My guest reviewer from before, Davin, purchased some "Fleur de Pu Er" from Le Palais Gourmet. The same day, I received a package of tea I purchased from a friend who wanted to unload some of his surplus. He generously included a few freebies, amongst which was the 1999 Mini Menghai Bing from Silk Road Teas.
We decided to do a two-part experiment out of curiosity. Because some vendors have claimed that including tea flowers in pu'er cakes was "traditional" or the "indigenous" way of making tea (oddly enough, tea plants flower in fall, and pu'er is supposedly traditionally made in spring...hrm...), we decided to brew, side by side, the 1999 cake with and without tea flowers, to see how it fared.
Before the meat of the post, I'd like to mention that I have seen only one cake include tea flowers, the 2004 Rongzhen Factory cake formerly offered at Hou De, currently on offer at Puerhshop. I have never tasted nor seen any aged tea from the 1920s or after that included flowers. In fact, the only tea I've seen that does is the 2004 Rongzhen cake. I can't trace the documentation, because almost nobody seems to be selling these flowers currently (only Rishi Tea and Palais Gourmet, the latter may have sourced from the former, and neither gives information). If anyone has any source information on the history of the use of tea flowers in China, please contact me.
Another bit of information: according to a 2002 study at the Institute of Biochemistry at National Taiwan University, tea flowers have nearly the same antioxidant levels, but far less caffeine, than actual tea leaves. If you want the benefit of drinking tea but are caffeine sensitive or want to avoid caffeine, these might be for you.
We used competition tasting sets and identical weights of tea, 7 grams of the cake. In the tea flower mix, we used 1.5 grams of tea flowers, about 8 blossoms.
A couple of things stood out to me. First, the 1999 cake--looking far younger than 8-9 years old--had some aged taste to it. Second, the aroma of the leaves, without flowers, resembled bbq sauce: sweet, spicy, smokey. With the flowers, though, the aroma was floral, orchid, honey, and masked the smoke. Initially, the leaves-only mix tasted flat, and the leaves with flowers tasted rounder, softer, finished longer, and had a thick, syrupy texture.
Without flowers on left, with flowers on right
But which tea we preferred alternated from brew to brew. Some brews, the leaves-only brew offered aged flavor that hit the gullet the whole way down. Other times, the roundness and soft texture of the flowered pu'er softened bitterness and awkward adolescent flavors found in the leaves-only mix. Both, at times, were very astringent and drying, and both sometimes had none. In the fourth infusion, the difference in flavor and aroma was so subtle we couldn't distinguish one from the other. The fifth infusion then reversed this, and they were very distinct: the flowered version stayed on the palate much, much longer.
Ask me which I'd prefer to drink, and I don't think I could say. Davin says the tea was more interesting with flowers, but not necessarily more enjoyable. I agree: the age of this tea gives it some strange pubescent flavors, so it was a weird comparison. Even without the flowers, this mini bing needs more time; it's not wonderful to drink, yet. With its interesting mouthfeel and relative power after 9 years of very dry storage, I think it has some promise.
As mentioned, we intend to experiment again. Next time we intend to test if the flowers, which overall lend a very muted flavor and subtle aroma, blend well with shu pu'er.