Tuesday Tasting: Tea Tasting versus Tea Reviewing, plus Yunnan Sourcing Mengku Grade 3 Ripe Puerh mini tuo cha

Reviews are a cornerstone of many blogging universes, and this blog hasn’t been very different. Some of my most popular posts are reviews (mostly of beauty products), and recently, a large portion of my posts have been tea reviews. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “reviewing” something like tea, which is so beholden to the reviewer’s personal tastes.

That said, of course I’m going to keep sharing my thoughts on teas I’m tasting. Have no fear. But I think I shall structure my thoughts as tea tastings rather than tea reviews. It may seem a silly distinction, but here is my rationale: flavors that I enjoy, you might not, and vice versa. I think my video on the immensely popular Lapsang Souchong is proof enough of that. So rather than “review” teas that come my way, either as gifts or my own purchases, I shall sit down and do a long tasting session, taking careful notes, so that I can share the impressions I get of the flavors and aromas I get from the tea. Hopefully, that way, it will provide some benefit beyond just “I liked this tea” or “I didn’t like this tea.” And it means that there’s no such thing as a positive or negative review. Just a tasting.

For now, I’m going to be very ambitious and try to do a tasting every Tuesday. And occasionally, I may also post about some topics relevant to tea tasting. I will say, this is my way of becoming more serious about my tea, without taking a formal class, so you should know that I merely have a lot of feelings about tea, rather than any real training. I take my descriptions from my experiences with perfumes, wine, cooking, and other hobbies of mine.

So if you are interested in knowing details of my tasting notes, stay tuned. And if you happen to sell tea and wish to offer up a tea for tasting, let me know through the contact form.

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Today’s tasting is of the 2011 Mengku Grade 3 Ripe Puer mini tuo cha I received as a free sample in one of my recent orders from Yunnan Sourcing. While the tea was provided free of charge, it was a normal sample-with-purchase rather than one provided for promotional reasons.

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I used one 4.7-gram tuo cha in a 120-ml gaiwan with boiling filtered water. I rinsed the tea, and then steeped this eight times, starting at 10 seconds and increasing by five seconds for each steeping, and then finished with a ninth steeping for one minute.

The dry tuo cha is quite compact, with a very subtle earthy scent after being warmed in the gaiwan. Upon rinsing, the leaves released a light aroma of wet earth.

After the first steeping, the gaiwan lid held the light aroma of petrichor and damp earth and the wet leaf itself smelled more strongly of earth. The liquor smelled of mushrooms and was a surprisingly light rosy amber color. The flavor of the first steeping was surprisingly sweet, with notes of Biscoff, brown sugar, and maple syrup.

The second steeping brought out a slightly darker color, like Grade B maple syrup. The wet leaf smelled of forest floor while the gaiwan lid brought out a sweeter woody aroma that took me some time to place. I believe I eventually settled on some sort of aromatic wood or liquorice root. The mouthfeel was noticeably creamy, with a little less sweetness and more fruit. It had jammy apricot notes and custard, so I noted a flavor of apricot tart.

During the third steeping, I was still trying to place the lid aroma. The liquor was much darker and started developing that rich, dark earthy flavor that I associate with ripe puer, though it still had some sweetness. By the fourth steeping, I had placed that the lid aroma was some sort of sweetly aromatic wood, though not spicy like sandalwood. I also noted that the tuo cha had started to noticeably come apart. The sweetness of the liquor had died down a bit, but it paradoxically retained a very smooth chocolatey flavor, almost like milk chocolate without sweetness, or perhaps like Crio Bru brewed cacao.

By the fifth steeping, I was starting to notice a bit of warmth in my body and was feeling rather good. Despite drinking on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, I had no stomach upset. The fifth steeping was the deep, dark color that I associate with ripe puer — almost like coffee — and the aromas were all sweet woods and earth, with some mulchiness in the wet leaf itself. I, very poetically, wrote that the liquor “tastes like the forest on a rainy day.” I then went on to wonder if there was such a thing as “poetic cha qi” and noted that I feel like lounging around like a cat. It had a very substantial, chocolatey mouthfeel and the tuo cha had completely come apart.

The sixth steeping had the same earthy aromas and dark liquor, though the flavors were somewhat muted. The color of the liquor had started to fade again at the seventh infusion, but still had strong earthy aromas and the leaf almost smelled of firewood. The flavors brought forward minerals — iron and salt. The eighth steeping looked very similar to the second steeping, with a little return of that woody sweetness. It was here that I identified liquorice root in the flavor. By the ninth steeping, I decided it was pretty much done, though with some pleasant lingering sweetness.

Upon examining the spent leaf, I noticed a fair amount of sticks. The overall mass of leaf was very dark, with little color variation.

Tea Review: White2Tea Reviews Part Three, the Pu-erhs

NB: These teas were sent to me for review, but all opinions are my own. For more about my review policies, click here.

Months ago, when I received an incredibly generous package from Paul at White2Tea, I knew it would take me a while to get through all of it, even just for review. Add into that a honeymoon and two business trips, and, well, here we are. I’ve finally gotten through the last three samples. This is kind of the main event for White2Tea: Pu-erh. Pu-erh, which is a kind of fermented tea, falls into two main categories: sheng (or raw), and shou (or ripe). White2Tea went ahead and sent me 25g samples of two of their raw and one ripe pu-erh. I brewed all of these teas according to White2Tea’s guidelines, and experimented further where noted.

2016 Daily Drinker:

You may remember this photo from Instagram a last week, when I commented that this tea does not work grandpa- or farmer-style. But it is a delightful raw pu-erh. My previous experience with pu-erhs were entirely of the funky, ripe variety, and it was novel to try this style. This tea starts out with a very light color, body, and scent, which intensifies to its peak around the 5th steeping. I noticed a characteristic anise scent and flavor and a sweet taste that, despite my general dislike for anise and licorice, was not unpleasant. I also tried it steeped in 15-second intervals in my fish gongfu set and enjoyed it very much. It tends to get too bitter steeped grandpa-style. At $19 for a 200g cake, I will almost certainly buy this again (although I may try the 2017 instead).

2016 We Go High:

This is a blended raw pu-erh that confused me slightly. The web listing shows a quite light brew color, but this brewed up amber from the first steeping for me. The leaves themselves have a delightful visual variety, and has the earthy aromas I associate with a ripe pu-erh mixed with the fruitiness of a raw one. The flavor is enjoyable, with an almost mineral edge to it and a creamy mouthfeel. This tea also has the strongest “tea drunkenness” effect I’ve ever noticed from a tea. I was buzzing around all day at work on this and found myself both productive and happy, although it became a bit much after a few cups. This is a wonderful tea, but all that said, I almost certainly will not purchase it again myself, as it is $139 for a 200g cake, or $18.50 for a 25g sample, and I’m not sure I got that much out of it.

2017 Old Reliable:

This is exactly what I think of when I think of pu-erh tea. It’s deep, dark, almost coffee-like in its thickness and intensity, but with absolutely no tannic edge to dry my mouth out and sour my stomach like strong black/red tea. This has notes of earth, mushrooms, and leather. In fact, I have a coworker who refers to pu-erh as “shoe tea” based on a previous experience. I found that funny, since this actually is shou pu-erh. Anyway, I got a solid ten steepings out of this before it started to diminish, but noticed a sweetness coming through at the ninth steeping, so this tea is definitely in it for the duration. At $14.50 for a 200g cake, how could I not repurchase this?