Jun 7, 2010

What is puerh? (2) Debates

There are many debates about puerh definition. Here are some biggest ones. Most of these debates not only exist among ordinary tea drinkers, but also among tea experts and senior tea professionals. It seems that puerh is so complex that it's almost impossible to clarify it with one definition, one interpretation or one straight-forward view. For each of the following debates, there are many protagonists and antagonists. I believe it's important to be aware of them, because sometimes people have to agree to disagree. When we see exactly opposite opinions on puerh, probably neither is ridiculous.

Debate 1 - Is Modern Shu a puerh?
According to 2008 National Standards (which was carefully made and supported by many people), Modern Shu is one type of puerh. But there are also many people who strongly against counting Modern Shu as puerh, because it didn't exist before 1970s, and by inner character, it is much closer to various other type of Hei Cha (Black Tea, which, as a Chinese tea term, is post-fermentation tea. Not the same as black tea in Western tea terminology.) than to Young and Old Sheng. (my notes: I like Sheng a lot more than Shu. So I sympathize with this view.)

Debate 2 - Is young Sheng a puerh?
This may not be as big a debate as Debate 1, because no matter how much you argue about a young Sheng, some day it can possibly become an old Sheng. But there are people who strongly object that young Sheng should be called a puerh. Their major reason is, before a young Sheng gets aged enough, it's not puerh yet. It doesn't have the inner characters of old Sheng, and young Sheng doesn't have the same health benefits of both old Sheng and modern fast-fermented puerh Shu.

(my notes: I have less sympathy for this view, because there can hardly be a well-defined standard about how old a Sheng must get in order to be called an "old Sheng". But I do have some sympathy for it, because obviously, puerh factories benefit from blurring the boundary of young Sheng and old Sheng. This makes people, including me, suspect how much the 2006 and 2008 puerh Standards were influenced by the "puerh industry".)

Debate 3 - Does Shu mean modern fast-fermented puerh product, or does it include both the modern fast-fermented puerh and old Sheng?
This debate is reflected by Definition 5 in "What is puerh? (1)" - Da Yi's definition. Some people believe the modern Shu can never be similar to an old Sheng. Some other people, including Da Yi people, believe old Sheng will share similar characters with modern Shu. (my notes: this view needs to be tested by time and research. It may or may not be true. But obviously Da Yi's current interpretation is helpful for them to sell both young Sheng and modern Shu.)

To summarize Debate 1, 2, and 3, there are three different views:
1. Both puerh Sheng (of any age) and modern fast-fermented Shu are puerh. This view is consistent with 2008 National Standards.

2. Puerh Sheng (of any age) is puerh, but modern fast-fermented Shu is not.

3. Old Sheng and modern fast-fermented Shu are both puerh, but young Sheng is not puerh, YET. Within this group, some people believe that young Sheng should be called "Yunnan Sun-dried Green Tea" instead. Some other people believe young Sheng is an unfinished product, and is not ready for drinking/sale at all. (my notes: Even if it's not a final product, probably we can still buy them and store them at home. I believe these people's point is, price of Young Sheng should be that of an unfinished products, but nowadays there are too many expensive, upscale Young Sheng. Meantime, I can understand that these people's another point is, once factories sell you young Sheng, they are not responsible for the future of it. So if the young Sheng doesn't have inner quality to be well-aged, it's factories' gain and consumers' loss.) Supporters of this view say, "Although chicken is from egg, you can't call an egg chicken." Ultimately, name is not the most important. People's concern is, if the "puerh industry" attempts to sell an egg for a chicken's price, it's too much value inflation.

Debate 4. Can Hei Cha products from provinces such as Guangxi, Sichuan and Hunan be counted as puerh? Or,  can puerh be categorized as Hei Cha?
Actually this is more of an ambiguity and not as much a debate. Most people agree that puerh is very much different from Hei Cha from other provinces. In tea market, most Chinese sellers wouldn't call Hei Cha from other provinces "puerh". But some Chinese tea books and articles (most of them don't focus on puerh, though) put Puerh under the category of either Hei Cha or Post-fermented Tea. In contrast, an interesting phenomenon is, some western tea articles and sellers would put Hei Cha (such as Liu Bao Cha, Sichuan Brick Tea, Hunan Brick Tea, etc.) under the category "puerh". I guess, listing Puerh (instead of Hei Cha, or Black Tea) as one of the six general categories of tea has something to do with a historical terminology dilemma. In Western tea terminology, the term Black Tea is already adopted for the tea genre which is called Red Tea in Asia, and so far in the West this tea genre is the most popular, best-known and most widely enjoyed one among all tea genres. Therefore it's barely possible for tea sellers to give consumers a strange name to their familiar tea, and use the familiar name "Black Tea" to a tea category that is still strange to them. Sometimes, what a seller wants the least is confusing buyers.

Debate 5. How proper is the geographic patent for puerh? Should the name puerh be restricted to products from Yunnan province only?
The Geographic Patent for puerh started from the 2006 Yunnan Province Standards for Puerh. But as a province document, it doesn't have regulation power on products of other provinces. But once the National Standards for Puerh came out in 2008, it has become illegal for products from other provinces to be called "Puerh". Although puerh originates from Yunnan, Guangdong province has more than 100 years of history of producing and exporting puerh products. Some people argue that the Modern Shu technique is largely from Guangdong. Therefore many people believe it's unfair to forbid Guangdong products of the similar technique to be called "puerh".


Alex Zorach said...

Personally, I think modern Shu gives puerh a bad name. Probably the first 10 or so puerhs I tried were shu, and while I enjoyed them, they were really in a completely different category from sheng puerh. When I tried my first sheng puerhs, I was consistently amazed...I just enjoyed them so much more (whether young or aged).

Sometimes I think people can get a bit snobbish, and even nasty, when they get into debates over what is "real" tea. I am firmly of the position that it is healthy and results in a richer, more diverse tea culture when tea of similar styles is produced in different regions.

But puerh is named after a county...

There's a problem though: pu-erh has widespread name recognition, whereas the more general term "Hei Cha" is virtually unknown or unheard of.

I think if puerh producers feel strongly enough about keeping their name to be tied to a region (rather than a style), they need to start actively promoting the use of "Hei Cha" together with puerh.

Some producers are greedy. Collectively, they want to keep exclusive use of the term "pu erh" but they don't want to introduce the term "hei cha" into widespread usage, because they would be afraid that as this term gained more recognition, people would start to explore hei cha from other regions. They're trying to have their cake and eat it too...and this behavior gains them no sympathy in my book.

Personally I would like to see the term "hei cha" catch on. But puerh (and pu-erh) is so mainstream that if I were to name pu-erh teas hei cha on RateTea.net, it would probably be so esoteric that it would cause me to lose readers and lose traffic, because people consistently search for pu-erh whereas almost no one searches for hei cha.

See the bind?

Jordan M. Williams said...

Hey Gingko,

Thanks so much for all the interesting post. Being that I have recently found a passion, I've been trying to be a sponge and suck up any knowledge, and information life a sponge when it comes to tea.

One of my favorite types of tea are Puerh and so learning about this debate has been very informative and I have appreciated them alot.

You blog has been an inspiration for my own tea blog I hope to launch in the fall.

So thanks again Gingko and I look forward to future post.

flo said...

isn't this all a matter of mindmap adjustment ?

as long as each of these point of view is contextualized and explained, it is understandable.

now according to which criterion you take, you can map teas in different ways :
> cultivar
> geography/terroir
> aromas/character
> methods and concepts for processing (or even cultivating)
> ability to age and evolve or not
> any other relevant item

one tea is the result of quite a few criteria, it is a complex product. I sometimes wonder if people who debate do not tend to leave that part out. It can be grossly categorized, which is actually convenient and useful, but when you narrow down to details things can never be that simple.

so it is not totally accurate eg to say that "pu er is hei cha", no more than it would be to say that "an hua hei cha is zheng shan xiao zhong". at some point they might share one or more criteria.

Will said...

To me, it's not so much whether young sheng is puer (I think it certainly is), but whether it's considered hei cha, which is a much blurrier line.


has some discussion of whether young sheng is hei cha or not (conclusion: inconclusive).

Gingko said...

I guess the categorization of teas is very subjective and there is no perfect way of doing it. It also depends on the purpose and basis of categorization.

Alex, I don't like shu very much, but don't think shu is all bad. I don't love most shu I've tried so far, but there are a few shu that I like very much. But then, I did hear quite a few people, after trying a sheng, saying in surprise that "oh this is not as stinky as I had expected...". What makes people expect puerh to be stinky from the beginning? Probably some unpleasant experience with some stinky shu :-p