Within the past six months or so, many of my tea friends have participated in group buys of Yang Qing Hao productions via an intermediary on Facebook. The teas available range from 1999 to 2007 or so, and have brought more than a little excitement among pu heads in North America. Steepster now lists most of the teas available via group buy on Steepster. There, you can check out a few reviews from other tea writers, and you might find scattered postings elsewhere including on TeaDB.org.
I thought about participating in a group buy last fall, but then suddenly felt misgivings. The tea is stored in Taiwan by Mr. Yang, and I wondered, why isn’t this tea selling in Taiwan? We are either really lucky to buy Yang Qing Hao productions on Facebook or something is dodgy. At first I thought maybe the years in question aren’t the ones most sought after by collectors. But then a decent selection of tea from 2004 is available, which somewhat lies outside that 2006-8 period that some collectors avoid due to overpicking, pesticides, and price gouging. The prices offered in the group buys aren’t cheap, but many of the cakes are in the large 400-500g range too, so price per gram is a consideration.
So I haven’t yet purchased any of the YQH teas myself, but of course I’d be an idiot to dismiss the idea out of hand. If you are interested, I suggest visiting Steepster.com and look for the group buy topics which will give you the information and who to contact. Most of the buys occur mid-month or so. Prices have increased recently. I received three samples from a Steepster friend of about 10 grams each from his cakes. This is a very generous gift and I’m grateful for the thoughtfulness of my friend who asked nothing in return. All of these teas have a Yiwu profile and apparently have spent most of their time stored in Taiwan.
First I started with the 2004 YQH Tejipin Raw, which is a 500g cake when purchased whole, and at this writing is $390, or $0.78/gram. This is a tea that many tea heads recommend for the theanine stoner effects. So, I thought maybe this is a cake I’d be likely to buy. The sample photo I’m showing actually has more tea than I decided to brew at once. I really debated for a day or so how much of the sample to brew up. The baggie contains about 10g, but I remember my experience last summer with 2015 Last Thoughts when I went heavy on the grammage and kept passing out every two cups. I decided that 3g is an adequate dose for me of 2015 Last Thoughts, and to be on the safe side I went with 2g of the Tejipin in 50 ml water. Admittedly this is a light set-up. But my son is gone this weekend and if I keel over from stoner tea, the cat will eat my face before Son returns.
I’m brewing in a tiny Petr Novak pot I purchased recently. I really love the little cups which are actually from another set by Novak. The cups have a shape that I also own in Lin’s tea ware, and I like the bell shape because it seems to create a ball of the liquid when you sip, really allowing the tea to spread around the mouth and give its best. I wasn’t at all convinced cups matter until I tried this cup shape. I think the tea pot is around 65 ml but I didn’t fill it because the lid is so tight fitting any tea bit will make the lid too tight, this is definitely not a criticism. A well-built pot is my friend.
I threw out two rinses. The first two steeps exhibit the sourness of recent drier storage. This tea shows browning from humid conditions, but overall the tea does not qualify as a traditionally stored tea, rather what we call “natural” storage. This means the tea doesn’t taste musty at all, and has some characteristics of drier periods such as the sourness typical of teenage tea. Really I view the sour tea in years 2-10 as that of drier fermentation. But I can see the tea had some short but very muggy periods. And the nose on the tea gives me the reason why.
This tea has the odor and flavor that results from processing issues such as heavy wood smoke, problems with baking or frying resulting in char. I call this odor and flavor Chinese Medicine sometimes, because the smoke has been integrated with other flavors like camphor and flowers, resulting in an incense or ginseng medicine quality. Sometimes this flavor is referred to as “tobacco,” or “common puerh.” But it is so overpowering in my sample of only 2 grams I wonder why I don’t remember reading about it. A quick check online and sure enough people have indeed mentioned it, but under terms like “tobacco,” “smoky,” “woody leather,” and “ginseng.”
For the sake of generalization, I’ll just call it “common puerh” since people associate this flavor with such a variety of descriptors. A common puerh scent and taste, processing of smoke or char, tobacco quality to some terroir according to some, like Xiaguan but honestly that’s not quite accurate either because Xiaguan doesn’t always have processing issues. This tea does. The question is whether it can fade out.
Ah, now this tea leaf must have been quite something when fresh and new. The honey is in here, and sturdy leaves. And then we have theanine. Good lord, this is a stoner tea, my face grew numb by steep four, literally numb. The stoner effect is present entirely in my face and ears, like young sinsemilla. The soup has decent thickness in steeps 3 and 4, and the initial sour notes are gone. I’m not feeling any real throat action except for the camphor cooling, and no real body feeling or legs down into the stomach. The action is all in my numbed face. I could go to the dentist on this stuff. Not much qi, I distinguish stoner tea from qi in that qi has spinal nerve sensations for me of movement and I should feel it upon circulating the breath as in meditation. I’m just stoned though, which is enough to send me back to the pot to keep pouring out and lining it up.
I feel rather invigorated, and I’m not passing out thankfully. Well I did lie down for a nap eventually, but only after steep eight when the tea had pretty much cashed out. Only two grams after all, this won’t last as long as a decent session will. I get some vanilla along with the honey. But honestly the sad fact is that this tea is permeated by that common puerh Chinese medicine profile which drowns out anything else for me. Dry peat smoke plus leather, camphor and wood.
Now many puerh enthusiasts do not view the common puerh Chinese medicine profile as a flaw. But I do. I don’t own any teas with this profile myself, but I have found it in dozens of samples, especially from places like SampleTeas, Ebay and Taobao. Most recently I received a sample of a brick tea from puerhshop.com with this profile. I tried to find that brick but it must have sold or got removed recently. All I recall about it is that puerhshop found the maocha and got it pressed into a brick. Hate to say it, but I associate it with cheap teas that I would never buy. What a shame. I feel as though the tea probably got a very healthy dose of wood smoke, and I see a bit of char in the strainer, and red oolonged type leaves. I selected a brand new, unused bamboo strainer for this session so no other teas are affecting the flavor.
Smoky wood processing or wok issues are common in puerh tea. Fortunately, in recent years the western facing vendors we buy from are working with tea farms to stop frying over wood fires lacking any ventilation. Last year, Glen from Crimson Lotus noted in his journal blog, or maybe forum postings, that he is working with his farmers to wok outdoors or add ventilation. He said that a few farmers hadn’t been told before about this idea that the smoke is distasteful.
If you look at Chawangshop’s Chawang Lao Yun series, you can actually buy both a smoky and non-smoky version of the tea. The smoky version has a campfire smoke smell and quality when the tea is new. It mostly airs out, but obviously some is still going to remain in the tea. This version is the one prepared by women to drink themselves, but they also produce the same tea without this smoke. In 2015, the smoky version cost $12 for 200g, and the non-smoky version sold for $18. When aired and drunk immediately within a year or so, the smoke really isn’t all that noticeable. Keep in mind this is a separate issue from tea leaves that have a tobacco quality any way, but also that a tea can have both issues, a fresh tobacco tasting tea leaf AND processing problems. The Lao Yun tea consumed fresh is probably the best way to take it, because down the road it will taste more like what I’m tasting now, assuming some short wet periods are interspersed with drier periods.
Storing the tea somewhat wet in those early years is one way a vendor might try and save a tea or hide the flaws. But right now with the Tejipin sample, the leaves are very brown, there is little green left in here and no bitterness at just 12 years old. Nowhere to go in terms of storage. The common puerh smell and taste which remains may dissipate a bit further, but in dry storage such as we have here in the states, it likely never will. It also is what contributes to astringency in the tea, very drying but of course I take medications which are drying as well.
Let’s give a disclaimer of course that I only had 2 grams off one cake. But I have to start somewhere with myself if I’m looking to buy a cake with a big price tag. $390 is quite an investment sum, at least it is for me! Most collectors are looking to get in on a tea in early days when the price point is low. Once we get at the $400 price point, the group of likely buyers thins out considerably. If not, then we’d see more sell-outs at places like white2tea. Instead, the real way to sell it is parceling out by the gram, or else you’re looking for a one-off buyer looking for a short sale, who wants to pay less than you paid. The time to buy in for collecting is very early, or very lucky. Later on for aged tea you will pay a premium, especially for good base leaf quality and some humid storage time.
If you know what I mean by the Chinese Medicine or tobacco profile, you probably already know where you stand with your personal taste. For some this isn’t a flaw at all. For me, it is a big flaw. I could see myself thinking “heck I’ll purchase this tea because it is a good stoner tea!” But then I know when reaching for a tea, I will think about this one and reach for something else because I’m turned off by the profile. This means I might buy it, but I won’t drink it in the end. I just find this profile distasteful. If any reason at all exists why this tea is sold to westerners now on Facebook rather than locally in Taiwan, it must be because of the processing issues. Why else? The tea leaves with this stoner effect should be selling easily anywhere at all. The only reason why not has got to be the taste and aroma profile. I cannot think of any other reason.
The aged or middle aged teas I buy generally have had much more humid storage than these teas, which I feel is sensible for my crock storage process, and are more bitter in general to start with. I can work in humidity and it makes sense for me in a drier climate to buy aged teas with some wetness and then finish them off myself in a year or two. Or I can buy a fresh clean cake and abuse the hell out of it adding moisture. So, I haven’t spent any time trying to see if I can work out the Chinese medicine, but to even try the tea needs to have some green bitterness or something left to work with. This tea is all but done, though. It is smooth now with nothing bitter left. I don’t feel confident at all in the idea of trying to get rid of this aroma and taste. It is what it is.
Now you can say, well you only drank 2g, but more right now is just more of the same. I put the remainder of my sample into a tea caddy. I’ll leave it there awhile and honestly if I change my mind you’ll hear about it. However, if you are in the market for stoner tea, let’s compare it with 2005 Naka to see if the Tejipin is priced well in line with other stoner teas.
Price: $0.78/g for Tejipin, $0.89/g for Naka.
Storage: Tejipin is Natural, Naka has a slightly musty note.
Condition: Tejipin has fine leaf quality, not bitter, pretty much finished. Naka is slightly bitter, smaller leaf, less complex.
Stoner quality: Tejipin wins on theanine.
Obviously Tejipin at 500g is a decent deal and probably a must-buy if you are after a stoner tea and don’t mind the common puerh profile. If you can look past that you might find a bit of vanilla, tobacco, camphor, honey and leather. As for me, I just don’t like it. I’d rather have a humid cake with some bitterness and less smoke. Or a fresh cake with no smoke. Or buy something on EBay that tastes like this for $15 and get free shipping and have a cigar along with it.
I received two teas of YQH Chawangshu, a 2004 and a 2006. The 2004 had an even stronger odor of the common puerh just on the dry leaf, so I decided to caddy up that sample and not try it now. But the 2006 smelled a bit more promising so I brewed up 3g of that one in the same pot.
This tea also starts out sour, but the green left in the leaves gives me something to explore. The sourness never really goes away in the first 7 steeps, but it isn’t a flaw in my mind. The tea is only 10 years old, it had less wet storage than the Tejipin, and still clearly is in the middle of fermenting, not yet changed over into a more mature tea. In fact the sourness turns sweet on the lips and tongue. This tea is more bassy, it coats the throat nicely although without the strong camphor of the Tejipin, and lingers on in the chest and stomach. The Tejipin gave up the thickness early on but at steep 4 and 5 the 2006 Chawangshu was just getting started and continued to thicken in subsequent steepings with no additional time added to flash steeps.
I let steep 6 cool a bit while I cleaned the kitchen, and the cooler tea had a sour vomit smell in the cup and in the tea pot. This disappeared in the next steeping, after which I think I got the storage off and the real tea began to emerge, a bit sweeter with some lingering bitterness but not a whole lot. This still isn’t a bitter tea, and I feel like a few years on this will make a big difference. The tea is at a stage when I really wouldn’t normally want to drink it. In fact, after 7 steeps I got a bit of a tummy ache, but to be fair I’d had an ibuprofen tablet early in the day which could have contributed to an extra sensitivity on my part. I decided to eat something and then keep going.
The tea also has some significant theanine effect, and more what I consider qi, the feeling of movement along and up my spine. I feel a stoner effect in my face, not the dental face numbing of the Tejipin, more of a heavier relaxing effect in the face, chest and back. Really very pleasant. I’m fine with the sour because I feel that will depart from the tea, it is a fermentation flavor. The tea started out with the common puerh scent, but it was very light and gone right away. I’m not even sure it is intrinsic to this tea but could be something it picked up in storage from other cakes.
I drink steeps 8 and 9. Then I give up. You know what, they are just sour. I don’t taste any bitterness. Extending the steep time shows me the tea has plenty left to go, I’m at a minute or so. This tea has some hope down the road once it slows down fermenting.
Now, maybe someone else has a different opinion, who owns a full cake, or a better cake or a better sample. I’m droning on and on and trying my best because I really, really wanted to like these teas. I drink puerh all the time, so it's not like I haven't got around, and people send me wonderful teas every week. I feel like the Teji was amazing leaf when it was young, but got wrecked in processing and the wet years unfortunately can’t make up for it. Sure, the stoner effect is stronger than almost any other tea to date, but you know what, it tastes awful. Think what you will, I just don’t like this tobacco/leather/incense/smoky profile, I can buy it on Ebay if I want it.
By contrast I have the 1999 Yiwu from white2tea which also is a woody/leather but it is spicy, and vanilla, and it has bite, with some bitterness remaining. This 1999 Yiwu has steeped a personal record 42 steeps for me. I served it at the Wisconsin Fermentation Festival last fall to 12 people and two begged to go home with a thermos of this tea and some leaves to steep out. The 1999 Yiwu isn’t smoky nor tobacco flavored and doesn't taste like an incense shop. Does it have the dental stoner effect of the Teji? No, it doesn't. But the Yiwu I have is plenty relaxing. This is just one example of a tea I have with similar natural storage that just tastes better, and is a much more durable tea. Here I have to go with the Chawangshu if I were to pick which to buy, but honestly I’d rather have another cake of that 1999 Yiwu (sold out) or maybe hope for better with the Dinji which seems to be another price tier up.
Thank you so much to my dear tea friend and I promise you I will give these another try in six months. I’m happy to revise my opinion down the line if I can do anything to get these samples in a more palatable state. And like I stated at the beginning of the post, if you don't feel my opinion merits any consideration, you can find different opinions on Steepster or elsewhere online.
But really, I find myself yearning for a bitter Bulang right about now. I gotta rummage around for something to clear out the sourness from my palate.
Nap in peace.