Tuesday, May 3, 2011

1996 "Truly Simple Elegant" raw pu-erh

"Truly elegant" describes this tea so well, "simple" I'm not so sure of, unless it's referring to the perfectly balanced nature of this new selection from Bana Tea Company's offerings.  A pricey cake indeed, but clearly in a class by itself.  The leaves are single-mountain Yiwu variety, picked from old trees that hadn't been harvested for 40 years, near the Yiwu villages of Mahei and Luoshuidong.  The makers of this cake (the Lin brothers, teashop owners from Taiwan) were after a truly high quality artisan pu-erh done in the style of tea cakes produced by privately owned tea factories of the 1940's.  They even managed to locate and hire one of the last surviving tea masters from the Sungping Hao factory (a reputed tea factory from the 40's), Mr. Chiang Guan Xiu.  "Truly Simple Elegant" (Zhen Chun Ya Hao), is the result of their efforts.

Love the hand-written characters on the red label -- elegant, indeed.

I sat down with this one, pen and camera in hand, intent on doing a nice blog entry, but I confess to letting the photos and efforts at description subside not long into the session.  Just far too beautiful a tea to muddy with fussiness, but I managed to get a few good pictures.  Additionally, knowing I was in for an educational experience with this one I decided to dust off my yixing teapot and brew up two sessions of this tea simultaneously, one in the teapot and another in the gaiwan.  I was curious to know what the differences would be and this tea struck me as a perfect candidate for the lesson.

I do love my gaiwan and am quite comfortable brewing with it.  It gives me the opportunity to really enjoy the changing aromas of a tea, which is one of the things I love most about pu-erh.  I've used the teapot several times but find it a bit more intimidating, probably because I'm just not as familiar with it.  In a gaiwan I can gauge the progress of a steeping by the changing color of the soup, and the openness of the cup is perfect for taking in every last bit of aroma being offered.  But with a teapot it's like I'm brewing blind, unable to watch the change in the water, and getting a sense of the aromas is more challenging with the narrowness of the lid opening.  I end up doing a bit of battle with the concentrated surges of heat and moisture escaping from the opening as I try to take in the aromas.

A note about this little teapot -- I picked it up from Jing Tea Shop last year.  It's rather unique with it's little specks of yellow Duan Ni clay embedded in the red Xiao Hong Ni clay, but that's what I like about it, along with the very rounded organic shape.  Xiao Hong Ni is said to be a tender clay and well-suited to pu-erh and also oolong and red tea.  It pours beautifully too, smooth and even and taking it's time, and with no drips.  When I first got it I scoured the internet for information on seasoning yixing pots and spent a good couple days with the process.  And being the patina-lover I am, I confess to sometimes taking this teapot out and just pouring my favorite darker pu-erhs on it during a tea session, even though (gasp!) I was using a gaiwan to brew the tea.  And sometimes, when I've enjoyed a particularly good dark pu-erh, I've filled this teapot with the spent leaves, topped it with water and let it sit for a day.  (lol -- I feel like I'm in confession)

Alright then, onto the tea.  Right off the bat this tea exhibited a very clean and well-balanced aroma.  No strange or off-scents (apparently this tea has been fully dry stored).  Just an extremely well put-together fragrance swirling with all the best expressions of a good pu-erh -- sweet fruit, clean leather, smooth malt, carmelized sugar (and please know I'm reporting this in all humility, especially in light of the great discussions going on here and here about the matter of reporting tastes and doing "reviews").  The fragrances from the aroma cup were particularly pleasing, showing a very clear progression from "pure clean water" initially (not sure how else to describe it), to vanilla notes, then caramel, then butterscotch which deepened to terrific levels as the tea evaporated.

As the tea session progressed there were predictable differences of aroma between the gaiwan and the teapot.  In the past I've often felt that the teapot emphasized the woodier deeper notes of a pu-erh and sometimes even "swallowed up" the sweeter fruity notes that I love so well (another reason why I haven't reached more for the yixing).  But with this particular tea, the yixing took the sweeter notes and gave them a beautiful deep wine-infused character, along with some great depth of wood and clean leather notes.  It was really breathtaking honestly.  The aromas from the leaves in the gaiwan were beautiful too, but clearly higher in pitch and lacked the terrific depth from the yixing.

As I drank the different infusions of this tea I found the aromatic differences between the gaiwan and the yixing also extended to taste and feel.  It was subtle at first but grew more pronounced as the infusions increased in number.  The tea tasted and felt somehow deeper from the yixing.  Broader.

As for the tea itself, it was quite the experience.  Breaking it down into 'parts' seems an injustice, but I'll try to piece together a report.  First off, the mouth feel was beautiful and quite true to it's namesake -- elegant.  Soft and silky, thick but not too thick, coating the mouth in a very pleasing way.  Another thing that stood out for me was how deeply pure and clean this tea tasted and felt.  Even the aroma had this unique "clean pure water" aspect to it that I've never experienced before.  I've had teas that felt "clean" before, but this one was out of this world.  Oftentimes that clean sensation seems tied to how a tea pulls salivation from the mouth, but for as strange as it sounds this tea seemed beyond that, permeating 'clean' and 'pulling salivation' (so to speak) from my whole body.  Yeah I know, that sounds odd but it's the truth.  As the session progressed this whole-body permeation grew to the point where I actually felt like I was tasting this tea not just with my mouth but with my limbs and torso and even my non-physical faculties.

Which brings me to the matter of qi, because it all grew so naturally, from the wonderfully well-balanced aroma, to the broad depth of taste, to the far-reaching sense of pure and clean.  I first noticed it as a sense of great clarity and focus that was simultaneously grounded and solid.  Again, this was a first for me.  I've had plenty of teas with wonderful qi that have left me mellowed and wallowing in an all-is-well-with-the-world sense.  But I've never experienced tea qi that contributed to this kind of clarity and focus.  And not a caffeine-induced kind of hyper focus, either.  This was very different, more along the lines the 'clearer discernment', if that makes any sense, accompanied by a calm groundedness.

I know, I know... I'm waxing all poetic on this one, but I'm certain it deserves at least some of this.  I found the following quote somewhere once when looking for tea poetry.  I can think of no better summation of this tea than the following:

Wa...is the complete harmony of all elements; its definition includes 
Kei...gives a sense of profound reverence toward all things, and is used by tea men to identify characteristics of humility and respect.
Sei...contains the thought of orderiness in life, cleanliness, and purity.
Jaku...means tranquillity, calm. 

These four are essential to tea.

Rand Castile, The Way of Tea


  1. Dear LPR,

    Good to know that the debate has not put you off writing about your experiences.

    Keep it up, and thanks for the review!

    All the Best,

  2. Thank you, Jason. I do love good discussion and don't mind impassioned debate as long as respect is maintained, which I think it was. Thanks again for taking the time to share your knowledge. It was most appreciated! :)

    - bev

  3. Wow, sounds like a fantastic, elegant tea. I checked the site and yowsas, that tea is pricey, although I bet for a pu'er lover like yourself, totally worth the once-in-a-while splurge.

    One of Linda Louie's students, Jeff (who introduced me to Bana teas) just opened up an online pu'er teashop based in Seattle. It's a very recent thing and I think his site is still under construction, but I understand that he made some good contacts when he went to Yunnan with Linda.


  4. Rich,
    I'd love to know more about this local online pu'er shop. I don't suppose it's the one located in Sammamish, Tienxi? I tried one of the puerh cakes they carry recently and liked it very much. In fact, it had a lot of that very clean feeling to it that this expensive tea does, although the Truly Simple Elegant is out of this world. Two whole days after having this tea I'm still feeling that clean pure taste in my mouth, I kid you not. Maybe my body chemistry just really agrees with this one?

  5. A wonderful review!

    Thanks for sharing details about qi.
    As you say - tea can contribute to certain states like clarity and focus, but I think it is a complex interaction with the tea drinker's mind. In my own experience,I had a number of dissapointments when coming back to a tea that had seemed so good for me ...

    So if you should revisit this tea, I'd really be interested in an update.


  6. Martin -- So true! My thoughts exactly, although I have a feeling this one is quite something special. My mouth was still returning that clean pure sensation even two whole days later! But I will definitely post an update next time I treat myself to this special tea. I also can't help but wonder how my experience was affected knowing the price of it. And yet I've had other pricey teas that just didn't impress me a great deal. This was definitely not one of those :)

  7. White gaiwan is so amazing, so as teapot. I'm so jealous of your tea pottery ) Where can I get those?