30 June, 2010

Swaying Ski Lift

swaying ski lift  
stopped by a sign post -
"don't rock the ski lift" 

28 June, 2010

2005 Changtai - Yichanghao "Jipin"

I wondered what other treats remain in vendors' back-pages, in an article on the 2004 Changtai "Jifengyuan". How about I answer my own question? 

2005 Changtai Yichanghao Jipin
Good ol' YCH

This is good ol' Yichanghao, my stalwart favourite from Changtai.  "Jipin" [gee-pin] is the fairly uninformative phrase denoting "superior product", although it does mark it as a second-division quality cake in the Changtai hierarchy.

2005 Changtai Yichanghao Jipin
A pretty little thing it is, too

This little chap is highly appealing.  Big leaves, loose compression, and a jaunty aroma make for a happy drinker.

The dark leaves shouldn't be this orange!  Clearly it has been helped on its way.  I counteract the potential neutering effect by using plenty of leaves.

2005 Changtai Yichanghao Jipin
Pile them high!

Highly energetic and punchy, this is a Yiwu of the sweet-straw variety, and which is already showing touches of age.  Not the world's most eclectic mix of characteristics, but it dwells nicely and doesn't die early, nor crack into roughness.

2005 Changtai Yichanghao Jipin
The fourth infusion and onwards required some lengthy brewing, given its processing

What can you get for $35 these days?  What can you get for $35 these days at Houde?!  Not much.

This is a nicely-priced treat that doesn't reach exalted heights, but hangs around to give you plenty of enjoyment.

26 June, 2010

2009 CNNP "Nannuo Guyun"

Hold the front page: I've found a modern CNNP cake that I rather like.  Regular readers will no doubt have guessed that I'm not too hard to please, and love most pu'er in its own way - with the possible exception of the dross churned out in modernday CNNP wrappers. Yet this one is special.

2009 CNNP Nannuo
Can it be - a nice CNNP cake?

The cake's name means "Nannuo ancient charm" - where "yun" is that difficult-to-translate word meaning something along the lines of characteristic charm, harmony, feeling.  It has the sense of "rhyme" - something that harmonises.

2009 CNNP Nannuo

The cake looks very pleasant - almost edible.  Lei remarked that the photograph above has had a big mouse take a bite out of it.  A hint of redness coaxes me into using a lot of leaves.  This is a grievous, woeful error.  The tea proceeds to punish me in the cup with a wonderfully aggressive, uncompromising attack. 

It "slices like a ninja, cuts like a razor-blade", as I believe Horace wrote in his Epodes.

I remove one-third of the leaves, and continue on.  The tea calms down, but plenty of Good Old Fashioned kuwei remains, which is a real, and welcome, surprise.  I even detect a slight cooling sensation in the mouth, as of good leaves.

2009 CNNP Nannuo
Kunming Factory ain't nothing to blanks with

While some red leaves have been used in the blend, which colour the soup accordingly (as pictured above), the majority are hardcore, green, and properly raw.

"How could this be?", methinks to myself.  Then, on consideration of the wrapper, an answer is hinted: the producer was the Kunming Factory, one of the oldest of the old-school tea companies.  It takes cojones* of steel to make a tea this nasty, as only an established factory would possess, and I rather loved the result.

(Disclaimer: thanks to China Chadao for this tea, which was provided without charge, for review.  It is a coincidence that this tea was both free and very nice.)

*I take great delight in pronouncing "cojones" as "co-jones" (i.e., rhyming with "co-bones").  I like to imagine that the jones and co-jones could be properties of a matrix, like factors and co-factors.  In the unlikely event that I ever get matrix properties named after me, I'm going to propose jones and co-jones.

25 June, 2010

Chinese Script

Chinese script
read by her Chinese eyes

above American clouds

23 June, 2010

2006 Mengyang Guoyan "Banzhang Gushu"

The Mighty Guoyan.

Their productions don't usually do it for me, but I did thoroughly love the 2005 Laobanzhang, which was decidedly chunky.

2006 Mengyang Guoyan "Banzhang"
The classics are never out of fashion

The wrapper is of the Old School: slap a green character in the middle of a ring of red characters, Zhongcha-style.  I think it rather becoming on this Guoyan cake.

2006 Mengyang Guoyan "Banzhang"
Pretty, non?

The leaves are good quality, and quite small.  Some hints of redness abound in the cake, which drop some heavy hints, given that this only has four years of age and thus probably won't have gained much colour on its own.

2006 Mengyang Guoyan "Banzhang"
Looking down the barrel of the chahe

This is a clear, pure pu'er.  Mengyang Guoyan usually do a very good job with their blends, making them appealing to a wide audience by curtailing the bitterness somewhat, yet leaving some fraction of the leaves unprocessed so as to give it some oomph.

So it is with this Banzhang.  It cannot be gushu [ancient tree], but it is very pleasant and thick.  I had a very enjoyable session with this one.

2006 Mengyang Guoyan "Banzhang"
This is a warm, soothing tea - with tons of caffeine

Thanks to Keng, one of my Singaporean teachums, for so generously providing me with an entire cake.  I look forward to coming back to this well-blended example for some "comfort sessions".

21 June, 2010

Piles of Processed Pu'er

Today, I have a triumvirate of tainted tidbits for you.

All processed to within an inch of their lives, all generously provided by three tea merchants.  I really am very grateful to the three vendors in question, and hope that I don't seem ungrateful for posting my thoughts on these teas in a straightforward manner.  They're really not "my cup of tea", I'm afraid, and I can't really say otherwise.  'Tis a difficult situation!

Let's get down to business...

2008 Chenshenghao Yiwu
My first Chenshenghao

First up, the 2008 Chenshenghao "Yiwu Dashu".  If this is dashu [big tree], then I'd be surprised - one doesn't usually take beautiful big-tree leaves and then process them too heavily.  They fetch a high premium on their potency and complexity, and thus it is definitely not sensible to remove those lovely characteristics by neutering the tea. Hence, I believe that many heavily-processed are unlikely to be of good stock.

2008 Chenshenghao Yiwu
Surely not "dashu"

This Chenshenghao sells for $35 at Red Lantern, a brand which the generous owner recommends as his favourite.  It is easy-going and approachable, I'll give it that, but there's nothing here beyond some generic sweetness and a limited, tidy kuwei.

2006 CNNP Gudao
The wrapper tells me what to think of the tea, reminding me of supermarket wine and coffee

Next is a tea from London's "Jing" - this outfit is not the Jing Teashop that has become well-established in the world of pu'er, and which operates out of Guangzhou (and which I dearly love).

2006 CNNP Gudao
The tea has a distinct red hue in normal lighting conditions

You're no doubt tired of me writing that modern CNNP is where pu'er goes to die - a line that is as true here as ever it was.

2006 CNNP Gudao

I use all of the 10g sample generously provided by Jing, in order to attempt to combat the expected flatness.  It is clear and energetic, but well-restrained.  Actually, it's not a bad tea at all - and so shrugs off the CNNP stereotype, but it is overwhelmingly crushed by its processing.  It is clean and pure, but long gone and exhausted by a half-dozen infusions, and simple throughout.

2006 CNNP Gudao

The mildly disturbing part is that the tea usually retails (not wholesales) for RMB55 (£5, $8), but is being sold by Jing for a stonking £35 ($50), which gives this tea the dubious honour of being, perhaps, the most amazingly marked-up pu'er I have encountered.  Which is surely saying something.

Given that Jing's market is probably the person who buys sticky-toffee-pudding flavoured tea from Whittards, and not the sad folk like us who buy pu'er regularly, this is understandable.  Most imported products from China undergoes a similar mark-up.  I can't imagine that Jing are trying to crack the unprofitable world of Internet-based tea loonies with their line-up of three pu'er teas, and so assume that this is aimed at the man-in-the-street.  If so, the processing and restraint of this tea makes sense - most people find real pu'er revolting, in my experience.

Errata:  Jing Tea has asked me to point out that the above price refers to a xiaobing, of the same brand, whereas their offering is a larger cake from one year more recent.  The vendor claims that they bought the entire production-run of their offering, hence the higher price.  It is fair to conclude that a larger cake should attract a higher price (typically 1.25 - 1.5).  While happy to correct the comparison of the Jing offering with what has turned out to be a smaller, older cake, I should, for the record, maintain that this cake is worth little more than RMB100 (£10), in terms of my subjective assessment of its quality.

1999 Heshihua Qiaomu

Finally, a pu'er that I really, really wanted to like.  It is made by the Liu family's Heshihua label, a connection of the delightful Mr. Tim from Postcard Teas.

1999 Heshihua Qiaomu
It looks nice, at least

In my experience, if you see the name "Qiaomu Qiannian" [chee-ow-moo chee-an-nee-an, arbor 1000-year], then just run.  Run and don't stop running.  Don't look behind you.  Whatever you do, don't drink the tea.

1999 Heshihua Qiaomu

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and I'm sure that the dear old Liu family's intentions were the very best when they made this, their first cake.  However, it really tastes like someones first cake, unfortunately.

True to its Qiaomu Qiannian name, it tastes a lot like red tea - the kind of pu'er that a beginner might make after observing makers of hongcha.  It tastes sweet and malty... but that's it.  Game over after three infusions.

Heshihua clearly can make good tea, as the 2004 Jingmai once sold by Nadacha shows.  They just needed a little practice.

1999 Heshihua Qiaomu

So, then, three teas that I can't recommend.  Tasting tea that has been provided out of the generosity of someone's heart is fraught with danger - what if it's not brilliant tea?  Sadly, I see no alternative but to be honest, otherwise these notes lose their function.  

I genuinely appreciate the gesture.  Thanks again for providing the samples, all three gentlemen.

20 June, 2010

Passing in the Street

passing in the street  
dumpy girl in plain clothes -
my Zen teacher  

18 June, 2010

2009 Changtai - Qianjiafeng "Jinzhushan"

Regular readers will know that I rather like Yichanghao cakes.  They're often very decent, and not too expensive.  I can't say that this extends to the standard Changtai numbered recipes, which are usually fairly rough, but the "YCH" are usually good.

Imagine my delight, then, to come across a brand from Changtai that I've never noticed before: Qianjiafeng [chee-an jee-ah fung].

2009 Qianjiafeng Jinzhushan
It's a whole new brand (to me)

This tea was kindly provided as a review cake / gift by Red Lantern, where it usually sells for $23.  As the sticker on the box shows above, "Jinzhushan" [jin djoo shan] means "Golden Bamboo Mountain".  This is in Simao, which marks it out as an "outlier" tea, which I usually enjoy very much.

(I have samples of the 2003 and 2005, I think, of this one still to try.)

2009 Qianjiafeng Jinzhushan
I wish I could convey the scent of this cake

The leaves are really rather enormous, and have a pungent, green aroma.  The scent is aggressive, which is surely a good thing.

2009 Qianjiafeng Jinzhushan

I must confess that this tea was rather good, which you'll have to take on trust.  Given that it was a gift, you'll no doubt be expecting me to like it - but, in and of itself, it's a tasty cake.

Is it raw?  Raw like most maocha?  Raw like most decent hand-selected cakes?  No.  As shown below, it brews up a big, fat orange colour, and it has plenty of tobacco and other darkened flavours that have been accentuated through some artful blending.  Consequently, its bitterness has been toned down a touch, and one can start using long infusions without fear of overbrewing.

However, it is a blend - there is plenty of raw shengpu in here, which give a decent kuwei, and the whole has been assembled rather well.

2009 Qianjiafeng Jinzhushan
Huskiness be thy name

There's something about its processing that reminds me of Dayi, but I can't quite put my finger on it.  Perhaps it is the exaggerated, heavy overtone; that sweet-roast that hangs around in the back of the nose.  It's very familiar.

It's also very Simao - sweet, tangy, and long in a granary, cereal way.

It cuts a very pleasant course between too rough and too empty, and, while it has some plantation roughness, it is just $20.  Rather nice, if slightly compromised.

16 June, 2010

1997 Henglichang "Bulang"

Some cakes give you hope.

1997 Henlichang Bulang
Image swiped from the vendor page, as I don't have the cake itself

What if...

What if these lovely, potent news teas that we're carefully buying and storing don't turn out to be entirely awful?

What if their potency and longevity transforms into a similar potency and longevity in some aged sense?

What if everything just works out well, and we're left with beautiful tea?

That would be quite something.

1997 Henlichang Bulang

Some old teas are short-lived.  They're old, but not complex.  They have limits.  Meanwhile, some old cakes are big and beautiful, packed full of stuff.  They have a lot to say.

How do we pick the latter from the former?

The received wisdom is that "nobody knows".  Up to a point, that is true.  We don't have twenty-year-old versions of our single-mountain cakes, by and large, against which to compare our tea.

However, we do have cakes that are aging nicely.  We can see what has happened to our (i) orange, processed, constrained, drink-it-now teas, and (ii) our yellow, long-lasting, potent, kuwei teas.  We probably have good numbers of both categories, or have at least tried them, over the course of five years or more of personal observation.  That's not very long in the grand scheme of a tea's life, but it is long enough to observe changes.  

We can then compare those changes with similar-tasting older cakes, in order to try and get a loose understanding of the bigger picture.  Some artful, undoubtedly error-prone and highly approximate, combination of extrapolation and interpolation allows us some insight into what ages well.  We're no longer quite as ignorant as once we were.

The cakes that are turning out to age the most pleasantly on my shelves are those of type (ii) in the above.  They have a lot of backbone, a lot of character on which the effect of the years can act.  Conversely, my cakes of type (i), while improving and becoming woody, are short-lived.  They don't brew as many infusions as their potent, untreated brethren, and they don't develop quite the same power in the throat, either.  The difference is marked, and obvious.  So yes, while approximate, there is a definite difference.  While they are all becoming darker and redder with age, they are not converging in potency - that gap remains as much as when they started out.

Hence, I don't quite buy the "there are no ways to determine how well our tea will do" line any more.  Empirical observation, partial and unreliable as it is, does have something to say on the matter.  It is not expertise, to be sure, but it is no longer blank, information-free ignorance.

1997 Henlichang Bulang
Sweet and woody

This Henglichang* cake is an excellent example of an aged cake that has real "trousers". The leaves are homogenous in colour - there is no partial blend of type (i) leaves. The whole tea is a big, mahogany treat. It is a big, bold tea that is doing very well for its years.  I appreciate its power, its duration, and its complexity.

Will all our tea end up this way?  Well... that's back to the series of "what if?" questions, above.  I'd recommend trying a sample of this tea just for the sake of education alone.  

The cake appears to have sold out long ago, for which my wallet thanks me.

*Thanks to LP for correcting the pinyin from "Henlichang"

March, 2011

I notice with some amusement that I previously wrote, "The cake appears to be sold out, for which my wallet thanks me."

1997 Henglichang Bulang

Happily for me, less happily for my wallet, Essence of Tea has restocked this cake.  The wrapper is loose, which lends it the characteristic feeling of a louche old gentleman, leering toothlessly at you.  

1997 Henglichang Bulang

The image is further reinforced as the radial warping of the cake makes it feel as if that particular gentleman is propped up against a bar-stool, or reclining on a chaise longue.  In a patched, slightly worn smoking jacket.

1997 Henglichang Bulang

It is a charming cake, as described previously.  Heartily recommended.

15 June, 2010

Edible Shell


edible shell
sharp fangs and a black anus
in my soup

13 June, 2010

2004 Nanjian "Zhaizipo"

Grizzled veteran readers may well remember the heyday of Houde, in which the tea-buying community rushed to buy various cakes, causing them to sell out within very short periods of time. Such was the unique confluence of contributing factors, such as naivety on the parts of the buyers (definitely including myself, and including others to the degree that very little good information was available in English about pu'er at the time), very low supply (no more than half-a-dozen decent vendors), and very high demand.

For me, this was back in the day when I was spending the majority of my income travelling to a distant city every week-end to see my then-girlfriend, now dear wife.  My lack of disposable income protected me from the foolish spending of my ignorant youth, to a large degree.  On tasting samples of some of those fabled cakes that proved so popular at the time, I wryly consider myself somewhat fortunate to have been unable to indulge my naivety, and to have been insulated from making the mistakes that my foolishness would have made inevitable.

And, talking of mistakes caused by rushing to buy tea from Houde, I introduce the 2004 Nanjian "Zhaizipo" [djai-zer-poh]...

2004 Nanjian Zhaizhipo
Cautiously peeking its oranged jowls from under its wrapper, the Zhaizipo

This xiaobing cost a mere $10 per piece, and hence I figured that it was worth taking a punt on a recommendation, noting that this is six years old.  I suspect you may be able to guess my opinion of this tea already!

Given the redness of the cake, I figured that I needed to use a lot of leaves to get any character out of it.  This turned out to be the case.  Its soup pours a flat, undisputable orange, as shown below.

2004 Nanjian Zhaizhipo

Would it surprise you to learn that its character is the red, malty character of heavy pre-shaqing oxidation?  I suspect not.  Like most teas of this ilk, it tastes pleasant, in its red cedarwood kind of way, but has little in the way of complexity or longevity.  It seems that taking this route with ones tea trades so much of its content away that they seldom last in the cup, and this one is true to form, running out of steam quite quickly.

In my journal, I wrote "no huigan, no complexity, no point".  Harsh, but fair.  I can't remember who recommended this one, and I sincerely appreciate the suggestion - it's just that I've got more than enough of this kind of tea to last me a lifetime.  I try to be honest on these pages, as their function as a repository for me to look back on would be pointless if I was anything else. 

The moral of this story: don't indulge in the Houde rush!

That road is littered with corpses of the unwary...

January, 2011

Encouraged to revisit this little terror from a tea-chum, I sat down at the table happy to give the offender a chance at redemption.

There is a distinctly heavy camphor note in this cake, which is very pleasant.  However, it is malted to high heaven, as I noticed before.  I raise my conclusion (a little!), to considering this tea a fun way to spend an afternoon, but expect no further great things from it in the coming years.  Not a waste of money, but not one that I would try to obtain, were I to do it again.

11 June, 2010

2005 Xiaguan 8653

Sometimes, you find sweet little things without even looking.

Stand still in a garden long enough, and a thousand lovely photographs make themselves apparent

This five-year-old Xiaguan was a bargain $20 at China Chadao, where there are a few remaining at the time of writing.  I enjoy hunting around for > 5-year teas - indeed, "you never know what you're gonna get".  The back-pages of Houde, for example, have proven remarkably fruitful of late, where Dr. Lee doesn't seem to put up his prices for teas stocked in previous years.

2005 Xiaguan 8653
Songpin for everyone

I have a soft spot for Xiaguan.  Whether it be the dark, cigar-like overtones imposed on their modern productions, or the rough honesty of their older recipes, they're very straightforward and, usually, quite nicely priced.

As shown below, the cake is showing a few years of age: the tips have oranged a wee bit.  Amusingly enough, the bing is incredibly wonky.

2005 Xiaguan 8653
Do not adjust your set - this is wonky tea

This is a husky cake, and is clearly rather contrived.  It has a heavy, dark flavour that could be a prototype to the infinite variations on a theme of black tobacco that form modern Xiaguan productions.

It is simple, but solid.  After extended brewing, that blackness actually departs, leaving a long, sweet woodiness that is very appealing.  Perhaps the smoke will depart with further age, perhaps not.  It is well-priced, not being worth much more than $20 - I won't be buying more, as I have enough of thsi kind of Xiaguan, but if you've not yet reached saturation, you might like to give it a look.

April, 2014

Whereas once this was husky and "black", in the way of modern Xiaguan, the dry leaves now have a sweet and humid scent, and this encourages me.  In keeping with tradition, this bingcha is tight tight tight.

The "black" smoked notes from its processing have receded into the background; in the foreground we have strong kuwei [good bitterness] and sharp granary flavours.  The colour of the soup is a heavy orange.  It is strong, cooling, and sharp.  It is rough, but reliable.  The warm, full, bitter soup is good, and has depth.  For £20, it is particularly good.

10 June, 2010

Chinese Countryside

Angel and Greyhound Meadow

Chinese countryside
can we make enough concrete
to cover it all?

08 June, 2010

2009 Douji "Naka"

For those many Xiaguan fans out there, who like your pu'er dark and woody, you might like to try this "Naka".

The Old Willow
The woodpile increased in size after I gave our willow tree a haircut

You don't often come across pu'er from Naka.  I remember one from Nadacha in past years, but very little else.  Perhaps they get swamped by the larger "Mengsong" label.

2009 Douji Naka
Apparently, these photographs were taken in the pre-dawn light!

Unlike the other cakes in this 2009 series, the Naka is made from particularly small leaves.  It's almost old-fashioned.  It is a rough, heterogenous blend, containing stems and all sorts, which I rather like.

2009 Douji Naka
Tiny leaves, on the whole

Surprisingly, this tea is bright yellow.  However, while it has the body of good, clean pu'er, it has a huskiness that will be familiar to fans of modern Xiaguan.  Something is definitely afoot with this cake.  It has a heavy, dark, tobacco-like tone that blends well with the darkly-sweet leather flavour.

Despite the curiously dark flavour, there is plenty of raw leaf here - the kuwei [bitter flavour] grips the tongue and won't let go.

2009 Douji Naka

It's plantation content becomes clear as the infusions wear on, but this is a very decent blend.  The strength is notable, and the caffeine level really knocked me for six, having woken early before the dawn.  While the huskiness is a touch suspicious, and reminiscent of the really rather terrible 7742 blend from Dayi, there is enough raw shengpu here to keep me interested.

Is it "Naka" in character?  Heaven knows.  More data are required!

06 June, 2010

2006 Xingshunxiang "Yiwu Zhengshan", Again

2006 XSX

This is one of my favourite old friends, originally provided by MarshalN while visiting Shanghai. I've since found it for sale on Taobao for $6, and invite you to come and join me in the page for this tea, where I can provide further details.

Speaking of old finds: our teatable.

2004 6FTM 55th Anniversary
I really do love our teatable

Lei often remarks how excellent she still finds our teatable. We bought it in 2005, after scouring dozens of teashops in Chengdu, and considering score upon score of teatables.

2008 Bingdao Qiaomu Brick
It gets better with age, if care is taken to wipe it down, and empty its water-tray, after each session

It looks as good today, after daily use for five years, as it does on the day that we bought it.  If anything, the continuous daily laquering of pu'ercha residue has left it with an even richer shine that it had at the outset.

Tasting Session
It is spacious enough for the most demanding sessions

Over the years, I've had many requests for information concerning this teatable, and have always remarked that it is made by the "Hengfu Tea Company", but that I've not seen it for sale outside China.

However, a recent ramble through the pages of Dragon Teahouse resulted in me stumbling upon our table, for $60, which is very reasonable given that we paid the equivalent of $30, five years ago, in a Mainland Chinese shop.

So, if you're in the market for a teatable, this one comes highly recommended.  Discreet, spacious, and yet not too large.  It's ab-so-lutely superb.