I plunged into a hitherto-forgotten zone within my tearegions, to discover a sample that looks as if (from the handwriting) that it may have been generously provided by either by South-American teachum, ME, or my eastern central Eurochum, TA. Or maybe JT. Or or or.
It is not at all easy to find information concerning the "2010 Shikunmu". Its name looks vaguely Japanese, and some judicious Googling suggests that it was A Thing several years ago, despite now being completely unavailable everywhere. Gentle Reader, if you happen to be sitting on a stash of facts concerning Shikunmu, I would welcome any data that you might be able to throw our way.
"I cannot build a house without bricks - I need data!"
The original note on the sample-bag indicates that this tea is made from Bulangshan (boom), Gelanghe (twang), and Mengsongshan (thump). How they all work together as a melange we have yet to determine. Certainly, the twiddly maocha looks rather pleasing to the eye, as pictured above.
This brews a confident, clean, bold yellow-orange, as shown here. I think you'll agree that it looks rather decent. Its scent is gentle, warm spice - there is a notable, slow lengxiang [cooling scent] that holds my attention. In the mouth, this is a "traditional" tea (which is a very good thing): there is much throatiness, accompanied by a definite tobacco undertone. There is very little "up front", as suggested by the wenxiangbei [aroma cup], but so much appearing later. It has an almost medicinal quality in the throat, and this is why I describe it as "traditional": pu'ercha was long considered to be a tonic.
Despite the lack of initial flavour, the body is thick throughout, suggesting that the leaves are good. "Shikunmu" is some sort of pu'ercha expert ("MASTER") from Taiwan. I see that both Yunnan Sourcing and Chawangshop used to sell Shikunmu; now, I can find only "Dianxitea" on Aliexpress. It seems that cakes sold by the latter are in the range $50-100, and that there exists quite a range of them. I rather fancy trying some recent examples.
By the fourth infusion, the base of this tea has swollen into a heavy, straw-like sweetness; I appreciate its inertia, and the fact that it takes several infusions to "get the ball rolling". This is a slow, heavy, and quite tasty tea with excellent density in the throat.
If I ever get around it, I will check out Dianxitea in more detail. I suspect, by the time this article reaches publication, that I will have entirely forgotten about it, and so it will serve as a convenient reminder...
In the case of Peter, of Pu-erh.sk, I suspect he was in Laoman'e. We recently had a 2010 version arrive from his comfortable outfit, now to be joined by this 2013 autumnal version. The 2010 was pretty good, I seem to recall. How the autumnal version from four years later matches up, we can only guess...
This autumnal fellow weighs in at a not inconsiderable 60 euro / 250g (approx. 82 Yankeebux). However, perhaps expectedly given Peter's previous works, this tea looks rather decent:
Laoman'e is not my favourite location in the known universe from which to acquire tea-leaves, but it can be done well, if selectively. This particular Laoman'e comes in at the upper end of the spectrum, which is something of an accomplishment given that this is an autumn tea. As you can see below, the brew is straightforwardly yellow-orange, in the manner of almost every autumnal tea ever created.
The soup is clean, and there is a solid base - savoury and, at the same time, bitter - along with a good, challenging finish. Again, this is not typically autumnal.
What is typically autumnal is the warm, rounded character - but this dwells alongside the bitter potency of Laoman'e, like a darker, more aggressive, version of Laobanzhang (or "LAOBZ" as it is known in our house).
While I was not expecting to get excited about (i) autumnal tea and (ii) Laoman'e tea, this is pretty good. The session lasts well, and memories of a previously-horrid tea-session immediately before this one are immediately washed away. I wouldn't say that this cake is particularly good value, given its big ol' price, but it is certainly well-made for Laoman'e autumnal tea.
This is a tea with flowers in it. Gentle Reader, do not roll your eyes - at least, not yet.
It may be true that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but it is almost certain that the road to Purgatory is paved with novelty teas. Crab's feet. Bamboo leaves. Being stuffed into a tangerine skin (!). The gang's all here.
You could fill an entire branch of Whittards with such nonsense - indeed, Whittards base a seemingly successful business case on doing just that.
So, then, let us remain open-minded as we contemplate the potential horrors of the 2013 "Huazhiqiao" from Chawangshop. I have learned to cut The 'Wang a fair degree of slack, because they are one of the few vendors out there hanging onto the "price them reasonably and they will come" business model. It is a model that I like very much. The 'Wang backs up its low prices with some really rather decent tea - they hit the spot between price and rancidity in exactly the right place, for me.
I also totally dig the fact that they have an English "shop" rather than an American "store".
This particular cake is made from springtime Jingmaishan leaves. "OMG", I can hear you utter, as you reach for breath between spasms, "entry-level Jingmai + flowers". However, your paroxysms are, this time anyway, somewhat premature. Lower that pulse, Gentle Reader, calm your elevated blood pressure, and remember that tea-drinkers are like the Fonz. And what is the Fonz? If the collected works of Tarantino have taught us anything, it is that the Fonz is cool.
Somehow, against all the odds, like a proton torpedo finding its way into the thermal exhaust port of a rather large moon battlestation, this horrific tea actually turns out to be really good.
The wenxiangbei [aroma cup] is filled with the prototypical lanxiang [orchid scent] much beloved of Jingmaishan fans the world over. It is a big, sweet scent, suggestive of strong leaves with plenty of contents. I appreciate the heavy orange appearance of the soup.
In the mouth, the kuwei [good bitterness] takes me by surprise: Jingmaishan tea is seldom so confrontational - perhaps why it is so often considered to be "accessible" (where you can, I trust, sense my displeasure at the use of such an adjective).
Adulterated tea reminds me of adulterated cheese: you wouldn't use your best stilton to make the ubiquitous "stilton and apricot" blend that blights so many shops; likewise, you wouldn't use exalted maocha to make a flowery ladyblend - hence the low price. However, that which is here, in the cup, seems honest and strong. Surely, that which is in the cup is all that matters.
The flowers add a pollinated edge which, at the risk of having my testosterone levels brought into question, I find to be quite nice. I am left wondering how many years of aging, if any, such flowers will survive.
Ultimately, this tea turns out to be a little too brash, as comedy would have it. There is a brittle, brassy character to the kuwei in the second infusion and onwards that makes me think of tongue-numbing pesticides. As the brews continue, this brutal and rancid notes prevents the Jingmaishan from reaching me. What a surprise this little fellow turned out to be. At just $15/200g, you might like to try this if you have some plumbing that needs unblocking.
I come across the phrase "Gaoshan Liushui" [gow-shan, leo-shway] regularly in my life; as the title of this article suggests, it is usually translated as "High Mountain, Flowing Water" (or stream, or rivulet, according to the poesy of the translator).
I first came across it in a framed piece of calligraphy made by my father-in-law, a military type who (in that uniquely Chinese manner) combines a military and governmental career with being really rather good at classical calligraphy. The piece adorned the wall of her flat when we first met, and has travelled with us ever since.
I later encountered it when Stephane of Teamasters (fear the Masters of Tea!) very kindly sent me a CD of classical Chinese music, played on a wide, stringed zither-like instrument called a guzheng. In fact, we have a huge version of such an instrument in the house right now. The CD introduced me to the classical guzheng piece of the same name, "Gaoshan Liushui" - it is beautiful indeed, and I recommend Googling or Youtube'ing it.
There are several versions of a similar story underlying the name. A certain "Boya" (circa 240 BC) was a guqin player in the Zhou Dynasty, and found in Zhong Ziqi, a simple man, often portrayed as a woodcutter, who could appreciate his music. As told in the Liezi (known as Lieh Tsu to most English schoolchildren), a guqin player should play only if he can find someone able to appreciate his music. In Zhong Ziqi, the appreciation came from the most humble type of man, hinting at the Daoist notion that virtue can (and perhaps solely does) exist in the uncluttered mind, and the simple state.
How that relates to this 2013 tea from Chawangshop, I am not sure. The phrase often means, in common parlence, something like "high and rarified things often have no-one to appreciate them", which is a subtle distortion of Lieh Tsu's actual message, but a usual one nonetheless.
Selecting such a name is dangerous: you are saying that this cake is rarified and fine, perhaps possessing the highest state of virtue, and that its appreciation is not guaranteed, except by those humble and perceptive souls who are receptive of its qualities. This is a very hard act to follow, and, in a cake that is just $28/200g, we suspect that they may have "over-egged the pudding" in choosing a name of such grandeur.
The actual cake, would you believe it?, is more down-to-earth. It is fresh, zesty, and sweet - perhaps a touch watery in the mouth at the beginning. It builds to a decent finish in the throat, and has a good balance between kuwei [good bitterness], texture, and basic pu'ercha characteristics. In later infusions, the texture thickens nicely.
My notes have "there are few cakes that can delivery such characteristics at such an affordable price, and, for the first time in a long while, I am considering whether or not to buy a tong of these xiaobing". I later dwelled on the decision and concluded "it is certainly good value, and would make a good addition to a new collection - but possibly not our collection".
Perhaps it did live up to its name, in a way, after all. With thanks to JT for the session.
Hilary term was great fun - there was a fortnight in which a few colleagues and I put on a revised version of an old graduate course, bringing it up-to-speed with recent developments in our field (biomedical machine learning). Perhaps more satisfying than the course itself was the fact that one of the audience, whom you might know, kindly provided me with plenty of good tea. Here comes one such example.
Yongde xian [county] is in Lincang diqu [prefecture] of Yunnan. While Lincang teas may not topple those from 'Banna in terms of complexity and classical, traditional pu'ercha qualities, I have found there to be plenty to enjoy in teas from that more outlying region. Those Lincang cakes that I have (which number quite a few tong by now, it seems) have aged nicely, and I am left with a positive feeling as to the overall potential of the place - that, and my tastes appreciate the terroire from some places within Lincang. This is the 2008 "Zishan Yuyun" cake from the minor "Yongde Ziyu" producer. The name of the cake refers to "purple-mountain jade-charm/harmony" (where the "yun" character is the usual hard-to-translate "yun"), and where you can see that the name of the cake directly refers to the "Ziyu" [purple jade] of the producer's name.
"Purple" teas are often sweet, fruity, and not particularly good for aging. This cake is now six years old, and managed to give me an affectionate punch in the face from the very first sip. Yes, it has purple fruitiness, but it also has plenty of "real" pu'ercha in it. I appreciate honest teas that aren't afraid to give the drinker the occasional slapdown.
Its six years of aging have not left it in an "aged" state, but have at least settled it. This cake must have been very bitter when young. Its kuwei [good bitterness] cuts through the residue of my headache, from a long night previously spent visiting collaborators in the Netherlands; it rehydrates me after yesterday's glasses of Argentinian Malbec and Syrah, alongside a decidedly civilised Trappist beer in the minor Dutch airport that I flew from at 10 p.m. When even the airports serve beer brewed by monks, you know you're in the right country.
The bottom line refers back to the "value proposition" in the title: this punchy little cake costs a mere $26. I am deeply tempted to attempt to squeeze some onto my tea-shelves, given its unashamed violence combined with rather pleasant Lincang characteristics. There is straw, fruit, some tobacco, and plenty of challenge. I like it.
With thanks to Peter of Pu-erh.sk, today's session considers an autumnal version of the cake that I think was probably the best of all of Peter's cakes, last year: the 2013 Nakashan (from springtime). That cake was, typically, sold out before I even tried the sample, but it was a fleeting, robust beauty while the session lasted.
Nakashan is in the Mengsongshan region, an area in which good cakes are being made and, consequently, in which prices of tea are rising. I don't actually have a problem with prices rising; I felt a little guilty to be buying excellent tea at rock-bottom prices in Maliandao back in the day. There was something uncomfortably "colonial" about turning up in a foreign country and paying "developing nation" prices for something that was very high quality. While my wallet doesn't appreciate the rise in prices, my conscience is happier, which I consider to be a net win.
I use the entire 15g of the sample, recalling my difficulties with autumnal cakes, in which coaxing character out of them can be rather difficult. This tea performs much better than you might otherwise expect for an autumnal tea - it is thick, heavy, and orange (thanks, perhaps, to the surfeit of leaves) and yet has a constrained power. I am rewarded with a dark, sweet base along with plenty of kuwei [good bitterness]. Were I to try drinking 15g of springtime tea, the result would be much more punishing, but here it is almost necessary, for my tastes.
This tastes rather like a natural version of the rich blackness that some other producers (notably Xiaguan) attempt to recreate using novel processing methods. It is a "big", constant tea, that remains heavy and sweet throughout its many infusions - again, because it tolerates using a large quantity of leaves. It seems to last forever, but is perhaps not as arresting as the springtime version that I remember so well. At 70 euro / 350g, I would say that it is a bit on the costly side for what we receive, but that is a personal judgement. Overall, it is a solid autumnal tea that can deliver a decent session.
Zhangjiawan is an area from which I have only good (taste) memories: the only other cake I have had that called itself "Zhangjiawan" was a fantastic little 2012 xiaobing from Chawangpu, that cost < $40.
This particular Sanhetang cake is from they of the Xizihao fame. This sample was kindly provided (about a hundred years ago) by TA - I do not know the link between this cake and the eponymous "cigarette box", but I suspect that it must be the format of the tea. Either than or it tastes like Marlboro.
The suspicions of little-brickiness begin to become more firm as we examine the small chunks of leaf, pictured above, which have the sharp edges of brick tea. As is typical for zhuancha, the leaves are small and broken. I begin to wonder why Sanhetang have stooped to creating brick tea. Then I remember the 2010 Xiaozhutong [little bamboo-tong] from Sanhetang, which was dreadful and which Houde sold to me without me trying a sample (silly, silly me). Clearly Sanhetang is not above making the odd wacky, terrible pu'ercha.
However, my considerable faith in the skills of Sanhetang are restored on brewing it up: despite the fact that the public frontman for Sanhetang has committed the ultimate crime of wearing a pony-tail, he does know his pu'ercha. This particular example is a solid yellow-orange, as pictured above, and as clean as ever they were from this brand.
Sanhetang even seems to be able to make brick tea into something enjoyable: it has a lively base of dried fruits, and a decent kuwei [good bitterness]. It is also rather energetic, and seems to have something to say. This is at odds with the simply univariate bitterness of many zhuancha.
As the leaves begin to open, and the nuggets separate yet further in the belly of Zidu, my pot, they reveal some more Yiwushan complexity: alongside that thick, clean sharpness comes plenty of regional character that suggests Sanhetang has used decent leaves, even if they appear as mulch within the maocha.
The leaves show no sign of weakening from their state of thick sweetness, even after a dozen infusions. They must have been leaves from a good, healthy set of trees: even fragmented, they seem to last forever. I am impressed that the "cigarette box" turned out to be much better than its dreadful name suggested. Thanks again to TA for the sample.
I was going to write "I am struggling to come to terms with being a father", but that is incorrect. I have almost entirely come to terms with it - merely, I remain amazed by how significantly and irreversibly my life has changed. In the middle of this week-end, filled as it was with trips to the circus and birthday parties for three-year-olds, a tea from The Old Country* came as a vivid reminder of a person I used to be, and a place where I used to be from.
I like to think that life is a work-in-progress, and that our characters are blocks of stone on which we continue to work. Every day, a little tap here, a little chiselling there. With me, an awfully large amount of work still remains, but some small degree of progress is being achieved. Sitting at the tea-table gives me a little continuity to those times past, which is very welcome. Sometimes, I am reminded of how massively embarassing some of previous actions were; sometimes, I am comforted that, at least, they are happening less regularly now. Sometimes, I shake my head and think that I will be forever doomed to repeat the past, rather than learn from it. You can get quite a lot out of a cup of tea and a diary, I have found.
My friend from The Old Country, TG, keeps me in good tea. These charity parcels typically arrive in small quanta, as pictured above, and are always enjoyable. Some are grand, some are humble, but all are worthwhile. This particular tea is a 2002 Yibangshan cake from Chawangshop - although it seems that this may be no longer for sale, and so I know little more of it than its name.
I am a little surprised that a tea from 2002 can be reliably determined to be from Yibangshan; I was under the impression that explicit recognition of maocha from this area came later. Perhaps I am wrong - it would not be the first time.
Examining the dry leaves above, you might be impressed - they do indeed look rather tasty.
The picture above tells you quite a lot about this tea: it is believably 10-12 years old, from its colour. The body is strong and its finish is pinelike - that is, sharp and somewhat woody. Lots of teas from this region are destined for sharp pinewood, I believe, which is fine as long as you know what you're setting into from the outset.
There is an absence of scent in the wenxiangbei [aroma cup] and this carries through into the cup, where the tea is almost entirely expressed in that sharp finish. The storage has been clean, and that summarises the tea quite well: clean, sharp, orange-red. You can interpolate the remainder from these three observation points, I suspect, with a low degree of uncertainty.
Clean teas such as this may be brewed hard, and so hard is how I brew it. This Yibangshan example benefits from being overbrewed, I think: the pinelike sharpness works backwards from the throat, if it is overbrewed, and begins to fill out the main body of the tea.
It was an interesting session, as always, for which I owe TG my thanks once again. Perhaps the best outcome of the session was the time with the diary, which is always illuminating. I have been a regular diariest since the age of 18 (and am now in my thirties), and this continued spillage of ink is merely because the act is tremendously useful to me - I heartily recommend it. Grab a strong Yibangshan, a book, and a pen, and see how you get, Gentle Reader...