Author: Yang Kai
Speaking of Puerh tea, we cannot help but mention the slogan “better with age.” Taiwanese professor Deng Shihai submitted a paper to the 1993 Simao International Symposium on Puerh Tea, which quoted The “Birthplace of Tea, Yunnan.” It said: “Yunnan Puerh tea has the special property that its quality gets better with age. It can be stored for long periods of time before drinking.” For the first time, he used “better with age” as a publicity slogan. He declared it a mark of quality and an artistic aspect of Puerh, calling on people to undertake further research. Professor Deng later described “better with age” in his masterpiece “Puerh Tea,” which elevated it to its status as Puerh’s most resounding slogan.
Let us first look back at the origin of the phrase “better with age.” Four hundred years ago lived a Yumnan ethnic Bai official named Li Yuan Yang. Bom into a government family, he was well-versed on the cultures of both Yunnan and central China. As an official in Dali, he interacted with numerous scholars ent down to Yunnan such as Tang Shen Gan. Li uan Tong was fond of Gantong tea from Dali’s Cangshan mountain Gantong temple. He wrote: Cangshan tea trees grow to a height of two zhang (1 zhang = 3.33 meters). Its flavor is no less than that of Yangxian tea. When stored for years, its flavor becomes even better.” Although Gantong tea has never been considered to be Puerh tea, it possesses all of the qualities of modem high quality Puerh tea.
First, Gantong tea is a large tree tea. In March, 1639, the great traveler Xu Xiake observed tea harvesting at Gantong temple: “The trees are all three to four zhang tall and resemble laurel trees. A ladder is always used to climb and pick the trees. The tea’s flavor is rather good. It is roasted and then returned to the sunlight. The tea is unavoidably dark.” This also indicates that the tea is first roasted and then sun-dried, making it a shai qing tea (sun-dried, a characteristic of Puerh). Furthermore, “when stored for years, its flavor becomes even better.” This way of saying that its flavor improves with storage seems to be the source of Puerh tea’s “better with age.”
Time marched on. In 1945, at the end of the War of Resistance, Menghai mushroom tea had already gone three years without shipment to Tibet. At that time a Naxi businessman named Li Dasan decided to the ancient tea horse road to Tibet, carrying the tea purchased in Menghai by Fan Hejun before the Japanese occupied Myanmar (that is, pressed tea produced between 1941 and 1942). Working with Heqing resident Zhang Xiangshi’s ShengGong tea company, he began negotiations with the Yunnan China Tea Company. After settling on a price, he sent a man named Cao Rongchuan to Menghai to work with tea factory manager Li Fuyi to supervise the packaging and preparation for shipment. This tea, which had set unattended for several years, was suddenly a hot commodity. In order to get the best price, Li Fuyi sold a high quality portion of the tea to Dingxing Hao’s Ma Dingchcng. In his report back to the China Tea Company, Li Fuyi said that although he did his best to care for the tea, much of the stored Menghai tea was damaged. Not enough remained to meet demand. In response, on March, 27th, 1945, Li Dasan sent a telegram to China Tea Company: “With this tightly packed tea, we only need worry about humid conditions causing mold. There are no other dangers (pests will not bother it). The quality of the tea improves the longer it is stored. Since it was properly cared for, why was so much lost?” Here we again sec the mention of “the quality of the tea improves the longer it is stored.”
In the past, commodities traveled slowly. People also consumed them slowly and valued thriftiness. Drinking new tea by Chinese style tea set must have been an extravagant experience. Puerh tea, which “improves the longer it is stored,” was not only favored by Tibetans. It was also a favorite of people in Hong Kong and along southern coastal China. In 1945 and 1946 Jiangcheng tea company Jingchang Hao bought several thousand dan (1 dan = 50kg) of tea from areas including Jiangcheng and Yiwu that could not be shipped. They bought the tea for a low price and then stored it, waiting for its value to rise. When victory in the War of Resistance came, they hired horse and ox caravans to transport tea they had processed and the tea they had purchased, totaling one to two thousand dan, to Kentung in Myanmar. From there they loaded it into cars and transported it to Lampang, Thailand, and then onward by train to the Thai capital of Bangkok. From Bangkok they shipped it by sea to Hong Kong. Jingchang Hao’s Ma Zeru recalls: “At that time, much of the tea sold to Hong Kong and Vietnam was aged tea. That is to say that after production it had been set aside for several years. If the tea is stored for a longer period of time the flavor is richer and the fragrance is nicer. Some tea was stored for as long as 20 to 30 years.”
Returning to more modern times, starting in 1973, Yunnan people developed a technique for rapidly fermented ripe Puerh tea. When the tea made its way to Hong Kong, local tea merchants complained that it lacked sufficient aroma of age. Yunnan people used ripe Puerh to imitate the aged tea of Hong Kong. Although the color and thickness of the brewed tea were similar, it lacked the caste of age. Consequently, they asked the Yunnan Tea Import and Export Corporation to store and age the ‘tea cakes. To this end, in February, 1979, the Yunnan Provincial Puerh Tea Export and Processing Symposium passed the Yunnan Puerh tea production technology required Test methodology’. ” The introduction to the methodology says:
Puerh tea’s unique color, fragrance, and flavor is the gradual result of slow post-fermentation of the polyphenols in the tea leaves. This gives it its quality of improving with age. Historically, this type of tea’s post-fermentation took place during long distance transportation along poorly developed roads. Transportation infrastructure has come a long way. A Puerh tea’s trip from its place of production to place of sales that used to take more than a year now only requires several days or several hours. Consequently, if we wish to maintain Puerh’s unique color, fragrance, and flavor, we must come up with a sped up method for undertaking its production.
Here “better with age” is viewed as the standard for Puerh and the basis for the document. Because he had not seen this document, Deng Shihai instead quoted The “Birthplace of Tea, it Yunnan,” which Yunnan Tea Corporation distributed later as promotional material.
In reality, “better with age” is just a slogan. The fact that it is mentioned” in literature does not prove that it is a scientific fact. We know that as organic material any food product, regardless of how well it Is stored, will eventually break down. The only difference is the amount of time this takes. We cannot possibly expect a 10,000-year-old Puerh tea to still follow the principle of better with age! Beginning in 2002, however, based on the idea that Puerh is better with age, a wave of interest in storing old Puerh took hold in mainland China. This raised the market value of Puerh tea tremendously.
Even so, the voices of doubt have never been silent (especially following the collapse of the Puerh market in 2007). Some people dispute it on based on the meaning of the words, while other doubt it scientific principles. The central point of their doubt is for just how long a period of time does it hold true. Looking at it scientifically, Puerh tea is primarily composed of substances that include polyphenols and cellulose. The effects of nature and microorganisms cause these to transform from large molecules to small molecules, and to change from poly-saccharides to mono-saccharides. This is the scientific basis for why aged Puerh tea is better suited for drinking. Of course, the interaction of microorganisms complicates this process, even resulting in the production of new, complex chemical substances.
Nature is very powerful, but our scientific methods are relatively weak. The subject is usually first decided, and then we test the composition of the Puerh tea based on our line of thinking. This line of the thinking is the same used to discuss the aging of green and black teas. However, the digestion of microorganisms creates hundreds and thousands of new substances. Their contribution to Puerh tea is even greater, but because they may be found in only trace or small quantities, we do not even think to analyze them.
When Deng Shihai discussed “better with age,” he was not approaching it from a scientific perspective. He simply viewed it as a black box, and did not mention the reason – only the result. Moreover, he took it as an element of faith, which manifests itself as a series of sensations, including: fragrant, sweet, bitter, astringent, smooth, dissolving, lively, thick, gritty, and “resonance at the base of the tongue.” He viewed the ultimate level as a “flavor without flavor.”
As for what kind of flavor is a “flavor without flavor,” perhaps it is easiest to understand using the negative sentence structure from the Dao De Jing or the Buddhist Diamond Sutra: “Flavor without flavor, this is the ultimate flavor.” This only has philosophical meaning. It is like when Chinese yell loudly “may he live for 10,000 years” (a chant historically directed to the Chinese emperor), They did not actually expect the person to live forever. Tea drinkers, likewise, do not take this statement literally.
An effective slogan, however, only needs to dearly express the meaning it represents and, at the same time, be resounding, easy to say, easy to remember, and have the force to attract attention. “Better with age” possesses these qualities. Merging the slogan with reality requires adding a series of comments and annotations. Deng Shihai also made note of this. I once listened to him give a lecture in which he said: ” Better with age is not unlimited. Our knowledge is limited. Of the aged Puerh tea that we have seen, including Daughter tea, Golden Melon Tribute tea, and other 100-plus-year-old teas, we believe they are still good to drink by Japanese style tea set. That is to say that in the scope of our experience, Puerh tea is better with age.” Deng Shihai clearly also believes that there are limits to saying “Puerh is better with age.”
“Better with age” is a worthy description of Puerh tea. It has increased the value of Puerh tea. Our market pays attention to money, though. Greed for money caused the market to become crazed. When “better with age” was unable to bear the weight of this level of greed, the market naturally became unstable, This is not the fault of the slogan, and it is not the fault of Puerh tea. The problem is our greed and the human tendency to pursue profit above all else.