Depending on who you listen to, you may end up with all sorts of different theories about puer. There are the elite ‘old tea’ guard who refuse to drink sheng younger than 15 years or who meticulously track certain vintages of Chinese factory productions. For these folks, the theory of puer tends to lean toward one of prestige and rarity – they want the best stuff and they want their tea to be impressive. They may subscribe to the idea that puer must be aged before drinking. They may also be dedicated to the pursuit of ‘authenticity’ (a topic laid out very well in Jinghong Zhang’s excellent anthropological book “Puer Tea”) and obsessed with spotting ‘fake tea’. Essentially, these folks may be prone to believing there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to go about puer. Personally, I find this theory of puer boring. It doesn’t leave much room for adventure or discovery and focuses more on rules, regulations and gatekeeping. One of my favorite tea bloggers, Cwyn, wrote that anyone who gets into the tea hobby must have some tolerance for ambiguity and error, and I agree.
On the other end of the spectrum from the wrapper-inspectors there are the very casual puer drinkers. You don’t hear about these folks as much because they have no reason to frequent the blogs, Facebook groups, or subreddits dedicated to puer, but they are certainly out there. These people drink puer, likely more shou than sheng, at a commodity level. They may have heard that puer is good for weight loss or blood pressure and bought some to try. They probably don’t have vast collections – more likely, they have one or two cakes or bags of loose shou that they stick to. Their tea is likely not from specialty vendors but from larger, western tea companies that happen to sell a bit of puer sourced from wholesalers. They probably have normal hobbies and no interest in delving deeper into the puer world.
For me, there is an ideal balance to strike between elitism and apathy. I think there is a way of approaching puer that is focused on getting at its essence – at developing an understanding of what it is and incorporating that into daily life. Of course, this goal isn’t necessarily achievable. There is always more to learn, and each person will have their own unique experience with puer. That said, you can always deepen that personal understanding and appreciation. It might be useful to think of this theory as that of a student.
This approach may be very focused on how the tea makes you feel, both physically and mentally. In that sense, it may incorporate a form of mindfulness. Investigating taste, aroma, texture and all the physical and sensory qualities of the tea goes along with that careful attention. An experienced subscriber to this theory of puer would be familiar with the effects any given tea in their collection might have on their mood and energy. They would be able to identify tea by taste and aroma at least in general terms and so have guidelines to follow when buying online.
Primarily, they would have a solid understanding of what puers they like and why. These reasons would be personal, subjective and unrelated to marketing or hype. Approaching puer in this way is to love it for its own sake. The best tasting advice is to let the tea speak for itself – and adopting this approach to puer takes that sentiment to its fullest extent. All that said, this approach doesn’t lack its own pitfalls. People in this category may be even worse hoarders than the vintage-chasers, and they will have even more convoluted reasons for gathering up cakes, because those reasons will be personal. But decades down the road, I’d like to feel as though my understanding and appreciation of puer has only deepened over time, and I think adhering to this theory is the best plan I’ve discovered so far to get me there.