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.


by Yang-chu