|What defines my living space.|
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|
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.|
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.