24 August, 2008

2008 Laobanzhang Maocha

I can feel autumn approaching. Where went the fleeting summer? Even the chestnut trees are preparing for conker season...

ABC

During this busiest of cold English summers, I have had the great fortune to enjoy some excellent teas, and I hope you have, too. Though not yet having sufficient time to transcribe my notes concerning them, my tea-table has been a constant source of happiness, and a something of a refuge. To those tea-friends old and new with whom I have been exchanging samples, many thanks for some real treats. I will make my notes available here in due course.

Today, I interrupt my temporary hiatus to write about a splendid sample, kindly provided by the eternally generous Nada.

2008 Laobanzhang Maocha

This is Lao Banzhang, that most expensive of pu'er leaves, which Nada obtained from the village of Lao Banzhang itself (and readers will have read of his journey already, no doubt). He reports that a number of guards are employed to ensure that illicit leaves are not brought into the village and sold using the village's prestigious appellation. With so many cakes being sold under the name "Lao Banzhang", the overwhelming majority of which contain but a portion of actual Lao Banzhang leaves (if any at all), the prospect of drinking personally-selected leaves from the village itself is a rare treat.

What is the flavour and character of actual Lao Banzhang?

2008 Laobanzhang Maocha

This is part of the 2008 spring harvest. The leaves, pictured above, are large and hearty, with some very large tips. A gentle aroma of sweetness was a little more subdued than I expected.

Sporting a rather persistent hangover (obtained courtesy of the traditional Pimms taken aboard a punt on the Cherwell last night), the prospect of a remedial session with shengpu is appealing. Magdalen College's Great Tower informs me that it is 8.30 a.m., sounding even louder today than its usual unbearable volume. Lao Banzhang, make me well...

2008 Laobanzhang Maocha

Here's why I like maocha: it's honest. The yellow soup (pictured below) testifies to its honesty. No tweaking has been performed with this tea, no artificial attempt at accelerated aging or complexity so often found in "boutique" bingcha. All teas have their place, and my shelves have many such tweaked teas on them, but honest shengpu will always be my favourite.

Like the dry leaves, the beidixiang [initial scent in the aroma cup] is quite subdued. The lengxiang [later scent as the aroma cup cools], however, is darkly sweet, with plenty of power. The progression of scents in the wenxiangbei usually correlates to the progression of the tea in the mouth, and would, in this case, indicate a strong huigan.

2008 Laobanzhang Maocha

The quality of the tea is obvious from the first sip: it is extraordinarily thick and smooth, and packed with mushroom flavours. It has an unrushed, stately progression through the mouth, settling eventually into a huigan that swells with sweetness (corresponding to that noted in the aroma cup).

Two small cups and I am alert, my lips buzzing. The soup leaves a cooling sensation in my mouth, which I take to refer to its quality. It would be a crime to rush this tea, which wishes to proceed at its own pace, swelling as it does in its progression from lips to throat.

There is no aggression in this tea, though strong ku [pleasant, youthful bitterness] becomes more obvious in later infusions.

Notably, this tea does not become rough near the end of the session, as do many inferior teas. Rather, it elegantly fades into gentle sweetness. This graceful degradation is another sign of excellence, in my estimation.

2008 Laobanzhang Maocha

The leaves (shown above) are strong, healthy, and very attractive. They are smooth to handle, and tear only under significant force, in contrast to the wafer-thin, anaemic leaves of some plantations.

All in all, this is a very fine tea. The smooth, rounded quality is a real mouthful, and the mushroom flavour is so pronounced that it came as quite a surprise.

Once again, very many thanks to Nada for so kindly providing the tea for this valuable lesson, and for an effective hangover cure.



I note with pleasant surprise that Nada has started his own tea company, Nada Cha. I should add by means of disclosure that I have no connection with this enterprise, other than being wholly supportive of a friend's venture.

Alan Bullock Close

It is with some happiness that I see his excellent hand-selected 2008 Nadachayuan "Cha Chan Yi Wei" cakes have already sold out, which means that others will also be enjoying this lovely tea. I am sure we all welcome potential new sources of tea, and I hope Nada Cha thrives.

By happy chance, I see that I have already obtained most the teas listed on his web-site through his recent expedition to Yunnan. Given that these cakes are commercially available, I shall endeavour to provide notes that are as unbiased as I can manage, as I would teas from any other vendor. I trust that you, Dear Reader, will hold me to account as necessary...

11 comments:

Bill said...

I know exactly what you mean about "honesty" when it comes to mao cha. It is what it is, nothing to hide. I had the privledge of recieving 6 satches of unadulterated Mao cha from the 6ftm not the company but the actual mountains from a friend of mine located in China.

Cheers,

Bill

Hobbes said...

G'day sir,

Those maocha samples are a rare and wonderful thing - will you write up the results of your encounter? I remember reading similar from MarshalN when he came across a similar range of single-mountain maocha, and have often referred back to those notes - so I'd love to read more of yours, if you get the time.


Toodlepip,

Hobbes

Richard said...

Hobbes,

I read with interest that your acquaintance has set up his own small shop, which is a perfect way for me to try myself a few teas I may have never yet encountered. Just a quick question if you will:

If I was to make a purchase from there could you recommend 2 or 3 not massively expensive teas for the beginner, and maybe what teaware I should pick up while I am at it. I still have your most generous samples floating around in my tasting memory and I must try some more wonderful tea

Regards

Richard
[R-James]

Hobbes said...

Dear Richard,

I'm very glad to hear that you're taking the plunge into shengpu! You won't regret it.

As far as recommendations for starting out, I would begin with trying a wide variety of samples. Don't settle on buying particular cakes until you've developed a feeling for the kind of shengpu that you most enjoy. Recommendations can point you to good quality cakes, of course, but the real judge is the taste of the individual drinker.

From Nada's shop, I have enjoyed (and you should probably be able to find Half-Dipper notes for) the following samples:

2006 12 Gentlemen Yiwu
2006 12 Gentlemen "Da Bai Hao"
2007 Yichanghao "Yiwu"
2008 12 Gentlmen "Chun Ya Shen Yun" (which is a shupu, listed under "Ripe/Shou")

Those will run to about £10-15, which is a good place to start. There really is absolutely no rush to buy cakes of tea, as they pile up quicker than you realise! The cakes we tend to buy when we're just starting out often tend to be the ones that we regret buying later on, when you have a better feeling for the types of shengpu that you most enjoy.

Grab yourself an inexpensive gaiwan (£2.50), a small cup (£0.60), and a jug (£2.50, or use a milk jug from your house), then get tasting!

Once you get into it, you might consider some teapots - but a single white gaiwan is more than enough for every tea, at least to begin with.

Enjoy it, and do please let us know how you get on!


Toodlepip,

D

Richard said...

I will most certainly le you know how it goes, I will order what you suggest and go from there!

Hobbes said...

Good luck! I hope you enjoy them. :)


Toodlepip,

D

Luca said...

Dear Hobbes,

I discovered your blog in a dark, smoky wangba in Chengdu this summer, and it was a revelation. I've long been obsessed with China, and since I spent my gap year in Beijing studying Mandarin - or trying to - I've been pining for the place and having to go back every long vac to get my fix; but I hadn't really discovered tea, apart from the odd cup of longjing I got offered from time to time, and the swill one gets served in restaurants. I still remember my first cup of tieguanyin: I don't think it was particularly good tieguanyin, but I'd never tried anything like it before, and I came out of the teashop utterly drunk on it. Since then I've been trawling the internet for information, and teashops for samples, but the Sichuanese don't really seem to care about their tea (despite the overabundance of teahouses in Chengdu, most of which are, however, gambling houses rather than anything else) and I'm not so fond of green tea, anyway. The only oolong you really find is tieguanyin (occasionally dongding, which I've even heard referred to - by teashop owners! - as just "oolong" as opposed to tieguanyin...), so I bought lots of that, and a bit of dongding, but reading your tasting notes made me long for all those dancong and yancha, so I've ordered some of those and am eagerly awaiting their arrival. In the meantime, I've just been drinking lots of tieguanyin, but it's starting to taste the same. A brief question: do you think I can use my tieguanyin pot for dongding, or should I just stick to the gaiwan?

Also, I loved the occasional reflections on Oxford life in your blog - made me very nostalgic while I was in Chengdu. Even the Magdalen bells, which are about a hundred yards from my room and make serious attempts on my sanity with the occasional full peals...

I wonder, if you ever have half an hour to spare, whether we might have a chat at some point - I hope I'm not being too presumptuous - since we're in the same tiny corner of the world, and I'd love to hear how you first got into proper tea - as opposed to what most of the English drink! - and how you came to know so much about it. My email is luca.delpanta AT magd.ox.ac.uk.

Anyway, thanks for your blog, it's wonderful.

Best

Luca

Hobbes said...

Dear Luca,

Hmm, you must live literally right next door to me! It's great to get your message, I'll follow it up with an e-mail.

Are you still in Chengdu? You're right that, though they say it has the most tea-houses of any Chinese city, they're mostly overpriced and underquality. However, there is a really big tea district in Chengdu - it's not on the same scale as Maliandao, but there's plenty to find. I can't give specific instructions, unfortunately, but taxi drivers seem to know where it is. It took us about 15-20 minutes to reach there by cab.

I am really craving the huoguo right now, with all your talk of Chengdu restaurants... :)

To answer your specific question, Dongding and Tieguanyin are so similar that we certainly use the same pot for both. If you come across more heavily roasted examples of either, you might want to pop those into a gaiwan, but we use the same pot for all "green" (qingxiang) wulong without any problem.

Let's meet up, yes indeed. Swing by sometime and drink some tea! I come into Magdalen on a fairly regular basis anyway. :)


Addio,

Hobbes

Luca said...

Dear Hobbes,

That was quick! I'm not in Chengdu anymore, but on my penultimate day there I did find, much to my chagrin, the 大西南茶叶批发市场 -really a whole district, as you say - after having bought quite a substantial amount of, as it turned out, fairly unimpressive and overpriced tea at different small tea-shops dotted around the city, thinking it better than buying lots at once in case I got ripped off. I did buy some better TGY at the market, and I was amazed to find one shop selling yancha (dahongpao and shuixian), at a reasonable price, of which I bought a few small bags. Who knows whether it's the real stuff, but it was nice enough to drink. The shuixian I bought they called "laocong", which sounds expensive to me if it does mean it's old, but then they also made me try a bit of much more expensive shuixian, which was a lot more qingxiang (I thought) than the cheaper one, and of which they threw in two tiny bags for free when I waxed lyrical about it but said I couldn't afford it. Does laocong mean the leaves are old, or does it refer literally to a kind of bush?

Ironically, the best tea I had in Chengdu was a bag of fantastic TGY I was given by a lovely old Cantonese lady I met in a hostel, after we'd had a long conversation about Sichuanese tea-drinking habits (e.g. how they let their zhuyeqing stew in their tall glasses until it's so bitter it makes you cry) - even though I ended up drinking it in a glass jar like a taxi driver, because I didn't have a tea set with me.

Anyway, thanks for the advice on pots! I'm going to go and drink some dongding now.

I'm not in Oxford yet, but I'll be up towards the end of the month - it'd be great to meet up if you're not too busy!

Best

Luca

Luca said...

P.S. Huoguo? You're a braver man than I am - I can only have the blander Beijing version...

Hobbes said...

Dear Luca,

Well, at least you found it in the end!

"Laocong" is meant to refer to the millenia-old bush from which your leaves were lovingly plucked, no doubt! Needless to say, it's a claim that should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt, as with all other tea-related claims. (Wild arbor, old forest, tea-king, etc.)

I look forward to seeing you when you're back!


Toodlepip,

Hobbes