The transubstantiation of tea leaves into pu’er has long been a point of interest for me on my travels through tea. When Guang Lee of Hou De Fine Asian Art offered the mao cha version of 2007 Da Xue Shan, I bought it and was quite pleased with the tea’s physical beauty, strength, and refinement. A friend purchased the beeng cha version of the very same leaves, somewhat more expensive gram-for-gram. I was extremely curious to learn how the two forms of pu’er made from one source of leaves might compare. How does steaming and compressing affect the characteristics of pu’er? Would the appearance, aroma, and flavor differ to any significant extent? I would have been just as excited if the comparison was available through products from Liu Da Cha Shan, Chang Tai, Mengku, or any other less expensive line of pu’ers. That the teas were produced by Xi-Zhi Hao’s San Ho Tang was not the trigger of excitement in this case. I contacted my friend and proposed a trade: some of my mao cha for some of his beeng cha.
Here is Mr. Lee’s accurate description of the beeng cha, and it describes the mao cha as well:
Harvest Year: 2007 Autumn (Gu Hwa)For the comparison, I brewed 1.9g of leaf in identical 50ml gaiwans. I used identical brewing methods (water heated first to Fish Eye, increasing through the session to Old Man) and drank from matched white cups. I did not employ sharing pitchers or strainers. These latter two were unnecessary. The tea’s gorgeous, large, unbroken leaves make brewing simplicity itself. Because I used miniscule gaiwans, I tasted two infusions at once, so the tastings were combinations of infusions 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, etc. I did have to break a leaf in each gaiwan to make them fit.
Production Year: 2007
Producer: San Ho Tang
Type: uncooked cake
Description: Collected from over 2000m Da Xue Shan (Big Snow Mountain) by minority people, the tea trees there are ranged from 700 to 1300 years old. Very limited quantity of cakes will be made from those precious single-regioned mao cha. Hou De is happy to get some and share with Xi-Zhi Hao fans!
Those massive and meaty leaves look very dark and healthy. "Hair" on the tips are golden in color. The aroma from the first and second brewing has a complex mushroom-fruit-flower-nutty and woody combination. The amazing rich fruity -- like mango, apricot -- fragrance becomes more dominant later. Complexity in the liquor and taste is also Wooowww ...; bitterness runs deep into the throat and gradually transforms into sweet after-taste, harshness can be felt around the tongue and quickly disappear, a fruity acidity is persistent and gives the structure a nice boost. Hui Gan in after-taste is incredible. Liquor is crystal-clear and light amber in color. With so many complexity in aroma/taste, I found the tea is amazingly enjoyable right now. Aging potential? With such a dynamic complexity and robust liveliness.. Next question, please!
The unfurled mao cha look simply beautiful! Thick, soft and flexible.
When I noted the beeng cha’s dry leaves were flatter than the mao cha’s, I smiled at my amazing powers of observation ("Holmes, you are a genius!"). The mao cha’s dry leaves were noticeably lighter in color. This mao cha differs from other young mao chas I’ve encountered -- the leaves are fatter, thicker, far less papery and fragile than other nascent mao cha leaves. The dry mao cha’s leaves have more silver than the beeng cha’s leaves.
The wet leaves of the mao cha are lighter in color -- dull olive. The wet leaves of the beeng cha are darker green. Through the session, each unfurls into stunning examples of perfect leaf. I have never encountered the like. The liquor follows suit: the mao cha’s is a shade or two paler. The liquor of each is crystal-clear.
Some aged sheng will fill my kitchen with a marvelous aroma when I pour the hot water onto the leaves and release the happy spirits pent up within them. For the most part, though, analysis of aroma is best done from the gaiwan’s lid. I found the mao cha carried a pungent and piney aroma, and the beeng cha offered less pine and perhaps a bit more sweet spice, but the difference in this regard is not significant.
In flavor, the two varied most in the early infusions. After that, sad to say, the flavors were virtually identical. I’d hoped for startling variation of the sort that would exemplify the miracle resulting from pu’er’s compression. The kou3 gan3 (mouth feel) was equivalent and silky. There was a slight difference in strength -- the mao cha’s liquor seemed stronger in ru4 kou3 (initial flavor burst). The hui gan seemed equivalent: a beautiful sweetness that developed slowly. They both were impressive in the property of sheng1 jin1 (generation of saliva). This last is a wonderful attribute.
Da Xue Shan seems infinitely infusible. Even using tiny gaiwans, I became over-hydrated before these pu’ers gave up. I attribute this to the leaves’ thickness. Those fat boys from Da Xue’s snowy slopes can hold and then release flavor for hours. I like most Mengku Factory pu’er produced from the same area, but Mengku’s pu’ers do not have leaves as thick.
The strengths of both the beeng cha and mao cha are their mouth-watering character, the fine and sweet aftertaste, the silky mouth feel, the eye-popping beauty of its leaves, and a certain refinement typical of Xi-Zhi Hao’s products. Were I forced to find fault, I might mention that the pu’er lacks a wide flavor band, most noticeably a dearth of cha2 di3 (tea bottom). Da Xue Shan plays the high notes faultlessly, but the tune (albeit of sufficient volume) might be a tad thin. This attribute seems more common in "single-regioned" pu’ers. Blends, especially traditional blends, are likelier to pull out all of the pipe organ’s stops, filling the church from pulpit to choir with both low thunder and high trills. Xi-Zhi Hao’s Classic 8582 and 7542 blends provide stunning contrasts in this regard. They are overtures to Da Xue’s etude.
Side note: Some bloggers posted harsh reviews of Da Xue Shan, even while they noted that criticizing Xi-Zhi Hao seems to be in fashion. I cannot agree with those reviews. This is excellent pu’er. I’ve tasted far, far worse many times. Reviewers of late take relish in setting themselves above all teas, lining them up like ducks in a shooting gallery. What book reviewer hates books? What movie critic abhors the movies? A connoisseur and friend (who must remain anonymous) recently wrote this in an e-mail:
Reviewers fail to enjoy the tea that steeps before them because they are always in tea critique mode. Thus, they miss most of the joy of the thing. For me, when a tea possesses a really nice quality, that does the job. It's not about the qualities the tea lacks. Their appraisals work in reverse to this.My friend states the case eloquently. If a beeng cha of Da Xue Shan were to cost the collector $20.00 rather than $96.00, there would be none available for sale today.
Just one year out, the comparison is not as fruitful as it certainly would be twenty years hence. I ask, therefore, that readers send me samples of both in 2028 -- when I’m seventy-two. (Ancient Corax will be pushing one hundred-thirty, propelled as ever by rivers of Da Hong Pao.) A comparison of the same sheng leaves in twenty-year-old mao cha and beeng cha would provide truly wonderful information, especially into the nature of mao cha, into its age-able-ness or suitability for maturation. I enjoy mao cha, and I often purchase purportedly aged mao cha, chiefly because I can afford it. But I have noted here at CHA DAO that aged mao cha does not provide the incredible magic of great, aged beeng chas. We can surmise that tea traders first compressed pu’er to make it easier to transport to far-flung destinations on the Old Tea Horse Road. Unlike Da Xue Shan, most mao cha is frustratingly fragile, and will shatter under even the mildest, scrutinizing squint. Compression allows pu’er to age at the correct pace—neither too fast nor too slow.
In general, I did not uncover what I sought. Neither flash of lightning nor clash of cymbals emerged from this comparison. But that lack of difference is, by itself, an important bit of education.