Fun fact: Xinhui (pronounced shin-uWEE) is an urban district in China that is world renowned for their “chenpai”, which is a dried Mandarin orange peel. In fact, oranges are one of Xinhui’s top exports. This week, I will be reviewing Bitterleaf Teas’ “Tiny Orange Tea”, which is literally a tiny Mandarin orange stuffed with a high quality shou (ripe) pu’erh tea that is more than a decade old! This tea was put on my wishlist for Christmas and gifted to me by my fiance along with a handful of other goodies. I must say, the labour required to prepare TOT for consumption is incredibly admirable, and I am more than grateful for the hardworking hands that helped to bless me with this little beauty.
The mandarin orange comes packaged in a clear plastic pouch, and wrapped in some white tissue paper, with a blue sticker completing the visual. Once the packaging is removed, the fruit is finally revealed and even has a teeny, tiny “lid”. Because the dark, aged pu’erh leaves are stuffed into the orange, it’s a bit difficult to describe its overall appearance. But from some brief browsing, I learned that TOT uses a “gong ting” pu’erh, which consists entirely of small tea tips. There are no ingredients listed anywhere on Bitterleaf Teas’ official website. The scent of this orange, although physically described as tiny, is anything but, it’s honestly larger than life. There’s such a potent level of earthiness, but with a kiss of citrus as well. I think because I don’t generally gravitate towards pu’erh, nor do I favour it, I have a sensitivity to how it smells, despite how yummy of a vessel it’s currently stuffed into.
In terms of preparing this tea, I’ve more or less been left to my own devices, since there are no brewing instructions online or included with the packaging. I opted to prepare Tiny Orange Tea gong-fu style in my gaiwan, cutting slits in the side of the orange to help filter out the liquid.
After an initial rinse of 30 seconds (2 x 15 seconds), my first steep of Tiny Orange Tea was 20 seconds, which brewed up a burnt orange/sienna-esque coloured liquor. The flavour was pretty typical of a ripe pu’erh (rich, earthy, damp and woody), but with a tartness from the orange that I really appreciated. Smell-wise, it reminded me somewhat of SweeTARTS candy, believe it or not. With each subsequent infusion, I increased the brewing time by 10 seconds. By the fifth infusion, the fruit started to expand and a hint of astringency had made its way into the mouthfeel. The liquor took on a darker brown tone, with less of that original orange colour present. At times, the combination of the pu’erh and the fruit produced a slightly medicinal note.
Around steep #8, I decided to expose more of the tea leaves by pulling the orange open further. The orange flavour held up nicely. But by the 12th infusion, the flavour began to weaken slightly and the liquor lightened up, despite the tea leaves still being so tightly rolled. It is at this point that I decided to remove the orange peel altogether, and focus strictly on the shou. The leaves easily consumed 2/3 of the space in my gaiwan (pictured below), but nonetheless the tea continued to go down super smooth throughout. In the end, I exhausted all 1.7L of water in my kettle, resulting in 14 total infusions. Although, it honestly could have withstood upwards of 20 and beyond.
What an interesting experience this was for me, considering that I am not the biggest fan of this tea type. I strongly believe that the orange helped to counteract a lot of what I don’t love about pu’erh, but also help me become better acquainted with its distinct characteristics. And now, I have a full stomach and an orange tinted tongue to commemorate this particular gong fu session. The fact that I made it through a whole kettle’s worth of RIPE pu’erh speaks volumes of this tea and its quality!
Even though I am still drinking my way through the world of pu’erh, I’m curious to know… do you prefer raw pu’erh or ripe? Sound off in the comments below!
Next week I will be introducing a special new blog series! Stay tuned!
Until we steep again…