Some Thoughts & Problems With Traditionally Stored Pu’erh

85-90% of the tea being sold is young pu’erh, and the remainder is almost exclusively ripe or 5-10 year old semi-pu’erh. Old-school, traditionally stored pu’erh is an afterthought or an afterthought of an afterthought… This sort of tea can be hit or miss and more of an acquired taste for many.. For me, it’s always been a tea category I personally enjoy and turn to on a regular basis (~25% of the time). I also think if you can find decent examples it is well-worth exploring. As “traditionally stored” implies, this is a style of pu’erh that has been around for a long time. The pu’erh scene has changed and this sort of tea isn’t viewed fashionably or favorably as other sorts of pu’erh (this is not just restricted to the west).

Traditionally Stored Pu'erh

Some traditionally stored pu’erh.

The West Lacks both Experience and Selection (or my unhelpful personal experiences with this tea)

Often when we drink traditionally stored teas Denny & I will receive a youtube comment that expresses surprise when a raw pu’erh tea brews red or even a dark orange.. The western audience and pu’erh drinkers are used to sheng that brews yellow or if they’re adventurous enough to drink something with a little age, orange.. Traditional storage is an underrepresented category and even many western drinkers that have allegedly been drinking pu’erh for years, have virtually no meaningful experience in this category of tea. Sure you can find some dodgy teas on taobao or ebay. But if you are looking to dip your toes in and want an actual good reference point for these teas, it isn’t easy to find.

I got lucky in this respect, at least compared with other westerners. I jumped into pu’erh in early 2014, right when Origin Tea was still in full swing. I’d been introduced to them via their excellent oolongs and was able to dip my toes into some of the wetter stored tea at the same time as young pu’erh. Things like 1990s Bazhong Red Mark, 2001 CNNP 8582, 2001 CNNP 8582, 2001(?) Fuhai 7436. Were they the best stuff? No.. And Tony, the proprietor, made it clear to me that these were far from the pinnacle. Am I even positive of their origins? No and verifying that would be very tricky even I’d had a few years of experience… But the teas tasted like traditionally stored pu’erh and were an important reference point.

When Tony sadly shut down his shop in the middle of that year I escaped with 1.5 cakes of some of his older pu’erh, some of my earliest cake acquisitions. This is one of the few instances where I wish I bought more, much more… I’ve since finished both, but they were instrumental in my own learning of the genre and from making dumb mistakes.

Why not buy some dark looking Taobao or ebay sold as 1990s raw or whatever that is being sold from the mainland?? There’s a lot of crap out there.. Also, if you’ve never had a good example of the genre it is very hard to judge whether something is good or bad. I haven’t really found random cakes on ebay or Taobao worth the effort.

So where do I get this tea I drink regularly? Unhelpfully, the majority of teas I drink in this category were acquired in my travels to Taiwan or Hong Kong. My own experiences are unhelpful and discouraging to anyone hoping to follow along.. Sample from a now defunct vendor and then travel to Asia??  It’s easy to envision an alternate universe where I would’ve been introduced by a quite bad from the genre and been turned off entirely or gone around with bad references of the tea. I got lucky…

  • A couple teas I do consider to be functional references that have circulated in the west. 1990s HK Style from W2T and the 1995 Jincha.
  • Even with these references – I’ve still made plenty of mistakes within this category, both buying abroad and on TeaDB. For instance, we positively reviewedTea Classico, a vendor I now view as subpar and regret reviewing.

Verifying the Exact Provenance Is Only Somewhat Important (if you are a drinker)

Words like 7542, 2001 Menghai, Yiwu are tossed around with reckless abandon in tea of the day threads on forums or in facebook/instagram. I’ve found that in most online context these words are meaningless unless they come from a trusted source.. Even in the face of undeniable evidence that the tea isn’t what it was sold as, loyal customers will double down and defend their vendor to the death.

Be honest to yourself.. I’ve bought tea abroad that was sold as 7542 or Yiwu or Banzhang or whatever. I am well-aware that I definitely can’t verify these claims. Did I buy them because they were certified and notarized to be Banzhang tea. Absolutely not.. I also don’t spend time lying to myself about the vendor’s trustworthiness. But if the tea is legit and I am buying to drink, who cares? Let’s be honest when we’re not sure. I vastly prefer people willing to attach more ambiguous or purported tags to teas they bought. You might think your showing up your friends when you flash that neifei of your 1989 traditionally stored Yiwu or 1992 Menghai 8582 Organic Special Production, but really if your friends know anything you just look foolish.

Now, let’s say that you are trying to learn specifically about Dayi tea, a challenging but potentially worthy task. You’d be very foolish to have the haphazard attitude outlined in the previous paragraph for a tea that is so commonly faked. Why? Because a good tea can still be a fake one. Hell it may even be better than the actual Dayi tea and still a fake.. If your goal is to collect or learn about Dayi, it’s very important to make sure you are actually buying Dayi.

Paperless Raw

Paperless Raw. Who knows where it came from, but it’s probably not certified organic.

Vendors are Resellers

A common misconception with these teas is that they are all premium, high-end tea for people with money. It’s easy to see how those disconnected from the aged tea scene could get this in their head. Menghai Tea Factory productions have gone way up in price, with most MTF raw pu’erh from the 1990s reaching four digits. Old Xiaguan is less, but isn’t cheap tea.. But these are the name brand pu’erhs that you can look up in a yearbook. Once you get to smaller labels and white wrappers stuff can be very affordable. For instance, that 1995 Jincha goes for as little as 500-600NTD (<$20) on Taiwanese auction. These teas aren’t collectibles and their origins are harder to verify (is it really 1995?) – but if we’re OK with letting go of attachment to the exact origin of the tea they can be plenty good enough to drink. This is all to say, that this category of tea isn’t necessarily expensive, especially if you can get it from someone who has held or stored it for a long time.

These teas are a problem for vendors. When it comes to traditionally stored pu’erh, western vendors are resellers and almost noone is drawing from a stock of tea they sourced for a few dollars years ago.. The vendor needs to resell someone else’s tea. Even most no-name teas are selling for $100 or maybe a little less (sadly the Xiaobing was not popular in the early 2000s). In order to make it worth a vendor’s time, they need to markup the tea. Marking it up even 2x pushes $75 teas north of $150. Most vendors choose to not bother and when they do, what could be a relatively affordable tea ends up selling for ~$200/cake.. And the tea vendor (if they’re honest) can’t even give you a precise or accurate history of the tea. That’s a hard sell to the kombucha-drinker whose serious tea experience is buying Whole Foods pu’erh and wants a refund when you can’t tell him if the smelly thing he bought is organic or not.

Takeaways

Sourcing and finding good references for traditionally stored pu’erh is a major challenge to both the hobbyist and the vendor. I’d argue finding good tea in the west is more about seeking and cultivating relationships with people who know more than you, than being a super taster with a fantastic palate. Of course, tasting the tea and getting valuable reference points are important for knowing when you come across the real McCoy.. If you do happen to come across an example that seems like a good reference don’t bother trying to verify the village or precise harvest date.. Do yourself a favor and buy some.

Dank ripe.

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14 Responses to Some Thoughts & Problems With Traditionally Stored Pu’erh

  1. Thanks for this article James. Traditional/Wet storage is indeed a challenging category for many. In my experience easily 90% of wet stored puerh I have encountered whether online or even in general tea shops in HK, Taiwan are really dodgy and often their age is exaggerated. The new trend and market demand for “drink it now” fresh puerh tea also means there have been changes in the production. The old traditional style of producing highly astringent and potent raw puerh tea under the old regime Menghai Tea Factory is a thing of history. It is this type of tea that would have been most suited for traditional wet storage. Puerh tea without the guts and substance when put through wet storage come out very hollow and lacking in any worthwhile characteristics. The majority of wet stored puerh tea sold in today’s market presents a weak and lifeless brew.

    I have decided to extend my offer for the Educational Series on different storage conditions. Anyone interested in learning and experiencing genuine wet storage is welcome to try the sample pack. Many positive feedback have come back to me for making this available and shining light on otherwise muddy waters (no pun intended).

    http://theguidetopuerhtea.blogspot.com/2017/10/educational-series-20-year-old-puerh.html

    • James says:

      Thanks Varat for the insightful comments. Frankly speaking you have loads more experience shopping in the east. Interesting to hear that there is a lot of dodgy crap (although I’m not totally surprised). I’ve been lucky in many ways even when shopping abroad to have the tips & recommendations of trusted tea folks. I had not heard that tidbit about changing big factories productions but it makes total sense..

      Appreciate your presence in the community.. Your teas are the real deal and I’m happy to recommend them to those interested!

      Cheers,
      -James

      • Thank you James. I appreciate the kind words.

        From my experience the year 2004 is a monumental turning point. It marks the beginning of the new ownership and management of Menghai Tea Factory under The Bowin Company who are much more profit oriented than any state/government entity. The style of puerh tea produced under MTF has changed since then. Whether it is for better or for worst I believe tea drinkers can judge for themselves but there are reasons why teacakes produced by MTF before and during the year 2004 have risen considerably in price. In my opinion speculation on limited quantity that is representative of an old era is not enough to solely justify let alone maintain these prices in the market where tea consumers are progressively becoming more educated and demanding. People who are willing to spend x 5 or x 10 more on the 2004 and older batches consider these older productions (comparative to new productions thereafter) to be much more reliable for long term aging and that these older teas are indeed superior in quality. On a personal note with the passing of time my belief and acceptance of the older MTF productions have increased. I also feel this divide will increase and become more apparent as more time passes. That said I don’t doubt the debate will continue. I have always been an advocate to drinking widely and to practice brewing/comparing teas side by side. You can learn so much more and in ways you cannot imagine. The presentation of different profiles side by side opens up subtleness, nuances and dominance in ways that you won’t see coming. In the world of puerh tea pricing does not guarantee you a genuine/high quality product but it does open up opportunities and gives you the chance to encounter such teas.

        • Jerrod says:

          Hello Varat,

          I wrote this in your blog, but wanted to post it here as well, in case James or anyone else had anything to add to it.

          Interesting article, thank you for writing it.

          Regarding your comment that 2004 and on were made to be drunk immediately and not aged. That seems unfortunate to me, as I enjoy well-aged teas and it sounds like they will not be available. I also would like to age teas and enjoy them years down the road. I suppose the questions I am left with are:
          -Are there any suppliers/factories/products that continued to be created for the purpose of aging?
          -Where do you buy teas from that you intend to age for some years?
          -Should I focus more on buying older puerh (2004 and before), or should I begin to accept and try to enjoy the fresher teas as they are much more readily available?
          -What do people do with the current ready-to-drink cakes that they have after 3 years, since after their awkward phase (after 8 years) it sounds like they would be quite boring to drink?

          • James says:

            Hi Jerrod,

            Sorry for the tardy response. Good questions and food for thought! Here’s a couple thoughts/opinions I had.

            Just because tea isn’t built the same as it was 30 20-30 years ago, doesn’t mean it won’t age. Perhaps it won’t be the same caliber as the 88 QB, but it could still be a decent aged tea in the long run.

            As an example.. If you try some Dayi 7542 from the last 10 years like the 2009 we brought on, it may not be as strong or as potent as the original but it is certainly not tea I’d want to drink young. It’s not necessarily made with the idea of being traditionally stored, but I do believe the tea is made for aging still. I think these teas after the 8 year mark (or longer) will be better to drink than when they were freshly made. I also think the majority of teas made by Dayi and Xiaguan are still predominantly made for aging even if they are lesser versions of their predecessors.

            The issue of buying before or after 2004 is a challenging one for me. On one hand, there are a lot of indicators that signify a change in quality. On the other hand, the price reflects that. Whether you buy or not, probably depends on what you’re looking for. If quality outweighs the cost for you, then perhaps it does make sense to hold your nose and seek out those teas from reliable sources.

            -James

  2. Nick says:

    It seems like Tea Life HK has quite a good selection of traditionally stored teas available to the west. I have yet to try any (I’ve only bought some of his yancha) but I think the ones he is selling look great. I wasn’t drinking puerh when Origin Tea was around and have no clue what his selection looked like, but I wonder if they might be somewhat similar?

    On a side note, I had a laugh reading your line about the Whole Foods puerh buyer.

    Thanks for the article James,

    Cheers

  3. miig says:

    Very nice article, thank you.
    I’ve had tea from Jay, and it was awesome. He’s a great guy. Have fun! 🙂

  4. Jonny 山内 says:

    I wonder if we will get to the point where we no longer have traditionally stored tea that is genuinely the “real deal” as both James & Varat’s point on the bigger factories following consumer trends is entirely valid and whilst more boutique producers may offer some choice I fear its not significant enough to buck the trend especially as the biggest market driving force is the non-western internal consumer who appears to be less desirous of traditionally stored tea. Equally as the older classic productions start to become more limited in number I’m not convinced the hole is being filled up.

    • James says:

      Hi Jonny,

      That is certainly possible, although I think it’d probably be easier to tell with someone at ground zero around Hong Kong. I suspect there’s at least a lot of stuff from the early 2000s laying around out there.

      Cheers,
      -James

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