Had this tea last night at a puerh class held by the owner of Teance Fine Teas in Berkeley, California.
She outright refused to tell us its name, how it was processed, and why it was in such tiny bits in between the size of fannings and dust grade tea particles until we all tasted it. Looks like very finely sifted CTC tea (or coffee grounds) but what we were drinking was older than Cut Tear Curl manufacturing method’s spread into China. She did let on that animals were involved by asking “Are any of you vegan?” before pouring, and let on that some folks call it “Poo Air” based on its aroma, so it wasn’t a total mystery.
To clarify, many teas fall into the realm of non-vegan, and moreso than this one. Oftentimes there are bits of insects inside the leaves (I’ve found a live Walking Stick in a large retailer’s airtight tin of Bai Mu Dan that haad been sealed for over a year) and teas such as Oriental Beauty Oolong rely on herbivory and excretions by leafhoppers on the leaves to produce some of the inherent sweetness. If you’ve ever eaten an invertebrate in its entirety (insects, crustaceans, and mollusks are in the diet of most of the world’s cultures) you’ve consumed what’s in the animal’s gut as well and bear in mind that honey is basically bee puke, so try to put your squeemishness on hold for a moment.
Okay, flavor-wise this is a hard tea to put a rating on.
Elements of the flavor really demand a spectacularly high rating – tasting it really did have a “wow factor” both before and after learning what the heck it was we were putting in our mouths and swallowing. It blows away many puerh teas in terms of clean-yet-earthy taste, dense body, balance of body to liveliness, interesting tactile impression beyond simple astringency or thickness of body, range of expressed flavor, lasting quality in terms of possible number of rebrews, and length of aftertaste. However, I can certainly see this as a “love/hate” tea. If you dislike earthy tastes or can not stand the presence of any metallic, pepper, or wood notes you will not like this tea. Same goes if you only tolerate teas with a very short aftertaste.
If you like Indo-Pacific coffees – aged or monsooned coffees in particular – you may really enjoy this tea.
Winnie prepared this with a generous amount in a pair of gaiwans. I really have no point of reference to estimate the mass used… If it was equivalent to CTC, I’d say something like 8g per 150ml, but I got the impression it’s more like using fannings – more like 4g per 150ml. Brew time was intended at something like 10 seconds each infusion, but actual contact time ranged from 30 seconds to 3 minutes because of the time necessary to pour out through the tiny leaf bits (and then, if the pour was fast, it would take forever to go through the strainer). Water at about 95 degrees C was dispensed into a thermos that was used for each infusion, so temp probably started at about 85C and steadily declined to 70ishC until the water was refreshed.
Leaves are tiny little pellets. Hard and fibrous when dry – like sifted CTC. When wet, it’s possible with a bit of effort to squeeze/grind between fingernails into a semisolid.
Liquor is completely opaque, shiny dark dark dark red-brown in a wide, shallow 45ml cup. “Puerh is supposed to look like soy sauce when aged well enough,” Winnie said while pouring. I’ve had soy sauce and Turkish coffee less dark than this. Aroma is mellow woody base with a prune-like accent and tart&sweet aromatics of Balinese long pepper or Grains of Paradise. Blood-colored liquid sticks to the sides of a cup in a way that makes me think of oil… or the Venom Symbiote from Spiderman.
Surprisingly similar to two of the first four puerhs I ever had (young mini shou tuochas from Jingmai Shan) but a whole heck of a lot more complex. The whole tacky-thick body, light muddy yeast-like quality and feeling of “it tastes like a well-worn boot” very similar. This has a very slight astringency that balances the syrupy body a bit and goes well with the black peppercorn notes in the aftertaste. Coppery and malty like flavors provide a second tier on top of the woody flavor base. Very light aroma, but the nose while drinking presents notes of humus and damp leaf litter – very foresty. The afteraroma is mild again but has more going on with spiced bean notes (yes, this tea has notes of humus and hummus!), dried fruits like fig and raisins/prunes, clay, arbol chilies, toasted wheat bread crust, honey, barley, and oak bark.
What really sets this apart is the quantity of two effects I’ve only had in a handful of puerhs before and the presence of two effects I’ve never experienced in puerh before (only in aged, traditional oolongs).
First and foremost is the prevalence of the “Chen” note – an “antique” quality that arises out of the light camphor-like notes 20+ year sheng cha develop. As I’ve only had 12 teas that meet this criteria other than this one, it is a quality that really jumps to mind and this just rolls in it. The tea tastes like it has actually matured in character to a point where it has combined and produced tastes and sensations not possible in younger teas. This is not some hokey thing about “oooh, this tea is aged so it is gooood” either – it takes a certain amount of time for the oils, acid-sugar combinations, and fungi&bacteria byproducts to chemically interact based on ambient humidity and temperature fluctuations over years for a resulting change that affects the tea’s biochemistry at a level where the fundamentally acidic character of the leaves actually changes to a more alkaline state. Many, many people have tried replicating “chen” and was one of the drives to develop the wo dui style of manufacture, resulting in shou cha. Best anyone can do, though, is age in certain dramatic climate conditions with great effort.
Next is the perception created by drinking this of feeling sort of a swirling of energetics through the upper body and particularly the head. I tend to not buy into the concept of Qi, though I acknowledge the sensory effect of the supposed key physical points of qi in the body and of the loci where the chakras are purported to reside as well as the beneficial therapeutic effects of training in “energy movement” for physical and mental health… I just happen to have more faith in actual physiological connections within the body and chock bodily connections up to neural connections, hormone signalling, physical strain on connected groups, and psychosomatic reactions. However, it’s hard to figure into that the repeatable sensation of movement provided here. This is one of those rare teas that does invoke a significant, palpable feeling of motion along the deep tissue, skeletal, and nervous system corridors towards the head and swirling within. How can you feel something create a reeling effect in your head without affecting oxygen? Dunno what on earth to call this other than the tea’s “strong qi” despite my reservations about the existence of such a thing.
Then there’s the first quality I have yet to experience in a puerh – a “ripeness” I associate with aged and/or well-roasted oolongs. Like the phenolic sensation of biting into an almost-overripe apricot, plum or nectarine minus the actual fruit notes. The flavors associated with it are more spice notes of peppercorns, coriander, cinnamon, sage… just with that extra deep-chest “oomph” of ripe fruit. This really accentuates a beet note and he potent savory character of the tea.
Finally, this tea has heat to it in terms of spice. Not nearly as hot as actually eating a pepper, but it has a residual heat and even a bit of flavor that has me drawing similarities to Adobo and Chipotle Peppers. I’ve had puerh that exhibited some of these taste/aroma notes and some that draw perspiration after many cups, but this leaves the tingling heat of eating a steak that had been rubbed in powdered adobo, chipotle, paprika, and black pepper. That lingering spiciness stuck with me for well over half an hour after drinking… could’ve gone for an hour or more had I not had a different tea and dinner cutting it off. Funny thing is I was left with a strong desire for barbecue pork (I rarely touch pig) and got some pulled pork with mustard bbq sauce that mimicked the flavor and sensation.
Another interesting bit is the presence of flavor. It sort of pushes open the doors in your mouth in an effect somewhat similar to MSG, beets, or red meat. It’s a good example for most of the vocabulary I’ve adapted to my own use in my notes; It throws a bunch of tastes at you at once (“range” or what I call “horizontal complexity”) and then runs with a progression of flavors into the aftertaste (“depth” or “vertical complexity”) coupled with maintaining a steadfast predominant flavor (“static profile” or “baseline fidelity”) yet showing a shift of flavor and sensations in progressive infusions (“dynamic profile” or my infrequently used “realized complexity” when featured alongside steadfast character) and producing many, many infusions (a “durable” tea). It really covers all bases.
This tea is a truly unique experience, though you may have to muscle through a mental block against it to taste more than one cup. Really, if it were not for the generally mild aroma and the serious distinction I get of it being one of those teas you either love or you hate, I have no other reason to not score this a 100… I’m sure some would throw it to the very end of the other side of the spectrum, though. If you have the opportunity to taste this – the well aged version, not just this type of tea – you really should not pass it up. Kinda gives me a headache thinking of the fact I’m recommending people try a tea that has gone through both ends of a caterpillar, but there you have it. This excreted tea isn’t “shit” – it’s well harvested tea that was carefully processed then painstakingly turned and stirred whilst aging for decades then carefully introducing a single type of invertebrate in a controlled manner to eat the leaves, followed by hand-sorting the little pellets out of the tea mass and rested for more time still.
Remarkable in so many ways but still… Caterpillar droppings…