But you'll understand anyway.
Last Sunday I decided to do a massive historical sheng session. Over the past few months I've collected a number of samples from a single maker. All of the samples came from different people sharing a bit of their collection. I saved up all the samples until, by good fortune, I had a representation spanning a total of 15 years of tea storage. So in one day I was able to sample a 2012, 2011, 2008, 2005, 2003 and a 1990s. I prepared 8 grams for each tea, and used the same gaiwan and tried to keep the steep times similar, with a few minor adjustments in case a few leaves didn't want to open up. In other words, I did everything I could to make comparisons of apples with apples, while making allowances for the individual circumstances to pay attention to each tea. In the end, I found myself with a sad conclusion. One of the teas is a fake. Not only was I faced with the task of deciding whether or not to write about it, the worst part is if I can bear to even discuss the fake tea with the friend who owns it. The writing part isn't so important, it's breaking the bad that bites.
The tea that appears fake to me is the oldest tea in the bunch. So right away you know that the friend in question spent the most money of everyone whose tea I sampled on Sunday. When bad news involves hundreds of dollars, I have to sit back and wonder if I'm really going to tell him. Or if I might say something completely untrue instead. There are different types of lies: lies that spare feelings, lies that preserve dignity. The Black Lies of the criminal. Little white lies, those don't hurt so much. Lately I'm telling the truth as best I can when I write, but so often the honesty I'm trying for causes more problems than simply lying. Sparing feelings seems the best way to go, so I'll just label the teas using a bit of statistical nomenclature. Thus, I have tea samples Xi where i = 1...6.
Next the X2 tea is a loosely compressed (stone compression) "boutique offering" from 2011. It's one of those "drink now" types of teas, boiling water doesn't make it bitter.
X3 is a vendor sample from 2008, passed on to me by another friend. This is an export tuo, dry stored, completely broken up into very small pieces and then bagged.
|Second steep more yellow than the boutique and crock stored samples.|
|My own sample has some honker sticks (border tea tuo).|
|Second steeping and...yum.|
The next tea X5 is a 2003 machine-compressed cake. I received this from a friend who wanted to me to crock-store it, but I haven't had a crock available for it without breaking up the entire cake. So it's been sitting out in a plastic bag with nothing special added for humidity. The tea has had dry storage and is fairly easy to chip off at 12 years of age. Leaves are smaller and more chopped than the other samples.
|Second steeping, machine pressed, choppy.|
Finally I get to my sample of X6 which is the 1990s-era tea. This tea has had traditional Hong Kong style storage, unlike the other samples which are all dry stored.
|Oldest of the samples, 1990s.|
|Second steep. Leaves have that softness of wetter storage.|
When I think about how people feel about their tea choices, I'm reminded of marriages. The tea cake is the spouse. We have honeymoon stages with tea cakes, and then we have the long term relationships with them to look forward to. Marriages turn into battlegrounds with everyone defending their individual turf. Props go to the person who suffers the most, who takes the biggest hit to their integrity while standing beyond reproach. The point of all that pain is trying to find each other desirable again. Desperately wanting to prove to oneself that a mediocre tea is fine, just fine. I want to feel betting the farm was a good decision. This is the scenario we hope for, and I think most of us can live with some uncertainty about a tea purchase over the long haul, because so many factors are involved in the life of a good tea, including a few bad years. You're in deep with the branding and the purported age, and can't see when the tea doesn't hold up to more than a few brews. And when the heavy storage is masking reality. The problem is nobody wants to know they sunk a few hundred into wrappers so shiny that everyone but you sees she's a floozy. And because you care about your buddy, you can't tell him she's bad news.
In case you're wondering, this tea isn't yours. It's someone else's. And I really enjoyed spending a full 7 hours with all these samples. One reason I did this today is because with my health issues I just don't know how much more time I have to drink bitter sheng samples. If I come clean to my doctor the time would be zero. So I'm on my own cliff edge and starting to get some acid reflux from anything but the highest quality sheng I own. A cup or two for tasting is probably just fine, if I limit myself, but I can't completely steep out teas like this anymore. My time has come to wrap up any remaining love affairs and turn my attention to the best tea I can get.
Requiescat in Pace.