A Pu Erh That Money Can't Buy

zi ya pu erh tea
brewing the zi ya pu erh in a gaiwanzi ya pu erh cake

One afternoon recently when things were slow at the teahouse Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong reached into his bag and pulled out an amazing treasure, an incredibly rare pu erh cake made from the scarce tips and leaves of a centuries-old grove of wild tea trees in the remote highlands of Yunnan Province, miles from the nearest road. As Roy explained, these aren’t just any leaves, they’re the exquisite zi ya (purple tips) described by Lu Yu, China’s revered “Sage of Tea,” who lived during the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. Lu Yu called tea made from zi ya the best under heaven.

The tips, which resemble miniature bamboo shoots, have a purple color because they’re packed with so many nutrients and essential oils the elderly tree has stored and concentrated over the centuries. In Roy’s cake they were mixed with small green and gold leaves that yielded the most beautiful tea any of us have ever seen.

But the astonishing visual impression was just the beginning. Nothing could prepare us for the aroma and flavor of this tea the way Roy prepared it. Although it’s a sheng (green) pu erh there’s not a hint of the metallic tang or tannic harshness of a typical unfinished cake. The aroma is sweet, like nectar, while the taste is powerfully fruity, almost like drinking juice. The high levels of essential oils result in a thick, chewy viscosity that gives the young tea uncommon substance. And the aftertaste is uncanny; I’d swear I was still tasting it hours later.

It’s a unique tea and Roy brewed it with a technique I’d never seen before. He made it in a gaiwan with near-boiling water, but then left the top off while it steeped for slightly over a minute, in order to help the tea cool quickly. He explained that this is the secret to bringing out the tea’s sweetness. And he said that if we like the tea now, we should taste it after the cake ages a decade or so. At that point it will truly be off the charts.

Roy obtained a few zi ya cakes through his deep connections in the Chinese tea industry. The cake we got to taste is a relic of tea art with a direct lineage back to the time of Lu Yu. Probably nothing like it will be produced again in modern China, and Roy isn’t selling his cakes, he’s saving them for the kids…and grandchildren. Those of us at the teahouse that afternoon were incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to try this extraordinary tea. Now we have another reason to keep in touch with Roy for the next 20 years, in hopes of having a chance to taste it after it ages! Meanwhile, we can share its beauty with the Imperial Tea family: we used a photo of the cake as the background for the header on this blog!

Although Roy isn't planning to sell the zi ya, Imperial Tea Court has a wide-ranging selection of top quality pu erh in both loose and cake styles. We also sell lots of great gaiwans. Check out our online store!