The cynical side of me was always secretly skeptical about pu’er. In the past years, all I had known pu’er by were unmarked mini tuo cha that smelled like fish food. I thought it was an acquired taste that I appreciated and was slowly acquiring, but it didn’t blow my mind. Over the last year, Dennis has made end roads in learning about pu’er and has really helped show me some far better examples of the style than those little, low quality ripe tuo cha I nursed my way through. I have had the pleasure of tasting quite a few samples now, and recognized a higher quality and craftsmanship to some of them, but still nothing really grabbed me. I appreciate the common notes in raw pu’er. Apricot and earthiness are right up my alley. But all too often, I find that it’s just musty tea. I’m more of a white tea person. I like to feel that I am experiencing the pure expression of the leaves and the environment around them, so heavily processed teas were always hard to gravitate towards. I even resisted black teas for a while too until I found some that completely opened my eyes to the possibility of that style.
Enter our protagonist: 2005 Changtai “Yun Pu Zhi Dian / Top of the Clouds” from Crimson Lotus Tea. This was the first pu’er that made my heart melt and carried me instantly to that place that all tea lovers have in their mind. It’s a quiet grove. The senses are alive. There is a harmonious tranquility. A settling. I always come back to the word “sublime” when reflecting on a really good tea. I want to use the word in the same context as an art writer would use the sublime to describe a painting. It is too deep and encapsulating to successfully describe. It makes you wax poetic. The mark of a good tea is its ability to put the senses in a place they have never been before. A paradox of flavors and scents. Simultaneously earthy and sweet, grassy and nutty. This was the first Sheng to bring me to that place, and for that reason I want to encourage others to seek this tea out.
Now, I haven’t had enough Shengs to know where this stands in the grand scheme of things. I would say that it is far more complex than others I have steeped. Where one Sheng might hit hard with a sourness and then gradually ride that out into an apricot note, the Top of the Clouds gently brushes the tongue with a quick sourness and bitterness that rushes away to allow a warm animal fur to sweep in, which quickly gives way to almond skin, watermellon rind, and of course, dried apricots. It feels perfect on the mouth. It lingers generously in each breath. It is fantastic. The aging hasn’t given the “Top of the Clouds” mustiness for mustiness’ sake. It doesn’t just taste old, like some other shengs whose damp and musty notes you try to justify because of the year on the tea. Where others have an aged flavor that your senses try to work around, and quite honestly can be offensive and inhibit the enjoyment of the tea underneath the aging, this sheng’s aging plays a more harmonious role in the profile of the tea. Instead of reminding me of a dingy basement, this tea reminds me of an old workshop.
But, naturally, the aging gives way in successive steeps as the leaves open up and the hot water penetrates deeper into the leaves. As with any well made pu’er, “Top of the Clouds” stays alive for many steeps before going flat. What you get throughout the steeps is that dry nuttiness, that I personally find really enjoyable, mixed with the sour apricot. And the mouthfeel stays alive as it dances between sour-mouthwatering and dry-astringent.
I highly recommend this pu’er. Crimson Lotus offers full bings and 25g samples (samples are sold out as I write this, but I expect them to be back in stock at some point). I eagerly await the next sheng to cross my path and delight me like “Top of the Clouds” so that I can share my experience with you again.