As a single man, I used to love travelling to conferences. In fact, I met my dear wife at the "Neural Computing Applications Forum" conference. Love blossomed over a neural network.
These days, as an indication of my new-found status as a crusty old man, I find that I long for conferences to be over so that I can get back to my family. So it is today, and I celebrate my return with a sample bought from Yunnan Sourcing.
Properly banged bangma
My translation may be a little off in this instance, but my dictionary tells me that the characters for "Bangma" mean "Nation's Curse". If correct, this is a brilliant name. It refers to a town somewhere in Mengku County, within Lincang - an old favourite of mine, as far as pu'ercha goes.
This isn't a grand, expensive tea, and yet it has all the appearances of being decidedly excellent. Rejoice in its long leaves. Suck some of that fine, sweet aroma into the nostrils. I have high hopes for this little fellow.
As you can see in the photograph, it is a bright yellow tea, which is a good start for a young cake. In aroma, it is odd: it is enduring and heavy in sensation, and yet is almost invisible but for a hint of sugar. There is much here, and yet it has no impact on the scent senses.
Unsurprisingly, it is similar in the mouth: it is lightly fruity, and gently cooling, but quite distant and remote. Scott notes that the semi-wild nature of the leaves is responsible for a lack of bitterness (and I appreciate the fact that he addressed this aspect of the tea, rather than ignoring it). However, I wonder if the lack of kuwei is more due to its autumnal timing, and the fact that 2010 was a drought year, perhaps making this tea more empty than it otherwise would be.
I can taste good Mengku flavours in the far distance. While it is a little too empty and remote to consider buying, the price is suitably low at a very reasonable $22 / 400g. I cannot imagine that these leaves have enough content to develop into much with the passing of the years. I fear that they may have run out of puff before the race even began.
However, one doesn't often find such good, cooling leaves for such a low price, and this would make a fun cake for casual drinking.
The Nannuo cake is from a different farmer, this year. I imagine that this may be something to do with the fact that last year's 2010 Nannuo seemed a little... awry, in some sense. To his credit, Mr. Essence of Tea didn't sell that the cake. Perhaps it will sort itself out with time, and we might see it resurface.
So, we have a beast of an entirely different stripe to play with today.
The leaves seem a little smaller than previous years, and are luxuriously shiny, and lightly furred. As ever, they are well-handled, and are entirely seemly.
A thick, cloudy, yellow soup is produced that fills the mouth with unctuous, honey-like characteristics. Long and fresh, this is a wonderful example of Nannuo tea.
Notes of darker tobacco appear in later infusions, in concert with some wisps of wild grass. It is a shifting, colourful tea that repays an investment of attention.
I have a lot of Nada's Nannuo tea on my shelves, and even a cake as delicious as this can't really find room in my humble collection, given that already large quantity from the region. Combined with the increase in price (£18 in 2009, £22 in 2010, to £44 in 2011), I won't be buying much of it, because I have already plumped for the 2011 Mannuo.
However, if you don't have tons of Nannuo tea, and are looking for something of clearly laoshu quality, with complexity and endurance in abundance, this cake is highly recommended.
This time of year is somewhat special - the new season's pu'ercha starts to become available. Hello, new tea. Goodbye, money.
In particular, I look forward to the arrival of cakes from Essence of Tea, which are heavily represented on my shelves.
The first aspect of this year's productions that struck me was the increase in price. The 2009 cakes were £12-£20 (averaging around £18) before discounts, the 2010 cakes were £17-£40 (averaging around £25), and the 2011 cakes are £38-£51 (averaging £44). These are no longer "impulse purchases", and I spend some time debating about what to do. The comparison of these cakes to others becomes a touch harder each year, as the prices increase. For me, I realise that this is Nada's sole livelihood, and I don't mind paying a friend for what is typically rather awesome tea. I'm sure that we will all reach different conclusions.
Being entirely selfish for a moment (do forgive me), I am a touch relieved that I had managed to buy some of these cakes in quantity in previous years. Some of the new 2011 cakes were obtained from the same farmers as in previous years, and so I won't buy too many more at the higher prices. Some of the cakes, however, are entirely new. This "Mannuo" is one of the new types.
Nada's notes indicate that Mannuozhai is a village in Mengwang district of Xishuangbanna. The leaves were picked from trees that are 400-500 years of age, and, based on previous experience, I typically take Nada's word for it when it comes to such claims.
I find myself excited about the prospect of trying something that is, if Nada remains true-to-form, a proper old-tree cake from a region that I have come to adore for its tea. I don't have enough solid "Banna" tea in my collection, apart from the usual hotspots, and so there is a chance that the Mannuo will be very well received.
It starts yellow, as do virtually all of Nada's teas, because they are processed properly. The leaves are on the small side in this cake, and are furry, shining, and whole. The aroma cup delivers a potent scent of caramelised fruits: it is the darker, lower scent of real Banna tea.
It reveals similarly heavy, charming characteristics in the mouth that I recall from some Menghai cakes: it is fruity and sweet, and yet has a heavy, low ceiling of darkened oak and leather. Left lingering in the nose, a complex of tart fruits and late-summer sugariness. I love it. This really is very much "my cup of tea".
Fresh vibrancy on the lips, a thick body - it arouses my blood and brings me fully awake, despite the early hour. My diary has "A cake like few others. This tea is an instant favourite. Perfectly timed. Just enough of everything to keep me engaged throughout."
Zidu [purple-belly, my teapot] shines brightly, which I take to be his nod of approval. Although my birthday will not arrive for two months, I think I've found my "birthday gift", and order a tong.
It is entirely possible that this, my first tea from 2011, may turn out to be the best tea that I try from 2011.
Having gone through a patch of drinking fairly rough teas of late, I returned to one of my favourites from 2011. Happily, the cake is doing well. This year, the soup is yellow with a slight hint of brown. The aroma remains low and rich; the soup is as vibrant on the lips and as cooling on the breath as I remember it. My diary notes "What a lovely mixture of sweetness and rich, complex flavours. The menthol finish is first class, and puts many of the 2012 cakes to shame."
The mighty Nannuoshan. I think of delicious Nadacha / Essence of Tea cakes from recent years, a region which Nada seems to enjoy visiting. I am therefore quite happy to see that Scott has a cake from the region, and a spring cake at that.
My sample contains lots of pretty, medium-length leaves, the scent of which is immediately apparent at the instant of cutting opening the sealed envelope in which they travelled. Clean, fresh, vibrant - a jolly Nannuo springtime.
"Yakouzhai" means "forked mouth village", which I presume refers to the fork in a river, a common location for settlements, being easy to defend! Indeed, most English towns are situated in strategically sensible locations, and my home city is no exception: the English king hid here during the civil war with his loyalist troops, beseiged by the troops loyal to Parliament, defended on three sides by rivers and one the fourth side by a marsh. In fact, our suburb is in what was that marsh, and the local church tower was used to spy on the king's artillery that was kept in the university parks...
Grassy and floral, sweet and vivid - this is very decent Nannuo tea. The human touch is evident in a little butteriness in its finish, which adds to the springtime lightness.
If the Nadacha Nannuo cakes were not so heavily represented on my shelves (> 3 tong over various years), I could see myself buying some of this charming little chappy. At $29/250g ($44/375g equivalent), it is a good buy. Nicely done, Scott.
"Is this tea from the same mountain as the last?" asked my dear wife, referring to the 2010 YS Bulang Jieliang. In fact, it was made 10km away, which left me rather impressed with her tastebuds.
From the product web-page
This is a "white label" cake from Yunnan Sourcing, and I have a soft spot for white labels. Impromptu, independent, disestablishmentarianism.
I bought just a sample, pictured below.
This cake is priced at the mightier end of the scale, being $40/250g ($60/375g equivalent). I tend not to go for the "Laoman'e is the new Laobanzhang" line of reasoning, and so I remain healthily open-minded when it comes to this tea.
The leaves look very pretty - as you can see from the photograph above, they are small- and medium-sized springtime leaves. What you won't be able to see is their lovely sweet aroma, which is fresh and welcoming.
Yellow-orange soup looks up at me from the cup, giving off a husky, sweet aroma. This huskiness seems to come from a smoky characteristic in the mouth, which isn't entirely welcome. It has had two years to settle down, and so this is smokiness of a pronounced duration.
It is energetic, and makes my mouth water... do I like it? It is a solid cake, but I can't say that it really made me want to buy it. This is probably a subjective concern, but that enduring huskiness didn't win me over. It reminded me of a (much gentler version of) the more bizarre, husky Menghai blends, such as 0622.
It seems that I wrote "easily forgettable" in my diary entry for that day, concerning this cake. With shelf space at a premium, and the price of this cake being on the high side, it slips under the radar unnoticed and will not be missed by me, I imagine.
To my reckoning, it wasn't immediately similar to that Bulang Jieliang, but that does nothing to diminish my appreciation of my wife's tastebuds...
Life has been "on hold" for a little while, as interviews take place and all manner of capers and discussions occur afterwards, in between looking after family life. I'll perhaps write more if / when the situation resolves itself.
What better time, in an interim moment of calm in the midst of the bustling, to finally unwind with some of Scott's cakes from last year?
The core at the centre of the star
Jieliang village is in the Bulangshan region, and seemingly 10 km west of Lao Man'e village. I recall Scott's photographs at the web-site of the Yunnan Sourcing blog showing photographs of his trip, where he described Jieliang as having no more than 60 households.
Bulang tea is really appealing to me, and so I hope for good things.
The spring version, rather than the autumnal version
This is a tea that, if I stopped drinking after the second or third infusion, would have left me permanently impressed. After negotiating the tricky, super-dense central part of the bing from which my sample was taken, I obtained a lovely, yellow soup. It is slightly thin, perhaps, as one might expect from the first infusions of a densely-compressed set of leaves, but it has a charming, butter finish and a fruity, cooling body. As with many of his productions, Scott has picked some very decent leaves.
Good activity: yellow to orange, as it sits in the air
I write a little, chat with my wife, and then return to the tea. Woe betide: it has become terrifically sour and rather unpalatable in subsequent infusions. My dear wife likened it to a rather unpleasant variety of Chinese medicine. Given that most Chinese medicine is revolting, that must surely be an extremal description.
Potency I like; massive sourness at a high price is something of which I am less fond. The leaf quality suggests that the $30/250g ($45/375g equivalent) price is decent, but the character of later infusions pushes me away.
Some cakes are rough, but because they have an unfriendliness that will age well, being based on overwhelming contents. This cake just seems a bit awry, and not entirely satisfactory. The initial charm wore off rather quickly.
It is, perhaps, for this reason that I can imagine Scott buying the leaves: perhaps one wouldn't sit around and drink lots of infusions of a tea when buying - if many candidate maocha are to be tried, one might just try a little of each, and this cake certainly seems thrilling at the start.
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.
As shown above, this is part of Scott's "guhua" range, a euphemism for autumnal tea. As with the rest, it is a $40 cake, of 2/3rds the normal size (at 250g), making this $60 for an equivalent 375g bing. These little cakes are amenable to collecting for the purposes of tasting, which is something that I rather like. There simply isn't enough shelf space in our house to collect cakes without limit; those I buy in tong+ quantity are those that I have concluded are safe bets for aging. The little cakes, such as these and the tasters from Zhimingdu, are easy to slide into the gaps between tong.
(I recall that the brave Phyll Sheng used to hire "cellar" space at a wine-storage depot in order to keep his cakes, but that would be a step too far for me!)
Like the Xikong, this is a xiaoye [little leaf] varietal, from out in Mengla County of Xishuangbanna. However, the leaves don't seem all that tiny, as you might be able to tell from the above - they represent the larger end of the xiaoye scale.
Easily separated, you can see from the image above that the leaves have been well-handled during their stay in Yunnan. Scott has selected a suitably furry, good-looking collection of leaves for this cake, and they have the sweet, granary scent about them that I observed in the Xikong.
When introduced to water, the scent in the aroma cup reveals a heavy sweetness, and a pronounced liveliness - it tingles the nose, and gives hope that these are fresh leaves left in a natural, underprocessed state.
This tea really is lively - it tingles the tip of the tongue in a delightful, almost effervescent, manner. A buttery finish reminds me of the fact that humans have been involved in the presentation of this tea to at least some minimal degree.
Powering through the infusions, this Yibang cake develops into a positively mouth-numbing experience. It is anaesthetic. This sounds unpleasant, but it is rather good.
While the Xikong may have been heavier, with denser characteristics of flavour and huigan, this cake is significantly more active, while staying within what I refer to as the "sweet granary" genre of that region - which may be a description of use only to myself.
I juggle my affections between this Yibang, the Xikong, and the Wangongzhai, and contemplate buying one of each, to revisit for fun in later years.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you the Dingjiazhai [ding jia djai] from Yunnan Sourcing.
This village is close to Yiwu, and so we should expect decidedly orthodox Yiwu behaviour. The lovely old 2009 wrapper is shown above, while the more spartan, "classical" 2010 wrapper is shown below. The remainder of the photographs in this article are from the later version of the cake, which was seemingly bought from the same farmers as the 2009 version - both are similar.
Both 2009 and 2010 cakes are comprised of leaves that I couldn't really tell apart: they are long, as shown below, and have a sharp sweetness that belies their autumnal picking.
The 2009 seemed a little watery, in both character and colour, and requires more leaves than the 2010 in order to provide a solid brew. This is something of a surprise, because one might expect it to be the other way around, given the drought that ravaged the pu'ercha crop of 2010.
The 2009 has that charming straw-like character that I sometimes think of as a sub-type of the general Yiwu sweetness. It is a class of character that reminds me of the celebrated 2006 Xingshunxiang cake (celebrated by me, that is). If pressed, I would try to describe this straw-like nature as being a pleasant, vegetal sourness, which I rather like. It isn't the tangy, "off-brown" sourness of rough tea.
The 2010 shares that straw-like character, but it is more of a background note - perhaps this is the effect of the drought, if any effect there were.
However, this pair of Dingjiazhai aren't up to my old (and decidedly inexpensive) Xingshunxiang friend in terms of overall appeal.
Later infusions bring out a definite sweetness in both cakes, though the 2009 never quite shakes that empty, "loose", watery feeling. Both cakes are lightly cooling in the mouth, perhaps testifying to the quality of leaves that Scott has selected.
These are decent cakes. The 2009 edges towards an abrasive roughness in the mouth, which the 2010 avoids, but they are otherwise fairly similar. Their potency is very decent, and it is entirely possible that this could cause them to improve with age.
That said, given the choice between these cakes and, let's say, the Yiwu "Wangongzhai", there isn't much of a comparison in terms of quality. The latter is excellent; these Dingjiazhai cakes are merely "good". Ordinarily, that could be enough for a tea merchant to be pleased - here, Scott has spoiled us with better cakes costing around the same amount, and so I feel that there is little reason to explore these past a sample to broaden the palate.