Seeing the Light or Slapped by the ’08 Lancang Rat

08 Lancang Year of Rat

Somewhere between the grade of the selection, the season in which it was picked, the degree of dry-storage, and the Lancang Factory signature, you’re going to get slapped around.  Somewhere at the extremes of cost efficiency and consumer abuse, you’ll find the ’08 Year of the Rat.  I’ve broken a light sweat and my gut feels oppressed.  It’s sorta like the feeling you get before you heave.  It is extremely bitter and astringent by the second infusion.  There is no sign of wild-weed taste.  The perfume in the liquor and aftertaste is oppressive.  It lasts for a considerable spell building to a crescendo after 3m.  The sweetness and the thickness are there but the expression is aggressive like teas that are only one or two years old.  There’s no attempt at any type of humidifying it while it aged.  Two years in LA have not seemed to have altered it in this regard.

The bitter “ba qi” productions are often gut bombs.  This is no exception.  I brewed it in the green clay pot because I wanted to see if it would mellow any, but it doesn’t.  It is by far the most bitter and astringent in the collection.  It might be the first in the Lancang lunar series.  I don’t know because I’ve only been able to track down three of their lunar tuo productions, ’10 Tiger and ’09 Ox being the other two.  Among the three, the Rat is their smallest, cheapest, and wrapped in brown paper, whereas in subsequent years they were wrapped in white cotton paper.

For whatever reason, the 250g Tiger tuo has aged most.  I mention this because even though there are some qualitative differences between the two that might have to do with recipe or variations from one year to the next, the Tiger has started to express some noteworthy scented- wood notes.  I want to say sandalwood, but to be honest I think that would be pretentious because of a very limited scented-wood repertoire.  I can tell you, it’s not cedar, and it’s only in its very incipient stages of expressing.

I’m not sure if this character would come out in the production under wet storage.  It would be very interesting to compare because it seems to me that some aspect of this type of wood expression comes from being dry.

I tasted many puerhs of this sort in Kunming, even ones that cost relatively handsome prices but made me feel either on the verge of passing out or throwing up.  Even in later infusions, the Rat busts the gut, which doesn’t burp out completely like others.

This brings up the question of “bad tea.”  It seems that one trait of a bad tea is that it bottoms out, which this doesn’t.  Another trait is that the taste is flat and possesses little complexity, not applicable here.   Bad tea for me definitely has that weed taste, which might be something to do with abandoned material.  No sign of it here.  I keep drinking these types in the hope I’ll learn something.  So far the Rat is too much for me.

Temperance Be Damned: Simao Tea Factory the Quest Continues

So there’s this thing with people.  Most of us like “the thing.”  Then there are those of us who purposely avoid “the thing,” simply because everyone is into it. Yeah, I fall into the “alternative” crowd.  In puerh everyone knows that Dayi is “the thing,” especially in HK and Malaysia.  No puerh brand is as much “the thing” as Dayi, otherwise known as Menghai Tea Factory, aka Zhongcha factory #2.

It’s all about the monopoly.  As privatization effected the Zhongcha tea monopoly, Dayi jumped out in front of others in marketing a unique brand.  I feel 90% of Dayi is mystique and the better their myth-making, the more it boosts prices, of past productions in particular.  Amidst the shadow cast by Dayi, however, are a handful of other factories that also belonged to the Zhongcha monopoly and many others that provided raw material for their productions.  This brings us to Simao Tea Factory.

Simao is the old name for a city now called Puer.  I had mistakenly confused Puer Tea Factory with Simao Tea Factory or Simao Ancient Puer Tea Factory.  There’s a difference.  The former is one of the old factories and the latter isn’t.  I’m reviewing the latter.  It is simply called Ancient Puer Tea Brick.

The company advertises itself as combining ancient and modern methods.  This brick is a representation of the modern approach.  It is pressed so tightly that use of a tea-needle is for naught.  You need a thick tea-knife or chisel.

Compression is the major theme with this production.  Whereas I am very cautious about my infusion times, with the Ancient Puer Tea Brick temperance be damned.  This is a good thing, because the there is only the slightest evidence of bitterness no matter how long you steep.  The taste is most reminiscent of Tang, which is partly citrus but mostly some kinda vanilla-like and fruit like that candy stick you dipped into color-flavoured sugar back in da day.  The mouthfeel is delightful.  It is thicker if you let it sit for about a day after opening up with a couple minute or so infusions.  Otherwise, the liquor is a little on the thin side, but it goes and goes and goes, as does the mouthfeel. Maybe 20 infusions.  It has an undramatic bitter phase but never bottoms out into that wretched bitter so common among raws.

 

 

2008 Nanzhao in Claypot

'08 Nan Zhao Box

Boy, this Nanzhao has really, really changed.  Vrrrrrrp.  A couple months back I was gifted a pot with that green clay.  No stamp at the bottom.  I have another of the same clay, also a gift which I found to make an excellent pot of Yunnan Gold.  I have some others with the red and the dark clay.  I seem to have noticed that those all produce bitter results with the sheng, which I don’t enjoy.  This green seems to raise good shengs to another level, maybe not such good ones too.

The Nanzhao in this vessel is “POW” into the second infusion.  At the end of my first cup, I thought it tasted really good.  The clear and overriding flavor is camphor, like peppermint candy mixed with thick zinganoids that hang in the mouth, on the tongue and cheeks with an ever so slight hint of sour and something metallic.

By the fourth infusion I became positively concerned that the pot was drinking my tea.  The tea remained sweet and flavourful but not nearly as thick.  The fifth was given a good 30+s and was richer though as it cooled the bitter came through.  Thoroughly enjoyable though I doubt it can be pushed beyond seven.  Stays sweet and smooth throughout.

 

2012 Mooncake, Yangpin Hao

Mooncake Box YPH

This is the first Yangpin Hao of the ripe nature that I’ve sampled.  It’s the only so far as well.  I’d put this in the dark-roast category of ripes.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s discuss the brick itself…

Pressed into a compact yet easily decompressed square brick of 200g, the Mooncake is just as its name suggests.  Mooncakes are confections, filled cookies of sorts, made of a baked crust on the outside and filled with sweet stuff, egg yolk, and meat with different permutations thereof.  The bread-like outer crust is formed from a mold that has characters that say auspicious things in addition to informing what’s inside.  They’re called “Mooncakes” because they’re eaten during the full moon of the Mid-Autumn festival, also called the Moon Festival.

The Mooncake has been pressed in a mold with the Yangpin Hao logo.  It breaks apart easily without crumbling, flaking off easily with my porcelain-handled tea-needle blade.  It is not overly compressed, so the taste of the brew releases quickly.  After the first 15s infusion, following flash brews were more than sufficient for the next four rounds before adding 30s to the next two before cashing out.  About 6 infusions.

Besides the deep roast taste, Mooncake possesses a taste reminiscent of Johnson’s baby powder smell.  This signature can be detected in some of their raw productions as well.  Consistent with baby powder, this note is quite soft but prevailing.  Other tastes include dried-fruit sweetness and active “zinganoids,” which play on the tongue for a pleasing spell after drinking.  The tannins suggest that even though it’s plenty fine for drinking now, there’s more to expect with age.  There is no wodui in the taste but there is distinctive hand in the fermentation style.

A Quick Parade, 2010 Classic Red Ripe Puerh

RedClassic

The 2010 Classic Red is among a slew of revolutionary productions from no-name companies.  They range from down and dirty to dirty-dirty down and dirty.  What I mean here by dirty is really thickness.  Most all of these productions are garish in their unctuousness.  The 2010 Classic Red is no exception, so what makes it noteworthy?

It isn’t difficult.  It is in a most moderately pressed brick which airs out and breaks apart easily.  The air has allowed the processing to dissipate.  The water soaks the leaves easily.  The second and third flash infusions are the richest.  Gives a full mouthfeel, numbing, sweet, those notes of some kind of dried fruit, possibly cherry.  Very chocolately.  It’s like a quick parade through a small town where they throw chocolates to the eager crowd, vanishing as quickly as it appeared.

Still, there’s the tingle that’s left in the mouth.  A satisfaction in the gut.  It’s richer, thicker, sweeter than most but doesn’t last nearly as long either.  I can’t imagine much beyond six infusions, with the last being about two min.  The mouth zing lasts throughout and in the mouth a good five minutes.

2013 Bulang Shengtai, Zhongcha

12BulangShengtaiWrapper

After a weekend in the Cangs, I thought I’d make my way over to the Langs.  I went for the 2013 Bulang Shengtai, by Zhongcha.  It is a light tea.  It is not what could be considered rich, thin actually.  Seems like it might be good for a hot summer day.  Sometimes green tea is referred to as “qing cha”, which is also a reference to the effect and bright and lightness of the tea itself.  This is very much a qing cha.

Overall this production possesses two Zhongcha traits, one common among the older productions I’ve been exposed to and one among the younger.  Many of the older Zhongchas, say from ’07 are super mellow.  A kind of crayola taste might come through in the first infusions.  Subsequent infusions don’t give any marked sensation.  Many of the younger productions have a kind of non-bitter astringency that is very dynamic in the mouth.  It is fresh and lively.  The very best expression of this is the HK Returns brick, which is super dense.  A good example of the former is Bulang cake ’07, which is loosely pressed.

It tastes like fragrant water that has a deceptively strong and long aftertaste, which is very pleasant.  Pushing the leaves only gives rise more intensely sweet fragrant water.  It is of the typical chopped-leaf material that comprises the hallmark productions from the 90s coveted by the Chinese market in particular.  In a few years the crayola will come in but for now it is qing cha in every sense of the word.

Ripe Puerh Epiphany

The Zhongcha 55

On April 7th I had a ripe puerh epiphany.  It happened with the first infusion of the Zhongcha 55, where I detected that medicinal numbness characterizing some raw Wuliangs and Bulangs.  Until today, I had been tasting dried fruit, minerals, lotsa chocolate and cardboard, leather, and varying degrees of mintiness in the aftertaste.

Lately, I’ve been testing my stash based on rigorous measures of amount, infusion time, durability, clarity, aftertaste, and effect, i.e., “qi.” These measures have had me tasting ripes side-by-side.  What I primarily notice is sweetness or conversely tannins and thickness.  Some productions have the vaunted camphor taste, but claims aside all but a few have fleeting camphor effects or none at all.  In any case, that particular camphor taste though rare is not new the object of my epiphany nor is the taste of certain medicinal herbs.  Here, however, we have to distinguish between medicinal types.

One of the medicinal types is ginseng.  This taste is slippery and rooty.  Another is more of a spice, anise, which is also slippery but with a sweetness .  There are other spices like cinnamon and clove but which are very rare.  Then there is the “chlor-AH-septic” medicinal.  It numbs and tingles the mouth.  I can’t say that I haven’t experienced aspects of this before in ripes, but not to the extent where I could taste it in the broth only in the aftertaste.

This epiphany is a likely result of tasting productions side-by-side.  Such an approach allows for the differences to come into sharper contrast than banking on memory alone.  I’ve started tasting others for this taste and effect, ascertaining therefrom something about the quality of the raw material, its age before being fermented.  Frankly, I don’t know if young material can produce the same effects as old, whether the “aging” of the material from wet-piling can produce the same effects of aged material. Methinks not.

I can’t decide if some raws are so loud in their youth that it is difficult to detect this particular effect or if it is some effect that emerges as a result of age.  Could it be both?  In any case, since not all raw puers, in particular Lincangs and Yiwus, have this taste irrespective of age, it isn’t reasonable to project this expectation upon all ripes.  However, this particular effect may at least somewhat figure in what type of material makes the best ripe.  The verdict is out on all these counts.

What Makes an Outstanding Ripe Puerh II

There are so many just ok shu offerings.  Few are really bad or really good. Ones that seem just ok under the right conditions are outstanding and ones that are exceptional at the outset can run out of gas.  Storage plays such a large roll, and then there’s the fermentation style of the tea master complicating matters.

Part of the intrigue of puerh is that it is a moving target, constantly changing.  Though this is quite evident with raws under right conditions, ripes can also undergo dramatic transformation.  The mkt for old ripes is as great as it is for raws, at least to some extent and the best of my knowledge.  Having tasted some ripes from the 80s, I find that some of the preoccupation with old ripes to be a bit over done.  Watching the prices of items in my collection explode, I can definitely attest to the fact that price does not reflect quality by any measure when it comes to ripes!

The point here, however, is not about price as much as it is about the difficulty in determining what’s good.  As was mentioned, the intention of the tea master is important to consider.  The Langhe team tends to go quite light on the process, producing a milk chocolate effect.  When the 2011 Imperial Round came into my possession, I was expecting a similar result.  Much to my dismay, it was horrible: astringent to no end, as if it were black tea (hongcha) with the color to boot.

That was 2014 and till that time under Kunming storage.  Now, I have another cake that is similarly astringent, a dry bugger that is hard to figure out since it was expensive enough, some artsy cake that is visually beautiful, hand-pressed, and maybe popular in Taiwan but which taste-wise is bone dry and elusive.  For what it is worth, the liquor possesses a gorgeous orange hue.

Yunnan storage it seems is brutally ponderous.  It’s so dry so much of the year.  Even when it rains its dry.  The round was astringent and dry but it didn’t taste like cardboard, a characteristic very common to common ripe puerh… imho. That cardboard taste, what to make of it?  Is cardboard actually a fermentation style, a mark of storage, tea quality, … all the above?  Shouldn’t ripes be universally sweet and juicy and not astringent and dry?

I have devised a purgatory of sorts where I’m storing the very young ripes that I expect to be excellent with proper abuse and the ones that I hate that deserve abuse.  Ok, the abuse may have been in Kunming, for the purgatory to which I refer is the Mediterranean climes of Los Angles, particularly the oppressive summer of ’15.  There both cakes were placed in purgatory, though what I’ll call “’06 Artsy” had already been in purgatory for better part of a year.

Now, I should say that the ’11 Imperial Round was not exactly like most ripe cakes, which are either chunky or bitty and dense.  This cake is made with leaves julienned like the tobacco that you can buy in Kunming.  It also breaks apart easily.  There seems to be considerable care in its crafting, which made me feel doubly disappointed in it initially.

After six months I checked in on it.  I was stunned.  The cake was cooked.  The astringency was gone and the chocolatey goodness game through with more milkiness.  No, I didn’t add milk, it’s just the chocolate is not dark chocolate with lots of tannins.  Interestingly, ’05 Artsy is still very dry, which is suggestive of a certain fermentation style.  I have a tried a shu brick from the same company and found it similarly dry.  It’s also in purgatory.

 

What Makes Outstanding Ripe Puerhs?

2006-t8371-broth

I’m sitting here clearing my throat with a gentle buzzing aftertaste of earthy and acrid Chinese herbs, not exactly ginseng but with that resonant taste of sapponins, asking myself what makes for an outstanding ripe puerh.  Beyond the obvious factor of taste, clarity is what separates really good puerhs from outstanding ones.  Clarity is the product of skill in green-kill and fermentation.  Even though some clarity will arise from storage, no amount of storage is likely to make up for less accomplished execution earlier in the process.

Have I been authorized to make such a proclamation?  No.  But tastes vary and what one prefers in a good puerh is to some extent impossibly subjective.  However, variables like clarity, evenness of release, and durability advance the discussion beyond just taste.  Yes taste will always be king but the king must have capable counsel to rule the kingdom.

Such a liege in addition to clarity I propose is huigan, which some believe is not “aftertaste” but which is.  Moreover, huigan is an overall intensity and effect in the mouth and throat after the tea is consumed.   Most of this effect is muted in ripes, but the outstanding ones still possess impressions of its raw origins or its essence.

Right now, I don’t believe any shu lands more squarely on all of the above attributes more than the ’06 T8371 by Zhongcha.

2014 Yibang Dragon Pearl, Shujian Tea

2014_lao_man_e_shujian

Shujian Tea has made a name for themselves crafting “Free and Easy Pills” (xiaoyao dan) from classic puer terrior.  Their prices are stunning, but the quality and effect speak for themselves.  The 2014 Yibang is fabulous.  The 2014 productions didn’t come in the snazzy boxes as they do today.  The box upgrade, however, hasn’t led to a changing of the high-quality paper wrapping the “pill” itself.  Each pearl is made of only the most carefully selected material originating exclusively from a single tea garden.  They are somehow hand rolled into what will settle into an eight gram jewel.  Quantities from a single terrior are between 500-1000 pieces, sometimes less.

A little about “Free and Easy” in the Chinese context, which is a reference to the ancient Daoist sage Zhuang-zi (Chuang-tsu).  There is a famous passage, “Xiao Yao You”, in the eponymous classic Zhuang-zi, describing a freedom from constraint.  Xiao Yao San is a classica Chinese medicinel formula for liver constraint from a compendium introduced in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), The Prescriptions of the Bureau of Taiping People’s Welfare Pharmacy, Taiping Huimin Heji Jufang.  “Constraint” usually means impeded that which is relieved by tending to the softness and vascular efficiency of the liver, but it also connotes one’s disposition.  It is this aspect that Shujian evokes.  The “dan” character 丹 stands for a special type of pill.  It carries Daoist and alchemical overtones.

A little too much information I know, but it is a classy literary and medicinal reference that screams style.  Wu Dang (Wu Tang) type stuff, misty mountains and flowing robes.  Thing you can tell about these Xiaoyao Dan is that they cater toward more dedicated tastes in Mainland where there is much greater demand and appreciation.  Bricks and cakes are very different creatures from the dragon pearl.  The Yi Bang at twice the price of Shujian’s Bang Dong is more than twice as good.  The Bang Dong possesses a green bean quality, whereas the Yi Bang is floral and uplifting.  At 14 infusions it never grew bitter but even with color it seemed to be cashed.  Yiwu tea, to which Yibang belongs, is said to grow sweeter with age.  I can’t see tea of this type getting much better because much of the beauty is in its freshness, contrary to most bricks and cakes.