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How To Select Puerh Tea

Author/photos: Chan Kam Pong

During China's Qing Dynasty, Puerh tea was already very well known. According to the Dianhai Yuheng Zhi (Annals of Dianchi and Erhai Lakes): "Puerh tea is known throughout the world. It is produced on the six tea mountains of Puerh... covering an area 800 li (1/2 km) in diameter. Several tens of thousands of people live in the mountains producing the tea. Merchants come to purchase the tea and transport it far and wide." Sadly, China's national strength declined and tea-drinking traditions were lost. Puerh tea, which requires careful aging, seemed to be even more forgotten. This cultural treasure slept for nearly one hundred years. We must look back to our great- and great-great-grandparents' generation to find awareness that Puerh was considered a top-quality famous tea.

Puerh was not at all fashionable in the 1980's and, consequently, was sold to Guangdong and Hong Kong tea houses to serve as low-grade kettle tea. This can be explained simply by the fact that virtually no one understood or saw the value of Puerh, Even if high-quality Yunnan tea leaves were offered, no one showed up to purchase them. Because of this loss of tradition, the vibrant tea market streets of Yiwu grew quiet and virtually no traditional Puerh cakes were pressed on the famous tea growing mountains. Only after the release of Zhen Chun Ya Hao in 1996 and the popularity of Yi Chang Hao in 1999 did the attention of China return to Puerh. During the 1980's and 1990's, tea farmers still had to survive and labored to provide the necessities of life. They had no choice but to sell their tea leaves to tea factories for fermentation and use in the production of ripe Puerh tea, which was then sold on the market. A small quantity of high-grade tea was pressed into raw Puerh cakes to satisfy the requirements of Hong Kong tea sellers. It was placed into wet storage or aged several years before being split apart for sale in loose-leaf tea, thereby satisfying the tea-drinking tastes of Hong Kong residents.

Looking back twenty years from the perspective of today's Puerh tea craze, the several hundred cases of tea pressed each year in traditional 84-cake quantities for sale to Hong Kong seems like an incredibly small quantity. At the time, however, this was all the market could bear. In fact, there was no market at all to speak of. In the eyes of consumers, Puerh was still perceived as a "stinky tea." The eventual resurgence of Puerh culture was brought about by the arrival of fully aged old Puerh cakes, led by the red and blue stamp teas, combined with the efforts of Taiwanese tea lovers and the gradually increasing power of China, Puerh regained its former glory and has taken its place as an important part of the daily necessities of everyday life.

A pot of exquisite Puerh relaxingly enjoyed after dinner (regardless of the specific type) is enough to slightly reduce the pressure of modern day-to-day life. Consequently, economics permitting, Puerh tea aficionados are driven to seek out diverse and high-quality tea products. This has given rise to the question of how to select Puerh teas.

Today's Puerh styles are as varied as the stars in the sky

The revival of Puerh culture and corresponding developments have brought forth a multitude of different styles. They can roughly be classified as: large factory, small factory, home workshop, large tree, plantation tea, pure material, blends, famous mountain tea, dry storage, wet storage, natural home aging, raw, ripe, pressed cake, "tuo" style, brick style, loose leaf, gift box, cardboard tube, bamboo tube, wooden box collectibles, and event memorabilia. When viewed together, the selection seems overwhelming. Although different, the above types of tea are all Puerh. After factoring in aged Puerh from different years, the number of types of Puerh teas grows from nearly one thousand to well over ten thousand. Superficially, this situation appears to provide an excess of choices. However, little selection is actually feasible. You cannot personally sample the majority of the teas available in the market, let alone all of them, to decide which type of Puerh is most appropriate for you.

When confronted with the vast selection of Puerh available in today's marketplace, how can new tea drinkers choose the most appropriate teas? This question differs depending on whether the tea is intended for immediate consumption or for aging or for investment. This has become an open question in the tea community. How can tea drinkers select the Puerh tea that is most appropriate for them?

Today, Puerh tea products are as varied as the stars in the sky. Even if a tea shop were willing to brew all of its suitably priced teas for consumers to sample, you could not possibly try it all within the space of a few days before buying the tea best suited to your tastes. This task becomes even more daunting after realizing that there are thousands of tea shops in the marketplace.

In reality, buying Puerh tea to drink (rather than for investment) is much like buying any other everyday consumer item. Before making a purchase, one is likely to consult the experience of others. This is much like purchasing a car. You cannot possibly drive ail of the cars on the market before deciding which one to buy. You most likely first settles on a budget and then seek out reference information in the form of magazines or web sites. After comparing multiple models and looking at outward appearances, you may seek out the opinions of others who have driven the cars you are drawn to. Then you are likely to personally take several models out for test drives. Finally, after considering which car offers the best deal» you place an order. Settling on a budget is fundamental. After the budget is fixed, you seek out products within that price range and compare them based on value. This is a very rational type of consumer behavior.

The experience of purchasing Puerh tea is similar. Information for comparison can come from tea shops, or it can be found in magazines or on the web. Tea drinkers may also learn about teas by taking part in tea tastings, which reflect their devotion to Puerh. Basically, without spending a significant amount of time each week visiting tea shops and tasting teas, there is no way to find the best, most suitable tea. I hope that this article can help provide less experienced tea drinkers with some suggestions regarding how to recognize and select the most suitable Puerh.

Understand your taste

Some people prefer spicy and stimulating flavors, while others are drawn to sweet flavors. Still others do not enjoy either of these flavors but instead prefer mild and gentle tastes. Puerh provides many different types of flavors, and different people may be drawn to different teas. Those who enjoy dry stored teas may not prefer teas stored in humid conditions, and viceversa, Some people may not enjoy either of them. Consequently, it is important to know your own flavor preferences when buying tea.

Puerh tea is somewhat complex, however, and understanding your tastes may not be sufficient. Because the flavor changes as tea ages, it is important to predict how a tea will age. To a certain extent it is also important to predict how your own tastes will change over time. Even though the quality of the tea may improve over time, you may discover after several years that you no longer like a tea that you set aside to age ten or more years ago.

An acquaintance of mine provides a good example of this. As he was first getting into Puerh, he was drawn to ripe teas and purchased them in large quantities. He bought well over one hundred cakes thinking that over the coming decades he would also primarily drink ripe Puerh teas. Who knew, however, I that after several years of drinking Puerh he would come across high-quality aged raw Puerh and suddenly discover that aged raw Puerhs could have such exquisite flavor. Tasting the ripe tea he had purchased earlier. he realized that the tea that he had once viewed so highly no longer tasted good. Did the quality of the tea decline? Of course not. It was only his tastes that had changed. His collection of ripe Puerh grew less and less interesting over time.

Consequently, when looking for Puerh tea to buy, you need to look for something that will not only satisfy you as a daily drinker for the next several years. You should also try to predict just what you will enjoy in ten or even twenty years. I suggest people looking to start collecting Puerh consider broadening their range a bit. That is, purchase a number of types of tea as a precaution against changing tastes. Also, consider going a bit deeper. If you find that you really like a certain tea, you will wish you had bought more of it.

At the most basic level, we drink tea for enjoyment. No one chooses to drink something that does not taste good on a regular basis, with the possible exception of medicine. Puerh is similar. We spend money to buy tea with flavors that will appeal to us and that will make us feel good.

It is not rare for people to force themselves to drink teas that they do not like, however. What they liked at one time may not be what they enjoy in the future. As I described above, if the tea does not age well or your tastes simply change, you may end up sitting on a mountain of Puerh that does not really appeal to you (or may just not be very good) . These are so-called "learning teas."

About "Puerh buying based on taste"

Several years back, numerous discussions appeared online suggesting that new tea drinkers should disregard the appearance and age of tea cakes when first starting out. They further recommended not trusting the one-sided recommendations of tea shops. Instead, tea drinkers should buy tea based on what feels and tastes good to them personally. This principle was very popular with new tea drinkers. After all, trusting one's own mouth is far preferable to being cheated by tea sellers.

This method carries the risk, however, that new drinkers may end up cheating themselves. "Puerh buying based on taste" depends on two implicit prerequisites, which if not satisfied may lead new tewdrinkers to purchase the wrong tea. First, the novice tea drinker must be capable of predicting whether the flavor of a bitter raw Puerh will be desirable and pleasant after ten or more years of aging. Second, the tea drinkers must be able to predict whether the flavor of a tea will meet their needs after ten or more years. In other words, they must be capable of predicting their own future tastes.

Most young raw Puerh (that is, less than five years old) is bitter and immature. If the inexperienced tea drinker enjoys this type of flavor and is drawn to the green-tea-like aspects of raw Yunnan Puerh, then buying Puerh based on taste is appropriate. They understand the flavor of the tea when they spend the money to buy it. The tea they are buying and the tea they are tasting in the shop is the same as the tea they will be brewing at home in the near term. This is much like the concept in computers of "plug-and-play." If you buy a cake of raw Puerh and finish drinking it within a month, its flavor will be the same as when you first tasted it. Of course it makes sense to buy based on taste. I am confident that tea drinkers are unlikely to torture themselves by bringing home a cake of tea that tastes unpleasant for immediate consumption. Tasting the tea in the shop before buying it serves a practical purpose.

Most people who develop an interest in Puerh, however, do so after tasting aged Puerh. Many tea drinkers purchase teas that do not taste good to them at the time of purchase. They hope that after the tea is set aside for a number of years, it will turn into their own "aged Puerh." This type of purchase is driven by the following factors. First, high-quality aged Puerh is extremely expensive. It is beyond the financial grasp of the average person and is not the sort of thing that average people can afford as a consumer product. Second, home-stored aged Puerh can be guaranteed to be clean and hygienic. One also enjoys the opportunity to experience the changes that the tea undergoes with the passage of each year.

My concern is that novice tea drinkers will rely on "Puerh buying based on taste" to find storage-grade raw Puerh. This is due to the fact that the difference in flavor between an aged raw Puerh cake and the same tea when initially produced is huge, I am certain that many long-term tea collectors have experienced the following, that is, bringing home a large number of new teas which at first seem to be excellent, possessing pleasing flavor, and pleasant aromas. Then, after a decade or so of storage, the flavor is not at all as imagined. This is the result of collecting the wrong tea at the outset. As I explained previously, only after ten years do you learn that the tea you have aged is not the right one and is incapable of developing an ideal flavor. Eventually, you end up buying ready-for-consumption aged Puerh from Guangdong tea sellers and discover that buying aged tea to drink actually often makes more sense than storing the tea yourself. It also takes up far less space.

About buying tea to drink

Because aging of stored tea carries uncertainty, some tea drinkers may choose to buy tea for immediate consumption. Buying Puerh to drink right away docs not involve significant difficulty. First, set a budget based on your individual financial situation. For example, a budget of 10 RMB (~$1.50US) per brew works out to approximately 300 RMB (~$45 US) per cake. Once you are clear about your budget, it's time to visit tea shops. I am certain that most shops will happily brew appropriately priced teas for customers to sample. If you find tea that suits your taste, buy a few cakes to drink. Only after they are gone do you need to go back and buy more. What risk could there possibly be?

In fact, as I've already emphasized, tea tasting when buying tea for immediate consumption carries the least risk in the short term. Tea drinkers do not need to concern themselves with whether the tea will age ideally. Because the tea can be consumed immediately after it is brought home, there are no unknown elements regarding its flavor changes over time.

The sole risk when buying tea to drink occurs when a certain tea that you enjoy becomes popular. The price may increase dramatically, driving the tea beyond your budget. For instance, the 300 RMB tea cake described above is likely to double or more in price after it ages for five years. The cost is now substantial, Of course, there is no problem as long as your salary also doubles.

If the same tea can still be purchased, the situation is not so bad. It simply requires you to spend more money. But some teas favored by tea drinkers that have already reached maturity may be entirely bought up by other tea drinkers and disappear from the market, or investors may discover that a tea is priced below its market value and rush to buy it. Even after visiting several tea shops and offering a high price, the tea cannot be found. Other Puerh drinkers have naturally purchased a little extra for future consumption.

A recent example is 8582 from the 1980's. Even after the price had risen to over 50,000 RMB, sellers claimed to have no stock. Collectors were still unwilling to sell the tea. In this sort of situation, buying tea for immediate consumption forces the consumer to drink a different type of tea due to increased prices or unavailable stock. Of course, there are many other choices available, assuming you do not insist on a single tea and are willing to drink a slightly younger tea I hope that I've managed to convince you of the importance of understanding your tastes and preferences before collecting Puerh. To this end, I will now switch gears and describe the major types of Puerh in the market. I know that experienced tea drinkers are already quite familiar with these types, but I provide them for the benefit of newer fans of Puerh.

Young raw Puerh

Young raw Puerh refers to new Yunnan large-leaf tea which has been picked, hand-processed, and dried and then pressed into cakes.

Young Puerh is highly stimulating. Only after undergoing a significant period of aging does it take on a mellow and pleasant character. When consumed shortly after production, its kou gun ("mouth feel ") is relatively bitter and astringent. Tea drinkers can easily experience the taste of young raw Puerh in just about any tea shop. If you enjoy drinking tea of this type, you simply need to find a tea that satisfies your taste. There is no need to consider the potential of the tea for aging, However, if you intend to store the tea over the long-term, I recommend choosing a tea rich in theine, with complex brew quality, pure and strong flavor, and substantial tea liquor, I understand that these descriptive terms are rather abstract,but Puerh is difficult to express in words. Actual tasting and gradual study are required to truly understand Puerh.

The advantages of young raw Puerh include the following: it is relatively cheap and does not place a significant financial burden on consumers, can be easily acquired, stands up well to multiple infusions, and is a good stand-in for fresh green tea. Disadvantages include: it is bitter and astringent» rakes up space, requires time to age, and its flavor changes over lime are unclear (assuming the buyer inexperienced).

Ripe Puerh

Ripe Puerh involves another level of Puerh tea production based on pile fermentation techniques. This process transforms the tea, thereby shortening the aging process that would normally require twenty to thirty years. If the fermented tea is pressed into cakes, ripe Puerh tea cakes are created. Because ripe Puerh has reduced amounts of stimulating substances in the tea, its flavor is reminiscent of aged Puerh. Note that aged ripe Puerh is different than aged raw Puerh. Because it does not require long storage, ripe Puerh tea is very affordable, which is its most significant advantage. Its price makes it accessible to anyone. A pound of basic ripe loose-leaf tea with good flavor can often purchased for less than 100 RMB. I believe that ripe Puerh is best suited for large teapot daily drinking. If the price is right and the flavor is acceptable, it can be purchased. There is no need to consider setting the tea aside for a number of years before drinking it.

The advantages of ripe Puerh include: it is low-priced and can be purchased easily; it is very approachable; it sweet and drinkable; and it does not require aging and can be consumed immediately. Disadvantages include: it lacks strength when brewed; it may carry "off" flavors; it does not hold up well to multiple infusions; it may still possess "wet pile" fermentation flavor, giving it a muddy taste; it may even be somewhat sour; and its potential for improvement over time is limited.

Wet storage Puerh

Wet storage Puerh represents a compromise over traditional aged Puerh based on considerations of time, money, and flavor. Raw Puerh is placed in a relatively humid environment for a certain period of time to quickly mellow the bitter raw tea through the operation of humidity and time. The tea can then be sold in the market with no need to wait for twenty or thirty years. Consequently, it can be sold at a lower price.

As with all things, however, you get what you pay for. Reasonably priced wet storage Puerh does raise certain concerns for the tea drinker. For example, some wet stored teas have uneven flavor. The flavor of the first cake in a tong may differ from the fourth cake, because the position of the tea during the storage process affects the tea's exposure to moisture. This leads to lack of uniformity. Even more troubling, the flavor of the tea on the outside of a single cake may be significantly different from that of the tea in the center of the cake.

In addition, the most crucial aspect of wet storage Puerh production is how, after removing the tea from storage, to rid it of cang wei (the musty flavor resulting from wet storage), which many find unpleasant, and turn it into the very desirable flavor of aged Puerh, In the past, when Puerh sales were much lower, Hong Kong tea sellers had plenty of time to place the tea in a dry, cool, and well-ventilated location. They could take advantage of time to dispel the tea's musty aroma and transform it into aged flavor before selling the tea. Now, Puerh is much more widely sought after. Experienced tea drinkers are likely to purchase the tea at a reduced price before the flavor of wet storage has had a chance to dissipate. Because it is cheap and they understand how to remove the musty aroma, they have no reservations about buying the wet storage tea. Tea sellers subsequently discovered that tea drinkers were willing to buy wet storage flavored teas as long as a discount was offered. As a result, they began selling tea products that still had this flavor. As long as consumers purchased the tea, they were satisfied. They could offer the tea at a slightly reduced price and let the buyers worry about removing the cang wei.

Sadly, some retailers who do not fully understand tea are unskilled in removing the tea from storage. Even though an intense cang wei remains, they nonetheless offer the tea for sale. They even claim that this tea is so-called" aged Puerh." It is no wonder that some tea drinkers have such a low opinion of tea sellers. This is probably due to previous unpleasant experience with such sellers.

Advantages of wet stored Puerh include the following: It does not require home storage, because it has already been stored for some time; it already possesses good aged flavor; it provides a satisfying tea tasting experience; it is affordable; it can be immediately brewed; it can aged and consumed at the same time; it generally still has potential for further aging; and, finally, its flavor is similar to that of old Puerh tea, assuming the wet storage flavor has been removed. Its disadvantages include the following: It may carry certain flavors; cang wei may still remain, which either has not yet dissipated or cannot be removed; and the age can easily be faked.

Aged raw Puerh

Assuming money is no object, nothing beats buying true old Puerh that is ready to drink today, that is, tea with thirty or more years of age. Such tea removes any risk involved in aging the tea yourself and achieves the result mentioned above of being a tea that can be bought and drank immediately.

Advantages of old Puerh include the following: It offers exquisite tea quality; it provides exceptional taste; it possesses ample aged Puerh charm; it has the flavor that tea drinkers generally favor; it can be immediately consumed after it is purchased; it does not require any further aging; the entire tea cake can be immediately drank; it involves no risk with respect to change over time; and it does not impose the same space requirements as tea that must be stored before being consumed. Disadvantages include the following: First, and most significantly, old Puerh is expensive. Very little of the tea circulates within the market, and it is not easy to acquire. Because the price is high, it may not be possible to sample the tea before buying it. Because it has already aged, it offers limited room for improvement. The high price of aged tea means counterfeit teas are commonplace. Experience is required to distinguish real aged Puerh from counterfeits.

Choose Puerh that suits you

Puerh teas of different ages and types provide different flavors and are available at different prices. Different people are likely to choose to drink different teas. Consequently, tea drinkers should first determine the following: are you buying the tea to drink immediately or to store for a number of years before drinking? Afterwards, settle on a budget and select the best tea that fits into your budget.

When tasting a tea at a tea shop, pay particular attention to whether its fragrance, liquor, hui gan (returning sweetness), and hou yun (throat rhythm or aftertaste) suit your taste, If you like the flavor of the brewed tea and would like to take the next step and purchase a quantity of the tea for storage, do not be overly anxious. First buy a small quantity or a single cake to take home for more careful tasting. Everyone brews tea differently, and the method used by the tea seller may be different than your own. Sometimes you may find that a tea brewed one way in the shop tastes completely different when you brew it yourself. Consequently, although perhaps a bit more expensive, it is best to buy a small amount of the tea for further investigation. Even if the tea is truly unsuitable, you have only wasted a single cake and not an entire tong or case.

Only return to buy a tong or a case of the tea if you still find the flavor acceptable after drinking it for a week or two. What determines whether the flavor is acceptable? Quality tea exerts its own type of attraction, After finishing it, you want to keep drinking. This method can lower the risk of buying a large quantity of unsuitable "learning" tea.

Final remarks

Today's Puerh market is completely unlike that of twenty or even ten years ago. Many different types, ages, storage methods, and varieties of Puerh are now available for tea drinkers to select from. Puerh has a rich cultural foundation. When you first develop an interest in Puerh, slow down and learn what types of tea please you. Only then should you take the next step and begin developing a tea collection, selecting those teas that truly suit your tastes. This substantially reduces the need to purchase "learning" teas. It is also very important that tea drinking does not cause financial strain. The point of drinking Puerh tea is to enrich the flavor of life, which requires finding tea that satisfies both in terms of price and flavor. That s a beautiful thing!