The past year I have been trying many samples of pu-erh. I’ve been trying to figure out what I do and don’t like and simply educate myself on what pu-erh can taste like. So far I have found that I do not like shu (cooked/ripe) pu-erh, despite my willingness to try many, I haven’t found one that I have enjoyed. In my opinion the musty, tobacco, leather and sweat aroma and flavors are a bit much for me.
Thus far, I am a Sheng (raw) tea girl, I find the character of these teas to be incredibly complex and layered. If there is any type of tea that really changes a lot from infusion to infusion it is sheng pu-erh. I have enjoyed both young and aged yet I’m finding that my palate tends to prefer more aged teas from old trees that have been in a dry storage. The older it is, the more complex it gets. I have tried teas by themselves and compared side by side with others so that I can better pick up on subtle nuances. Along my journey I have had two favorites, they have been: a 2010 Nan Nuo mountain cake made with leaves from ancient trees- it is very light and floral with some bitterness and astringency. A 2002 blended cake made from leaves from Lincang, Simao and Menghai- this one had a really lovely herbaceousness that reminded me of peppermint and eucalyptus.
However, during this journey, there was a third tea that captivated me. This was 2003 Dehong “Wild Tree” raw tea brick from Yunnan Sourcing. This tea, technically a type of “purple tea”, is made with the cultivar “Ye Sheng” or “Wild Purple” from the varietal Assamica Dehongensis. The first time I tried this tea, it was along side a few others and it did not make my top list. I found it to be too close to a shu for my liking. Still, for some reason I kept thinking about this tea, something about it intrigued me. Although it has the earthiness of a shou, there was a vanilla like sweetness to it mixed in with a mushroom brothiness that I didn’t mind at all. The vanilla notes seemed to grow with each infusion while the mushroom broth diminished and the earthiness stayed balanced and constant.
I kept telling myself that this was not my type of tea, that I really didn’t care for it. Yet still, it was continually in the back of my mind, calling me. Like a secret crush I didn’t want anyone to know about because I’d be embarrassed of people knowing my “unusual” taste. The pull was strong, I don’t think I have ever thought of a particular tea so much as I have thought of this one. Sure I get cravings for specific teas every now and then but this was different. This was something deeper than just a craving. It felt like a need, like it resonated with a deep part of me that I had ignored for a long time. It deepened my thoughts, complicated my emotions yet freed my creative abilities.
To the average person, these expressions directed at tea may seem quite odd but I consider myself an artistic type person. A person who may tend to romanticize and idealize things and then expresses it in the form of writing. Writing has always been one of my favorite ways to express myself, I can write much better than I can speak. It is my way of thinking, of making sense of things… the blank page is my brain, the pen carving it are my thoughts, together they are my heart. My very soul in its physical form. If you are an artist (of any kind) you probably have something that helps you with your work, something that “puts you in the zone” something that helps to focus you. It can be a song, a place, a thing or an activity. For me it’s being in nature and preparing and drinking tea. And this Wild Purple tea really puts me in that place.
I drank this tea on a Friday and my weekend was busy so I was unable to revisit it for two days. For two days this tea was all I could think about. It was so strange! Finally when the weekend was over I woke up early to drink it (those who know me, KNOW that I like to sleep in over anything so this was a big deal). Again, I felt a special connection with the tea, a connection that I can now say was my first real “tea drunk” experience. Tea has what is called “cha qi” or a tea life force. In China there is the concept of Qi which is the idea that everything has a breath or a life force. However everyone experiences it differently, and if I can strongly feel a particular tea’s “qi” it doesn’t mean the next person will be able to sense it and vice versa. After this session I was finally able to admit to myself that THIS would be my first pu-erh, the first brick I would buy. Yet still the next day I compared it to a shu to verify my perceived similarity, I was very wrong. It dawned on me that sheng pu-erh came before shu, so this tea wasn’t similar to a shu, the shu is an attempt at getting at what sheng can offer. This is obvious, yet it made the most sense to me then. Drinking them side by side, I realized they are not as alike as I thought them to be. I’m not trying to put shu drinkers down of course, I’m simply saying that it is not my cup of tea.
So I ordered my first brick of tea, my first precious brick that I’ll never forget because it wasn’t I who chose it but IT who chose me.