30 September, 2013

Imperial Class Star Destroyers

I like mighty tea.  There is a very good chance that you, Gentle Reader, also enjoy mighty tea.  That is, tea with oomph, tea that is going to go the distance, and which will age well (we hope).  We seek not just Star Destroyers, but Imperial Class Star Destroyers.  There is a big difference between the two.

Ironically, only the Death Star has the potential power to destroy stars.  Even then, I remain sceptical: certainly, we have seen documentary evidence that the Death Star can destroy planets, but stars?  There is a lot of extra mass in your average star, compared with a mere planetoid.  If the Death Star's ability to destroy stars is in question, then how much moreso is that of the "Star Destroyer", Imperial Class or otherwise?  We deserve to know.

Scott of Yunnan Sourcing has made some very proper tea over the years, and I think it's only getting better.  If you'll forgive the anachronism, I actually tried these 2012 cakes before we piled into the 2013 teas via the tasting event from earlier this year.  However, these 2012 cakes reap some serious souls, and I would like to discuss them with you.

First up for a little of the ol' soul reaping comes Sanhezhai [three-together villages].  Like many of the great things in life, we have absolutely no idea which ingredients went into this little number.  Scott keeps the blend a closely-guarded secret, as is his every right.  However, we know that two of the three villages are in Lincang.

Scott's blends benefit, in my opinion, from his willingness to traipse around outside 'Banna, and forays into Simao and Lincang diqu really help add some depth to his blends.  You don't see this a huge amount in the regular headline blends - at least, blenders don't admit to using such leaves.  The sweet-granary aspects of some of these regions are (to my tastes) pretty great, and they are proving to age really rather well in my humble collection.  So, I am happy merely to know that the mysterious Sanhezhai contains representation from some of these regions.

This tea feels very familiar to me, and yet it has only been produced once before, and that was in the autumn of the previous year (where it comprised leaves from autumn 2010 + spring 2011 + autumn 2011).  Imagine my excitement, if you will, at being sent a sample of a springtime version of this rock-solid blend (spring 2011 + spring 2012).

My journal notes that "This is a recovery session, starting at 5 a.m. after Schools Dinner."  The latter is the "goodbye" dinner for the graduating year of nine Engineering students in my college, held in the Master's dining room, and which is pretty heavy on the wine (understatement).  By sheer chance, the Chancellor of the university (the ex-Governor of Hong Kong) was presiding over another dinner in Hall for the folks who were being awarded honourary degrees at Encaenia the day after.  This means that they have a super-flash menu, but which, happily, was then served for our separate Engineering dinner by virtue of the fact that the chef didn't fancy running up two menus.  That's a big win, culinarily speaking.  We ended up playing table football in the college bar afterwards, in true engineering tradition.  I suck at table football.

There really is little better for a "morning after" solution than a strong pu'ercha.  I thoroughly recommend it to you next time you're a-hurtin'.

Apart from doing the business with my hangover, this is a mighty fine tea in its own right.  It has a soapy, sweet, and satisfyingly thick body - "I find myself loving it", I wrote.  There is a note of darkness underneath, some fruitiness, and piles of that Lincang-based sweet-grain flavour.  It has great presence in the back of the mouth, where it dwells.

It is absolutely first class, and only swells with passing infusions.  "It burns away the heavy dinner of the night before and makes me hungry in the extreme."  Good pu'ercha certainly kick-starts the metabolism.

The 2011 version was $24/400g (now currently cruising at $30), while this 2012 version is $31.  That price is very nice indeed, for the amount of laser-wielding Imperial Class firepower that this strong, flavoursome, and richly-based tea delivers.

Now, the Mangfeishan cake, on the other hand, is a different kettle of star destroyers.

As part of the recent tasting event, we encountered the 2013 Mangfeishan cake (the "iota" sample), which I found to be a bit watery, and a bit too bitter, without much else going for it.  I suspect that I may have misjudged the brewing, because this 2012 version is, by comparison, really rather rocking.

Mangfeishan is in Yongdexian, which is also a Lincang-region spot, and which is priced similarly to the Lincang-heavy Sanhezhai described above.  His previous xiaobing from the area was made from slightly aged maocha, and which was cheap and extremely cheerful.  This 2012 version is from "100-200 year-old trees", with a one leaf : one bud ratio.

I wrote "Its scent is obviously that of Yongdexian: thick, heavy, fruity, and enduring", which is more than I managed from the 2013 version, which was so strong that I assumed Bulangshan leaves.  I found this 2012 version to be full, strong, grassy in the beginning, and always dominated by the Yongde fruitiness that I came to appreciate through the prism of a series of older Yongde cakes from Scott sold some years back.  It expands to fill the mouth with its heavy character, and there is a dark base that I can imagine aging fairly well.  In the wide and charming world of pu'ercha, this strong, expansive little tea seems almost exotic.  Again, a mighty fine tea, with potential for the destruction of stars.

I am entirely unfamiliar with Ailaoshan, apart from the odd cake here or there.  This is real Simao diqu tea, bordering on Chuxiong diqu.  "Arguably some of the most remote tea gardens in all of Yunnan", writes Scott.

The leaves are fragmented, and that's fine.  The rinse has the obvious brown hue (heh) of Simao pu'ercha.  It's weird, but I can identify these cakes by the colour of the rinse these days.  I'm sure classification accuracy isn't 100%, but it's surprising how many Simao cakes have this unique hue.

For the record, this comes from Wangjiazhai [village] of Jingdongxian [county], but we are well away from my comfort zone in terms of geography at this stage.  "Way up there" is all I have it filed under, mentally, "sort of near Wuliangshan".

Happily, I completely adore Wuliangshan tea, and, by transitivity, this tea really makes me happy.  Granary scents like this remind me of Wuliangshan: long, then deep and caramelised.  There is a grassy rukou [initial flavour], and heavy sweetness in the best way of Simao grain.  Vibrancy, smoothness - highly enjoyable.

Incidentally, I drank this tea in between practice runs of a presentation that I was due to give as part of a job interview, back in July.  Consequently, I was entirely terrified, and this tea worked wonders at bringing me back down to earth.  The caffeine didn't hurt, either.

By the fourth infusion, I was detecting a solid lanxiang [orchid aroma] in the classical manner, and which was tangy, sweet, and quite challenging.  This cake is ever-so-slightly cheaper, at $25/400g, compared with the Sanhezhai and Mangfeishan cakes, and which therefore strikes me as being something of a bargain.

I promised myself that I would wait until I heard the outcome of the job interview before thinking about buying these cakes.  Note to self: I should really get onto Scott's web-site sometime soon.  They are Imperial Class indeed.

27 September, 2013

You're Everything I Despise

Contrary to the title, this article is, in fact, a discussion of teas from three sterling chaps (American English: "righteous dudes") in the world of Western-oriented pu'ercha.  It just so happened that I was listening to the new Chimaira album at the time.  Lyrics about "broken dreams and empty promises" certainly sound a lot like the product descriptions of many modern pu'er cakes, however!  Ho ho ho.

That'll be the Chimaira

The name of the game today is a head-to-head match between three well-known masters of disaster:

SCOTT (a.k.a. "Master Shredder") of Yunnan Sourcing,
PETER (a.k.a. "The Streptococcal Infection") of Pu-erh.sk,
DAVID (a.k.a. "One-Inch Punch") of Essence of Tea.

In the red corner, the 2012 Gaoshanzhai from Yunnan Sourcing...

The 2011 Gaoshanzhai was deluxe.  The 2011 autumn version of same was OK, but autumnal.  Setting the scene for this cake, my son (as I was warming up the kettle) required EMERGENCY assistance in a matter pertaining to the bowels, namely his, and the lavatory.  Being a father is completely awesome, but you do need to have good reactions.  I am the top gun of the potty training world right now.

What better way to get me in the mood for a tea session?  Unlike my son, this tea has a fresh and clean scent.  Scott makes razor-sharp teas that are precision strikes to critical locations in the affections.  He has accumulated some years of flying such missions, and is getting rather good at it by now.

This particular sortie is vibrant and satisfying in that Big Yiwu way, while remaining beefy and strong.  There is sweetness to be had, but it is in the back of the throat.  It is not "sweet tea".  The base of heavy, dark Yiwu appeals to the imagination: it is a quality that one could easily extrapolate into being good several years down the line.  It has tons of caffeine, and manages to stay at least sweet and clean into its end infusions.

As with all of the teas today, it ain't cheap, in any respect.  This is $86/250g, which makes it $123 for a bing equivalent-weight.  That's not terrifying, compared to the casual extortion of many recent cakes made available to Westerners, but is more than I would be comfortable paying for this particular cake.  Everyone has their threshold: this cake's quality-price ratio is below mine, nice as it is.  Perhaps I'm just tighter than most.

Next up, bringing the mother-blanking ruckus, is the 2013 Guafengzhai from Pu-erh.sk.

As you can tell from the above, this is maocha and it looks good.  Those long, slinky leaves simply refuse to have anything to do with the damp interior of my pot, as if they are just far too good for it.  I listen attentively to their plight before shoving really hard, stuffing them ingloriously into the belly of my favourite pot.  Today, I just don't have the energy for all that pre-dampening of the leaves in the chahe [tea-dish].

Peter has made some cakes that I have loved longtime in the past, which is fair to say of all three protagonists in today's mash-up.  This leafy-green maocha is fine, but not quite up to the stratospheric heights that some of his cakes have previously occupied.  To be fair, I did have a slightly blocked nose on the day that I tried this tea, but I did detect the pungent sweetness of the dry leaves, and the floral notes in the cup.

It has a good, honey-like edge, a touch of grass, a touch of caramel-style finish in the throat, presumably from the kill-green stage of the processing.  Even with my irritated nose, this deposits an actual bouquet after the swallow.  Its texture, while not thick, is decent.

I don't believe that this maocha is for sale - it was an excellent opportunity to try a fresh maocha from the now-much-sought-after "GFZ" region, however.  You have to be careful with maocha, storage-wise, and I wonder if Peter has since turned this into cakes.  My journal seems to end with, "Something seems to prevent me from loving this tea: it is decent maocha, but perhaps a touch closer to the prosaic than some more elevated examples."

Finally, the most expensive cake this year from Essence of Tea.  This 2013 Guafengzhai cake is limited to one per customer - I have one of the 2012 cakes which is really rather good.

Before we get into discussions about whether or not we would prefer this tea (at £160/357g) or the 2003 Zipinhao for a similar price, it's time to drink the actual cake.  Too many teas have been ruined by discussions of their price.

My journal has, "As far as appearance goes, this is one of the best" - it has heavy, long leaves and was the first sample that I tried out of a recent box generously provided by David.  This seemingly came from "Chawangshu" [tea-king tree], in Guafengzhai, and "is good as young Yiwushan tea could ever hope to be", as I have it in my journal.  It is thick, sweet, complex, and enduring.

The colour is a heavy yellow that looks as if it could easily collapse into a dense orange given a year or two.  It runs to the back of the mouth and, while it has kuwei [good bitterness], it is the kuwei of old trees: omnipresent, but not dominant.

Gently cooling on the breath, it causes me to breathe a sigh of relief.  By the eighth infusion, it is more down-to-earth, but there are few unaged shengpu that can stretch to such lengths.  A fine session.

Was there any winner?  Perhaps, to use a cliché, I was the only winner.

After all, three great teas, three great sessions - surely this is the reason that we play this game.

25 September, 2013

Mr. Anaconda

Mr. Anaconda
I'm going to put you in a pie
and eat you for my tea

23 September, 2013

How High is Your High-Tech?

Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

This cake is called "Gaokeji", which means: "High Tech". I completely adore both the name and the cake.

Let us first consider the name, because it is quite an obstacle.

An appropriate montage for this cake

I showed this cake first to my dear wife, and then, separately, to her sister.  Both of them had the same reaction: a wrinkled nose, raised eyebrows, and an "ARE YOU KIDDING ME" appearance.  Both then started laughing.

To say that the name is "naff" is not really fair.  The same is so naff, so massively naff, that it has ceased being naff - it has transcended naff, and has instead passed through into the tranquil lagoon on the other side of naffness, which is actually rather cool.

Therefore, I completely love the name.  You need serious jones and co-jones to name a cake in such a way, and it reminds me of my assessment of the 2012 Jazzcake.

After all, not every cake has to be called "Chawang Laoshu Qiaomu Zhengshan".  I recall fondly the 2006 TEA EMPEROR, which was so smug that it needed a slap.

My expectations upon opening this cake were approximately zero, because it was Scott's bingcha equivalent of a house blend, in the sense that it comprises all of his leftover (good) samples, combined into a massive patchwork of pu'ercha.

It turns out that having rock-bottom expectations makes them very easy to exceed.

This cake certainly does exceed them.  Pictured above and below, this cake looks charming: it also looks ragged and heterogeneous.  Perhaps like a mongrel dog, or even a hybrid person with parents of wildly differing genetic stock, the results are actually rather strong.

The wenxiangbei [aroma cup] holds the aroma of freshly-made pu'ercha, which I always associate with the term "buttery"; it has a tinge of caramelisation, perhaps from the heat.  The plain yellow tea promises much - far more than its mixed background would suggest.

This cake is testament to the fact that, sometimes, everything works out for the best.  We are all aware of the "garbage in, garbage out" phrase - used in my field to represent the fact that, no matter how good one's statistical model, if meaningless and noisy input data are provided, then the outputs will be similarly meaningless.  This cake is the opposite of "garbage in, garbage out", in that Scott has been careful to use only good ingredients in the hyper-mixture.

The result is a multicoloured explosion of everything and nothing, and I like it very much indeed.

It might be my imagination, but I convince myself that I can detect Yiwu sweet straw in the classical genre, Simao sweet grain, heavy pollinated grassiness not unlike Badashan, fruitiness of interior Lincang, and even floral notes that could be akin to those of Nannuoshan.  Half the challenge, and half the fun, of drinking this cake is that "you never know what you're gonna get".

My journal has the following, with which I leave you as a succinct descriptor:

"It is a delightfully fresh mess, and I love it."

20 September, 2013

Big (and Fake?) Dayi

I am, perhaps like a lot of people, rather keen on the better Dayi cakes and their proven record when it comes to aging.  They range from the simple-but-excellent to complex-and-excellent, and are one of the few near-certainties in the highly uncertain world of pu'ercha.  Dayi special productions (although not the regular recipes) are currently the subject of market speculation, resulting in crazy price-rises for those particular cakes.  It is a very localised form of asset bubble.

While not a "special", the Dayi 501 (pictured below) is very good and well worth a look.  Apache and I have tried, and failed, to find much available in the way of 501, having to settle for 502 instead.

Dayi 501

This article concerns an alleged sample of 501, which turned out to be anything but.

Dayi 501 Fake?

Apache noted that the wrapped of the 501 potentially-fake tuocha that he bought had been opened, and that there was no neifei - hence his concerns.

Dayi 501 Fake?

The leaves look good, being large and reasonably dark, although they are obvious red with respect to the genuine darkness of actual 501.

Dayi 501 Fake?

The rinse has a suspicious brown-yellow colour, which only becomes orange when there is sufficient quantity of soup in the gongdaobei [fairness cup] to mask its original appearance.

Dayi 501 Fake?

Its flavour is classically fake: it is not potent (where it should be, given the strength of 501), but the aging process has given it a simple, mellow warmth.  There is no pine-like charm, no huigan [returning sweetness], no Dayi character, just gradual maltiness with a calm sweetness.

The tang in the mouth has the curious character of lingering chemicals, not the cooling vibrancy of real tea.  I abandon it immediately, and will clean the pot carefully.  Silly me - I should have used a glazed gaiwan.

The 2007 "Anxiang" is textbook speculation.

2007 Dayi Anxiang

Pictured above is the shupu version; the shengpu version is a different colour.

2007 Dayi Anxiang

"Anxiang" refers to a dark, mellow, and light scent.  I remember one of the few classical poems that I actually know in Chinese, and hazard a guess.  "Yes, that is where it comes from!" says my dear wife, as surprised as I am.  The name of this cake is sometimes rendered as "secret fragrance", which isn't quite right.

This cake started out at around £30, and is currently topping a rather pointless £100.

2007 Dayi Anxiang

The leaves, pictured above, are tiny and dark, with the faintest of scents.  Added to the damp, warm pot, they reveal an aroma of dark, dried fruit.

2007 Dayi Anxiang

I am greeted with a proper scent, heavy and sweet.  As you can see from the above, the soup is a rich orange.  This is good Dayi: it is clean, smooth, silken in texture, cooling, and has good kuwei.  It is dense, fun, and has just the right degree of challenge to be appealing, and to suggest that its best is yet to come.

2007 Dayi Anxiang

I was impressed by the Anxiang, but it needs a lot of leaves to get the most out of it.  The cooling kuwei even corresponds to a vivid feeling on the lips, which is quite unexpected for a Dayi cake.

While this is very solid and enjoyable tea, it needs to be bought at its original price rather than the inflated new price, I suspect.  Certainly, I would not feel comfortable buying it at £100 - I remember looking at these cakes in 2007 when they were produced, and cannot imagine paying so much for them.

There are, after all, plenty more Dayi fish in the sea.  The teasphere tends to get a bit over-fixated on certain cakes.

Dayi 501 Fake?

Shown above, the fake 501 and the 2007 Anxiang.  I leave it as an exercise, Gentle Reader, to determine which is which.

18 September, 2013

Leaving Home

leaving home
stomach filled with love
and barley

16 September, 2013

Old and... Good?

Some big ones and some fun ones, today.
Gentlemen, start your engines: a 1998 Zhongcha (i.e., CNNP) which is "Xianggangcang" - Hong Kong stored.  With thanks to white2tea.

1998 Zhongcha Xianggangcang

I don't drink a lot of "Hong Kong tea", but I do like it.  This example, pictured below, has some some paranormal humidity, however.  That colour is approximately accurate.

1998 Zhongcha Xianggangcang

The dry leaves are indeed grey on the outside; their size is small, and they are highly fragmented.  The blend appears to include stems.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the soup turns out to be a heavy red, as pictured below.

1998 Zhongcha Xianggangcang

If this is shengpu, then its storage must have been extreme, given that this redness has been achieved so rapidly.  It has the powdered texture of shupu, but the cooling aftertaste and strength of body suggests shengpu.  I imagine that pure shupu subjected to these storage conditions would be much emptier than this full-bodied mystery.  I rather like it: shupu, but with backbone, some cooling sensations, and even a little kuwei [good bitterness].
Later infusions become very simple very quickly, and the kuwei soon vanishes (by the third infusion); perhaps it is shupu after all.  I understand that this cake is the subject of a detective game with his friends in Beijing, and its provenance remains undecided.

I got excited about this cake when it came to the writing stage.  I have previously tried the 2004 version, and the 2005 version has been hyped significantly by Clouds.  I liked the latter and, independently, appear to have recently bought a cake from Taobaowang (thanks to Apache) without realizing that it was the same thing.  Silly me.
This cake, however, is the 2006 Shuangjiang Mengku "Daxueshan", and therefore completes the series of three consecutive years.  Is it as good as the 2005?

2006 Shuangjiang Mengku Daxueshan

Shuangjiang Mengku is a lo-fi company, but one that you ignore at your peril: their tough, strong little cakes tend to age rather well.  I have a bunch of their various recipes from the mid-2000s, and am impressed each time I try them.  They're not amazingly complex, but they are mighty good.

2006 Shuangjiang Mengku Daxueshan

The eponymous "big snow mountain" is in Lincang, one of my favourite locations.  While everything looks pretty outside, these leaves are appealing: they are quite large, fairly dark, and have a thoroughly convincing aroma of sweet tobacco.
Tobacco is something that Shuangjiang Mengku does very well, and is a personal favourite (in pu'ercha).

2006 Shuangjiang Mengku Daxueshan

I appreciate its yellow soup, and its heavy scent of tobacco and fruits.  Lincang teas always appeal to me.  As I write, a hundred dapples of willow-light dance over the page.

2006 Shuangjiang Mengku Daxueshan

This is a pleasant tea, and I have half a mind to pursue it.  The body is smooth and heavy; the aftertaste is enduring and sweet, leaving the scent of tobacco in the nose.  It blends delightfully with the honeysuckle in our garden.  Who could not be soothed by the rustle of willow branches in the gentle, fragrant breeze?

2006 Shuangjiang Mengku Daxueshan

A granary base exerts itself from the third infusion.  After two litres, the Daxueshan continues to be smooth, sweet, and solid in its texture.  I should definitely look at the price of this cake.

2006 Shuangjiang Mengku Daxueshan

Hmm, it is some $46 at Yunnan Sourcing.  Perhaps I will re-examine the 2005 version, which sells for much less via Taobaowang.  I'll revisit this page at a later stage...

13 September, 2013

Donkey Xikong

Today, a collection of samples generally provided by Scott of Yunnan Sourcing from the Xikong region, between Yibangshan and Manzhuanshan in Mengla county of Xishuangbanna.  This is the "sweet, fruity, and easy-going" end of the region, as my tastebuds usually have it.

The cake from Jiabu is a new venture for Scott, as far as I know; certainly, this is the first that has been explicitly attributed to the region.  As buyers become more interested in the many peaks and regions around Yibangshan, perhaps this increased geographical resolution is natural.

The little leaves have a pleasantly buttery scent - but the wenxiangbei [aroma cup] is interesting, in that it has an invisible scent.  It is not absent - there is something definitely present in the aroma cup - it is merely that it does not register with my (usually not entirely insensitive) nose.  At long last, the scent collapses into the regular dark-sugars of an orthodox lengxiang [cool-scent].

This introverted "invisibility" continues in the mouth: it is a "sensations" tea, rather than a "flavour" tea, with the a soothing, rich sweetness being about all that I can detect.  The base is heavy and gradual, and it unfolds well in the throat.  Later infusions see a slow development into a "cough sweet" variety of dark sweetness.  It is not floral, sweet, or in any way "feminine" - and this femininity is something that I typically attribute to teas from this general region.  It is heavy and lingering in the mouth and throat.

It's very real base suggests good things, although something of a sour edge creeps into the fourth infusion that prevents me from getting extraordinarily excited.  It is an education - entirely different to the cakes from its neighbouring Xikong...

The 2011 Xikong from Scott was an autumn cake, but it completely rocked my tiny world.  Many of us prayed aloud for a spring-time version!  The pu'ercha pantheon must have heard our supplications, for a spring-time version is available in Scott's 2012 range...

Xikong is small-leaf, and this particular cake sells for $86/250g xiaobing, making it quite expensive (per kilogram).  I am fascinated to see how this one turned out, given my enormous love of the autumn cake from 2011.

Scott writes that the maocha comes from trees that are several centuries old.  The condition of the leaves, pictured above and below, is good, recalling their xiaoye [little-leaf] variety.

The wenxiangbei [aroma cup] is stacked full of the buttery tones that I associate with new teas, and with Scott's teas in particular.  The soup is yellow, and the first infusions turn out to be a fine mixture of strength, sweetness, and fruitiness - something that teas from the Yibangshan / Manzhuanshan region seem to share.

Initial notes of smokiness, which usually dissipate with age, are gone by the second infusion.  The body is formed around a core of kuwei [good bitterness] with a grainy sweetness present, which it shares in common with the 2011 autumnal version.

The flavour of some sort of roasting was suggested in the first infusion, and this persists in later infusions - I wonder if this has been imparted by the artificial-drying stage that some of these cakes undergo.  It comes and goes - present in one mouthful, absent in the next, even within the same cup.

Its strength is good, but it is a citric strength without a broad base, in contrast to the autumnal friendliness of the 2011.  My journal has "it is too similar to much less expensive teas to be worth $86/250g", and I would stand by that, on retasting.  It is good, but not that good.  This might be one of those few instances in which I seem to prefer the autumnal version.  I wonder if you agree.