Tea Reviews and How to Find the Best

Scouring the Web for the Best Tea Reviews

What do You Want for Dinner?

I often see new tea drinkers show up to online forums and ask, “What should I buy from ____?”, seemingly not taking into account that the most important factor in the answer to this question is who will be providing the answer. I am as guilty of this as anybody. With all matter of purchases I rely on online reviews and research to figure out what’s what. The challenge for tea drinkers is that the online tea review landscape is a bit difficult to navigate due to an abundance of conflicting information and opinions. Finding a useful tea review can be a monumental task, especially when you consider the varying preferences of tea reviewers.

On a recent visit to America I met with a couple of different groups of friends, all of whom have very different culinary tastes. A few of them are what you might call meat and potatoes type eaters, where as others prefer to try the new Ethiopian restaurant down the street. If you asked the meat and potatoes group where to eat, the answer will invariably involve a restaurant where the greenest item on the menu is the parsley garnish, trailed in second place by the mint chocolate chip ice cream. This isn’t uncommon in  Midwestern townships that consist of one church, three bars, and one supper club.

For the uninitiated, supper clubs are a relic of the past that still exist in abundance in Midwestern America. A typical menu consists of steak, poultry, and seafood, all served with freshly baked rolls and a salad bar (iceberg lettuce, three types of potato salad). Supper clubs usually consider the olive in your happy-hour drink to be green enough to count as vegetable serving. They might also offer steamed carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower, as a side-dish. However, this never gets ordered because french fries are a more important part of a balanced diet. In the past I made the mistake of asking the meat and potatoes friends to recommend the best dinner haunts. Now, this is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good bi-annual supper club trip, but I do prefer vegetables and variety in my eating experiences.

There in lies the most oft overlooked point when asking for advice; considering the preferences of the person behind the recommendation is as important as considering the recommendation itself.

Tea Flowers
Tea flowers from Autumn, Yunnan

Quick Case Study from Reddit’s /r/scotch

For the (second time) uninitiated, /r/scotch is a lovely online community on Reddit where users enthusiastically review their whiskys for the world to see. Other users like me mostly lurk and browse reviews. In a recent thread, titled “What is the worst Scotch you ever tasted” there were over 300 comments in a single day from users declaring their hatred for various malts. The curious (or predictable) thing about the thread was that the comment section reads like this:

“Oh man, I hate _______.”

“You hated _____? It’s my favorite daily drinker!”

Now, keep in mind, the prompt was the worst you ever tasted, but despite the strong language there are people on both sides of the preference aisle. Users who are (mostly) experienced whisky drinkers both decrying and praising the exact same bottles. I had to jump in and defend Tobermory 10, which I think is a perfectly fine malt in its price range, although a little on the stank side of the flavor spectrum. The point is, several people would place that whisky in dreaded worst ever column, where as I think it is a solid whisky.

One man’s worst ever, another man’s treasure.

Whisky and Tea
A post tea session whisky pic. I don’t think anybody listed Springbank 10 as a worst ever

How to Seek the Right Advice

The variance in opinions might be daunting, but all is not lost when looking through online tea reviews. There are a few key points that can improve your chances of finding helpful information.

  • Seek out reviewers who have a similar palate. If you can find a review that you agree with from an online user or a blog it can act as a bellwether for compatibility
  • Seek out reviews from people with a similar level of experience. Reading reviews from someone with decades of tea drinking experience when you are brand new to tea might not be as helpful as finding a reviewer who is also newer to tea
  • Take reviews with a grain of salt. One person might love a tea that you dislike, or vice versa (See: Tobermory 10)
  • In order to limit a reviews effect on your own thoughts, attempt some blind taste tests and gauge your own thoughts more accurately
  • If possible, try teas before reading reviews rather that after. To the point above, the best way to find your own preferences is through unbiased tea drinking. You might be surprised which teas are most compatible with your taste
  • Seek out reliable sources. Easier said than done, as the internet is full of boisterous voices who claim expertise with very little knowledge. (Not a problem unique to tea, but particularly prevalent in the Puer world) The best way to avoid being fooled is to rely on your own preferences. Nobody knows what you enjoy better than you

The last point deserves repeating: Follow your own body. If a tea makes you feel good and the price is right, nobody’s review ought to be able to take that way. On the flip side of the coin, if everyone is praising a tea and you aren’t feeling it, don’t follow the crowd. Reviews can be a great help when searching out all sorts of products online, but remember that judging for yourself should be the final word.

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Puer Jianghu Wild West Urban Chic

Puer Tea, Urban Chic, and the Wild West

Welcome to the Jianghu

Puer tea and its authenticity are in a constant state of negotiation. Visit any tea forum or crowded tea table and debates echo throughout. Opinions like, “That is not Puer tea,” and “This is Puer tea,” are declared with such supreme confidence that you’d think the participants were discussing the blueness of the sky or warmth of the sun. Yet, despite the loud voices and self assured declarations, only one fact about Puer tea remains clear; nothing is clear. Author Jinghong Zhang bears witness to this tussle for authentic truth in her book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic.

Before I delve into Zhang’s study on Puer, which should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the subject of Puer tea, I must first come clean about some of my personal bias. After attempting to read certain texts about Puer in the past(which shall remain nameless, so I don’t begin torching bridges), I could rarely read past the second chapter before my gag reflexes kicked in. Some books were ego driven expressions of tea mastery that were more masturbatory autobiography than Puer book. Others were harrowing, overblown tales of adventure and discovery of uncharted worlds that would make Marco Polo blush. And in some texts, nearly every photo features an elderly villager in traditional garb, with the information skewed towards selling the idea of fabled “1,000 year old trees” as a giant advertisement, rather than serving as a tool for learning.

 

Zhang manages to escape these common trappings by utilizing her perspective as an mindful observer. She carries no banner and pledges allegiance to none. She is just another tea drinker wandering the jianghu.

Puer tea tree
An old arbor tree in Hekai area from Fall of 2014

Puer Tea and the Wild West

What is jianghu you ask? Great, glad you did. Jianghu is a complex concept which can briefly be described as a place “located between utopia and reality” where one can “achieve romantic dreams, but chaos and risks still remain.” Popular in early Chinese martial arts fiction, jianghu referred to a world where Chinese knight-errants would go beyond the reach of their government and compete in kungfu competitions with others in the jianghu. The matching of kungfu skills was “a simple and perfect resolution for all kinds of problems: good or evil, right or wrong.” For my Western readers, the closest concept that relates to jianghu in Western culture is the American Wild West. Just replace the kungfu with gunslinging at sundown and it fits well enough. A lawless place, where dreams and happiness can be realized, but where there are risks and danger in a loosely bound world which is chaotic and evolving. It is a field of actors, the good, the bad, and the ugly, vying for dominance. As Zhang puts it, “The route to discovering authentic Puer tea is often full of risk and competition.” And that, is where we enter the Puer tea jianghu.

Aged Puer tea and the Wild West
Aged raw Puer tea being poured into a glass

Now, keep in mind, the above quotes are laid out around Page 26. Usually by this point in reading a Puer book I am grabbing the nearest trash bin so I can vomit. Not with Zhang. She begins at the outset by setting up the scene in the theater; describing the players but not giving a monologue herself. One key component in the jianghu is that, “the essence of society is based on the presence of various groups or clans whose disciplines are in debate and cannot be tolerated by one another,” and each group has its “own code of conduct … [and] own language and wisdom.” Then she lists the clans, with which we Puer drinkers are all familiar. The ripe Puer clan. The raw Puer clan. The dry storage clan. The humid/traditional storage clan. The Yiwu flavor clan. The Menghai flavor clan. The aged tea clan. The gushu [old arbor] clan. The young tea clan. We can surmise the entirety of the Puer jianghu by noting of the clans, “Each declares itself the most authentic and does not tolerate the other.” With this sentence, I knew Zhang’s tome would set itself apart from the pack. She wasn’t carrying a clan banner, just reporting on the skirmish like a journalist above the battlefield.

Puer tea
Pouring young raw Puer tea into a teacup

Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic is a wealth of valuable information, both historical and anecdotal. Details of Zhang’s own visits in various areas of Yunnan. Varied perspectives from the different clans in Yunnan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere. And a tale about a large “in real life” tea tasting with members of a Chinese online tea forum that had me laughing out loud as I compared it to my own comical interactions on Western tea forums (hint: same shit, different pile). Zhang bravely decides not to take stances, but rather offers a myriad of vantage points for the reader to come to their own conclusions about a range of topics, whether it be old arbor Puer tea or the identity of Puer tea on the whole.

 

Jinghong Zhang has restored some of my faith in the possibilities of Puer literature. That it need not be fierce kungfu battles and egotistical posturing. That there is indeed hope for the negotiation of authenticity beyond the “all of my tea is from organic fair trade 1,000 year old trees in the most remote villages, all hand processed by elderly folks missing teeth” style of marketing. That the misinformation and lack of accurate representation is not hopeless. That there is a discussion to be had and gray area to be traversed. And even at the end of that discussion, perhaps the actors in the Puer Wild West can end with a handshake and a shot of Four Roses, instead of a gunfight at sundown.

Author Jinghong Zhang is a lecturer at Yunnan University and a postdoctoral fellow at Australian National University. Her book Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic can be purchased from the University of Washington Press.

For additional information, check these links on identifying fake Puer tea and defining Puer tea. And as always, if you are interested in purchasing curated Puer tea.

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Gua Feng Zhai Puerh Tea

And Never Say Always, 2008 Guafengzhai

Guafengzhai Puer Tea and Managing Expectations

Anyone who has talked puer with me knows that I am a Guafengzhai fan boy. Not quite to the level of Beiber fever screaming and hysterics, but i play the album often. Guafengzhai is an area far East of Yiwu, on the border with Laos. It is a village of Yao minority people surrounded by mountain jungles, with three main tea picking areas; Chaping, Baishahe, and Chawangshu. In addition to those areas, which in my fan boy opinion are some of the best puer areas anywhere, they also have some younger plantation teas. This 2008 Guafengzhai is one of those super young plantation teas – I believe one of the first years they made xiaoshu [little tree] tea using local material, or this is how it was disclosed to me from the source.

Chawangshu
The road to Chawangshu, taken by yours truly in Spring 2013

Being a Belieber in Guafengzhai, before it even comes on stage, I am lost in fantasies of our future together. How it will slowly step down off the stage and press through the crowd, gaze fixed on me. Motioning for the security guards to step aside and pushing through the throngs of other desperate eager puer fanboys. “Come to me. We were meant for each other,” I mouth to the Guafengzhai. It winks at me and picks me up in its long stemmed arms. Or at least, these were my expectations for the session.

We all continually relearn the same lessons in life. My lesson today? Expectation is the precursor to disappointment. Desire the source of all pain. Did the Buddha ever have plantation Guafengzhai?

Plantation Teas and Thinness

Without getting into a bunch of sticky and dangerous talk about the difference between gushu [old arbor] and xiaoshu [little tree, plantation] teas, let me preface by saying there are exceptions to most rules. If you want to talk about stem size. Or veins. Or leaf thickness. Or depth of flavor. Or thinness. Or Body. Or _____. There is almost always an exception. If anyone wants to write a definitive “Gushu is always ______”  list, be my damn guest. I am not poking that hornets’ nest.

Guafengzhai Puerh Tea
Dry Leaves, showing a few years of age

What I will say is that plantation teas generally have less body and staying power, meaning that they are thin in the mouth and die out after a shorter number of steeps. These two factors are what made this session fall short.

The good points, on the first rinse this tea was deeply fragrant. Low purple fruit in the gaiwan, very sweet in the cup.

GFZ Puer
Thin soup

In the third steep two strange things happened. First, a strong smell of Stilton cheese on the leaves – which I have no explanation for, especially considering this tea was dry stored and blue cheese sharpness usually shows up with wet stored teas that have a bit of mold. Second, there was an abrupt and intense astringency. Also, not something I can explain, as I rarely associate Guafengzhai with astringency. The astringency quickly passed however, and was gone on the next steep.

Guafengzhai Puer Tea
Spent leaves

Later in the session ,around the fifth steep, the tea drifted off into thin oblivion, with nothing left to offer. So, there I stood, having the painful realization that my expectations were too high. I did a couple of oversteeps for research and pitched the rest. There are many fish in the sea, and many other teas in my cabinet. No sense in spending time dreaming about this one, especially since I have my own Spring Guafengzhai cakes on the bench.

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Teaware

Douji Delta and Alpha, More Blind Puer Tea Reviews

Wild Stabs in the Dark

My first guess was that the Delta was a Douji Yiwu. In fact, you can probably just read this review from 2012 Douji Yiwu, and change some slight characteristics and it would describe this tea in a general way. *Post reveal note: However, the sweet dry grass taste of this tea turned out to be a 2008 blend and my guess was way, way off, except that i guessed close on the age.

Dry Puerh Tea
A delta shaped chunk of delta

The first steep of the Delta is a little astringent.

The fragrances are all strong and Yiwu-ish, producing a soft slightly golden (almost seems like 1-3 years age on the tea?) soup. Not much else to say.

Delta spent leaves
Delta spent leaves

Alpha

The Alpha has extremely tight compression. The first three steeps are a wake up call for the tea, which seems to have been pressed with the feather touch of a steamroller.

Green tea puer
A much greener Alpha

After the tea starts to open up, there is a little harshness and a slowly building kuwei [bitterness] and a huigan [sweet aftertaste]. The sweetness in the mouth is the best feature of the tea, which is a bit non-descript and seems like a blend with a Bulang base. As the sessions progresses the soup slowly drifts into a deeper golden color.

Handmade Tea cup
Alpha soup

This tea has profound staying power. A 9 gram chunk in a smallish gaiwan was chugging along for what had to be upwards of 15 steeps, towards the end the steeps were several minutes long and the tea just kept giving. This is a solid tea. If the price is anything ballpark near 7542, I would recommend getting your tough blend needs met right here instead of at Dayi.

Another post reveal note; this tea is the Xiangdou, which is Douji’s entry level brick. It is a solid blend. I couldn’t pick it out directly, but this taste test reaffirms having chosen it for my site last year. It has a nice Mengsong huigan and plenty of bitterness.

Douji Xiangdou
Spent Alpha

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Pouring Tea

Douji Beta and Zeta

Another Round of Blind Taste Tests

Courtesy of China Cha Dao, this round of taste tests are all Douji teas. Same rules as before, I have no idea which tea is which and all of my writing and notes are written before the identities of the teas were released.

Beta

After a rinse and a quick first steep I was expecting a gentle session. There was a gentle fruity feeling in that first quick steep, with a little body and a sweet aftertaste. Then, the second steep was a tide of tobacco and bitter flavors that were under my radar. Never judge a book.

Chinese Gaiwan
Beta Brew

The Beta continues in this same kuwei [pleasant bitter] vein for several steeps, without much deviation. The flavors and feelings are not complex. Just a straight forward bitterness that transitions into huigan [sweet aftertaste]. Not a bad tea. In the later steeps there is a slight harshness that is akin to the acidity of white wine. The huigan is lasting, and there is also a mineral fuzzy feeling on my teeth, like after eating spinach.

Celadon Tea cup
Beta Soup

Again, my cover judging was off about this teas complexity. I was about ready to give up after it was static for several steeps, then the kuwei subsided and some subtle white fruits started showing up and a new dimension materialized. White peaches  in the cup and a surprising amount of interesting aroma in the gongbei [the glass serving pitcher] even after 8 steeps, which is uncommon. Maybe I misjudged the amount early on.

Puerh Leaf Tea
Spent Beta

This is an interesting tea. There is enough going on to keep a session interesting with a range of characteristics. A few odd red flags, like various woody stems of all manner, even with some small chaguo buds [tea seed pod]. Looks like they picked the tea with a thresher. The leaves are not visually pleasing, some are a tallow hue as in the picture above. But, who cares? If there are stems and a tea looks like junk, but the tea itself is pleasant, then who am I to pick fights? Only big complaint is a scratchiness in the throat mid to late session. Otherwise I give it a passing grade.

Zeta

My sample is maocha [loose, unpressed leaves]. The dry leaves are dark in color and smell like autumn tea. Some show various reddish marking even on the dry leaf. The first steep is floral and sweet, similar again to a fall tea with a fall tea feel. Sticky in the throat,  smooth and pleasant.

Dry Zeta
Dry Zeta

The Zeta’s soup is reddish in hue, as opposed to the beta’s golden color. It prances around in black tea territory. It has a strong hongcha [oxidized black tea] element throughout the entire session.

Fall Maocha ?
Red Zeta Soup

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Japanese Green Tea Shincha

2013 Ippodo Shincha

Quality Time with One Tea

My daily tea drinking life is usually defined by slogging through samples in an effort to unearth new puer teas worthy of putting on my website. This sampling is akin to packing a week full of dinner dates with strangers. You meet some new people, most of them are nice folks, and some are jerks. The dating process is grueling and finding a lifelong friend is not an easy task. How many people are any of us truly close with?

We all have that friend who lives 20 minutes away that you only see 5 times a year. You think to yourself, “Bob lives just across town, I can see him anytime!” You both live busy lives. Maybe you catch lunch once in awhile. But, if you don’t meet him, what’s the rush? He’ll be there later. This is how I am with a lot of my puer teas. What’s the hurry? They get better with age anyway!

Japenese Tea Ippodo
Packaging for the new tea

This was not the case with the Ippodo Shincha, which came with a clock attached. It said, “I am only in town for a few weeks. Let’s enjoy our time together and then I will be gone.” This added urgency turned my lax attitude into a Before Sunrise scenario. All I could do was enjoy the time the Shincha and I had together. In situations where two lovers have limited time, feelings get deep quick. (By the way, if you have not watched the trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, watch them. In succession. Bring tissues.)

Ippodo Shincha
The Shincha

It took me about two and a half weeks to explore this “medium sized can” of tea, and at the beginning I was out of my element. I have not had any formal training in brewing Japanese greens, so I searched online for recommendations and tried different brewing times, temperatures, and water ratios until I found one that fit my taste. Brewing Japanese green teas takes more finesse than puer tea. In my first several sessions, I tried to follow Ippodo’s enclosed instructions very closely, but I was either too brutish or didn’t apply enough pressure, and the results were a loss of the peripheral flavors of the tea. With puer, you still need to have your gongfu brewing skills down, but you have a little room for error. Japanese green tea responds to missteps in the dance with winces of pain. When you step on toes, your partner alerts you with a spiteful glare.

Green tea pot
Tea in a small pot (I usually brewed with a different pot)

After several days, the dance became fluid and we learned how to move together. Day after day of the same tea gave me a deeper perspective into the subtleties of what the tea could do for me and what I could do for it.

Imagine a tall tree with a thick trunk on top of a hill. This tree is the beany, vegetal flavor that stands tall in the center of the Shincha’s flavor. Up in the branches of the tree, there live little birds and squirrels. These tiny flavors dart in and out of the branches and circle around the trunk of the giant tree. There are sweet fruity birds that can be coaxed out of their nests to play in a backdrop of the tea’s calm clarity. A residual tangy sweetness was left in the mouth after each cup.

Shincha
Green tea soup

The Shincha had three steeps of life in it, with the subsequent steeps being too weak to follow. An opening steep; the light entry. A second steep; where the animals came out to play. And a third steep; the wave goodbye. At least, that is how I brewed it. Everyday with the Shincha offered something a little different, especially while I tweeked my brewing habits. After each session a long sweetness lingered in my mouth, along with the memories of the tea.

The extended time with a single tea helped build a lasting relationship. I look forward to next year’s visit.

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Chinese Teas

The End of Speed Dating

The Best Laid Schemes…

Originally I had lofty ambitions of a full review for each tea from the generous YS sample pack, but the arrival of my Ippodo Japanese Shin-cha derailed my ambitions.

Ippodo Shincha Japanese Green Tea
A lovely spring distraction

Shin-cha is a tea best consumed fresh and only sold for a couple of months every Spring. Ippodo is not able to ship directly to China, so I had to employ some Hong Kong tea smugglers to carry the contraband over on a voyage to the Mainland. The underground tea smuggling community is a cutthroat band of miscreants. Luckily, the delivery arrived intact. Opening the fresh green tea put me on a clock to work it into my daily routine and finish it, which is both good and bad. Gladly it meant a delicious Japanese green tea nearly everyday for the last couple of weeks. Unfortunately for the sample pack, it drained some of my blind taste testing ambition.

Out of the remaining samples, only a couple of teas really stuck out for me, so naturally they will get the bulk of the attention. The rest sort of faded into the mix, which is usually how sampling goes.

Blind Dates of Note: Lambda and Mu

First the Lambda.

Dry Lambda
Dry Lambda

The smell off the leaves involves grape-like tannins.

The first steep is promising. Some body and interesting depth from the beginning.

Lambda Soup
Lambda Soup

Second steep, things get more interesting. This is the first tea (other than Mu below) that I have been really interested to see behind the curtain. If there were 10 layers to the tea, on layer 9 or 10 there is some slight over roasting. That flavor further diminishes  on the third steep, disappearing later on.

Spent Lambda
Spent Lambda

The thickness of this tea is beyond most of the other teas in the group. Cooling in the back on the throat, which lingers for a long time. There is some reasonable depth in this tea. Curious to see what it is. (Note: Later found out this is a Simao blend of 4 teas)

On to Mu.

This tea had a very strong fragrance, which filled up the room. Some of the leaves below on the gaiwan lid, which appear to be a bit oxidized.

Dry Mu
Dry Mu

This tea was overall my favorite of the bunch. It had the most body and complexity of the entire batch. Some Qi [voodoo feel] and a complexity, which were far above anything else in the group.

Mu Brew
Mu Brew
Bad lighting tea leaves
Mu Leaves, bad lighting on this pic

 

Seems my final list, which is something like:

1.Mu

2. Lambda

3. everything else.

Kind of jives with Jakub’s list. I also share his sentiment, that Mu would probably be the tea I would lean towards buying if I were picking from the group. The Lambda is a blend of Simao area tea and the Mu is a Nanpozhai. I am curious to see how the Mu will age!

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Xia Guan Puerh Tea

2005 XiaGuan 8653

Waiting for Red Soup

Puer drinkers share a common goal of wanting aged tea. There are outliers who love fresh young sheng, but the smoothness and intrigue of an aged cake are tough to beat. Every so often my hands reach for a young cake, but left to my druthers I prefer something with some age. The problem is that old tea costs. But, lately, young tea costs too. Often is disproportionate ways.

Xiaguan Factory is not glamorous. Many turn up their noses at the crane, dismissing it as rubbish. But if you want a tea with age and value, it is a fine place to begin. This year Dayi 7542 was listed at a selling price of around $30 or so from Taobao wholesalers. If that is the price for a new 7542, then I am befuddled. I need someone to clarify how in the world still makes sense. Especially when the tea I am about to discuss is the same price, and 8 years older.

Puer Tea Venn Diagram
Who buys new 7542?

Granted, that Xiaguan 8653 is not the best tea. Maybe not even good tea. But, the likelihood of getting good quality 8 year old cake for $40 is low anyway, so we let’s not split hairs of an 8653’s flaws. Not to mention that for most people, especially people who are new to puer, this Xiaguan is more than enough to hold ones attention.

So, not good. Maybe not even average. But, not bad. Here is a litmus test of whether or not you got a good deal on puer tea in 2013 – can you check the following boxes?

  • Nearly a decade old
  • Under $50
  • Could be described as “Not bad”

If you can say those three things about a puer tea purchased in 2013, then congratulations, you won. This is not an easy thing to do. Let’s look at the red soup.

Dry Leaves from Xiaguan 8653
Dry Leaves from Xiaguan 8653

The tea is medium dark, and even smelling the dry leaves screams Xiaguan. Mildly smokey, umber smells.

The tea is still a little bit astringent, but it is noticeably smoother than a 5 year or younger Xiaguan tea. Plenty of smells and depth come off of the gaiwan lid and leaves.

Tea Steeping Tips
The steep

Some thickness; which, when you consider the price, is something nearing a puer miracle. A brief huigan [sweet aftertaste] and plenty of finish. In the back of my throat there is a nice coating and a slight molasses aftertaste. My tongue tingles a bit from the astringency, but it is not aggravating, just there.

Xiaguan Puer Tea
Soup and the spent chop

Overall, a tea I would be totally comfortable drinking.

When you look at the color of the soup, and a tea that is for most peoples’ purposes good and ready, I don’t understand who would opt for the new 7542. I put the two teas in roughly the same category – big factory blends, which is what they are. Where the price discrepancy comes in is a debate for Dayi fans. I’d rather save 8 years of time and $10 and just drink the 8653 – and this isn’t even my favorite of the Xiaguan teas from 2004-2006, it’s just the one that happened to be in my cup today. Long live the crane.

 

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Mystery Tea - Tea Blog

Mystery Sample #2

 Number Labeled Samples

A long while back, a fellow on teachat named Chengducha and I exchanged some tea. After neglecting the package in my pariah sample bin for many months, I finally decided to open up the bundle and pick out a tea for a session on this rainy afternoon. Numbers and plastic wrap, a welcome surprise! Tea guessing allow me to free their mind from preconceptions and try something purely on its merits, not to mention uncovering my own biases and misconceptions. So, I decided to write the following notes as I drank, before looking up  the tea’s origin.

plastic wrapped tea
The kids are calling it “two magic”

The small packages looked liked drugs purchased from a dealer in the park. The only information at my disposal for choosing a tea for the afternoon were numbered stickers on the outside of the plastic wrap. Twodogteablog, White2tea. Guess which number I chose?

Dry ripe puer tea brick
Dry ripe puer tea brick

I was fully expecting to be getting a bag of sheng, but the we don’t always get what we want. I opened the package and found a tightly pressed shu brick with a dimple from the press. The smell of dui [pile smell] was faint, but the other fragrances were strong enough to indicate that it was pressed within the last few years. Something like a mix of wood with perfume and compost. Not exactly what I was craving, but rather than give the finger to the number gods, I decided to just drink the ripe tea.

Rinse puerh tea
Rinse the dense brick

The remaining dui smell is gone by the second steep. The remaining flavors are smooth and woody. The red fruit fragrance i smelled on the dry leaves and the lid of the gaiwan does not show up in the mouth, but it is still very nice, and maybe better off. If there were additional flavors in the mix, the softness of the wood flavor might be lost in a battle.

A shadow of sweetness is left in the mouth after drinking. Not really huigan in the raw tea sense, but some tiny sweetness in the mouth and on the tongue.

cha tang se
The dark brew lasted well over ten steeps

And here were are at the last paragraph, the rain has stopped and the sun is finally out at 5:30 PM. After looking in the records of my teachat – our mystery tea is, and I shall quote Mr.Chengducha:

2012 Brick shu pu – Great taste, very stable. (my local dealer still has a big stash of this if you want some)

Most of my guesses were close, I would have guessed 2011. In general, shu is not as difficult to guess as sheng, as it tends towards uniformity.  Some additional notes, now that I have seen his, I agree it is very stable. Split between two people we went for easily over 10 steeps. I liked the tea more as it went on. The fragrances were subdued and the feeling of warming smoothness took precedence. Overall a very nice shu.

tea tray
The leaves in the gaiwan and the tea itself

And for the record, I did not add the dealer or stash to that sentence. Seems it was drugs after all.

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Timberlake Tea

Nannuo Puer Tea and Justin Timberlake

Justifying Young Puer Teas

Timberlake Puer Wistaria
Dry Nannuo Tea

First, listen to this. We are going to need it as a reference point when elaborating on what Nannuo Puer tea (above) has to do with Justin Timberlake (below).

Pusher girl, a track off of JT’s latest release The 20/20 Experience, is a song that drips. Swells. Pulses. It’s sex. Masterfully produced, well crafted, poppy neo-soul sex. This is the mature pop icon, Justin Timberlake. He is a case study in evolution. Those of you with a memory of American pop culture will recall that before Mr.Timberlake arrived at his current album he went through multiple transformations.

Justin Timberlake Nsync
Justin Timberlake (back left) with his fab boyband hair, which is shockingly only the 3rd worst hairdo in the group

When he was young, you likely loathed him. Back up dancing in baggy jean overalls on  the Mickey Mouse Club. It’s tough to like this kind of family friendly programming, even when you are a kid. If you are like me, you probably didn’t even notice he was there. You opted to watch Voltron instead or despite your dislike, you might have admitted that he had talent and moved on. Even the biggest hater has to admit those are rad 90’s Disney© Dance moves .

Fast forward a few years, he starts fronting for the boy band N’sync. You might not have noticed the Disney Channel show, but unless you lived in a cave, you knew the Back Street Boys and N’sync. His band-mates and hairdo forced you to suppress homicidal rage, but again you had to admit, he had pipes. You weren’t lining up with the 8th grade girls wearing Stussy t-shirts to buy tickets to see their sold out arena shows. Again, you opted out and went to Warped Tour instead.

Jump ahead a few more years. You could really take or leave anything he has done in his career up until this point. He seems like any run of the mill teen heart throb. Then, suddenly, he’s not a kid anymore. He is no longer the Mouseketeer or the teeny bopper boy band lead. He is an adult. He starts putting out albums like Justified and Future Sex Love Sounds. He brings sexy back. Not only do you want to listen to those albums, you are anxiously awaiting his next release. You start seeing him in films and on late night television and he is a talented entertainer. What happened to the Mickey Mouse Club?

After several paragraphs about Justin Timberlake’s career, you might be thinking, “So what does this have to do with Nannuo Shan and puer tea? Twodog, I am a busy man, stop wasting my god damn time. I don’t even like Justin Timberlake. Your analogy sucks and am taking you off of my Google reader.” Keep your top on, I am getting to it.

Nannuo Puerh
Nannuo Puer

Fair reader, I will let you in on two little secrets; First, I never cared for the Mickey Mouse Club. Second, I don’t look forward to drinking young Nannuo teas. However, I still do the latter in spite of not enjoying it.

I drink young Nannuo teas like a talent scout, betting on who is going to have a career. It is a tough game, you might end up with a few JTs or with a few… who was the “bad boy” from 98 degrees? The point is, I don’t drink a lot of  young Nannuo teas in my daily rotation. However, if you open the doors on my personal collection, Nannuo shan is well represented. I am aging them in a few different places, with several different teas, ranging from more well known productions to blank white paper wrapped cakes from small productions. I have more than a few tongs [7 cake stacks] of tea with nothing more to identify them than a quickly scrawled Mr.Qin, Spring, 2007 Nannuo. I still haven’t opened those tongs, but I will when the talent is ready.

2003 Wistaria Ziyin Soup
2003 Wistaria Ziyin Soup

The tricky business with aging puer teas is that it is not an exact science. Teas will go through phases, starring in fast food commercials and waiting tables in between moments in the spotlight. Some will ascend to stardom, others will play regional theater. Poor storage can lead to a once promising tea ending up as a gutter dwelling heroin junkie.

So, where is a Timberlake-esk talent for Nannuo? The 2003 Wistaria Ziyin is in the ballpark. Price tag is around $175  per cake, which is Justified.(Sorry) Not an inexpensive pricetag, but Timberlake doesn’t play weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. Not to mention that finding talent in a sea of aspiring entertainers is a tough game. I could find 100 cakes on taobao [Chinese ebay] that are at or above this price, but have been stored terribly and lack the depth of charms that the Ziyin possesses. It is leathery and oily, thick in the mouth and throat with traces of dark fruit. All of the Mickey Mouse is gone, which can partially be attributed to Taiwan storage.

 

What is a low budget producer to do?

You don’t have $1,000 to spend on a tong of ten year old Nannuo cakes? You are not alone.  For the talent scout on a budget, you are going to have to find stars, not employ them. If a quality 10 year old tea is out of your price range, then a quality 20 or 30 year old tea not in the cards either. So, find some quality 1-3 year old tea. Use your best judgment, and buy a cake or a tong, and stash it in a well cared for pumidor. ( no heavy smells, no direct sunlight, moderate humidity ) In several years time, hopefully some of those guesses worked out. My personal pick and shameless self plug is this 2012 Ruiyuan Nannuo. Will it be a winner? I don’t know. Nobody does.

But in a good scenario, you get a smooth tea that sings and dances with enviable talent.

Ruiyuan Nannuo White 2 Tea Puer Tea
Dry leaves from a young Ruiyuan Nannuo cake

On the off chance you hate Justin Timberlake, (or are underwhelmed like these hipster hate-it-alls), you are welcome to leave alternative rise to glory analogies in the comments. I couldn’t come up with a brutal metal alternative. Maybe Deathklok.

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