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Puerh Questions with Huang Chang Fang, master blender of Puerh tea

* What is the real difference between a blended (pin pei) tea and a single-region tea cake?

Firstly, it's important to understand that Puerh isn't a single, uniform kind of tree. Actually, every single tree has its own character and flavor, which is different from all others. An old book might call Puerh tea bitter and unsmooth, but that was only with reference to those trees in that region and at that time. Some Puerh is sweet and tender. We often appraise Puerh tea by looking at the mountain where it came from. Raw material from these mountains do have common characteristics. This is of course due to the similar soil, weather, technology and farming, etc. in that area. Tea trees are perhaps analogous to people: people from different regions do have common traits, physical and cultural, but in the end each one is also an individual. For these reasons,blending has always been one of the most difficult and important jobs in Puerh production. We are trying to carry on a tradition of secret recipes, blending skill and esteem that our ancestors started. Blending teas from different parts of a region, or several regions, allows us to take bitter, sweet, unsmooth or smooth, mellow tea, etc. and compose them into one production that tastes much better than anyone of them could alone. The various raw material from different areas should compliment each other: one may have good Qi, another good aging potential, the third brings sweetness and smoothes out the balance, etc. None of these teas would be as rich, abundant or delicious if they were drank alone. Trust me, I drink all of them by themselves before blending.

* Why do single-region tea cakes even exist then?

The amount of tea from any single region isn't enough to meet the great demand of the modern Puerh market, especially if you consider the smaller sub-regions within the famous mountains. Some of these smaller regions only produce 9-10 tons per harvest, 30 tons per year. The overall demand right now has exceeded 100,000 tons! Producers need to compose blended tea or they cannot survive, so even if it weren't the traditional way and didn't taste better, it would still be necessary. And why are some tea cake still single-region? Well, some tea lovers or shop owners go to Yunnan and purchase raw material to produce tea themselves. They are only making a very small amount and can't afford to travel to many regions to buy many different kinds of tea. These small-producers' limited time, budget and experience often leads them to just buy tea from a single region. They can't afford to buy large amounts, and they may not be able to blend. Of course, these smaller producers will then glorify single-region Puerh and market it as more natural, higher quality, etc. Sometimes, however, single-region Puerh are good as they allow the consumer to learn about the characteristics of a particular region. It is very important that one understands clearly that the best single-region raw material are still blended - they are created by mixing the various complimentary leaves from different farms and sub-regions within the region.

* So are you saying that all the traditional, famous vintages of Puerh were blended?

Yes. Most all the old Puerh tea cakes even have some kind of trademark ticket that will say "a precious prescription" or "unique blend", and many were very secret. They also often displayed the mountains where the factory was located or where the tea trees were, but as I mentioned before regions like Yiwu have many tea-growing sub-regions and the tea from each of them is different. The tea cakes were still blended. It is how a company achieves the consistency their customers want. Even look at much larger tea companies: They blend their teas so that the flavors that their customers enjoy won't change from year to year. A particular flavor may taste the same even after twenty years. That is because the blenders are skilled at using the raw material of any given year to create those tastes. Without blending, this stability would be lost, as the tea harvested changes each season and year. Also, as I said, each region doesn't produce enough tea, and therefore cannot influence the market a lot. A big company can purchase a lot of tea and blend it, meeting the demand of customers and establishing itself in the global market. The old Puerh factories were the same. The Red Mark (Hong Yin) of the 1950's are famous for the fact that the flavor hardly changed all throughout the decade.

* Why do some blends on the market have a smoky flavor?

This is a difficult question to answer. I like it though. It doesn't seem to fit in with the others. Still, whoever was asking this one was paying closer attention to their Puerh I imagine {laughs}. Some people may enjoy a certain degree of smoky flavor in certain kinds of teas, and there are occasions where it is intentional, but it usually relates to a flaw in the processing. The skill for processing Puerh tea is thousands of years old, and on some levels has changed very little in that time. The smoky flavor could come from an improper preparatory fixation (shaqing) frying. It may even be that the wood used in the fire was wet or humid, which produced the smoke that the tea then absorbed slightly. Recently, a lot of new technology is improving the science of Puerh production. Just because something was acceptable for a long time doesn't mean it should continue when innovation has allowed us the ability to improve it. There may be some old trees that have this kind of flavor naturally, or it may be in the processing, but if we can take those leaves and make them more flavorful,sweet and delicious then tradition shouldn't stop us from doing so. I guess in some part this is a matter of taste, as long as the smokiness is slight and not a burnt taste like in some improperly processed teas.

* Are imitations and forgeries in the Puerh market as large a problem as some would have us believe?

There are imitations amongst vintage Puerh because of the high prices. Any market is like that. Some people roast wrapping papers in ovens to try to give them an aged appearance, others store tea in a very humid place to mimic much older Puerh. Now, we are also starting to see forgeries amongst newborn Puerh tea. Lao Banzhang (老班章)tea, for example, is highly regarded and expensive. Its cost this year was 1500 RMB per kilogram. This high inflation has caused all kinds of clowns, wearing business suits, to start surfing this wave - using imitations to make a quick profit from the reputation of teas like this. Spring Lao Banzhang tea actually only yields about 4 tons, and the annual production is really only about 10 tons. However, I have seen a few hundred tons of "pure Lao Banzhang" in the market this season alone. How many people have ever even drank the real thing then? Consequently, fakes in the Puerh industry are almost always focused on particular vintages that are worth a lot or particular regions. They exalt their own teas by declaring certain tree types or regions, like saying "big tree" or "old tea tree" which are incredibly vague statements that actually say nothing about the quality of the tea inside. The truth is that there are many, many different kinds of trees in Yunnan, and some are very old and even well-cared for but still don't taste nice. Every industry has its own version of this marketing hype. It just means that consumers need to judge for themselves and not listen to any of that. The fact is you probably haven't ever tasted authentic Lao Banzhang, but it's not important so long as the tea is enjoyable to you.

* In such a confusing milieu as all this, how does someone overseas in Malaysia or even America begin learning about and/or purchasing Puerh tea?

My advice is that you never follow brand, price or even fads. Teas from certain companies are really changing all the time, based on what’s available. Which raw material a factory can get each year isn't certain, especially with regards to the smaller producers. One needs to taste teas and buy based on what one enjoys. I suggest buying teas from different regions and different price ranges. Try buying some really cheap teas and then next month only one or two very expensive ones. Are they worth the extra money? If so, look for the characteristics that make them worth more. A second way to test a tea is to leave it in a bowl of hot water for a few days, If the liquor is still clear, penetrative and without mildew, then it is probably a good tea. A third way is to participate in a seminar or gathering of other tea lovers and learn from some people who have more experience. It brings me great joy to learn that people as far away as America are enjoying Puerh tea, and sharing information with other tea lovers is at the very core of what tea is all about to me. I am positive that many others feel the same and would be willing to share tea and experience, even in America. I really hope that America and other countries that are newer to the Puerh world, don't pick up on many of the bad habits of us Chinese, like buying and selling large quantities without any concern for quality or for who is going to actually drink the tea at the end of the day.

* Would these answers then also apply to what Puerh should be aged?

This is a complicated and often misunderstood issue. If you had two tables made from the same quality of sandalwood and one was 200 years old and the other new, you would know that the new one would be just like the other after 200 years. One may be worth a lot more, but actually with regards to using the table to serve tea on, they both function the same. Some people say that teas like the 1950's Red Mark didn't taste good when they were new: they were bitter and astringent, and that they then transformed into enjoyable Puerh as the acerbity declined. However, there are young Puerh now without any acerbity, so should we also wait 50 years to enjoy them? Should we then buy up teas that taste very nasty and bitter, hoping they will transform in fifty years? Life is too short for that. It's better to be reasonable and not think in terms of magic or mysterious changes over time. There are some Puerh that taste better with age; some of which will even become the amazing vintages of the future. And some of them will come from unexpected brands, regions, blends, etc. Like the aforementioned example of Red Mark, some of the greatest vintages in 50 years may be ones that weren't exceptional now. Too much of this issue has to do with storage conditions, the raw material blended into the batch, as well as other conditions we may not fully understand or have any control over. Furthermore, every company will tell you that their tea will age well. However, I think that we human beings should live in the here and now. We should focus more deeply on what is around us in the present. Don't live life hoping to enjoy it 50 years from now. Drink the Puerh that make you happy now. I also age some teas in my collection. I like watching them change over time and learning about this process, but I would never do so at the expense of having no tea to enjoy now. Watching the aging process like this brings me joy now, in the present. Besides, who knows if the teas I picked will even age well.

The owners of this publishing house and I have been having some discussions about hosting some tours through Yunnan for foreigners. I would be very interested in conducting such tours, freely. It would be great to see some Americans in Yunnan, learning about all this first-hand - that's the best way to really know any subject. I hope something comes of these plans.