Wednesday, November 29, 2006

1992 Sheng Pu'er Fang Cha from the Meng Hai Tea Factory: Five Perceptions

EDITOR'S NOTE: when our esteemed colleague adrian lurssen sent some samples of this fang cha -- obtained from Jing Tea Shop -- round to a small group of us for tasting, we thought it would be fun to gather our individual impressions of the tea, and to present them together on CHA DAO. no attempt has been made to achieve uniformity, either in brewing practice or in reportage. part of the fun here, rather, is to see how a variety of palates combines with a variety of procedures, and how the results get described in a variety of styles. hopefully you will enjoy our combined portrait of this notable tea as much as we enjoyed the tea itself.

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1. Danny

I don't care for systematic approach to time, brews, rounds and the whole jargon, preferring to go straight to the tea itself. So here goes.

I didn't brew the tea, my friend did. She brewed about 5 gm in a 100 ml gaiwan with water off the boil.

The tea establishes itself and makes it presence felt the moment it enters the mouth. Typical Menghai Tea Factory tea regions characteristics. There is a bitterness that stays on the tongue, a taste that reminds me of rubber band. This bitterness stays till well after the 6th brew, before giving way to sweetness. Hand in hand with the bitterness is a slight astringency that wells up on both sides on the base of the mouth, which produces the urge to salivate. Nice. Floral note with a hint of dark honey appears from the third brew onwards, and lasts well through the boil (yup, the boil).

The colour of the brews (colour of light whiskey) and the appearance of the wet leaves (dark green with a little greener leaves) seem to tell me that this tea is younger than 14 years old; yet it came from a very knowledgeable friend and vendor ... this is a slight puzzle, but doesn't affect the enjoyment of the tea.

There is also a hint of slight storage, very small 'warehouse' flavour that hides behind the other stronger notes, such as the bitterness. I suspect the tea might have at some point been kept in a warehouse for a brief period.

After the ninth round, a glass pot is set up, hot water added along with the brewed tea leaves, and bring to a boil on the burner. The tea changes profile, with the floral note turning plummy with a note of red wine, and watercress. The tea is not longer bitter, but tastes sweet and smooth, not tannic or astringent. A well-aged tea has this quality.

Thanks Adrian, it was a wonderful sampling!

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2. Geraldo

Weight and Vessel: 4.6 grams in 4oz gaiwan

Dry Leaf Appearance: Very tightly compressed, dark green (almost black) with gold tips

Wet leaf Appearance: Dark, olive-brown, leaves broken or cut into small flakes.

Rinse: flash rinse, water off boil, 20s rest

Infusions: (tiniest shrimp eyes) Twelve lively infusions, the best in the final six. Timing of each: 15s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, 35s, 40s, 50s, 1m15s, 2m, 3m

Aroma: In first two infusions, from the gaiwan’s lid: minty, fresh. In the third and fourth infusions, the aroma from the cup is rather subdued. A hint of wood and smoke, just a hint.

Color: The liquor began crystal clear and remained so. The first two infusions, owing to the uncompressed chunk, were very light in color, pale honey-amber. Starting in the third infusion, the tea became darker, like scotch whiskey, and began to gradually fade in the ninth infusion.

Flavor: In first two infusions, sweet, tart, almost sugary. Pleasant sweetness in the back of the throat. Good balance of citrus. No must, leather, mold, earth, or mulch flavors in the first two or subsequent infusions. This seems to have been very dry-stored. Since I left my sample piece in one solid chunk, the leaves separated only in the third and fourth infusion. The flavor has more wood and less sugar in this infusion. It has a pleasant flavor of water pumped from an artesian well through limestone, a flavor I like very much. The subtle mint undertone continues. I feel the tartness now mainly on the sides of the tongue. The tea stimulates saliva, a characteristic I like. In the fifth and sixth infusions, the tartness subsides dramatically. Yum—the wood flavor now comes to the fore, and the fangcha shows its age and careful storing. I allowed the tea to rest for three hours and proceeded to the seventh and eighth infusions. The pu’er has a very pleasant dryness and woodiness. There is a slight cooling effect, and a tart aftertaste. This lingering tartness is its one negative attribute, and that of course could not be more subjective. In the eleventh and twelfth infusions, the sweetness from the first two infusions—though much subdued—returned.

Comments: This pu’er has depth and dimension. I enjoy the saga of it from the beginning step to the finale. It goes the distance. Despite its adolescence, it tastes young, and only in the sixth and subsequent infusions do the years of storage make themselves known. This could result from the (favorably) dry conditions which might retard maturation, and it could also result from the mao cha’s powerful flavor when compressed. I’ve tasted ten-year-old Xia Guan Jia Ji tuo cha from the same source that seemed older than this fourteen-year-old fangcha. Nevertheless, I will quickly assert that I’d be pleased to find my own stash of fang chas tasting like this one when they are fourteen years old. Adrian—thanks for the fun experience and yummy tea!

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3. Mike Petro

Shape: Fangcha
Vintage: 1992
Genre: Aged Green
Factory: Menghai
Reviewer: Mike Petro

Dry Leaf Appearance: bits of light and dark brown leaf, appear to be broken

Grams of Leaf: 4.6

ml of Water: 100

Brewing Method: Gungfu in 100ml gaiwan. Rinsed tea twice with water for a 5 seconds each time, then let tea stand for one minute before steeping. Used 195f mountain spring water collected at the source.

Wet Appearance: Chopped and/or broken leaf, not a whole leaf in the lot. Color of brewed leaf ranged from brown to dark brown.

Steep #1: 45 seconds, sweet musty aroma, smooth - very smooth, a bit of astringency. Hints of hay, wood, and rice.

Steep #2: 30 seconds: Still very smooth, more wood, less astringency, this tea really makes my mouth water, it generates lots of saliva.

Steep #3: 45 seconds: Less astringent, very smooth, more wood and some mulch. A very warm and comforting mouthfeel. No real sweetness yet but a nice round profile.

Steep #4: 60 Seconds: hints of bamboo or hay or grass, can't quite put my finger on it. Still making my mouth water greatly.

Subsequent Steeps: All in all it was a good session. The steeps mellowed as time went on, I eventually got 12 solid steeps while gradually raising the water temp in the last 5, my last steep was 4 minutes at a full boil. The heavy salivating capacity never diminished. I did note a touch of maple syrup in the last few steeps but that was the only sweetness that ever surfaced.

Conclusion: The edge of youth has dissipated considerably, still has a touch of astringency, lots of the wood thing going on, maybe even notes of bamboo, a definite dryness in the mouth, beautiful crystal clear amber liquor, somewhat acidic on the stomach, later steeps yielded a smoother cup with just a hint of mulch coming to the table. The early cups still had a little teenage rebellion but the later steeps showed the promise of a young adult.

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4. Adrian Lurssen

3.8 grams of leaf, brewed in a 100-ml gaiwan

Dry cake: Mellow aroma of aging slightly evident in the cake. No wet storage. Leaves are dry dark and coppery bright to brown. They look "well-stored."

Warmed gaiwan: Sweet wood/hay/touch of camphor. Reddish leaves seem to brighten after sitting dry in a warmed cup.

Rinse (25 sec): Light camphor and mint in the lid. Not strong enough to be called eucalyptus, and yet a very rich tea smell immediately. Almost like the sweet tannic aroma of a great Indian black tea (actually, i'm thinking Ceylon OP). Whatever the bouquet, it is lovely -- a mediocre version of this aroma would be what you'd call "dusty leather-bound books" in a lesser tea.

Cup (25 sec): Lid: cup aroma is dust and sweet black tea. Liquor is a pale orange. Tea leaves are tight. First sip is smooth and alive. Still, I feel it will further awaken into something great.

Cup (25 sec): Lid aroma is fully sweet and tannic. In the aroma it smells like Indian sweet tea followed by camphor and then mint. Very smooth. Liquor is orange to red brown.

Cup (30 sec): Lid aroma is very much camphor now. And eucalyptus is showing itself in the sips. This is a very well-behaved tea, as though nothing has ruined it.

I feel this tea has good qi. Whatever that qi is, I like to believe that in various teas it manifests itself to me as a "letting in" of more light. As though my eyes have widened to more light. This tea does that ... in spades.

And now after four brews a sophisticated and peppery aftertaste on the tongue. A dry eucalyptus that gives way to that sweet Indian black tea flavor (except with less distinct and strong tannins) ... subtle and lovely.

Cup (40 sec): Gaiwan aroma is of Coca-Cola. In the sips I taste everything from potato chips to lemon to tea to bitterness. And a nice aftertaste.

Cup (45): Gaiwan and lid now smell of sweet pu-erh that has finished a complete cycle of aging. Aftertaste is minty.

I got ten full brews out of it before I quit taking notes and it was still going strong. A lovely tea that will age into something better, I suspect and hope.

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5. corax

5 grams leaf in 5 ounces shrimp-eyes water. decanted from a porcelain gaiwan into a glass gong dao bei. sipped from a pale xiuyan jade drinking cup.

dry leaf appearance: dark loamy brown, with the occasional tawny fleck interspersed. the chunk i received was quite severely compressed, and unyielding even when squeezed some.

dry leaf aroma: nil

[a] brief rinse; 2-minute rest

[b] INF 1 [15 sec]. infused leaf: fairly uniform chocolate brown color; still somewhat tenaciously holding together. aroma is fiercely vegetal. liquor color: honeyed amber. the aroma is surprisingly delicate, considering the aroma of the leaf. taste: at first, almost like clear spring water. this is a very delicate tea. virtually no smoky flavor, but perhaps the ghostly hint of one, which [i now realize for the first time] reverberates with, and is enhanced by, the mild astringency of such teas. smoke itself has a drying effect on the palate, of course; but i never put those two facts together till now. i also note what i would call an 'oolong' note in this tea -- the kind of flavor note that one associates with [say] dan cong.

[c] INF 2 [10 sec]. quite as ruddy in color as INF 1, but the aroma is much more immediately assertive. the vegetal note that emerged in the *aroma* of INF1 here moves onto the palate. naturally the chunk of the fang is beginning to soften and to loosen up a bit, so there was also more fine sediment in the bottom of the gong dao bei this time.

[d] INF 3 [15 sec]. color as before. aroma once again more demure, about like that of INF 1. yet again i am struck by the clarity and purity of this brew -- it is not a 'thick' tea on the tongue, and the aftertaste is not terribly long-lasting, but it is very pleasant.

[e] INF 4 [20 sec]. did i imagine it, or has the brew darkened somewhat in color this time? certainly the vegetal note is more instantly prominent in this infusion. the aftertaste is less sweet this time. more assertive. by now the infused leaf, though still cohesive in the gaiwan, has more or less relaxed and expanded.

[f] INF 5 [25 sec]. still a very russet-colored brew here; this tea is nowhere near done. the aroma is once again well-behaved, even elegant; the flavor too is somewhat restrained as regards the vegetal aspect, whereas a bit of what lew perin calls the 'pondy' flavor is beginning to emerge. i do often notice this around the fifth infusion of some shengs.

[g] INF 6 [35 sec]. have i made my first misstep on this infusion? maybe 35 seconds was a bit too long. for the first time i taste some bitterness here. not sure if the pondy flavor has receded or is just being upstaged. i should note that throughout these infusions the tea has not been very astringent, and INF 6 is no exception there.

[h] INF 7 [35 sec]. in penance for my temerity in INF 6, i brewed this one for the same length of time. this seems to have appeased the bitter spirits; the brew is much sweeter now [if more pondy than before]. the 'oolong' flavor has disappeared more or less entirely. still minimal astringency. the color of the liquor may have paled ever so slightly this time.

[i] INF 8 [40 sec]. did the tea begin to look less ruddy in the last infusion? that is certainly not the case now. the 'pondy' flavor is becoming more pronounced too, above all the other notes, though sweetness increased markedly as the tea cooled in the cup.

[j] INF 9 [45 sec]. in some ways the best yet: a mild balance of several flavor notes, including the pondy and the sweet. this balance is perhaps what i think of as the distinctive 'sheng pu'er' flavor as found in highly desirable teas. the infusion is still the same robust color.

[k] INF 10 [50 sec]. virtually identical to INF 9.

• when i say 'oolongy,' i mean 'reminiscent of the distinctive flavor of a [medium- or high-oxidation] oolong' -- not, of course, that one could possibly mistake this tea for an actual oolong.
• a notable aspect of aged pu'ers, oft discussed by the cognoscenti, is its qi [or chi in the wade-giles transliteration; the hanzi is 氣 traditional, 气 simplified]. this is the 'energy' or life-force held to be in the very tea itself, and imparted to the drinker in the brew. as such, it may be something entirely different from caffeine, theophylline, or their effects. in any case, one of the most striking and curious aspects of this tea is its absence of qi -- at least in the earlier infusions. one ordinarily assumes that the better the tea, the likelier that it will evince some notable qi; also, that part of what marks a distinguished or noble tea is a notable qi. in this tea, however, i did not really remark any substantial qi until the seventh infusion -- at a point, n.b., when the caffeine content was really beginning to decrease.
• another notable trait of this tea: the 'clarity' i mentioned, vs the 'density' that i associate with 'thickness.' many a shu pu'er is 'thick' in this regard; and some shengs will have a thicker kou gan [口感, lit 'mouth-feel' -- the texture or tactile sensation of the liquor on the tongue and palate]. while such thickness can be enjoyed, part of the pleasure of drinking this elegant tea was the clarity of its kou gan.
• i would like to echo the thanks of the other participants here to our generous host adrian for sharing this tea round for us. great fun!

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