19 December, 2007

2007 Xiaguan FT #4

Would you credit it - just as was saying how disappointing CNNP, 6FTM and Xiaguan have been of late, I come across the 2004 CNNP Yiwu, the 2006 6FTM Banzhang, and now a pleasant modern Xiaguan in as many days...

This tea turned up as a mystery addition in a recent order from Yunnan Sourcing (thanks, Scott). "Hmm", thought I; "2007 Xiaguan. I bet this tastes rough."

The leaves are highly compressed as only Xiaguan can manage. If the new European particle accelerators don't crack nuclear fusion, they should try asking the Xiaguan tea compressors for hints. I brusquely prized apart a few sections into small chunks, with no hope of separating them into individual leaves, lest they break too much.

But wait - what light from yonder window shines? This tea actually smells really very pleasant: sweet leather, as is my favourite. Can it be that Xiaguan have stumbled onto something fine?

The aroma in the wenxiangbei further draws me in, being a characteristically unique caramel.

The tea is thick, energetic, and plentifully sweet, yet tangy, and ending in that wonderful sweet-leather yunxiang. The huigan is big (big!) and leaves the mouth watering. What a pleasant surprise!

All is later revealed in an e-mail from Scott. This is apparently an "FT" [Fei Tai Co.] bing, and so made to the specification of discerning (some would say gangster) clientele, essentially just using the Xiaguan processing system. It would be like calling the 2007 Xizihao teas "Mengyang Guoyan", for the same reason. Scott notes that the leaves were obtained from Wuliangshan [a Simao mountain] and Baoshan [near the Burmese border]. This rather clears up the mystery about Xiaguan suddenly making good bingcha.

Given that this cake is only £15 [$30], which is 200 RMB, I don't think I could hope for a whole lot better from Maliandao, especially given my fairly lackluster bargaining skills (to which I confess that I don't have the heart to spend such energy bartering, especially given how hard a time some of those vendors have).

I like this tea, very much! It's "division two", but it's tasty, and easily worth £15. It looks as if "FT" know what they're doing. Just don't borrow money from them (ho ho).

August, 2013

Bargain sensors on stand-by: this $30 is currently selling for $36, six years later.  As pictured above, it is watched over by the family Buddha...

The small, broken leaves are distinctly Xiaguan.  They originate from Wuliangshan in Simao diqu (one of my favourites) and Baoshan diqu.  The latter is rather unusual as far as pu'ercha goes - certainly very few cakes attribute their maocha directly to this region.  I suspect that it is more commonly used by Xiaguan, who are based far north, in Dali.

The soup is now a fairly cloudy orange - it is good to see that change has occurred in six years.  The flavour has settled into a rich, low affair, while the kuwei [good bitterness] is slowly transforming into aged sweetness.

While most Xiaguan cakes are super-ordinary, and unashamedly so (which is why I love them), the "FT" brand is nominally a little more up-market.  This is obvious in the #4 ("Sihao" on the wrapper), which is quite strong, and has a sweetness that is piercing - much moreso than standard Xiaguan.

Is it a super bargain?  Is it worth buying more?  Maybe it would be worth seeing how other cakes have got on.  I am happy with those that I have bought, but probably don't need to try and squeeze any more onto our shelves, given existing quantities.  If you're building up a collection, you might wish to give this one a try - dependent on storage.

18 December, 2007

2006 Six Famous Tea Mountains "Yesheng Banzhang"

"As rough as can be." That's my usual estimation of 6FTM, CNNP, and many modern Xiaguan. However, this yesheng [wild] version of the 6FTM Banzhang threatened to usurp my prejudice. The entire cake is just £9 (from Royal Pu'er).

Surprisingly, the leaves are in very good condition (shown right), being mostly whole. Unsurprisingly, some blending has occurred: we have light green, dark green, brown, and black leaves of varying grades. Given the strength of Banzhang leaves, and yesheng leaves in particular, I would consider it quite normal to produce a blend, both in order to bring the cost down to "6FTM levels", and to make a palatable tea.

The blended aspect is clear in the aroma, which is formed of two equal and complementary components: sweet, dark leather vs. fresh green lucha (very much like a good maofeng).

Happily, the aroma in the wenxiangbei is particularly long in duration, showing a good brown-sugar character. Such endurance bodes well for a long flavour in the mouth.

The solid yellow soup is very thick, again a surprising mark of quality to appear in a 6FTM cake. The flavour is quite simple (a body of grassy fruits), but the huigan is a big climax, and the yunxiang [scent in the nose after the swallow] is just like the grain from a good whisky.

Throughout the flavour, from the middle of the mouth to the back of the throat, the grassy lucha character remains, a potential warning for aging. It seems that long-term storage wasn't on the mind of 6FTM in the production of this cake, which is acceptable given the cake's accessibility and very low price.

It delivers plenty of body-flushing chaqi, without giving the feeling of being heavily caffeinated, and brightens the senses as one would hope from a Banzhang. There is a touch of "brownness" to the flavour, of slightly oxidised green leaves, which makes it seem a little ordinary, but the cake is redeemed by its very thick, oily soup and its several other benefits mentioned above.

For £9, it's good fun. Certainly, this is one of the most enjoyable 6FTM cakes I have encountered.

(27 March, 2008)

Revisiting this cake confirms its good value. Brewed gently, without too much pushing, produces a pleasantly sweet soup, with an enjoyable aftertaste. It isn't greatly complex, but is a fine little tea.

The leaves are smaller than I remember - some fragmented, some just young and tiny.

At £9, I've grabbed a few for lighter mornings - it's a fresh tea.

August, 2013

Cheap cake, five years later - let's go!

The colour is an aged brown, now; most noticeably, there is a pungent scent of strong, humid, tobacco.  This smells like something that my Singaporean chums (Keng, Elven, ST, et al.) enjoy.  How curious to imagine that it came from damp, cold old England.

The compression is quite tight on this cake, and the leaves are fragmented and quite small.  I chuckle to read that I considered the claims of "yesheng" [wild] to be serious, in the above writing from years past.

Brewed, the colour is a deep orange - moreso than other cakes of its age that I have reared.  The scent in the wenxiangbei [aroma cup] is sharp, leathery sweetness; it is believably from the greater Banzhang region, even though unlikely to come from Laobanzhang village.

It is satisfyingly thick and rounded, and tastes rather Singaporean in its dark humidity.  There is some sharpness remaining, but it is welcome and enjoyable when mixed with the base of rich tobacco.  This was £9?

The "fat", oleaginous thickness in the mouth is hugely satisfying.  It is liquid, sweet tobacco.  Some of the darkness tastes clearly "Xiaguan": it is the blackness of artful processing, as these companies often perform on their taidicha [plantation tea] blends.  There is plenty of real kuwei [good bitterness], however, and so this must form a minor part of the blend.

"This is good - like a wet woodland", observes my dear wife.  Its sweetness lasts forever; I am impressed with how many good infusions even a humble tea such as this can provide, after a little aging.  Don't knock the "6FTM".

16 December, 2007

2004 CNNP "Yiwu Zhengshan"

Mince pies and black ties; festive choir and strange attire; thesis writing and candle lighting; mulled sherries and mistletoe berries... Michaelmas term grinds to an immediate and unexpected halt, tipping out its unwitting passengers into a rapid collision with oncoming Christmas.

The jolly chaos of the end-of-year prevents much in the way of tea-drinking, but here's a pleasant tipple that we encountered prior to the Sunday morning pre-Mass sprint, courtesy of Royal Pu'er.

Like most products from Royal Pu'er, this is inexpensive. There are a few pleasant surprises to be found in their collection, such as the 2006 Yibang Chamasi "Gedebao", and I daresay this is another unexpected treat. Given that this is a CNNP cake, I was not anticipating anything outstanding - but catching sight of the whole, dark, chunky dry leaves was enough to make me question my bias. There are plentiful tips to be found, and this tea has a rich, woody aroma that bodes well for a good session.

I associate a long, interesting lengxiang with leaves of good quality, and there is much to be enjoyed in the scent of this tea. Sweet, dark sugars and that ubiquitous woodiness,
combined with a touch of menthol, hint at good things to come.

A corresponding rich mahogany flavour is delivered by the thick, orange soup, with more of that menthol, and a sizable portion of youthful ku. The ending is a robust but delayed huigan, allowing continued enjoyment of the tea's woody sweetness.

Showing a firm hand to this tea is advisable, erring on the side of more leaves rather than less. Given the low price attached to this tea, I'm rather inclined towards it.

06 December, 2007

Photographic Wabi-Sabi

One of the blessings of moving from traditional film photography to the digital medium is that there is no longer any cost (in time or money) associated with taking photographs. Whereas previously one would have been circumspect with using the shutter-button for fear of wasting film, now there is no such consideration.

In fact, we usually take photographs in "burst mode" now, such that a sequence of three or four photographs are taken in rapid succession, in order to increase the likelihood that at least one will not suffer from blurring, closed eyelids, and other events that would otherwise ruin a good photograph. Also, this lack of circumspection means that we tend to take photographs of more subjects.

Combined with the ever-increasing size of digital snaps, this all results in a very, very large collection of photographs. Our collection was getting so large that we simply didn't have the energy to look through it. Most of the photographs were just plain low quality. We selected certain favourites and put them into a separate folder, but the majority of the collection sat around collecting binary dust.

Recently having discussed the clutter-free ideals of wabi-sabi living, it seemed inevitable that our sprawling collection of photographs would face the same scrutiny as had our collections of books, teas, and clothing.

Over the course of a few week-ends, we pruned away the massive array of redundant or unpleasant shots in our collection, and reduced it in size from 12 GB to around 800 MB - it now fits onto a USB memory stick. The result is a high-quality collection which is a pleasure to peruse, far removed from the low-quality, high-clutter affair from before.


I always assumed that my tea photographs were "above the law". I habitually photograph every new tea I encounter (capturing its wrapper, leaves, brew, and so on). Though this made for a truly enormous folder of photographs, I considered it essential reference material.

Lei asked me the function of this huge folder of tea pictures.

Confidently, I replied, "Of course, it's my reference material for my previous teas!"

She asked me how often I consulted it. Indeed, if I had ever consulted it. Especially seeing as the majority of my tea-notes on the Half-Dipper are accompanied by photographs, which was one of my purposes for creating the web-site in the first place.

My shoulders slumped as I saw the inevitable about to occur.

Here follows "before" and "after" screenshots of my tea folder. Click on the small photographs to look at them in detail - pay particular attention to the size of the scroll-bars on the right of each window...

(click for larger image)

(click for larger image)

Despite the initial pain of separation, the result is strangely liberating. All that remains are the photographs that I truly love and enjoy looking at, so that the collection now has a purpose. I had no idea just how many useless and just plain awful photographs were contained in that huge pile: most looked like the equivalent of police interrogation shots, with the subject brutally photographed under dazzling lights.

It's hard to let go... but it feels great afterwards.

Give it a whirl. You have nothing to lose but your low-quality piles of "stuff". It's rather liberating.