I have been drinking plenty of bad tea lately. As has become my recent custom, I now seek redemption by way of the excellent samples kindly provided by Elven, my craftworld-travelling teachum from Singapore.
The first of two cathartic experiences is a 2006 "Jingmaishan Gushu" [ancient tree], brought by Elven's DNA-bearing replicate in "a random teashop in Shenzhen".
Jingmaishan is north of the usual pu'ercha areas, being found in Lancang county (zizhizian, fact fans) in Simao diqu. It is also rather a well-explored place, which tea-makers like to visit because of its well-established tradition of produced accessible, sweet "lanxiang" [orchid-scent] teas.
I don't usually like Jingmaishan tea. There is something just a bit "off" with it, according to my tastes. I don't quite enjoy all of that ever-so-slightly-nutty sweetness.
This tea reminded me of my long-time dislike of the paintings of Van Gogh. I strongly disliked his work - until I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Coming face-to-canvas with his work just overwhelmed my opinion, and suddenly I came to appreciate that which I had previously disliked.
Similarly, I used to completely dislike the Impressionism of Monet. I simply could not understand how quite so many people could appreciate his sludgy messes. Then, I accompanied a girlfriend of the time to Cardiff, and spent the morning in the Welsh National Gallery. There hung one of Monet's (very many) paintings of Rouen Cathedral. Suddenly, something "clicked", and I found that I could no longer dislike his work.
In both cases, Van Gogh and Monet, the exposure to the sheer quality of the work destroyed my prejudice. I was forced to change my mind, when confronted by the works themselves. It was an undeniable and profound experience in both cases. To this day, I look upon the works of both artists with a new-found respect and appreciation that came from enjoying their artwork first-hand.
This Jingmaishan tea is very similar. While I suspect that it will not convert me into being a lover of Jingmaishan teas, it has demonstrated that tea from this region can be excellent.
Perhaps that is all that I wished to write about this tea. Its random nature suggests that we will be able neither to trace its true identity nor to buy any more of it, and so its effect on my mind will remain one of sweet conversion to a region of which I thought little in the past.
As if a good day could get no better, the sister of my dear wife then cooked us huoguo [hot pot] for lunch.
Later in the week, I encountered a mysteriously-labelled sample:
"Ho ho!" thought I, as opening the rustic paper of the outer wrapper revealed that this was, in fact, the 2007 "Lanyin" [blue-label] cake from the Wisteria Teahouse of Taiwan.
This cake is attributed to the Menghai region; the leaves are small and fragmented, with the colouring consonant with their six years of age.
Looking at the sheer solidity of the orange soup in the photograph below instantly brings to mind the charms of this rather special tea.
It is as intensely, and bizarrely, fragrant as the 2003 Zipinhao. Heaven knows how such a unique quality comes about. Its soup, as shown so accurately below, is a heavy orange that tends towards red as the air acts upon it. My mouth waters at the aroma alone.
There is the dense pine of clean aging, not unlike that which is imparted by storage here in my home city. The body is challenging, and highly shengjin [mouth-watering]. It is a rare opportunity and a treat: the tongue vibrates, the throat resonates with sweetness, even while I spend minutes waiting for the tetsubin to boil water for the next infusion.
With thanks to Elven for both of these samples, I hope very much that you come across something similar to each, Gentle Reader, for they are remarkable indeed and will be remembered.
I promised, during the first part of this article, that the horrid, rancid bitterness of the cakes described therein would be compensated by some better tea today. So, as promised, here it comes. I invite you to bring your well-scoured teapots back to the Douji teatable, and try to forget all that bitterness.
The "Jindou" [golden Douji] is the company's premium blend, overlapping in price with the lower rungs of their "single mountain" ladder. This is the "hong" (red) version, which is supposedly less bitter than the "lan" (blue) versions, although I have not seen the latter. Indeed, this is actually the first time, as far as I can remember, that I have tried the Jindou. I hope for good things.
Jindou is a blend of Banzhangshan [strength/sweetness], Jingmaishan [orchid-nuttiness], and Yiwushan [sweet, dark straw]. The leaves, unlike almost all of the company's other products, are whole, and take a little coercion before they enter the pot unbroken.
The mixture of Yiwushan and Jingmaishan is pleasant, and both components are explicitly obvious in the blend. What remains is bitterness, of the "Xinbanzhang" variety. However, unlike the cakes in part I of this article, the bitterness here is not dominating, and keeps it strong, preventing idleness.
It is solidly enjoyable for the first three infusions, before collapsing into a simple bitterness in the fourth infusion, with the abrasive taste of plantation leaves left in the mouth. By the fifth infusion, it tastes like every other rough mainstream cake, and I draw the session to an immediate close.
Looking at the price of this cake, I think "wishful thinking": a whole cake costs $100 for what is essentially a tough old plantation cake, with a pleasant opening. Bafflingly, the 2010 version costs a frightening $139. I cannot imagine who might be paying those prices.
Finally, we have the 2013 "Banzhang".
You may have wondered why I have not decried the usual wrapper destruction that occurs when I open Douji cakes, due to the enormous sticker on the back of each: I have not written of it merely to spare you, Gentle Reader. Rest assured that the stickers are remain as sticky as ever, and the wrappers...
...are just as shredded as ever.
This is big, yellow, and quite bitter - but not as terrifying as the 2013 Nakashan or Jingmaishan cakes from part I of this article. I recall that the 2011 Banzhang was actually quite nice. In a comment on that page, the Duke of N noted that the 2012 Banzhang was copiously bitter - so perhaps the change towards rancid single-mountain cakes occurred last year, and not in 2013.
This tastes rather like Laoman'e, or perhaps Xinbanzhang - certainly it exhibits none of the balanced complexity of real Laobanzhang tea. Both of the former regions habitually pass their leaves off as "LBZ", and I understand that there are border controls in the village of Laobanzhang designed to prevent farmers importing leaves from elsewhere to sell under the guise of local produce.
I quite like it. The kuwei [good bitterness] is strong, but not overpowering, and there is some sweetness buried deep within. It remains in the throat and causes shengjin [pleasant mouth-watering] for some time. There is just enough "going on" to retain the impression of complexity. Were it $50 / cake, I would consider buying it.
However, the price is north of $200. By the tenth infusion, it remains stable and sweet, with an edge of Laoman'e sourness underneath - although, happily, there is no sign of plantation roughness. I imagine that it is some years before this is "sociable" pu'ercha, and I must confess that I probably won't be seeking it to determine if this is the case.
I feel as if I have reached "Douji saturation": the company's products best years, in terms of quality, are far behind it, and all that remains appears to be a bunch of crazy blenders pushing the prices up higher than is tenable. These teas have oh-so-slick branding, but that isn't enough. Douji has to deliver on its promises in order to justify such prices, and all the pretty wrappers in the world cannot compensate for the fact that the last great Douji cakes are now about six or seven years old.
Writing about tea that is truly, sincerely, irredeemably horrid is, of course, a great deal of fun.
I feel particularly bad about this introduction given that both of these cakes were generously provided by Mr. Jerry of China Chadao. Note, however, that this is part I of II. The second part describes cakes that are much more yumptious.
Before we get to those, let us indulge ourselves.
Nakashan is in the Mengsong area, and is becoming rather pricey. It is not quite up there with Guafengzhai, and the other "cool" spots, and certainly nowhere near Laobanzhang, but prices are beginning to escalate.
This is a 100g xiaobing; the full cake costs a serious $126. As with many Douji cakes, even their "single mountain" products, this Nakashan cake is made from fragmented leaves. The days of long-leaf Douji seem to have ended around 2006, as far as I can tell, which is, coincidentally, about the last time that Douji cakes were realistically priced.
The cake has a full and buttery scent that takes me by surprise, because it reminds me of vendor-made selections, rather than mass-market Douji cakes. The body of the tea is sharp and powerful, almost overbrewed. Someone has clearly decided that the Douji "single mountain" cakes will be strong; this makes them suitable for storage, the thinking probably goes.
Hints of the infamous Nakashan "biscuit base" exist, particularly in the after-scent that is left in the nose after the swallow. I remove some leaves from the pot, in an attempt to control the excessive bitterness, but the quantity that I originally used was deliberately small.
It is not at all accessible, by any standard of reckoning. It is bitter, pure and simple, and when leaves are removed it becomes thin - not any less bitter.
By the third infusion, it has calmed ever-so-slightly, such that the biscuit / bread base is revealed more clearly. While not in any way enjoyable, it is feasible that it might age well. There is some rough greenness about the throat, and it is neither thick nor full - but this could be because I have been forced to use fewer leaves than normal Just to be kind, I will try a fourth infusion...
...and rapidly wish I hadn't. "I will clean the teapot carefully", my journal records.
Jingmaishan! Save us with your orchid-and-nuts savoury sweetness! Surely you could not punish me in such a manner?
As I wrench the wrapper from the cake, I can almost hear this little xiaobing's maniacal laughter...
When added to the pot, the fragmented leaves have the aroma of Jingmaishan. At least there is that, albeit rather timid.
Believe it or not, this Jingmaishan cake somehow has a sharply bitter edge to it, just like the Nakashan. I don't know how one manages to achieve such bitterness in a Jingmai cake, but the evil genius of Douji has somehow managed it.
I was sparing with the leaves, suspecting (correctly) that this might be bitter. The result is thin and reedy - but still bitter.
The second and third infusions taste nothing but rough, bitter, and green. The taidicha [plantation tea] component is dominant and prevents enjoyment. When considered in the light of its substantial price, one has to wonder what Douji is thinking with bitter cakes such as these. "Storage" would presumably be the optimistic answer.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.
I write about three teas that appear in ascending order of disco. I had several sessions, spread over the course of a week or so, and enjoyed the lot of 'em.
The first is a sample of a cake that Peter of Pu-erh.sk kindly provided. This sells for 9 Euro per 7g, or a rather bowel-constricting 459 Euro per 357g. That's a lot of Euro, for a 2013 cake.
(There are 100 Merkels to the Euro, and 100 Euros to the Bailout, making the price of this cake 4.59 Bail-outs.)
"NO - YOU'RE NOT CHINESE."
My (two-year-old) son speaks sternly to his English grandmother, who attempts to sing along with a Chinese cartoon that he is watching. I chuckle quietly and go back to my tea.
The scent of this "LBZ" is long and full; in the mouth, too, it is big and strong. Cakes from Laobanzhang became famous for a reason, apart from the market economics of the matter, and that is simply that the leaves taste great. I enjoy the floral "top notes", along with a little butter, and a little sweetness. It stays pollenated, dense, and full as the infusions pass and reminds me of the qualities of actual "LBZ".
Peter writes on his company's web-site that "many people say this is the best tea they have ever had." That is quite a bold claim! It is very good, that it must be said, but I cannot number myself among that multitude. Perhaps you might like to grab a 7g quantum for yourself to see if you agree.
(Is it just me, or is 7g a little small for a quantum?)
The light-orange soup has the classic sweet-straw scent of the Yiwu area from which this tea derives. Peter writes that it was a special order, made for a customer in Taiwan by "an employee of Menghai Tea Co."
This cake has been well-stored; it has a clean woodiness and a vibrant kougan [texture in the mouth]. Yiwu sweetness, orthodox and straightforward, lingers nicely in the mouth. As with some of the other Menghai cakes from Yiwu-region, it has a light after-scent that I find myself wishing to describe as "fishy". I am reminded of Menghai sessions with Apache.
There is a density of "orange" at its centre, and hints of maltiness and oxidation, with a stable and incompressible flow of sweetness. This is a well-made tea; it is strong, sharp, and cleanly woody. It is a constant and stable pleasure on which my mind might rest on this cloudy June day (as was the time of writing in my journal when I first encountered this tea).
"It changes little, but perhaps does not need to do so." For the price of 60something Euro, this is looking like rather a bargain. Thanks to Peter for kindly providing both teas.
Strap on your dreadnought armour, fire up the titan, get your dropships ready: it's time for another session with tea from my Eldar companion from Singapore, "Elvin".
As has often been the case lately, I rely on these samples from Elvin to redress the balance. Before drinking this tea, I had been battling through some anonymous and fairly terrible modern shengpu samples (not the class acts listed above), and needed some redemption.
This '98 cake has long leaves, with the inviting scent of sharp humidity. Singapore must be absolutely baking at the time of writing (late summer), and yet I went to two parties yesterday in full battle armour, including waistcoat and bow-tie. I cannot imagine surviving if forced by the climate to wear shorts every day.
This is heavy, delicious, and extremely comforting. There is quite a lot going on in the cup, which is dominated by the complex character of rosewood - the variety used to make my teatable, to be precise.
It is complex indeed, with its heavy malt giving way to woody sweetness, and with a complementary tang of minerals reminding us of its storage. Its duration is good; it does not penetrate deeply into the throat, but dwells nicely in the mouth. I could happily drink this all day. At least, that is, until the museum opens - one of my eldest son's current favourite places to visit (after the swimming pool).
Looking back at my notes for this tea, I see page after page of battle-plans, laying out my presentation for an interview of some significance that I was going through at the time. The notes from the tea are few and far between, but, where they exist, they are high in praise. This tea is a rock-solid example of good CNNP. A masterpiece indeed.
To Elvin, and to the Craftworld in which he roams the galaxy with his compatriots, I offer my sincere thanks.
This is a Saturday morning session, on a date that has significance for many not of this country! I am happily drinking the CNNP Orange, which is vivid and energetic. It has a mineral, humid flavour that has settled and aged. It is humidity, from a distance.
Like the classic to which the title alludes, these teas are hand-selected examples of humble, instructive experiences. I rather like them. They lack the grandiosity of the Imperial-class star destroyers, but not every tea has to destroy stars.
Let us begin with the 2012 Yunzhiyuan "Zhupengzhai". All of today's teas come from 2012, and all are made by Big Scott of Yunnan Sourcing. (I should note in the interests of fairness that Scott was kind enough to provide all of these samples without charge.)
"Zhupeng" is a charming name for a village: it refers to the bamboo awnings or rooves of small buildings, and therefore has an immediately rustic feeling to it, which reminds me of Six Chapters. This village neighbours Mangfeishan and Wujiazhai, in a region from which Scott made several cakes over the past few years. I enjoy these "travelling tastes" of places around Yunnan. I don't recall seeing a cake from this particular village before.
The heavy yellow-orange of Yongde leaves is before us. Again, the fruity scent, but here it is lower and more buttery-sweet than I would expect for this region. This is vivid, cooling, and smooth - my journal has "rounded and comfortable". The actual flavour is not dominant, but the mouthful of texture, cooling sensations, and long kuwei [good bitterness] is very pleasant.
Perhaps unfortunately, the 2012 cake from neighbouring Mangfeishan that Scott made is still in my mind, and this Zhupengzhai cannot live up to such an exalted neighbour. At $21 / cake, it is not well-priced, but the Mangfeishan cake is too much of a bargain to resist.
Not suffering by comparison, the next cake is the 2012 "Mushucha", referring to the "mother trees" of the Bingdao region, near Mengku town, in Shuangjiang county of Lincang prefecture. Scott often sells "Nanpozhai" cakes from near Bingdao, whereas his actual Bingdao cakes go by the "Mushucha" name.
I narrowly avoided buying the 2011 version of this cake, which was everything you might hope for in Bingdao tea - famous for its icy chill, given its name ["ice island"]. I found it to be a touch citric, but controllable with care.
The scent in the aroma cup for this 2012 version is big and fruity, rading rapidly. A feeling of freshness is suggested by the bright yellow colour of the soup, which oxidises quickly to give the orange shown above. As expected, it opens with a good grassiness, then rapidly fills the mouth with the icy, cooling characteristic for which leaves from Bingdao are famed.
The granary base of Lincang becomes more obvious in later infusions. It does not endure in the mouth, but instead gives way to Bingdao iciness. The high caffeine level hits rather hard after several days of brewing "pengdahai" [a caffeine-free infusion of sorts, literally "fat big ocean"].
On the lips and tongue, an obvious numbess. The breath is cool, like a mint. This all-over iciness suggests that it is the comfortable sensation from good old Bingdao, rather than the nasty taste of pesticide - the two are distinct. $72 seems rather a high price for this, although there is sufficient content to keep the attention. Brewed carefully, the kuwei does not overpower its body, which remains quite thick.
Fruity, grassy, with a granary base, it is actually rather good. The bitterness helps it, to a degree. I found thast "it is very similar to the 2011".
The winner for the teas described in this article (taken over the course of about a week) is definitely the 2012 Xinbanzhang...
This sells for a touch more than the Bingdao cake, at $78 / 400g, and is probably worth the outlay. I am pleased to see that the cake is not labelled "Laobanzhang", as so many cakes from the region claim to be. Xinbanzhang is known for being a touch more bitter than tea from its nearby, older cousin.
It is a fine tea: it is stable, broad, slightly cooling, with clean sweetness that sits well on the tongue. It has the heavy grapes-and-leather scent of teas from this region. It is a sharp contrast to the precision of the Bingdao cake, and I fall in love with pu'ercha all over again, such is its complexity. There is always so much to learn, and its study - learning by tasting - is so very satisfying...
It holds together well for a long session, and (as pictured above), I wrote that it is "a charming tea". To some, it may even be worth the cost, particularly to those building a collection. Scott's single-mountain cakes are an excellent opportunity for study.
Thanks to Scott for samples of these three teas, each enjoyable in their own way, and each representative of the quirks of their respective region.