Friday, May 23, 2008

Finding Good Pu-erh

How to find good pu-erh? Negotiating through the plethora of pu-erh is not an easy task. There are many teas out there that we must taste to determine whether or not they are worthy of our money. Price and opinions of other cannot always be trusted, and even good teas are wasted on us at times.

The best way to understand pu-erh, and develop a palate is to sample. Sample a lot. Never stop sampling! In my endless sampling, I rarely find a piece that I deem worth buying. When I do, they're rarely the $3/tuo kind. More often, they're the $30-40/bing. Even more often, they're the $100+/per bing. The truth is, I can't afford bings in the $100+ range. I can afford many in the $35 range, so when I find one I like in the $35 range, I get real excited! However, when I find the golden taste in a $3 tuocha (which I don't really expect others to like), I become ecstatic because I can buy as many of them as I want! I have discovered in my samplings that while price can be a good determinant, it accords only very slightly with how much I will enjoy a tea. To only try samples of the more expensive pu-erhs is naive. There are good, and bad, pu-erhs in all the price ranges. So while sampling for a good pu-erh to buy, why not get samples from all ranges?

Now, there is a reason for starting with cheap stuff. The truth is, that an undeveloped palate can not notice much difference between the quality of pu-erhs. When I first started drinking, if you handed me a $1000 long-aged sheng, and a relatively good shu, I probably wouldn't be able to notice much difference. Sure, I'd probably pick the $1000 aged sheng on taste alone, but maybe I wouldn't. I might have thought it to be too earthy. In fact, when I was starting out in pu-erh, I liked the young shengs more than the aged stuff. It wasn't until after I drank a lot of young sheng, that I had another go with an aged sheng and loved it. I had an epiphany where I said to myself, "This is amazing tea! This is definitely what pu-erh is all about!" Such a tea would have been wasted on me earlier on.

Concerning tea blogs, the reviews that are posted are not an extension of one's own palate! Some people like some things, some people hate those same things, it is simple truth. The best way to use blogged reviews is to get the samples, and taste them while reading the review. This can help one find flavors and aromas one wouldn't have alone. Sometimes one can find a reviewer with very similar tastes to one's own, and only then be able to trust the opinions they give on tea. Even if the reviewers don't have similar tastes to oneself, experienced tasters can still give some very interesting information such as factory and tea-region quirks and trademarks.

So, sample, sample, sample! Never stop sampling! There are diamonds in the rough, diamonds in the smooth, and tasting is the only way to find these. Not every diamond in the smooth is worth getting either. Without a developed palate, better teas are often wasted on people who don't understand what is actually making these teas good. Once one has a good understanding, one can really get every pennies-worth out of a great tea. To find the diamonds of tea, one can't trust reviews blindly. Reviewers can be found that have similar tastes to oneself, and experienced reviewers have a plethora of information to give. The world of pu-erh is vast and ancient, and we get to delve into it with freshly-found interest.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Subjectivity of Taste

I wrote this in response to Hobbes' recent post in which he gives humble words, which I will summarize as a suggestion to take his reviews with a grain of salt, and to sample teas for oneself to find what the truth of a tea is for you. It is a nice perspective, very humble.

It really is amazing how different people can experience the same teas in entirely different ways. "Oh, you must have brewed it too long," the pretentious will say. But is it really so simple as determining brewing factors?

To analogize with food, two people can taste the same thing, for example cheese, or even fish. While these two people are consuming identical substances, the ways they perceive those tastes differ. They can differ so greatly as to reflect one person's disgust at the taste of cheese or fish, while the other person adores the tastes. If people can have opposite perceptions of a taste, then can there not be a middle route where, for example, certain tastes in a tea might fluctuate between wood and tobacco depending on the person?

The most interesting thing I've found in my tastings is that I can often find a note of something in a tea if I simply look for it: tobacco or woodsiness in a sheng, leather or pondiness in a shu, melon in a sencha. My greatest tool is to hunt for these flavors for which I already associate with a certain kind of tea, then find the degree to which they are present. When I put into words this style of analysis, I say things like: "Wet lumber covered by a cloud of must, with a low note of swamp in the distance." It is very hard to clearly deliver these perceptions through words. This varying "presentness" of flavors is more ideal for numerical percentages (ex. 60% fresh lumber, 30% pond, 5% cinnamon, 5% chemical), but being so hard to quantify accurately in such a way, I stick to the words.

Accurately describing sensations for people to understand is no walk in the park. I hope this post has helped to show some of the problems, and will cause you to look at the tasting notes of myself and others as extremely subjective perceptions.


Friday, May 16, 2008

90's Tongqing Hao Shengpu

This flimsy old cake could be split and pulled apart with a gentle touch. Wabi-sabi beauty definitely shows through as the cake droops slightly over the edge of the table. The brew comes out as a lovely dark red/brown, smelling of wet lumber and tobacco.

Opening up in the flavor is a rich mellow flavor over wood and tobacco. Following the first infusion, a deep sweetness comes out that is very rich and reminiscent of an aged shu. The taste builds to be a little too rich, so I park some leaves in a spare cup for the time being.

Removing some leaves greatly increases the quality of the cup giving me lots of delicious lumber in the taste, good lumber being my favorite aspect to find in old sheng. Dry wood, wet wood, old wood, all under a blanket of must are noted after the stripping of leaves. The shu-like tastes are nearly diminished as I enjoy cup after cup of warm, lumber-rich, musty goodness. I begin to perspire as a sprite of hot qi envelops my body. Still going strongly in the 'teens, the large leaves open up to reveal a still somewhat green interior. Though the leaves are large, they are also quite thin and break apart easily.

I find this tea fluctuates dramatically in taste. It can be rich, mellow, woodsy, musty, shuey, and even calm, but not at the same time. Is this a sign of a good tea? I don't know. I do know that I like it, with the transient flavors making the tea somewhat more of a journey. Doing this tasting in 90°f weather has been somewhat demanding, especially after eating some spicy lime-chicken pizza. On another day, with a light breeze, a cleaner palate, and less leaf, I will write up a part-2 of this tasting.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

2001 Xiaguan Baoyan

I got this brick after reading the positive remarks put forth by Hobbes.

The leaf is rather crumbly, flaky, small, and over all, low quality. It's no surprise when the filter accumulates nearly a full gongfu sessions worth of sediment after only a couple steeps. The tea is a light-brown orangish-red. I can't smell much in the aroma besides a light-sweetness and an almost grainy bite. The taste comes out quite nice, although somewhat bland in the first steep. I can taste a mellowness surrounding a slightly complex flavor profile.

The second steep comes out a deep-red, a significant sign of aging. Although the aroma is subdued, hints of wood, tobacco and the mellow end of age are present. Most notable so far is a taste that is somewhere in between a tang and an astringent bite (acid). A very interesting taste, and very welcome. Noticeable calming/qi and a cooling effect in the mouth and nasal passages.

The leaves in the gaiwan change to resemble something like mush. More wet-stored flavors are released in later steeps, as well as a nice rush of qi. Also noted to be in more abundance in later steeps is a strong acidity (that tangy/astringent bite).

It's too bad Xiaguan didn't use better quality leaf, although, that could make it an entirely different tea. While I agree with Hobbes that this tea is in a very good stage, I think I'd enjoy it even more after a few more years. The acidity seems prevalent enough to stick around.

For a comparison of notes, please see posts by: Bill and Hobbes

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

80's Liao Fu Vietnamese Maocha

Vietnamese maocha pu-erh from the 1980's.

Come to think of it, I've never seen border tea compressed into anything, it's always been kept loose. Border tea is pu-erh tea from the border regions of other countries around China, where the environment is similar to the growing regions of China. The dry leaf carries almost no smells. Suprising, yet expected, the leaf is quite whole. Even after 20, 30 years even, the Vietnamese prevail with keeping their leaf wholer than any other country.

The smell comes out dry and sweet. Clean, smells lightly of wood and dirt... not very complex. The taste is smooth and sweet, clean, dry and lightly woodsy. The tea seems to be rich, yet very lacking in flavor. A very contradictory and confusing taste experience. It loses character after around the 4th steep (~15s steeps), and I notice that the leaves are still hard and unopened. A 30 second steep teases some flavor back into the tea. Increasing steep time sooner than usual and giving it much longer steeps does let this tea leech out a few more good cups to give out completely around the 8th.

The overall picture of this tea is that it is very bland, uncomplex. On the up side, the taste is very clean, sweet, and accessible. After the session seems over, with most of the taste having dissipated and the color of the liquor lightening, the leaves are still not opened fully. Messing around with the leaves reveals that they have an almost dry feel to them, even when wet. Very rough, black as midnight. The browner leaves are softer. The large, whole nature of the leaf that I first thought was a good quality, may be the reason why this tea is so plain. Next time, I'll remind myself to crumble the leaves somewhat before drinking. Can't expect much from border tea.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

2001 Yiwu Zhengshan

Zhongcha? CNNP...

I got this sample from Puerhshop. Not sure exactly who made it.

From the cup comes an aroma is of wet hay. In the taste is hay, hair, and dried orange peel (without the citrus). The tea leaves my tongue and roof of my mouth feeling grainy. The taste, aroma, and leaf all are typical of a younger pu-erh. I would guess a 2003 or 2004. Over the steeps, the tea turns to sweet and mellow with hay flavor very quickly. Longer infusions bring out the higher notes of hair, skin, hay, and an inkling of age. This tea is definitely in its awkward, adolescent phase. Taste and leaves depict a younger profile, while a hint of age can be found in the taste, and color of the brew.

The grainy feeling in the mouth turns to an intensifying dryness of mouth and throat, and a slight cooling effect. The tea mellows out rather quickly around the 5th steep.

I didn't enjoy this tea much. It was moderately pleasant before the intense drying took hold. It was fun trying to pick out hints of age, but this tea comes off as quite younger than a 2001. I prefer something older, or younger. I'm not too keen of the adolescent stage it's in, or the dryness of this pu-erh. My speculation is that these factors will probably be fixed after a few years of wetter-storage.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

1996 Dayi 7542

Ah... the 7542. Thanks to Salsero for the sample.

The smell of the dry leaf is powder-coated with the yummy mustiness I associate with aged puerh. Like the smell of fertile soil after a fresh rain.

Aroma of dried plum and cherries, fresh wet lumber, and typical mustiness. The taste is full of lumber, delicious accompanied by a soft must and on another note, dried plum and cherries. Very much like the aroma. The sweetness increases as the temperature cools. After two cups, I'm in a state of mild serenity.

The aroma of aged puerh is so wonderful in and of itself, that it tends to evoke a calm ending to my daily tension through its redolent odor alone. Once I taste it, and delve into my session, that feeling becomes ever more tranquil.

The second steep comes out darker red, with some brown. A much greater taste of lumber, which is my favorite to find in puerh, especially older puerh. This taste might also be described as a tobacco. I used less leaf than normal, hoping to squeeze two sessions out of this wonderfully-smelling tea, yet I find these cups to be very potent, entering my nostrils with a punch.

Third steep migrates back to a dried plum/cherry taste, losing the sharpness and kick that was felt in the nostrils. The dried cherries follow the tea through the subsequent steepings. As a result of my serene puerh-induced mood, anyone who walks by my station gets offered a cup of deep-red 1996 Dayi 7542. This tea isn't amazing, but it'd be a lovely addition to my minuscule stock of old puerh.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Tetulia's White Tea

Bangladesh. A rather odd growing region for tea. I've actually never heard of a tea coming out of Bangladesh. When I got a message from a representative of Tetulia, I was excited to try a tea from this area. It's always a pleasure to try new and different things, which unfortunately become harder to find as time goes on. Tetulia is a company that participates in an interesting co-op program in poor Bangladesh:
Co-op members receive a milking cow, for which they pay back not in cash, but with milk and cow dung. Members pay only one liter of milk per day, keeping the rest for their children and the calves. They pay 10 to 20 kgs of cow dung per day, keeping a measure for their own use. Most members manage to pay off their cow within two to three years. Best of all, they keep any calves that the cows bear!
I think this is an amazing idea, one that should become widespread in less well-off nations.

The tea I received was an all-tip, 100% bud white tea, which is the only kind I drink nowadays. The leaf isn't the furry-white that I love to find, but rather has some green leaves.aph

Brewing it up at 180°f for 5 minutes gave me an orange-amber soup. The tea's aroma carries some berry and an interesting grassy/melon. The grassy/melon aroma follows the tea into the taste, resulting in a quite individual brew. The flavor profile is similar to that characteristic of Darjeeling teas, but the individuality of this tea is found in the grassy-melon that permeates in smell and taste. Like a cantaloupe field at high-noon, or a cooked plate of snap peas, sprout, and cucumber. Also noted is a hint of astringency. This tea would lend itself better to a shorter, 3-4 minute steep.

The glass-brewed cup, shown in the picture, got steeped at a lower temperature for indefinite time. The taste of this cup is smoothly-sweet, non-astringent, and more melon than anything else. Following the melon is slight embodiment of snap peas and hay.

In retrospect, this tea isn't amazing, but it is good for an organic tea from a region that isn't known for growing tea. Also, when you drink this tea, you can feel proud, knowing that you are supporting struggling people in an extremely poor country (Bangladesh's GDP/capita being 1/33 of that of the USA). Tetulia's tea garden was planted only in 2000, so I expect their tea to get better in the coming years, as the plants grow and adapt, and as the processors gain more experience with this new crop.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Nilgiri Black Tea

If I didn't know better, I would guess that this was a white tea, or an oolong, but not a black. The dry leaf smells almost exactly like Froot Loops (thanks Brandon). The handmade leaves do look wonderful and long, although, what accounts for this is the usual inclusion of stems into the finished product.

The brew (208°f/3m) comes out a full, golden-yellow color. Smelling very similar to a Darjeeling oolong. Tasting delicate and smooth, with heavy notes of fruit. This tea is really good! It manages do go down smoothly, with a delicate bouquet of fruity notes, accompanied by a muted floralness, and yet it still packs a punch! This is a very good tea, and I am going to be buying a big bag.

The second steep (208°f/3.5 m) is still wonderful, delivering the same flavors in their beautiful profile, albeit somewhat weaker.

Going 5 minutes for a third steep helps this tea to dish out yet another palatable two cups. This Nilgiri "black" even managed to turn some hot water into a good 4th steep. Because of this good turnout of multiple infusions, I'm going to gongfu this using my Darjeeling oolong standards.

Just look at those beautiful leaves...