Scared of Pu-erh

...and he has better cameras.

Meet Brandon.

He lives in Delaware, has a nice job in IT, likes metal and post-rock.

He’s also founded two great tea websites, has stores of amazing tea and teaware, and has been my point of entry to a bewitching new world of tea.

I feel caught between two paths.  I’ve spent the last 6 years doing a survey of the field.  While shying away from non-tea herbs, I’ve been sampling exemplars from all regions of origin and major varieties of manufacture.  I’ve tried to understand the chemistry, biology, and physics behind tea cultivation, manufacture, and preparation, to learn what universal properties anchor the mass of particular tea practices and received wisdom.  And as such a generalist, I’ve nursed a philosophy that treats each unique specimen of tea that presents itself as a friend that is met, welcomed, and bidden farewell in an ephemeral world.  Because every tea is an expression of a terroir, a time and a place and a set of circumstances, and every tea will become stale a year or two from now, making room for greeting the next year’s harvest.  As such, tea resists a hierarchy of valuation.  Tea paragons don’t last long enough to make the rounds demanding obeisance, so every tea that enters a man’s life can be sacred.  Like the cherry blossoms, but in your mouth.

Follow the brown brick road

Brandon is the patron of a school of tea appreciation that I’ve deliberately avoided–Chinese aged teas.  These are pu-erhs or oolongs, treasures laid up in caves where humidity and mold mellow and amplify.  And as these teas improve with age, these are the teas that fetch the highest prices.  I was honored that Brandon served me some 1950’s pu-erh, but I hate to think how much one would have to pay for it.  The same goes for the teaware.  Brandon owns several artisan and antique pots and guiwans–porcelain, yi xing.  He was using a Korean plate as a saucer–a $25 find on ebay–which a guest suggested was worth two hundred times as much.  One worries that without massive financial assets, one isn’t receiving a “sufficient” or “authentic” tea experience.  My “egalitarian aesthetic” was looking like something I’d necessarily constructed for my lowly economic circumstances.

But it must be said that Brandon is a gracious host and teacher.  He has found a powerful sensory and spiritual experience, and he wants to bring it to others.  Drinking a high-fired, aged tea gong-fu style with Brandon truly is a palate-transforming, consciousness-altering phenomenon.  And Brandon has an impressive, bottom-up familiarity with these teas that will take me a long time to integrate with my top-down understanding.  It’s made longer since people with this kind of rare expertise are only found in significant concentration someplace like New York–Brandon drives up a few times a month.  I feel like I’m looking at a long journey ahead, excitement and anticipation tinged with dread.  Ars longa, vita brevis.


1 Response to “Scared of Pu-erh”

  1. 1 MarshalN May 24, 2010 at 9:52 PM

    You most definitely do not need a lot of money to enjoy pu. In fact, a reasonable, aged some years pu can be quite cheap, if you know what you’re looking for and how to find it.

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