I’ve often expressed my ambivalence to the tea category that is puerh. Sometimes, though, a story about it demands my attention. And most of those times, the story isn’t even mine. Even stranger still? A few of those stories focus on the puerh itself, and the journey it went through.
The day I finally got around to trying this – after whittling down my significant tea backlog – three revelations hit me square in the sack. Revelation #1: I had already written taster notes for this tea. Revelation #2: I had already taken pictures of the tasting experience. And Revelation #3: Said pictures had already been posted online. Not only did I feel like a schmuck, but an absentminded one to boot.
That said, once I reviewed my notes and visual aids, I fondly remembered what I had sipped. Like a mob hitman remembering his first victim.
Okay…bad example, but a perfect(-ish) segue to…
This young pu-erh was harvested in March of 2013 from Bada Mountain in Yunnan Province, China. Said region is one of the oldest tea producing areas, and the wonderfully-named “Bada” is one of 26 classic tea producing mountains. Pulang and Hani minorities grew and harvested the tea leaves for this offering from some of the world’s oldest tea trees.
JalamTeas offered this up to my (un)usual scrutiny in May. By vague recollection (and by that, I mean Instagram), I remember digging into the beengcha (tea cake) the following month. In my defense, there was a lot going on in June. World Tea Expo, for instance.
When I dug into this, I chuckled at the mountain’s name. Most would immediately think of a Goodfellas riff, what with the “Bada” moniker. Me? I was more reminded of this cute li’l gem.
As with all of JalamTeas wares, this was a beautiful beengcha. The pressed green and silver-tipped leaves gave off a springtime scent of flowers, soil, and something vaguely herbaceous and medicinal. It also came across – in scent and sight – as older than it actually was. I almost felt bad that I had to tear a sliver from the li’l, pretty cake.
There was only one way I could approach this – gongfoolishly. Several smaller infusions at about thirty seconds or more, boiled water for the base. For the purposes of playing, I prepped three steeps to start.
The aroma wafting from all three amber-gold-liquored cups was straight leaves from fruit trees. Unlike the deceptive dry presentation, brewed up, this came across as young as it was. On taste, I felt like I was sipping a non-astringent, low-altitude Darjeeling green tea. With a pu-erh-ish lean, of course. I have no clue how this will turn out in a few years. With other young shengs, one has some idea how they’ll age – this one was a little more secretive. I don’t mind a little mystery.
I’ll revisit it again in five years. If I don’t drink it all by then, that is. Chances are, though, I’ll forget. Must be age catching up with me; perfect for aging pu-erh.
Now get off my mountain…I mean, lawn. I mean…where am I?
Fengqing is a county located in Lincang Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China.
Source: Yunnan Adventure
The Almighty Wiki listed at least four different ethnic groups indigenous to the region, two of which I recognized as pu-erh producers. In the early 1940s, the Fengqing Tea Factory came into existence and was instrumental in the development of Dian Hong (Yunnan black tea) as we know it today.
To date, I’d only ever tried two black teas from Fengqing and no pu-erhs. Angel from Teavivre approached me a few months ago with an opportunity to sample – not one, but three – offerings from the county. A unique black tea and two pu-erhs, respectively. I jumped at the chance, and over the course of a week I took a veritable sipping journey to the region.
Looking at these li’l suckers was a trip. They were indeed as advertised – gold-tipped leaves that pressed into the shape of pearls. I’m not sure how many leaves made up one pearl, but by the looks of it, several. On aroma, they gave off a fragrance similar to any other gold-tipped Dian Hong, but with a more earthen, leathery edge. Similar to another Fengqing black I had years ago.
For brewing, I went with a scaled-down, gongfu approach. Three pearls to a 6oz. steeper cup of boiling water. First infusion was for thirty seconds, followed by further steeps with an added twenty seconds successively.
The first infusion – I’ll confess – was the rinse, which I should’ve dumped. But I never dump the rinse; seems like a waste of tea to me. So, I’m incorrectly considering it the first infusion. Anyway, the rinse was pale, but the second and third infusions brewed boldly dark crimson. The aroma on each steep was straight chocolate by way of a rawhide belt. On taste? Again, straight chocolate. No rawhide this time, but a bit of honey, some pepper, and a whole lotta “yum!” It was note-for-note like the pressed Fengqing gold bars I coveted months ago.
Pu-erhs from Arbor cultivars were among my favorites. This wasn’t the full cake, but rather chunks of it shaved off for easy sampling, which was fine. The pressed leaves looked like – well – wood that’d been shaved off the side of an “arbor” tree. Albeit far better smelling. This was an earthy pu-erh to the core – notes of earth and dust were prevalent. Commonplace in a ripe/cooked pu-erh, but I also detected an underlying sweetness.
For brewing, I stuck with a typical gongfoolish approach – several different steeps at varying degrees of time. Then hoped for the best. It was my way. Thirty seconds for the first, adding ten to the subsequent infusions.
The liquor for the first three infusions brewed dark crimson to blackest night (with a red tinge). The aroma from each possessed that same wood-sweet earthen sensation from the dry whiff. In fact, the same characteristics showed up in taste. Sure, it had all the trappings of a regular cooked pu-erh (minus the young fishiness), but there was that sweetness – just out of sight, but still making its presence known. Not strong but subtle; like being waved at by a pixie.
When I went to open this sucker up, I was greeted by (fittingly enough) a chunk of brick. I’d had teas from a zhuan cha (or “brick tea”) before, but this was the first chunk I had to play with at home. Like the Arbor Tree pu-erh, there was an earthy smell with a tinge of sweetness. No young pu-erh fishiness here, either. The smell was straight-up ancient.
For brewing, same ol’ same ol’, like with the other pu-erh. Gongfoolishly with a side of “tired”.
After pouring three successive infusions of the stuff, I noticed the liquor gradually darkened from deep crimson to brown-black. Typical of a shou (cooked) pu-erh, but the majesty for this one was in the aroma. As is common knowledge, I’m not much of a fan of cooked pu-erh unless it’s had about five years to age. Well, this had about nine, and it showed. Each infusion was earthy, slightly smoky, deep-bodied, practically chewy…and damn smooth! The mouthfeel was like an Italian red wine. Heck, on the last infusion I dared, I was having flashbacks of a good Barbera.
Hrm…that should be a new taster note – earthwine. Yes, perfect! I vote this one as the poster child.
I’d be hard-pressed (heh, get it?) to find a favorite out of the three. All I will say is that they occupied the same pantheon of “Awesome!” in their respective categories. The cooked pu-erhs were miles ahead of others I’ve tried, and those black pearls…man…I want to pair that with chocolate ice cream someday. In short, all three roads led to the same destination…
I talk a lot about new and interesting teas on this blog. It’s kind of my thing. But this article’s going to be a little bit different. I’ve always tried to talk about the origins to unique teas, or the regions they stem from. This is the first time where I was actually there when the tea was conceived. And it all started…in a bar.
On October 23rd, I made the two-hour trek to Eugene, OR .for an event called Tea Beer Fest. Of course I was going to go; how could I not? That’s – like – the combination of my two favorite things on the whole planet. I’d heard about the event through Josh “J-TEA” Chamberlain, and the fine tea lad even acted as a gracious host for my soon-to-be-tea-drunk arse.
When I first met up with Josh, it was – fittingly enough – at his teashop. J-TEA HQ. As I sipped copious amounts of sheng pu-erh and aged Baozhong, I even got a brief tour of the operation. Eventually, I had to address the elephant in the room. And by elephant, I mean…bourbon barrel.
He told me several months prior that he’d acquired such a barrel from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky. I was just surprised it hadn’t been used yet. Originally, he told me that he was going to load it up with Eugene Breakfast – a Yunnan Dian Hong – but was a little tight-lipped about his hesitance to barrel said tea.
Teabeer drinking commenced later that evening. As I was I-fergit-how-many-pints in, I brought up the bourbon barrel again. Because nothing says social tact like beer. I barreled into the subject with all the finesse of a village idiot. Keep in mind, this is how I recall the conversation…and granted, it’s a little fuzzy.
“So…how come you haven’t loaded that barrel with tea, yet?” There might have been a slight slur to my speech at this point.
“Truthfully,” he began (and I’m paraphrasing). “I sell a lot of Eugene Breakfast. I don’t know if I have any to spare for that.”
I mused. “What tea do you have that you’d want to sacrifice to the altar of awesomeness?”
(Okay, I didn’t quite put it like that, but – in hindsight – I wish I had.)
It wasn’t the first time, I’d operated in a “soft” consulting capacity before. For some reason, people in the tea industry/community value my opinion. Not sure why, sometimes. But this was the first case where someone had remembered one of my suggestions…over beer. I prayed to whatever Tea Gods that existed on high – heck, even Lu Yu himself – to make the tea turn out well.
The day after Christmas, my can arrived. Yes, I said can. Because everything that’s wonderful in ‘Merica comes in a f**king can!
The moment I got the can, I pried it open with my house-key and just…inhaled. It smelled like the inside of a bourbon barrel, as it bloody well should have. Strong peat and gasoline aromas invaded my nostrils like a sophisticated frat party. Whiskey notes took point, followed closely behind a hint of pu-erh earthiness. Not pu-erh fishiness – earthiness. This was a quality five-year-aged Yunnan cooked pu-erh; from that I could tell. The two different aromas complimented one another, translating from oak to earth with nary a jarring sensation.
(Sidenote: A day didn’t go by when I wasn’t caught just sniffing the can for minutes on end. One time, my sister/roommate came in as I was in mid-whiff. I had to say something akin to, “It’s not what it looks like.”)
I dug into this the very night I got it. I chose to brew it two different ways – one gongfoolishly, the other Western-ishly. The first: Boiling water, thirty-second steeps. The second: Boiling water, three-minute steep. The vessel I used was a gaiwan, and I infused 1 tablespoon of leaves.
For the gongfoolish prep, the liquor brewed up…well…dark as night. Even after only thirty seconds, the brew was as dark as any – uh – dark tea I’d ever tried. The aroma from the cup was almost strictly pu-erh-ish – alternating between earth and wood. Not so with the taste. On first sip, I was met with bourbon-drenched oak. A feeling I’d only encountered with bourbon barrel-aged beers. It was sweet, smoky, vaguely alcoholic, and flowed right into a cooked pu-erh woodsiness.
Most alcoholic barrel or drench-scented teas I’ve come across usually have the savory notes on the finish as a compliment. A subtle nuance in its character. This was the first time where I ran into such a flavor on introduction. Not even the one whiskey barrel-aged Lapsang Souchong had so strong an intro.
When gongfu-ed, the leaves lasted a good eight infusions before diluting. The pu-erh notes took over after about Steep #6, but still…that’s a long way to go for a scented tea. Brewed Western-style, I have to say the results weren’t that different. It lasted three good, strong infusions, but the notes were exactly the same. No real change.
My only real regret is that I didn’t have any original, unscented cooked pu-erh on hand to compare and contrast. No matter. I suppose I’ll make do with what I have in front of me – a can I can repeatedly sniff like glue.