; Cwyn's Death By Tea: Normal Puerh People ;

Friday, September 30, 2016

Normal Puerh People

A socially acceptable statement?

Yesterday afternoon I left Milwaukee to return to my home in west central Wisconsin. First I needed to stop in Madison for my annual physical with the doctor I haven’t seen in two years. She is going to stop prescribing my medications unless I show up for labs and a check up, and this is my opportunity to find out how much worse my health is. I also decided to fess up about the amount of tea I drink. My sister thought I looked horrible returning from New York and she banned me from tea for the evening and put me on detox with glycerin suppositories, vitamins, charcoal and magnesium oil spray.

After a whole day with no tea and facing a doctor’s appointment, I made a beeline for Macha Tea Company in Madison. I consumed more than a liter of puerh tea, trying 2009 and 2015 Hai Lang Hao sheng. Oddly I enjoyed the 2015 much more than the 2009 which tasted more like ordinary puerh tea. The 2015 had some notes of cardamom with the florals. The tea house was busy with patrons coming in for matcha and other teas. Conversations about puerh tea, however, repeated a point I had heard more than once in New York: “we need to normalize puerh drinking, mainstream it, and get away from this obsessive stereotypical puerh drinker.” Presumably then more people will start drinking puerh tea.

I’m not sure how I feel about this notion. A bit defensive maybe, because I’m one of the obsessive puerh types, and so are many of the people I chat with. I’m also very fond of my even more obsessive and hoarding friends, and bristle at the idea of a culture that sidelines and defines and separates the oddballs from so-called normals. Watching all the people coming into the tea house for matcha I really wonder if puerh will develop more amongst so-called Normal People. I think puerh people as stereotyped and not “normal” are, nevertheless, “okay.” Whether one is normal and mainstream seems less important in my mind than feeling okay. First of all, what is a normal person drinking puerh tea, aside from the patrons of a dim sum restaurant?

Maybe a normal person will pick up a single cake of puerh tea that he or she doesn’t need to bother storing and drinks it up, and then buys another one. This person likes the tea and maybe drinks it for health, as a change from matcha perhaps. One big downside is that puerh isn’t easy to travel with, forget the cute canister at the office. No one has invented the portable, breathable beeng tin yet. Sheng puerh also doesn’t thermos well, the flavor changes as it sits.

The distinguishing characteristic of the puerh drinker as serious hobbyist is really all about the storage aspect. The fact that the tea is living and breathing and needs care means the puerh owner develops an interest in learning more about fermentation, the microbes involved and how they interact with air and the environment. The real puerh hobbyist is more than just a buyer who reads reviews and decides what teas to buy that will give a nice tea buzz. The puerh person is interested in tasting changes in the tea, not just drinking the tea up but in trying this tea in six months, six years and twenty-six years. The gasp of “ahh” and the wow factor of puerh, the surprises are how the tea continually changes.

The storage and fermentation process of the puerh hobby are endless conversations, and are a big part of social media discussions. This is what differentiates us from other tea drinkers. We spend far more time discussing what happens with the tea we already own.We aren’t merely online tea buyers, consumers of the tea industry whose relationship with tea ends with the purchase and immediate consumption. Puerh is a time-consuming type of tea, a hobby for many. How many hobbies like this can a person undertake? If one has a garden, house upkeep, children, animals, guns, all these things cannot be neglected and neither can puerh tea. Unless of course you are a normal person who buys one cake and drinks it up, never buying another until the one at home is gone. Does the tea industry want this type of buyer more than the one who buys obsessively or collects yearly productions? Is the media more interested in the occasional buyer of the $30 tea cake, or the one who spends thousands of dollars a year, which is serious money? 

In the past couple of weeks I've received messages from worried puerh collectors about how much promotion of puerh I might do while in New York. They fret over tea selling out to people who don't appreciate it and probably won't buy ever again. But I’m not certain that outside of a restaurant or tea house experience how many normal consumers we can expect. I do know that the key to normal consumption lies in convenience and ease. Will someone invent a puerh storage device for people outside of Asia that is simple and convenient, a stylish mini pumidor one shows off to the neighbors and friends, perhaps like a wine cooler? Storing puerh correctly is currently not easy and requires a great deal of attention. Until someone invents storage that makes owning puerh convenient and hip, I think we’re back to oddball hobbyists who are working out creative solutions to home storage. Nobody else will want to bother, doesn’t matter how many puerh events are arranged, how many tea houses offer the tea, or how much press the tea gets.

As for me, I drank my liter at the wonderful tea house and headed off to the doctor’s office where I posted the lowest blood pressure reading in a decade of 110/78. Of course this is achieved with medications too. My doctor focused on my blood pressure, although I’d also filled out the depression survey choosing all the extreme answers and why I want to jump off a bridge most of the time, symptoms she apparently doesn’t find worrying. My big tea confession I obsessed over also failed to get a reaction.

“Who cares? Your blood pressure is down,” she said.

“I still smoke cigars.”

“I don’t want to hear that.”


“I didn’t hear that,” she said.

She thought my New York trip and the Saveur events sounded swell. I have to be careful talking about food-related topics with my doctor, one time she got all worked up over a discussion of cookbooks during an internal exam and let go of the speculum for nearly five minutes.

"I'm from New York. I'd never go back there," she said.

"Why not?"

"Things like nature. Just yesterday we had two cranes in the parking lot, you'll never see that in New York."

"Well, you have mutant pigeons, we don't have those here."

"That poop on my arm. No thanks," she said.

I guess people have their reasons for preferring Wisconsin, things the native born probably can't appreciate. My general living situation otherwise also didn’t concern her, the fact that my agency went belly up and I can't find work, that my car has a dodgy transmission and no brakes right now.  And I didn't get much support when complaining about my son, my troubles applying for food stamps when he makes too much money yet won't spend any on food. 

“Why don’t you write about tea for money? Everyone is drinking tea. I hear about tea all day long."

"It pays in samples, those are expensive."

"What’s it called? How do you spell that tea you’re drinking?”

The big answer to the mainstreaming of puerh is someone needs to change the name, not even a medical doctor can get it unaided. No one agrees on the English spelling anyway. Who wants to tell their friends “I drink pu?” The oddball obsessive types like me, not the ninja crowd at the gym. No one in the locker room will use your shower after a confession like that.

All right, I get it. People are tired of the stereotypes. I will never write about obsessive puerh hoarding ever again. My doctor doesn't care how much tea I drink, and she thinks I'm normal even though I know something is seriously wrong with me and I have to emergency brake my car at stoplights. So I’m gonna go check my crocks now, and when someone changes the name and invents the best storage device ever, I will be first in line to buy it.


  1. Sometimes I dispair. I can't understand why pu / puer / pu-erh isn't mainstream. In part I blame that auto text thingy which won't let me even type it. Also , I can't understand a consumer mentality that wants to consume what you buy within an actual sell-by date. What is wrong with storing stuff for up to 50 years before it is at its best? On the other hand, I sympathise with those who might not want the secrets of pu to be revealed to the masses, whilst they accumulate their lifetime stash.
    Anyway, I am glad you survived NY in what sounds like good health.

    1. Well now, my labs just came back, can't win them all. You make a good point, I recall The Chinese Tea Shop bought cakes from consumers about to throw them out, thinking the tea is old. Getting the idea into the mainstream that the tea is to be kept is yet another matter. Though I suppose it can dry out, or mold in the wrong way, and kitchen storage is a no-no, this might result in tea that really must be thrown.

  2. I can't understand why people want to mainstream pu'er (the pinyin spelling) in the first place. One big consideration is that good pu'er comes from tea plants that are not over-picked unlike other teas which are picked and processed throughout the year. Key components of aging are bitterness and potency, which can only be achieved if the tea plant can grow naturally during the summer and rest during the winter.

    The surge in demand for Xishuangbanna tea in mainland China has lead to heavy use of chemical fertilizers and over-picking by many farmers in the region in order to keep up. These practices have already spread to the more famous parts of Lincang and Simao prefectures. If pu'er were to become mainstream in the West, these unsustainable farming practices would lead to wide spread land degradation and a whole lot more junk pu'er tea than what already exists in the market. Not to mention, the price of good pu'er tea would rise considerably. So, I think it's in our best interest as pu heads to enjoy our niche-y status in the tea world.