One problem with getting into pu'er--or rather pu'er-style hei cha; see how awkward to keep repeating that?--relates to aging. You can drink a brand-new sheng (green / raw) pu'er but the whole point is that the tea ages to become a unique fermented final product, which takes years. Another issue is cost, also related to typically buying them by a 357 gram cake (or disc, or bing), although some are different sizes, or even different shapes. Of course some vendors also sell them as samples, or in different quantities, as Tea Side does.
Tea Side 2004 HTC sheng; cool look
To be honest the main gap in me trying a lot of them has been about not really being attracted to the general flavor profile compared to some other types, but that could just lead back to it being harder to find good examples. Or maybe it's that I liked lower grade versions of some teas better, and followed up those tea types to get to better teas based on that. I keep trying different versions from a range of types of teas, so I'm chipping away at those sorts of gaps, but that's all relative.
Related to naming it could be called pu'er, pu-er, or pu-erh, but I like the first convention, perhaps the most common, and shou rather than shu (referring to cooked or black pu'er, pre-fermented versions). They're just transliteration variations; it's really this: 普洱, or this 普洱茶, when you add the character for tea, 茶, as for hei cha 黑茶. As well to stick with the Roman lettering.
Tea drinking transition; idea of a natural preference curve
To help frame some context, I read a blog post comparing shou and sheng pu'er that stuck with me, so I'll cite that here. It's about how it may well be a natural transition to start with drinking shou and transition to sheng, although the quote doesn't say exactly that, and of course it's not that simple, natural preferences vary. From "A Tea Addict's Journal," a blog by Marshal N., about how tea preference changes over time:
We all have moments like this at some point in our tea drinking career. Teas that, when we were younger, we thought were great, full, and flavourful will almost always appear less interesting, less full over the years. Some of us got started drinking flavoured teas but have long since swore off such things. Others may occasionally return to the qingxiang oolongs or green teas that got us into tea in the first place, but find far more pleasure drinking different types. Still others will turn to cooked puerh from time to time, but would much prefer aged teas, even though cooked puerh may very well have been the “gateway drug.”
A great metaphor, right? I'm not claiming to be on any level of tea drinking, related to pu'er or any other kind, but I like the description, and can certainly relate to at least some of what Marshal N. is saying here. I started on tisanes (more than 20 years ago now; the time just flies), and jasmine green tea did help get me started on conventional teas, although I'd been drinking some Japanese green teas prior to that, and I drank mostly green tea at the outset, and now not so much. But this is supposed to be about pu'er.
Since I'm reviewing both a shou and a sheng here it may seem like I'm saying this framework applies to these examples, and to some extent the review content bears that out, but really preference is a funny thing, not so linear. It is interesting there seem to be some learning-curve patterns but these don't work as general rules. Some people don't like Wuyi Yancha, beginners or experienced tea drinkers, and that's where I've been focused for a good while now. The tea trends that come and go might seem to muddle how tea enthusiasts generally regard more basic or higher forms of teas, not that preference and hype should necessarily relate. Pu'er has been well-regarded for a long time now, for what that's worth. One more tangent that's interesting to me, which I won't be doing anything with here, is how one might like one kind of tea, transition away from it, then come back to it later with a different type of appreciation.
Tea Side HTC 2006 shou "pu'er" (Thai pu'er style hei cha):
Tastes like a good shou pu'er. To reiterate, it's definitely not a pu'er; it's from Thailand. It's hei cha, or "dark tea," more or less as directly translated. Here is more on the processing for shou in this vendor reference, which is a type of wet piling, a little like what your leaves might go through in your yard (obviously my own reference).
The main flavor component might be a dark version of leather, not like an oiled football or baseball glove in this case, maybe more like my old combat boots (long story, but I wasn't a goth kid). It might sound odd but I mean that in a good sense. Beyond that mineral tones are harder to pin down, between slate and graphite, maybe a bit like volcanic rock, the kind on those black sand beaches. Is that basalt? Been forever since that class. There is some sweetness and a fruit element but harder to pick out for those other heavier flavors, maybe something like fig or plum.
The flavors are nice even in the first infusions, sort of rich and clean, but after a number of them sweetness and complexity picks up a little and darks woods join in more, while the other earthy elements tone down a little. There isn't really any astringency to moderate so there is nothing standing in the way of brewing this as black as ink, if so inclined, but it provides lots of flavor at normal brewing strength, so aside from experimenting with that I didn't. If someone loved really soft but full teas this would be perfect; for someone inclined to prefer the structure a bit of mild astringency can bring, in different forms for different teas, this could be a little too soft.
as brewed light
There was a time I drank more shou pu'er and I liked the flavor and feel, I just got away from it, off to explore other realms in tasting and to focus on my one true love in tea, Wuyi Yanchas. So what is the difference in general types of teas, aside from a different flavor profile? Feel is an interesting part of tea but to me there's something about aromatic components, not exactly a taste or feel. Of course we are really smelling the taste, the subtle aspects, but for better versions of those teas something is going on that I can't describe. I've read a lot of descriptions but none get really close to capturing it. Even within the scope of flavors complexity can be exhibited in different ways, of course.
This tea is great if someone is on that page, smooth and rich and full. It would seem possible for a few more subtle taste elements to join in, for a little more complexity, but otherwise this is pretty much where shou seems to be headed, with the strength and weakness of the type. Not that I'm the best person to judge that from extensive experience, just giving my impression.
I don't generally go there but under the circumstances of reviewing a tea from an unconventional region for the type let's consider the vendor's take (from Tea Side):
Traditionally soft. The taste is harmonious, balanced and pure, without extraneous smacks. In dominant there are baked apples, tree bark and light notes of prunes. Surprisingly pleasant fruity aftertaste, like of a good old Sheng. But despite this, the tea gives the classic thick opaque infusion when brewed.
Maybe I could adjust brewing and bring out more related to the apples.
Tea-side 0801 HTC 2006 sheng "pu'er" review:
Very nice; the tea is smooth and rich, full flavored, not astringent, complex, a little sweet. Flavors are all layered together: plum and fig, molasses, earthy tones, tobacco, a bit of mineral, maybe something like roasted almond in there.
pieces of the tea
A number of infusions in the flavors mellow a little, deepen, with some of the fruit giving way to stronger earthier tones. The fig and plum element is still prevalent enough to give good balance, and the texture stays smooth, with just enough astringency to give the tea some body but no bitterness.
The smell of the brewed tea is really nice, close to that rich leather smell, like a bomber jacket or oiled baseball glove this time, but a little towards molasses from those. Plenty more infusions later the flavor just softens and fades a bit, but the tea really holds up to a lot of consistent brewing. Even after brewing the tea for so long I couldn't believe it when it started to fade and I really had to get on with doing other things I switched it to Western-style brew for a couple of extra long steeps and it was still great. The character even changed a little, more lighter sweet fruit came out.
I love smoked teas but I'm particular about the type of smoke, if that makes sense, so I love lapsang souchong but don't like most lapsang souchongs. I don't try enough nine year old sheng pu'er to put this on any sort of scale, though, so other veteran pu'er drinkers (pu-heads) could fill in that type of comparison better.
I'll give the vendor a say again, from the Tea Side description, having already set that precedence for this post, plus that adds some background detail:
Growing Region: Province of Chiang Mai, north of Thailand, 1500 meters. The tea is made from old and wild 200-300 years old trees. This sheng resembles a sheng of purple bushes in looks - the tea is very dark for its age. This is my absolute favorite among Thai shengs...
Taste: Full-bodied, very smooth (balanced) and intelligent. Nice raisin profile laced with spicy woody tones. Notes of plum are also present. Velvety and spicy aftertaste remains long after the drinking.
Effect: This Sheng is very strong tea, one of the most powerful of all pu-erhs in our collection.
A bit different taste-by-taste but close enough. I want to say a bit more about that last point, the effect.
Tea drinking for taste, for mouth-feel, and for effect
Not that this post really needed one more long tangent but this brings up another point Marshall N. made in a different post that is too interesting not to share, about preference changing over time, not just related to flavor but also to what someone desires from a tea. If this sounds at all interesting read that whole post because a quote doesn't do it justice, but here goes:
It is indeed true that beginners tend to drink with their noses – fragrance, above all, is what they focus on. This explains why jasmine is a perennial favourite of so many casual tea drinkers, and why a light oolong or green teas tend to be “gateway” teas that get people in the door – they’re fragrant and they’re nice to drink. Then, as you progress through the collection of more experience and the like, you start learning about the nuances, and the mouth comes into play – the body of the tea, whether it stimulates the various part of the mouth, the tongue, whether it is smooth, etc. Then finally, you get to the point where you are drinking the tea with your body, where the taste, the fragrance, etc are all less important than how it makes you feel. You can call it qi, even though I dislike the opacity of the word...
this guy is on pu'er
Within this context I would be on step two of three, and perhaps not that far along that. It's my impression that some people might notice the effects of tea much better than others naturally, though, although really it's hard to know what to make of what people say they feel. Their impression of taste is hard enough to relate to, and presumably that's a bit more common for everyone, maybe not a given that it's exactly the same.
I talked about this issue with a tea-mentor type of online friend, the kind of person that's pretty far along the learning curve, a vendor of amazing teas (not Cindy, although that all sounds a bit like her). She said that to really recognize the type of effect a tea has on you it's helpful to not mix what you drink so much, to stick to one type over a period of days or even weeks. That could be part of my problem, I really do mix types I drink a lot. But I think it's more about not sleeping regularly, mostly relating to my two kids taking turns waking me up at night. I just slept 8 hours straight two nights in a row so maybe I'll turn a corner related to that, and can try what she suggests, I just have to try a few samples first.