Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What Is Great Tea Part I - Borrowed Answers

Every morning for the past few months,  as soon as my eyes open,  I whip out a tablet I've stashed  under my pillow and start catching up on what's gone on in the tea blogosphere while I've been asleep.  This morning my husband said to me, "Wow, did somebody buy a tea on-line, drink it and have an opinion?"  I giggled in agreement but I should have said breathlessly, "The sheng leader has been captured and is being held ransom by the Shanghai Triad!"

Every pu-erh drinker nourishes different motivations in pursuing this elusive tea.  Many of us are trying to build up collections and age sheng ourselves.  For me, my obsessiveness hinges on answering one of the most fundamental questions- "What is Great Tea?"  I know what pretty good tea is and how to get it. But a profoundly great tea, it eludes me still. 

My friend recently gifted me a copy of Robert Parker Jr.' s guide to wine.  For those who have never heard of Parker Jr., he is the most powerful wine critic in the known universe.  His controversial Parker Points system exerts such direct influence on market demand and hence the price of a wine that the circulated story is that two chateau owners have offered him the sexual favors of their daughters. (I think our own Hobbes- though he is a market mover of sorts- is not quite there yet. )

Independent consumer-oriented review of wine which has much in common with tea is also another endless topic  meriting it's own post.  To cut to the chase,  his sections on "What is Great Wine" provides a reasonable starting point for me to think about great tea as both ancient beverages share much in common.  I've cherry picked from his answers for our discussion.

 1. Pleases both the palate and the intellect

Pu-erh is a tea best appreciated with the entire body.  There are differing opinions on the role of taste in aged sheng.  Some people treat pu-erh as a qi conveyance vehicle.  However we are creatures not immune to pleasure.  We cannot deny that the fragrance, mouthfeel and flavor profile of a pu-erh impacts our regard for a particular tea.  

I've been drinking tea for decades and there is no other category of tea that puzzles my walnut so- much of it fueled by the lack of conclusive satisfying information.  I've written 50 essays in the last three months and I cannot imagine writing with such intensity about any other tea or food category. Even mildly good pu-erh stimulates my brain cells, triggers memories, reveries, and various fanciful flights of the imagination.  Even bad pu-erh gives pleasure to my brain cells. I think my "intellect" is too easily pleased so I cannot comment further.
2. Ability to improve with age
This would exclude almost all teas except pu-erh and certain kinds of oolong.  Can anyone here counter the oft repeated truism that a young tea cannot compete in complexity and depth with a great aged tea?

3. Ability to provide a singular personality
Banzhangs and Yiwus would not be so sought after without their recognizable individuality.

I think vintage years tend to matter less in pu-erh unless there were extenuating circumstances, i.e. a certain factory was having liquidity problems and had to buy lesser grade maocha.

4. Ability to hold your attention
While there are terrible teas which force your attention, I think this attribute must go in tandem with the above points.  But even moderately good pu-erh has a multi-dimensionality that can hold your full attention especially if you are going to blog about it.

Hmmm. It's clear that Robert Parker Jr. has not the full answer for tea nor wine I suspect although it was a decent starting point.

The picture on the left is what I consider one of the greatest treasures of humankind.  Hewn entirely out of solid rock, I drooled continuously when I laid my eyes on this wondrous edifice.  If I had to travel only once in my entire lifetime, it would be to Jordan.  But of course I am greedy so I traveled to Jordan via the Israel border twice in 2009, once alone after a business trip and then a second time with my dear husband.  I probably have the wrong impression that great tea should be so gobsmackingly astonishing that I cannot miss it.


  1. Robert Parker is closer to Martha Stewart than to Hobbes. His palate is attuned to some kind of (dare I say) middle-upper class American average. When he gives a great mark, you pretty much know what to expect, so it is reliable that way, but not "intellectually stimulating". Too many great producers have dumbed down to get good reviews from him unfortunately. Sorry if off-topic.

  2. Dear Hektor,

    Since middle-upper class Americans don't drink sheng en mass, we don't know if Hobbes personal tastes could dictate their drinking as well.

    Parkerization of world wine is an issue which I don't yet hold an opinion since I barely drink wine. However, I still think Parker did much to change the role of the wine critic away from industry shill towards more of a consumer advocate.


  3. This is one key way we understand how immature the puerh market is in East Asia. Non-shills, non-vendor-blogs, but consumer advocates are populated only in discussion forums. Not easily searchable, no comment thread devoted to what the advocate sez, and not always a firm history of what that person likes and dislikes so as be useful in understanding what the talked about tea will do for you. When it comes down to it, ulumochi is the only worthwhile blogger over there who talks about tea in any detail/critical eye, and his tastes don't really map onto our tastes vis a vis what we have access to in the West.

    So, in a sense, if it was Easterners reading Hobbes' blog and deciding to buy out Cloud's stock, I wouldn't really be that surprised. The Half-Dipper has notes on a much wider selection/types of tea than anyone else I've ever heard of, East or West. Of course, he is a younger drinker, and I would not always trust reviews older than about 2009. Actually, almost the same with MarshalN. The obvious are obvious, but the tea in between required discernment that takes a couple of years of intense drinking to aquire. Just look at my own yapping in 2010. Definitely did not know what I was talking about well, and still don't, but better now...

  4. Puerh is different from wine because prices are getting crazy very fast. So there is this urge to find quickly some good material, build up your collection before it's too late !! So, all the sources at hand are good in order to find good deals it seems. If one says that this is good stuff, someone less qualified might be eager to try and why not buy a few cakes... Also, it is a market : if I buy all the Cloud's cakes, keep them for a while in good conditions, there is a good chance that it will be profitable in a few years... Demand does not reflect quality. I have read somewhere that Cloud was himself buying stocks of puerh, giving good reviews to increase the prices, then resell his stock. I don't know if it is true but this things must happen for sure, and so one must be careful with what is written on the net... Of course, I am sure Hobbes does not fall into this category. His words are genuinely passion motivated for sure.

    As for wine critics, M. Parker hurts the wine world in ways that are not known to the common consumer. His idea of what good wine is, and the demand that it generates, destroys traditional know-how. One would say that it is not his fault, but there are strange stories about the way he gives his marks...