Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Cup2Cup: Awoono’s “Early Nineties Loose Pu’er” & Red Blossom’s “Wild Leaf, Sheng Pu-erh 1993”


Since the big price jump in aged pu’er, my attention as a buyer has turned away from 70s and 80s sheng to 90s sheng. Lacking a winning lottery ticket, I find that acquiring aged pu’ers is no longer an option. The adolescent teas from the 90s will mature as I wait for my nascent beeng chas to take on some age. A little more than a month ago, I purchased Awoono’s Early Nineties Loose Pu’er after trying a sample. This is a pleasant tea, a nice change from the stronger, greener young pu’ers. I love young pu’er, but those who know me will also testify that I crave variety. The grand magic of pu’er resides in its changes over years and decades. Good pu’er from the nineties is rare; bad pu’er, common. Awoono’s Early Nineties Loose Pu’er, I decided, is by no means bad. I can afford it, and drinking it is a pleasure.

Davelcorp, a forum poster and discerning tea critic familiar to all of us, kindly sent me just this week a sample of Red Blossom’s Wild Leaf, Sheng Pu-erh 1993. It has some characteristics of age, and the tea does not come with ugly issues attached. I enjoy drinking it. I like it well enough to have ordered some for keeping around the house, and having ordered it, realized that it might be identical to Awoono’s product. Both are mao cha, indistinguishable in dry leaf and liquor color.

The blog "Ancient Tea Horse Road" has an excellent article on Red Blossom’s ’93 Wild Leaf Sheng. The author’s judgment of Red Blossom’s adolescent loose tea is somewhat harsher than my own; given its price and mission, I think it succeeds quite well.

Here is Red Blossom’s description:
Our 1993 Wild Leaf comes from the ancient tea trees that have grown for hundreds of years on the mountainous slopes of China's Yunnan province.

Harvested and crafted by the aboriginal people of Yunnan, the tea is a "sheng" or raw pu-erh -- aged naturally -- with time as the only catalyst transforming the tea from its nascent state as "mao cha" to its current rich mahogany color.

While we are unclear as to the source mountain for this tea, we do know that about seven years after harvest, the tea was acquired by a family friend and brought to Guangzhou to be stored at his tea house until we acquired it in 2006.

This natural aging creates a tea that is uncharacteristically light and sweet. Steeped longer, the tea becomes creamy, with a heavier, yet remarkably smooth body.
Awoono’s description of Early Nineties Loose Pu’er is shorter:
Origin: Menghai, Yunnan, China
Year: Early 90s
Net Weight: 30g
Type: Uncooked

This is one of best loose pu'er, outstanding quality and excellent richness tasting, it displays unique pleasing flavor. Highly recommended for drinking and collection.
My memory of both suggested they are the same, but I decided to put my memory to the test. My tasting notes follow.

Dry Leaf Appearance: Small, broken leaves, some stems. Red-gray. Light frost. The two pu’ers are identical in the dry leaf state.

Wet Leaf Appearance: Brown and black leaves.

Leaf Weight and Brewing Vessels: In two identical 1.5oz porcelain gaiwans, 1.6g of leaf.

Temperature and Steeping: Water just off boiling in early infusions, hard boil in later infusions. One fast rinse. 15s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, 35s, 1m15s, 1m45s

Aroma: In the first infusions, the Awoono cha is somewhat spicier despite the identical appearance of the dry leaf.

Liquor: The color of Folgers coffee in the first infusions. In the fifth and sixth infusions, I notice that the Red Blossom cha is a shade darker.

Infusions: In this dimension, these two loose pu’ers fall short. They taste good, but they do not evolve as much as one might hope. Although there is some evolution of flavor and aroma in both, it is not pronounced. The Awoono cha changes more than does the Red Blossom cha. And yet I would not expect from these relatively inexpensive, adolescent mao chas the mystical changes I encounter in a great sheng beeng cha from the 70s.

Taste: Because the teas are loose and the leaves relatively small/broken, the two teas quickly infuse even in the first infusion, so the flavors are strong in the first and second steeps. The Awoono cha is spicier and woodier in the first two infusions, but the Awoono has some danker flavors too. I notice this dankness in my nose when I swallow the tea. In the second and third infusions, the Awoono cha is somewhat sweeter and still somewhat dank -- suggesting a wetter storage or even a smallest hint of mold. The Red Blossom cha, while a tad bit more sour, also has a cleaner taste. Perhaps I’ve spent more words on this than the difference warrants. There’s no bold juxtaposition intended. But in the fifth and sixth infusions, the difference grows: the aged characteristics of age and spice are more clearly defined in the Awoono cha. The dankness in the earlier infusions has gone away. Later infusions offer nothing new -- just a gradual diminution of flavor.

Concluding Remarks: I think we would have a rough time locating better adolescent pu’er for less money. Granted, there are better adolescent pu’ers (for example, Hou De’s ’98 Yieh Sheng Ciao Mu), but those cost far, far more. As regards the storage of these teas, neither indicates the effects of a wet past. The spent leaves are certainly not misshapen or partially dissolved like those I’ve encountered in speed-aged pu’er, and the flavors and aromas of these two pu’ers do not have the unpleasant wet-laundry character that I associate with wet-stored pu’er. Given their similarities, these two teas might well have been, at one time, the same tea, and the differences now a result of recent storage. I prefer the Awoono cha a little more, but it is a little more expensive than the Red Blossom cha. If a cha2 you3 were to hand me a cup of one of these a week from now, I’d be hard pressed to identify the source with any degree of certainty. But I’d be happy to drink the tea.