19 December, 2007

2007 Xiaguan FT #4

Would you credit it - just as was saying how disappointing CNNP, 6FTM and Xiaguan have been of late, I come across the 2004 CNNP Yiwu, the 2006 6FTM Banzhang, and now a pleasant modern Xiaguan in as many days...

This tea turned up as a mystery addition in a recent order from Yunnan Sourcing (thanks, Scott). "Hmm", thought I; "2007 Xiaguan. I bet this tastes rough."

The leaves are highly compressed as only Xiaguan can manage. If the new European particle accelerators don't crack nuclear fusion, they should try asking the Xiaguan tea compressors for hints. I brusquely prized apart a few sections into small chunks, with no hope of separating them into individual leaves, lest they break too much.

But wait - what light from yonder window shines? This tea actually smells really very pleasant: sweet leather, as is my favourite. Can it be that Xiaguan have stumbled onto something fine?

The aroma in the wenxiangbei further draws me in, being a characteristically unique caramel.

The tea is thick, energetic, and plentifully sweet, yet tangy, and ending in that wonderful sweet-leather yunxiang. The huigan is big (big!) and leaves the mouth watering. What a pleasant surprise!

All is later revealed in an e-mail from Scott. This is apparently an "FT" [Fei Tai Co.] bing, and so made to the specification of discerning (some would say gangster) clientele, essentially just using the Xiaguan processing system. It would be like calling the 2007 Xizihao teas "Mengyang Guoyan", for the same reason. Scott notes that the leaves were obtained from Wuliangshan [a Simao mountain] and Baoshan [near the Burmese border]. This rather clears up the mystery about Xiaguan suddenly making good bingcha.

Given that this cake is only £15 [$30], which is 200 RMB, I don't think I could hope for a whole lot better from Maliandao, especially given my fairly lackluster bargaining skills (to which I confess that I don't have the heart to spend such energy bartering, especially given how hard a time some of those vendors have).

I like this tea, very much! It's "division two", but it's tasty, and easily worth £15. It looks as if "FT" know what they're doing. Just don't borrow money from them (ho ho).

August, 2013

Bargain sensors on stand-by: this $30 is currently selling for $36, six years later.  As pictured above, it is watched over by the family Buddha...

The small, broken leaves are distinctly Xiaguan.  They originate from Wuliangshan in Simao diqu (one of my favourites) and Baoshan diqu.  The latter is rather unusual as far as pu'ercha goes - certainly very few cakes attribute their maocha directly to this region.  I suspect that it is more commonly used by Xiaguan, who are based far north, in Dali.

The soup is now a fairly cloudy orange - it is good to see that change has occurred in six years.  The flavour has settled into a rich, low affair, while the kuwei [good bitterness] is slowly transforming into aged sweetness.

While most Xiaguan cakes are super-ordinary, and unashamedly so (which is why I love them), the "FT" brand is nominally a little more up-market.  This is obvious in the #4 ("Sihao" on the wrapper), which is quite strong, and has a sweetness that is piercing - much moreso than standard Xiaguan.

Is it a super bargain?  Is it worth buying more?  Maybe it would be worth seeing how other cakes have got on.  I am happy with those that I have bought, but probably don't need to try and squeeze any more onto our shelves, given existing quantities.  If you're building up a collection, you might wish to give this one a try - dependent on storage.

18 December, 2007

2006 Six Famous Tea Mountains "Yesheng Banzhang"

"As rough as can be." That's my usual estimation of 6FTM, CNNP, and many modern Xiaguan. However, this yesheng [wild] version of the 6FTM Banzhang threatened to usurp my prejudice. The entire cake is just £9 (from Royal Pu'er).

Surprisingly, the leaves are in very good condition (shown right), being mostly whole. Unsurprisingly, some blending has occurred: we have light green, dark green, brown, and black leaves of varying grades. Given the strength of Banzhang leaves, and yesheng leaves in particular, I would consider it quite normal to produce a blend, both in order to bring the cost down to "6FTM levels", and to make a palatable tea.

The blended aspect is clear in the aroma, which is formed of two equal and complementary components: sweet, dark leather vs. fresh green lucha (very much like a good maofeng).

Happily, the aroma in the wenxiangbei is particularly long in duration, showing a good brown-sugar character. Such endurance bodes well for a long flavour in the mouth.

The solid yellow soup is very thick, again a surprising mark of quality to appear in a 6FTM cake. The flavour is quite simple (a body of grassy fruits), but the huigan is a big climax, and the yunxiang [scent in the nose after the swallow] is just like the grain from a good whisky.

Throughout the flavour, from the middle of the mouth to the back of the throat, the grassy lucha character remains, a potential warning for aging. It seems that long-term storage wasn't on the mind of 6FTM in the production of this cake, which is acceptable given the cake's accessibility and very low price.

It delivers plenty of body-flushing chaqi, without giving the feeling of being heavily caffeinated, and brightens the senses as one would hope from a Banzhang. There is a touch of "brownness" to the flavour, of slightly oxidised green leaves, which makes it seem a little ordinary, but the cake is redeemed by its very thick, oily soup and its several other benefits mentioned above.

For £9, it's good fun. Certainly, this is one of the most enjoyable 6FTM cakes I have encountered.

(27 March, 2008)

Revisiting this cake confirms its good value. Brewed gently, without too much pushing, produces a pleasantly sweet soup, with an enjoyable aftertaste. It isn't greatly complex, but is a fine little tea.

The leaves are smaller than I remember - some fragmented, some just young and tiny.

At £9, I've grabbed a few for lighter mornings - it's a fresh tea.

August, 2013

Cheap cake, five years later - let's go!

The colour is an aged brown, now; most noticeably, there is a pungent scent of strong, humid, tobacco.  This smells like something that my Singaporean chums (Keng, Elven, ST, et al.) enjoy.  How curious to imagine that it came from damp, cold old England.

The compression is quite tight on this cake, and the leaves are fragmented and quite small.  I chuckle to read that I considered the claims of "yesheng" [wild] to be serious, in the above writing from years past.

Brewed, the colour is a deep orange - moreso than other cakes of its age that I have reared.  The scent in the wenxiangbei [aroma cup] is sharp, leathery sweetness; it is believably from the greater Banzhang region, even though unlikely to come from Laobanzhang village.

It is satisfyingly thick and rounded, and tastes rather Singaporean in its dark humidity.  There is some sharpness remaining, but it is welcome and enjoyable when mixed with the base of rich tobacco.  This was £9?

The "fat", oleaginous thickness in the mouth is hugely satisfying.  It is liquid, sweet tobacco.  Some of the darkness tastes clearly "Xiaguan": it is the blackness of artful processing, as these companies often perform on their taidicha [plantation tea] blends.  There is plenty of real kuwei [good bitterness], however, and so this must form a minor part of the blend.

"This is good - like a wet woodland", observes my dear wife.  Its sweetness lasts forever; I am impressed with how many good infusions even a humble tea such as this can provide, after a little aging.  Don't knock the "6FTM".

16 December, 2007

2004 CNNP "Yiwu Zhengshan"

Mince pies and black ties; festive choir and strange attire; thesis writing and candle lighting; mulled sherries and mistletoe berries... Michaelmas term grinds to an immediate and unexpected halt, tipping out its unwitting passengers into a rapid collision with oncoming Christmas.

The jolly chaos of the end-of-year prevents much in the way of tea-drinking, but here's a pleasant tipple that we encountered prior to the Sunday morning pre-Mass sprint, courtesy of Royal Pu'er.

Like most products from Royal Pu'er, this is inexpensive. There are a few pleasant surprises to be found in their collection, such as the 2006 Yibang Chamasi "Gedebao", and I daresay this is another unexpected treat. Given that this is a CNNP cake, I was not anticipating anything outstanding - but catching sight of the whole, dark, chunky dry leaves was enough to make me question my bias. There are plentiful tips to be found, and this tea has a rich, woody aroma that bodes well for a good session.

I associate a long, interesting lengxiang with leaves of good quality, and there is much to be enjoyed in the scent of this tea. Sweet, dark sugars and that ubiquitous woodiness,
combined with a touch of menthol, hint at good things to come.

A corresponding rich mahogany flavour is delivered by the thick, orange soup, with more of that menthol, and a sizable portion of youthful ku. The ending is a robust but delayed huigan, allowing continued enjoyment of the tea's woody sweetness.

Showing a firm hand to this tea is advisable, erring on the side of more leaves rather than less. Given the low price attached to this tea, I'm rather inclined towards it.

06 December, 2007

Photographic Wabi-Sabi

One of the blessings of moving from traditional film photography to the digital medium is that there is no longer any cost (in time or money) associated with taking photographs. Whereas previously one would have been circumspect with using the shutter-button for fear of wasting film, now there is no such consideration.

In fact, we usually take photographs in "burst mode" now, such that a sequence of three or four photographs are taken in rapid succession, in order to increase the likelihood that at least one will not suffer from blurring, closed eyelids, and other events that would otherwise ruin a good photograph. Also, this lack of circumspection means that we tend to take photographs of more subjects.

Combined with the ever-increasing size of digital snaps, this all results in a very, very large collection of photographs. Our collection was getting so large that we simply didn't have the energy to look through it. Most of the photographs were just plain low quality. We selected certain favourites and put them into a separate folder, but the majority of the collection sat around collecting binary dust.

Recently having discussed the clutter-free ideals of wabi-sabi living, it seemed inevitable that our sprawling collection of photographs would face the same scrutiny as had our collections of books, teas, and clothing.

Over the course of a few week-ends, we pruned away the massive array of redundant or unpleasant shots in our collection, and reduced it in size from 12 GB to around 800 MB - it now fits onto a USB memory stick. The result is a high-quality collection which is a pleasure to peruse, far removed from the low-quality, high-clutter affair from before.


I always assumed that my tea photographs were "above the law". I habitually photograph every new tea I encounter (capturing its wrapper, leaves, brew, and so on). Though this made for a truly enormous folder of photographs, I considered it essential reference material.

Lei asked me the function of this huge folder of tea pictures.

Confidently, I replied, "Of course, it's my reference material for my previous teas!"

She asked me how often I consulted it. Indeed, if I had ever consulted it. Especially seeing as the majority of my tea-notes on the Half-Dipper are accompanied by photographs, which was one of my purposes for creating the web-site in the first place.

My shoulders slumped as I saw the inevitable about to occur.

Here follows "before" and "after" screenshots of my tea folder. Click on the small photographs to look at them in detail - pay particular attention to the size of the scroll-bars on the right of each window...

(click for larger image)

(click for larger image)

Despite the initial pain of separation, the result is strangely liberating. All that remains are the photographs that I truly love and enjoy looking at, so that the collection now has a purpose. I had no idea just how many useless and just plain awful photographs were contained in that huge pile: most looked like the equivalent of police interrogation shots, with the subject brutally photographed under dazzling lights.

It's hard to let go... but it feels great afterwards.

Give it a whirl. You have nothing to lose but your low-quality piles of "stuff". It's rather liberating.

29 November, 2007

2006 Mengyang Guoyan "98 Special"

Thanks aplenty to CB for this tea, made from blended maocha from years spanning the range 1998 to 2004. (Today's photographs are "archive footage" from the old camera.)

The leaves, as expected for the fairly brusque and eclectic nature of the blend, are varied: a large proportion are tiny leaves, variously fragmented, but there are occasional clumps of larger leaves, mixed with plenty of tips. As with some other blends, the aroma is fairly quiet - as if there's not really enough of any one component to make an impression.

The soup is a suspicious misty orange, and the flavour represents the variety seen in the chahe: there is some flat, brown sugar, but also a sharp, green tang - the two classes of flavour don't usually get presented together in a single cake. While trying to cover many bases at once, it doesn't really satisfy any one aspect. I get the feeling that something has gone missing, in the quest to be everything at once.

Later infusions change character as one component recedes, leaving ku and some simple, dark-green flavours. A fair texture is imparted from the tips, and there is a soupcon of huigan, but it's all too simple and too quiet.

The leaves look fairly messy once out of the pot.

Mengyang Guoyan are a variable bag. Their shop was utterly woeful when I visited in Maliandao (think bad Changtai), but some of their Internet-available teas are decent enough. I don't think this is one of them, sadly, but I very much appreciate the opportunity to find out how such a broad blend manifests itself in the tasting cup. Thanks again, Carla!

28 November, 2007

2005 Jingmai Maocha

Following my recent article on the lightness of living, and the value in shunning material goods, Lei and I promptly bought a new camera.

To justify this intense villainy, I should add that we've squeezed every last drop of potential out of our trusty point-and-click that has served us well for three years, and it's time for a change.

There are four individual photographs on this page, three of which are from the new device, while one is an archive picture from last winter taken with the old camera. Your mission, shouldst thou decide to accept it, is to determine which of the four photographs is the interloper.

Bidding farewell to an old camera seems like a good time to bid farewell to another old friend: this 2005 Jingmai maocha that has become an unlikely favourite. About a century ago, Tealogic's VL was kind enough to supply this tea when we met in Manchester. Today, the last branches of this most stick-like maocha tumbled into the chahe, marking the quiet passing of an era. By way of eulogy, my notes.

I have no idea where this tea was obtained, but I get the impression that it's not a well-hyped tea. That's fine by me, as the quiet ones can often be the most surprising.

The leaves run up to 12cm in length, and I have to tactically snap them about their stems in order to bend them into the pot without too much breakage.

As with most good maocha, this is refreshing and light, but it carries enough interesting flavour along with it to make me pay it some closer attention. It reminds me of the 2007 Simao maocha that I recently bagged from Maliandao - complex enough to make a mark, energising and oily enough to remind me that it's still a young leaf.

Good ku, good acidity, good texture, good huigan - it's a good tea.

Those big old leaves keep unrolling and unrolling once the session is over. If you've any idea where this friendly, engaging tea has come from, I'd love to know.

Did you spot which photograph was the odd-one-out?

through the window
as I finish my prayer
a gentle breeze

27 November, 2007


Look up the definition of wabi-sabi, and you'll likely be met with the following:
  • Wabi: lonely and remote living, a natural state, with associated simplicity. Also "emptiness", in terms of poetry.

  • Sabi: aging, worn, threadbare - yet solid. Poverty and humbleness.
There is no shortage of rhubarb that has been written about wabi-sabi, usually by interior designers - much like China's feng shui. It would be a great shame if these potentially interesting concepts were dismissed as being little more than pseudo-psychology for drapers.

What does all this have to do with tea? I mention it because the wabi-sabi concept is something that Lei and I often refer to when making decisions - usually about items we are considering to buy. Invariably, this affects our purchases of tea and tea equipment.

One of the tenets of the wabi-sabi philosophy is that one should live simply, cleanly, and in an uncluttered manner. It is the guiding aesthetic in Japanese culture, where "less is more". It's probably the antithesis of traditional Chinese culture, in which generally ornate and busy private lives are still the norm for the middle and upper classes. The public display of one's wealth has always been a very Chinese characteristic. The Japanese and English cultures, generally speaking, do not approve of such displays, tending to consider them an indication of nouveau riche.

This means that our home is... simple. While not exactly barren, it is certainly markedly different to the majority of our friends' homes. We have no television. We constantly prune our ever-growing book collections, and keep the local charity shops adequately stocked with our discarded clothes. I fully understand that this way of life isn't for everyone, but when I look around the packed lounge of my family home, with every horizontal surface occupied with little treasures, and every inch of wall space covered with portraits and paintings, it certainly seems more healthy than the alternatives. For us, at least. I hasten to add that we are very much "anti-consumer culture", and so wabi-sabi living is a good fit.

With tea, we have been less careful. Recently, we realised this, and turned our attention to our tea shelves. One of the charming points about wabi-sabi living is that whatever remains should be of solid, good quality, and for some definite purpose. Why buy cheap clothes that last a season (as is now highly popular in England) when paying a little bit more from a serious tailor will provide a decade's use, and look more robust and more pleasant into the bargain? Looking over our tea shelves, it became clear that there was much that was either:
  • cheap
  • useless
  • cheap and useless
Some of the beauties in the photograph below illustrate my point.

While none of them are really bad, per se, they are all redundant, and not entirely pleasing in some way. We have kept them "just in case", which is a very dangerous mentality. Packing them off to the local charity shop feels as if a burden is being lifted - and at least the charity can make some money by re-selling them.

We've also rationalised our teapot collection. It used to consist of pots for every conceivable type of tea, many of which we never touched. They literally just sat around collecting dust. Furthermore, at least half of the pots were purchased from Internet vendors. The other half were hand-picked from shops in Maliandao. The difference in quality between the two types is like Heaven and Earth. So, we packed off the Internet pots, and now have a fine collection of pleasant pieces (8 or so), all of which are used quite frequently. Combined with giving away lots of our old untouched tea, it's a good start, and feels a lot more healthy.

Every time I look down the list of teas at my favourite vendors' web-pages, I restrain my hand and tell myself, "You really don't have to own them all."

To lessen the burden of ownership is one of the greatest challenges of living a modern life.

Further reading of a decent standard can be found in The Wabi-Sabi House, by Robyn Griggs Lawrence. It's not as dreadful as the title would suggest, and is wise in places. It touches on many other aspects of wabi-sabi application than just one's home. Basho, in Penguin Classics, is also a good source of information on the same subject.

23 November, 2007

2005 Xizihao Laobanzhang

Cold November mornings were made for teas like this.

Thick and gloopy, this is a tea with "trousers". Chunky tobacco aromatics and flavours abound, and the leaves are similarly robust, and amply hairy.

Heading into the thick (thick) orange soup, it opens with the straw-like freshness of a good young tea, before diving into delectable tobacco characteristics that set up camp in the nose and refuse to budge.

Unlike some Xizihao leaves, this has a well-balanced acidity that leads to a long, tantalising huigan: it's bold Banzhangesque presentation stays within the realms of what one might consider sociable. I recall Phyll Sheng coined the phrase "hitting like a truck" to describe Banzhang teas, but this isn't quite in that league (thankfully).

Fine, rich yunxiang of tobacco, buzzing notes on the tongue, and large leaves in the pot.

Despite becoming a bit simple by the fifth infusion, this tea is a bit of a winner. I loved it. It's a great pity that it's no longer available, as I'd be the first in the queue. Perhaps it's a good reminder that we don't need to own everything... (sniff).

It's an interesting diversion from the 2006 Xizihao Banzhang, which was much more in the high, camphor-esque zone. Something changed at Sanhetang HQ, methinks, 'twixt production of the two cakes.

22 November, 2007

2006 Yiwuzhengshan Tea Co. "Douji"

I've been on an unusual tea-drinking quest of late, finding myself unusually often in the SCR [Senior Common Room] of various colleges. Despite the surprising quality of the wine, coffee, and cheese that each provides, the tea is woefully sub-par. Or, rather, it's extremely normal (which is much the same). My quest is to find an SCR that serves good tea. There are 39 colleges here - the odds were initially on my side, but now I'm running out of options.

Back at the tea-table, it's time for some proper tea. At last.

This one is from the imaginatively-named "Yiwu Zhengshan Tea Company" - what a name. It's a cake from Xiaomei, the tea vendor in Maliandao whose shop seemed to be an eternal tea-party (although admittedly consisting of the same guests each day).

Dry leaves

Ahh, tobacco. I recall the last time that I mentioned my preference for such a characteristic, an actual cigarette butt revealed itself in a dodgy block of shupu - I'll try not to tempt fate.

The leaves of the cake are singular and dark, and have the scent of fine, sweet... tobacco. Excellent.

The lid-scent is robust and expectedly green (being under a year old), with a certain fruitiness. The leathery-sweet wenxiangbei hints at more tobacco.

The character of the tea is uniquely tangy: so very tangy, with dark fruits, and a very sweet, fruity nose - it's a cross between tangy shengpu and a dessert wine.

Plenty of ku, tasting very much like "tea", which other cakes seem to often only approach near the end of their sessions. The smooth texture is almost slippery, it's so thick.

Wet leaves
They're big, but they're chopped plentifully. Examining the few larger exemplars reveals a healthiness of leaf and strong stems - no overfarming here, apparently.

A bit fruity, and the tang really necessitates a good few years to mellow. Overall, it's pleasant, and rather inexpensive (but, then again, it was bought in China, which is a bit of an unrepresentative statement).

January, 2011

This tea has "gone quiet". I still enjoy its tobacco-like finish. Fun, but currnetly limited, in its sweet, straw-like way.  Perhaps January isn't the best time to revisit a tea.

September, 2012

It's a Hster vs. Hobbes fight to the finish.


Both Hster and I have stored this tea since 2006, in Berkeley, California and Oxford, England, respectively.  How do they shape up, when facing one another?

2006 Douij Dayeqingbing

I rememmber digging this tea in far out and happening ways for quite some time.  However, it's been a while since I last tried it.  As you will see from my notes above, I have only dipped into it once in recent years, to find that it had gone rather quiet.  This happens now and again with some cakes; I don't worry if a cake has a sleep - I do worry if it doesn't wake up.

2006 Douij Dayeqingbing

This batch of teacakes is the result of a few purchases, from Maliandao and from Scott of Yunnan Sourcing.  In bought most of them for about US $20, which is a laughable price at today's rates.  It is a shame to see that pu'ercha has become so much more expensive - perhaps this makes us more careful, which can only be a good thing.

2006 Douij Dayeqingbing

The cake shown above took some damage in my suitcase on the way back from Beijing one autumn.  I remember coming back via Moscow, where the entirety of my tea purchases were searched by a huge Russian woman who could easily have crushed me.  Her arms were thicker than my torso.

2006 Douij Dayeqingbing

This cake is beautiful, and I will brook no dissent.  Even the photograph gets me thirsty.  My version has a strong, plummy scent that fills the room when I slide the wrapper away, suggesting that it sleeps no longer.

2006 Douij Dayeqingbing

The leaves are long and luscious - considering this cake costs a mere twenty of your liberal American bucks, the quality of the leaves is really rather staggering.

2006 Douij Dayeqingbing

The length is such that they actually require pre-softening with warm water, such that they can be put into the teapot without damage.  For twenty dollars.  It's criminal.

2006 Douij Dayeqingbing

I wrote "My old friend seems very much awake today.  The soup is a strong yellow, darkening to orange in the gongdaobei [fairness cup] as I write.  The aroma is tangy, sweet, and then a remarkably heavy base of tobacco.  It has a strong Yiwu body, shengjin [pleasant mouth-watering], and a vibrantly sweet aftertaste.  Underneath that lies the stratum of stick molasses that I originally loved in it."

"There is a very decent sweetness that penetrates the mouth, and which results in a cooling huigan [throaty aftertaste].  The genre is unmistakeably that of Yiwu sweet-straw.  It is encouraging to see that the English climate has nurtured this cake so well."

I came back to it a few weeks after trying Hster's cake, and added: "Clean, vivid, orange, sweet, and woody.  Vibrant and cooling, I like it very much.  Soft, tobacco base and the character os sweet straw.  Numbness at the tip of the tongue."

2006 Douij Dayeqingbing

The ladywriting above can only be that of Hster, and it is a great pleasure to be able to try another version of one of my favourites.

2006 Douij Dayeqingbing

Hster's cake looks just as charming as my versions, and I wonder how the dry storage will have affected it in the course of six year.  I wrote that "The cake certainly seems brittle, and is subdued in aroma." 

2006 Douij Dayeqingbing

"The California version is doing well, but it is very dry - it does not have the 'damp straw' of our version, and has a lighter base, free of tobacco.  It is sweet and accomplished, but tastes light and young."

I enjoyed it very much, unsurprisingly.  It is fascinating indeed to see how two cakes, separated at birth but raised in different countries, can lead to such different results.  I wouldn't like to say that one is better than the other, as both gave me excellent sessions, but they are definitely birds of a different feather.  I suspect that, in the end, we become attuned to our own collections, and I am sure that there is a degree of "echo chamber" effect occurring, where I convince myself that our teas are all proceeding marvellously, no matter where we live.

Ultimatley, if it tastes good to you, then you're doing it right.  Both Hster's and my cakes fit easily into the category of "good tea", no matter their differences, and so I conclude that we can rest easy.

August, 2018

Six years later, and we have action!

This tea is solid. It is also unexpectedly fragrant - the cake itself assaults the senses, and the separated leaves taken downstairs to the teatable do likewise.

This cake was made "black", which seems to be the house style for Douji.  To process a cake in such a way is a very brave decision, for who knows, in 2006, how such a cake would turn out?  There are almost no data on which to rely, because I find very few cakes processes in this "black" manner from ages before that.  This is the character taken to the extreme by the "FT" cakes produced by Xiaguan, among others.

The "black" character is present, 12 years later, but the aggressive raw youth of the cake has rounded, smoothed, and balanced to complement it very well indeed.  The sweetness is surprisingly enduring, and, in perhaps one of the most obvious markers of quality, its texture is exceptionally thick.  It "coats the tongue" with its soup, such is the thickness, and the effect (combined with the sweetness and black character) is enjoyable.

This is perhaps the first evidence that I have seen of how a cake with "black" processing will grow up, for it is only now that these cakes are coming somewhere approximating age.  (As noted before, the English climate is good for preserving a cake's character, thanks to the native humidity, but aging is slow due to the lack of blisteringly-hot temperatures.)

The cake is, clearly, plantation tea.  It cost just £13 in 2006 (!!), which is cheap even for those days.  The flat, green plantation character is discernible, but it has aged and smoothed along with the rest of the cake; the leaves were strong enough, as noted above, to age well and to retain a thick texture, which is a great outcome for such a "little" (i.e., affordable) cake.

20 November, 2007

2006 Xizihao "Chahuang"

Chawang [Tea King] is clearly out-of-fashion. Just as "wild" was upgraded to "desolate forest", so Sanhetang have promoted their mere provincial Tea King to a suitably more stately Tea Emperor.

When does the use of superlative begin to seem like parody?

Dark, tippy, and showing evidence of good handling, these leaves exhibit a remarkable sweetness, against a rich background of pleasant licorice. The wenxiangbei continues the pronounced sweetness, but the magic happens in the pinmingbei: the soup is excellently thick, and has a fine active quality where it touches the lips and tongue.

There is much to experience in this tea, and it proved a pleasant foil to recent samples that I have been drinking. There is a complexity of sensation about this tea that I miss when I drink less esteemed cakes.

All the way out to the dark sugars from the yunxiang [after-aroma], contrasting well against green notes in the body, and always that buzzing, vibrating, effervescing quality of the soup's activity.

The huigan is fair in duration. I would be happy if there were more low, rich notes to accompany the panoply of high, sweet, sugary experiences on offer - but perhaps this is having one's cake and eating it.

The overall character is sweet, high, grassy, and active. A fine tea, and, apparently, an unavailable tea.

15 October, 2008

One year on, and this tea has become empty and flat. Despite using lots of leaves, it is surprisingly quiet and seems to have run out of steam. What little flavour is to be had is high and sweet, as before.

The leaves are clearly of good quality, because the texture is very thick and it is a fizzy, active tea. Some fruity notes are evident in the background, testament to a cheeky blending in of fruity, oxidised leaves which can be seen to form part of the mix in the pot. The proportion is kept low, however, so as not to dominate the tea.

Too weak, sadly. Definitely not a Tea Emperor.

March, 2014

The year after I first tried this, six years ago, the tea had "gone quiet".  Six years later, it is much improved.  The body is thick and, best of all, there is a long aftertaste of sweetness.  It has settled into a dense, sweet little thing, with the clean feeling of storage that is not immensely wet.  It lasts well, and has returned from quietness - perhaps fed by the Oxford humidity.

18 November, 2007

2006 Nanjian Wuliang

(Another archive post.)

This is a xiaobing [small cake], again recommended by Scott of Yunnan Sourcing. The Nanjian Factory, one of the elders (founded 1983) started making bingcha in 1998, following a history of Tuocha manufacture, being located in Xiaguan territory.

The tea is apparently a mixture of 40% Wuliangshan leaves, and 60% Mengku-region Lincang, which the factory mentions is due to the lighter flavours of the small-leaf Wuliang. It is claimed that this is the traditional manner of making Nanjian cakes.

Dry leaf:
Dark, broken, and small - this is particularly green leaf, with a decent aroma of mushroom - it's attractive, though clearly a mixture.

The soup starts out particularly cloudy, and this isn't a clean tea. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but reminds me of Chen Guang-He Tang cakes.

This tea has a considerable quantity of ku, presumably delivered by the larger Lincang leaves. The sweet, low aroma corresponds with the generally thin set of low "tea" flavours.

Later infusions become truly, absurdly sweet - is this Wuliang terroire? It is not a leaf with which I have much familiarity. What initial complexity existed courtesy of the low, bass flavours soon recedes to a simple "green" quality - with that correspondingly acerbic quality in the throat that one might expect.

Wet leaves:
Tiny, chopped, and exceedingly green.

This tea is neither particularly friendly nor particularly noteworthy, except for its highly active ku. I remember considering this "aggressive" in my original tasting, and I stand by that observation.

Rather uninspiring, unfortunately enough. At a trifling $6, at least it makes no claims to high status.

16 November, 2007

2006 Haiwan Yushou

Recommended by Scott, the gentleman behind Yunnan Sourcing, this shengpu was $15/bing.

Haiwan factory itself was set up by a retired manager from Menghai Factory, one Zhou Bingliang, in 1999. Scott mentioned that he sited the nascent Haiwan Factory in his town of Anning, due to its famous water quality and hot springs. Scott also cites his experience that the Haiwan Factory is the cleanest that he has visited. I've a fairly clear idea of the general level of hygiene in tea factories...

This claims to be an early spring tea from, as Fate would have it, 700-year-old tea trees. Quelle surprise!

Dry leaf:
Dark and small (clearly picked in spring), yet whole, the leaves are easily separated, and look rather appealing. The aroma is very quiet, however, being merely sweet.

A consequently high, sweet aroma is followed by a stable, enjoyable mushroom flavour. It has a somewhat melon-like fruity edge, without being so much as to cause me suspicion over its production.

There is a fair quantity of light tea-oil on the lips and tongue, which I find often helps to point to good leaf quality, with a strong ku. The potency of the ku somewhat obscures a base of low, tobacco flavour.

However, by the third infusion, the tea becomes much more simple, and tends towards a gentle sweet-straw character. The huigan is not pronounced, but at least present.

Wet leaves:
Healthy and small, they are quite well-treated by Haiwan.

Refreshing, light, but somewhat simple. It isn't worth going out of the way for this tea, but is pleasant nonetheless. Not one of the classics.

If anyone has any information at all on Yushou Mountain, I am all ears - I cannot find mention of it.

28 October, 2007

2000 Haiwan Guhua

Thanks to MA for this one, the original of which was available at Jing until recently. It's great between writing thesis chapters...

Dark leaves and in good sized pieces. They are clearly scented with a certain "ash"-like character.

This is fairly unorthodox tea. It's orange, and then opens with a long, spicy, smoky aroma - very long, in fact. The flavour is the really curious aspect: it is grainy, rather like a Chinese sweet potato.

Lively on the lips, it leaves them buzzing and coated in tea-oil. Then, the tea makes a rapid sprint for the throat, with a huigan that promotes excessive mouth-watering. "An asparagus aroma - very fresh, very enjoyable."

This tea is so very active! It seems that many of the teas I have been drinking of late carry this same, excellent characteristic. The vibrancy really is as remarkable as that of the 2007 Xizihao Dingji. Somewhere, a while ago, I recall mention of this tea being "flat" - I just don't see that. Later infusions carry a lovely tobacco character.

Next to the final two infusions, I appear to have written the succinct note: "Decent." Good quality is evident in the wet leaves, but they seem a a bit on the thin side for autumnal produce.

Enjoyable, if a bit wacky. Truly vibrant, with an unusual grain-like, mineral character. This is a good pick - thanks again to MA.

27 October, 2007

2003 Menghai "Hong Kong Henry" 7542

You have to admit, this tea has a great name. I don't know if "Hong Kong Henry Trading Co." really exists, but if doesn't, it should. Fantastic.

This cake is $78 from Houde, where it is noted that the cake sports a neifei in both faces of the bing. I've had the notes for a while, and thanks to DV for reminding me to publish them.

Dark brown, with large fragments of leaf. A fair number of tips are visible. It is sweet wood in aroma, which agrees with Guang's observation of "pinewood". There are some good tobacco notes underneath the main scent.

The Houde description draws the similarity between this cake and the aroma of inksticks used in Chinese calligraphy, nicknaming it the "Scholar 7542". Given the brutally acidic nature of this tea, I am inclined to be less complimentary.

The soup is lucid orange. Some initial smokiness fades into a long, rich super-lengxiang of molasss. It lasts forever, dolling out plenty of dark sweetness - really, it is quite remarkable in this aspect.

Also remarkable is the aforementioned acidity. There isn't a lot of straight flavour here, as the acidity really dominates the proceedings. The closest I got was the sensation of that dark molasses undercurrent after the swallow.

The texture is decent, with a fine coating of light tea-oil on lips and tongue. As with the 1985 Yiwu Tuocha and the 2007 Xizihao Dingji, the contact-based energy of this tea is quite special, and leads to that similar numbing sensation wherever contact is made.

It settles down into a green, menthol opening, before quickly diving into pure acid in the centre of the tongue, and in the throat.

If battery acid were made out of molasses, this is it.

"This tea is like drinking earth", notes Lei as she briefly passes through, and indeed the opening flavour in the later infusions does taste like soil suspended in water - prior to the attack of the omnipresent acid.

Small and green, the wet leaves are chopped quite deliberately.

For me, this isn't quite so much a "Scholar 7542" as much as it is a young waif with a bitter, acidic temper. It is hard to make judgements as to its future given that the majority of the molasses-based flavour is obscured by the acid. I'd like to revisit this in five years. Ouch.

February, 2012

Superthanks to HC for providing me with a sample of this tea that I had previously written off, due to its acidity and bitterness during its youth.  With some extra years on the clock, has this cake settled down?

2003 HK Henry

In 2007, this cake was $78, which seemed a huge amount, at the time.  That Houde's proprietor called this a "scholar tea" used to make me weep big tears, but it is now almost a decade old, and perhaps the times they have a-changed.

I am reminded that the blend contains plenty of stems and other welcome additions to the mixture, such as the odd huangpian [yellow-flake, the outer leaves that are often discarded by hand], pictured below.

2003 HK Henry

Much has happened: this orange-souped little fellow now delivery a sweet, sharp, pinelike cup with an excellent body.  The texture is heavy and smooth, a far cry from the rough terror of its immediate youth.  The acidity has helped it along the way, and I enjoy the result very much.

2003 HK Henry

What pleasant surprises may be in store for those acrid, aggressive cakes... HC has converted me to the delights of this most enjoyable cake, with his generously-provided sample.  The infusions march on longer after my capacity to drink them has passed.  The future for this cake looks good indeed.

24 October, 2007

2007 Changtai "Hou De"

Following the 2006 Changtai "Taipei Expo" bing, here's another tea from the same blender (Mr. Huang) for comparison. I happened to be drinking these on consecutive days, by chance. This one is supposedly a mixture of leaves from Bulang, Nannuo, and Gelanhe (?), with "some 2006 old plantation Nannuo leaves for sweetness and aftertaste".

The leaves are dark, fragmented a la Changtai, and have a low tobacco scent that is pleasant but a little weak. I am skeptical of blends being made from quite so many (4!) different types of leaves, and wonder if the weakness of aroma is due to it.

Again, as with the previous cake, the soup is a solid orange. Here, the aroma is dark, malty, and sweet.

The character is a bit odd: mild grain to open, but swelling towards the back of the mouth into a rolling huigan that leaves the mouth watering excessively for almost a whole minute. This could well be the contribution of the old leaves, as it is quite striking, and seems like a separate component.

This tea is particularly, strikingly, cooling in its effect: it has the "post-mintiness" sensation in the mouth, and it leaves the tongue and lips literally cold while the huigan swells. Following the muted wenxiangbei, there is little in the nose except the post-mintiness.

Later infusions see the huigan component diminishing, while a more floral component steps forward, accompanied by an increased acidity in the throat. It seems as if the various leaves that make up this mixture have interesting waxing and waning times.

By the third infusion, and to the end, the tea has collapsed into bland, slightly acidic fruit juice.

At this point, Lei pops in from her lab and gives the following succint second opinion: "Hmm, this is just like drinking kuding. So boring!"

The leaves are more whole than the 2006 Taipei Expo, but they are very thin and fragile - bespeaking a certain lack of quality, or at least heavy farming (especially in conjunction with the rather muted, rapidly-diminishing contents of the tea itself).

Not one I'll be pursuing further, but interesting for the purposes of education, at least.

23 October, 2007

Modern New Pu'er Ingredients

A yummy modern pu'er ingredient, as found by Lei in her gaiwan while brewing an ornately carved block of "tourist" shupu:

(A cigarette butt)

21 October, 2007

"Drink Some Tea"

It's usually frowned upon to write about Zen. So here goes.

Asking a Zen master a theoretical question about Zen is often met with a direct response. Neither a refusal to answer the question, nor an answer in itself, the response is meant to shake the questioner out of their limited understanding, into the "here and now". One of those with which I most closely identify is Master Joshu's response,
Drink some tea.
Every now and again, I read an article about tea in which the author muses, "Aren't we thinking a bit too much about tea? Being a bit too critical?" I recall something similar in the ever-excellent Tea Logic, MarshalN, and Rec.Food.Drink.Tea sites, for example. Maybe most of us that count drinking tea as a hobby have asked ourselves the same question.

It's a healthy question to ask, and I'd like to have a crack at addressing it from a Zen viewpoint, with the aid of Joshu's "Drink some tea."

One of the tenets of Zen (sorry!) is to try and perceive things "as they are". It's not very easy - Zen folk will tell you it's the hardest thing. Enjoying tea is a great way to practice this, and asking yourself, "Am I thinking a bit too much?" is a good way to begin.

Sometimes, like this morning, I sit down with a new tea. I've got lots of questions in my mind: I want to determine its character, perhaps I want to verify the various claims made by the vendor, perhaps I want to decide if it's worth a certain amount of money. Before the tea is even out of the pot, I have a whole headful of assumptions.

This happened today. It wasn't until the third infusion that I realised I wasn't really present - I was somewhere else, wondering about leaf regions, growing conditions, and all of the usual paraphernalia. I looked down at the page in my diary, and saw that I had made some observations about huigan, texture, aroma, and so on - but I hadn't really enjoyed the tea. In fact, I couldn't really recall what the tea was like. Wasn't my purpose to enjoy the tea?

I sat back on my cushion (I'm a floor-squatting type), and told myself, "Drink some tea." I stopped my ponderings, and simply enjoyed the little steaming cup in front of me. It was a new Xizihao, and enjoyment wasn't very difficult - after I had put away my questions, and my goals.

A second relevant Zen tenet (sorry again!) is mushotoku - having no goal. I have a friend who just can't stop trying hard to have fun. He tries so hard to have fun, that in the end he doesn't really have fun at all - and he's quite unhappy about it. Drinking tea was like this for me, this morning. I had so many goals, so much that I wanted to get out of that little cup, that I ended up getting nothing out of it. Until I stopped trying to get things out of it, that is, and then I got a lot out of it.

There's a great deal to be said for providing a good analysis of a tea. A solid critique is very useful, and it's one of the main purposes I maintain these articles, of course. However, this morning I resolved not to let that get in the way of "Drink some tea." I always find my most perceptive notes arise when I stop explicitly trying to analyse, and just drink from the cup with an open mind.

So, it's good Zen practice, but really - it makes for better notes, and better tea.

"Drink some tea."