Tian Yun Spring 2007 BaDa, Zhang Lang Gu Shu

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Pre-adolescent puerh and I often don’t get along very well. I find their lop-sided profiles incredibly dull, or just simply unpleasant. Without the foresight to know if it will change for the better it is obviously difficult to want to invest in a cake bereft of “now” positives. By and large, I like them old and relatively settled. Or, I like them fresh-faced. This “issue” of mine, unfortunately, leads to an unhappy bank account.

I do, however, continue to search. The hunt is always on.

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A pleasant surprise then to find a five to ten-year old cake that I actually enjoy, a Tian Yun production from the spring of 2007 sourced from Zhang Lang village in the BaDa Shan range. This sample comes from Cream Of Banna, a new side project started by the venerable Mark of Zhi Zheng.Song intended to, “…introduce what I believe to be some of the best Puerh that ‘Banna has to offer.” The cake sells for 290 RMB, or about 46 US dollars.

The xiang qi of the dry leaf out of the sample bag is simple, fresh, rounded, with a top note of some Banna storage. Placed in the prepped gaiwan fragrances of leather, roots, sweet mild tobacco, some developing age, hints of dried fruit, minor floral and camphor notes are now present.

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The first yielded liquor delivers an aged softness to the mouth. It reminds of caramelized Valrhona Ivoire with a camphor back note, which seems odd I know, but there it is. The broth offers a rather surprisingly voluminous feeling, despite its relative quietness in the mouth at this point.

This Zhang Lang does take a few steeps before it truly shows itself, however once it does the leaves settle in for the long haul. You will likely grow tired of it before it wears itself out.

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Aromatic nuances from the dry nosing begin to develop in the mouth, coating the tongue, constantly shadowed by the hint of Ivoire. The profile becomes increasingly rounded in the mouth. Essences now linger at greater and greater length. Faint bitter-sweet notes edge the back of the tongue, as broths pool gently in the mouth. The tea is consistently pleasing in feel.

A muffled and gentle cooling develops and pushes at the hard palate by the sixth or seventh steep. It radiates to the back of the upper lip and into the sinus cavity before finally dissipating leaving a humming fresh, small white flower fragrance. The Ivoire/camphor note begins to arc into the soft palate.

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A subtly varied hui gan develops quickly. It is increasingly long-lasting and promotes salivation in the trenches of the mouth.

The tea is present in the throat, offering a lubricated feeling by the second half of the session. The insides of the cheeks are pleasingly oiled.

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This Zhang Lang is not as heavy in the body as other favored mid 00s cakes that I have come across. The ChenGuangHe Tang MengHai Yieh Sheng at Hou De comes to mind despite discussed storage issues. And yes, the comparison is apples to oranges when considering the many variables. The qi of this Zhang Lang leans more ethereal. It is graceful, massaging at the brow and weighing on the eyes before lilting into the thorax. The palms become humid. It gently relaxes and focuses.

This Zhang Lang seems poised at the beginning of a new stage in its development. Will its’ strength settle in heavier with further years of aging? Or, will it retain its relative subtlety? How will its profile progress? It does seem headed in a favorable direction though, which is why I will likely purchase a cake.

Often, in these circumstances, I wish I had a tea seer.

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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.

Zhi Zheng Kong Shan Xin Yu spring 2012

Just a few days before moving house, I received a parcel pick up notification in my mailbox. I thought this rather odd as I hadn’t placed any recent orders, well, at least that I hadn’t already received. The only information provided on the slip was point of origin, China.

The following morning I made my way to the post office to sign for, and pick up this mystery package. What a surprise to discover as I tore away the tape sealing the box that it was a set of 2012 spring samples from Zhi Zheng. A Jing Mai, a Wan Gong, a clutch of Cha Wang Shu mao cha, and lastly a Kong Shan Xin Yu.

Today as the heat had just started to set in, I turned to the Kong Shan Xin Yu sitting humbly at the back of my stash of samples.

Upon opening the bag, the nose is greeted by a distinctive floral aroma that is nothing short of elegant. Quite honestly, I could sniff the bag all day.

With the rinse and leaves rested, I prepare the first steeping. Of immediate note as the broth enters the mouth is how the tea possesses the finest sort of ku acting as a backbone upon which the other notes are built. It is provocative and engaging, never overwhelming. It is fleeting in the mouth, giving way to a generous softness. A subtle cooling follows on the tongue and pushes at the front of the mouth cavity.

This tea provides a clean, notably glossy feeling in the mouth. I have noted this before in at least two other teas of recent, the Naka from Che Ma Xuan, and the Bing Dao from Legends Of Puer. Needless to say, I am a fan of this effect.

The ever prominent floral notes of this Kong Shan Xin Yu intensify throughout the session, becoming more rounded and descending into the throat as I move forward through later steeps. The liquor warms its full length down into the chest. The slightest astringent effect appears at the back of the mouth and at the top of the throat before a rose-sugared almond sweetness rises in its wake, enveloping the mouth. It pushes into the base of the cavity, and then focuses on the forward third of the tongue.

The eyes begin to feel as if they are receding into the heaviness of my brow. The upper body is excessively warm and relaxed. I am quite ready for an afternoon summer nap at this point as this tea lingers in the mouth for quite some time following the last cup.

The spent leaves pictured here show bud sets, full leaves, stems, some torn leaf, a little touch of wok burn here and there; a beautiful cup of leaves in other words.

I have grown to greatly enjoy my sessions outside with teas over the past couple of weeks with the increased amount of green space around me, and this was no exception. Where once a small yard flanked by several roads lurked just outside of my windows; a larger yard now occupies the front and sides of the house, and a large graveyard sits just behind. (This has also become where I now keep my little compost pile of spent leaves. It seems rather fitting.)

I may have once desired the city life, but now as I settle into my early 40’s I find I have little patience for it all. Life in the sticks just doesn’t seem all that bad now…

She’s also settling in quite nicely…

(note: The last I checked, none of the 2012 spring cakes have yet to début on the site. I am certain they will shortly. h\However from what Mark suggested in an email, only certain cakes will appear online, the rest will only be available at their physical shop.)

Update for September 8, 2012: Zhi Zheng have now listed the Kong Shan Xin Yu. The cake can be found here.

2011 spring Lao Ban Zhang and AUN

This Lao Ban Zhang cake came to me following a fortunate exchange of emails, and is a purchase of which I remain extremely grateful for. This is a spring 2011 Tea Urchin sourcing. You can find a blog entry on this sourcing, here. 

As I unfurl the knotted wrapper, extracting it from the dimple, an aromatic rush rises from the folds of paper. A heavy scent of pasture greets the nostrils. It is remarkably similar to the raw milk dairy farm visited just last weekend, a town over from the new residence. A note of leather lingers in its background.

The now steeping leaves give little nosing. As they come to life with subsequent doses of water throughout the session, however, their scent gradually hangs heavy in the air.

The tea gifts the mouth with a pungent and coating broth on first meeting. The tongue is alive beneath the wash of vibrant liquor. Its taste is earthy, dark, quite frankly… beautiful. It provides low to high notes, and a rounded middle.

The tea’s energy moves counter-clockwise within the mouth cavity, accumulating notable warmth at two distinct points where the hard and soft palates converge. A gentle bitterness increases with each steep, dapping the length of the tongue before pushing through these two focal points and settling into the sinus cavity. A coy note of menthol develops in tandem to the ku, shadowing its movements. The fluctuation through the palate evokes a sense of congestion followed by a flash clearing.

The tea warms into, and expands at the middle of the throat.

The brow is now weighted. My head feels filled with cotton wool, my only focus is this Lao Ban Zhang. I can think of nothing but it, desiring more of it, even as my state of calm leaves me weakened.

The leaves give, and give some more, scoffing at each further dousing of water.

As I pass the 10 steep marker, the broth is now vaporous in the mouth. It seems to barely register on the tongue, yet it lingers at the back of the mouth and pushes forth an exquisite sweetness. Swelling from beneath the tongue it intensifies, saturating the mouth, heightening salivation. The lid of the gaiwan is heavy with sugar. The hui gan is profound and lingering.

An hour on, it remains…

steeping listening: Christian Fennesz: AUN

An afternoon with a beast from Naka and Cabaret Voltaire

I can’t for the life of me remember exactly what triggered my interest in Naka.

There might have been a mini-brick online somewhere that first put the name into my head, or perhaps it rang in my head as Naga –one of my favorite features of the Wats in Thailand when I visited years back. Whatever the exact reason, I made mention of the village to Eugene at Tea Urchin during an email discussion about teas, prompting him to make note of a tuocha Che Ma Xuan sourcing from the autumn of 2009. I ended up falling in love with the purchased sample, and a short while after happily invested in a 250g tuo.

After an exchange which included mention of their 2012 Spring sourcing, a sample arrived gifted with a recent order. It, however, sadly appeared just as I packed away my tea’s into boxes, where it has patiently waited for me since.

Today, as I sat out on the back patio on this lovely day, it seemed as good day as any to give it a first run. After a bit of rummaging about in a couple of boxes, the sample was found.

With just a dry nosing, the invigorating aroma from the leaves drew me in before they were even wet. This is also when what became the dominant flavor note in the first half-dozen steeps appeared. I couldn’t place it just then, and it took me a handful of sips to name it.

Toasted rice powder.

The liquor was clean, bright. It provided a mild ku along with an anchoring note of the toasted rice powder. This fragrance also lingered on the lid of the gaiwan, even as it began to fade in the mouth by later steeps. As the session progressed, the tea rounded out with increasing array of notes and subtleties.

It felt incredibly soft, buttery perhaps, in the mouth. And while it might be a clumsy way of describing the progressive sensation, ‘glossy’ best sums it up. It wasn’t the high buff shine experienced from the Legends Of Puer Bingdao cake I had recently (which I will post about shortly), but it was in a similar league. It cooled the tongue, and even the lips, at points.

What I wasn’t fully prepared me for was the energy lurking within this Naka. It was unapologetically powerful. Within the first three steeps it began pulsing energy into the brow where it increased in weight. It weakened the strength of my legs. My torso felt impossibly warm. I was absolutely consumed whole by its energy. I had to walk away from the beast for a break around the seventh, perhaps eighth, steep as I was fully intoxicated. I was reluctant, truly, but sometimes you have to know your limit.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the qi transforms with time. Will it fade? Will it strengthen? I can barely even imagine the latter –though I have a sample of an eighties Shui Xian from Essence Of Tea lurking in the wings which reportedly knocks the drinker for a loop within a steep. Might this also be the future for this Naka? I kind of hope so.

steeping listening: Cabaret Voltaire: International Language

Gua Feng Zhai in a new space with a dose of David Bowie

It has been a little over two weeks on from my move, and I continue adjusting to the new space. As expected during this period of acclimation my tea sessions had fallen a little flat, when they happened at all. Moving was certainly a whole lot easier when I was younger before I had accumulated an inordinate amount of records and books. It seems our possessions have a way of sneaking up on us in the night, don’t they?

Today, I found myself more at peace with my new surroundings, even coupled with it being surprisingly hot here in Northern Massachusetts. While I normally tend to thrive in the heat, it did manage to throw me off a bit today. It felt downright nuclear on my patio during my preparation of the first steeping. It was barely noon. With that said, today still ended up being a good tea day.

If you’ll remember from my last post, I made note that the Gua Feng Zhai was my favorite wrapper from Tea Urchin’s Spring 2012 offerings. How wonderful then to discover that it was even lovelier to behold upon its arrival in the post.

In its obvious attempt to challenge my re-wrapping skills, the cake comes double wrapped. (Alas, my dear sweet cake, these are the once trained hands of a baker and chocolatier, so your challenge shall be met and conquered.)

Upon removal of the first layer, a pungent aromatic blast of a hearty young sheng revealed itself, possessed with just the right amount of sweetness to make my heart flutter. I actually believe my eyes may have also fluttered for a second à la Bugs as Valkyrie Brunhilde.

The leaves pulled apart nicely with just a bit of work from a well placed pick.

As the sip from the first prepared cup entered the mouth, it immediately sent a tingling sensation the length of the tongue to the top of the throat. It reminded of the effect of huā jiāo initially, minus the numbing. Upon consideration though, it seemed far more lively and effervescent, similar to a mouthful of Pop Rocks. And, oh, how this liveliness lasted throughout the session.

It eventually dipped into the throat, halfway down the length of the neck. And for a flash, it reached down a touch further. Even as the last few steeps rendered a pale broth tasting of delicate shades of floral sweetness, it persisted in the mouth, however faintly.

The broth quickly delivered an exceptional mouth feel which developed across the length of the prepared steeps. It evolved from full and penetrating, to coating and buttery. A thick sweetness pulsed out from beneath the tongue within the first few sips, and continued to swell. It was a pleasing compliment to the gentle ku which presented most strongly across the initial set of steeps, but lingered throughout the session.

Its rather expressive qi presented itself first within the head. It expanded from its center focal point into the brow and crown. At the height of its strength, it seemed to gently pulsate. Standing up quickly from a seated position left me feeling a little wobbly.

More interesting, however, was the latent ball of energy which sank into the middle of the chest around the seventh of eighth steeping. It sat poised just behind the sternum, where it seemed to slowly expand, threatening to make an outward expression of itself. A wee bit Alien-esque, I know. It does, however, properly explain the sensation. It was one of the more interesting sensations I have felt from a tea to date.

I took these leaves a good 12 or 13 steeps. It seemed to have a bit more to offer, however I felt thoroughly content with where it had taken me and decided to let the session end as my hands began to tremble slightly.

While I would agree with Eugene and Belle’s assertion that the Gao Shan Zhai is the pick of the litter out of the spring 2012 teas on offer –at least out of those that I have tried so far– this Gua Feng Zhai is certainly no slouch. I look forward to a few more sessions over the coming months, and then finding out where some time takes it leaves.

steeping listening: David Bowie: Young Americans

A 2012 spring Gao Shan Zhai, and a dash of wrapper appreciation

I haven’t had much quality time recently for taking tea due to an impending house move. Which as I recently commented to Bev of the wonderful Listening to Leaves, has made me just a wee bit cranky of recent.

Over the past weekend, however, I finally managed to steal some time for a session in between painting, packing, and donating. I decided on a bit of a sample from Tea Urchin’s Gao Shan Zhai spring 2012 cake acclimatizing for the past few weeks in a favorite earthenware jar. Amusingly enough, Gao Shan Zhai is the one cake that I hadn’t sampled from their autumn 2011 productions. So, unfortunately, I won’t be able to compare-and-contrast on this occasion.

The tea, however, in and of its self, was exceptional.

From the site: “This is our favorite Tea Urchin pressing from the first batch of early spring 2012 maocha. This Gao Shan Zhai puerh cake is pressed from un-pruned 300 year old trees and has amazing chaqi that is almost euphoric. Completely hand processed according to traditional methods and stone pressed in Yiwu.

The nose of the dry leaf reveals an exceptionally fresh, very green, and heady fragrance.

As the leaves awaken in the gaiwan the broth deepens to a limpid yellow, losing the smudge of pale grassy hues from the first two steeps.

The liquor is clean on the palate, accented by gentle floral notes. It is full in the mouth, coating the tongue. Where most teas I have had of recent presented a gradual arching into the sinus cavity, here its’ nature bolts straight through the hard palate.

This Gao Shan Zhai is incredibly vibrant, offering a well placed bitterness in the form of a prickling sensation along the length of the tongue. As the session progresses it moves to the back of the tongue. A mild astringent sensation reaches briefly into the throat and then dissipates. A gradually developing warmth replaces this slight drying, and spreads ever deeper.

The huigan is a significant aspect of this tea, dwarfed only by its dynamic qi. Wave upon wave of complex sweet notes rise from the throat with each exhalation, lingering at considerable length in the mouth.

The energy builds with measured pacing, rising out of the body with a suggestive sensation of pulling at the physical body. The shoulders and the upper back become warm and slightly damp, yet the core feels cool. Every pore is open and tingling, and physical awareness heightens. As the tea sinks further into the body, the middle of the back feels humid, yet remains dry.

Really, there is so much more to this tea than what I have detailed in the above notes. However, as time is rather limited, I chose to stay in the moment writing less than I would normally.

steeping listening: Dead Can Dance: Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun

I had planned to write a separate post drawing attention to a recent series of Tea Urchin’s wrappers that really struck a note with me. However, as I was finishing this post knowing the amount of packing and painting that the next two weeks hold in store for me, I thought it a good idea to tie it in to this post as the Gao Shan Zhai is one of my favorites. (And yes, I know the most important thing is the tea within the art.)

Eugene made note in an email that his inspiration for this series came from his sourcing travels in Yunnan. Happily, I have already found the inspiration for two wrappers from photographs in his posts. It has become a bit of a “Where’s Waldo?” game, which I am greatly enjoying.

My favorite wrapper of the series: Gua Feng Zhai by Tea Urchin

Yi Shan Mo by Tea Urchin

Man Zhuan by Tea Urchin

Gao Shan Zhai by Tea Urchin

Luo Shui Dong by Tea Urchin