Friday, December 04, 2009

Flavors of Menghai Pu'er: The Nature of Recipes #7542 and #7532


[[EDITOR'S NOTE: Our own Geraldo is, despite his modest disclaimers, one of the nation's foremost authorities on pu'er tea. And he is as generous as he is learned: when I wrote asking him to expatiate a bit on the difference between the flavors of these two famous Menghai pu'er recipes, he offered a good bit more -- which, with his express permission, I now share, gentle reader, with you.]]

The Menghai Factory in Yunnan province is, of course, one of the best known and most highly esteemed of all commercial pu'er makers. Their tea cakes, like those of a number of other pu'er tea manufacturers, are routinely designated by numerical codes; while these may seem obscure to the casual onlooker, they actually tell a specific tale about the history and profile of each tea. Each part of the code signifies something specific.

As (comparative) cases in point, let us consider Menghai's famous recipes #7542 and #7532. The first two digits of each number tells us that both of these recipes were first developed in 1975. The final "2" in each signifies Menghai Factory itself. The penultimate digits -- 4 & 3 -- denote leaf grade, which can be a confusing term to the uninitiated; "leaf size" is, I think, more accurate here than "leaf grade." That is to say, in theory there could be a wonderful Grade 8 and an awful Grade 2. But the average size of the leaf in 7542 is a little larger than the size of the leaf in 7532.

Both of these cakes are mass-produced, blended bing chas. Both are inexpensive in their first year of existence, and then quickly increase in value. Because these bing chas are common and inexpensive in their earliest years, non-Asians often disregard the cakes as collectible pu'ers. But they both have proven track records over the years. #7532 is a little more expensive than #7542.

These days, much is made of the virtues of single-mountain pu'er cakes. But I most love the complexity in aged pu'er, and I believe blended leaf contributes to that complexity. I would have to check the actuality of this, but I think most of the famous aged Menghai bings from the seventies and eighties are #7542. These rare, often nicknamed cakes may differ because of the particular environment in which each was stored, and they have different names given by collectors.

Because pu'er cakes are agricultural products, the productions will vary from year to year, based upon all sorts of variables in nature. Moreover, some pu'er enthusiasts believe there has been a slow migration away from the original 1975 flavor -- reflecting a supposed industry change from a 'drink-later' to a 'drink-now' marketing approach, even for sheng pu'er. As a huge understatement, one can suggest that not many people writing in English tasted a #7542 or #7532 bing cha back in 1975. In fact, I do not think many people writing in any language tasted those cakes in 1975. Thus, it would be difficult to ascertain whether there is veracity in the flavor-migration opinion. I do worry, however, that the quality of the water used in pu'er production has changed much for the worse; but this would be true for almost all pu'er, not just for these two Menghai recipes.

Taste is a matter of taste, and here is my idiosyncratic opinion. Properly aged, Menghai #7542 evolves into a woody, spicy pu'er with strength in the lower notes. #7532 might be a tad more pronounced than #7542 in the upper notes. I love them both, but I might love #7532 just a little bit more.


Anonymous said...

"...Menghai #7542 evolves into a woody, spicy pu'er with strength in the lower notes. #7532 might be a tad more pronounced than #7542 in the upper notes..."

I actually get it from my tastings of the '08 versions. ('08 has brought me back to MH productions.)

If I might add a note, there's some cassia or other such spice in 7532. How do they do that?

I ran across this new Geraldo piece just after my first tasting of Wei Zui Yan raw cake. Happy coincidence!

Unknown said...

Thanks, MosoX2, for the kind comment. Glad to hear of your happy '08 MH experience. Posters at tea disc sites are singing the praises of the 2009 productions, too. ~geraldo

aneglakya said...

Hello, Geraldo ... If I may begin with a quote ... "I adamantly believe that when we drink aged pu’er the predominate flavors and aromas arise mostly from the conditions in which it aged. The vast differences between all of the 80’s 7542 cakes bear that out."

That statement has continued to be very thought provoking to me, especially in light of this new article and, naturally, my own consumption habit.

I don't feel that these two ideas are contradictory, but am wondering if you believe, as I do, that while storage conditions are indeed significant, the essential nature of the tea may still express itself, if not prevail? Are you of the conviction that a single village/mountain production, or a particular formula (such as #7542), is discernible as such (to greater or lesser degrees) over the course of the aging process?

Granted, this question might be easier to approach with respect to factory formulas, as early, unblended pu'ers are not so common (although I am particularly curious as to your experience with the latter.)

Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, aneglakya, for the great response. With all due respect, I'll stand by my opinion quoted in your message. What fun it would be to try #7542 and #7532 from 1975, aged in the same warehouse and storage room. Could we discern a difference between the two through flavor and aroma? Probably. Could we correctly identify each? Maybe not.
As you know, some of the old documented pu'ers were homemade: cottage industry rather than bigger factories. It could be that those very, very old cakes are less blended, more single-origin, comprised perhaps of moacha close to hand and from one small location. Gosh, I'm a long way out on the branch here, LOL!
Wise and eloquent Marshaln has written recently about the fundamental tea character found in all tea, and in the best teas, whether oolong or hongcha, we can taste it. You ask whether I believe "the essential nature of tea will express itself" when the tea is aged. How old is pu’er when it is old? Ten years? Twenty years? Fifty years? Some vendors write that their 5yo pu’er is aged. I think the essence found in all tea will express itself more than the differences between recipes will express themselves, and especially in truly old, old cakes.
I've tried various versions 1988 Ching Beengs. The differences were more striking than the similarities. I assume those differences result from dissimilar storage environments after initial aging. This is but one example. I’m a farm boy, and I’m familiar with agriculture. The corn in Iowa in 1982 was not vastly different from the corn in Iowa in 1985. But what is the most obvious feature of different 80’s #7542? Answer: their dissimilarity. What—besides storage—could account for that?
On a few occasions, I've had an opportunity to drink pu'er and heicha exceeding fifty, sixty, or even seventy years of age. I recall that some truly old tael, beeng cha, and liu bao (remarkably different in their nascent stage) were incredibly similar. Most of the good aged pu'er I've enjoyed came to me from the HK and Guangzhou area; perhaps I've developed a taste for pu'er aged in that locale. When we drink pu’er from the seventies, eighties, and nineties, most of what we taste (I believe) is the storage environment.
I hesitate, aneglakya, to express sweeping conclusions based on my limited experience in the realms of old and very old pu’er. But here is a strange contradiction: 20yo pu’ers present a big variance—even when we would not expect the difference. And very different 50yo pu’ers taste remarkably similar—even when they should share few similarities.
Finally, let me add that I enjoy your blog, Tea Mountain Goat. Best regards, ~geraldo