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!
Champagne, Tequila, Darjeeling, and Dark Tea
If you make a carbonated white wine, it’s called a “sparkling wine,” unless you are producing it in the Champagne region of France. Then, and only then, should it be called Champagne. I say “should” because there are a number of countries that didn’t sign (or don’t honor) the treaties involved, but that’s a whole different blog post.
The same applies to beverages made from distilling blue agave cactus. If you are in the Mexican state of Jalisco — or designated portions of certain other states — you may call that beverage Tequila. Otherwise, you have made mezcal.
The theory behind these distinctions is not so much the strict corporate trademark enforcement that governs most usage of names in the U.S. It is more a question of terroir. If you were to take two cuttings from the same grape vine and plant one in Napa Valley, California and the other in the Rhine Valley of Germany, you would get different wines from the two vines. Terroir describes the effect that the soil, weather, drainage, and related geographical factors have on the resulting taste of the beverage, whether it be wine or tea.
Darjeeling tea is often called the Champagne of tea (this appellation is usually reserved for first flush Darjeeling tea, but we’ll ignore that distinction for the moment). This little factoid has little to do with the subject of the article, but does make for a marvelous segue from alcoholic beverages to teas, n’est pas?
Like Champagne and Tequila, Darjeeling refers not only to a particular style of tea, but to the origin of that tea: the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India. Darjeeling tea is unique because of its terroir, but also because of the varietal of the tea plant that they use. Most tea grown in India comes from Camellia sinensis var assamica (the varietal native to India), but Darjeeling tea comes from Camellia sinensis var sinensis (the varietal native to China). Combining the terroir of West Bengal with the flavor of the Chinese tea plant produces the tea we’ve all come to know and love.
And, finally, we get to dark tea
Another geographically-named tea style is pu-erh (also spelled pu’er or puer), named for the town in the Yunnan province of China where the style originated. Only recently has the tea industry really started using the more generic name of “dark tea” to refer to fermented (as opposed to oxidized) teas.
There are two ways to make pu-erh: sheng and shu (also spelled shou).
SHENG (a.k.a. raw or green pu-erh) is the more prized by collectors. The tea is stored in a slightly damp humidity-controlled environment and allowed to slowly ferment. It’s generally not considered ready to drink for years after being picked. Shengs have the same vegetal flavors and aromas as a good Chinese green tea, but with very complex earthy undertones.
SHU (a.k.a. ripe or cooked or black pu-erh) gets a bacterial “kick-start” to the fermentation process, so it’s ready to drink within a matter of months instead of years. Shu pu-erh requires very little steeping time (I’ve spoken to producers that recommend as little as ten seconds), and many pu-erh drinkers start with a “wash,” where you add boiling water, swirl for a few seconds, and pour it off before doing a “real” steeping. Shu pu-er tends to be extremely earthy, with a “composty” undertone. The flavor profile is even richer and deeper than a strong black tea (often reminiscent of a good Keemun), but with very little astringency.
There are several common shapes of pu-erh cakes, including rectangular bricks, bird-nest shapes (“tuo cha”), and flat disks (“beeng cha”).
The standard size for a beeng cha (like the one pictured above, which I’ll be sampling and writing about soon) is 357 grams, although they can be found in smaller sizes as well. I’ve found several suppliers for 100g beeng chas lately, which is a more affordable alternative for someone new to dark teas or someone sampling a new variety.
Tuo chas, on the other hand, are available in a wide variety of sizes usually centered around 80-120g. Mini tuo chas have become quite common. Each is a single serving of tea, roughly 5g.
Bricks can be found in a variety of sizes as well.
Something new (to me, anyway) is the log-shaped dark tea. My wife, Kathy, and I found these at the World Tea Expo (the big annual industry trade show for tea people) a couple of weeks ago. The ones we purchased for our tea bar are logs about 3.625 kilos (8 pounds), 25 inches long by 5 inches in diameter. We’re selling a single log in its bamboo wrapping with a canvas carry tote for $99.99, but most people will be more interested in slices taken from the log.
In the picture below, Kathy and I are posing with what the tea grower calls the world’s largest log of dark tea. If it puts the size of that tea log in perspective, I am 6’5″ tall (195 cm) not counting the hat and boots. Not having a spare thousand dollars laying around, we didn’t buy that one!