Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What Makes a Good Pu-erh?

I'm no expert. In fact I've only been drinking Pu-erh since August 2007. My experience is limited to about two dozen varieties of pu-erh, sheng and shu alike. I rely heavily on reviews, either from merchants or consumers, as the main component of my purchasing. I also like to identify the origin of a tea, how old it is and how affordable it is. Also, knowing your supplier is very important. Of the few pu-erh distributors on the web that I've dealt with, I would say most are legitimate. However, merchants themselves have to find pu-erhs themselves. That is much harder because some Chinese manufacturers and distributors alter the appearance of pu-erh, increasing the quantity of false pu-erh on the market.

Why the good stuff?

My goal is to experience pu-erh in its entirity. Even with my limited experience I've noticed how variable pu-erh can be. "Indefinite character" seems to fit pu-erh very well. I think what really drives a tea drinker, and more so a pu-erh connoisseur, it that fundamental human curiosity to discover. There are so many teas, and so many pu-erhs on the market that it would certainly take a lifetime to experience even a small portion of what is available. Now why on earth would anyone want to waste time consuming a false or benign pu-erh which has little to offer? Counterfeit pu-erh is a reality, and I am thankful to have the few quality pu's that I do. Also, buying a cheap pu-erh for too much money can be a problem. Being informed is best tool.

So pu-erh gets better with age?

The most interesting spin on pu-erh it's aging factor. Both sheng's and shu's age well, though sheng's age longer and supposedly more noticeably.

I have tried eight year old shu, cha tou and small tuos, and find them all to be very smooth. Even a 2003 CNNP 7581 shu brick was incredibly gentle, having aged just five years. I have heard that every five years changes a pu-erh's character.

My sheng experience is limited to newer products. The oldest I've had is an '05 SFTM Banzhang mountain tea. It is good, but I believe aging will affect it significantly. Though aged tea is highly sought after, it is simply not affordable for every day tea drinking for the majority of the world's population. (It is said China's middle class is driving the pu-erh pu-erh market prices). In my opinion, buying young pu-erhs at a low price would make a great investment for the pu-erh drinker. Some esoteric folks feel that anything younger than 10 years old is sub-par. On a budget, this severely limits the ability to try younger, inexpensive types and the ability to start a collection of your own.

Young pu-erh can be consumed regularly if you don't want to age or collect it. It would be analogous to consuming a young red wine- it will taste very good, but just imagine the potential! My guess is one bottle of young red wine disappear faster than a 357 gram beeng for the same price.

Why are you hashing out the pu-erh "down-low"?

Pu-erh is a growing market- more so than ever! Some would say it's growing exponentially. There is some information available on pu-erh, usually vague or hidden on some forum from two years back. Or a background like on wickipedia or just little blips from sellers describing the tea as "earthy".

Pu-erh is getting more publicity and more awareness for many reasons. It is a health tonic (contains vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, xanthines) and tastes amazing to those who drink it. It is also a large part of ancient Chinese culture, and is in the midst of making a come back in to modern culture as of 2008. It is a healthy social event compared to alcohol, coffee, cigarettes or illicit materials. It also helps the body metabolize lipids (fats) and can be used as a detox drink.

So what really makes a good pu-erh?

If you can find a reliable pu-erh distributor and a well reviewed pu-erh, then choose something you can afford. Try both sheng and shu varieties to see which you prefer, unless you already know your preference. Analyze the tea (dry material, wet material and concoction) with your senses. Experiment with different brewing techniques and different water. Most of all, find out what works for you. These steps can help you obtain a good pu-erh which may yield the best possible results. Good pu-erh is subjective, so without too much more discussion I'm providing the following.

To quote from Puerh Tea Blog, while asking a seasoned tea head how to choose a tea...
"I no longer spent too much time on researching a tea.
If I find one I like and I can afford it, I will buy it.
After that, I would try to enjoy it as much as I could."

Monday, April 21, 2008

2007 Jingmai Mountain Spring Pu-erh Cake

2007 Jingmai Mountain Spring pu-erh tasting.
Manufacturer: Kunming Ruipinhao Tea Ind. Co.
Source: Pu-erh Shop

Price: $13.93/357 g, or about 4 cents a gram.

(I use seven grams per pot (150 cc), so about 28 cents per pot.)

My first impression is that the dry material of the cake has a promising appearance. The cake appears well preserved, not over compressed with blue/gray/green leaves decorating the surface. I managed to excavate some nice chunks without having to break too many leaves or hack at the cake.

(The dry leaves are laying on a finished bamboo tea breaking tray.)

My Gong Fu tea ceremony was conducted with my Yixing pot designated for sheng/raw/uncooked/green pu-erh.Gong Fu for me is one rinse to warm pot, one rinse to awaken leaves, five seconds, flash infusion, flash infusion, five seconds, then variable depending on first few infusions.

First Infusion was light, with a MILD after breathe taste. There was a very mild smokey taste, barely detectable. The only thing I could think about during this first infusion was
...walking through a Chinese jungle at dusk, shortly after a rain storm, following my nose to a warm cabin where a fire was going...
The second infusion has a more noticeable after breathe of freshness. Mild astrignecy was followed by a sweetness. The viscoscity felt good. There was no ugly bitterness, nothing sharp or overwhelming. This was not quite rounded tea yet, but you could sense with age it would mature. There are fruity/floral/melon notes floating around in the background. The mild smoky taste has gone away completely.

4 (infusions)

Third infusion was a bit stronger in that it was slighty darker amber/yellow. It also left a stronger after breathe than the previous infusion. Taste/smell of after breathe simply lingers and is quite enjoyable. Still somewhat subtle though.

The fourth infusion was darker, but about as strong. I let each cup cool just a bit, which allowed the tea to taste different, usually better. The after breathe lasted around 10 minutes even though it wasn't all that strong. I've had stronger tea before. Even though the after breathe is more pronounced in stronger teas, the intensity is higher, not always better for a young sheng.

I actually got around eight infusions, steeping about 1, 3, 5 minutes for the 6,7,8th infusions.

The spent leaves are beautiful. They are mostly large, intact arbor-like leaves. Some are more yellow, some your average medium green, and some darker, more oxidized looking leaves. The leaves felt strong and thick while I handled them. They were not fragile by any means. Some were fold in half the long way, and so I opened them up for imaging.

In summary, I am very excited about enjoying this tea again. Considering the whole leaves, the light and fresh after breathe, the numerous infusions without losing flavor, and the integrity of the cake as a whole, you get pu-erh that is good and will undoubtedly get better over time. This is as tasty of a young sheng as I've had, and I'm curious how the slight nuances will change over the months/years to come...