Monday, September 10, 2007

Musings on Adolescent Sheng Pu'er


[[based on an email to corax. published by permission of both geraldo and shenlikest2. NOTE: to enlarge the table, click on it.]]

A recent thread at Live Journal’s Puerh Tea Community deals with the stages of maturity in sheng pu’er. "shenlikest2" wrote to pose some innocent and important questions ever on the minds of pu’er enthusiasts and collectors:
This may sound like a silly question. Please bear with me.
Is there a standard by which a raw tea (sheng) reaches maturity? As time passes, when is it considered shu? Or ripe? Or what?
I've heard so many opinions on this and really wondered if the criteria are subjective or standardized? Is there a specific amount of time needed from birth to vintage when one would consider a tea mature? Is there an industry guideline?
I know the differences I consider: color, scent, flavour etc. The sensual adjectives. The characteristics that matter to me.
However, I'm curious as to what is considered a norm or what are your criteria?
My response was more or less as follows:
"Mature" is a relative term, both in and out of tea. Some folks are mature earlier than other folks who seem never to mature. Perhaps people with lots of years but little maturity are too tightly compressed and have lacked sufficient flow of air.

As regards maturity and sheng, there are vendors who use "aged" to describe on their websites products that are only three to five years old. As an analogy, here in WA, the state government encourages high school juniors to enroll in community colleges. In both of these cases, we see an odd manipulation of a definition purely for the sake of profit.

Here's how I personally think about sheng and maturity on the most basic level:

1-5 years old: Nascent
6-10 years old: Juvenile
11-20 years old: Adolescent
20 years and beyond: Aged

[. . .]

I've tasted decades-old tael and tight tea that had not seemed to mature very much. Some beeng chas, on the other hand, mature quickly, and if stored carefully, have many wonderful and complex characteristics. An example of the latter would be the 1998 Yieh Sheng Chiao Mu from Hou De, an expensive adolescent pu'er mature beyond its years.

As regards your use of "ripe": In my own system of definition, "ripe" and "shu" equate to cooked pu'er and are not synonymous to "aged." There are, however, extremes of wet storage that can produce a substance that seems more shu than sheng, but that usually is accompanied by a wet-laundry taste and aroma that I find far from yummy. Therefore, shu/black/cooked pu'er begin as ripe, while sheng/green/uncooked is never ripe, but it can mature. Hope this makes some sense. Other enthusiasts will have different terms and opinions.
Having somehow staggered into the third year of my sixth decade, I have moments of clarity when the prospect of purchasing nascent pu’er seems downright silly. Now when I buy young pu’er, a little voice squeaks, “What in tarnation are you doing, you great idjit?” In twenty years, if I’m still kicking, I might not be able to taste tea with the discernment I now possess. I’ve read that our mouths age with the rest of our bodies, and that folks of antique vintage have lost a great deal of their tasting ability. I know not if this be true. Do I want more nascent and juvenile sheng? I have more such sheng than I can ever drink. Still, it’s fun to collect pu’er. I’ve not purchased as much pu’er from 2006 and 2007 as I purchased in previous years. Now pu’er that sprang to birth during the nineties and in 2000 seems ever more alluring, especially given the price explosion that placed 20-year-old sheng out of my reach.

I do like many young pu’ers, so the little voice does not compel as persuasively as it would like, especially when the nascent pu’er purchase is small. Here’s a case in point. I bought some 2005 Single Estate Bu Lang from Jing Teashop. The tea arrived just yesterday, and I dove straightaway into my newly-acquired nascent sheng. This cake is perhaps one of my all-time favorite young pu’ers. Also, it happens to be one of the most tightly compressed beeng chas I’ve encountered aside from iron cakes. The flavor is huge—the first two infusions had my head spinning. In its overall effect, I’d say this product is an exemplar for the phenomenon of qi in a young beeng cha. Once my mouth and mind accustomed themselves to the liquor’s power, I was able to enjoy the ride from the fourth steep onward. Granted, at this point in its career, Xing Hai Bu Lang is likely too strong for casual consumption. I would not drink it often at this juncture. Yet I love it, but loving it, should I buy more of it? If I did, I’d be a nutcase. In twenty years, this nascent sheng might be fairly mellow. In twenty years, I’ll be past seventy. If I were thirty-five, I’d go to the bank and borrow money to buy a lot of it.

About four years ago, I surveyed pu’er from the nineties and was appalled. Much of it barely tasted like sheng at any stage of maturity. It tasted like cleansing compound or flavoring additives. It tasted like mud and dangerous fungus. Or it tasted like heavily-cooked, lowest-quality shu. I decided then that young sheng and 20-plus-year-old sheng were even bets for purchasing, but adolescent sheng was dangerous territory for this humble buyer.

Recently, I surveyed the adolescent sheng field again, and the tea I found delighted me. From eighteen acquisitions listed below, only one disappointed me. The rest actually delight me. They seem mature beyond their years. I expected sheng that seemed a little aged. I received sheng that seems happily aged and is in fact quite good to drink right now. This heartens me: Perhaps my younger collection also will produce in six short years some adolescent pu’ers that seem mature beyond their years. An additional delight is the prospect that these small purchases of adolescent pu’er will likely age farther in their little zisha canisters. I have a special shelf reserved for pu’er produced between 1990 and 2000.

Maturation rate is a function of an exceedingly complex parameter. These might be just a few of the many variables:

• Storage humidity
• Storage airflow
• Presence or absence of light during storage
• Shape (beeng cha, iron cake/disk, tuo cha, zhuan cha, fang cha, bamboo, etc.)
• Compression ( machine, hand, wood, iron, stone, etc.)
• Leaf type (bud-laden, broken leaf, full-leaf, single leaf, one-bud-and-two-leaves-on-a-stem, etc.)
• Leaf origin (You Le, Bu Lang, Yiwu, etc.)
• Mao cha blend (single estate, single-mountain, numbered recipe, etc.)
• Age of mao cha at compression (beeng chas compressed with stored mao cha, sometimes many years old)
• Leaf size
• Vintage weather
• Vintage season (spring and autumn)
• Factory processing

Of course, each of those variables itself would unfold into many variables, and there are dozens of other items one could include on the list variables that might affect maturation rate.

Some young beeng chas have a predominance of brown leaves; others have a predominance of green leaves. Some have small leaves, others big. Some have broken leaves, others entire and intact bud and leaf systems. How do these factors affect maturation rate? These mysteries are as mysterious as ever for me.

My recent survey uncovered pu’ers that seemed surprisingly aged. The worst I think was intentionally drowned and I do not include it on my list. It actually lost its integral “leafness” and became an amorphous chunk of stuff. The best was wet-storaged for a little while and then stored in a dry location. Some I purchased as entire cakes. Others came as gift samples. (Thank you, shichangpu and ck2998!) Some of these I purchased in tiny, tiny samples. For example, the fantastic Yieh Sheng Chiao Mu was priced such that I could afford but ten grams. Nevertheless, within a few hours of listing them, Guang Lee of Hou De sold all of his beeng chas at $255 a pop. Some of the adolescent shengs are still available; some are not.

[Aside: I've purchased a little tea from Awoono, a Yunnan native residing in Canada. Awoono seems knowledgeable about pu'er and is quick to figure out what I like. Awoono’s eBay store seems rather under-remarked in the forums and blogs.]

Below is a chart with the teas listed and a few comments. Proviso: I must add that opinions in the “Wetness” column are simply wild guesses. I arbitrarily arrived at holistic decisions. My calling a pu'er wet-stored or dry-stored certainly does not make it so. My opinions are based on my experience and judgment.

Three of the items above do not fit my personal definition of “adolescent pu’er.” I’ve included them because they are close to the age limits, and they exhibit both marked maturity and high quality. There are the two MengKu MengSa cakes and the 1998-2004 Mengyang Guoyan beeng cha. The former are just one year out of range, and the latter is three-sevenths adolescent.

Why are adolescent teas for sale on the Internet better now than four years ago? And what makes many of them seem prematurely aged? I cannot say. Perhaps the art of wet storage has evolved; perhaps wet storage is less wet and less protracted than it used to be. Just a few years ago, “wet storage” referred to the nefarious art of making pu’er seem older. Now, “wet storage” simply refers to traditional Hong Kong warehousing. Times change.

As I consider the data at hand, I wonder if compression (or lack thereof) might not have played the biggest role in faster maturation. Tuo chas are often very tight pu’er shapes, but I believe the tuo chas in my table were looser than we normally encounter. Not all of the samples I tried were of sufficient size to indicate the compression of the cake from whence they were broken or flaked; however, those that were, demonstrated, overall, less compaction. But this is merest conjecture. If I were to buy nascent compressed pu’er with hopes of seeing it mature quicker than the norm, I would choose a mini-beeng cha (100g) or small fang cha or zhuan cha that exhibits a loose structure. I would store it where there is a good flow of air, and I would keep it in conditions of ~70% rh.

To bring these digressive musings to a close, I’ll offer my picks for those seeking to buy adolescent sheng to enjoy now. As I’ve mentioned, some items on the list are no longer available. Of the products that are still for sale as of this writing, I would recommend both Jing Teashop’s 1993 Feng Qing tuo cha and Awoono’s 90s Mengku Raw Puerh Brick.

All the best,


adrian said...

a beautiful post - thanks for the notes. will study the list carefully.

shen said...

Xie! Xie! Much appreciation.
You have shared so much wisdom in your explanation.
It's so lovely to actually have a list.
Very grateful for your notes.

Grasshopper said...

Shen & Adrian--Thank you for the kind words. Shen, your ideas were the prefect springboard. Adrian, praise coming from you is super praise, indeed. Wishing you well, ~geraldo

adrian said...

oh pshaw, you are too kind, gerry.

there is great pleasure in reading you write about youth and age and maturity as though tea is an afterthought to your point. hilarious at times.

i was interested to see that the 2000 yiwu "old tea horse road" didn't excite you as much as others. i also see it has doubled in price since i bought it, and can see your reservation(s) - esp. given what else you might buy for current price. i tried it today and actually liked it less than i had when i first got it; but still think it has aging potential. there is something there. (hope so: i own 5!) but i agree with you that the others on the list are currently worth my time and attention ...


wannabee said...

its just wonderful to read what you have posted. Lovely, it gives a better picture on the puerh that we drink.Thanks again.

awoono said...

Very good articles! Thanks!