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.