Thus, without further ado, let’s set ‘er up. (That’s right, kids. It’s “ado,” not “adieu.” Learn your colloquialisms.)
Round 1: Pu-erhs
Given how tough it is to nail down good pu-erh prep, it’s nice to see detailed instructions on the packet. You don’t have to use a traditional gong fu teapot or gaiwan if there isn’t one handy, as long as you have a dependable infuser that you know well and gets you the best out of your tea. Adhere to the steeping instructions and it’ll work just fine.
(Temperature + timing > gadgetry.)
The dry leaves of Sweet Fragrance, amusingly, don’t have much fragrance. It’s only when they hit the cup that your nose gets nudged awake. Since this is a pu-erh, after all, “sweet” is going to be in the eye–or nostrils–of the beholder. Beneath the usual brassy smoke, there lurks a bit of honey that’s been charred by the flames. Something fruity wants to come out, but it’s just not quite there.
That undertone makes a better case for itself once you taste it. The fruit and honey melds into something more substantial: roasted, caramelized rosehips and just-before-ripe cherries. We’ve got a touch of fish in here, but it’s ignorable knowing that it’ll fade in successive infusions. That’s the nice thing about pu-erhs and oolongs–treat them like the Energizer Bunny and they just keep going and going… (The other nice thing about these teas in particular is that the steeping times are mere seconds. Pu-erhs and other “exotic” teas usually put off the casual tea drinker, but in fact, the quick prep means that you don’t even need to hack ‘em when you’re on the go.)
The next few infusions, being steeped longer, come out much darker. Their liquor is now the shade of Bacardi Black, while the first has been closer to Jack Daniels. The scent still doesn’t do much to wow, but once you start sipping, get ready–you’re about to find out why Snooty Tea People make such a fuss about these fermented teas. Sweet Fragrance hands you a trove of pan-fired almonds, Brazil nuts, and tangy sesame. Throw some macadamias in as well; there are so many flavors in here that your head will spin. Everyone on the warm savory-sweet spectrum is present and accounted for, dressed for comfort–not style–as they welcome you into the fold. This tea is a treat, and in turn it treats you well.
Don’t be a weenie and hide its enticing spell with milk and sugar. Drink every infusion straight, like a real man drinks his coffee, and for your caffeine concerns, keep it to the AM unless you’ve infused it so many times that no one cares about anything anymore. (And with pu-erhs, that’s going to be upwards of fifteen. Yup. Try that on for size.)
The Old Capitol Pu-erh starts off with a loamy dry smell in the bag. You’re settling in around the campfire with a trusted friend or two, and your butt’s going to be a little damp as you perch it on the wet leaves from last night’s little thunderstorm. Not much to say for the steeped aroma, though.
The sip-‘sation is a lot more subtle here. With that post-rain vibe, you’ve lost a lot of the smoke that characterizes most pu-erhs. This leaves you free to explore the other first-infusion flavors hidden in their bath of peachy rose. We’re talking Fuji apples sitting on a tray of balsa wood–light stuff, not the kind of tea you’d worry about when serving to friends. Tea Setter is hoping to bring less popular teas into the game, and for those of us who struggle to even say “pu-erh”–let alone steep it–this one is a good place to start.
Once again, the liquor does that color-switching thing with your following infusions, so the drink is now dark and full of secrets. Here’s where its true personali-tea comes into play: we’ve got a tangy little imp here! The Old Capitol puts a slap on your tongue and doesn’t say sorry for it. The flavor has definite cheek–while you and your buddies were in the woods, sitting around the campfire, this guy snuck up and dropped weasels in your sleeping bags.
Adding anything sweet would bring this cup down, but an eyedropper of milk could make it still fun. These pu-erhs are rolling in caffeine, so if you don’t have the tolerance of a regular coffee drinker, mind your intake no matter how many infusions you do.
Although Ethical Agriculture’s Pu-erh is “wild grown,” it bears a very un-wild, refined aroma before you steep it. You couldn’t call it “sweet”–more like quietly dignified. A tea with self-respect. It won’t dump you in a Cabin in the Woods, as might happen with the others. It’s only when you have the drink steaming in your cup that you can go back and say, “Yep, we’ve got sweetness here!” The dusky gold liquid gives Sweet Fragrance a run for its money.
Your first infusion is pretty airy, but be on the lookout for endearing little fruity hints. We’ve got the usual pu-erh smoke setting it all off, but don’t be surprised when some tangerines take you for a mango tango, bumping into guava on the way. It’ll make you forget how dry pu-erhs can be. (Don’t forget to hydrate with these!)
On the next few cups, your now-darkened tea really puts those initial flavors out on the dance floor. If you let it cool a bit, your mug will unfurl with more citrus notes. Blood orange, definitely–sharper than tangerine, and without the soothing feeling of fructose behind it. The smokiness rounds out to a few legumes: hearty red beans and peanuts. There’s still that measure of respectabili-tea, however! You could even call it “restrained.” For the pu-erh pupil, this is a Very Good Thing, as each successive infusion provides a safe learning experience from the tea. If you happen to oversteep it, that’s fine. Understeeping will teach you even more.
Thus, in the spirit of self-educa-tea-ing, go wild with this tea. After you’ve gotten familiar with its quirks and nuances, experiment with milks and sweeteners to your heart’s content. It’s a fantastic transitioner from low-key blacks like Keemun and English Breakfast.
So far, so good. On to the oolongs!