29 April 2008

2003 Songpin Imperial Puerh King (ToM)

Another from the "Taste of Mellowness" set of Puerhshop.com, now sold out.

2003 Songpin Imperial Puerh King
2003 Songpin Imperial Puerh King - chunk1

This roughly gongting grade shu pu'er received some good reviews from the folks at teachat, becoming popular enough that it's recommended to pu'er newcomers. It's got a hefty pricetag for a non-Menghai shu, some $33 for a 357g cake, supposedly hand-pressed and supposedly made in Yiwu. A closeup:

2003 Songpin Imperial Puerh King - chunk2

The leaf grade is very high. These little golden buds don't hide any unsavory leaves underneath; the grade remains consistent throughout the cake. I brewed this tea 4 times in a yixing pot and once in a gaiwan, my notes are as follows:

The brewed leaf in the pot smells strongly of spearmint, then trails off to a (good) cooked meat smell. Using very little leaf, this tea packs a punch, evidence of its grade. Soft, round, a little spicy at times, a little blandly woody and grainy at others, the tea is balanced and benefits from long steeps after the third steep or so.

I caught some unpleasant pondiness in every session, except when brewing at home using softer water. Less leaf also seemed to leech out out more pond. Still, at its best and with softer water, the tea is rich, and its only fault is that it doesn't last more than 5 good steeps.

2003 Songpin Imperial Puerh King - liquor

Pros: balanced and round, very rich
Cons: occasional pond, not tenacious
Cost: expensive, but this grade normally is. Perhaps a decent buy considering its age and that it needs less leaf to perform well.
Verdict: interesting flavors, high grade, and a few years age make this a good tea and a good tea for beginners...if they don't mind throwing down $33.

2003 Songpin Imperial Puerh King - brewed leaf

24 April 2008

2003 Xiaguan Shu Tuo (ToM)

2003 Xiaguan Shu Tuo

The appearance of this tea caused me to have reservations about its authenticity. At first glance, the tea appears fine:

03 Xiaguan Shu Tuo - cap

But the interior leaves are all huangpian:

03 Xiaguan Shu Tuo - gross interior

While many, many manufacturers hide ugly leaves under pretty leaves, this is not something Xiaguan has been known to do, not even for the Xiao Fa (French Export) Tuo, which this tea is. While some of the faces do not match the back of the cakes on blended cakes like the (T)86## series, I've never seen Xiaguan practice this level of deception. Xiaguan teas being faked all the time, I went to see if I could find this tea on Taobao, the Chinese version of eBay. I found only one 2003 Xiaguan tuo matching the wrapper--another Xiao Fa Tuo--but it has no picture of the leaves. Also, it sells for all of 36RMB, the equivalent of roughly $5 (*grumble*). In comparison:

03 Xiaguan Shu Tuo - leaf

Worse, it tastes and smells terrible. My first attempt yielded a chemical smelling wet leaf and a perfumey, thin liquor tasting of straw and no earthiness. It even made my stomach upset. I stopped after three infusions.

Today, I brewed the tea again using more leaf. The chemical smell was still there, but the tea was improved. Smoother in texture, it still tasted more like fucha: all dry grass and little earth. The qi was whack, upsetting my stomach and making me woozy. The 3rd, 4th, 5th infusions were the most pleasant, coupling earthiness and grass. After this, it regressed to harsher chemically hay flavors.

03 Xiaguan Shu Tuo - liquor

The "deception" and low quality leaf combined with poor flavor makes me wonder if this is really a Xiaguan tea. I'm no authority, but I've never seen Xiaguan do this and have never tasted Xiaguan shu pu'er that I disliked. A closeup of the brewed leaves below shows the leathery huangpian. I'd love to blame the huangpian alone, but I've had huangpian shu before without complaining as much.

03 Xiaguan Shu Tuo - leaf huangpian

Pros: no pond
Cons: artificial/chemical aroma and flavors, needs a heap of leaf to get good flavors, ends poorly
Cost: $16/250g. 35 gongfu sessions at approx. $0.45 per gongfu. $0.09 per cup. Low quality damages its value.
Verdict: Low quality leaf deceptively hidden. Poor flavor. Finicky brewing. Not very good. Going to try this again with just the face leaf and update this post later.

23 April 2008

2006 Yunmei "Yue Chen Yue Xiang" Shu Pu'er (ToM)

The peeps at TeaChat decided to go on a sampler review rampage, specifically with the new sampler packs offered by US vendor Puerhshop.com. I've ordered the "Taste of Mellowness" (shu) and "Spirit of Yiwu" (sheng) samplers, as well as some individual samplers.

06 Yunmei Yue Chen Yue Xiang shu pu'er - chunk1
Mmmm...pu! This is just one of many sizeable chunks in the Yunmei sample.

Jim Liu, the proprietor, stuffed my box full of this tea plus a few extras. Thank you to Jim for providing the biggest samples around at a fair price. I bought very little tea from Puerhshop before this, but Jim has certainly worked hard to attract more of the marketplace to his site.

2006 Yunmei "Yue Chen Yue Xiang" Shu Pu'er

06 Yunmei Yue Chen Yue Xiang shu pu'er - chunk2
The bumpy underside. Beneath the surface of the Yunmei cake lies a rougher inner truth!

Gongting grade on the outside, average grade on the inside, the Yunmei "Yue Chen Yue Xiang" (lit., "The older, the more fragrant") looked and smelled appealing. I'm still learning how to brew gongting shu consistently tasty from brew to brew, so the discovery of that the Yunmei cake's blend charmed me. Still, I had some issues brewing the sample. The first time too much leaf in the pot made the brew too strong. The second time I overcompensated for my previous mistake and used too little leaf, making the tea flat. The third time was just right...maybe.

06 Yunmei Yue Chen Yue Xiang shu pu'er - 2nd infusion

The hot wet leaf in the pot evaporated grain/barley notes and dried cherry or jujube. No muddy texture or flavor, just lots of clean wet bark/forest floor flavor. No pondiness/fishiness to speak of, and barley did appear in the flavor in the first infusions. Subsequent infusions were perfumed with rose and talc, finishing with sweetness and lumber, with no negative traits to speak of, getting progressively "cleaner" in taste. It began to die at infusion 5, totally dead in infusion 6, tasting only of mineral water.

06 Yunmei Yue Chen Yue Xiang shu pu'er - brewed leaf

In sum, I enjoyed this tea once I adjusted myself to its techniques. Thankfully, the sample size is large enough that, now adjusted, I can probably enjoy this tea another 8 brewing sessions, maybe even update this post with new discoveries.

Pros: clean, no pond, interesting aromas
Cons: died quickly, a bit finicky about leaf:water ratio
Cost: If you buy a cake of this (US$16.50 or so), you're getting decent shu. Considering that buys you some 50+ gongfu sessions, you're looking at approx. $0.33 per gongfu. At 5 good infusions, that's about $0.07 per cup. Cheap.
Verdict: If I bought this cake, I'd not be disappointed. At its price and its lack of negative flavors, it makes for good everyday tea. I rarely stray away from major factory (Menghai, Xiaguan, Fengqing, Haiwan) shu pu'er, but this is an example of properly made shu. I'm looking forward to finishing it off.

10 April 2008

Shu Trio from John Grebe with guest review notes

John and I traded a few teas last week. He wanted to try some Liu An, and I wanted to try some of his shu pu'er. John drinks shu daily. His blog appears humble and unassuming, but from our chats about his experiences, I think he has a fair share of intuition about shu pu'er.

He sent me samples of the three shu pu'er he currently has open:
  1. Changtai Tea Group 2006 "Banna" Tuo Cha
  2. 2006 Banzhang King Imperial (bing?)
  3. Menghai Tea Factory 2006 Cha Tou Brick
All three came from Puerhshop.com.

My good friend Davin and I drank them in that order last night while listening to Philip Glass, The Seoul Ensemble, Beethoven, Holst, and some random traditional Chinese music. I'm including both of our notes below. His thoughts are in green.

Changtai Tea Group 2006 "Banna" Tuo Cha

The leaves of this tuo supposedly came from Mengsong and Jinggu, supposedly sifted to remove dust and stems. Interestingly, you won't find Jinggu on a map of Xishuangbanna; Jinggu Shan sits in Simao. Not that in a blind taste test I could tell cooked pu'er from Jinggu from that of Mengsong.

Changtai Factory 2006 Banna Tuo - dry leaf

I brewed this in a qinghua doucai gaiwan and pitcher set I purchased in Shanghai. Davin took the helm for much of the brewings. It began smooth, sweet at first, then finishing with an interesting herbal aroma. It became earthier, with a thick mouthfeel that paradoxically finished light on the tongue, mild flavors with a grain quality. The herbal notes transformed into what seemed like sweet onion, progressively sweeter and very consistent in strength and character.

Changtai Factory 2006 Banna Tuo - infusion 2

The wet leaves revealed that the tuo contained small buds, fannings and chopped leaf, but indeed not much fine dust or big twigs as mentioned in Puerhshop.com's description. It lasted a pleasant 6 infusions.

Changtai Factory 2006 Banna Tuo - spent leaf

All in all, we both really enjoyed it. We brewed all samples with the same filtered and remineralized water, and this one did not dry my mouth, while the others did. I appreciated this tea's interesting herbal quality, while Davin said it was an improvement over the first pu'er he tried, an aged shu zhutong pu'er.

2006 Banzhang King Imperial

The 2006 Banzhang King Imperial is a gong ting "tribute" grade xiao bing. Because I didn't catch the grade of the leaf from its appearance, I used too much leaf initially, which probably explains the unpleasant characteristics mentioned below. Also, the other samples came in chunks; the Banzhang came mostly loose.

2006 Banzhang King Imperial - dry leaf

I caught a hint of mint amongst the thick creamy, overpowering flavors in the first three brews. Acidic initially, then stout and woody consistently thereafter, it died around infusion 5, retaining its oily mouthfeel but yielding only mild, dusty flavor. The liquor started and remained dark and cloudy; I wondered if the producer overcomposted the tea.


I tried this tea again today in a zhu ni pot, using less leaf. The different ratio and vessel improved the tea overall, revealing a fennel/botanical complication in the "stout" wet bark flavors, but still the tea didn't deliver the promise the rounded forest floor flavors indicated in the aroma of the wet leaves. I suspect when the proper ratio is found, I might like this tea better. It's a shame that its qualities make it finicky to brew.

Menghai Tea Factory 2006 Cha Tou Brick

Cha tou means "tea nugget"; expectedly, this tea arrived in the form of tight fingernail-sized clods.

Menghai Tea Factory 2006 Cha Tou Brick - leaf

To me, this was the most "traditional" tasting of the three tea samples. Woodier than the others, its wood had a refined character departing from the mulch flavors of the above samples. Creamy like the Banzhang but sweet like the Banna, the mintiness in this tea appeared strong and fresh; Davin felt this tea was more herbal than the Banna, tasting something like green cocoa, if you could find it. I found it more nutty than herbal, but I agreed with his perception of cocoa in the flavor, especially after we let a later brew sit and chill by the window.

We both agreed that the flavors seemed cleaner, and the transparency of the brews made this apparent, though my cups don't show this particularly well. Most amazingly, this tea lasted over 10 brews, yielding consistent strength and enjoyable flavors to the end. We gave up before the tea did, sometime around midnight. Rarely does a shu pu'er yield this much. We could see part of the reason for this as we brewed the tea: the last nugget did not unfurl completely until the 8th infusion. Somehow, this relay of unfurling elongated the session life of this tea.

Menghai Tea Factory 2006 Cha Tou Brick - infusion

It was our favorite, and this flight of pu'ers gave Davin a good opportunity to practice gongfu brewing. I sent Davin home with some gift tea and teaware. I feel like a pusher giving a new client a free bump to get him hooked! Spread the addiction!

05 April 2008

Two Sheng Samples, Courtesy of MarshalN

Sample 1: 2007 Zhenwei Hao

07 Something from MarshalN - bag

[Edit 7 April 2008]
This sample is 2007 Zhenwei Hao, made in "super limited production" by Lu Lizhen, a "famous" Taiwan pu'er producer. It costs over US$100 a cake.

The leaves of this sample were bold green, with a fair share of silver tips in the blend. There wasn't much leaf in this sample; I should have used all of it. But wanting to avoid the false strength that brewing little bits imparts to a tea, I only brewed the more whole leaves.

07 Something from MarshalN - dry leaf

The tea was impossibly weak, perhaps from not enough leaf (though this was a tiny 60ml gaiwan), but more owing, I think, to the weaker qualities of the leaves. Sweet and buttery, the brew tasted very similar to the Yunnan greens I've been drinking lately, even though it smelled like young pu'er and didn't have a vegetal kick. Some aftertaste showed itself in the fourth infusion after a minute-long steep.

07 Something from MarshalN - liquor

I quit after 5 infusions, because the tea was dead by then. If I had more of it, maybe I could give it another fair chance. But I don't.

07 Something from MarshalN - spent leaf

Sample 2: Mystery
The second sample's leaves were significantly darker and furrier than the first sample, although it contained fewer silver tips. Not wanting to repeat the possible mistake of the first tea, I added enough leaf into the gaiwan to completely fill it with wet leaf after brewing.

Mystery Sample dry leaf

The leaves smelled more like pu'er, stronger and a bit earthier. It tasted more traditionally like pu'er, too, and my best guess is that this is lincang/daxue shan or baoshan material, from 2006. I remain unsure about the region though, because during the 3rd brew I remarked in my notes that it reminded me of Xiaguan teas, but tastier.

Some side of the tongue citrus notes, heavy hay/straw notes, and an earthy aroma made this tea nice to drink. It lasted some 12 infusions, packing a punch that made me quit writing notes on it and take it into the yard to sit drinking it amidst the breeze and the birds. In the midst of drinking it, it made me forget to take a photo of its liquor, which was more amber than the first sample. I still tingle a bit!

Mystery Sample spent leaf

Depending on its price, of course, I would buy a cake or two of this tea, most of all for its tenacious consistency each new infusion.

04 April 2008

Stay tuned...and a word on qi

Reviews coming this weekend and next week:
  • Lots of dancong from Imen of Tea Habitat
  • 2 unknown sheng pu'er samples from MarshalN and 1 Yiwu sample from Imen
  • 3 fresh Yunnan greens from YSLLC
  • 3 shu pu'er samples from John Grebe
  • A hopefully interesting or fruitful analysis/comparison...


I have been drinking those 3 spring greens mentioned above for the past two weeks now. Aaron Fisher, former editor of The Art of Tea and current founder/editor/author of The Leaf Magazine, once mentioned to me that green tea has little qi. I heard similar from other sagely tea information sources in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and heard it repeated by the few tea mystics I met in China.

I have been drinking green tea for two weeks and not feeling much. But, just a moment ago I had a cup of lao cong shui xian oolong and instantly feel high as a kite.

Some drinkers, of course, dismiss qi altogether as spiritual blather. Others rationalize the way tea affects their physical, mental, and emotional state by reading qi to mean "the effects of caffeine on the body". This latter idea interests me, because my experience these past few weeks appears to disprove it entirely. According to Nigel Melican (post on Cha Dao here), caffeine levels tend to be higher in bud & first leaf tips, assamica varietals, and clonal teas. My Yunnan greens meet all three of these criteria. This lao cong shui xian meets only the last, perhaps.

I cannot measure the caffeine of each tea to prove any point here, but without deeper research, it appears this tea has qi for a more complex reason. I think it's more like THC in marijuana. THC can only partially explain the psychoactive effects of cannibis. Somehow, an interaction of hundreds of chemicals produces its particular high. Likewise, I think caffeine may only partially explain the qi of tea, and many other chemicals might contribute to the full effect. Someone on teachat recently suggested an interaction of amino acids.

But I suppose we can only make moot points about qi, because I envision no funding for research into the tea high. Ultimately, the why is less important to me than the feeling itself.

01 April 2008

Just4Tea Tie Guan Yin, Pu'er

I brewed both of these teas gongfu. I will brew them according to vendor instructions and update the blog later. Disclosure: I received these teas as part of a "free sample to bloggers" promotion.

Just4tea Tie Guan Yin
Brewed in pre-heated ming-style gaiwan, gongfu style, boiling mineralized water

Just4Tea Tie Guan Yin - setup 2

To my surprise, the Just4tea foil packet contained roasted Tie Guan Yin. At the sight of the pellet-sized brown clods, my initial reticence became relief. I love roasted oolong; most likely I would enjoy this.

The aroma off the dry leaf is stale charcoal, but this is often the case with roasted oolongs good and bad. When wet, the aroma shifted to butterscotch--a nice change from the usual chocolate aromas off roasted Tie Guan Yin. It promised to be interesting.

Just4Tea Tie Guan Yin - dry leaf 2

While it wasn't that interesting, it tasted good. In fact, for an everyday roasted oolong, it's very good. Buttery and easy to drink, with good aftertaste and no sourness. Despite its butterscotch aroma, unsweetened cocoa dominated the palate, melting to a butter aftertaste and finish. Simple, easy, enjoyable. Fruit aromas appeared off the wet leaf and played peek-a-boo in the flavor. Yeasty/bready flavors, the typical denouement of high roasted oolongs, predictably appeared as the tea's flavors quieted at infusion 8 and after. In a subsequent steep in a yixing pot, I used less leaf and reaped wheaty sweetness early on, but not the sweetness signifiying "the tea flavor fading" but a toasty sweetness of appreciable and consistent character, with light cacao.

Just4Tea Tie Guan Yin - brewed

Simplicity, while good in an everyday tea, may rank as its only fault: it leashes this tie guan yin, keeps it among the more prosaic teas. Considering that hand-crafted high roasted Taiwan oolongs come at twice the price, this remains a good deal. Truly a deal in the online world, where high roasted teas are rare, pricey, and often over-roasted or soured if aged.

Just4Tea Tie Guan Yin - spent leaves

Just4tea's Tie Guan Yin would serve well as an introduction to high roasted Tie Guan Yin: it displayed what such tea tastes and smells like when not stale, poorly stored, or overroasted. I wouldn't feel guilty drinking this tea without paying it much attention, but, as with any tea, further brewing and attention might reap a harvest of new flavors.

Tip: use less leaf, decent amount of minerals in the water, quick infusions with slow pours.

Just4tea 2004 Pu'er (mini-tuocha)
Brewed in pre-heated ming-style gaiwan, gongfu style, boiling mineralized water

Just4tea also sent me a sample of their mini-tuocha. As with all reviews a reviewer writes--whether about movies, books, or tea--the best reviews judge the production at hand for what it is, not for what it isn't. Mini-tuo is not high grade. It is not cake pu'er. Therefore, I do not hold mini-tuo to the same standard I would any other "branded" shu pu'er of more substantial size. Moreover, if I am to review this mini-tuo in comparison to other teas, it should be to other mini-tuo I have had. Thus, in my opinion, a mini-tuocha that manages more than 4 infusions and lacks pondy characteristics is a good mini-tuocha, because few meet that standard.

Just4Tea Pu'er Mini-Tuo - closeup

Just4tea's mini-tuo come wrapped in thin cloth paper gauze, like most. They have little to no smell when dry, like most. When moist, the tea emitted a smooth earthy aroma with undertones of pond. Thankfully, the pond hinted at itself rather than permeated the aroma, stopping me from wrinkling my nose. Flavors were cream, bark, and an amount of pond proportional to the pond smell. Unfortunately, the pond lingered in the aftertaste. Subsequent infusions mimicked this; like most mini-tuo, this one's flavors remained static, simply reappearing in weaker form from brew to brew.

It managed 7 infusions "gongfu" style, and to its further credit, as the flavors weakened only the earth remained. Most pondy mini-tuo end with only pondiness. This nice plus maybe found its root in the 4 years of age?

All in all, this mini-tuo ranks among the average mini-tuo. And it's a bit pricey for its quality. I can't say it's a bad purchase--it's acceptable--but the $30 for 8oz. would be better spent buying a Menghai factory shu bing, which weigh in at roughly 16oz. or more.

Tips: give it a long rinse (20s+) to decompress the tuo, then brew each infusion quickly for more numerous and palatable infusions.