“The Tao that is utterable, Is not the eternal Tao” – Such is the first sentence in Chapter 1 of the Dao De Jing, written by Laozi centuries ago. This is but one translation I selected out of many existing supported translations. Each one interprets the text differently, providing slight, or in some cases, significant differences in the translator’s understanding of the Dao De Jing. Experts rigorously debate the meaning of the original Chinese text. Translating into English adds a second layer of complexity by trying to accurately represent a “foreign” philosophy in a new cultural and linguistic context. Fear not, this post isn’t intended to introduce Chinese philosophy or Daoism (I am absolutely unqualified to do so in the first place); however, I feel there is a reasonable analogy to be drawn between this passage and the debate it spurs, and the discourse surrounding tea. Moreover, a loose interpretation of the passage as, “The path that is utterable, Is not the eternal Path” just so happens to fit snuggly as a theme in my beliefs about the ideologies that exist within the pu’er community.
The one thing I can be certain about is how very little I know – and likely ever will know – about pu’er tea. I want to take a quick opportunity to express that my main objective of personal thoughts section of the blog has been to quickly discuss topics that either interest or perplex me. Any conclusions I make are not nor ever will be final. Translated pieces I include also do not necessarily reflect my personal beliefs. I add them because each one provides a different perspective. They are not intended to directly reflect the path I personally follow, nor do I include them to assert which paths I think are right or wrong.
Candidly speaking, I am entirely content with the idea that I will never understand the true path of pu’er tea. There are too many interpretations, ideologies, and opinions surrounding it for the likes of somebody as small as myself to ever firmly grasp the true “Tao” in one short lifetime.
That said, just because “the path that can be known, is not the eternal path” does not mean that there is no value in attempting to learn and explore. Put in terms of my journey, it simply means that I will never be entirely satisfied by any given position or ideology. I feel that to position myself too firmly in one direction or another would limit my growth. The value they provide beyond recording my own thoughts for myself, and perhaps stimulating thought in a few other people, is very limited. At this point, I should probably also mention that my outlook isn’t meant to be defeatist or nihilist in nature. While I gain more experience, it will be useful for me personally when honing my tastes and (ideally) bring me higher rates of success of finding tea that I will enjoy. Beyond this, there will be few truths catalyzed by my thoughts or the pieces I share.
Setting aside philosophy, I can now take a sharp turn toward tea; thank you for your patience if you have not simply skimmed your way to this point. I personally find “value” in tea very difficult to nail down concretely outside of the moment I am engaging with it. This is probably the best way to approach any tea in my opinion. Anything beyond that becomes much more difficult to speculate on. For example, if I were to try an aggressive young raw pu’er and state that I believe it will age well, this is an incomplete thought. It fails to be much more than simple speculation. Where is it being stored that I think it will age well? Would others agree? Am I storing it for the long-term personally? Do the results speak more to my storage, or to the potential of the tea?
The idea that not all teas are created equal in terms of aging potential is widely agreed upon in both the Western Sphere and Sinosphere and I will treat it as axiomatic for the point of this discussion. Some people find single origin material (even of high-quality processing and popular region) to become somewhat single-note with some age. Other similar single origin products may taste great even with 10-15 years on them. Don’t worry, I think the very same thing about blends. Not all are created equally. There are teas from all “ranks” and “qualities” that will possess the ability to impress in some fashion during their lives. Great! More confusion and complication for consumers like myself.
I do like young pu’er and drink it on occasion, but I tend to lean more towards preferring the tastes teas with “the right stuff” acquire as they age. This only adds yet another layer of complexity to matters. Let’s say I, a humble consumer, choose one of the following two extremes as my pu’er buying strategy:
1) Buy cheap factory teas for aging because they have a track record and some perceived level of consistency,
2) Buy high-quality arbor material (large tree) cakes with refined processing at a much slower pace, refusing to sacrifice a dime for questionable quality tea,
and try to age these. I suspect that with either strategy, I would have successes and failures in both camps. As for why some perform better than others, there are too many variables for me to draw firm conclusions, especially considering how few attempts I’ll have in a lifetime to properly age teas. Perhaps my aging environment is sub-par. Perhaps the cakes were not processed in a way that was conducive to aging. Maybe the material of certain years was subpar compared to others. I have tasted a whopping 0% of the cakes that I personally own as both brand new products and semi-aged/aged teas. Of the aged and semi-aged teas I’ve been fortunate enough to try, again I’ve tasted a whopping 0% of them as new productions.
The conclusion I make here isn’t that I should doubt my storage or give up entirely on the idea of aging. Again, I suspect I will have some range of both successes and failures. It will take close to a lifetime before I have tried enough products both new, aged, personally stored, stored in other regions, and so on before it would make sense even to consider drawing broad conclusions about what products age well where, how, and why. In most cases, I firmly believe that history is created inadvertently. What Vesper Chan did with the 88QB may have been very intentional, but was contrary to accepted best-practice at the time, and it wasn’t until much later that he was recognized as visionary (as opposed to crazy). I suspect that many others who thought they had the next great production had far less success, and many great productions haven’t been publicly recognized in their youth.
Due to that uncertainty, I have not put most of my eggs into any one basket as I attempt to splash my way through the deep end of the pu’er pool. I have no strong preference for arbor or plantation material, for single-origin or blend, for types of storage be they dry or wet (though I generally am not fond of extremes of either school, based on my current experience), for one region over another, or for one company over another. Looking at the spreadsheet of teas I’ve purchased over the past few months, I notice a broad spread over most of the aforementioned styles.
What I find through tasting and storing my own teas will never be the true path – it will be my path. I will continue to listen closely to the ideas, ideologies, preferences, and experiences of other tea enthusiasts. Their ideas will never be the true path, either. There will be portions that fit well with the path I find myself on, and others that fit less-well.
Continue to learn as you go. Listen to others, but always remember: “The Tao that is utterable, Is not the eternal Tao”