Stamp collecting in the pu’erh world means buying single cakes of a bunch of different teas. The appeal is obvious. A cake is a decent quantity of tea, especially for a single person, and you can chisel a little at a time to drink while it slowly ages. It’s also not a strategy I’m personally when put to its extreme and I try to avoid stamp collecting tendencies. I sometimes think of what I’ll be drinking in 10-15 years. Having a hundred single cakes where I’ve consumed 10-40 grams each feels daunting in a bad way.. It’s also quite easy to spend a lot of money with a little bit of this and a little bit of that and accumulate decades of pu’erh. Spending a lot of money and having a lot of single cakes may appeal to some people. For me it does not.
- When it comes to buying more expensive tea, I think stamp collecting strategy can make more sense. At a certain point it is just not possible to buy very much of a tea due to a price. For the weekend warrior gong-fu maniacs stamp collecting may work out just fine.
The Tale of Two 1988 QB Sessions
I’ve had the special privilege to drink the 88 QB twice. My first experience was in the evening during a trip to Hong Kong in 2017 with my wife and a couple Hong Kong tea hobbyists. It was after a series of exceedingly strongly brewed teas from the turn of the 21st century.. Brewing it for us was exceedingly generous and the 88 QB was undoubtedly interesting and strong. I noted some of the basic profile including the huigan but if I’m speaking honestly I don’t remember a ton more. I knew what we were drinking and I’d been drinking for a few years, but given the context there was a lot of nuance to the tea that was lost.
My second encounter was a solo session on my own half a year latter. The tea session was prepared in advance with low TDS water and ample time. Rather than a 25 minute session, I could spend 20-30 minutes per brew. The tea’s qualities showed up much more. While I still noted the powerhouse huigan, it might as well have been a different tea. Is it the batch? The storage? The context? The water? It’s impossible to break it down with absolute percentages, but it’s undoubtedly some combination of all of the above.. What I do know is that this second session was extraordinarily important in establishing and understanding the tea and it’s appeal.
If I never had a second opportunity to try it, my opinion of this tea would’ve been dramatically different than what it is today. This does not mean I discount the first session entirely, just that I can recognize some of the tea’s qualities and characteristics that I would not have otherwise.
Single Session Stamp Collecting
I think a stamp collecting mentality can also apply to single sessions. You don’t acquire a neifei and a wrapper, but you are acquiring an experience. With the popularity of group buys, swaps, and traveling tea boxes I think this can present itself as a real issue. The appeal is obvious.. I want to try YQH/XZH/high-end W2T, etc. There’s a lot of tea being sold and people want to try them all! People understandably want a taste of something and would prefer to acquire it as cheaply as possible with the least amount of commitment.
Group buys/swaps are genuinely good things that offer an opportunity to sample widely, but the single use sample trend is not a good one, especially when put to the extreme. It’s also one I’ve been guilty of. Why is this bad? The simple answer is it’s not always easy to get an accurate view on a tea in one session.
Lack of Familiarity
One aspect where single sessions can be very limiting is the lack of familiarity with the tea. As my tastes have evolved and I’ve consumed less of certain teas I’ve found it increasingly difficult to evaluate young pu’erh, especially when brewed in a group session. I’ve consumed my share of young pu’erh, but it’s not a tea I drink regularly. If I were to just have a single session of it, trying to rank it or grade it would be extraordinarily difficult. I think the same could be said for a predominantly young pu’erh drinker who tries YQH and is simply not used to that profile, making it very difficult to pickup some of the more nuanced aspects to the tea. I do not think it is a surprise that some people need time to work through the house taste or storage. We develop a taste for the types of teas we like to drink and have most frequently and trying things that are less familiar can be jarring to the palate.
- This is a major reason I do not give young pu’erh ratings on the show.
Brewing & Experience Matter
Brewing matters a lot. This can compound and overlap a lot with a lack of familiarity. If your primary experience is brewing young pu’erh at 190F, good luck trying to brew a HK traditionally stored tea for the first time. A larger sample means more sessions and repetitions. Getting an extra couple sessions under your belt with a tea won’t necessarily make you a master brewer, but being able to react to your prior experience is invaluable and can make a much better second session and help to form a more complete opinion.
Context and (In)Consistency
Context also matters. If you are having the tea in a group session or in a series of teas, these will impact your perception. Try brewing any young pu’erh after a session with traditionally stored tea. It won’t taste the same if you just had a solo session with it. Maybe you’re sick or you just ate some strong food. Having multiple sessions is not a 100% guarantee, but it helps even if it is just reaffirming your original thoughts.
Tea is sometimes inconsistent. Maybe part of your sample is the binghole. Or your post man sat on your package.. Some cakes are just blended unevenly. Or you have one session that has twice as many crumbs.. Oh, and there’s also water. Tetsubin. Clay. Gaiwan. Tea jetlag (yes it’s a real thing). Etc. Etc. Etc.
My own preference is to get at least two or three sessions of a tea and drink them in the span of a week or less. The first one will always be an acclimation to some degree, and the second can firm up impressions. I may switch up the brewing device or simply change up how I’m brewing. I’ve found the second session can often be fairly different from the first. While it’s possible to get a pretty good take from one session, it’s almost always better to have two.. If it’s a tea type I don’t drink that often (say black tea), having a session with a more frequent drinker like Denny can also be informative.
If your goal is evaluating teas and learning, grouping similar teas together and drinking them within a couple days of each is good. Your tastes will acclimate more and you can pickup on differences between the teas. For instance, if I were sent a blind sampling of aged oolongs from Taiwan. I would wait a week for the teas to settle, and then consume a couple aged oolongs I already own and know. Then I’ll brew a tea per day, taking notes until I’m through with the sampling. If there’s enough samples for a second session, I won’t wait for a month before retrying the tea.
Don’t Be a Experiential Stamp Collector If You Can Help It
A less positive view of those seeking to try several single sessions would be comparing them to someone trying to fill up their passport with stamps for the sake of filling it rather than a genuine desire to travel, experience, and explore.
I’ve noticed more experienced tea folks will almost always send at least 15-25 grams. I don’t think this is coincidence. A single session is sometimes necessary to try a tea, but I’d say it’s best to avoid it if possible. And if you do end up with a single session, please don’t overreach in your conclusions and overly praise or dismiss a tea or an entire brand off of a measly 5 grams.