Another of the bag plastic wrapped samples from Chengducha. I again went blind, trying this sample without prior knowledge of what it was.
This is a smallish piece, I didn’t weigh it, I guess 5 grams. It easily crumbles apart with a little pressure in the hands, indicating it was not a tightly pressed cakes. Lots of buds. Medium red in color. Taking a stab in the dark, looks like it is about 4 or 5 years old.
The first steep is thin and has a bit of character of dry grass and the floral element of red tea. The soup is a little bit thin, which might have been a result of brewing too little leaf in too big a pot. The next steep I cut down on the water and up the steeping time.
The soups color becomes increasingly red, but the depth doesn’t seem to increase very much. It is a very gentle tea, soft, without much kuwei [bitterness] or astringency to speak of. For some people that might be exactly what they are after, but I am usually craving a little push and pull with puer.
It stays much the same. Actually, it reminds me a little bit of this 2007 Lincang, light and floral, although this tea tends a little bit more towards hong cha [red tea] character than the Lincang. A lot of this could have to do with how I steeped it.
After checking the list I find that it is a “2007 Sheng from Chenyun”. I was not really sure what that meant, so I inquired and got this picture of the wrapper and blog post. Not a bad tea, soft and gentle. Not really my first pick, but some people might gravitate towards its soft character.
Puer drinkers share a common goal of wanting aged tea. There are outliers who love fresh young sheng, but the smoothness and intrigue of an aged cake are tough to beat. Every so often my hands reach for a young cake, but left to my druthers I prefer something with some age. The problem is that old tea costs. But, lately, young tea costs too. Often is disproportionate ways.
Xiaguan Factory is not glamorous. Many turn up their noses at the crane, dismissing it as rubbish. But if you want a tea with age and value, it is a fine place to begin. This year Dayi 7542 was listed at a selling price of around $30 or so from Taobao wholesalers. If that is the price for a new 7542, then I am befuddled. I need someone to clarify how in the world still makes sense. Especially when the tea I am about to discuss is the same price, and 8 years older.
Granted, that Xiaguan 8653 is not the best tea. Maybe not even good tea. But, the likelihood of getting good quality 8 year old cake for $40 is low anyway, so we let’s not split hairs of an 8653’s flaws. Not to mention that for most people, especially people who are new to puer, this Xiaguan is more than enough to hold ones attention.
So, not good. Maybe not even average. But, not bad. Here is a litmus test of whether or not you got a good deal on puer tea in 2013 – can you check the following boxes?
Nearly a decade old
Could be described as “Not bad”
If you can say those three things about a puer tea purchased in 2013, then congratulations, you won. This is not an easy thing to do. Let’s look at the red soup.
The tea is medium dark, and even smelling the dry leaves screams Xiaguan. Mildly smokey, umber smells.
The tea is still a little bit astringent, but it is noticeably smoother than a 5 year or younger Xiaguan tea. Plenty of smells and depth come off of the gaiwan lid and leaves.
Some thickness; which, when you consider the price, is something nearing a puer miracle. A brief huigan [sweet aftertaste] and plenty of finish. In the back of my throat there is a nice coating and a slight molasses aftertaste. My tongue tingles a bit from the astringency, but it is not aggravating, just there.
Overall, a tea I would be totally comfortable drinking.
When you look at the color of the soup, and a tea that is for most peoples’ purposes good and ready, I don’t understand who would opt for the new 7542. I put the two teas in roughly the same category – big factory blends, which is what they are. Where the price discrepancy comes in is a debate for Dayi fans. I’d rather save 8 years of time and $10 and just drink the 8653 – and this isn’t even my favorite of the Xiaguan teas from 2004-2006, it’s just the one that happened to be in my cup today. Long live the crane.
A common question I see asked on tea forums goes something like this, “My great aunt Hortense is going to China. I like tea. What tea should I have her bring back from China?”
My stock answer, “Probably none.”
This makes a lot of people angry. They want tea from the source. If they are going to China, shouldn’t they get some tea? In a perfect world, they certainly should. But alas, China and its tea markets are not a utopia.
First, let me qualify the above “Probably” with a few ifs and maybes. There are a few circumstances where you can correctly throw my advice out the window. If you or your relative:
Speak fluent Mandarin
Have the name/address of a trustworthy vendor
Know tea prices and quality well enough to avoid being duped
Don’t care about the quality of your tea
Don’t care how much you pay for said tea
You think I am an idiot and read my blog only to fuel your hatred
In these cases, maybe my advice is useless to you, but keep reading anyway – you are here and all.
So, Why Shouldn’t I Buy Tea in China?
First, full disclosure, I sell tea. I just wanted to get that out of the way. This article is not a devious plot to discourage people to buy tea in China and instead from vendors like myself. Rather it is me sharing of my own knowledge and experience after 8 years in China drinking puer. Take it how you will.
So, there are few broad reasons why buying in China is rife with peril. Here is a short, non-exhaustive list:
Small tea shops and wholesale markets are often middle men with a limited knowledge of tea
It is difficult to discern the “true” price of tea, even if you are an experienced buyer
There is a lot of tea with dangerous chemicals and processing and very little regulation of either
Many tea sellers do not know the source of their tea
I mentioned in my article about three strange things in Yunnan a man from Henan province who was a tea seller. He has a stall at a Henan wholesale tea market and was making a journey to buy puer. His non-stop commentary led me to believe he knew nothing at all about puer tea or tea in general. After we embarked on a trip to a tea mountain, he proceeded to start pointing at huge trees and saying, “Wow, look at that tea tree!” These were of course not tea trees at all, just giant trees. Anyone who has seen a tea tree wouldn’t have made such an error. The point is not that you need to have seen or touched tea trees to understand tea (though it helps), but that this is the person in charge of distributing tea (and the knowledge of said tea) to smaller tea shops in his area. Imagine playing the game telephone. One person whispers into another persons ear, on down the line with several links in between you and the message. Now imagine the people in between you and the message barely have an understanding of the language of tea. It would be easy to purchase a cake of puer tea from a random small shop and be completely misinformed about its origin, quality, or price. After all, the small shop owner might have bought from this fellow from Hennan, who fed them faulty information from the starting line.
One more anecdotal story, in Yunnan this Spring I also encountered a couple who were purchasing tea for their small shop. They similarly knew almost nothing about tea. Their only goal and motive was to purchase the cheapest tea they could and mark it up and call it something else. They would ask questions like, “Would this pass for Laobanzhang? How much could I sell this for?” These people own a tea shop. Your great Aunt Hortense might stumble into their trap. Which brings us to the next point, if your kindly old auntie wanders into a shop like this, then what? If they offer her 10 grades of oolong tea, will she be able to determine a fair price? Or will she be at the mercy of people who are trying to make the biggest possible margin on their already shitty product? As if this situation weren’t hopeless enough, if you throw in a language barrier and a tourist with no tea knowledge, you are just begging to be swindled.
The third issue is safety. Eugene from Teaurchin recently wrote a post on his tea blog on the subject of pesticides, and I encourage you to read it. Keep in mind, he is mostly discussing gushu [old tree] puer, which is on the low end of the list of concerns in my book. If you want to be appalled at pesticide spraying, visit terraced bush tea areas in Fujian province. Even a careful vendor has a lot of guessing to do about chemical use and finding safe teas. I won’t speculate on specifics, but if somebody who doesn’t know much about tea gifts me neon green tieguanyin [Iron Buddha Oolong] I refuse to drink it. It ends up in the trash bin. Apologies to anyone who gifted me tieguanyin and reads my blog,…I surely drank yours. I am referring to everyone else.
Which brings us round full circle to the last concern on my list, the origin of a tea. I outlined a typical supply chain in my post on packaging. The quick and dirty version is that between the tea farmer and the final seller there are several links in the supply chain. In many cases, a seller might not know the exact origin of the tea they are selling. This becomes an issue with both safety and price. And if the seller is unclear on the specific details of origin, what chance does your surrogate buyer have? Hopefully your visiting relative has something more to inform their decision than a glittery puer cake labeled Yiwu Tea King.
You Shat on my Dream of Buying Tea in China, What Now?
My advice would be to buy from a person who is based in China and cares about the tea they source and sell. Shameless plug, you can buy from me at White 2 Tea. Honorable plug (and suspect business decision; please, buy from my competitors!), you can buy from Eugene at Teaurchin or Scott from Yunnan Sourcing. These are vendors who have a lot of experience with tea in China, and live here full time. If you are a gambler, take your chances at a random shop, but you will probably save money and get better tea buying from a China based Western vendor.
*Pics in this post are from my Spring trip to Pasha Mountain
A long while back, a fellow on teachat named Chengducha and I exchanged some tea. After neglecting the package in my pariah sample bin for many months, I finally decided to open up the bundle and pick out a tea for a session on this rainy afternoon. Numbers and plastic wrap, a welcome surprise! Tea guessing allow me to free their mind from preconceptions and try something purely on its merits, not to mention uncovering my own biases and misconceptions. So, I decided to write the following notes as I drank, before looking up the tea’s origin.
The small packages looked liked drugs purchased from a dealer in the park. The only information at my disposal for choosing a tea for the afternoon were numbered stickers on the outside of the plastic wrap. Twodogteablog, White2tea. Guess which number I chose?
I was fully expecting to be getting a bag of sheng, but the we don’t always get what we want. I opened the package and found a tightly pressed shu brick with a dimple from the press. The smell of dui [pile smell] was faint, but the other fragrances were strong enough to indicate that it was pressed within the last few years. Something like a mix of wood with perfume and compost. Not exactly what I was craving, but rather than give the finger to the number gods, I decided to just drink the ripe tea.
The remaining dui smell is gone by the second steep. The remaining flavors are smooth and woody. The red fruit fragrance i smelled on the dry leaves and the lid of the gaiwan does not show up in the mouth, but it is still very nice, and maybe better off. If there were additional flavors in the mix, the softness of the wood flavor might be lost in a battle.
A shadow of sweetness is left in the mouth after drinking. Not really huigan in the raw tea sense, but some tiny sweetness in the mouth and on the tongue.
And here were are at the last paragraph, the rain has stopped and the sun is finally out at 5:30 PM. After looking in the records of my teachat – our mystery tea is, and I shall quote Mr.Chengducha:
2012 Brick shu pu – Great taste, very stable. (my local dealer still has a big stash of this if you want some)
Most of my guesses were close, I would have guessed 2011. In general, shu is not as difficult to guess as sheng, as it tends towards uniformity. Some additional notes, now that I have seen his, I agree it is very stable. Split between two people we went for easily over 10 steeps. I liked the tea more as it went on. The fragrances were subdued and the feeling of warming smoothness took precedence. Overall a very nice shu.
And for the record, I did not add the dealer or stash to that sentence. Seems it was drugs after all.