Sunday, April 12, 2009

REVIEW: Red Leaf Tea, Prosperity Cube Pu-erh

Review: Red Leaf Tea
Prosperity Cube Pu-erh

On Easter Sunday, after the family dinner, I convinced some of my guests to participate in a pu-erh flight-- by which I meant, a tea tasting in many parts, drinking that very strange animal, the pu-erh. I can't really call it a proper gong-fu session, because I don't have all the right equipment or training. I'd have to call it gong-faux, so to speak. But still, a lot of fun! Let's get started.


This is an enormous topic, but I will try to give a short outline here. Please use a search engine and type in, "pu-erh," and you will find a fairly overwhelming superabundance of information.

The teas that most of us are familiar with fall within three main categories: green, oolong, and black. These teas differ from one another by how much oxidation is allowed to take place in the leaves, transforming from the unoxidized white teas, all the way to the blackest Assams. The oxygen in the air reacts with the tea leaves, causing this transformation to occur.

However, the Chinese have a fourth category: pu-erh.

Pu-erh (or puerh, or pu'er, or other variations as the language is transliterated) is not defined by the amount of oxidation that occurs, but rather the fact that it undergoes fermentation, in much the same way that wines, cheeses, and beers do. In this process, a green tea from a specialized pu-erh tea tree (that is, Camellia sinensis sinensis plants that have been been bred on Chinese tea estates to have large leaves and a particularly favored flavor) is then pressed into a compressed brick, or disk, or tiny cube, or other various shapes. The compressed pu-erh tea leaves are then allowed to mature for a number of years, allowing microbes to transform the leaves into one of the most complex, perplexing, and fascinating culinary adventures one can experience.

Over time-- and the time can be short or very long-- the pu-erh beengs (disks) and tuo-cha (single-serving nuggets) are transformed, allowing one to brew amazingly layered, complex drinks. And as with wine, prized pu-erh vintages can go for astounding prices. The very best pu-erhs almost never leave the Chinese mainland, and are stored as investments by Chinese billionaires in special, humidor-like environments. During the '90s, there was a pu-erh bubble, which has since popped. During that period, the vintage pu-erhs' prices rose dramatically, making them beyond most people's ability to purchase. And, unfortunately, fake pu-erhs abounded, with young, poor, or substandard beengs being passed off as old, carefully stored pu-erhs. In consequence, much confusion abounds in the world of pu-erh. In fact, many collectors will only buy new disks of pu-erh, because (1) they are the only affordable kind; and (2) the old ones are so often faked, it's difficult to know what you're getting.

Young, green pu-erhs can be very bitter and challenging to drink. They have strong earthy tastes, and can be very harsh. However, over the years, if they are made of good materials and they're treated correctly, they can transform into truly extraordinary drinks that have driven true aficionados to pen such poetry as this:
Oh, 70s maocha. How do I love thee? Your long, chocolate-coloured leaves are coiled around unbroken, ossified stems. Absolutely no aroma of any kind is to be detected - but these are leaves that have drifted into deep slumber, and which awake with a powerful shicang [wet storehouse] aroma once rinsed.

(I really enjoy shicang pu'er.)

Pu-erh is served in traditional Chinese gong-fu style. The Chinese tea ceremony is not nearly as focused on social custom and the outer accouterments of the tea experience, as it is on the actual tea itself. And so it is very efficient. All that is needed is hot water, a gaiwan (lidded up), a pitcher, and some cups. And a whole lot of gong-fu (which is the same word as kung-fu). A good description is here:

I am very intrigued by pu-erh, but I have had very little experience with it, and I don't have all the proper equipment. When TeaViews let me have a tuo-cha (small, single-serving sized nugget) of pu-erh, I jumped at the chance, even with my inexperience. I went online and spent hours reading the proper way to steep pu-erh, and what to look for in the experience. So I decided to use the equipment I had and just try to figure it out as I went along. I'm sure a proper pu-erh master would recoil in shock and horror, but I don't know how else to learn except to try. Therefore, I'll go with my gong-faux preparation and do the best I can.

I am working with Red Leaf Tea's "Prosperity Cube Pu-erh Tea (2003)."

In appearance, it is a small, black cube perhaps an inch across, in a paper wrapper. The cube has the Chinese character for "Prosperity," which is embossed in the tea itself. According to the Web site, prosperity cubes are enjoyable gifts that invite the drinker to experience, well, prosperity. While I don't know if drinking a cup of tea will give me the desired prosperous life, I am certainly looking forward to an enjoyable experience.

The vintage is from 2003, which means it's had only a couple years to develop its flavor. The very best leaves are not really used for small cubes and tuo-cha, and it is pretty unlikely that, for under $4.00, I will be getting some tea that a connoisseur would be drooling over. That being said, I can still have a great time playing and learning.

UPDATE: On her Twitter feed, Gongfu Girl gives us the following:
GongfuGirl The "tuo" in "tuo cha" (沱茶) means "bowl or nest shaped" in Mandarin, so what would you call a tiny, square Pu-erh Cha (普洱茶)? Zhuan Cha (砖茶)?


One porcelain Japanese teapot, one cube pu-erh. I brought water up to the boil on the stove, and started, one fluid cup at a time. I timed each steeping pretty carefully, and designed the following flight schedule: 20s rinse, 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 1m, 2m, 3m, 4m, 5m. I took the following notes on the fly, as we were tasting the teas. My brother and his wife had to leave after the fifth steeping, and I completed the flight on my own. I am aware that the first four steepings are not pu-erh at its best, and that the fifth steeping is where the true flavors truly announce themselves. We'll see!

I rinsed the cube for 20s and used that water to clean out and warm up the tea bowls and sniffing cups for me, my brother, and his wife.

  • exotic and spicy at the back of the throat
  • smell is also very strongly spicy (forgive overuse of this word, but it will come up quite a lot in this review), after the initial wash woke up the leaves
  • hint of cherries? very complex flavor: earthy, exotic, very strong
  • my brother does not like the smell at all-- a bit too earthy for him at this point, so to speak

  • dark, black in color
  • much fuller body and mouthfeel
  • dry feeling in the mouth
  • bitter edge to the flavor

  • makes me slightly dizzy (as with every pu-erh experience I have)
  • taste of acid, ash, tobacco, sweet under the bitter
  • cherry fruitiness hiding in there somewhere
  • as with before, the scent seems exactly as strong and spicy as before. The scent of the wet leaves is wonderful, intoxicating, fascinating. Very enjoyable for all of us, including my brother!

  • extremely powerful smell in leaves, very sharp and bright
  • drink less strongly scented, like earth-- not too spicy
  • peppery, fruity undercurrent.
  • dry, but still rather smooth, not burning back of throat

  • still a very dark liquor
  • the scent of the leaves remains so strong
  • did I mention it smells spicy?
  • the flavor is surprisingly constant after all these steepings, but less earthy
  • the tea is drastically losing its strength, and starts to seem watery
1 min
  • slight metallic flavor developing
  • guests went home, so now it's must me and the pu-erh
2 min
  • lighter flavor
  • still consistent taste, though-- not very drastic change or development
  • color is approaching a peach-pink, not as dark
  • tastes great when coupled with silky chocolate

3 min
  • the flavor seems very consistent
  • rather sweet, honey
  • not nearly as astringent as in the second-fourth steepings
  • (Is it really correct to throw out the early steepings? I've enjoyed tasting them.)
  • The leaves are still amazingly fragrant
  • The tea seems now like a nicely light Indian tea, perhaps, with a bit of spice at the back of the throat. It's the scent of the leaves, more than the taste, that says to me, "This is not an Indian tea."

4 min
  • when drinking it quite hot: rather metallic, flavor falling flat
  • very slight burn in back of the throat
  • It doesn't seem at this point very worthwhile to keep steeping it, because the best flavor and scent seems behind me
  • still a long aftertaste, like hot metal, and like weeds
  • a taste reminiscent of hot, dry roses

5 min
  • (I made a fifth steeping, but neglected to take notes here. But as I remember it, the steeping was starting to get quite watery, and losing its interest for me.)

Well, that's how I approached the pu-erh flight. Drinking pu-erh is not something where you just toss off a cup and drink it on the fly. Lots of focus and lots of good conversation with wonderful people made it fun.

I realize I do not have the breadth of experience to say whether this is a high-quality pu-erh, but I can definitely say it is worth spending time on this type of tea. It's really not like any other type of tea, and it is wonderful for people who, like me, love exotic scents and complex, layered flavors. I do like how this Prosperity Cube allowed me to share an intriguing tea experience with several people for several hours, all for less than $4.00. And it definitely makes me want to experience it a lot more.