A Man Zhuan from spring 2012

It’s odd that the first cake I had in my possession from Tea Urchin’s spring 2012 productions is one of the last about which I have written.

I’m a highly moody individual. Blame it on all the formative years influence of Gary Numan, Blondie, Donna Summer and Soft Cell. My mood dictates everything. If I am not “feeling” something, it is best not to bother. It could be the penultimate Rene Redzepi creation sitting on my plate, and my nose would turn up at it if I wasn’t in the mental space for it. And such was the case with this cake.

I had my first taste of this Man Zhuan as mao cha. I think it was barely a month old at that point. It was remarkably sweet, clean, almost transparent in its lightness, and incredibly lively. It seemed like it had the potential to be a winner in the collection.

As soon as the pressed cakes were with Eugene and Belle, I ordered one. And then it arrived, and it sat. It moved from one shelf to the next. Under a Gua Feng Zhai, next to a Gao Shan Zhai, in a box while moving, endlessly shifting its seat waiting for me to pay it some attention.

As I recently stumbled across my little stash of the remaining mao cha, I realized that I hadn’t yet actually tasted the cake. Whatever the subconscious reason for my negligence, it finally felt like the right time to take my trusty puerh cha pick to it.

The cake itself was highly aromatic straight out of the wrapper. It was ‘high’, fresh, incredibly sweet. Initial cupped broths carried these aromatics over into the mouth as a gentle blur of sweet grass, hay and buttery mixed floral notes. Its vibrancy was unmistakable upon the tongue and at the soft palate.

As the energy of the leaves slowly opened in the pot across the first few steeps, the profile grew increasingly full and lingering in the mouth. Thick sweetness started to push out of the throat and into the pockets of the mouth cavity by the fourth and fifth steeps. Liquors became nicely coating, and pleasingly rounded.

The surfaces of the mouth were increasingly slicked in oil, most notably at the upper palate where it felt buffed to a high gloss. A cooling developed at the gums. Tart complexities developed within the heavy sweetness later in the session before the leaves wound down and fizzled out.

The tea slowly settled into the body during the session. The core became increasingly warmed, the skin dampened and cooled upon evaporation. Its energy contributed nicely to the session.

Though I did a side by side tasting, I won’t bore you with the mao cha versus pressed cake comparison at this point as I had originally intended. The former had matured enough that the ‘now’ similarities are too great. I wish I had taken detailed notes of it when it was fresh, because at that point it was a mere tracing of what this cake is now.

While this Man Zhuan didn’t possess the penetrating qi of other favorite Tea Urchin productions, it was still a notable and rather humble cake. It was surprisingly engaging, and not one to be overlooked in their selection. It is also priced at a cost conscious pleasing $54 US dollars.

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A 2011 Nan Nuo ‘Ji Di’ from Zhi Zheng.Song

A while back I posted my tasting notes for three Nan Nuo area village sourced puerh cakes. While less a competition and more a compare and contrast review, I did come away with a clear favorite.

Following the post, Mark from Zhi Zheng made note in an email that the leaves of their 2012 sourcing came from Ban Po Lao Zhai, and that he would now send me a sample of their 2011 pressing for comparison.

The dry leaf of the 2011 ‘Ji Di’ was pungent, herbal, citric tinged, and meadow-like. The liquor read fuller in the mouth, yet vibrant on the tongue. It offered deep-toned, complex and penetrating liquors. As in the 2012, sweet grasses and meadow flowers composed the outer edges of its profile, but by measure, felt more dramatic here.

The full profile of the 2012 remained elusive throughout my sessions due to a nagging spice note. With the 2011, it was defined as clove with a measure of cardamom. I also detected what registered as a distant hum of camphor across a couple of steeps. The spice notes built a ‘cooling’ sensation at the hard palate and inner upper lip.

Sweetness was once again significant, here laden with clove and wild fennel pollen essences.

The weight of the tea pushed into the throat and left a cooling sensation as it continued further.

Its’ nature was more pronounced in the mouth cavity. Where the 2012 felt as color washes, the 2011 felt weighted into the forward of the soft palate and at the middle of the tongue.

A profound narcotic feeling lingered in my body. The head and limbs felt heavy. My vision was a bit ‘off’ for a brief period after the last cup. It seemed as if my eyes were moving rapidly, and the focus had become trailed at the edges.

It would be difficult for me to choose a favorite from the two Zhi Zheng.Song Nan Nuo offerings, as they were both immensely enjoyable in their own rights. However, tasting and experiencing the development already taking place in the 2011 as it has aged in Jinghong was revealing. And to Mark, I am thankful for that opportunity.

I can’t recommend these cakes enough considering my experiences with them.

2011 Mr. Feng Zhi Qing Dao He from Essence Of Tea

With the recent purchase of a Chen Ju Fang Ming Yuan Luo Han Zini Yixing pot from Essence Of Tea came a gift. A sample of a Menghai sourced ‘Zhi Qing Dao He’ puerh cake composed of mao cha from 2008, 2010, and 2011. This from a new line they now sell produced by, Mr. Feng.

According to Mr. Feng: “This tea mountain is in Menghai region at an altitude of around 1700-1900m. I think the trees are around 200-400 years old, some of the trees are even older, but I’m not a scientist, so I can’t tell you the exact age. The village has 6-8 families. They have Han, Hani and Lahu minorities. The tea trees belong to 3 different minorities.

As I sniffed the dry leaf, a heavily aromatic muddle of dried and ripe dark fruits settled into meadow fragrances. Once wetted, the leaves sweetened to ripe apricots, and tender grasses.

True to its product description, the first proper steep post-rinse presented little more than faintly sweet water. From there, however, the tea progressed nicely across the session.

Yielded broths presented a healthy surface tension in the cup, courtesy of a notably thick body.

The aromatics of the dry leaf carried into the liquor with its penetrating foundation of fruit tones. A whisper of smoke presented during the second and third steeps, along a note of butter and a faint trace of camphor. In later cups, floral notes, grain, and earthy mushrooms provided fleeting accents to the progressions between ripe and dried fruits in the dominant profile.

Honey sweetness secreted from the tongue by the seventh and eighth steeps.

Ripened meadow fruits altered to traits of dried as the buttery note once again came to fore before the leaves went flat. The final two cups tasted high and thin, with a base of waxed wood. The lid of the pot, however, still carried honey and sweet grass.

The initial movements of the tea were confined to the back of the tongue and mouth before filling the full cavity. The tea managed to push into the throat to the base of the neck.

A satisfying amount of vibrancy was present in the broth. It shifted from the forward arch of the soft palate, to the hard palate, and then opened up the sinus cavity.

The mixture of leaves from different years –2008, 2010, 2011– assuredly contributed to its progressions. The dominant foundation, however, prevented it from reading as disjointed, at least for me. I found it to be greatly enjoyable. It would be interesting to track how it develops in the coming 10 – 20 years considering the year variables in leaf composition.

The 357g cake now sells for 46 pounds sterling –roughly 74 US dollars. There are three other Mr. Feng cakes available on the site, which all look highly promising.

I thank David and Kathy for the gifted sample.

2009 high-fired roasted Nan Tou Fo Shou from Hou De

With the realization that a bit more balance was necessary in the cup, my attentions of recent have turned back to an old love of mine. As such, arriving packages have been a touch puerh deficient, oolong heavy. New additions to the table have come from Hou De, Postcard Teas, and Tea Habitat. A Tea Masters blog selection order is currently winding its way to a rather anxious me.

I had thought of returning to the ‘fold’ several times over the past couple of years. Yet I felt as if I had betrayed old friends after falling so deeply into the puerh wormhole that they would refuse me upon return. And why shouldn’t they? I had all but stopped paying them any attention, even browsing vendor selections had come to a screeching halt.

My fear seemed realized when my first handful of sessions yielded nightmarish steeping results. Too much leaf, too little leaf, etc. it seemed as if my memory had attempted to draw from ancient unknown history.

It was the most anticipated, a 2009 Nan Tou Fo Shou from Hou De, where I really missed the steeping mark. So much so that I decided it was best to put it aside for a while to focus my attentions on newer, less temperamental acquisitions that required only slight adjustments.

This past Monday as the rain and wind increased through the morning hours, and we waited for hurricane Sandy to fully arrive and pass here in the North East, the Fo Shou found itself once again in the pot. What was once read as a dimensionless cup of bitter roasted charcoal, however, had now become pleasingly complex and well-balanced. It seemed the ways of old love are never completely forgotten.

Scents of biscuit, dried dark fruits, and smoked wood rose from the pot. Once poured, its broth was notably thick and clean in the cup. The body of the liquor in the mouth was full, complex, penetrating. It sat notes of caramelized walnuts and malt in the mid of the cavity. A roasted backdrop of baked currants, and ripe-berry-leaning coffee essences hung from the back of the soft palate into the top of the throat. Cooling sensations developed quickly at the front of the mouth and the lips, and blossomed into the sinus cavity.

It exhibited an engaging mid level acidity, which contributed to the full profile. The warmth of its roasted aromatics moved deep into the throat and intensified with inhalations, on exhalations it suggested a cooling like warm skin coming into contact with cool air. The strength of its roast also clung to the hard palate and front teeth at various stages during the session.

A malty sweetness settled into the curvature of the soft palate as the roasted foundation began to dissipate by later steeps. At this point the liquor began to take on faint cinnamon and root-like medicinal tones as the session winded down.

The cha qi of this Fo Shou set gradually, yet deeply, into the body. I found it quite easy to drift. I felt calm, euphoric, near to feverish as I finished this successful exchange.

Its essence lingered in the mouth and throat for considerable time after the final cup –easily in excess of an hour– though I didn’t take note to when it had fully dissipated. The body returned to normalcy in a shorter period of less than an hour. At a mere $17.50 for 2oz. this tea provides in excess of its price. I couldn’t recommend it more to those with a taste for elegant roasting in their oolong.

Water lessons learned

For the years preceding this blog, I used Poland Spring for exclusively steeping. At this time it read as non-intrusive upon various teas to me. It was also very easy to get my hands on, as most shops within walking distance carried it.

As my tea explorations progressed, and my sensitivities increased, I began to realize how it yielded excessive high notes, and allowed little lows. And so, I began actively reading/researching about water importance.

This series of posts by MattCha became very influential to my decision-making at this point. (MattCha’s Blog was the first tea site that I read with regularity, along with MarshalN’s A Tea Addict’s Journal, for just such posts.) I started to actively look for better water to use, and fell into using Fiji during a period when I was predominantly drinking cooked and aged raw samples, which worked a treat.

With a new-found uptick of young raw puerh in my diet, I began to note that the Fiji was a bit heavy-handed with these teas. However, Poland Spring, my old option, still delivered rather sharp, undesirable highs. I looked outward again for a complimentary water.

Upon discovering Zhi Zheng via Tea Urchin’s blog my water choice broadened again. Theirs was the first producer site I had visited with a suggested use of water for steeping their tea; Volvic, an ancient volcanic sourced water from Auvergne. With a Whole Foods now within walking distance, and several satisfactory test sessions, I made the total switch. It gracefully allowed the highs and the lows of young puerh, as well as the important middle notes, where previous waters had leaned to one side of the equation.

Most recently while commenting on a post by MarshalN on water importance, I made mention of how I grew up near a natural spring that my family drew from with regularity. I thought it would be interesting to see how it affected the tea, as I remembered it being fantastic drinking water as a kid. Of course, there would be no way possible for me to use it with any regularity considering the distance, but I felt it would be an interesting experiment.

As we were just home visiting my family following a lengthy gap of time the other weekend, we visited the spring, and brought home two jugs of the water to test out. What I experienced with it was surprising.

Tasted before steeping, the first thing of note was how heavy the water felt in the mouth. While not to the degree of mineral water from Saratoga Springs, it surprised none the less. I later read that someone had measured it presenting in excess of 200 TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) at their time of visit, though they didn’t offer an exact number. Considering earlier use of Fiji and Poland Springs, and still drinking both on occasion, it felt heavier than both.

(For comparison: Fiji has a TDS of 210, Volvic a TDS of 109 – 130, Iceland Spring a TDS of 36 – 48, Poland Spring a TDS of 37. Evian, which I have often read as being less than complimentary to tea steeping, has a TDS of 309 – 357. (I also noted that in June of 2012, China refused an Evian shipment for a second time noting excessive nitrite levels.) Finewaters.com, interestingly, lists the Virginality of certain waters depending on how protected they are from their surroundings. This is an interesting point to consider with the ever-expanding impact we have on our environment.)

I have since used the Troy Springs water with two separate puerh that I have experience with; the first with a PaSha from Che Ma Xuan, the second with a JingMai from Zhi Zheng. The affect on the yielded liquor was notable in the color of the PaSha, the Volvic produced a pale yellow, and the Troy Springs a hazy yellow-orange. The JingMai, by contrast, presented a less significant variation in tone.

In both instances, however, the water produced teas’ that were highly one-dimensional in taste and energy. The eight channel stereo surround presentation courtesy of Volvic became a mono recording through a single plastic speaker. Neither tea achieved any distinguishable highs or lows, their dynamics became severely flattened. They both became heavy, lifeless… completely undrinkable in my opinion.

It was a little heartbreaking to say the least.

I am still not quite done yet with the water. I want to give it a go with a 2003 cooked tuo that I am quite fond of. I am curious as to the effect it will have upon something a bit darker and meatier. Perhaps, in this case, it will be positive.

We as tea drinkers understand water importance, but sometimes it takes a truly profound experience to fully know it. And this experience was so much more distinct than any previous waters used.

This experiment also highlighted the importance for me to give the X of the X + Y = Z in my posts. Noting water used when discussing our readings of teas should certainly be a given considering the depth of its impact.

(Note: Apologies for the lack of images. They didn’t take to the memory card for some reason… This may, or may not, have to do with me dropping the camera. Ahem…)

Che Ma Xuan Pasha

My budding love affair with Che Ma Xuan sourced cakes stemmed from correspondences with Eugene (Tea Urchin) about the NaKa region.

I have since greatly enjoyed the various cakes sampled; a BingDao, two NaKa, a MengHai, a YouLe, and now a PaSha… each lovely, each unique.

courtesy of Eugene (Tea Urchin)

courtesy of Eugene (Tea Urchin)

courtesy of Eugene (Tea Urchin)

The dry leaf of this early spring 2011 sourcing from PaSha offered what I find in a sum of youthful puerh, an intense aroma of pasture –a muddle of humid dark grass with faint traces of fruit, and hints of flowers. This PaSha offered an additional expression in the form of a vaporous smudge of candy-like sweetness.

The first yielded broths were thick in body, buttery smooth. Each contributed to the increasingly distinctive mouth feel as they dramatically bowed from the tongue into the hard palate.

As the soft palate became engaged, my mind went into overdrive scrambling to identify notes as they appeared in flashes –cherry wood, sweet tobacco, flowers of undetermined variety, menthol, spice, corn (??)… all seemed right, yet potentially incorrect.

The tea truly opened up around the 6th and 7th steeps with a penetrating sweetness. It rounded out the existing notes, filled the mouth, and reached easily into the throat. It soothed. The lips became coated with tea oils.

A latent veil of coolness began to rise from the front of the mouth into the sinus.

The considerable nature of its sweetness soldiered on well into the final cups –I took the leaves to a healthy 15 steeps.

Its energy was ever-present, built gradually, and weighed heavily on the shoulders. It calmed. The body pulsated with warmth, which was notable as cool breezes rushed in from the patio door behind me.

I fought a bit with this PaSha; not in steeping, but in defining the nuances of its flavor. It confounded me with its profile. I look forward to a session or two more –on the back of three to date– to truly define all of its subtleties. This, I am afraid, will have to wait for a cake to arrive.

It seems a potentially good tea for aging, if considered for its now complexity and vibrant nature. It is also priced nicely at $50 for a 357g cake.

Should you be interested in this PaSha, or any of the previous Che Ma Xuan cakes, please contact Eugene for samples, and or cakes.

2012 JingGu from Bannacha

I had ordered a cake each of Bannacha’s JingMai and MangJing pressings about a month back after a ridiculous sum of time browsing the cakes for sale on his site –three months or more, as I have said before in a post, I have purchase commitment issues.

image courtesy of Bannacha

Unbelievably, despite how anxious I was to receive the cakes on top of a mistyped zip code, I have still not had the pleasure of a first run with either of these teas.

I encountered a bit of a distraction.

The culprit, a lovely JingGu sample which William –whose Bannablog should definitely be checked out and followed– graciously included with my order, and stole my attention.

(This tea was made by a friend of mine who has recently acquired an abandoned tea garden in a remote place around Xiao Jinggu. The tea garden is pesticide free and a great care and each tea tree has plenty of room to grow a solid root system. The garden is so remote that the leaves have to be processed on the premises in a small workshop. –Bannacha product description)

It was a surprise to realize upon checking my note-book that I had not previously encountered a JingGu puerh. So, a bit of a first date here… well, second really.

Its’ yielded broths were generous in the mouth, possessed of sweet grass, meadow and floral notes that had presented in both the dry leaf, and cup nosing. The tea was thick in body. As intakes of liquor were held suspended in the mouth, it suggested pushing its dense sweetness into the tongue and increasingly soaking the teeth.

The tea was impressively bright, fresh and full throughout the session, though restrained in its subtle changes. It was not eager to rush its evolutions, nor declare them. It reminded me of Phill Niblock compositions where his use of “close ratio tones” produce “overtone patterns” as he noted in a Rob Forman authored article published in the Weekly Dig. A blink of an eye would have resulted in a missed fluctuation.

Its aromatics progressively sank into the throat and chest, influencing the exhaled breaths.

What impressed me most about this tea was how elegantly it both rested in the mouth physically, and sank into body throughout the session. It was soothing, relaxing, near to hypnotic. I would happily drink through a cake of this tea in a single month as it is now, aging-schmaging.

As William notes in his product description, “It is certain, this tea was made with great care.” There are lovely teas, and then there are LOVELY teas. This Jing Gu most certainly falls into this latter category.