The retaste project 7: Best Tea House Brick

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This thing was one of the earlier purchases I made in terms of puerh – bought about 10 years ago. When I bought it it was already labeled as “Preciously stored old raw brick”, with a nice wooden box to go with it to convey the preciousness of the thing. I remember back then it was pretty harsh. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I tried this tea – it was probably at least four or five years ago. In the meantime, it’s been aging peacefully in this nice little box, hopefully getting better.

One of the earliest things I’ve learned about puerh (not early enough, apparently) was that there’s an order to the world of puerh. Cakes were best, tuos were next, then there are the bricks, and finally there are the other random stuff. Bricks, in other words, were basically at the bottom of the totem pole – crap, in other words. This brick more or less confirms that theory, because it is filled with crushed leaves. Other than the nice surface

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the rest of the brick can best be described as sawdust.  There’s not a single whole leaf in the thing after the surface layer.

The taste is actually quite nice now – it is aged, and definitely has that aged taste to it, but not with a nasty streak of bitterness that it used to have. While I wouldn’t call it mellow, it is not terrible either. The problem, really, is in the longevity of the tea – because of its sawdust nature, it doesn’t last very long. Ten plus infusions later and it’s giving you tasteless water. What’s the point of carefully aging it if it won’t last?

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These days bricks are more hit or miss than before, when it was a sure miss. Very often bricks are now made when the producer has enough stuff leftover but not really enough to make a cake run, or if they sorted out the secondary/less desirable leaves and make bricks out of it. There are exceptions, but not too often.  Which is why I almost never buy bricks.

The retaste project 6: Lam Kie Yuen 2004 Yiwu, home vs store

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As you can see, I have two cakes of this tea.  One, the left, I bought very recently — about a few weeks ago.  The one on the right, on the other hand, is from about 5 years ago when the tea first came out.  I’ve had it in my collection ever since then and it’s been mostly sitting on the shelf.

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I obviously cannot convey smell and sight, but it is very obvious, when you have the cakes in hand, that the one on the left is of a duller complexion, while the one on the right has much shinier leaves.  The smell is also very obvious – the left one smells of a slightly moldy storage, just like any traditionally stored tea would.  The one on the right was also traditionally stored a little before I bought it, but it does not smell of the storage at all.  Instead, it smells fragrant, like a youngish puerh would.  On the other hand, if you rely on the stains on the wrapper and neifei, you might think the right hand cake has been traditionally stored, but you would be wrong.

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The reason I bought another cake of this is purely for comparison purposes.  I wanted to see how different my cake is compared to what has been stored at the merchant’s all these years.  Also, I want to compare a cake that has been through the “tuicang”, or “removing storage” process, versus one that is more or less fresh out of the storage.  By smell and sight alone, the difference is already enormous.

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I had thought that the difference in colour for the brewed tea would be very different too, but I was wrong on that.  The colours are, surprisingly, more or less the same, and remained so with the second infusion (both 3 minutes long).  The tastes, however, are quite different.  The left one is duller, rounder, less bitter, smells/tastes more of the storage.  The one on the right is very much sharper, more bitter, but also retains more of the “high” fragrant notes and lingers a bit more.  The one on the left is closer to consumption, but in the process, has lost something.  The one on the right is still pretty feisty.  There’s slight evidence of traditional storage, but that’s only if you know what you’re looking for in the wet leaves and what not.  Otherwise, it’s really not that obvious.

The second brew yields something that’s more differentiable in that the home stored tea is a little more interesting still, whereas the merchant stored one yields more of the same – the traditionally stored taste with a bit of green edge in the end.

The next step in this comparison would be to let the recently purchased cake to air out for half a year or a year, and then revisit and see how different they are now.  By then, it should’ve lost the storage taste and develop something more fragrant, but it will most certainly be a fragrance that’s different from the home stored one.

The retaste project 5: Yiwu Shunshixing

The retasting continues, although in this case, it is also a cake that I haven’t tried since I had it in the store.

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Yiwu Shunshixing is an outfit headed by Zhang Yi, who was the village head in Yiwu in the mid 1990s and who was instrumental in the making of the cake Zhenchunya Hao, which now sells for an obscene amount of money.  The cakes he makes correspondingly cost a lot, relatively speaking.  I bought this cake in 2006, and I’m pretty sure this is a 2004 or earlier production, although I no longer remember what year it’s from.  Anything older than 2004 is pretty expensive on the market, and quite hard to find, as they were made in small batches.  I think mostly collectors have them.  I bought the last two cakes from the shop, if I remember correctly.

I should also note that Chinese shop names are confusing, because the same characters get used repeatedly in various combinations.  This is mostly because commercial enterprises of the old style all want names that mean something along the lines of prosperity, smooth-sailing, stability, etc, and so they stick to the same words.  When two outfits sound about the same, it does not, in any way, mean they are related.  In fact, assume they’re not unless you know otherwise.  I sometimes see people confusing names of tea makers thinking it’s some typo of another name they’re familiar with already, when in fact they are completely independent productions.

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The tea is stone pressed and looks pretty nice.  The neifei is “submarine”, meaning it is hidden inside the cake instead of being affixed on top of the cake.  I haven’t found it yet.

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The tea itself is quite interesting – it has a typical Yiwu taste, probably from somewhere along the lines of Mahei or Luoshuidong.  The tea is still somewhat bitter — more so than I expected, really.  It has a very light tartness, but the bitterness dominates, even though it does fade fairly quickly.  The tea itself is not bad at all, but neither does it blow your mind.  It does remind me a little bit of how the Zhenchunya Hao used to taste some years back — that’s not exactly the nicest tasting tea back in the day either, and is now famous mostly for the wrong reasons.

The tea does withstand a lot of repeated infusions, but I think I have better tea than this one.  Back in the storage it goes and I doubt I’ll pull it out again for a few years.  Maybe it’ll surprise me then.

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The retaste project 4: 2001 Mengku Yuanyexiang

This is a tea that I bought along with the last tea I had, the 2002 Mengku.  Back in the day this was a hot cake, and although the market is now calmer, the tea’s price is a good 7-8x what the 2002 Mengku costs, even though they were made by the same factory and only one year apart in the production date.  I tasted this tea back then right after I purchased it, and the notes are here.  I remember my assessment at the time being that it was slightly nicer than the 2002 version, but not by a wide margin.  Back then the price difference was something like 10-20% difference.  Now, of course, it’s multiples.

This is the thin paper version, and one of the annoyances of teas with such thin wrappers is that they survive storage very badly, especially if they’re out of the tong, which is the case here.

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I realized that I opened the wrong cake, but I just took a look again at the original cake I had in my 2006 post and this one, and in terms of appearance, they exhibit no obvious differences.  It’s the same tea.

The cakes are very distinctive in shape, as are all Mengku factory cakes.  They have a flat surface front and back, especially back, and the edge of the cake is a straight wall, rather than a sloped, tapered edge like Menghai ones.  The cakes are quite unmistakable.  The cake is made up of mostly smaller leaves.

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The cakes did get darker in the five years since I last checked them.  There was some greenness when I drank them last, now they’re more of a blackish colour than anything else.

Now, although the thin paper has always been advertised as “dry stored”, many of the samples I’ve had from other sources in the past five years of this tea have mostly exhibited a “lightly traditionally stored” taste.  It’s not immediately obvious like a normal traditionally stored cake, but once you really savour the tea the storage taste does show up here and there in the shadows.  Most of the tea came from the same place, I believe — one batch of tea that was mostly sold through the Best Tea House in Hong Kong.  Cloud, who originally posted about this tea, also mentions the existence of a lightly traditionally stored version of the thin paper tea.  While no doubt the completely dry stored version surely exists, I don’t think I’ve actually ever encountered it even at the Best Tea House.  Maybe it was all snapped up.

Because of the storage condition that the tea went through, the colour is a bit on the darker side, especially when compared with the 2002.  The colour here is quite consistent with what some others have posted before, for example on Phyll’s blog back in the day (if you’re alive, contact me!).  Given the depth of my cup and the slightly dark lighting conditions, plus a few years of extra storage in Hong Kong, they’re not far apart.

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The tea is actually quite nice, indeed a notch better than the 2002.  Because of the storage difference (the 2002 I have doesn’t seem to have gone through any sort of traditional storage) the taste of this Yuanyexiang is a bit older, and has traces of some older teas I’ve had before.  I’m sure that given another five or ten years, it will turn out quite nicely as a good, aged tea to drink.

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The storage taste is only barely discernable, if you know what you’re looking for.  When I brewed it hard later on with long infusions, it becomes slightly more obvious, and sniffing the wet leaves, likewise, gives a hint of the traditional storage smell.  The leaves are still far from dark brown and exhibit youth in them.  This is a good tea.  Whether or not it’s worth the price of admission now is a question that’s really open to debate.  I tend to think that teas like the 2002 Mengku is a far better value for money, mostly because it’s so much cheaper, widely available, does not have the “fame premium” that you need to pay for the tea, etc, and still have roughly the same quality.  I also know some people who, having stored this 2001 Yuanyexiang for a few years, decide that they don’t really like it much after all.  That’s the problem when “chasing” famous cakes — just because someone else likes it a lot doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy the tea, especially if you plan on storing it for future consumption.  In some cases, you can try reselling them, but in others, you’re stuck with cakes that you don’t want to drink.  It’s a tough call.

The retaste project 3: 2002 Mengku Rongshi Qizibing

This cake is something I first obtained with BBB in Beijing back when he visited me.  I eventually ended up with about a tong of this, and he took a few cakes, I believe.  I don’t remember how much exactly we paid for this tea — I am sure it was below 100 RMB a cake, probably more like 80-90.  Taobao now quotes about 220 for a cake of this, and considering the appreciation of the RMB in the past few years, the price increase in the tea has been probably about threefold.

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The wrapper, as you can see, has taken quite a bit of beating in the years since I got this cake.  You can see though that this is the same cake that I took a picture of five years ago by the arrangement of the leaves (on the neifei, for the most obvious point)

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I’d say the leaves have gotten a bit darker, but by and large the change isn’t particularly obvious.

As I drink it, I think the tea is nice – nicer than when I first got it in the sense that it is now mellower and also a little cooler in the back in ways that I didn’t really notice before when I tasted it soon after my purchase.  The colour of the liquor looks a bit darker, but that could easily be a product of lighting, depth of cup, and other uncontrolled factors.

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I do like it though, and I think at the price when I got it, it was a great deal.  Would I pay 220 for it now?  A few cakes, perhaps, if I happen to like it.  If I have to drink this tea everyday, I won’t mind it one bit.  I guess that’s a good endorsement.

The retaste project 2: Mabang bing

Before I go on, I should explain my parameters for this retasting project.

1) I’m going to be using gaiwan for all these, because I used mainly a gaiwan back in the day to try these teas.

2) I’m going to be using the same Kamjove kettle that I always used back then as well.

3) The water is Hong Kong tap water.  I can’t really control for this and have no way of using the exact same water I did in Beijing or Taiwan, so this will have to do.

4) I drink till the tea is exhausted, or, in case of horrendous teas, when I can no longer take it.

Now taht that’s out of the way, let’s move on to #2 – a Yiwu cake that I bought in 2006 and whose store I revisited on this trip.  If I remembered correctly, this tea was in the vicinity of about 80-100 RMB back in the day, give or take.  I could be wrong.

My impressions back then was that it was decent, but not awesome — that the leaves were ok, but the cake was made with care.  I think I must’ve given a cake away, because I only see one now, and it’s never been opened.

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You can see that the leaves are a bit stemmy.  The owners at the time I think told me that the cakes were arbor trees, but the trees were not particularly old.  I thought they should’ve used nicer material to make cakes — which they certainly have done this year (and in the past few years, it seems) but back then they were starting out on making puerh and so had less access to good materials, I believe.  2006 was also a pretty crazy year.

The initial infusion or two had a hint of the same taste as retaste project #1 — the same nasty young pu turning older taste, but it isn’t nearly as strong and obvious.  There’s something else going on here, a hint of the same fragrance that this tea had back when it was young.  I remember it was a bit astringent and rough when I tried it at the store five years ago, leading to my decision to only buy two cakes and not more.  As I kept brewing, the initial nasty taste went away, and turned into a slightly nicer, sweeter, lightly aged puerh taste.  It’s not fresh anymore, but neither is it really aged yet.  It’s in that 5 years old, awkward phase.

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The tea is not very strong.  It doesn’t have qi that knocks you out, and it isn’t really going to be a long term winner, I think.  Compare this to, say, the Yisheng purple, and this is clearly an inferior tea.  Having said that, it’s not bad, and offers a pleasant tea to drink.  I think give it some more time, and it can age into something reasonably good.  At the moment though, I’m in no hurry to drink this, so back into the storage it goes.

The retaste project 1: a 15 RMB puerh

As a way to get started — I thought I’ll try a cake that I have actually never tried before.

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I bought this cake more or less randomly in Beijing early during my travels — within the first few months of me having arrived there.  It was insanely cheap – if memory serves, it was somewhere in the vicinity of 15RMB, which, at the time, was about $2.  The cake, like so many others, claims to be thousand year old wild trees from Jiangcheng area, but a lot of cakes claim that and such names are essentially meaningless.

The leaves actually don’t look terrible.

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I remember when I bought this cake, the woman who sold it to me looked like a single mother trying to raise her son and running this corner shop in Maliandao eking out a living.  She had at least a dozen cakes, and I just randomly plucked one and bought it on the premise and the theory that very cheap things may age well if given time — and it’s worth the experiment given the exceptionally cheap price of the tea.  Now, as you can imagine, my expectation for this cake is low.  I don’t really expect much of anything out of it, and if it turns into anything drinkable, that’s already a good outcome.

When I brewed this tea the taste that I got is a familiar one — it tastes like some of the other cheap cakes I’ve bought off taobao before.  Not having tried it may be a bit of a mistake, in that I don’t know where it started, but I can more or less guess, having tried teas that are similar.  What it essentially comes down to is that the tea has now acquired a slightly medicinal, but not entirely pleasant taste, while having lost much of that “young puerh” flavour.  I think teas like this will not age well in the long run, and turn out to be quite thin and boring.

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Just looking at the pictures though, they look quite ok.  In fact, if you smelled the cake in person right now, you’ll think it’s quite ok.  It’s only when you drink it does it become obvious that the tea is not particularly good.  Maybe I’ll try this again in ten five years and see what happens to it then.

The retaste project

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This is the sum of the teas I have here in Hong Kong, minus a few things already in the cupboard that I didn’t bother taking out for this picture.  Almost everything here was purchased a few years ago while I was working in China and then Taiwan.  Many of those things were bought when I was still very much in the experimentation phase, and during much of the time coincided with a lot of what was going on with the puerh bubble of 06/07.  Many of these teas were chronicled on this very blog back then, with a blow by blow account of how I bought them and what I thought at the time.  I think it will be an interesting thing to do to go back to every single one of these teas and see where they are now, five years later after some regular, Hong Kong dry storage at home.

I’m pretty sure that when I drink some of these now I’ll think they are terrible.  In fact, some of them I knew were terrible even back then.  I guess this can at least put the theory of “bad teas will age into something better” to a test for a 4-5 year time frame.  Let’s see where this goes.