I originally wrote this post for Cha Xi Collective. I’ve just copied it here for record keeping.
The mid-winter sunlight streaming in through my living room window practically begged me to set up some tea. I chose a puer that I haven’t opened yet, purchased on my last trip to Montreal.
This tea is a shu (熟 or ripe) zhuan cha (砖茶 or brick tea) made in Laos (who knew they made hei cha?). The name means “small leaf”, and indeed it appears that the leaves on this brick are quite small. Not necessarily different from the leaf size used in most zuan cha, though.
The brick itself was wrapped in plain white paper (of the standard puer style), unmarked except for the date stamp (a little worn, but I believe it read “2006年3月” and then something I can’t make out but which looks like “L8日”). The paper was then wrapped inside a bamboo wrapper of the kind that usually wraps a tong (筒) of bings. I had to damage both, unfortunately, in order to get inside, as the bamboo cracked easily and the paper was glued shut. Luckily I took photos of each before I began.
I’m unsure what kind of storage this has had, but the leaves came apart quite easily with my puer pick. The advantage of a small leaf cake is that it’s easier to pry whole leaves from the surface without cracking too many.
The aroma of the warmed leaves is surprisingly sweet. It first brings to mind cherries but with the definite musk of age. The taste of the first infusion reminds me similarly of dark cherries, perhaps a little amaretto on the tip of the tongue. The sides of the tongue still detect that this Shu is nicely aged. Still, it’s not so old that there are any qualities of leather or musty books. I think that the musk taste might eventually evolve into that, but for now it’s just a subtle note.
The liquor is quite dark at 20 seconds, as I’d expect, but it’s not just inky black. There’s a red glow of energy in there, which is probably another good sign as far as the quality of this tea.
While I think it’s possible to infuse this tea many times, after my fourth or fifth infusion there wasn’t much nuance remaining and the taste was one of a pretty standard shu cha. At the seventh infusion, I let it go for 2 minutes and the result was mostly puer-colored water.
After removing the spent leaves from my pot, I took a look at them as well. Although mostly mashed up, there were only a few bits of twig and I did even manage to find a few full leaves. About what I would expect.
My conclusion is that this zhuan cha is an average puer, definitely good for everyday drinking (and certainly better than much loose shu puer that I’ve had), but with a life of around six infusions, not something worth a serious gongfu session. I seem to remember a friend who explored tea in Laos saying that although they’ve had tea for many years, the production of “quality” tea is only a recent phenomenon. It’s likely that the producers of this puer don’t yet have the skill to make really nuanced tea or the trees are just too young to produce it. That said, this is an interesting find and I’ll be curious to see how it ages.