Monday, June 6, 2011

Anatomy of a low quality pu-erh

It wasn't all a loss this morning.  I started my session with a pot of the 2007 Douji "Six Ancient Tea Mountain", which is a very fine tea for it's age.  It was my first big purchase of multiple cakes and I'm glad to have picked up as much as I did.  I drink it frequently and it never disappoints.  In fact, I think it tastes even better in the yixing, and the cha qi of this one is truly excellent.  A great tea for meditation.

But my restlessness was tugging at my sleeve again, so after exhausting the Douji I pulled out random cake from the shelves.  It was a Taobao purchase of this cake, said to be from 2005, made from "ancient" Wu Yi leaves, and stone pressed.  Did I really think it was all that?  Well, for the price of 22 yuan, no.  But it made for some pretty pictures on the Taobao page so I added a cake of it to my order.  A small price to pay for a little education.

True to the Taobao page this beeng is (initially) good looking, covered both front and back with large long ropey leaves.  But like they say, never judge a book by it's cover.  My first clue that something was amiss came when I tried to pry off some leaves for the pot.  This cake was rock hard!  Had to get the knife out.  The next surprise was what was revealed inside.  Just under the top layer of pretty ropey leaves was a dense solid mass of dried tea leaves.  It almost looked like the leaves had been pulverized before being compressed.  No matter how carefully I worked my knife to get into it, I ended up with mostly finely crumbled bits, almost powdered.  Stone pressed?  I think not.  Not unless they used a 300-lb rock!  Although I don't know enough to say for sure, it seemed to me that a smaller cake had been pressed first (with machine?) made from fannings and very small bits, and then this smaller well-compressed disc had been covered with larger prettier leaves and maybe then put into a stone press.  That's just my guess.

I was actually eager to taste this one, believe it or not, and tried to keep an open mind despite the inauspicious start.  I knew I was in for a lesson.  I rinsed and used an aroma cup to start.  It smelled blandly green with just a faint hint of sugars.  Next, a 6-second infusion -- it tasted like sour water.  I bumped up the second infusion to 30 seconds.  Again, sour water with a little bit of tea-flavor to it.  The third infusion I tried a full minute, but again the tea fell flat on my tongue with little taste, little aroma, and nothing going for it.  As I sipped I had the unpleasant experience of finding gritty bits of dirt in my mouth, so I decided to chuck this one and chalk it up to a good lesson.

Thanks to the many good folks who blog and post about their tea experiences (not to mention those tea vendors who offer well-chosen quality teas) I've had the good fortune to taste some very good tea.  Some are truly excellent while others are just decent.  But it can be argued that without the lows one cannot appreciate the highs.  Without darkness one cannot be conscious of light.  So it is with tea.  And so it is I find myself thankful even for this unimpressive little hockey puck of a pu-erh.  :)


  1. I really need to learn how to order from Taobao...I am definitely behind the curve on that. It seems you can find incredible teas on that market! I am just not skilled enough or trust my opinion enough to do it.
    Maybe one day I will take a leap!

  2. Nice post. For some reason I still have an awful cake in my collection which claimed to be 'Spring Tips' and in actuality it is leaf mulch with some tips pressed into the surface. A tea so bad even my dog doesn't want to play frisbee with it at the park!

  3. 五行雲子 -- lol! I remember seeing a post on a tea blog where the guy had burned a bunch of bad tea cakes, bonfire-style. Maybe I'll save this one for such an occasion ;)

    Sir William -- I'm not sure there's a lot of incredible tea to find on Taobao (not unless you have MarshalN's uncanny tea-finding abilities or, for those of us far less skilled, are willing to throw away a lot of money on duds). I only go on Taobao anymore to locate younger cakes that have sold out from Western vendors, for the most part. MarshalN has a great tutorial on his blog about how to navigate Taobao, if you haven't seen it before. At least it's interesting to see what's offered there.