This tea (pictured R, below a thorny intruder!) can be had from Essence of Tea (formerly NadaCha) for a mere £750/350g bing. Even with the GBP taking a beating like it's taking right now, this tea's price is daunting. Luckily, it's also available by the gram, and for an achievable investment a pot's worth can be yours. I'm not here to ramble or moan about the price of teas--I feel that this goes on way too much on too many tea blogs for my tastes. When a certain level of quality is assured, price is far from the forefront of my mind as a factor of interest. Instead, knowing from plenty of experience that the quality of Essence of Tea's offerings has satisfied me many times (with only a few exceptions), this tea's price indicates that it's what Asian collectors (probably Taiwanese) view as "the good stuff" from its time period--this tea is a learning experience waiting to happen.
For me, the chance to ponder so many questions when tasting a tea like this is partly what makes it worth the price of admission: How does a $1000 aged cake taste? How should a pu-erh taste after almost 30 years of aging? More specifically, what does a Menghai 8582 recipe (this is supposedly an earlier prototype of that now famous recipe) taste after decades of aging? What kinds of characteristics in aged teas are sought out by collectors? When you're trying some of your first aged tea, the answers to these questions become the entire universe of your experience, but the more teas you try, the broader your knowledge becomes and the more you can start asking other questions: How is this different from other aged teas I've tried? How mature does it taste compared with contemporary productions? How much less mature does an 80's tea taste from a 70's tea? Is it more worth purchasing a tea of this price and maturity or a less expensive, less mature tea in hopes that it will reach a state similar to this tea? The list goes on and on. I have a very small amount of experience with teas like this, but I can imagine that even those with a host of experience with contemporary pu-erhs and beyond still have plenty of questions to probe with every tea they try.
5g in the pot and a quick rinse. With teas of which I own whole cakes, I may use 6 or more grams for a session, depending on how the tea is apt to behave. I'm a little worried that my decision to buy only 5g may result in a weak pot, but the ensuing session quickly disabuses me of that notion. Most of my experience with 8582 recipes older than 10 years has given me the impression of light, thinner sweetness--less of the directness and high notes that you'd find in an aged 7542, and maybe even a little less of a distinct character. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing--I'd be happy to have some of these aged 8582 cakes in my collection, but I can't say they'd be my favorites. This one is rather different, though, with a thicker mouthfeel, darker cup color and something of a bolder flavor. I probably shouldn't compare it too directly to other 8582's, since it's a prototype and it's made from wild trees instead of plantation bushes.
The tea's broad, sweet and cooling, but there's also a hint of something edgy--I can't tell if it's some vestiges of youth or just a facet of the tea's flavor. This is the point where I wish I had three or four pots' worth of this tea so I could decide whether or not that specific flavor is something I enjoy or dislike. Around the tenth infusion I'll be damned if I didn't taste--for a fleeting second--some sort of tropical fruitiness, something I'd never expect from a pu-erh. The surprisingly dark color of the liquor persists through probably about 15 infusions, at which time the flavor turns to that generic stewed-aged-pu-erh taste. Sweet, smooth and drinkable, but with very little of a distinct character left. I know a lot of people like to continue steeping the tea over and over at this point, but I prefer just 2 or 3 long steeps, maybe 20 minutes at the most, and call it a day--overnight steeped pu-erh just doesn't taste great the next day when it's at room temperature. Overall, this tea was quite enjoyable to drink. I've just written a lot here about studying and learning from aged pu-erhs, but ultimately I'm in it for the enjoyment and mellow buzz of drinking a good aged pu-erh. I'm not always ready to spend $20 on one pot of tea, but with the offerings from Essence of Tea I'm confident it'll be worth it. I always recommend that enthusiasts of young sheng pu-erh try at least a few old ones if they think they're collecting with the intention of fully aging tea--how can you decide a tea is good for aging if you don't know what good aged tea tastes like? I probably wouldn't start with a tea as expensive as this one, though. Something like the 1993 7542 will set you back about $5 for a pot, which seems to be a reasonable price for the pleasure and learning that can be had with a tea like that.
The leaves certainly live up to the cake's moniker and reputation as 8582 predecessor--they are big. A bit of prodding reveals that some of the used leaves are much softer, suppler and lighter brown than others, which is interesting. There's a lot of zealotry happening online these days about so-called questionable processing practices in today's pu-erhs--namely over-oxidation and "improper" kill-green--but teas like this seem to me to be a gentle reminder that a) pu-erh processing is a much larger and more complex subject than some of us would like to believe, and b) a lot of aged teas that are valued by Asian collectors and are also tasting pretty delicious exhibit evidence of some of the processing characteristics that are being decried as foul play. In situations like this, agnosticism seems to be the most prudent position, rather than setting yourself up for some serious foot-in-mouth action. To be fair, though, it's a lot easier to say a certain processing technique is "ok" when you're holding a delicious, obviously successfully-aged cake in your hands. What to buy, when you want to eventually have a tasty home-aged cake? Familiar dilemmas persist.