NaNoTeaMo, Day 18: “The Making of Misty ‘Peat’ Puerh, Part 1”
In the Fall of 2014, I did a write-up about Misty Peak Teas, and a tea session I had with its head cheerleader, Nicholas Lozito, in his backyard. I had a lot of tea that day, and some of the thoughts swirling in my head were less than conventional. One of them occurred when I noticed this:
He had a giant bamboo platter of puerh leaves just . . . lying there.
I asked him what they were doing outside.
He replied with a shrug, “Oh, I just want to see what it does.”
He called it his “outside” puerh, and looking at it gave me an idea. One I vocalized. “Hey, do you think you can spare 200-grams of loose sheng?”
“For what?” he answered.
“I want to put it in a bourbon barrel.”
He gave me a look and a ‘far-out’ sorta nod, “That can be arranged.”
A few months later, prior to leaving for China, Nicholas kept his word. He left me a message saying that there was a gift for me at Tea Bar PDX. I picked it up within a half-hour of receiving that text.
The bag had a lot more than 200-grams of “outside tea” in there.
All I had to do was figure out the logistics of how I was going to pull it off. There were a few challenges this time: (1) My mico-barrel no longer smelled like bourbon; I had to re-season it. (2) I had to pick out the right bourbon that would match the flavor profile of the puerh. (3) I gave up drinking, so I had to rely on the smell of the bourbon to find a perfect match. (4) Money – I needed to wait until this endeavor was within my budget. And (5) – as far as I knew – I was the first to ever attempt barrel-aging a sheng (raw) puerh. Many attempts at barrel-aged cooked puerh had been done, but not a sheng.
Several months would go by before I revisited this challenge again. Nicholas even texted me, wondering how the experiment was going. I had to be honest and told him I hadn’t started it, yet.
By September of 2015, I finally mustered the gumption to give it a go. I was hanging out with a buddy from high school – Ph0tonix – and asked him if he had any budget-friendly bourbon recommendations. He told me that my best bet was a good well bourbon. I had no idea what that meant. It’d been close to nine months since I quit drinking; my knowledge-base was a little dusty.
At a board game session a few weeks later, another friend of mine, NinjaSpecs – a whiskey afficianado – mentioned he was making a trip to California to pick up some liquor. I asked him if he had any recommendations for a well bourbon, and/or if he could pick some up for me. I even offered to front him the money. He asked me what it was for (since I’d gone dry); I told him.
“So, you don’t plan on drinking it?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said.
“And you’re just going to put it in a barrel for a week?” he asked again.
“Yep,” I said.
“Then you’re just gonna put it back in the bottle.” He sounded confused.
“Yep,” I repeated.
“Well,” he pondered. “I’ll just buy the shit for you, and you can give it back to me – barrel-aged.”
We had a deal.
A couple of weeks later, I received my bourbon – Woodford Reserve. Two bottles.
I uncorked it and gave it a whiff. Damn . .. it smelled smoooooth. I sniffed it and the puerh side-by-side. At this time, the sheng was over a year old. It’d taken on notes of plum and cacao in the fragrance.
Oh yeah. You guys are gonna get along fine, I thought.
A few days went by, and I finally had time to jump the first hurdle; re-wetting the barrel. In the year since my last barrel-aged tea endeavor, the wood on the barrel had shrunk. Meaning, any liquid I poured into it would leak right through the cracks.
I consulted a tea pal – TJ Williams of World Tea Podcast – who had also done some micro-barreled teas of his own. He said that I had to submerge the barrel in water for about a day, and then let it dry for eight hours. That would allow enough time for the wood to re-expand.
I procured a bucket from The Dollar Tree, filled it with water, and plopped the barrel in.
Once a day had passed, I let it sit out while I was away at work. Upon returning that night, it seemed good and dry. I gave it a water test, just to be sure. No leakage. It was time to fill it with booze.
The barrel took roughly a liter and a half of liquor. To be on the safe side, though, I stuck the barrel back in the bucket, just in case there was residual leakage. The smell of gasoline permeated my room. The entire area around the bucket reeked of a distillery. In short, a very pleasantly peaty smell.
Another week went by, and I enlisted my brother’s help for the next bit. We had to drain the barrel, and put the booze back in the bottles. Following that, I was going to stuff the puerh leaves in. Luckily, my bro had a siphon of sorts for the job.
Next, I jammed the barrel with as many leaves as I could.
Their smells intermingled – plum danced with peat in their oak prison.
A few days passed before I peered in the barrel to see what was happening. My eyes widened. The leaves felt fresh, like they’d just been picked from trees. Whatever moisture was still left in the wood, the puerh leaves soaked it all up.
I texted my brother, and told him we needed to dump the leaves as soon as possible. The intent was to wait a full week, but they were ready now . . . –ish. Thursday of that week – six days after we barreled the leaves – we gave ‘em a flash-dry.
When I arrived at my brother’s house, he pulled out a cooking tray and wrapped it in tinfoil. We dumped the fresh-seeming leaves out and spread ‘em as thinly as possible.
They smelled quite strongly of booze.
We, then, stuck them in his stove, and did a pre-heat at 150F for fifteen minutes. It was around the same timeframe I gave barrel-aged black tea. I figured that was plenty of time to dry out the leaves without cooking away the flavor.
The timer dinged, and we removed the tray. The leaves still felt slightly wet. They went back in for another three-or-so minutes. Ding! again, and we took the tray out. I nodded and said they were dry.
My brother got out two clear cups, put some leaves in each, and we decided to test-drive this Misty “Peat” puerh – grandpa style.
The bourbon notes were front, center and strong. My brother even commented that it tasted like eggnog – the liquor-laced kind – and added that he felt a tingling on his tongue. I didn’t get any of that, but it sure tasted boozy.
I declared the experiment a success . . . but I was wrong.
So. Very. Wrong.
Continued in Part 2.