[from an email to corax. posted by permission.]
More than a year ago, I passed through the half-century gate and realized I had less time for storing young pu’er to maturity and little space remaining to keep it. I don’t want to collect 2006 cakes and drink them when I’m sixty-five and they’re just fifteen years old. I decided, then, to spend my pu’er shekels on some older tea and learn, if I could, what my little pile of bricks, beeng chas, and tuo chas stored in the guest room might one day become. For more about what led me to this decision, and what has come of it since, see my essay “I Am Buying Aged Pu’er.”
I contacted website purveyors and ordered samples. They’ve been trickling in from Texas, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan. Some of the samples were not too exciting; some were utterly extraordinary, almost life-changing. With pen pals, I entered into a discussion of the definition and nature of truly good aged and semi-aged pu’er. I have drafted a set of principles (stealing from friends some ideas and metaphors) regarding what conduces to excellence in a pu'er tea. My list of principles is a perpetual work in progress. Readers will certainly disagree with much of I have to say, and in a year or a month, I will also. But for now, it captures many of my current attitudes. Taste is a matter of personal taste. As one correspondent succinctly writes, “Whatever pulls your trigger.” Nevertheless, when tea-ists share their description of flavors, I have a new template, a new armature, a new lens. I love reading the reviews others write. Others’ views help me immeasurably as I try to parse the flavors and aromas of pu’er. Further, reviews help me to understand brewing parameters, and the longer I pursue tea, the more I realize how important parameters are.
Below are seven reviews, a representative sample of my experiences. I have more reviews to write, but given the pressures of spring gardening, I thought now was the time to share what I’ve written thus far. More will follow. I hope those later reviews will include two sixties GYGs, some seventies 7542 samples, an 80s Liu An, and a late 80s shu tuo cha. The seven reviews here may be repetitive, and for this I apologize. What a strange, solitary act it is -- this staring at a monitor and into space, mouth full of tea, searching for words to express exactly that which eludes capture and description, that which is so strikingly and seductively ineffable.
Since the series of reviews is itself rather long, I will summarize my criteria for excellence in pu'er separately, in the next post.
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One more comment: In the reviews that follow, I assume at times the persona of one who knows what he’s talking about. In truth, I do not. But it’s hard to state opinions and be forever tentative in those statements.
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Eighties Hung Fuk from GrandTea.com
Type: Aged Green Beeng Cha Pu’er
Leaf Appearance: Dry Leaf: Gray-green-brown.. Wet leaf: Very deep brown.
Vessel: 3 ounce glazed cebei. Weight: 3.3g
Hydration rinse: 10 seconds, 3 minute rest. Infusion times: 15s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, 50.
Liquor Appearance: The color of the liquor is tawny red like creamy sherry.
Liquor Aroma: Aroma is not a predominant characteristic of this tea. There is a hint of fruit.
Flavor: Sweet, fruity flavor. Plum taste. Extremely pleasant tartness. The lingering aftertaste is very nice in this tea, and it remains in the mouth for several hours.
Infusions: The fourth and fifth infusions were the best. The seventh infusion was markedly weaker.
Overall: This tea did not appear as dark and aged in real life as it appears in the promotional image on the website. It is not as strong as I would like. Many people would like the mild flavor. It is a very pleasant tea, but it is not a truly exceptional aged pu’er like the 70s 7532 or the 70s Grand Yellow. Though I could well be mistaken, I would guess that it sprang to birth in the late eighties rather than in the early eighties. I hoped for more of the characteristics I most crave from an aged tea: flavors of wood and camphor and the inexpressible essence of aged pu’er in the aftertaste. This tea might benefit from further aging, but it is not particularly lively. Perhaps I lack the subtle perception to appreciate its nuances. If I were to brew it again, I would try using more tea in the gaiwan.
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Seventies Grand Yellow Label from GrandTea.com
Type: Aged Beeng Cha Pu’er, green-cooked mix, 70% - 20% according to purveyor. [Where is the other 10%?]
Leaf Appearance: Dry Leaf: Gray-brown and black. Wet leaf: Very deep red. Incredible expansion upon hydration.
Vessel: 3 ounce glazed cebei. Weight: 3.3g
Hydration rinse: 10 seconds, 3 minute rest. Infusion times: 15s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, 40s, 55s, etc.
Liquor Appearance: The color of the liquor is that of weak coffee, deep red with brown tones.
Aroma: This might be the most striking characteristic of the tea, and it propels it to very great heights in my estimation. This tea has the most powerful camphor aroma I have encountered. People can appreciate the bouquet of this tea from across the room. The aroma verges on cedar or spruce.
Flavor: Very strong flavor, especially in the first four infusions. In the flavor is camphor, cocoa, nuts, earth, sweetness. The tea is creamy and has a big mouth feel. There is a powerful wood flavor to this tea. I expected the cooked part of the tea to speak louder on the tongue, but it was very subtle. The tea has been carefully stored.
Infusions: The fifth infusion became truly excellent. The first several infusions were almost too strong. I will consider using slightly less tea or (more probably) employing several flash-infusions (very short brews of five seconds or less). From the fifth infusion on, the balance of flavors was exceptional.
Overall: This is a wonderfully strong, lively, aromatic aged pu’er. It provides a plethora of flavors. This is a tea I look forward to drinking again. I was suspicious of a sheng-shu mix in an aged pu’er. This tea exceeded my expectations by light-years.
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Two Tasting Sessions of 70s Chun-Cha “Jian Tie” Simplified Font Iron Cake, Uncooked
From Hou De Fine Tea
Harvest Year: 70's
Production Year: 70's
Manufacturer: Xia Guan Factory
Part One. 3/17/06. 3.5 grams in 3oz glazed gaiwan. Short rinse in low-boiling water. Three-minute hydration rest. Dry leaf appearance: very dark green with some brown. Firmly compressed, but flake-able. Wet leaf appearance: green tending toward red and brown, leaves in pieces from being broken from the beeng cha. Infusion times: 15s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, 35s, 40s, etc.
First infusion. Liquor color: mahogany-red and clear. Aroma: quite mild, primarily wood with some earth and a tiny bit of mint. First hot sip: sweet, clean. Some tartness. No unpleasant flavors. Looking forward to the next infusions.
Second infusion. Color is a little lighter. Aroma a little earthier. First hot sip -- naturally much stronger now. Strong tea -- does not taste less aged for the famous compression of Iron Cakes. Somewhat tarter; fruit coming to the fore now over wood tones. Very lively and satisfying. A tad bit too astringent. I expect that to settle in the fourth and fifth infusions. Camphor more apparent as it cools.
Third infusion. No color change from earlier infusions. Aroma seems stronger. Flavor is still very powerful. More flavor movement toward balance now between fruit and wood flavors, but there is a lemon or grapefruit flavor that’s rather surprising. Wide panoply of floral flavors and stronger tart aftertaste. As the liquor cools, the balance improves a little.
Fourth infusion. Fruit tartness and astringency somewhat abated. Wood flavor stronger now as in the first infusion. I tell myself, “Patience!” Allowing the tea to cool improves the flavor and softens the taste.
Fifth infusion. The wood aftertaste is much stronger, but a lemon or grapefruit flavor continues strong as well. This may be to some people’s liking, but I would prefer a mellower flavor in a pu’er from the Seventies.
Sixth infusion. The color is fading a little bit. The fine wood aroma continues. The tea seems perhaps a little less astringent. Were I to brew this again, I’d adjust the parameters and brew 3g rather than 3.5g in a 3oz gaiwan. That might ameliorate the lemon/grapefruit flavor. I might try shorter infusions too.
Seventh Infusion. In this infusion, the tea tastes noticeably sweeter. There is still a tart lemon astringency.
Eighth Infusion. The color is markedly lighter now -- like unto a double Scotch and water. The aroma (perhaps this pu’ers best attribute) is still very enticing. The sourness still covers up the wood flavors that the aroma promises but that the taste cannot deliver.
Ninth Infusion. The aftertaste is still quite tart rather than redolent of wood and cherry. The sweetness one expects at this stage in an aged pu’er tasting session is not apparent.
Conclusion. The first and ninth infusions tasted best in my mouth. As I mentioned above, there are probably very knowledgeable tea devotees who like the sour taste of lemon juice in aged pu’er. I have enough of this tea remaining to taste it again tomorrow. Tonight I gave the tea a very short bath -- just long enough to wet it. Tomorrow, I will let the tea bathe a full minute. Further, I will use a little less leaf and perhaps I will try shorter infusions. Perhaps those changes in the parameters will allow the promise of the aroma to come through in the flavor.
Part 2. 3/18/06. After a day of contemplation and consulting with my friend on the Strait of Malacca, I re-tried the Iron Beeng sample.
Generally with older pu’er I employ about 3.5 or 3.75g of tea in a 3oz vessel. Water just below boiling. I use a short rinse in boiling water and a 3m rest to hydrate. I brew with the following timed infusions: 15s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 25s, and so on, until I deem it necessary to make bigger jumps. I used this usual procedure with the Iron Beeng last night, and the result, as I mentioned, was a little too heavy on the grapefruit for my own personal taste. I was concerned that the aroma and flavor did not match. The Iron Beeng's aroma is fantastic.
Today I used 3g instead of 3.5g of dry tea. I used much cooler water for rinsing and brewing--about 170F to 175F.
After the rinse, I allowed the tea to rest for just a few moments rather than for three or four minutes. Into a large sharing pitcher, I mixed the first three infusions, the second two infusions, and then mixed the sixth and seventh infusions. This provided, so far, three pitchers of brewed tea. In this fashion, the growing strength of the grapefruit flavor after a long rest was ameliorated by the immediate subsequent rapid infusion. I hope that makes sense. :-)
The brewing times were as follows:
• First three infusions: 5s (sharing pitcher 1)
• Fourth & fifth infusions: 5s (sharing pitcher 2)
• Sixth infusion: 10s, Seventh infusion: 15s (sharing pitcher 3)
The result is much, much better to my mouth. I am drinking the mixed sixth and seventh infusions now, and the flavor matches the wonderful woody aroma. The tea is sweet and not sour. There is much more camphor in the taste. Based on this, I rate the tea much higher.
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80s Wood Mold Pekoe from GrandTea
Harvested: Early 80s
Sheng Beeng Cha
Dry leaf appearance: lightly compressed grey leaves with some brown. Wet leaf appearance: bright red and some blood-black.
Vessel: 4.3g of leaf in 4oz beloved Yixing pot with Heart Sutra inscriptions
15s rinse, 20s rest.
Infusing temperature: Very low boil, light seethe, shrimp eyes.
1st Infusion, 15s. Color: liquor deep red, almost burgundy. Very clear. Aroma: Herbal notes and wood. First hot sip: Mellow tastes, little initial sweetness, some mushroom. The predominant flavor is hard to name. I think it is oak leaf and spring water. Very pleasant.
2nd Infusion, 10s. Deeper red, very intense, very clear. Almost like red wine. Aroma: Strong of deciduous forest and sandstone rocks after a rain. First hot sip: Intense wood and dry earth. This is truly exceptional. This pu’er is somehow both strong and mellow at the same time.
3rd Infusion, 15s. Taste is a matter of personal taste, but this is exceptionally fine pu’er. I have seldom encountered its peer. This pu’er aligns with all of my preferences. The initial herb (basil, tarragon and bay leaf?) and earth on the front of the sip, the aroma of forest, and long finish of wood and camphor -- they are present in the correct proportions. The tea, furthermore, is beautiful in the cup.
4th Infusion, 20s. No noticeable difference from previous infusion.
5th Infusion, 25s. Still excellent -- little change from the earlier infusion. Nothing in this pu’er is excessive or out of place. The lack of sweetness does not bother me in this tea -- the dry character adds to the refined overall experience of it. The tea, despite the lack of sweetness, is not bitter. The liquor is mouth-watering. It excites salivation, no mean feat in my mouth.
6th Infusion, 30s. Continues mouth-watering. Still brisk, but no sour notes. The liquor catches nicely in the back of my throat. The lingering aftertaste is very pleasant -- wood and a cooling effect.
[Ninety minutes pass between the 6th and the 7th Infusion]
7th Infusion, 35s. The flavor is developing and changing, so it is a delight to drink. The aftertaste is even better as the initial flavors become more subdued.
8th Infusion, 45s. The color has taken on a paler hue, akin to slightly dark ale. The aroma has a wonderful cedar forest aroma. The almost indescribable aftertaste is the main feature of the liquor now.
9th Infusion, 1m. Color: lighter. Sweet tones coming through on the front of the first hot sip. Mild and satisfying flavor. Flowery.
10th Infusion, 2m. Hard boil. Very sweet, delicate, multi-dimensional flavors. Fantastic contrast to the second infusion hours ago. The tea has taken me on an exceptional journey.
Conclusion: For an eighties pu’er, this rates a score of five on a scale of five. I am very impressed. This is a definite candidate for repurchasing. All that I look for in pu’er, this 80s Wood Mold Pekoe has. I can only imagine how this pu’er will strike me in ten years.
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80s Chung-Cha #7542 Xiao Huan Yin (Yellow Label) from Hou De Fine Teas
Harvest Year: 80s
Production Year: 80s
Manufacturer: Meng Hai Tea Factory
Type: Aged Green Cake
Leaf Grade: #7542 Recipe
Purchase Weight: 10g sample
4.3g leaf in 4oz Heart Sutra Yixing pot. Dry leaf appearance: Grey-green chunks in sample, tightly compacted. Wet leaf appearance: red to black, very much expanded. Very short rinse. 45s hydration rest. Water temperature: low boil.
1st and 2nd Infusions mixed. 15s & 10s. Dark amber. Clear. Aroma: Some fruit, mostly loam. First hot sips: Dry, leather, not sweet, some tartness. Some mushroom. Thick in the mouth. Cooler sips: brisk and crisp. Some flavor of toasted grains.
3rd Infusion, 15s. Color: A little lighter. Aroma: some wood, cedar. First hot sips: still quite brisk. Bitterness not unpleasant. No sweetness. Catch in throat. Still thick texture in mouth. Strong dry earth flavor. Cooler: wood aroma intensifies. Some sweetness as the pu’er liquor cools. The brisk flavor is noticeable on the soft palate in the back of the mouth.
4th Infusion, 20s. Color: no change. Aroma: no change. Bitterness persists. I have used perhaps too much tea in this test. I will re-try at later date with 3.8g rather than 4.3g. Still some small hint of wood. A little sweetness would improve the tea.
5th Infusion, 18s (reduced) to try to soften the flavors. Color: lighter. Aroma: excellent wood continues to rise in the sharing pitcher. First hot sips: Ah, it is a little less bitter in the front of the taste, but the bitterness persists in the finish. As it cools, there is *maybe* a little more sweetness, a little more wood, but it’s so faint that I should call it wishful thinking. In the aftertaste there is saltiness. That’s odd.
6th Infusion, 18s (again). Color: a shade or two lighter. Aroma: delectable wood continues. Somewhat improved. The tea is a little bit tangy now rather than far too bitter. The aftertaste is softer. Despite the pale color now and the aroma of wood, the liquor is still very brisk, in fact, still too brisk.
7th Infusion, 18s (yet again). No noticeable color shift. Aroma: unchanged. First hot sips: Not very different from above. Softer in the front, harsher in the finish.
8th Infusion, 18s (even yet again). In this infusion, there are more flavors. The earth is less stony. The desert sand gives way to some hints or suggestions of loam. This tea is a candidate for wrong-fu, a series of flash infusions. Still, there is almost no multiplicity/multidimensionality in the presentation. There is almost no evolution from one infusion to the next. The lingering aftertaste is not inviting. On the post-swallow nasal exhale, there is some hint of wood, but at this point, I’d like that quality to predominate.
Conclusion: This pu’er disturbs me somewhat. It’s 7542, and I have a good-sized collection of 7542 cakes. I’m hoping that my own 7542 cakes will not present this monolithic character when they’re twenty years old. The aroma and flavor do not match, and the flavor has no sweetness or light. It has in it a disturbing suggestion of Lipton’s. I have tasted other 7542 cakes from the 80s and 70s that were less bitter and had more nuances and tones to offer, and I am at a loss to explain how beeng chas take off into their own worlds, going their own ways. After the 5th infusion, I carefully rinsed my mouth, thinking that the early infusions were prejudicing my palate. I have tasted perhaps ten pu’ers from the eighties, and this is not one of the better ones.
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Seventies 7532 from GrandTea.com
Type: Aged Green Beeng Cha Pu’er
Leaf Appearance: Dry Leaf: Gray-green. Wet leaf: Burgundy red.
Vessel: 3 ounce glazed cebei. Weight: 3.3g of dry leaf.
Hydration rinse: 10 seconds, 3 minute rest. Infusion times: 15s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, 35s, 45s, 55s, 75s, 120s, 200s
Liquor Appearance: The color of a double scotch and water.
Liquor Aroma: The pu’er releases the bouquet of the Iowa countryside after a strong lightning storm.
Flavor: On our property was an old well set back in an aspen grove. It was capped by the sort of pump that had a very long handle for pumping the water up from the well. The well was drilled into the aquifer through the layers of sandstone and limestone. The water from this well could bring you to tears of joy. This tea carries much of that flavor: fantastic artesian water. Also there is wood, camphor, clean earth, sweetness (especially in the final infusions), and I believe some very dry Burgundy wine. The lingering aftertaste on the back and sides of the tongue was remarkable. This tea is not incredibly strong like Guang’s Sixties GYG or GrandTea’s Yellow Label, but it speaks a poetry that carries me away.
Infusions: The first four infusions were a little disappointing. With the fifth infusion, the tea underwent a miraculous and sudden transformation and the balance and interplay of the flavors created a delightful journey. As the tea very gradually lost strength, the aftertaste and sweetness increased.
Overall: This tea deserves tremendous praise. I believe it was very carefully stored. I love this tea. I love this tea.