A Hong Kong puerh collector shared samples of a 2003 Dayi (Menghai) raw cake with people all around the world to celebrate the New Year. In return, each participant was asked to write a 200 words description of the tasting (which is what I'm doing now). If I'm using the past tense, it's because this generous offer has already expired.
Yesterday, I did a first tasting with 3 grams using the ghost buster method (5 minutes brew)! Clarity was just a little above average, color OK, but the smell was overwhelmingly smoke. I was wondering if I would be able to find 200 synonyms for smoke (cigarette smell, ashtray, cigar, sweet tobacco, burnt plastic). I could add that there was a long aftertaste buried under all this cigarette smell and that I would wish it to go away faster. (Usually one wants the aftertaste to last long, but not when it means retaining such a strong smell of cigarette smoke.) The taste also proved to be a astringent and I just sipped enough of the tea to taste it. Most of it went down the drain. I repeated the long brews for 2 more times. The smoke smell never went away and the tea didn't get better.
What else could I write based on this tasting to reach 200 words? The easy way out is to speculate about its aging potential. I could repeat the mantra of Teaparker: "A bad young puerh will age to become a bad old puerh", or point to the long aftertaste and say that this is a good sign of aging potential. From many sources, I have heard that the smoke smell will diminish over time. But how long do we have to wait? After 3 and a half years, this smell is still so strong. 10 years seems to be still too short. So maybe in 15 to 20 years at best. But potential is still different than actual aging. So many things can happen to tea (and to us) over such a long period of time. We may hedge our bets and store a few smoky bings for the long term, but for the here and now this is not a very interesting discussion (in my opinion).
More interesting is to see if it's possible to brew this tea in a way that can make it drinkable now. That's what I tried this morning. On the left, I repeated a tea tasting brew (2.5 grams for 5 minutes in a tea competition set) and on the right I used 5 grams in a gaiwan with very short infusion times, adding water in a careful manner.
I didn't use a chronometer. I poured each time the color of the tea flowing over the lid of the gaiwan had changed just enough. 10 seconds to maximim 30 seconds in the end. The first brew had no astringency at all, aftertaste also short. The taste started round and sweet and it's only as a second impression that the smoke smell appeared in the mouth. But it was not overwhelming. OK to drink, almost enjoyable. The second brew was a little stronger in taste, body and had a longer sweet tobbaco pipe aftertaste. I also noticed the typical camphor fresh taste of Menghai cakes. This light mint smoke effect is almost elegant! This effect happened again in the next brews, but the smoke was coming off stronger and stronger.
The smell under the lid is not that off -if you take the smoke aside-. This plantation puerh seems to use quite natural fertilizer based on soy beans. A look at the leaves (see first picture) shows that there is a mix of them inside: it goes from very light green/yellow to almost black. This is indeed a recipe puerh, not leaves from a single origin. Also, most leaves are not whole. And I found a lot of black spots on most of the brown leaves. These spots come from the fired wood that is used to dry the leaves after harvesting. That's the reason for all the smoke smell: excessive use of wood fire to dry the leaves instead of traditional sun drying.
All in all, tasting this raw puerh was a good reminder of the power of a good gongfu technique to improve the taste of tea. The first test tasting gave a good indication of its quality level. The fun is then to find the way to maximize its strength and minimize its weaknesses. We can't always have excellent tea leaves in our cups, but we should strive to brew them the best possible. Thanks Cloud! (763 words)
Update: you can get a picture of the different ways this puerh can be brewed by different people here. The difference in appreciation is explained by personal taste, but also by the brewing parameters and skill.