I am far from an expert, but I’ve always been both intimidated and entranced by pu erh tea. The tea comes packed in cakes and wrapped in decorative papers, and you might even have a tea pick especially for breaking up these tightly packed leaves. There’s a proper way to brew and taste pu erh, and all kinds of special teapots and accessories. There’s something inherently magical about having the right tools for an ancient ritual. With the Mini Yunnan Toucha mix sampler from Teasenz, I could give the whole thing a try at my kitchen table.
I’ve brewed enough bad cups of pu erh tea to know that it’s worth following the instructions. For this sampler I used the following process for each: 20 second awakening rinse (pour off the liquid), 5-10 second brews following. I only did three brews for each tea, though a good pu erh session would have many more. I only used a small piece of each tea cake for my taste-test– I would not recommend throwing the whole thing in your teapot, no matter how small and cute the tea cake is.
I’m going to use the same naming convention that Teasenz used on its website, referring to the teas by the color ink on their wrappings.
First up was the brown wrapper tea. This smelled like what I typically associate with pu erh: wet hay, earth, and old leather. If you’re new to pu erh, these flavors may take a little getting used to. Feel free to shorten your steep times to as little as 1 to 3 seconds if anything gets too intense. This tea very much smelled like the outdoors after the rain, with notes of wet mulch and damp leaves. I mention all these wet adjectives because there was definitely a sense of age or plant decay in the smell and taste.
The mouthfeel of pu erh is worth noticing, known for being exceedingly smooth, some might even describe it as creamy. Black teas can be bitter or have a strong astringent bite, but no such sensation was present in the brown wrapper tea. By the second and third steep, I continued to notice wet garden flavors, with more mineral tones like mushroom or beets or kale, especially on the aftertaste. The wet hay fragrance remained throughout, coming on the strongest when first brewed and dissipating slightly as the tea cooled.
Next was the red wrapper tea, in a cube shape. This tea felt similar to the brown wrapper, with notes of wet earth and grass. However there was a bit of brightness in the red tea that wasn’t present in the brown, maybe citrus or orange, a touch of something tart. The second steep had more of this brightness, like lemongrass, along with the typical pu erh wet hay flavors. By the third steep, the citrus verged to more of a bright pine note. If the brown wrapper tea was a deciduous woods full of wet, autumn leaves, then this red wrapper tea was a damp, evergreen forest with crushed hemlock needles and pine resin.
After the brown and red teas, the blue wrapper tea was quite a departure. As soon as I rinsed the leaves, I was hit with a striking popcorn scent. According to Teasnez, this “sticky rice” flavor is a staple of certain pu erh teas. My boyfriend was walking by the room at this point and said it smelled like Fritos corn chips! As for the taste, this tea still had the expected wet grass notes, but the brew was more savory, like a soup broth. The plant-like flavors were a little different than the brown and red tea cakes, this time tasting more like corn or celery. As I tried more steeps with this tea, the sticky rice note became more mellow, and the damp earth and corn husk flavors were more prevalent, smelling more like an autumn cornfield maze.
Finally we get to the yellow wrapped tea. This is a different type of pu erh tea entirely. The brown, red, and blue wrapper teas were all pu erh shou tea. The yellow wrapped tea is a pu ehr sheng. Shou tea is fermented prior to packaging, while sheng teas are packaged “raw” and age in the package over time. This yellow wrapped sheng tea occupied a flavor profile somewhere between the wet earth flavors of the brown wrapper tea, and the toasty rice notes of the blue wrapper tea. The yellow wrapper tea had flavors like starchy baked bread and old paper alongside the damp grass tones. This tea had the most variation between steeps, the second steep having flavors that reminded me of black licorice or roasted nuts, and the third steep brightening up to more of a celery and sweetgrass blend.
Personally, I find the smells and tastes of pu ehr tea to be memory-inducing, reminding me of playing and exploring as a kid. The scents of damp paper or old leather are akin to going into an undisturbed attic, and the damp earth scents make me think about playing in neighbors’ barns or crawling under the porch for hide-and-seek, while the wet leaves flavors make me think of walking in the woods after the rain. The flavors of these aged tea leaves provide me with a strong sense of nostalgia and history.
Or maybe I’m just waxing poetic here, and I’ve just brewed one too many cups of tea for one afternoon. Either way, I highly recommend this sampler as a great way to experiment with pu ehr tea and its traditions.
Here’s the scoop!
Leaf Type: Pu erh
Where to Buy: Teasenz
If you are new to pu erh tea and have yet to discover the different types of aromas it offers, then this mini tuocha tea mix is the right place to start. Reap the weight loss benefits of this pu erh while enjoying the diverse mix of flavors that ensure you will never get bored.
Leaf Type: Shu (ripe) Pu Erh
Where to Buy: Dragon Tea House
Lao Cha Tou is formed during the fermentation process. The leaves under heat and pressure will clump together at the bottom of the pile and form nuggets. Cha Tou are little tea nuggets that are a wonderful byproduct of the fermentation process of Pu-Erh tea. This tea can be infused over 15 times easily.
Learn more about this tea here.
This was a random purchase from a recent order that arrived today. The pictures show a Pu Erh in little nuggets and the difference in fermentation sounded interesting enough to persuade me into a purchase. Aged tea always interests me; as I think of years gone by and what has happened in that space of time and what the tea must have seen. Though this states aged it does not say a year per say but on the back of the packaging label it say’s that it’s from the 90’s.
Opening the packet I am now face to face with small Pu Erh nuggets, they are highly reflective with a lot of golden tips present. A cluster of earthy brown tones in one little nugget. They are compressed quite tightly, similar to a cake. Each nugget is unique in size and shape but they all contain the same level of golden tips.
On sniff-spection I can detect damp wood, earth, smoke and musk tones. Truthfully it’s also perhaps a little fishy but I think that is down to the age of the tea.
I will be using 3 tea pieces (roughly 4-5g) in a 200ml glass gongfu teapot vessel with boiling water. Usually I like to dedicate a lot of time for Pu Erh but I only have a couple of hours before I have to help my parents with something, so for that reason this will be across six steeps.
Rinse time of 10 seconds due to the size of the nuggets.
First Steep – 1 minute
The nuggets have not broken apart but after the rinse they are soft and giving off more colour. The tea liquid is cloudy red brown with a sweet and earthy scent. Similar to it’s raw scent but much sweeter and thankfully not fishy.
The first few sips reveal a soft and creamy base with delicate wood and earth notes. There is some dryness but not much. As subtle as it is the creamy effect is a wonderful surprise and very easy to drink. The after taste was earthy and dry clay like.
Second Steep – 2 minutes
The nuggets are still rather firm but they are softening up, I could easily pull them apart if I desired to. The scent is smokier but still rather soft.
Flavour is still soft but stronger than the first steep. The sweetness has toned down but the cream persists through the light wood, earth and smoke elements. The after taste is dry with a wood flavour. Also an element of malt that reminds me of golden tips.
Third Steep – 3 minutes
The nuggets are now breaking apart slowly but surely.
This steep is still creamy but the musky earth tone is peaking through a little more than the previous steeps. It’s now a more traditional style Pu Erh but it’s aged very nicely.
Towards the end of this steep it had some sourness coming through toward the after taste which lingered with the musk.
Fourth Steep – 4 minutes
The sweetness has come forward again among the cream, it’s almost honeyed. But the musky earth is still dry and slightly sour in contrast. It still reminds me of golden tip black tea but much more subtle.
Fifth Steep – 5 minutes
The sourness has softened and again the tea is losing the slight thickness that it began to get around the third steep. The cream is still the main flavour at this point.
Sixth Steep – 6 minutes
This final steep resembles the first, expect there is an edge of bitterness in the after taste at this point. The cream is the only notable flavour that is left.
Conclusion: It’s subtle in strength but the cream and sweet wood notes carry this into an easy to drink Shu. I prefer Sheng usually for the creamy taste but this equals a very creamy Sheng but without the grass and floral notes on the side. Also the smoothness of this worked in it’s favour for me.
Given that this tea boasts it can be steeped over 15 times I think they must mean via gaiwan as it started to lose colour and flavour around the fifth steep.
Next time I may try and add another nugget and see if it changes once it’s slightly stronger, but the colour of the tea was dark enough and I believe it’s just one that needs to be experimented with. Perhaps a gaiwan steep would bring out more flavour, but it could be even softer. I will try and experiment another time.
For now it was a nice aged Shu and I’m glad I tried it. Also I think the steeping method was probably the best thing for my first try given that it’s so mild. If you are new to aged Pu Erh then I recommend this one as a starting point.