Finally another ripe for me to review. We’ve been seeing more and more of these high-end shus over the past few years, which is a trend I hope continues. I brewed 12.1g of this in a 160ml Yixing zini teapot. Both the cha hai and the teacup I used are in turn made from Jianshui clay. The way I like to brew ripe pu’er is I do one infusion and immediately pour another one into the cha hai to leverage the heat from the first infusion. This way I need to heat the water less often and by the time I’ve finished the tea in my cup the tea in the cha hai is close to the right temperature for me to drink. The downside of this is that having not tasted the prior infusion I lack knowledge about its strength, which would help in determining by how much to extend the next steep. Even so, an experienced brewer can compensate for that by looking at the color and viscosity of the liquor, smelling the leaves and relying on intuition.
I used a couple of the larger pieces included in my sample and gave them a ten second rinse, followed by a five minute rest during which I managed to get most of the chunks to come undone by prodding them a little. I proceeded to do a total of ten infusions, the timing for these being 10s, 10s, 12s, 15s, 20s, 30s, 45s, 75s, 2 min. and 3 min. The Bulang Gushu started off sweet. Much like berry juice. I find this to be typical of Bulang ripes. There was some slight bitterness at the end of the sip. Also some earthier, muddier components lying underneath. For a tea wet piled only about a year ago, this is very clean tasting already. That being said, I don’t think I’m very sensitive to the wet pile taste. I don’t even know if I’ve ever tasted it or if I have I don’t know how to recognize that flavor. Some shus can taste a bit muddy to me in the early steeps or have a sweetness that feels somewhat “off”, which is pretty much my reference for a how “clean” a tea is.
Because of all the clay used, it was hard for me to judge the color, but while pouring the tea from the cha hai, the second infusion looked markedly darker and thicker than the first brew. This was reflected in the taste as well, with much darker elements present in the tea, while still retaining that berry sweetness. The liquor was more viscous as well, albeit still at the lighter end of the spectrum. It started to seem like I was feeling the tea in my stomach and perhaps my lower back as well. Could be that it had to do with something I ate or how I was sitting, as I’m more used to feeling the tea either in my head or my chest and upper back but not usually below that.
The third infusion produced an immediate cooling sensation in the mouth. I’d say the flavor accompanying it was closest to mint. Really nice. The tea was stronger and more viscous than before. You could probably call the main prevailing characteristic woody. Dry wood I’d say. A touch of fleeting bitterness was still present in the finish and there were other things going on as well. You could probably call this tea fairly complex for a shu.
The fourth brew was quite dark. It also looked fairly viscous while pouring it. The flavors once again reflected this in a much darker profile. There was more bitterness now, roasted notes, chocolaty notes. A much more syrupy texture with the berry juiciness running somewhere beneath everything else. Again, much more complex than your average ripe. I was quite liking this steep. There was a surprising amount of bright notes accompanying the darker base notes. Once the tea cooled down it got fairly bitter, which I always consider a good sign in terms of future aging potential.
Steep five saw the return of some mouth cooling. This time I’d say the accompanying flavor was leaning more toward camphor, which I find the most typical case for shu pu’er. There were still some of the darker elements present, with slight bitterness lingering on top, juiciness buried far underneath. I felt like I was also getting some slight caramel/nougat notes now. Yes, there was definitely some nuttiness. Lightly roasted peanuts perhaps. Once again a fairly complex brew as you can probably gather. Not particularly viscous, but passable.
The next infusion was much more cooling. The body started off fairly light, but got notably more viscous once it cooled a little. I was getting sweetness at the sides of my tongue and there were still plenty of layer to the flavor of the tea. I was having a hard time unraveling the various clusters of darker notes, so I decided to just leave it at that. The tea really ramped up on the camphor in the seventh steep, which still had a fair amount going on even though we were clearly entering the late stages. The strength up to this point had remained about the same throughout and we were now back to that dry, woody taste.
Looking at the color, steep eight was definitely a lot lighter than the prior infusions. Smelling the leaves, I noticed a nice herbaceous note to them now. While the strength was still good, the tea was simplifying a lot now like one would expect. Some of that berry sweetness was back now, accompanied by a lot of camphor still. The taste was perhaps a tad creamy now. This was quite nice for someone looking for something easy to drink. I may have started to feel a bit drunk at this point.
The tea continued to simplify in the next steeping. I was mainly getting camphor and some wood now. There was a whisper of sweetness and some darker notes did eventually reveal themselves once the soup cooled down a little. A touch of creaminess was still present as well. The brew became a much fuller experience the further you got into it, ending on some nice mineral notes at the very end of your cup. Steep ten was mostly taken over by simple sweetness, with the other flavor notes having grown quite thin by this point. The body was still there, but the further I got into my cup the more I started getting this unpleasant sensation at the back of my throat every time I swallowed, followed by dryness in my mouth. As I felt we were approaching risky territory, I decided to call it there.
As you’ve probably been able to gather, the Bulang Gushu was a very good tea. For such a young tea it’s at an excellent stage already. I can’t really think of anything negative to say about it, aside from maybe some somewhat restless qi after the session, which is very typical for Bulang teas though. That being said, I was surprised at the end of the session by how I wasn’t more enthusiastic about it than I was. I definitely liked it, but I wasn’t enamored with it. After some thinking, I came to the conclusion that since I tend to value mouthfeel and texture over taste and aftertaste over finish, finish over upfront flavors, as good as this tea is, since it didn’t particularly shine in terms of mouthfeel and aftertaste at least during this session, it makes sense why I merely liked it and not loved it. The Yi Shan Mo ripe by Hai Lang Hao is a far less complex tea (at least for now) but a beast in terms of texture, hence why I love it.
Speaking of complexity, while I kept mentioning how complex this tea is, while it was something I found impressive, it didn’t necessarily contribute to making the tea a better tea. I would actually say at least for me personally it actually made it harder to properly appreciate the various facets of the tea. While there was a lot going on, I found it difficult at times to focus on individual tasting notes and try to separate them from one another. At the same time they didn’t necessarily form something greater than their sum as a whole. I’m not saying the complexity was a negative thing here, just pointing out that sometimes when people hear “complex” they immediately think “better”, which is not always the case. A tea can be complex and taste horrible. It can also be simple and taste great. Same applies to music and many other things in life.
With that out of the way, my final thoughts on this tea. Would I recommend this tea? Absolutely. Even if I didn’t immediately fall in love with it, the Bulang Gushu is a very good tea belonging in the top 5%, top 1%, or whatever slice these ultra-premium ripes make up of the market. After I was done drinking the tea, recalling that it was $80 for 200g, I found myself thinking that while it’s a very good tea, were it priced at $60 it would be a lot easier to recommend. Then it dawned on me that maybe the price was actually $60 and indeed it is. I think that’s really fair. I ended up ordering a cake and was able to get it essentially 10% off in the sale Yunnan Sourcing has going on, making it an even better value. Looking at the leaves at the end of the session, they are quite light brown in color, far removed from black, indicating the fermentation wasn’t very heavy and there being a lot of room for the tea to grow. With time the texture will hopefully improve. Even if not, this is still a mighty fine shu.
As always, I’d probably recommend a sample before committing to a cake, but if you like what you hear, go for it if you want. For alternate recommendations, at $19 more per cake, I’d consider Storm Breaker by Crimson Lotus to be even higher quality. While it is far less complex, it’s rocking in the texture department. I would consider it a candidate for aging, though. Far less suited for immediate consumption. Another great tea closer to the same price point would be the Hai Lang Hao 2015 Bi An Xiang Sui Yi Hao, another Bulang tea. Nothing too flashy about that tea. Great quality, much stronger than your average ripe and goes many more steeps, very classic Bulang character.
Flavors: Berries, Bitter, Camphor, Chocolate, Creamy, Mineral, Mint, Nuts, Roasted, Sweet, Wood