Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Lawrence Zhang: The Grandfather of Puerh in the West



Let’s just say it like it is… Lawrence Zhang (aka MarshalN of A Tea Addict’s Journal) is the Grandfather of Puerh in the English speaking world.  There is no one person who is or probably ever will be as important and relevant to those who drink puerh in the West than Marshal’N.  Period. 

Part of why he is so influential has to do with him simply arriving at the right place(s) at the right time(s).  He started his blog, A Tea Addict’s Journal, in 2006 which would have been both at a time when very few blogs (tea or any other topic) existed and/or when they just started to become popular and when very few people in the West were drinking puerh and/or just when they started to share their passion for this tea online in forums.  He was ahead of his time and a pioneer to blog about puerh and he did so in English.

The other reason why he is so influential is because he is Chinese, living in Beijing, and Hongkong but also fluent in English and familiar with the culture having lived in Vancouver and in the USA as a student.  He chose to write his blog in English and tether himself to the English online puerh community but yet he had the ability to inform us what was going on in China.  The combination proved a powerful, informative, and influential vehicle in the very early days of puerh.

However, the real reason why Lawrence Zhang is so influential in English puerh circles is because he is very intelligent, kind, practical, and easily portrays an argument or topic in simple terms.  He usually makes his point in very few words and he has made many such statements on his blog.  Did I mention he now teaches tea history at Hongkong University? Most importantly, Marshal’N, more than any other English speaking puerh tea blogger, embodies the “Old School” of puerh.

I too prescribe mainly to the “old school” of puerh tea. In fact, if you go back to the posts when I came back to blogging in 2017, the main philosophical idea of those posts back then and even today is to present an alternative or at least competing view to the “new school”.  This direction was in response to a virtual void of information and options representing the “old school” when I came back into blogging which really shocked me.  At that time, Hobbes and Marshal’N were almost not posting anymore and James of TeaDB and Marco of Late Steeps were starting to lean a bit more towards the old school at the time (they are puerh bloggers that although not growing up in the old school have learned it well by now and I consider them old school Marco is probably more old school than me these days and Wilson of Travelling Teapot is also much more old school).  However, Lawrence Zhang, more than any other English authority, epitomizes what the old school of puerh is in the Western puerh drinking scene.

That is why it was so striking to watch Glen of Crimson Lotus Tea, who admittedly started drinking puerh 8 years ago and by nature of his puerh tea company is quite “new school”, interview Laurence Zhang.  Glen did it here a few days ago on his YouTube interview series Between Two Teapots.  If you haven’t watched it, I implore you to do so.  Its pure brilliance and Marshal’N at his finest.    I was also really impressed by Glen’s interviewing skill which would have been quite difficult considering he is basically interviewing the one person in the English speaking world that has the best combination of experience and knowledge of puerh.  But what I thought was very classy is how Glen navigated an interview with someone who holds such different philosophy of puerh than himself.  Glen did such a good job that in the end I was left wanting to sample his brand.  The interview taken as a whole comes off as a bullet point presentation of most of the relevant themes and posts of his blog.  It is a purist and condensed lesson in the “Old School” of puerh tea by the tea professor himself.

Let me now summarize, link, and discuss some of the points Marshal’N makes during his interview which include references to his old blog posts and other lesson in the “Old School”.  Many of his discussion points mirror what I have been posting on my blog over the last 4 years and I will sometimes provide links from my own posts… my own thoughts will be italicized…

4:00 “I don’t measure my pots”- lots of old schoolers, me included, don’t know the volume of the pots they use.  Often they also never measure the amount of grams used either- I never do.  I believe this is more to do with honing ones gongfu skill without the reliance on measurement.  None of my teamasters ever measured out their tea either.

6:54 “With kids running around you don’t want to have teawear lying around and it gets challenging” (see my post here) lots of old schoolers now have a bunch of kids hampering their style… hahahah... we are not only old school but we are just simply old...

9:29 “What is you rough brewing ratio?- I can’t tell you because I’m one of these guys who don’t measure anything and I just look around and it seems about right.”

 11:35 “The one thing I’m sort of proud of is popularizing the term Grandpa Style”- (see his post here)

13:00 “It’s not like there is any science behind it (Grandpa Style), it’s not measured or anything

17:55-30:35 You obviously have a lot of local Hongkong experience (see this tag on his blog on Traditional Hongkong storage)

33:35 “What young sheng puerh characteristics and qualities characteristics are best for aging?”  “Most of the good stuff gets made into single origin puerh which is mostly a function of cost.  It’s very hard to find anyone who wants to put some Laobanzhang material in a some regular old blend… because you can’t sell it for that much because no one will pay for that much  (see my post on Extinct Blends)… after 10 plus years of experience with some of these teas, I’m not convinced that single estate puerh will age that well… or not that interesting…. Old cakes are all blends.”  Old schoolers generally prefer factory teas and blends over single estate.  80% of what I buy and consume are blends.

35:40 “the location (of classifying puerh areas) has gotten so small” (link his blog)

42:30 “You generally want to buy Spring tea if you can … because they tend to age better.”  Old Schoolers believe that Spring tea is generally always superior to Autumn.  In the factory era they did not create Autumn tea cakes as it wasn’t worth the cost of production to quality.  As a result, many old schoolers won’t seek out Autumnal productions.  (see my post here)

43:25 “If you don’t want bitter tea, drink some Oolong.” Generally oldschoolers believe that bitter teas will age better this is also because a lot time ago all puerh was bitter young.  Generally, oldschoolers enjoy the bitter taste in puerh and see it as a positive of long term aging.

45:55 “I guess if you are buying it to drink now… but I can’t speak to that really.”  Old school puerh drinkers rarely drink young puerh.  I rarely drink young puerh beyond sampling myself.  I’m buying young puerh, I’m buying it to age.  This is mainly due to the fact that puerh from the 90s and earlier were too harsh young and neverwere intended to drink young.  It also has to do with TCM theory that bitter fresh tea is damaging for ones health for many individual constitutional types. 

47:40 “What do you think about the different varietals or sub-varietals, wild varietals, or wild puerh.  Do they have any potential for aging? No… no don’t buy them.  Only buy them now if you drink them now, you don’t care, and you don’t get headaches, otherwise don’t touch them… Just don’t buy them to expect that they will age like puerh because they are not puerh..  I’m not happy when people call them puerh because they are not.  They are something else.  They are tisane, they are whatever...  It doesn’t age like that (puerh)  Old schoolers don’t believe that “wild varietals” are puerh.  I have wrote many articles about this very topic (here).

50:29 “Everything is aging” (see my post here)… I’ve had old black teas before. (link his post here).

51:25 “Areas that used to produce black tea are now producing puerh… If you buy a cake of Shuangjiang Mengku… and you leave their cakes to age for 20 years or so. Guess what? The tea tastes like black tea, or at least there is that black tea note.  And I think part of it is a varietal issue because for decades … they cultivated the tea to make black tea out of it.”  I never heard this theory before despite being a big fan of Shuangjiang Mengku… but it makes perfect sense too me.

56:00 “This whole idea of drinking gongfu cha is… in places that is not Chaozhou… is all very foreign to them (Chinese people)… I think foreigners see this … this is the Chinese tea ceremony is basically a lie... Foreigners think its exotic but it’s anything but exotic.” (see his post)

1:08:52 “Having some bugs that will chew through the paper means that you are doing pretty good storage wise.”  Old schoolers aren’t phased by bug bitten or damaged wrappers because back in the day most wrappers were like that.  They also generally enjoy more humid storage because the first cakes that were dry stored, the famous 88 Qingbing, were generally released for the fist time ever in the early-mid 2000s.  

1:11:10 “What is your favorite village/ region for puerh tea? ..Over the years, I think, (Yiwu) has gotten less interesting for me and I like things from Menghai area better these days.  Especially with age, I think they actually age better.”  Old schoolers generally think that Menghai area teas will actually age better.  This is at least partly because most of the aged teas they consumed early on were likely from the Menghai area from the 70s, 80s, 90s.

1:15:15 “There is no guarantee you are getting what you know… anything goes… nothing is stopping me from unwrapping your cakes and selling it as my own pressing.” (See his post hereI just commented on this last week when describing the 4 types of faked aged puerh (see here).

1:25:15 “Opinions on hunagpian?  Why waste your time?  What if you want to save your budget or is it not even worth it from that perspective? If you want to save your budget spent it on some regular cheap Dayi or something.  Why buy huangpain?  It’s basically someone’s trash and it’s not going to age that well, it’s going to be kind of bland… I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to buy it.”  Olderschoolers feel that hunagpian is not worth the money.  (See my post here)  Old schoolers also love cheap Dayi… we can’t resist cheap Dayi (see I his post here and mine here).

1:27:20 “So when you talk about village specific taste like that, at least as an end consumer I think we spend too much time worrying about these kind of names and labels and it doesn’t really mean that much at the end of the day.”   Oldschoolers generally put less emphasis on specific areas because they didn’t categorize by such specific villages long time ago.  They are generally more concerned about the end product of how it tastes and feels rather than where exactly it comes from.

1:33:25 “You spoke to the fact that there is mostly men in teashops… Why is puerh so male dominated?  (See my recent post here).

1:40:25 Taobao shutting down some second hand sellers.  (see his post)

1:42:30 Story about a very old New York stored puerh (see his blog)

1:45:10 Taobao Lottery is real (see his post)

1:46:00 “What is the strangest tea that you enjoy drinking?  There are some pretty funky aged Oolongs that are borderline straight moldy, they are really sharp, you can sort of taste the mold but they can be good... when you want that moldy tea experience even though it can be questionable.”  Oldschoolers generally don’t mind drinking tea with mold and are really not phased by moldy puerh.  This is also because puerh a long time ago was usually stored in more dank storage and they have developed a taste and tolerance for such things.

1:48:45 “You can now find 2006/2007 for less than a new cake would cost that are actually sometimes better than the new cake with 15years of age on it.”  Oldschoolers generally are fine with cheaper teas with age vs. spending the money on a new cake to age.  It is a commonly held belief among oldschoolers that you don’t really need to spend lots of money on puerh tea to get a solid drinking experience (see Dayi comment above).  This is partially a reaction to the increased price of fresh puerh over the years but also due to the fact they got used to spending so little on puerh a long time ago when things were less expensive and partly because there is simply a decent supply of solid cheaper puerh out there with a bit of aging on them which are simply better value than young puerh.

1:53:00 “Mine are all the same (Yixing).  I wouldn’t use sliver (teapot) for puerh.”  Oldschoolers when not drinking grandpa style mainly/ exclusively use yixing.  Why?  It does better with the older styles of puerh, more bitter puerh, and rougher old style processed puerh such as aged factory puerh which oldschoolers often enjoy.

2:04: “What an example of a tea you bought 15 years ago? … Back then it was the Wild West right? So.. lots of teas are mistakes either because they are weird in some ways: bad material, bad processing, too many to name really.  (see his post)

The last question from Microshrip is probably very fitting and brings the interview full circle when he asks…

2:09:32 “How has your approach to tea evolved since diving deep into it and what is it like now? I drink tea a lot more casually now than I used to… you start to learn what you like and start ignoring all the hype… and you settle into what you like and what you don’t like and you pay less tuition.

Sounds like a lot of grandpa style these days for the Grandfather of Puerh.

Peace

13 comments:

marco said...

Nice summary of the Puerh Torah
I am definitely an Old Testament type of guy but I'm not sure about old school. With only two tea samples older than myself i can hardly be called old school drinker. I try to learn the good lessons from the true old schoolers because thats the best defense against the bloody disaster that makes up most of the new school.

Matt said...

Marco,

That sounds awfully old school to me.

Hahaha

Peace

Unknown said...

Hey Matt.

I am a tea novice who got into Puerh in the last few months and have enjoyed reading your blog and sincerely appreciate your efforts in sharing your knowledge with the community.

I find this article a bit off-putting though.

I watched and very much enjoyed the stream in question as well.

This article though strikes me as almost insecure and tribalistic.

Putting people into two neat camps (the venerable and just "old school" VS the heretical usurpers of the "new school") is often easy to do but I find in reality people don't really tend to fit into such neat little categories. Some people may indeed be hucksters and scam artists but some may be well meaning and enthusiastic if a little misguided. I appreciate your current and past efforts in calling out questionable practices in the scene and educating people. But I don't feel this attitude of splitting the community is helpful. I'm left with a very unsubtle Goofus and Gallant vibe.

Additionally the commentary and comments regarding MarshalN's statements I feel could be done in a more elegant way perhaps with more explanation and examples rather than the current iteration of "oldschoolers/the correct/the cool/Gallant do things this way". In their current form the article to me reads as you laboring to prove your "oldschool" credentials to the reader and emphasizing your commonalities with MarshalN to further increase your clout.

I don't think you need to prove anything to anyone and I'm sure most people will agree with me. I don't usually comment on things since I don't usually have anything of value to add to the conversation but felt such a sour note from this one blog entry I had to express my opinion.

Best Regards,
Ian

Matt said...

Marco,

If owning samples older than oneself is the bar to measure old school then I’m afraid I too fall short!

Peace

Matt said...

Ian,

Thanks for your criticism of this post. After writing it I also found it a bit off putting as well and I thought about not publishing it or taking out my own thoughts and links because I also thought that it came off a bit, as you put it...

“ In their current form the article to me reads as you laboring to prove your "oldschool" credentials to the reader and emphasizing your commonalities with MarshalN to further increase your clout.”

In the end, I thought it might be more useful to have my thoughts and explanations in there than not. Also if I don’t publish my articles quickly sometimes they either take a long time to publish or I just shelve it completely. So in many ways I’m also a bit unsatisfied with the article as a whole but thought it was better to publish than to just shelve.

It is true that this post does venerate the old school. However, I was careful not to include anything that is divisive, nor to define what “New school” even is, I have made a point of not creating two camps at all, nor have I said that old school puerh is more “gallant, cool, or correct in the way they do things”. If anything they are much less cool these days.

New school is definitely not hucksters and scammers nor did I say nor imply that.

I agree that people don’t fit in boxes, and neither do I. That is why I said that “ I prescribe MAINLY to the old school” not completely and not overwhelmingly either.

The point of the post was to present what I believe “old school puerh” is by referring to both Marshaln and my own blog posts for those who wish to understand it better. It’s that simple really.

Thanks for the feedback.

Peace

marco said...

It is so ironic and sad that most of the old pu is locked away, never to be tasted since it is just too valuable.... its the 1% that killed aged tea!

Anonymous said...

Thanks I thought this was a good post. I actually find it helpful because it contextualizes what I see as limits (bounds) in Marshaln's approach as an aspect of the presumptions of old school. That's clarifying for me.

And maybe I can posit that there is a school that is older than old school. Call it ancient school. I am talking about peeps like Baisao or the cats in the book "Wind in the Pines". People from hundreds of years ago and more from China, Japan, Korea, who saw tea as a meditative path in itself (and I don't necessarily mean the formality of chado, though it could include that.) If we leave the ancient school unrecognized, then I think we're just in a mode of modern revisionism.

And to describe the ancient school is not to suggest it was the mainstream or popular approach to tea. But neither was shikantaza a mainstream Zen practice either for the layperson.

I think there are modern iterations of the ancient school that can veer new age. But I think there are faithful adherents of that way, which is why I'm interested in Glen's upcoming video interview with Po of Heaven's Tea.

You could also posit that there is an overlap in the old school and ancient school, if one reads the old school as the simplicity of "chop wood, carry water". But I think often when speaking of old school in the way you discuss it, the depth of the ancient school is not necessarily implicit.

Matt said...

Anonymous,

Good, it was meant to contextualize the interview.

Any single minded school of thought will naturally have limitations but you have to remember that MarshalN continuously said throughout the interview that if you like a certain tea or a certain way of tea or philosophy of tea then that’s fine.

One overarching ancient school of tea doesn't really exist historically but rather there have been many ancient schools of tea that are specific to a certain time and place and philosophy.

Not sure how the old school and these ancient schools overlap but it’s a interesting topic.

Thanks for allowing me to reflect on such things.

Peace

Carlos said...

Where's Darius?
Marco has had a say.....

Matt said...

Carlos,

Hahaha.... Truthfully I always look forward to both of their thoughts on these topics!

Carlos, What’s your take on MarshalN and the old school of puerh?

Peace

Matt said...

Marco,

It’s intertwined with the culture of influence in China. Anything caught in that crossfire is a doomed cause.

Sometimes I wonder ... if aged puerh held little value, would we even be even be chasing and discussing it here?

“Why chase puerh?”- MarshalN

“All the cool kids are doing it.”- Glen

Peace

Jot said...

I see little in the way of useful distinctions between "old school" and "new school". In the West, we're all new school anyway. It's just the tendency of humans to find divisions and distinctions where they do not strongly exist.
Puerh is drinking tea, and drinking tea is primarily an activity revolving around consumption. I'm sure that the modal jazz people did not think much of the "new school" of free jazz, or bebop, or whichever came first, but in the end they all made the ecosystem richer. And playing jazz is not a consumption-based activity. Anyone can sit down with a vessel, some tea and hot water. Pour and drink. Tweak and repeat. It's hardly comparable with trying to learn a Coltrane solo. (Pass me a saxophone and I could not even play a *single note*). It's a relaxing recreational activity of sorts for almost everyone. Yes, it has some potential meditative aspects and the opportunity to "go deep". But it is still mostly consumption, and pretty passive. I don't believe it should be elevated excessively.

Matt said...

Jot,

This is such a great comment... and so true.

The whole concept of puerh being just passive consumption and should be approached without veneration or much fanfare is kind of the point of old school thus putting value in “cheap Dayi” ...

“why chase puerh?”

I think defining a theoretical school of thought, especially if it is shared by many, helps people understand each other better by understanding where they are coming from.

Peace