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I embarked on my tea journey when I studied abroad in China in 2008 and traveled around Taiwan that summer. I'm here to share my experiences and offer my own opinion, advice, and comments on tea.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Great Divergence

*Title stolen from one my favorite books, The Great Divergence by Kenneth Pomeranz.

There are two different "camps" that I've noticed, with very different views on how pu-erh should be collected. There are those who buy young, waiting anxiously for the new releases from the major factories, collecting tongs upon tongs of classic recipes, confident in the fact that their tea will age well. They believe, somewhat naively, that the bitterness/astringency will make for a magnificent tea. For a few reason I will elaborate on below, these type of collectors are relatively new in the field.

Than there are those who are more seasoned in their experience, who urge caution when buying anything from the boom years of 2004-2008. These are the kind of people who "would rather have one 90s cake rather than a tong of a 09 release." They also have "better" means of access to aged pu-erh, either living in Asia, having extensive experience traveling through Asia, knowing someone on the "inside," or just having the money to experiment wildly.

There are probably many reasons why there are these two camps, but I think a lot of it has to do with access to pu-erh. There just isn't really available aged stuff being offered at reasonable prices. Of course, what's reasonably priced for one person might be different for some one else, but regardless, what aged stuff is offered via western-type vendors can be pretty darn expensive. I must note that my definition of a pu-erh's "age" isn't determined by numbers, it's determined by maturity. There may be a good number of pre-2004 cakes on puerhshop, but from what I've seen they're mostly in their first stage of aging. On Hou De and Nada anything "aged" will set you back anywhere from $60 and upwards to a few hundred dollars. Now, $67.5 for a 2002 CNNP 8582 may seem reasonable, but to me it's pretty pricey, especially since I have other teas and tea wares that need to be bought too. Of course, these aged cakes may definitely be worth every penny they cost...but I can't afford it.

So perhaps the average beginner takes a look at a '09 8582 ($8.01) and wonder why the heck anyone would spend $67.5 when you could buy the "same" thing for a little over $8? So they're really not the same thing, but they probably don't know how different they are.

To many people whose only source of pu-erh is these western-catering sites would probably think that anything aged is too expensive for them. But that's really not the case, because older stuff can be found more readily in Asia, which may be why most of those in Camp B don't feel the need to buy new, because the older stuff can be bought so easily. I go on Tao Bao and I can find a pretty darn good '02 Mengku Jing Pin for 300 RMB ($44), which is a fraction of the cost of similarly aged cakes on Hou De. I can even find 90s cakes for around $60, which is a joke compared to how much is charged for a 98/99 cake. Of course, it's not fair to compare a landmark cake to a no-name cake, but still, why would I drop $500 for BGT when I can pick up tongs of 90s cakes for the same price?

So this great divergence isn't one between two conflicting camps of collectors, but it's a divergence in the availability of pu-erh here in the West. You have a choice of either really inexpensive new cakes* or super-hyped and super-expensive older cakes. There's no middle ground when it comes to all this. I often wonder why a vendor isn't selling reasonably priced older cakes. The closest examples I can think of are Nada's 90s tuo and late 90s Grand Yellow Label. I would like to see more reasonably priced older stuff, even if it's early 00s stuff, which is pretty much the oldest I can afford. So I leave my readers with the following "task": to point out any reasonably priced "aged" pu-erh which can be found from a western-catering vendor.

*I am omitting the third type: the super-expensive and new cakes


Brett said...

During the last five years since I was first bit by the puer bug, I was definitely in the first camp. But now I have collected around 60 cakes of various 2005 to 2009 sheng cha and the fact of the matter is I rarely ever feel like drinking any of these young cakes... so I clearly have collected enough tea already!

About a year ago, I reached a saturation point and I learned an important personal lesson.

I feel that with puer tea I am reaching a rewarding "balancing point." I have stopped buying new cakes but I do share and swap what I have with friends and they sometimes share some primo tea with me too! This helps me to save up my money to treat myself to small bits of stuff I'm excited to drink now.

kudos on another thoughtful post!

RTea said...

when you come across a relatively young sheng cake, what are some of the things you look for in the aroma/taste/appearance that would signal to you that the cake has potential for aging and/or is a "good" cake?

It's a shame that we in the west have such limited access to good, aged teas at affordable prices.

Maitre_Tea said...

I don't have enough experience, so what I believe is from people whose advice they trust. I like complex teas, both in flavor and mouth feel. I don't think something boring and flat has the potential to become great.

I've read that taste may not be important, because that's subject to change with age, and that the biggest thing to look for is good mouth feel. There are other things to look for, like minimal pre-oxidation/tweaking, wild-arbor leaves, etc. but I'm still not convinced on some of these points.

It's a shame that aged tea of any kind is expensive, but of course aged tea is rarer. Even if it's not as famous or not perfectly stored I would like to see more affordable options out there.

RTea said...

I think pu'er is quite fascinating since I have no idea what to expect from it over time, unlike with oolongs (perhaps this has more to do with my inexperience than with the tea itself). I tasted a wildly astringent and harsh sheng brick that a tea friend of mine said I would absolutely love once it was broken apart and aged for a few months in a clay jar. I did just that and it has become my favorite sheng pu'er. I taste randomly from my collection now and then and am astonished by the changes to the tea over time; it's quite fun actually.

What are you drinking most now?

Maitre_Tea said...

I think that pu-erh is on my mind pretty often, but surprisingly I'm not drinking it so much anymore. Not that I hate young sheng, but it's just that a lot of the young stuff out there is garbage.

I've been re-visiting some Dan Cong, which is a category of tea that often slips my mind when I'm thinking of stuff to drink.

Zero the Hero said...

Well, since I mostly fit into the second camp, I may as well weigh in. I think the main issue here, as you've mentioned in the comments, is that aged tea is just expensive. Unfortunately, that's just how it is, so the price tag of any tea that's 15 years old is going to seem absurd compared to the cake's original price.

Also unfortunately, in most ways there isn't really such thing as a reasonably-priced older pu-erh cake--the market is very active and there are plenty of consumers looking for that exact thing. Unless you really know somebody (like a wholesaler or just a good tea-collecting friend), the (mostly Asian) pu-erh collectors have created the present worth of pu-erh because they're willing to pay the prices.

It's shitty for those of us who are interested in getting into it, since the baseline price level is higher than most teas. Really, though, it's not much different from high quality oolong--buy a little bit of the expensive stuff and savor the hell out of it when you drink it, and find some cheaper stuff to drink daily.

So what's everyday aged pu-erh? It's true that it's kind of an oxymoron. This might not be what anyone wants to hear, but cooked pu-erh was invented to fill this exact niche. Sure, it's not the same as aged sheng, but it's a hell of a lot closer and more drinkable than young sheng is to mature sheng. Tasty shu can be had for very reasonable prices. As for mid-aged sheng, your Nada examples are good, as are his loose pu-erhs. I don't really consider Hou De much of an option for anything more than a sample--if you think Nada's 80's Xiaguan 250g Tuo is an expensive pu-erh, check out the price of the same tea (a bit less mature IMO) on Hou De. There's one more option I tried recently that I'm going to post about soon. Sorry about the suspense, I just seem to keep writing things in comment sections when I should be doing it as a full post.

One thing that's helped me with affording some aged pu-erh has been easing off of the teaware purchases. We all have our own needs and budgets, but slapping myself on the wrist about teaware has made somewhat expensive but ultimately worthwhile pu-erh purchases not that big of a hit. If pressed, I'd rather have great tea to drink out of a crap gaiwan than a Qing zhuni and nothing to drink but English Breakfast...

Maitre_Tea said...

hey, I like to think that I fall into the second camp too, but I try to be critical of it somewhat just be "mix it up."

I guess most of my complaints is how there's no middle ground in terms of prices. I have a goal of finding different adolescent sheng from the early 00s for less than $70 or so, which seems to be a bit of a pipe dream.

Whatever you're going to post about, post it before it's sold out because if it's going to be a good deal than I'm going to snatch it up!

And in my book, so far, tea ware beats pu-erh any day of the week, at least for now

Zero the Hero said...

Hey, don't get TOO excited. Don't worry, nothing's going to sell out too fast. I'll try and get something up sometime tomorrow.

RTea said...

"And in my book, so far, tea ware beats pu-erh any day of the week"

Agreed - I would excitedly spend hundreds for an antique gaiwan and hesitantly spend more than a fraction of that on pu'er.

Interesting thing is that the definition of age differs quite a bit. Many old masters that I've met in HK and Taiwan don't consider a 30 year old sheng cake to be old at all, nor do they consider my older oolongs - even from the 70s, to be perfectly "ripe." I got a 90s cake from Arts de Chine for a reasonable price and he said that the tea was still pretty young. Young, to me, is probably more like 2005 than 1991, but when one is used to drinking teas from the 50s to 70s, a 20 year old one isn't really all that old. Lucky guy. When one factors in the quality and age of a famous old tea like the 50s red label, paying $150 for a pot (at Wistaria, for example) may be worth it to taste a piece of history that we may not be able to recreate in our lifetimes.

Maitre_Tea said...


Granted, my perception what is old and what is young is colored by my limitations in both experience and ability to purchase older stuff. But in an ideal world where I could afford older pu-erh "aged" means something over 20 years of age.

BTW, what kind of tea/tea ware does Daniel "specialize" in? I've been intrigued by your visits there.

RTea said...

Yah, 20 year old pu'er in the US is expensive enough; a good 30+ year cake/brick would be pricey indeed.

Daniel is cool, he has an eclectic shop with a wide range of teas and stuff. If you signal to him that you know tea, though, he will stop brewing jasmine tea and tell you about some of the "behind the counter" stuff he has. He has a very good Da Hong Pao for the age and price; deep, rich and smoky. He has a lot of different pu'ers from the 90s and 00s; his stock changes a lot depending on what he can get. He knows a lot about pots and his best are kept at home. He seriously knows more about tea pots, materials, etc than any other tea person I've met. His prices are also exceedingly good. I usually buy porcelain from him, though, since I prefer to brew in a gaiwan most days. I got some early 1900s celadon cups from him for cheaper than it was being sold for in Taiwan. Honest, knowledgeable and friendly; a good person to share a cup of priceless tea with (like the blue label we had together). Unfortunately, still no website, but I think he's close to finishing it!