Thursday, July 19, 2007

Geraldo on Cha Gao

[[From an email to corax. Published here by permission of the author.]]

I want to leave no tea-stone unturned. This enthusiasm has led me to try every manner of loose and compressed tea that I have been able to source—every hei cha, sheng, shu, loose-leaf tea—red, green, white, and black. Only a few teas have I heartily disliked, and for the most part, those teas had spoiled.

One recent new specimen on my life-list is Cha Tou, both bricked and in small clumps. Some people consider it a nasty by-product only, but I can attest that the better Cha Tou is quite good. Another new addition to the list is Cha Gao, a rather vitrified and very powerful pu’er extract. Like Cha Tou, Cha Gao might be a product outside the usual purview for pu’er enthusiasts. When I saw it advertised, I bought it instantly—despite that many online-forum posters who had never tasted it were lining up to express their dislike of it.

Tea: Cha Gao
Producer: Lin Cang, Yunnan Province
Vendor: TeaSpring (
Shape: Rectangular brick
Weight: 111g
Amount Brewed: 1.5
Vessel: Glazed 4oz gaiwan
Steeping Time: 30 seconds repeatedly
Water Temperature: Full boil

Appearance Pre-Brewing: I expected the Cha Gao brick to be soft, pasty, or even syrupy. This brick upon first inspection very much resembles a squared piece of dry roofing tar. But while cutting it, I noted that it has the consistency of peanut brittle. It tends to shatter as I place pressure on it with a knife’s edge.

Appearance During Brew: The liquor in the glass gong dao bei is red-black with good clarity. As it begins to dissolve, the chunk in bottom of the gaiwan quickly assumes the appearance and consistency of a piece of caramel in a glass of water. This pu’er extract is not comprised of leaves. Prior to infusion, it is more akin to petrified pine sap. During the many infusions, it becomes somewhat viscous.

Aroma: Typical shu with a little burnt rubber tossed into the bouquet.

Taste: Sweet and bitter. Malt, molasses, salt, smoke, rubber. The flavor is consistent with low-grade pu’er to which has been added the rubber and salt nuances.

Infusions: After more than a dozen thirty-second infusions, I gave up. The tea chunk dissolves very gradually. Virtually no change of flavor or aroma from one infusion to the next. Advice: Use a small vessel unless you enjoy feeling like an over-inflated water balloon.

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As an enthusiast, I cannot resist trying novel products in the world of pu’er. I’m glad I tried this and can add it to my life-list of pu’er experiences. This product is likely to linger in my shu box. I’ll not be rushing to my computer to mash the “Buy More Cha Gao” button any time soon. But in fairness, we must remember this product’s original purpose. At TeaSpring’s website, we find this description:
Cha Gao, or Pu-erh Tea Paste in English, was first produced in the Tang Dynasty. This very special and rare tea can be found recorded in ancient Chinese Medicine books for its properties to aid digestion and helps one sober up from alcohol. In 1950, Yunnan Tea Company was commissioned to process 1750 kilograms of Cha Gao for the Chinese army entering Tibet. It is believed that Cha Gao provided the Chinese army with the daily nutrient and fiber input, which were scarce in the high mountains in Tibet.

Cha Gao is made using Pu-erh tea leaves. One kilogram of tea leaves can only produce around 200 to 250 grams of Cha Gao. Some Yixing Zisha pot collectors are known to use Cha Gao to season their tea pots, claiming that the paste is more effective than natural brewed tea leaves.
For me, then, consuming Cha Gao is like consuming military rations. Were I backpacking in the mountains and concerned about the weight and bulk of my camping gear, this product might find its way into my mess kit. Further, the caffeine seems to be quite strong. And finally, while one hundred grams may seem pricey, consider the amount of tea it will make: at least eight hundred cups.

I’m also wondering if consumers have traditionally used Cha Gao for making milk tea. If so, this product could be quite palatable in steamed milk with sugar.

Tea folk searching for a sophisticated, aristocratic pu’er might want to pass this one by, but those of my ilk yearning to sample all that tea can offer should try it. I did not purchase an entire brick: A fellow tea-adventurer joined me on this purchase, and when the brick arrived, I sent his half on to him in California. Thus, we both gleaned all the fun of exploring new horizons without paying the entire cost.

Final thoughts: If there are no leaves, then is this pu’er? And if Cha Gao is not pu’er, is it fair to make a comparison?


Lewis said...

If I buy some chagao and thereby make it harder for the PLA to get its hands on the stuff, does that help Tibet?

Anonymous said...

Lewis, you raise an excellent point.

While I itch to address it, I shall remain demure. But I believe you can hear the answer that my heart is shouting in response to your question.

I was tempted to use cha gao for Tibetan-style milk tea, but decided a bolt from the blue (or from Shambhala) would strike me dead.

Mighty-Strider: I hope all is well and good for you. ~geraldo

shen said...

From what I understand from friends in Tibet, the PLA drinks a lot of Maxwell House and General Foods International Coffees (?!).
Thanks, Geraldo, though.........I, too suffer from insatiable curiosity and was soo tempted to try this stuff when it was discussed on LJ; but, a while ago a sample of pu-erh candies turned me off to any bastardization.
I wonder if the caffeine content is much higher in this concentration?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Shen--Great to hear from you. If we encounter references to this substance in ancient medical texts, then can it really be a bastardization? Well, I guess bastardization can be venerable. Afraid I cannot speak to the caffeine content--I'd need to re-try it without having had other caffeinated beverages. Hmmm...Should I simply swallow a little chunk as soon as I wake up and see what happens? :-) All the best, ~geraldo

Michel said...

Hell, 'chagao chewing gum' for pu ehr withdrawls for those who cannot get to a teapot on time for their fix. .