30 July, 2012

2011 Puerh.sk "Bada"

Peter at Puerh.sk has made some excellent cakes, most notably the Guafengzhai and Mannuo of those I've tried from 2009-2011.  This collection has something of a cult following among the (very large number of) drinkers based around Eastern Central Europe, and I can see why.  They're not hard cakes to enjoy, they promise good things for the future, and they are priced nicely.  It's a fine balancing act that Peter manages very well.

2011 Puerh.sk Bada

Badashan is in northern the Menghai region, and is a cake that is a little off the beaten track in terms of "single mountain" attributions, although I'm sure that it finds its way into many blends unattributed.  The small leaves, pictured below, have an encouragingly heavy, content-filled scent, laden with sugars.

2011 Puerh.sk Bada

Xiaohu sits on my lap, scribbling with a pencil on the back of one his mother's academic publications on the estimation of lung function.  He disregards the yellow soup (shown below), and seems content to draw on his mother's work, while his father enjoys a deliciously clean cup of Badashan tea.  

It has the disconcertingly familiar aroma of grass and hay that I associate with leaves from that region.  As I've mentioned before, there was a period (some time ago now) in which all of my tea was in storage, and I drank only casually while in the office.  I had the same cake every day: a Menghai Tea Company "special" cake from Badashan, which left me intimitely familiar with the region, like it or not.  (It was a fairly basic cake, but got the job done.)  Thankfully, this cake is much better than the mainstream Menghai version.

It has an excellent silky texture, combined with a very wide-ranging body that is stuffed full of interesting compounds.

2011 Puerh.sk Bada

I pile in more leaves, and the result is a powerful, heavy, energetic tea with tons of honest kuwei [good bitterness in the throat].  I like this cake very much, and am impressed by the price of 33 euro per 250g xiaobing.  That comes out at approximately £40 per 357g, which I consider to be a fair price for such a good cake.  There are cakes that are triple this cost which would do well to learn from its endurance, cleanliness, and degree of content.  Peter should be rightly proud of a very solid cake.

I hope that he makes more cakes in 2012; I'll be hovering around the web-site like a moth attracted to a bright light.

27 July, 2012

2007 Cloud "Blue Clouds" and "Blue Clouds Special"

My teachum Mauricio lives in Argentina. When not playing polo, consuming steak and Malbec, and militarily occupying the Falkland Isles, Mauricio likes to enjoy good tea, and has been generous enough to send me a huge pile of it recently.

The first of samples that I tried was from "Clouds", a Hong Kong-based solicitor (as far as I recall) and collector of pu'ercha. Some may remember him from various Hong Kong tea forums, where his robust put-downs are continually amusing.  "Oh no you ditn't!", I often chuckle, in my best faux-New York accent.

2007 Clouds Blue

The cake shown above is from Mr. Clouds second series of "own brand" cakes, pressed by the ever-cooperative Changtai Tea Company.  It sells for around $40, which is most reasonable.  In this world of spiralling "boutique" prices, it's a great pleasure to see someone as reputable as Clouds aiming for a sociable bottom line.  I think there's a good market for decently-priced, robust cakes.

2007 Cloud "Blue Clouds"

As Mauricio's sticker above denotes, the leaves come from all over the place.  I can make out Mengsong, Bulang, and Mangzhi, and possibly Naka and Manmai.  The Clouds web-site also lists "Mannong", but Cantonese doesn't map into Mandarin very readily, especially if you exhibit suction with both dialects.

2007 Cloud "Blue Clouds"

The cake is quite dark already, as may be seen above.  You can also discern that the blend is quite well compressed, and that it contains everything from tips to larger leaves, in fragments of all sizes. 

2007 Cloud "Blue Clouds"

It brews yellow-orange, with no aroma, and has an "old fashioned" character, consisting of dense sweetness and long throatiness.  I suspect that Cloud's tastes in pu'ercha run to the more traditional, given the extent of his own collection in that area, and it is rather a nice change for me.

This cake is also rather a hit with my son, Xiaohu.  "Daddy!  Tea!  Lap!"  He looks up at me, trying to climb up my legs, as if they were a ladder.  I lift him onto my lap, and we find his own little cup, which he uses with surprising excitement.  "More please!" he exclaims, after swiftly finishing his portion.  "Did you like it?" I ask, wondering how the sharpness will sit with a toddler's tastes.  "Yes!  Nice!" comes the reply.

Xiaohu hangs around for four infusions, which is quite a lot of tea for a little stomach.  Then, it's back to his books to look for pictures of dinosaurs.  "Pteranodon!", I hear.  It must be weird having Lei and me as parentile units.

The tea has a good background of sharp sweetness, of sufficient power to last well.  Strong, clean, with a reasonably thick body, it is a good blend.  The robust, heavy base and piercing sweetness remind me of long tea sessions in Beijing, where the teas are typically in this style with the drinkers that I've chugged alongside in the past.  It isn't obviously from one region, and fulfils the remit of a solid blend.  "Slightly aged taste", notes Clouds, which is just about right.

2007 Cloud "Special"

With a very similar wrapper, the "Special" version of this cake costs just $2 more than the unspecial version. I like the honest, straightforward description of "Special", rather than anything more nauseatingly poetic; solicitors are not taken with flights of poesy.

2007 Cloud "Special"

I don't think that I could tell the difference between the two raw cakes, if I didn't know their labels (pictured above).  Perhaps the leaves are marginally less broken in the "special" cake.

2007 Cloud "Special"

This has the same yellow-orange colour as the ordinary version, but has a lovely, honey-sweet scent in the aroma cup that was absent before.  The flavour is deeper and more complex, with much more to keep the attention.  It has a "beany" base; a long, savoury sweetness; a cooling finish; more activity in the mouth.  It has the long sweetness of the original, but much more flavour, and far more in the way of peripheral sensations - cooling aspects and a certain vibrancy, among them.

2007 Cloud "Special"

Robust, reliable tea at a robust, reliable price; what's not to like?  For such a weeny extra outlay, the "Special" really is worth the money.

Many thanks to Mauricio for the introduction to these solid little blends.

25 July, 2012

Singing Bob Marley

Radcliffe Camera

singing Bob Marley
passing the High Commission
of Jamaica

23 July, 2012


I wrote recently concerning the extraordinary generosity of His Kengship, the Marquis de Keng. We have much else for which to be thankful, and this article is one of gratitude.


Thanks first to Mr. and Mrs. Essence of Tea, who have bestowed upon us an entirely charming pu'erdao [pu'er knife].  Pictured above and below, the images will fail to communicate the sheer mass of this pen-sized implement, which is so significant that it seems to bend light.  It really is extremely heavy.


I have long been looking around for good cups, and was iterating ever closer to the beautiful hand-made examples seen around the interwebs.  We have long been using some simple cups bought many years ago while visiting Sichuan, and which, while functional and sweet, could certainly be improved upon.

Thanks again to Mr. and Mrs. Essence for including a pair of cups of the type shown below, which have now become permanent fixtures on our teatable.  They will undoubtedly be showing up in the images shown on this humble site.  Perhaps less obvious, again, is the density of material used in their construction, which causes them to retain heat for much longer than our lighter, lower-quality porcelain cups.

These may or may not be the "late Qing" cups listed for sale at the web-site of Mr. and Mrs. Essence; if so, I can heartily recommend them.

2006 Simao Gupuer

Another long-time teachum, ST, hails from Singapore - the land of the unfathomably excellent storage conditions.  His daughter is studying an undergraduate degree nearby, and he was kind enough to send us the charming pot shown below.  Its skin is lustrous and its weight is reassuringly heavy.  Again, it takes an age to cool, and keeps its heat for as long as one might ever need, such is its construction.

I shown the pot below during its maiden flight, brewing a tea from fellow-Singaporean, Keng.

Singaporean Tea

Thanks to one and all for the lovely gifts, which are most sincerely appreciated - and most frequently enjoyed.

20 July, 2012



Kengs Parcel


Kengs Parcel


Kengs Parcel


Kengs Parcel


Kengs Parcel


18 July, 2012

Lost on the Way

Papa's Ship

lost on the way
to the 
Royal Geographical Society

16 July, 2012

2008 Menghai - Dayi "Bada Kongque"

I bought plenty of tea, around four years ago, that I don't think I'd buy again. I was a humble doctoral student*, and was therefore a man of limited means, and so tended to keep to more mainstream cakes, with their more down-to-earth prices.

This taught me a great deal about what not to buy. The result is that I have plenty of cakes on my shelf that I wouldn't buy again. Thankfully, the "peacock" [kongque - kong ch'ooer] range from Menghai Tea Co. is decent.

*I'm still equally humble, except I'm no longer a doctoral student.

2008 Menghai Bada Kongque
I clearly took this photograph some time ago

Back in 2008, this range was available in five colours; I have previously written about the green (Menghai region) and the blue (Mengsong region), both of which were pretty good, and having been settling into their age quite well in the years since.

Will this yellow-labelled Badashan cake keep up the standard?

2008 Menghai Bada Kongque

The full name of these badboys is "wucai [wu-tsai] kongque bingcha", "five-coloured peacock" bingcha. I recall that one of the remaining colours is red, and my tea records indicate that the other regions covered by this series are Bulang and Nannuo.

Depressingly, my spreadsheet also tells me that I paid $10 each for these cakes. How prices have risen, even in the past four years! I defy you to find any reliable cakes for $10 these days, let alone Menghai (the produce of which seems, inexplicably, to have been priced through the roof).

2008 Menghai Bada Kongque

Funnily enough, I seem to have four or five cakes of this yellow "Bada" version, which suggests that I rather liked it, along with the Menghai and Mengsong, which perhaps explains why articles exist for those two on the ol' Half-Dipper.

2008 Menghai Bada Kongque

You may recall the compression of Menghai Tea Co.'s mainstream productions: the leaves are quite small, and pushed together using hydraulics (unsurprisingly), which leaves me chipping away at a granite-like cake for some time. I am reminded of "Dwarven bread" from the Discworld novels of my childhood.

2008 Menghai Bada Kongque

You know the drill with Menghai: safe, solid, and by-the-numbers. We are not likely to be massively impressed with complexity or character, but we will be, at least, interested in a solid collection of regional flavours.

This Badashan cake fits the bill: its body is cooling and fresh, and it has the straightforward, unabashed, unadulterated kuwei [good throaty bitterness] that gives me that patented Menghai kick. The grassy, springtime character of Bada is present, beneath all that Menghai house style.

2008 Menghai Bada Kongque

This isn't a grand tea, but we wouldn't expect that for $10. I am surprised that, for such a small amount, so much can be delivered - this is the particular genius of the original Menghai Tea Co. They know what they're doing, and they do it well. They are rightfully famous for their mastery of unexalted blends, and this is recognisably Menghai.

Strong, clean, punchy, and aging nicely - what more can one hope from $10?

April, 2015

The first brew is so strong that I dilute the soup in the gongdaobei, and them remove half of the leaves from the pot.  I was not expecting such power.  After dilution, it is clean and sweet.  The fragrance of Badashan is apparent.  It is refreshing, and also highly cooling.  The quality of this humble cake (£10!) is obvious.  Menghai makes basic tea very well indeed - they have had a long time to practise.

It has aged well, without thinning.  This aging process is slower than would be achieved in hotter climes, but it is sweet, darkened, and pleasant.

13 July, 2012

2010 Gexiang "Daxueshan" and 2010 Mengku Jinqiao "Bainian Laoshu"

This season seems to be "educate Hobbes" season (a perpetually occurring event), in which I have been kindly provided with a tour of the output of shops that I have not previously encountered: Tea Urchin, Pu-erh.sk, Chawangshop, and, today, Bannacha.

2010 Gexiang Daxueshan
Small, fragmented leaves

Bannacha is run by a Frenchman (I think) by the name of William.  Has that been anglicised from Guillaume?  We may never know.

What we do know is that William has been around Yunnan quite a lot, over the course of something like four years.  He offers a small range of cakes for sale, which is, I think, a good way to go about things.  Sometimes less is more.

2010 Gexiang Daxueshan
The rinse starts out yellow, and oxidises to orange over the course of a minute or two

This first cake is from Daxueshan [big snow mountain] in Yongde County of Lincang prefecture, north of Simao prefecture, north of Xishuangbanna.  I forget where I saw it, but one reckoning of the availability of tea acreage in Lincang seemed to indicate that the (vast) majority of it is centred around Daxueshan, a large region surrounding a particularly high (~2.1 km) central mountain.  There are a few Daxueshan, as far as I can tell, scattered around the province; I suppose that "Big Snow Mountain" is a fairly generic name.

The leaves to this cake, pictured above, are small and fragmented, carrying a solid sweetness that tells us they are, at the very least, quite lively.  The colour is good: green-black.  Its producer, the Gexiang Tea Co., is entirely unknown to me, and is apparently based in Yongde County.

2010 Gexiang Daxueshan
Good leaves, with some fragmentation

The soup is a thick, straightforward yellow that gradually oxidises into orange.  The scent in the wenxiangbei [aroma cup] reminds me of the purple fruitiness that I have come to associate with Yongde leaves.

I liked this cake.  It is straightforward, "big", penetrating in its sweetness, and endures well as I continue to brew it.  Some roughness creeps into later infusions, depositing a green abrasiveness on the cheeks and tongue, which suggests that there is at least a portion of lesser leaves in the blend.  However, at $13/100g ($46 / 357g equivalent), it isn't the most expensive tea in the world, and so it can get away with being somewhat down-to-Earth.

Its penetrating sweetness goes a long way in my affections, but I decide to change gear and try a second cake from Bannacha after the first ten infusions...

2010 Gexiang Daxueshan

The first cake was accompanied by the excellent last album by Soulfly, "Omen"*.  In preparation for the forthcoming Mengku cake, I queue up the latest from Lamb of God, "Resolution".  As fans of the band will know, they are, despite the name, definitely not religious.  This genre of music goes surprisingly well with pu'ercha.  "Good Zen can happen even in downtown Tokyo", as they say.

*I recently saw Soulfly at a tiny gig in Oxford.  It's rare that my favourite bands come here, because it's a quiet little university town.  Max Cavalera is an impressive man.  I was less convinced when he invited his two Justin Bieber-esque sons to come on-stage to sing Sepultura numbers.  

2010 Mengku Jinqiao Bainian Laoshu

Bannacha has a penchant for minor tea companies, it seems, which is no bad thing.  This particular cake was made by an outfit called "Mengku Jinqiao", where the name "Bainian Laoshu" means "100-year old-tree".  Essentially, it is a claim that the leaves come from established trees, and William writes that the maocha was sourced from several villages around the Xibanshan region of Mengku County, also in Lincang prefecture.

2010 Mengku Jinqiao Bainian Laoshu

He writes that there are many varietals growing on Xibanshan, accounting for the varied appearance in the maocha blend, pictured above.  However, the leaves look healthy enough in colour and texture, and have a potently heavy scent of sweetness of which I heartily approve.

2010 Mengku Jinqiao Bainian Laoshu

Despite the impression that the above photograph might give, the soup is a pure yellow, and which gradually darkens in the air.  This cake seems more chunky and present than the Daxueshan.  It delivers a slug of heavy fruitiness in the nose, and provides a strong, sweet body that pushes all the way through the mouth.

2010 Mengku Jinqiao Bainian Laoshu

Like the Daxueshan, it is not absent some rough green abrasiveness on the cheeks and tongue, but the effect is much diminished, and easily controlled by removing a few leaves from the pot.  It is not a wildly complex tea, but it does provide pure, unadulterated sweetness from beginning to end, which is to be commended.

2010 Mengku Jinqiao Bainian Laoshu
"Bainian Laoshu"

Summing up, I enjoyed both of these cakes.  While they have the body of more down-to-Earth cakes, they provide plenty of Lincang sweetness and last forever.  It is this latter potency that lifts them above the crowd of everyday cakes.  The "Bainian Laoshu" cake at $39/357g is priced quite nicely, and, despite being a little less expensive than the Daxueshan, struck me as being the better cake.  It is also remarkable in that this is the first cake named "Bainian Laoshu" which wasn't entirely dreadful.  For some reason, the name is cursed.

Thanks again to William for the opportunity to try these solid Lincang cakes from two producers whom I've not come across before.  Drink them with some good music.

11 July, 2012

The Faint Red Line

Gaussian Process

a life depends
on the faint red line
pregnancy test

09 July, 2012

Pu-erh.sk 2010 Bangwei, 2011 Manzhuan, and 2011 Yibang

Peter of Pu-erh.sk was kind enough to send me a bunch of samples of his recent productions.  This is a risky endeavour, because the drinking public (c'est moi) is notoriously fickle!  I previously waxed lyrical about a 2009 Guafengzhai which is, I believe, not for sale, and a 2011 Mannuo which is for sale.  Both were really very good.

Today's trio, I'm afraid, are a little less amazing.  However, they made for an excellent session, and a fascinating tour of the region.  They all have in common a very good production.  Perhaps that which they also share is a tendency towards behaving like good leaves mixed with lesser leaves.  Let's examine the facts...

2010 Pu-erh.sk Bangwei

He wrote, pompously presenting his opinions as facts.  Naturally, you will take these as but one data-point in a series of noisy observations.

The Bangwei seems to have sold out, which is a good sign.  Only samples remain.  Peter notes a strong "bitter-sour" characteristic that turns sweet, in his product description.

2010 Pu-erh.sk Bangwei

As with all of these cakes, they look good.  Peter, in his tours of Yunnan, has developed a good eye for a pretty leaf, as pictured above.

Bangweishan is in Lancang County of Simao prefecture, north of Xishuangbanna and south of Lincang prefecture.  I used to confuse Lincang and Lancang for a long while, but am just about on top of it now.  Lancang is a river (the Mekong), and a county, while Lincang is a prefecture (containing many counties).

The soup is yellow-orange; it has an uncomprising, robust kuwei [good bitterness] that I admire.  The quality is obvious from its penetrating nature, its endurance, and the smooth-yet-complex series of textures and sensastions that give the attentive drinker something to discover.

After half-a-dozen infusions, however, it tastes rather mainstream, and is dominated by a rather rough, green, almost serrated flavour that reminds me of much lesser leaves.  Have the good leaves, which were so obvious in the opening infusions, been "cut" with plantation leaves?  I remember Nada, of Essence of Tea, recounting how one farmer from whom he sourced leaves confessed to this practice in some of his earlier dealings.

2010 Pu-erh.sk Bangwei

And so, we cracked open the Manzhuan - sourced from one of the canonical mountains in Mengla County of Xishuangbanna.

2011 Pu-erh.sk Manzhuan

Here, there is much less room for manoeuvre.  Everyone has tried plenty of "Banna" tea, and it remains a challenge to live up to expectations.

This cake opens well, with a dominant sweetness, and plenty of activity, and so initial impressions are very favourable.

2011 Pu-erh.sk Manzhuan

The trouble is, as with the Bangweishan, a distinct tendency towards the ordinary, and rather rough, in a fairly short time.

As a brief test, I passed an anonymous cup to my dear wife, who was writing cards to members of the family, updating them with our latest news (more of which later).  She took a sip, not knowing which tea she was drinking: "This is rather simple."

2011 Pu-erh.sk Manzhuan

My wife's instantly-given comment does, I'm afraid, rather sum up this tea.  It is so very hard to make good Mengla tea, and ensure that the leaves go the distance.  I fear that this Manzhuan, weighing in at the equivalent of a sizeable $61.50 / 357g, can't deliver on its promises.

2011 Pu-erh.sk Manzhuan

Finally, Yibang.  This mighty mountain, also in Mengla County, is famous for small leaves, fruity down-to-earth characteristics, and plenty of fun.  I've enjoyed many cakes (mostly from Yunnan Sourcing) from this and surrounding mountains over the years.

Hopes are high.

2011 Pu-erh.sk Yibang

Actually, checking my notes, it seems that all of the Yibang cakes that I've had before were autumnal teas.  This is a huge opportunity to impress, then, because the Pu-erh.sk leaves are from spring.  I confess to being rather excited as the kettle gets underway.

2011 Pu-erh.sk Yibang

It pours a straight yellow, which darkens rapidly in the air (pictured below). The scent is excellent in its potent fruitiness and sweetness, and so I remain hopeful that this cake has got it right.

2011 Pu-erh.sk Yibang

It has a vibrant, dry-cereal aftertaste that I enjoy very much, and has fine cooling sensations in the finish, along with light numbness on the lips.  The opening infusions have a seriously potent, heavy "chaqi" [or whichever nearest equivalent term your theology permits].

2011 Pu-erh.sk Yibang

You know the outcome to this story, however: it has a somewhat empty body which, as infusions pass, becomes only more empty.  I pile in more leaves in an attempt to compensate, so that the pot is entirely full, but this only delays the inevitable collapse into leafy green territory.

All of these teas opened well, which suggests that tasting maocha may be susceptible to the lure of the early infusion; only the best leaves (and those maocha not "cut" with lesser leaves) can make the sustained march into later infusions that is a prerequisite of good, proper pu'ercha, however.

Thanks again to Peter for the generous gesture in allowing me to try his output so far; there have been some genuinely impressive cakes in the line-up, and I look forward to seeing future successes in 2012 and years to follow.

06 July, 2012

2009 Puerh.sk "Guafengzhai"

Samples from Pu-erh.sk abound!  Copious uberthanks to Peter of this Slovakian teashop, which has already given us the impressive Mannuo cake, described previously.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I got rather excited at the prospect of tasting a hand-selected Guafengzhai, the popular and acclaimed region on the far border in Yiwu region.  I don't believe that this cake is for sale at the web-shop, and it may be one of Peter's first productions.

2009 Puerh.sk Guafengzhai

The long-running battle between me and my camera's colour-correction has been documented at length in the images shown on this humble web-site.  Pictured below, another shockingly-processed photograph gives the general impression of this cake's small leaves; in actual light, however, they are not particularly red (unlike the impression given by the photograph below).  Similarly unobtainable from the photograph is the strong, potent aroma of sweetness which is most encouraging.

2009 Puerh.sk Guafengzhai

However, the photograph below is, in this case, an accurate reflection of the colour of the soup, which is a solid orange.  The scent in the wenxiangbei is hand-made cakes at their finest: fat butter, heavy sweetness, clean and long-lasting.

The activity in the mouth is instant and obvious, covering the lips and tongue in a tingling sensation.  It sounds dreadful, but it feels entirely natural and is something that I have come to associate with better-quality, lively leaves, being an indication that they contain a good quantity of stuff.  This contrasts with emptier, tired leaves making up lesser productions.

2009 Puerh.sk Guafengzhai

The chaqi / caffeine / theanine / whodovoodoowhatyoudontdaredo is an absolute knock-out.  After several small cups, I perspire and feel rather dizzy.  The soup cheerfully delivers cooling, vibrant sensations for a good number of infusions, and I am left feeling rather exercised after a full session.

Nicely made, Peter - many thanks for the substantially challenging Guafengzhai that must have taken some time to select.