Sweet little Zhimingdu cakes, these are. China Chadao most generously sent me a lovely little bag of these babycakes: it started with the Laobanzhang, moved onto Hekai and Bingdao, before finishing with Bada, Mengsong, and Bulang. Babycakes are a great way to taste your way around the province. The Zhimingdu cakes, in particular, are pretty decent - they are "private" productions from the Taobao shop of the same name, resold to the west by the excellent China Chadao.
This little fellow is the last in my bag o'tricks. I had been saving it for a rainy day. It's now raining (a lot). It has been raining for weeks. The road that Xiaohu and I take to the nursery each morning is currently underwater. That's fairly normal for our city.
When will I learn to stop attempting to take photographs before the sun has risen?
Laoman'e is a village in the (really rather large) Bulangshan region, which is famous for being situated close to the mighty Laobanzhang (and, presumably, Xinbanzhang). I've had a small number of cakes from this village, and have been impressed by their mixture of "LBZ" finesse with the aggression of greater-Bulang cakes. You can't go wrong with a bit of aggression in your tea.
Happily, despite the fact that this cake is little, its scent is very definitely "big". I do so love a cake that has a strong aroma, because it tends to presage something in the way of potency and character in its body. Cakes without aroma, on the other hand, can be over quite quickly. Such is the conclusion of my most limited experience.
In fact, the body of this tea turns out to be entirely hardcore. For the first time in quite some time, I have to dilute the agonisingly strong soup in the gongdaobei by adding a little water. It has a long, leathery base that I associate with Banzhang-area cakes, and yet it has the massively caustic punch for which I was hoping.
Sometimes, early in the morning, you need a cake such as this to get you going. I could drink a refined "LBZ" all day, but, pre-dawn, it's all about the power.
Happily, it reminds me of the 2008 Hailanghao cake from the region, a tong of which is maturing very nicely on my shelves. Its hardcore power has swollen into a heavy, complex base that is becoming really rather pleasant. This little Zhimingdu cake reminds of the "HLH" production when it was young. I have kept the Zhimingdu cakes sealed in plastic since their arrival, and so their aging has been minimal.
This particular xiaobing is low and "sticky", rather like molasses, just like the Hailanghao cake. It has tons of "good" bitterness [kuwei], without any roughness [sewei]. While not grand in any way, it is a reliable taster of the region.
Hats off to Zhimingdu, and thanks again to China Chadao, for this most enjoyable morning session. Not one for the faint-hearted, methinks.
The aging of maocha requires some special attention. Either through good fortune or good design (probably the former), I seem to have something of a winner on my hands after aging some leaves that I bought from a lovely couple in Maliandao's Chayuan, back in 2007. Come hither for the full story.
I don't drink a lot of Bailin Gongfu, but Fujian's premier hongcha is "up there" in my estimations, along with Dianhong and Qihong. Many thanks to the chaps at TeaVivre for sending me the sample that forms the basis of today's article. Any excuse to drink good hongcha is welcome.
As with many hongcha or wulong, this comes in prepackaged little bags, and is made by an outfit called the "Pinpinxiang Tea Co." The tea is, so it is claimed, produced from the "proper Bailin" area, in Fuding County of Fujian Province. TeaVivre sells this for $9/100g, while an "organic" version is sold for $14/100g
Some days, only hongcha will do. This tea is immensely fragrant; somehow, it has the scent of lychee. I don't know how that might be possible, and yet it is exactly that: lychee. Delivered into the aroma cup is a solid, enduring sweetness that reminds you good hongcha still exists. The scent lasts for at least two minutes, which is most unusual, and ma very good sign.
Look at the image above and tell me that you feel nothing. It is impossible, surely, not to fall in love with a hongcha that brews the colour of Burgundy. This isn't masculine dianhong, but rather something gentle, elegant, sweet, and altogether bright. It is, dare I say it, almost cheering. When the English spring rains have been falling for weeks, you really begin to appreciate a tea like this. Afterwards, a long candy-like scent lingers. I rather fancy trying the more expensive version, just to see if the quality increases, or if one is paying more for the organic certification.
With the 2012 season of cakes nearly upon us, I prepared my palate by revisiting a tea from two years ago, which I have since neglected: after my original sample, I bought a tong (pictured above) which has remained unopened ever since. I invite you to join us here for a quick session.
You should be able to click the above for the full snippet on B&B
This will probably be the last of the cakes from Yunnan Sourcing that I write about for some time - at least until the spring 2012 cakes appear. It feels as if I have been drinking tons of tea from Scott, of late, and that is surely testament to his activity during 2011.
I can't help but wonder whether, as when Xizihao ramped up production, it might be wise to keep the focus on a smaller number of cakes, perhaps concentrating more on the springtime varieties, instead of the quieter autumnal cakes. Then again, what do I know? There have been some great cakes in Scott's 2011 range, for those willing to work through the samples to find them. I hope that, in some small way, my humble notes here have been some assistance in helping you towards some of (what I consider to be) the better of the bunch.
This "Fengyun" is a blend. I enjoyed the Sanhezhai most of all, I seem to recall, from Scott's blends in 2011. Certainly, that's the only one that I remember buying - the others that I bought were single-mountain cakes.
This blend, as with all of his teas, looks great - as pictured above. We have long leaves, furry tips, and all manner of complexities thrown in for good measure. They carry the unusual low aroma of caramel.
The characters in the cake's name are hand-printed and could either be "wind" or "phoenix" for "feng", while "yun" is the hard-to-translate character approximately meaning charm / resonance / harmonious feeling that I have mentioned before.
The scent of the leaves is an interesting mixture of grassiness, butter from the wok, and rich caramel. Good blends can be fascinating, and the complementary tones in the aroma suggest that Scott has assembled a good set of components. As ever, he is cagey about the precise contents, saying only that it comes from "three very different areas of Southern Yunnan." Such a desire to keep his blend a secret is, naturally, his perogative.
The opening infusions have a solid, mushroom-like base that reminds me of solid Menghai-region characteristics. It also has a "soapy" feeling, in that it is smooth and floral. "Soapiness" is really the only way that I can describe it, which sounds terrible, but is actually rather enjoyable.
"It has a very nice bitterness", notes my dear wife; "Very drinkable."
Citrus end-notes develop in later infusions, and it copes well with unintentional overbrewing, not showing any sign of "brown" plantation characteristics. It stays sweet and interesting, and has a very reliable kuwei [pleasant bitterness]. I wrote, "For $20, I should buy a cake." As stable, enjoyable blends go, this one represents good value. It outperforms many of the more expensive cakes that I have encountered from more mainstream outfits. While not grand, it is decently strong and reliable. See if you agree.
This is one of those cases in which the howlingly, shockingly bad quality of the photography is in inverse proportion to the quality of the tea. Scroll down and see if you agree with my assessment of the images. There is significant suction being displayed in the quality down there...
Le sac magique
That said, it is a great little tea. I say "little" because it's hongcha, and because hongcha is usually quite humble in outlook and price, compared with some other types of tea. However, this hongcha costs $6/50g, which places it at $48/400g, which is the price of a fairly serious cake of pu'ercha.
Such is the nature of pricing with hongcha and wulong: the price per unit weight per unit quality can be much, much higher than with pu'ercha. Even though the latter can be expensive, we must remember that a bing is actually quite a lot of tea. Conversely, though hongcha and wulong might seem inexpensive, we must remember that we are typically buying very small amounts.
Not your usual hongcha
It will not surprise you to learn that, as shown above, it looks like hongcha. Or does it? Certainly the colour is the recognisably dark shade of fermentation, but these leaves are purple-lead pu'ercha leaves from Dehong, far out to the west of Yunnan, past Simao prefecture, even past Lincang prefecture.
Thus, they are much longer than we would otherwise expect from hongcha; they look rather like a heavily-oxidised dancong. The scent is remarkable: the purple leaves have their own unique sweetness, which is heightened further by the full oxidation of the hongcha processing. Despite the cold day on which I drank this tea, the room was immediately filled with the forthright sweetness.
Candy-like and sweet, yet also very cooling in the mouth, this tea is a highly unusual and very active example. There is also a range of flavours packed into the thick, red soup, including something akin to sweet bamboo. When you make hongcha out of such interesting leaves, good things can happen.
Like pu'ercha, it is thick, and smooth - it fills the mouth more than the wulong it resembles, and seems satisfyingly chunky in its texture. Yet, thanks to its hongcha processing, it also lends a warmth and maltiness that are very welcome.
Complex, comforting, and yet also very cooling (due to its pu'ercha activity), this is a surprising hongcha, and highly enjoyable. Thanks to Scott for the sample.
This might be the first time that I've come across a cake where I prefer its autumnal incarnation to its springtime version. Have I gone barking mad, or is there method in my madness?
The popular wisdom is that springtime cakes are more potent, contain more contents within the leaf, and are generally better for storage as a result. This, more or less, fits with my experience: autumnal cakes, in contrast, may be easier to drink, and perhaps a little more floral and fruity, but the comparative lack of potency usually causes me to avoid buying them. Certainly, the overwhelming majority of cakes on our shelves are made from springtime maocha.
This Banpo Laozhai cake, however, is the exception that proves the rule: I found the 2011 springtime version to be vivid and powerful, yet, ultimately, somewhat empty in the mouth. It conveyed good sensation, but it wasn't all that enjoyable or interesting to drink. This autumnal version seems to overcome the flaws in the springtime cake (if indeed there are flaws - perhaps it is a function of my fickle tastebuds).
Shown in the images above, this cake is made from medium-sized leaves that look similar to the springtime version, if a little more fragmented. This is a Nannuo-region cake, and the leaves have the bright, sweet, floral scents that I associate with the area.
This is a heavy, solid cake, which sits densely in the middle of the mouth, radiating sweetness and hints of tangy leather. I was surprised that it was quite so flavoursome, given the character of the springtime cake. It swells nicely in the throat, and keeps the mouth watering in a way that keeps the attention.
Autumnal cakes are supposed to be a little less aggressive than their springtime peers, and perhaps that is the case here. However, while it is not the bruising kuwei-laden monster of some cakes, it does have a very pleasant bitterness about its finish. It is a well-rounded, accomplished cake that keeps me happy for several hours, and over a dozen infusions.
After all those infusions, lesser cakes may tend towards leafy-green characteristics, giving up their floral overtones in favour of their possibly less exalted base flavours. Here, however, the Banpo Laozhai does very well: it delivers solid, bitter-sweet infusions with a good degree of complexity for many infusions, and shows no sign of giving any of the negative characteristics of lesser leaves.
For $27 (compared with the $38 of the springtime cake), it looks very appealing. As I have mentioned before, I do have a very large number of tong of Nannuoshan cakes from Essence of Tea, and therefore adopt a cautious position about buying too much more from this region. If I were looking for a good Nannuo, however, this cake and the 2010 Yunzhiyuan "Yakouzhai" are both good choices, and represent decent value. The latter is more expensive ($44 per bing equivalent), and the potency of this chubby autumnal cake make it look rather good.
I was genuinely surprised to have the autumnal version charm me to such a degree, because I had left it languishing on my shelf after being nonplussed by the springtime version. It just goes to show that one should not have too many preconceptions...
I used to be able to sleep really well. I was one of those folks who could put their head down on the pillow and be asleep until morning within seconds. These days, I wake up all the way through the night. What changed? Oddly enough, I think it was the year running up to submission of my DPhil thesis. They say that your thesis will hurt; I'm still waiting for my sleeping patterns to return, over two years hence...
Medium-sizedn leaves from Banpo
So, some mornings, I find myself up very early. This tea-session occurred on one of those mornings; it was a while ago, but I remember it well - the moon was low and bright, filling the windows with its coldness. The lights were off downstairs, but everywhere was illuminated. Moontea.
Reluctant in the early morning
I chose to spend that moonlit morning with a spring cake from Scott of Yunnan Sourcing, and not one that I'd heard of before: Banpo refers to a small cluster of villages in the greater Nannuo region, just south of the Jingmai-Menghai road that slices through Xishuangbanna. The "laozhai" part [lao-djai] just means "old village".
The brew is almost entirely yellow until it hits the air
Scott thinks it reminds him of the 2010 Nannuo "Yakouzhai" cake, which, reading my notes, brings back to my taste-memory that sweetness that impressed me so much. I have so much Nannuo tea (mostly from Essence of Tea) that I've been reticent to buy more, but Scott's Yakouzhai would be a great contender.
Like that 2010 cake, this Banpo cake is from spring, and so we are hopefully for a bit more body and permanence that we might expect from the autumnal teas that I've been drinking lately. There is quite a difference between the two, and, unless you're buying tea to drink immediately, it's probably best to buy springtime cakes from a good year.
The leaves look healthy, and endure well
This is a good cake, but it has something missing. First, the good: I like its cleanliness and its purity of processing, which leaves it brilliant, sugary, and grass-like. I like the way in which it takes a few infusions to get up to speed, as if it has some real mass that contributes to its inertia. I like its activity, and the way that it bubbles and fizzes in the throat, reminding us that it's very alive.
Sadly, to my tastes at least, it seems to be skewed away from actual flavour. There is a notable absence of a full, tasty body that really prevents me from loving it. Certainly, some cakes can be "sensation cakes", and get by on energetic characteristics, coolness, and throatiness. That said, my favourite cakes have both good "sensation" and a heavy, present flavour. There's not much for me to really get my teeth into with this cake.
Give it a go yourself; you never know - it could be that its gentle characteristics are welcome to your tastes. It does have a decent kuwei [throaty bitterness] to commend it, at least. Given the space on my shelves, or lack thereof, it's not a cake I'll be buying, but it could be right for you, particularly if you're looking for Nannuo examples.