About two months ago, I encountered a type of pu’er new to my experience. At least four websites offer it for sale now:
Yunnan Sourcing, L.L.C.
Yunnan Sourcing, L.L.C. offers this definition for Cha Tou:
Cha Tou is a type of compressed nugget that is the by-product of fermenting Pu-erh tea. At the end of the 40+ day fermentation process (where the Pu-erh tea is fermented unto itself), the tea is fed into a wind-blowing sorter that sorts the tea according to its size (grade). The cha tou is found near the bottom of the pile of Pu-erh and is formed as a result of heat and relatively high compression.TeaSpring defines it this way:
Lao Cha Tou translates roughly to: old tea nugget. Menghai tea factory used 2, 3 and 4 year old "cha tou" and compressed them into a brick. The resulting flavor is smooth and never bitter, with a fair amount of sweetness. This tea can be infused many times but requires the hottest water possible.
During cooked Pu-erh oxidation process (known as Wo Tui in Chinese), some of the tea leaves will attach to one another and takes a nugget shape form as a result of heat and high compression. These nuggets are called Lao Cha Tou (i.e. Old Tea Nugget). This Menghai brick tea is compressed using Lao Cha Tou which are of 2 to 4 years of age. The fully oxidized tea leaves yield cups of full-bodied tea with a smooth and thick mouthfeel. Good for many infusions.TuochaTea provides this description:
Cha Tou is a unique Pu-erh. In order to convert sun-dried green tea into ripened Pu-erh tea, a technique called "wodui" processing method is adopted (mixing the pile to ensure fermentation). At the end of the fermentation process, the tea is converted into a wind-blowing appearance. Pu-erh Cha Tou is found near the bottom of the pile of Pu-erh and is formed as a result of heat and relatively high compression, it is a type of Pu-erh tea nugget.China Gifts sells several varieties of “Tea Block,” which calls to mind, of course, zhuan cha (rectangular) or fang cha (square) bricks of compressed pu’er. Among the varieties are YouLe, NanNuo, and BangWei. China Gifts does not identify its tea block as Cha Tou, but having seen the strikingly similar images of their products, I compared China Gifts’s YouLe Tea Block and TouchaTea’s Cha Tou in a careful, cup-to-cup session. I can attest that they are virtually identical in dry-leaf appearance, liquor, aroma, flavor, and wet-leaf appearance. China Gifts provides this description of its product:
The pu erh tea Block is made from compressing Wild Ancient tea leaves into a small block. Traditionally, the compression of tea into tea blocks is for storage on long voyages by land. Each small tea block is not regular and about 3-8 grams each block, The Pu-Erh tea block has a bright red colour with a rich flagrance and a mellow and refreshing flavour. An after-taste is later developed.Thus, a quick survey of the dozen pu’er vending websites I often peruse turns up four vendors selling two types of Cha Tou. TeaSpring and Yunnan Sourcing, L.L.C. sell 2006 Menghai Dayi Lao Cha Tou zhuan cha, while TuochaTea.com and China Gifts sell the 2006 lozenge-shaped variety.
Today I compared these two types in a cup-to-cup session, choosing the offerings from Tea Spring and Touchatea.com. Since this was a comparison, I attended carefully to the parameters and procedures.
Tea Spring’s Product:
Menghai Lao Cha Tou
Dayi Brand, Menghai Tea Factory
Produced 2006 using 2yo-4yo leaves
Kunming Guyi Company http://www.ybtea.com/
Pu-erh Cha Tou
Harvested in Menghai area
Vessels and Parameters:
1.5g dry leaf in matching 100ml glazed gaiwans
Clear Turkish tea glasses
Water heated to old man boil
Three quick rinses
Infusion times: 15s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, etc., ten infusions
TuochaTea.com’s Kunming Guyi product, like China Gifts’s Tea Block, comes in lozenge-shaped chunks (more apt than “blocks”), and most weigh between half a gram and three grams. The pieces are tightly compacted and multi-colored, having in them red and brown with a predominance of gray. The Menghai product, broken from a zhuancha, resembles dried, black raisins pressed together. The size of the Menghai chunks is overall somewhat smaller and their color is noticeably darker. In the image below, the Menghai Lao Cha Tou is on the left, and the Kunming Guyi Cha Tou is on the right.
The spent leaves of Kunming Guyi Cha Tou are less friable than the Menghai Cha Tou’s. The leaves are somewhat more intact and green than the darker, less-intact Menghai Cha Tou. The Kunming Guyi product resembles wet-storaged sheng, and the Menghai Cha Tou resembles wet-storaged shu. Once again, in the image following, the Menghai Cha Tou is on the left, and the Kunming Cha Tou is on the right:
In the early infusions, the two products were extremely similar: light amber with the Kunming Guyi Cha Tou liquor appearing somewhat cloudy and the Menghai Cha Tou liquor showing bright clarity. In later infusions, the Menghai liquor became much darker—akin to a dark ale, and the Kunming Guyi Cha Tou became clear.
In early infusions, the Menghai product evinced little aroma, and the Kunming Guyi product was redolent of fish. In later infusions, the Menghai Cha Tou carried a woody aroma, and the fish aroma in the Kunming Guyi Cha Tou subsided.
Through the fourth infusions, both teas were somewhat weak. This genre apparently is slow to catch fire in the session. The early steeps of the Kunming Guyi Cha Tou did taste as though it had been stored near the seafood in a grocery store. In later infusions (five through ten) both improved markedly. The Menghai really came into its own—creamy, sweet, rich, woody. The Kunming Guyi became progressively stronger, tasting very much like wet-storaged sheng.
Some pu’er products are more out there on the fringe than others. Like Cha Gao, Cha Tou is not a tea for connoisseurs or investors hunting for the ultimate in sophisticated and complex aroma and nuances. My Asian friends tell me that Cha Tou is a by-product traditionally consumed to quench thirst because it was inexpensive. But Menghai’s Dayi Lao Cha Tou is not at all inexpensive. Tea Spring’s zhuancha costs a whopping seventeen dollars per one-hundred grams. TuochaTea.com’s Kunming Guyi Cha Tou, by contrast, costs only $2.80 per one-hundred grams. Is the Menghai product six times better? Well, it is, in my opinion, a better tasting beverage. The products from China Gifts and Tuocha.com are almost indistinguishable, but they are not at all similar to Menghai’s Lao Cha Tou.
These days I tend to rate teas based upon my appetite for them. If I am hungry for a particular tea and almost without thinking reach for it as I prepare to brew, then it is, under my current operational definition, a very good tea. I cannot say that I will often reach for either of these Cha Tou pu’ers, but I can say that I am very glad to have tried them and compared them for two important reasons. First, when I read references to Cha Tou, I want to hook it up to my own first-hand experience. Second, as an inveterate enthusiast, I’m naturally drawn to tea and tea genres that are new. Today I heard about a pu’er syrup, and I shall think about it as I fall asleep…