Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: sheng

Rethinking Tea Categories

Editor’s Note: This is merely a thought exercise by the author. The opinions reflected in the below narrative do not reflect the opinions of the teaware on staff . . . or this editor, for that matter.

Seriously, I just work here, guys.

A thought occurred to me over the years. No one has come to a clear consensus as to what the proper tea categories are. The general consensus is that there are six: Heicha (Dark Tea), Hong Cha (Black/Red Tea), Wulong, Green Tea, Yellow Tea, and White Tea. However, some say that yellow tea isn’t its own category (even though it clearly is). Others champion the stance that dark tea shouldn’t include sheng (raw) puerh. Others still believe puerh should be its own category. Hell, even some international trade laws only recognize two tea categories.

So, this got me thinking . . .

If I were the end-all/say-all authority on tea lexicography, how would I divvy up the different tea types? What would my breakdown look like? Well, in order to answer that question, I must breakdown (and in some cases, outright destroy) existing trends. This might over-complicate the issue, and over-simplify other things. But this is my write-up . . . and I’ll do what I want. So, here we go:

*dons helmet*

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Dark Tea from Thailand

Well over a year ago, Tony “World of Tea” Gebely posted a photo of a dark tea on Instagram.

It was an aged moacha (i.e. the rough stuff used to make puerh cakes) . . . but it was from – of all places – Thailand.

Used with permission by Tony Gebely.

Used with permission by Tony Gebely.

For obvious reasons, it grabbed my attention.

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A Different Dark Tea on Black Friday

NaNoTeaMo, Day 27: “A Different Dark Tea on Black Friday”

As I’m writing this, it’s the night of Black Friday. To most tea people with a pun gland, though, it’s Black Tea Friday. So, in honor of that, will I be talking about another unique black tea?

NOPE

Forget it, I’m going to talk about dark tea, instead. That’s right, heicha! And not from China, either. This time? We’re going to look at a little known tea growing country called Laos.

Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of Laos. Ever watch The King and I? That’s Laos!

The King and I

Well, Siam to the time period it was portraying and . . . y’know what? Bad example.

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Pa Sa Puerh and More Tea Pet Hijinx

NanoTeaMo, Day 14: “Pa Sa Puerh and More Tea Pet Hijinx”

As of tonight, I am two-thirds the way through my NaNoTeaMo goal of doing one tea blog a day for a month. Much to the joy of a few of you, and annoyance to the rest. This has mainly been about establishing some sense of writing discipline, which I’m going to need going forward on some future projects.

Given that this is officially the two-week mark of that self-imposed challenge, it seemed fitting that I celebrate with a special tea. And also – given that it’s still Fall – what better way to do that than with a sheng puerh from my favorite mountain – Nan Nuo Shan. One that I almost forgot about, no less.

wrapped cake

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An Autumn Puerh Pairing

NaNoTeaMo, Day 3: “An Autumn Puerh Pairing”

We are now Falls deep into Autumn, and every tea drinker is cuddling up to their favorite color-changing brew. Everyone has their favorite autumnal cuppa. For many, it’s masala chai. For others, it’s something equally burly or floral. It varies from person to person, but everyone has a favorite. Except me. Well . . . until recently.

Until . . . well . . . tonight, I hadn’t decided what my preferred Fall brew was. I think that’s changed. I’ve been on a big sheng puerh kick lately. And even when I’m not required to brew up a sheng, I find myself gravitating to it. For a month there, I thought Earl Grey would be the mainstay, but sheng took a surprise lead last month. It’s all Misty Peak Nick’s fault.

Two weeks into October, I received a sample of Misty Peak Teas’s Autumn 2015 loose sheng puerh. Seconds after receiving the package, I immediately went to brewing. Poor impulse control won out.

Misty night brew

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Old and Clean – A Pu-Erh Perplexion

Okay, learning time.

Everyone knows about black tea, green tea, oolong, and so on . . . but I’m sure there are some newbies passing by this article that don’t know what pu-erh is. Well, I’ll tell you, but I’ll keep it brief. In short, it’s heicha (dark tea). Or rather, tea that’s meant to be aged. The leaves are processed in such a way that they’re only “mostly dead”.

miraclemax

Meaning, they still go through an enzymatic change (i.e. fermentation) well after processing and pressing. Pu-erh, specifically refers to aged teas from Yunnan province, China. Like champagne, pu-erh is not pu-erh if it doesn’t hail from this province. All pu-erhs are dark teas, but not all dark teas are pu-erh. Got that? No?

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A Young Yiwu Pu-Erh Afternoon

morpheus

It’s an honest question.

For years, I was taught that, sure, a young sheng (raw) pu-erh could be good, but it had yet to reach its full potential. After all, pu-erh was meant to be aged – to mature over time. Particularly the raw variety. However, I’m starting to rethink my stance on that. Sometimes, just sometimes, a younger, just-plucked, newly-pressed pu-erh can stand up against its older beengcha brethren.

Two months ago, I received a text from Nick “Misty Peak Teas” Lozito. He had just returned from a sourcing trip to Mount Yiwu, Yunnan province, China, where his farming contact was. Nick direct sourced from one farmer, and one farmer only. All the products he carried were from one dude. I covered his outfit a few months ago. But I digress . . .

Nick practically said, “Dude! You’ve gotta try this autumn flush I got. It’s amazing.”

He was too busy to get together that week, what with a newborn son and all, but he dropped some off at Tea Bar – the local outfit that carried his sheng to serve. I made the trip out to North Portland to try it. And, boy, he wasn’t kidding.

tea bar

I wasn’t used to judging pu-erhs by their recent seasonal plucks. Usually, that was Darjeeling territory. Pu-erh is generally judged by the year it was plucked/pressed, not the month. But there was a definite difference between the spring 2014 Yiwu pu-erh and the autumn. I just needed to judge for myself a bit more thoroughly.

In the meantime, Misty Peak Teas was carving out a niche for itself in the online community. I was hearing rumblings about how good the stuff was from other fellow bloggers. Their wares were even receiving accolades on Steepster. To date, the 2014 cake was the highest rated pu-erh on the site. Impressive, given the competition.

Steepster

Alas, life got in the way, and I didn’t follow up with Nick for a more thorough tasting until . . . well . . . yesterday [at the time of this writing]. He cut out a section of his day in which to entertain my urge to drink more of the autumn tea.

When I pulled up to “Misty Peak HQ”, I was told to come around to the back. There he was on a green blanket, feeding his four-month-old, Vincenzo. It was far too adorable a sight not to snap.

nick and son

Then we got to drinking.

First, as a palate starter, Nick broke out a cake of his 2005. It was the one year from that farm I hadn’t tried yet. The leaves were large and lovely.

beeng

Brewed gongfu, the liquor was a deep brass, and I tasted straight stone fruit, earth, and ancient civilization. Is that a taste? Well, it is now.

2005

I was in a daze, and we had only just begun.

Next up, he offered up the autumn 2014 side-by-side with the spring.

2014s side by side

The spring pluck was fruitier, but the autumn was somehow sweeter – more mature. On a blind test, I couldn’t tell them apart, but the difference in maturity was there, if subtle. The autumn was just a shy bit better. It was like comparing two pieces of cheesecake based upon how many strawberries were topped on ‘em.

Further down the line, we compared two 2012s, binged on some pu-erh that’d been left outdoors to cure. (For the heck of it.) Mizuba Tea’s Lauren Danson also stopped by to join in the festivities for a quick minute or three. What was initially intended as, maybe, an hour’s tasting session turned into three.

After I-dunno-how-many cups of 2005, 2012, and 2014 teas, I was good and basted. Feeling the Universe and s**t. But it was high time to retire. Before I left, though, Nick brought out a really interesting sight to show off. A giant ball of pu-erh. No seriously.

big balls

Look at that thing. Apparently, the farmer plucked it the same month Nick’s son was born, and pressed the ball to the newborn’s exact weight. I held it. The sucker weighed about seven pounds – and change!

As I made my farewells, I made it a point to acquire a cake of the autumn 2014.

autmn 2014 beemg

Oh yeah . . . I was supposed to be devoting this entry to making a case for young pu-erh. Look, it’s a subjective thing. If you prefer the aged stuff, you’ll likely stick to the aged stuff. Young pu-erh tastes young. It’s like a green tea with lofty aspirations, or Luke Skywalker before raging against the second Death Star. All I wanted to show was, a great time could be had with the new as well as the old. And the less stuffy you are about either, the better.

Because . . . GIANT PU-ERH BALLS ARE AWESOME!

That is all.

Nan Nuo Revisited – Still My Favorite Mountain

Of all the tea blogs I’ve written, none have possessed the traction that my Nan Nuo Mountain coverage displayed. And I don’t mean in terms of viewership. (Let’s face it, what viewership?) But rather the enormity of vendors that specialize in single origin teas who’ve contacted me in its wake; I think the count is up to three? Point being, for that reason alone, it’s my new favorite post. Because of it, I wouldn’t have run into So-Han Fan.

Said wacky gent is the proprietor of West China Tea Company, which (I’m guessing) is a fairly new outfit. I’d never heard of it before, and I’ve been around. (Er…not like that.)

So-Han’s primary focus is – as the company name implies – teas from Western China, with a strong emphasis on Yunnan. He contacted me via my “normal” website, and mentioned that he carried two unique teas from Nan Nuo Shan (my favorite mountain, remember?). That and he also mentioned digging my tea fiction. Way to butter up the blogger, S-H. *heh*

Point being, I was more than excited to experience other teas from Nan Nuo, but when they arrived…there was a dilemma. I couldn’t tell the two apart. S-H had mentioned in the e-mail that I’d be able to identify them easily…but my blind eye-‘n-taste-testing skills weren’t that…uh…honed.

Both looked (and smelled) like loose sheng pu-erhs.

IMAG1627

Sure, one smelled grapier than the other, but I needed a bit more of a walkthrough with these. S-H gladly got back to me about the two teas. When he finally identified them, my mouth was agape.

One of them was a black tea.

Unroasted Yunnan Hong Cha

The process – as described to me – for making this tea was…confusing. As far as I know, the leaves don’t go through a standard quickening of the oxidation process. (I.e. No cooking, roasting, pan-frying, kill-greening, speed-drying, what-have-you.) Instead, the leaves are…uh…massaged every two-to-three hours after picking to hasten the drying/dying process. In other words, old school oxidation by way of hand.

As I mentioned above: When I first received this sample, it was hard to tell it apart from a regular loose sheng pu-erh. The only thing that differed was the color of the leaves themselves – ranging from green-brown to black. However, the aroma was indiscernible from a sheng, which probably can be attributed to its “raw”-ness.

For brewing, I decided to do as the West China Tea Co. website suggested, and went with a gongfu-ish prep. They recommended a pre-wash…but I always end up drinking the pre-wash anyway. So, three steeps to start – each at thirty-to-forty-seconds.

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The results were dark amber infusions with earthy-to-floral aromas. Nothing special was leaping out at me, yet. Then I took a sip. Holy whoah. It was like someone decided to see what would happen if a high altitude black tea made sweet-sweet love to a young sheng pu-erh. Flavors present were flowers, fruit, earth, sweetened wood, and…blanket.

Yes, blanket. This was one heckuva relaxing black tea. I just wanted to curl up with it, and talk about our future plans together.

Nan Nuo High Mountain Immortal Dew 2009 Loose Sheng Pu-Erh

Probably one of the most unique aged shengs I’ve come across. It was made in a small village called Duo Yi, at the summit of Nan Nuo.

Duo Yi Shu

Photo taken (and owned by) Villie Jokinen

No paved roads lead to the village, and many of the tea trees in the area range from 700-to-900 years old. This Nan Nuo sheng wasn’t commonly prepared for export, but rather used for everyday drinking for the Hani folks that prepared it.

The leaves were just as long and twisty as the Nan Nuo hong cha, but greener and wider. Plus, the scent they gave off was straight grapes. I’ve only ever encountered one other pu-erh that had that aromatic effect. Said smell also helped me tell the two teas apart.

In a typical gongfoolish fashion, I brewed about a tablespoon of the long leaves in a 6oz. gaiwan – using boiled water. Each infusion was roughly thirty seconds. To be honest, I wasn’t keeping accurate count.

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The result was three starter steeps of bright green-to-amber liquors wafting springtime scents of lemon and grapes. On taste, the grape lean continued even stronger. There was a winy note to the pu-erh, one that comes with at least five years of age. The sensation was like tasting a heated Riesling. In more oblique terms, it was like being fed grape juice that was pulverized by the feet of a goddess.

Nan Nuo pu-erhs still have no equal.

Favorite?

I have to be an indecisive schmuck again. Everyone’s a winner here. I’m so beyond ecstatic that I got to try such a rare black tea from the mountain, and even more stoked that there was a new style of Nan Nuo pu-erh I hadn’t tried yet. The only thing that’s settled is that Nan Nuo Shan is now on my tea-do vacation list.

Paved roads or no.

We don't need roads

Very Well, Give Him Tea Cake

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

I received an e-mail some two months back from Canton Tea Co. wondering if I had interest in reviewing a new sheng (raw) pu-erh. Far be it from me to refuse such an offer, I nodded (and typed) an emphatic, “Yes!” The only question would be where to put the review. I contribute to three different sites and keep my own blog for musings and unique teas. As I was pondering this, the tea arrived a short week after.

Canton Tea Co. described this as a sheng pu-erh made of “just-pressed” maocha (unfinished pu-erh leaves), and that it was privately commissioned by them from a small tea farm in Yunnan. That’s right: A custom-made pu-erh. I guess this was Canton’s way of saying: “We have a tea cake named after us, what are you doing with your life?”

Ah yes, the term “tea cake”, I almost forgot to get to that. For those in the pu-erh know, post-fermented and/or aged teas are often compressed into different shapes. These forms are almost always cake-shaped. “Beencha” (or “bingcha”, depending on your pinyin) literally means “tea cake”. Personally, I think the pressed pu-erhs look more like Frisbees…but I don’t think there’s a fancy Mandarin word for that (but I’m sure someone will prove me wrong).

But I digress.

While I was pondering where to put a write-up for this tea, I decided to take a sliver of it to work. I found most shengs could take a Western brew-up pretty well – even allowing three steeps. The flavor I expected was the usual rustic, earthy, and somewhat winy lean of raw pu-erhs past. That was not the case here. In fact, it was rather light, fruity and floral – kind of like un-pressed maocha, but not as brusque. Perhaps I should’ve read the fine print on Canton’s custom tea.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Photo Owned by Canton Tea Co.

Not only was it a sheng beengcha specially made for Canton Tea Co., it was also one of the youngest pu-erhs I’ve ever come across. The stuff was plucked, pressed and packed in the spring…of this year! Up to this point, the youngest sheng I had tried was at least three years old. That would explain the green tea-ish flutteriness I felt on the tongue. That settled the inner debate of where to put the write-up. Youngest pu-erh ever? Custom-commissioned? Yeah, that’s unique.

Now I had to give it a more thorough, worthwhile look-through. Canton also mentioned in the tea’s profile that the leaves were of the “Arbor” varietal – a wide-leafed cultivar often used for pu-erh. They were also labeled Grade 6 and above. I had absolutely no idea what that meant. What I did know was that the leaves looked like a sliver of tree bark in their pressed form – wonderfully sweet and floral tree bark.

Brewing instructions on the Canton site recommended a gongfu prep using a 3-4g chunk (a teaspoon) in 203F water and a first infusion of twenty seconds. They also mentioned that it could infuse up to six times. I already knew it could hold up to Western prep rather well, but I wanted to see how a gongfu go-ahead would fair. Instead of twenty seconds for the first steep, though, I went with thirty. I also followed that up with three more infusions – another at thirty seconds and the last two at forty.

First infusion (thirty seconds): The liquor brewed pale (but crisp) yellow with a wonderful aroma of tangerine blossoms – sweet and citrusy. It reminded me quite a bit of a white tea I had from the same varietal. The taste was smooth, lightly citrusy as well, and only mildly grassy on finish.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): A bit of a deeper yellow-gold liquor this time around, and the scent had more of a floral presence. Also in the aroma was a distinct feeling of “smoke” – not sure how that got there. The flavor began with a clean introduction that emboldened to a lemongrassy top note before trailing off pleasantly into Mao Jian green tea territory.

Third infusion (forty seconds): The liquor color hadn’t changed, but the smell was dominated by lemons and flowers – faintly, of course, but still there. Flavor-wise, it delivered a crisp smack of citrus, then smoothed out to a completely green tea-like palate delivery. Pu-erh? What pu-erh?

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): This hadn’t weakened in either color or scent; the yellows and lemongrassiness still reigned supreme. The taste was still crisp, and there was no change to the spry citrus mouth-feel. On the finish, I got some of the residual, pu-erh-ish mustiness.

Photo by Davis Doherty

Photo by Davis Doherty

Beyond the four I wrote about, this could’ve easily gone on for another three infusions. Any brewing beatdown I gave the leaves, it took with steeped stoicism. Much like a loose sheng pu-erh I wrote about last week. Canton Tea Co. was spot-on in their belief that this was a perfect introductory pu-erh for the uninitiated. It lacks some of the feeling of “old” that its mature cuppa compatriots possess. It’s the perfect gateway to the world of aged teas, and I bet it could age well on its own. If I had a pu-erh cellar – and if I believed I could live past fifty – I would experiment. You’ll just have to take my word (and theirs) for it in the meantime.

To purchase the 2011 Canton Tea Co Special Puerh, go HERE.

(Title “inspired” by Eddie Izzard, watch and laugh.)

Pwned by Purple Pu-Erh

I remember when I first tried pu-erh; I couldn’t stand it. The black muck someone pushed in front of me didn’t seem like tea. It had the consistency of thin oil and the smell of sardines. This wasn’t something I could fathom anyone drinking. I was even more surprised to learn that there were pu-erh enthusiasts, and that it could be aged like wine. Prices sometimes rose in the thousands. “That does it,” I said to myself. “That will be my snobbery capper.” The moment I started worrying about the age of my tea would be the moment I’d stop drinking it.

That changed in a matter of years.

Now that I was completely far gone in my pursuit of aged teas, most raw pu-erhs (and all cooked pu-erhs) made before 2009 were met with skepticism. It was the winy note produced by the older ones; for some reason the youngling Yunnans lacked it. Even with that unwritten rule established, I was still a sucker for something unique. Even if it was new.

In this case, not only was it young…but it was produced this year. That made it no older than most Long Jings (a spring-harvested green). Along with some Kenyan Purple Tea (which I loved), Butiki Teas also sent me a rare sheng (read: raw) pu-erh that was dubbed “Wild Purple Buds”. The tea trees for this sheng pu-erh grew at an elevation of 6,000 ft., and naturally possess a higher level of anthocyanin (a flavonoid), which gave the leaves their purplish hue. Unlike the new Kenyan strain that was tailored to produce more anthocyanin, the leaves from this Yunnan cultivar already had it. Likeliest of reasons for this naturally-occuring…uh…”purple”-ing might’ve been the UV radiation exposure due to the higher elevation.

According to Butiki, the leaves for this uniquely young pu-erh were harvested from ancient tea trees (Da Ye, perhaps?) by the Wa tribe. From what I read, there are only 350,000 Wa living in China. They are predominately a rural culture living out of bamboo houses, and they still practice a form of slash-and-burn agriculture. Historically they are known for two bits of infamy – headhunting and their involvement in the opium trade. Most reside along the border of Thailand and Myanmar.

I found this mountaineering tribe far too interesting for my own good. Trying a tea from a former opiate-fueled, headhunting culture? Yeah that screamed “Awesome!” (Not a politically correct thing to say, I know.) It was time to give this purple beast a brew-up.

The dried leaves weren’t that purple to the eye, but there was a semblance of their fresher days in the red-brown palette on display. If I squinted, I could make out a purple leaf piece or two. They were also prettier than their more aged kin, looking more like wild leaves than – say – compost. Like with the Kenyan Purple, there wasn’t much of an aroma to speak of. What I could discern – if I tried – was a mild, wilderness berry-ish scent with a tinge of leafy smokiness. Definitely a sheng pu-erh.

Butiki Teas’ brewing instructions recommended a water temp of up-to-212F and twenty different infusions at three seconds or more – 1 level teaspoon of leaves per cup. I honestly didn’t have that kind of time. The first infusion I went for would be three seconds, but the last two – for note-taking’s sake – would be at my usual thirty-to-forty seconds approach. I also middle-grounded the temperature at 200F.

First infusion (ten seconds…accidental): I meant to do this for only three seconds (per the instructions), but I was having technical difficulties with the camera. That shot the three-second mark up to ten seconds. What resulted was a white tea-ish, pale yellow liquor with a grapy/grassy nose. First sip tasted like a smoker Silver Needle.

Second infusion (thirty seconds): It was the same clear liquor but with a more of a juniper aroma. The taste was slightly smokier, and I could see what Bukiti meant about the presence of oak. Still very white tea-like, though. Was this really supposed to be a pu-erh?

Third infusion (thirty seconds): What the heck? The liquor was still clear, but the aroma…what a change! I detected hints of strawberry and vanilla. The flavor echoed this – fruit-filled, creamy and sweet. Trailing close behind was a peaty finish. Very strange.

Fourth infusion (forty seconds): As expected, no change in the color. However, the same could not be said for the aroma; it was like blueberry-scented white wine. Flavor, though? Okay, forget the blueberry. That damn strawberry cream spiel was still going strong. How was that happening with so clear a cup? I dunno…

I think this tea was trolling me.

Fifth infusion (forty seconds): Still zero change in color. The wet, spent leaves in the gaiwan smelled like boiled artichoke hearts. The liquor itself was now fully reminiscent of a strawberry-cream-flavored white tea. I should know, I’ve had ’em. Taste-wise, though, it possessed only a faint fruit presence, a nutty top note, and a wood-smoked leafy finish.

To conserve time while note-taking, I actually poured the remaining contents of each of the five infusions into one cup. Only when they were combined did they taste anything remotely like sheng pu-erh. Well, a pu-erh that’d been blended with whiskey-dipped peat moss.

I’d gone five rounds with this pu-erh, and it still had all its strength – taunting me with its deceptively clear liquid. I ran out of the time I allotted myself in reviewing it and decided upon an intermission. There was someplace I had to be. However…

When I returned, I intended to go all in with the same leaves – Texas Hold ‘Em-style – in one last cuppa cage match. This time I opted for a Western Assam approach; five-minute brew time, boiling water temp. That would surely kill it. If not, I was fresh out of ideas.

Sixth infusion (five minutes): FIGHT! The liquor was still clear-to-pale yellow. The aroma was almost straight leaf, only more prairie-like. It tasted like the lewd embrace between a lemon and a maple leaf. Not fair! Where was it getting its resilience?!

SEVENTH! infusion (lost track o’ time): Now it was showing signs of fading. The flavor had receded to something more akin to a Bai Mu Dan – nutty, lightly fruity, and somewhat earthy. I may have sipped its remaining life, but the leaves still looked up at me. Always taunting.

This was one tough sheng pu-erh. It even stood steadfast where most Assams would’ve waved a white [tea] flag. There was just no killing it. I had been owned, “pwned”, schooled, defeated, beaten and broken by a purple leaf. And the fight tasted fantastic.

To purchase Wild Purple Buds Pu-Erh from Butiki Teas, go HERE.

Addendum: The brewing instructions per the Butiki site says to use 1 level tablespoon, not teaspoon.

(For a definition of “pwned” – for ye n00bs – go HERE.)

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