This review was perhaps the most rewarding and enjoyable one we have done so far. The teas were all excellent. Every one was well-stored and clean, some of them were aged ten or fifteen years, and even the worst of them was still a decent tea. Also, all fourteen teas were a variety of vintages, which made it interesting to first try to differentiate the teas chronologically and then try to evaluate them in those terms. After all, the oldest isn't always the best, though learning to verify approximate age by drinking alone is a very useful skill. The fact that there were so many great teas here means that it was also very difficult to rank them. Fortunately, our samples were larger than before so we were able to steep and drink each of the teas, as well as do a competition brewing of all the teas simultaneously This allowed us to return to the teas and check discrepancies we found along the way. Competition brewing often shows subtle flaws not in a normal session since it stresses the tea, but without brewing the tea, the cha qi, which is such an important factor in the assessment of Puerh, cannot be qualified. Therefore, a combination of both is a far better method for reviewing Puerh teas. As we have done in all the previous issues, we tried not to think exclusively in terms of whether the tea is enjoyable now or better for collection and storage. We tried to use our passion for tea drinking and tea collecting to weigh these positive features against each other, so that a tea for collection must make a worthy enough addition to our shelf to warrant not purchasing the one we could enjoy now; and vice versa - the enjoyable one must be good enough to justify the gap in our shelf from not buying the one that still needs a few years.
The best of the teas this time met both of these characteristics. They were pleasant now, and also could be stored for a bit longer. Our top three were M, C and H. M was one of the older teas in this review, but the storage was clean and dry. It was very enjoyable with hints of aged tea in the smell and flavor (qing wei). The Qi slowly increased throughout the session, suggestion good quality old tea tree leaves. Drinking this tea was a pleasure, it went beyond even the ten or fifteen years we suspect it to be. When it was stressed in the competition brewing, it was still smooth enough to drink - without flaw. It was also still slightly active with a little room to grow. We would love to have two cakes of this tea, one for storage and one to drink now and again as it ages. C wasn't far behind M. C was a younger tea, still strong and active, but like M it was smooth enough to drink even when brewed for five minutes in the competition bowls. It had a bouquet of interesting flavors, and yet wasn't unstable like some flavorful teas. The flavors all transformed nicely. H had a slight bit of storage in the smell and taste, which was of course more pronounced in the competition brewing. It wasn't bad, though. The slight storage gave H some depth that was missing from C and M. All three of these teas had excellent cha yun. The sensations were prevalent in the upper palate and throat and lasted for quite some time. The hui gan of M was especially noteworthy, lasting for several minutes after each sip. We suspect that these three teas are perhaps worth a lot, and are excited to find out the vintage when the magazine is published.
Our runner-ups were K, N, and B. Like the three teas mentioned above, these three were also very difficult to rank. We actually liked all six of these teas a lot and will consider buying any or all of them at a later date, depending on their prices. K was definitely old tea tree Puerh, with hints of camphor that became overwhelming in the competition brewing. The Qi slowly rose over the course of the session, with waves of Yin energy. It is still active and has some room to grow, but we feel that K could be enjoyed now or kept as part of a collection. N .seemed to be a brick or tuocha. However, the leaves were very clean and opened up nicely, with none of the bits and pieces one usually finds in brick teas. It was sweet with excellent hui gan, and the leaves smelled sweet even after brewing. We would probably store this tea for a later time, though. B was also very nice. The leaves were excellent, bright and green and more uniform than many of the other samples. We felt that B was the best of the younger teas in this review. It had hints of smokiness (yen wei) with some fruity overtones that were nice. The astringency was in the center of the mouth and not puckery like lower-altitude, plantation teas. B still needs some time to grow up, but would make an excellent addition to any collection. It's one of those cakes that one drinks and knows right away will become an excellent vintage decades from now.
Most all of the other teas were also pleasant to drink and good quality. We spent a long and arduous afternoon after the competition brewing trying to sort through our notes and rank them. A, F and L had characteristics worth mentioning. A started the review off great, just as N ended it. It is a strong, active tea that we feel will mature into an excellent tea in years to come. It seemed to be about five to eight years old, but had the strength of a newer tea. It had hints of camphor and sweetness, reminding us of the 99 Yi Chang Hao. The leaves were a nice combination of large leaf sets and buds. F was very nice to drink, with a greater depth than many of the teas. We felt it may have had more storage than any of the other teas in this review, so it got a lower rank. However, it was still not as wet as some of the teas we tried in the last review. This kind of slight storage is. easily forgiven and corrected. L had perhaps the best leaves of all the samples. We think that it may even have come from a loose-leaf tea. They were all whole and showed no sign of compression. The cha Qi was definitely that of old tea trees, slowly rising as the session went on. However, the flavor and smell of this tea were just too weak. We kept waiting for something to happen, something amazing to match the excellent Qi, but wound up disappointed. We would be very curious see what happens to a tea like this in future. Will years of aging improve the strength? And would it be worth drinking just for the great Qi alone? By itself it might have been evaluated differently, though in the end it just didn't stack up against some of the other teas whose positive characteristics were much more obvious. We would still buy L, at least for curiosity's sake.
G, I and D were ranked at the bottom of our list within this review, but nowhere near the worst of teas we've had in our life. Actually everyone mentioned that they wouldn't mind any one of these three teas, despite the fact that they scored lower in the review. D was older and had a bit of storage. We ranked it lower because there was something a little off in the flavor. There was a kind of metallic aftertaste that lingered in the mouth, as well as some dryness in the throat. G and I were both really nice teas. It was hard to put them beneath these others. I especially was nice for drinking now. It also seemed to have some slight storage. It smelled almost like shou tea. Perhaps it was stored near some shou cakes. It had nice age and depth, and if the price were okay, wouldn't be bad as an everyday kind of tea.
We hope more of the tea reviews in the future will be as satisfying as this one was. Of course, drinking teas of vastly different qualities helps one to build a scale and learn to distinguish the good from the bad, but it's still nice to have a review of fourteen great teas. We thoroughly enjoyed the confusion caused by trying to rank group of teas that all have more positive than negative features. Below is a chart detailing our scores and ranks for all fourteen of the teas.