Doubt is the stance I take when tasting puerh tea. Any puerh head who says they do not experience any doubt in their tea is fudging or in denial. The type of doubt I hear about most often from my friends is in their buying decisions, the kind of doubt that makes a person walk away from a tea, only to go back later and find the tea is sold out. Doubt like this fills tea chat between friends stewing over what to buy. This isn’t my type of doubt, though. To the contrary, I feel confident when buying tea simply because I care less about my money at this point in life. But when I taste the first cup of a purchase, doubt begins.
Although many of my reviews appear very confident, I go through steep after steep of doubt to reach an idea of how I feel about a tea and about myself as a buyer. At the very moment of first sipping I doubt my purchase and everything in my ability to choose a tea. Doubt is magnified by smelling the damp leaves when I detect anything that suggests over-heated chaqing, or a smoky medicine smell, and when I see bits of char in the gaiwan. I feel doubt when I find the sourness of dry storage. Or when I smell damp I imagine the beauty of those fresh leaves now killed off by too-wet storage. I feel doubt when I smell nothing at all, thinking I now own a dead tea. My mind races through ideas of what I can do correct flaws because I don’t want to give up on the tea yet. In reality, my steeping doubt means I now need the tea to win me over.
So, believe it when I say I doubt every single purchase I make, from the $400 tea cake all the way down to the idiot $9.99 brick with free shipping on EBay. I like to think this is intelligent doubt. For me, ignorant doubt is what I hear from people who say “that tea is too expensive/cheap to ever be worth the money” when in fact these naysayers have not tried the tea, and never plan on doing so. Doubt is a question and not a conclusion. While anyone can and should question a tea, doubt remains an open-ended thought.
With some teas, my doubt never really goes away. Especially when considering teas labeled with the LBZ Word, doubt is always the biggest factor. “Lao Ban Zhang” is just a village but also a tea term on par with “Jesus is Lord,” a phrase mostly embarrassing to hear or say out loud, much less publicly blog about.
For those of you new to puerh tea, Lao Ban Zhang is a tiny village in Yunnan, China with a hundred or so households, surrounded by ancient tea trees which for some unknown reason produce the finest puerh tea, known as the “King of Puerh.” This tea is prized for a balance of bitter to sweet, an incredibly long finish and heavenly body effects that place you on a plane of existence known only to aliens or angels. LBZ tea is the Ecstasy of Tea Drugs. Every year tourists pull into this tiny village by the hundreds, hoping to get a taste of this tea, only to discover that no amount of money will be enough to acquire any. Not only is this King of Teas impossible to get, Lao Ban Zhang is the most faked puerh tea on the market. Prices are insane for this tea, thousands of dollars a kilo. Farmers arrive from neighboring towns to this village to sell their ordinary tea to buyers who pass off the tea as real Lao Ban Zhang. Everyone wants to take advantage of the huge amounts of money flowing into the village.
The demand is high in part because 80% of the village farmers signed a contract with a single factory in the early 2000s, the Chen Sheng Tea Factory. Today this factory has a brand new building in Lao Ban Zhang which apparently required demolishing ancient tea trees make room. Not all the villagers signed the contract, but most did. So one tea factory has virtually an entire monopoly on all the tea picked there. The village possesses ordinary farmed tea gardens, hillsides of untended trees and a forest of ancient trees at least a hundred years old or more.
All this put together doesn’t yield very much tea. But because of the faking going on with LBZ, you can find teas everywhere trying to take advantage of suckers who don’t know any better. Because LBZ tea is such a tiny harvest, the Chen Sheng Factory must blend tea leaves from other villages into their tea cakes to make the good tea go a bit further. Even if a buyer is somewhat convinced that their LBZ tea cake is genuine, we don’t really know how much of a blend is in the tea, whether a brother or cousin might have brought tea over from a few villages away.
So owning a cake of Lao Ban Zhang tea is like saying you acquired a piece of the True Cross. A blogger who uses the LBZ word is immediately questioned, and so most tea bloggers use quotation marks and disclaimers when discussing LBZ tea. But some people do actually own “Lao Ban Zhang” tea, whether real, partly real or an outright fake. Doubt is highest with LBZ puerh tea, from the wrapper on down to the tenth steep and fiftieth session, unless the source is unshakable. Labels are notorious liars. All we can do is let tea speak and see if we enjoy it. I must say that the two 2008 “Lao Ban Zhang” cakes I purchased recently did convince me that they are decent teas, and the two are very different from one another.
I wrote about Wilson’s 2008 Haiwan LBZ on Steepster after I drank it. Wilson told me that when he opened his store, he wanted to put up some very good tea to both celebrate his store opening and show buyers that he has good tea to sell. He stated he bought a few tongs and kept one for himself, selling the rest to those of us lucky enough to grab a cake. So I think his idea was to tease buyers into suspecting he has even better teas in his collection. His blog is certainly a tea-se with never enough detail and his store is the same, rarely un-wrapping a tea to show us the goods. He is a master of tea porn, always leaving us wanting more.
|Wilson's 2009 Haiwan adventureineverycup.com|
Hoarding blogger selling his stash
Three friends of mine bought this tea from Wilson too. I immediately offered to buy them out, but of course no one is selling. Wilson’s Singapore storage has a nice slightly damp note, and we wondered how much more bitter this tea was just a few years ago because the liquor shows brown with a bit of red already. I’m not showing full photos here only because Wilson’s 2008 Haiwan is sold out. It is my most recent mental note going into the 2008 Lao Ban Zhang from Tao Tea Leaf. By now I’ve mainly forgotten the LBZ I shared with TwoDog last year which paled next to an incredible 1960s puerh tea we spent more time drinking. I remember TwoDog’s LBZ started out a nice tea drunk at our afternoon party, but really the 1960s puerh got me drinking the wash straight from the bamboo tray, something I don’t do every day.
|2008 "Lao Ban Zhang" from TaoTeaLeaf.com|
Owner Tao Wu is a young man who apparently grew up on a tea farm in the Fujian region before moving to Canada and opening a tea store at age 28, calling himself a “tea master,” although he also got a tea sommelier certificate in Canada to cover the bases, I suppose. He claims to have ordered his 2008 LBZ by private, special order in 2007. He doesn’t say where he ordered it from, and doesn’t show the wrapper in the listing for the tea. His description discusses Lao Ban Zhang village and also mentions the nearby Xin Ban Zhang. I read this over several times wondering if this is a hint that perhaps some of the tea is from the latter nearby village. The wrapper of course says Lao Ban Zhang on it, but very often private orders end up getting a wrapper that really isn’t from the factory making the tea. The wrapper might be extras “on hand,” because special wrappers sometimes aren’t made for small private orders. Because the listing does not show off the wrapper, maybe it doesn’t mean much. I won’t get over the doubt of the wrapper even if somebody tells me it’s all legit.
Finally I decided to try the tea when the weather cooled off. First two rinses yield a slight Chinese incense/medicine odor and I sigh, here we go, not my favorite profile and gotta mean some burnt tea in here. Upon rinsing the leaf I see that this is small leaf tea for the most part. Buds are evident in the mix, with a few medium sized leaves but mostly they are fairly small. The description says that the tea isn’t charred, but during the rinses I find char in the gaiwan to match my charred medicine perception on the leaf odor. Not much char, but it’s there. Two cups go down in short order. The first cup is slightly medicinal, a bit of fermented hay, and the second a bit less so.
|The beenghole photograph. Reader demands...|
Actually you can learn a lot picking a beenghole.
Sometimes the leaves on the underside are lesser quality.
|Second steep. Brownish-yellow dry storage.|
My throat seems a bit full like a ball of draining sinuses. The tea sits in my belly for an hour or more. I get hiccups. My mouth dries out like sailor’s jock strap. Just to be certain my throat is feeling the tea and not sinus drainage, I pop an allergy tablet. We’ve had so much rain and the ragweed is in full bloom. I return to my computer and consume dozens and dozens of pages on LBZ to see if anyone else has a 2008, or had one to sell, or reviewed one. I can’t find anything.
Three hours later, after cat box cleaning and other household chores, I pick up my cup and sniff it. The floral and honey, powdery smell is incredible, so much so that I immediately doubt whether I washed the cup before starting. I rinse it out with boiling water before continuing with more tea, and I make certain the cup has no odor this time.
Two more cups. I don’t notice a Chinese medicine smell or taste anymore. The fourth cup is much more bitter than any of the previous because the tea is opening now. The soup is a bit thicker. This time the qi doesn’t hit until about a half hour later, but before this I cannot doubt the full huigan of this tea, because my mouth sweetens up. Nor can I deny that this tea sits in the belly like hot pepper jelly beans. The astringency hits even harder an hour after drinking, but of course I need to blame my allergy tablet too. Finally, I must admit that my empty cup smells like a garden of honeyed orchids, even when dried out to the point of only a drop or two left on the bottom. I marvel at how this fragrance is more alive in my dried cup, and not really on the tongue when drinking. I’m glad I chose a tall cup which holds fragrance better than small wide cups.
The fourth cup has spicy hints as well as bit of wood but not the strongest flavored cup overall that I’ve ever had. I feel like there are layers here I can’t describe, complexities I perceive more than taste. Honestly I don’t smell much in the gaiwan after pouring water on the fifth steeping except a hint of the medicine, a bit of green wood. Still some bitterness, a feeling in my esophagus of swallowing overly large radishes, a heat that isn’t like chilis, and this suddenly changes to sweetness within about 5-10 minutes. I can easily do 1-2 cups of this tea and then just sit back with what I drank for a couple of hours, observing the effects. All this I’m typing at 2 a.m., and then I realize I left my big cat outside. I let him in and feed him, and on this cool night just moving to the door my body breaks into a sweat with waves of qi along my back and ears.
Day three: twelve steeps in and not done yet. This blog post has meandered on to god-only-knows-what, that nebulous zone of tea heaven where teas never quit. On steep thirteen I’m going long on steep time, so am gonna quit now. Wait, I’m still feeling this tea in my throat even though the flavor is very light now and the fragrance is about gone. I’m sure I can squeeze out a couple more steepings, the stems are rather large, so fifteen is a good estimate for this one considering I over-steeped at least two. I’ll conclude this tea is part old arbor and part plantation/garden, and darn nice for my $85.
|Char evident on leaf tips at the top of the photo.|
Not much to worry about here, but present.
Everything about this tea makes me doubt, except the tea itself. If you are interested in trying this 2008 tea, TaoTeaLeaf offers a number of sample sizes to choose from. The whole cake is on the pricey side. But you can plan ahead because the shop has two 50% off sales per year, one on Boxing Day (December 26) and the other Boxing-Day-in-July. The $190 Canadian dollar price converts in the shopping cart after you enter your address information.
You can say whatever you want. The vendor can write me pages and pages justifying this tea and tea heads can write comment after comment denouncing it. Any LBZ tea is a guilty, idiot purchase or an act of faith, take your pick. But I’ll stand by Wilson’s Haiwan and Mr. Tao’s LBZ as unique teas. I write about “Lao Ban Zhang” teas so you don’t have to. You can quietly purchase whatever LBZ you want, rewrap in plain paper and hide it in your dildo drawer. Nobody needs to know.