Variations on the Theme of Purple

One afternoon recently an email arrived disparaging our Imperial Tribute Harvest Purple-Tip Puerh. The heckler (who never tasted our tea) found a “purple-tip puerh” online at a rock-bottom price and questioned the merits of our pricier flagship tea. The spirit of tea is all about being curious and open-minded, so I was immediately intrigued. Could Roy have wasted months negotiating and competing with Chinese buyers for the chance to acquire our rare tea, when he might simply have bought some online and far cheaper? I ordered one of the bargain “purple-tip” cakes to check it out.

The cake arrived promptly, and when I mentioned it to Roy he recalled that one of his Chinese suppliers had also sent a sample of a putative purple-tip for his consideration. We decided to have a side-by-side “taste-off” at the warehouse. This afternoon we gathered the three teas and did a professional-style cupping under controlled conditions: five grams of each tea, infused in water at 205F for five minutes.

First a word about the initial visual impression. You’ve seen our purple-tip puerh—we think it’s such a beautiful tea that we use its photo as the header for this blog! There are also several photos on the product page on our web site. It consists almost entirely of purple, gold, and greenish leaf tips that nestle inside one another like tiny bamboo shoots. Because it was picked very early, the petiole (attachment point between the leaf and the stem) is short and stubby. Older puerh leaves quickly grow long, thin petioles. The first thing we noticed about the cake we bought online was that it was green, not purple (perhaps as compensation, it came in a purple wrapper!). It consisted primarily of fully opened leaves with long petioles. Most of the leaves were covered in downy spring fur. As to the purple wrapper, it included a lot of English text, as well as Chinese. This is a bit of a red flag, as Chinese have been known for centuries to export tea they don’t care for to the West. Any Chinese packaging with English is clearly a product bound for export. Finally, we had a look at the sample tea Roy received from China. This is one of strangest teas I’ve ever seen. The bamboo-shoot-like tips were huge—three or four times the size of our tea—and covered in incredibly thick, shaggy fur, like a puerh Sasquatch. Roy said the thick fur confirms that it was picked early in the year, while the large leaf size suggests that it was grown at a lower altitude, with plenty of oxygen and rich soil compared to growing conditions up in the mountains. The fur also made him skeptical that the leaves came from truly ancient trees, because very old trees tend to put out leaves later in the season, without the protective fur. In any case, he agreed, he’d never seen anything like it!

Then we had a taste. Our tea has a powerfully fruity flavor; if you tried it blindfolded you might think you were drinking an exotic juice. It’s clean and refreshing with a potent finish. But what about the two contenders? The cheap online tea looked ok in the cup, with a clear, light-amber liquor, but it had a puzzling lack of aroma or flavor. Even inexpensive green tea from Yunnan usually has lots of flavor, so the blandness was a surprise. Roy’s sensitive palate also detected some chemically off-notes, almost as though the cake had been stored near cleaning products. The furry tea was disappointing, too. There was an off-taste that vaguely recalled the way old books smell after they’ve been stored in the attic. We surmised that the tea had been in storage in hot, humid southern China, where the excessive fur absorbed too much moisture and perhaps started to mildew a bit.

The moral of this story? If it seems too good to be true…well, your mom can finish that one for you. Caveat emptor.

Five grams of each: the hirsute sample from China, our tea, and the online bargain tea

The three teas infusing

Infused leaves close-up: the big, furry tips

Infused leaves close-up: our tea

Infused leaves close-up: the online "bargain" tea