A Beauty called Pu'er
There are many excellent books on Pu'er Tea. I want to bring two of them to your attention.
The first is titled Pu'er Tea by Deng Shihai 邓时海, a retired professor from the Taiwan Normal University (b. 1941). The book was first published in Kunming in April 2004 and remains one of the most authoritative texts on Pu'er Tea.
The second book is titled The Story of Pu'er Tea (2005) by Lei Pingyang 雷平阳 a poet and author (b. 1966), from Zhaotong, bordering Sichuan in northeast Yunnan.
Here are two translated and edited excerpts from the book:
Deng Shihai wrote about stripping Pu'er tea to its basic aromatic qualities, comparing the fragrance of aged Pu'er to lotus, orchid, camphor and fresh green, describing them as "the highest quality Pu'er," "flavorless flavour," as Deng calls it.
The concept of "flavorless flavour" as Deng explains: "is at the heart of Zen Buddhism, a state of mind where the flavour of tea is no longer tea but where tea and Zen have merged as one.p.48.
It's a race against time when infusing other teas because their life expectancy is relatively short compared to vintage Pu'ers. Aged Pu'er can run the distance, a tea full of lingering reminiscences, a tea that has a lasting inner fragrance.p.201
Ruan Yirong 阮毅蓉, a former factory chief at the Menghai Tea Factory in Xishuangbanna, wrote one of several introductions in the opening pages of the book:
With its unique flavour and lingering charm, it would be difficult to find two Pu'ers of the same age and mellowness, like trying to find two identical leaves growing from the same tree. And while you might be drinking only one vintage Pu'er, as the tea is steeped and constantly changing in the water, each infusion reveals different flavours and textures.p.9.
It is often said that Pu'er tea gets better with age, a sentiment that can be instructive and beneficial in our own life trajectories. If we have looked after ourselves in our youth, we should age gracefully, and like good Pu'er, reached degrees of mellowness. At the same time, we should have tamed the astringency of our younger years.
Time has faded countless beauties, vanquished scores of heroes. But time cannot destroy or vanquish a good vintage Pu'er tea cake. There is a sense of wonder and admiration that such a tea gets better with age. Just as Confucius stood by a river musing about the passing of time, we can rejoice that the flow of time improves a Pu'er, but at the same time be anxious that while the cake has aged it will not live forever.
Rather than rejoice or worry about its permanence or impermanence, we should just sit down quietly, throw everything we have learned and experienced into our tea pot and like the tea leaves that are infusing in the water, observe what has suffused our own lives over the years. Time, we discover, is also fragrant and sweet-scented!
Good Pu'er is expected to improve with age. I say "good" because I have drunk from the "really good" to hurl-the-tea-down-the sink terrible.
The "anxiety" or "worry" that Ruan mentions is despite all our efforts to look after the tea, specifically, how it is stored, there are really no guarantees that it will actually improve over time.
I call this the Pu'er Paradox.
I spoke to a Pu'er tea aficionado in his boutique tea shop in Taipei yesterday and we discussed among many other things, exactly what time frame are we talking about when it comes to vintage Pu'er teas, specifically "raw," "unfermented" teas. He said that between eighty to hundred years is the peak for oxidation of Pu'er before it starts to decline or lose its "lingering beauty."
This brings to mind an article mentioned in Lei's book entitled "Pu'er Tea and the Qing Emperors" by Wang Yufeng. In 1963 over two tonnes of tea was found in the imperial vaults of the Forbidden City in Bejing, estimated to be over two hundred years old. In October 23, 1965, Wang was able to inspect these tribute teas, some "resembling watermelons, others the size of ping-pong and tennis balls." A tea expert made some tea from these "drinkable antiques." He didn't have much to say on the tea other than "it was a little on the thin side."
I must admit that I am becoming more and more partial to good vintage "raw," "unfermented" Pu'er (at least ten years old and above), a far cry from my days in Yunnan drinking for the most part, oceans Pu'er harvested in the Spring and Fall. In Taipei I can drink and purchase exceptional vintage Pu'er tea for much less than it would cost in mainland China.
In November 2014 I drank a 50-year old raw Pu'er in what could have been the secret headquarters for Pu'er connoisseurs in Kunming, located on the fifth floor in a nondescript office building along a busy thoroughfare in the heart of the city. I would do no justice to this raw Pu'er tea by describing it, layers, shades of such depth and subtlety, dimensions, colours and textures that blew my palate away.
The brand name, Zhongcha (The Chinese Tea Company) produced Pu'er teas from the late 1930s to the 1980s in tea factories in Menghai, Kunming and Xiaguan.
It would be an amazing tea event to compare three raw vintage Pu'er, all close to 50 years old, from Menghai, Kunming and Xiaguan. That will most likely never happened in my lifetime, but I will keep my fingers crossed. Liu Yonghua, tea technician extradonaire, informed me that the current market price for a tea of this calibre, 357 grams, is at least 200,000 yuan, about 40,000 Australian dollars!