It wouldn’t be without the generosity of experienced tea hands that I’d be able to do posts like these. A sample was provided by Peter from a cake from Su’s collcetion. Thank you to both of you!
About the Tea
This tea is not famous when put in comparison with previous teas like the 1988 QB or the 1999 Big Green Tree Black. The tea is labeled as a 7542 and is a big factory production, but is importantly not an official Menghai TF production. This makes the 7542 mean less than it would had it been a bona fida production, such as the 1988 QB. To this uneducated eye the leaves do look the part, with leaves that are neither big nor small. You may ask why I’m featuring a tea that isn’t famous.. It is a well-sourced, dry-stored, old tea. Those just don’t come around everyday and I wanted to do my best to document this tea and session.
The 1980s/1990s Zhongcha 7542’s approximate age places it right around the same age as the 1988 QB, a tea that ranges from 1989-1992. The tea was bought decades ago by Su and has been dry-stored in Malaysia before arriving in the US last year. The dry storage is an important piece to this tea and makes the profile and appreciation of it very different from something traditionally stored. Having tea of this storage and age is extraordinarily rare. Visually the storage is most obvious in the brewed out tea leaves, a mix of dark green and very light brown, a notable difference to the dark brown leaves of a traditionally stored raw.
I highly recommend looking at Phyll Sheng’s photos for pictorial evidence of this tea and its storage. He is a far better photographer than myself.
I had 5 grams of this tea, but elected to use a 95ml vessel. I used this vessel rather than a smaller one.. Despite the lower leaf to water ratio I feel more confident of being able to push the tea in this pot. I did not elect to use my traditionally stored pot, but one I use for more dry-stored and naturally stored pu’erhs, 95% of which are a decade younger than this tea. Despite being older the profile of this tea is in my opinion closer to my dry-stored teas than it is to earthier, darker brewing, traditionally stored tea..
Using a lower leaf to water ratio means I also leaned on the tea more heavily (in steep time) than I would’ve if I were using my normal parameters. This meant I started brews at around 15-20 seconds (in addition to the ~10 second pour). As a rule, I think is a good idea to lean on the heavy side for special teas. It can be tempting to use just a little bit of leaf to conserve special teas, but I almost always prefer one fantastic, memorable session where I drink slowly over two pretty good ones with a tiny cup. The lower ratio also negatively impacted the longevity of the tea, something to take into account in the context of this session.
One other difference with this session is that for the first part of my session I kept the water right at a boil and poured straight into my cup. This puts me into a slower drinking pace as I need to wait longer for the brew to cool, before drinking and re-heating the water. The slower pace and appreciation is also something a special tea deserves. As was the case for past fancy teas, I used lower TDS water, per Su’s recommendation for older tea.
The tea is very aromatic with foresty/pine smells. Denny would describe the tea as gasoliney, a description I find correlates with greener factory pu’erh teas. The tea is very, very active and quite green/raw. The taste has retired smoke, pine, wheat, hay. Body is moderate/heavy. Quite astringent. Induces some salivation. The sweeter aftertaste is not instantaneous but does come.
Taste continues to be smokey, very pungent, and quite green. It isn’t sweet at all and quite savory with a fast huigan.. Very very active. While i don’t feel anything in my chest yet, the tea is almost alcoholic in its strength. As someone with the Asian genetics that don’t process alcohol well, I have experienced my share of flushed, warm cheeks. I get that here.
The chaqi was not as immediate as other famous teas I’ve had but with a longer break I can feel the tea settling in my upper body.
No huge evolution in the flavor but a few subtle changes. Still very active, with pine/smoke being at the forefront.. The tea is still astringent and fairly drying. In the finish, there are now some fruit notes. Active on tongue and seeps out to rest of the mouth, continuing to flush the cheeks and is really warming to the whole body. I note the greenness again.
It is a little softer and a bit less actively raw, than steeps 1-3. This is still incredibly strong tea, but it is moving towards the overripe stone fruit category. Overall the biggest drop off is the pungent smoke. The slight softening of the tea also allows me to appreciate some of the finer nuances to it. I feel the liquor going down my throat and note the continuing warmth of the tea. The flavor is aromatic wood, leather. Up to this point the tea has been very energizing. This is also one of the sweeter infusions, the huigan continues to be quite good.
This one I pushed to around 30-35 seconds. Slightly sour, flavors of wood, grain, and rich overripe fruits. It is softer but still has a full body with some astringency.
Pushed even longer (~45 seconds). Creamy, fruity, the softest brew. At this point i am feeling the culmination of the previous steeps in my body. It is felt in my chest but predominantly the upper chest.
A brief break.. Before coming back to the tea for steeps 7-9
These steeps were about 1.5-2.5 minutes each. Dark woods, foresty, overripe/fermented fruits, a bit of leather. There’s still astringency to the tea. Overall sweeter than earlier. At this point i decide to call it for the day as the very active early steeps seem to be finished. The first nine steeps took me about 1.5 hours. I also now feel more of the complete body feel in my chest. My own reaction to the tea has also gone from quite energizing to start to more relaxing.
The next day, steeps 10-12
It is softer, fruitier a light astringency. Over-ripe fruits. Nice depth.
The next day, steeps 13-15
Very long brews of 10-40 minutes. The tea gets quite savory, remaining fairly complex. It never becomes single-note as many do in this phase.
Final Thoughts on the Tea
This tea is incredibly potent and powerful, enough so that it took a few steeps for the tea to lighten up for me to really appreciate some of the more nuanced aspects of it. The first thing that struck me was the potency of both flavor and how it flushed my cheeks and generated a strong warming feeling.. The qi and sensations around the rest of the body weren’t originally as obvious, but dispersed from the upper chest downwards and by the end of the session I felt relaxed. The dry-storage also allows for a fuller range of notes including higher notes, with a fairly quick huigan. This is so strong I can’t imagine it being an everyday affair regardless of the rarity/price.
Thoughts on Factory Tea & Aging
This tea and its high, high potency also caused me to reflect on factory teas and their long-term trajectory. I strongly suspect a tea like this wasn’t created with the intent of people dry-storing it or drinking it young. I’ve also seen more experienced tea drinkers comment that factory teas are no longer built to be super astringent and potent, with the idea that storage will mellow the harshness out.
There is also the question of factory tea and its more recent successors. It is easy to fall for the mythology of such teas and complain about how they don’t make em like they used to.. This tea is certainly built with sheer power that helps to prove such a point. Here’s an open question to experienced pu’erh drinkers.. Are today’s factory teas (a) in the same style but worst? (b) in a wholly different style or (c) in the same style but comparable quality? What modern day teas would be at least comparable in style to the teas being made by factory a two decades ago or more?
In Comparison with 1988 QB
It’s good to appreciate tea for what it is, but I wanted to include a small comparison for the sake of learning.
I have consumed less than a handful of teas with dry-storage and this age and these comments should be taken within that context.. I also used different brewing parameters for both teas. Both teas are very potent and full. While neither tea is sweet & smooth, this tea (the Zhongcha) has more remnants of smoke and occupies a more savory flavor range. This is partly interesting, because Su notes that the 1988 QB was one of the smokiest teas she’s had when young (I didn’t detect much smoke anymore). The 1988 QB has less obvious green pungency in the taste. The flavor of the Zhongcha in particular was difficult to even appreciate over the sheer raw potency of the initial steeps. After the initial four or five steeps, both teas ease up a bit and go into more soft and palatable notes. Both teas have a good huigan, but the 1988 QBs ranks a few notches up (one of the best), with a booming huigan that left me very impressed and helped me to understand the acclaim and hype.
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