Phong Sali 2011 Pu-erh from Laos
At World Tea Expo this year, I picked up a Laotian pu-erh (well, technically a “dark tea,” since it doesn’t come from Yunnan) from Kevin Gascoyne at Camellia Sinensis Tea House. I mentioned this in a blog post back in June, and said I’d be tasting it and writing about it “soon.” Well, since it’s a very young sheng (a.k.a. “raw”) pu-erh, I figured it wasn’t a big hurry, and “soon” ended up being October. Oh, well. Had to get all that Oktoberfest stuff out of the way first, I suppose.
Let me begin by explaining the label and the style of this tea.
That big “2011” on the label is the year that it was produced. Most pu-erh drinkers will tell you that a sheng pu-erh should be aged a minimum of five years before you drink it. I certainly won’t argue that the flavors improve and ripen as the tea ages, but in my humble opinion there’s nothing at all wrong with drinking a young sheng. I enjoyed the bit that I took off of this 357-gram beeng cha (pressed cake), but I’ll be saving most of it to drink as it matures. Will I be able to hang on another three years or more to drink the majority of it? That remains to be seen.
The words “Phong Sali” do not refer to the style of the tea, but to its origin. Phong Sali (or, more commonly, Phongsali) is the capital of Phongsali province in Laos. Technically, as I mentioned above, this tea style should be called by its generic name (“dark tea”) rather than its regional name (“pu-erh”), because it doesn’t come from the Yunnan province of China. Since the little town of Phongsali (population about 6,000) is only about 50 miles from Yunnan (which borders Phongsali province on the west and north), I think we can let that bit of terminology slide.
“Old tree” refers to the tea plants themselves. In most modern plantations, the tea is pruned to about waist height to make it easy to pick. In many older plantations, the tea has been allowed to grow into trees, which can reach heights of thirty feet or more. The particular tea trees from which this tea comes are over 100 years old.
Tasting the tea
Unwrapping the beeng cha provided my first close look at the tea. The leaves are quite large, and the cake is threaded with golden leaves that didn’t oxidize fully.
There is still enough moisture in the cake to make it fairly easy to flake off some tea from one edge. Shu pu-erh is often dried very hard, as it is “force fermented” so that it will be ready to drink earlier. Sheng pu-erh, on the other hand, needs a bit of moisture in it to continue fermenting over time. I decided to try it in a gaiwan rather than making a large cup, so that it would be easier to experiment with multiple infusions and smell/taste the tea as I went.
I used water just a bit cooler than boiling (water boils at 202°F at this altitude, and I used 195°F water for this tea), and roughly 7 or 8 grams of tea. Unscientific, I know, but I didn’t measure it. I steeped the tea for just a minute the first time, and got a delicate but flavorful cup of tea. The flavor is similar to a characteristic Chinese green tea (think dragonwell), but more woody and with a bit of spice.
The picture on the right shows the leaves, uncurled after the first steeping. They are large, supple, and fragrant.
That one-minute steep wasn’t really enough to hydrate the leaves, so I went for a second steep at 1:30 (pictured at left above). Much more flavor, but still extremely delicate compared to a fully-aged sheng pu-erh. I enjoyed a third and fourth steep, which had only minor changes in flavor, but was interrupted before I had a chance to keep going and see how it stood up to eight or ten steeps. An experiment for a quieter day, I suppose.
This tea is definitely worth enjoying a bit early, and I will definitely be coming back to it. Again, we’ll see how much survives to full maturity. I’m not very good at waiting!
Active vs. Passive Tea Consumption
There’s a big difference between the way tea is usually served in U.S. tea shops, and the way it’s served in Asia. I’ve been trying for a while to come up with the right words to describe it, and my friend Kory did the job for me last week.
Kory was sitting at my tea bar, trying to decide what he wanted as I was preparing myself some wild shu pu-erh in a gaiwan. I offered him a taste, and he said he’d give it a try. He watched as I went through the ritual and filled a small cup for him. He tasted it and said, “I’m looking for something more passive.”
My first thought was that he was referring to the process of preparing the tea (he wasn’t, but more on that later), and I realized that he’d just given me the words I was looking for. American/European tea drinking is passive, while Asian tea drinking is more active.
When my son and I went to Bellingham and Seattle last month, two of the tea shops we visited exemplified this perfectly.
The first was an English-style tea house called Abbey Garden Tea Room. We sat at a table and ordered our food and tea. They steeped the tea in the kitchen, and brought us teapots (with the tea leaves removed), tea cozies, and cups. All that was required of us was to pour the tea in a cup and drink it. The pots were large enough that we didn’t need refills during our meal.
The second was a Chinese tea house called Vital Tea Leaf. We sat at the counter and talked to the tea expert on staff (her name was Fang). She asked what kind of tea we liked, and set up a gong fu tray in front of us with an assortment of teaware. For each tea, we smelled the dry leaves and the wet leaves, and watched as she prepared a few ounces of tea in the gaiwan, gently agitating the leaves and fanning the aroma toward us.
The Abbey Garden experience was passive tea drinking. We picked tea we liked, and it became secondary to the rest of our lunch. We focused on the food and chatting with each other. With the larger British-style cups, we only had to refill a few times during the meal. At most American-style tea houses, those cups would have been even bigger — probably 12 to 16 ounces, and there would have been no refills required.
The Vital Tea Leaf experience was active tea drinking. There were no distractions, and we only got a couple of ounces of tea at a time. We were engaged in the process the entire time, and it was all about the tea.
Most of the time, passive tea drinking is fine with me. I am sipping on a large mug of houjicha as I write this, and although I’m enjoying it, the tea in my mug isn’t my primary concern at the moment.
But there’s a lot to be said for the active tea drinking experience. Watching the tea steep (experiencing the “agony of the leaf”), comparing the changes from the first infusion to the next, smelling, sipping, tasting, and concentrating on the tea you drink. I think after I press the “post” button for this article, I shall pull out the gong fu tray and gaiwan and actively drink some tea!
Sidebar: What Kory really meant
In my opening paragraphs, I spoke about my friend who gave me the idea for the terms active and passive, and mentioned that the whole subject of this article isn’t really what he meant.
What he was trying to say is that the taste of the tea itself can be active vs. passive. For you beer drinkers out there, here’s a comparison. You’ve gotten together with a bunch of friends to watch the game on TV. Your friend hands you a glass of beer just as there’s some great action going on. You drink the whole beer without having any idea what it was (it was probably Bud Light). There just wasn’t enough taste to get your attention. That’s a passive drink.
On the other hand, if he had handed you an oatmeal stout, a lambic, or a double IPA, you probably would have stopped what you were doing to focus on the beer. “Wow. What is that?” You would have smelled and sipped, savoring the beer and missing the touchdown that put your team in the lead. That’s an active drink.
The wild shu pu-erh I spoke of at the beginning of the article is most definitely active. There’s a lot going on in that tea. It’s rich, deep, and complex, with flavors and aromas that are very hard for me to identify. Kory was interested in a good, but passive tea. Perhaps a Keemun black. You taste it, notice it, and then drink the rest of the cup without paying attention.
Okay, Keemun tea lovers. I’ve painted the target on my back. I await your wrath.