I shared this Pu’er and Verdant Tea’s Spring Tieguanyin with a friend last Tuesday. Refer to my tasting note of the latter tea for more backstory of the context. I will begin by saying that I’ve probably tried around 18-20 pu’er teas, and to date, this Xingyang 1998 Golden Leaf Shou remains the best of them. In a broader context, among the countless teas that I’ve tried (including all types and classes), this Pu’er stands out as an exceptionally fine representative of what tea can be, and is securely established in the top 3 best teas I’ve had the good fortune and pleasure to experience. When I give a tea the highest possible mark, it means that I consider it perfect in its own right, lacking nothing, and offering an additional something that I have not encountered in another tea. I trust that “finer” teas may exist, and indeed I hope to try them; but it is with this Pu’er that I feel we’re talking about a level of quality at which the tea deserves to be assessed outside of relative considerations. Essentially, I would have to rate such a tea as being “without rank”, as it and its peers are each embodying their own unique perfection.
Before I prepared this Pu’er a week ago, five months had passed since my last experience with it. This length of time was not for any lack of love or lack of desire to brew it, but because I refuse to drink this tea by myself and feel that it is worth being reserved for special occasions. The fact that I’ve only had one ounce of it in supply has also contributed to my reluctance, though I’m planning to buy more for the future while it’s still available.
My friend had specifically requested a proper Pu’er initiation when we made arrangements to meet, as his few pervious experiences with this class of tea left a particularly unpleasant impression. He described having suffered the misfortune of tasting fishy, probably low-quality, Pu’er that was prepared with western brewing methods (no wash, 4 minute steeping). When I had told him of Gongfu brewing and what I’d learned about the appropriate treatment of Pu’er, he expressed an enthusiastic interest in trying it again.
I started preparing this tea after we’d grown sufficiently blissed-out drinking Teiguanyin for over an hour. The room was getting a bit hot so we opened the window and let the brisk night air flow into our drinking space. The previous day’s temperature had been around 90F in the afternoon, and dropped a sharp 30 degrees within a couple hours in the evening. It felt like we stood on the threshold of autumn, and the Xingyang Pu’er being prepared was the perfect tea to take us through that gate into a new season.
The first infusion after washing the tea was excellent, surprising both of us in its depth, fragrance and delectable taste. Just taking in the bouquet of that first infusion gave me goosebumps. A sweet and mild spice, slightly cinnamon-like, tree bark and freshly fallen leaves. I held the tea in my mouth for ten or more seconds per sip; its taste and feel ran through my body with the softness of a quiet stream, compelling all of my muscles to sink in relaxation. “Oh my God,” were my friend’s first words. All I could say in response was a deep and emphatic, “Yes”. Letting the aftertaste settle between sips and cups is an experience unto itself with this tea, which can unfold in interesting and exceedingly pleasant changes of character for over a minute. I remember most vividly this sparkling sensation developing after several seconds in the aftertaste, as if the awakened and stretching flavors of the tea were shaking off their 13-year sleep with a lively dance on my tongue.
The infusions that followed provoked powerful and evocative stirrings in our imaginations. My friend was overcome with recollections of early childhood: “Cedar crates next to the house of the kindest old woman, who was my neighbor in Japan. I was four years old and wandered into her yard.” I recalled the experience of jumping into piles of oak leaves and watching the clouds pass overhead, then being followed by the smell of oak on my clothes for the rest of the day. We remarked on this particularly powerful evocative quality of the tea. It was not just evoking memories, it was opening doors to insight, as well as forming new deep stores for remembering our present experience and experiences to come. This is a contemplative tea par excellence. My friend suggested it would be a great companion to creative work, as in composing music or poetry.
After a number of infusions, it came up that I hadn’t brewed this tea for five months, and I mentioned that it seemed to me to have grown better even in that relatively short time. My friend was surprised to hear that I could drink this tea so infrequently in light of how amazingly good it is. It was at this point I told him that I will not drink this tea alone. I explained that, for my part, I felt like drinking this tea without a companion to share it with would be selfish and wasteful. Not to judge others who would or do drink this alone, I’m just remarking on my own experience with it. To drink this Pu’er by myself, for me, would come with a feeling that I’m failing to serve the tea, in every sense of that word. I consider the opportunity to partake of a tea this good as a great privilege and a gift; and the only way I can completely express my gratitude for that is by sharing it with others.
My friend and I proceeded to enjoy this Pu’er and it’s fascinating profile changes for well over an hour, and it was far from spent when we ended. This particular session was a peak experience with tea for me, and for my friend it was something akin to a conversion experience. Of the drinking sessions I’ve had with this tea, this one was definitely the best to date. I whole-heartedly recommend this tea, and would suggest setting aside some unhurried time to brew this with good company and your undivided attention.