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.

  • Peter Kuhn

    _/|_

    • TwoDog2

      This may be my new favorite reply _/|_

  • Elyse M Petersen

    Transparency of old Arbor or famous mountains is great but not very applicable to the tea Renaissance happening in the US. What’s really taking off is low cost shou puerh being marketed as a high quality product without the story of how the product is made. This type of tea is really becoming popular especially among the spiritual community which also is very concerned about the products and potential chemicals they consume (and effects the products agriculture has on the environment). No salesman wants to talk about the lack of accountability in this product, only the romanticism behind the tea.

    • TwoDog2

      The misrepresentation of reality is a big issue with all kinds of Puer tea. In my experience, ripe Puer does not have a greater lack of accountability than other teas. It has accountability issues just like any kind of tea. The way it is processed varies greatly, as does quality and the ethics behind the product. It is definitely unfortunate that many people are importing the ultra low cost, low quality ripe Puer teas into the U.S. though. It really discourages a lot of potential tea drinkers when they incorrectly equate Puer with putrid flavors of dirt and swamps.

      • Ian

        Fully agree with you here, and I forgot to mention above how great I thought this post was. I don’t know anyone else who’s really into good tea, and I almost don’t

        • TwoDog2

          You should! Anything to help people realize that ripe Puer is NOT supposed to be swamp water. Thump that bible!

    • Ian

      It’s a tough thing, but I think maybe every Western tea lover has to go through the phase, however long, of drinking overpriced garbage. What I mean is: how does one get introduced to tea in the west? Most often through a coffee shop or mainstream tea company like teavana. Say one even begins to suspect that there might be better stuff out there, the usual next step is to check out smaller high-end western retailers. But probably like 90% of these places are buying through wholesalers the same old crap, or making up some bullshit about how their marginal puer, that they truly went all the way to Yunnan to get, is certified organic 700 year old gushu that was picked by ladies in special-occasion ethic dress. Step three for the insanely nerdy and deep-digging is to check out blogs, reddit, &c and only then does one really get a handle on what is really available and for what price and find The Good Vendors. I guess my point is it’s a long road and it takes an inquisitive mind. I know if I wasn’t as nerdy as I was, or say if I followed my local new-age guru more than my nose, id still be drinking swamp water mini tuos and thinking that I was curing cancer and lowering my cholesterol with every sip.
      The only way I see around this is if I had some hip friend or family member who when I mentioned how I’d “had a tea at a dim sum restaurant in Vancouver, it was kind of earthy but I really loved it” or how I “bought some ‘raw puerh’ at this fancy hipster shop, it’s like $40 for 2oz but I heard it was good and healthy” they’d given me a plastic baggie with a chunk off their New Amerykah or YS ripe cake and told me “Go online, young man, there’s more where that came from!”

  • jrs416cars

    Ian, enabling your friends to good tea always has its rewards. I am glad we have people separating the good from the bad in the tea industry now. I can imagine how it could be if we didn’t have these people looking out for us.
    There were a couple of ‘hot’ discussions about this on a couple of forums. I can imagine how much bad stuff we could have been exposed to. I can see the claims from a decade ago and before the bubble. “High Mountain Gushu Lao Ban Zhang first flush concubine picked and moonlight processing shipped on horseback to special temperature and humidity controlled Gong Ting Shou.” Maybe an exaggeration but much as it can be advertised.

    • TwoDog2

      That horseback shipped tea is great! You can really taste the stallion notes!

      • jrs416cars

        And a little cam2 premium race fuel exhausts as the moparman rushes it to your doorstep.
        Had to let you know who it was. Grand-son has ignored most of the other Christmas and has been brewing a bit with me.

        • TwoDog2

          He has got the tea bug! At least he will be inheriting a fine collection!

          • jrs416cars

            He does and he is already planning for my demise! He will probably obtain all of your new shou about tax time over here. He is already planning to tell me how to spend my refund.

    • DougWSL

      The concubine picked is OK but it’s worth paying extra for emperor’s virginal daughter picked.

  • puyuan

    I’ve heard from a specialist that the oldest tree you can find in the whole of Yiwu (or was it Mengla?) is about 700 years old. The height of the varietals there fools a lot of people into thinking otherwise. And they seem to grow fast in the more remote, soil-rich areas, like GFZ.

    I think there is a lot of unnecessary alarum from western buyers sometimes. Inbetween the more conscientious sellers like yourself and others, they are not only extremely well served compared to the average mainland buyer, particularly the newbie, but also shielded away from an ungodly amount of BS. Of course there are other sellers in the mix…

    But you are right with this extension of the jianghu/wild west simile. Bohetang for instance has, like, 33 trees in total, divided between four families. And you see hundreds of kilograms coming out of it now… I remember a bbs post about a vendor from Guangzhou not only acknowledging that he had more than the place could yield, but mentioning he could further cut up whatever he had to 5 times the original amount. (He said it in less explicit terms to the person reporting.) This man’s customers will be paying a kingly puerh sum for what is a double blend of cheap maocha. Which happens all the time.

    • TwoDog2

      There are many such areas and exaggerations. What I hope most Western tea drinkers can take away from this situation is that age, farmer stories, and origin are much less relevant than the quality of the tea. And also, that 100 or 200 year old trees is already VERY old and should be met with extreme gratitude. If a person is only drinking tea from 200 year old trees, they are already ahead of 99% of what is out there! Unfortunately, people have made so many claims of very, very old trees that firstly, produced very little tea, and secondly, shouldn’t even be picked for their own health and safety.

      To the other point, I am sure there are no shortage of Mainland vendors who take pictures with the few families of farmers in Bohetang, saying, “Look, here is Master so and so, the humble tea farmer. I bought my 100 kilograms of Bohetang directly from them!” The story doesn’t make the tea real. Another issue that Western tea drinkers must contend with is that these stories are often used to bolster a lack of quality or give a sense of authenticity when none exists.

      Still, I am sure there are 100 tons of “Bohetang” sold in Fangcun every spring, despite there being very, very little tea. It is sad that these exaggerations of stories, lack of understanding of Puer, and inflation of ages are so prevalent, but that is the current state of affairs.

      • puyuan

        I get your main point and agree. One of the steepest learning curves of tea drinking is definitely in separating fetish from quality. It’s difficult because things like age and the biotic factors around the trees do reflect on a tea’s quality — I still very much try to inform myself of them. But they aren’t accountable for all of it. I’ve been sampling a bunch of forest teas since last year, some from places even more remote than Bohetang. One from ridiculously large trees. They have been all interesting, each has a definite character, but on a pure quality basis many weren’t that impressive at all. Humbler origins have yielded better cups on my table.

        (Also, to be fair, it occurs to me that almost all of these far away guoyoulin gardens do have a wealth of exceptionally large trees and they are in Yiwu as well. Those trees are safely well older than usual.)

        • TwoDog2

          I agree. The age of trees and environment are big factors, but there is not a direct relationship. For most beginners it makes more sense to focus on the cup in front of them than the “stat sheet”

          • Bea Roberts

            Yes, people get deceive easily with those pretty faces of cup not knowing the most important thing is what is inside the cup.

  • Bill Jones

    I do love drinking tea, particularly organic tea and reading these is a great opportunity for me to know more about teas.

  • Abigail Cohen

    Wow! I never thought tea has different effects as it old, I thought only wine has this characteristic.

  • James Porter

    Great knowledge about teas, it makes sense that the older the tea the higher the quality.

  • Aries Timber

    Brilliant knowledge! Thank you for sharing.

  • Belinda Stewart

    Sometimes tales add up reason when buying products.

  • MzPriss

    So for some reason I’m just now getting around to reading this – maybe I did during the “unpleasantness” and forgot. I know that I tend to focus on weird shit in your posts, and there is an extremely good point to learn here, but my mental picture is of Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane huddled over a tea tray in Deadwood, while Ian McShane serves from a gaiwain and Timothy Olyphant kicks back with his cup and says, “Tuhao as FUCK!”

    • TwoDog2

      “This the best tea I ever had, cocksucker!” – Swearengen

  • Thank you for this.

    • TwoDog2

      You are very welcome