Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Mengku puerh

Last year, I received a 2002 (or 2003?) Mengku cake from the Shuangjiang Mengku Tea Co. This is one of the big and increasingly famous new puerh factories. It's located in the south west of Yunnan, close to the border with Burma. This is a picture I made last year in June.And this is a picture of the actual cake I have from the same batch as the one above. I took this picture last week. Maybe you'll notice that the greener/yellow leaves have turned brownish within the 2 summers at my house. It doesn't seem very apparent on the pictures, but for I found the difference quite striking.
Here is a better close up of the upper face of the cake. It's too tightly pressed and the leaves don't shine, but it still looks quite OK on a first quick look.
Too curious, I decided to taste it for the first time last week. The result was very disappointing. Despite its aged looks, it was still very astringent and bitter with a relatively flat finish. Its leaves (below left) even failed to open properly after a 5 minutes infusion. The leaves of a Spring 2006 Mengku cake on the right show how they should have opened. (- I will comment that other cake some other day.)
Besides, the leaves are not even wild, despite the wrapping paper saying so! This is another example of deceiving looks. Nothing can replace the actual tasting. Also, it's good to have a high benchmark of real wild puerh (at least in your memory) to know what excellent puerh is supposed to taste like.

Update: Following comments by a reader, I've added this picture of a long brew I just made again (sorry for the darkness of my indoor lights, but it's already night in Taiwan):

Last time, the leaves were flaked by a friend, so I wanted to brew it again to make sure about their (lack of) quality. I was careful during the flaking, but some breaks still occured because this cake is very hard pressed. I was then careful only to take big, whole dry pieces. The result is quite consistent with before: all I get in my pot are very small leave pieces, however they are more open this time. For this brew, I was only able to find 1 leaf that was somewhat whole. And this is not a good sign as cut leaves produce more astringency.

Looking at the color of the brew, I don't think it's as young as 2004. 2002/03 seems more correct. Is it a fake Mengku? Maybe. At least I'm quite certain it's a fake wild puerh. Since wrapping papers are so often copied, I find it more interesting to discuss the tea itself than the paper.

I agree that my cake is different from the one this reader bought. His seems better pressed (not too hard and not too loose) and the leaves are more whole. However, I think that his is younger from the color of the brew and of the dry cake. This darkened color of my cake was actually the reason I wrote this post. I found it interesting to show the rather quick aging of this puerh cake in my Taipei apartment. And another interesting lesson we can see is that age is less important than the primary quality of the leaves.

Update 2: Here is a close up of the open leaves that I shot with a flash last night (I cropped out the rest because the flash at close distance doesn't make beautiful pictures):
So, I hope this sheds a new light on how broken the leaves are.


MarshalN said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MarshalN said...

Sorry for the deletion -- there was a flagrant error in my last post as I noticed something and I also thought of something else.

Stephane - I think the cake in your hand is from the 2004 production, as the leaves of the cake changed from 2002 to 2004. 2003 have different wrapper/neifei as far as I am aware, and this wrapper is no longer used after 2004.

Are you certain your second cake is from Mengku? The depression does not look right. The compression does not either. Their very early works had cakes that were indeed pressed too tight like that, but the newer stuff I've seen are all more like the first one you posted, rather than your second.

Also, the picture of the brewed leaves - somehow the size of the leaves in the pictures of the dry cake does not convince me that those are the same leaves that are in your brew, unless you only used the shavings instead of whole leaves. What you are showing looks more like a bunch of shavings from a low grade brick, all broken up bits and pieces. This is quite inconsistent with what I've seen, and also with what the cake surface shot you took seem to indicate. Anybody who has tried puerh seriously will know that. Care to shoot a picture of the interior of the cake after you broke it up? To produce something like what you brewed the cake will have to have only a surface of big leaves while filled with fannings in the inside. I know for certain they don't do THAT. Unless, of course, you got a fake.

I'm sure the next thing you'll do now is to try to tell everyone how great one of your own new cakes is in comparison with everything else everybody produces. Go Stephane!

MarshalN said...

Speaking of which

Anybody interested in a comparison can go look at a picture (link below) I have on my blog of the 2002 production of the same tea, dry and brewed. They are, of course, different years, but you can see how the leaves used are not fannings that never unfurl. I won't comment on whether it tastes wild or not, as that is my word against somebody's else -- you can only taste it yourself to know, but pictures don't lie, unless, of course, it's not what is being claimed.

And as a disclaimer -- I am not a vendor, I don't sell tea, I don't have time to sell tea. I am simply a tea addict who questions everything that a vendor tells you. In the world of puerh, that is a must.


MarshalN said...

I'm glad you responded with a fairer assessment of the tea, Stephane, because the first sample of the brewed leaves simply was not what the cake should be, and your second sample demonstrated that. The leaves unfurl like they should, and are not nearly as broken as you claimed. Unless it's been stored very poorly, or severely wet stored (or cooked), young puerh like that should always unfurl. And even then, there should be plenty of warning signs on a cake.

As for the age -- keep in mind I am brewing my tea as I drink -- we're talking 10-15 seconds infusions early on, going on to maybe a minute or two later on. If I'm not mistaken, you are brewing yours using the 5 minute brew method in the standard tasting kit. The colour of the liquor will be significantly darker in my case if I left water in there for 5 minutes straight using that method.

Lastly, it is perhaps more useful if you find the exact same cake you took a picture of in picture #1 to look at the colours now -- then you can make a more scientific comparison in terms of aging. Different cakes will always have different aging, depending on whether it's at the top of the stack, the bottom, slight differences in compression, etc etc

TeaMasters said...

Unfortunately, it's not possible to find the same cake again. The store sold out this cake. However, I'm quite certain they were from the same batch, even from the same tong.

I have considered your point about the color of the infusion. On the other hand, I don't use as many leaves as you do.
A long infusion will make the color more concentrated and dark, but it's age that will make the color turn from green/yellow to red than brown. On this account, my infusion looks more 'brown' and the dry leaves look darker. That's why I still this cake is older than yours (which doesn't make it better).

MarshalN said...

Re: colour -- A lot has to do with the light, and in this day and age of digital cameras, your camera's white balance. Neither of which is controlled for any of our pictures, so it's difficult to say either way, unless it was taken under the same conditions using the same equipment.

Regarding the fact that they are different cakes -- I thought you said you stored this cake in your house??? Now you are saying they sold out of the stuff? So you mean.... it hasn't been sitting with you all along? What's that bit about it sitting in your house for 2 years then? I quote: "Last year, I received a 2002 (or 2003?) Mengku cake from the Shuangjiang Mengku Tea Co. ... This is a picture I made last year in June.
And this is a picture of the actual cake I have from the same batch as the one above. I took this picture last week. Maybe you'll notice that the greener/yellow leaves have turned brownish within the 2 summers at my house. "

So you mean you just bought this cake from the store last week? Or you got a cake 2 years ago, but somehow took a picture of a different one (that you managed to lay out and shoot a photo of) but not the one you actually received? I was under the impression that probably both of them were in your hands, but apparently not. This is getting pretty confusing.

I'm not even sure if they were from the same batch. Picture #1's compression is substantially different from picture #2 -- #1 is much more normal and pressed quite nicely, while #2 has problems. The way the depression on the back is shaped also seem quite different, as far as those pictures can show anyway, with a sharp ridge on #2 and a smaller opening (#1's depression is quite consistent with other Mengku cakes I've seen, old or new).

If they are from the same batch, these things should generally be pretty close, not so drastically different. Maybe you got a bad cake, or as I said, possibly a fake one. There are, after all, lots of fake cakes out there, for good and bad stuff.

TeaMasters said...

Sorry if you're confused by the first picture. It was taken at the store 2 years ago (I can forward you the original picture if you want to check the date). A few weeks later, when I returned to this store, the owner told me he had sold all the inventory of this cake, except 2 cakes still on his shelf from the tong he had opened to break samples. I bought some tea from him on that day and he then gave me 1 cake as a gift for my study of puerh.

I hope this clears the misunderstanding.

As for the color, I have emailed you a proposal to send you a sample of the cake so that you can see for yourself. Did you receive my mail?

MarshalN said...

Didn't get your email, but as that address is essentially unused and receives 99% junk, it won't surprise me if it just got overlooked. Apologies.

I don't think it is necessary -- after all, I can go to the local store where pretty much every Mengku cake ever produced is available.