27 June, 2014

Picture the Scene

Picture the scene: it's 3 a.m., your youngest son has finally gone to sleep, but you just cannot drop off.  You head downstairs to the tea-table, with a strong need for a solid, risk-free session.  You reach for your old drinking buddy, Douji.  What could possibly go wrong?

Technically, nothing did go wrong.  I got my required portion of gamma-glutamylethylamide.  It came in a warm solution.  That much was fine.

This is, bear in mind, the very basic blend from Big Douj.  This "blue" version of their Dadou recipe (hence the 2010 Douji "Landadou") used to be priced quite well, presumably in direct competition with the stable blends from Mighty Menghai (where the latter sold for something like $12 at the time).  The Dadou and Shengdou blends were always a little more than Dayi, but not too far removed.  For that, you landed some slightly better quality taidicha [plantation tea], in the Douji house style.  I happen to like both the Douji and Dayi house styles and, after consuming so many gazillions of gallons of each, I feel fairly well-acquainted with them.

The price is the biggest obstacle, now.  This Landadou is selling for the paroxysmal sum of nigh on 60 (sixty) American dollaren.  That really is simply too much - far more than even Dayi has inflated in the last, what, four years of this cake's age?

So, you gets your taidicha blend, you gets your Douji house style of rich base notes, you gets your basic endurance, and one or more huigans. But at sixty units of American currency? If anyone has paid such a price for Douji, I want to have words - private, quiet words - with you. I want to explore what kind of mind you have. I have to know how such a person can exist.

On the plus side, the remainder of the sample lasted ages in my lab, delivering basic sweetness for hours.

25 June, 2014

Hello, Professor

hello, professor
Schnoobus T. Rockingham
do you like water?

23 June, 2014

Big Melons

I have a distinct lack of melons on my teashelves. This is deliberate. Melon-tea (guacha) is right up there, in my estimation, with shupu pressed into novelty shapes / pictures, and stuffed tangerines. Bingcha: great. Tuocha: often very good. Zhuancha: more risky. Melons: terrible.

So, how about we then consider the blessed conjunction of melon-tea with something equally hideous: tippy pu'ercha?  The gang's all here.

As always with gifts from Keng, I am hereby forced to eat my words, and retract my statements about how terrible melon-tea and tippy pu'ercha might be.  Keng has a unique ability to demonstrate to me that my opinions are usually wrong, and that I should be ashamed of myself.  In the nicest possible way.  He achieves this through the medium of giving me very nice tea, for which I am always thankful.

As you can tell from the top-most image, this is a 2009 Guyi melon, and its name is "Jingua Gongcha", or "GOLDEN MELON TRIBUTE-TEA".  The capitals are obligatory, because I imagine a thick-necked Mainland tea distributor trying to convince me that this is Emperor's tribute tea.  Silly names are, as we know, par for the course when it comes to pu'ercha.  I think if I made pu'ercha, I could either take white2tea's approach and go for naming after music (anyone for the 2014 Hobbeschayuan People Equals Sh** special production?) or after characters from dodgy sci-fi ("the 2014 Hobbeschayuan Sarlacc Tongue is aging very well these days").  I might run into trademark problems with the latter, but it'd be worth it for the wrapper designs alone.

My special run for each year would be a bounty hunter.  The 2015 cake would be the 2015 Boba Fett, naturally, but perhaps 2016's special run might be 2016 IG88 - it even looks like a proper pu'ercha recipe number, with the added bonus of being a killer droid with a comedy head.

Back to melons.  This melon, being made of tippy leaves (arghle!) separates very easily, because the white fluff prevents the leaves from bonding.  With a little gentle massage, we suddenly move from the compressed melon, shown above, to the chahe of leaves, shown below.

Much like some of the other tippy-pu'ercha that Keng has so generously provided me over the years, this is actually really good, despite my vitriol.  The yellow-orange soup has the predictable and charming scent of fresh pollen (achoo), but it has a strong centre of irreducible pu'ercha proper.  It is well-made, clean, and has decent kuwei [good bitterness].  The latter is particularly surprising, and is the important part about fussing around with what is essentially pu'ercha's answer to white tea.

It chugs along like a little 50cc motorbike, but this is deceptive: it goes slow, and it remains constant, but it lasts forever. It gives, and gives, and then gives some more, without sign of diminishing. It actually lasts several days, in a way that many "proper" pu'ercha cakes will not, and for that it must earn our respect. I admire tenacity. If you've got endurance, and you're in for the long-haul, then you have many of the virtues needed to succeed, given time sufficient. That's fine, in my book. I've come across many a weaker student who, through sheer effort of will and endurance, manages to succeed where more naturally talented, but less enduring, students fail.

Thanks again to Keng for so generously and enjoyable demonstrating that my prejudices need to be reworked.

20 June, 2014

Pox Romana

My youngest son recently had a case of chicken pox.  He was generally, in himself, quite well, but he was covered in spots.  This meant that he and I had a good amount of time together during weekdays, as I took the time away from work to look after him.  We had a lot of fun, and spent some of it visiting cafes, in between his usual favourite places (parks, museums, etc.).  I came to appreciate that good tea is getting around, at least a little.  I don't usually get to visit cafes, and to do so was something of an education during my time with dear, spotty Xiaolong.

The first venue that we tried was the "Grand Cafe".  As its name suggests, it is a bit of a tourist trap.  It claims to be "the site of the first coffee house in England" but I can remember that just ten years ago, the Grand Cafe used to be a shop, selling something entirely different.  Specious claims aside, you can imagine the interior from the name: it is a "belle epoque" outfit, with marble columns, ornate mirrors, etc. etc.  I'd had a fantastic coffee (Kenya peaberry) in there a year before, and so thought it time to try the tea. Xiaolong was unimpressed by the decor, and slept through our visit.

The result, pictured above, was a very solid Darjeeling.  With Darjeeling, perhaps more than any other tea, a cafe has the chance to get it right, without risk, while still charging a sizeable price.  England has a long history of buying teas from that region, and so, if you run a cafe, it is not too hard to find a distributor able to sell you something reasonable from one of the good estates.  The quality was not at all bad, and I was pleased to see that Darjeeling is coming back into the popular consciousness, even in just at the periphery.

Next up: a real Oxford education.  We have a concept in English called the "greasy spoon", which is used to refer to a very low-cost cafe that sells basic breakfasts and the like.  I first came to Oxford in 1998, and St. Giles cafe, the greasy spoon's greasy spoon, had already been trading for some decades.  So endearingly bad (in a nice way) was the cafe, that it is commonly known in the university as "the Cafe San Giles", pronounced in the French way (soft "g") to give it some ironic elegance.

Imagine my horror to learn that the Cafe San Giles (soft g) had been taken over by new management in the middle of 2013.  The old greasy spoon looked approximately the same (thankfully), but had been pulled up by its bootlaces and was now distinctly "gastro".

We have another effect in England at the moment: the "gastro pub".  These are pubs that focus on high-quality, quite rustic food, served at medium-to-high prices.  Good ol' Cafe San Giles (soft g) had been gentrified.  Not too much, but enough.

The result was actually rather good.  I had sausages made in the shop (out of meat, no less), and a special blend of Assam and Darjeeling that the owners had bought in especially from a trader in London known to some of us.  It was really very good: heavy, with the malt of Assam, but floral and zesty in the manner of Darjeeling.  I am truly delighted to see that the "gastro" movement can sometimes include proper tea.

Xiaolong didn't sleep through all of our cafe trips - pictured above, in Cafe Coco on the Cowley Road (a rather "studenty" area), my spotty little fellow awaits his order while poking a rubbery ricecake.  Cafe Coco sells "detox tea", which I naturally wouldn't touch with a barge-pole, and so we drank coffee.  Xiaolong had juice, good times were had.

He's over his chicken pox, but we had a fine time together - and we were exposed to some decent tea, as well as to his virus.

18 June, 2014

Anthony Collins

Anthony Collins
you are unknown to me, but
my son has your pants

16 June, 2014

Kunming: Not Just a Concrete Jungle

One of the oldest and least-appreciated factories, Kunming is a maker of magic, from time to time.  I recall the 1998 Kunming Zhongchapai, which I snaffled for the arrythmia-inducing sum of 280 RMB / cake in Maliandao, during a visit in 2011.  That was not exalted tea, but it was darned fine.  This article is about a second tea from that same stable.

The 1995 "9016 Shutuo" is, as its name suggests, tuocha made from shupu.  This is not the usual format.  Equally unusual is the fact that the shupu in question was seemingly made from leaves of a particularly decent quality - shupu is usually composted with leaves of a lesser quality, the reasoning being (perhaps quite sensibly) that one wouldn't wish to use laoshu maocha in a compost heap.

The result is that this 9016 is regarded within some circles as being a "benchmark" for shupu.  Taste the 9016, it is said, and you have something with which to compare all future shupu: if the tea in question is better than the benchmark, then you can buy it with confidence.  The opportunity to try the benchmark, provided generously by Peter of pu-erh.sk, was gratefully received.

There is not a huge amount that can be written about this shutuo, except for the fact that it is very (very) good shupu.  It genuinely surprised me with its strength, with its thickness of body, and with its throaty and enduring sweetness.  Its quality sticks out like a sore thumb, in a world awash with terrible shupu.  I absolutely loved this sample, and was thrilled to enjoy it over several days.  It lasted that long: it just kept going, and going - and going, and going.  In fact, I ran out of steam before it did.  After goodness knows how many litres of good tea produced from the same small set of leaves, I eventually called it quits and emptied my teapot.  This little beast is remarkable.

At 99 Euro / 250g at pu-erh.sk, it isn't inexpensive, but I am seriously considering it...

13 June, 2014

The Ancestors Approve

I was recently rather concerned that my collected ancestors would disapprove of my dalliance with what was a rather genteel and fragile pu'ercha from Baohexiang.  Today, we redress the balance with something that even Vercingetorix himself would have enjoyed.  I assume.

This is the 2011 "Jinyun Zhencang", where jin is "golden" and yun is the troublesome word that corresponds to some approximate mixture of rhyme / harmony / charm.  Chinese-English translations typically fail on that word, sadly, but you get the gist.  Zhencang is "collection", easily enough.

Strap on your halberd, polish the horns on your helmet: this is Bulangshan tea.  No namby-pamby ladytea here, thank you very much.

The maocha was made from "wild Bulang trees", writes Peter of pu-erh.sk.  This is terribly exciting, and reminds of some of the better facemelters from bygone years that Essence of Tea was made.  As you might conclude from the above (leaving aside the dreadful colour balance from the dawn light), the leaves are beautiful and loosely compressed.

Bulangshan tea from 2011 should look like this: yellow, but dense.  The beidixiang [cup-bottom scent] is heavy and invisible (in the sense that dominates the nose, but has no signal) which then leads to a lengxiang [cooling scent] that suggests long throatiness and afterscent.  The soup is precisely that: heavy and low, before expanding in the throat where it remains for a long time.  The heavy, low aftertaste is rich, dark sweetness that squats on the breath for many sentences.

It tastes very "old fashioned", and those who know me will know that there is no greater compliment that I can give.  The cooling sensation that it imparts to the tongue and lips suggests that the trees were indeed rather decent.  This is a fine tea.

At 5 a.m. it has the approximate effect of listening to chiptunes (Sabrepulse?) at ear-splitting volume with one's ear right next to the speaker.  This, too, is A Good Thing.  Heartily recommended. 

The ancestors, they are approving.

11 June, 2014

Half-Chinese Boy

half-Chinese boy
in the old English garden
digging for worms

09 June, 2014

Orchids It Ain't

This is the first of a pair of fascinating samples kindly provided by Peter of Pu-erh.sk.  The two neifei below show Baohexiang, a new pu'ercha brand from Li Wenhua who is (you guessed it) an ex-factory director at Dayi.  The Dayi diaspora is huge.  They must have trouble retaining their senior staff - it seems everyone is off to found their own labels.

Peter writes that the first of these two teas is the Yiwu Qiulan [Yiwu Orchid], and that it has been stored in Taipei.  From the name, we are immediately expecting a namby-pampy floral pu'ercha.  Let's see what happen to our oestrogen levels throughout the duration of this session...

The cake, as you will probably have surmised for yourself, looks gud.  Plenty gud, in fact.  It has loose compression, a good (but not overwhelming) number of tips, and, best of all, a ton of strong and large basis leaves.  My fears about oestrogen levels are beginning to abate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does generate a heavy and sweet lengxiang [cooling scent] in the aroma cup.  The soup is clean and sweet, though "pure" and gentle.  It has the warm, rounded body of autumnal tea.  You may be able to imagine my intonation on those words: autumnal tea.

Adding some leaves is an obligatory step, lest I fear for my manhood.  With an increment in the quantity, the soup is encouraged to produce kuwei [good bitterness], which is a necessary component for this Yiwushan tea.  (Note that the sample packet, at the top, may be misleading in this instance as it states "Yiwu-Bulang recipe A".)

The tea does well with what it has: there is honest, straightforward sweetness, and the bitter-straw kuwei of dryish storage.  It resounds pleasantly in the mouth, although it is not "throaty".  I am afraid that this, while being decently-made pu'ercha, is a little too gentle for my barbaric Anglo-Saxon tastes.  I can imagine my ancestors howling in rage to see their descendant messing around with such a genteel tea.  I can only apologise to them, and endeavour to slake their collective thirst for brutal concoctions in subsequent sessions.

06 June, 2014

Wistful Thinking

$168 seems like a good price for 1997 "Hongyin" [red mark].  Such was the price when this cake was available at Chawangshop, available no more.  Perhaps it is this unavailability that makes it even more desirable.  It is out of reach, and I am its Tantalus.

This cake has had some storage in Malaysia, it is whispered among those who know about such things.  The first infusion, predictably enough, is a delicious red-brown.  The scent is, in accordance with scripture, humid.

The size of the sample was not enormous, as pictured above, and yet it completely dominates the teapot as if it were a tea twice its quantity.  CNNP / Menghai, back in the day, had access to some seriously serious seriousness.  This cake reminds me of how older tea should be: strong, well-developed, unambiguously saturated in sheer trouser.  It is a bold tea and no mistake.

The tea endures long with its huigan [return sweetness], and has such a strong body that I am instantly, and continuously, impressed.  The Malaysian storage has been well executed: there is a complementary mineral tone, but it is not all-consuming.  It is like unto latter-day albums from Sepultura.  We know Max Cavalera (the original force behind the band, long since departed for Soulfy and Cavalera Conspiracy) left behind a legacy from which even the modern post-Cavalera outfit benefits: this CNNP cake, though a product of more recent times, harks back to a golden age of straightforward and uncompromising strength.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this cake goes rather well with some of the more recent Sep albums; The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must be the Heart performs just as well as Roots, with this tea. I had time to try both, such was the longevity of this cake.

At the very end, it begins to get a little thin, but who can stand up to not one but two Sep albums, back-to-back?  Surely there are few teas that can pass such a difficult test.

With thanks to The Jakub for the sample.

04 June, 2014

Taijiquan, II

sweep leg, pick lotus
seagull throws forget-me-nots
bend bow, shoot tiger

02 June, 2014

Enter the 36 Chambers

If this 2004 Guafengzhai cake from Pu-erh.sk were a track from classic album "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)", then it would surely be Cash Rules Everything Around Me: it starts out friendly, but as we might later come to expect from Inspectah Deck*, it rapidly turns serious.  It is repetitive, it is caustic, it is bitter.  And before long, you realise that you've rather enjoyed it. 

*He's like that dude that'll sit there and watch you play yourself and all that right? and [he'll] see you sit there and know you['re] lyin[g].

We may never know the Inspector's opinion on 'Banna region tea, but I suspect that he would be in approval of this Guafengzhai.  It is dark, loose, well-made, and has the rich scent of humidity.  My own cakes do not acquire this jungle-like humidity, and I always enjoy it when it comes my way.

Like Cash Rules Everything Around Me, this Guafengzhai is built on a strong foundation of appealingly sweet notes: it has a big, bold characteristic in the wenxiangbei [aroma cup], and continues forever, over and over over.

Again, like "C.R.E.A.M.", it has a strange capacity to resonate with your expectations, and has the potency to endure well with the passing years.  Already aged to some degree (although, of course, less than the "36 Chambers"), the Guafengzhai has a traditional, powerful huigan.  It is not grand, but it is strong, and that counts for a great deal.

As you know, Gentle Reader, Cash Rules Everything Around Me is a duet with Raekwon the Chef*, and this Guafengzhai reflects his contribution: perhaps somewhat edgy, backward-looking, but without being too bitter.  It is an excellent balance.

Many thanks to Peter for the opportunity to try this excellent cake.

*He's always cookin[g] up some marvellous **** to get your mouth watering.