Tuesday, July 30, 2019
Elitism, Illuminati, and the Secret Inner Circle of Puerh
***I think this is probably the most difficult post I have ever published. I think I have written 3 different versions of this and even sat on this one for months. The post below isn’t meant to hurt or single anyone out but rather advance public puerh discourse***
Soon after returning to the tea world a year or so ago I typed out a long and fairly detailed criticism that centered on the secret back channels of the tea (mainly puerh) world that I just could not bring myself to publish. The article was just too critical of myself, other bloggers, vendors, group buy organizers and back channel buyers. I spared no one in this post but also looked at the positives and the reasons why there is a secret society or inner circle of puerh buyers, the history of such things, and the purpose that these back channels serve to those who use them.
The post would have really upset some of my closest tea friends and Western vendors who I respect and sincerely care about. As well, it probably would have ostracized me from the community which I helped build and who I now benefit from being a part of. So there is no way that my initial article is getting publish but it was a very very cathartic activity for myself similar to journaling… a healing experience...hahaha But as a result, my silence on this issue continues to perpetuate the continual ignoring of this elephant in the room.
I absolutely love James of TeaDB for engaging the readers in his brilliant articles, posts and videos- he is pure genius. Often, great conversation emerges from his articles. In this article in particular, James kind of mis-phrased a discussion about his tea sources and it lead to a rather interesting discussion of the back channels of puerh tea. The commentary by Alex certainly outlinesmany of the thoughts I had in my unpublished article (but probably written much better than I could). In an article on TeaDB this week the comments also add discussion to these ideas. So, I now feel that it is at least time to make these general points contained in my unpublished article that he didn’t touch on.
Firstly it can be stated that, nowadays a chunk of puerh world has become elitist. Certainly, it’s not ALL elitist but a notable proportion is. Much has changed in the puerh world over the last 10-15 years. Back then puerh tea was tea of the commoner, it was cheaper than most any other tea, even cheaper than cheap teabag tea. You literally couldn’t find anything cheaper per gram than a cake of puerh. Anyone could afford and strive to drink the best and there was a sense of close knit community in this.
At one point, years and years ago all Western puerh buyers were either buying from the handful of western puerh vendors at the time (Yunnan Sourcing, Awazon, Tuo Cha Tea, Puerhshop, and Houde) or were buying in person in Asia. The puerh drinking community was much different in these early days as we strove to understand something with very little available information at the time. We did this by openly sharing knowledge. At this time everyone was on the same playing field as far as buying puerh went, the buying options were listed for all to see on the websites.
The start of some kind of exclusive things happening were with Houde’s limited releases which would often sell out before anyone had a chance to try them. However, everyone had a fair crack at these. What started to push things underground in the Western puerh world was the use of Taobao.
The introduction of Taobao to puerh buying was a game changer because it allowed the buyer to bypass the Western puerh vendor and buy more directly. However, it also pushed puerh buying in the West underground where good sources of puerh were rarely shared publicly in fear of being over exploited by buyers and vendors alike. To me this is the start of when things got a little exclusive in the puerh buying Western world, a trend that continues to today.
The lack of shared public info on puerh hurts the whole community. Over the last few years, although much more people are drinking puerh tea. Much less is shared publically. Back in the early years you used to be excited and want to share publicly the source of a great puerh find- now this excitement is pushed underground. I think as the years go by there is less and less public information on the internet about great tea finds. The information that is most publically shared is usually by “stamp collectors” those people who tend to by many single cake or those people who tend to only by single cake and not multiples or tongs.
Stamp collectors have no reason to hide sources because once they have one cake they will not likely order great qualities of it but rather go on to the next cake. Cwyn, Char, and Hobbes are not stamp collectors per say but tend to buy lots of cakes rather than focus on a few. Some of the more common posters on Steepster are also stamp collectors. It’s quite easy for these people to share their sources because they likely won’t go back to the same well twice.
On the other hand bulk collectors and speculators and buyers who like to “hit it hard with a hammer” are the lest likely to share sources and their favorite puerh publicly. This is especially true for those who drink semi-aged puerh which is not well represented by Western vendors (this no doubt, further entrenches the issue of access). Even for bloggers like Hobbes & Marshal’N it gets to a point where there is not much sense in posting reviews of teas because the sources are not publicly available. They are not buying through the Western puerh vendors anyways so the blog content of such things is a bit of a charade.
It’s not just info about what cakes to buy that is lost. More importantly it is useful storage issues, regional issues, info on specific factories and specific vendor opinions, and lots lots more which are lost in these back channels. Marshall’N actually wrote a post about how we are not as better off because of this loss of public knowledge but yet it continues to be entrenched.
The Public Puerh Community Is Disappearing
Things have actually gotten a lot worst lately. A few weeks ago Chris, a commentor on TeaDB, linked a great article about the current state of public tea communities. It touched on something that some have mentioned over the last few months which is the dying off of one of the greatest public access to tea related information and record of puerh tasting notes, Steepster. That post really resonated with me: is there soon to be no public record and discussion of puerh? How will this impact especially those new to puerh? Of course those in the know won’t be as effected as much and those who are just getting into puerh who will be disadvantaged the most.
Failures of an Instagram Tea Community
Where the public puerh community is most thriving is on Instagram. Instagram is a photo sharing social media platform at its core is therefore very good at sharing tea pictures or as a place to write quick comments and opinions. However, it is not good at diving into the deeper subjects and complexity that is puerh tea. Snapchat and Twitter are other good examples of this. It can transmit powerful content quickly and can encourage community and convey emotion but is much better at the superficial than getting down to the deep.
Access vs Going Underground
There are some out there that simply frame this issue as simply a problem with access. Of course, limited access is probably the main causative factor but I disagree that it is the main issue at play. I think the whole issue is bigger than just access. The issue here is, do we really want puerh knowledge to go mainly underground and for it to benefit the few connected people or do we want it to be public to benefit the many? This is how it should be framed. I understand that drinking tea is a personal leisure activity or hobby and isn’t charity work or outreach but without a strong public presence puerh access gets worse thereby perpetuating the problem.
Old guard is weakening…
I once heard Shah8 say that he will point you in the right direction but I won’t give you the exact address and hail a cab for you (something to this point). Certainly he has opened the door a crack after revealing the links to and a little on how to use the Taiwanese Facebook auction groups. Marco, Su, and others behind Teas We Like are brining things out in the open as well. Taking their dearest tea sources and making their favorite personal tea finds public for all to enjoy. After you personally have acquired a lifetime supply of a tea you enjoy what is the point of hiding such things anymore? Besides these people have put in their time and want to further the puerh community they helped create and are an active part of. After a while, it becomes clear that it is time to give back.
Emmitt Guzman has been doing this for years with group buys of Yang Qing Hao and the Dead Leaves Tea Club last year started Taobao group buys have opened a space where we can explore one of a kind finds together in a more public way.
Personally, I welcome this change in selfless direction and attitude.
Overall, though I personally have resisted joining the Illuminati of puerh drinkers although it’s an ongoing internal struggle. This is partly, because I can be a bit of a recluse (look back to my early posts). However, I am very very humbled and sincerely thank those who have reached out to me either by email conversation or to invite me to join private slack rooms and chats (I still hope to join if that’s where things go). I don’t have a personal facebook account so all those options are out too. On the other hand, I don’t blame those or hold it against those who use these private channels especially those fellow puerh bloggers who dump lots of their own time and energy into actually putting things on the public record.
Some probably could rightly state that I’m already a part of the boys club already, and I couldn’t completely refute that. I’ve been around too long. I am not perfectly transparent myself at times. If someone asks me to not put something on my blog, I always respect that. Most definitely, having some free samples come across my desk helps too. However, it should give readers hope and encouragement that I have posted or left a comment confirming every single purchase since coming back to puerh buying in 2017 here on the blog with the exception of one cake (of very low stock which I plan on buying out) and some pending purchase reviews which I hope to post over the next month and I’ve only purchased from Western vendors. Also with the exception of one, I have not been tipped off as to what to purchase (I am very thankful for the tip… keep them coming… hahaha).
The take away here is you don’t need top secret sources or consulting the puerh illuminati to acquire amazing puerh that is underpriced or on for a good deal and reflects value. However, what you do actually need is to gain lots and lots of experience to be able to do this…. And one of the best ways gain this experience is to actually read as much as you can and go back and read the past contributions of bloggers and other public sources… unfortunately, this option seems to be disappearing fast...
What I find particularly interesting is those in the know now had often benefited from the public record of past contributors to public chats, blogs, and Steepster to get to where they are now. These same people now choose to push things underground…
Do we really want puerh drinking to go in the direction of an underground, well connected boys club who benefits a few or do we want it to be a more open, transparent, inclusive and public sharing of knowledge that benefits the many? Maybe its not either or but striking some balance?
When I drink puerh even today, I drink it in the spirit of days when puerh was the drink of the commoner. The days when I first fell in love with the mystery of it. Something to be shared like among the many hours around the tea table in the teahouses of Asia. My enjoyment of it, although mainly in solitary, is in the spirit of others and so follows this blog (which knowledge is yours just as much as it is mine). If I’m not drinking puerh for the many, than I must be drinking it for selfish reasons? The essence of tea or sprit of tea has never been this way…
I think we can do better…
***Next time I come to consult the puerh Illuminati, please, please don’t revoke my membership***