Stamp Collecting Experiences. Dangers of a Single Session Sample

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.

Tea Samples
Tea Samples.

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.


Practical Advice

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.

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14 responses to “Stamp Collecting Experiences. Dangers of a Single Session Sample”

  1. I’ve been drinking the good stuff for nearly 15 years…At first, I thought you’d consider me a full-on stamp collector, because I rarely buy cakes. [And…Shock…I’ve never purchased a tong!]

    But as I read, it was clear that my preference to buy around 50g when possible is more than enough to have a number of sessions to get to know a tea. The difference is that I’m not storing anything for later. Nothing lasts long around here!

    While my aim is for the experience of many good teas and less hardcore commitment, there is still a desire to get to know the tea over several sessions. Happy medium?

    As for sending stuff to others, I agree with you. I like to offer around 20g where possible. That should allow 3-5 sessions with the leaves. When limited, my minimum tends to be 10g to allow at least a second session.

    • Hi Martin,

      Cool, thanks for commenting. I’d say 50 grams is definitely plenty to get to know the tea. I on the other hand have the unhealthy predisposition to accumulate and envy your self discipline.


  2. James,

    When I got more seriously into tea years back, I started with the philosophy that a cake was a sample, so I did build up some volume of tea. However, thanks to the bloggers of the time, I was able to focus on cakes that seemed to match my tastes and I have not found these early cakes to be a waste..more to the truth is that I wish now that I had bought more of some of them. In any event, having tried some of the cakes that had been recommended at the time, and seeing how I liked them, gave me some insight into how my tastes matched others and proved to be a great source for finding out new options to try. While my tea buying has greatly slowed over the last few years, I still look for inspiration from the latest generation of bloggers, like you James to spot something worth looking at.

    • Hi Karl,

      Thanks for sharing your experience as always. I wish “cake as a sample” was still a reasonably viable strategy. These days you could spend $500 on five mid-priced samples from 2018!


  3. Great stuff. I would add that the quantity of tea consumed in a single session is also a major variable. For example, if I consume every cup of a single gong fu session by myself brewing with a 180ml gaiwan vs a 50ml gaiwan, I may have a very different interpretation of the tea buzz. Suppose I don’t consume every cup during one evaluation, but I drink only half cups during a different evaluation. The same issue arises. I remember once thinking a tea had a crazy rushy cha qi. When the cake came in, I realized I’d made the evaluation of the sample from a session where a I consumed a massive quantity of the tea. In reality, the tea was pretty average with that variable removed. I’d say my mood and mindset/expectations can play tricks in this department as well.

    • Good point. I don’t think about this one as much as most of my sessions are pretty uniform size, but that’s definitely a big factor. Could be further confounded by drinking with people. If you are used to 6 gram sessions, but have 10 grams split 6 ways that could have a major impact on the teas perceived potency and qualities, especially with the somatic qualities.

  4. This might seem a bit left field, but I think you touched upon it slightly with referencing the 88 QB sessions, time of day and location is also a variable for experiencing tea.
    If you take TCM perspective different times of day are going to affect how you taste a tea. Equally, environmentally, air quality and other sensory inputs that are locational will mediate enjoyment.
    In short, what you say is true. A one off session is not going to be enough to know a tea and having enough leaf to explore these variables is going to get you to understand its unique character.
    Its analogous to having a friend you only see in work, you have no idea what they are like outside a work environment.
    Similarly, I’d like to share the following experience with a 2018 DanCong. When I first tried this tea on a cold Spring evening it was overpoweringly peachy and performed like a yunnan hongcha. Repeated sessions in the morning the tea was less fruity and more floral. Same technique, same water source but totally different experience.

      • In respect to James’s point upon single session teas, it certainly isn’t a cheap tea, so I understand if people choose sampling (i.e one off sessions) over experience (i.e. multiple sessions) , however I also feel, certainly with DanCong its one of those teas that has a lot to give from multiple sessions not only with experience but also in developing your own technique and expertise. Unlike more forgiving teas, such as Tian Jian, it is one of those teas that can be a bit tricky to get a hang of in one session and only multiple sessions will you get the best out of it.

    • Hi Jonny,

      Not out of left field at all. I very much agree we tend to underrate the human factor. Even in our same brewing setup on two different days we can perceive stuff differently. Changing the context is also an absolute game changer in my opinion.


  5. James,

    I like the arguments you present here.

    I think I would have agreed with it even a year ago. But nowadays I’ve been questioning the basis of some of these arguments even though I probably myself don’t prescribe to them…

    1- I agree that stamp collecting is pricy but is it any cheaper than buying hundreds of samples to find the cake you really love then buying multiple tongs of that tea??? And then repeating this all over to find the next tea which will enitably will get tonged? The later almost sounds more expensive.

    2-the 88 Qingbing story- If you have relatively less experience with puerh you will probably learn more about it from drinking it around a tea table with much more experienced drinkers. However, once you get enough experience under your belt an uninterrupted solitary session with good note taking will almost always teach you more because the enjoyment of puerh is such a subjective thing.

    3- if you have familiarity and experience and you are drinking a solitary session and making good notes with a tea set up that you always use then it is very easy to draw very accurate conclusions on a tea even with one small sample.

    4- your practical advice to sampling is good for people who are very analytical but what about people who are more experiential??? I think that my original approach to sampling might be better for these type of puerh drinkers. My advice was to approach each sample like you are meeting someone for the first time and evaluate the sample on its own merits.

    5- experiential stamp collecting- I know some people who always go back to the same place for vacation once they finally find a destination they like and others who will never go back to the same place twice. Which one has the genuine desire to experience, travel, and explore? Hmmm…


    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for the comment. Here’s what I’d say in response..

      1- Whose to say those are the only two options? The article wasn’t intended to be so much about stamp collecting cakes (buying is a very personal choice). But my point is more that it’s easy to buy a little of this and a little of that and accumulate a lot (and spend a lot).

      3- I agree that experience and concentrated sessions do help to get accurate impressions with less sessions. But tea isn’t always consistent and there is variability across the same tea, especially in small samples. Maybe you differ, but I definitely don’t get close to 100% consistency in teas I own and have brewed many times. My impression of teas also frequently changes when I get a second, third, or nth session.

      4- Sure, but in your own analogy wouldn’t it be better to meet/experience someone at least twice if the goal is making an accurate assessment? Most people don’t get married off of one meeting. One offending gripe I see is when people try a tea once, perhaps in a type of tea they don’t even drink often, and pass judgement over not just the tea but the entire brand.

      The way I tend to think about it in my own head is that I’ll maybe understand a tea to a 60-70% of my own potential understanding after an initial concentrated session. Second try I’d be closer to 80-85%. The third try 90%, slowly edging upwards. The first session gives some understanding, but the second session improves the confidence of it.

      5- It depends what the motivation is. I think if people want to legitimately experience something they should try to get more tea rather than the absolute minimum possible. This to me seems perfect reasonable.


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