[[from an email to corax. posted by permission.]]
I recently tasted three "high-end" Lao Banzhang raw pu-erh cakes back-to-back. Each were purported to be 100% Banzhang -- no blends from other regions. Reason #1: fun. But also I wanted to see if I could get a purchase on "that Banzhang" taste. And truth be told, I wanted to see if one of the cakes could hold its own with two that came with excellent pedigree. It did. All three were lovely. I might've learned a few things, but I also *realized* something. I'm getting spoiled by good tea. Definitely have a favorite, which I will keep to myself if it isn't obvious, because that's not the point of the exercise. Again, all three were great in different ways.
If I learned anything, it might be that -- for me (my style of brewing, my palate, etc.) -- Banzhang is in large part about the aftertaste ... that wonderfully balanced mixed of aromas bitter and sweet that says "green tea" and that infuses the mouth, lips, tongue, nose after multiple cups of tea. Also, I learned something about "balance" I think. The way a sophisticated tea can knock your socks off simply by balancing the flavor contrasts against each other. All three were good in their own way. Sometimes, excellent. Even magical. Each cake was amazingly different in way it allowed the balance show itself.
I also ran the tastings around mid-morning. I didn't eat early on in each session, to avoid competition with strong tastes and flavors. It was hard to go the full 15 cups on an empty stomach -- and so I gave up trying.
Anyway, the three teas:
1. 2006 Hai Lang Hao Lao Banzhang (from Scott at Yunnan Sourcing)
2. 2005 Xhi Zhi Lao Banzhang (from Guang at HoudeAsian Art)
3. 2003 Private Reserve Lao Banzhang Zhai (from Seb at JingTea Shop)
I brew the teas with approx. 5 grams in a 100 ml gaiwan when doing these tests, steeping 20 sec, 15 sec, 20 sec, 25 sec, 30 sec, 35 sec, 40 sec, 45 sec, 60 sec, 75 sec, 90 sec, and so on.
My abbreviated notes (as the tastings progress I won't include every inane note to myself -- just, um, highlights):
1. 2006 Hai Lang Hao Lao Banzhang
5.2 grams in a 100 ml gaiwan
Whole leaves off the edge of the cake, flaking easily. Dry leaf is dark to a white-yellow green.
-- Warmed gaiwan: aroma is smooth and mellow. Toasty and "chinese medicine". No ash or smoke.
-- Rinse (20 sec): Sweet and a little brassy. Lid smells of ash. Wet leaves of ash and sweet green. Faint hint of cherry.
-- Cup (15): Shiny bright yellow liquor. Surprisingly, absolutely no ash or cigarette in first sip. (Expected so with lid aroma in rinse.) Smooth and vegetal. Reminds me of some of those dark sweet vegetal cakes from SFTM.
-- Cup (20): I see whole buds in the cup. Whole young olive green leaves and wilted dark bigger leaves. Liquor remains clear and bright. Smooth taste. Nothing sharp, no ash. I slight green sweetness in my nose and on my tongue. "Well-behaved" so far. Aftertaste starting to emerge. Perfumed -- sweet and bitter at once. Dry.
-- Cup (25): Wet leaves spicy and sweet. Delicious. Liquor remains a bright yellow.
At the front of each sip a lovely bitterness and sweet at the back of the throat. Yum. I like this tea.
-- Cup (30): Best infusion? Retaining balance but that perfumed green-ness is coming forward. Aftertaste fills my mouth and nose: pine forest, berries, sweet/sour, the lovely full green darkness of a green pu-erh.
Starting to feel the tea -- eyes wider, more light coming in -- feeling fiiine.
Cup (40); Perfume is now at the front of the sip, sweetness; and bitterness at the back. A switch. Aftertaste is FULL and everywhere.
Altogether drank ten infusions before lunchtime. Burritos with the kids. Even after that, the aftertaste came through. This is a great tea, I think. The photograph of this tea shows how young some of the leaves are ... and the buds are apparent, too.
2. 2005 Xhi Zhi Lao BanZhang
5.2 grams in a 100 ml gaiwan
lots of big thin flat straight leaves on the surface, easily flaked off. (Easiest of the three to flake.) Feels drier than the others. Mix of mostly dark and some yellow green dry leaves.
Warmed gaiwan: aroma is mellow bitterness with a touch of sweet at the back. Different balance. But nice, too.
-- Rinse (20 sec): very faint ash and cigarette with an almost sweetness at the end of it.
Bottom of rinse cup is eggy. I see fewer buds in this one. After sitting for a minute the rinse smells smoky but not of cigarettes.
-- Cup (15): Sweet, but not perfumed, in the lid. Liquor clear but with a hint toward milky. Ash smell in gaiwan. Big leaves are opening but they seem much more dehydrated and have "aged" in a year compared to the 2006. Wrinkled and dark. First sip mellow with a hint of sweetness. Very nice, very mellow. No cigarette or ash in taste. First cup is restrained but yummy.
-- Cup (20): I see a lot of twigs in these leaves, which really seem quite dry. Not a bad thing, just a contrast. Liquor remains consistently bright. Aftertaste arrives in my throat and nose as I pour this infusion. Just the merest hint of bitter and sweet. With each sip it is there, the aftertaste, but it is holding back. Will the tea deliver its promise?
-- Cup (25): Lid aroma of "plastic" and ash. Bright yellow liquor. Nice aftertaste now. Still restrained, but complex. I want more, because the hints are amazing.
-- Cup (30): Punky sweet spice in the sip. Tea feels awake now, at fifth infusion. This might be a regal tea. Liquor strong in the throat, not so much in the nose ... not so dry puckery in the mouth.
-- Cup (40): Smooth and full. Aftertaste of peppery sweet and perfumed green tea. Sips are bitter, but the aftertaste is sweet. My lips are dry. Now a lovely aftertaste in the nose and throat: pepper, cherry, sweet, sour. No "eyes wide open" feeling with this tea, though it sure tastes good. In the cup, the veins of the olive green leaves are orange.
At the tenth infusion it started tasting a little watery. By the twelfth it was flat. Not bad ... a great tea. I think this is the one that is acclaimed by some group of pu-erh collectors in Taiwan or something. It is indeed a great tea. He said with humility.
The pic of these leaves shows, in the middle of the image, a broken piece of a really big leaf. Oh, if only there were leaves that big throughout, eh? You can see lots of twigs, too -- and some nice tea leaf buds. Also the withered old leaves.
3. 2003 Lao Ban Zhang Private Reserve Cake
5.2 grams in a 100 ml gaiwan.
Maybe it's the age, but the leaves here are uniformly more dark (interspersed with buds) compared to other two cakes. A dense and tight cake, harder to flake off leaves from the edge of it.
Warmed gaiwan: Sweet & mellow. Warm green tea smell. No ash. No bitter. A touch of earth.
-- Rinse (20 sec): A little bit of cigarette in the wet leaves aroma. Nothing sweet. Rinse liquor is translucent yellow.
-- Cup (15): Perfume in lid, but interestingly broken like lattice & sunlight -- sophisticated -- a prickly aroma that is, here and there, alternating bitter and sweet. Never just one thing or the other. The balance is complicated in this way...
Liquor looks like pale gold. After sitting, gaiwan smells of ash. A touch of sweetness in the first sip, but as with the other two teas: mellow... By the bottom of the cup the aftertaste has already made itself known. Tea is alive in my throat and nose. Immediately the tea is saying: here I am. Wow.
-- Cup (20): Sweet perfume and spice in the lid. No ash. Quite yummy and, again, sophisticated. I already have a buzz from the tea. By the bottom of the cup there is an even bolder sweet/sour/perfume/spice aftertaste in my mouth. FULL.
-- Cup (25): Sweet good taste of bitter root. Perfume of a great pu-erh tea in the nose. The tea has come alive much quicker than the other two. That's OK. I feel mellow but awake all at once.
-- Cup (30): Liquor has turned from consistently bright yellow to a orange. Aftertaste remains pronounced. Bitter and sweet announced themselves earlier, equally -- two points on the flavor spectrum; now they are heading away from each other and there is a thick range of taste and flavor held by each between them. Dry, sweet, peppery green perfume. Dry lips and mouth, warm throat. Nice nice tea.
At the ninth cup I screwed up and left it sitting for something like five minutes. (Phone call.) I figured that was the end of it, but no. Got four or five more really long steeps out of it. Each cup full-flavored. And that aftertaste sweet dry still there. Would've been interesting to see how far this would've gone following my regular infusions...
The photo of these leaves shows a large collection of leaves of a particularly above-average size, and a few buds.