Tag Archives: yunnan

2015 Laos Ban Komen Maocha

Today I found a package in my box of Sheng Puer that I haven’t yet opened (let’s be honest, there’s two boxes of Sheng Puer and many unopened packages, but I digress). This beauty is from my last trip up to Camellia Sinensis in Montreal. I remember having it recommended to me by one of their tea crew, and being intoxicated by the smell of the leaves. Much like the aroma of roasting oolong in Pinglin, the crisp fruity sweetness of Máochá brings back memories of walking around tea factories in Southern Yunnan.

Máochá is so fun to brew: toss a pile of it into a gaiwan and pour on the boiling water. The result? A golden cup of thick liquor with the taste of freshly cut hay. There’s also a floral component, like the sweetness of honeysuckle, that I find very comforting. A mineral overtone is unmistakeable, but it doesn’t result in a overly dry mouth feel.

That honeysuckle sweetness is more prevalent in this Laos tea than in other Máochá that I remember. It’s not really a perfume, but more a gentle sweetness that just tickles the senses.

laosmaocha-liquor
So, if you’ve read this far and have no idea what kind of tea I’m drinking, maybe I should explain a little about Máochá (毛茶 or sometimes Mao Cha).

Máochá isn’t technically Sheng Puer (生普洱茶), even though it is often placed in that category. Literally it is something close to “raw tea”; the fresh tea picked from the large leaf varieties of Camellia sinensis that grow in the south-western region of China, or in this case, Laos. (Aside: It is always important to remember what Global Tea Hut wrote in their October 2015 issue: “tea regards no borders”. While you can talk about tea practices, production techniques, and preparation, the tea itself, “belongs to Nature”. Our political and social delineations of territory don’t mean anything to the tea plant, which just grows where it finds itself, and produces leaves that are adapted to its climate and terroir.)

laosmaocha-wet-2Most Máochá is steamed and then pressed into cakes, producing Puer as it ages. Some, however, is left raw, and this is the tea that a lot of the locals in Puer-producing regions drink as their daily beverage. Made with minimal processing, Máochá has very little in common with the Puer that much of it becomes, evolving much more like a Green, or even a White tea.

Characterized by large, wildly twisted leaves that glow with a green and gold energy, Máochá can harbor some delicious flavors that are not seen in any other tea category. In fact, I’d much prefer to think of Máochá as its own type of tea rather than trying to explain how it comes from a world of Puer, but acts like Green tea.

As I’ve written about before, most tea drinkers in the tea producing regions of China don’t drink tea gong-fu style, nor with western style strainers, but grampa style: just leaves in a jar with hot water. Máochá lends itself really well to this style of drinking. The massive leaves just melt as you pour in the water. It’s a beautiful thing. Máochá is great for every day drinking, and usually rather inexpensive compared to Sheng cakes from the same region.

Like other tea (outside the Hēi chá category), I’d say that Máochá is better within the first year after harvest. It can be aged, but in my experience the flavors can become overly dry and dull the older it becomes, unless aged very skillfully. I imagine that the process of pressing Máochá into Sheng Puer cakes offers the leaves some protection against the elements which the raw tea doesn’t have. Then again, I have tried fewer than six different Máochá in my time, so please conduct your own research and let me know!

Cacao and Berries: A comparison of Yunnan Hong Cha

Ever since I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks wandering around Yúnnán Province in the South-West of China, I’ve been in love with that region’s unique black tea (or more specifically 红茶 – Hōng Chá). When I came back from that trip I brought with me several hundred grams of tea made in the Lincang region (specifically Fengqing) which sated my thirst for a good two years before the last leaves were spent. And then: such sadness!

yunnan2-bridgeIn the time since I’ve naturally been trying to replenish my supply, and fortunately during my last visit to Camellia Sinensis tea house in Montréal I picked up two examples of this lovely style. I was planning to only buy one, of course, but it was difficult to tell from the descriptions which one I would like more. What’s a tea lover to do in that situation? Get one of each and hold a tasting, of course!

So today I’m comparing the Jin Die Organic and the Yunnan Da Ye, both from Camellia Sinensis’s vast catalogue, and both harvested this year!

First off, I have to say that these teas are really very similar. If I had to try them blindfolded, I might not be able to tell them apart. Especially after the second steeping, the differences in flavor and mouthfeel nearly vanished. They are both excellent examples of a Yunnan Hong Cha.

yunnan2-cupsThat said, after four infusions, I think I have a slight preference for the Jin Die. Very slight. While both teas have the characteristic Yunnan woodiness and cacao sweetness, the Jin Die consistently had a thicker mouthfeel and a more milk-chocolate taste. The Da Ye, in comparison, was somewhat thinner and dry in the mouth with something of a blackberry sweetness.

The cacao and berry flavors are what really draw me to these teas. Compared to other Chinese black tea, those from Yunnan have a special characteristic of dry grass and earth that is usually very distinguisable. In many ways this makes sense, as the leaves used to produce these teas are from the same regions (and maybe even the same plants) as the world’s Puer supply. Drinking a young Sheng Puer from Menghai I notice the same sorts of flavors and textures. Even closer is the taste of Mao Cha, the raw leaf used to make Puer, so I think the character is just inherent in the leaves of that particular province.

While my preference for the Jin Die was pretty much by taste and not strength of infusion, it’s probably worth noting that its leaves were almost entirely whole and unbroken while those of the Da Ye included quite a few broken pieces. This made the Da Ye infuse ever so slightly stronger and faster than its competitor. Storage and transportation aside (the broken leaves could have easily been the result of the bag I stuffed them in), probably the main reason for the wholeness of the Jin Die is that the dry leaves are rolled into beautiful tight curls. I suspect this small detail protected the leaves from the more destructive parts of their journey from China to my tea table.

For the first two infusions I used 95°C water for 45 seconds and at the third I increased that to 1 minute for both teas. I easily managed four infusions this way and I suspect I could have continued for another three without losing the flavor. By the fourth infusion, however, the teas started to taste very much the same, and so the comparison became less important.

This may be the first time I’ve had a preference for a certified organic tea when tasted side-by-side with a non-certified cousin, which was pleasing in itself. Organic certification is an ongoing (and expensive) struggle for many small farmers in China and I believe that it’s only thanks to the support given by big Western importers that has enabled tea like this Jin Die to be produced and sold at a reasonable rate with that certification intact.

yunnan2-sunsetAltogether I can easily recommend both of these Hong Cha for the lover of Chinese tea. I know that I’ll be drinking them frequently and reminiscing of the beautiful Yunnan sunset with every cup.

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.

Bada Mountain Fermented Puer

I recently subscribed to Jalam Tea’s monthly deliveries, and since the current month’s bing was already sold out, I received a hoard of samples of previous puer selections. Last week I had a go at the Meng Song. Today I tried the 2012 Bada Mountain Fermented (it seems that Jalam refers to their Shou puer as “fermented” and their Sheng as “unfermented” or with no classifier).

Photo Mar 19, 4 56 37 PMFirst I love that Jalam has a whole page and several videos dedicated to each tea. It really makes learning about the tea and its origin a fun experience. Location and skill of the producer are really what sets different tea apart, especially with Puer, but it’s so difficult to learn about those things from even respected vendors, East or West. The best thing is to visit the producer yourself or taste a whole lot of tea to get to know a factory. What Jalam offers is a good compromise: inexpensive, decent amounts of tea from unique regions and a full page of info about where it came from. Stéphane at Teamasters offers a similar experience with tea from Taiwan (mostly oolong), although somewhat less formally. His packages always give the precise location and date of harvest, which is a rare treat.

This Puer really surprised me, which is not easy for a Shou. I did a double sniff-take when I smelled the damp leaves. The aroma was so unusual: really rich in a dark plum sort of way that reminds me more of a black assam than a Shou Puer. Certainly there’s the character of moss and peat that I hope for in such a tea, but this has something more intriguing.

Photo Mar 19, 4 58 43 PMAfter slightly bungling my last attempt with these packages, I resolved to make a more careful infusion. I used a gaiwan to ensure control and I used only 4 grams of leaf since the packaging of the samples caused a little more breakage than would have occurred in a cake. If I were making this from a bing, I would probably use my usual 6 grams and maybe infuse a little longer.

Photo Mar 19, 4 59 52 PMThe taste has some of the bite I associate with Assamica leaf, which makes sense since the cultivar used for Puer is a large-leaf relative of the tea grown in Northern India. But saying it tastes like a black tea is a inaccurate description; it’s not really astringency that I taste — which is what I imagined when I read about the “nice smooth bite” on the package — it’s more of a brightness or zing in the mouth. Even using that term is complicated, though. Usually when I speak of a bright assam black tea, there’s a kick of potency close behind, but there is no kick here. Like the label says, it’s smooth all the way.

After 6 infusions the flavors were still going strong. I could probably drink this tea all day. In fact, I picked it up several hours later and made about 4 more infusions before the taste began to plateau.

I’m not sure that I would head for this tea all the times that I’m feeling in the mood for a Shou Puer. It has fewer of the stomach-soothing properties than my other bings. I would probably enjoy it more as the package suggests, as a morning tea to wake up the mind and body without the potency of an Assam or Darjeeling. Altogether it has been quite a fascinating experience to taste yet another quality that Puer is capable of exhibiting. The world of tea is truly never completely mapped.

 

 

 

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.

What is Puer?

I’ve been drinking a lot of Puer tea lately. Possibly more than any other style. Back in the old days I wrote a post on Dobra Tea’s blog about Puer to help with demystifying this wonderful beverage. Since then there has been a lot more accurate information published on the Internet regarding Puer and Hei Cha in general, but I felt I may as well update and republish my version. So without further ado:

IMG_3984

The six styles of tea would not be complete without the oft-misunderstood category called Puer (also Pu’er, Pu’erh, or Pu-er, but always 普洱). Just like White Tea, Green Tea, Black Tea, Oolong Tea, and Yellow Tea, there is also Puer Tea. Simply put, it is intentionally aged tea, but that description does it a disservice. The aging process has many nuances and cannot be used with just any leaf. It is a whole style of tea into itself and therefore, even though there are similarities, one can find quite a lot of variation between the tastes of one puer and another.

In China, Puer (普洱茶) is a regional appellation restricted (at least officially) to the region of southern Yunnan province near the border of Myanmar and Laos. If you get right down to it, It is actually a sub-category of the style of tea known as “dark tea” or Hei Cha (黑茶) which is any tea that has gone through a “post fermentation” process (a heavily misunderstood term on which I will elaborate below). Hei Cha is rarely discussed outside of China, however, as the popularity of Puer has far eclipsed the few other styles of Hei Cha that exist (Liu Bao, for example) just as the popularity of Champagne in the West has all but replaced discussion of “Sparkling Wine”, even though Champagne is only one region that produces that beverage.

“Post fermentation” is a difficult term to pin down. The real difference between Puer and its cousins is the aging process of the leaves. It is the only style of tea that gets better as it gets older (assuming ideal storage conditions). The processing of Puer is actually fairly simple compared to teas such as Taiwanese oolongs. First the leaves are sun-dried and withered, much like the beginning of a White tea. With the help of a short heating process, this “fixes” the leaf, stopping the oxidation process (note that the Chinese always translate tea oxidation as “fermentation”, even though this is an enzymatic reaction). The resulting silver-and-green leaves are called “Mao Cha” (毛茶) and are quite drinkable, infusing much like a Green tea.

Pressing Puer the old way.

Pressing Puer the old way.

Afterward, the Mao Cha is usually gently steamed, pressed into cakes or bricks, and then aged in dry or slightly humid conditions for a period of time determined by the tea master in that factory. During the aging process, microorganisms change the leaf and transform the cedar-like taste into the typical earthy flavors of a Puer tea, while reducing any sharpness that might be present. Over time (typically 10-30 years) the matured cake can produce a dark and comforting infusion with wonderful aromas. This kind of Puer is called Sheng Cha (生茶 — even if you don’t read Chinese you can see this on the label), meaning “raw tea”.

Before the 1970s, Sheng Cha was the only kind of Puer that existed. There was not much of an export market because of how long it took to produce a cake with an ideal flavor. Some young Shengs can be quite delicious, but it is generally thought that Puer should have a few years on it at least.

Both of these are actually Sheng! One is just much older.

Both of these are actually Sheng! One is just much older.

At some point, though, the tea masters of Kunming discovered a process being used in nearby Guangxi province that produced a rich and dark leaf within less than a year of aging. The secret was a damp pile-fermentation much like the process of composting, but very strictly controlled in temperature and humidity to prevent the tea leaves from rotting. The result was bricks of tea that were delicious nearly instantly after production. These teas were dubbed Shou Cha (or Shu Cha, 熟茶) meaning “ripe tea” and the process was quickly replicated in the factories of Yunnan province.

Shou Puer (sometimes mis-translated as “cooked tea”) still improves with age, but has different flavors that are more fresh soil-like than its Sheng counterparts. Theoretically, Shou Puer is just an accelerated aging version of the original Sheng style, so it’s possible to mistake an old Sheng for a new Shou. In my experience, however, there actually is a notable difference. Old Sheng (traditionally aged) Puer tends to be more smooth, more fragrant, and more gentle than its Shou counterparts. Of course, there’s plenty of poor tasting Sheng out there as well! The quality of the tea leaves originally used, the factory’s process, and perhaps especially the conditions of the Puer’s storage during its aging process all have significant effects on the final taste for either style.

Aside from the wonderful flavors of cedar and fruit that can pervade a well-aged tea cake (or 饼茶, bing cha), another advantage of the Puer leaf is that both types of this tea can be infused many more times than almost any other tea in existence. One chunk of good Shou Puer can make 15-20 infusions before losing its flavors.

IMG_4475

If you haven’t ever tried a Puer, they’re much easier to find than they used to be, but be aware that the mass-market loose Shou Puer you may find in a coffee shop or a grocery store is going to be a far cry from what you can find online. The internet has brought out many reputable dealers of fine Puer tea, and many of them will allow you to buy a sample of a cake before committing the whole thing. And if you find a good Puer, don’t worry about ordering too much; remember, it only gets better.

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.

Photo Dec 02, 11 41 22 PM

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.