Drinking Earth: The Magic of Pu-erh, Part 2
Yesterday, I waxed on about the earthy delights of pu-erh tea. You can read about it here. In this post, I take the easy route, making analogies between wine and pu-erh, and also offer tasting notes.
As we tasted, at some point the dialog predictably shifted to wine--not surprising as pu-erh is undoubtedly the wine of the tea world. It improves with age and most of those we tasted were allowed a few years to age. Discs of 60 year old pu-erh has bee sold for up to $30,000 each. This is perhaps only exceeded in ludicrousness of say, I dunno… a $117,000 bottle of Château d’Yquem. Rich man toys aside, Ned stated simply, “ we look for teas with character”. It was a simple statement, but exactly the criteria I use to asses the quality of wine. For some reason, this struck me in a profound way.
Interestingly, almost all of the pu-erhs benefited greatly from multiple steeps. It is counterintuitive and remarkable. The more you steep, the more the tightly bound leaves begin to open up and release their savory, earthy layers. The profile evolves with each steeping. This reminds me of how I love drinking Barbaresco. It is best enjoyed after being emptied and swirled into a decanter and served in Burgundy bowl stemware with lots of surface area. This exposure to air coaxes the nebbiolo into a series of aromatic adventures that unfold over the course of a meal. The same is true with each steeping; each time a new story.
Pu-erh tea is made from the strain of Camellia Sinensis called Dayeh, a large-leaf varietal Pu-erh comes from the Yunnan region in Southeastern China, near the Cambodian/Vietnam border. There are two approaches in pu-erh production: raw or ripened. The former, known as “sheng cha” has its color and character induced through sun exposure and subsequent beneficial oxidation. The latter, “shu cha”, is fermented pu-erh. As is often the case with fermented things, the so called “ripened” pu-erhs get their complex character through this process.
Green Pu-erh is made with little, if any, oxidation. These looked like miniature bales of straw with pieces of grass strewn intermittently. These teas are made with leaves picked from trees, often times from the mountains, and in some cases more than 200,000 years old. For the really fine ones, just like grapes, the leaves are sorted by hand. The leaves are then dried, traditionally with sunlight, until most of the moisture is gone. They are then sorted again and given a grade (1-10 based on the quality of their leaves. After the second sorting the leaves are steamed and pressed into aforementioned discs or bricks. These can then be cellared to improve with age.
Part of the processing may involve chopping these leaves into proportionate sizes. This is more user friendly in that the flavors are drawn out faster and the small, twig-like cuts of the leaves ensure an even steeping. I made me think of how chopping fresh herbs, or even dried herbs, are more intense than whole bunches.
The shu (ripened or cooked) chas were predictably dark. Of those we tasted my favorites were those that came in those little gift wrapped discs. Though they look like black teas, I think they are technically green teas. Ned used the words black tea for the “shus” made it seem like the words were interchangeable. Below, my tasting notes and impressions from our afternoon of pu-erh.
King of Pu-erh 2010, Organic, Rough Cut Black
This was for real. It was rich and full and one of the ones I thought benefited most from the second steeping. While we were drinking this, I saw Ned shake the tea leaves after the first steep which made me realize that these teas do benefit from a little bit of agitation. It was full and clean with a little earth, but I have the feeling we could’ve kept steeping and I would’ve grown more fond.
Black River Mountain (Hei He Shan)
This was our undisputed, consensus favorite. It is a fermented high mountain tea that had more character than anything we’d tasted. It was robust and smelled of wet black soil. It would be a perfect match for dessert and after steeping, turns into a really beautiful little ball of wispy, shimmering obsidian leaves and stems. I absolutely love this and could drink it every day of my life.
Small Leaf Pu-erh, Organic
This has the sweetest nose of the bunch, showing notes of sweet cocoa and again coffee. Unlike the Black River Mountain, this didn’t just have the smell of coffee, this actually looked like coffee after brewing. It was exactly like drinking a decaf coffee, which I found fascinating.
Yong De Mao Cha
This raw pu-erh was one of the ones that were processed and cut into little half inch stems. It was harvested in 2007 and had its fermentation halted by some time in the sun. It had the strongest citrus character and smelled of chalk, smoke and orange peel.
Menghai Classic Ripe Brick
According to Ned, Menghai is a house that is well known for their very high standards of quality. I loved this. It was somewhere close to the strong wet earth of the Black River Mountain, but also had an underlying dark chocolate thing that was really cool. This is one that I would like to revisit after several steeps.
Posted October 11, 2011 • Filed under Wine
Post Your Comment
From The Archives more >
To have new entries sent to your inbox, just enter your email address below: