24 Tasting Notes
There is something so pure about raw puerh, the least processed tea of all, simply sun dried and compressed, not even pan fried like longjing, but allowed to remain “alive” with tiny microbes that facilitate fermentation and constant change. What I love about the idea of raw bamboo puerh is the contradiction of that purity with the elaborate process of making charcoal, packing the bamboo sections, steaming them, cutting away the bamboo, etc. This is tea dialectics! Simply complex. Fire and water. Heaven and earth.
As I understand it, there are a couple of different ways to make bamboo puerh: One is to roll or knead the fresh tea leaves, directly fill the bamboo tube, and oven bake; the other is to first sun dry the leaves, then steam them on rice, and compress the leaves into the bamboo while baking over fire. I think this tea was processed the second way.
I have only ever had the Wuyi Mountain bamboo tea from Norbu, which is subtle and very mild. This Dai tea (the Dai are one of China’s ethnic minorities) is an interesting comparison. First the tea tubes are much larger — two and a half inches in diameter. And the tea is much more tightly compressed; it was difficult to break off a chunk and, consequently, I crushed some of the leaves. I rinsed the tea twice to open it up, which it did nicely. The first tastes were of the familiar purity of green puerh, predominantly vegetal, no camphor. In the next infusions, floral notes appear (mushroomy magnolia perhaps) against a definite smoky background (pace the YS description). What I’m calling smokiness is very subtle and quiet pleasant and recessive — different from up-front roasted; others may call it woody but it was smokey to me. It adds further complexity. The spent leaves are amazingly whole; the smell of the leaves in the pot is more flowery than other shengs I’ve had.
I think the Dai simply put this tea in a bowl with hot water rather than prepare it in a pot and transfer to cups. I will brew and drink directly from a gaiwan next time, to try to emulate the Dai. Tea dialectics put me in touch with people I don’t even know. I can travel with tea if I concentrate. I can become very old and also very young. Raw bamboo puerh is particular good and helping me do this.
Wooed by oolong’s song I once strayed from the puerh way.
Camphor and indigestible vegetable fumed frustration and dismay.
Reoriented by a strange tea’s measure, I have now returned to the treasure
Of Sheng Cha. Oh happy day!
Really, though, I had stopped drinking young raw puerh for a while. I had become confused by camphor and raw vegetables. I just didn’t know what I was looking for. The famous astringency had turned from interest and complexity to unpleasantness for me. In order to recalibrate I decided to focus my green cake puerh efforts on teas from two trusted vendors, Hou De Asia and Norbu, with two teas from the same year, 2006 — enough time passed to have mellowed out the teas a bit but recent enough to still be considered young. These two teas have led me back to the true path of sheng cha.
Both teas are from famous puerh growing region of Yunnan. The mountains of Yiwu (site of Hou De’s tea; please see my notes on that tea), are in Xishuangbanna prefecture in the very far south of Yunnan. Yong De County in Lincang prefecture (Norbu’s tea), is 500 kilometers across the mountains, north and west. I feel certain that someone who really knew the geological and climatic differences and similarities of these places would find a nuanced terroir or sense of place in the teas. I, however, can only pretend.
The first infusion (after a single rinse) of Norbu’s “Qi Cha” yielded a very pleasant taste that seemed a combination of bamboo shoots and sugar cane with just a hint of the presence of something else — woody, maybe balsam? Not the needles, not piney; rather more fragrantly woodsy, like the bark of the tree perhaps. The tea has a nice long oval shape that makes an arc from the back of my throat across my palate to the tip of my tongue, not spreading out much to the sides. Second infusion, yes, definitely woody and sweet underneath. I wonder if what I’m tasting is what Norbu calls the malty taste.
Maybe it’s just the season but I definitely feel a wintry festiveness in this tea — not quite jingle bells, but still… I think this shall be my holiday tea this year.
The spent leaves a surprisingly intact, given that I was working with a small sample, with some large, juicy stems and white streaks. I here pledge to stick with small-batch sheng cha. And I like the idea of “wild arbor” tea, but I must find out what that actually means.
This 2006 Yiwu puerh is what I would think of as setting the standard for sheng cha. By that, I mean it is high quality with the taste profile you expect from sheng cha from the famous Xishuangbanna prefecture, with little surprise. (Let it be said that I only had enough tea for one session; other sessions might have yield more surprise.)
The tea has a very pleasant, full, broad feel on the palate and back of the throat. I detected some vegetable tastes, ginseng, and mild fruit, maybe pears or white berries (if there are white berries), underlined with mild earthiness. I keep saying mild, but I want to stress it is also very full.
It was interesting to compare this to Norbu’s 2006 “Qi Cha” (please see my notes on that tea) from Yong De County in Yunnan’s Lincang prefecture, which I found more bamboo-like, less fruity. It would also be interesting to compare Norbu’s Yi Wu mountain bamboo roasted puerh to this tea — same mountain, different processing.
I’ve been drinking two different “oriental beauties”: Norbu’s Bai Yun (which is also Yunnan Sourcing’s “Wild Arbor Oriental Beauty”) and Hou De’s Taiwan Bei-Pu Bai Hao. Norbu’s is a Yunnan varietal made by Taiwanese tea masters who brought their Bai Hao skills to Wu Liang mountain. Hou De’s is the classic Taiwan oolong, harvested in the summer in the humid, foggy, northern part of Taiwan, after the legandary little bugs have poked holes in the tea leaves, provoking the plants into a juicy protest that produces more intense flavors.
Both versions of the tea have a beautiful, autumnal mixture of dry leaves — mahogany, golden brown, and the “white hairs” of the name.
Beginning with a half full pot of dry leaves, I brewed at 200+ degrees for 2+ minutes. Golden amber cup. Though honey is definitely present, it was not so pronounced as in the Norbu cultivar. And rather than berries, the taste was more of mild stone fruit, nectarines I would say, with lycee nuts. In the first and second infusions, I distinctly detected a mysteriously sweet pine. This tea is rounder and “wider” in my mouth, whereas the Yunnan varietal sent some bright vertical tracers up toward my nose. I find this tea generally round and horizontally mellow, whereas the Norbu perhaps asked for my attention a bit more. But it could also be that I tasted this second, after drinking an entire pot of the Norbu first.
The wet leaves show the quality of the processing, with little bundles of stems and leaves intact. They are an extraordinary golden-purple-red that are even more beautiful in my pin zi ni purple pot. My guess is that this tea is less oxidized than the Yunnan, with no roasting.
I found both these teas rewardingly complex. I intend to do another tasting, tasting the two in the opposite order.
I’ve been drinking two different “oriental beauties”: Hou De’s Taiwan Bai Hao and Norbu’s Bai Yun (which is also Yunnan Sourcing’s “Wild Arbor Oriental Beauty”).
The idea is that the Taiwanese tea masters who settled in Yunnan brought their Bai Hao skills, which in Taiwan are used on the teas that grow in the humid, foggy, northern part of Taiwan, to the higher-altitude Wu Liang mountain variety.
The dry leaves of this Yunnan variety are a beautiful, autumnal mixture of dark mahogany, golden brown, and the “white hairs” of the name. Overall they are slightly darker than the Hou De.
A half full pot of dry leaves produces a pot brimming with wet ones. I brewed at 200+ degrees for 2+ minutes. Dark amber cup. For me, honey was the pronounced aroma and taste. Berries quickly get your tongue’s attention: let’s see, cranberries, maybe? white grapes? Definitely some spice notes, but I can’t really pin point them. Not earthy; a little wood, but rather more bright. A very pleasant thickness and dryness balances the sweet honey.
The wet leaves show the quality of the processing, with little bundles of stems and leaves intact. The wet leaves are more green, less golden-red than the Hou De Taiwan variety. But while Norbu describes this variety as having large leaves, I don’t see them as any larger than the Taiwan variety.
This tea is quite oxidized, low roast, no smoke, rather bright. I’m not sure about the correlation of fermentation to caffeine, but I got jacked on a couple of pots of this, whereas I can drink yan cha all day and still fall asleep easily. This tea is quite durableand it’s really pleasant to drink later infusions, even after the complexity wanes. It stores a long time (like black tea) . It’s also kind of amazing for the price, like most of Norbu’s teas. I think this would be a good tea to recommend for friends new to oolongs.
I haven’t had this tea since summer. There was something about the first day of October and the unseasonably warm rain that seemed to call for Dan Cong. I decided to splurge and filled by little pot (120ml Xi Shi from Tea Habitat) about two thirds full (which is a lot for my budget!). Rinsed as quickly as possible. Then shrimp eyed water. I took two deep breaths and poured. Slip into daydream: In the South where I spent childhood we ate ripe peaches with the peeling on. The peeling adds a very slight dryness without compromising the sweetness. This was the aroma coming from my cup. The aroma seemed to spread out and join the warm rain-cleaned air. I can’t remember how the tea tasted. Second and third infusions, same but three deep breaths; I don’t think I ever broke single digits in seconds, though. The aroma gets heavier: ripe peaches and apricots. The emphasis is still on the aroma, but the taste starts to assert itself. But this is interesting: for the fourth and fifth infusions, the aroma seems to shift to something more floral — ginger flower maybe, but I’ve never smelled a ginger flower that I remember. Definitely less peachy and more flower, though. And the taste is now way up front. More wood and nuts and spice. Dry, spreading horizontal to edges of tongue, brilliant feeling in my throat. I wonder if this one, this infusion, is the tea’s “true” character. I took a walk as the rain withdrew and the back-of-the-throat feel stayed with me. I will try more in the morning.
On the recommendation of TeaEqualsBliss I steeped this for 4 mins+ today. 160ml yellow pot with maybe a tablespoon or so (I don’t have a scale) of dried leaf-balls, which had expanded to fill the pot by the third infusion. What the longer steep brought out for me was more definite veggies plus a mild citrus I hadn’t detected before — like green beans barely splashed with lemon. Roast is still mild but more present in first infusion. Absolutely no bitterness.
I’ve noticed that several people enjoy the fall and summer Alishans from Norbu. I think we should try to do a comparison of all the different Alishans there. But now I have only this 2008 winter version (which BTW is 35% reduced in price).
It’s difficult to add to the notes from the vendor and what TeaEqualsBliss has already posted. I would simply join in the enthusiasm for Norbu’s Taiwan teas.
This Alishan is from the same cultivar as the Norbu Old Plantation Qing Xin. I think this must be an exceedingly complex plant, given the experience of these two teas. And while in Taiwan this would be considered a certified organic tea, Norbu can’t market it that way because of different US laws. Nevertheless, the care that has gone into the making of this tea is very much evident in the tight dry rolls, but even more in the finished leaves, which are beautifully purply green and intact.
There is very little oxidation, I think, so the florals really come through. They are not as intense as other Alishans, however — more sober, more solid, more restraint. But the richness is amazing. It just rolls around in your mouth. There is a sweetness that makes you think someone has slipped in honey to your cup. The roast (notwithstanding the label “medium”) is very mild, much less roast that the Old Plantation Qing Xin. It’s really interesting to taste the difference that processing makes to the same tea cultivar. The same floral, veggie, and roasted notes as the Old Plantation are there in this tea, just arranged in a different chord. Very gentle but substantial. D-minor, I would say. Later infusions loose the complexity but not the sweet fullness. Pretty amazing.
I find this tea more meditative than other Alishans. It’s a tea you can stay with.
Let it be said that the ability to describe the tastes of sheng puerhs has always evaded me, like those dreams that seemed so pleasant but you can’t really remember just what they were about. All the roasty-toasty oolong vocabulary just doesn’t work. So my task now is destined to fail, but must nevertheless be undertaken. Because this white-bud sheng from Norbu, which I tasted for the first time today, produces a pretty amazing experience.
Routine brewing in a tiny pot. First sip seems to make a small explosion in my mouth, like the tastes are shooting sideways across my palate and tongue. I taste steamed yellow squash, very precisely. But almost none of the characteristic sheng camphor. There’s something else that I can’t quite say: maybe caramel, yes, or maybe really good whole wheat toast eaten outside near a honeysuckle bush? But the amazing thing is how sweet and how full the nectar is. Does tea have sugars in it like wine or milk?
Second infusion. I think I actually shivered. Second infusion is even better. Camphor just whispers but not medicinal like other shengs. This one would be undetectable except that it’s camphor wrapped in sugar. And the liquid is now even richer. A tiny bit of earthiness, not loamy like old puerth, just fresh earth and a tiny pinch of grass clippings.
I think it does an injustice to say this is a good starter puerh; I think you have to have struggled with sheng first to see how different this is. I look forward to more time with this.
But… I have only a small sample. And Norbu is out of it (lifts the back of his hand to his forehead and sighs). The stuff of dreams.
Dan Cong tea is shrouded in seductive mystery for me, thanks in part to Imen, proprietor of Tea Habitat, and her blog Tea Obsession. As I understand it, each single bush of the ancient “originals” had a singular scent that often seemed to mimic other flowers. The Communist Party organized some of these fragrances as generic categories to use for labels for commercial teas, so a lot of different teas can be “Ginger Flower.” I don’t think this Po Tou is claimed to be from a “mother tree,” but it is claimed to be from a single bush or group of bushes derived from the old one. This is not your commercial PG Tips (it’s nearly $50/ounce).
I got this tea because of Teaddict’s helpful recommendation (thanks!). This tea is really worth spending time with. The aroma is like fresh flowers after a rain and just underneath definite stone fruit flavors like nectarines. The flowers and fruits seem inseparable. The spices demand attention at the edges of your tongue. Swallow and you get this pleasant back-of-the-throat feel. Joyfulness unbounded! Later infusions are sweet and mellow. The spice subsides and the nectar of the flowers remain, very round, still with fruit flavors.
Dan Cong is reputed to be difficult to brew. I followed Teaddict’s brew and it was perfect. Preheat the pot to enjoy aroma of dried leaves. My 120ml pot was half full of the long leaves. Water almost at a boil. I would suggest that the first infusion may be slightly longer than the next to open up the leaves. But too long will definitely produce some bitterness. I’m not sure you have to rinse this tea. I drank the first rinse straight from the serving pitcher — I couldn’t stop myself!