1999 Da Du Gan "Yunnan Yuan Bao" Chi Tse (sample)
purchased from Hou De Asian Art & Fine Teas
Manufacturer: Da Du Gan Factory/Chan Tai Factory produced
The first of a string of big guns. Am I ready for this? I think so. Been developing my palate and cutting my teeth on a variety of pu's (much more than what I've written about here). Time to learn what some age can bring to a good pu-erh. Guang from Hou De rates this as his #2 favorite arbor pu-erh from the late 90's, and he's certainly reputed to know his stuff. I appreciate the advice from some folks that one shouldn't rely on others' recommendations and should find out for themselves what pu-erh taste profiles they prefer. But when you're new to pu-erh and you're staring at over 1100 varieties just on Yunnan Sourcing alone... well, I don't think it's so bad to try out some others' suggestions as a start. It's not like I've gone and plunked down the $320 asking price for a full cake of this. Samples are a girl's best friend --
Hmmm... how to brew these precious leaves? This is where practice is important. I've played enough with these teas to have some idea of the difference a few seconds will make or how temperature might affect it. Granted, I'm no expert. Far from it. But I've got a little experience under my belt now. Some of the best advice I've heard is to simply listen to the tea (hence the title of this blog), which I think is what makes the experience of drinking pu-erh (especially the more complex and nuanced stuff) so sublime.
First, the rinse. I did a very quick one with water that had cooled slightly from boiling, but looking back now I probably didn't need to be so fast about it. These leaves have been sitting around for 12 years. I'm sure they're mighty thirsty. They just look it, don't they?
After pouring off the rinse water I get to the best part of pu-erh, for me -- the first aromas of the freshly wetted leaves. mmmm, so good... From the first whiff it was clear I was in for a very enjoyable (and very educational) session. First was that classic tobacco-y smell, except it was so alive and vibrant it actually made my nose tingle. Almost immediately the fragrance deepened with dark dried fruit, prune and date, settling into deep fruit and molasses. As the leaves started to cool the tobacco rose up again to take front stage.
The first infusion I played very safe, doing a quick 3-4 seconds with water that had sat for several minutes in the kettle since boiling. I knew the liquor would be light, but I wanted to unfold this tea very slowly and savor it for all it's worth. The color of the liquid was a pale orange, hinting at what it would become in later infusions. And the taste? An immediate tingle at the back of my tongue and throat. By the end of that first cup my whole mouth was buzzing and there was a very faint sweetness all around. But the tingling and sweetness was all very quiet and subtle. Clearly I needed to add a few more seconds to the brewing time.
Second infusion: 8 seconds with freshly boiled water. Still wanting to play it on the safe side, but I felt this was a good next step. First, a revisit to that gorgeous fragrance of the wet leaves. I wrote them down in the order they registered: leather, tobacco, prune, dark sweet cherry, honey, and then lingering off into all sorts of wafty wonderfulness. If they ever make a perfume with this kind of complexity and changeability I'd buy it in an instant. The color of the liquor is darker now though I'm sure it won't reveal itself fully for another infusion or two. The taste this time is more assertive. There's dryness developing at the back of the palate. I can feel the qi rising as well, filling my head. My whole mouth is tingling and a warmth builds deep inside my chest. Is there hui gan present? I'm still struggling to understand what hui gan means exactly. I've had pu-erhs that go down with a sort of bitterness and rise back up to a distinct sweetness, which I'm thinking is hui gan. With this tea there is very little of that bitterness and very little of that sweetness. At least not yet. But everything else -- wow.
For the 3rd infusion I go for 12-13 seconds, still playing it safe. I don't want to push it too hard yet until I'm satisfied I've had all the subtleties of the first revealings. The wet-leaf aroma of leather and tobacco stays longer this time. The fruit and honey fragrances are there but stay behind the main players, only coming forward as the leaves start to cool. I can taste some fruit in the tea now as well, and my mouth starts salivating. The qi is felt all through my head and body now leaving me feeling soft and floaty. I can feel sweat at my temples and forehead and heat through my whole body. Even my fingers feel warm and perspire-y. This is a first for me, this sense of "perspire-y-ness". I've read about it in others' reviews, but with pretty much all of them being male and me being female (and so of that biased perspective) I kept picturing something more... well... masculine. Sweating men, you know... ;) But thankfully I wasn't left dripping and mopping off beads of sweat (not that all men perspire that way, but I fear this image did creep into my mind as I read various reports of teas that cause one to perspire). Anywho, after finishing my third cup I was satisfied it was time to push the next infusion a bit. Still wasn't getting that rising sweetness I've had in other pu-erhs, though. Maybe it was yet to come?
For the 4th infusion I threw counted seconds to the wind and went with intuition. I poured the water, placed the gaiwan lid on for about 10 seconds and then lifted it back up to agitate the leaves with it, watching the color of the water change and waiting for a sense of "okay.. Now". I did keep count, though. I got the "now" signal at about 30 seconds. The tea was a nice rich sienna now, and I am very definitely tea drunk. The tongue-tingling and mouth-salivating continues full on as I drink it. I suddenly remembered -- what about "mouth feel?" I hadn't jotted any notes down about that yet. But it didn't hit me with sensations of "thick" or "silky". In fact, the mouth feel was nothing special. I've read that drinking from old tea cups can contribute to a better mouth feel, but for now all I have is this recently made blown glass cup, though I do have a couple of antique tea cups on order. It'll be fun to try those out.
For my 5th infusion I go with 50 seconds, pushing the tea a little more. The aroma of the wet leaves is mellowing now. All the fragrance notes I've been identifying are still there, but they're coming together now, less separate and more melded. My tea drunkenness is huge now and all I want from life is to sit and gaze out the window, settling into this mellow buzz. Truly, this stuff is akin to Prozac! I keep hearing that line from Star Wars echoing through my head, "The Force is strong with this one" (yes.. geekdom.. I know..). But still no rising sweetness to it. I'm a little bummed.
For the 6th infusion I push quite a bit harder. Two minutes this time. Let's see what it's got. The aromas are all familiar and while they've mellowed some there's still a vibrancy and aliveness to the fragrance. The tingling and warmth continues. This is truly a deeply penetrating tea, that's for sure. But I'm wishing there was more sweetness to it. Definitely a tea to take one's time with, savoring the qi if not the flavors. Still plenty of rising salivation and perspire-y feeling (just can't bring myself to say "perspiration" as it conjures up more brute sweatiness than is true for the experience).
And the 7th infusion? I remember pouring the water. I remember starting to count. But then my buzzing head got distracted and I was off playing with the camera or something. Suffice it to say the leaves got a serious dunking. I'm guessing it was maybe 4 or 5 minutes. Longer than I would have gone for if my well-fuzzified brain hadn't wandered off. A strong brew indeed. Much stronger than it needed to be, or than my stomach was comfortable with. I decided to call the session done for today and am saving the leaves for more playtime tomorrow. But not before spending some moments examining the wet leaves. I notice they all have surprisingly strong and prominent spines to them. A hallmark of true arbor leaves, I'm guessing.
And the verdict? Major qi in this one, with body sensations galore, and a joy to take in those many nuanced aromas. But... I kept wishing it had more taste and flavor to it. Reading over Guang's tasting notes I see he talks some about this too, which is nice to read as it affirms my palate is developing nicely. I've got several more samples of well-reputed older pu-erhs on the way, though. I'm interested to know if this is a characteristic of most older pu-erhs, or if it's just this one in particular. Stay tuned...