Ripe Puerh Epiphany

The Zhongcha 55

On April 7th I had a ripe puerh epiphany.  It happened with the first infusion of the Zhongcha 55, where I detected that medicinal numbness characterizing some raw Wuliangs and Bulangs.  Until today, I had been tasting dried fruit, minerals, lotsa chocolate and cardboard, leather, and varying degrees of mintiness in the aftertaste.

Lately, I’ve been testing my stash based on rigorous measures of amount, infusion time, durability, clarity, aftertaste, and effect, i.e., “qi.” These measures have had me tasting ripes side-by-side.  What I primarily notice is sweetness or conversely tannins and thickness.  Some productions have the vaunted camphor taste, but claims aside all but a few have fleeting camphor effects or none at all.  In any case, that particular camphor taste though rare is not new the object of my epiphany nor is the taste of certain medicinal herbs.  Here, however, we have to distinguish between medicinal types.

One of the medicinal types is ginseng.  This taste is slippery and rooty.  Another is more of a spice, anise, which is also slippery but with a sweetness .  There are other spices like cinnamon and clove but which are very rare.  Then there is the “chlor-AH-septic” medicinal.  It numbs and tingles the mouth.  I can’t say that I haven’t experienced aspects of this before in ripes, but not to the extent where I could taste it in the broth only in the aftertaste.

This epiphany is a likely result of tasting productions side-by-side.  Such an approach allows for the differences to come into sharper contrast than banking on memory alone.  I’ve started tasting others for this taste and effect, ascertaining therefrom something about the quality of the raw material, its age before being fermented.  Frankly, I don’t know if young material can produce the same effects as old, whether the “aging” of the material from wet-piling can produce the same effects of aged material. Methinks not.

I can’t decide if some raws are so loud in their youth that it is difficult to detect this particular effect or if it is some effect that emerges as a result of age.  Could it be both?  In any case, since not all raw puers, in particular Lincangs and Yiwus, have this taste irrespective of age, it isn’t reasonable to project this expectation upon all ripes.  However, this particular effect may at least somewhat figure in what type of material makes the best ripe.  The verdict is out on all these counts.

What Makes an Outstanding Ripe Puerh II

There are so many just ok shu offerings.  Few are really bad or really good. Ones that seem just ok under the right conditions are outstanding and ones that are exceptional at the outset can run out of gas.  Storage plays such a large roll, and then there’s the fermentation style of the tea master complicating matters.

Part of the intrigue of puerh is that it is a moving target, constantly changing.  Though this is quite evident with raws under right conditions, ripes can also undergo dramatic transformation.  The mkt for old ripes is as great as it is for raws, at least to some extent and the best of my knowledge.  Having tasted some ripes from the 80s, I find that some of the preoccupation with old ripes to be a bit over done.  Watching the prices of items in my collection explode, I can definitely attest to the fact that price does not reflect quality by any measure when it comes to ripes!

The point here, however, is not about price as much as it is about the difficulty in determining what’s good.  As was mentioned, the intention of the tea master is important to consider.  The Langhe team tends to go quite light on the process, producing a milk chocolate effect.  When the 2011 Imperial Round came into my possession, I was expecting a similar result.  Much to my dismay, it was horrible: astringent to no end, as if it were black tea (hongcha) with the color to boot.

That was 2014 and till that time under Kunming storage.  Now, I have another cake that is similarly astringent, a dry bugger that is hard to figure out since it was expensive enough, some artsy cake that is visually beautiful, hand-pressed, and maybe popular in Taiwan but which taste-wise is bone dry and elusive.  For what it is worth, the liquor possesses a gorgeous orange hue.

Yunnan storage it seems is brutally ponderous.  It’s so dry so much of the year.  Even when it rains its dry.  The round was astringent and dry but it didn’t taste like cardboard, a characteristic very common to common ripe puerh… imho. That cardboard taste, what to make of it?  Is cardboard actually a fermentation style, a mark of storage, tea quality, … all the above?  Shouldn’t ripes be universally sweet and juicy and not astringent and dry?

I have devised a purgatory of sorts where I’m storing the very young ripes that I expect to be excellent with proper abuse and the ones that I hate that deserve abuse.  Ok, the abuse may have been in Kunming, for the purgatory to which I refer is the Mediterranean climes of Los Angles, particularly the oppressive summer of ’15.  There both cakes were placed in purgatory, though what I’ll call “’06 Artsy” had already been in purgatory for better part of a year.

Now, I should say that the ’11 Imperial Round was not exactly like most ripe cakes, which are either chunky or bitty and dense.  This cake is made with leaves julienned like the tobacco that you can buy in Kunming.  It also breaks apart easily.  There seems to be considerable care in its crafting, which made me feel doubly disappointed in it initially.

After six months I checked in on it.  I was stunned.  The cake was cooked.  The astringency was gone and the chocolatey goodness game through with more milkiness.  No, I didn’t add milk, it’s just the chocolate is not dark chocolate with lots of tannins.  Interestingly, ’05 Artsy is still very dry, which is suggestive of a certain fermentation style.  I have a tried a shu brick from the same company and found it similarly dry.  It’s also in purgatory.


What Makes Outstanding Ripe Puerhs?


I’m sitting here clearing my throat with a gentle buzzing aftertaste of earthy and acrid Chinese herbs, not exactly ginseng but with that resonant taste of sapponins, asking myself what makes for an outstanding ripe puerh.  Beyond the obvious factor of taste, clarity is what separates really good puerhs from outstanding ones.  Clarity is the product of skill in green-kill and fermentation.  Even though some clarity will arise from storage, no amount of storage is likely to make up for less accomplished execution earlier in the process.

Have I been authorized to make such a proclamation?  No.  But tastes vary and what one prefers in a good puerh is to some extent impossibly subjective.  However, variables like clarity, evenness of release, and durability advance the discussion beyond just taste.  Yes taste will always be king but the king must have capable counsel to rule the kingdom.

Such a liege in addition to clarity I propose is huigan, which some believe is not “aftertaste” but which is.  Moreover, huigan is an overall intensity and effect in the mouth and throat after the tea is consumed.   Most of this effect is muted in ripes, but the outstanding ones still possess impressions of its raw origins or its essence.

Right now, I don’t believe any shu lands more squarely on all of the above attributes more than the ’06 T8371 by Zhongcha.

2014 Yibang Dragon Pearl, Shujian Tea


Shujian Tea has made a name for themselves crafting “Free and Easy Pills” (xiaoyao dan) from classic puer terrior.  Their prices are stunning, but the quality and effect speak for themselves.  The 2014 Yibang is fabulous.  The 2014 productions didn’t come in the snazzy boxes as they do today.  The box upgrade, however, hasn’t led to a changing of the high-quality paper wrapping the “pill” itself.  Each pearl is made of only the most carefully selected material originating exclusively from a single tea garden.  They are somehow hand rolled into what will settle into an eight gram jewel.  Quantities from a single terrior are between 500-1000 pieces, sometimes less.

A little about “Free and Easy” in the Chinese context, which is a reference to the ancient Daoist sage Zhuang-zi (Chuang-tsu).  There is a famous passage, “Xiao Yao You”, in the eponymous classic Zhuang-zi, describing a freedom from constraint.  Xiao Yao San is a classica Chinese medicinel formula for liver constraint from a compendium introduced in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), The Prescriptions of the Bureau of Taiping People’s Welfare Pharmacy, Taiping Huimin Heji Jufang.  “Constraint” usually means impeded that which is relieved by tending to the softness and vascular efficiency of the liver, but it also connotes one’s disposition.  It is this aspect that Shujian evokes.  The “dan” character 丹 stands for a special type of pill.  It carries Daoist and alchemical overtones.

A little too much information I know, but it is a classy literary and medicinal reference that screams style.  Wu Dang (Wu Tang) type stuff, misty mountains and flowing robes.  Thing you can tell about these Xiaoyao Dan is that they cater toward more dedicated tastes in Mainland where there is much greater demand and appreciation.  Bricks and cakes are very different creatures from the dragon pearl.  The Yi Bang at twice the price of Shujian’s Bang Dong is more than twice as good.  The Bang Dong possesses a green bean quality, whereas the Yi Bang is floral and uplifting.  At 14 infusions it never grew bitter but even with color it seemed to be cashed.  Yiwu tea, to which Yibang belongs, is said to grow sweeter with age.  I can’t see tea of this type getting much better because much of the beauty is in its freshness, contrary to most bricks and cakes.

Puerh Storage Concerns


Any parent worries about their child and any farmer worries about his crops.  Why should the matter differ for the one storing puerh?  Yesterday, I decided to check out one of the cakes I’ve been storing for about a year-and-a-half.

Fresh out of the box, this ’13 cake looked, smelled, and tasted top notch.  After several mths, I reached for it again, finding it flat, with a taste of crayola.  More recently, I received an ’05 Ba Jiao Ting which was similarly flat, which I also attributed to storage.  This is not a matter of humid storage, but what seems to possibly be stuffy storage.

Both cakes, along with a few others, were transferred to the more capacious storage vessel and allowed to sit for a little over a month.  The crayola effect has completely vanished from the ’13 and the ’05 is sufficiently old where some of that is to be expected.  It is certainly a better-tasting puerh, possessing considerably more depth and intensity.  It is definitely a production in line with the grade and reputation of the the company.

It seems that storing is a far more forgiving process than one would expect.  Productions old and young were resuscitated in little over a month of more ideal storage.  I suppose that this transfer is akin to letting the tea sit out for a duration before drinking.  It’s a relief to know that storage can be so flexible.


Bing Dao Report Mar 2017

Bing Dao TangI

The Yapu 2010 Bing Dao Wang is an excellent score.  I’ve written about it before, yet it still merits visiting.  An honest nine infusions in and it seems to be a wee better than half exhausted.  In Kunming I didn’t taste any Yiwu or Bing Dao that is as soft as this Yapu Bing Dao Wang.

As it ages, it seems to be getting more syrupy.  The liquor is golden and crystal clear.  Tastes like sweet mineral water with a light fragrance of some fleeting flower.  Its gentility explains how it could become so popular in metropolises in China.

Storage and aging is an unfolding with every cake.  So far, things for this Bing Dao have been perfect.  There’s no storage taste in the leaves so it’s a pure experience.  The cake is packed  less densely than most and leaves look lush in the pot.

Star of Week: ’07 T861 Tulin

'07 T861 TangI

The T861 is a precocious little bugger.  For being only nine years old, it is easily one of the most aged treasures in the Puerh Junky’s collection.  It has been stored to perfection, neither too humid nor too dry, but sufficiently humid to allow for rapid transformation.  It has lost nothing along the way.  Moisture has kept it alive.  Earth and camphor aromas emanate enticingly from the dry tuo.

The broth color is already on the red ale side. It is clear and full-bodied: sweet, mushroomy, and camphory.  In the warm weather, the camphor surprisingly induces a cooling effect.  On the back end, the melange fades to trademark Wuliang Mt medicine notes and earth.  Brew judiciously, no more than five seconds.  The leaves,pressed to perfection, release quickly.  Extending the brewing time makes it too tannic, though the tannins are otherwise just another balancing effect of a well constituted brew.

The T861 is sweeter, more camphory, and smoother than either the ’06 Silver Buds or the ’07 T868, all by Tulin. It seems like it’s about five years older than the two.  The T868 is the “youngest” among the three, with an astringent bite and hint of smoke similar to the Silver Buds.  As it opens up, it expresses a macho florality similar to the Year of the Rat.  The T861, on the other hand, is like the wise grandfather who has seen it all.

8g T861
150 ml water at 200f
5s infusion time

Star of Week: 2012 Chen Yun Green Cake, CNNP

12ChenYun Cover

I think I’ve figured out what that “pencil shavings” taste is that the bearded dude over at the Tea DB is talking about.  It’s a taste that I’ve associated with soda and the orange cremecicle, but it could be associated with pencil shavings as well, I suppose.  It’s a taste that lingers in the aftertaste of our Star of the Week, the 2012 Chen Yun Green Cake, by Zhong Cha.

Chen yun” means something like “old taste.”  The name has been thus bestowed because the cake is pressed from mao cha that aged for five years before being pressed into a cake.  As such then, the rambunctiousness of a generally young tea is totally absent.  Rather, there are honey notes in the taste and fragrance.  At the same time, the broth color and taste are is considerably younger than something from ’05-’06.  In fact, the broth is light gold with a high degree of clarity.

Hot summer days call for light puerhs.  I want them sweet and relatively uncomplicated.  Smoke and bitterness are not particularly welcome.  Productions that start out good but quickly hit the wall end up leaving a greater sense of dissatisfaction that they do pleasure.  The Chen Yun Green Cake is exceptionally even keeled.  There is zero smoke and the bitterness is negligible.  Those who cannot discern the difference between astringency and bitterness would do well to have a guzzle or two of this treasure.  The astringency here blends well with aftertaste, hanging particularly in the cheeks and on the blade of the tongue and front of the palate.

A temperature just above tepid reveals a pleasing sweetness.  It tastes as though it is the same recipe that comprises Beijing Olympics and HK Returns cake.  The Chen Yun and HK Returns cake have been pressed with considerably more care than the Beijing Olympics, which even despite its high compression has undergone much more transformation and tastes considerably older than the two.  Chen Yun still possesses a gentle floral quality that evokes a sense of perfume that is of high quality and worn subtly.

150 ml gaiwan
8g Chen Yun Green Cake

Infusion times ranged from flash infusion to 30s.  Yields around 12 infusions.

Star of Week: 2014 Bulang Peacock, CNNP

14 Bulang Peacock ReverseII

The 2014 Bulang Peacock is of a different formula from most raw Zhong Chas.  The cake has an unmistakable vanilla character and aroma.  The leaves are carefully selected and pressed.  Breaking the leaves from the cake is easily accomplished.

The broth is of a medium viscosity and possesses a umami quality that I find particular to Bulangs of an unknown region and relatively young age.  In addition to vanilla, some citrus can found in the taste.  The taste is somewhat comparable to the Prince of Banna in terms of the vanilla, but the 2014 Bulang Peacock has a fuller body.  Think of the older Ingrid Bergman instead of the young one and you’ll see the contrast.

I can’t say that the Bulang Peacock comes with any of the force of the Zhong Cha Beyonce, Fu.  Rather, it is one of those genteel experiences, one in which discretion is the rule.  Overall, it is a pleasing summertime offering.


Star of Week: 2012 “Fu,” CNNP


Somehow I feel that the 2012 Fu has already won acclaim as SOW (Star of Week), but I don’t want to go back to check, just let the chips fall as they may.  So, one of my two buddies dropped in this week from Beijing.  He planned to carpool up north with a friend of his, who happened upon my residence for such reasons and feeling the need to be a good host I offered some of my stash.  I thought that something quick and easy was in order.  It’s mid summer.  The days are warm and the late afternoons are punctuated by cool breezes off the Pacific.

The 2012 Fu is a fruity sweet delight.  It might be considered the Chenin Blanc of the raw collection: sweet with body, highly drinkable.    I put 6g in my 120ml yixing clay pot and gave the first infusion about 30s before down-shifting to about 10s.  I used somewhat cold water, possibly 168 or so.  It takes the hot water fine without turning bitter, but still water on the cooler side seems to help the brew maintain its liveliness.  It is a very cheerful tea, and certainly something that would be easily drunk by the puerh novice.

The brew itself is rich, i.e., “fu” (馥), and the fragrance is equally full.  The taste lingers a good spell, beckoning for another round.  Despite its youth, it feels very gentle on the stomach.  Overall, Fu seems perfect for the summer.