Separating the Tea from the Chaff

Separating the Tea from the Chaff

Advice to the New Tea Prospectors

We are experiencing a new renaissance in tea. This new era of interconnectedness allows a few taps on a screen to connect an American in the rural Midwest with tea from a remote Yunnan village. The ease of this transaction should be a cause for pause, as it used to take months of feet in the mud, hooves on the road, and boats against the current. This new access to tea is a great blessing. One that none of our ancestors would have dreamed of. It makes me feel guilty if I really sit with the thought. My great grandfather would have been lucky to drink garbage tier pekoe dust from India, and here I am, drinking old arbor Puer. What did I do to be so lucky? But due to some stroke of cosmic luck, here I am, enjoying some of the best tea the world has ever known.

This explosion of access to new teas is not without pitfalls. For the average consumer, it will be a blessing and a curse. With unknown territory, there is always a large cast of characters. Every week I get a new e-mail from prospectors. “Howdy, Twodog,” they say. “I heard thar’s gold up in dem Puer mountains. Got any tips?” They grip their shovel tightly, anxious to dig in. “Be careful,” is the only reply I can muster. For the community they are about to enter is a Wild West. There are preachers and drunks, thieves and cowboys. There is a Sheriff or two, deputies, and a whole gang of robbers looking to take it all. That’s where we are. There’s gold to be had, but you have to keep a watchful eye for the snake oil salesmen.

puer tea in a teacup
Puer tea in a crackled teacup

I am no stranger to this gold rush phenomenon. I moved to China in 2005, shovel in hand. I came here because it was a new frontier for me; I stayed because I fell in love with Puer. I’ve been taken advantage of, tricked, fooled, and lied to. I’ve also found more than my fair share of happiness and many, many wonderful people. This is the way of the boomtown. There are crooks and scoundrels. There are valiant heroes and dear friends. Only time and experience will tell you which is which. I empathize with the new hands trying to make their way across this treacherous terrain. Some of them are deeply in need of a cure, and then end up with snake oil.

When I hear the snake oil salespeople on their soapboxes, telling the unbelievable tales of their magical wares, I get disheartened. “And you yell to yourself and you throw down yer hat, Sayin’, ‘Christ do I gotta be like that?’ Ain’t there no one here that knows where I’m at? Ain’t there no one here that knows how I feel? Good God Almighty! That stuff ain’t real!” But, their sales pitch is beyond my control and snake oil will be sold. That’s the way of the West.

Luckily, that’s just one side of the coin. I’ve seen the supportive tea community. I’ve witnessed the people who find a common goal and a profound joy in sharing tea. I treasure my late snapchat conversations with people I’ve never met, half way around the world, who are by themselves, sitting at a tea table, just drinking tea and sharing tea; because tea is joy. Sharing is joy. These are some of the people who I have deep kinship with and I don’t take kindly to other folks lyin’ to my kin.

Now, I don’t want to start a barroom brawl, or yell “Cheat!” at the card table. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s livelihood. I don’t have any interest in calling anybody out in the street. I am just trying to keep this community safe. Keep education on the right track. And squelch any of the gossip about this tree or that village, two towns over.

I figure the best way I can keep the community safe is by telling people what I know to be true from my decade of China experience and Puer drinking.

T-shirt and Puer Tree
T-Shirt and Tea Tree, 2015

Tree ages are often inflated, by local officials who put pressure on scientists and experts in order to inflate the fame of their area, or by farmers who unscrupulously dupe people who are unfamiliar with Puer. As a reference, the tea in the Last Thoughts cake has tea from trees of roughly 400 years of age, at the absolute oldest. Notice, I did not say purely 400 years old, but that some of the oldest trees in the blend are roughly (keyword: roughly) that age. Acquiring this material each year is no small task.

Yiwu old arbor tea is very difficult to get. This year, I knew of two people who ventured to get tea from areas like Bohetang and Guafengzhai’s chawangshu. One person spent over one week of his own time, and returned with about 11 kilograms. The other person spent four days and returned with a little more than 3 kilograms. In my experience with Last Thoughts, it takes a lot of effort to get enough tea to make one jian [15 kilograms]. The Spring picking occurred in early April this year, old arbor trees were not ready to be picked in March – only plantation tea is ready to be picked in early March. In autumn, there was a very brief period of time that varied between middle and late September, and was weather dependent based on the village.

I have never been offered tea that was truly from teas over 500 years of age. Never. I know hundreds of tea farmers in Yunnan. I spend 1/3 of my year there. I’ve been traveling there since 2005. Never. Not once.

I don’t think Puer tea helps you lose weight. It’s not going to cure cancer or epilepsy, but it is one of the most mysterious and wonderful things I’ve ever ingested on this planet of ours. Puer tea captivated me many years ago, and now I dedicate most of my day to it. Separating the tea from the chaff is vitally important to me.

The spiritual nature of tea need not come from outlandish claims. I have witnessed more than a few people get drawn into a game of who has trees that are older or who has the most venerable tea master or most authentic farmer connection. These are competitions of the ego, and competition over ego is a confusion of what tea is. With all of the story telling aside, there is a reason that for centuries humans have been drawn to tea. Let that sink in for a moment. For centuries upon centuries, humans just like you and me, have communed with tea. Been drawn to tea, renewed by tea. Hot cups on crisp winter mornings, steam unfurling off of their brew. Breathing deeply and drinking into themselves the feeling of tea that touched my life. That is mysticism. That is the spiritual. That is when numbers and stories are chaff. Tea is beyond the grasp of words.

Community of tea lovers, I know you all feel the same joy from drinking tea. Truth be told, we probably all spend a bit too much time pontificating about these plants. My rallying cry to keep us strong is this: Be careful and watch out for each other. Be vigilant. Trust your mouth; trust your body. If you see a glamorous story or a number that looks too fantastic to make sense, and the other townsfolk seem to take issue with it, just keep this in mind; snake oil can’t be sold without a tall tale. Be sure to do your homework, and ask the salesman for a sample. Only then will you find out for yourself if it cures what ails you.

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