Someday I hope to be able to order tea freely. Allan Keane might be my idol in this regard. Then again, I was considering one of his tea hauls and got nervous when I thought about how the human body could possibly drink that much tea. Perhaps he isn’t human. He certainly produces tea reviews like a machine. Until then, I am relegated to a few orders per year. This year I placed a large order from Verdant Tea, Life in Teacup, Yunnan Sourcing, and then Yunnan Sourcing again. In between these larger orders I placed two small ones from Crimson Lotus and just recently one from Puerh Shop. I drank various offerings from Verdant Tea that ran the gamut from green to hong. I focused on green teas from Life in Teacup. My first order from Yunnan Sourcing focused on Yunnan green and white teas. The second order was exclusively pu’er and of course all pu’er from Crimson Lotus. The recent Puerh Shop order contained a gift for my brother (a large shou cake for him to get to know) and a couple small things for myself as well. They have yet to arrive though, so they aren’t yet part of this year’s experiences.
The year eventually became very pu’er focused. I started off my relationship to pu’er with a level of skepticism and cynicism that surprised me. I have a cynical streak in me, but normally it is pretty subdued. When I started to get a feeling for the level of fervor surrounding pu’er, however, my immediate reaction was to dismiss it and to label it as snobbery. It has been a few years since I tried my first pu’er, which was unfortunately a shou quite akin to fish-food. Since then I have been able to find some extraordinary pu’ers. I am very thankful for that, because now I understand the appeal and the value of a pu’er tea, both sheng and shou.
One thing everyone eventually learns about me is that I have practiced kung fu since 1998. One of the habits that I have tried to develop in my training is to gravitate towards difficult forms. For instance, I had a hard time understanding a particular crane form several years back. It didn’t click with me, so I focused on it and I practiced it almost exclusively for a year and low and behold it became one of my favorite forms. I learned a lesson through that. I shouldn’t dismiss something because it doesn’t seem like it’s for me or that it doesn’t come naturally for me. This same sort of stubbornness is what has pulled me towards pu’er. I didn’t get it and it bothered me.
Thank goodness for tea vendors that sell samples. The availability of so many samples promotes tea literacy. A more informed market makes for more honest vendors and that leads to a healthier industry in the long run. My second order from Yunnan Sourcing was exclusively samples and small cakes. I aimed to put my naivety about pu’er to rest. I split the order down the middle between sheng and shou, and I selected teas across the price spectrum as well. I chose a few different famous villages, and I looked for variation in leaf grade among the shous.
All of the pu’er that I drank this year was good. A large majority of it was great. A few were approaching the experience that we all seek, the sublime. The sublime raw that I drank this year has to be the 2005 Guoyan “Lao Ban Zhang” from Yunnan Sourcing. I think that it is the best sheng I have had to date. The sublime shou that I drank this year was a birthday present sample of 1997 CNNP 7581 Recipe from Green Tea Guru in the UK. The other hits for me were from Crimson Lotus, who are very quickly developing their catalog (and their brand) into a very well curated shop. The 2007 Qiaojun “Huang Zhi” Huang Pian Ripe was a sample that I came to appreciate in my second session with it. I think that I will always want a huang pian ripe in my tea cabinet from now on. I found some of the leaves to be deteriorated, but the overall taste and feel to be thoroughly enjoyable. I finished my sample and felt sad to see it go. The 2015 Bai Ying Shan “Hidden Song” Sheng melted my heart as soon as I opened the sample package. I made a promise that I would order a cake, and I will be receiving it this week. In addition, earlier this year I had the first sheng that opened my eyes as to why tea drinkers are so passionate about sheng, the 2005 Changtai “Yun Pu Zhi Dian/Top of the Clouds” Sheng.
After exploring these styles of tea much more thoroughly than I had ever done in previous years, I can say that I get it. I understand why pu’er style teas are surrounded by such a passionate drinkership. First and foremost, they come with a pedigree and a sense of place. A pu’er comes with the who, what, when, where, why and how. We know which factory produces it. We know the varietal of the leaves and the leaf grade. We know when the maocha was processed, and we know when the tea was pressed. We know the village or mountain where the trees grow. We know why one would seek out a pu’er from a certain village, composed of a certain varietal or leaf grade. We know how sheng and shou are made.
Of course, some or all of this information is available for other teas as well. Famous wulongs or greens are surrounded by the same knowledge base. But the knowledge base built up around pu’er is robust enough to promote the high level of connoisseurship that the pu’er industry enjoys. In the years that I have been involved with tea, I have come to want one thing more than anything else from the industry: that same rubost knowledge base across the entire spectrum of tea growing. Fortunately we have an increasing number of tea vendors who prioritize informing their customers. But that’s an article for another day.
Alongside the relative wealth of information attached to pu’er, it can be a damn good tea. I can even see why drinkers place it above all other teas. I can understand why people drink it exclusively and why vendors specialize in it. It is alluring. It changes over time, over steeps, and there is such a massive variety in the style that there is always something new to discover and explore. Although aging isn’t exclusive to pu’er, the fact that aging is so important to the style of pu’er makes makes it so that the style always has that extra layer of depth. One can take the same journey with an aged wulong; tasting the fresh and aged counterparts and understanding how the aging, and perhaps re-roasting in the case of wulong, can give an entire new dimension to the style. But the fact is, if you take the same quality of wild or otherwise pampered leaf, and process it with the same great care, you can have an extraordinary tea of any style.
So my take away has been this: If you were to put me on a desert island and I could only have one tea with me… it would be the most buoyant tea I can find because I am building a raft with the tea and getting off that miserable island and back to civilization where I can continue to seek out sublime teas of all styles. I am very happy to have come to know pu’er and to have experienced the teas that I have steeped this year. But I am simultaneously frustrated. I want green teas, white teas, wulongs, and hong cha to enjoy the same vetting that western tea culture gives to pu’er. I have had green teas that are better than any pu’er that I have drank. I like to experience being intimately close to the raw leaf when drinking a white or green. Sometimes I want what a black has to offer, and shou pu’er isn’t the same.
So friends, promote that green tea of that certain varietal that comes from that certain village and is made by those certain crafters. Tell your customers or friends more about that tea. Build up a reputation around the teas that you believe in, be they pu’er or not.
In the mean time, I am going to sip on this 2012 Yunnan Sourcing “Yi Dian Hong” ripe mini cake. It’s pretty good and I still have quite a few steeps to put it through.
Much love, tea people.