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Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The Sample Life


Here is yet another tea sample I pulled from my stash this spring that I wanted to try. I am not sure where this is from, maybe Mr. Mopar? Anyway, it is labeled 1990s Menghai 8592 which is a shou formula, and if it is really 1990s I can't throw this out without trying it. Now is not really the time of year for shou for me, but I'll try it anyway. I get to thinking about how samples really are not a bad way to drink tea. Sample drinking has a bad rap on forums from tea snobs who feel that a sample is not a sufficient amount of tea to really know a puerh. Or that a cake size is really a sample, and the ideal purchase is a tong. I don't entirely disagree with that notion, but at the same time I feel a sample is sufficient to at least experience a tea in some fashion, and in this sense could be better than never trying a tea at all. 

I don't know why it is, maybe the pandemic or the economy or tricky shipping, but suddenly the idea of a sample stash has a prudent feel to it. I do feel like the negative view toward samples is pervasive enough that people whose stash consists entirely of samples feel the need to hide that fact when conversing on forums. The opinions of those drinking from samples appear to stigmatize them when they express an opinion, "oh you just tried a sample," rather than recognizing the fact that the person actually tried the tea before opining on it. Seems to me trying the tea first matters more than opining when you haven't tried the tea at all. And plenty of opinions get aired on teas people haven't ever tried! I can find plenty of reasons to own sample teas.

Just starting out.

You have taken the plunge into puerh, and are tasting around to find out what you like. In this case, sampling is a great idea. I think especially if you are looking for daily drinker teas, the best thing to do is crunch a lot of samples to find that sheng or shou which suits and sits well in the tummy for every day. Certainly sampling ahead makes sense if you are thinking of dropping a larger amount of money, or are checking whether the claims surrounding a tea are genuine. 

Your Budget.

Let's face it, teas are expensive. You can participate in a puerh hobby, but only to a certain degree because you don't have money to waste. Still, this is better drinking some tea than none at all, right?

No one else in your household drinks puerh.

If you are sharing living space with another person or even a full family, that space is subject to some resentment when one person uses more than their fair share. How many partners complain not about the tea, but rather how much space that tea takes up in the living space, and how loud is that complaint because they don't share in the hobby? Nagging gets annoying. Also, a strategy to try more teas is do-able when you are getting just samples, the partner is not so likely to sniff at an envelope arriving in the mail rather than a big tong box. 

You move around frequently.

Owning a stash takes up space and increases exponentially when you have tongs and when you need specialized storage solutions. Puerh is a long-haul hobby, and hauling just is not conducive to a lifestyle where you need to move every year, or even two or three times a year. Maybe you have no home at all and live in temporary situations. Having a stash of samples means one box as opposed to hauling multiple plastic tubs, crocks and tong bags. Feels good to travel light.

You don't want to bother with storage.

Space is part of the reason perhaps, but another very valid reason to go with smaller amounts of tea is because you have no interest in storage. Some people do have the space and the money, but don't want to bother with storage solutions and babysitting tongs. Is your opinion as a taster of teas really worth less because of this? Someone drinking samples for two years may have a better idea of puerh teas than a person with two years of drinking one tong. Many people find storage challenging or uninteresting, and feel they have to hide this when talking about puerh. 

Opportunities arise in sample form.

Many of the best teas simply are not available any longer as full beengs or tongs, and the only way to get your hands on a tea is when a collector is willing to break up a beeng for a few friends. Any amount of that tea is a gifted moment. Also, many superb buying opportunities from vendors are samples. We all know about Houde's sample sales. Let's see who is sleeping...did you sign up for Chen Sheng Hao marketing emails? If so, you woke up to this in your email box yesterday.


CSH is offering a box of 7g x 10 samples, or a box of 28g minis, or you can get a 10g sample of 2020 Lao Ban Zhang for $38 and change. Better run along quick if you want any of these. Might want to sign up for emails first, you can get a code for an additional 10% off everything except the LBZ.

One criticism of samples is that they may not be in the best condition, or taken from a bad part of the beeng, such as the beenghole. But a beeng may not be in the best condition anyway, and the chances of this are just the same as for a sample, it depends on how well the tea was kept, whether a beeng or sample. I guess someone has to get the beenghole, no one throws it out, it is just more compressed. Aesthetically the beenghole is less pleasing, but if one feels the experience is diminished, perhaps ordering another sample is the remedy. Even if the tea is sold out, I've heard of many instances when a vendor was willing to send out another sample, so if you don't like your beenghole just email the vendor.

Quantities of "gushu" teas are small.

Even if you can get your hands on some nice tea, chances are the amount is small because the harvest is by hand from a small stand of tea trees. 200g beengs are more common now than 357g outside of big factory productions of drinker teas. Some vendors have 100g or even smaller beengs. The quantity of some of the best gushu teas frequently consists of a small bag of loose puerh. The quantity harvested is so tiny that a pressing is not possible, and the leaves are lovely such that the whole leaf may be appreciated rather than potentially broken away from a pressed form. 

You want to taste widely.

After the pandemic year I think people want to make sure they have the experiences they crave. Time is already limited by how much we work and put into family life. I think the whole "stamp collecting" criticism is a bit overdone, especially now when we can find more important places to put time and money. Yet drinking a bit of an experience is valuable time spent, and you can taste your way around 10 teas much more easily with a sample quantity than buying 10 tongs you then must store. 

We have many other beverages in life we may wish to indulge in, perhaps your partner likes wines or whiskies or other drinks, or you do, and you want those beverages as well as your tea. No reason to miss out on a memorable experience of a particularly good tea just because you don't want a whole tong of it. 

You can't fit a beeng down your pants.

Showing up with a gym bag at a tea shop is a guaranteed way to be watched the entire time. 

I think a perfectly valid way to live the puerh life is to get the tea you can afford and have room to keep. One doesn't need to drink an entire sample in one go, a bit can be saved in the bag and tried again in a few years for a renewed experience. You still get the benefits of tasting changes in the tea without being saddled with bulky storage. At some point, even a collector has to stop hoarding. At that point, acquiring any more tea makes little sense except for a sample.


This "1990s Menghai" 8592 consists of slivered chunks taken off a beeng. They opened up nicely with a couple of rinses and started out sweet and thick like apple juice. But I could only get down two steepings. My stomach was hurting from pills when I started. I had hoped the shou would help the pill belly, but it didn't. The tea had more fermentation flavor than should be the case for a 20 year old tea, and I noticed the leaves were small and chopped, they didn't look like grade 9 leaves before the chopping, they looked like better leaves frankly. I started to wonder if the label on the bag wasn't accurate. It could be the gifter re-used a sample bag without changing the label and I have forgotten what the tea actually is. Oh well. It's a decent enough shou, and I am glad I tried it, but also happy I only have a sample. That's another reason to live the sample life, a lot less waste.


I think we need to get rid of the gate-keeping around tea quantity, and stop making people feel their opinions on a tea are less valid because they own a sample rather than a tong or beeng. Plenty of opinions abound on teas given by people with no experience of those teas whatsoever. So how is your sampler life somehow less valid than these total virgins? Enjoy your wide-ranging experiences of puerh tea along with all the other indulgences you can fit in. Stand up and give your opinion on teas and let's welcome the view of someone who definitely has tried a tea.