thanks to the generosity of three providers -- all of whom are members of the TEA-DISC yahoo group -- interested group members were able to participate in the spring 2006 'puer taste-off' staged by that group. the concept here was to provide, in friendly competition, three similar sheng puers -- all compressed in bing cha form; all from leaf wild-crafted in the yi wu area; and all of roughly comparable age -- and to see how they differ from and resemble one another.
i was fortunate enough to be one of the participants in this taste-off, i have now brewed all three -- under conditions replicated each time as exactly as possible -- and herewith report my findings. i should say right off the front end that there was one rather delicate aspect of this operation that had nothing to do with tea per se: as i have the most cordial and amicable relations with all three of these providers, and think very highly of them personally as well as professionally, i initially had some worry about giving offense merely by registering candid evaluations of their generously-furnished samples. at the end i just had to set that aside, and trust that they each understood, from the outset, that they were in some sense submitting their products to a court of public opinion.
all three teas were prepared identically: 4g leaf to 5 oz water @ 190°F.
brewing vessels: gaiwan decanted into tasting bowls.
parameters: [a] brief rinse; [b] 60-sec rest; [c] INF1: 15s; [d] INF2: 10s; [e] INF3: 15s; [f] INF4: 20s; [g] INF5: 25s
3. 2001 wild yi wu zheng shan ye [provided by stéphane erler, TEAMASTERS]
dry leaf: dark olive green in color; deeply aromatic in scent, almost like camel-hair cushion stuffing and frankincense.
infused leaf: deep green, like cooked dolmadakia. scent very fresh and uncomplicated, like a fresh black ceylon tea.
INF 1: medium gold color. very little aroma in the cup. extraordinarily astringent; a somewhat papery/woody [not smoke, not camphor] flavor.
INF 2: liquor ever-so-slightly lighter in color; should i have infused it for 15 sec? aroma: a smoky note now begins subtly to emerge. ditto in taste. first sips less astringent than INF1, but the cumulative effect was at least as much so.
INF3: medium amber color. the remarkable aromatics of this tea only expand as the infusions continue. now the frankincense aroma becomes ever more pronounced. meanwhile the astringency abates somewhat.
INF 4: the astringency continues to abate, but by no means disappears. now the smoky aspect of the flavor steps front and center.
INF 5: still a strongly aromatic frankincense note to the flavor. less astringency again here.
NOTE: the hand-written label on the packet i received indeed said '2001' and not '2003,' as others on tea-disc are mentioning. was this merely a lapsus calami on stephane's part, or did i receive a tea that differed from others' samples?
2. 1999 meng hai 'green big tree' [provided by guang lee, HOU DE FINE TEA]
dry leaf: black with gold flecks. virtually odorless. quite tightly compressed.
infused leaf: some stalks here: leaf somewhat broken/crumbled.
INF 1: some smell of camphor in the gaiwan lid; much less so in the liquor, which is very restrained in taste overall. very little astringency. only the slightest hint of smoke here.
INF 2: a bit more smoke emerging here -- still very subtle. also a bit more astringent than INF1. still no camphor in the taste.
INF 3: by now the infused leaf begins to assume what lew perin calls the 'pondy' aroma often associated with puer cha. the liquor does not present this aroma; but there is some sense of it in the flavor. less smoke than in INF2; still very little astringency too.
INF 4: in this infusion, 'pondy' begins to give way to 'floral.' the smoke is all but gone by now, along with the astringency.
INF 5: while the leaf continues to smell pondy, the liquor becomes more unambiguously floral. quite sweet.
1. 2001 meng hai yi wu 'green big tree' [provided by jing and seb of JING TEA SHOP]
dry leaf: dark mulch green, crumbled fairly small when separated from the sample chunk. fairly tightly compressed. some stem here.
infused leaf: again, a dolmades-green. the smell is a bit like grape leaves too, plus subtle smoke. the leaf itself looks chopped, like a fine chiffonade of basil.
INF 1: a medium lager hue. aroma: subtlest traces of camphor. taste: citrus + smoke; mildly astringent, but less so than one might expect from that combination.
INF 2: color equally strong, despite the shorter brewing time. aroma virtually identical to INF1. flavor: more citrus/smoke interplay here, with the citrus emerging as clear victor in the aftertaste. despite that, still only mildly astringent.
INF 3: color noticeably more ruddy now. a delicate sweet floral note emerging in the bouquet, as also on the hard palate. it is difficult to identify or 'place' this note.
INF 4: color about like that of INF2. surprisingly, the smoky flavor is still [faintly] here, along with the citrus, but neither upstages the floral, which continues to make itself known.
INF 5: a marked increase in the floral note now, as also in the sweetness [by which i mean two distinct, if related, aspects of the flavor].
SUMMARY: i genuinely enjoyed all three of these teas. for three so closely-related samples, processed in similar fashion, it was remarkable how assertively each presented a unique personality. as you can see from the narration of my experiences above, each had its peculiar virtue, each its distinctive flavor notes -- so distinctive indeed that after a few infusions of each, i could probably have sorted them out blindfolded.
stephane's tea was the most confrontational. its aromatics were so perspicuous as to be unmistakable. the note that i have identified as 'frankincense' evoked the trade routes of old cathay: is this what teas tasted like after being carried for months on a horse's back along the chamagudao?
guang's tea was more refined, more subtle in its presentation, and conformed more classically to what one expects from a promising young sheng puer. its meng hai pedigree was, if not unmistakable, quite easily identified.
while i appreciated the virtues of each of the foregoing teas, seb & jing's sample won the palm in this particular tasting. if i could only take away one of these three teas to the proverbial desert island [an island, of course, equipped with superlative spring water, a way to kindle fire, and some decent teaware], it would have to be the jingteashop tea. its balance of smoky [a flavor that in subtle proportion i favor in a sheng puer], citrus, and floral notes, along its increasing sweetness, distinguished it even in such august company. i will make a note to sample this tea again in ten years, hopefully also in twenty, and to see how it has grown up.
my thanks again to all three contributors whose good sportsmanship, among other things, made for great sport here.