Is Tea Drunk a Thing: Tasting Sheng Pu-erhs

Those who are interested in tea, beyond the English Breakfasts and Earl Greys may have heard of the concept of ‘tea drunk’, maybe even ‘tea stoned’. This doesn’t involved alcohol or drugs, no tea cocktails or tea infused spirits. Some people think it involves caffeine, and may be related to the caffeine buzz that you get, but this isn’t even to do with that, so let’s have a bit of a biochemistry lesson.

Tea produces a number of amino acids and neurotransmitters which work together to give you certain effects. Yes, we have caffeine, which we know about, and which gives you that buzzy feeling, energy, makes you feel a bit wired  (that’s wired, not weird). For some people this isn’t a pleasant experience, especially if you experience anxiety, or heart problems. You may experience nausea, dizziness, shakiness.

Add to this caffeine though, the amino acid called L-theanine. When used on it’s own, the L-theanine induces a calm and even sleepy state, and as a drug, it’s used for managing anxiety and stress. It crosses the blood/brain barrier and affects dopamine receptors, leading to you feeling relaxed, better mood and arguably generally more creative. When taken with caffeine, they work together to keep you alert, but also calm and meditative.

Let’s add to this combination the fact that L-theanine causes the brain to produce more GABA (technically it converts to GABA).  While ingesting GABA is not a very effective method of increasing GABA levels in the brain, L-theanine causes the brain to produce more GABA itself. This is much more effective and is the reason why tea does not give as harsh a caffeine buzz as coffee. GABA is a sort of brake on the nervous system, so works to manage pain, as well as to relax you, and improve the way your brain functions generally. Some teas naturally contain greater levels of GABA, and some processing methods can increase the level of GABA.

The fourth element in tea is Catechins, which bind to endocannabinoid receptors, which gives you a further ‘feel-good’ boost. I’m saying no more about that here! Suffice to say it’s entirely legal.

So all in all, tea contains things that stimulate and relax you at the same time, they work together – or synergistically – and this is the sensation we were seeking, to see if tea could make us feel different.

Over two tea tasting sessions, we introduced guests to three young sheng Pu-erh teas, all from 2018, spring and summer, and then moved on to an aged sheng. The young shengs all came from Jalam Teas, a tea sourcing and retailing business co-founded by Jeff Fuchs. His prizewinning documentary film The Tea Explorer is worth a watch. Jeff combines his love for tea and the mountains, and sources teas from small farmers on the Tea Horse Route from Yunnan to northern India, and Myanmar via the Himalayas. His Instagram account @jefffuchstea is filled with accounts of his teabreaks with Sherpas, and the farmers he meets, stunning photography and great tea stories.

With only two hours to pass, we limited ourselves to 4/5 infusions of each of the young shengs, each of which would have gone on much longer if we had the time. With each subsequent infusion, the buzz in the shop became palpable. At our first tasting, things got louder and more giggly, conversation increasingly silly. This differed from the second session, where people were more focussed on the odd experiences, visual and sensations, that they were getting. The session was less loud than the first, but certainly odder and more bizarre! People described sensations such as time slowing down.

After 4 infusions of the three 2018 shengs, we moved on to the 2003 sheng, of which I had recently bought two tuos. One had been bought by a customer a couple of days previously, so this one is particularly precious. More details of each of the teas will be given at the end of this post.

It was immediately apparent that this tea was having a dramatically different effect – the room became silent, meditative, I found myself just leaning on my hand, telling people to pour their own tea! It was a strange reflexive kind of effect, which others were clearly also experiencing. The second session was different, with people opening up about their experiences.

I warned people about taking care driving home, Iwan who hosted the first session with me said that the had felt quite odd driving home, and I know I’m always very aware of the quality of the light, particularly electric lights!

So here are the teas we drank. These are not on sale in the shop as they are from my private stash, but call in, and you may well be invited to partake in a cup r two of sheng with whoever is working.

  1. Spring 2018 Bada Wolf Sheng – Harvested from 100-200 year old tea trees from the Bada region in Spring of 2018, by Hani cultivators and tea makers
  2. Summer 2018 Mang Ngoi “Orchid” Old Tree Sheng
  3. Spring 2018 – He Kai Old Tree Sheng
  4. 2003 Ji Nian ‘Memorial’ Sheng

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