After reading this thought provoking article by James at TeaDB, I started thinking about how my sampling has changed over the years and about why we should sample puerh and how best to do this...
Why Sample Puerh?
First reason is to learn. There is no better way to learn than to actually try more puerh and form your own opinions about them.
Second reason is to compare and evaluate for purchase. Comparing and evaluating can be comparing and evaluating samples for the purchase of a cake or tong or maybe just more of the same sample. It can also be comparing and evaluating samples against one’s own collection. Part of learning is to compare and contrast and evaluate. These first two reasons are covered extensively in James post and following commentary.
Third reason is to simply experience. Sampling puerh can also be done just simply to enjoy different puerh at a lower price point. Puerh is getting so pricy that sampling instead of cake purchasing might be the end goal. Variety is the spice of life. Instead of drinking the same puerh until 357g of it are gone, we can sample a rainbow of puerh for the same price! Sometimes it’s good to simply experience and enjoy something new and different in life, this goes for trying different puerh as well. Of course, to experience is to learn- to learn from our puerh experiences. And while experiencing we might pass judgement- to pass judgement is to compare and contrast against our past experiences with puerh. But to simply enjoy something simply for its own sake without trying to learn or describe or compare or contrast is reason enough to sample puerh.
Sampling with Others vs Alone vs Online
Sampling with others can be a powerful way to learn, compare/ evaluate and experience puerh while sampling it. It has been said by a commented on this blog that if you are the most experienced one around the table you are probably at the wrong table. Yes, it’s very good to sample with others with more or varied puerh drinking experience than you- you will learn quick this way. But the pitfalls are that you can easily be swayed in a certain direction or pick up bad habits from them or simply get steered toward the status quo.
If you are the most experienced one at the tea table there is also great responsibility in being in the position for you to transmit your knowledge. This can be just as powerful of an experience. I feel that it is equally important to learn from beginners- they will point out things that an experienced puerh drinker might take for granted or something that might be beyond their personal bias. The beginner mind is a powerful mind and we shouldn’t be quick to disregard someone’s experience. This is a reason I like to read beginner tea blogs- I learn quite a bit from them.
If the sampling is done at a tea shop you have to remember that the end goal is to get you to buy. Surprisingly, in the tea shops in Asia, it’s just people who are hanging out experiencing, learning, and comparing tastes with others with no one really intending on purchase. I like how Marshal’N describes how a long session of puerh sampling usually progresses at a tea table with many people- I pretty much agree with that. The one thing that we have to pay attention to when sampling in a group is that the options of others around the table can start to influence your own perceptions. Also, the shop owner can guide the direction a bit as well.
When we sample at home/ solitary sampling definitely removes the groups influence good or bad and leaves us with our own options and bias. Confirmation bias can be a strong one to overturn as we see things in our pureh that aren’t there. As we are learning about puerh- we are learning about ourselves. Group sampling is almost always most ideal when new, and solitary sampling is better when very experienced. When we have lots of experience under our belts we can really go in many directions with a sample- its endless really especially in a solitary session.
Sampling Bloggers Recommendations- What you read influences your sampling. Review reading and blog reading influences those new and old to puerh but especially those in the West with no other experience with puerh. Comparing and contrasting our own opinions of samples to other random reviews or famous bloggers is a healthy way to learn. Reading as much publicly available information as possible about puerh is an important part of learning but can lead to someone just falling in line instead of developing their own options about what puerh they actually enjoy.
How Sampling Puerh Has Changed?
Sampling has really changed over the years for myself as well as for Western puerh drinkers as a whole.
Sampling in the era of factory puerh- mainly sampling wearhoused samples that were considered “aged puer” not “young puerh”. It was uncommon 15 years ago to sample young puerh because the thought was that puerh should be aged before regularly consumed. This was, of course, an idea by those in Hong Kong and Guangdong the places where puerh was mainly wearhoused. Personally, I sampled mainly older puerh in Korea. Of course, these were also much more expensive than the crazy cheap freshly pressed cakes- so this could have just been the influence of the teashop owners a bit as well. This is also a reason that old time puerh drinkers that were around in this era revere factory puerh and never write it off.
Sampling in the gushu transitioning years- In the mid/later- 2000s all of a sudden there was gushu!!!! And everybody and anybody could press a single estate product instead of just going for the classic factory blends. Western vendors started pressing their own single estate at this time such as Yunnan Sourcing and The Essence of Tea. There was some serious confusion as to what Gushu was and how to even appreciate it. A bunch of more detailed puerh producing sub areas and towns and mountains popped up and no one had much experience knowing much about the specific character of these regions and how to evaluate them and apprise them.
At this time I liked to focus on simply experiencing them without too much comparing and contrasting and went through a phase of Zen like appreciation of puerh that is outlined in early posts on this blog which gives my philosophy of how to approach sampling (here and here). It was a bit of me trying to come to terms with how to appreciate these gushu single estate puerh and a bit a result of doing many hours of daily meditation back then. At times I questioned whether they were even puerh because the factory experience years before shaped my idea of what puerh was supposed to be and this gushu type stuff was not that. I remember arguing with a vendor when this type of puerh first became easily available that this single estate young puerh was not “real puerh”… hahahha…. I also remember discussions at tea houses in Korea at the time that questioned how these should be appreciated. When I started this blog a lot of the posts back then focused on this single estate puerh that was coming out at the time. I sampled single estate quite extensively at this time trying to learn and experience more than compare and evaluate. Although I sampled a lot I purchased very little of it.
I know most people reading this right now will have a hard time even thinking about a time when single estate gushu puerh was completely unprecedented with no standard way of thinking about this new direction of puerh. Most readers have had the privilege of walking into puerh with a wealth of knowledge already out there. I still think the advice of Mr. Kim, my teamster, holds- if you like it then its good puerh… it seems overly simplistic but this advice was pretty useful when no one had a golden standard of comparison at this time. I also think it’s a good starting point for those new to puerh and for sampling- listen to yourself.
Common puerh era – maybe around 2012 ish people started to get a pretty clear idea of what single estate puerh is all about, the most famous puerh producing areas have been found and well known (Lao Banzhang, Bing Dao, Xi Gui) and by this time there was a wealth of knowledge about this. … so let the comparisons and evaluations begin… hahaha.. Around this time I started to compare and contrast more. Upon returning to the puerh scene to re-stock, I found myself comparing and contrasting and evaluating more which makes the most sense when the price of puerh is so expensive and you intend to purchase a lot to stock up for the long term.
Who Did the Sample come from?
Who sends the sample influences how I approach a sample. It gives me a suggestion of how I should/ might do with that sample.
Purchased Sample- For me and, for you too, a purchased sample should have a very specific purpose. Even if the purpose is just simply for puerh experiential enjoyment. Samples purchased on a whim with no clear goal in mind might just pile up with no motivation to drink.
Free vendor sample with purchase- I recently wrote about this a few months ago. Everyone loves a free sample and there is absolutely no obligation do anything but enjoy these.
Free vendor sample provided for review- This is a bit different than free sample with purchase as there is a bit of an understanding that you will try to post your session.
Sample from Friend- Cwyn N of Death by Tea said something about this topic that is so true its funny. Its something to the effect that there are two kinds of samples she receives from friends… The first is a sample that is quite good but is sold out and not for sale. The second is a sample of something someone is trying to get rid of and is usually not so good… hahahhah I think I’m a bit of an online hermit although sometimes someone is able to track me down and send a sample.
I would say that my fiends send samples for 2 reasons…. First is the same as Cwyn’s above, a very good sample that they are not getting rid of and is not for sale. The second is for an evaluation of something they have acquired or are thinking of acquiring a lot of. I thoroughly enjoy a good evaluation of puerh so either one brings me happiness…
Advice on Starting to Sample
First and most importantly, you should have a clear goal in mind and attempt to understand your own drinking before you purchase too many samples. Some people say that you should sample widely (Such as James of TeaDB) and others say that you should narrow in on a certain area to try to understand it (such as Shah8 of Sheng of the Day). Either direction you take you should do so mindfully. If not you will be left with a box stuffed full of samples with no desire to go through them or find it a chore to go through them and that’s not what sampling is all about. Sampling is super fun not a chore. If it’s a chore, you should probably just cake purchase.
Sampling Up- I think it’s pretty good, if you can afford to do this. Read this post on it here.
Sampling Down- the only way to see if you can get similar quality puerh by paying less or by seeing how low your taste in puerh can go while still enjoying puerh, is too sample low. Sampling high will not do this. This is a mission in value and practicality. To some people this will be more important than sampling high. Again you need to be clear about what your sampling goals are. Over the last two years I had sampled low sometimes and the results were stunning. Some of those puerh I purchased are worth many multiples more because the price didn’t catch up to the quality yet.
I think, generally speaking, that new puerh drinkers might want to aim a bit higher if they can and real experienced puerh drinkers should aim lower they wish to be more economical and haven’t obtained too much puerh already. If you read Hobbes Half-Dipper and even Cwyn’s Death By Tea after they gained a bunch of experience and before they dropped off regular publishing they were sampling low. A search for cheap everyday drinkers is an exercise in sampling low. To optimally sample low you still need to have an understanding of more desirable qualities in puerh or to at least know your own taste well enough and that is done by sampling high.
Sampling Sideways- puerh of the same price is rarely the same quality and certain qualities of puerh are valued more than others by a wider puerh drinking audience. Sampling puerh of the same price will give you a good feel of value.
Random Sampling- you can find something you never even knew existed or a factory or area you have never tried…. Different type of storage, ect … This is fun sometimes…
Blind Sampling- its always an exercise in how bad you are at identifying a general character of a puerh region but can also determine value by removing bias.
Size of Sample- James of TeaDB has written articles on the benefits of both large and small. He has also commented about the benefits of full cake samples. There are obvious benefits to each. Again you need to be clear about what you want from your sampling. Cake samples are better if you are thinking about making a large quantity purchase. Small samples are better if you are attempling to sample high and have a goal of learning or just want to treat yourself to something worth more.
All sampling is good but it should match your goals at what you are trying to achieve with sampling.
I love Binghole samples!- I think binghole samples get a bad wrap. I understand the tight compression of a binghole is not represented of the cake. I never hear anyone complain about corner samples or just off the top samples which would also not be so representative of a whole cake. So if you are sampling to evaluate you probably won’t appreciate the binghole. But as someone who prefers tight compression, it’s always a special treat to open a binghole sample. I makes me enjoy the sample more on its own merits and makes me wonder what could have been if the vendor had just iron pressed it….
I have heard people say “The future of puerh is storage” I have heard others say “The future of puerh is sampling”. Both of these statements speak a bit the concept that you can only buy so many cakes before you have acquired enough that you can’t possibly finish in your lifetime. It also speaks to the ever rising costs of puerh. Certainly there is enough ways to approach a sample to keep you engaged in puerh without having to ever purchase a cake.