wonder how that can be, given the crazy prices in China and ergo the likely low quality of what is available in the West. Further it escapes me how so many drink Shou, which in my own experience is just plain nasty and nothing else.

My friend mentioned to that, that back in the days when Puerh wasn’t popular, one could get aged Shou of good quality in HK, but that those time have passed, now that PE has become an investment toy for many. Hearsay has it, that Chinese look into investing in Puerh even more as a means of escaping market insecurity at the moment. Prices are going up!

He also mentioned, that compared to Yancha or Dancong for example, which involve a high skill in processing to produce premium teas, PE always has been a low skill kind of tea. Throw it in the sun, dry it, and press it, to put it very simply. So traditionally, before the boom, not a premium tea to begin with. So he argued that vendors rely on old-tree-old-age stories to market their tea as high end.


Food for thought, comments? Lively discussion anyone? :mrgreen: ;)

And please excuse my random listing of trains and bits of thought
Here are some comments and perhaps fuel for lively discussion!

enjoyment of any tea is relative to ones experience. When I first tried loose tea (I think it was TGY from a Chinese friend at work) my mind was blown! Now, this was not tea reserved for the East and it wasn’t hard to find in the west, but as a noob if you told me to wait until I try this tea or that tea, I would’ve said meh (as my daughter so often does :roll: ).

When I first tried Pu’er—one that was easy to source in the west and not too pricey—my mind was ‘almost’ as equally blown. It was not an acquired taste at all, it was that good at first taste (some 2016 Sheng from a shop in NYC). I’ve since went down the rabbit hole and continue to really enjoy Pu’er that is as low as $0.19/g (and I’ve tried $1/g Pu’er).

After years of drinking Sencha, I once ordered some twice as expensive Sencha and really liked it. But I haven’t paid that much for Sencha for years, so with my relative experience and preferences I wouldn’t probably pay for tea that isn’t available in the West. I’m assuming when people from the East say this they’re referring to high demand expensive tea, not a really good mid-value tea (I’m asking for clarity as this point is often made and I always assumed was about high quality high price).

I can’t speak to the market for Pu’er and the bit I’ve read about the bubble. I just want to explore what’s available from western facing vendors as so far I’ve been really pleased with most Pu’er I’ve had.
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Bok
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Mon Sep 02, 2019 7:43 pm

@Noonie interesting perspective, thanks! I have similar experiences when I started to go deeper into the hole, starting from Chinatown super markets to getting more and more into specifics.

One point my friend was making, is that part of the problem today in his opinion was that there is no more good mid-value tea available. What is good is expensive and the rest is not. At least that seems to be the situation in Taiwan. Too much speculation going on at the moment. And a risky one. Because even if the teas are theoretically worth a certain sum, in the end it’s worth nothing if no one buys it.
Noonie
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Mon Sep 02, 2019 8:12 pm

@Bok that is an interesting perspective about high end and mainly low end. Fortunately my palette is satisfied by teas I can afford, and when I’ve paid more for supposedly higher quality teas they didn’t make me dislike my daily teas.

In the end, I continue to be impressed by the complexity of tea...nothing I like more than an endless rabbit hole :lol:
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Bok
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Mon Sep 02, 2019 9:22 pm

Noonie wrote:
Mon Sep 02, 2019 8:12 pm
Fortunately my palette is satisfied by teas I can afford, and when I’ve paid more for supposedly higher quality teas they didn’t make me dislike my daily teas
That is the best position and mind set to be in, anything else will render one unhappy, longing for unrealistic goals.
EarthMonkey
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Mon Sep 02, 2019 10:13 pm

Here's some desultory impressions on the discussion.

Western vendors mostly sell youngish productions. Prolly what you had with the tea pot purveyor was something a shade older. Young and old productions cannot be compared. Many classic productions aren't to be drunk younger than 10yo. What you may have found appealing is the storage from your associate, as Taiwan storage expedites the transformative processes intrinsic to the trademark puerh profile.

Along these lines, I've kinda gotten away from viewing productions as good or bad. I'm more of the school that they are ready or they aren't. There are, of course, some bad ones out there, but most of the time, it's just a matter of time. The only way that I can tell whether a production is good is by tracking it over time. The assertion that all the good puerhs are gone goes contrary to my findings. It's true that the old school Taiwanese are sitting on their stash. Speculation in the mkt has driven up prices but it must be understood that prices were comparatively low given the political contingencies that once changed has simply brought about a price adjustment. These very changes have made productions more widely available in the West, we must remember. Anyway, Taiwanese were making out like bandits and now they're caught competing with a more affluent Mainland consumer base. 15yrs ago puerh had virtually no cachet in Shanghai and Beijing. That's no longer the case. It seems less likely an absolute bubble but a growing consumer base.

There's something to be said for proper brewing. Of course, this is a matter of preference, but I've had young productions that were positively atrocious because they were over brewed.

To date, I haven't had many of the vaunted boutique brands. I don't think I'll be bothering either. I have an analogy. When I lived in Beijing in the early 90s there was a street downtown that you could go to buy many name brand products and silk goods. That street has been converted into a three storey building now with prices that are. . . well in great contrast to what you'd pay in the 90s. I don't want to digress. On the old street, there was a very curious feature offered by some vendors of trousers: pick your label. The pants would have no label but you could draw from a bag labels that said Izod, Levis, Polo and so on. These items were NOT knockoffs. They all came from the same factories with only the labels being the difference. That's my distinct impression with many apostles of boutique seller A or vaunted factory B. Many of the "no name" factories actually supplied material to the big factories back during the days of the monopoly. Many of these smaller outfits have had to sink or swim, consequently looking for hooks to appeal to consumers. A great deal of sticker price is simply reputation. There are many very skilled tea makers whose lineage is from the classic factories who've been commissioned by the outfits that emerged in the oughts. It is difficult to determine upon what basis the claim could be made there isn't any more good puerh.

People with much more experience than I seem quite adamant that cakes should not be purchased without sampling first. It's not uncommon that in cases where cakes are not sampled, that the vendor will provide a sample along with the cake, so you can make a decision about whether to keep or return.

I did find the views on wrappers reflective of a possible misunderstanding of how tea functions within Chinese culture. I personally find the wrapper business an absolute delight, much as I found Chinese stamps, which were creative a beautiful beyond belief, a right and proper plying of artistic talent and creativity. Yeah. I'll buy a production simply based on the wrapper, but usually it fits certain parameters.

Price is a very difficult gauge. A simple Zhongcha production from '12 that sold for 65rmb in '16 has the same production from '16 going for 235rmb or so. The price is simply no reflection of value or age or anything. It used to be the case that you could go to KM and find some very decent deals. No more. Establishments have to pay rent and the fancy brands have fancy rent space. Places like Wing Hop Feng here in LA sold productions that I'd never heard of for astronomical prices. . . I mean in the hundreds of dollars and up. In this light, the Western vendors constitute a nice safe space for the Western consumer where risk can be minimised and a dialog along shared experience can be shared.
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Bok
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Mon Sep 02, 2019 10:32 pm

@EarthMonkey thanks for this long post, puts quite a few of my haphazard ramblings in perspective!
Rui
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Mon Sep 30, 2019 4:31 am

Noonie wrote:
Mon Sep 02, 2019 8:12 pm
In the end, I continue to be impressed by the complexity of tea...nothing I like more than an endless rabbit hole :lol:
My position exactly.

I was introduced to pu'er tea some 7 or 8 years ago in Hong Kong when visiting their Teaware museum in Hong Kong Park which had a small glass cabinet with the 6 main Chinese tea types. Amongst them there was pu'er, oolong and yellow tea. I took to pu'er and my wife went for oolong teas. After the visit we went to a teahouse next door and I sipped for most of the afternoon a glorious ripe pu'er with which I fell in love. So far we still have not tasted any yellow teas (shame on me!).

Because I tend to get kidney stones my consumption of dark coloured teas is somewhat limited. Almost from that point I started finding raw pu'er teas (mostly young or of that same year's production) that I enjoyed mainly through western facing tea dealers club samples. Every time I enjoyed one I would buy a cake or brick. This carried on for three to four years.

Then prices went up to the point that I could no longer afford to buy full cakes of teas I enjoyed but by then the rabbit hole had become quite large and it reached more or less the size of present tea collection (read amassing as it would take two life times to consume it all).

As a result I have only bought two tea cakes this year (10 years plus of age) and that is because we moved to a new country and my tea collection did not with me at the same time).
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phyllsheng
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Thu Oct 10, 2019 8:59 pm

@Bok,
He also mentioned, that compared to Yancha or Dancong for example, which involve a high skill in processing to produce premium teas, PE always has been a low skill kind of tea. Throw it in the sun, dry it, and press it, to put it very simply.
I would venture to guess that the tea ware expert with whom you shared tea and conversations was over-simplifying pu'er. Perhaps not because he isn't well-informed, and rather he chose to scratch the surface in order to avoid the esoteric details of pu'er crafting.

Let's forget about price tags, market bubbles, etc. for a moment (it's a big can of worms, trust me), and let's test the claim that pu'er is "a low skill kind of tea" with this question:

IF pu'er is a "low skill kind of tea" compared to yanchas, dancong's, etc., THEN how come there are bad, so-so, good and great pu'er and oolong teas?
or in other words, why does the same market condition also apply to those "high-skill" teas?

A: because pu'er is far from being a low skill kind of tea.

Producing a great pu'er is not a game of chance. It's a craft that requires deep understanding of many esoteric and historical knowledge base, and it's on a case-by-case basis (i.e. raw material from one area comes with its own unique variables that must be factored into the processing -- it's not a "one size fits all" craftsmanship). That deep understanding by a pu'er master is hard-earned through decades of practice/experience, apprenticeship, learning about historical craftsmanship approaches, considering the present circumstances (nature/weather/land/soil and the modern tools, machines/technologies at his/her disposal that did not exist before, etc.), and future (learned and individual vision on how the final tea should be before processing even began). An error made in the processing chain of steps would be compounded in the chain of steps,...all the way to the final tea.

Having said that, yes...the pu'er market is in a sad state. It is flooded with subpar products that are being paraded as must-haves in your collection. However, this same exact market condition besets those "high-skill" teas, is it not? As an experienced tea drinker, I am certain that you have had your share of the uglies, bad, so-so, good and the greats of oolong teas (price tag being excluded as variable, so as to avoid biting more than we can chew on the subject).
Further it escapes me how so many drink Shou, which in my own experience is just plain nasty and nothing else.
Good! Now that you have had your share of nasty shou pu'er, you will know when someone pours for you a great shou into your cup, as long as your "cup" is not full :)
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Bok
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Thu Oct 10, 2019 9:26 pm

@phyllsheng thanks for sharing your view, I was hoping to provoke discussion like this :)

Funny you mentioned full cups and my statement on Shou. It so happens that just yesterday I had my first shou(tiny gifted mushrooms) that was actually quite pleasant :) not to the point, that I would seek it out and buy it, but I’ll definitely finish it.

In regards to skills I do agree and disagree. My intention was not to say that Puerh making doesn’t involve skills, skills that can become mastery of the subject, far from it. But the kind of skills that you mentioned are the same, or similar needed for making Oolong, just that in addition to that you have more steps, that require even more skills and experience. I think that is what my friend meant to say. He’s an avid Puer drinker, so I don’t think he meant to discredit the tea itself.

I respect any farmer growing things and dealing with hardship and unpredictable nature and low returns for all the work, be it a humble potato, premium peaches, or tea.

Good tea and bad tea exist for any category of tea, same as any thing anywhere really, so the comparison would be between the skill involved to make teas in a similar quality.
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phyllsheng
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Thu Oct 10, 2019 11:33 pm

@Bok

In regards to skills I do agree and disagree. My intention was not to say that Puerh making doesn’t involve skills, skills that can become mastery of the subject, far from it. But the kind of skills that you mentioned are the same, or similar needed for making Oolong, just that in addition to that you have more steps, that require even more skills and experience. I think that is what my friend meant to say. He’s an avid Puer drinker, so I don’t think he meant to discredit the tea itself.
Yes, Prof. Lv knows his tea, including pu'er. And I understood your intent was not to say pu'er doesn't involve skills. It was a necessary evil for me to address the generalized (and vague) statement and get it out of the way, so we can go further in (it was my first comment under this thread, after all).
just that in addition to that you have more steps, that require even more skills and experience.
Is that so -- that more steps means more skills and experience required? We brushed a bit about martial arts taolu/套路 in the CZ thread. In the art and the lineage I belong, there are more than 100 forms. Some taolu have 15 move variatons, some 36, and some...are so long and with so many techniques that I cannot finish without having to catch my breath mid-way through it (at full power). The most difficult taolu -- the heart of all those 100+ forms -- have only 12 move variations. But it takes a lifetime of peeling the onion, so to speak, to master that 12 move variations form. The deeper that taolu is understood (measured in years and decades), the better one gets with the other 100+ forms. So I apologize for using this as an analogy, but the question remains: do more steps / variations mean more skill and experience required? I beg to differ if you say yes.

I know of pu'er masters/makers who lament privately about how labor and knowledge intensive making a good pu'er is. Heck, one of them quit, even though many serious pu'er collectors beg him to not stop and to make pu'er for them. "It's very hard, very tiring, I'm not that young anymore," he said. He's one of those pu'er makers who is very meticulous and controls every detail, from the harvesting of the right raw material all the way to the finish.

I'll close with a question that perhaps you can relate to: what the hell has happened to traditional hongshui oolong making? It is a dying art form! I imagine the same lament made by the old guards who carry the knowledge saying "It's very hard...very tiring to make. People these days like to drink qingxiang style. The younger gen tea makers don't know how to make it properly and they don't care -- can't make much, can't sell much, can't profit much." (is my question about hongshui on point, @Bok?)
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Bok
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Fri Oct 11, 2019 8:58 am

phyllsheng wrote:
Thu Oct 10, 2019 11:33 pm
Is that so -- that more steps means more skills and experience required? We brushed a bit about martial arts taolu/套路 in the CZ thread. In the art and the lineage I belong, there are more than 100 forms.
Side-lining this thread - You are not happening to be practising Hung Sing Choy Lay Fut? 8-)

I am totally with you there, the essence of something, especially in the martial arts can be contained in very little *outwardly only*, it takes mastery to see and understand that. Not only the mind, but more essentially the body has to understand it. Anyways, back to the topic...

Maybe we can rephrase: in order to make premium quality Oolong, a la Yancha you need the same expertise in farming and taking care of the tea trees/bushes, the same skill in harvesting and processing of the leaves to a certain level. But then, the Oolong maker needs additional skills on top of that, like further processing and roasting. So in the sum, we could reasonably say he needs more skills to deliver the same result: a premium tea.

Both could not do the others tea, so each is the master of their own category. Equally skillful tea makers, just one needs to know more to achieve the same result.

phyllsheng wrote:
Thu Oct 10, 2019 11:33 pm
I'll close with a question that perhaps you can relate to: what the hell has happened to traditional hongshui oolong making? It is a dying art form! I imagine the same lament made by the old guards who carry the knowledge saying "It's very hard...very tiring to make. People these days like to drink qingxiang style. The younger gen tea makers don't know how to make it properly and they don't care -- can't make much, can't sell much, can't profit much." (is my question about hongshui on point, Bok?)
Indeed, just talk to Tillermans Laoshi and you get two ears full of complaints about how no one is doing it properly anymore! In the end, sadly, it is the demand of the market, people produce what people want to drink and are willing to pay for. Add rising labour costs and you got trouble for old-fashioned quality tea.
Noonie
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Fri Oct 11, 2019 2:49 pm

Rui wrote:
Mon Sep 30, 2019 4:31 am

Because I tend to get kidney stones my consumption of dark coloured teas is somewhat limited. Almost from that point I started finding raw pu'er teas (mostly young or of that same year's production) that I enjoyed mainly through western facing tea dealers club samples. Every time I enjoyed one I would buy a cake or brick. This carried on for three to four years.
@Rui I wasn't aware that drinking dark coloured teas can lead to kidney stones. Do you know if this is a unique situation in your case, or have you read that this is more common, or received an explanation from a doctor? I'm always interested in tea health information for my personal learning. Thanks!
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