Recently my home town has had multiple days of snow, sleet, and freezing rain. This has led me towards drinking a larger amount of ripe pu’er teas. The dark, rich, and earthy qualities of ripe pu’er help offset the chill in the air. For this reason I planned ahead and have been using this time to sample many different varieties of ripe pu’er. It would not be right to sample different ripe teas without trying the teas of one important producer: Menghai Tea Factory.
Menghai Tea Factory
Menghai Tea Factory was founded all the way back in 1940. In Yunnan Province it is located in the Menghai County (勐海县) of Xishuangbanna Prefecture (西双版纳). For many years all activities of this tea factory were overseen by the State run China National Native Products (CNNP), a government organization that managed agricultural products. After 56 years of producing tea the company was privatized under the dayi (大益) brand in 1996. For many years Menghai Tea Factory produced the naturally fermented and aged raw pu’er tea, but also was one of the factories involved in the creation of ripe pu’er.
One of the First Few Producers of Ripe Pu’er Tea
Prior to the late 1960’s – early 1970’s, all Pu’er tea was produced as raw (生茶 or sheng cha) and then naturally aged. Buying raw tea was quite an investment of time, because many consumers enjoy the qualities that come with 15, 20, or even 25 – 30+ years of fermentation. For this reason businesses wanted a way to produce a tea that could be “ready to drink” after a quicker fermentation. Different tea factories were experimenting with different fermentation methods, and ripe pu’er was created in the late 60’s – early 70’s (some sources cite the first government approved ripe pu’ers as being brought to market in 1973).
Ripe pu’er is fermented by a wet piling process (渥堆 or wo dui in Chinese) in which tea leaves are piled to a height of 1 meter, moisture and cultures are added, then the tea is left to ferment with regular turning to evenly distribute heat and moisture in the pile. With this wet piling method it only takes 30 – 60 days to produce a rich, dark, and earthy tea. The tea factories that created ripe pu’er were not successful in mimicking raw tea that has been naturally aged for 20 – 30 years. This is because the slow and natural process of aging sheng pu’er leads to qualities very different from the qualities obtained by the fast composting effect of wet piling. However, ripe pu’er teas were still very well received by many tea drinkers at the time. They are still widely popular today as their own category of tea.
Menghai Tea Factory was one of the first few producers of ripe pu’er tea along with the Kunming and Xiaguan Tea Factories. The ripes of Menghai Tea Factory have become very well-known. This is partially due to the temperature and humidity of their location in Xishuangbanna, which are both favorable for the wet piling process. The sweetness of the well water on Menghai Tea Factory’s property is also said to contribute to the classic soupy and sweet taste of their teas.
In general there are three important things that tea factories like Menghai Tea Factory need to focus on in order to produce a good ripe pu’er tea:
- Good source material – Many tea factories buy tea in bulk from surrounding farms or plantations, and have choice over what leaf size to use in productions.
- Intellectual Property – It is common for tea factories to have proprietary blends/recipes of leaf sizes that can produce cakes with a certain set of flavors and aromas. Factories will also have proprietary methods for performing the wet piling process.
- A Fermentation Master – Practically executing the wet piling process is difficult, and requires sensitivity to many factors such as temperature, humidity, the degree of fermentation of tea leaves, etc. There are people in Yunnan whose main job is to oversee the wet piling of ripe pu’er. Tea factories will want to hire someone who knows the process well, and can attain a certain degree of consistency.
Drinking the 2010 Menghai Tea Factory 8592 Cake
8592 doesn’t seem like a very interesting name for a tea. However, it does provide some quick information about the production of the tea. The first two numbers usually represent the year that the recipe was created or last modified. Therefore the 85 in the 8592 means that this recipe of blending and fermenting was created/modified in 1985. The vendor I purchased this tea from states that “This recipe is based on the classic 7592 (from 1975), but modified in 1985 and produced several years since.”
The next number stands for the size or grade of the average leaf. The size of the leaves used to produce pu’er tea are measured on a scale of (gong ting, te ji, 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9). Gong ting and te ji represent the smallest buds. The numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 represent different sizes of leaf, with 9 being the largest leaf size. Therefore the 9 in the 8592 means that this blend has an average leaf size of 9, or very large leaves.
Numbers after the first three digits usually refer to batch numbers or other minor data, so they usually are not the most important. The vendor states that the 8592 I was drinking is either from batch number 002 or 003.
The aroma of the 8592 had notes very common to ripe tea, mainly an earthiness and woodiness. My brewing parameters were 8 grams of tea in a 150 ml teapot. This tea was very tightly compressed, so the first two infusions were very light due to the cake not fully opening up. These first infusions were woody, smooth, and light in flavor. Right off the bat I noticed that there were no unpleasant fishy, ruddy, or musty smells and flavors from fermentation.
By the third infusion the chunk of tea opened up and released its oils more readily. At this point the flavor was darker and earthier, and the texture was thicker with a creamy malty quality. These stronger flavors and textures remained until about the 6th or 7th infusion. I thought that the most interesting thing about the 8592 was how such a rich earthy tea could also have a sweeter and mellow component to it. There were faint sweet notes that reminded me of burnt caramel or a smoky vanilla. These were behind the strong earthy and woody flavors. The overall energy of the tea was pleasant and mellow – I felt relaxed as opposed to energized. Even when the infusions were strong, it was easy on the stomach. After the 7th infusion or so the tea started to fade. By this point there was just a light woody flavor that was less complex and less textured than the infusions during the middle of the session.
Ultimately I thought this was a good quality tea that I would describe as quintessentially ripe. The vendor sold it for $31 / 357 gram cake, which is not bad for a 7 year old tea. In the future I am going to drink and review other Menghai Tea Factory teas produced from smaller leaf sizes and different recipes, and compare these with the 8592. I feel like this will help offer a better sense of how leaf size and blending affect the flavor profiles of ripe pu’er tea.