Gordon's Dragon Teahouse has a soft spot in my affections. Like a force of nature, his charming little outfit has been trucking on for ages, quietly and peacefully selling decent (mostly mainstream) tea at decent prices without making a fuss. There's something immensely appealing about discretion like that. It's very English, and very Chinese.
As I was searching the unnavigable depths of my shelves for something fun to drink, I came across a little pouch from my American tea-chum, Mr. Cahn, containing this home-made Dragon Teahouse cake. "Ayup", methunk to myself, "I don't think I've ever tried Gordon's cakes before." Back in 2009, Gordon had a whole collection of these made, and I somehow never got around to trying them - probably moving house and murdering the last bit of life out of DPhil thesis were responsible.
Like many hand-made productions, this one looks pretty. Gordon's familiar white photograph of the cake, pictured above, and the sample itself, pictured below, give the impression of decent handling, and decent leaves.
The cake was pressed by facilities at the Mengyang Guoyan Tea Co., a business famous for (i) being run by a person of a gender that is not male, and (ii) producing crushingly mainstream cakes (with the exception of the lovely 2005 Laobanzhang, which I have since bought in quantity from Taobao). However, Gordon follows in auspicious footsteps, as I recall that many of the 2007 Xizihao cakes were pressed in the same factory.
I appreciate Bulangshan cakes. They're usually unashamedly hardcore, and remind me of the gunnery sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, in a nice way.
These leaves come from Guangbie village, some 6 km away from Laobanzhang village. I approve of Gordon's decision not to open that hornet's nest of high prices and dubious practices. Without the commitment of time of, for example, Nada of Essence of Tea, it would be difficult to negotiate reasonable prices of Laobanzhang leaves with any confidence in the quality of what you've been sold.
How tall are you, Private? I didn't know they stacked **** that high
The leaves are clean, and have that familiar scent of fresh leather. Gordon has done well in his selection of glossy, downy, entirely healthy leaves.
The soup pours yellow, and then gradually turns orange in the air; with a time-constant of approx. 30s, this is a pleasantly active tea. It seems very positive.
Roasted, butter sweetness, with perhaps a little character from a wok or a drier. Some roasted sweetness in the body, with plenty of long-lasting kuwei [bitter taste] that stays well in the throat. Very pleasant, if not entirely untouched by human intervention.
A good down-to-earth tea from Mengyang Guoyan, who are known for being generally reasonable, and occasionally quite nice. Decent quality plantation-plus-a-bit-more maocha that starts well, and doesn't get too dominated by its bush-like base as infusions continue. Nothing that I'd seek out in quantity, but highly mouthwatering, nonetheless.
Dragon Teahouse unassumedly lists this tea under "Other Factories". Good for you, Gordon. I'm a quiet fan.
Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light
Before rising to the pantheon of the damned, Hailanghao used to be a sweet little minor label with a pleasant line in small-production-run cakes. This cake was $35 from Yunnan Sourcing, a vendor with whom Mr. Hailang's Mingxiangyayuan company appears to have an exclusive deal - the one place on Taobao that sells these cakes does so at precisely the same prices as Yunnan Sourcing.
Th'infernal doors, and on their hinges grate harsh thunder
This cake is more in keeping with bingcha produced in the time before Hailanghao was cast into the howling abyss. It is (reasonably) low-priced, and its scope is less assuming than some of the more daemoniacal productions created since The Fall.
Whence and what art thou, execrable shape?
Good yellow soup, without the slightest hint of brimstone, I am met with a full, buttery-sweet aroma that reminds me of good Yiwu.
If there's one thing about the scent of good Yiwu, it's that it is entirely unlike sulphur.
Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven
Vibrant and long on the tongue, this tea works well. As the infusions wear on, the Yiwu charm of the first brew begins to fade into a green plantation sludge. However, at no time did I hear the howling wails of the thrice-damned, which is something that this tea has in its favour over some of the more recent Hailanghao productions.
The mind in its own place, and in itself, can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n.
Above average, and a solid little performer, this is a welcome reminder that Mingxiangyayuan used to be rather appealing. I look back on some of those rustic old classics with fond memories, and the bare minimum of diabolical reliquaries.
I went a little crazy in 2009, and bought the entire Douji single-mountain collection from a shop on Taobao*. I've still not tasted each cake, yet, and so this article attempts to redress the balance (a little).
*I may have mentioned before that the Taobao vendor took photographs of each cake next to a pretty little pot-plant, and the very same images were used at Puerh Shop to illustrate the cakes there!
So far, I've found the 2009 Banzhang to be a very solid little cake - if not an amazing laoshu old tree] experience, then certainly one with plenty of authentic Banzhang character. The 2009 Jingmai was a bit citric, and thinned out a touch too much, a touch too early. The 2009 Naka (a sub-region of Mengsong) was a chunky, aggressive blend that I rather liked.
The Yiwu is back on home territory for Douji's producer, the Yiwu Zhengshan Tea Co. I hope for great things.
Immediately, I am reminded of the Houdini-like artistry required to access a Douji cake. The labels on the back of the wrapper (pictured above) are useful for cataloguing one's tea, but a complete pain in the derriere to remove without damaging the paper. Go slowly!
It is second in expense only to the Banzhang cake, which is de rigueur for pricing scales. As always, the wrapper claims that it is "dashu" [big tree], but the majority of their mainstream cakes are, unsurprisingly, blended with a significant proportion of bush leaves. Douji usually do a decent job with the blend, however, which is what elevates them over many of their rivals, in my estimation.
The bing is an aromatic and attractive little minx, made from good, downy leaves. Douji cakes are often very appealing to the eye.
A very long aroma of sweet, darkened sugars. Its endurance gives me hope. Sweet straw on the tongue; rich tobacco in the nose and throat - very decent.
A mild vibrancy and a light cooling sensation suggest that at least some laoshu leaves have been included, and in a quantity sufficient to influence the overall character. Certainly, there exists a detectable contribution from plantation leaves (which are muddy and flat), but this is not a dominant component.
Not a fat, powerful tea, nor particularly viscous, but decent - limited by its plantation base, but with good leaves enough to make it an enjoyable session. I conclude that this it is definitely not worth buying more. I add a few more leaves to increase its "oomph".
The wet leaves are fairly appealing, and show that they have been handled well by the producers. What redness exists appears to be intermittent and unintentional, rather than the "wulong"-like red edges, or entirely red leaves, that one sometimes sees appearing in a blend in order to add complexity.
Decent, but not overwhelming. Douji cakes are usually near the top of the mainstream division.
Back when Yunnan Sourcing used to rule the world exclusively (well, along with Houde), I, along with most of us, were thoroughly into Scott's hand-made productions. They have grown and grown, and represent the travels of a man throughout the mountainous province which is his new home. Trawl through the dank, howling, cavernous nether-regions of the Half-Dipper, and you'll come across many articles exploring each of Scott's hand-made cakes.
Crumbly samples be thy name
I haven't tried any for a while - pu'ercha is a tidal force, and I just go where my interest takes me. Lately, it brought me full-circle, and I found myself looking at the section for hand-made cakes at Yunnan Sourcing's web-site. Not having tried much for the last two years, I stocked up my "shopping cart" with samples.
When I noticed that the total price for the samples was over $100, I quickly clicked "cancel". It makes sense for Scott to charge good money if everyone is, as they used to be, just drinking his samples without buying the cakes. The increase is certainly significant since I was last there, though*.
*Scott of YS would like to point out that his margin on samples remains unchanged at 150%-200%. Perhaps the feeling of expense therefore comes from the fact that most samples are now 25g, rather than 10g.
Decent leaves, a touch broken
Rummaging through my sample box, I found a little bag from Terje, one of my viking readers, who had kindly interrupted his people's seasonal rape and pillage of the north English coastal counties in order to send me some samples.
It looks good - its character is a little more average
I've had some delicious teas from Mahei lately, including some un-purchasable Douji Mahei (more on which later). By comparison, this sample came out a little humdrum.
The leaves are small and somewhat broken; it opens with a full, buttery-sweet Yiwu character, but this rapidly subsides to be dominated by the base characteristics of lesser leaves. Tangy and sour, it feels low and "brown" - that limited, rough sensation that I usually associate with plantation leaves.
On a day of rest between a day of housework and a day of research, it is a welcome friend at the tea-table. It is unremarkable pu'ercha, and not one that I would pursue, but perhaps this is merely a contrast with the more accomplished Mahei cakes that I have been fortunate enough to encounter recently. Not one to get excited about.
Scott and Terje have pointed out that this cake is from a minor outfit named the "Dianyi" factory, and is not a Yunnan Sourcing own-label cake. Thank heavens for that.
Veterans of the PRC domestic consumer market will be familiar with the almost-but-not-quite branding of second-rate goods attempting to "pass off" as a premium brand. There are some charmingly naive reuses of material that most Chinese find to be the humourous copies that they are. Trying to work out where you've seen a certain label or brand before is quite a fun game.
Long-time readers may remember my first trip to Maliandao, some years ago now, where I picked up some delightful 2005 Yesheng, courtesy of a recommendation from His Grace, Dr. the Duke of N.
It's a fine tea, made by an outfit called the Yiwu Laojie Yisheng Tea Co.:
I also recently came across one of the first productions in the Douji label, made by their producing company, the Yiwu Zhengshan Tea Co., which I present below for your amusement, courtesy of Yunnan Sourcing:
The differences between the two are:
i. The central characters "yisheng" on the latter wrapper compare with the single "sheng" character on the former;
ii. The tea company's names differ after the "Yunnan Xishuangbanna Yiwu" part; and
iii. The latter wrapper has a stamp, to the right of the central section.
I would love to know the relationship between the two. All other things being equal, relying entirely on our a priori knowledge that the Douji company is (now) a big and successful venture while the Laojie Yisheng company remains unknown, we might tentatively conclude that the latter wrapper was copied by the former. Indeed, if this is correct, then perhaps the Yisheng Tea Co. took its name from the central pair of characters on the Douji wrapper.
I found similar minefields when scouring Taobao for the 2005-06 Yiwu Manluo cakes, pictured below, of which there are a dozen similar, but non-identical, variants from several companies:
Amusingly, I also found cakes that had re-used the wrapper of my simple-yet-charming friend, the 2006 Xingshunxiang:
Be careful out there... make sure that you're reading those wrappers carefully.
Life is like a tong of pu'ercha - you never know what you're gonna get.
I use a number of my cakes as "bellwethers" to assess English storage. Given that many of my fellow Englishmen have shelves weighed down with pu'ercha, I am always interested in sharing experiences concerning the aging process in our damp little country.
I recently returned to a long-standing friend of mine, a cake from 2006, which has therefore spent a decent amount of time here. Is it fading away? It is improving?