Wednesday, May 13, 2009

REVIEW: 2001 Pu-erh, Green Hill Tea

My friend George Zhang, who lives in China ( sent me a 2001 pu-erh, for which I am very grateful tonight, because I'm depending on it to help me through a surprise all-night project. I don't know much more about this specific vintage of tea, but I'm looking forward to trying it out. George has been very generous, and I look forward to trying a new kind of pu-erh.

For those who haven't read my previous forays into pu, I'll tell you now that I'm a novice who is very keen to learn more. I'm becoming fairly aware of what is happening in my mouth, and I'm very good at following directions. So I'm following George's suggestions, which he wrote on the packet of pu-erh he sent.

The leaves look like a normal loose-leaf black tea's: small, brown-and-black twists. Dry, the leaves smell earthy, of course, but also of berries and fruit. I am creating a rather relaxed gong-faux setting for myself tonight. I don't have Chinese gongfu or Yixing, so my great-grandmother's porcelain Japanese teapot will have to do. I'm hoping for a bit of the Qi, or the energy, or what have you, to sustain me on what's turning out to be a late night. I will try to have steepings that range from 10s to 30s, in general, and just see what happens.


I rinsed twice for 20s each, with very hot water. This is to wash off any dust, and it helps to smooth out the flavor of the tea later. I am using reverse-osmosis Culligan water, which I have switched to from my normal Brita-filtered tap water, which I wasn't too happy with.

1st Steeping: 35s
My first steeping was about 35s long, water just off the boil. Pu-erh is drunk with lots of short steepings, which allow the different layers of flavor to be revealed as they develop. Longer steeps are certainly possible, but the short-steep method is one that most pu-erh connoisseurs enjoy the most.

From what I understand, it seems this is a cooked shu pu-erh, not a bitter green one. The cup is dark brown but perfectly transparent to the bottom of the cup. This first steeping is pretty restrained, which is pretty common with this type of tea. I detect an oaky nuttiness ("Oh, I'm detecting nuttiness"), and a very buttery-smooth, slightly dry mouthfeel, with a slight tickle or burn at the very back of my throat after I swallow. When I get toward the bottom of the white porcelain cup, I see the liquor really has a peach, almost pinkish tone to the color.

2nd Steeping: 20s
I'm sitting here, with my nose stuck in the cerulean blue pot, trying to think of how to describe this aroma. It is very mineral, but very forestlike-- like cedar, and like mushrooms, and like a gravel path. The taste of the tea is a bit more bitter than before, not quite as smooth. Definitely, this steeping has sharp edges to it. There's a rather pleasant heat, or burn, in the throat as it goes down.

3rd Steeping: 25s
On the third steeping, the liquor is still fairly dark brown, but it's getting lighter. The aroma in the cup is still very woodsy, and the leaves are a bright, spicy smell, but not as mineral as before. The aroma is a subtle, wine-like scent, very rich and complex. I am definitely starting to enjoy the smell more as we go along.


This is probably something that could exist on its own as a complete blog post, but I'm thinking about this in the middle of the tasting, waiting for the next cup to cool a bit, and trying to caffeinate myself into a long night of working.

I was reading The Leaf recently, and an article struck me-- I'll have to source it later, when I have the energy-- which talked extensively about reviewers who did not really know anything, and who were more interested in talking than in listening to others more wise than themselves. Well, naturally, this struck me as being about me, because I'm blogging. But I'm definitely trying to learn and digest what I'm learning, and I hope I do not pass myself off as anything other than what I am-- an enthusiast who is eager to know more.

At any rate, in the article, the writer mentioned how important it is to just stop and close the eyes, smelling and tasting the tea, rather than thinking of what I'm supposed to be writing about next, or how I'll describe this, or how to stay interesting to a reader, rather than simply being. This is probably the trap of any critic: being more in love with the act of critiquing than in the thing itself.

And here I am: People are kind enough to send me samples of their teas, and I am more than happy to write about my experiences, in hope that someone may be edified in some small way. And, of course, to chart my own course, so that at some point, I can go back to my own writing and move forward rather than simply go in circles. But in the middle of this, I may be missing some of the more rarefied heights of tea meditation, as I type at a laptop instead of sitting crosslegged in a Japanese garden somewhere. But nevertheless, I love what I do.
Finishing the third steeping, as it cools, I find the mouthfeel is lighter than before. I'm going to go and start my work, and I'll come up here and continue my review later, when I need my next shot of caffeine.

4th Steeping: 20s
The 2:27 a.m. steeping is substantially lighter in color, a transparent, dark amber-pink now. A new, high, bright taste is appearing now-- a little like buttered popcorn, oddly enough, though that description seems a bit misleading, because there is now a rather dry, clean mouthfeel, and no burn in the throat to speak of. So far, this is my favorite steeping, because the lightness and sharpness of the flavors really suit my palate.

5th Steeping: 25s
The tea's appearance is now that of a second-flush Darjeeling: light, transparent amber-pink, perfectly clear, very clean looking. Drunk hot, the tea has very little flavor to it that I can detect-- tastes like hot water. I'll let it cool and allow my palate to refresh, so I can hopefully get something from this. I look forward to starting to experience subtleties that would have been drowned out earlier.... And allowing the temp. to drop a bit, I am experiencing the return of a mineral quality to the flavor, very bright and distinct. That heavier, buttery, oaky flavor from earlier is just the faintest whiff, underneath the sharper dry, metallic taste I get now. If drunk while cool, this is not very appealing, so best to drink when moderately hot.

6th Steeping: 45s
I'd like to say, it's the middle of the night, and I have a lot of energy to complete my work. I have no idea how I'll feel in the morning, but right now I'm doing fine. The pu-ehr is working its magic, and I'm lucid but not jittery. Note to college students: Quit drinking coffee for all nighters-- which used to cause me GI distress and serious nervous tension-- and switch to drinking a pu flight instead.
I'm not entirely happy with the flavor of the tea at this point, because again it seems like rather mineral-tasting water when drunk very hot. Cooled down to Warm, the tea remembers itself a bit. The mouthfeel is rather watery at this point, though, so I think I'll hang it up and finish the tea flight.

The pu-erh seems to have a lot of Qi, which I believe is the term aficionados use to describe the energy in the tea, which is distinct from the effects that can be explained by caffeine alone. Thank you, George, for another great tea experience!