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A Guide to Puerh Tea

Which sheng will get better with age?

A Shenzhen tea dealer's experience

November 2010

If you want to talk about the ageing ability of puerh, let me begin by discussing my experience with aging puerh.

We began storing puerh back in 1998, when not many people in China were storing puerh. We stored puerh for two reasons:

Firstly, a large number of old Fujianese influenced us in doing so (the majority of Hong Kongers who store puerh tea are from the Fujian province).

Secondly, there was only a limited supply of puerh available to Shenzhen dealers at any one time (our target markets were the Hong Kongers, because frankly, at that time not many people in China was interested in puerh).

During those days, people would never buy new sheng puerh, they would only buy puerh that had aged for at least a few years. And the so-called aged puerh, well there were fakes around, and at that time very few people could tell the difference between real or fake aged puerh, they could only rely on the very few experienced purchasers.

Whatever the customers demanded, we sourced and provided to them to make a living.

And at that time, aged puerh was not really that expensive. For example, in 2000, the 1980s Xiaguan Traditional Chinese Characters tea cake was selling for about US$15 and the 1996 Purple Dayi was selling for about US$6.

When we first started our puerh business, we had limitations on knowing what to acquire and store, we did not know the difference between big factory and small factory, big tree and small tree, old tree and young tree. We had no experience, and as a result, we paid no small amount of tuition fees.

Initially. we sourced our aged puerh from the Fujianese in Hong Kong. However the prices they quoted were relatively high and the quantity available and domestic consumption was low. So we moved on to obtaining our tea from Fangcun in Guangzhou, where the tea was cheaper and there were many varieties. I remember that there were so many different tea bricks, there was a 1949 brick to commemorate the building of the nation, there was a 1997 cake to commemorate the handover of Hong Kong. Some bricks were even 3kg in weight. We did not realise at that time that most of the tea were made and fermented in Guangzhou using maocha from Guangxi. Food safety and quality were suspect, and so was the age of the tea. I realised this because the sellers told me that they could create any age of tea at my request.

It seemed like a million kinds of tea were available, advertisements were placed in newspapers and vendors started to create their own websites. They created golden melon puerh, wrappers without any writing on them, they did not adhere to any standard sizes, there was even a 20kg golden melon. There was “home stored puerh”, “loose leaf puerh”, “gong ting puerh” and many other kinds. Yet all these tea were inferior in quality. A lot of these puerh were made with maocha that came from unknown locations. The manufacturers would either semi-ferment the raw tea or mix ripe with raw puerh, and then pass it off as aged puerh to unsuspecting consumers.

Actually such tea could not be called puerh because aging would not improve its flavour or taste. The aging ability had stopped dead in its tracks. Tea that had been heavily fermented would grew a dark black brew like squid ink, and after the first 2 brews, would lose its flavour altogether.

Tea that had been lightly fermented, would be very astringent. These tea consistently had the same effects on me, which were after downing a cup, my mouth would be dry and it would feel numb.

After going through such bad experiences with purchasing tea, I was almost ready to give up.

Fortunately, I met another tea distributor in Shenzhen who represented the Zhongcha company. He showed me the ropes and since 2000, I have not looked back.

The Zhongcha Brand

The Zhongcha company was the largest tea distributor in China at that time. Most of the Yunnan tea manufacturers had their tea labeled with the Zhongcha label, and some Hong Kong private label pressings also clamoured for the Zhongcha wrapper for their tea productions. Such was the situation because at that time consumers hardly knew anything about puerh. All they knew was that regardless of price, regardless of age, if you see a Zhongcha wrapper, you are on the right track. The buyers didn’t know anything other than this, and neither did the sellers. I don't think anyone really knew what was going on. I also did not come across a single knowledgeable puerh tea dealer in Shenzhen, and well at that time there were no more than 10 dealers, most of them on the Luohu border. So nobody knew anything about tea, but what we all knew was that a Zhongcha wrapper was a pre-requisite before buying our puerh.

When Menghai came up with tea wrapper with a 1996 Purple Dayi wrapper. Nobody would touch it! The dealers would be stuck with stock. Needless to say tea made from even lesser known factories would be difficult to sell.

During those days, the primary target markets were Hong Kong and Taiwan. So all the factories (for example Liming, Fuhai, Mengku, etc.) had to wrap their tea with the Zhongcha label.

In 1999, we bought a batch of ripe tea. It was about 1 or 2 years old. The tea came in two sizes, large cakes and small cakes. The large cakes were sour, and it had that kind of sourness that would never go away with dry storage, no matter how long you stored it. From my personal experience, storing them in our store, they still tasted sour after many years, and intrinsically they did not change one bit. However, with wet storage, that kind of sourness would dissipate within 2 years. I also bought around ten pieces of dry stored 1980s Zhongcha ripe tea bricks to experiment. Of course, there are some beginners to puerh who don’t mind the sourness and enjoy it, and under those circumstances there’s no need to argue with them about their choice.

Bitterness and Astringency in Tea

Storing tea in the early days, we couldn’t judge the age of the aged sheng we were buying and when we bought young sheng we didn't know which types of young sheng would get better with age.

Only some books would state that we must look for young sheng which is very bitter. Bitterness and/or thickness was a good quality, the books said.

Adding on the wisdom passed down by the “experienced ones”, which maintained that only young sheng that was bitter and astringent were worth storing. According to them, the danger with pleasant tasting tea was that their taste and fragrance would gradually subside over the years, leaving you with a flat, tasteless tea. Therefore, the “experienced ones” said, we must avoid any tea that is not bitter or thick.

However we bought the 1999 Changtai Yichanghao which at that time was a relatively “flat” tea. We will explain below why we bought that tea in 1999, but first let’s discuss about distinguishing between “thickness” and “flatness” in tea.

Back then, some tea we brought in were extremely bitter, and not only were they bitter, they often came with a smoky flavour. For a period of time such tea was popular and part of the trend, and as such this influenced the incorrect purchases of consumers.

Some tea merchants when selling young sheng to you, if you ever asked them why the tea was so astringent, they would almost certainly respond with the statement that this is actually very good tea and is suitable for long term aging purposes.

Well actually this view is still held by many people today, this idea that the astringency of a tea is directly correlated to aging ability.

Our experience with what ages well

After our personal experiences over the years, it seems that it’s not the case that strong astringency is better. At the same time when we bought a variety of astringent tea, we also bought some relatively mild tea, like the 1999 Yichanghao. After a few years, some of the astringent tea developed into good tea, but a large majority of the astringent tea still retain their smoky flavor, their bitterness, their astringency and are very hard to drink.

So were the books wrong? What kind of tea should we store?

My view is that the books were not wrong, it was simply that our understanding was flawed.

Good young sheng should have a “thickness” in the liquor. However “thickness” does not equate to “bitterness”. “Thickness” should relate to a thick taste, a fullness in flavour (as opposed to thinness), abundance of interaction with the mouth.

Applying a strong brewing period (in excess of 1 minute), we also find that all puerh tea becomes bitter, but we can distinguish that:

- the bad teas would still not have good huigan or houyun. Such tea would not be considered good candidates for storing.

- the good teas would feel rich in the mouth, and after swallowing, the bitterness disappears or changes into sweetness or saliva very quickly. Huigan and houyun are strong.

So “bitterness" does not equate to "thickness", because there are many bitter teas on the market, but once you swallow them, you find that their huigan or houyun are not discernable. Such tea is not worth keeping.

In fact, you can learn about this by doing a horizontal tasting of young sheng in the same year. Even from the same mountain, you can learn about and compare bitterness between bush tea with old tree teas, between lower altitude tea and higher altitude tea.

In addition to the misconception, it is currently the trend to store tea in dry conditions. If a consumer purchases astringent bitter tea and stores them in dry conditions, the bitterness will not dissipate easily (if at all!).

Last but not least, we can look towards history and rely on vintage puerh to confirm this theory that bitterness does not equate to aging ability.

The 1940s Ding Xing Hao, it’s already 70 years old, yet the bitterness is still strong.

The 1950s to 1970s Tian Xing Hao, Big Shui Lan Yin also have a bitterness that has not disappeared.

Copyright 2010 Nicolas Tang