Saturday, May 19, 2012

Reflections at the 7 Year Mark After a 5 Year Hiatus

At the end of 2005, I was bitten with a pu-erh mania(only in a small way compared to others) and for the following two years I spent a great part of my free time obsessing over sheng pu-erh. The fascination for me was the complexity and range of flavors one could find in the endless brewings of young sheng.  I was hooked by the different physiological effects sheng had on my mental state and I was really chasing beengs that would bring me the greatest mental clarity.  

But then sadly after two years, drinking sheng took a toll on my system and my stomach could no longer take the strength of sheng.  I was relegated to the ho-hum world of cooked puerh.  It's hard to get off on tasting just shu so I took a hiatus from the mysterious world of pu-erh and woefully drunk a little shu from time to time.

My sheng collection of about 60 cakes has been quietly resting in my tea closet for the last 7 years.  I have been using my ipad recently to organize and manage the state of my collection.  But in sampling my oldest cakes  after five years of hiatus, I now wonder if  I should give up home aging altogether. My 2002/2003 cakes still brew light with noticeable astringency- my stomach still complains that even my decade old cakes are nowhere near ready to be enjoyed.   Too cold, not humid enough with relative humidity fluctuating between 40 to 60%,  the Bay Area is "extra-dry" storage. I fear that the dryness could actually be damaging the cakes. But the thought of giving up makes me too sad so I vow to give it another decade or two.

When I was building up my collection 6 years ago, I really knew nothing about pu-erh and I still know very little about it despite having spent thousands of hours drinking, reading, shopping for pu-erh.  Now after my hiatus,  I write the following reflections to guide my second phase of pu-erh appreciation and you can see I'm still confused and any clarification would be greatly appreciated.

Enjoying the Tea
 It's not uncommon that pu-erh tea drinkers spend more time in ancillary activities surrounding pu-erh (internet research, buying, micromanaging stash, staging and photographing brew sessions, blogging) than actually drinking the stuff.  Pu-erh provides the pure sensual pleasures of the brew as well as an endless complexity for the mind but I wish I had spent more time simply enjoying the tea rather than over-analyzing every brew. I agree there is pleasure in the analysis but there is definitely more room for pleasure without over-thinking.

Depth vs Breadth
During the phase I was building up my collection, very few vendors were offering samples so I had no choice but to buy whole beengs and hope for the best.  I never invested in tongs because trying different teas to expand my palate was more important to me than investing in something I already knew I liked. Also who knew how the flavors of a cake would change over time.   Even though the specific types which intrigued me most were Nannuo and DeHong purple leaf, I still kept buying different mountains,  different factories constantly looking for something I would enjoy more.

Because many experts had stated that strong teas age best,  I went for a few Banzhang beengs although I question if some of them really are pure Lao Banzhang.   Hai Lang Hao definitely must be pure Banzhang as it lives up to the "rocket fuel" designation where as the Douji Banzhang feels too muted to be a Banzhang. No one really knows how single mountain cakes will age since most cakes in the 20th century were blended.  Perhaps diversification might prove to be the best strategy in the end because no one really knows what will age best. I'll just have to get back to you in another 10-20 years.   Maybe most of my cakes will be totally weak-assed.  But really, even if a few cakes out of 60 end up being winners, I'll be happy. And if most of my cakes age into something flat and very boring, I will just stick a few young sheng leaves to liven things up.  It's good to have low expectations so you may be pleasantly surprised.

The one aspect I love about pu-erh is that these cakes are slowly aging with me and we've already gone through some tough years together. It's not only that your sheng will age in ways you can't predict but your own palate may change as well. You do not know that you might not like the mushroomy earthy flavor twenty years from now or you might find camphor notes unpalatable.  But then again, you may start enjoying those flavors in another decade of your life.  I think these cakes have better potential than that wooly sweater in the closet you never wear but may come back into fashion some day.

I really really should have preferred stone compressed over hydraulic. I had read that iron cakes age better and so I bought mostly iron cakes but this advice may be for wetter regions like Hong Kong.  Since I live in a non-humid climate of the Bay Area, looser compression definitely was the way to go. My stone cakes(from Douji, Changtai, Fo Cha Ji) appear to have aged somewhat faster than my iron cakes. The second reason to prefer stone compression is much more practical- sampling from iron cakes is just too painful and broken leaves unavoidable.  But most importantly, stone compressed cakes tend to be made by smaller outfits and this preference alone would have helped me avoid mediocre cakes from the giant factories. I have no shortage of of Haiwan, Xiaguan, 6 FTM cakes I'd rather not have bought but big factory cakes were what was most available to me at the early stages of my collecting. Really I resisted buying a Haiwan Lao Tong Zhi for a very long time but the more I saw them everywhere the more I felt obligated to have one just for reference.

Ancient Tree vs. Wild Tree vs. Plantation
Universal wisdom is that non-plantation leaves taste more complex and age better so I did try to find cakes which were purported to be Wild Arbor, gushu, or qiaomu.  Even advice this simple leaves me at a loss because I've also read in the First Step to Puerh that the cakes from the Communist times(Hong Yin and Lan Yin) are purported to be only plantation leaves.

I have no way of knowing what percentage of a cake labeled "Wild Arbor" really is "old" and then there is the quality of the old tree leaves to contend with.   Do big factories such as XiaGuan, Haiwan, and 6FTM which have premium cakes labeled Old Tree use a lesser grade old tree than smaller productions even if the price is same or higher?  Are inferior old tree leaves still to be preferred over top quality plantation? Will pure wild tree really age better than a blend? Answers! Answers! My noodle is still all bent out of shape because I can't seem to grasp onto any truth in this endlessly fascinating topic.

Avoiding Western Middlemen
There is one aspect of pu-erh collecting that I am 100% certain of and that is to avoid paying unnecessary middlemen.  One can pay a very serious premium for buying pu-erh from a Western vendor. I think the hefty premium is warranted if they have a teashop that let's you sample before purchasing a $50+ cake.  My biggest purchase regrets come from buying from U.S. vendors over the internet for really over-priced uninteresting pu-erh but this was before I knew you could even buy direct from China.  My "tuition" was under $300 but I get a little grumpy whenever I see my overpriced tribute melon or my infamous cigarette beeng- sometimes I feel like it's better I just give my mistakes away altogether to get rid of this bad karma.  The said melon is from 2004,  maybe it's now at the correct price. Nah, even now this little melon is way way overpriced and smells like a cigarette- the vendors had such a lovely helpful website...

Sharing and Community
The one aspect I loved about pu-erh was the fantastic virtual community of tea drinkers.  In 2007, bearsbearsbears brilliantly hosted a LiveJournal mail-in tea tasting to which I was lucky to be part of.  I wonder if all the original members are still actively pursuing pu-erh,  I know some of them stopped blogging because life happens and it really takes fortitude, dedication, and free time to be blogging about tea.  I still have an unopened stash of the Mandarin's vacuum sealed tea which I purposefully did not open because I was curious about the effects of aging under a completely sealed environment.  I still have enough of the samples left so perhaps I can get the old gang together to do an aging comparison!


  1. Thanks for this post. My young sheng experience is very similar. I dove in with ardor and, in my case, recklessness. Started amassing beengs on the shelves for aging and tasting. I drank so much young tea, my body started to protest. I've had to take a sheng hiatus and in the meantime have realized that Montana may be about as bad a place to age puerh as it gets. The more wimpy teas have faded on my shelves. The potent stuff is still kicking, but it hasn't changed much. I think I'm done trying to store and age tea here. It's "buy for immediate drinking." But what to do with all of this tea I've amassed? I've started to give some of it away to friends. One can always buy tea that has been aged in ideal conditions, but you pay for it. I'm left with drinking my way slowly through what I've accumulated, as my body can handle it. I feel like a case in point for: "take it slowly." With samples, one can now do so.

  2. Dear Israel,

    There is at least two of us in this no sheng island then. Just out of sheer curiosity- how big is your collection? Perhaps someone on the boards is willing to trade your cakes for older samples or shu? Are you interested in drinking shu at all? I myself am racking my brains to think of creative ways to reduce my sheng collection in favor of older cakes or interesting shu. I don't want to pawn anything on ebay and I think I'd really rather trade it. I'm too shy to carry this plan through but I thought of approaching local tea vendors and see if they are willing to give me store credit for some of my beengs.


    1. If you want aged shu, I can find you some in HK and trade you - depends on what sheng you want to part with, of course :)

    2. Don't part with anything you don't want to part with. I'll be happy to send you aged shu or other aged things in return. Send me a line at mail (at sign here) marshaln (dot) com

  3. I'm not sure what I've got on the shelves these days. My guess is somewhere around 55 pieces, just shy of your collection. That's after having given away a number of beengs to tea pals. At least I don't have a room full of the stuff. I pretty much stopped buying whole cakes a couple of years ago-with the exception of a couple of cakes from Essence of Tea that I could not get samples of. I still drink young sheng, I've just had to scale back drastically. From every day to once or twice a month at most. I'm not a big fan of shu pu, unfortunately. I don't mind it, but I find most of it a bit dull. Something to drink "grandpa style" on the road with a thermos of lukewarm gas station water. (Maybe that's the problem?) Always willing to trade, exchange samples, etc. The only thing I know is that aging is not an option here and, therefore, collecting is out of the question.

    1. Israel,

      So I've been racking my brains on how to beat this low humidity conundrum then I ran across hojotea's minority view on pu-erh storage.

      I've included the juicy bit here which is ringing bells in my head:

      "We however think that pu-erh must be kept without oxygen. Therefore our tea is packed without oxygen even if we need to spend extra effort in packing. First of all, the primary reason why pu-erh tea is compressed is to ensure that there is no oxygen inside the tea leaves. Those ancient people in Yunnan has known that in order to get tea matured nicely, it is essential to remove oxygen. Similarly, Taiwan oolong is sometimes kept without oxygen. With this method, the original floral flavor of the high mountain oolong becomes a distinctive peachy flavor after being kept for 3-5 years. For pu-erh tea, the same theory is also feasible."

      Following hojotea's argument, storing shengs in airtight packaging with sufficient moisture should solve the lack of ambient humidity no? I must investigate this further.

      I'll try to write another post tonight...

  4. Dear Hster,

    Aaron Fisher, of global tea hut fame, has storage facilities where anyone can store their tea free of charge, for any amount of time, in MiaoLi, Taiwan. I can vouch that he is more than trust able.

    If you would prefer your tea closer to home, the Tea Institute coudl also store your tea; it wouldn't be as authentic as Taiwan ageing, but we have humidity and temperature controlled closests for sheng and shu.

    I suspect with 'extra-dry storage' the microbial colonies in your cakes are dormant or dead... the best thing to do would be to age them with other pu'er in a better environment that has living colonies.

    Hope this helps,
    and very happy to see that you have restarted the blog!

    All the Best,
    Jason M. Cohen

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    After read your homepage, I happily found that you are selling some Yunnan Teas .Do you often come to Yunnan ?

    We LongRun Tea Group are a manufacturer with RA, IMO, ISO,HACCP, GAP, QS certificate, our main products cover Pu’er Tea, CTC black tea, Congou Black Tea, Instant Tea, Tea Extracts, Tea Foods.

    We now have 700+ worldwide LongRun Tea franchises and are developing the overseas market and are seeking for good potential partner in a long run.

    Hope to find a way to work with you. Waiting for your contact to discuss the possible deal. Thanks.