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Monday, October 10, 2016

Us Puerh Collectors, Why We are Different

What defines my living space.
Over the past week I spent some time reading about collecting in general, hoping for some common ground between myself and the rest of collecting humanity. Aside from a few snippets of observed behavior, I must conclude that I am, in fact, different from other collecting people. And I’ve known this all along these past seven years since I started buying puerh. Living with my tea taught me why.

In a general sense, collectors as a whole spend time acquiring and preserving a collection of items. Collecting is a distinct activity from hoarding, which a survival type of activity viewed negatively in the mainstream collecting. As opposed to hoarding, the collector goes after specific items with a set of criteria which define the collector’s taste and discerning eye. Or in our case, discerning mouth feel, and body feel. All this is where commonality with other collectors starts and stops because puerh drinkers and collectors have one aspect of the hobby to deal with that no one else has, which is the development and aging of a raw, unfinished product.

We collectors share in the act of drinking our collection with other beverage collectors. We can discuss nuances in flavor. In our situation, the body effect is a factor in judging the aesthetic qualities of the tea. Other beverage people do not discuss body feel because a true taster in wine or whiskey will spit to remove the euphoric effect of the alcohol when judging the merits of the beverage. I can set aside body effect as merely an aspect of a tea, but not necessarily the most important single trait to seek out. But I cannot set aside the Art and Science of Fermentation. Unlike every other collector, Puerh Tea Collectors have a maintenance requirement that goes beyond mere preservation. We are collecting a raw, unfinished product in the case of sheng puerh which is not in its ideal finished form when we acquire it. Even shou puerh is not technically finished. More than this, we are collecting a living product. Puerh Tea is alive.

Like the whiskey or wine drinker, we can, in theory, acquire a finished puerh tea product at thirty years old and then preserve it in a similar manner as a bottle of thirty-year old whiskey. I say “in theory” because no real market exists in which people can buy thirty-year old puerh unless you get lucky at Sotheby’s or Asian tea auction and have thousands of dollars to spend. Even if you can afford to buy at this level, we simply have no more highly aged tea left to buy that is not already in the hands of collectors. The vast majority of puerh collectors are buying a younger, raw product that needs development, and so our activity as collectors after buying is that of fermenting a living product.

A thirty-year journey
This “living product” is why I got a bit upset at the Wine Sommelier declaring a fine raw puerh tea as Soapy Artichoke Water. A crucial bit of information is missing here, that the tea is not finished, the tea is not yet what it is meant to be. The wine or whiskey collector tastes a finished product, not the mash. Wine makers taste the grapes and the mash, but the Sommelier probably doesn’t. Yet we drink our “mash” in the form of the raw product, and while we might enjoy the raw product in its new and unfinished state, we are also drinking for the future, what the tea will become. We are drinking to test the progress of our collection, and to judge our care in the meantime.

The mere buyer of puerh tea can acquire tea at any age, and keep it in the bag or wrapper and store it in whatever manner they wish, but the tea has a high probability of failure to turn into greatness. The serious collector, however, provides conditions for the tea for its optimal development. The art and science of fermentation and storage of puerh tea is a difficult task, reducing the likelihood of failure only by degrees unknown even today. We hope to reduce failure in our task of storing and fermenting, but we face the prospect of failure every day in the form of unwanted mold or dryness which kills the living tea over time.

What other form of food or beverage collecting has a thirty-year time span? What other beverage has such stringent requirements for storage with such high prospects for mediocrity or failure? Most beverages are finished when people buy them. Wine bottles that shatter in the cellar or whiskies that develop sludge are not the fault of the collector, necessarily. Virtually all of the work going into wine or whiskey is done by professionals before the buyer acquires them. Likewise, foods like aged cheese get their aging work done by professionals before the cheese is ever put up for sale. Puerh success or failure, on the other hand, is entirely due to the amateur collector today and what that amateur collector does with the tea.

We don’t have aged wood barrels to help us, we have nothing whatsoever provided to us except the raw material to guarantee our success. So we must know just what we taste in this raw material we are given, and in this tasting the Wine Sommelier failed. I myself tasted what she did, and it is a great raw leaf. Will it turn into the best aged puerh? If so, then we know an amateur succeeded because right now 100% of the exact tea she and I tasted is in the hands of amateurs.

I’m tempted to throw out all comparisons to collectors of beverages and food and compare puerh tea with champion horse rearing. Horse buyers assess young stallions or mares for their potential, and know the work involved in turning that young horse into a champion. But unlike puerh tea, horse buyers then turn over the development to a professional, and that professional finishes their work in a few short years. In the thirty-year time span needed for puerh tea, the horse trainer has eight generations done and gone.

Is it done yet? Probably not.
All of this is what makes puerh tea difficult to mainstream. Sure, anyone can buy a puerh tea and drink it at any time. The tea is both good and bad every single day until thirty years pass. How many people buying puerh tea will actually reach that end date? And when that end date arrives, many teas may not be worth drinking. I feel a little sorry for the Wine Sommelier because she will not get the opportunity to taste old tea, as I have, unless she manages to find a collector with such a tea willing to share. I hope she seeks out puerh greatness, because without any experience I fear she will miss out, not understanding what she is drinking. She will not get why I dried steeped fifty year old leaves and reused them over and over because they are just so damn good.

Puerh tea collectors are different from every other collector because we have Mold and Bacteria for friends. We commit to decades of time pondering storage and fermentation. We have a living collection that must develop and ferment over half a human lifetime. We can discuss tea culture and history, language, semiotics or collecting as luxury at any point. But at the end of the day, all this is nothing against the reality of success or failure of puerh tea fermentation and storage. As for me, I will die before I ever fully appreciate what’s mine. That’s what makes me different.



5 comments:

  1. Success and failure and such a fine line to dance about with. Takes a while to learn the basics and the rest of your life trying to perfect it. Good write my friend!
    M

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  2. The only other relatively 'in common' collector I can think of is that of wild/sour beer. This type of beer is fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria versus traditional beer yeast strains. It's true the beer is released technically finished after anywhere between a few months to a few years of fermentation and souring, but these beers can develop for years (25+) if stored correctly. Most are duds (American types) which to this date have only existed since it became popular here in the states within this last decade. These tend drop off after a few years but there are exceptions of course. The best candidates for long term aging are those from Belgium that are inoculated with these wild yeasts and bacterias "naturally" via open windows during cooling after boil. The wort is cooled overnight in big, flat containers letting the wild microflora from outside settle in and do its work. As long as there is residual sugar these yeasts and bacterias can continue to change the beer for many more years in the bottle if stored at an adequate temp, going dormant from time to time and picking up later down the time-line.

    Lots of care must be taken when aging these bottles watching out for dried out corks, keeping light away as its a killer, and letting temps fluctuate but not drastically. These beers can be sublime if aged correctly. Not at all like their puckery, young siblings. Although like puerh, some young ones are splendid out of the gate.

    I've been a pu-convert for a few years now and it is hands down my favorite beverage. I obsess about it morning, day, and night. I also fear an increase in popularity of our cherished tea, as I've seen what it's done to beer collectors, and most importantly the price of some of these beers. I would hate to be on my toes every spring to get a few cakes in my cart before they all sold out within minutes. That's how the good beer is nowadays, and I've spent many hours myself watching vendor sites to catch a "white whale" before it disappears within 10's of seconds. I'm over that, and shengpu has spread open its loving arms and embraced my tired and weary collectors soul.

    What a fine blog, may it stay humble and intriguing as it is now for many years to come, hopefully till those cakes mature into even more story-telling worthiness!

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    Replies
    1. Interesting about the beer. I would feel a bit at the mercy of the bottle and cork. I remember my dad's home made root beer that turned into actual beer first, and then into exploding glass bombs. At least with tea I don't have to worry about my cats.

      You aren't the first person who has expressed worry to me about puerh becoming more popular. Right now I think the rigors of storage will keep all but the few casual at best.

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    2. Beyond the issues of storage, equipment and time are quite prohibitive when it comes to something like puerh becoming popular here in the states. I just don't see a big money business person or a blue collar 60 hour a work week with 4 kids person taking the time to sit down for a 1-2 hour a day gongfu session, at least not on a broad scale, obviously there are some exceptions. It just so much easier to open a bottle of wine or scotch, pour a glass and enjoy. That's not even counting in having to wait for water to boil, we have little patients in this country, rush rush rush! There are other hurdles as well but I think time is really the biggest challenge facing wide spread puerh popularity.

      On how I feel about it becoming popular: prices would skyrocket (more than they have) but people that got in early and amassed a big collection could be sitting on a gold mine. There would be no shortage of big money collectors willing to shell out piles of cash just to get lbz or yiwu, kind of like what happened over the last 10 to 20 years in China

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    3. Hence all the office brewing we see going on. ;)

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