While I can find enjoyment in most any tea, I find very little pleasure in evaluating semi-aged Puerh tea. Though there is something to be learned from watching the miraculous fermentation occur, the teas are often not pleasant to drink. I think that Puerh tea is perhaps best enjoyed when it is completely aged or very new and fresh. Many of the stages in between are unsatisfying. The 2000 teas that were reviewed last issue seemed a more useful experiment, since the changes were just beginning, and even though many of the teas were in an awkward phase of development, the differences between them were distinct and informative. These 1990's teas, on the other hand, left us with the sense that there were really only two kinds of teas in the whole batch of samples: wet or dry stored. The other differences were all so miniscule that they often escaped detection. It previous review. Furthermore, since many of the teas from the 1990's -are easily recognized by experts, the samples were already broken up loose so one couldn't tell much from appearance alone. We brewed all the teas in gaiwans and recorded our discoveries by drinking the teas over the course of a few sessions.
I personally feel that the entire decade of the 1990's is not one of the better periods for Puerh production. Of course there are obvious exceptions, but for the most part I think that the quality of Yunnan tea during this age suffered somewhat. Much of the knowledge and skill that a few of the modern producers are throwing into where and how they find the tea, how its processed and appreciated have provided us with very new teas that are much better than what was produced previously. While there are also more varieties of poor tea than ever, the financial appreciation of Puerh has also led more people to take a greater interest, study more and apply learning to production in ways never seen before. One may argue that some of this high-quality tea is better than even the great cakes from the “Masterpiece” or even "Antique" age， but it's difficult to make any such comparison since the older teas are fully aged and in another league altogether. Only after many years, when these teas have reached maturity, will we know. I recently tasted a 2006 Yiwu tea produced by Chen Zhi Tong and another cake from an unnamed mountain offered by Zhou Yu, that were far better than any of these 90's samples - in flavor and Qi. Last issue, when we reviewed the 2000 teas, I found many of those to be lacking too; but the experience was edifying because the discrepancies between the teas were distinct and gave one a clear sense of the teas' directions. These 90's teas, however, were all more bland and indistinguishable. Perhaps this is a sign of the tea from that age or maybe it is just a trait relative to that period of storage. Some of these teas had been wet stored and were more enjoyable to appreciate right now; the others were drier and didn't taste so nice. The question then becomes, how are we to evaluate these teas? If one is buying a cake for enjoyment right now, then obviously the wet-stored cakes are a much better choice. If, on the other hand, one wishes to put the cake up for a while, the dry-stored ones are better. Almost all of the very old, vintage Puerh passed through at least a short period of wet-storage. Still, if one is going to drink a very old tea, like 30 years or more, then the drier the storage the better the cake. In fact, vintage Puerh cakes are often appraised based on the condition of the wrapping and the amount of wet storage. Drier cakes will be sold for more. When we go to buy an 80's or 90's cake for consumption, conversely, the wetter it was stored the better it will taste and the more enjoyment we will get from it. Consequently, with regards to this review, we were left wondering whether we should evaluate the teas based on whether we would rather have one to enjoy now, in which case the wetter ones would win, or whether we would rather have them for storage, and enjoyment later. In the end, we opted to try and judge the teas based on a combination of both scales. When we compared the wetter teas to the dry ones we asked if they were really enjoyable enough for us to want one more than the dry ones which may be great teas years down the road. It therefore helped that we are all also collectors as well as tea-lovers, so that we could weigh the enjoyment of storage against that of drinking the teas.
Of the wetter teas we found that A, B, E and H were the most enjoyable. They were still slightly active, but were beginning to even have that typical aged taste and smell. E tasted the best, having more sensations in the mouth (cha yun) and a longer-lasting aftertaste (hui gan), but B and H seemed to have the most depth and Qi. E also had a slightly oily consistency and taste that was rather nice. It also had a trace of smokiness (yen wei). All four teas would be decent to own since they had been kept in an environment that was wet but not overly so. In that way, one could enjoy them every now and again, knowing that they would still improve over time. The minor tart, tangy, jerky flavor was not overpowering in any of them. In E, it even transformed into a sweetness that lingered and caused salivation. Though E seemed more consistent in all of its qualities, the stronger aroma and Qi of B and H gave them a slight edge. A was the tea we liked the least out of these four, as it didn't have the tastes of E or the depth of B and H. Between the deeper two, we found B to be slightly better since H seemed to be an "iron disk" or toucha, which means it will ferment slower in the future and must have had more storage to reach the level it's at now. In the end, we ranked the wet teas as B, E, H and A respectively (though, as one can see below, this wouldn't be our final order).
In the "dry stored" category, we liked F, G and C. F and G seemed to be "iron disks" or toucha by appearance. In the end, we liked F the best of all the teas in this review. It was very dry, crisp and young, and the brewed leaves even had a slight green tinge to them. While the tea wasn’t that nice for drinking now, we all felt we would rather have this cake above the others. Its pristine dryness makes it an excellent candidate for storage. Furthermore, it had all the characteristics that we think will make it better with age. There were nice sensations (cha yun) and aftertaste (hui gan) as well as a pleasant Yin Qi that rose over the course of the session. G was also an "iron disk" or toucha, but we felt it wasn't as worthwhile as the best of the wet-stored teas. In other words, its "collectability" didn't outweigh the enjoyment of the best of the wet teas. And C was the flattest of the dry teas, offering little to distinguish itself. Interestingly, we felt that perhaps G and H are in fact the same tea? We will have to wait until the publication of the magazine to find out, and wished we had more samples to try and verify this after we discovered it. It seemed that they were the same tea, one wet and one dry-stored. If they aren't in fact identical, we suspect that they are at least very similar teas stored in different environments. The chart represents our evaluation more succinctly. Many of the authors in these reviews scale the teas from 1-100 based on all of their experience, teas they have had in their life, etc. We prefer to keep the scale within the review itself. Therefore, the scores we give the teas are only relative to the other teas in this review, not all the teas we've ever had.