The retaste project 17: 2005 Yichanghao Mansa

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

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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.

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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.

The retaste project 16: 2006 Fall Jixiang Chashe Yiwu Dingjiazhai

So after that terrible, terrible tea from Jabbok, I had to have something else to clear my mouth of the bad taste. I opted for an old reliable – this 2006 Yiwu I bought, online, from a small time maker of puerh who seems to have disappeared since then.

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This guy’s business model was basically to press cakes and then sell them via the various discussion forums on tea. I bought maybe half a dozen cakes from him, all pretty decent things. I’ve written about this tea some years ago. I think the main things to note now are as follows:

1) The most obvious thing is that the smoke is gone, totally gone. There’s no more smoke in the tea, at all.

2) The tea is not quite that strong, now that I have more comparative experience. It’s fine, but it’s not awesome.

3) I really should dig out the other cake and try it side by side with this and see what happened 6 years down the road.

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What I can say with confidence though is that my storage conditions seem to be advancing the tea steadily. That’s reassuring, because the last thing you’d want is if the storage of your own teas is ruining it. It’s happened to other people before, and I sure as hell don’t want it to happen to me. This isn’t even remotely close to the same tea as the one I drank almost seven years ago, and in the intervening times, I’ve only tried it maybe a few more times. It’s a pleasant enough drink, and I will happily drink it all up in one go. For the price I paid back then, which was about 200RMB, it seemed like a lot of money, but nowadays I think something of this quality will already set you back far more, unfortunately. That’s the market for puerh these days. Oh well.

The retaste project 15: 2005 Jabbok “Select aged tea”

This tea

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is something I bought in 2005/6. The cake is a bit dark now.

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The tea is similarly dark when brewed.

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Alas. That’s it. It looks fine, but it tastes terrible. It starts off sour, with some really weird off notes. There’s no real body. I suspect this tea was made with some really low quality leaves, and then sold. I bought it at the time because I didn’t know any better, and also because it was cheap enough. The guy who made this calls himself “The Professor,” because he’s been invited as a visiting professor at one or two places in China. He has a bit of a reputational problem here in Hong Kong, and I can see why. The tea left such a nasty taste in my mouth I went to something else also immediately after to wash it out. Thankfully, that tea has also been in my storage for the last six years or so, and isn’t turning out badly. At least it’s not me.

The retaste project 14: 2003 Menghai Early Spring Arbor Tree

Speaking of silly prices, here’s one.

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This is a tea that I have been holding on to for the past few years. Tim of the Mandarin’s Tea Room visited me, or perhaps I visited him, and somehow I ended up with half a cake of this (Tim, you want it back?). I think he wrote about this somewhere on his blog, although I can’t find it for the life of me. The tea has been consumed a number of times by the time I got it. I haven’t really tried it since.

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Relatively tight compression, but otherwise an unremarkable big factory looking cake. The Taobao price now hovers somewhere in the ballpark of 3000 RMB. Notice there are fakes out there, but either way, I doubt many are dying to buy a 3000 RMB cake without first having tasted it. In any case, it seems like none of the Taobao vendors have sold any recently.

The reason I say silly prices is because when I tried it, well, the tea’s fine. It’s got a bit of smokey notes in there. It is relatively full bodied, distinctly Menghai factory tasting, still somewhat bitter, and generally similar to many other Menghai products from around this time. They differ in degree, not in kind. Yet the prices of the teas cannot be more different. For $500 USD I can buy something like 50 250g tuos of the same year from Menghai that doesn’t taste much inferior, if at all. There is no real reason why anyone should buy this tea.

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So why do they charge such a high price for it? Well, I don’t know. I think one reason is because this is something easily identifiable, and in small supply, so people can ID it and say “oh, this is from this year”. Whereas the CNNP wrapped teas are hard to pinpoint in year and make, this is not the case here. I also suspect that somewhere along the line, someone did a speculative job with this tea – and drove the prices up. So, those who are left holding the bag are, well, still holding it. At some point I suppose it will meet the price that is being asked, but really, at 3000 RMB a cake for a 10 years old tea that is still a bit too young to drink, there really are a lot of better choices out there. I seem to remember Tim has more of these cakes. If I were him, and if these cakes can be sold back to Mainland dealers for, say, 2000 RMB a piece, I’d totally sell them and use the money to buy something else. Anyway, this one goes back to the storage and sit.

The retaste project 13: 2005 Fuxing zihao Youle

Back in 2007, I was doing research in Taipei for half a year after having spent a year in Beijing. It was there where I discovered good aged Taiwanese oolong, and also drank a fair amount of puerh of various kinds while there. One of the stores I loved visiting was Fushen, with a very interesting laobanniang who runs the shop. It mostly sells teapots, but has some tea on the side. It was there where I picked up a few tongs of this tea.

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This was a tea made by some Taiwanese guy who went to Yunnan to press his own cakes, and who used the name Fuxing and then now switched the company’s name to something else entirely. I bought two of his cakes – the only two available – one of which is this Youle, and another is a Zhangjiawan. I remember the Youle being stronger, but the Zhangjiawan seems a little more interesting. I haven’t tried either cake since late 2007/early 2008. The last time I wrote about this tea was in September 2007, right after I bought it.

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This is the exact same cake that was pictured in my 2007 post. I think it got a little darker, but that’s it. Not that one would expect earth-shattering changes in five years.

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The tea’s liquor is way darker than I remember – I remember it coming out a golden yellow type colour, for something about two years old at the time. It’s completely lost the youthful aggressiveness that it had – the tea was, if I remember correctly, pretty strong and a bit bitter, even though it had lots of overtones of fruitiness. The notes are also darker and deeper now – sweet, more mellow, a bit more savoury. The wet leaves (still brewing) are also darker and no longer lime green like in the old pictures. I like this tea as it is, and certainly do not regret buying it then at what I remember to be a pretty reasonable price. I’d imagine my cakes in the tongs are a bit different – perhaps aging a little slower, but might also retain more flavour. I look forward to drinking more of this tea in the future.

The retaste project 12: 2003 Fengqing zodiac minibings

Sometimes it’s fun to try things that you have written about before, and it’s even more fun when other people have tried the same thing. I was recently reminded by hster‘s post that I have two tongs of this 2003 Fengqing zodiac minibings sitting at home. The last time I tried this stuff was 2007. It’s time to give them another spin.

The storage of this tea was mostly in the United States, actually, and only came back with me to Hong Kong last year. Before that it’s been through Boston, Ohio, and Maine – all cold places, one worse than the next. Visually, the tea hasn’t changed all that much – it’s gotten maybe a little darker in tone when you inspect the dry leaves.

 

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I threw a small chunk in the pot and brewed it up. It did get darker, and it did lose some of the fresh/young notes that I may have found back in 2006. The tea isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination – it’s ok. A boring, bland okness that isn’t broken up by any surprises, up or down.

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I should note that cup depth, more than anything else, provides the greatest variable in liquor colour as you see on blogs. Unless and until we all use the same cups, liquor colour comparisons are pretty much meaningless.

I also poked around Taobao and found that this thing is sold by at least one vendor for a whooping $50 a cake (100g). I ought to go sell these, as I think I paid a total of $50 for the two tongs, totaling 2.4kg of tea. You’ll notice the age of the cake also got inflated to 1997. This just goes to show that if you try your luck on Taobao, you better know what you’re doing. In the meantime, back in the storage this thing goes, and I don’t think I’ll see it again for quite some time.

The retaste project 11: 2005(?) Chenguanghe Tang Yiwu brick

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This is a brick that, I think, I bought in Taiwan while I was there doing work. I seem to remember picking it up along with a few other things, more as a curiosity piece than anything else. Back then Chen Zhitong, the proprietor of Chenguanghe Tang, was just starting to press his own stuff, so I’m not sure if this brick was his own, or if it were one of the “someone pressed it and I named it” sort of deal. I do remember it being relatively cheap, which is why I bought one.

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Unfortunately, there’s a reason the tea is cheap – it’s really, really broken up, as in the leaves are very chopped. Other than the surface, which has a layer of decent looking leaves, everything in between is pretty much chopped leaves of the smallest variety – stuff you might expect in a teabag, but in a brick form. When I used my pick to pry out a piece, it was basically effortless, and the leaves more or less crumble when you pressure the leaves.

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The result is rather disappointing – nasty early brews because of the high surface area, and then weak late brews because the tea has been exhausted. What you see above is the result of the wash – just lots of tiny sediments and fannings. There wasn’t a single whole leaf in there, and most of it is too fine to even make it into big factory cakes. In other words, it was the leftovers pressed into a brick. There’s a reason why my friends generally stay away from bricks unless they know it’s a good one.

The retaste project 10: 2006 Fall Yiwu girl Gaoshanzhai

Not long after I started this blog I went to Beijing for a year of research for my doctoral dissertation. When I wasn’t in the archives or trying to do research, I was probably spending time thinking about, drinking, or buying tea. For the first half of the year I was there, I was obsessing over a slightly long saga of trying to get a tong of cakes from a shopkeeping girl in a shop that I chanced upon randomly. Long story short, she was, apparently, sort of side-dealing for the tea in question, and when I returned a week later, I was told that I couldn’t buy it anymore. I eventually got a cake, and after trying it out for weeks, finally bought a tong of it, seven cakes in all. It was the most trouble I went to in order to obtain some tea cakes. It was also the first real big purchase I ever did in terms of buying tea, and it was special, because this wasn’t (and isn’t) a tea you can just buy on the market. Because of that, this tong of tea has always occupied a somewhat special place in my tea collection.

I haven’t tried this tea at all since 2007, and the memory of it is hazy. I just remember it being very good – a nice throatiness, good qi, thick taste, nice fragrance. I checked on the tea a few times in the intervening years, but never tasted it. Recently, while talking to Tea Urchin about swapping some samples of teas, he must’ve gone through my entire archive and found this cake. I told him if it’s any good, I’ll send him some. Well, to find out if it’s any good, still, I need to try it, so here I am.

First of all, although lighting conditions are obviously different, this tea has darkened. The tips are now all a golden yellow, rather than white. The leaves are shiny and oily, and there are even more stems than I remember. That was one of the big question marks I had with this tea – there was a liberal amount of stems in the tea, almost abnormally high. I wondered how they’d age over time.

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Using my trusty pot, I brewed some.

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The result, I’m happy to report, is very satisfactory. The coolness at the throat is still very obvious – more than I remembered. The taste is still quite full and thick. The tea has obviously changed, and it’s hard to say it’s better or worse than before, but it is definitely different. It also lasts a long time – 3 kettles of water later, I was still getting something out of it, although it was merely sweet water by that point. All in all, I’m very happy with its progress, but I’m not going to drink it again, not any time soon. Back into the tong it goes, and maybe I’ll wait another five years before trying it again.

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In the meantime, I wonder what happened to that girl who sold me the tea. She was training to work in one of these teahouses in Beijing, but I never heard from her since, and we sort of lost touch. I hope her family’s still making tea in Gaoshanzhai.

The retaste project 9: Dayi 2005 7542

Haven’t done one of these in a while – not that I haven’t been drinking any tea, but just haven’t gotten around to some of my older holdings.  So, here’s an unusual one:

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It’s not exactly an everyday occurrence for me to drink Dayi tea. In fact, I almost never do, mostly because I’m not particularly fond of a lot of their newer productions, and the older ones are very expensive, with prices that are often times completely insane for the quality they provide. Most of this is due to the secondary market being very robust and the name brand effect – Dayi is really one of two brands that is truly widely recognized and has some brand value, regardless of what you think of their products, and for what it’s worth, they’re quite consistent in what they produce – the teas are rarely spectacular, but they are reliable.

I got this particular cake at a local shop here in Hong Kong probably one or two years ago, so it hasn’t gone through my storage very much. I have, however, had a good chunk of it already

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I actually have slight reservations as to whether this is the real McCoy, or if this is a fake. If it were real, this would probably be a production 502 7542, as the production date is early May, whereas the 501 I’ve seen is from mid April. Curiously enough, in the whole wide world of Taobao, there isn’t a single 502 production 7542 for sale.

The tea, as you can see from its colour, has been through a bit of traditional storage, although not heavily so. It has a nice brownish green colour, with a nice whiff of storage, but no mold on the surface or anything like that. In fact, I’d say it is rather well aged. I just bought a cake blind, since I didn’t know what to expect at the time.

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The tea actually brews very well, and has a nice, deep character that is normally not present in a lot of 7542s I’ve had that are of recent vintage. It is no longer bitter in that new tea kind of way, and is instead quite pleasant to drink, with a nice roundness and softness that seems to indicate it can do more in the future. In all, I found it very satisfying, and am wondering if I should go back and get more of it – provided they are still selling it.

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If I go get more, say, a tong, this will actually be my first purchase in any real quantity of a Dayi product. It’s coming rather late in my tea career, but I suppose it’s never too late.

The retaste project 8: Mandarin’s Tea 2006 Yiwu

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This is a cake that I received from Toki, proprietor of Mandarin’s Tearoom, way back when.  It wasn’t too long after we met, if I remembered correctly, and he gave it to me when we met up one of those times in New York City.  Strictly speaking, this doesn’t belong to the retaste project, because I have been lugging this tea around with me in various parts of the US, rather than storing it in Hong Kong.  It has spent time in Boston, Ohio, New York state, and Maine.  I drank it once before after receiving this cake, and am now trying it for the second time.

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The cake is full of little buds, and very few larger leaves.  I remember when I first tried it, the tea was somewhat smokey, and was not the most pleasant to drink. It’s rather loose, compression wise, and after a few years of moving around, the wrapper has accumulated a fair amount of broken leaves and bits.  I brewed those instead of breaking more leaves off.

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The resulting cup is rather interesting – a nice minty taste that touches the throat, a good, solid, Yiwu profile, and reasonable viscosity. There is still just a hint of that smoke left in there somewhere. It tastes like old tree tea to me, and these days, those things cost a pretty penny. It’s a pretty good tea, and I can see it getting better over time. I guess my roaming US storage didn’t kill it, now I wonder if my Hong Kong storage can improve the tea.