Wise Old Tea: 1950s – 1990s Raw Liu Bao
A disclosure upon you, dear Reader, this is a love letter. I must confess I don’t believe in gallant, young half-truths of falling in love at first sight. So it is with heavy heart that I face my own self-confliction. I fell in love with a tea at first taste.
I noted something peculiar in my last article, a tea with which you may not have any experience: Liu Bao. Oh unsuspecting reader, prepare yourself for the myriad of Liu Bao articles to come.
To clarify, Liu Bao is a type of heicha, lit. dark tea, a type of fermented tea much like Pu’erh. If we define Pu’erh as confined to a single region, Yunnan, China, then we can assume Heicha represents a similar type of tea from any region barring Yunnan. Liu Bao in particular is produced in neighboring Guangxi province, China, directly east of Yunnan. Similar to Pu’erh, there are 2 types of Liu Bao: Sheng (Raw) or Shou (Cooked). At our table today, I present the rarer of the two, Raw Liu Bao.
Theresa Wong hosted her first TSHOP tasting event with a trip through time. The exploration of age as told through Raw Liu Bao teas. Six of us braved this adventure alongside her, but I’m unsure how many of us were left intact after the third tea.
We began with a tea that I am all too familiar with, a 2009 Raw Liu Bao. I have the very same brick at home in a dark corner, allowing the tea to meditate in a self imposed exile. It is here we see the first difference between Liu Bao and Pu’erh. Pu’erh prefers a warm, humid storage, whereas a Liu Bao shines in dark, dry, and cool environments. The ‘09 Liu Bao is young but pronounced. Warming to the core and a classic representation of Liu Bao. This tea is natural looking and natural feeling. The dry stuff looks like someone gathered leaves fallen from the forest floor. The leaves are even interspersed with camellia sinensis seeds. A great starter to prime our bodies for aged tea.
Giddy yet relaxed, we met our first aged tea. A 1990s Raw Liu Bao from a farmer’s stash. 25 years of age and a great example of the assertive quality of qi from heicha. This tea greets us with an unequivocal pine smoke aroma. This is paramount to Liu Bao production and is what sets Raw Liu Bao from the rest of fermented teas. Raw Liu Bao leaves are collected, processed, and dried by burning pine charcoal. This drives off the water content, creating a shelf stable tea prime for aging, and simultaneously allows the pine smoke to settle onto the leaves. The resulting smell isn’t harsh and roasty, the process isn’t a roast, instead it is a baking of the leaves.
The ‘90s Liu Bao also presented a strong betel nut aroma and flavor in the first two infusions, and many consider this characteristic of Raw Liu Bao as well. Although not as initially warming as the ‘09, this aged tea sent the warming feeling all the way to my extremities. A small sunrise horizoned above the diaphragm, sending spirited warmth to my palms, making it slightly clammy. I noticed the absolute relaxation I was in. I felt more muscles in my hand than I knew existed. Imagine this, curious Reader: The self is bound at the very end of our bodies, at our skin. A cloud of steam emerges from the core of this sunrise inside your body, up to your heart, enveloping it, moving up to the throat, soothing it, and moving up to your head before dissipating your mind’s worries and finally filling your entire body with caressing warmth. Qi, ever present, ever powerful in this tea.
After the fourth cup, our banter was even more lively. Theresa noted very softy, this tea fills the body as air fills a balloon. With that, we moved onto our final tea.
Theresa presented us with a 1950s Raw Liu Bao, also a treasure from a farmer’s forgotten stash. The leaves were still whole, proudly nestled amongst thick stems. The moment the leaves bathed in their first sauna in over half a century, the room filled with a mild incense-like fragrance. The first steeping was a vivid brew. Aged tea are not always going to be murky and dark, but it should always brew vividly, as if you can see the memories shimmering through it.
All manner of lively banter stripped away, a quiet befell the table. This tea was powerful and calm. Slowly, The rhythm of the tea could be heard in slow waltz from the core to my shoulders and down to my hands. This tea made me hyper-aware of my senses. In the meditative silence among us, this very, very, old Liu Bao centered and aligned our mind with our bodies. We could hear the soft, sovereign sounds. The tea echoed words of boundless Clarity.