What could a tea taste like that was pressed less than a year ago and yet is commanding the astronomical price of $219 per cake? I'm really curious to know, so I ordered a sample of this from Yunnan Sourcing. Got my box just yesterday, all squashed and misshapen, obviously opened and re-closed with bright green tape that reads "Examined by US Customs and Border Protection." They even slashed open a couple of the sample packets inside and didn't bother to re-close them, aside from another big piece of green tape crudely wrapped around a couple of packets. Ouch. I have such a dislike for the kind of apathetic, brute and sometimes even downright abusive treatment this country's border police is known to engage in. Although my beat-up little box of slashed-open tea is a pretty minor offense, I've heard too many stories from friends of mine living just north of the border in Canada. It makes me bristle at the sight of my mutilated package.
This Hai Lang Hao sample packet was not one that was slashed open, so none of the contents had spilled out. When I opened it this morning, knowing the price I paid for it, I was a little put off to find that it contained a large amount of loose broken leaves and crumbs. But maybe it got a little rough treatment from the border patrol? Maybe it started it's journey from Yunnan Sourcing more intact? I hope so. For my session this morning I was able to pull out a good serving's worth of intact leaves, but I won't get quite as many sessions out of this sample as I would have hoped. A lot of it ended up in my growing cup of crumbs and fannings.
The taste was very interesting, and a new experience for me. The first thing to hit me was a sweetness on the tip of my tongue which was quickly overwhelmed by a bitterness in the back of my mouth. But it wasn't a bitter bitterness (this is going to be hard to describe, I can tell). It wasn't the kind of bitter that makes you pucker or that causes a lot of dryness to the mouth. And yet it was very clearly bitter. I remember reading somewhere on the internet about the different kinds of 'bitter' that can be found in a tea. I suspect this is the kind that you want. The desirable kind of bitter. It was actually very pleasant, but I have no other word to describe it than bitter. In addition to the sweet at the tip of the tongue and the predominant bitter filling the whole of the mouth (starting at the back), there was also a butter quality mid-tongue. A very interesting flavor profile, and one I've never come across before. Usually I get the bitter first and *then* the sweet. But this was all turned around.
As the infusions increased in number the aroma showed a bit more personality. Sometimes I'd get cigarette smoke and sometimes I'd swear that I sensed notes of grape-like fruit. There was also plenty of butter aroma present in the later infusions. The mouth feel was interesting, too. A soft smoothness to it. The taste profile followed the same pattern from the start -- first a sweetness at the tip of the tongue and behind the lower front teeth, then the mouth filling with that pleasant bitter quality with some butter in the middle.
The spent leaves were interesting. Plenty of whole leaves, as well as lots of chopped up ones. But I was expecting to find meatier leaves and stronger spines, as I've gotten the idea that this is a sure sign of truly old tea trees. These leaves were more tender than I expected, though some of the spines were definitely the stronger type. But perhaps these are younger tip-growth leaves from old trees? Maybe someone with more tea know-how can educate me on this matter :)
Is this tea worth the $219 per cake asking price? Personally I'm not the least bit inclined to spring for it. I can only guess that its fetching such a high price on pure speculation alone. I really don't have the experience or know-how to determine if this tea is a great candidate for potential future awesomeness (which the price seems to indicate) or if its just enjoying it's placement in stratospherically-priced tea thanks to mostly hype. Even if it was the former, and this tea becomes something truly special in 10 or 20 years, I still wouldn't spring for it. There are too many great teas to be had that already have a good 10 years on them which can be bought for well under $219.