Today I am tasting Δ (Delta), the fourth of five in Hobbes's pu-erh tasting series. As with the rest of the series, I am imitating the video I found on the Wrong Fu Cha Web site, in which a bowl is filled with hot water, and the teapot is brewed inside it, helping maintain high temperature throughout the steeping process. I don't do this because I am definitively saying this is the best way to do gongfu, but rather because I found the video to be engaging and fun-looking, so off I went. The results have been enjoyable, and I hope for the best. I'm writing this instead of sleeping, using tea to get me through a very long night of work. Sometimes, it's better to power through than to sleep. I hope this is one of those times.
And my standard disclaimer: I am not a pu-erh aficionado, and so if you're here expecting an expert's eye overlooking the leaf, wringing from it the secrets of its making, you're in the wrong place. However, if you're new to this type of tea, as I am, perhaps this will convince you to search out some pu-erh of your own and give it a whirl.
THE SHORT VERSION
I drank this tea over the course of two days, with something like a dozen or so short steeps, ranging from about 10s to up to several minutes. The tea provided me with plenty of energy to get through a particularly difficult set of deadlines I faced. The pu-erh itself had a pleasant tobacco shop aroma, with a flavor that changed over time: starting a touch bitter, moving into a sweetly burnt-caramel sensation, and with quite a bit of complexity. If you have not tried pu-erh, or the Chinese way of making deconstructing a pot of tea by breaking it down into many short steeps, I would encourage you to try. For coffee drinkers, I would think pu-erh would provide you with something you could get your tastebuds around, so to speak: lots of solidity and "oomph," and with quite a bit of buoyancy in mood.
THE LONG VERSION
What follows are my detailed tasting notes, which you don't need to read unless you have quite the attention span. I am learning as I go, and this helps me track my experience for future buying decisions (and for general knowledge). Beyond Here Be Dragons and Unduly Long Descriptions of Brown Leaf Juice.
Quick rinse of my new zisha pot, which I picked up during Bret's sale on his Web site, Tea Goober. Bret, thank you for the lovely pot. After the rinse, the leaves take on a rich, darkly tobacco scent, which promises much loveliness.
Steeping 1: 10s
A touch bitter the first cup, so probably a 5s steeping would have served me better for this first steeping. HOWEVER, the second cup of the first steeping (even at this early stage) starts to show me the waking complexity of this cup. Michael Coffey would rebuke me for trying to put this into words, but I want to convey how interesting this pu is to me: it's got a brilliant flavor, but there are so many layers of flavor that reward me when I close my eyes to sip.
The aroma reminds me of the Iwan Ries tobacco my Grandpa Allison used to smoke in his home in Effingham, Illinois. When I'd visit, his immaculate house always carried this sweet-tobacco scent, which I associate with his pipe collection. He never smoked around me (on account of the asthma I suffered under as a kid), but the sweetness of this leaf became one of my Favorite Things. I'd sniff around his pipes and the pouches of leaf he would have on his pipe stand, the wood of which was redolent of tobacco in and of itself. Please don't ask me which specific Iwan Ries tobacco he would smoke, because my memory doesn't carry so far. Strange, how drinking Chinese tea can make me miss my Grandfather.
While I was writing the above, I was struck by the huigan, which is the Chinese term for the sweet aftertaste that rises up in the throat, retronasally. In this case, it's light and compelling, very enjoyable.
Steeping 2: 12s
In spite of my desire to pop that tea out quickly, I just couldn't move enough. All the descriptions of gongfu cha on the Web sites fail to mention how hot everything is, and how fragile. Tea pot burning fingers! Do not drop tea pot, which you just bought. Pour out gently, even while fingers are uncomfortably hot. Suddenly, 5 seconds becomes 12. Chinese people must have fingers made of titanium, to be able to withstand all this hot water. The aroma rising from my wenxianbei (aroma cup) is like caramel, or burnt sugar, and sweet cotton candy. Which are all kind of the same thing, I realize. There's a rich mouthfeel that accompanies that bitterness-- which, naturally, would have been avoided with a slightly shorter steep. So sue me. Happily, I don't mind a touch of bitterness in my tea, though I know it's not truly optimal. As before, the second cup (and subsequent) are not nearly as bitter as at first, so either I'm acclimating to the bitterness, or there's some process in the fairness cup that is mellowing the flavor. My enjoyment rests primarily in the aftertaste, which is complex and lovely, and keeps opening up as the seconds tick.
Steeping 3: 12s
I just cannot pour fast enough, and 12 seconds seems to be about the amount of time it takes me to get the hot kettle back to the stove and then be able to pour off the tea. I do not have a tableside electric kettle, nor a charcoal brazier of the type favored by Imen Shan at Tea Habitat. Nevertheless, I soldier on.
Here, the tea is taking on a much richer aspect in both mouthfeel and distinctiveness of flavor. I wish someone were here to taste this with me, but it's midnight, and I'm trying to energize to work through until morning. There's tobacco, and a tingly mouthfeel I associate with some type of menthol. The orange liquor has remained quite constant. There's a drying aspect to the mouthfeel that has me wishing for a tall glass of ice water.
Steeping 4: 10s
Ah, I'm in the zone, getting in a shorter steep, at last. I begin to understand the wisdom of this type of steeping method. By keeping the pot submerged in quite hot water, it allows the leaves to stay at a nicely warm temperature, no matter how long (within reason) I take between steeps. It probably wouldn't matter as much if I were in of a larger party, were the tea flowed more quickly. But by myself, I think it helps.
At this point, there is a richer sweetness developing, which I find surprising. I've gotten used to the flavor, but now as the bitterness recedes, these other flavors appear. Seriously, lovely, and the best steeping yet. Tobacco is less pronounced, and other complexities rise up.
Steeping 5: 10s
Sigh. I need to get to work, as midnight has arrived. While I waited for the water to heat this last time, I read through accounts of sea serpents (click the map picture above), with lots of amusing and fascinating images of sea monsters, as drawn by cartographers and artists a couple centuries past.
And what does that have to do with tea? Well, tea has water in it. And tea came by ships. And... well, nothing, really. Anyway, the pu-erh: The tobacco flavor has taken on a sharper aspect now, with a smokier character, yet with notes of fruit, like apple or melon, floating on top of the heavier aroma. Very lovely.
I'll continue this journal as I go, in between bouts of work, which I expect to be doing throughout the night. I hope the Qi, or the caffeine+theanine, will help me stay alert and focused.
Steeping 6: 15s
Still going strong, with a beautiful aroma that drifts from the fairness pitcher as I work. A slightly sour honey flavor, with a kind of hay overtone is evident. Really nice.
Steepings 7 through 12 (or so): various lengths
I really rather do like this pu-erh, so I kept it going on into the next day. Perhaps at its 12th steeping or so, I moved on. The tea provided me with the energy to get through the deadlines I needed to finish, and then some. The pu's flavor and aroma remained pretty steady, without much variation after about the 7th steeping.