Sunday, January 4, 2009

Something to Chew On

First off, Happy New Year! It's been a long while since I've made the time to sit down and write, but this one is important. I was speaking with a friend the other day and we got into a pretty lengthy conversation regarding batch numbers for pu-erh. Take the Menghai 7542; you have the 801, 802, 803, and so on. Sure, everyone knows that it is the number of the production, but does that really indicate the quality of the cake?

Look at it this way. Menghai uses maocha that is between 0-3 years old before being pressed into cakes. If you stop to think about that, the biggest factor would surely be the quality of the maocha and how well it was stored before it was pressed. So, the pu-erh that is the X01 release may not be the best batch of the season. It hardly guarantees that the leaf used to press our superior spring bing is even spring leaf at all. You might find that an X02 or X04 cake actually tastes better.

I spoke to Scott from YSLLC about this yesterday, and he asked me what my thoughts were on why people were so attracted to the first run of a particular recipe. My thought process, as a westerner, was this:

What do we see when we think of tea? Usually, if you live in the States, you think of bags filled with dust and fannings, stapled shut with a string and a paper ticket that reads Lipton, or Red Rose. Those bags are nestled into boxes on grocery store shelves. You might think of green tea from the local sushi joint. You may have had sencha, or gyokuro...perhaps even a hot cup of houjicha. If you stopped in to a fancy chinese restaurant you may have been served a small pot of some sort of oolong. The fact is, until I was made aware of pu-erh tea, I had no idea what it was. I think that many who first look at tea start with what they're familiar with and then branch out. Naturally, one might seek out some nice loose leaf japanese green tea, maybe a decent oolong, even stumble upon tieguanyin, but I've never been to a restaurant that served any variety of authentic pu-erh tea. Anyhow, from the stance of Japanese teas, people always rant and rave over the spring flush. "Spring release must be best!" Is that really the case with pu-erh?

I don't think so at all. Sure, china domestic market pushes prices up on the X01 release, and even in China a little more buzz surrounding the first run, but it definitely doesn't mean it's any better. Scott from YSLLC and Hai Lang recently did a side by side comparison between the 2004 and 2008 Menghai 7542 to test this out. With the 2008 they used the 801, 802, and 805 batches. Both of them could not tell much difference. As for Hai Lang, I'm told that he can taste a tea and tell you not just which mountain it came from, but where on the mountain it came from. Then they tried the 2004 batches 401, 402, and 404. Scott preferred the 404 batch, and Hai Lang actually preferred the 402 batch. Still, all of them were very similar once brewed.

My thought on this is that it really depends on how well the maocha is stored. Since I'm using Menghai as an example, I'll go ahead and note that Menghai has a subtropical climate. Warm, humid; great for storing tea, so long as it is well ventilated. Those factors really contradict the hype around an X01 batch being the best. Sure, a cake pressed nine months ago may taste better than one that was just pressed because it's had some time to mellow out a bit, but given a few years, I think that taste is going to be less discernable. As for shu, the differences are even less noticable.

Point of the rant is that just because it says 801, it doesn't mean it will be better than an 802, or an 803. I'm pretty convinced that the sequence of numbers settles in some people's heads as the end all be all for pu-erh, but if that were the case, why would people waste their time with recipes that use a lower grade of leaf? I can think of numerous situations where I've gotten a consistently better cup with a tea made from a lower grade leaf.

Just something to chew on when you're placing your next order for 901 cakes.


Anonymous said...

You make a good point, Jamus. My favourite MH is a 604 of the 8562 I picked up a couple of years back. Neither the year nor the batch-number are much of a recommendation...but there you go!

Rob Townshend

Anonymous said...

Whoops. I meant, of course, 8542.

There is an 8562, a shu. Perhaps I'm meant to buy some.