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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
And for the record, I did not add the dealer or stash to that sentence. Seems it was drugs after all.
After leaving the land of copious amount of biscuits and gravy, I realized I had left out a set of pics from a 2009 Dayi Hongyun session in the U.S. of A. Different people translate the name Chinese Hongyun into English in different ways. The hong [红] means red, pretty straightforward. The yun [韵] on the other hand is a bit trickier. Dictionaries list it as
literally Tea Rhyme: what might be called the personality of a tea abstracted from what the sensory organs take in
People toss this word around kind of like Qi [茶气], to the point where individual people have vastly different definitions of what exactly they are trying to communicate. I am not a linguist, so pick whichever translation you prefer and let’s be on our merry way.
The Dayi Hongyun is an inexpensive little disc, parceled out in 100g portions and boxed up as pictured above. Pretty convenient for taking on a short trip, if you are lacking ripe puer. The compression is tight and the leaves are all tiny, gongting [small, high grade of leaf] size, but not that high of a grade – just my opinion.
There are several iterations of this cake, the first being a 2008 pressing. The horn of tea jutting out of the clay pot above is from 2009. I recently had some of the 2012, which seemed to be a little stronger because of the recent pressing, but that could fade with time. It is a stable blend, smooth and easy.
As far as Dayi shu is concerned, this is a safe bet of a tea. Not the most exciting or dynamic tea out there, but also far better than a lot of the non-Menghai big factory productions. It is creamy and leaves a smooth warmth in the throat that is very pleasant. If you wanted to introduce a new tea drinker to ripe puer with low risk of scaring them off, this would be a fine place to begin. Taobao prices vary, depending on year and vendor. 500g worth is about $20+ in the mainland.
Speaking of things that are warm, creamy, and pleasant – I will sign off with some pictures of biscuits and gravy I enjoyed on my trip to the states.
Nothing increases the masculinity of an activity like building your own fire. For example, the brewing of tea: generally not considered to be a very masculine endeavor. But, what if you build your own fire to heat the water? Boom. Instant masculinity. Ditto for fetching things. Turning on a faucet is a pretty mundane activity. But, what if you go to a spring to get the water? Bam. Instantly more manly.
My father and I set out to be the manliest of manly tea men and prepare some old fashioned-ish tea; the process involved some laborious tasks that give you a bit of perspective on what it means to have tap water and an electric kettle.
Step 1: Get Water
There is a free flowing natural spring in the area, so we took our horse drawn wagon car with hand-thrown ceramic plastic jug in tow. (Perhaps not everything about the process was as old time-y as i led on) The spring, however, is old fashioned. Nothing more than a hose leading the spring out of the ground into a creek. We filled up our jug and embarked on the journey back to the fire pit.
Step 2: Make Fire
We lugged our axes into the forest, and fell a tree, thrice the size of a cabin. Our mules pulled the tree through the woods to our cabin, where we chopped for hours until…ok, none of that happened. We had old firewood in the garage and built a small fire. We began with a tripod to suspend the pot above the fire. It took a little while for the bed of coals to be significant enough to heat a full pot of water, but once it was going it was efficient. The times in between brewing lead to some whimsical occurrences, such as a teapot covered in a thin layer of ice when a few minutes elapsed between brews. The enjoyment of a small fire heating a pot of water in a quiet surroundings more than makes up for the increase in wait time and ice on the yixing [teapot].
Step 3: Brew Tea
My father has recently taken to drinking a bit of ripe puer and I decided to bring him a traditionally [see: probably too wet] stored 90’s cake for Christmas. I opened the wrapper and a small net of webs covered one corner of the cake. Upon further examination, it seemed to be the home of a small grub, who I dug out for a photo. Nothing like giving the gift of worms for the holidays. The worm must have been supremely confused, a large steel blade, digging him from his cocoon and lifting him in to a snow-covered forest.
As for the tea, the cold weather and smooth warming effects of an aged shu intertwine nicely. A little bit of damp humid aroma injected into the chill of the snow. A bit of a humid warehouse, a chunk of mountain grown tea, and a winter wonderland. That contrast is a gift that I wish I was able to experience more often, but the rarity of the experience makes it all the more precious.
I had high hopes about Colourful Yunnan puer teabags, the mass marketed bagged puer tea that swept over China’s grocery stores last year. My excitement stemmed not from a desire to drink it, but because it would provide me a sturdy soap box to stand on. This would not be one of those mysterious sessions, where the complexity of the tea left me grasping for adjectives. Nor would it be a session where my writing skills were painfully inadequate to describe the experience of the tea. And last but not least, it would not be a session where I was left feeling amatuerish, a boy playing a man’s game. One of those sessions where puer leaves you mystified, as if your years of experience amount to nothing more than a fizzling star in a galaxy of tea knowledge.
No, not today.
Today is Colourful Yunnan. Today I get to plant a flag and stand my ground and call a spade a spade. Today I am Lebron James and my opponent is the Westside Middle School 6th grade basketball team…or that was what my initial reaction. However, after a bit of soul searching, I decided that dunking on 6th graders was neither fair nor productive. Rather than point out of all the flaws of Colourful Yunnan’s bagged tea, of which there are many, I ought to try to and focus on some of the good. After all, Colourful Yunnan does have a couple of major positives:
1) It increases overall public awareness of puer
2) It provides a relatively inexpensive and convenient way for people to steep puer tea, sans accoutrements
3) They make use of the floor sweepings left behind when average puer tea is produced
5) The…er,…um… packaging is … presentable
Alright, maybe slightly fewer positives than I had anticipated, but let’s look at the first couple. It does do a service in terms of bringing puer to a wider audience. Maybe restaurants that would previously not have offered puer as an option will now stick it on the menu. Maybe they will stock it at offices next to the bagged greens and oolongs. Maybe it will start showing up as a free bagged tea in hotel minibars outside of Asia. When I was growing up in the US, the only tea option most restaurants had was a bag of Lipton. If they got into Bigelow territory, they were already ahead of 99% of the competition. As a kid, I remember going to a small hotel that had a tea box with several different colorful packets of tea on the table and thinking it was some sort of lost beverage treasure chest. Every tea drinker starts somewhere, and Colourful Yunnan could be a gateway drug. Even Lebron had to begin his career playing 6th grade basketball.
Second positive, it is widely available and convenient to steep. How many people are willing to keep a puer cake, a tea needle, a gaiwan, cups, and a tea table on their office desk? There are a lot of people who scoff at that amount of equipment. Those very same people would be more than willing to have a mug and a tea bag in their desk drawer. Problem solved. Anyone who was turned off by the process of brewing tea just joined the puer team. Again, gateway drug. You start them off on bags, and hopefully within a few years they are brewing up 15 year vintage puer in a gaiwan on their 3 ton mahogany and stone tea table, complete with intricately carved scenes of phoenixes and monks and whatever the hell. Also, clay figurines of Buddha.
Now that I have respectfully acknowledged some silver lining, its time for some Harlem Globetrotter style disregard for my opponent. The tea itself is typical bagged tea. Dregs, fannings, whatever you want to call it. It’s a one and done brew, and the brew is not particularly smooth, a little bit harsh. It is floral in a generic (see: bad) way and has a slight sweetness. It is also perfumey and no doubt has some sort of standardizing additive. Additional silver lining, the liquor has a nice color and clarity to it; I must admit, it does have a nice color (colour) to it. Based on visuals alone, it’s quite nice. Throw the actual drinking of the tea into the mix and you have a bit of a problem. Rather than prattle on about how this tea lets you down in nearly every department, whether it be flavor, mouthfeel, and on and on, I will just say that it is somewhat like the Lipton of puer, and leave it at that.
I can’t really see myself drinking Colourful Yunnan for any reason other than hypothetical desert island scenarios, but then again, they don’t need me. I am not their target market. And if you are reading this, I suspect neither are you. The two things that it has going for it are mass marketing and convenience. I have seen promotions in supermarkets and office buildings in several major Chinese cities. There has been an assault of advertising, in an effort to secure some market share for people who want a bag of tea to brew and chuck into the waste bin. I would say that the price is good, but pound for pound there must be 10,000 other teas that are better. The bagged dregs weigh in at 2 grams, when considering you can get some really respectable 357 gram shou puer cakes for a few dollars, I can not claim their price is good.
Whether Colourful Yunnan will flourish has yet to be seen. It will be a battle of marketing and mass appeal versus quality. Who the globetrotters are in that game, is still anybody’s guess.