Tag Archives: sheng

Sheng Puer Tasting

Last weekend I gathered some friends together to get to know a handful of my Shēng (生, raw) Puer. I confess that most of the time I drink Puer I go for my favorite Shóu (熟, ripe) cakes. The deep, earthy flavors are very comforting and they tend to pack less of a punch. Also, many of my Sheng cakes are either too young to be tasty yet or expensive enough that I often think I’m saving them for a special occasion. It was easier, therefore, to create a special occasion just for them!

After a lot of discussion we picked four teas that were different enough that we hoped would give us a good range of tastes. A 2007 Yiwu, a 2007 Yinzhu factory bing, a 2009 Nanuo Shan, and a 2013 Yibang rounded out the circle.

The Yiwu was the darkest infusion of the four (9g each, with one rinse and then a 30 second steep) and had the largest, darkest leaves. The first infusion ended up with a fruity, cherry-like taste and a very interesting aftertaste-feeling that we could only describe as “minty”.

The Yinzhu was something of a mystery tea because while I know where I bought it (Dàlǐ Old Town in Yúnnán), I don’t know where the leaves were grown. The first infusion of this interesting tea had the second darkest liquor with small, orange tippy leaves. The flavor was very surprisingly rich with a smoky, oak and peat aroma, very like some of my favorite scotch.

Nannuo is one of my favorite tea mountains, so I had high expectations for this 2009 bing. The leaves were wiry and long, and with a light gold infusion. The flavor was a little sweet like strawberries, with a woody, cedar aroma. Overall, it had almost the quintessential Sheng flavor.

The 2013 Yibang was the youngest of the lot and so it’s not surprising that it had the lightest liquor. Its medium size leaves were dark brown speckled with blond. Using the same steeping time was probably unfair for this tea, and it tasted a little under-infused with not much body and a light mineral bite.

For the second infusion I brewed each tea for 45 seconds, partially by accident, and partially to see how the flavors would develop if they were made really strong. (This is a good point to mention that if you have never made Puer yourself, 45 seconds for a second infusion is quite long.) The result? Bitter tea, of course. But the comparison was pretty fascinating as it emphasized the characteristics I found during the other infusions. The Yiwu was very herbal, the Yinzhu gave the impression of a charcoal baked potato. The Nannuo tasted like mushrooms, and the young Yibang was bright and acidic.

At the third infusion (10 seconds this time), I think each tea hit its stride. The Yiwu created a cooling, refreshingly minty feeling with a herb and cherry taste. The mysterious Yinzhu made us all think of cacao nibs, with a warm scotch peat aftertaste. Our Nannuo leaves had a woody, mouth-filling texture and a smooth, crisp Bartlett pear taste. FInally, the 2013 Yibang tasted a little like a woody green tea with a long, second sweetness in the throat.


All in all most of the consensus was that the Yinzhu was the best of the bunch, but that’s just because most of us liked scotch. The dissenting opinion was in favor of the Yiwu, and indeed the unique mouth feel of that tea was both unexpected and fantastic. We all agreed that the Yibang was too young (although it definitely has promise) and that the Nannuo was a good sipping Sheng but didn’t stand out from the crowd.

I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to taste these teas side-by-side with friends and I think it’s setting me on a good path to get to know my Shengs. I have a whole lot more cakes, though, so next time promises to be just as exciting. If you have never tasted different teas together, I highly recommend it. If you drink a single tea one day and then another the next day, it’s very difficult to get a sense of what sets them apart. So grab those gaiwans (or tasting sets) and get brewing!

Jalam Bada 2014 Sheng

“Bada bing!”

That’s what I crow every time I make some of this great Sheng Puer from Jalam Teas. Not just because it’s really fun to say (and it is!), but also because for a relatively young Sheng (Summer 2014) it’s got quite a lovely character. (The tea is harvested on Bada Mountain and “Bing”, or 饼, means “cake” and is more or less the standard form into which Puer leaves are pressed.)

badabing-cups2Compared to most Shengs of this age range (1-4 years), I taste surprisingly very little cedar and sulfur. Instead, notes of leather, wicker and straw are prevalent. Really, I like this tea almost more for its drinkability more than any sort of dramatic flavors or aroma. It’s so mellow and light bodied that I infused even the first three pots for almost a full minute, which for a lot of Sheng Puer is pretty rare if you don’t want a sharp bitter mess in your cup.

There’s a dried herb quality in the taste as well for which I had trouble coming up with a label, perhaps dry cilantro? Maybe that’s not too appetizing a term. Let’s just say there’s a fresh and interesting flavor somewhat reminiscent of an herb garden.

I steeped the fifth and sixth infusions longer just to see what would happen, but they still came out not as sharp or sour as I expected. The strength manifested instead as a tannic dryness and little else. Even brewed strong like this, the aromas remain mild and light.

Definitely this Bada bing is going to be a regular in my gaiwan, as long as the small 100g cake lasts!

Taidicha and Gucha

Just a short post to mention a link I stumbled upon today. This page by Bana Tea has some really great Puer tea videos. I’m amazed I never encountered them before. I learned the terms Táidì Chá Yuán (Terraced Tea Garden – plantation-style puer) and Gŭ Chá Yuán (Old Tea Garden – wild tree puer). If you’ve ever wanted to see Puer being made, this is a very good resource.

Teance Tea Time

After the fashion of my last post on Song Tea I wanted to highlight another exceptional tearoom that I encountered in San Francisco, Teance. This shop is a little different than Song Tea, for while they also sell their leaves for home consumption, they also have a bar (and tables) at which everyone can sit and drink tea. Teance has a very modern, carefully-designed atmosphere and construction. I was told that one of the two founders has a great skill in internal design and it was under his guidance that the tearoom’s physical appearance was shaped. The skill and attention to detail certainly shows.

Paradoxically just behind a Pete’s Coffee, Teance sits elegantly in a pedestrian shopping district near the bay in Berkeley. While small, the shop feels roomy and cozy at the same time, from its stone Koi pond at the entrance to an upstairs seating area with beautiful wooden tables. But the most striking part of the tearoom is a round circular tea bar made of solid artisanal concrete inlaid with glimmering stones, glass, and shells (“artisanal concrete” may be the wrong term for this, but I didn’t know what else to call it). Atop this bar are two shining brass brew stations with a clever drainage system that carries the water away without a sound. The tea server stands in the center of the circle and graciously prepares a wide selection of Green, Oolong, Black, and Puer tea in yixing-ware, glass, and bright porcelain. As a tea drinker you may choose to have the tea master prepare your tea or reserve that honor for yourself with a thermos of hot water. You can probably guess which option I chose! In this way their service is similar to that of Camellia Sinensis in Montréal, but what surprised me was the effect of the circular tea bar. It somehow brings people together.

teance-talkingIn many ways, the tea bar has the same effect as the custom bamboo bar at Tea Drunk in NYC, making what could easily be a solitary or insular experience of sipping a fine Wuyi Yancha into a kind of social event. One is magically drawn to talk to the other patrons at the bar, as well as to the person serving tea. Particularly at Teance I found that the curved nature of the bar made it nearly impossible to avoid looking at other tea drinkers and so snatches of conversation naturally jump around. Also just like Tea Drunk, the tea servers are always hovering nearby to provide a bit of knowledge or suggest another tea profile to taste. The pouring of water, the sipping from cups, and the discussions that take place flow almost organically. I find it a real pleasure to share tea in this way.

I visited Teance twice and one thing I noticed quickly was that they have more teas available than what is on their menu. I suspect that many of their more rare teas are of such a small quantity that printing them on their menu would be a waste since they may change or disappear with short notice. So, just like when discussing tea with any knowledgable vendor, be sure to make inquiries about your preferred style before purchasing a pot-full! You may find something similar but more exotic to tempt your taste buds.

teance-puerOne of the first things I tried there was an exquisite 18-year-old Sheng Puer. The taste was deliciously heavy, textured like old leather, and with a musty aroma like an ancient book. At the same time it was mellow and comforting, without any of the sharp cedar characteristics that would be present in a younger Sheng. It was definitely Sheng, though. There’s something nearly unmistakable about the sweet-yet-musty flavor of a traditionally aged Puer. The only other tea I’ve had which has anything similar is a 1986 Yiwu which, sadly, has all been imbibed. To quote myself on that venerable tea, “Sipping this tea is like walking in to a comforting old library.” I think the same is true of Teance’s Sheng.

I have to say that (as happens time and again) I was surprised to discover a tea that I knew very little about, and another that I had never heard of before! I have tasted the oolong known as Golden Turtle on a few occasions, but I rarely hear of it being sold in the West. It is a beautiful and rich Yancha from the Wuyi mountains of Fujian province with aromas reminiscent of cinnamon and charcoal, and here it was in a jar before us. Our tea server, Keiko, then showed us yet another Wuyi oolong, this time one that I had never heard of and actually had to look up. Teance calls it “Halfway up Sky”, but I’m going to try to remember the Mandarin name, Bàn Tiān Yāo (半天腰). The aroma of the damp leaves was a little like roasting rice, charcoal, and toffee. Much to my regret I didn’t have time to taste all these luxurious teas, but be certain that I’m going to look around for some in the near future.

teance-all-wetMany thanks to Keiko and Teance for the experiences and the tea discussion. I clearly need to spend a week in Berkeley some time to get to know this tearoom (and Far Leaves!) a little better.

Springtime is Tea Stove Time

The seasons have changed, and with green grass and warm sunshine comes a perfect time to make tea outside. To celebrate the occasion I’ve pulled out my ceramic tea stove and some rather delicious sheng Puer that’s this month’s offering from Jalam Teas.


Of course, in the two seasons since I’ve used the stove, I’ve forgotten somewhat how best to get it going. It’s not the most complex device, but as my previous entries on the subject suggest, if I want to brew tea before too many hours have passed there are some tricks I need to know. Caveat lector: I’m equally unskilled at building campfires, so it’s not just this particular firebending with which I have trouble; I think I was born into the water tribe. I may need to get some practice lighting charcoal this summer.

Thankfully, with some patience and the meticulous skills of my wife, boiling water was not far off. There’s something really magical about heating water on a stove like this. I think because the water comes just to a boil without sending the lid flying across the room. When I’m using a gas range or electric kettle the water tends to get a little out of control. There’s often a sense of, “Oh no! The water is boiling; I need to shut it off before it’s too late!”, especially if there’s a shrieking whistle going off. The gentleness of boiling water on the tea stove seems to me a perfect complement to the essence of a tea ceremony: in the constant sound of the boil and the occasional hiss as a drop of water escapes only to instantly evaporate on the side of the stove, I find a feeling of tranquility and the natural order of things.


I don’t have a lot to say about the tea itself, other than that it’s really very delicious for being so young. The liquor is a beautiful amber, and the aroma is woody, but not overly so. It actually seems more oak-like than the cedar scent I expected, and is quite smooth (at least brewed gong-fu style; I haven’t tried any other way). I think that with some age it may produce more bold flavors, but I like the subtle taste and potent energy that it carries. It’s a young, but very dignified Puer and I feel very fortunate to have such a cake.

Jalam’s site names this tea an Autumn 2013 harvest of Meng Hun, from southwest of Menghai county in Yunnan, harvested by the native Lahu people. From the description, I really was expecting a tea that should be stored away for a few years before even sampling, and maybe my taste is unique, but I really am enjoying this cake right now!

menghun-dry-leavesTea is a reminder that we are all interdependent. From the native people growing and harvesting these leaves to all the fine people at Jalam teas for getting the final product to my door, to the amazing pottery of Petr Novak without whom I would not have this lovely kettle and stove, they are all equally important. Even my water, kindling, and charcoal are derived from the hard work of many humans. Without any one of those people, the tea in my cup would not exist. Drinking tea with mindfulness is paying tribute to all those who provided this day for me. I hope to have many more days like this, and I hope that you do too!

Jalam Teas Meng Song Puer

I already have a delicious Meng Song (Bamboo) Puer from Stone Leaf Tea, so when I received this 2012 Sheng Meng Song from Jalam Teas it went right into my pot.

Photo Mar 09, 1 55 41 PMAs you shall see, my first impressions were less than stellar, but in this case it was my fault. I have a fairly small yixing pot I use for my Sheng tea, and it may be that 6g of loose leaf was a bit too much for the size, or possibly the leaves I used were just more broken than I expected (this came in a sample pack and not a cake). Either way, no matter how I tried, the pot poured like a sloth and the taste was chaotic.

The first infusion had the taste of pine sap and a bright yellow liquor. It had the feel of a lot of energy without much focus. The taste immediately dried out the tongue with the bite of ash and the dryness of a walnut.  Jeff Fuchs writes in the tea’s description,

It is a revitalizing tea that hits all points of the mouth and is a tea that isn’t a subtle tea but rather more of a tea that hits the palate with an impact.

“Well, that’s accurate”, I thought to myself, but I strongly suspected that this leaf could do better. Immediately I inspected the inside of the pot. A slow pour is never a good thing and can often be the sign of a poorly-made tea pot (yet another reason a Gaiwan is usually the best idea when tasting a new tea). I knew my pot was sound, so that meant that the leaves were just clogging the filter.

I tried removing a gram or two of leaves from the pot, particularly small sticks and very broken bits. I think this is a step that tasters often miss: if a tea is too strong, it’s easy to just take out some leaf.

It worked! The pour became much more fluid and fast. The fourth infusion began to exhibit flavors of cedar and packed much less of a punch. I pulled out a few more leaves.

At the sixth infusion there were definite fruit flavors appearing, which I had smelled in the wet leaves from the beginning: crisp (not sugary) peach or pears. The tea had gone from explosive to energizing and from brash to delicious!

As with many teas, the trick to finding the best flavor here was achieving a balance between steep time and leaf quantity such that the water has enough time to acquire the flavor of the tea without becoming too strong in the process. This is a tricky equation and often requires some experimentation. Too many leaves or too slow a pour can disrupt the balance. Once I found it, I easily got a tasty ten infusions from this tea before it lost its potency. I hope to drink this again soon, perhaps with a gaiwan to be more fair to the leaf.

2006 Fengqing Sheng Tuocha Puer

Twice now I’ve had the wonderful experience of tasting this Sheng puer, another sample sent from TeaVivre. Both times I’ve been very pleased with the result. This tea held a special interest for me since I’ve visited tea factories in Fengqing before, but never one that produced Puer. The city is known mainly for its Hong Cha (black tea).

Even though it was delivered in a sample pack, the leaves were noticeably from a Tuocha, one of the traditional shapes of Puer cakes. I’ve tried to translate Tuocha (沱茶) many times, but it doesn’t really have a literal translation. It apparently only has meaning when referring to this particular bowl-shape of tea. From what I understand of Puer aging, it’s important for all the leaves in a pressed tea to remain near to the air, so you’ll notice that in all cakes intended for drinking there are no sections thicker than about 3  to 4cm. I say, “intended for drinking”, because there are many decorative cakes out there which are made to look nice and are not really for consumption (the “ingot” and “melon” shapes, for example). This allows all the leaves to continue to benefit from the fermentation processes that make Puer what it is. If a section is too thick, the leaves inside would either dry up and cease to age or possibly retain too much water and start to rot. If I’m right, in a Tuocha, the bowl shape allows for a fairly sturdy and compact construction, like a ball, but without overly increasing the thickness.

Photo Dec 02, 6 49 26 PM

The aroma of the orange infusions was deeper than I expected, bringing to mind oak more than the cedar scent that I often find with young and middle-aged Sheng (I consider any Sheng Puer less than 5 years old to be “young”, and more than 10 years to be “old”). This was the first sign that I was getting a tasty cup.

Photo Dec 02, 6 54 51 PM

Starting with about a 10-second infusion, the flavor was very smooth and round with more of that oak character. It had a dryness to it that pervaded the mouth, but it was a pleasant dryness, akin to the feeling of a Bordeaux wine. The taste reminded me actually of another one of my favorite Sheng cakes, coincidentally from the same year: the 2006 Lao Shu Bing Cha from Dobra Tea (alas, no longer available in that year).

Infusion after infusion produced quite lovely aromas and taste. I wasn’t counting, but I believe that I made around 15 infusions of 5 grams of the leaf before it devolved into a yellow broth. Occasionally I detected a strong punch of astringency when I infused the leaves for a bit too long, but that’s true of nearly any Sheng Puer, and is a good reminder to pay attention to the timing of my tea.

Photo Dec 02, 7 05 00 PM

When the tea was spent, I found that the leaves were very small and fairly broken. In other styles of tea, this can be a sign of a lower quality, but Puer is a special case. Firstly, there was a consistency in the leaf sizes. Puer manufacturers occasionally will cover the outside of their cakes with nice large leaves and fill the inside with tiny pieces to make the tea more marketable. This tea was honest with its leaf size, an excellent sign that allows the tea brewer to judge how best to infuse based on sight alone. Secondly, Puer is “graded” by leaf size, and unlike their non-fermented cousins, smaller leaves don’t necessarily mean less pleasant tea. I have a feeling that the pressing process itself has a lot to do with this phenomenon, as the leaves are much less likely to “bleed” away their flavors while in the air or in the pot.

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I may order some of this tea for myself for a later date. That’s one of the great benefits of Puer: being able to save it for a rainy day, and it will only get better as it waits.