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.