Che Ma Xuan – BingDao Spring 2010

photo provided by Tea Urchin

This tea is a Che Ma Xuan 2010 spring production sheng pu. According to Tea Urchin, who provided me with the sample, Che Ma Xuan is a small private label producer with a physical storefront in Shanghai. The leaf is from BingDao, which translates as Ice Island, a small village within the Lincang prefecture of Yunnan, not far from Lincang city. It is considered one of the areas of earliest cultivation of tea trees.

The aroma of this BingDao dry leaf in the cha he was penetrating to the point of taking the breath away, heavy with forest trees and earth. The faintest trace of pepper peered out from within the evergreens. A further teasing floral note developed among the firs, once placed in the warmed gaiwan.

The flash rinse, which while pale, was remarkably pleasing and sweet to the nose.

The broth yielded from the first proper steep appeared thick in the cup. The fragrance emanating from the cup was heavily floral, expanding upon its previously shy presence in the dry leaf, and rinse.

The mouth feel of the liquor was pleasing, tasting of white pepper, white fir incense, and sweet moss. An elusive kuwei accompanied, turning immediately sweet just as the palate would register its presence. A cooling sensation developed at the front of the mouth, expanding into and stimulating the forehead and chest.

Where were the strong floral notes, I thought to myself, that had previously coursed into the nostrils? They seemed to have diminished in the transition. I shouldn’t have been so hasty to wonder. They saved themselves for later in the session arriving with a note of almond in tow, and heavy with palm sugar sweetness. This became the dominant theme by the later steeps, altering in expression only with intensity through to the last cup.

A slight drying of the mouth and at top of the throat was detected in the fourth and fifth cups. This did not persist however, and by the 6th the mouth began actively salivating. The 7th steep even engaged the wellspring from beneath the tongue.

As I edged over an hour in the company of this tea, its qi had fully engulfed me after noticeably starting to move in waves by the middle point of the session. My hands had started to tremble by the last steeps, and I found myself wanting to lie down. I wasn’t fatigued, as I had thought for a moment, just seriously tea drunk.

I took a spot on the floor next to Newt who had already noted my state. She always seems oddly aware of, and appears at, these moments in my tea sessions. We decided that this was a good tea, a very good tea indeed.

photo provided by Tea Urchin

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Mang Zhi 2011 Spring by Mr Gao

(From the Tea Urchin web site: We selected this tea with Mr Gao, who then spent 6 months creating this special production for us by inspecting each and every leaf, removing discoloured & damaged leaves. Over 10% of the leaves were discarded, to create this exceptionally smooth, beautiful, private pressing. The maocha came from Mang Zhi, one of the original 6 famous tea mountains of classical times, located in what is today known as Xiangming region, between Yiwu & Simao.)

This Mang Zhi is a tea deserving of an absence of distractions. Its refined poetry would be lost amid trivial mental wanderings. My first run with this tea left me speechless. I hope that I am now able to convey some of the extraordinary nature of this tea with the brief notes that I transcribed below from my second session.

The level of attention in the production is unquestionable upon viewing the dry leaves. They gently interlock with seeming reverence for one another. The aroma in the cha he is clean, vegetal, and accented by notes of small white flowers.

The liquor is full-bodied in the cup, exhibiting pureness in its tonality from the first rinse through to the final steep. It gifts substantial fullness in the mouth, and presents an initial cooling sensation in the sinus cavity and at the top of the throat.

The flavor is heavy with notes of stone fruits, honeysuckle and narcissus. The profile ascends to a peak on the sixth steep, blossoming fully within the mouth. Inhalations heighten its ethereal sweetness to the point that it suggests a physical manifestation around the tongue and teeth.

The cha qi syncs with the pulse. It fills the chest and upper abdomen with warmth, eventually moving into the limbs. The forearms become heavy. The palms go damp.

I am flooded.

Zhi Zheng -Bulang Peak Spring 2010-

Today’s tea: Zhi Zheng: Bulang Peak 2010 Raw Puerh (From the Zhi Zheng website: General Information: Pressed this year from early Spring 2010 pure, raw, ancient tree tea maocha from Bulang Shan. Hand picked, fried and rolled. Sun dried. Naturally post-fermented.)

Tea Urchin‘s blog post from September on “Making maocha with Zhi Zheng on Nannuo Mountain” led me to the Zhi Zheng site. I browsed the site periodically over the course of a few weeks before placing an order, as I seem to have developed an irrational fear of purchasing commitment in my later years. I finally decided on samples from two cakes from their aged collection, a Gedeng from 2003 and a Lao Zhuan also from 2003, and the Bulang Peak from 2010.

These samples, unfortunately, arrived with me at the beginning of my health issue mentioned back in the Gua Feng Zhai post. All but one ended up being stored on the tea shelves in their shipping packaging. I put the Bulang Peak, however, for some reason that I can now not recall, into a lovely earthenware tea jar I had purchased in Beijing from a woman with a beautiful little shop selling tea ware near Zhōnglóu. (She had some beautiful black pottery on display, including several teapots, that I was desperate to purchase… alas they were her own private collection.)

Upon removing the lid from the jar, the dry leaf inside gave off a sweetly vegetal aroma mingled with floral honey and some peppery spiciness. It was quite pleasing to the nose. When the leaves were placed in the warmed gaiwan the essences intensified and were accented with a flash of smokiness.

With the first addition of water to the leaves resting in the gaiwan post rinse, the newly forming broth was frothy and became significantly gelatinous. (Honestly, it had felt criminal to discard the flash rinse as it had appeared exceptionally clean and rich itself.) When decanted into the cha hai, tiny pearls glided across the surface before breaking on the edge or clustering into short-lived strings. The yielded liquor in the cup also exhibited notable clusters of foam, which remained static even as I moved the cup from side to side. The visibly substantial body of this tea remained consistent through 10 steeps before beginning to thin, leaving a thick glazing across the bottom of the cup.

The flavor of the tea was immediately rich with honey, fruit and floral notes which blossomed, morphed, and faded across the length of the session. A barely detectable trace of smoked hay lingered in the background with the initial few steepings. Notes were made that lily, grapefruit and persimmon were introduced to the palate at various stages. These were the easiest of the variations to define, but the profile extended well beyond. There was a particularly elusive character that came and went during later cups, which nagged at my mind even after I exhausted the leaves.

During the course of the first half-dozen steepings a high note of bitterness gently stimulated the tongue. While it was certainly no match for the power of last weeks Lao Man E, it did move through the hard palate and into the sinus cavity. Even when the dominant sweetness proceeded to intensify, a faint streak of bitterness remained and fluttered into the forehead well into the 8th and 9th steeps. A pleasant cooling sensation also developed within the first two cups, progressively flooding the full area from the upper mouth to the forehead.

This Bulang Peak concentrated the greatest sum of its dialogue to the front of the mouth and face until considerably late in the session when it slowly moved to the back of the tongue, eventually sinking into the throat. I had not before experienced this sort of reserved movement in a tea. I thought it was curious in nature. This ‘unusual’ characteristic may also account for its’ slow to develop hui gan. Once it had finally arrived it was quite giving and full, but it took some time before making its move. Its presence continued to linger throughout my mouth well into an hour after the last cup, as if to make up for its late appearance.

While mentally detailing the slightest nuances in a tea’s taste is enjoyable, part of me prefers to let some of that mystery remain in its shadows. I have found through time, and these blog postings, that I am considerably more preoccupied with detailing the distinctive, and at times elusive, nature of each tea. I take great pleasure in the experience of these expressions.

Compared to other recently experienced teas which flooded the mouth and throat quickly; this Bulang Peak seemed reticent by contrast, content to move at its own defiant pacing. Its qi unraveled slowly through a series of movements that in the end left my head feeling, to borrow a quote from Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, like “fluff on the needle”.

steeping listening: Coil: Time Machines

Tea Urchin -Lao Man E Spring 2011-

This morning as I was finishing a sample of Lao Man E from Tea Urchin, I made a peculiar mental note that I felt it was a ‘Diamanda Galas’. (I have recently been listening to an excess of opera lately courtesy of a nice collection of older edition boxed vinyl pressings I picked up at a shop for 2-3 dollars a piece back a year or two, so this might explain this peculiar note.) While some teas are Callas, Sutherland, or Berberian; Lao Man E is powerful, with the potential to be perceived as ferocious, quite like Galas.

Similar to my initial encounter with Galas’ work, I was completely unprepared for my first experience with this tea. Unlike other sheng pu full of youthful kuwei which I had previously enjoyed, this Lao Man E presented an assertiveness I could barely comprehend. I struggled to detect any nuances or complexities that session. I felt unable to discover any beauty. I had been truly overcome by this tea.

Galas’ The Divine Punishment had left me trembling in the wake of my first contact, and now, so had this Lao Man E.

I took some time away from the tea, just as I had with Galas’ recordings. I kept assuring myself that it had just not been my time to understand, or attempt to interpret, its intense nature. I kept it at the back of my mind, and the tea shelf, knowing that when I was ready I would return to it.

Without question this Lao Man E is a powerhouse, full and aggressive. I was knocked sideways before I could even consider walking away from the pot and cup.

I was ultimately helpless to resist it.

The tea’s bitterness provoked salivation without the slightest hesitation, and activated the wellspring beneath the tongue. My mouth tingled with energy.

It delivered a shock wave of qi straight to my head, sending my mind racing.

With each successive steep the flushing of my body expanded with increasing heat until my palms had dampened. My hands and feet gradually began to tingle.

The tea’s nature wrestled with any remaining resistance I could manage.

It reasoned with my palate, and explained itself with spirited complexity.

The profile exhibited fleeting notes of citrus and floral, possibly rose, maybe lily, or perhaps peony. Honestly, my buzzing mind struggled to make sense of the language of its flowers. I detected what might have been fig, or date, at one point. The bitterness slowly began to yield an increasingly rounded sweetness by the later steeps and suggested what I noted as candied almonds at various intervals. It gifted me with a graciously abundant hui gan.

In short, the tea made perfect sense to me at the end.

It made me a convert.

I am still feeling elements of this tea some time out from my last cup. Even transcribing my notes started out as a bit of a challenge.

I have to say that had it not been for the impassioned post on Tea Urchin’s blog expressing his love for Lao Man E, I might have not attempted to get to grips with this tea a second time. It is necessary to have your spirit occasionally rattled to its core. It reminds of the need to keep learning, as I continue to do so with each new tea, just as I had back in the mid-Eighties when confronted with another brazen entity, Ms. Galas.

steeping listening: Pierre Henry: Futuristie