Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shu surprise

"If you look at things with different lights you see different things."
-- from the Archimedes Palimpsest Project website

Gotta love that quote.  Even though it's referring to something very technical and modern (specifically, the digital imaging techniques used to photograph the palimpsest) it echoes an old Hindu story about three beings who drank from the same river -- one was a god, and he drank ambrosia; one was a man and he drank water; the third was a demon and he drank filth.  I find such wisdom in this.

And what does Archimedes have to do with tea?  Well, it was something of a working day for me (in many respects), which included seasoning a new yixing pot I recently acquired.  I've decided to dedicate this one to shupu while keeping the other for sheng.  So, with dark shu in my mind and things to get done, I sat down to drink just that.  Knowing it would be a long day I bypassed my usual quiet mindful approach to tea and set up the laptop for work, doing my best to ignore the quiet grumblings of ghosts of long-dead tea masters.

While the new teapot was simmering in it's first hot water bath I debated on which of my ripe teas I would add for the tea soak.  I'd love to christen it with my favorite (Bana's Tang Xiang, which was discussed here), but that's a pricey and precious tea for this purpose.  So as I read about heroic conservators and medieval inks I sampled a few different shus.  First up was part of a sample I picked up based on an encouraging review from Mattcha's blog, an 80's ripe puerh from Menghai Tea Factory.  It sounded like it held a lot of promise, but unfortunately I wasn't able to get quite the same pleasure from it that Matt did (yet another humbling tea lesson).  It wasn't a bad tea, but I found it heavy and dominant with deep earth notes (after the initial musty storage aspects subsided) and was only minimally able to detect some of the same creamy cocoa sweetness Matt had found.  It was just plain hard for me to listen past the very strong earth-wood notes of this one (which aren't bad but I like a broader profile), and it wasn't long before I was digging through my tea collection to see what else I could find.

I don't have a lot of ripe puerh, and the majority of what I do have was purchased earlier this year from an ebay vendor who was selling some interesting cakes for next to nothing.  Up until now I'd only tried one of the pieces I bought from him, a tuocha listed simply as "2000 Yunnan Wild Old Tree."  It turned out to be a rather disturbing tea drinking experience as it left my mouth and throat pulsing with a very strong distasteful chemical/metallic tingling that lasted well over a day.  I was sure I'd ingested god-knows-what carcinogens (probably something banned in the US, likely manufactured by Monsanto and sold overseas for a bloated profit).  I eventually tossed it in the trash.  So I haven't been too motivated to try any more of this seller's teas, but decided to give some a go today.

I promise I wrapped that cake on the left better when I put it back on the shelf
I picked out a couple of Tong Qing cakes, the 2003 Longma Tong Qing (left in the photo) and the 2005 Bainian Tong Qing (right).  I started with the 2003 Longma.  The cake was densely compressed and hard to break apart and it had this curious little red and gold string stuck within the pressed leaves.  Initially I thought it must be something that had accidentally fallen in when the cake was being compressed, but after finding the same red and gold string in the other cake I'm guessing this must be a signature of Tong Qing cakes (I welcome any information/education/enlightenment on the matter!).  I loaded up the tea pot, gave it a rinse and went to take in the aroma.  Mmmmm!  Sweet spices mixed with the distinct fragrance of blackberries.  It smelled fantastic!  The typical earthy-woody notes were also present but they played a lesser supporting role and didn't dominate like they had with the Menghai 80's shu I'd had before.  As I prepared several infusions of this tea the blackberry and spice themes prevailed, joined by soft butter, sugar and unsweetened cocoa notes, all balanced on a gentle foundation of wood and earth (and lacking any mustiness).  It reminded me a lot of the Tang Xiang but with a heavy dose of blackberry.

Taste/feel-wise, this one continued to shine.  At one point I steeped it a little too aggressively which resulted in something that tasted a lot like black coffee (which is fine by me), but the bitterness stayed mellow and never puckering.  The flavors were all deep woods with plenty of sweet around the edges.  Another thing this tea exhibited was that sensation of "clean" I've come to appreciate in certain puerhs.  It pulled plenty of salivation from my mouth and just seemed to permeate a sense of "good clean water" throughout.  I also noticed a nice cooling sensation down into my chest as I drank it.  Lastly, I was impressed by the qi this one had.  Very strong but in a good way.  It left me mellowed and clear and in a good space.  I was reluctant to put it aside to sample the third and last of the shus I'd chosen for the day, but I was curious to know if the other Tong Qing would shine, as well.

Although I was pulling for the 2005 Tong Qing Bainian it just wasn't up to the challenge.  The Longma was a hard act to follow.  This Bainian still did admirably though, opening much like the 80's Menghai I'd started with.  Lots of wood and earth dominated, with sweet notes underneath (in this case apricot) and leather, though it thankfully lacked the musty storage elements that the 80's Menghai had.  One of it's downsides was an aroma that seemed fleeting, tapering off quickly to not much.  Like the Longma it did a good job of pulling salivation to my mouth.  It seemed a bit more penetrating as well, although I wasn't sure why.  All morning I'd been thinking about that chemical-laced tuo which also had a penetrating quality, although the penetration in that case felt very definitely suspicious.  With the Bainian I wondered if there might be some chemical action going on, as well.  Not that it was anything like that scary tuo, but now that I've got more experience with puerh... well, I just wonder.  Another characteristic the Bainian had in terms of 'feel' was a curious thickness in the throat.  It also possessed a noticeable qi, but unlike the Longma this one had more of a jittery-buzz quality to it.

(remnants of a boil-over there.. thank god for soapstone countertops)
When the time came to simmer my new yixing in a tea soak I ended up filling it with the 2003 Longma, throwing in my collected fannings to round out the brew.  Soon the kitchen was filled with spicy blackberry jam-like goodness.  As the pot simmered the aroma continued to deepen and transform.  The sweet berry notes gradually turned savory with a terrific richness and depth, smelling just like sauteed mushrooms.  I kept revisiting the stove just to take in the smell.  Is it any wonder I've got sauteed mushrooms planned for dinner tonight?  Soooo good :)


  1. I've have been pondering buying a half cake of the 80's 7572 but after reading this post I'm having second thoughts about it. I really enjoy drinking aged shu so the price seems reasonable to me but I'm worried i might end up being disappointed like you seem to have been. I've ordered sheng from them before and been happy with it though. Anything more you can add about your experience with this shu?

  2. Anonymous -- I haven't tried this shu since this session, and it's entirely possible (even probable) that I didn't brew it to it's best. Any chance you could get a smaller sample to try first before committing to a half cake? (although I know their sample prices are high) If my last several sessions with the 101 have taught me anything, it's that a single tea can taste surprisingly different from varying just a few parameters. Maybe I'll pull out this one again and play around with it to see if I can find something closer to the reviews (which sound so wonderful).