Friday, April 21, 2017
The “Old Flavor” of Puerh Tea
For the past few months I have been revisiting teas in my collection. It is always an interesting and thought provoking period for which I derive much enjoyment. My fellow tea drinkers, you will only be able to comprehend the great pleasure and satisfaction of seeing a tea that you have personally selected develop and improve with time once you take on the journey yourself. Conversely the bitter disappointment of unrealized expectations is also part of that journey. There are also bound to be surprises along the way but let us leave those thoughts for another day. After drinking through and taking in the range of gushu puerh tea from the last 20 years I am sadly convinced that the “old flavor” of gushu is being phase out.
The term “old flavor” is loosely used within the circle of my tea friends. I will expand on it as the meaning goes beyond taste and the age of the teacake. It comprise of a distinctive depth of character (much sought after by traditionalists and longtime tea drinkers like myself) found in gushu puerh tea sourced from old and ancient trees. Teacakes with this attribute were most prevalent from the late 1990s to around 2005 but thereafter such teas became greatly diminished due to the changes that followed. It is my observation that the best years were when the puerh tea market was in its infancy and under the first wave of growth. The huge capital inflow that impacts the market today had yet to take their toll on the ancient tea gardens. During those early years the old tea trees and the biodiversity of the environment were considerably shielded from rampant over production and the exploitation that followed. The poverty in the villages throughout most of Yunnan Province also meant that there was little or no money for pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Nature allowed the tea leaves to grow strong, accumulate potency and form unique characteristics. Also at that time the processing of the tea leaves was considerably heavier handed and more personal as a result of the many small local communities and families involved. A lot of times this gave mixed results but the good and great batches produced were often something to treasure. It is my observation that all of these conditions in their way contributed to the “old flavor” of gushu. Thus the changes to the growing environment and processing have made past gushu puerh tea significantly different from the modern productions of today. These differences go beyond the influence of age and the extra years in storage. It is my opinion that good gushu possesses a steadiness in strength that is calming and expansive alongside a depth of character and cha qi. Observing these qualities gives us the measure of the tea we drink.