June 6, 2010

1985 Loose Menghai 8582 & The Mandarin's Tea Room

This afternoon I had a nice session with this 80's Menghai 8582 pu-erh from The Mandarin's Tea Room. Tim has been blogging for several years, but only recently started selling tea. I'm far from the first to write about his teas, and I'm sure plenty of you out there have already been attracted by his shop's alluring-looking teas and hyperbolic prices. Like you, I've been interested since the site went up but only recently did I take the plunge and order 5g each of this tea and the 80's brick, as well as some of the 2009 high-fired Anxi Tieguanyin.

My time with this tea was very pleasant. The loose leaves show the spectrum of aged pu-erh colors, from dark brown to more of a rusty red for the buds and yellowed leaves, and there are enough white specks to indicate some period of humid storage. My 5g sample was quite loose--not really any chunks to speak of, which makes me wonder when this tea was last in cake form, and why it was broken up (assuming it's been broken up since before Tim bought it). Brewing loose pu-erhs takes a bit more attention; since the leaves are all already separate, the flavor and essence of the leaves comes out a bit quicker and I have to adjust my tried-and-true brewing parameters a bit and be swift pouring off the rinse.

The aroma is rich, perfect for these final damp spring days, and each brew fills the cup with thick darkness topped with swirling mist. I've tried enough Menghai pu-erhs of this vintage that experiencing this tea isn't a revelation, but more of a very happy comfort. As with most aged pu-erh, the mouth feel is a main attraction--smooth as the day is long, though there's a tiny trace of astringency that some more aging could probably take care of. Likewise, the flavor is well-developed and mature, but as the steeping times first start increasing there's a vanishing hint of bitterness. When a tea's character is so full, though, it's hard to fault it for exhibiting the last vestiges of its youth--if I owned a cake of this tea, I doubt I'd be telling myself "Wait 5-10 more years, then it'll be fully mature." If anything, a fleeting whisper of youth only adds complexity to an aged tea--more important to my palate is that the aged characteristics outweigh the youthful ones, and there's no contest here. I'd also note that this tea's flavor seems to exhibit more high notes, maybe more acidity than other aged 8582's I've tried, which is a welcome addition to its complexity--clearly I'm not even close to having this recipe mastered! Although there are better values out there for sampling, I'd confidently add this tea to the short list of "good" aged pu-erh options if you're unfamiliar with the genre and want to gain a better understanding of the baffling relationship between young and old pu-erh.

I also have to mention the packaging (pictured above), which seems to be designed more with NYC residents in mind rather than seasoned tea drinkers. Yes, my 5g of 8582 really did come in a glass vial with a cork stopper. The ornate tag describes the tea. The glass vial came in a white box (along with my other 5g sample, in its own vial, of course) sealed with a sticker that reads "Pure Premium of the Choicest China Teas...Superior Quality Leaves." The white box was in turn wrapped in tissue paper, which was sealed with another special sticker, and a separate embossed card details brewing instructions for the tea. I acknowledge and want to be respectful of the effort that's gone into selecting and providing these quality teas, but to me this kind of packaging is over the top and arguably wasteful. I appreciate the impact of an attractive and classy look when it comes to branding, but so much extra material and frill seems designed to either attract people who don't know enough about tea to be attracted by the teas' virtues themselves, or to make the rather "NYC" prices seem to be more "worth it." The second option is a little ironic, considering the fact that the expense of the custom stickers, cards and multiple individual wrappings is only driving the prices up more. If there were a "No fancy wrappings, please, just tea in bags adequate for storage" option on the site's checkout, I'd gladly select it, but instead I'm feeling guilty about instigating the waste. However, I give Tim credit for so completely conceptualizing the look of his product and not compromising on presentation--it's just not my style!

Unfortunately I don't have enough time these days to individually review all of the teas from this purchase, I will say that the 2009 high-fired Tieguanyin is my top pick. The tea's sumptuously complex, easily the best of the few fired Anxi Tieguanyins I've tried, and I've been surprised at how vibrant the high notes and acidity are. I'd venture to say that the tea's flavor profile is the closest thing to Taiwan's Muzha Tieguanyin I've tasted from the mainland, and that Tim's tea is close to being as good as the great Muzha TGY currently offered on Hou De, though neither are inexpensive. As always, all quibbles aside, I'm thankful for the opportunity to try such good teas.