I like it green and frisky…
I like it ripe and mellow…
I’m talking about compressed tea, puerh, which is my favourite beverage. It’s the broadleaf Yunnan variety of camellia sinensis pressed into various shapes. Here I described a nice aged specimen of the cheap sort meant for the Tibetan market. I also talked a bit about its origins.
Puerh is now gaining popularity in parts of China and Asia where it was previously overlooked. In addition, it has a growing following among westerners. You wouldn’t call it SWPL yet, but it’s something ageable and collectible, so it may only be a matter of time.
One hears of six figure sums being paid for puerh cakes of great age, undisputed provenance and highest quality. Certainly, some tea that was released for sale before the Mainland takeover of HK hit US$25,000 – for a single cake the size of a dinner plate. But a caution: the most recent boom in puerh occurred only some three years back, causing the usual mischief such bubbles inflict.
Through it all, there are millions who just enjoy the stuff. Like many westerners, I have a taste for sheng, the unfermented “green” puerh, which I’m happy to drink without any aging. Aged is even better, of course.
To hasten the mellowing, puerh tea has often been kept in very humid conditions, a process referred to as wet storage. This seems to be less popular with westerners, though it has been very common in places like Hong Kong for a very long time. The famous Menghai factory of Yunnan introduced a fermentation process in the seventies, in order to create a ready-to-drink puerh. Though some dislike this shu or “ripe” puerh, it is now very popular, with many recipes and grades available. Some, myself included, find that ripe puerh ages very well, though it can’t have the complexities that a dry-stored raw cake achieves with time.
My own tastes are for both green and ripe, though I do have some wet-stored cakes, which I enjoy from time to time.
Puerh is also available loose, and that can be handy, though not ideal for aging.
One disappointment was the “silver bud” tea which I bought some years back. This consists of sharp, unopened buds processed and pressed like normal leaf puerh. The cakes had a wonderful peachiness in youth, and there was word that age could do good things for them. A very trusted internet commentator, Geraldo, alerted me that his silver bud cakes had aged very poorly after some five years. He was proven right. The lack of acidity, pectins etc finally reduced my peachy silver bud tea to a thin and bitter brew. (A bit like the excellent Aussie white wines that emerge fresh and drinkable from huge stainless steel vats and go brown and kersosene-like in bottle after a few years.)
Apart from that silver bud experience, I have found that even very cheap puerh can delight when young and deepen its character with age. Kept at reasonably high humidity levels, at a comfortable temp for humans, it’s a far more reliable aging prospect than wine. It can also be drunk far more often than wine: I like green in the day…
…and ripe at night.
Green puerh really does require what they call gongfu brewing. That involves, among other things, putting plenty of leaf in the pot or brewing bowl and doing lots of short infusions. Early infusions last for seconds, later infusions for minutes. You’ll get the hang of it. If you’re Anglo of some sort, you’ll need to break the habit of walking away from the brew. Raw puerh is for attentive brewers only.
There’s heaps of advice on the net from pernickety folk who love the ritual of gongfu and the teaware associated with it. I’m a slob, mostly using double sided glassware for brewing and drinking. My only fuss-point is keeping temperature even, which is why I always use double sided wares. Also rather than pour hot water over a large quantity of cold expanded leaf, I’ll do a flash infusion to reheat the leaves, then do a longer infusion for drinking.
Why not taste a raw and a ripe sample from the famous Menghai factory? Both these are inexpensive and mass-produced, with a good reputation for aging.
The 7542 raw cake is the best known blend of its kind. It’s a basic sheng that makes no apologies. In a word, it is shrill. Unlike some other raw cakes, it has not been tweaked to appeal readily to the novice or the timid consumer. It’s a cheap standard product intended for aging. There’s no question here of single estate, or wild ancient tree material. Such high-end stuff can be great, when genuine, and I often enjoy unblended tea from individual mountains and so on. But 7542 is a mass-consumption product from an experienced blender with huge resources. Personally, I love it.
The 75 refers to the year the factory came up with the recipe, the 4 indicates an approximate leaf grade, and the 2 indicates Menghai Factory. Probably none of the indicators are accurate and consistent, but puerh lovers get used to talking about their 7542 cakes, and each knows what the other is on about. If another factory comes up with a version of the recipe, they may jumble the numbers or just change the last one. All rather vague, but one sorts it out.
As you drink this through six or more infusions, you’ll get to know in a hurry if you’re meant to drink puerh. It will be bitter, sharp, sweet, spicey, earthy…and possibly something you’ll never want to drink again. Or you may get the point instantly, as I did. Though I’d drunk cheap puerh from Asian markets and in restaurants for decades, I’d paid it little attention. My first encounter with a good raw puerh was a coup de foudre. It’s my drink for life.
Moving on to the other sort…
7572 is a ripe puerh, or shu, the fermented kind that was invented in the seventies for immediate drinking, though it can age well. It’s a more digestible affair, very different from the raw, especially young raw. Mushroomy, puggy, earthy, woody, low in acid, it should also have a certain sweetness. Over time, woodiness and sweetness should come to the foreground.
Some people taste shu – even lovers of raw puerh – and all they discern is mud or “pondiness”. However, I really go for shu, and, though 7572 is a fine benchmark, I also enjoy the coarser leaf grades which give a more rounded taste, and the brisk “cola” styles, such as Menghai’s 7452. (7452 is not to be confused with the raw 7542 raw cake mentioned above!)
I should add that I’m more relaxed in my preparation of ripe puerh, often brewing it western style with less leaf and fewer infusions. I like to confine the fuss and tension to raw puerh, and those few teas which must be given gongfu treatment.
So, that’s puerh! Not for all tastes, but certainly for mine.
Many internet sites for puerh, with varying levels of activity. This is a long established site with good links. A shaving site (!), Badger and Blade, seems to have the most active puerh forums, in its extensive Cafe section. The Sheng of the Day forum is particularly busy. Some of the members have their own blogs, a few being very active and engaged, with lots of commenters. There’s also Tea Chat. Cha Dao is an old and valued tea site with articles from the esteemed Geraldo. Here he writes on the Menghai 7542 and other things.
I really think God was having an on-day when he made the camellia.