Tea Urchin sells a few cakes from Gaofachang, a local producer that Tea Urchin's proprietor, Eugene, met in Yunnan.
Mr. Gao knows how to make pu'ercha. His cakes stand head-and-shoulders above much of the other cakes on sale at Tea Urchin, and this article summarises my experience with two of his oeuvre: a Mangzhi cake from spring, and an Yibang cake from autumn.
Let's get our Gao on.
You know me - I started with the springtime cake. Mangzhi is one of the (in)famous tea mountains of Mengla County in south-east Xishuangbanna, where so much pu'ercha derives. Casting your eye over the leaves below, you would be forgiven for falling instantly in love. The cake is made from an eclectic blend of all types of leaves with, as you can see, plenty of stalks.
The leaves have an honest, dark-green shade, and they are long and furry - indicative of good handling. They have a sweet scent that reminds me they are still very much "alive". The first impression, then, is excellent. For $102/357g, which is rather a high price, we'd certainly hope for such an impression.
The image shown below represents the colour of a later infusion after sitting in the air for some time; when poured from the pot, the soup is a crystalline yellow shade. Much like Scott's Yunzhiyuan cakes and the cakes from Essence of Tea, this Gaofachang cake has a big, buttery aroma, suggesting just the right amount of time in the wok: enough to prevent hongcha redness, but not so much that it tastes cooked. Perfect - and hard to achieve.
I wrote "Clean, incisive, slightly 'soapy', with excellent low tobacco and plenty of shengjin [mouth-watering characteristics]." I piled more leaves in when it became obvious that I would not be punished by an excessive kuwei [good bitterness] for doing so.
The "soapiness" is not in the least bit negative: it is a smooth sweetness. The generously-textured sweetness of this charming, reasonably potent tea, continues well with the passing infusions.
Teas are doomed to comparison with our loves from the past. In this case, my immediate point of reference is the autumnal 2011 Mangzhi from Yunnan Sourcing, which was one of my favourites from Scott's range last year. Despite being an autumnal tea, the latter was clean, fresh, and very well processed - I bought it in some quantity, and it has continued to impress me as it settles down to a thoroughly English existence. Scott's cake was $36/250g (or $51 for a bing equivalent), which is around half the cost of this springtime cake. Is Gao's cake twice as good? It is certainly better. Exactly how much better is for you to decide, and weigh against the price. (I concluded that the price was a touch high for me, but I did enjoy it very much.)
The wet leaves seem healthy enough...
So, then, to Mr. Gao's autumnal example. It is from Yibangshan, which is actually rather close (in the grand scheme of things) to Mangzhishan. The price is a moderately substantial $85/357g - certainly quite a high price for an autumnal cake.
What's this in the above photograph? Sunshine and grass?! Surely not! It seems that even England can experience a little direct light from the sun, every now and then.
The neighbouring areas of Yibang and Xikong are typified by small leaves, as shown in the image below. They are superbly green, which is a magnificent sign that shaqing [kill green] has been performed adequately. Again, I am reassured by Mr. Gao's processing prowess. A sweet fruitness about the leaves suggests that all is well.
The soup is clean, sharp, and very yellow. I chat to my dear wife, and it gradually slides into an orange as the action of the air alters its colour, as shown in the photograph below. As with the springtime cake, I am impressed by the butteriness in its aroma that confirms all is well with Mr. Gao and his wok.
"Fruity, dense, with an interesting base of tobacco hints", notes my diary, "all wrapped up in the tense butteriness of good handiwork."
The kuwei [good bitterness] builds in subsequent infusions in a manner most pleasing. I enjoy a half-dozen infusions before scuttling off to my laboratory, where I continue to brew it in the background. Even under those less-than-ideal conditions, it impresses with a clean, sweet, and enduring soup.
Thumbs up for Mr. Gao's pair of highly enjoyable cakes. At the time of writing, these appear to have either sold out or to have been explicitly removed from the Tea Urchin web-site; I hope that a cake or two become available in future, because it would be good to own one for the record, even though the price is a little on the high side.