I've had a few e-mails in recent times asking for a little help with the nefarious and nebulous depths of the mighty Taobao. If you're a native Chinese speaker - see you in the next article. If, like me, your ability to read Chinese could best be described as "sub-optimal", then I invite you to come with me...
For those of you who haven't previously considered Taobao, it's one of the world's largest electronic trading areas (which The Economist recently quoted as being the largest), and is massively competitive for most products. When it comes to tea, it's excellent for buying cakes from recent years, where the supply is not tightly constrained. For rarer cakes, such as older cakes (> 5 years age) and limited-run modern cakes (Xizihao, etc.), the prices are less competitive, because very few vendors stock the products, and they can charge what they like. However, if, like me, you buy a lot of young tea, then Taobao is ace.
Taobao is also protected by a piece of genius that has arisen out of the Chinese culture of "cash on delivery"; i.e., Mainland Chinese are, to a large extent, allergic to debt and credit cards (which is a healthy trait observed by several other east-Asian nations). Payment tends to be expected only once the goods have been received and examined, and Taobao supports this via "Alipay", which is a payment system associated with Taobao in the same way that Paypal is associated with eBay. The cunning difference is that Alipay holds funds for the products in escrow, and only releases them to the seller once the goods have been received by the buyer. This helps to cut down on sharp practice, and gives the buyer confidence that they'll receive the goods they want, in decent condition. While we dirty Westerners will be buying through an agent (I use the slick and reliable Taobaofocus.com), whom we pay using Paypal and so will not directly have to interact with Alipay, the existence of the system causes the seller of the pu'ercha to obey the rules. It seems to work, very well.
Let's kick off with a search for an eminently Taobao'able purchase, something from Douji: the "Yisheng" cake. The first thing we need to realise is that Taobao operates (unsurprisingly) using simplified Chinese, and so we'll need to find the appropriate characters for the cake we require.
In the above, I have asked the 'Carp for the characters for "Yisheng". Next, we simply go to the main Taobao.com page, and enter the characters into the search box:
Like all Chinese web-pages, Taobao looks a mess. It's utterly chaotic, which makes it daunting for we, the laowei [dirty foreigners]:
Perhaps your browser is asking you if you'd like to translate the page at this stage. I'm using the entirely delightful Google Chrome browser (as a once-dedicated Firefox user), which offers us just this opportunity, as you can see from the bar at the very top of the display. However, try not to be tempted for now, because it messes up the page even more. (You could always open a parallel copy of the page in another tab, and allow Google to translate that copy, so as not to disturb your browsing.)
From the initial search result shown above, we already have some confidence that we've found the right page, because we have some hits showing, among other things, pu'ercha cakes - here, the lovely red "Yisheng" from 2005, at a good price of 380 RMB.
Under the search bar, we can see some characters that are telling us we have 177 hits for our search (shown in bright orange/red).
The matrix of blue characters beneath allows us to refine our search into one of the various areas of Taobao. Burn the following into the backs of your retinas:
...because it is the subsection for snacks / nuts / tea-leaves / local specialities. We can see that there are just ten hits in this subsection.
Let's pause for a temporary diversion. Suppose that I wanted a translation of the phrase in blue, to get an idea of what it is that I am clicking. Chances are, this phrase isn't tea-related (it's a link on an eBay-like website, after all), and so Babelcarp can't help us. In such cases, I often turn to Nciku.com:
Nciku, despite its bloody awful name, is a very useful site. You can paste in your Chinese characters in the usual place, and it will do a good job of translating them. However, the matrix to the right of the search box allows you to draw your character, which I have used on many occasions to determine what is written on my cakes' wrappers, when my dear wife isn't available. (I'm hoping that, one day, my son will be able to translate for me.)
Nciku is also good for learning Chinese, because there are plenty of structured learning quizzes, etc.
So, supposing I copied over the blue label from before:
...and so we learn that the Taobao subsection that contains 10 "Yisheng" hits is indeed snacks / nuts / tea-leaves / local specialities.
Clicking that blue link refines our Taobao search, and shows us what's on offer:
So far, so... good? We appear to have one Yisheng cake (RMB 380, the Douji version, not the "Yisheng Tea Co." version), and a bunch of lesser tea-related substances.
What does all of that Chinese text in the description of the cake mean? Well, it's probably tea-related (being the description of a pu'ercha cake), so let's go back to the mighty 'Carp...
Booyeah. Babelcarp has managed a full translation of this one, which is great. Occasionally, an "unknown" character will sneak into a description that lies outside Babelcarp's considerable vocabulary; it is a tea-related dictionary, after all, and not a general translator.
So, job done. We like the cake, we can copy-and-paste the Taobao page into the buying page of Taobaofocus.com, and we'll have our cakes before we know it.
Before we finish, there is one other route to know about - a common screen that often appears if your search has resulted in lots of pu'ercha-related hits. This occurs if we search for a popular cake, such as the charming Changdahao from the Yiwu Manluo Tea Co.:
Crikey - what does it all mean? We have 195 hits, but we probably don't want to scroll through them all. Let's look at the box that has appeared underneath the orange search box:
By now, we are confident in our ability to pop each of these into Nciku.com and obtain a translation. However, to save time: the top row allows us to narrow our search by brand. Here, we can choose Zhongcha (i.e., CNNP-styled cakes), Dayi, Changdahao, etc. I tend not to bother with this.
The second row is more useful: it allows us to pick shengpu or shupu. I always pick the former.
The third row refines our search by age, if we have a particular year in mind. It often pays to search one age bracket above and below the target bracket, just in case there is a labelling mix-up.
The bottom row can be ignored, as it refers to packaging / bulk.
With all the tools at your disposal, you can now hunt bargains in confidence. Often, you will find that Western vendors match the Taobao prices to some degree, which is a good thing - Taobao is a useful normaliser in that regard, and buying from Western vendors can be more comfortable.
When using an agent, such as Taobaofocus.com, I invite you to consider my previous article concerning shipping. SAL is the usual option for me, given the substantial margin between that and other other options (as shown in the article).
How terribly exciting, I thought to myself - a 1998 Zhongcha tuocha available for $58 at Tearoma. Following my previous two 8582-related disappointments from this merchant, perhaps the prospect of a lovely old tuocha might improve things.
Alarm bells, now all-too-familiar, begin to sound when I open the sample-bag: small, densely compacted leaves that are bright red and have the reassuring aroma of... shupu.
Sigh. My own naivety is to blame for not knowing that this tuocha is, in fact, a shupu. I comment to the (ever-friendly) Tearoma correspondent, who then helpfully adds the label "Shupuer" to the product description.
I enjoy shupu, but it's always much the same, within certain bounds. It has to be a good blend and process, and Menghai are the safest bet. Then, the effects of aging can mellow and smooth it somewhat, but the result is alwayus... shupu.
As shupu goes, this is a very decent example. It is smooth, sweet, and, as you might be able to see in the above photograph, it is pretty and appealing.
"Quite pleasant", observes my mother, who is visiting, and whom usually finds Yunnan tea to be unenjoyable.
And there we have it. A pleasant shupu, so inoffensive that my mother could tolerate it. With such a lofty recommendation, I look to my tea-shelves for some shengpu with which to finish the day...
While we're in the mood for cakes from the Simao Gupu'er company, let's try this "Tea-horse Ancient-road" cake, the name of which of course refers to the historical horseway by which Yunnan tea was moved around.
From the above, perhaps you can get a sense of the thick, crude feeling of the wrapper. The cakes from this factory are amusingly chubby, and feel very good in their rough wrappings. There's something rather wabi and perhaps even a little sabi about them.
If you read the recent article on the Bangwei cake from the same factory, you will know the drill by now: loose compression, healthy leaves, aged wonderfully in the sticky humidity of Singapore.
Perhaps the leaves are a little smaller than the Bangwei variety. Noting that most of the output from this producer is made from their local Simao-prefecture leaves, I suspect the same to be true for this blend.
What have we here? This is cake of the old school, being crammed full of camphor scents and flavours. It is bold, sharp, and tastes like something out of the history books, wound back to a younger age.
Camphor pu'ercha seems to be a diminishing genre, and I do so love to emcamphorise myself when at the tea-table.
A quick search via Taobao reveals that this sells for a measely 90 RMB, which is not a lot at all. For something that is four years old, and very enjoyable, that's a great deal. Of course, it may or may not come with four years of Singaporean storage (!), but, chances are, it's worth a shot for such minimal outlay.
The only other Simao Gupu'er cake that I have tried was also from Keng, and it was a 2004 bingcha made entirely from huangpian [yellow leaves]. The nice thing about pu'ercha is that there are so many varieties one can often find something delicious released under a previously-unknown label. It pays to have an open mind with pu'ercha, perhaps as with most things.
The 2005 version of this cake sells for around 300 RMB on the mighty Taobaowang, and, as you will see if you go a quick search, the wrapper (pictured above) hasn't changed since 1999. I like the consistency of their output.
Looking at the photograph above reminds me how charming this cake seems in both appearance and aroma. The leaves are chubby and whole, and the compression is loose such that a gentle nudge is all that is required to liberate a quantity sufficient for a session.
Bangweishan [bang-way] is a mountain in Lancang County, which is in Simao (i.e., quite a way north of Banna). This shouldn't be confused with the Lancang [Mekong] river, which obviously flows for many hundreds of miles, nor with Lincang prefecture, which is another big region even further to the north of Simao. (Phew, Yunnan geography...)
The loose, whole leaves have a somewhat humid aroma, which I take to be courtesy of the fantastic environment (for pu'ercha, if not for sun-fearing Britons) in Singapore.
This is just five years old, but it already has a heavy, orange soup, as you may see below. This is thick and silky - an exceptionally smooth and slinky tea. In the finish, whispers of vanilla, that it probably picked up from the rather humid environment.
It is not the most powerful cake in terms of flavour, and I pile in some more leaves to see what happens. The result is cooling and pleasant. This cake is dominated by its smooth texture and sharp-wood character. My breath is chilled, as if by mint, while I wait for the water to brew between infusions.
Douji are a reliable outfit. Their mainstream, lower-tier cakes are enjoyable, accomplished blends, and their upper-tier cakes (usually single-mountain cakes) are very solid examples.
Thanks, then, to the mighty TD for providing a sample of a blend that is entirely new to me: the "Yudou", where "yu" is "jade" (and "dou" refers to the label - and is approximately pronounced "doh"!).
I think this cake came from China Chadao, but I can find only mini-bricks available, which are priced around $5, as are most of them (with the exception of the "Jindou" brick at double the price). I'm sure a quick trip to Taobao would bring up the bingcha, should you be inclined.
This blend is about eclectic as one can get without leaving Yunnan: it has four sources.
The first three are scattered around Xishuangbanna: Youleshan (in Mengla, south-eastern 'Banna, near Laos), Hekaishan (in the Nannuo region, in central-south 'Banna), and Mengsongshan (in far south of 'Banna, near Burma). The fourth is from good old Mengkushan (in Shuangjiang region, which is far to the north in Lincang prefecture).
I rather enjoy blended tea, as I'm not entirely certain how much history single-mountain cakes have accumulated. Plenty of the old classics are, for example, blends. I remember wondering aloud in the past if our merchants that select their own tea (Yunnan Sourcing, Essence of Tea, Dragon Teahouse, Puerh Shop, etc.) might venture into the world of blending. Then again, it might be said with some justification that blending is something of an art-form, and is probably more difficult than selecting good-quality maocha from a single area. As we know, many of the modern mainstream factories were founded by blenders of Menghai Tea Company, keen to strike out on their own. Blending must be rather artful.
As shown above, the leaves in this blend look very healthy. The husky yellow soup, shown below, reassures us that blending has not taken place with a consequent fiddling of the leaves to make them more immediately appealing - it is an honest, raw colour.
The aroma is similarly healthy: dry grains, then plenty of buttery finishing scents.
The blend packs in a great deal of complex, complementary characteristics: there is a thick tobacco base, some tartness, good kuwei [bitterness], and even chubby, granary Lincang flavours may be picked out. The various components come together well. Assuming that these are plantation leaves, the result is stable, complex, and highly enjoyable.
You never know, its raw state, complex base of low flavours, and potency might allow it to age well.
It feels as if every old(er) Menghai that I drink comes from 1998. This is most definitely not a complaint, because they have all been entirely delicious. Looking back at my tasting notes for 1998 Menghai tea brings back a lot of woody, sweet flavour memories.
This example comes from KC, my longtime Hong Kong chum who seems to be well-steeped in pu'ercha. His house must smell brilliant.
Of course, one stops smelling ones own house after a while. I was amused at the reaction of my mother, who was visiting us recently, who observed "This house smells like tea and Chinese food." I rather wish I hadn't become accustomed to the scent, because it sounds rather appealing.
The scent of this old fellow is of some quality south-China storage. There is plenty of humidity in this cake's past, and it has been kind to the leaves. As you can see in the image above, they have aged delightfully.
(This is a distinct contrast with the 1999 8582 from Tearoma, that I recently described - they seem separated by much more than a single year.)
Did you see something interesting in the above photograph? Allow me to show you a close-up image of the same leaves...
These are jinhua, golden flowers. I recall with a burst of ungainly pride how CB once put her jinhua-laden leaves under the microscope to determine that they were crystalline, and not anything more unpleasant (and lively).
The above image tells us all we need to know about this tea. Consider its depth of colour. Note its golden meniscus, creeping up the side of the glass like a good, old wine. We can almost taste its viscous body in the mouth, the sweetness of old rosewood left behind in the nose.
As befits its yesheng [wild] status, this tea has plenty of content, and the years have been most generous to its development. I drink it as long as time and water supplies allow, and thanks KC once again for a real treat. Menghai make some rather great cakes.
I was impressed three years ago, when I last tried this tea, and I am ready to be impressed again. The jinhua that I noticed before are still present - they are tiny, yellow crystals. "This is spectacular", I have written in my diary: its aged, humid character lends it the sweetness of vanilla. Much of this is after-scent, left in the senses after the tea has been swallowed. It has a clean, red-orange soup that looks as if it might, one day, become burgundy in colour.
After eight or so infusions, it has faded, but it is charming while it lasts.
Poor Tearoma. After the pasting that they suffered in my article concerning their 1999 CNNP 8582, perhaps this sample from two years later will redress the balance. Perhaps.
I was wary of the 1999's green appearance and character, as if it were an incorrectly-sent sample. Surely, this 2001 version will be better.
Hmm. Problems are afoot once again. Despite the red hint added by the colour-correction of my camera in the morning light, this cake does look, once again, rather green. The blend looks like an 8582, and yet somehow it seems as if it has been aged for no more than four or so years.
Again, the buttery scent of the leaves gives me the feeling of very recent Yunnan Sourcing or Essence of Tea cakes, in which the wok may still be detected.
Woe betide: the brew is a flat yellow, as may come across in these images. This has more guts than the empty and rather pointless 1999 version, but comes with a basis of uninteresting sour straw. Where is the charm and the character of 8582?
If 7542 is a high-class escort, then this 8582 is a Bangkok ladyboy: trying hard to be pretty, but with an unpleasant surprise awaiting the unwary.
I am amazed at its lack of aging. If this is truly ten years old, then it is more like a tight tuocha from Kunming (very dry) rather than a loose bingcha from Taiwan. Even I have five-year-old cakes that I have aged which taste older than this. Tearoma continues to perplex me.
Have you come across Tearoma yet? This new shop appears to be based in Taiwan (and the US?), and has a small but very well-priced selection of cakes of a decent age (late 1990s, early 2000s). Were the prices too good to be true? Could it be that this 1999 cake is correctly priced at just $56?
To pre-empt my conclusion, I am decided that Tearoma is a decent shop, and that the prices are accurate reflections of the quality of the tea. That this cake is low-priced allows us to guess my opinion of it.
The Tearoma representatives have been consistently helpful and friendly throughout my dealings with them, and this has given me a great deal of confidence.
The caveat emptor relates to the quality of the individual cakes, which is variable - however, they are all fairly priced. "You get what you pay for."
Initially, no samples were on offer. After some protracted wrangling, the proprietors kindly consented to sending me a package of four samples, as long as I paid the postage. Fair enough, and much appreciated - more generous than most other vendors, in fact. I plumped for a range of attractively-priced cakes with around ten years of maturity, this 8582 from 1999 being one of them.
Please take a moment to consider the above photograph. Note in particular the colour of the leaves, which are almost green. There is little to no sign of aging on these leaves, which is a surprise - it is not a heavily-compressed cake.
Associated with the rather troubling appearance is a similarly troubling aroma: the scent of the leaves is pure, buttery green. I associate that butteriness with the wok, and so it is quite a surprise to be able to detect it after a supposed twelve years of ageing.
Perhaps that's just me being oversensitive, thunk I, and continued on with the brewing.
Feast your ocular faculties on the images above and below, and marvel at the distinct yellowness of the brew. Something is clearly afoot.
Strangeness abound in the cup, as vibrant sweet straw is encountered, but not much else - it is energetic, but rather empty and passive.
If I were tasting this cake without information, I would say that this is a mainstream modern cake, of no more than three or four years of age - and not a particularly great one at that. The spent leaves, pictured above, support this conjecture, given their overwhelming greenness - any red hue has been added by the colour-correction of my camera in this instance.
Was it a wrongly-packaged sample? I gave Tearoma the benefit of the doubt, and asked them if it might be possible, and asked for a few words that they would be happy for me to quote in this article. The response was polite and courteous, and stated that people's preferences vary, and that people's interpretations of tea vary. I was reminded of recent experiences with Zhizheng Tea, who explained the thorough redness of their tea as being down to my inexperience with real pu'ercha.
The ever-polite correspondent from Tearoma included a scan of a page from China Teapot magazine, showing how the usual panel of "celebrity" reviewers couldn't agree on the ranking of a set of teas under review. However, while I find it quite reasonable that a set of tasters might rank teas in different orders according to their preference, surely most experienced sippers could agree on the substantial, distinct, and obvious differences between entirely green tea, and a properly aged 12-year-old cake. Deciding which is the better car given a choice of a Porsche, a Lamborghini, and a Lotus might vary according to driver*, but surely the differences between those three and a Ford Fiesta are fairly evident.
*Obviously, the Lotus wins.
So, my first encounter with Tearoma was a surprisingly negative one, in terms of the quality of the tea. Perhaps this is implicitly understood by the seller, because younger cakes (such as a 2003 Menghai) sell for approximately double the cost of this (really rather dodgy) "1999" cake.
However, there were some good leaves to be had from Tearoma - I invite you to stay tuned for further fumblings.
"What on earth is Shuangxiong?" I hear you ask. How does one even begin to pronounce it, let alone drink it?
I have encountered only one example from this producer before, and it (the 2003 Jinzhen Gongpu) was generously provided by our Singaporean chum, Keng, who was kind enough to buy a tong on our behalf, if memory serves me correctly. It was a lovely cake, featured in the Chinese version of the Art of Tea (whose typographical setting is no more accomplished than the English version, you'll be relieved to learn).
As the little chap on the wrapper suggests, this is a Bulang-region cake - I understand that he is wearing Bulangzu [Bulang ethnic minority] costume.
The full name of the producer is "Yunnansheng Yongde Shuangxiong Chachang", where Yongde is way out in Lincang prefecture, far north from the usual tea regions. The company specialises in tea from that area, unsurprisingly, but this particular cake comes, of course, from a more orthodox area. [Shuangxiong, approximately "schwang-schyong", means "double hero", I think.]
It currently sells for 175 RMB on the mighty Taobaowang, but one should search using the traditional characters for "shuangxiong" in order to find the correct cake. (As ever, the more enthusiastic reader is invited to refer to the ever-majestic Babelcarp for assistance.)
Psst, Lew: any chance of a Babelcarp app for Android? Your loyal usership pleads with you!
The compression is reasonably tight, and I struggle to liberate a portion of leaves from the bing without breaking them. Even before my clumsy hands commit them to destruction, the leaves seem to be large fragments of medium-to-large leaves. Some seem a touch red; the majority are healthily dark. Happily, some of the tips have already adopted the rusty orange colour of maturity.
I firmly believe that you could buy almost any cake (within reason), give it six years of storage in humid Singapore, and it will come out tasting pretty darned delicious.
Brewed properly (i.e., avoiding overbrewing due to leaf breakage and compression), this is a solid, if reddened, tea. It has a sweet, camphor-like body, yet delivers less of a punch than some other Bulang-area cakes.
Unlike the 2003 Shuangxiong, I probably won't pursue this to the point of buying more cakes. However, the cake that we do have, courtesy of Keng's generosity, is a great example of solid Singaporean storage going to work on a tea that was perhaps a little more mainstream when it started out its life.
You can't argue with chunky camphor flavours, which do a great deal for making this cake more than it otherwise would be.