Puer Teabags & Bad Teabag Puns
I had high hopes about Colourful Yunnan puer teabags, the mass marketed bagged puer tea that swept over China’s grocery stores last year. My excitement stemmed not from a desire to drink it, but because it would provide me a sturdy soap box to stand on. This would not be one of those mysterious sessions, where the complexity of the tea left me grasping for adjectives. Nor would it be a session where my writing skills were painfully inadequate to describe the experience of the tea. And last but not least, it would not be a session where I was left feeling amatuerish, a boy playing a man’s game. One of those sessions where puer leaves you mystified, as if your years of experience amount to nothing more than a fizzling star in a galaxy of tea knowledge.
No, not today.
Today is Colourful Yunnan. Today I get to plant a flag and stand my ground and call a spade a spade. Today I am Lebron James and my opponent is the Westside Middle School 6th grade basketball team…or that was what my initial reaction. However, after a bit of soul searching, I decided that dunking on 6th graders was neither fair nor productive. Rather than point out of all the flaws of Colourful Yunnan’s bagged tea, of which there are many, I ought to try to and focus on some of the good. After all, Colourful Yunnan does have a couple of major positives:
1) It increases overall public awareness of puer
2) It provides a relatively inexpensive and convenient way for people to steep puer tea, sans accoutrements
3) They make use of the floor sweepings left behind when average puer tea is produced
5) The…er,…um… packaging is … presentable
Alright, maybe slightly fewer positives than I had anticipated, but let’s look at the first couple. It does do a service in terms of bringing puer to a wider audience. Maybe restaurants that would previously not have offered puer as an option will now stick it on the menu. Maybe they will stock it at offices next to the bagged greens and oolongs. Maybe it will start showing up as a free bagged tea in hotel minibars outside of Asia. When I was growing up in the US, the only tea option most restaurants had was a bag of Lipton. If they got into Bigelow territory, they were already ahead of 99% of the competition. As a kid, I remember going to a small hotel that had a tea box with several different colorful packets of tea on the table and thinking it was some sort of lost beverage treasure chest. Every tea drinker starts somewhere, and Colourful Yunnan could be a gateway drug. Even Lebron had to begin his career playing 6th grade basketball.
Second positive, it is widely available and convenient to steep. How many people are willing to keep a puer cake, a tea needle, a gaiwan, cups, and a tea table on their office desk? There are a lot of people who scoff at that amount of equipment. Those very same people would be more than willing to have a mug and a tea bag in their desk drawer. Problem solved. Anyone who was turned off by the process of brewing tea just joined the puer team. Again, gateway drug. You start them off on bags, and hopefully within a few years they are brewing up 15 year vintage puer in a gaiwan on their 3 ton mahogany and stone tea table, complete with intricately carved scenes of phoenixes and monks and whatever the hell. Also, clay figurines of Buddha.
Now that I have respectfully acknowledged some silver lining, its time for some Harlem Globetrotter style disregard for my opponent. The tea itself is typical bagged tea. Dregs, fannings, whatever you want to call it. It’s a one and done brew, and the brew is not particularly smooth, a little bit harsh. It is floral in a generic (see: bad) way and has a slight sweetness. It is also perfumey and no doubt has some sort of standardizing additive. Additional silver lining, the liquor has a nice color and clarity to it; I must admit, it does have a nice color (colour) to it. Based on visuals alone, it’s quite nice. Throw the actual drinking of the tea into the mix and you have a bit of a problem. Rather than prattle on about how this tea lets you down in nearly every department, whether it be flavor, mouthfeel, and on and on, I will just say that it is somewhat like the Lipton of puer, and leave it at that.
I can’t really see myself drinking Colourful Yunnan for any reason other than hypothetical desert island scenarios, but then again, they don’t need me. I am not their target market. And if you are reading this, I suspect neither are you. The two things that it has going for it are mass marketing and convenience. I have seen promotions in supermarkets and office buildings in several major Chinese cities. There has been an assault of advertising, in an effort to secure some market share for people who want a bag of tea to brew and chuck into the waste bin. I would say that the price is good, but pound for pound there must be 10,000 other teas that are better. The bagged dregs weigh in at 2 grams, when considering you can get some really respectable 357 gram shou puer cakes for a few dollars, I can not claim their price is good.
Whether Colourful Yunnan will flourish has yet to be seen. It will be a battle of marketing and mass appeal versus quality. Who the globetrotters are in that game, is still anybody’s guess.