I've been hinting at this since early December, so here it finally is. I took the plunge and ordered a few pieces from Malaysian vendor, Skip4Tea. Now, I certainly don't believe that I'm the first person to find, know about, or even order from Skip4Tea (if you feel like wading through the inefficient morass that is TeaChat, there's a few posts on there), but I suspect a lot of people have checked it out and opted against ordering because a) The website doesn't contain a whole lot of English, and what's there ain't exactly articulate or in-depth, and b) Pretty much none of the teas are offered in sample form. But, it's been a while since I've branched out and tried a new vendor and part of me was hoping for a lucky draw: some reasonably mature-tasting sheng pu-erh at a reasonable price. Here's what I bought.
ZhongCha "Big Leaf" 90's 357g bing ($88), so-named because of the large leaf that's embedded along with the nei fei on the top of the bing. This is the only bing I ordered, and I'd also describe it as the most humidly-stored of the purchase. A look at Skip4Tea's photos will give you an idea; there's a bit of a colorful dusting on the leaves--nothing to be too afraid of though. The first time I tasted this tea I used a low leaf/water ratio just to have a taste and only rinsed the leaves once and was surprised by a bit of fruitiness in the flavor profile that I've not tasted in any other pu-erhs before...Malaysian storage? The second time I gave a more traditional portion two rinses and brewed as I regularly would, and the flavor profile was a bit more standard. Humid storage taste in the first few brews (less so than, for example, Nada's HK-stored Grand Yellow Label, which sadly has the ability to turn my stomach a bit), a diminished hint of smoke, and pretty strong flavor. Decent aging progression, I'd say (though an exact date wasn't given), but I wouldn't classify this as mature by any means. With these pu-erhs labeled simply "90's" I tend to assume an implied "Late," since most sellers would be happy to persuade you into believing a tea's age is older rather than younger. For a late-90's tea, I'm satisfied with the aging progress and after tasting it a few more times I'd say there's a chance I'd buy more, since the price isn't obscene. I need to also note that I'm not especially familiar with Zhong Cha as a discrete brand (as opposed to Zhong Cha as a government labeling system imposed on the major factories after the Cultural Revolution), and since this tea is 90's I'm not sure if it's Zhong Cha brand or another factory's tea wrapped in the usual Zhong Cha wrapper, nor is my Chinese anywhere close to being able to make any sense out of the wrapper. I'll bet someone out there can easily educate me with regards to the differences between Zhong Cha factory and Zhong Cha labelling--I'd be much obliged.
ZhongCha "Aged Tree" 80's Square 300g Brick ($137). This was the most expensive item in the purchase, as well as the oldest and most disappointing. This tea looks and tastes remarkably like Nada's 80's loose "big leaf" pu-erh (albeit a little more complex and flavorful); giant, brittle leaves, really sweet liquor. In the Nada description for that tea he notes it's made from yellowed leaves that are picked out of the blend for the main cake production; this is only the second tea I've tried with these characteristics, but I'd hazard a guess that it's the same thing, since the leaves don't look or feel like your standard pu-erh, and they don't expand much at all when brewed (a sketchy factor in my book). Really, though, this tea tastes pretty mature--sweet, smooth, no smoke or bitterness, it's just not really what I've come to look for in aged pu-erh. I think I'll actually enjoy it as I gradually pick away at the brick for casual sessions, but I wouldn't buy another one (especially when the Nada loose pu-erh is so much cheaper, even if it's not quite as good). As it happens, I couldn't buy one if I wanted to--the last one sold out sometime recently. No biggie.
Xiaguan "No Wrap" 94 100g Tuo $33. Not sure how to verify that this tuo is Xiaguan or from 1994, since there's no wrapper, but it turned out to be a decent performer. The harshness and smoke have mellowed a lot--they're both there in traces, but not enough to detract from this tea's maturity, which is fair. Humid storage for this one as well, but not near as much evidence in the flavor (or to the eye) as the Zhong Cha bing. Compared with the NadaCha budget model 90's tuo (sorry to keep comparing to NadaCha teas, especially if you haven't had them--last one, I swear), I'd say this one wins out in complexity and fortitude, although it's less mellow. I'm not a huge 100g tuo cha fan, but this tea is ok. There are still 49 left (as of this writing), so I could see myself getting a couple more for cheap thrills if there's nothing else pressing my interest. Not a bad value considering the price and agedness, but there's something about small tuo cha that doesn't push my thrill button very often.
Unwrapped Raw 90's 250g Brick ($63) Finally we have this standard rectangular brick. No wrapper, but no pretenses about factories or age other than "90's," to which the thick, dark liquor and mellowed leaf color would seem to attest. This tea is smoky, but surprisingly the smoke is almost totally unoffensive. Although I wouldn't rate this kind of smokiness highly in a "mature" aged pu-erh, it doesn't bother me a whole lot here because the tea has a ways to go any way you look at it, and because there's quite a bit I like about the rest of the package. So, the liquor is dark, the flavor is really quite full, and the tea goes on for countless infusions. The smoke gradually decreases as infusions continue, to the point where it's merely second fiddle to the solid tea taste. Despite its flaws, this tea might be my favorite. Though I feel the same about tight brick compression as I do about tuo cha and iron bing compression, something about this tea seems right for aging potential. It's nice to see a tea that seems really strong in spite of its aging, especially one whose primary flaw is only a smoky flavor.
Unrelated to the teas themselves, Skip4Tea has pretty good customer service--they responded quickly to my inquiries in understandable English and packed the tea well. What I don't understand, though, is their order fulfillment--I ordered at the very beginning of December and the tea didn't ship until the 16th. Why, I don't know. Aside from not being able to sample the teas, shipping is the other main issue with Skip4Tea--you only have one option and it's not cheap. These 4 teas cost about $50 to ship. Granted, it took less than a week to arrive when it finally did ship, but I think most of us would happily trade a couple of weeks for $20-$30 in shipping fees. I'll also note that Skip4Tea offers a whole lot of more recent pu-erh vintages, and if you peruse the site you'll probably find that the prices look really quite reasonable by western standards. If you're interested in less aged pu-erh than I've been talking about here, the prices only get lower.
To sum up, the brick and the bing are my top teas right now. If I were to order more, it would be these teas, or maybe some yixing; they have a few pots that aren't half bad looking, but it's a slippery slope when there's little to no description and the site is only a middleman for other sellers. Tough to verify authenticity on something so expensive. For this quality and vintage of pu-erh, I'd say Skip4Tea is about as good a source as any, but it's a whole hell of a lot riskier than the other vendors we're all used to. Admittedly the adventure of trying a risky place was part of my motivation with this experiment (and to try and maybe provide a bit of helpful info)--because of its particular flaws, Skip4Tea isn't going to supplant my favorite tea vendors or probably even return to to the top of my purchase list within the next few months, but overall I'm satisfied with the experience and met my other main goal, which was not getting completely swindled! If anyone's interested in trying these teas for fun, shoot me an email and I'll be happy to send out some samples; you have to try them all though!