Wednesday, February 16, 2011

2000 vs. 2003 Yong Pin Hao "Yi Wu Zheng Shan"

A little experiment today in what a few years can bring to a tea.  JAS-eTea offers some clever sample sets and I picked up the Yong Pin Hao one just for this purpose, to compare and learn.  This will be less a tea review than just a comparative reporting of differences in aroma, taste and mouth feel.

So much discussion of young versus aged puerh, and of what constitutes truly "aged" tea.  My understanding is that puerh can't really be put in the aged category until it's got a good couple of decades on it.  Teas like these today are generally still considered young, although the 2000 might be said to just be entering into adolescence (please do chime in, those of you more in-the-know than I).  One of the challenges, and also one of the pleasures, of learning about puerh is that there really is no one central location or how-to book (I take that back -- I've seen a few "Let's Learn About Puerh" books but haven't read any, nor have I heard anyone talking about the value of such books).  It seems the best way to learn is simply to taste-taste-taste, as well as spend time reading blogs and other online resources.  That latter method can be tricky as even among the in-the-know tea drinkers there are great differences of opinion.  It's hard to come up with a single set of definitive parameters.

So what do we know about what age can bring to a tea?  Certainly older teas pour a darker soup with a more orange hue.  Some younger teas can pour a bit orange as well, but there's some debate over why this is so, with some folks suggesting these teas have been purposefully manipulated and oxidized, either to fool the consumer or to bump up certain flavors in the tea to add to its marketability, while others feel there is less purposeful manipulation going on and that some tea leaves from some regions simply pour more orange, or that the matter of oxidation is more due to storage issues or even brewing methods.

Older puerhs are also said to have a smoother taste, but the pathway from brand-new cake to well-aged tea doesn't appear to be so straight forward with each added year to a tea's age producing a steady march toward 'dark and smooth' like some sort of straight-line graph.  This is where it gets interesting.  I've read that puerhs can go through different phases during the aging process, sometimes going through a not-so-tasty period before emerging eventually (or not) into a quite tasty tea.  Who's to say which young tea will age into elegance and which will simply wither toward the insipid?  Again, opinions vary widely among those who drink a lot of puerh.  Some are of the opinion that those younger shengs which grab you by the throat with strength and challenge are the ones most likely to age into something truly interesting, while others will tell you they've tasted shengs that started out more agreeably (not so strong and bitter) and which grew into some very sublime tea in later years.

2000 on the left, 2003 on the right
So it was my hope that my comparative tea session today would teach me a little more about what age can bring to a tea.  Examining the dry samples seemed to show that the 2003 contained larger leaves, but at the end of my tea session, when I laid out the spent leaves side by side, the leaf-size was pretty much even between the two.  I'm learning that the appearance of the dry cake is not a very good indicator of what kind of leaves the cake actually contains.  Plus there's the matter of "top dressing" cakes (putting the larger, more showy leaves on the top) and the matter of just what part of the cake a serving is taken from, whether the edge, the center, or somewhere in between.

As I expected, the soup of the 2000 tea is a tad bit darker and more orange than the 2003.  This was clearest with the first infusions, but as the steepings increased in number the 2003 seemed to do a little catch-up, getting a bit darker and more orange.  Was I witnessing this tea oxidizing right before my eyes?  Could be.  I've read that this happens.

2nd infusion (2000 on the left)

4th infusion

6th infusion

Certainly the biggest differences between these two (relatively close in age) teas was in the aromas.  Though both fruity, the 2003 smelled of juicier riper fruit while the 2000 had a more concentrated dried-fruit quality.  Also, the 2000 dipped into the realm of tobacco and cigarette fragrances which the 2003 didn't show at all.  Taste-wise I had a harder time detecting big differences, though the 2000 tea certainly felt more penetrating in the mouth and throat, bringing up more salivation than the 2003.  Tasting them side by side (which I'm not convinced is the best way to do these comparisons) the 2003 had a lighter taste to it and a not-quite-as-broad taste profile.  And yet, on the subject of ku it was the 2000 that seemed to grab a little more deeply.  I'd read that it was the younger shengs that generally contain more bitterness, but that wasn't the case here, and I really have no answer for why this was so (I've also been thinking lately that I could gain from a little more education on this matter of bitterness, which I know tea enthusiasts differentiate in a few ways).  Could it be that the 2000 was heading into some sort of awkward adolescent phase?  Or maybe what I was tasting had less to do with age and more to do with the differences of weather conditions between 2000 and 2003 and the resulting effects on the tea leaves?

As I sat with these two teas I realized how much more informative it would be to compare, say, the 2000 to the 2010 version of this tea, and I might go seeking the 2010 just for this purpose.


  1. It would be great to see a vendor come out with a 5 year sample pack of one type of tea they've stored since production so we could test them side by side and not have to factor in different storage conditions.

  2. Interesting comparison.

    I know the Yi Wu Tea Masters, 2003; this cake is excellent.

    Best Regards.



  3. So true in learning about puerh, that there's no central resources. Cloud's book, which can be tough to get your hands on, is invaluable. Otherwise, I've done an equal amount of internet scrounging to get up to speed, but am learning daily.

    I've seen tea oxidation happen very quickly. Slightly orange-yellow teas will pick up a deep orange hue if left out long enough.

  4. Spud Muffin -- You definitely win for best name :)

    Philippe -- Thank you for stopping by. I'll have to revisit the 2003 by itself next time. Tasting these teas side by side took away from the pure enjoyment of either one of them. Thanks for the note.

    Tom -- I didn't know Cloud has a book. Is it in Chinese? Going though his many web pages has been a highlight for me. Love those wordy folks ;)

  5. Those informations on aging are beautifully compiled - thanks for sharing!

    I've been intrigued by your side-by-side sessions, and I'd like to know about details of the how-to? When trying things like that myself I ran into difficulties, how really to get two sessions done simultaniously. Assuming you're not handling two gaiwans with two hands at the same time, how do you do that? I never figured out how to deal with the time lag and at the same time keeping water temp etc. exactly the same. (Given that I'm not that experienced that I could factor out those things, I found it important to keep them the same)

  6. Tea Student :) Welcome :)

    My side-by-side sessions are not exactly scientific, I'm afraid. As I'm wanting to learn tea more intuitively I generally stay away from scales and thermometers if I can help it. But I did fiddle with those at one time so I do have a sense for how quickly water in the pot cools. For these side-by-side sessions I'll start by filling two gaiwans with the different teas. I'll bring the kettle to near-boiling, pour the first gaiwan for whatever amount of time I'm going for. If it's a short infusion I'll prepare the first gaiwan, pour the tea from that and then go right to the second gaiwan immediately after. If it's a longer infusion then I'll bring the kettle up to near-boiling again before pouring the second gaiwan. I'm sure there is some variation in temperature, but I'm also sure that variation is no more than a few degrees, at most. Probably the most problematic in these sessions is how quickly the tea begins to cool after pouring into the cup. This gets more problematic as the infusion times lengthen, allowing the first cup to cool quite a bit before I get the second cup poured. I've been able to mitigate this to some extent by using the double-walled glass cups (which are also great for viewing color and clarity) which tends to keep the tea hotter longer.

    I also pour two gaiwans at once, simultaneously, but only when the infusion times are getting quite long. I'll pour the first, usually counting to about 10 from start to end of the pour, then pour the second. When it's time to pour into the drinking cups it works out well because it takes no more than 10 seconds to pour and I can keep the steeping time the same between the two.

    One of the big drawbacks to this sort of "same infusion time comparison" is that every tea has it's own personality and expression. I might be pouring two teas at exactly a 10-second infusion, but tea 1 might only need 7 seconds to express it's best, while tea 2 might be wanting something more like a 15 second infusion to show itself fully. So the side-by-side comparisons are particularly flawed in this way.