; Cwyn's Death By Tea: You Deserve to Drink Better Puerh ;

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Thursday, March 4, 2021

You Deserve to Drink Better Puerh

72 Hours from white2tea
an excellent puerh if you picked it up

The whole endeavor of drinking puerh tea and building a collection is really about my best teas. My truly excellent teas define my collection, not the average drinkers or worse garbage I really need to toss out. I want to focus my collection on the best teas, because this is worth the time and money. In this blog post I am going to address the idea of fine drinking, because Chinese teas, let's face it, are the best in the world at reaching the sublime and puerh is really king of the pile. This blog post is addressed to the puerh snobs and tea whores and yes, the connoisseur. If you cannot handle that, please run along elsewhere, there is a group for you someplace else today. 

The truly fine puerh teas.

What is this level of connoisseur puerh tea drinking? More than anyone else, Mr. Max Falkowitz tried to bring the connoisseur puerh experience into the world of fine food and drink during his time at Saveur magazine. Max Falkowitz suggests that "flavor and aroma are only the beginning. Taste is fleeting. But the way the aftertaste manifests in your throat or down your gullet, how the tea makes you feel, where the qi activates--these are lasting hallmarks of quality for which connoisseurs pay dearly. Some of my favorite teas don't taste like much at all. The drama happens from the neck down." [I'll post a reference to Mr. Falkowitz's quote below rather than a link because the link brings up a PDF file] He's not done yet, he writes at least 2-3 published magazine articles a year on tea, mainly puerh. Barely anyone in the puerh tea community has heard of him and yet he was on the finalists for a James Beard award in 2019. I have a fortunate memory of taking tea with Mr. Falkowitz and I brought what I had at that time as my best tea. 

In many respects, his work has shown me that the western food world receives ideas of connoisseur-level puerh more readily than western puerh communities. No one wants to ask themselves: are my teas and drinking all about the best possible experience for my money? It causes pain, ego bruising and very often defensive posturing. But in honestly evaluating my collection, facts must be faced. If whatever I am drinking is not at the experience level described here, then I am in truth drinking downward in my collection. Any defensiveness on my part about this assessment can lead to closing myself off to trying better teas and having sublime tea sessions.

Frequently puerh discourse focuses on a practical mundane level of owning tea which gets turned into a non-drinking aesthetic experience. Tea reviews in blogs function at a mundane data level when describing the number of steeps, the provenance, the cost per gram as virtues. All this data certainly assists in the purchasing decision of a tea. But people think describing all ten steepings of a tea is an aesthetic end in itself, rather than the pleasure they experience, if any. So too are posts about the nuts and bolts of storage. Tea nerdism in the details, but aesthetic pleasure of fine puerh is in the bodily drinking experience. Did I really enjoy the tea or did I just get my caffeinated storage worth?

"Excuse me," Falkowitz writes in the same piece above. "No one tells you this when you start drinking Chinese teas, but the good ones make you burp. There's an idea in tea drinking called qi, which literally translates to 'breath' or 'energy flow,' and refers to the somatic effects that sometimes accompany a quality brew. It's a rare thing--the vast majority of teas aren't powerful enough to summon it--and a personal one, but the feelings are hard to ignore. Think sudden sweat on your palms. Tingling along the back of your neck. A wave of relaxation down your spine, like the relief of a well-placed acupuncture needle. The more tea you drink, the more qi squirrels its way around your body. Eventually, all that breath needs somewhere to go. So you burp."

Can we agree that an excellent puerh tea has the qualities of the finest aesthetic experience in the body, ranging from the aroma to the mouth to the gullet to the body sensations? It's worth the investment to find such teas, and to do so we need sources of conversation at this level. Instead, much day-to-day puerh discourse aspires to what we could consider "office tea drinking," which is satisfied by caffeinated barely drinkable puerh tea with garbage storage.

Vendor and blogger Wilson is fortunate to belong to a group of puerh enthusiasts who, in pre-Covid times, met at least once a year to drink and consider puerh tea at the highest level they can acquire. His latest blog post "short" illustrates the difference between office type drinking and a serious connoisseur session. For practical purposes, he describes brewing up to 5 cups of oolong or puerh at one time to take to his computer, so he does not need to get up for more tea while busy. When buying tea, he pragmatically brews up a thermos of a sample to sip on while running errands, pondering whether or not to buy that tea. 

But then he hints that his more serious sessions are quite apart from practical office drinking. "Readers will know me that I do not describe a tea by each and every infusion but rather by initial and ending thoughts. I enjoy the complications of a tea, the aging results of storage and pleasant sensations after finishing a tea session." He is sitting together with the tea rather than needing to record data on every steep. My experience of Wilson is that he talks equally about easily acquired satisfying teas as well as teas which are more rare and costly. He knows he has readers interested in both. He has sent me many a sample just because he thought I should try something. A couple of my most memorable teas are purchased from his collection. 

The best tea is gonna cost.

Good tea is certainly subjective and aesthetic and I will own my opinion as a personal one if it makes you feel content, or maybe less mad about the things I write. But really, you deserve to drink better tea, not just cheap tea. When I consider what excellent tea costs, it's not cheap. It's more like $200 and up per piece. By "piece" I mean the unit such as a beeng of any size for consensus-level fine puerh.

At a connoisseur level of tea, apart from sampling we are not talking about buying grams, or price per gram. Anyone buying in grams has a financial limitation and is probably drinking downward rather than drinking better. That's just the truth of it. In wine we have plenty of popular discourses directed at finding the $9.99 bottle of wine that tastes like a $50 bottle of wine, but no one seriously considers either of those prices as representative of a connoisseur level of wine drinking. It's the dinner-beverage level of wine drinking. 

Any time I'm drinking tea that costs me less than $200 a piece today, I am drinking downward in my puerh collection, not up. I am doing office drinking or I am accepting storage that ruined a tea. It is true that not every tea costing $200 a piece and up is a worthy connoisseur tea--we do have cultural preferences and collecting quirks and outright scams to sort through. But I can guarantee you that a piece of puerh tea costing less than $200 today is not going to be an aspiration tea. It's downward drinking every time. It's settling for average ordinary tea or worse. 

The very fine level of puerh tea is simply quite costly today, and the best pieces may be out of reach of many of us. Nevertheless I can still buy tea at a fairly top level of quality if I save the money, and am ready when the real opportunities of buying aspiration teas arrive. Keep in mind I have spent salary money, inheritance money, investment money and retirement money on puerh tea. And at my age, food becomes less important a pursuit. It's very possible to make friends who share tea with you if your taste is truly refined, or start your own blog. The money is a real gateway but the opportunity after that is fairly equal if you cultivate sources, which you really should be doing in any connoisseur hobby. If you do not know people, at least start there. 

Cheap tea is not top quality tea.

Office tea drinking and its discourse is not really aesthetic so much as a kind of puritan moralizing. This moralizing celebrates paying as little as possible for a piece of puerh tea and tries to extol some good traits about it because you paid so little. It's not an aesthetic aspiration but a financial limitation and trying to feel better about it. Or trying to feel better about the office, but the office is not about drinking great tea. The office is about a virtue of getting work done and not really your tea. It extols productivity and thrift, and opposes sloth and waste. This is the opposite of the connoisseur and aesthete. 

Drinking downward and not upward in my collection is also the case when I cannot afford aged teas and instead try to pretend hotter or wetter fast storage is my version of "aged." We have a level of tea discourse which tries to pretend office tea prices can acquire old or fine tea, such as on Taobao, and this is simply a falsehood despite the desperation to believe it. There is a reason many teas are so cheap and it's because the aesthetic quality is poor, the body experience is non-existent and it is base drinking at best. 

I can accept a time and place for such drinking, but it is not an aspiration nor a connoisseur level of tea drinking. If my stomach really requires such teas, I suggest that drinking downward is the cause of the distress, and drinking better quality tea is a level where the tea is comforting rather than distressing. If you don't believe that, I will suggest you have never really consumed the fine level of puerh tea, the finest that it is capable of. In other words, you deserve better than that shit tea. 

I can think of a few other reasons why a person might want to aspire to better puerh tea experiences.

Really fine puerh tea is still possible to buy.

The environment in Yunnan is not completely wrecked yet by global warming, or chemicals or farming practices, any and all things that could someday result in a massive loss of tea. China is also still open to the idea of selling puerh tea to people outside of Yunnan. Sure, we have levels of puerh tea accessible only to a few insiders, but we still can buy some excellent puerh teas even from our remote spots on earth. If the post will deliver, we can still get our hands on some good stuff if you have the money to do so. We also have more collector sellers. But we cannot take for granted the tea available now will be so in five years time. The market is changing fast and prices keep on going up. If you think I am pessimistic, others are far more blunt in saying the boat to great tea is sailed and gone, if you want to look around for more opinions.

The puerh hobby is a bother.

Why bother with puerh tea if I am not going for the best I can get? Puerh tea is a pain in the ass to research, buy and store. I am not in a hobby where I put bottles on a rack, leave them to sit and dust them off someday. I either have to pay someone to store the tea, or pay extra for the existing storage as a reality. Any type of storage ranging from a constructed tea vault to shelf storage requires work on my part to check the tea. I give my tea all sorts of mothering for more years than a child takes to raise. 

Given that, why waste my time with all the effort involved just for office quality tea? I can buy a tong of office tea from any factory or vendor or another collector when I need something to drink, and buy the next one when I run out. I personally cannot be arsed to spend my little bit of time remaining on anything less than the best I can get. It's too much trouble. I might as well just buy some hongcha or shou or gunpowder tea, something that doesn't require the elaborate care and storage that raw puerh does.

The storage is not really a worry for the best tea.

We are probably going to drink our best puerh teas well before they hit 20 years. How many of you out there, right now, are drinking tea older than 20? Anyone? You cannot buy genuine 90s teas easily anymore, if at all, so if you are drinking tea that old then you stored it yourself. But I am guessing that all of you drinking "aged" tea are actually drinking somewhere in 10-20 years, and the tea is still greenish, and your finest teas have a bunch of bite marks in them because you've been dipping in all along. In a way the pressure of storage is actually off of us because truly good leaf, kept at least decently well, retains its good qualities. Hard core storage is more of a worry for people collecting wrappers to sell, or on trying to heat mostly mediocre tea to turn it drinkable, and for that the tea needs storage strategies.

The best tea leads to the highest level of aesthetic appreciation. 

Does my tea inspire me on a poetic and gastronomic level? Anyone who thinks tea writing is flowery crap is drinking office tea. Or moralizing on why paying so little for tea is a virtue. Or trying to dump bad tea. I have bad teas in my collection too. But I also have excellent ones that define my collection. The best tea is physically memorable and truly will make a person sing or babble like a baby or strike one dumb in silence. This is the level of tea we truly deserve. I hope you can go where that tea is. I know the best is what I need to drink before my time runs out.


Reference

Falkowitz, Max, "What Drinking Tea Taught Me about Drinking Everything Else," Imbibe Magazine, imbibemagazine.com, Nov/Dec 2018, p. 94.



16 comments:

  1. could you add a paragraph that addresses inequality and access for people who cannot afford full cakes of $200 tea?

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    1. I truly believe everyone deserves better, but I don’t see anything unjust because it’s real that good things cost money everywhere. The access is there for those who have the money. I was near retirement before I could afford fine things. In the meantime, I’m sure people can find plenty of drinker quality Puerh at reasonable prices while saving up, or maybe forgo spending on more drinkers and buy one really nice tea.

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    2. It's good to know what one is saving up to. Like renting high end cars on holidays considering to own one when holiday becomes a countdown to recycling. Wishlist could be more active than basket. Timing is everything, revisiting prior dismissed specimen is almost blind sampling, you know from the name and pictures, it is like buying a car at an auction, buy as seen.

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  2. Cwyn N,

    I have noticed that your posts over the last few months have changed in feeling. They are kind of written with the overall lens or through the perspective of the puerh collector / connoisseur rather than your usual style of writing.

    Certainly, as you mentioned, there is a real lack of writing in the west from the connoisseur/ collector perspective. The fact that this is a pretty interesting and thought provoking post yet absolutely no comments kind of confirms this. I would say that although I don’t always agree with him, Shah8 was the first regular and continuous writer attempting regular thought in this direction.

    However, there are real reasons for this not just the price as you mentioned. Part of the reasons are culturally complex as many people in the West try to project the connoisseurship of food, wine, and beer to puerh. I think this is the failing of puerh connoisseurship.

    Other reasons, is the weight of certain people in the Western puerh community are too heavily valued without much challenge.

    In my opinion, blind sampling is the highest form of puerh connoisseurship. In this realm, even a less famous puerh or expensive puerh can undercut a much more expensive one.

    Peace

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    1. Really what you’re talking about here can set up a defense of drinker quality teas in the vein of the $9.99 wine bottle hoping for $50 flavor. As I referred to above, I expected some people will double down on their drinkers after reading this post and spend much time moralizing and scolding, rather than talking about truly fine tea.

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    2. Cwyn N,

      Although it could set up a defence of drinker quality teas what it really does is expose a flaw in connoisseurship mentality. Connoisseurship is simply a flawed way of valuing puerh if it cannot blindly detect the best. Can you or any readers detect the best? Can I?

      The biggest defence of drinker quality puerh in this post or in any comments that follow will be your assessment that $200 gets you excellent puerh. Not sure I could find any puerh connoisseur that would ever agree with that.

      It has been well documented that the bar for finding acceptable drinking puerh has been raised over the years. However, this is the first time I’ve seen someone so lower the bar of excellent connoisseurship puerh that it starts to approach approach drinker quality.

      Are we really talking about the connoisseurship of puerh at this price? or are we simply trying define the standards of connoisseurship puerh to include our own collection within that definition or things that we can still afford?

      Peace

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    3. What I wrote was $200 and up." That’s the minimum, I’m saying. I don’t think there is a top end number but we have to define the bottom, because people ask bloggers all the time "what’s the least amount of money I can spend to buy good tea?" It sounds like you don’t like the idea of connoisseurship because it puts pressure on you. Either you accept the idea or you don’t. It seems like you accept the idea but don’t want it to apply to you. I think any tea writer who cannot detect a good tea shouldn’t expect people to read their blog.

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  3. I think it is more about time left as to betting that more expensive is likely to deliver. You could find gems but effort takes a toll on emotional exhaustion. Sticking to few vendors whose taste clicks with yours is a true find.

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    1. 🙌 I like nothing better than someone whose taste I appreciate says "you must try this." I know a real treat is on the way.

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  4. I heard of white2tea but somehow in my mind it was american with no postage to Ireland. Oolongowl reviewed something from them and name caught my attention. So ordered something irrelevant from them. A week later James from teadborg is singing praises to what I am yet to receive. It was almost as good as opening package. Coinkidinky, you can't dismiss those moments from anticipation experience especially after few weeks when you kind of forgot what prompted impulsive purchase in the first place. I compare pricing to alcohol. I originally started with Oolong's because some Russian hiphop musicians got off heroin on them. I had issue with craft beers, couldn't eat anything until had few bottles. So I am saving tons on taxis back from local tavern.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2OaWKSmJQqY

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    1. Omg this is a fantastic video! It’s so good. People, just go watch this link. It’s like the perfect accompaniment to any conversation about fine tea. Definitely tops anything I wrote here. Thank you Serj, so much for sharing it here. 💖

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  5. I am sure there are lots of talented people peeping into your musings I would hope people could combine maddest clips of their tea sessions, something alike bloopers from teadborg, and make a mix, music could be classic, sound of waves, cats singing, cars revving, whatever. Russians are kind of semi Asians, so I would hope Britain being multicultural, america from all kind of backgrounds, there is a potential here. Or random people reading poetry that comes to their mind while teadrunk.

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  6. Cwyn, your writing always challenges my preconceptions about tea and eudaimonia and a thousand other things. Thank you for the shout out.

    I do think it's important to taste the really good stuff a few times in your life, even if, for the most part, you're drinking at a much lower budget category. I'm lucky. I had generous and knowledgeable teachers willing to share teas with me that I could never buy today if I wanted to. The way those teas expanded my perceptions, revealed qualities I never knew to look for...I only wish I knew at the time how good I had it. And it's clear as day to me who is excluded from it.

    I'm currently in a settled-down state of my tea collection, where I'm most excited about feeling comfortable with what I like and what I don't, what I'm willing to pay for, and what I'm willing to pass by. I think that experience only comes with tasting from a wide range of tea types and price points.

    You're right on the money with the reckless pursuit or bargain teas. In my experience they tend to optimize for bank accounts and bulk, not taste, and if spending a little more gets you something that you *want* to drink everyday, that's a thing worth striving for. Again, I'm lucky. I have no debt or dependents and can afford to fritter my money away on tea. I make a decent living, and my tastes are pedestrian enough—I prefer a decent tieguanyin to an exceptional Wuyi. Gushu can take me to dizzying heights on the weekend, but on a harried weeknight, the comfort of my favorite tieguanyin is a form of pleasure all its own.


    All of which is a longwinded way of saying that while I hope everyone gets to try the good stuff now and again, there can be connoisseurship without teleology, and the end goal doesn't always have to be a pursuit of ever-finer degrees of sophistication. Sometimes the lesson learned from climbing to the top of the mountain is that you prefer the view lower down.

    Yours, the champagne socialist

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    1. Thanks, Max! The important thing is drink the best you have before you die, because no one will appreciate it as much as you will.

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  7. I'm of a couple of minds about the points here.

    The thing that occurs to me first is, while I agree that drinking really good tea is a different kind of thing than drinking daily drivers, the emphasis on "the good stuff will cost $200+" is something of a false measure. While the evidence is that factory teas coming out now are not what they were 30 or even 20 years ago, it's also apparent that those new consciously-marketed-to-connoisseurship teas are also not what the factory teas of yore were.

    I'm thinking of some exceptional teas that I've tasted at 20+ years, like the EoT Camphor Aroma cake (which if it were still available would easily clear the $200/cake bar I'm sure). I'm confident that this cake would have been considered nothing particularly special when it was made... how else would it have wound up in stacks in Malaysia with no wrappers and no information about what it was? Or the similarly-named 199x maocha that Wilson Lim was selling a few years back, which would also probably be selling for $0.50+/g if you could still buy it? I think, in short, that fairly ordinarily good-quality raw puer, if it sits 18-20 years in the right conditions, can be that "sublime experience."

    Tea from the hyped origins, like Yiwu or Bingdao or LBZ, is truly not available even as young tea at prices less than you suggest. You're not going to find a drinking experience comparable to 72 Hours without paying even more, as young tea goes. The $90 cake of '09 Yiwu you get from W2T or YS (or anyplace really) is never going to be a replacement for what an '04 Yangqinghao is, even now. But a fairly nondescript CNNP green mark who-knows-what's-in-it cake from 2003-05 could, if it was in the right conditions til now and for the next 5 years or so, become something really good. At a price quite a bit less, if you can buy it now and keep it well for that long.

    Maybe my view of such things is distorted by the fact that I live in a place with a good environment for storage and have proven to myself that I can keep tea for 5 years and have it change in the direction I want. I have yet to produce anything as well-aged as that EoT cake I mentioned, though I have some candidates that I plan to taste in a couple of years.

    It's true that the longer I drink puer the more I'm willing to spend on it, and also true that the ones I look at for drinking now are getting closer and closer to that $200/bing point. But one thing I have found, over a longish life of cultivating various kinds of luxury connoisseurship, is that chasing authenticity is a fool's game. You get at most what you pay for, but when you pay for "authenticity" you tend to get a hefty surcharge over things that are in their own way equally worth consuming. And I realize that you didn't use the word "authentic" anywhere in your post and maybe I am just overreacting to past encounters with (other writers') preoccupation with "the authentic taste of puer tea."

    We agree (I think) that life is too short to drink mediocre tea (all the time anyway) and that the good stuff will cost you one way or another.

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    1. Hey Aardvark, it’s really nice to see such a wonderful comment and you here. I really appreciate it that you read my post.

      From what I can tell a lot of people did a reckoning of whatever feelings they have about what they are drinking and/or buying. This kind of clarity will be good to have in a market where new teas like a basic Dayi 2021 7542 are speculated up well past the $200 mark before they are barely up for sale.

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