The Executive Editor of (The Art of Tea) , (Puerh Teapot) , (The Art of Crafting a Teapot), (Ceramic Art).
In the deep autumn of Xishuangbanna, I sampled fourteen different kinds of old tea over the brief space of eleven days. Consequently, for me this autumn was the greatest Puerh tea harvest ever.
I was fortunate to have the chance to travel with Zhou Yu to Yunnan. In order to seek out the flavor of "mark" stage tea of fifty years ago (yinzi ji 印字級 - The "Masterpiece Era" Puerh produced between 1940 and 1972). He brought a number of cakes of these drinkable antiques from Taiwan. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend nearly every day tasting tea with Taiwanese tea experts. I experienced the feeling of this old tea in the mouth as well as the response it elicits in the heart. I realized just how difficult it is to express through words the experience of drinking these antique teas. I was reduced to repeated expressions of admiration.
After dinner on our first day in Jinghong, Zhou Yu pulled out a fifty-year-old loose leaf Lincang tea. Entering the mouth with a fullness and simplicity, it created a feeling much like the rich autumn lushness before our eyes. Although it possessed some hou yun (後韻), it felt too briefly. We followed with a Blue Mark (Lan Yin /藍印). The first infusion possessed a slight plum-like sourness, while the second was filled with force and vigor. It was still highly astringent. The next day we sampled dozens of brewing's of this year's spring maocha. By evening, Zhou Yu could not take the intensity of the maocha and pulled out a cake of Blue Mark tea. The thick strips of dark red tea on the surface of the cake appeared glossy, and the liquor had a rich viscosity. In the mouth, it exhibited layer upon layer of strong cha yun (茶韻).On the third day, we returned to Jinghong from the Yiwu village of Mahei. Mr. Chen arrived from Guangzhou to see Zhou Yu. Although it was past midnight, my exhaustion immediately melted away upon hearing that we would be drinking Red Mark (Hong Yin / 紅印) produced before and after the Blue Mark. The Blue Mark was strong and vigorous, while the Red Mark Tie Bing (iron-pressed cakes) could be divided into clear levels. The latter period Red Mark was simple and mellow, but I could only describe the three old teas that followed by saying "I'm truly too fortunate!"
Zhou Yu's thirst was still not sated, and he happily suggested we follow with a double-lion celebration cake (雙獅同慶號 shuang shi tongqing hao). The five of us seated had still not recovered our senses from the assault of the previous three brews. We sat and waited in pleasant anticipation. As the tea gently flowed from the mouth of the ziasha teapot, ten eyes followed its movement into the teacups. We quietly sipped the strong and vigorous tea as it dissolved instantly in our mouths.
Focusing on savoring the sensation while it existed, I felt a kind of sweetness continuously flowing toward both cheeks. I immediately understood the meaning of "a fountain calls from beneath the tongue." The tea liquor was mild, smooth-textured, and delicate. It left behind a long-lasting sensation of sweetness in the throat and a slight feeling of warmth throughout the body. The tea so lightly flowed to all of the cells of the body and, likewise, left the mind with a sense of calm and tranquility.
Zhou Yu shared with us: "This tea is on the highest plane of teas that I drink. Drinking this kind of old Puerh is no longer an activity of the mouth, The entire body drinks it, and the entire person becomes completely relaxed. It is a pleasure for both the body and one s vital energy!" Twelve grams of tea in a teapot shared among five people; after a dozen infusions the brewed tea was still very thick and still released layer after layer of cha yun. It was impossible to avoid comparing it with the previous three stamp teas. Although they had already been stored for fifty years, they still felt young in comparison.
My goal in describing the process of tasting these old teas is not only to share with readers the elegance and flavor of old Puerh tea, but, more importantly, I wish to summarize this idea: the value of old Puerh is determined by more than its taste. Tea can open up all of the human senses. Accumulated experience based on careful sampling and drinking allows us to appreciate its beauty, smell its fragrance, and evaluate its nature. Because of this there is an intrinsic value in, for instance, a double lion celebration cake priced at more than NT$600,000 (-$20,000US).
Hundred-year-old pressed tea - a pleasant flavor as if there and not
Taiwan's China Times recently ran a series in its "Human Realm" supplement entitled: "Hundred Year Old Tea Sees the Light of Day." It contained descriptions of the taste of such teas, provoking an intense period of debate among Taiwanese tea circles regarding hundred-year-old tea cakes.
The article "The Flavor of Hundred-Year-Old Tea" described the following: At the beginning of the Republic of China (1912) the former associate dean of the Imperial Palace, Zhuang Yan, was able to purchase a Qing tribute cake, leaving it behind for later generations. Recently his son, Zhuang Ling, discovered the tea in a chest of drawers in the family home. On the cover of the small black box containing the tea was Zhuang Yan's calligraphy saying "Solid Block of Puerh Tea."
When the Yetang Teahouse's He Jian heard that a cake of hundred year old Qing dynasty palace tribute tea had appeared in Taipei, he was at first doubtful. After looking through photos and verifying against the records of Beijing's Imperial Palace, he confirmed that such a tea did in fact exist. He hoped to get to the bottom of this culturally and historically rich tea cake, and so this rare gathering cook shape.
The tea cake was the size of a piece of chocolate, around 2.3 cm square and 0.6 cm chick and weighing approximately four grams. A "shou" character (long life) and the auspicious outline of a bat were pressed into it. When all was ready? He Jian carefully lifted a pot of boiling wafer and slowly poured the hot, boiling water into the glass tea cup. In the space of a breach, the tea dissolved into the boiling water. The speed of its change was startling.
It is difficult to describe, but in an instant dark brown tea liquor was created. I could not have imagined that this tiny cake of tea could infuse 150ml of water and produce such deeply brown tea. Everyone present was given a small cup to taste.
Everyone so earnestly focused on tasting this hundred-year-old tea. Although each of us only had a small cup, we were all left savoring a different aftertaste. He Jian shared: "The most splendid part of such old tea is the particular transformation caused by the passage of time. It immediately dissolves in the mouth. A moment after swallowing, it has already disappeared leaving behind a total emptiness. Drinking a high-grade 1960's tea that had been frozen, I experienced a similar melting in the mouth, but it was not this pure and mild. Instead, it was like carbonated water dissolving with a 'swish' This time, the tea was extremely peaceful and extremely comfortable as it disappeared. All of its fragrance and tea liquor was as if simultaneously present and non-existent.
It exhibited the highest level of Daoist aesthetic. The fragrance held in its flavor is entirely separate from existence or non-existence. After it enters the mouth, it is suddenly as if nothing is there; but it slowly, gently, subtly, and elegantly returns as a continuous aftertaste. In this it reveals its depth and sweetness. These various levels of hui yun (回韻) are possible because the tea is of sufficient quality. Normally with quality tea, pleasant fragrance and taste is not as valuable as hui yun."
The above description was shared by He Jian after tasting hundred-year-old tea. This small piece of Qing dynasty palace tribute tea, after undergoing such careful tasting, saw its value skyrocket. Each person only received one small cup, but I believe that those not well-versed in tea were able to more carefully appreciate every tea they tasted thereafter.
The age of tea is not everything
Not long after this article was published, the same "Human Realm" supplement reported on the tasting of "Shipwreck Tea,"
The "Shipwreck Tea" article describes the tasting of an 800-year-old ball of tea. As the story roughly goes, eminent tea authority Fan Zengping carefully took an ornately decorated box from his cabinet, Pulling away layers of packaging, he calmly said, "this is an 800-year-old ball of tea. This was probably a Song dynasty tea ball salvaged last March from the shipwrecked Nanhai Yihao in waters near Guangdong's Yangjiang.
I am sure that any tea enthusiast or lover of old tea would read this article with excitement. An 800-year-old tea! Such a rare tea, we readers are unfortunately only able to partially satisfy our curiosity. We have no real chance to see or taste this tea, so we can only read between the lines to grasp at the grace of this ancient tea, following the author through this time warp back to the Song dynasty of 800 years past. After reading the article, however, I was left puzzled and doubting parts of it. For instance:
"As far as possible, we have followed the Song dynasty tea competition style... the first infusion was brownish-red, clear throughout but suffused with cloudiness... Isn't the pure and glossy granular tea liquor the cold flour porridge "favored by people of the Song dynasty?… Looking again at the piece of tea that had undergone numerous infusions, its size had not changed in the slightest. It just looked a bit more muddled and soft. The left over tea dust was a green powder much like matcha. I imagine that 800 years ago, this must have been rich and fresh Meiren green tea. I could not help but choke up with tears. "
From the description above, my first point of doubt is, if they used Song dynasty tea competition techniques, how could the tea liquor be completely clear? If the tea ball is ground up, how is there a piece of tea remaining? According to historical records, Song dynasty tea competition brewing methods are as follows: "Before drinking
old tea, the tea is first roasted in order to remove any stale odor. Afterward, the tea is ground, tightly wrapping it in clean paper and smashing it with a mallet. Then a silver or iron tool is used to finish the grinding process. The ground tea should be extremely fine and small. After this is completed, the tea is finally ready to be cooked. The tea powder is placed in a bowl and boiling water continuously added, whisking the hot water with a bamboo tea whisk invented in the late Song dynasty. This is done until the tea powder and water are completely blended, into a gruel-like paste." My second point of suspicion is: "the left over tea dust appears as a green powder." Common sense leads me to wonder, how can a tea aged for 800 years be green? My third point of confusion is that if the Song dynasty produced balls of tea, how could it be Meiren green tea?
I imagine many people may have the same doubts as me. Because I have not seen this tea cake and did not participate in tasting it, am I unable to evaluate the truth of these reports? Many people, however, know that tea tasting and wine tasting share common characteristics. It requires a foundation of reason and understanding of the field and then works from perception. Only in this way can the tasting have real value.
This reminds me of something that happened recently: The author of the above article attended a tasting of old teas and said that a Taiwanese farmer produced an "ole" tea in only one day's time. He brewed it
alongside a twenty-year-old tea and invited everyone to taste. The author was surprisingly unable to tell which of the teas was the actual old tea. At this he could only sign at the chaotic state of Taiwan's old teas.
As it ages, tea goes through definite stages of transformation. Is its fragrance amplified, smoothed out, or is it hidden amongst the flavor? Where does the tea's stringency go? Is its sweetness mellow and refined, smooth and mellow, or strong and rich? Are the details of its liquor concentrated or diffused? These are all among the innumerable changes in flavor that take place as tea ages.
The popularity of old tea is not simply due to the fact that it is old, but instead is due to the mysterious transformation that takes place in the tea over the course of time. This results in a profound flavor that is more than simply the taste of age.
The value of old tea derives from the quality that time imparts upon its flavor. It is not simply due to being old. This is analogous to a person's increase in wisdom with age. Whether time can create value and the degree of such change varies from individual to individual. As a result, the value of old tea is more than just an accumulation of time. Rather, it is the depth and profoundness of the flavor resulting from such aging.
Red Mark tea's price is a result of its taste
It is widely know that "Puerh tea originates in Yunnan, is preserved in Hong Kong, and is savored in Taiwan."
Starting at the end of the seventies, a gradual surge of interest in Puerh took place in Taiwan. The wave of Taiwanese economic development as well as Taiwan's long-held custom of drinking exquisite Oolong teas have contributed to this trend... Tea connoisseurs are clear that following Hong Kong's 1997 handover to mainland China, the highest grade Puerh all flowed into Taiwan.
These stamp, number, and qizi bing teas have gradually come to be enjoyed by tea lovers and members of cultural and artistic circles. As they fermented with the passage of time, top grade teas have come to be recognized for their quality and lasting charm. Gradually expanding to wine tasting business owners, the fragrance of Puerh spread throughout Taiwan. Even the most ordinary citizens have grown to be extremely fond of it. Competition to purchase tea, along with academic exchange and optimal market conditions, pushed Puerh prices to new highs.
With the rise in the mainland Chinese economy over the past several years, these old Puerhs have gradually made their way back to mainland China. Prices have consequently steadily risen, often by orders of magnitude. This competition to purchase old teas has also spurred unprecedented conditions for new tea prices.
Although this years spring teas have come down in price, old Puerh prices are still sky-high. Thanks to the tea master Zhou Yu, I recently had the fortune to taste more than ten old Puerh teas. My tea drinking experience was vastly expanded. Zhou Yu laughingly said to me, "This trip to Yunnan, you've earned more than 100,000!" This caused me to immediately reflect on something He Jian once said to me, Red Mark prices have been set by Taiwan people's taste."
"Taste" sustains prices of old tea. As the market for new teas experiences a correction, one cannot help but ponder what exactly sustains their prices. Is it also taste?