September 4, 2009

1980's Xiaguan 8653 Traditional Characters

I'm back here for comparatively regular posting, with this aged Xiaguan pu-erh from NadaCha. Nada fulfills what seems to be a sadly unique niche in the online western tea vendor community--he sells aged pu-erh (along with authentic antique teaware and personally-sourced and produced pu-erh and other teas) at reasonable prices. If only there were more like-minded vendors, we'd probably all know a lot more about aged pu-erh.

Today is the fifth time I've had a chance to experience this tea, and I'm thankful I've had so many experiences with it, because they've all been great learning opportunities. At the original time of this tea's listing on the NadaCha website, it was far and away the most expensive tea offered at a whopping £355. Since then, it's been soundly trumped by a couple of £750 early 80's Menghai cakes, but that's another story. The point is, this cake presents a chance to try an aged classic blend from a popular factory. The price also gives us a glimpse of what the aged pu-erh market is looking like these days--to me, $600 for one cake of pu-erh skirts the upper limit of what I could ever imagine being a reasonable purchase, and $1300 is just too much. I'm more than happy, though, to part with a smaller amount of cash to understand just what it is about these aged brand name teas that has facilitated such a pricey market.

Extremely tightly-compressed leaves (check out the cloth print in the picture) have clearly aged to a darker brown, and the large portion of buds has turned mostly orange. After a quick rinse and a generous first steep, the ironbound chunk of leaves gives off a pleasant and complex aroma--honeyed wood, to be boring and general, and to be more specific, sharp mustard and a basement in Richland, WA that I haven't visited in well over 15 years. Smell, of all the senses, wins hands-down for having the strongest ties with memory. After comparing a number of young, mid-aged, and aged pu-erhs with each other, I'll tremblingly submit that the "mustard" aroma I've mentioned in several notes just may be the combination of a tea's diminishing smokiness and its increasing aged flavor. Taste of the liquor mimics the aroma's complexity, though I confess I'm not experienced enough with Xiaguan teas to identify the "unmistakable Xiaguan taste."

It takes a good four infusions before the chunks start to loosen up, which I admit annoys me. By the fifth (pictured), the inner leaves have opened up, but the outer leaves are several infusions ahead. I'm also suspicious that the ridiculous compression accounts for my least favorite aspects of the drinking experience: For my most recent sample, after just a couple of infusions, this tea is dry, dry, dry. I'm also suspicious that this is because the leaves on the inside of the cake haven't aged as much because they've received much less exposure to air and humidity, thanks to their compression. Therefore it seems reasonable that the product description describes a tea free from astringency--a sample from the thinner, looser edge of the cake probably isn't astringent at all. The other aspect I'm not as pumped about is the rather prominent smoky flavor that is surprisingly still present in the leaves. It took me a few sessions to put my finger on it, especially because I had already convinced myself that no tea this old could possibly still taste smoky, but it's there.

It might well be that I really have convinced myself--for me, a tea this old and this expensive really should taste more mature. With aged pu-erh, it's not as easily possible as it is with brand new pu-erh to buy cakes and cakes, willy-nilly--if I'm going to pay for a whole cake of old pu-erh, which is never a cost to scoff at (even if it's a good value), I want it to taste old, even if it's flawed. This cake is complex with a great hui gan in the aftertaste, and its considerable aging progress is undeniable, but it also tastes like it still needs more aging before it's really a pleasure to drink as an old cake. For this price, a "project" cake isn't worth it to me, even if it's a good one. Mostly, this is because I'm still unsure as to the quality of climate where I live in terms of pu-erh aging effectiveness. Since this cake appears to have aged slowly even in Taiwan, there's a small possibility it could never become truly "aged" in the traditional way in my climate. Hypothetical bummer. If I collected tea in Taiwan, this tea's price might make more sense to me--I could hold on to it for a few more years and have a fantastic cake. But part of me still wants to say, "Come on, how long should it really take for a pu-erh to reach reasonable maturity?" Xiaguan knows 100% more than I do about actually creating pu-erh tea, but to me this level of compression seems unhelpful. Who knows, though, it could be the cake's past storage as well. Safe to say it's time for me to bow my head and quit pretending like I know anything about the "why" of pu-erh production and aging. All I've got a handle on is my senses, and they've decided that, as an old pu-erh drinking experience, this cake is not as good of a value as a number of other teas offered on the site, like the blended bricks, the Xiaguan tuocha, and the loose Wang Zi pu-erhs. Alternately, if you're looking for a "project" tea that's going to need a few more years, the Grand Yellow Label cake, the 8582, and the early 2000's cakes generally offer lower prices.

Anyone else try this tea? I'd be interested in reading someone else's opinion, especially since it took me so many sessions to really form mine. Thanks to Nada, as always, for offering these teas--even if you don't fall in love with a tea, it's always a valuable experience to try them.


Bret said...

You dont give yourself enough credit. Your obviously an expert! If one had to use only one word to describe an "old school xiaguan" I think a lot of us would say smokey. But I can honestly say that the taste of mustard is a new one. As it turns out you know one of the most important aspects of puerh, what you like and dont like. Just because it,s old doesnt mean it,s good. Just because it,s expensive doesnt mean it,s good. If you like it, it,s good. Reguardless of it,s age, price, history or what anybody else thinks about it. In all honesty, out of all the aged puerhs Ive ever had I wouldnt consider buying a beeng of any of them, too expensive and they just dont live up to thier price tag.

Hobbes said...

A great article, and thanks for writing it! It was a thought-provoking read. I'm assuming you bought the sample, rather than the whole cake? :)

I don't think I've tried this one yet.

Best wishes,


Zero the Hero said...

Fellas, thanks for stopping by!

Bret, please don't make me blush! I think I'll need several more decades of tea swilling and self delusion before I can comfortably accept any such title. Have you tried any of Nada's aged pu-erhs?

I did indeed buy only samples; I wish I hadn't finished it, otherwise I would have offered you a piece to try! I think you'd enjoy it, if only based on your love of recent Xiaguan teas.

Adam M. Y. said...

A Question I have as the only compressed and aged teas I have had are the 90's Tuo and the Grand Yellow Label, but I have had the 2 loose leaf teas from the 80's and I've had one session with a bit more left of the 60's wang zi. But my question is did you find this cake slightly more powerful than you found the 80's Wang Zi? The compressed 90's Puerh I have had while yes they do seem rather wet stored, I think their compression lets them hold onto a little bit of the-- umph, a little longer.

I am basically saying I think the compression and tightness of compression accounts for the length of time it will go before going "flat." While I think the loose leaf puerhs are great, I feel as though if they were compressed in a cake, they would have a bit more of a complexity, and another level of flavor.

I'd be really interested ot hear your thoughts on this.

Zero the Hero said...

Hey Adam,
In general, I must yet again submit to the overpowering number of variables involved with pu-erh making and aging. That is to say, I don't really know, and for lots of reasons!

It's hard for me to meaningfully compare the 80's Wang Zi and this cake because I don't use a scale when I measure pu-erh. I mostly feel that gram scales go against the more laid back gong fu attitude I like to bring to tea making, although it's situations like this (extremely compressed pu-erh) that a scale would come in very handy. I've made some pretty damn strong pots of 80's Wang Zi, sometimes overestimating the amount of leaf used, and one of the 80's 8653 pots I made could have used a bit more leaf, so it's often situational.

I do think that most compressed aged pu-erhs I've had are more complex than the loose ones; could be because storage is harsher on fully exposed leaves, or it could be because the pu-erh producers used the better leaves for cakes and left the mediocre stuff uncompressed (could be both!). In general when brewing loose pu-erhs I tend to use a bit more leaf, but I wouldn't say their "strength" in general has been significantly weaker; maybe by just a little bit.

I think it's pretty well accepted that compressed teas do retain that certain je ne sais quoi a bit more; that's why the loose ones are so much cheaper! As far as prolonging the life of the tea before it goes flat, I've tried most of the other aged teas on NadaCha--none of them were as tightly-compressed, but none of them (even the older ones) seemed in danger of petering out due to less zealous compression.

This cake's compression seems like it was designed to make an awesome 50-year-old cake, which just seems to me like too long to wait, when there are younger but older-tasting examples more readily available.

Bret said...

No, Ive never had the pleasure. Most of the aged shengs Ive had were from Hou De,s. I,m sure you have seen the prices. As good as some of them are I could never bring myself to spend that much money on tea. Someday maybe I,ll win the lottery and I,ll treat us all to some $1,000.00 a beeng tea.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the shop sold this cake at a higher price than it's worth. I hate to be suspicious, but let's face it. It's known to happen in retail and it has to happen with Pu-erh. There's no way around it. And it might not be the retailers fault. They likely didn't know. Is there a good reason for any Pu-erh to be too compressed? Maybe I don't know enough about Pu-erh but if they meant it then they would know it would take forever to age. Somebody other than you has to know this cake was overpriced. --Spirituality of Tea

Zero the Hero said...

Hi Jason,
I really doubt there was any overpricing on behalf of Nada and his website; he's well-known for having a small profit margin at his shop, and I've had plenty of trustworthy experiences with him. I think the pricing issue is primarily down to the Taiwanese aged pu-erh market--because of this recipe's reputation and the Taiwanese market's demand, people are willing to pay this sort of price for this cake.

That's fine with me--I don't see myself as some sort of whistle-blowing price fairness crusader, more like one of those stock movie characters in a gambling scene who says "Too rich for my blood" and bows out of the game. For the price, I'd rather see a more aged pu-erh, especially since I'm not yet certain the tea would reach full maturity in my storage conditions.

That's just my personal choice--I'm sure there are Taiwanese, Chinese and other Southeast Asian pu-erh collectors who have experience aging even older Xiaguan pu-erhs who might taste this cake and say, "Yeah--this is going to be really great in 10 more years. It's worth my money!"

Re: tight compression, it's my guess that it works better in humid storage conditions, ensuring the tea doesn't lose too much strength. It would seem, though, that such tight compression hinders timely aging in drier storage conditions.

Thanks for stopping by--these tasting notes have produced a very interesting discussion!

Anonymous said...

It sounds good to defend the Pu-erh shop owner for his knowledge of his wares. Prices don't always reflect value with Pu-erh and part of that is also just a matter of variations in personal preference. --Spirituality of Tea