Provocative thoughts on Puerh

Puerh and other heicha
Post Reply
User avatar
Bok
Posts: 1971
Joined: Wed Oct 04, 2017 8:55 am
Location: Taiwan

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
Posts: 16
Joined: Fri May 03, 2019 3:45 pm

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.
User avatar
Bok
Posts: 1971
Joined: Wed Oct 04, 2017 8:55 am
Location: Taiwan

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
Posts: 133
Joined: Tue Dec 12, 2017 12:30 pm
Location: Canada

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.
User avatar
Bok
Posts: 1971
Joined: Wed Oct 04, 2017 8:55 am
Location: Taiwan

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
Posts: 133
Joined: Tue Dec 12, 2017 12:30 pm
Location: Canada

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:
User avatar
Bok
Posts: 1971
Joined: Wed Oct 04, 2017 8:55 am
Location: Taiwan

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
Posts: 3
Joined: Wed May 23, 2018 1:56 pm

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.
User avatar
Bok
Posts: 1971
Joined: Wed Oct 04, 2017 8:55 am
Location: Taiwan

Mon Sep 02, 2019 10:32 pm

@EarthMonkey thanks for this long post, puts quite a few of my haphazard ramblings in perspective!
Post Reply