Raw pu’erh is very tricky. From the time it is processed to consumption the tea is constantly changing. There are ebbs and flows in how the tea develops and what tastes good fresh may not be the better tasting tea in the long-run. Teas can also go through certain stages where it’ll be transitional or in-between profiles, lacking a cohesive form and not necessarily tasting appealing or enjoyable. These awkward stages depend on a number of factors including the base material, compression, storage, etc. making them difficult to pin down. It can be tricky to discern if the tea will recover to become good and decent or if it is ultimately doomed..
The most obvious awkward stage is a couple years after the tea has been harvested. Teas will generally change most quickly early on in their lifetime and this phase occurs when the tea’s top notes, freshness and aroma dissipate but much of the depth that comes with aging pu’erh has yet to occur.
When I spoke to a tea merchant in HK that warehoused and sold traditionally stored HK teas he told me that he almost never bought teas fresh and nearly always waited until the tea is five years old before evaluating and purchasing cases of tea (case = 42 cakes). Five years old is still very young, especially for HK drinkers, so when he bought those teas it wasn’t exactly for immediate drinking. This approach is telling and perhaps good advice to many that are trying to store tea.. For the drinker it can be easy to be wooed by the pleasant and fragrant but transient notes that will vanish in most sorts of long-term aging. If your ultimate goal is good, aged tea, it’s a lot easier to see what direction a tea is headed if you wait and buy a few years down the road like the HK tea seller. There is also often a sweet spot, where the tea has begun to develop but may not have risen much in cost yet.
TwoDog compared the weird/awkward phase for pu’erh to the wine world:
In wine, people often call this a dumb phase, so I will borrow that term. Pu’erh teas of all kinds go through dumb phases and it is extremely tricky to predict. There are several productions that at one point got sold for a song because people mistakenly thought they were bad that later matured into good tea. Several teas in my own collection that I had thought were dead five years ago have matured into great tea. Luckily I didn’t have to make decision to throw them out at that point, I just let them sit and age and drank something else.
A few additional points:
- You shouldn’t panic and toss out pu’erh you bought fresh a few years ago even if it doesn’t taste all that unless you’re convinced that it’s turn for the worst is permanent (see comment above). Sometimes waiting will be enough..
- Oolong while aging can undergo a similar awkward phase where it loses its fresh, crisp notes, and before it’s developed much aged taste.
- A personal note.. I find myself gravitating towards older teas with the bulk of my easy access tea being at least 7 years old. I do keep easy access to a couple young shengs for diversity but I’ve stashed most of my teas that belong in the range of 2-7 years and will revisit them when their time comes.
So when does tea reach the next stage? One common mark quoted is the 7 year mark, when the tea hits its supposed first maturation. Why 7 years? Under what conditions? It’s not entirely clear, but it does seem to be a benchmark for when raw pu’erh begins to start being reevaluated. In this old livejournal post we can see Linda (Bana Tea) and Tim (The Mandarin’s Tea Room) discussing this issue. It’s also mentioned that wild or arbor tea might age much quicker and hit its maturation stages faster. But as is the case for many of pu’erhs tricky or controversial topics it’s hard to come up with any hard/fast rules.
Note: A TC discussion on the awkward phase.
A Brief Survey
I surveyed Scott (Yunnan Sourcing), Paul (White2Tea), and Linda (Bana Tea) about the topic. I asking specifically about awkwardness in young pu’erh. While not contradictory, each one seemed to think a little different about the issue from one another.
Scott aptly likened young teas to raising kids. I guess I feel they are awkward too… but I am so used to drinking tea in this age range that they don’t seem awkward… I guess it’s kind of the difference between being a parent and a elementary school teacher at the same time. Kids doing crazy stuff would be completely mundane.
Scott’s answer makes a lot of sense and I’ve noticed that I’m most acutely aware of any awkwardness when I’m hopping between tea genres. i.e. I’m drinking a lot of older tea and then switch to something that’s 4 years old.
Linda on the quality/types of base material… different base materials develop at different pace. I was told and my experience confirmed that teas from wild trees develop/age faster, than teas from old trees, and teas from taidi bushes develop the slowest. If the key to good real estate is ‘location, location, location,” then the key to a good pu-erh is base material, base material, base material. Time is only a minor factor in determining how good a tea will be.
Linda on old tree vs. plantation material… I found that teas made from gushu never cease to surprise me pleasantly, whereas teas from taidi (plantation) or sheng tai (natural) always remain the same boring, and uninteresting tea. Teas made from gushu become thicker, fuller-bodied, and most obviously, the emergence of “gan” in a few years. On the other hand, my 2007 taidi cha is still quite bitter and not much better than when I first acquired it in 2009.
Paul commented on Yiwu teas… I have not seen many patterns that I’d be willing to pin down as being rules, but for example, some Yiwu teas that I owned from their early years until now went through awkward stages after 2-5 years and then started to move into a better place 7 or 8 years. It’s not unique or even typical to Yiwu, but that’s happened with some teas that I have been drinking myself. And I’ve also had enough fresh Yiwu, 5 year Yiwu, 10 year Yiwu, and old Yiwu to get a general feel for the ride they are on. All of this gets tricky because Yiwu is not some singular thing, but you have to speak in generalities to get an idea about this puzzle.
Paul on teas aging out and declining (one of the few people that discusses this)… Again, back to wine, certain grapes have the structure to go the distance with aging, whereas others taste better young or in several years. It is admittedly just speculation on my part, but it seems like a lot of the more fragrantly processed Puer teas are best drank in a shorter time frame – let’s irresponsibly toss out a number…five years- and might not have the chance to go the distance. Whereas a well processed Yiwu tea already has a proven track record as the kind of tea that can age for decades upon decades. It will end up coming down to what any given person finds attractive about a tea. For the tea I think I wrote that about, its most attractive feature was its fragrance. And I could see that diminishing or changing entirely by the tenth year.
Linda on storage and awkwardness… If the tea is being aged in very humid areas, it will certainly goes through an “awkward” stage before it reaches the desirable results. However, teas in dry storage change very slowly and less likely to have the “awkward” stage.