After a recent tea exchange with the generous proprietor of the Taiwan based Origin Tea , I have been whimsically drifting through a variety of aged teas. The slightly more mature teas are a pleasant break from drinking raw 2013 Spring/Fall samples. Nothing against the young and the raw, but fall and winter are a great time for darker teas.
The 2005 Chen Guang He Tang tea was apparently not made by Chen Zhi Tong, but it was purchased by him. Purchasing tea might not sound sexy, but having great taste and picking good tea is a skill unto itself. As Ira Glass once pointed out, killer taste is how every great artist begins their journey.
This tea is supposedly wild tea from the Menghai region, an expansive area that I expansively love. The tea has likely been stored in Taiwan for most of its life (never checked this fact). The taste is similar to Taiwan storage, and the color of the soup is on it’s way to a mature brown. The tea holds a tempered edge of sweetness.
The smells on the lid of the gaiwan are richer than any run of the mill menghai blend. Malty and thick with a smell of caramel and light cigar wrappers.
The soup continues to be smooth and sweet in the mouth. There is depth that most menghai cakes touch the edge of, but unfortunately most cakes rarely breech the boundary into depth and complexity. In the middle of the session, this tea dips into that trench. What awelcome companion for this cool afternoon, I should hope I try this tea again in the future. Many thanks to Origintea for the sample.
One of my all-time favorite Onion articles is “Fuck Everything, We’re doing 5 Blades.” It seems directly related to tea companies naming their teas with ever loftier names like the Tea King of this or that region.
Tea King? Fuck you, Tea Emperor. I imagine a scene with a coked out Tea CEO yelling angrily at a boardroom full of underlings, “Oh, no, what will people say?! Grow the fuck up. When you’re on top, people talk. That’s the price you pay for being on top. Which [Xiaguan] is, always has been, and forever shall be… Tea Emperor? Tea God.”
If anyone from Xiaguan reads this, and the boardroom meetings are anything like my fantasy, please send video.
The Tea Emperor has an atypical smell for Xiaguan. None of the smoke or the burly lumberjack manliness. It smells soft and sweet.
8.8 grams of tea, how lucky. Heavily fragmented, lots of crumbs pouring out on every steep, the 8.8 grams is probably down to 7 now. The fragments are a product of the dust I chose to steep, the cake is just typical small varietal leaves and some chop.
The first rinse is very cloudy. Subsequent steeps follow suit and taper off.
Early steeps taste a bit like a sweet egg cream cake on entry. Lots of astringency in this young cake. Soup is gold colored.
Thick on the finish with a subtle huigan [sweet aftertaste] that is mostly overshadowed by the astringency of the puer tea.
Prices online seem to vary, roughly about $30-$50 per cake, which seems fine to me. There is a nice finish to the cake that a lot of teas which cost more lack. I have no idea how this tea will age though. The flavor of the cake is somewhat foreign to me. What I labeled as egg cream cake is a sickly kind of white sweetness. I don’t know what that is or how it will age. Would be fun to try in 5 years, if only for the sake of research.
Ah, yet another king of tea, this time, an Yiwu tea king [cha wang]. The warring states in the Puer tea kingdoms have yet to decide on their one true ruler. With more claims to the monarchy than Game of Thrones, it is always interesting to see which teas can hold their own on the battlefield… Winter is coming.
This cake has a much better claim to the throne than most “tea kings”. The cake is beautiful to look at. Some large leaves and medium compression. Its smell is lightly smokey, probably some leftovers from extra heat during processing. After a rinse, the gaiwan lid has aromas of vanilla, while the leaves have a scent of prunes. This cake is heavy on aromas, which continued evolving throughout.
The first steep was mildly sour on the tongue. Early in the session, a persistent huigan [sweet aftertaste] came into the mouth. Some calming qi, and a bit of energy in the caffeine realm. (Perhaps I went overboard when filling my gaiwan – I noted I was listening to Kanye, which is a rare tea session accompaniment and says a lot about the strength of my brew) The Yiwu tea king apparently has a penchant for American hip hop.
This Yiwu feels like it has strength enough to age, and even being two years old, has a slight aged taste to it already -or at least, it does not taste young. With a strong presence and pleasant malty sweetness, this session was very much enjoyable. Chenguanghe Tang (CGHT) Yiwu Tea King cakes are always welcome in my gaiwan – if someone else is paying.
This was a post from an old session, cleaning out some backlogs of notes.
The long list of fraudulent and dangerous food additives is daunting. Not that we needed evidence of mankind’s thirst for increasing profits at the expense of consumer welfare. No doubt our leaves are also victim to the trend.
A search for ‘tea’ returns around 20 results of bad additives and trickery; colored saw dust, Prussian blue, and copper salts. Prussian blue?! That is a lovely pigment, but I wouldn’t want to find it in the bottom of my cup. The next time you encounter a particularly blue-ish black tea, you might want to call a doctor.
In addition to these, there are also several results for teas of wrong “botanical origin”, that is, ‘tea’ that is not tea at all.
The research that snared my interest above the rest was the “tea of non-authentic geographic origin” test. Any puer lover, or tea lover of any kind for that matter, ought to know this is a common form of tea fraud. The scientists seem to have studied the origin by:
Classifying the variety, production area and season of Taiwan partially fermented tea by near infrared spectroscopy
Where would one acquire such a machine? How wonderful it would be to save time drinking fraudulently labeled puer. Zapping leaves and knowing their region, variety, and maybe even date? Swoon.
Puer fakes are everywhere. From my recently mentioned worst Bingdao fake in history, to some really convincing 80’s Xiaguan bricks I plan to mention in a future article. I am really yearning for a magic tea lasergun.
Is this Laobanzhang? Zap. Nope.
Is this Taiwan Oolong? Zap. Nope.
Where can i buy this mystical machine?
Maybe my fantasy is romanticizing the accuracy of such a device, but it is still nice to dream. Given that these tests were conducted by trained scientists with fancy labs, we common folk will probably need to wait until their is an infrared spectroscopy function and app for our iPhone 79s.
Somewhere along the line, huangpian [the huge, yellow/gold leaves in some puer blends] got a bad rap for being ugly. In most Chinese markets, consumers will pay a premium for buds, or two leaves and a bud. Maybe it is carry over from enthusiasts of other teas? Maybe most people find them aesthetically displeasing? Maybe people hate (or think they hate) the flavors of the big leaf? Whatever the reason, it is a modern aesthetic. Traditionally, the huangpian, also called jintiao [golden strands] in the past, were left in when processing cakes. Even the shift in nomenclature from huangpian to jintiao suggests a widespread lowering of its status.
However, this shift is actually good news for people like me who enjoy huangpian for a few reasons:
I can buy huangpian that other people pick out of their puer for a discount
When you tell farmers you want to keep some huangpian in your blend, they love you because it increases their tea weight and lightens the work load
You can feel superior to the whiny princesses out there who want perfect, pretty tea. Toughen up, Sally.
Some people’s love of huangpian is so deep they don’t drink anything else. The above cake was that I got from a farmer in Guafengzhai who said he drinks majority huangpian from fall. He told me that he prefers them because they are not as fussy, and he pressed the cake above to give to friends who visit. Admittedly, this is more cost effective than gifting high grade gushu [old arbor tea]. But, I appreciate the gift. Gushu huangpian is in my tea rotation.
There is a litany of other reasons why huangpian are great, but this artcle is going to focus on just one; it is perfect for drinking before bed.
Huangpian: Lower Caffeine, Better Dreams
Huangpian have naturally lower caffeine than the leaves which are higher on the stalk. I learned this just from trial and error. You brew a pot of huangpian and steep it 5 times and there isn’t a caffeine kick like a fresh green tea or other young puer tea. Luckily, someone out there actually did scientific testing to back up my casual observations (Thank you, Elmwood Inn):
Nigel Melican’s caffeine percentage findings are:
Second leaf- 3.6%
Two leaves and a bud-4.2%
Stealing Mr.Nigel Melican’s data, we can see that there is a steady decline in caffeine content as you go down the stem. Reason enough to keep a pot of huangpian near the bed stand.
The other important fact to take away from his study is that the amount of caffeine that remains in the leaves decreases as you steep. If you are particularly sensitive to caffeine, you could brew and toss the first few steeps and get an even lower caffeine intake.
The other obvious solution for the caffeine sensitive tea drinker is just drinking caffeine free herbals or warm goat’s milk, but if you have read this far in the article, you are probably a puer addict anyway. Herbal? Come on. Who are you trying to kid?
For me, it is a matter of mood. I do drink herbal teas. Fresh mint or licorice root are favorites on mine at night. But, sometimes I need that depth. A huigan [sweet aftertaste] or kuwei [bitterness] or a mineral feel in the mouth. And my trusty ol’ huangpian are there to rescue me.
Once in awhile there is a sample that makes you throw up your hands and say, “Come on! You aren’t even trying!”
This “Bingdao” tea is to Bingdao what baking soda volcanoes are to science fairs. A last minute frantic attempt to salvage poor quality work and a lack of understanding of the assignment.
Well, here we are Jimmy. Let’s take a look at this fascinating study of Mt. Vesuvius, before we throw this in the trash and send you to remedial science with a purple Participant! ribbon.
On the rinse, things are still a bit tight, nothing really happens. A quick note to anyone unfamiliar with Bingdao, it is an area that has the honor of being amongst the most expensive of all puer regions. I have had real bingdao only a handful of times, and over 95% of what is labeled as Bingdao is not Bingdao – similar to Laobanzhang in volume of fakery. Buyer beware.
Then on steep one, BAM! A baking soda explosion of foam, er, uh… fragrance. But not subtle fragrance. More of an uppercut to the jaw . The smell is of sweet fruit and is chemical in nature. Kind of like the strawberry flavor of Nesquick, which tastes nothing at all like an actual strawberry, but everything like the vague idea of fruit that is imagined in a far away laboratory. This artificial smell fills the room like an old ladies perfume, reducing my interest in this session from a 7 to a 1.
By the way, no offense intended towards Nesquik and their corporate overlords. I’d rather drink their crappy* product than this tea.
I gave up around steep 4. Here are pics for anyone who cares about the soup and leaves. I won’t waste your time describing the thin liquid that was left when the perfume was gone. Enough of this Bingdao impostor, to the garbage with thee.
Let’s not end a post on such disgusting tea. Has any else been listening to the new Sly & he Family Stone box set Higher! ? Or how about that Breaking Bad finale? Let’s talk about anything but this tea.
Anyone who has talked puer with me knows that I am a Guafengzhai fan boy. Not quite to the level of Beiber fever screaming and hysterics, but i play the album often. Guafengzhai is an area far East of Yiwu, on the border with Laos. It is a village of Yao minority people surrounded by mountain jungles, with three main tea picking areas; Chaping, Baishahe, and Chawangshu. In addition to those areas, which in my fan boy opinion are some of the best puer areas anywhere, they also have some younger plantation teas. This 2008 Guafengzhai is one of those super young plantation teas – I believe one of the first years they made xiaoshu[little tree] tea using local material, or this is how it was disclosed to me from the source.
Being a Belieber in Guafengzhai, before it even comes on stage, I am lost in fantasies of our future together. How it will slowly step down off the stage and press through the crowd, gaze fixed on me. Motioning for the security guards to step aside and pushing through the throngs of other desperate eager puer fanboys. “Come to me. We were meant for each other,” I mouth to the Guafengzhai. It winks at me and picks me up in its long stemmed arms. Or at least, these were my expectations for the session.
We all continually relearn the same lessons in life. My lesson today? Expectation is the precursor to disappointment. Desire the source of all pain. Did the Buddha ever have plantation Guafengzhai?
Plantation Teas and Thinness
Without getting into a bunch of sticky and dangerous talk about the difference between gushu [old arbor] and xiaoshu [little tree, plantation] teas, let me preface by saying there are exceptions to most rules. If you want to talk about stem size. Or veins. Or leaf thickness. Or depth of flavor. Or thinness. Or Body. Or _____. There is almost always an exception. If anyone wants to write a definitive “Gushu is always ______” list, be my damn guest. I am not poking that hornets’ nest.
What I will say is that plantation teas generally have less body and staying power, meaning that they are thin in the mouth and die out after a shorter number of steeps. These two factors are what made this session fall short.
The good points, on the first rinse this tea was deeply fragrant. Low purple fruit in the gaiwan, very sweet in the cup.
In the third steep two strange things happened. First, a strong smell of Stilton cheese on the leaves – which I have no explanation for, especially considering this tea was dry stored and blue cheese sharpness usually shows up with wet stored teas that have a bit of mold. Second, there was an abrupt and intense astringency. Also, not something I can explain, as I rarely associate Guafengzhai with astringency. The astringency quickly passed however, and was gone on the next steep.
Later in the session ,around the fifth steep, the tea drifted off into thin oblivion, with nothing left to offer. So, there I stood, having the painful realization that my expectations were too high. I did a couple of oversteeps for research and pitched the rest. There are many fish in the sea, and many other teas in my cabinet. No sense in spending time dreaming about this one, especially since I have my own Spring Guafengzhai cakes on the bench.
Cloudy Tea & the Trappings of Conventional Opinion
After countless experiences being proven dead wrong when speaking in puer absolutes, I should know better by now. Today’s tea, a 2001 ManSong raw puer pushes back on a couple of puerisms that many people toss around:
Aged teas tend to lose their youthful fragrances over time in non-dry storage
Cloudy soup is an indicator of “bad” tea
Both of these pieces of knowledge are generally true. An aged tea will often leave it’s floral scents of youth after a decade, or sometimes much faster, depending on the storage. And cloudy soup can be an indicator of a variety of woeful situations, like tea picked after rain or even poor processing, both things which tend to impact the quality of the tea.
Nine times out of ten, these things are right. And then you have the tenth tea.
This tea is roughly a decade old, but smells more fragrant than most young teas.
The first rinse left an intoxicating aroma in the gongbei [shared cup], but as you can see from the image above, it is very low on the clarity scale. Once in awhile you get some fall teas picked after heavy rain which are less cloudy than this. I have no idea where this opacity comes from, but most puer snobs would scoff at the color of the liquor.
I am a snob and I scoffed as well. Then, I took a sip, followed by a bite of humble pie. The first steep had remnants of astringency, but was smooth and thick in the back of the throat. A mix of fruity caramel flavors and a fast huigan [sweet aftertaste] that followed a light bitter body. Don’t judge books by their covers and all that.
Speaking of prejudice, I was a little bit down on ManSong tea and several other teas from that area before this Spring. Probably because I had a few bad encounters and wrote it off. After visiting several areas around Xiangming and ManZhuan I changed my opinion. Just another re-learning of the lesson to keep an open mind and two open eyes when looking for good tea.
* Might be wrong on the date here, but that is what the farmer wrote on a slip of paper in the bag
After spotting this artful teapot in late 2012, I contacted its maker Petr Novák of the blog Pots and Tea to see if the pot had an owner. I introduced myself and put my name in to reserve the teapot, and began to patiently wait (I only e-mailed him once every few weeks…) for Petr to finish his “Gem Series” and wait for my pot and cups to arrive. A few weeks ago I got a call from China post, letting me know that they had conveniently delivered the package across the city and would not deliver it to my door. Passport in hand, I braved the traffic and went to pick up the long awaited package, traveling 10 km across the city. For those of you not familiar with major Chinese cities, 10 kilometers can translate to an hour in bad traffic.
Those of you with a keen eye for Petr’s work may have noticed some of his cups in a few recent posts. I strongly recommend you check out his work, as his pieces are a rare kind functional art, made by a man who cares about both tea and the form of objects. It is a treasure when an artist has an intimate relationship with the functionality of the object they produce. How many ceramic artists really drink puer?!
There is an old adage that says you should never trust a skinny cook. By the same token, never trust a ceramicist who doesn’t drink puer.
Many thanks to Petr. You can contact him and purchase his works at Pots and Tea blog.
My first impression is the huigan [sweet effect] is fast in cup number one. There is a bubble gum sweetness with some hints of over roasting or “sun flavor”. There is some feeling similar to Mengsong in the first cup.
The following is more of the same. On the light side of bitterness, with a sweet draw in the mouth, and palpable astringency. This tea reads like an above average Mengsong tea. It lacks staying power and is not into the “deep side” of what a tea like this could be. Then again, I have no idea what this tea is or where it is from, so who knows.
Immediately straw and sweet grains. Tastes like a Sanhezhai area Yiwu tea in the first steep. Sewei [astringency] is a bit strong. In previous articles I tried to avoid using locational descriptions for these blind taste tests, but it would be difficult to describe this flavor other than Yiwu sugar straw. The soup is a consistent marigold color.
More of the same from this tea in later steeps. I am a little underwhelmed by these too offerings. Price is a big factor for cakes like this. If the price is low, these cakes would be a decent buy. If the price is high, I think these cakes can’t justify the mark up. For my personal collection, I already have some outstanding examples of teas like this, so I won’t be opening my wallet for Eta or Gamma.