The Teacup – Xiao Tou Cha Pu’erh

If you thought the bubble-gum description of the last tea review was weird, then I’ll warn you that it’s probably only going to get worse from here out. I recently pulled out my gongfu set and sat down with my housemate to try The Teacup‘s Pu’erh Xiao Tou-cha, and we had some very interesting adjectives to describe this one.

Xiao Tou Cha (which translates to “small bowl tea”) is compressed pu’erh tea formed into an acorn-sized blow shape. This Pu’erh tea, aged 4 years, possess a rich earthy flavor, reminiscent of a stroll in a old growth forest.

You may recall the first pu’erh I tried was described in terms of our favorite campsite after a good rain: wood smoke, pine sap, cedar bark, rich earth, and the breeze coming from the river.

I was really geared up for the same kind of experience with Xiao Tou Cha, and I was surprised to be heavily reminded of an earlier memory – my aunt’s horse barn. And my housemate, having grown up in rural Iowa, concurred. This might sound negative, but it’s not – it’s just the way we communicate these olfactory and gustatory sensations.

Each little pressed pod of tea is individually wrapped in tissue paper, and it adds something exotic to the experience to choose one, unwrap it, and deposit it into the pot. I brewed it in increments of 15, 15, 30, 60, and 120 seconds. Since it was just the two of us, we enjoyed several sip-sized cups of each round. It was increasingly reminiscent of the barn – the smell of a horse’s coat, a mulch of hay and alfalfa and mud, ubiquitous barn cats, worked leather, pellet feed, old apples, warm breath from horse nostrils, dust from the rafters, hemp rope.

I almost wish pu’erh flavors weren’t so tied to my memories, because I often wonder if I would enjoy any particular brand more (or less) if there were no emotional overtones. I do know that between this and the earlier one, I’d choose the campsite tea again if I could. (Alas, there is none left.) Xiao Tou Cha had a bit of a bite in the flavor that I didn’t enjoy drinking quite as much.

This one has earned another chance, though, as these kinds of tea are often an acquired taste. I seem to have been utterly spoiled with my first try, so it may take some more practice to truly appreciate what pu’erh has to offer.


  1. Hi Gongfu girl, like you, I also have a genuine interest in pu’er. From your description, it sounds like the first pu’er you had was also a cooked (shu) type, but of better quality than this xiao tuo cha. I understand that some barnyard characteristics can be welcoming, though an acquired taste. However, I believe that barnyard qualities in pu’er is generally an indication of unskilled “cooking” techniques, especially being that the tea is already 4 years old. Some shu pu’er have a tendency to smell like a fishy/mossy pond and/or barnyard-y when just released from the factory…but a few years of proper storage should decrease — and eventually get rid of — this offputting aromas.

    Also, xiao tuo cha is generally made of lesser quality leaves. Better leaves are not going to be wasted on such small offerings, but on larger tuo’s, bricks, and the best of all going to either the production of beeng (disc shape) or kept in loose form.

    Don’t give up, though. There are good pu’er out there, and there are outstanding ones, too! I just tasted an excellent vintage pu’er (see today’s entry on my blog), but alas a whole beeng of this tea is not so affordable to me $400/357gr.

    I recommend you trying out some young raw pu’er, cooked pu’er and some old raw pu’er, to get an idea of the contrast among them. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. Houde Asian Fine Tea has many choices, and best of all you can purchase them in small sample quantities.

    My 2 cents.

  2. Thank you for the encouragement – there is a lot to learn. I’m trying to be patient about that. It’s very slow going, but in the meantime, I’m enjoying all of the wonderful sensations. I can’t wait to feel the warmth that you described in one of your recent entries. We’ve moved into our cold, wet winter weather, and nothing would be better.