“Never judge a book by its cover”. I think this can be applied to puerh.
I don’t just mean the wrapper. Obviously, the wrappers mean nothing. In fact, fake tea abound where the wrapper is one thing and the tea is another. Those wrapperologists out there who argue about quality of the paper and the size of the characters are, honestly, quite ridiculous.
What I mean is the tea itself can also be deceiving. Look at this thing I drank today:
Looks like cooked? Yeah, well, it’s mostly cooked, with some raw tea mixed in. This is from the early 80s, supposedly, and given to me by YP. When she gave it to me, we didn’t taste it. We were drinking the Hongyin that day — and not enough time to taste “crappy” teas like this :).
This is the cake’s wrapper – Traditional Character Zhongcha Brand
And the tea in question — looks terrible
I brought it with me to Beijing, thinking at some point I’ll drink it. I thought about brewing it with BBB, but we didn’t really have time to drink tea at home, and the one chance we had, we drank the Zhenchunya Hao (which was really good). So, between all the teas to drink, I never touched this and let it languish in its little bag. When I showed it to BBB, and told him it’s a cooked/raw mix, he said “yeah, I didn’t want to say, but it smells like cooked puerh”. Understandably, since he doesn’t like cooked puerh, he wasn’t much interested in it.
I had to brew it at some point, so I did today. I figured drinking some cooked puerh will be good for my stomach after drinking so many young ones yesterday.
I washed it twice, as the tea is very tightly compressed, and also being of old age, I thought it might be wise to wash it off (although, YP keeps her tea VERY clean — almost no bubbles). I brewed it up…. the first infusion the tea was still warming up, and tasted a little flat. The second one onwards…. wow. It’s GOOD. It has flavours like the ones present in the Zhenchunya Hao, except much more intense. An impressive sweetness penetrates the mouth and lingers at the back of the throat — this is huigan! A really strong one! It sticks to the end of the mouth for a long time, and it’s really obvious. The taste and the aroma… are more like dried peaches or plums. They are very obvious, and very strong. There’s no “cooling” sensation, and it makes sense that it doesn’t have it, and it does have a little bit of the cooked tea taste, but the cake is very nice. I drank it infusion after infusion, and every infusion it was something that I could think “wow, this is a good tea”. I was thinking on my way to dinner that if I am only allowed one cake to bring with me to a desert island, this could be it. It’s smooth, nice, friendly to your body, and it tastes great, just great.
It’s not the same as, say, an old 100% raw puerh, in the sense that the tea lacks that bite that remains even in an older raw puerh — it’s very weak in this tea, but what it does have, and what older raw puerh (without going through wet storage) don’t, is that sweetness and fruity aroma. My 30 years old loose puerh has a bit of that, but it’s nothing compared to this one. Zhenchunya Hao’s interesting point is that it is developing that without wet storage, and supposedly pure Yiwu is more prone to that sort of development trajectory. Most teas, however, only get that sort of taste with a wet storage process, as far as I’m aware.
I think I stopped after about 12-13 infusions. The tea started getting weak, another sign that there’s cooked puerh in this thing. I pulled out the leaves
Most of them are bundled up into little balls that won’t unfurl without disintegrating. Some, however, you can tell are nicely stored raw leaves, and they are mixed in with the cooked. It’s really only obvious in person when you can play with it — it doesn’t show up on camera.
YP said this is something useful as a “teaching tea”, and I agree. There’s a lot of flavours here that you can go “ok, this is x you’re getting”. I still have a few more pieces of this… probably enough for two more sittings. I have to let it sit for a while longer before coming back…. although I won’t complain about brewing them all right away.