Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2009 Denong Wild Ripe puerh, revisited

In keeping with other excellent tea blogs, I'll add my latest tasting notes to the original posting, here (scroll down to the end of the post to find the updated review).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

2004 101 Tea Plantation Commemorative Tea Cake

From a low quality puerh (in the last post) to a much higher quality one.  The exact name of this tea is... well, for someone who doesn't read Chinese that's hard to say, but fortunately the box this comes in includes English on the back.  "Thousand Year Old Tea Plantation's Commemorative Tea Round" appears to be the official designation, although it's also referred to simply as "101 Ancient Tea" (and "101 Years Old Tree" on the vendor's website, The Best Tea House, Vancouver branch).

The 101 Tea Plantation is a US-invested tea factory based in Jing Mai, which might explain the English on the box and also the extensive (also in English) website here, which I have appreciated.  101 Plantation produces a lot of tea, much of it wholesaled to worldwide markets and all of it certified organic according to European, American and Japanese standards.  This particular cake is one of their high quality productions, produced to commemorate a business partnership between the 101 Tea Plantations company and the Lan Cang government, picked specifically from their oldest tea plantations on Jing Mai and Mang Jing mountains.  According to the box they "selected only the choicest leaves from our over 1000 year old trees" to make these cakes.  Although I haven't been able to verify that the leaves are 100% from 1000 year old trees, it's certain that these cakes are 100% gu shu leaves from trees at least a few hundred years old to perhaps a small portion of the oldest leaves.

I picked this cake up from The Best Tea House, Vancouver branch.  Michael Fung is the owner and has tremendous knowledge about tea and puerh in particular.  Although the website lists prices for whole cakes only, I know they also sell sample size portions of all but their oldest and priciest teas.  Contact the store to inquire.

I've spent the past two weeks sampling this tea in different ways, trying to "listen" to it.  Gaiwan and yixing, varying temperatures, varying infusion times, varying proportions of tea leaves to water.  When using fewer grams of leaves to water, this tea is filled with a beautiful floral delicacy.  One of the most floral puerhs I've ever had.  Upping the amount of leaves, though, produces a liquor with surprising strength and a far-reaching ku wei that lasts and lasts.  Given that every session with this tea produced different results in terms of taste and aroma (thanks to my fussing around with parameters), it would be silly for me to give one of those infusion-by-infusion reports.  But there were certain consistencies I can tell you about.

Mouth feel.  The liquor is rich and thick, leaving the mouth feeling coated in velvet.  As the infusions increase in number the mouth feels thins out a bit, but my sessions with the 101 always began with a mouth full of "sumptuous" (the word I found myself using over and over in my notes).

Strength.  This tea has a great deal of assertiveness, evidenced in taste by a ku wei that will grab you hard if you're not careful.  This was part of the reason I spent some time with this one, trying it in different ways.  This is a tea that will test your brewing abilities.  The strength of the ku wei goes deep into the body and as a result pulls both perspiration and salivation, but also moves into a full-body mellowness as an expression of qi.

"That clean sensation."  There's probably a Chinese term for this that I don't know yet because I find this particular characteristic present in most high quality puerh.  You might say it's when you keep tasting a tea for hours (sometimes even a day or more) after drinking it, but it's not really a describe-able taste so much as a sensation of cleanliness, most noticeably throughout the mouth.  It's extremely pleasant and the more I experience teas that have this characteristic, the more I want to drink them.

Leaf quality.  One of the most impressive things I discovered about the 101 was when I examined the spent leaves.  They were big and beautiful, with plenty of whole strong-spined leaves and very little chop.  In fact, the dry leaves were just as much fun to examine since they separated easily and fully whole from the cake.  Every curled twisted dry leaf from the cake would fully expand in the tea water, expressing itself completely.  Sometimes I've had teas where the leaves seemed reluctant to open, but not this one.

I was told that the 101 is currently working through a changing period in it's aging process, and as I sampled it on different days I wondered what might be it's weaker points and how another few years of aging will change it.  Although there was hui gan present, it wasn't as strong as other teas I've tried.  I wonder if that might change with a few years' time?  There were a couple other points about this tea that I made note of in my journal and which I'll be watching with interest when I try this again in the coming years.  The whole matter of how a puerh ages is a fascinating one, and those who have a lot of experience with puerh will tell you it's not a simple straight-line graph from "green and astringent" to "woody-sweet mellowness."  Tea goes through periods or maybe 'stages' as it ages, and it seems the 101 will offer a good window into how a puerh works through one of these periods.  I hope to update this blog entry as I try it again in the coming years.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Anatomy of a low quality pu-erh

It wasn't all a loss this morning.  I started my session with a pot of the 2007 Douji "Six Ancient Tea Mountain", which is a very fine tea for it's age.  It was my first big purchase of multiple cakes and I'm glad to have picked up as much as I did.  I drink it frequently and it never disappoints.  In fact, I think it tastes even better in the yixing, and the cha qi of this one is truly excellent.  A great tea for meditation.

But my restlessness was tugging at my sleeve again, so after exhausting the Douji I pulled out random cake from the shelves.  It was a Taobao purchase of this cake, said to be from 2005, made from "ancient" Wu Yi leaves, and stone pressed.  Did I really think it was all that?  Well, for the price of 22 yuan, no.  But it made for some pretty pictures on the Taobao page so I added a cake of it to my order.  A small price to pay for a little education.

True to the Taobao page this beeng is (initially) good looking, covered both front and back with large long ropey leaves.  But like they say, never judge a book by it's cover.  My first clue that something was amiss came when I tried to pry off some leaves for the pot.  This cake was rock hard!  Had to get the knife out.  The next surprise was what was revealed inside.  Just under the top layer of pretty ropey leaves was a dense solid mass of dried tea leaves.  It almost looked like the leaves had been pulverized before being compressed.  No matter how carefully I worked my knife to get into it, I ended up with mostly finely crumbled bits, almost powdered.  Stone pressed?  I think not.  Not unless they used a 300-lb rock!  Although I don't know enough to say for sure, it seemed to me that a smaller cake had been pressed first (with machine?) made from fannings and very small bits, and then this smaller well-compressed disc had been covered with larger prettier leaves and maybe then put into a stone press.  That's just my guess.

I was actually eager to taste this one, believe it or not, and tried to keep an open mind despite the inauspicious start.  I knew I was in for a lesson.  I rinsed and used an aroma cup to start.  It smelled blandly green with just a faint hint of sugars.  Next, a 6-second infusion -- it tasted like sour water.  I bumped up the second infusion to 30 seconds.  Again, sour water with a little bit of tea-flavor to it.  The third infusion I tried a full minute, but again the tea fell flat on my tongue with little taste, little aroma, and nothing going for it.  As I sipped I had the unpleasant experience of finding gritty bits of dirt in my mouth, so I decided to chuck this one and chalk it up to a good lesson.

Thanks to the many good folks who blog and post about their tea experiences (not to mention those tea vendors who offer well-chosen quality teas) I've had the good fortune to taste some very good tea.  Some are truly excellent while others are just decent.  But it can be argued that without the lows one cannot appreciate the highs.  Without darkness one cannot be conscious of light.  So it is with tea.  And so it is I find myself thankful even for this unimpressive little hockey puck of a pu-erh.  :)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Two generations of one special tea

chubby new yixing pot
I find myself drinking a LOT of tea lately.  Part of this is due to impatience.  If I sit down with a new sample and it doesn't impress me quickly I pull out one or two more to try.  But more often I'll find myself trying a new puerh and thinking, "Oh, this one reminds me of the X tea from Y factory" and so I'll pull that one off the shelf and do a side-by-side tasting.  It's actually been very educational and a great way to further develop the palate (not to mention helping me justify all this tea I'm collecting!).  

I want to write a bit about a taste-compare I did the other day with the 1996 Truly Simple Elegant and a tea that's marketed as the "2nd generation" of this renowned tea, the 2003 Green Snow Manor (or Hut, as I've also seen it advertised).  But first a bit about my new yixing purchase.  After simmering it in the TongQing Longma last week it smelled heavenly and I've been drinking more shu than I normally do in an effort to really break it in.  But I'm finding some annoyances with this new teapot.  It pours in spurts, and despite tipping it this way and that to try to empty it of tea after a steeping it's still left with a puddle of tea at the bottom of the pot.  The only explanation for this is the type of filter inside the pot.

New yixing on the left, my old stand-by on the right

It's a ball filter, and if you look closely you'll see that the filter holes are set a short distance away from the inside surface of the pot.  This would explain why I keep finding extra tea water in the bottom of my pot between steepings.  The matter of the flow of the pour is another issue.  My old teapot, with nine holes pierced into the actual body of the pot (on the right above) pours wonderfully.  When I tip it on it's side the tea flows out smoothly, taking about 7-8 seconds to pour, eventually slowing to a few drips.  To empty the pot fully I just give it a few shakes.  Very simple.  But this ball-filtered new pot is a bit different.  I can't just tip the pot sideways to pour like with my other one.  If I do I get lots of tea coming out from under the lid and the pour comes out in uneven spurts.  Instead, I have to be more careful with this one, only tipping it partially to start the pour and gradually rotating it to finish.  As a result, the total pour time is a bit longer, about 9-10 seconds.  I also wonder how much this slower pour has to do with the smaller holes.

So, onto the teas.  The 2003 Green Snow Manor (GSM) is said to be the 2nd generation of the Truly Simple Elegant, picked from the very same trees.  Although I don't know for sure, I'm guessing this means the trees weren't picked in the seven years between the manufacture of the two cakes, but I could be wrong.  One thing's for sure, the GSM's price is significantly inflated thanks to it's provenance.

I knew it wasn't completely fair to be comparing the two outright.  Not only is there a 7-year difference in age but the TSE has some unique characteristics that would be hard to repeat, like leaves from trees that hadn't picked for decades  So I wasn't expecting them to taste the same, but I was interested to see if I could detect how they were related.

Initial rinses and pours were predictable, with the GSM showing a more solid yellow soup compared to the orange-amber color of the TSE.  The aromas from the GSM were also more characteristic of it's youth, with bright fruit notes mixed with green hay.  The TSE, by comparison, was clearly aged.  Deep woods and leathers with very little fruit, although it also had an aroma I came to call "violet."  Not fruity and not quite floral, but deeply perfumed in a purple-ish sort of way (if that makes any sense).  As the steepings grew in number I kept trying to find hints of the TSE in the GSM, but couldn't locate any, and I just don't have enough knowledge of how puerh ages to know whether or not the GSM was just a younger version of the TSE that would someday grow more like it, or if it would never hope to match it.

GSM on the left, TSE right
As in previous tastings of the TSE, the tea was terrifically powerful.  While the tea is hot it tastes of pure clean water which might leave you wondering what the fuss is all about, but it quickly becomes apparent as the strength of this tea permeates your body, pulling salivation, bringing perspiration, perfuming the breath, not to mention the full-body qi.  As the tea soup cools though, it displays perfumed woody notes and a deep bitter quality (the good kind), as though you're tasting it from deep inside your body.  While there was no comparison between the TSE and GSM in terms of aroma or taste, I then tried to focus on this matter of 'feeling.'  But once again, there was simply no comparison.  I even tried to trick my mind at one point, trying to convince myself that the TSE had less strength and the GSM more strength, but there was no denying it.

In the end I learned only that these teas, despite their connection of source of leaves and processing, are two very different puerhs.  The TSE is clearly special and unique, but if I was served a variety of 2003 shengs, including the GSM, I would be hard pressed to pick it out of the crowd.