Investigating a Mystery Puerh March 03 2014
My Chinese relatives have a decent amount of puerh squirreled away in different storage areas in Kunming. Most of it has been given to them as gifts over the years and then stored. I was going through the stacks when 2 cakes caught my eye. They were both identical and equally nondescript. The packaging was simple, but beautiful. White paper wrappers, smartly folded, with a red stamp on the front. I appreciate simplicity in design, it pleases my eye. These cakes appealed to me. However they are so simple that there is no way to discern what they actually are. The red stamp was just faded enough to make it difficult to discern exactly which characters are represented. I was told they've been stored approaching 10 years, but that's all that was remembered about them. Those were my only clues. I decided to take some time with this puerh and see what it had to offer.
The aroma of the cakes was strong and was easily noticeable through the paper wrapper. It is an inviting aroma that reminds me of a Xiaguan sheng puerh. The aroma alone told me it was a sheng puerh. Opening the wrapper only enforced that conclusion. The leaves are a prefect mixture of varying shades of green. I love the sight of an untouched round bing cake of sheng puerh. There's something peaceful about the symmetry composed of leaves whose position was chosen by the random compressing force of a heavy stone mold. No identifying markers were to be found anywhere else on the wrapper. There was no factory label pressed into the leaves. The cake was loosely compressed and I removed a few grams of leaf without too much effort. Since there was no factory label and the leaves were loose compressed implying manual labor one could assume that these were special cakes part of a limited number done with intentional care.
The leaves are medium sized with some stems. The aroma of the dry leaves could be described as spicy. Astringency in the aroma is noticeable. Barnyard would be an adequate word to describe the aroma. I like to appreciate each stage of brewing puerh. Especially when I am working with new leaves or with leaves of an unknown origin such as these. I smell and observe the leaves at each stage. I use a gaiwan to get a clear impression of the flavor of the tea. I much prefer brewing in a Yixing pot because it makes everything taste better. That's also the problem. If you taste a good tea was it from the teapot or was it from the quality leaves? So the gaiwan it is. After the gaiwan has been warmed with boiling water and the water poured off I add the dry leaves and cover the gaiwan. I let them sit in this hot, humid environment for a minute or two. When you lift the lid the aroma is strong and will most often contain an enhanced version of the dry aroma. The aroma is loud and can overpower the more quiet notes present in the dry aroma. The dry aroma is important and can present aromas that will be lost at this and later stages. The warm aroma of these leaves again presented the spiciness that I noticed before. It's very similar to a Xiaguan 8653. I did a quick wash and left the leaves to open up for a couple minutes. The wet aroma seemed less strong than the warm aroma and that surprised me. It was more delicate and it smelled really nice. There was a hint of white raisins.
Kunming is at the relatively high altitude of 6,234 ft (1,900 meters). That's higher than Denver, Colorado. Because of this altitude water boils at just under 201°F (93.7°C). I have a ceramic lined electric teapot that I have been using here. It's fancy and has an indicator to reveal the temperature as well as a flower pattern on the outside that changes color with heat. It's far too fancy for my simple needs, but it does the job nicely. I brew to 94°C and then let it cool down for a minute. The first brew was for just 6 seconds. The color of the liquor was a golden apple juice color. The flavor introduced a quick and strong astringency with no bitterness followed by a lingering sweetness. The mouthfeel was thick, smooth, and pleasant. The intensity of the astringency was a surprise however. It was like a black hole in the back of your mouth that was sucking your tongue and cheeks in. Then, as fast as it came, it went away and left a sweetness.
The second brew was similar, but by the third there was a noticeable increase in sweetness. Some flavors began to build up in the back of the throat. When you clear your throat you can taste the tea again. The 4th brew started bringing some Cha Qi energy. I began to feel it on my face and top of my head. It was strong and I started feeling light headed. There is minimal bitterness and astringency at this point. The aftertaste really sticks with you. We let a cup cool and tasting it revealed a healthy bitterness. By the 6th brew the sweetness came straight away and brought with it some flavors of fruit. The mouthfeel is still thick and there was just a hint of astringency and bitterness.
I took the time to inspect some of the leaves. Some were between 2 and 3 inches long. There were some bud and leaves together which is always a pleasant site. The leaves were pretty thin and moderately transparent. This might be an indicator of a puerh sourced from higher altitude trees. I kept brewing this tea well into the teens. I lost count. It was a nice tea and provided a pleasant experience to the evening. I'll probably never know the exact details of this puerh, but I did like drinking it. I asked my wife's grandfather his opinion and perspective on the tea and the packaging hoping to glean from some of his aged Yunnan wisdom. He looked everything over with a close eye and then said "Who cares where it came from? If you like drinking it nothing else matters." Then he went back to watching TV. Truer words...
After I finished writing this Lamu and I did a little more research and figured out what each of the characters meant. The left two are 古茶 (Gu Cha) which means ancient tree. The right two were harder because the bottom was faded so much. We determined it to be 邦崴 (Bang Wei). Bang Wei is an area in southern Yunnan near the border of Burma/Myanmar. This is a high altitude growing area (more than a mile high) with a large number of ancient tea trees. There is one tree in the Bang Wei village that is over a thousand years old. We're heading to Xishuangbanna tomorrow. Maybe we'll make a stop in Bang Wei Village.
All images © Crimson Lotus Tea 2014