Life & Death in a Cup of Yunnan Tea: We Taste Some Teas for the "OMG" Class

On Wednesday Roy and I previewed some of tea he's considering for his "OMG" Tea Class September 13. We drank Roy's luscious special preparation of lian rui long jing (lotus heart dragon well), the first cup of his personally hand-fired 2009 Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin, and then set to the puerh.

Roy brought out three old cakes that he bought directly from the Yunnan Tea Import & Export Corp. in the 1980s. An alarming number of "old" puerh bing cha on the market today are simply moldy fakes, complete with vintage paper wrappers. By contrast, all of Roy's old puerh he either bought directly from Yunnan tea factories or acquired from Yunnan tea officials years before puerh caught the attention of global tea markets. Ever since, it's been aging in our Oakland warehouse, carefully tended to prevent excessive dryness or mold. Oakland isn't nearly as humid as China, so puerh ages more slowly and gently.

Differences in aging were really apparent in the first two teas we tasted, two 1989 cakes from Xishuangbanna. In those days, puerh wasn't segregated by mountains. Factories blended together tea from from several locations; if anyone tells you otherwise, your fraud detection antennae should go up. These two cakes started life together from the same harvest at the same factory, but the aging process went differently. One stayed drier and has aged gradually, while the other received a bit more moisture that stimulated more bacterial action. Originally sheng cha, both cakes have become shou cha through the natural bacterial and enzymatic processes that are unique to puerh.

Both cakes appeared dark, but a first moistening of the leaves began to bring out their differences. One had a startlingly intense dried fruit aroma, with a pronounced smokiness, but no earthiness at all. The other was quite earthy, with a strong fruit undertone. Roy brewed modest quantities of leaves of each tea for only a minute or two, in a gaiwan, with near-boiling water. In the cup both teas had the beautifully bright, clear liquor (ming liang tang se) that signifies top quality aged puerh. However, the first yielded a rich amber infusion, while the second was bright ruby red, reflecting its much higher level of oxidation. The infused leaves told a similar story. For the first tea, the leaves were still a muted olive green and at a glance could pass for lightly oxidized oolong leaves. Meanwhile the damp leaves of the second tea--where the outer layers of the cake, in particular, were more affected by bacterial and enzymatic changes--displayed a 50/50 mix of dark green and dark brown.

On the palate, both teas exhibited the extraordinary, almost candy-like sweetness of fine aged puerh. For the first one, the fruitiness nearly bowls you over and even after all these years, there's a distinct smoky note. For the second the earthiness is potent yet not overwhelming, balanced by a concentrated fruit flavor more pronounced than it is in the nose. Both teas have rich mouth-feel and a shockingly clean, sweet aftertaste that you're reluctant to disrupt by eating or drinking anything else. Roy observed that the first tea could be successfully aged for many more decades in the right conditions; the second could age more as well, but perhaps not quite as long.

Each tea was a living chronicle of its life so far; Roy likens puerh to "living beings." The young green tea, the smoke that tells the story of a damp day during harvest, the slow maturation of fresh fruitiness into intensely sweet, almost raisinated preserved fruit drink each tea is to consume its full life history. These teas are an extraordinary experience; a number of people have even reported that they evoke strong emotional feelings, even tears. We'll leave it to you to judge for yourself, but even Roy let an involuntary "oh my god!" slip out. We didn't call the class that for nothing!

We'd already drunk enough fine tea to qualify as a day in tea heaven, but Roy decided to gild the lily with one more even older puerh, a cake from the early 1980s. In addition to being the oldest tea we drank, it had experienced the most beneficent microbial action. Due to storage conditions, the surface even exhibited a few traces of white mold whose growth had been arrested early. If the mold begins to grow, it can easily ruin the cake by consuming or transforming too much of the tea's vital essence.

It was no surprise that this old tea had the earthiest nose of the three, and the infused leaves were dark and crumbly. The infusion was an astonishly rich, viscous red--beautifully ming liang tang se. Again, the dominant impression was terrific sweetness, potent, concentrated fruit, and a pleasing, clean earthiness. I'd planned to take more notes and photos, but to be honest, the tea was so fantastic that I could think of nothing else.

Roy's "OMG" Tea Class is from 6-8 PM Sunday, September 13, in our San Francisco Ferry Building teahouse. It's not too late to join us. The tea will be amazing...and don't be surprised if you end up exclaiming "oh my god!" at least once!

2009 Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin and Imperial Tribute Harvest Purple Tip Puerh lined up for a taste test prior to Roy's OMG Tea Class this coming Sunday in San Francisco.