27 June, 2013

Tea with Didi

A little book-keeping before we start today: we are running two tasting events - the first, kindly put together by Scott of Yunnan Sourcing; the second, kindly put together by Jerry of China Chadao.  My selection criteria for participants was straightforward: I simply sorted my "tea" e-mails in date order and selected the last ten people who had e-mailed me, which is as democratic a process as any.

You should be receiving your samples directly from Scott or Jerry soon - do please have a go with them in your own time.  I will put up some pages to collect our opinions on each tea when I return from a forthcoming academic visit to Japan, which should be sometime around the end of July / early August.  Feel free to write about the teas wherever you wish; I will merely use the Half-Dipper pages to collect your comments and, of course, reveal the names of the teas - when they are eventually disclosed to me...

We are all busy people, no doubt, so the idea is merely to have some fun in the tasting.  Please don't worry if you can't get around to drinking everything in time.


Beijing was good to me this year, both academically and in terms of tea.  Upstairs in one of my favourite malls, I took the opportunity to call in at Fangmingyuan, home of some of the friendliest souls in the entire district.

This shop was recommended back in 2007 by dear old MarshalN, who, I seem to recall, spent some time there during his doctoral studies.  I promptly picked up the proto-Douji 2005 Yisheng cake, which remains a solid stalwart of my collection.  That was also the year that the owner of the shop, who goes by the moniker "Xiaomei" (little sister), introduced me to another robust-and-inexpensive (at the time) cake, the 2003 Changdahao, which has likewise become a solid little performer over the years.
During visits during 2008 and 2009, I picked up some of their own 2008 Nannuo version 1 (from Bama), the 2008 Nannuo version 2, and the 2009 Jingmai.  These were sub-200 RMB cakes, in the cheap-and-cheerful mold, which, while not stopping the Earth from turning, have settled into a decently woody-sweet character.
In 2010, searching after my beloved 2005 Yisheng, my wife somehow managed to convince Didi (little brother, pictured above) to give us another tong at the original 2005 price, less than 3.5 times the market value.  I never underestimate a Chinese lady's ability to negotiate.  Amusingly, although we didn't know it at the time, Xiaohu was with us, approximately one-to-two weeks into the nine-month gestation period...
Visiting in more recent years, Didi pointed out some further cakes which manage to be both inexpensive and very pleasant: the 2005 Tianlu and the 2008 Zhuyuan.  They provide far more thrills than their humble price-tags suggest that they should.  I always make a point of calling it at Fangmingyuan, even if the majority of my purchases occur elsewhere.

When I entered, Didi was drinking some of his own baicha, of which he kindly gave me a cake.  It was smooth, but it was just baicha.  We quickly moved onto the cake shown above, from their Fangmingyuan range in 2010.  As you can see, it is a Badashan cake.

I usually rather like Badashan cakes.  The reason for this is an odd one, which I hope you won't mind my repeating: there was a period of some six months or so, around 2008, when my dear wife and I were buying our house, and so all of our cakes were in storage.  During that time, the only cake to which I had access was a Badashan "special" cake from Menghai Tea Co.  It wasn't a great cake, but I drank it every day.  Every... single... day.  Like Stockholm syndrome, my captor began to become at first familiar, and then even enjoyable.  These days, I find myself easily able to discern Badashan terroire, and it is this bizarre six months of my life that accounts for it. 
(There is also a humble 2008 Dayi "Badashan" cake that cost just $10 when new, and which is aging wonderfully.)

It seems, however, that 2010 may not have been overly kind to Fangmingyuan, as this was "decent, but perhaps rather light", as I seemingly noted in my journal at the tea-table with Didi.  I was soon itching for some better tea, so Didi kindly stowed the Badashan cake and moved on...

He then produced the following:

"This looks familiar", I told him.  Turning on the university VPN that thankfully allows me to see Blogger from within China, I searched my notes on this humble web-site to no avail.  Perhaps I had just imagined my familiarity, with a sense of deja vu.

"This is like the Yisheng that you enjoy", said Didi in his south-eastern accent; I think he is from Fujian, as with his sister, which is where the baicha was made that he was drinking when I entered.
The cake certainly looks dark and Yiwu-esque, and is from 2007.  We spent an enjoyable hour or so sipping the tea and attempting, via my decidedly difficult Chinese, to hold what approximated to meaningful conversation.
Liking the tea very much, I bought a tong at 180 RMB per cake.  As with all of Fangmingyuan's products, their prices are so very low as to be immediately appealing, given the apparently solid and enduring charms of the cake that we were slowly drinking.

I duly headed out of Maliandao, around the corner of the busy street, to the new headquarters of one of our academic collaborators.  Between meetings, I spent some time searching my notes more thoroughly, and subsequently found that I had already bought three of these cakes from Didi before!  In 2011, he sold them to us for 190 RMB, and so the price had actually decreased by 10 RMB in the intervening two years.  This left me with a very positive feeling concerning Didi's kindness.
There was little else of interest available in Fangmingyuan when I visited, but when such kindness and fairness exists, that's absolutely fine by me.

26 June, 2013

Frog and I

Xiaohu Tyrannosaurus Rex photo GreenDinosaur.jpg

frog and I
to eyeball

24 June, 2013

It Tolls for Thee

...especially when Apache comes to visit.  Let's do this.

502 Dayi

I love me my Dayi 501 tuocha.  Apache and I have been trying to recreate its genius of late, and had two attempts at the Dayi 502 tuocha.  The latter is double the size of the former, at 500g, and is the second batch (the "02" in "502") from 2005 (the "5" in "502").
This tuocha is the "sample A" version from the link above.

502 Dayi

Sadly, even this "sample A" 502 version has sold out via Taobaowang.  Blink and you'll miss it.

502 Dayi

As always, the leaves are small and dense.  They retain some of the vigour of youth, perhaps aided by the tight compression common to tuocha.

502 Dayi

This is dry.  Really quite dry - but sweet, with tons to give in the wenxiangbei [aroma cup].  We kicked back for this first tea of the day, and enjoyed the "real Dayi flavour".  You may find yourself in the difficult position of not enjoying the real Dayi flavour.  It is an acquired taste, and not a refined one at that, but it is one that has been with me since I first started out in pu'ercha.  It is the taste of familiarity and comfort.

502 Dayi

I would have liked to have more of this "sample A" version of the 502 tuocha, but have instead acquired another version that was still for sale.  That latter version sits unwrapped on my tea-table, waiting for me to find the time for a session.

Apache has a certain skill at constructing the running order in a tea session.  With our palates awoken by a fresh young tuocha, we changed gear and headed into the lo-fi charms of a "25-year-old" old shupu.

25-Year Qiaomu Shupu

If you're skeptical about all of those modern cakes claiming to be qiaomu [arbor / tall-tree], then how do you feel about the claims of a shupu having qiaomu leaves?  The thought of putting high-quality leaves through the wodui [composting] process used to make shupu is terrifying, and highly unlikely to have occurred.

25-Year Qiaomu Shupu

This tastes very thick, and therefore marks itself as being a rather well-aged shupu.  We enjoyed the heavy flavour of Chinese dates.

25-Year Qiaomu Shupu

The colour of the soup pictured above goes some way to reassuring us that this is very decent shupu.  Yes, it opens with the common "fishy" character for shupu, but it stays thick and actually develops as the infusions pass, which is a rarity for this often-simple genre of pu'ercha.

I have a long relationship with the 2001 Menghai Yiwuzhengshan.  Check out the article in that link, if you will, Gentle Reader, and remind yourself of the notoriety of this cake.  It is the Menghai cake with the large green leaf design on the wrapper.  Thoughts of the Houde price-rush on this thing still send shivers of fear down my spine.  Talk about captive audience - in those days, there was no access to Taobaowang without a Chinese bank account (an actual account in a physical Chinese building), and even my wife found it difficult to access.  Hence, it was pretty much Houde, Yunnan Sourcing, and a few other early pioneers.  Methinks the proprietor of Houde (being a canny chap, and a doctor of engineering at my wife's university, among other things) must have made a righteous killing.  I guess that's what mercantile activity is all about.

2001 Menghai Yiwuzhengshan

Years later, the terror is diminished, and I begin to drink this tea carte blanche.  The soup, shown below, has a dark orange colour - but then, it always did, even when young.  It is powdery, smooth, understated and woody.

"Old taste", notes Apache.

2001 Menghai Yiwuzhengshan

Later infusions developed into a sharpness that was very satisfying.  Despite history, this cake has plenty to offer.  I don't know if I'll ever really enjoy it, though, due to the trauma of years past.

This is the 2001 CNNP 7432.  Note, it is not the 7532.  The former had its recipe fixed in 1974 (the "74" in "7432") while the more famous latter cake had its recipe fixed a year later ("75" in "7532").  Both have smallish leaves (the "3" in "7432").

2001 CNNP 7432

Apache notes the unusual character for chu (出) on the neifei.  In the wacky way of such things, this cake is called "sharp chu" because the top of its chu is not printed full-width.  It is such minutiae that allow hardcore enthusiasts to identify cakes.  I wouldn't say that I am a great expert of the printing of wrappers.

2001 CNNP 7432

Apache, pictured below, points out the "sharp chu"...

2001 CNNP 7432

This is not an inexpensive cake, with estimates in the range of £250-300 (approx. $400).  The blend, pictured below, has a little bit of everything within it - including stems and huangpian [yellow flakes].

2001 CNNP 7432

The reason that the minutiae of the wrapper are A Big Deal is because the tea tastes fine.  The soup, pictured below, has that effect whereby the meniscus is thinner and yellower than the heavy orange of the body.

2001 CNNP 7432

It is a bit ragged, actually, but has a lot of backbone - it is sharp and sweet, and heaven knows how tough this must have been when young.  This is despite the last five years being spend in Hong Kong. 

2001 CNNP 7432

I like it.  I appreciate its violence, and I like the fact that it has plenty of potential for further aging.  "Induces perspiration", has my journal...

Apache tells the story of a Russian colleague whose "day was ruined" after drinking a single cup of this tough little tea.  What better recommendation could one have?

"Game over", said Apache with a smile, on trying this last tea.

30-Year Tongxinghao

This old Tongxinghao might be the 1970s Tongxinghao that I encountered previously, and it is the king of the heap, today.

30-Year Tongxinghao

Soft, soothing... a sudden peace descends.  This is quite something to achieve in a household that has two very willful children. 

Xiaohu pummels a drum at my feet, and yet everything is entirely calm.  So... very... calming.

30-Year Tongxinghao

Long and sweet with proper chenxiang [aged scent], it is packed full of Chinese herbs and tastes like something you might get prescribed by a Chinese medic to treat cold limbs.  It combines being active and lively with being so mellow. 

It lasts forever, and we are happy.

21 June, 2013

Tea with Xiao Yunzhen

I wrote previously about one of my favourite malls on Maliandaolu, which contains the Taochaju outlet run by a Buddhist version of the Fonz, and all around nice guy, Xiao Yunqing.  I first discovered his shop during my 2011 visit, when I simply went into his shop because he had an honest face.
This turned out to be a good decision: we had a long tea-session (one of several), and he sold me some really rather good 1998 Kunming Tea Factory cakes for 280 (two hundred and eighty!) RMB, among other things.  You may remember Xiao Yunqing as being the creator of the "Danzhen" cakes, sold under the wider "Taochaju" brand, notably by white2tea.

Check out the above photograph.  Does anything strike you as being familiar, except the Danzhen cakes?

Let me zoom in a little...

It is PM's jazz cake.  I won't recount how PM read about Xiao Yunqing on this humble web-site, went to visit him, and struck up a business partnership. (!)
The "Giant Steps" cake is, in Xiao Yunqing's typical naming style, locally called the "Fohai Guyun" (shown on the red label). 

Xiao Yunqing was doing his Buddhistly thing in Tibet when I came to visit this time, and the shop was being looked after by his sister, Xiao Yunzhen.  We drank some tea!

Thanks to the ubiquitous wifi connection, I fired up my iPad and engaged my VPN adaptor (connecting me to my university network), which gave me the ability to browse Blogger (otherwise blocked in China).   We checked out some articles, and I played Ms. Xiao some of the real "Giant Steps" via Youtube, which seemed as if it was something of a surprise to her!  That, or she hates jazz.

First up, as shown above, the 2012 "Nannuo Guyun".  I bought the 2011 version from Xiao Yunqing himself, for the scorching, red-hot, razor-sharp uberbargain of just 200 (two hundred!) RMB.  It was one of my favourite Nannuoshan cakes from 2011, and was very easy to love.

This 2012 was good - but perhaps not as good as my 2011.  It did everything right, with a clean opening; its fresh, yellow character; its honey-like scents... but it didn't grip me.  It was, dare I say it, a little bit one-dimensional.  It was a lovely dimension, though.
Xiao Yunzhen very kindly packed up some maocha that will be used to make the 2013 "Nannuo Guyun", and which is the subject of a later article.

During the course of a long session, we went through the forthcoming 2013 Guafengzhai "Chawang" cake, again made by Xiao Yunzhen's brother.

This was a very enjoyable cake indeed, with a deep base of fragrant Yiwu in the recognisably Guafengzhai genre.

While Ms. Xiao avoided the camera lens, I discretely took a few snaps while she was out of the room.  Lots of these cakes are familiar from my own shelves back at home!
(Note that Daxiang elephant cake on the top shelf, of which PM kindly provided me with a tong.)

The maocha for the Guafengzhai "Chawang", as shown below, looks healthy indeed...

...and the resulting cake even moreso:

I began to salivate as the tong was produced...

All of Xiao Yunqing's cakes take a while to get going, and the Guafengzhai was no exception.  I think this might A Good Thing - it suggests that the cakes have serious mass, and that they take a long time to have their momentum sufficiently changed such that they develop proper velocity.  We applied a long, steady impulse contained within Xiao Yunzhen's rather massive gaiwan, pictured below.  The dazzling yellow of the soup probably tells you all you need to know about this fresh, straightforwardly honest, Gaufengzhai.

If only I didn't have to head off for a lunchtime meeting...  I departed happy to have met a new tea-chum, and delighted to have enjoyed some of my old friend's latest generation of cakes.  It is entirely feasible that these might become available at white2tea, as with some of the cakes from previous years.

19 June, 2013

The Brushwood

Snow on the Gate

the brushwood
though cut for fuel
is beginning to bud
-Nozawa Boncho

17 June, 2013

If Loving You is Wrong...

...then I absolutely, categorically, and unambiguously do not wish to be right.

The object of this statement is your friend and mine, the 2003 Jin Dayi, or "JD" as he is otherwise known.

If you are thinking that "JD" refers to bad American Bourbon at this stage, then I submit to you that an upgrade of your drinks cabinet is in order.

Long-time suckers readers may recall the above image, in which the hand of Apache (much famed for being the hand that he uses to execute his deadly one-inch-punches) holds aloft JD during a sesh from last year.

This sample was kindly provided by the benevolence of His Apacheness, and which I was saving for a special day.  I figured today is that day.  The kettle is on, the small, red leaves of JD are in the chahe.

I might be caught in the mad throes of confirmation bias, but the leaves pictured below even look like Menghai to me these days, let alone smell or taste of Menghai.

My knackered old tetsubin stretches its weary bones, and gets into the zone.  Before long, it is bubbling nicely, made new once again with every boil, its own form of reincarnation.

I'd like to say that this water has collected by me from a rarified stream, bubbling 'twixt pre-Cambrian stones somewhere in the Highlands, laden with minerals from the nubile loins of the Earth, but the reality is that the water is from a large bottle that I collected from my local supermarket.

That said, it is good water, and totally worthy of good old JD.

I'm not a huge Dayi fanboy.  Don't get me wrong, I have the gaiwan and like the cakes, but it's not as if I have Dayi wallpaper or anything.  At least, not in every room.

However, JD is good tea and I like it very much.  Is it worth the king's ransom caused by the speculations of every troglodyte homunculus on the Mainland?  Probably not.  Is it superbad, grade A, first-class, uncut premium ninjitsu?  Yes.  Yes, it is.

I like my premium ninjitsu in its uncut state, as it happens.

I would go so far as to say that the JD is bigger and badder and rougher and tougher, in the words of the old poem.  It is all things to all men: fat, bloated, sharp, sweet, charming, precise, and very long-lived.

There is a line that separates Good Tea from the rest: after a dozen or so infusions, with my tetsubin singing like a recovering alcoholic opera diva, good old JD continues to evolve, while retaining his trousers.

Unlike so many other pretenders to the throne, the colour becomes deeper orange as the morning progresses.  Whereas the young and feeble Dayi might collapse into leafy mediocrity, this Jin Dayi, which marks, I think, the end of an era, teaches you how it should be done.  How it may once be done again.

It is fine indeed.  I think that I would rather not spend three hundred English pounds on it, given that I would feel rather profligate by doing so, and that this really is not worth that much money, but that's between each man and his wallet.

That malty rotundity is enchanting, and it would be a delight if my tong of the 2011 Baby JD turned into something similar.  Stranger things have happened, and perhaps Menghai might redeem themselves through good production of this sort.  We can but wait and see.  It'll be great fun finding out, whichever direction the years take it.

Ladies and gentlemen, the 2003 Jin Dayi has now left the building.

14 June, 2013

Tea with Mr. Twodog2

I landed in Beijing, checked into my hotel on Zhichunlu, and then called PM (a.k.a. twodog2), proprietor of white2tea.  Within twenty minutes, I was zooming through the (now entirely enormous) Beijing metro.  I visit Beijing about once per year, and each time that I visit more subway lines have been created.  When I first went to the city, almost a decade ago, there were just two simple lines (one straight line, one circular!), whereas now there are zillions.  Most of the maps available on the internet are comically out-of-date, such is the rate of tunneling.
What this means is that you can get almost anywhere within 45 minutes, and you can avoid sitting in the heavy road traffic.  Additionally, there is 100% mobile signal strength throughout the subway, meaning that you can even get some work done.  I chose to spend the time writing haiku, and so was busily scribbling into my diary while standing up, swaying around with the movements of the train, much to the amusement of the locals.
Within the hour, I was greeted at Guomao station by the blond maniac himself.  He looks almost exactly like Calvin; the photograph below is a very good likeness.

We headed to a nearby friend's teahouse, which was a very pretty little venue.  Pictured below, another visiting friend of PM's, from Taiwan, was just returned from a tea-producing expedition (I think).  My Mandarin is approximately 1% as good as PM's, who has been immersed in Beijing for several years.
PM stepped up to the teatable and began the brewing...

It must be something to do with the variety of people that one finds in teahouses, but this is the third time that I have visited such a place where there is a Zen  monk sitting at the table.  When I arrived, the monk came out of a little door which I assumed led to a small temple or meditation room.  I later found out that I was almost correct, and that the door led to the loo.  Spiritual insights abound in both locations.

It was a long session, and I had not eaten since the early-morning meal on the aeroplane, such was my haste to get to the tea-session!  This means that the subsequent four or so hours of drinking tea left me entirely ravenous, but I figured that this would be a good way to burn off some of my massive fat reserves before the Chinese lunches and dinners kicked in.

We started off with a 2002 Bulangshan, which I think is perhaps the cake pictured above.  Along with a 2005 Nakashan cake, PM had been generous in bringing some very good leaves with him.

Shown above, a 1995 Songpin (correct me if I'm wrong), allegedly from Yiwushan.  This was a Big Tea, and noticeably Yiwu-area, although a debate about precise regions then followed between PM and our Taiwanese colleague.  I think I'm right in calling him "Mr. Zhang".
18 years after its production, the 1995 cake tasted heavily of wildflowers - often a surprise to me, when I assume that floral characteristics dissipate with age.  Its constancy was a great pleasure, even after serious brewing.

Mr. Zhang then reclaimed his rightful seat at the tea-table.  Being rather English about it, I'm not particularly keen on calling tea-people "Master", but suspect that Mr. Zhang might go by that title in some circles.
(The very amusing owner of the tea-shop is shown above, wearing a red scarf and the 1920s spectacles.)
Hallelujah - his first tea was a really decent zhengshan xiaozhong from Tongmuguan (if I understood him correctly), and which reminded me of both Essence of Tea's version and Vicony's version from that canonical area for "lapsang".  I must have seemed impressed, because Mr. Zhang kindly packed me up a big bag of it.

We rolled through a Taiwanese qingxiang wulong, shown above, and followed it up with a nongxiang (yancha?) version that PM may already be selling via his web-store.

While PM stepped outside to Talk Business with Mr. Zhang, I got down to the serious business of drinking more wulong and eating snacks, my eleven-hour appetite threatening to cause me to eat my own leg.
At around 7 p.m., we said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways, bellies filled with great teas and heads filled with good conversation.  It was an excellent start to a busy week, and a very great pleasure to meet PM.