Today's tea of choice was a purchase I made recently based on a review from The Half-Dipper's site, here (plus two other reviews Hobbes links to in his own posting). It sounded so yummy and even though I knew this particular brick might not be the same one he'd tried I found myself irresistibly lured by the rustic handmade look of it (purchased from Holy Mountain Trading Company of San Francisco).
Rustic, indeed! An old cardboard wrapper showing cracks from not-too-careful storage. The five green Chinese (I'm assuming) characters would appear to be hand-painted with some sort of tempera paint except for the perfect half-circle of their arrangement, which would suggest something more stamped than hand-written. Either way, the paint sits on top of the cardboard with a bit of thickness to it.
The brick of tea reveals mostly dark brown with occasional lighter tan leaves which struck me as interesting.
The cross-section shows greater compression on the bottom with looser leaves on the top, which also struck me as notable.
And this was the most surprising thing of all -- cloves! When I pried off some leaves for my gaiwan these two little guys showed up in the mix. I went ahead and added them back in the gaiwan, curious to know why they were mixed in with the leaves and what taste they would add to the tea. If I'd found just one clove I might have thought it got in there accidentally, but finding two in the small amount of leaves I pried off led me to believe that these were intentionally part of the blend.
After a 20-second rinse I took in the fragrance of the leaves. A bit of a horse barn and green hay smell. Not a promising beginning. I've had a few "horse barn teas" before and have always found them ultimately flat and one-dimensionally grassy. Additionally, the newly wetted leaves turned a sickly green color. Another not-so-promising sign. I decided to give this one a second rinse just in case there might be other not-so-pleasant things lurking in my cup.
Still the horse barn aroma but with perhaps a flower garden out back this time. The second rinse seems to have removed much of that sickly look in the leaves although they're still very obviously green. A solid "old choppy green" look now (note the clove bud sitting front and center here) --
I did a first infusion of 12-seconds and was honestly a little scared to taste it. The color of the liquor is decidedly greenish yellow and the taste is like old green tea. Only the very slightest amount of bitterness to it. It wasn't as bad as I feared it might be, but it wasn't like what I know most young puerh to be either (not that I even know that, but I've had a handful). As I get to the bottom of the first cup a surprising floral note hits my nose that's actually quite pronounced and pleasing.
Second infusion -- 12-seconds again. The aroma is squarely in the flower bed now and it's the horse barn that's far off in the distance this time. I notice a bit of dryness in the taste that grabs at the back of my tongue. Also, my breath seems to carry come of that same floral fragrance in between sips. Once again there's a pronounced floral perfume at the bottom of the cup.
Third infusion -- 20-seconds. The aroma is quite flowery now. The hay and the horse barn have disappeared, replaced with some beany vegetal notes off in the distance. And the taste? You've heard of some puerhs tasting like liquid wood? Well, this one is best described as drinking "liquid meadow." That same flower-filled meadow comes back up on my breath too, filling my nose as I breathe. There's also a gentle cooling sensation in my throat and upper chest. I wonder if that might be due to the presence of cloves?
Fourth infusion -- 30 seconds. I've let the water cool through the infusions up to this point. I'm guessing it's around 185-190 now which might be better for this minimally processed greenish tea, but I'm just trying it out. This tea which had at first frightened me is turning into a very pleasant, though different, experience. Still a very mild bitterness in the taste (VERY mild), and a soft (not rough) dryness at the back of my tongue. Continued cooling in the throat and upper chest. Drinking this meadow-like tea in winter like this has me really aching for those early newly-warm spring days.
Fifth infusion -- 30 seconds again, except this time I've brought the water back up to boiling. The fragrance takes up a delicious creaminess now. Smells just like cream. The taste continues to be very pleasant and light and sweet. A very enjoyable tea to drink with just enough grab at the back of the tongue, and just enough activity in my upper chest and throat to make it truly fun to drink.
Sixth infusion (this tea doesn't seem likely to give up anytime soon) -- 45 seconds. The aroma is "cream of meadow soup" now. It makes me happy! That's a good descriptor for the taste, as well. Also, this tea feels so good inside me. It really agrees with my stomach.
Examining the spent leaves takes me back to biology class. A bit of mystery-novel sleuthing, as well. The source of the light tan specks is revealed -- small yellowy leaves that I'm guessing were a very light green, almost colorless, when picked. Or maybe these are the purple tip leaves that Half-Dipper mentions in his tasting of this tea (if, in fact, it's the same tea, and I think it is). There are plenty of chopped leaves and a few stems too, as well as some more unidentifiable bits pictured on the left above. I'm quite sure this is more evidence of cloves. That one hard round pea-like thing looks to be just the end of a particularly meaty clove bud.
Curious now, I hop onto the ever-informative internet and start searching. It seems that cloves are not uncommon in Chinese medicine. In fact, there's a Chinese medicinal tea that uses cloves, peppermint and cinnamon which is supposed to help with digestion (maybe that's why this tea felt so good in my stomach?). Several hours after my session with this tea I find that cooling sensation still present in my throat and upper chest. Maybe there was some peppermint in this tea as well? That's definitely what this cooling sense feels like. Or maybe this is part of the effect of the cloves?
And the verdict? Definitely a very pleasant and enjoyable, if unusual, tea. Obviously not a puerh in the strictest sense, but I love that about it. It speaks to my outside-the-box sympathies and my love for all things artisan and craftsmanship. It's a tea that lends itself easily to story. I can just imagine... a farmer somewhere near Dehong who acquires (maybe harvests himself?) a batch of maocha. He's got a generations-old recipe for a medicinal tea that's well-regarded by all who've tried it. He doesn't have access to the fancy tea-cake making equipment like the factories do so he presses it into bricks, wrapping each one with some cardboard and employing the local kids to stamp each brick with green tempera paint. I wonder what other rustic homemade cakes of tea lie sleeping in the back rooms of San Francisco's Chinatown herb shops?
*** A FOLLOW-UP ***
I've found a bit more information on this tea but it's a little confusing. There are older reviews of this tea floating around the web that claim it was manufactured by the Luxi Tea Factory of Dehong. Another couple of reviews loosely imply it was a Yunnan Sourcing manufactured tea. Currently on the Yunnan Sourcing site there's a Yunnan Sourcing made brick here that looks identical to this one, leading me to believe it's actually a Yunnan Sourcing tea and not Luxi. But then there were those cloves in the mix, which has me completely puzzled. I might have to grab one of the YS bricks just to compare.