Shou (or cooked/ripe) puerh is difficult to market. Hell, puerh in general is difficult to spin. How do you convince people that something that’s fermented is something they want? Fermented leaves, no less; in cake form.
The conundrum gets even hairier once you try to explain to people what the “cooking” process even is. Example: “Oh yeah, and over here we have some shou puerh—sometimes called cooked puerh. Not to be confused with raw puerh, which ages naturally. Unlike that stuff, wet leaves are composted by piling them together in a hot roo— . . . hey, where are you going?”
Most tea vendors that aim for a general market get around the headache of trying to explain what puerh is . . . by explaining how healthy it is. And that creates an even bigger can o’ worms. Not only does one piss off the die-hard pu-heads (puerh fanboys/girls/insert-other-gender-here), but the claims are most certainly never true.
There’s just no reasonable way to make cooked puerh fashionable. Well, that certainly didn’t stop a friend of mine—Misty Peak Teas—from trying.
I will admit, I got a little worried when Nicholas texted me one day, telling me that they were moving Misty Peak in “a new direction”. Expanding away from the “One Family; One Farm” model. I will also confess to a smidge of dread-feels. At first.
From a business perspective, it made sense. Sure, they had a great puerh for their flagship product. But there was only so much one family could produce. At some point, growth reaches a plateau. That leaves only two options: (1) Expand to include other puerh producing gardens. (2) Expand the product line.
They went with both.
He told me they were going to carry a shou puerh; plucked and pressed in the spring of 2012. I didn’t think much about it. Shou puerh and I had a . . . rocky relationship. In my earliest tea drinking days, I picked up some shou tuos that I thought were legit. The shop was certainly legit. In the middle of an Asian market? Check. Puerh cakes hanging from the wall? Check.
When I finally got around to trying them, I was half-horrified. Only half were good. The other have were fish-shit. As in, they tasted like fish . . . and shit. No kind way to put it. And since then, every other shou puerh I’ve experienced has been equally mixed-baggy.
So, one can understand, that when I hear someone saying that they’re going to carry a shou puerh—and that they want to send me some—I get a little . . .
But I never could turn Nicholas down; he’s just too nice a guy. I just wish they’d come up with a different name. At least, that’s how I felt at the time.
“The New Black” is a fashion cliché that dates back to . . . I dunno, when clichés were fashionable. I guess. The phrase already puts undo pressure on a new product, making it out to be a paradigm shift of epic proportions. (Another cliché.) It declares that the product is special. Those are high stakes for any tea, let alone one with a dicey history such as shou puerh.
By its very design, it’s not special. Someone looked at regular ol’ sheng puerh and said something along the lines of, “This aging is taking too long.”
And, so, from the 1950s-70s, a new process was developed to speed up the aging. Grossly coined as “Wò Dūi“, or “wet-piling” in English. Composting, basically. If the process was done well? The results tasted like earth and jujubes. If done poorly? Fish-shit.
To date, I’ve only encountered one shou puerh that I deemed special. And it had to have Agarwood chips blended with it. Those aren’t good odds for any ol’ shou puerh. That all said, I decided to give Nicholas the benefit of the doubt.
The package arrived about a week or so after he told me about it.
It was literally a present. You can fault Misty Peak for many things, but you can’t fault their packaging. They know how to dress up . . . well, anything really. If teas needed makeovers, I’d trust Mr. Misty Peak to do it. (Although, I still don’t think there’s hope for genmaicha.)
The package came with both a chunk of a puerh cake for sampling, and a tasting cup!
This particularly excited me because . . . I’ve wanted a li’l cup like this for soooo long!!! By the way I was squealing, one would’ve thought it was Tea Christmas or something. The cup even had the Misty Peak brand on the bottom. Shiny! (What? I can respect that!)
Next was the tea cake piece. It was a decent chunk of a shou puerh beeng (cake). If I were a betting man—and since I didn’t have a scale handy—I would’ve guessed about 10g worth of tea. Enough for one session if someone were a balls-out, woMANly steeper; two sessions if one were a conservative cupper, like me. The color to the pressed leaves was pretty enough—not “dusty-brown” old or “compost-black” young. More . . . ruby colored, I guess. There wasn’t much of an aroma to speak of; a hint of earth, that was it.
For brewing, I cut the piece in half with my new puerh knife. (Damn , I loved that knife.)
The sucker did not want to pry apart that easily. It took two good stabs to pry some leaf off, and when I finally did . . . it got all over the place. Many a leaf particles lost their lives to the tray.
Next, I brought water to a boil, let it cool for about a minute, and poured it over the leaves in a gaiwan. I did a pre-wash for ten seconds, dumped it, and then poured hot water in again. This time for thirty seconds. Rinsed-‘n-repeated three times, for successive infusions.
At a puerh session earlier last month [at the time of this writing, it’s November], someone said a good shou puerh had to taste like jujubes. If it had the odd fish or compost smell, it was poorly made. If it had notes of earth, it was on the right track but not quite there. Well, I have no way of knowing, since—at least, as far as I know—I’ve never had jujubes.
What I can say is this . . .
It colored up nicely to a really dark brown, almost “event horizon”-ish. The steam from the cup(s) smelled of prunes and freshly-tilled soil. And when I put cup to lips, I tasted prunes by way of a cocoa-rich dessert fondue cauldron. Either my palate for shou puerhs was changing (possible), or this was a well-sourced one. Was it anything special? Was it “the new black”? Well . . .
I’m coming off a year of having shou puerh-like dark teas from Myanmar, Laos, and the aforementioned agarwood chipped one. Everyday shou puerhs are like ten-speeds next to the Harleys I’ve ridden lately. But what about the tea-drinker I was ten years ago?
As I said above, my first shou puerh sessions were terrible. What if it had been something as good as this? In what direction would my palate have gone if “The New Black” was my first?
I remember telling Nicholas during one late-night conversation that Misty Peak Teas was a company for the puerh beginners. No frills, do difficult delineations; just good tea. Trying to dress it up with any other colorful language or gimmicks would complicate the issue. (And draw ire from puerh die-hards.) “The New Black” is the perfect introductory shou puerh—one that could set a newbie puerh drinker on a more optimistic exploration into aged teas.
A few weeks back, I saw my niece wearing a poncho.
Then I saw a bartender at my work wearing one as well.
I took to Twitter and asked for someone to explain this new fashion statement to me.
Can someone explain to me why I'm seeing a lot of teen and twentysomething women wearing ponchos?
— Geoffrey F. Norman (@lazy_literatus) October 25, 2016
The best reply I got was this, “I mean, there is almost nothing more comfortable than wrapping up in a blanket. Why not take the blanket out in public?”
That’s what The New Black is. A puerh blanket you can wear in public.”
Oh . . . nevermind.
To buy “The New Black”, go HERE.