Pu erh tea if your more typical one, like mine, is ripping open a flavor sealed tea bag. The tuocha or tea cake, a dense ball of clearly organic matter wrapped in brown paper transports you somewhere a little closer, if not quite to the Yunnan tea plantations that it hails from, then certainly somewhere more rustic.
I came across this tea in Singapore in a department store that had a huge assortment of tea including these strange paper wrapped parcels. They were the size of the one above as well as large pancakes and oblong brick shapes. I researched them initially because I loved the graphics on the wrapper but then discovered the contents to be intriguing.
This particular one is Xia Fa Crane label from 2006. The identical brick from 2004 is almost twice the price. I've no idea whether this is the ripe or raw version - I'll have to go back to the tea shop to find that out. All the text on the wrapper is in chinese and there are quite a few variables in play in terms of classification shape, processing, method, region, cultivation, grade, and season. All this of course makes for a product that generates connoisseurs and enthusiasts and a market for rare,vintage and high priced versions.
The connoisseur thing is not my cup of tea, however the prospect of a really good brew at an affordable albeit premium price is in the same do- able territory as splurging on a heirloom tomato at the farmer's market. I quizzed the guy in the tea shop about the difference between the 2004 and the 2006, was it twice as good in flavor? He wasn't convincing enough so I got the 2004 and told him I would be back to try the other if I liked it.
I learnt that you need to prise the brick apart to get a better retention of leaf shape when it hydrates and they really do which makes for almost a built in strainer. The brewing process involves a preliminary step of rinsing the tea before allowing it to steep to rinse off any extraneous stuff and to loosen and expand the leaves. It's recommended to store the tea not in an airtight container but wrapped in paper or in a non air tight ceramic jar- as it is still ageing. Before you even drink it, you have a far better sense that what you are drinking comes from a leaf and that it is somehow still alive.
So what does it taste like? It doesn't taste 'fermented' which was my big expectation. My first thought was that it tasted like a really good cup of chinese tea, maybe even something that I had tasted before at a good chinese restaurant but didn't know it. Full flavored with no bitterness and leftover tea iced the next day, although a little cloudy, was exceptional combined with honey and local grown lemons. Looks like I will be back for that brick from 2006.