Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review Series Pu-erh 1: "Alpha" by Yunnan Sourcing

I am delighted to be a part of a Pu-erh tea tasting, hosted by Hobbes at The Half Dipper blog, with the leaf generously provided by Yunnan Sourcing. Yunnan Sourcing has been getting some very favorable attention of late as a helpful source for Pu-erh teas, which originate in this region of China. And if you haven't read Hobbes's limpid prose, please wander through his blog and enjoy yourselves.

[UPDATE: Hobbes posted about this pu-erh here, and it is called the Yunzhiyuan Ruicaoxiang "Yiwuzhidao Guafengzhai." Ironically, that was exactly what I was going to guess.]

A quick bit of background: I am not a pu-erh aficionado, but rather a passionate tea enthusiast, and so I cannot identify which year's vintage of which factory a pu-erh might be. My tea life has been spent steeped (so to speak) primarily in the Himalayan teas of Darjeeling, Nilgiri, Sikkim, and Nepal, and I discovered pu-erh only a couple years ago.

Now, as I spent time reading an heroic amount about the broad topic of pu-erh, I discovered that the "pu-erh boom" had just gone bust, and that a dismaying amount of counterfeit pu was floating around, muddying up the waters so much that a newbie like myself had very little chance of getting his hands on a verifiably decent bit of this leaf that I would be able to afford; and besides, I had no idea how to prepare it or what to expect. Because I did not want to drink low-quality pu-erh that would inhibit my ability to develop an informed palate, I stayed away.

Cut ahead to this last year, and I've now had several examples of pu-erh, which I consumed happily, knowing full well that I had no idea what I was doing, nor the quality of the leaf I was drinking. A fun (though not terribly educational) time was had by all, and my pu-erh adventures can be found here.

When Hobbes sent out an open invitation to be part of a pu-erh tasting, I jumped at the chance. At last, an opportunity presented itself to learn something in the presence of those vastly more knowledgeably than I. I anxiously awaited the package, and when one arrived (with return address in Chinese characters), I tore it open . . . and found that this is a blind tasting, and the bags are labeled, "Alpha," "Beta," . . . "Epsilon." In a way, this is a good thing, because it throws me back on my palate, my observation, and my sense of adventure.

I recently watched a video in which the proprietor of the "Wrong Fu Cha" blog made a pot of pu-erh in the Chaozhou gongfu style, which involved keeping the Yixing pot in a vessel of hot water to maintain temperature. You can watch the video here. I was glad to see tea preparation done in a way I could conceivably imitate, and so I did. The only thing the video does not show is how often it's necessary to empty out the big bowl as the water cools and needs to be replenished. When you're doing 6 or 8 or 10 or more steepings, be prepared to dump and refill any number of times.

Dry leaf: pretty well compressed, and the leaves came apart with a bit of effort. I didn't want to break the leaves, making the resultant brew more bitter, so I took my time with this, separating the leaves like pieces of a puzzle. The dry leaves are quite green (sheng, I believe), not black, so this is not a cooked pu-erh (shu), but rather one that is intended for long-term storage, perhaps? I would imagine so. They have a bit of silver, a bit of woody stem to it. The aroma is like blackberries, to my nose; and a bit like the oak smoke campfires I grew up with, when we vacationed in Michigan.

As longtime readers of this blog (both of me) know, I write fairly extensive tasting notes here, which I use to help me remember the experiences and make purchasing decisions. Do feel free to skip to the bottom, where you can find my OVERALL IMPRESSIONS. Kind of like skipping all the boring plot and character development and going straight to the epilogue, when skimming a book right before a test.

Rinse: 10s
I use a quick rinse to awaken the leaves, then pour off into my wenxianbei [aroma cup set] and fairness pitcher, and get everything ready for the real action to follow.

1st steeping: 15s
Lightly aromatic-- again, like the campfire aroma of the dry pu-erh leaves, and like blackberries and oak impressions. What a surprisingly light, rich flavor for a first steeping. I know green pu-erhs are reportedly quite bitter and harsh, but this is not like that at all. (First time, as I mentioned, too much leaf did lead to a bitter experience, but this time it's great.) This stuff is addictive. The berry and smoke notes are superseded by a roasted honey taste in the huigan, which is the sweet aftertaste that Hobbes has explained thoroughly in his blog. This cup of tea is a lovely, pure yellow-gold color, not the deep brownish-orange I have experienced with other pu-erhs of my acquaintance.

As a side note, sipping this reminds me a bit of the first time I had a high-quality Lapsang Souchong, produced in Dong Mu village, where this type of tea originated. While I had had LS before, I had never had the real deal, and the difference was telling. Here, too, the gulf between this beeng and the little tuochas I've had before is quite wide. The subtlety is pleasing, and I begin to understand what all the fuss is about.

And by the way, Hobbes, if you have braved my torpid prose and prolix description this far: Thank you again for your great advice on enjoying tea, which you wrote a couple months ago. I would by no means feel brave enough to present my thoughts about this pu-erh, much less one presented to me in a blind tasting like this, had you not written so encouragingly about simply enjoying the experience and not allowing other, more knowledgeable writers drive me into silence about the topic. While my gongfu might not be black belty enough to be informative to more experienced drinkers, perhaps people who have not drunk pu-erh might find this helpful, and it might encourage them to try this strange and surprising genre of tea.

2nd steeping: 15s
Still, the first impression is, "campfire." This is really a very specific sense memory, which comes from countless hours poking sticks into fires made primarily of oak hardwood, and cooking marshmallows, and being allowed to play outside after dark. In other words, an entirely pleasant memory evoked by the smooth, fruity woodiness of this tea. The flavor is quite consistent with the first steeping, though with a slightly more drying, acerbic quality and a warming in my stomach. I am told green pu-erh can be a bit rough on the stomach for those not accustomed, so I hope this isn't going to pose a problem. I would be interested to find out what Hobbes thinks of this, and how he thinks it will mature over time.

3rd steeping: 10s
The overall impression is this hardwood campfire smoke, with a lingering sweet vanilla and blackberry flavor hiding at the back of the throat. I'm delighted I had enough of this tea to try a second steeping, because this experience is rich, quite fun, and provides for a lot of surprises. Vanilla notes? Not what I expected. (Perhaps the vanilla is really how my senses translate the sweetness and smoothness, which is overlaid on top of the drying sharpness. Sweet, smooth, dry, sharp. I can see my description makes no sense whatsoever. As we said in high school, "I guess you had to be there.") The pu-erh has a really meaty mouthfeel, which coats my entire mouth and throat.

4th steeping: 13s
Denser minerality to the taste this time. Minerality is the word I'm using to describe the shift from a smoky flavor to something sharper, brighter. The woodiness is still there, but mostly to be found in my wenxianbei [aroma cup], which is a tiny cup that can be held up to the nose and sniffed. When smelling the aroma cup, the lighter, head-note smells seem to arrive first, to be followed by the middle and then lower notes. This has something to do with the rate at which the different catechins and flavinoids and whatnot (for tea has a very complex chemistry) are released into the atmosphere. Anyway, the greenness of the tea is more pronounced now, as the tea begins to hit its stride.

5th steeping: 15s
I've read that a proper pu flight doesn't really start until the fifth steeping. It's here that most of the storage aromas are gone, and the true character of the tea begins to be revealed. I've read that some tea drinkers will just toss the first four steepings as unworthy of attention, but I'd hate to miss out on any part of the experience. On the other hand, if a tea is 20 or 30 (or 60?!) steepings in duration, at that point you might as well skip to the good stuff. To me, this tastes of roasted honey, and a very high, light fruity note that seems to come up from behind, after the richer, darker note: like a flute and an oboe hanging in the air after the rest of the orchestra has fallen into silence.

I am really liking this.

6th steeping:
Decidedly lighter. The aroma is much harder to discern, but the flavor and the mouthfeel/texture is still quite bright. Again, I would probably describe this as having a metallic quality, which I'm using to try to convey a complexity and sharpness. Lovely flavor at the very back of my throat (necessary to slurp a bit to cause this experience to occur), of blackberries again, and woodsmoke, but now the sweet honey has receded. When my tastebuds are allowed to relax for a minute or two after sipping, a lovely perfume rises up in the throat, floral and delicately light. It's very easy to drink, very welcoming.

7th steeping: 17s
I wish, dear reader, you were here with me, because right now you'd be smelling the delicious aroma from the cup of pu-erh, which greets me upon each steeping. This no longer makes me think of a campfire, but rather a delicate brightness.

This tea can clearly go on a bit further, but I am going to suspend the review here because my stomach is starting to feel a touch tender. I'll update tomorrow, perhaps, if I have it in me to keep this steeping going later tonight. At any rate, what a lovely, delicate, complex tea this is. I have no skill to be able to tell you where it comes from, but I can say this is easily the best pu-erh I've ever drunk. I can't wait for the rest of these pu packages, so I can start to compare notes among them. Though it's evening, I feel energetic and relaxed from the tea. Perhaps it's Qi, the Chinese concept of the divine energy that flows to me from the tea; maybe it's a combination of theanine and caffeine. Either way, I feel great (except for mild upset of my stomach) and look forward to a good evening. Thank you again, Hobbes, for allowing me to be a part of this tea tasting.

Cheers, all!


Salsero said...

Did you also use the enormous amount of leaf that Brandon does in the video? ... and crush it us like that?

Unknown said...

I probably used a bit less leaf (because the first time I steeped the pu, it was just too strong for the size pot I used). And no, I didn't crush to break up the beeng, but I did very carefully separate the leaves. I wanted to take the time to avoid potential bitterness.

Marlena said...

Good for you, Steve, what a great experience! BTW I just reviewed a tea from your old neck of the woods - a really super Arya Estate FF. Someday I amy have the nerve to try pu-erh, my one experience was a "so what?" kind of thing.

ezorro said...

Hi Steve, GuaFengZhai is the best of the best from Yiwu, this place is really appreciated between Pu lovers, I personally visited some villages over there and have regular contact with people from there, its hard to tell without tasting what quality of tea you had, but maybe to the smokiness that comes from wood firing/roasting the leaves, sometimes quit an overdone by the villagers and beside smokines the liquid is full of small black particles, i encourage try more a more samples, to the stomach probs, 'young' Puerhs, the ones from gushu trees, are really a heavy stuff, heavy in terms of their richness, fullness, not good to drink it daily until the tea is aged a bit, they could be drinken for a long time, many steeps, I use these day about 2 grams of leaves only. Keep on trying and send me your address to facebook box to Peter Stanik and Ill send you some more samples. In a month time I will have arriving a smaller cargo of about 9 Puerhs from Yunnan, from 4 different local tea merchants so Ill keep you informed and make you Puerh quest 'colourful'. :)

Salsero said...

Well, I would certainly enjoy hearing more about tea from GuaFengZhai! I look forward to your follow up, Steve.

Unknown said...

Peter and Salsero:

I so much appreciate your comments here on the blog. It has been such a mad week (you have no idea), and I am looking forward to sitting down over a new pu-erh to learn from tonight. Hopefully, I'll have something useful to blog about this evening.

And Peter, I have sent you a message via Facebook, which I hope you have received.

And Salsero, I am glad we straightened out that little Facebook scammer issue. I hope you have solved the problem?


Salsero said...

I reported the incident to Facebook. Apparently it is called the "419 Scam." They have shut down my account while they investigate it.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear you felt a warming in your belly with this tea. It's probably because it's the higher-quality one of the bunch, as confirmed by many of the tasters. These experiences may be dictated by quality until you've grown acclimated to Pu-erh. I'm not sure if it's true that you "can't" drink a young, raw Pu-erh as your everyday tea. It's probably more like many people don't really want to do it. --Teaternity