Friday, February 11, 2011

2010 Hai Lang Hao "Lao Ban Zhang Gu Shu" Ancient Arbor Raw Puerh

What could a tea taste like that was pressed less than a year ago and yet is commanding the astronomical price of $219 per cake?  I'm really curious to know, so I ordered a sample of this from Yunnan Sourcing.  Got my box just yesterday, all squashed and misshapen, obviously opened and re-closed with bright green tape that reads "Examined by US Customs and Border Protection."  They even slashed open a couple of the sample packets inside and didn't bother to re-close them, aside from another big piece of green tape crudely wrapped around a couple of packets.  Ouch.  I have such a dislike for the kind of apathetic, brute and sometimes even downright abusive treatment this country's border police is known to engage in.  Although my beat-up little box of slashed-open tea is a pretty minor offense, I've heard too many stories from friends of mine living just north of the border in Canada.  It makes me bristle at the sight of my mutilated package.

This Hai Lang Hao sample packet was not one that was slashed open, so none of the contents had spilled out.  When I opened it this morning, knowing the price I paid for it, I was a little put off to find that it contained a large amount of loose broken leaves and crumbs.  But maybe it got a little rough treatment from the border patrol?  Maybe it started it's journey from Yunnan Sourcing more intact?  I hope so.  For my session this morning I was able to pull out a good serving's worth of intact leaves, but I won't get quite as many sessions out of this sample as I would have hoped.  A lot of it ended up in my growing cup of crumbs and fannings.

I'll admit right up front.  I couldn't help but have some high expectations for this tea given it's price.  Still, I tried to keep an open mind as best I could.  The dried leaves were smaller than I expected.  Not quite as meaty as I thought they'd be.  The description on the YS site says it was harvested from the oldest trees in Lao Ban Zhang village, from 500 to 700 years old.  I had thought that leaves from very old trees like that were generally larger and meatier.  Maybe I have some more learning to do.  But they were plenty full of those little white hairs you see sometimes.  Some flashing silver here and there, and generally a dark rich greenish-black.

The first aromas out of the cup and even in the wenxiangbei were all fresh green hay with a bit of floral behind it, which is pretty common for such a recently pressed cake.  Perhaps this aroma was a bit more assertive than most, but there it was.  I know it'll take a few infusions to reveal what's underneath.  The color of the liquor is all yellow with a slight bit of haze to it.  Even though I carefully picked out only the largest intact leaves for the gaiwan, I kept getting a lot of crumb-like debris with each infusion that lasted until about the 5th infusion, when the debris finally stopped showing up in the bottom of my cup.

The taste was very interesting, and a new experience for me.  The first thing to hit me was a sweetness on the tip of my tongue which was quickly overwhelmed by a bitterness in the back of my mouth.  But it wasn't a bitter bitterness (this is going to be hard to describe, I can tell).  It wasn't the kind of bitter that makes you pucker or that causes a lot of dryness to the mouth.  And yet it was very clearly bitter.  I remember reading somewhere on the internet about the different kinds of 'bitter' that can be found in a tea.  I suspect this is the kind that you want.  The desirable kind of bitter.  It was actually very pleasant, but I have no other word to describe it than bitter.  In addition to the sweet at the tip of the tongue and the predominant bitter filling the whole of the mouth (starting at the back), there was also a butter quality mid-tongue.  A very interesting flavor profile, and one I've never come across before.  Usually I get the bitter first and *then* the sweet.  But this was all turned around.

As the infusions increased in number the aroma showed a bit more personality.  Sometimes I'd get cigarette smoke and sometimes I'd swear that I sensed notes of grape-like fruit.  There was also plenty of butter aroma present in the later infusions.  The mouth feel was interesting, too.  A soft smoothness to it.  The taste profile followed the same pattern from the start -- first a sweetness at the tip of the tongue and behind the lower front teeth, then the mouth filling with that pleasant bitter quality with some butter in the middle.

And the qi?  Certainly there was some present.  I wouldn't say it was huge, but then I've been questioning myself lately about this matter of sensing qi.  Maybe I'm less sensitive to certain kinds of qi that others feel quite strongly?  Because there have been several teas that some feel a lot of qi with and which I don't feel much at all.  Then again, there are plenty of teas that move deeply inside me with either a warmth or a coolness or a distinct floatiness or even a spiritual groundedness.  So its a bit of a puzzlement to me that I'm paying attention to.

The spent leaves were interesting.  Plenty of whole leaves, as well as lots of chopped up ones.  But I was expecting to find meatier leaves and stronger spines, as I've gotten the idea that this is a sure sign of truly old tea trees.  These leaves were more tender than I expected, though some of the spines were definitely the stronger type.  But perhaps these are younger tip-growth leaves from old trees?  Maybe someone with more tea know-how can educate me on this matter :)

Is this tea worth the $219 per cake asking price?  Personally I'm not the least bit inclined to spring for it.  I can only guess that its fetching such a high price on pure speculation alone.  I really don't have the experience or know-how to determine if this tea is a great candidate for potential future awesomeness (which the price seems to indicate) or if its just enjoying it's placement in stratospherically-priced tea thanks to mostly hype.  Even if it was the former, and this tea becomes something truly special in 10 or 20 years, I still wouldn't spring for it.  There are too many great teas to be had that already have a good 10 years on them which can be bought for well under $219.


  1. I think don't get too hung up on leaf size. In 2010 Yunnan experienced a severe drought - some say the worst in 100 years. One consequence of this was a late spring harvest of the tea and smaller leaves all round.

    Don't be mislead by the asking price. It's easy for anyone to charge a huge amount for a tea, but it doesn't mean it is better - just that they charge more.

  2. Banzhang leaves should be smaller than ones from some other regions (Yiwu for example). Not all Yunnan trees are broad-leafed in the same sense of the word. I generally find Banzhang to be overpriced given the quality.

  3. Hmmm, would you still prefer to drink this over the XZH '06 brick you've tried?

    I think it's worth it to get one or two LBZ...I myself have bought the '06 XZH Yang LBZ. It's probably not pure LBZ, but I find it a pretty good bang for the buck, especially towards the end of the session. Not underpriced by any means, though.

    And like you $219? For brand new sheng? It better bring choruses of angels, 'cause there are plenty of teas out there that are no-bleep awesome for quite a bit less, if you know where to ask...


  4. nada and MarshalN -- most appreciative for your knowledge. I'm thankful to broaden my understanding (and welcome, nada :)

    shah8 -- yes, I'd take the XZH brick over this. It's largely thanks to you I've been dipping my toes into XZH offerings. I've got a few more waiting in the cupboard that I'll get to soon enough. This morning I had a late '90's sheng from an unknown factory (not XZH), acquired from a vendor who's teas I'm just starting to try out. It was a solid but average tea, I thought, although the qi was pretty strong.

  5. I returned to my Zhi Ming Dao LBZ a few days ago for a bit of fun. The fun was soon halted as I am now getting into the core of the xiao bing and the compression is .. well.. solid. After cracking off a chick I had a pretty average session, the leaves refused to loosen up without manual intervention. Upon observing the leaves afterwards most of them turned out to be chopped with one single huge leaf hidden inside.

    Hmmm.. LBZ, it's a real lottery and I certainly wouldn't pay anything remotely close to $219...

  6. this year maocha prices for LBZ are for the best leaves around 260 USD so the 219 USD pre 400 grams seem to be still under kind of Yiwu merchant calculation which is you sell a 400 gram cake for the price you bought a kilo of maocha