Recently I’ve been drinking many different teas that I enjoy, and evaluating them with the goal of better understanding what specific qualities make a tea good in my mind. Any time I am particularly moved by a good tea, the tea (regardless of category) seems to have a few traits: enjoyable flavors and aromas, a smooth or otherwise enjoyable texture and mouthfeel, and an overall comfortable feeling in the body. If I notice the presence of any one of these traits while drinking a tea, it serves as a signal to me that the tea is good.
While searching for good teas, it is natural to come across bad ones as well. I think that understanding a bad tea can be just as valuable as understanding a good one. I think this simply because these bad teas form the basis against which we judge good teas. With all of this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to evaluate the first really bad Pu’er tea I bought, discuss why it was bad for me, and reflect on what I learned about good tea in the process of being sold a lemon.
The tea that I’ll be discussing was sold by a vendor as a 2006 Sheng Pu’er from Bulang, a well-known tea producing area in Yunnan. Roughly a year after I purchased the tea, I found out in a few discussions on different online tea forums that the tea was really a cheap tea sold on Tao Bao (a Chinese platform similar to eBay) that was re-labelled and resold by the vendor at an egregious markup (supposedly 2000%). After learning this news the tea mostly sat untouched in the clay jar that I had been aging it in. I would drink it occasionally. However after drinking different more Pu’er from a variety of vendors I realized that I’d been duped, and that this particular Bulang sheng was not as good as the vendor originally made it out to be. As I boiled water and arranged my tea ware for today’s session I had to remind myself to not get too wrapped up in these frustrating memories, and to just try to brew the tea casually.
The dry leaves of this tea had a strong and smoky aroma. After heating the dry leaves in a warm gaiwan there were some more promising aromas with grassy, hay like, and honeyed notes. The first infusion was light, but had a slightly smoky flavor without many other notes. A light first infusion was to be expected, because I was brewing one chunk of Pu’er rather than a few smaller broken up pieces.
Once the chunk of Pu’er fully opened up, the flavor became stronger yet was somehow insipid at the same time. It had the grassy, smoky, and bitter qualities that some sheng Pu’ers have, but these qualities had no smoothness or depth to them. The tea simply scratched the tongue, leaving a chalky and unpleasant bitterness. The color of the brewed tea was somewhat cloudy, rather than being clear and vibrant like the color that good teas can have.
To try to improve the quality of the brew I tried brewing the tea more quickly. This didn’t seem to help because the tea only kept this sort of one dimensional unpleasant quality. If I brewed it quickly this quality was unsubstantial, and if I brewed the tea for a longer amount of time the quality grew to more overpowering levels. Ultimately I gave up on the tea after the 4th or 5th infusion, because I felt that there was nothing else to learn from the tea. Although it still makes me a bit angry to have bought such a tea from this vendor, there are lessons that can be learned from an experience like this.
The Silver Lining
After I found out online about the unfortunate markup I had paid for this sub-par tea, one person in the online discussion offered up a Chinese phrase that has been useful ever since. They said Xue Fei Xue Fei 学费学费, which translates roughly from Mandarin to English as “tuition fees” or “tuition paid”. Once you buy a bad tea like this it has already happened, and is a sunk cost. Despite this it’s possible to change your focus, and choose to learn lessons that will hopefully help avoid more bad buys in the future. For me, some of these lessons included:
- Check multiple vendors. – If multiple Pu’er vendors offer the same or similar tea for a similar price, this is a good sign. For specialty boutique productions this often isn’t possible, but some factory teas or teas that share a similar production location can be cross checked in this way.
- Keep track of which vendors you trust. – If you discover that a vendor has duped you, don’t continue to buy tea from them.
- Learn what you like in a good tea – If you can evaluate a tea based on your own criteria, a given vendor’s marketing will be less effective at helping you overlook potential flaws in their tea.