What is quality Puerh tea? I am sure many new Puerh tea drinkers have pondered this question. Depending on one's perspective, its answer may be very simple, or very complex.
If your expectations of Puerh are not very high, the answer may simply be to divide tea into two types: tea that tastes good and tea that does not. Obviously this answer is somewhat superficial and avoids difficult questions. If you persist in seriously considering the conditions that lead to high quality Puerh tea, you can write a lengthy dissertation. For example, among the factors that affect the quality of tea are the selection of raw materials, structural classification, quality of storage, differences in utensils, and the techniques used to brew the tea. This is no doubt sufficiently complicated to scare away new tea aficionados. Perhaps new tea drinkers are interested only in experiencing the flavor of quality Puerh tea. Is it really necessary to first earn a Master's in Puerh before drinking quality tea? I certainly hope not.
In reality, the tea market has not always judged the quality of Puerh tea in the same way. This is due to differences in the tastes of tea drinkers. Formerly the domain of elderly Cantonese who drank tea while eating dim sum, Puerh has gradually come to be appreciated and studied by younger tea drinkers. Expectations regarding the flavor of Puerh have naturally also changed. Young people are perhaps more likely to be drawn to the aggressive flavors and strong huigan ("returning sweetness") of young raw Puerh. Consequently, the definition of whiat constitutes quality Puerh has changed over the past one or two generations of tea drinkers. This is in fact a natural occurrence.
I've drank and enjoyed Puerh tea for twenty years. From my introduction to Puerh in the early 1990's to seeing the new raw Puerh teas promoted by large tea factories today, I've watched the market undergo substantial changes over the course of these twenty years. If we don't adapt to these changes, but instead are solely concerned with remembering Puerh tea of the past, we may miss out on experiencing unknown brilliant new aspects of Puerh.
Puerh Tea in the 1990's
At the beginning of the 1990's, Puerh was still relegated to a lonely corner of the tea drinking universe. Only a small number of dedicated tea drinkers entered the storage rooms of tea shops to personally taste those antique and stamp teas from the first half of the 1990's that had essentially been forgotten. They learned that, through natural aging, Puerh tea could take on such wonderful characteristics. Its enchanting flavor and aroma is shaped by the passage of time. Most tea drinkers during that period, however, still gave the majority of their attention to other types of tea such as green and Oolong teas.
Only in 1995 when Deng Shihai published Puerh Tea did people start to pay attention to the mysterious pressed tea known as Puerh and its dark tea liquor. At the time, wet-stored Hong Kong tea dominated the mainstream and dry-stored tea was virtually unobtainable in the tea shops of Hong Kong. There was no interest in a cake of green, unaged raw Puerh, and such tea was widely viewed as below grade Puerh. When brewed, this tea results in a light green liquor that is completely unlike the black tea liquor traditionally seen as Puerh, making it difficult for tea drinkers to accept the tea. The taste of such tea after it is aged was also unknown. The traditional belief at the time was that Puerh had to undergo wet storage: "If it's not wet storage tea, how can it be considered Puerh!"
The standard answer during this period to the question of "What is high quality Puerh tea?" must be that it is: completely wet-aged, richly flavored Hong Kong storage tea.
Puerh Tea After 2000
The Internet began to grow in popularity around the year 2000, and the information superhighway gradually came into existence. Various discussion forums sprang up, providing enthusiasts with the means to share their experience with others. Among these sites, were of course numerous web sites devoted to tea.
A small number of Puerh drinkers realized that old Puerh comes from new Puerh. People also began to understand and promote dry storage of Puerh. However, because of unfamiliarity with dry storage Puerh and a lack of experience with aged dry storage Puerh, most tea drinkers still focused their attention on wet-stored Puerh, and dry-stored Puerh still enjoyed only limited popularity. It was, however, no longer solely relegated to second-class status as raw, green Puerh. Small quantities of freshly-pressed new raw Puerh began to appear in the market, e.g., early Yi Chang Hao.
In spite of these factors, information about Puerh tea was still somewhat limited. Tea drinkers in various localities still viewed the storage and transformation of Puerh over time as a mysterious process. They lacked clear understanding of exactly what environmental factors cause Puerh to take on such fascinating characteristics as it ages. After all, collecting and storing Puerh at home had not yet come into style. The tea storage and aging process remained a mystery largely known only to large tea companies. Additionally, the population of Puerh drinkers was still quite small, which limited the amount of data available for reference. At the time (and even today), the topic of Puerh tea storage sparked wide-spread discussion among tea drinkers.
The standard answer during this period to the question of "What is high quality Puerh tea?" may be that it is: lightly wet-aged Hong Kong stored raw Puerh. Tea drinkers had come to understand that Puerh loses too much of its vitality after heavy wet storage, which is not conducive to later aging.
Puerh Tea After 2010
I am sure I don't need to say too much about the situation of Puerh today. Tea drinkers who have experience drinking Puerh over the past several years have a general understanding of the recent state of Puerh tea. Memory is never as truthful as the written word, however, so I will attempt to summarize the conditions of Puerh today. Perhaps it will come in handy in another ten years when we again reflect on the state of Puerh.
During this period dominated by new raw Puerh teas, the supply of well-aged old Puerh is far below demand. The market's demand for old Puerh is also constantly growing. As a result, the price of nearly twenty-year-old tea cakes has risen from approximately 3000RMB (approx.$450USD) to over 10,000RMB (approx. $1500) in only a few year's time.
Seeing the increasing prices of old Puerh, tea drinkers now understand that old Puerh comes from aging new Puerh. This gave rise to speculative buying and selling of Puerh based on the desire to control new tea. It drove many investors, collectors, and consumers to irrationally chase large quantities of brand new raw Puerh produced each year while forgetting that the value of Puerh does not lie in its flavor when just pressed but, instead, is the result of a delightful mellowing over time. The resulting new Puerh tea bubble burst in 2007, reducing the price of many new teas by 50% or more, irrespective of the quality of the tea. Some even fell by 70-80%, and numerous investors suffered losses.
Thankfully after three years of adjustment, prices of quality teas reached bottom and began to rise. Lower quality teas are still not sought out by tea buyers. This phenomenon has caused many tea drinkers (or speculators who have become tea drinkers) to begin to take the Puerh tea itself seriously, as they've realized that the increase in value of older Puerh tea is not simply the result of speculation. Instead, it is the result of refinement of high-quality rea over time. Consumers are willing to pay premium prices for such tea. After all, many rea drinkers still prefer to buy tea and drink it immediately. This represents a steadily maturing Puerh rea market.
However, todays market is still in the process of deciding what types of tea will mature into high-quality aged Puerh. Some people advocate rea from various mountains, while others advocate pure raw tea materials. Even more people recommend large tree tea as a prerequisite for high quality Puerh. Every sector of the Puerh community has its own position, and the answer will not be known for 10 or 20 years. If tea lovers decide to store tea themselves and calmly wait for it to age, they must accept a certain amount of risk in its transformation over time.
In addition to slowing growth of the Puerh market and stricter and more serious production of tea cakes than at the height of the Puerh tea bubble, a new pricing phenomenon has sprung up starting in 2010. That is, the prices of certain new name-brand raw Puerh teas are now even higher than those of aged teas. Perhaps this is due to the affects of inflation and low production, or perhaps it is the result of common distrust of the low-quality tea products of 2007 and 2008 among tea drinkers.
If we ask, "What is high quality Puerh tea?" now, perhaps the standard answer is: large tree tea or naturally aged Puerh tea. This is because beginning in the year 2000, some high-grade naturally aged dry storage Puerh teas began to show their excellence. Tea drinkers truly began to understand that Puerh tea does not acquire its charm through wet storage.
Predicting the Future of High Quality Tea
After looking back on the past twenty years of Puerh tea and changing attitudes toward what constitutes quality Puerh, you may have realized that the definition of Puerh quality has changed with passage of time. The entire tea market is shifting its expectations of Puerh tea flavor. In the past Hong Kong wet storage tea dominated the market, while today raw large-tree tea is king. This situation may leave tea drinkers even more confused. As consumers, what type of Puerh tea should we buy and store?
I often speak with people just becoming interested in Puerh. If they are not interested in taking the risk of buying tea and aging it themselves, even if they end up spending more money to buy tea that can be brewed immediately, they needn't worry about buying tea that does not suit their taste and needn't worry about buying tea that will not suit their taste after they have aged it. However, buying tea that tastes good immediately requires spending a substantial amount of money, which may place it beyond the reach of ordinary working people. Regardless of their means, though, all Puerh lovers are interested in drinking tasty tea that they have purchased for little money and aged themselves.
Storing and aging tea is thus motivated by the hope of saving money. At least in terms of price differential this is definitely the case. Many new tea drinkers also hope to purchase high quality Puerh tea when its price is low or has not yet risen. But tea drinkers should remember that aging Puerh tea requires you to predict your own taste. The taste of the tea will change over time. Likewise, your own tastes may change as you age or gain experience with Puerh. Are you sure you will enjoy the cake of tea you bought today after several years?
Puerh tea is a sold as a commercial product in the greater tea market. (Of course a small quantity of Puerh tea is custom-made for members of the tea community who personally travel to tea growing mountains. The quantity of such tea is quite small and, even if some of it is shared and sold, we should consider it separately from mainstream commercial Puerh tea.) After tea leaves are purchased by large tea factories, they are pressed into Puerh tea cakes based on market requirements and. then advertised and sold. Consequently, whether a raw Puerh tea cake is good or bad cannot be determined based solely on the word of the factory. Instead, the market determines whether the tea is desirable. If tea drinkers do not like it or the sale price is too high, the purported quality of the tea does not matter. This is the power of the market.
Therefore, from a different perspective, if experienced consumers (or collectors or tea sellers) are willing to buy up an entire production line of a certain tea, at the very least buyers of this tea must have some confidence in its quality. In the future, it may become a tea that the market agrees is of high quality. This is different from the small quantities of tea purchased by tea lovers in much the same way that stamp collectors buy stamps. Well-funded investors often purchase millions of RMB worth of tea at a time. If the quality of the tea is poor or the tea is ruined, their loss is substantial. Therefore, I trust that the decisions of collectors and tea sellers are supported by significant experience and research. I don't believe anyone is willing to throw their money away. They select teas they believe will age well based on certain standards, because there are clues that allow them to predict which teas are suitable for investment and aging. These clues provide the basis for determining which teas will be desirable after they are aged.
Since the best Puerh tea is aged, everyone treasures it, everyone saves it, and everyone drinks it. Thus the crucial question is what kind of Puerh is worth everyone treasuring, saving, and drinking?
Aside from the particular tastes of a few tea drinkers, when tea factories offer tea products for sale, they are obviously motivated by commercial considerations. They clearly hope that consumers will purchase, brew, and drink the teas they promote as high quality. This is no different from any other commercial product. The factory produces the tea, distributors distribute it, retailers sell it to consumers (or stockpile it), consumers or collectors purchase it, and tea drinkers brew and drink it to complete the consumer process. On this basis, I will attempt to summarize the traits that determine the quality of Puerh for the benefit of readers.
Tea Cake Type and Degree of Compression
In reality, the shape of the cake that the tea is pressed into is of little importance. In the end, aside from a few perfectionists, the cake will eventually be broken apart and brewed. Whether the tea is pressed into a square or a round cake likely has little affect on the aging process. The shape of a perfectly round tea cake increases its appeal, but the tightness of the cake is more important.
An ideal degree of compression is likely that which most benefits the aging process. Because of this, even if a tea is intended as an iron cake Puerh, it should not be pressed to the degree of a so-called craft cake, which cannot be broken apart by a tea knife. With that in mind, is it okay if the tea cake is pressed too loosely? This is also not desirable. If the tea cake is too loose, the entire cake may disintegrate over the long years of aging. In other words, the tea breaks apart on its own before reaching its height of drinkability, thereby losing the aesthetic appeal of a pressed tea cake.
Because most iron cake Puerh is most suitable for consumption 30 to 40 years after it is pressed, it can be pressed somewhat more tightly. After several decades of contraction and expansion in. the cold and heat, the cake naturally loosens. However, ordinary Qizi Bing teas are best consumed after 20 to 30 years and should not be pressed so tightly. This allows more of the atmosphere to moisten the tea leaves in the center of the cake. For example, the level of compression of 1980's 8582 cakes is ideal when the tea is brewed today.
Tea drinkers are attracted to a tea whose aroma is relaxing, mellow, and lacks any unpleasant pungent fragrance? Of course the fragrance of certain unaged teas may be somewhat unappealing, but the overall impression should be one of substance and strength.
The first subtle hint that a tea is of relatively low quality comes from its fragrance. Perhaps when brewed it has a strange flavor, or perhaps its tea fragrance is weak and flavorless, or the fragrance may even be undetectable.
The brewed liquor of a high quality tea is clear, bright, and transparent. Occasionally the tea liquor may be slightly turbid, which is not necessarily the fault of the tea. It may be related to the weather on the day the tea is brewed or other factors not related to the quality of the tea, for example: rainy weather or excessive tea dust may cause the brewed tea to be muddied and unclear. Because of such issues, tea drinkers may want to try brewing the tea multiple times under different environmental conditions before casting judgment. Tea brewed using hard water may also be unclear, so it is important to pay attention to this as well.
Although the driving force in the Puerh market has shifted from wet storage to dry storage tea, the opinions of tea drinkers with respect to water have remained constant over many years. That is, the water should be thick, clear, and silky smooth, because this is the experience we want when drinking tea.
Imagine for a moment that you taste a tea that is both rough and weak. Would you really want to spend your hard earned money for this type of flavor?
Chayun refers to the overall sensation you experience when drinking a tea. Ideally, aged Puerh releases rich and varied tea flavors. Rich means that the flavor is not monotonous. When the tea enters your mouth, you experience multi-layered changing flavors combined with the thick and lustrous tea liquor, which gives rise to salivation and huiyun ("returning charm"). It fills the entire mouth and creates a feeling of relaxation and calm, lifting the spirit. The chayun of a high quality Puerh generally grows more profound as the tea ages. When the tea has also been perfectly blended, it is even more capable of exhibiting multi-faceted chayun.
Huigun refers to the extremely addictive taste that remains in the mouth after drinking tea, which can make it unforgettable. That gentle lingering flavor causes you to feel the moist
taste of the tea throughout your body. This type of Huiyun calls out to the brain: "If there is still tea in front of you, drink a few more cups!" Isn't this simply the reaction of the body toward quality tea? If a tea does not taste good, your body naturally does not wish to experience it again.
Overall Characteristics of Quality Tea
To see the overall characteristics of high quality Puerh, we simply combine each of the above items. Tea that satisfies more of these preconditions is more likely to receive the favor of tea drinkers. This standard may simply represent individual selection criteria when buying Puerh. When the market contains many people with the same preferences, favoring a certain type of tea flavor, this flavor can be considered the market standard.
Tea companies produce different tea products and perhaps different styles of tea. They attempt to cater to the various tastes of tea drinkers. This situation is akin to eating ice cream. The freezer contains at least 10 to 20 difference flavors catering to the tastes of people who enjoy eating ice cream. Some people may only eat chocolate, while other may hate it.
When tea drinkers describe quality Puerh, they often overlook this point. That is, many flavors are sold to suit many tastes. People have their own individual tastes, which cannot be ignored. Some tea drinkers love Yiwu tea, while other believe it is weak and flavorless. Some people love the bitterness of Lao Man'e, while others are put off by its bitterness and astringency. The many different tastes of tea drinkers allows for the extraordinary variety in today's Puerh tea market. Regardless of its size, each tea company offers various different flavors. You find plenty of choices whatever your tastes.
Therefore we must ask, is there then such a thing as the best Puerh? No, there is not. There's only the best Puerh for a given individual. But when the vast majority of tea drinkers favor a certain type of tea, this tea becomes the favorite of the market. If most people enjoy drinking wet storage Puerh, then wet storage rules the market. This is similar to the situation in the 1990s described above. If most people prefer to drink dry storage Puerh, then dry storage tea rules the market. This is the situation today.
People's preferences for Puerh also changes with age. The flavor that everyone agrees is best today may not be the flavor that people prefer as they grow older. In 10 to 20 years, the population of Puerh tea drinkers will not necessarily have the same demographics as twenty years before.
Finally, let's consider the relationship between tea quality and price. Why? Because it is related to an individual's income and consumption.
For example, imagine someone says "I want to drive the fastest car on earth!" Does that mean he or she wants to drive a formula one race car down the street? Everyone's requirements are different, so there is no need to identify a certain tea as the unequivocal king of tea. For someone living in the suburbs, an SUV might be most useful. On the other hand, someone living in the city might find a compact car most suitable. Someone concerned with speed might there is nothing better than a sports car. Consequently, that which other people believe is best may not be the best for you.
Individual circumstances of tea drinkers are not identical. Finding a tea that best fits into your price range, while also having the flavor that you like the best, is most important. The 1950's Red Stamp Puerh is perfectly aged and has reached the height of drink-ability, but we must consider its cost. Today a single little pot of Red Stamp tea may cost upwards of 5000RMB ($800USD). Consider just how much it costs for a pot of Puerh and decide whether you can handle the expense. This allows you to determine your ideal price range.
I hope beginning tea drinkers now have some ideas how to answer the question we began with, "What is quality Puerh tea?" I have summarized some of my experience. Everyone's taste is different. Although some teas are widely viewed as quality teas, in fact these teas simply offer a flavor that most tea drinkers prefer. Some tea drinkers may have relatively particular tastes. For instance, some tea drinkers may be draw to extremely sweet flavors. Even if a tea is highly sought after in the tea market, it may not suit your individual tastes.
Consequently, when tasting Puerh tea, you should focus on limiting your purchases while sampling as many teas as you can. Do not be overly anxious. Once you thoroughly understand your tastes, you can buy the tea that you know you will enjoy. In addition, avoid going overboard. Purchase only tea that is within your budget.
I believe that high-quality Puerh tea is tea that tastes good to you and does not force you to endure undue financial strain. When drinking Puerh tea, you should limit your purchases while sampling as many teas as you can. Don't be too anxious. Once you thoroughly understand your tastes, you can buy the tea that you know you will enjoy. Avoid going overboard, and purchase only tea that is within your budget.