This one's a segue between tasting sheng (raw) and busting out the shou (ripe) pu-erhs on next post.
Before we taste more pu-erhs, we thought we'd cut through some of the distracting noise about who makes the best pu-erhs and ultimately, what or who you should buy. This topic is relevant before we taste shous because with the introduction of the post-fermentation process, there's also a lot of talk about who "cooks" it best.
Two prominent and opposing schools of thought: buy from established factories only because they have decades of experience in processing or; nah, get it only from small producers because the big guys don't want to pay for quality leaf, they're just relying on branding.
As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in between extreme views.
Being an indy ourselves, we tend to gravitate to the little guys. There's a spirit of innovation both incidental and by design. Combating weather changes by switching processing techniques or appeasing a special customer request, these guys can explore with a fluidity and flexibility envied by the more cumbersome bigger pu-erh factories. And of course, the little guys, tucked way up in the mountains know where the local secrets are when it comes to wildcrafting or old trees - they know where to get good leaf.
The trouble is getting access to these guys' merch. Sure there are online distributors that source from various direct-from-farm growers and producers. But online pu-erh buying is a double-edged sword. Convenient, yes, and a trusted seller may even help you select. Otherwise, it's a stumble in the dark - there's just too many to choose from. And not all non-factory pu-erhs are good of course - there are low grade stocks and poor taste amongst the indies too. If you find a bricks-n-mortar tea shop with small producer pu-erhs, a sure way is to ask for taste tests. Better still, if you just happen to find yourself in Yunnan, take a hike up one of the famed pu-erh mountains like Yiwu, where you can find many small growers and makers. Recently, I tried this dope small 100g 2013 sheng cake made by a small business calling themselves Yunwu Kee Tea from Kunming. Hasn't aged for that long but it was the kind of sheng I cherished, lengthy and mellow. It's reminscent of the 2011 "Large Trunk" we carry from another small producer from Yiwu, the Mahei Village Farmers.
The best I've tried from the indies though are equally enjoyable as my faves from the established factories. By established factories, we're talking about the six former government owned ones like Menghai and Xiaguan, you know the ones with the four-digit recipe numbers on their shous. They're commercial juggernauts now, branding recogniseable with branch agents around the world. Some say, in recent years they've grown apathetic, allowing their renown to do the work instead of investing more on getting better mao cha. Only factory insiders would really know if this is true. Tales and speculations aside though, why don't we just taste?
Katherine of Kau Chau Hong, HK reppin' that Menghai (TaeTea)
Which brings me to one of the benefits of sometimes buying from the Big 6. Samples at-the-ready and they've got agents around. I was introduced to Menghai's HK distributor and we were invited up to their warehouse for a tasting one Sunday on the backstreets of Chai Wan. They took us through a deep catalogue of shengs and shous, both vintage and new. We had a 2009 sheng, the best I've had to date.
There's good and bad to be had from both big factories and small producers. We're not pu-erh specialists but we've drunk a fair bit. From our tasting experience, there's no definitive pattern as to who generally (big vs small) makes a tastier brew. If you have the fortitude to access and taste test the goods of the small producer, then mos def, do it. If not, don't sleep on the big guns either, get at their nearest rep and go through samps until you find what you want. Let the truth rise to the surface of your tongue and bounce around all corners of your mouth - then please share with us your findings.