This is the last tea sample passed on by Olivier Schneider, that pu'er authority who founded his own reference page (puerh.fr).
If the tea was from anyone else there would be less reference value in one sample that's not really well identified. It's described as sheng puerh 1998 Hong Kong Storage. The second description reference reads more like "1948;" that can't be right.
Any tea, tasted even completely blindly, is fine for experiencing what you get from that, but it wouldn't work to assign any degree of confidence that the version might be good, or typical of a certain style or background in any way. Based on trying those other samples this will be an interesting tea, and a positive experience, that provides insight about aging transitions within a broad but typical range.
One more qualification about that, which extends into a bit of a tangent here before the actual review: aged sheng pu'er reviews in general tend to draw on forms of prior exposure and expectations more than other types. Or few people write reviews of aged sheng, probably a sort of "those who know don't talk; those who talk don't know" running theme (a Tao Te Ching reference).
To the extent discussion takes place in particular qi effect is described in detail, not just a typical range of how a tea makes you feel, but also specifics about energy patterns experienced within the body. Also mouthfeel effects come up, learned preferences for certain types of experiences related to tightening and sweetness effects in different parts of the mouth or throat.
It doesn't necessarily diminish the importance or validity of those experiences that such preferences have to be learned, that they wouldn't be experienced as inherently positive by an untrained individual. Full-bodied French red wines or Scotch drinking aren't less valid because those things would taste awful to someone without a lot of the right prior exposure. It would be possible for an inexperienced tea drinker to dismiss most of that as subjective preference that's not well grounded but something would seem to be missed in that. At times limited groups of people do learn to value experiences that aren't necessarily meaningful or positive to everyone else, as in the case of these forms of appreciation, but most typically within the context of those groups there are real, valid, meaningful grounds for those preferences.
I drank red wine for a few years, and without a lot of specific training in the form of group indoctrination I moved from liking milder, sweeter versions into more subtle, complex styles, and I may well have been headed towards becoming a burly Cabernet drinker eventually, I just stopped before that happened. As with tea drinkers experiencing oolongs or aged sheng as natural end points people with different inclinations in red wines might well be headed towards appreciating subtle, complex Pinot instead, or fruit-forward Bordeaux style blends, or maybe those rough-edged French reds that taste like a nail was stored in the bottle to a newer wine drinker.
In the case of art it relates to forms of meaning being carried in styles that one really needs to be familiar with to appreciate, to completely human-developed patterns of forms. Tea styles and aspects appreciation might not be so far from that but even if so that wouldn't make them less valuable for only be valued through learned association. It also seems possible that unlike in how art forms can match current trends and meaningful patterns, based on earlier trends, an individual would learn to appreciate some of the same aspects in tea without training, just maybe in a different form. I was never really into art, just to be clear, but a grad-level class in aesthetics philosophy made for a confusing but interesting investigation of what it was all about.
First infusion: I did taste the rinse, just to get an idea where this tea is going, and it was heavy on slate with some mustiness and char (probably as well to not even sip a few drops of that; it'll be there next round too). This tea might not be so positive for the first couple of infusions. The first infusion is just a little musty but it's nice how fast that is clearing up. There's lots of depth to this tea, apparent very clearly beyond any more challenging aspects, which seem like they'll largely be faded by the next round and perhaps even more so on the next.
It reminds me a little of Liu Bao, that intense slate-mineral effect. It's a little different in this expression because there's more depth behind it. But then I've probably not tried higher level, fully aged Liu Bao yet, so I would be comparing apples and oranges. The smoothness is nice. Even for expressing a range that earthy and still being a little musty it's quite smooth. The depth is nice too; it covers a lot of that old-furniture range of flavor, and the sweet nutty range that gets hard to describe, not so far off roasted chestnut but not exactly that.
the leaves did take awhile to unfurl, even though not compressed so much
The next infusion is what I expected; it picks up a good bit of depth, and cleans up quite a bit. It might sound like I'm saying that the tea is "off" more than I intend. That one range of slate-mineral flavor can easily bridge into different levels of mustiness and it's hard to pin that down on a relative scale without any mention making it sound more significant than it is. The feel is interesting. The tea comes across as really rich and really smooth, which will spare me talking about which parts of the mouth it impacts. The overall experience lingers quite a bit but that relates to there being a depth to it, not one particular feel in the mouth or one distinct, limited trailing flavor. Breaking any of those parts of the experience further would definitely be possible but somehow wouldn't seem more informative.
People tend to ask how aged sheng compares to shou, and I definitely won't have a clear and final answer to that based on trying this one tea, and little to go on based on trying more in the 10-15 year old range. But it could work as good input; I can see how shou, this aged tea version, and Liu Bao map together better related to trying it. I probably won't get far with explaining it though.
In one sense this tea shares some common ground with those cheap, char-intensive droplet / tablet mini-tuo version of shou. In a couple of others it's relatively not like those at all. Some flavor range is common but the overall effect of dropping some charcoal into a cup of hot water is closely tied to the mini-tuo experience, and not this. Slate mineral and subdued charcoal are main flavor aspects though, but there are layers below that. It seems possible this tea will transition more over the next couple of rounds to move to a balance further away from that, and if it doesn't that'll make it easy to keep these notes short.
even short infusions were a bit dark
It does take another very pleasant step the next round; good. That slate / mineral / char falls back into a nice balance, and an aspect I think of as "something I'm not familiar with" moves forward and develops. It's not completely unrelated to "old furniture," but sweeter, better balanced, and cleaner. This tea has already moved way past whatever any Liu Bao or shou I've ever tried can express, in terms of depth and complexity, just in a sense that's hard to describe. Thickness escalates quickly. It's so full in feel that it's a bit oily, in an interesting and nice way. I get the sense it'll evolve to a place easier to describe in the next infusion, so I'll say more about that in the next round.
Next round: maybe not; I was wrong about this getting easier to describe. There's a depth to the experience that I can't put words, or maybe even completely grasp. Breaking out any description of part of it doesn't cover the rest at all. Flavors could be like roasted chestnut, or anything else I've already expressed, but the flavors-list approach drops more out than it catches. It works to say it balances, that subtle, complex range of feel combines with flavor range that has an unusual depth and complexity, but that altogether it amounts to a sum greater than the parts. I'd be writing poetry to describe it further than that. You kind of just have to experience it. I'm not saying this is some sort of heavenly transcendent experience but it is definitely one of the most interesting and positive teas I've yet to try.
It's like shou but nothing like shou, depending on which level one would mean. In terms of flavor it's not that far off, just more complex. Some shou I've tried were complex and smooth but not to this degree. I'm not even sure this tea is completely where it's going to transition to, that it has went through its own version of "opening up" yet.
More of the same on the next round. It is still transitioning, but I can't describe how. It keeps getting cleaner and sweeter, with the slate-mineral receded to a mild supporting element very different in form. That "old furniture" aspect also cleaned up and transitioned, not gone, but different. A richness like roasted chestnuts remains, but the effect closest to char also smoothed out and fell into a different supporting layer. There's an effect you get in some better Wuyi Yancha that matches how certain types of liqueur come across, sort of a perfume-like aspect, but nothing like a chemical, the nail polish remover type ranges that would make up a base for those. All this range is subtle and well integrated.
Flavor isn't the most interesting part of the experience. The smooth fullness also isn't. I don't even mean the same thing by "smooth" and "full" as I typically would; kind of an extension of those instead. The experience after tasting the tea isn't like an aftertaste, although there is some part that corresponds to that. I don't mean a "buzz" as I've experienced with some teas either, the form I connect with some "qi" effect. Levels of experience continue on after you swallow the tea, a mix of taste and how it feels. Back to the poetry, it seems.
I might just leave off there and drink another half dozen infusions without the note taking. The aspects will change, for sure, but for being so hard to describe it'll be a similar form of rambling on anyway. I will say this: two infusions later the balance is even nicer; the tea just keeps improving. I can see why people might get hooked on this sort of thing. The depth of the experience is much different than for other tea types that just taste nice, have a nice full feel, and some aftertaste effect.
maybe 15 infusions in, still a bit thick and oily
Around 10 to 12 infusions in the tea suddenly required longer infusions to produce the same intensity, and a couple more rounds later it dropped off that much more. It was still far from finished though, but longer infusions shifted the range of aspects quite a bit. The char came back, extracted more from the longer times. The tea was still positive around the 15th or so infusion (where I'm tasting it now), interesting, pleasant, and oddly still quite complex, but not as nice as that range had been from rounds 5 through 12. It definitely made for a unique experience.
I won't have much for additional conclusions, so I'll mention some closing thoughts here. I can't place this tea related to other relatively fully aged versions, related to other teas that had spent 20 years aging under similar conditions. I'm sure different starting points and slightly different storage conditions would change results. As with any new range of teas it is possible to try just one "good, typical version" and get some sense of where things are headed, but it almost never works out that the variations are something that you'd expect.
More input, and an event notice (in Europe)
I talked a little to Olivier Schneider about this tea, the person who passed it on. It doesn't shed that much light on the storage environment but it is interesting hearing him say a little about that:
This tea is a sheng (raw) puerh from 1998, mean that it was raw when he left Yunnan, with a very good Hong-Kong traditional storage, aka. wet storage. HK traditional storage is a traditional way to age puerh, made in Hong Kong and guangzhou area for long time. Because we speak about Hong-Kong "storage" many beginers think it's just a question of storing tea in the humid atmosphere of HK, but in fact it's not. HK traditional storage is like shu cha (shu cha was inspired by HK trad storage), an artificial method to age tea, but when shu cha is an industrial process which take around 6 weeks, HK trad storage is an slow and hand made process which usually take at least 15 years for a high quality product. It's really an art, like whiskey aging or cheese aging, and when it's badly done it's really terrible (with typical moldy taste), but when it's made by good house, like this one, it makese really amazingly great teas!
Surely a few details beyond that about related factors are familiar to many, even those without broad experience, but in the end trying a tea that has been through a positive version of this sort of transition is the thing.
One thing I didn't mention in that review: I would've believed that the tea had been stored a lot longer than 20 years. Versions of sheng not that much younger than it that I'd tried in the past had seemed very young in comparison, not all that affected by age at all, beyond more limited related transitions occurring. I've had limited exposure to teas being ruined by poor storage. A Liu Bao was way off due to being stored too wet, really musty, but it sort of came back from that after sitting around for a year.
The slate-mineral and char effects that were stronger in the beginning and end of the cycle seemed to be outcomes related to that transition. On the more positive side the smoothness and level of depth in those infusions in the middle were new to me. Even in those earlier and later infusions when those aspects weren't necessarily positive they were still more neutral than they might sound, and the overall effect and complexity was positive in ways that was hard to describe.
To move onto another idea kind of related to this tea, but not directly related, Olivier is doing a series of tea tastings and ceramics displays in Europe over the next month or so. My Vietnamese tea-friend Huyen might even make it to one in Paris, but I think she's still working out paperwork and travel planning. Either way, I'll mention that schedule here, by citing a FB post, and the related link:
Before to leave Asia, choosing the teaware I will bring with me for Europe! This year there will-have two special guests I would be happy to show the thesis work during tea events: The great tea ceramics artist Emilio Jose del Pozo from Taiwan, and Xunhuan Wǎngfù , amazing cloth and Chabu designer from Norway!
credit his FB page (probably as well to just link to the contact pages here though)
Happy to see you in Europe in some days: (full program here)
June 28 in Paris: Blang Vibration, immersive sound and tea experience
June 29 in Paris: Vietnam mountains tasting tea
June 30 in Paris: Free puerh tasting tea
June 30 in Brussels: Workshop on green puerh
July 1 in Paris: Tea and gong fu cha time
July 2-8 in Paris: Complete puerh tea education
July 11 in Waterloo: Free puerh tea tasting
July 12 in Namur: Free puerh tea tasting
June 12 in Namur: Blang Vibration, immersive sound and tea experience
July 13 in Brussels: Free puerh tea tasting
July 13 in Brussels: Puerh tea bar and surprises
July 14-15 in Brussels: Two days puerh tea education
July 21 in London: One day puerh tea education
I'm sure with that many events going on a detail or two could change, so it would be as well to check that page and check in about the planning, of course also related to seeing where an event is, and how to check in about plans to attend.
I've been very grateful to him for sharing these teas. He's said a little more about them in discussion but not all that much, and it wasn't really framed for making up extra sections in the review posts, which are more about passing on an impression.
It's nicer to discuss tea in person though, since you can also try some, and I hope that some of you get that chance over the next month or so. If Huyen does make it to one in Paris that would be a nice added bonus, to get a chance to discuss a tea tradition that doesn't come up much (Vietnam's) with someone from there who has been looking into it. Even beyond that information her enthusiasm is a bit contagious. I've not done much with passing on contact information for her--the tea trades were never about marketing anything--but her family's gift business site may be of interest, since it does include some teas. I think they're more standard types though, not like those local-style sheng I just reviewed, but glancing through to snag a picture I did see tuochas, so it's definitely not just Thai Nguyen green teas.
Huyen at work (credit their site)