The front door slammed open on its hinges as Apache made his typically violent entrance. He didn't bother to knock: his famed one-inch punches make such niceties irrelevant, the protocol of lesser beings.
Wiping what looked to be (someone else's) blood from his knuckles, he slumped down at the teatable and silently opened a worn leather satchel that looked as if it had been taken by force. He produced a cake that I didn't know existed: the 2010 Dayi cake celebrating 70 years from 1940 to 2010.
Wordlessly, he reached into the dark interior of that satchel and produced a device that could only have once belonged to the US Department of Defence, or perhaps MI5. A nonchalant flick of the wrist caused it to activate - this while Apache himself looked uninterestedly out of a nearby window, as if it were all too much for his burdened soul. A soul that had been places too dark for the fragile sanity of mere mortals.
Lighting the darkness of that stormy afternoon, the strange device produced a purple glow that the tacit wanderer casually passed over the label of the Dayi cake. A fluorescent patch of colour appeared, proof that this cake was the real deal. Good for whoever this cake was taken from: the last doomed victim who tried to palm off fake goods on Apache was identified only by his dental records.
I tried to hold onto consciousness as his bloodstained fingers gripped the surface of the cake, slipping a knife between its leaves as so many hapless victims had felt as their last sensation before they shuffled off this mortal coil.
At last, words: "From Dragon Teahouse". I wondered if the proprietor of that business was still breathing, as the grim-faced visitor stoically went about the procedure of gutting the cake, watching slabs of pu'ercha flesh land in the tray. The master butcher at work.
The visitor took a cup from my shaking hands, not deigning to look me in the eye. He seemed content with the brew - at least, his fists remained casually lain on the table. It was an old-fashioned recipe. It brought back to Apache's mind memories of home, fighting for survival on the streets of Hong Kong as a young boy, learning the tricks of those that had been fortunate enough, or brutal enough, to pass on their hideous secrets to him.
Slamming the cup down on the table, an icy silence chilled the room. "Solid. None too flavoursome, but that's OK." His voice sounded rough, as if he had spent all night chasing illegal imports, washed down with the rough potato vodka that he sometimes used as an anaesthetic, to numb the pain of memory.
He reached slowly into his bag and withdrew a 2011 Jin Dayi.
More flashes of steel as the razor-sharp blade slipped between the ribs of the cake, circulating within, probing for vital organs. He unconsciously reached for his side, remembering the duel that had taken place deep in pre-unified East Germany. He couldn't even remember the face of the other guy. Too many faces had come and gone. Brothers, friends, fathers. All unavenged.
I had heard about the Jin Dayi. I had heard that it was steamrolling in price, a commodity for which many lives had been spent heedlessly. The wrapper, now discarded on the floor like a spent prostitute, suggested that it was the June pressing - one of two in that year.
The heavy, molasses-like fragrance filled the room, taking my attention away from the stench of raw sweat and nicotine coming from the visitor, now hunched wordlessly over his cup. Solid. Hard. Basic and rough, in a way that made you think this tea would be around and aging long after Apache's next victims had cooled in their shallow graves.
I should have guessed what would next come from that accursed satchel, for whom so many had given up their lives. The 2003 Jin Dayi. This cake had seen many over-confident newcomers pass by. The label suggested that it was Hong Kong. I wasn't aware that Apache had been back there since the arrival of the new gang in the old port, but his network of unnamed associates is everywhere. Everyone owed the dark stranger a "favour", of some kind. He could get anything, except the one thing that his reputation could not buy: the return of his innocence.
Perhaps that was the most valuable of all the many things he'd lost over the years.
Some poor gullible fool had translated the Chinese script on the cake's ticket, probably at knife-point, before being shoved into the Thames to sink along with the others, unmourned.
The price on the market was £300, but prices were of no interest to Apache. Rumours were that he had acquired an enormous fortune through the years - mostly protection money and bribes from senior officials.
His eye twitched as he downed a cup in one swallow, staring straight ahead. Eyes that had seen too much. It reminded him of the 2011 cake, and that was good. It kept his mind away from his duties - the tasks that would soon hurry several prominent public figures into the next world.
Heavy, damp wood. Like the planks on a rotten coffin, exhumed, thrown open to the dark night.
"Six Stars" was the name of the next cake casually hauled from the old satchel, made by Fujin. The "He" brothers were behind this business, and I wondered if it was a front for something less palatable. Apache would have known; he probably gave them the funding to start out, as he had so many others. "No strings attached" was not a phrase that people used when talking about Apache's "gifts". Everyone was in his pocket, sooner or later.
He sucked air through his broken, gold-plated teeth as yellow tea burned its way past his unfeeling lips. "Four times the Jin Dayi price", he muttered. I wondered if that was a special "Apache price". Merchants tended to get nervous when he entered a shop, and prices seemed to fall. To zero, mostly. "Gifts" given by men with wet palms, cold with sweat, eager to please, eager to caress their loved ones just once more, anxious to see the sun again.
It was an old-recipe tea. Everything that Apache drank that day was old-recipe. I guessed that he was looking for something from his past. Something that he had once loved. Something long gone, but missed, when his mind was alone and, finally, calm in the middle of the night, before the dawn.
A blood-smeared plastic bag was thrown on the table in front of me. "97 Yesheng Qingzhuan", it read - scrawled hastily by someone wanting to be somewhere, anywhere else.
The brick was clean, somehow. I'd once seen Apache batter a man into submission using nothing but an old tea-brick. Never refuse him, I learned that day. You don't want to end up like the guy on the other end of that brick. They say that guy eats through a straw these days.
Sharp and powdery, this brick reminded Apache of his mother - memories from an age ago, before the streets happened. Warm memories. Perhaps the last time he was loved. I've found out a few things during the years I've known him - rumours, mostly - but never anything about his family. His past is a closed book, and that's the way he keeps it.
I figured it was safer not to know.
Suddenly, he was standing, his eyes fixed on something in the distance, something I couldn't see. He muttered something in his granite drawl, and shoved a cake into my shaking hands. Slinging his satchel over his shoulder, he left the room with a grace that always surprised me, as if he knew how to move. How to be somewhere else.
I watched until his departing figure in the rain of that dark afternoon turned a far corner, before calling my wife, telling her that it was safe to come back. Safe - until next weekend. Apache would be back. No matter how much you prepare, you're never ready.
That's right - you heard me. Shengpu and hongcha. The eternal golden braid! Together at last.
Well, perhaps not quite "together" together, but I had them sequentially, which must count for something.
First, the shengpu.
Heaven knows who or what Fenqqing Sunning [fung-ching soon-ning] might be, but I quite like 'em. The only other time that I have encountered them was for a 2006 cake which was a complete uberbargain at $35, given its Olde Schoole recipe and general potency. Like that cake, this "Chunjian" [spring tips] cake has been provided courtesy of TeaVivre, to whom I owe my most sincere thx.
I totally dug the 2006 cake in far out and happening ways, because it was simple, brutal, and generally rather strong. That goes a long way in my affections, particularly for a cake that is six years old. A bit of oomph is very welcome in this wishy-washy world of namby-pamby rhubarb.
So, this Chunjian has rather a lot to live up to. It is also a lot more expensive, being $58 (compared with the $35 for the 2006 cake).
Straight out of the starting stalls, the leaves look fine. I do loves me my Lincang prefecture cakes, which is apparently where this little chap originates. The company, Fengqing Sunning, is based in a city famous for the invention of dianhong.
The scent is strong in this one. So strong is the scent, in fact, that it blasts through my hay fever like a pressure hose pushing its way through a crowd of protesters.
As shown above, the leaves are big, dark, and look good. They have an aroma of purple fruits, which is rather pleasant, in addition to its strength.
Why the hay fever? As pictured above, my dear princess has decided that the dining table is a good place to dry her chrysanthemum flowers. She puts these in hot water, and drinks them as a (rather tasty) herbal tea. This year, we grew our own flowers, and were surprised by their sheer power: more than three small flowers in a cup and suddenly it's too strong to drink. You read that right: the ladytea suddenly becomes overpowering.
What is the world coming to?
The yellow soup of the Chunjian is penetrating in its sweetness, and heavily caffeinated - unlike the chrysanthemum. After a night of poor sleep, this Chunjian cake blasts me back to reality like a battle station nuking Alderan.
It isn't immensely thick, and has hints of plantation green, but it is stable and strong. Throughout its journey, it stays sweet and solid, but it is definitely "mainstream" pu'ercha, rather than anything more exalted. I suspect that the asking price is a wee bit high for my (perhaps rather tight) estimations, but it does deliver a good kick in the Death Stars, which is always welcome.
Onto the hongcha.
My son returns from the Natural History Museum, with his gran. His vocabulary always amuses me. What amuses me more is the sight of his long-suffering mother trying to translate these bizarre terms into Mandarin.
At just under $20/100g, this is reasonably expensive tea. I always bear in mind the rock-bottom price of hongcha in Zhongguoland, although, I suppose, there are claims for this particular variety of hongcha being a higher form of life, etc.
Youji means "organic", which seems to count a lot more in the world of hongcha and lucha (where plantations are the norm) rather than in pu'ercha, where we like to kid ourselves that we're always drinking the leaves from 900-year-old mushu.
I don't drink tons of Qihong [chee-hong], because when I'm in the mood for red, I usually hit the brazen streetfights of Dianhong, or get fancy with my Bailin Gongfu. So, it's nice to try something out-of-the-ordinary.
Fact fans will no doubt already be aware that Qihong is short for "Qimen Hongcha" [red tea from the Qimen region], which gives us the dodgy translation of "Keemun" when buying low-grade fannings from the likes of Twinings and Whittards.
Would you believe that this Qihong smells of rich maltiness? I bet that comes as a big surprise. It is very incisive and lasting, however. It has tons of clean, dark fruits: sultanas, raisins, old plums - that sort of thing.
Qihong is a bit too elegant for my prosaic tastebuds, but I appreciate the quality of this example. I like the TeaVivre love of data, which tells us the name of the farmer (Jiang), his home village (Huangjiang), and the region (Boxi County, in the Huangshan area of Anhui province).
Well-made and crisp, it satisfies the need for a good hongcha. Personally, I'd pursue (possibly less expensive) other varieties of hongcha, but this one is good.
Thanks again to TeaVivre for the delightful session.
This post marks the point at which I began to lose control over my own sanity, because, for the first time in my experience, I have found a cake that appears to have aged better with me (here in England) than with its Chinese-stored counterpart.
Barking mad, I tell you.
Let's go back to the beginning of the heresy.
Some months ago, I found myself a-rummaging. I was shuffling through the densely-nestled cakes in the nether-regions of our shelves, and came across my supply of "002".
I always read the name of this cake in Sean Connery's accent, followed by the word "Moneypenny".
I exshpect that you may now be doing the shame. Double-oh-two, lishenshed to kill, Moneypenny.
My 002 was rather surprising. I bought it for around $10 back in 2007, which is not a very large amount of money. I enjoyed the original, and, back in 2007, was impressed by its cooling sensation and strong base.
In 2012, my old cake had developed in all manner of positive ways. So much had it developed, in fact, that I was led to hit the ol' Google, and try and find some more.
My searches came up with little, except for an outfit on the Electronic Bay, by the name of Western Yunnan Tea. I had not come across this merchant before, but the price was more-or-less the same as when I bought it in 2007.
(There were more hits on Taobao, where it sells for around 60-70 RMB, which is approximately the same price. I didn't fancy waiting for the long haul from Taobao, this time.)
It is not an expensive cake.
My trial cake from Western Yunnan Tea (hereafter WYT) just arrived, and so I gave it The Treatment. Sure enough, it looks similar to my own 002, but there are immediate differences: my own version has a decidedly humid, pungent scent that really put the lotion in the basket. By comparison, the version from WYT was crisp, dry, and sharp.
At this point, I am reminded of Luke Skywalker saying "NOOOO, DRY STORAGE", while trying not to fall from his perch on Cloud City.
I have altered the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further!
Luke would not get on very well with this cake from WYT. Poor Luke, he has such a hard time of it: fighting the galaxy, incest, and finally: dry storage.
I likes me my dry storage. I also like rancidly damp storage. I suppose, more generally, I like storage.
So, unlike sappy, whiny, limp-wristed Mr. Wet-Jedi, I didn't object to this cake. It's just (and here's where the heresy sets in) not as nice as my English-stored cake.
silence, distant church bell, tumbleweed, a dog howls
The China-stored cake has a calm scent of sweetness and it retains the super-cooling effect of the 002 when young, back in 2007. That cooling effect is really rather obvious, and very encouraging. It also has a long sweetness, which has been preserved and perhaps elongated by its dry storage.
The China-stored version, paradoxically, seems a little more "aged" than my own version, but lacks the dense, humid pungency of the English twin. Such were the delights of my version, that I was ready to buy a tong of this cake if it turned out to be similar.
As it turns out, the China-stored version remains very pleasant, but, after a dozen or so infusions, seems rather ordinary and begins to run out of steam. In parallel, my own cake seems to have plenty of puff left in it, and continues to doll out the humid darkness that attracted me in the first place.
Ultimately, I decided that (even at the microprice of $10), this cake was not worth buying in quantity.
Perhaps I should turn to some of the Taobao cakes to see if any of them are in a more similar vein to my own, for they would be worth grabbing tongtastically, if so.
It's funny: I don't actually feel insane, but then again I suppose that's what all the truly insane people say.
Summer seems like a long time ago. To say that the pace of life is hectic is perhaps rather an understatement, but one mustn't complain. I do, after all, get to enjoy good tea now and again, and have the pleasure of drinking it with my loved ones, and with teachums far and wide. As my dear wife gets closer and closer to the expected delivery date for our second son, the tea sessions are becoming rarer - but that's OK. It's for the best of all possible reasons!
In between the white noise of student inductions*, welcome dinners for Freshers, arranging tutorials, and (every now and again) doing a bit of research**, having a tea session is a fantastic relief. Many of you, Gentle Readers, have been very kind in providing me with some great samples; those whom I still owe samples have been equally kind, extending me their patience.
*I was asked by Freshers on two separate occasions which degree I was studying (which is flattering for an old man like me), and, during an induction for students of physical science (engineering, physics, materials) in my new college, was told to sit with the other students. I had to point out that I was a tutor.
**My supposed day job, allegedly taking 80% of my time.
8582 and I have a troubled past. I disregarded it for the longest time, convinced that it was lightweight, and liable to age into a sweet, gentle, quiet nothingness. I have since been given (a very surprising number of) samples of 8582 through the years, and have since changed my tune. Only a fool cannot change their mind, after all. I am happy to do so, after enjoying such evidence to the contrary of my original opinions, and this 2002 most generously provided by TA is one of them.
One of the distinguishing marks of "traditional" 8582 is the length of leaf that can be found in the blend, which is markedly larger than the other classic blends. It has this in its favour, and I am pleased to see that this 2002 is no exception. It also contains plenty of stems and other goodies.
Shown above, the soup is suggestive of a cake that has a few years, but which has not yet turned the corner into proper age. In fact, it took a while to get going: the inertia of the leaves had to be overcome, and they took their time in opening into a full flavour. I rather like this effect in a cake - it certainly beats having nothing to say.
The impressive sweetness of this cake took me by surprise. Pre-Dayi versions of 8582 certainly seem to be very reliable. I cannot really comment on the aging potential of Dayi 8582, other than the fact that those I have (dating back to around 2005-6) are doing OK. However, they taste like a different tea to "classical" CNNP 8582, as if something intangible has changed.
This particular sample is probably "dry storage", in that it is very clean, and as much yellow as it is orange, which is something of a surprise when we note that it is a decade old. Its body has become thick and sweet, and if it is dry storage, then it is dry storage Done Right. I enjoyed its heavy texture, and wrote that it was "quite a mouthful".
Better yet, it behaves like real tea, and resonates well in the throat, giving plentiful sweetness long after the swallow. I brew over two litres of this tea, and it remains heavy and decent throughout.
You must admit that the folk at Menghai certainly know / knew what they're doing. I would be happy to find a cake of this, although I would probably be unhappy at the price. Perhaps it is better if I cross my fingers and hope for the best with my pile of Dayi 8582.
If it turned out like this, it would be a wonderful thing. Thanks again to TA for the great session.
Following up my "cakes that look like they should be dreadful but are actually rather good" series, which I opened with the 2007 "Yexiangwang", I now bring you the controversial Bulangshan cake from the flatulent bowels of the puer'cha universe, Tiandiren.
Why controversial? I understand one merchant is attempting to sell this (?) cake for a significant sum. I refer the interested reader to Lady Hster, Contessa di Teacloset.
I acquired this sample from white2tea, where a cake goes for a thoroughly rambunctious $11. There ain't much that one can find for just eleven of your Amurcan bucks. The owner of the business has been careful with his selections, and so I have every reason to give this tea a fair go.
The leaves are surprisingly long for such a low-priced cake, which is at least evidence in support of the fact that the producers were careful when handling and processing the maocha. In fact, this is one of the very few teas that I have had to pre-soak in the chahe, such that they subsequently fit through the aperture of the teapot without breakage.
The scent is precisely that of cigarettes. Hang in there - it does get (much) better.
I must admit to being taken aback by the gentle whiff of Benson and Hedges, however.
Happily, the Eau des Bensons aroma does not carry through into the first infusion, and is handled adequately by the rinse. The immediacy of the scent (and its transience) suggests that it is a very recent addition to the cake.
Once the first infusions gets underway, I have totally forgotten about fags (as we call cigarettes here).
The soup is so very heavy in its sweetness that it really is hard to dislike. There is a solid, low character of darkened Bulang chunkiness underneath, which tends to swell and enrich the sweetness in the few Bulangshan varieties that I have managed to age myself.
I can see why twodog2, the owner of white2tea, likes this cake: it is robust, without being rough. There really is quite a lot going on in the cup, which is remarkable given the rock-bottom price.
This isn't as good as the Yexiangwang, but then you could get three of these cakes for one of the Wild Elephants. I would say that this cake is "good for daily drinking", which is true because it is good and concurrently inexpensive; however, that really undersells a potent, solid little treasure that could surprise us even more in a few years time, such is its solid "base".
Don't approach this tea thinking that you're getting a premium brew, but do approach this tea thinking that you're getting a hefty, potent, enduring, heavily-sweet little number for very little financial outlay. All the ingredients are wrong (inc. Bensons), but the result is so very right.
I bought a couple of these disposable heroes, and could imagine myself grabbing a few more for casual, carefree days when all you want is a slug of reliable, no-frills pu'ercha.