What’s in the bag?? For people trying to explore pu’erh, sampling is inevitable. A sample is a good, albeit imperfect way to learn and get a feel for a tea. Pu’erh is an endless subsection of teas with various makes, source materials, storage etc. and while repetition is also very important, it’s also a good idea to sample widely to experience the breadth that pu’erh offers. Here’s a few considerations to keep in mind while sampling.
This post is intended for the anal-retentive pu’erh head who likes to (over)think through things.
Sample Markup (or sampling ain’t cheap!)
Nearly all vendors charge a sample markup. If you were to calculate the cost/quantity for a sample vs. the cake, it will nearly always be higher for the sample. This is completely understandable. There’s a cost of labor directly tied in with breaking a cake and there will be a little loss of materials that occurs when chipping away at a sample. The actual sample markup varies tea to tea and can be anywhere from minimal (5%) to quite significant (200%).
Note: The sample markup is usually pretty consistent for each vendor, although some vendors seem to price their samples fairly arbitrarily (Houde)
Examples of Standard Sample Markup:
|Tea||Standard Quantity||$||$/g||Sample Markup|
|2013 Dashu Bulang (Cheap Plantation Tea), W2T||357||$12.00||$0.03||N/A|
|2013 Dashu Bulang Sample, W2T||25||$1.50||$0.06||78.50%|
|2013 Nanpozhai, YS, better quality||400||$86.00||$0.22||N/A|
|2013 Nanpozhai Sample, YS||25||$7.75||$0.31||44.19%|
|2014 Yibang, TU||200||$86.00||$0.43||N/A|
|2014 Yibang Sample, TU||30||$14.00||$0.47||8.53%|
|1990s HK Style Raw Pu’erh, W2T||357||$149.50||$0.42||N/A|
|1990s HK Style Raw Pu’erh, W2T Sample||25||$14.90||$0.60||42.32%|
Did I get the center of the Beeng again??
Except for special occasions or for some smaller animals, when you goto the butcher you usually won’t buy an entire animal. Instead you’ll buy a specific piece of the animal. If you want a fatty cut of meat, you might ask for the belly or if you want something leaner maybe the tenderloin. It might all be from the same animal, but not all pieces are created equal and each has their own separate market price.
Scott of Yunnan Sourcing has commented in the past on the buying tendency of Russian customers who tend to place much larger orders into his shop, stating that a cake is just a sample. There’s some truth to this. When you are sampling you almost always get a specific part (or two) of the beeng. You’ll rarely get to pick what part of the beeng you’re getting when you buy online. It might be from the upper edge of the outside or the dreaded center of the beeng. Unfortunately just like an animal purchased from the butcher, not all pieces of a cake are created equal.
Why are these pieces not created equal? In most cases, the center will be more tightly compressed. This makes it more difficult to break apart, which results in an uneven brew or more broken leaves. For teas with any sort of age, the level of compression also affects the aging. As a result, the center can often be biologically younger or less mature than more loosely compressed pieces around the edge.
One final consideration is that some producers of pu’erh will vary their material around the beeng. This is especially true for factory recipes where different grades of material are mixed together for different parts of the beeng..
Note #1: This consideration is most cynically done when the best material is laid out visibly around the edges of the cake. The purchaser is in for a nasty surprise when they break off a piece and find the trashy leaves beneath the beautified surface.
Note #2: In my experience, most western vendors use relatively uniform material to make their cakes and don’t necessarily vary the leaf grade/material throughout the beeng.
Not Enough Tea!
In addition to the problem outlined above, samples may just not be enough time with the tea. While bad teas can be pretty easy to pick out after a single session, good teas are more complex and can take a few sessions to figure out. When buying in quantity for the long-haul, a 10 gram, 25 gram, or 30 gram samples may simply not be enough to properly evaluate a tea. Oftentimes, you’ll also end up with a bit of tea dust in your bag. You can choose whether to brew it or simply toss it out, but a few grams of dust can reduce four good sessions to three, or two good sessions to one. This is covered in more depth by Marshaln in this post on tea learning.
How’s the Bag
Most samples are sent in mylar/paper/plastic bags or pouches. Ever wondered how long it’s been in that little baggie? Maybe you let the tea sit in the baggie for a few months (or a year) or perhaps the vendor broke up several cakes into samples a year (or more) ago. By the time it reaches your table, it’s hard to know the complete story behind the tea you’re brewing. Unsurprisingly, samples age quite differently when they’re already broken up and in some sort of bag.
A few considerations:
- Was the tea broken up into loose form or is it in one big chunk?
- Were your leaves handled well (are they broken)?
- What material was your sample sent in?
A Few Takeaways
In the end, these are a few things to be aware of when drinking your tea/sample. One session doesn’t really tell the whole story of one tea and a 25 gram sample has its limitations too. Barring the risk of the tea selling out, it’s often a prudent strategy to go from samples to single cake to more cakes or a tong. There’s alot of considerations that can be important when buying a cake (and sometimes a cake isn’t even representative). Sampling is an important, but definitely not foolproof way of learning and experiencing pu’erh.