Saturday, March 29, 2008

Cup2Cup: Xi-Zhi Hao’s "2007 Da Xue Shan" in Mao Cha and Beeng Cha


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)
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.
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.

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.


Salsero said...

As always, Geraldo is eminently educational, even to the point of being inspiring, as he wends smoothly from the minute to the magnificent.

Thanks so much.

Victoria said...

This was my very first Pu-erh, so I very much enjoyed reading your review and the comparison.

Although I found it somewhat thin compared to the usual full bodied oolongs I drink, I still thought it quite delightful.

Unknown said...

Salsero, you are too kind. Thank you sincerely. What you get are simply my experiences expressed as opinions. Many can (and will! and already have!!) disagree with what I say here.

Victoria--The range of pu'er is at least as wide as the range of oolong. I wish you the best in your explorations of a fascinating branch of the tea world.

Highest regards to you both--

Hobbes said...

Dear Geraldo,

What a fine article. Along with the detailed notes, I appreciated the introduction to some new tea-terms (and thanks also for the tones).

I fear that I must differ with you in assessment of the tea, as this one struck me as a bit one-dimensional. Perhaps you allude to this in your comparison with 8582 - I agree wholeheartedly, and grabbed a tong of the latter some time ago.

As you say, if this tea cost $20 instead of $96, it would indeed have sold out, and rightly so. At $96, I feel that is has to be much, much better than it currently performs. It feels as if one is paying $10 for bread. It might be serviceable bread, but if it costs $10, the spotlight will be bright indeed.

If one finds a tea to be underwhelming and overpriced, is it not fair so to state? It feels a touch harsh to call this "setting oneself above tea".

With best wishes,


Hobbes said...

P.s. Upon rereading the following, I must confess to taking some umbrage:

"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?"

I believe, to date, that the Half-Dipper is the only blog to have posted a particularly negative review of this tea, and that article also observes my impression of the recent wave of Xizihao criticism that you mention:

"It has become popular to criticise Xizihao. Though I am keen to treat each sample with an unbiased hand, I can understand why such criticism exists. Xizihao is turning into the Calvin Klein of tea. The public wants a quality brand in which they can trust, and, several years ago, Xizihao was satisfactory."

Given that I can find no other negative reviews of this tea (and one particularly positive one by the ever-excellent Tuo Cha Tea), and that my article contained the reference to Xizihao criticism, I must surmise that your comments are directed largely at me, and hope you'll allow me the grace of response.

As you will appreciate, those of us foolish enough to write about tea face a tough time - our opinions are the stuff of individual whimsy, and we cannot please everyone all of the time. However, if we encounter a tea which we find to be substandard and particularly overpriced, is it not acceptable to say so?

I very much appreciate the warning from fellow writers, as it allows me to avoid potentially poor teas, and increases my chances of finding something good. You yourself, Geraldo, have through your notes on Mike Petro's pu'er forum led me to such teas as the 2005 Dehong Purple Leaf (of which I bought a brick) and the 2006 Yibang Chamasi "Gedebao" (of which I grabbed three lovely cakes).

I very much try to make the Half-Dipper impartial (as I stated in that article, quoted above), and do rather resent the accusation "What book reviewer hates books? What movie critic abhors the movies?", if you don't mind my saying.

Far from hating tea, I really enjoy it - on an unfortunately regular basis - which I had assumed was a passion that came across from my writing. Your comment is particularly perplexing given my praise of so many teas. Praised teas from the front page of the Half-Dipper:

- 1990s Tibetan heicha

- 2006 Xizihao Nannuo maocha and bing
("here's one Xizihao that I'd be happy to buy")

- 2005 Mengyang Guoyan "Lao Banzhang"
("I must confess that I really love nearly all teas. Happily, though, the 2005 Mengyang Guoyan is a pleasure to drink.")

- 2005 Yisheng "Yiwu Zhengshan"
("After a further six months of storage, this cake continues to impress.")

- 2006 6FTM "Yesheng Banzhang"
("Revisiting this cake confirms its good value. [It] is a fine little tea.")

In fact, the only negative post is the 1999 Menghai "Big Green Tree", which I believe to be sorely overhyped by certain marketers, and was the subject of a piece on how tea-tasting should be impartial.

I'd welcome some clarification of your accusation of exceptional negativity. Far from "putting myself above tea", a recent article has made explicit mention of my "clumsy perceptions" and "inadequate" resource.

Given my fairly exhaustive attempts to provide unbiased, "unfashionable" reviews, I conclude by expressing my disappointment that my writing has failed to please - but if one sets out to please, surely we are bound to fail. I will continue to enjoy your writing, as it is particularly fruitful in leading me to good tea purchases.

Yours ever,

A somewhat disenchanted Hobbes

Unknown said...

Dear Hobbes,

Thank you sincerely for your two thoughtful and detailed comments. You honor me by investing such time and effort into composing your lucid and cogent remarks. I have long admired your insight and elegance. Please neither take umbrage nor feel disenchanted. Our thoughts are almost entirely in agreement. My article is mostly about a specific pu’er with a side note about how we approach drinking tea. In retrospect, I see I would have been wiser to post two articles rather than conflate the issues.

As of late, friends have written to me regarding a general negativity of reviews in blogs and forums. I quoted a snippet of one such e-mail letter in the piece. My remarks regarding this negativity certainly are not aimed at The Half-Dipper. As I consider blogged reviews over the past several months, it does seem to me that my friends are correct, that blogged reviews are more negative than they need to be. I will not name names here. That would achieve nothing. As you make clear in your comments, you do read blogs. I hope that upon reflection you will consider my remarks in the article as not at all overstated. In general, blogged reviews of pu’er have seemed over the past few months to lack a joyful enthusiasm, an insufficiency regarding the fun and excitement that pu’er provides for us. My own tea-teacher often tells me that teas have souls, and that we should find a way to let tea speak in its best voice. His metaphor is apt. But more important, I feel that our articles about pu’er should reflect more joy and less negativity—since we are writing about a fascination that attracted us through the joy it instilled in us. Should we not put as much effort into writing about praiseworthy pu’er as attack-worthy pu’er? Your own comments and articles indicate that you agree.

That DZS is overpriced, I wholeheartedly concur—as I tried to make clear in my little article. But that price is not the fault of the tea. That XZH has come under fire, you yourself have attested, and I concur completely, as I tried to make clear in my paraphrase. The price is indeed ridiculous. The company (not the tea) deserves criticism for its prices. But the tea is quite good—for the reasons I stated, and it is only on this point that you and I disagree. My friend who sent the beeng cha sample is also more concerned with its faults than its strengths. But when I drink it, my opinions regarding it stem from the characteristics I noted in my review, and they are certainly sufficient to lead me to enjoy it and praise it. Because Da Xue Shan “possesses a really nice quality, that does the job.” Since it possesses several really nice qualities, the tea (but not its price) pleases me greatly.


Anonymous said...

Well said on all counts, Geraldo. As always a pleasure to read you.

I am one of those drinkers who is yet to taste the true value in Xi-Zhi (certainly in proportion to some of the hype it has received) and I value your experienced perspective. I'm going to brew it again and try to travel your path.

I've stated online here and there that I think it (the brand, really) is overrated and so if I've added to the negative vibe, apologies to all. I'm open to changing my mind on XZ and will try other cakes/teas again. And again. And again. (Why not? All part of the fun of addiction. And lord knows, I've spent enough money on XZ - I'd love to start loving it.)

This topic of negativity feels like a can of worms. Once or twice (maybe more, someone can tell me) I've been snarky about teas and tea merchants online, and I've always regretted it. Nobody benefits. One might feel good about the outburst for a second, but it is a short second - followed by a much longer (permanently online?) record of snarkiness without the initial passion or context.

I need not repeat the obvious: negativity for its own sake is pointless.

Alas, for us Westerners with limited access to the tea markets of the east, along with small cups of tea come big buckets of hype. I am glad for the occasional skepticism. It helps to see through the hype. Sometimes. Taken with the whole package and personality, I think it is probably easy for most of us to tell if someone is just a nattering naybob (sp?), or simply hard to please, or just mean.

But I also think that you're talking about something larger. I'm glad you brought it up. We've discussed it in some fashion privately in email. Here's my take: This online world of tea discussion, camaraderie, and learning is by definition still entirely separate from the streets of those great Asian cities where a person can stop in at a tea shop and learn from a master, spend the afternoon soaking up history and drinking amazing teas. In this online version, we still do trade in many different things: friendship, knowledge, and (wildly varying) experience being just three that I value.

I understand that others are far more experienced and knowledgeable - and others less so. And that's all cool.

What irks me is when someone - a merchant, a reviewer, a blogger, whomever - trades in knowledge alone. That's the primary currency. "I know more than you." Folks might not outright say it, but that is the spirit found here and there. It seems immature and - in, the case of the occasional merchant, self-defeating.

It also stands in counterpoint to its opposite: that egoless and respectful sharing of knowledge (& passion) that allows all of us to teach and learn and learn and teach and have a grand old time together FWIW, I put you in this camp. And Hobbes. Both excellent teachers on many levels.

My point seems to have become pointless - I'll jut say I'm glad you brought this up...


Unknown said...

Thanks, Adrian--You nabobical old soul, you. I appreciate your comments. I received a note this afternoon from the friend who sent me the beeng cha sample. He says his complaint with the tea is that it does not present enough interinfusion evolution. This is a point I'd not considered. We all love the steep-to-steep change in fine, aged sheng. Is that a characteristic that develops through aging--or are the best pu'ers born with it?

My main interest in the comparison was in the comparison. That the tea was a XZH product was not the issue for me.

Let me know how your return to your XZH collection turns out. Have you tried the Classic blends? Best to you, ~geraldo

Hobbes said...

Dear Geraldo,

I very much appreciate your detailed response; I'm glad to receive the extra context, and your kind words.

keep up the good work, and toodlepip,


Anonymous said...

As far as the pu goes, it's such a necessity of life that I can't afford to be too much the critic-taster. This means I get to enjoy my pu in much the same way as a thirsty rugby-player enjoys his post-game beer. Really! I've got Tibet-Syndrome.

Nonetheless, I've been well-served in the past by the views of such people as Geraldo and Mike Petro because they seem to have an ultimate intention of guiding the right guy to the right drink. Perhaps that kind of reviewing has become less frequent in the last couple of years. When making my own rather brief and sketchy assessments, I try to ask: "Who might like this, and why?" It enables me to be critical without closing any doors. Let's have more of that, shall we? (I should add that the above is not aimed at The Half-Dipper.)

Geraldo, when you talk of pu, the Dionisian lust smoulders just below the surface of your text. That's a wonderful knack.

Rob (actually drinking Arishan oolong!)

Unknown said...

Rob--LOL! Safe to say, we both have a frenzied attachment to pu'er. In my case, moths fluttering from an otherwise empty wallet will attest to that. I think many of us read books, drink pu'er, see movies, and think, "I know who might like this" or perhaps, "I'd wager my friend X might like this." Your points are fascinating. Ah--it's early and I'm reeling my spirit back to my body with a huge mug of espresso. Thanks, Rob, for the kind words and the shining example of enthusiasm. Best, ~geraldo

plover said...

having only sipped a third rate pu-erh previously, my tastes run more toward quality golden yunnan and Lung Chin greens- amateur stuff really! But even reading your descriptions makes me delight. And, while I appreciate porcelains, I am fond of yixing pots for brewing. I feel as if I've come home, a little bit!

Unknown said...

Plover--I am myself a lover of Long Jing and Golden Yunnan. Do not denigrate yourself for drinking excellent tea! :-) When I drink tea not to write about it but to relax with it, I very often use a teapot from Yixing. And do not stop with the third-rate pu'er. You can buy samples of excellent pu'er at several fine on-line teashops that are in China. Thanks for the comment and the kind words. Best-- ~geraldo

Tony said...

Dear Geraldo,

You may be interested in this site:
A online English/Chinese dictionary, it focuses on Chinese language learning English speakers, provide Chinese hand writing input and human voice pronunciation.

Have a look, if good, add it to your site please, thanks.


Anonymous said...

Thanks to you all (here and in all of your blogs) for elucidating the often (to me) unexplainable wonderful things about the veritable universe of tea and tea culture. I don't ordinarily comment, but am always entirely amazed by your beautiful blogs and comments, (Toki, Hobbes, Marshaln to mention just a few) which are at the same time educational, entertaining and downright (to borrow from salsero) inspiring. I just want to say (again) thanks to you all (from the flooding White River in Arkansas). Eileen

Unknown said...

Eileen--I hope that the rising waters in Arkansas do not place you or yours in jeopardy. You name in your note writers I admire, and I've been lucky enough to meet one of those fine folks on two different occasions. Thank you sincerely for your encouraging words. The pleasure in tea is sustained. For me, it does not wane. Best to you, ~geraldo

Steph said...

Thank you for sharing this great review! Pu-Erh is something I am learning about and enjoying.