Once upon a time, in a land far far away, tea was cheap. Puerh was considered very cheap tea, and things like the Laotongzhi, admittedly a very regular cake, would fetch about 25 RMB on the market. The vaunted Dayi, which is now attaining mythical status, was only slightly more expensive. In those halcyon days of plentiful and cheap tea, Yichanghao was among the new stars that promised greatness. They rapidly expanded from their initial foray into tea production in 99 to an important player by 2005. Times were good.
Fast forward half a dozen years, and now there are persistent rumours of imminent collapse of Changtai Group, the company behind Yichanghao. Fact is, ever since the 2007 bubble burst, Changtai hasn’t been doing much – at least, not much that anyone has paid any attention to. They still produce tea every year, but they haven’t had a “hit” for a long, long time.
It was in those blissful days when I bought this thing
Compared with the photos I took right after I bought this cake (romanized as Mengsa, because that’s how the characters are sometimes written, but not on this particular cake), it’s pretty obvious that it has aged a little bit over the years. The tea was stored in Beijing for a year, then for the rest of its life has been in Hong Kong. I haven’t had a chance to drink it since buying it, until a few days ago, anyway. I bought two cakes, of course, and this seems to be not the one that was pictured, but I’m sure they were similar in colours. The liquor is suitably dark.
I thought, when I bought it, that this cake has aging potential. Well, six years later, I can report that the cake has indeed aged. I think my taste is a little more… picky than it used to be, so I am not judging the teas with the same yardstick. Having said that, it’s a cake with this age that’s still generally better than most of its counterparts from relative big factories from 2005. It hasn’t gotten worse, and it has a nice, rounded taste. It’s a bit on the thin side, all things considered, but since I didn’t pay great tea prices for it, it’s hard to expect great tea from it. I seem to remember paying something around 60-80 RMB for one cake at the time, which was ok, but not terribly cheap. Well, now you can find this tea on Taobao for about 300, but RMB has appreciated by almost 30% since then, so it’s actually about 5x the price I bought it for. Is it still worth it at these prices? In the context of new tea prices, absolutely – for a couple cakes anyway, and for more immediate consumption. I wouldn’t invest thousands for tongs of this stuff, but as a drinker and something to be had casually, it’s not bad, so long as the storage conditions are broadly similar and the tea hasn’t been dried out or been stored way too wet.
There is a taste among many Taobao cakes I’ve bought that are of this low-mid price range with 5-7 years that I really hate – I suppose it might be what people describe as “straw” which I find to be the precursor to thinness and blandness. I can see a hint of that here – just a hint, whereas a lot of times that is the dominant taste in cakes. I wonder if it has to do with the temperature and humidity that it’s stored at. I don’t know what the Taobao vendors’ cakes will taste like, it might be interesting to compare, but I don’t feel like throwing 300 RMB at it just to give it a try.