I appreciate Zhizheng Tea. I appreciate the clean, unassuming style of their web-site. I appreciate their swift sending of the samples that I bought. I appreciate their excellent, personalised customer service via e-mail. I appreciate the responsiveness of their staff to questions. I appreciate the presentation of their tea (pictured below).
It is such a shame, then, that their tea left me so disappointed. I wanted (very much) to like it, but I simply cannot. What a pickle.
I bought these samples after reading an article at, I think, the blog of His Grace the Duke of N. Everything was so right about the business, and its service, that I feel like an absolute swine for not being able to appreciate the tea. However, the fact stands that something is (I believe) rather amiss somewhere between maocha and cake for these teas that had such potential, and which promised so much.
The 2005 Hongyue [red moon]
I tried all of these teas several times (and a number of others in the dozen or so that arrived) over several week-ends, and all led me to the same conclusion. This article focusses on the first four that I tried, and on which I made detailed notes, before I gave up and relegated them to mere office drinking (essentially the purgatorio of teas).
The 2008 Xianxiang
Pictured here, those first four samples: in descending order, the 2005 "Hongyue" [red moon], the 2008 "Xianxiang" [respectfully-given-gift scent], the 2009 "Jidi" [origin place], and the 2010 "Bulang".
The 2009 Jidi
Looking over the dry leaves of each, a definite redness is obvious, to a greater or lesser degree. This may not come out in the photographs, but the leaves are decidedly coloured.
The 2010 "Bulang"
While we might expect the 2005 to have some colour, surely the more recent teas cannot be red-leafed in their natural state.
The 2005 Hongyue
Each tea is clearly produced using good quality leaves, which I conclude from their whole, appealing appearance, and their significant furry natures. In the mouth, each is clean and exceptionally cooling. The claims to laoshu [old tree] and qiaomu [arbor] I can easily believe in this case.
We might expect a degree of orangeness in the colour of the soup from a 2005 tea (now six years old at the time of writing), but from teas that are, respectively, just one, two, and three years of age? Surely not. As pictured below, the 2009 "Jidi" is almost as deep in its orange colour as the 2005 "Hongyue".
The 2009 "Jidi"
If you asked me to describe a tea that had been produced to be "drink-it-now", and more appealing to the mainstream tea-drinking market, I would suggest that the leaves would have been reddened, perhaps by allowing a degree of oxidation prior to shaqing [kill green]. I would expect to see an orange or reddened soup, a malty character in the flavour, and a significantly decreased or absent kuwei [good bitterness]. I would expect it to be gentle, and absent the complexity that one would hope for in laoshu tea.
All of the ten teas that I have tried from Zhizheng have been of this variety, without exclusion, which strikes me as something of a pity given the deliciously cooling nature of what must surely be top-quality leaves.
The 2005 "Hongyue"
Ordinarily, I would write the entire series off as being the production of a company that merely wished to appeal to as many tea-drinkers as possible by processing their teas in that familiar manner. However, Zhizheng have been so thoroughly decent and open in their e-mail correspondence that I'd like to describe a little of our exchange, if I may summarise.
Mark, of Zhizheng Teas, is based in Jinghong and notes that no such decision to process for mass appeal has been made. He writes that his leaves have been purchased from a range of farmers, and that some of the leaves were purchased after shaqing. He suggests that old-tree cakes can be like this, and that the products are representative of the wonderful complexity and charm of old-tree leaves. He (very politely) suggests that I may have become accustomed to drinking taidicha [plantation tea] or xiaoshu [little tree] leaves, and hence not fully appreciate the Zhizheng cakes.
"Only a fool cannot change their mind", and I am always happy to be proven wrong. It could be entirely possible that all of the laoshu examples that I have tried, whether from travelling Western friends or Beijing-, Hong Kong-, and Singapore-based oriental chums, could have been improper. It could be that the Zhizheng teas are the Real McCoy, and I simply have never come across something quite as good as them before.
I'm willing to give that hypothesis some time, but it doesn't sit well with the evidence. The laoshu examples that I have encountered before (and have often described on this humble site) are so wonderfully complex, and simply more in every way. More interesting. More long-lived. More vibrant. More wide-ranging in character. More energetic in the mouth. More complex. More satisfying. Sometimes, more bitter.
By comparison, the Zhizheng products seems almost indistinguishable from teas that have been artificially reddened to make them more appealing to the mainstream tea-drinker. They are red in leaf and soup. Malty and constrained in flavour. Short in the throat. Entirely impossible to overbrew.
I validated the latter assertion by brewing an entire (20g?) sample, and I was unable to overbrew it.
We may never know the answer to this riddle. Given the superb presentation and customer service of Zhizheng, I will be trying their future productions just in case they become closer to my understanding of what comprises "good tea". For these present teas, however, they face an ignominious fate of being consumed with little attention in the office. The impossibility of overbrewing, combined with their limited appeal, makes them (rather unfortunately) ideal for low-maintenance office infusions.