93 Tasting Notes

drank Night Forest Muse by Mei Leaf
93 tasting notes

My hit rate with Mei Leaf teas hasn’t been the greatest. The teas I like from them I’ve really liked, but the majority of them have been rather disappointing and lackluster. Although there have been a few exceptions, generally speaking nearly all of their teas have also been rather overpriced. That might have to do with the British pound and them being based in London rather than China. I wasn’t planning on ordering any new teas from them, but as I ended up ordering some teaware from them, it made sense to throw some pu’er samples in my cart as the shipping was rather expensive and my goods not so much. This tea was one of them.

Supposedly from Bing Dao and gushu material no less (make of that what you will), I believe this is the most expensive sheng they are currently offering, although I could be wrong on that. Mei Leaf offers 5g samples of their pu’ers, and since that is a bit light for a proper session for the teaware I like to use, I ended up ordering two sample packs. My largest gaiwan is a silver lined one that’s 165ml. Ten grams would be a bit light for that, but weighing my samples I was very happy to see the first one contained 5.5g and the second 5.4g. That’s just about ideal. All tea vendors should take note: the first step in making me a happy customer is being generous with your samples. Small sign of good will can go a long way.

While transporting the samples from home to where I was actually having the tea with some company, I had them in a small ziplock bag, and while the leaves themselves outside the bag didn’t really seem to have that smell, smelling the empty bag itself at my destination I was smelling straight up strawberry marshmallows. That’s pretty rad. I rinsed the leaves briefly for five seconds, giving them a few minutes to soak up the moisture while I sipped the rinse. Since the sample was essentially in loose form, the wash was already quite strong. The notes were leaning toward dark and foresty, with your typical young sheng creamy hay notes present in the finish.

I proceeded to do a total of eleven infusions, the timing for these 6s, 6s, 8s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 30s, 45s, 75s, 2 min. and 3 min. respectively. Night Forest Muse starts off dark and mossy, subtle yet potent. This tea is a true depth bomb. The experience is extremely layered, without any clear distinctive flavors you can pick out. While no flavors jump out at you, the tea is very potent and the body thick. The aftertaste is long and stable, with cooling noticeable in the airways.

The strength continues to build up with subsequent infusions along with the body and mouthfeel, with the tea becoming very full and expansive in the mouth. Despite its strength, the tea never becomes overbearing, always remaining palatable. The enigmatic nature does not lift and Night Forest Muse remains a subtle and nuanced affair. At times the tea does develop some edge to it in the form of some acidity and astringency, but this never grows to a level where it starts to detract from the experience and in fact at times contributing to it.

In the mid steeps the tea soup is so viscous in the cha hai that shaking it sharply from side to side, the tea liquor moves in one direction, a little bit in the other and then comes to an immediate stop. It feels really heavy. It is in these mid steeps that you also start experiencing the huigan. People in the west often use the term very loosely and it can mean different things to different people. What I’m describing here is the closest thing to how I understand the term — a literal returning flavor, distinct from any other type of sweetness, originating from the throat and the back of the mouth. Some people seem to describe nearly every tea as having huigan, for me it’s a rare thing.

After a few more steeps, the tea develops an immediate upfront sweetness as well, which lasted up till the point where I stopped. Like with most teas, the other flavors started tapering off around this point, with some harshness accompanying the sweetness, but never beginning to dominate the tea. At the point which I stopped the tea was still going, but I was feeling pretty bloated so I decided to call it there.

All in all Night Forest Muse was a capital tea! One of the best teas I’ve had in recent memory. I wasn’t expecting that, given my track record with Mei Leaf teas. This is a tea that’s very hard to try to put into words as it really is more of an experience than anything else. This was only further confirmation that I should be focusing more on Lincang and Mengku specifically as I’ve always loved teas from there. Alongside Bulang it is definitely one of my two favorite regions.

As for the price… $0.77/g. Perfectly reasonable to me. This definitely falls in the $0.5/g to $1/g bracket and smack in the middle sounds about right. Even though my pumidor is short on space, I ordered a bing right after the session, so yeah, this tea is worth it for me.

Flavors: Astringent, Hay, Moss, Olive Oil, Sweet, Tart

Preparation
Boiling 0 min, 15 sec 11 g 6 OZ / 165 ML

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I received a sample of this with a free tin of black tea I received from Denong for answering a survey (had to pay for international shipping though, which at USPS rates was equivalent to the price of the tea itself). The sample bag read 3g (woo…), but when I weighed it, my scale said 2.8g, some of it pure dust. Only thing worse than receiving a sample of less than 5g is not even receiving the amount stated on the label. Fortunately Bitterleaf Teas was recently giving away 50ml gaiwans to those who ordered dancong, so I at least had a vessel suitable for such an amount.

I gave the leaves a brief rinse for under ten seconds, with no rest in between before brewing. I did ten steeps, the timing for these 8s, 8s, 10s, 12s, 15s, 18s, 25s, 35s, 45s and 60s, drinking from a silver cup.

The Song Song Cha starts off surprisingly strong right off the bat with a massive body in the early steeps. I don’t know if the silver played any part in this, but the tea is very flavorful for a shu. The flavors are very clean and crisp, being conveyed without anything obscuring them. The tea has a very prominent camphor note running through it, accompanied by cooling as you’d expect along with herbaceous notes.

As we transition from the early steeps to the middle ones, we sadly lose the body but gain some sweetness, one that I’d label as a berry sweetness. The taste becomes extremely clean — and frankly cleansing — like the purest of spring waters. The tea is devoid of any dankness or earthiness and simply tastes like the cleanest, purest of waters, with fresh, herbaceous notes to it accompanied by slight berry sweetness. The overall presentation is fairly subtle and over-brewing just ruins the experience — I know because I tried. The clarity this tea has in its mid-steeps is unrivaled. One infusion had a slightly oceanic vibe to it and this together with the other notes conjured up the image of enjoying aromatherapy in Greece, somewhere by the mediterranean.

Unfortunately as we enter the late steeps, growing dryness starts to get introduced and infusion ten actually caused a persisting burning sensation in my mouth, which made me want to end the session there.

Overall the Song Song Cha is an extremely clean tasting shu for its age. Coupled with the camphor and herbaceous notes it very much makes me think of a dry stored ripe from the ‘90s. Now in my book that is not exactly a compliment. While I’m not a fan of dank or overly earthy teas, ultra clean shus are also a bit of a turnoff for me. My personal preference tends to veer toward younger, light to medium fermented teas with preferably some bitterness to them when pushed a little. Somewhere in the age between 2-10 years. Too much older than that and we start risking the tea becoming a bit too clean for me. Of course that’s just a generalization and obviously simply my personal preference. I don’t mind some earthiness as long as it’s not excessive.

The tea has good strength, but the roughness toward the end impacted the longevity. I’m not sure if you could brew past that, but I wasn’t willing to find out. All in all an interesting tea to try. Fans of ultra clean shus with herbaceous or medicinal notes might find something of interest here, but otherwise I wouldn’t go out of my way to seek it out. I realize now I haven’t checked the price point so let me go do that.

Oh.

Oh. So this tea is $85 for 50g. Don’t know if that makes this the most expensive ripe I’ve ever had, but it’s certainly up there. At that price, I certainly can’t recommend this tea. Drinking it, I did not get the impression it was an ultra-premium ripe at all. It was certainly thick in the early steeps, but at anything past 30¢/g I’d be looking for a luxurious, rewarding mouthfeel, incredible aromatics and a long-lasting finish. This tea did not offer that. It’s good, clean, well processed, but not even close to being worth that kind of price.

Flavors: Berries, Camphor, Drying, Herbaceous, Sweet, Tart

Preparation
Boiling 0 min, 15 sec 3 g 2 OZ / 50 ML

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Those who know me know that I love Lao Man’e. It is my favorite pu’er producing area. I own a bing of Hai Lang Hao’s absolutely stupid priced 2016 Lao Man’e, that’s how much I love this stuff. This year Crimson Lotus released both the sweet and bitter varietals as mao cha alongside blending the two into a limited number of cakes. Blending the two has always made sense to me: the sweet varietal lacks the kick that I look for in a proper Lao Man’e while also often having only average longevity, whereas the bitter varietal can often end up being a bit too one dimensional. Together the two complement one another nicely.

I ended up ordering one of each of their single sessions and blending the two together for this session in a 60:40 ratio of sweet versus bitter, totaling eight grams in a 100ml gaiwan. This was a casual session I did not expect to be reviewing, so did not take notes. I did an unknown number of steeps over the course of two to three hours, using up approx. 1.5 to 2 liters of water in the process. For the first countless steeps I kept the steeping times to a flash, until finally starting to lengthen them in my standard manner, ultimately stopping at the 3 minute mark.

For me the tea is a bit too green still. The rinsed leaves have a distinct asparagus smell to them, which comes across in the cup too. Some very green teas like green teas and jade wulongs have the bitter asparagus note and I’m personally not a fan. I’m not a fan of greener teas in general. The first few infusions are rather strange in general. All of Crimson Lotus’s mao cha that I’ve tried recently have suffered from this. I don’t know if it’s a storage thing or maybe a mao cha thing. I’ve never been a huge fan of mao cha; I’ve always felt pressed raws taste way, way better. Regardless, the weird funk does clear up after a few brews and the expected bitterness ramps up as well.

There’s definitely sweetness, but it only comes to the forefront after the bitterness has had its time in the limelight in the early to early mid brews. I found this tea somewhat atypical of Lao Man’e, which I suppose is a good thing as the teas can taste a bit too similar to one another. It could have to do with the young age or the tea being loose, but regardless it’s a welcome change even if I did miss some of the more classic attributes, which might develop later. For me the highlights of this tea were the extremely consistent robust body and the enjoyable, energizing cha qi. I’m used to Lao Man’e teas being rather aggressive generally, so the more pleasant energy was definitely welcomed. For a young tea there is already a good amount of fragrance going on and aerating the tea in my mouth I could tell in an instant that this is a great tea.

The quality is honestly top notch, and as someone having tasted many, many teas in the $1/g region, this is one of the few that is actually worth it, or let’s say it’s one of the teas most worth its price point. For those seeking to figure out how to discern true old tree material, I think this is one of the best and clearest examples I have come across. I have no doubts about this material being old arbor and the leaves look stunning both in dry form and brewed.

Before the session I was absolutely not in the market for buying a second cake of Lao Man’e, and despite that by the end of the session I’d placed an order for the blended cake. I highly, highly recommend sampling this tea, both for a Lao Man’e novice as well as a veteran. Despite being unsure how I felt about the tea at first, it eventually won me over and it is an impeccable tea. If you want to recreate the blending experiment I did but are not fully on board with the full-on bitterness of Lao Man’e, you can increase the ratio even further, something like 2:1 could work nicely. I’m tempted to blend the rest of the mao cha I have with the Honeymoon sheng I reviewed previously and see how that works out. Might be a waste of expensive tea, but you never know before you try.

Flavors: Asparagus, Bitter, Citrus, Sweet

Preparation
Boiling 0 min, 15 sec 8 g 3 OZ / 100 ML

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I received 20g of this tea as a freebie with an order. I’ve read up on CLT’s 2018 teas when they came out, but since then the details have slipped from my mind and blended together. For this session I decided not to check the description or the price to go in mostly blind. All I remember is that this one is a blend, but nothing more.

I used 7g in a 100ml gaiwan. The dry leaf has an uncanny smell of fruit candies. Unmistakably Yiwu if you were to ask me. Quick 5s rinse, followed by a 5 min. rest while I sipped the wash. The taste was sweet, mineral, touch creamy. I was also picking up on some tobacco and leather which is rather rare. I proceeded to do a total of ten infusions, the timing for these 5s, 5s, 7s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 30s, 45s, 75s and 2 min.

Honeymoon starts off sweet, fruity, fresh and refreshing, with a distinct pineapple note to it. The fruitiness is prevalent throughout most of the session, only dropping off briefly in the early late steeps before coming back later on. From the second infusion onward the tea develops a nice texture to it, which like the fruitiness persists for most of the session. Underneath this very approachable exterior, there is definite underlying sheng strength to be found as well, without it ever completely taking over the tea.

Contrary to most raws I typically drink, Honeymoon feels very cooling in the body, with some minor cooling to be found in the throat as well in the mid steeps. The tea does develop some oiliness and in the mid steeps where the tea peaks the raw character does come to the forefront briefly, revealing a very pure, clean character to this tea. Only toward the very end does the unmistakable characteristic Yiwu sweetness reveal itself, joining the fruit.

All in all I enjoyed this tea a hell of a lot more than I expected to. First off, while I’m quite fond of the shu pu’ers Crimson Lotus offers, their house taste for selecting sheng pu’ers – typically leaning toward fairly safe and inoffensive teas – have never really appealed to me. Secondly, those who know me may know that I don’t really do blends. They just aren’t what I’m looking for in tea. In the past I would have said shu pu’er was an exception to this as it made sense there, but since tasting some incredible single-origin old tree ripes, I’ve reversed my stance on that.

Honeymoon is a very enjoyable, clearly high-quality tea. I would suspect that it is predominantly made up of Yiwu material, if not exclusively so. While I’ve tasted a very limited number of blended shengs, Honeymoon is likely the best one out of them. Ironically, though, I think most of that comes down it having many qualities that closely resemble single-origin teas. With all the praise though, it’s not a tea I’d be looking to purchase. It’s perfectly drinkable now, in fact I’d be unsure if there’s much benefit to aging it. Astringency and bitterness are fairly minimal, and while there’s also a good amount of strength to the tea as well, I’d be wary of the tea potentially mellowing out too much in the longterm. For me the tea is a bit too safe and I’ve grown quite tired of most Yiwu teas because of the high focus most western vendors have on it.

After revisiting the product description after the session, this tea having a Manzhuan base makes perfect sense, as in my limited experience most raws I’ve tried from Manzhuan have been very fruity. The description leaves unclear to me if this is a blend of material exclusively from Manzhuan or if the base material is Manzhuan with smaller amounts of other regions thrown in as well. Pure Manzhuan would explain the very single-origin quality I got from this tea.

Looking at the price surprised me a little. I recalled most of Crimson Lotus’s blended cakes being in the $60 to $80 region, so seeing this one going for quite a bit more I wasn’t sure if I considered that a bit steep or simply more than I was expecting to see. The material is certainly good and I’ve tasted teas more expensive than this that impressed me less. That being said I’ve also tasted teas that blew me away at this price point, something this tea didn’t do. There’s definitely a lot of competition around this price, so a sample is something I can easily recommend, but a cake something you should decide after trying the tea for yourself. Overall, thumbs up to Honeymoon, though. A pleasant surprise.

Edit: I’ve since finished my sample. Please see the comment I’ve posted to this review.

Flavors: Fruity, Mineral, Pineapple, Sweet

Preparation
Boiling 0 min, 15 sec 7 g 3 OZ / 100 ML
TJ Elite

I recently had two more sessions with this tea to finish off my sample and I just wanted to report that both times I got no fruitiness and no notable sweetness to speak of. Instead the tea was leaning more toward savory, if I had to pick a descriptor, but overall both session were very unremarkable and forgettable. The change could always have to do with my storage, but other samples that I’ve had for a similar length of time seem fine, so I think it’s just the tea aging and changing. At around eighteen months it seems a bit premature, but my sample at least seems to have entered its awkward phase, and if you’re looking for a tea to drink now, I’d get a sample first before dropping money on a full cake.

I’m leaving my original rating at recommended, because the first session was a really nice experience, even if I wasn’t able to replicate it afterward.

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Bitterleaf deciding to call this tea simply Naka tells you something about the prestige the area has garnered. I tried this tea last summer right after it had come out, but like many other teas from that spring, I ended up coming to the conclusion that it needed more time. I’m trying not to repeat the same mistake with this spring’s teas, and as I wait for my Bitterleaf ’19 teas to tighten up a little, I’m starting off with a few samples from last year that I reordered to revisit them. This tea is one of them.

Placing the dragon ball in a pre-heated gaiwan, I’m smelling chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. That’s rad! I’ve never smelled anything like that coming from a tea. My standard 30s rinse for a dragon ball. Sadly the cookie aroma is gone now and replaced by a much more standard sheng aroma. The wash has a great, oily body. Great vegetal sweetness. Very aromatic in the mouth and nose. Aftertaste is prominent, very floral. Already my breathing is beginning to grow slightly labored and the back of my head is starting to prickle. With a few minutes having passed, I proceed with the infusions, the leaves now properly soaked up.

I did a total of fourteen infusions, the timing for these 20s, 8s, 8s, 6s, 6s, 8s, 10s, 12s, 15s, 20s, 30s, 45s, 75s and 2 min. respectively. Naka starts off light and subtle, but with a heady qi right out of the gate. The flavors are mostly sweet and mineral in the early steeps, developing more into the vegetal and green territory in the middle steeps with a touch of astringency. Once I helped the ball come undone after the third steep, the strength increased notably as one would expect and I was able to stick to sub-ten second infusions for the first half a dozen brews.

The body stayed on the thick side throughout the session, never really faltering, but there wasn’t really much going on texturally apart from some occasional oiliness. What I’ve already said about the flavor pretty much covers it, so really the main focus here is the qi. It was very noticeable and on the aggressive side, albeit not as unfriendly as some Bulang teas for example. Toward the end I was feeling quite intoxicated and giggly, with my muscles aching all over. Driving my car a couple hours later I was still feeling quite high and not fully grounded.

All in all an interesting experience. I should note that flavor-wise I recall my previous session last year being quite similar. I’m thinking the body was probably less pronounced, but I don’t really have a clear recollection. Interestingly I got no qi whatsoever, which is why that first session was ultimately quite underwhelming. I’m saying this to those interested in buying this for the qi and potential tea drunkenness: There are never any guarantees when it comes to cha qi. With some teas I get it, with some sessions I get it, other times I don’t. Everyone experiences these things differently and even you yourself will experience the same tea differently each time. That being said, this tea hit me pretty hard. Not as hard as some others, but harder than anything I’ve had recently.

While the flavors are straightforward and subtle, the longevity is excellent and this seems like one of those teas that could resteep for the rest of the day as long as you’re happy with the brews. Toward the point where I stopped, Naka had gotten somewhat refreshing and fairly smooth overall, with most of the harshness gone. There’s some huigan, but I didn’t get a crazy amount. The astringency does build slightly in the late steeps, but at least for someone like me who’s quite accustomed to it as a mainly sheng and dancong drinker, it never got too harsh.

I’m not sure I’d ever buy a tea just for the qi, and this tea is no exception. While certainly a quality tea which is reflected in the price, I’d rather pick something more textural and dynamic. Can’t wait to get to tasting spring 2019 sheng!

Flavors: Astringent, Floral, Mineral, Sweet, Vegetal

Preparation
Boiling 0 min, 15 sec 7 g 3 OZ / 100 ML

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Many are familiar with Lao Shan in Shandong, famous for its green tea, but this tea hails from Lao Shan in Malipo County, Yunnan, near the Vietnam border. It is off the beaten path as far as pu’er goes and comes as part of a set of two teas from this mountain: one spring, one autumn. Albeit from the same mountain and year, they do come from different farmers from different parts of the mountain, so this is not a direct comparison between seasons, more of a single region sampler. This is the autumn.

While these teas were pressed into cakes, the production was small and the teas are only sold as 2×50g samples, not full cakes. You will receive a single large piece of the bing though, with some shake to round out the weight. Why press this tea into cakes if it’s going to be broken up anyway? Well, smaller volume and ease of transport are one factor, but the actual steaming and pressing process have a real immediate impact on the tea as well as how it will age, develop and maintain its flavors and aroma.

What I received was indeed a single large chunk of the cake and I did my best to try to maintain leaf integrity since the bing seems to have been pressed with care and the large autumn leaves are largely intact. I measured 7.3g into a thick-walled 135ml gaiwan which I only filled up to around the 100ml mark though. That’s somewhat on the heavier side than usual for me, but this is autumn which tends to brew weaker than spring so I figured it would be fine.

Placing the leaves in the preheated gaiwan, my nose is filled with the smell of barnyard. Not offensive, but didn’t necessarily get my hopes up for this tea. Rinse for just a tad over five seconds. Normally I drink the rinse on young sheng, but because of the dry leaf aroma and this being a new vendor for me I decided to forgo the wash this time. The aroma of the wet leaf is much better and more familiar territory. Very creamy. Five minute rest, followed by a total of twelve infusions, the timing for these 6s, 6s, 8s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 30s, 45s, 75s, 2 min., 3 min. and 5 min.

The first few infusions, the first one especially, are quite light. Mineral earth is the dominant flavor here. The first two steeps have some creaminess to them as well. I won’t say there’s no sweetness, but this isn’t an overly sweet tea at any point. Body and texture stay quite light throughout the session. There’s some to be found, but neither is a highlight of this tea. Steep four is quite metallic for some reason, which I wasn’t particularly fond of, but after this the tea starts to hit its stride, becoming stronger but also displaying its green and slightly astringent side. Aftertaste is not a huge focus as far as I noticed, but it was definitely present in the best steeps, holding very stable albeit usually not crazy strong in terms of strength.

At times I can pick up on aromatic components permeating in the mouth, which speak to the tea’s autumnal nature, setting it apart from spring. I get touches of savory and even vanilla in isolated brews and around the eighth steep I finally noticed the qi which made me just a tad tipsy. Once it enters its late steeps, the Lao Shan starts tasting mainly sweet, green and a touch astringent, changing very little from steep to steep. The longevity seems great for an autumn tea, as by the twelfth infusion where I stopped it was still going.

After a not so favorable first impression, the Lao Shan turned out to be a fairly standard but enjoyable pu’er session. This tea reminds me probably most of teas from the Jinggu area, along with certain Lincang teas maybe. It lacks any distinct character that sets it apart and makes it memorable, but the tea is still fairly young at eight months or so, so that may still well develop with time. I found no bitterness and while there was some astringency, this was very palatable and expected of most autumn teas to some degree. As far as price, these two teas are sold as a bundle of 2×50g for $20, so it’s hard to evaluate the price per gram directly. Usually autumn teas tend to be about the half of spring in terms of price, sometimes a bit less, sometimes more. If we assume this one is somewhere around there, that would place it in the 10–15¢/g category, which feels appropriate. A nice casual brew that’s fairly forgiving in terms of brewing as long as you have some familiarity with sheng.

Flavors: Astringent, Creamy, Earth, Green, Metallic, Mineral, Sweet, Vanilla

Preparation
Boiling 0 min, 15 sec 7 g 3 OZ / 100 ML

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The second ripe in my Denong Tea order. Unlike the New Factory Edition, this one is much more loosely compressed, closer to other boutique label shu productions. The material looks nice, for a ripe. Just like the previous review, I used my 120ml silver teapot again. Since with the New Factory Edition I found that I could have leafed it even a bit harder, I decided to go with 9.7g this time. A ten second rinse, followed by a rest of a few minutes to let the moisture soak in. I did a total of eleven infusions, the timing for these 12s, 10s, 10s, 12s, 15s, 20s, 30s, 45s, 75s, 2 min. and 3 min.

I don’t know how much of it has to do with me sticking mostly to fancier ripe productions, but I’m usually the kind of person who has very little issue with drinking freshly pressed shus. Fishy is not a word I would likely use to describe these teas had I not heard others using it, but with this tea I can kind of see where people are coming from. There’s definitely something off about the first couple steeps and I had to discard the first one as the second rinse since I did not find it drinkable.

Overall the tea is very earthy, with touches of muddiness, chalkiness and mineral tones to it. There’s some sweetness in some steeps, but overall the tea is characterized by its distinct lack of sweetness rather than the presence of it. Combined with the disappointingly thin body, these two factors made for a quite unenjoyable session for me. While the tea is quite mellow overall, it is a fair bit stronger than the New Factory Edition and I ended up over-leafing it by some degree. For this amount of leaf the lack of body is a huge disappointment. Even the longer infusions later on don’t really improve this.

The tea does clear up as the steeps progress, developing some texture and notes of dry wood. It most definitely improves from the initial infusions, but I still wouldn’t necessarily say it gets good, just better. Once the tea starts tasting a bit watery, you really need to start pushing it to revitalize it. Eventually it starts tasting a bit like a really woody hong cha. I’m not sure about the longevity as I ended the session at a point where the tea could have possibly kept going, but it would have definitely required extended steeps and continued getting thinner and thinner.

After the positive impression left by the New Factory Edition, Cherishing Destiny was a rather big disappointment. I highly recommend rinsing it at least twice if drinking it young and while it does improve toward the mid steeps, I think for the price what it has to offer is abysmal. There may very well be plenty of room for improvement, but it’s impossible to say really. In its current state at least the tea comes off as very underdeveloped. This is exactly the kind of tea where the fact that Denong doesn’t offer samples for most of their teas really sucks. With ninety grams of my 100g bing left, I really need to hope this one improves if I give it five years.

Flavors: Earth, Mineral, Mud, Sawdust, Sweet, Wood

Preparation
Boiling 0 min, 15 sec 10 g 4 OZ / 120 ML

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Denong is a Chinese company specializing in premium and ultra premium pu’er. A couple years back they finally established their US branch. Although I’ve heard them mentioned here and there, there doesn’t seem to be too much buzz surrounding them here in the West. Curious to try their offerings, I finally placed my first order with them. I ended up picking up two of their ripe pu’ers, this being the first one. For many of their teas they don’t seem to be offering samples, the option of picking up a 100g bing instead of a full-sized one being the closest thing to that. That was the case with the two teas I got, this and the Cherishing Destiny ripe.

My bing seems quite tightly compressed, which might result in it aging slower under less humid conditions. I ended up using my 120ml silver teapot, which I may end up using for evaluating ripes from here on just to eliminate the guesswork of having to try to pick the right type of clay to suit the particular tea. Usually it’s Yixing, but I’ve found a few teas complemented better by Jianshui. I went with 9.5g which is pretty close to my normal ratio for shu, probably a little heavier than most people, less than some. Single rinse for ten seconds, followed by a rest of five to ten minutes. I did a total of eleven steeps, the timing for these 10s, 10s, 15s, 20s, 30s, 45s, 75s, 2 min., 3 min., 5 min. and 8 min.

Sweetness and earthiness are the tea’s two defining characteristics throughout the session. The texture is smooth and the earthy character aside the tea sips very clean from the first brew. While not the darkest tea, the broth develops a deep mahogany hue in the middle steeps. The sweetness grows ever so prominent as the steeps progress, without ever becoming overly so. The combination with very clean notes of dirt is not something I have encountered that often. Other notes you can expect include nuttiness, berries, wood, even savory. I also encountered notes of tobacco in one steep which was interesting for a ripe, along with some mineral metallic notes in another.

I did not encounter much qi, perhaps a slightly calming, grounding effect, which is pretty typical for shu. For me the things that stood out about the tea were the way how it traveled all the way to the back of the mouth just by taking a regular sip and the way how it went down almost effortlessly as you swallowed. For those with less experience with pu’er this might sound weird, but these are truly the hallmarks of a great tea. Combined with the smoothness, this was a tea that was a joy to sip. In terms of taste it’s not overly dynamic, but there’s nuance to be found and the strong long-lasting sweetness is something many fans of pu’er will appreciate. With the extended steeps toward the end the soup grows dense and heavy, showing great longevity. I stopped after the close to ten minute steep as the tea was finally starting to show signs of growing watery, but those wanting to get absolute everything out of their tea could have carried on with progressively long brews.

Overall I enjoyed this tea. As far as premium ripes go, I wasn’t crazy about it, but I enjoyed it and the quality was evident. The problem is comparing it to other ripes around this price point I’m not sure it’s worth its price tag. Crimson Lotus Tea’s Storm Breaker is roughly the same price per gram and it’s a tea I’d likely recommend over this one. There are other examples as well. That being said, fans of smooth shus with astonishing huigan may want to give this one a shot if the price is not an issue. On the merits of its quality and my overall enjoyment I’m going to award it a recommended status as this is a tea I would absolutely recommend were it cheaper. For me the 100g bing is perfect as I do definitely want to revisit this tea later and am curious as to how it will develop, but a full-size bing would be simply too much for me.

Flavors: Berries, Earth, Meat, Metallic, Nutty, Sweet, Tobacco, Wood

Preparation
Boiling 0 min, 15 sec 9 g 4 OZ / 120 ML
Togo

I tasted some of their teas at the Toronto Tea Festival and was quite underwhelmed. Of course, it is impossible to make any conclusive judgements in such a setting, but it didn’t make me want to buy any of them to try at home.

TJ Elite

I skipped their sheng completely since many of them were $200+ for a 100g bing with virtually no information provided. I received a 2g sample (yes, a whopping two grams) of their black tea with my order and while I don’t drink blacks that often it was probably one of the better ones I’ve had. Not cheap, but better than the two ripes I’d say.

derk

Denong also made an appearance at the San Francisco Tea Festival. They were pushing health claims hard which turned me off.

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This is an aged offering acquired through Teepolku based in Turku, Finland. As the name suggests, this is supposedly from Xi Gui and from older trees no less, but I would always take these things with a grain of salt. The tea is priced rather affordably at €49 for a 357g bing, which would suggest it’s not Xi Gui but from the greater Xi Gui area or perhaps a blend trying to mimic the profile. Nevertheless, at the end of the day origin and authenticity mean very little, at least to me. If a tea’s good, it’s good. If a tea’s bad, it’s bad. Famed areas produce both good and bad tea. Imitations can still be good teas. All information really does is set (often unnecessary) expectations and maybe help in trying to determine the expected trajectory as far as aging goes.

According to the description this tea has seen some humidity, but the specifics aren’t mentioned. At least based on the nose this seems to have been rather mild as my sample at least has hardly any dankness to the aroma. I started with one of the large pieces of cake that was in the sample bag and broke it into smaller pieces along the layers until I had 12g for my 180ml teapot made from clay from Dehua. The compression does not seem tight at all as I needed to apply hardly any pressure at all. Reusing the water I’d used to heat up the teapot, I rinsed the leaves for around ten seconds. After this I gave them a second, shorter five-second rinse with water from the kettle that had already dropped to around 95°C. This was followed by a rest of a few minutes before proceeding with the brewing.

Just rinsing the leaves was enough the fill the room with their fragrance. I smelled root vegetables, my drinking partner licorice. I did a total of seven infusions, the timing for these 12s, 12s, 15s, 20s, 30s, 45s and 75s. Xi Gui Wang started off strong yet gentle in its nature. It was sweet, soft in the mouth with a very nice mouthfeel and body. There was some sourness and a touch of smoke which I assume come from storage and processing. Initially I got some compost/dirt, but this eventually switched to a very distinct taste of peach with its skin on. As the skin brings a sort of earthy character, I’m not sure if this was the same or a different earthiness as the one that came before. The aftertaste was long.

Keeping the steep time the same, the second brew was even stronger. Very sour and quite smoky. The tea retained its softness and nice mouthfeel. I was still getting the fruit, but it was being overshadowed by the sourness. There was also now a licorice/anise taste present with very mild medicinal vibes to it. Very interesting tea.

The next two steeps were similar. Third one even stronger than the second, both still very sour. I was getting some cooling in the mouth now. Licorice and anise were starting to become the defining taste, whereas the sweetness was starting to resemble the kind you’d encounter in root vegetables like rutabaga, sweet potato and others. The overall impression was quite bright, cooling and refreshing.

Steep five was definitely my favorite one. The aroma of the liquor in the cup was simply divine. The sourness was now finally gone and the tea had this… clarity to it. Everything had finally come together. Licorice had come to prevail over the anise and the tea was sweet, so sweet. At this point my tongue started going slightly numb.

In the final two steeps I did the tea started to simplify a lot. Steep six was still strong and sweet, but you could tell the flavors were beginning to grow thin. Sweetness was one of the few things that remained in the final brew, but most of the notes had practically fallen off a cliff and the tea was beginning to taste quite watery. In fear of pushing the tea into nasty territory I decided to call it there.

Some of you may know that I’ve struggled with finding aged raws that I genuinely like. I’m glad to say that this is the first tea I can say that about. As far as my experiences go, it’s a really unique and enjoyable tea. I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of the intense sourness in the first several steeps, but it was also never unpleasant and when it comes to aged teas I’ve come to learn to just roll with most of their idiosyncrasies.

Since I’m far more familiar with young raws, I always find it a challenge trying to evaluate the quality of these aged teas. I’d say this one is above average, but in my experience the average quality of most aged teas is not that high – teas that a regular person can afford anyway. It brews up strong, but the longevity is piss poor, making me very much doubt the claim about older tea trees. I don’t recall the last time a sheng only lasted me seven infusions, and an aged tea at that. That being said, I really enjoyed the tea and I think the price is very good for what you get. Xi Gui or not, the tea does match my limited experience and impression of what to expect: fragrance, softness in the mouth and lasting aftertaste.

This is definitely a tea I can recommend. I won’t be grabbing a bing as I don’t really have the space and don’t think it necessarily that good. A lot of the appeal for me lies in the novelty factor and that’s eventually going to diminish over several sessions. Still, a very enjoyable and unique tea.

Flavors: Anise, Earth, Licorice, Medicinal, Peach, Smoke, Sour, Sweet

Preparation
Boiling 0 min, 15 sec 12 g 6 OZ / 180 ML

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7542 is likely the most famous recipe in the realm of pu’er. I’ve never tried the original by Dayi, but this is CNNP’s take on this famous tea. The dry leaf has a very notable scent of tar, reminding me of Bitterleaf’s other aged offering Dear Comrade which is now sadly sold out. I weighed 7.5g in my 110ml Yixing zhuni teapot and gave the leaves a 10s rinse followed by a couple minutes of rest to give the moisture some time to soak in. After the rinse, the wet leaves reveal more of a smoky aroma, but nothing like the bonfire you might get from a Xiaguan for example. I did a total of eleven infusions, the timing for these 15s, 12s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 35s, 50s, 80s, 2 min., 3 min. and 5 min. respectively. I used both a porcelain cup as well as one made from Yixing zisha. The clay cup is fairly new and I’ve been dedicating it to dry-stored aged sheng, but it hasn’t necessarily had time to properly season yet. I’m still unsure if it’s a good match for sheng and may switch it up later if I find that it would suit some other tea better.

The Red Star opened up sweet, fruity, with some honey and a touch of tar along with a whisper of smoke. Very strong. I was quite impressed, actually. The tea was hinting at bitterness, but it wasn’t quite there yet. Drunk from clay, the tea was much stronger. More dryness and more noticeable hints of bitterness. There was more minerality pushing through and the honey and fruit had been pushed back from the forefront.

The tea maintained its strength well throughout the infusions, peaking around the third one. That is also when bitterness and astringency started creeping in. Denny of Tea DB often describes raw pu’er as being inherently peaty or gasoline-y, but I can’t really associate that with most of my experiences with (mainly young, boutique label) sheng pu’er. If we are talking of the same thing, with teas like this however I often get what he’s talking about. Gasoline isn’t really the right word, but it is an apt enough descriptor for getting the point across. Through most of the steeps, this tea has either some tar, smoke or that peaty, gasoline-y character to it. It’s never really the main focus, however, but always present in some capacity.

Other flavors you’ll find are the ones already mentioned: sweetness, honey, fruit, minerals. Perhaps even some creaminess in the late steeps. Very much what you’d expect from an aged Bulang, even though I assume this is a blend of some sort. The qi is quite strong and caused me some tightness in the chest and buzzing in my head. Again you can think of a typical Bulang tea in that respect. Not necessarily the most aggressive cha qi, but definitely more on the aggressive side than gentle.

In porcelain, the body was nothing to speak of until it started getting better in the last few extended steeps. Here the clay obviously offered considerably more body across the board. The tea was also considerably stronger drunk from the clay cup, with more base notes but less top notes. Not a surprising result. The clay made the tea a smoother and much more balanced experience. It added a mineral taste that was absent in porcelain and sometimes muted the top notes too much. Despite this muting nature, sometimes the clay revealed more depth and nuance to the tea, at the cost of complexity. Whereas when drunk from porcelain, the flavors started tapering off around the eighth infusion, there was no such change apparent in clay until the tenth steep. By the eleventh infusion the tea had become very clean tasting and soft in the mouth, but still possessed strength to go on. I, however, was quite full of tea and decided to call it there.

All in all this was a very good learning experience. Those familiar with my reviews are likely aware than I’m not particularly fond of blends and large factory productions, but it’s interesting to find out what’s the appeal of these teas. While this may have not been the authentic Dayi 7542, I think I have a very good idea of what to expect from a tea like this now. It is very strong, possibly the strongest aged tea I’ve drunk, and in its youth it was likely borderline undrinkable if we can assume that it has mellowed at least to some degree from back then. There is bitterness and astringency to be found – actually more so dryness, especially when drunk from clay – but I have a fairly high tolerance for them compared to most people I imagine, so by my standards they stay quite moderate.

If you like your teas to have a bit of bite to them, this may be drinkable now, but there’s definitely decades’ worth of room to grow in this tea. I don’t think there’s anything particularly impressive about this tea, but it is very solid for the price if you happen to like this profile. It’s not the tea for me, but I’d still regard it one of the better aged teas I’ve tried up to this point – still looking for that first tea I fall in love with. I didn’t find the smokiness excessive at all, but if you are not tolerant of that at all you’ll steer clear of this tea. There’s very little greenness left in the taste, far less than most other dry-stored teas this age that I’ve tried.

If you are curious at all, I’d recommend grabbing a sample when placing your next Bitterleaf order as this tea costs close to nothing. Given the age, the tea might even be worth it at double the price even if the base material itself would have originally been worth the current asking price at most.

Flavors: Astringent, Bitter, Creamy, Drying, Fruity, Honey, Mineral, Smoke, Sweet, Tar

Preparation
Boiling 0 min, 15 sec 8 g 4 OZ / 110 ML

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Profile

Bio

I’ve been drinking loose leaf tea since around 2014 if I remember correctly, but the summer of 2016 is when I really became passionate about tea and I started brewing gong fu style at the start of 2017. While oolongs were my first love, I drink mostly pu’er these days. I do drink other types of tea with varying degrees of regularity as well, so I don’t discriminate.

I only review pu’er and don’t designate scores to any of the teas to encourage people to actually read the reviews and not just look at the scores. I tend to be thorough, so my reviews can run quite long, but I do try to always gather my thoughts at the end. These tasting notes are as much a record for myself for future reference as they are a review of the tea, so the format is something that’s geared to satisfy both.

Location

Finland

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