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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