The mythical "Red Label"
In the 1940's the Fut Loi puerh factory was begun in Yunnan. It would later become one of the worlds leaders in puerh production and the most respected factory known as Menghai. With a distinctive taste that would set them apart from other producers they embarked on what would be a long and famous venture.
Menghai is unique among puerh producers. Tea is 99% water, and water plays an integral role in puerh production. From the amount of water the trees received during a growing season, to the amount of water present in the leaves at the time of picking, to the water used to make the tea- all these are critical factors in the result of what you actually taste. With puerh, there is one more factor. During tea processing, "cooked" puerh is sprayed with water and covered for 40 or 80 days (depending on the length of time the producer wants to put in to making the tea) then steamed or pressed into cakes. Green "unfermented" puerh, is steamed and pressed into cakes. But what water do you use to wet the leaves, or steam them with? Menghai has their own well. This is an incredibly important factor in the quality of their tea, because water is the "mirror" of tea: it reflects it's true qualities, for better or worse, and when you have a water source with the same mineral contentas the tea leaves, you highlight the best qualities of that tea, offering it the best possible taste. This is why the famous saying goes: Dragonwell green tea is best made with water from the actual well at Fu Pao Cheun. This is also why people have tried to reproduce Menghai's famous recipes and failed. They do not have access to the same water source.
Produced in 1955 (a very good year for puerh) this tea cake was stored in Yunnan for ten years, and was then transferred to Hong Kong for the next 30 years. This says a lot about it's primarily "wet" (humid) style storage taste. In 1995, when the owner realised the impending and very real possibility that the Chinese government could confiscate his collection for the benefit of the people (the 1997 handover of HK to China) he decided to sell most of his collection to the highest bidder. Our teacher had the fortune to purchase one cake he has kept whole. A friend purchased another and shared 1/2 of that cake with him.
Traditionally puerh is enjoyed in 7g portions. For today's event, we were treated to 20g of Red Label, lovingly kept inside a pewter bottle, inside a purple velvet lined mahogany box. The dry leaves were passed around for examination, and it was noted that there is almost no fragrance left at all. Not at this stage, said Shi Fu, no more aroma. We let the leaves breathe for about an hour while we learned more about this tea, it's producer, and red up on previous collector's tasting notes. It was interesting to read that connoisseurs of this tea who have enjoyed it over the years remarked on an orchid aroma that was present when the dry tea still gave off a fragrance.
The tea house was buzzing with excitement and anticipation. People who casually stopped by immediately took a seat and were obviously not going anywhere anytime soon. Others took out their cell phones and began texting friends about their luck and offered invitations. This was an open and free festivity, but certainly not an every day occasion.
After everyone was assembled and the dry leaves were passed around, and enough conversation was had to make everyone sufficiently excited to taste this incredible tea, the steeping began.
Usually, tea is rinsed, then you enjoy the first steeping. With an aged puerh like this, every leaf counts, every steeping counts. When tea tea is rinsed, even that is enjoyed. The rinse was almost jet black. It had an air of dry roasted nuttiness, deep wood, and that "old" taste, like the smell of old wood. The tea was incredibly thick. It was served in thimble sized cups, but even that amount of tea had plenty of flavor to coat the mouth, tongue and throat. The first steeping was rich but brighter, the mineral quality was blooming now: iron, copper, eucalyptus, camphor and mahogany notes all came out. The second steeping was even more concentrated flavor and a gentle sourness hovered like a single note from a trumpet in a quiet morning on the roof of my mouth, but all that depth still shone through. We went through about 14 steepings before the color began to change significantly, and turned to a soft red-tea color. Later we would examine the leaves and be surprised at how red they were, we were expecting something much darker. No, Shi Fu said, the leaves of the old uncooked teas are more mineral rich. The soil was better then.
25 steepings later, we were all feeling relaxed. Normally puerh gives you energy and can even bring on profuse sweating. Not this tea. Very, very good puerh (very old puerh) can put you into a deep state of relaxation.
Today, Red Label is not for sale. No one will sell it to you. Everyone who has it is waiting for the price to continue going up so they can make the most profit out of it. The last known price paid was USD 25,000.00 for one 350 g cake. To find a tea this rare, and to find someone willing to share it so openly was humbling.