So much discussion of young versus aged puerh, and of what constitutes truly "aged" tea. My understanding is that puerh can't really be put in the aged category until it's got a good couple of decades on it. Teas like these today are generally still considered young, although the 2000 might be said to just be entering into adolescence (please do chime in, those of you more in-the-know than I). One of the challenges, and also one of the pleasures, of learning about puerh is that there really is no one central location or how-to book (I take that back -- I've seen a few "Let's Learn About Puerh" books but haven't read any, nor have I heard anyone talking about the value of such books). It seems the best way to learn is simply to taste-taste-taste, as well as spend time reading blogs and other online resources. That latter method can be tricky as even among the in-the-know tea drinkers there are great differences of opinion. It's hard to come up with a single set of definitive parameters.
So what do we know about what age can bring to a tea? Certainly older teas pour a darker soup with a more orange hue. Some younger teas can pour a bit orange as well, but there's some debate over why this is so, with some folks suggesting these teas have been purposefully manipulated and oxidized, either to fool the consumer or to bump up certain flavors in the tea to add to its marketability, while others feel there is less purposeful manipulation going on and that some tea leaves from some regions simply pour more orange, or that the matter of oxidation is more due to storage issues or even brewing methods.
Older puerhs are also said to have a smoother taste, but the pathway from brand-new cake to well-aged tea doesn't appear to be so straight forward with each added year to a tea's age producing a steady march toward 'dark and smooth' like some sort of straight-line graph. This is where it gets interesting. I've read that puerhs can go through different phases during the aging process, sometimes going through a not-so-tasty period before emerging eventually (or not) into a quite tasty tea. Who's to say which young tea will age into elegance and which will simply wither toward the insipid? Again, opinions vary widely among those who drink a lot of puerh. Some are of the opinion that those younger shengs which grab you by the throat with strength and challenge are the ones most likely to age into something truly interesting, while others will tell you they've tasted shengs that started out more agreeably (not so strong and bitter) and which grew into some very sublime tea in later years.
|2000 on the left, 2003 on the right|
As I expected, the soup of the 2000 tea is a tad bit darker and more orange than the 2003. This was clearest with the first infusions, but as the steepings increased in number the 2003 seemed to do a little catch-up, getting a bit darker and more orange. Was I witnessing this tea oxidizing right before my eyes? Could be. I've read that this happens.
|2nd infusion (2000 on the left)|
Certainly the biggest differences between these two (relatively close in age) teas was in the aromas. Though both fruity, the 2003 smelled of juicier riper fruit while the 2000 had a more concentrated dried-fruit quality. Also, the 2000 dipped into the realm of tobacco and cigarette fragrances which the 2003 didn't show at all. Taste-wise I had a harder time detecting big differences, though the 2000 tea certainly felt more penetrating in the mouth and throat, bringing up more salivation than the 2003. Tasting them side by side (which I'm not convinced is the best way to do these comparisons) the 2003 had a lighter taste to it and a not-quite-as-broad taste profile. And yet, on the subject of ku it was the 2000 that seemed to grab a little more deeply. I'd read that it was the younger shengs that generally contain more bitterness, but that wasn't the case here, and I really have no answer for why this was so (I've also been thinking lately that I could gain from a little more education on this matter of bitterness, which I know tea enthusiasts differentiate in a few ways). Could it be that the 2000 was heading into some sort of awkward adolescent phase? Or maybe what I was tasting had less to do with age and more to do with the differences of weather conditions between 2000 and 2003 and the resulting effects on the tea leaves?
As I sat with these two teas I realized how much more informative it would be to compare, say, the 2000 to the 2010 version of this tea, and I might go seeking the 2010 just for this purpose.