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Tea Tasting: Lao Ban Zhang Mao Cha Sheng Pu-erh


Richard Kilgore
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This Tea Tasting & Discussion features an interesting young raw loose leaf pu-erh. eGullet Society member Greg Glancy at norbutea.com is providing free samples for three society members and myself.

(Image used with permission of Norbutea/Greg Glancy.)

LBZ_MaoCha_Spring09_Dry.jpg

Here's some background on this pu-erh from the norbutea website. Used with permission.

One of our producers in Xishuangbanna was able to get us a little bit over 2 kg of new harvest (Spring 09) Mao Cha from Lao Ban Zhang. Mao Cha means "semi-finished tea," and refers to the raw materials that are used in the manufacture of the various forms of Pu-Erh tea.

The tea liquor is moderately thick and mouth coating with a very long finish. It tastes very fresh, green, vegetal and a bit bitter with slightly sweet undertones. The distinct "Hui Gan" (bittersweet aftertaste) of this tea seems to go on forever, and I have infused it up to 15 times so far before quitting.

Steeping recommendation: Use a large Gaiwan, 150cc or bigger so you can add the leaves without breaking them. We recommend 5-7.5 grams per session using water just off the boil & very short (10 seconds or less) steeping times at first, increasing the steep times by about 5 seconds per steeping.

About Lao Ban Zhang Tea:

This particular tea came from a remote area near Ban Zhang Mountain in Southern Menghai County, south of Menghai City. These leaves are from truly ancient trees that are 400-500 years old, which were unfortunately heavily cut back and damaged during the Cultural Revolution. The good news is that in the 35+ years since those tumultuous times these precious trees have rebounded significantly and are producing excellent quality Pu-Erh.

It is thought that many of the most highly prized vintage tea cakes from the Menghai Tea Factory were at least partially made of Ban Zhang Mao Cha, so tea from the ancient trees in this area is quite possibly the most sought after and highly prized Pu-Erh tea on the market. Aside from this historical value, Ban Zhang teas have a completely unmatched flavor profile. The taste can best be described as strong and bitter with an appreciably sweet and lingering aftertaste.

The three free samples are available to members who 1) will do at least one gong fu cha brewing session from the sample, 2) will report on their experience and participate in the discussion, and 3) who have previously posted at least ten (10) substantive posts (simply a matter of questions, answers, comments that add to discussions) in the Coffee and Tea forum. The 10 g sample is enough for one or two gong fu cha brewing sessions with up to 15 infusions each.

Preference will be given until midnight (EDST) Wednesday, March 31st, 2010 to those who have not participated in the last two tastings.

As always, everyone is welcome and encouraged to participate in the discussion, whether or not you receive a sample.

So, please PM me now if you would like to receive one of the the free samples and participate in the tasting and discussion.

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I have known Greg Glancy for several years -- a presentation he once gave about a trip through the tea markets and farms of China and Tibet fed my growing interest in learning more about fine teas. Since then he has become a tea friend and we drink tea together and trade teas and tea stories from time to time. Greg and I spent severl hours of a Saturday recently drinking tea and selecting the tea for this tasting. We selected this Lao Ban Zhang Mao Cha Sheng Pu-erh because it's a great mao cha with a distinctive flavor profile. But it isn't everyone's cup of tea due to the bitterness: you'll either love it or hate it.

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There is now only one free sample left of this Lao Ban Zhang raw pu-erh. If you are interested, please read the first post above and PM me.

The remaining one free sample is still available.

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  • 2 weeks later...

My suggestion for a starting point on this pu-erh is 1 g per ounce of water at 90 C/195 F, starting with very short infusions of 5 - 10 seconds...after two 20 second rinses. Then adjust from there. I have been doing it in a 120 ml gaiwan and these parameters work well for me, but YMMV, as always.

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Hmmm... so short and hot is the way to go. I'll give it a shot and report back.

How is this tea processed? The write-up indicates that its processing is incomplete, but doesn't indicate what has been done. Is it steamed and fired, or withered and dried, or something else entirely? It looks rather like a white tea. In the package its aroma is very young... it has that papery aroma that very young teas seem to have in common.

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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Two 20 second rinses, as directed, followed by 10 second brews. 5g of leaf, 5 oz water near boiling.

After the first infusion, I must say that I like this tea a lot. It is reminiscent of some young darjeelings I've tried. Quite complex. A bit of bitter chlorophyll is central, but it has hints of both bright floral and smoky undertones. The aftertaste carries on forever, and morphs into a mixture of herbal and perhaps a hint of citrus oil... Thing is that you never tell any of that from the aroma in the cup, which is nondescript.

Second infusion brings out more astringent bitterness, making the chlorophyll more central and hiding what floral edges there were in the first infusion. The paperyness (verging on woodiness, but not quite) comes further out, bringing along a toasted nuance and a bit more of a hint of hardwood smoke. The aftertaste is significantly more astringent, though the citrus-y thing comes through in the back of my throat again.

I'm going to let the tea sit for a while, as 10 oz of tea is all I'm in the mood to consume now. Into the fridge with the leaves until the mood strikes again.

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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Hmmm... so short and hot is the way to go. I'll give it a shot and report back.

How is this tea processed? The write-up indicates that its processing is incomplete, but doesn't indicate what has been done. Is it steamed and fired, or withered and dried, or something else entirely? It looks rather like a white tea. In the package its aroma is very young... it has that papery aroma that very young teas seem to have in common.

Here's a detailed description of raw (sheng) pu-erh processing from norbutea.com. Used with permission.

Sheng or raw Pu-Erh is processed very much like a green tea, but there are several noteworthy differences.

  • The tea leaves are picked, withered to make them less brittle, and then heat treated, usually pan fired in a relatively low temperature wok, to neutralize the enzymes that would cause the tea leaves to oxidize.
  • Next, the leaves are traditionally dried in the sun, one of the characteristics that make Pu-Erh processing unique. If weather conditions are not favorable or a producer wishes to speed up the drying process at the expense of quality, however, the tea leaves are sometimes dried in large ovens using low heat. The drying process continues until roughly 90% of the moisture has been removed. At this point, the tea leaves are referred to as Mao Cha, or semi-finished tea.

  • The Mao Cha is then sorted and separated into different grades. Larger factories will use a blower & wind tunnel system to quickly sort the tea leaves into different sizes/grades, while small factories or family concerns will either perform this step by hand or omit it all together.
  • If the finished product is to be a blend, the factory tea masters blend the leaves from different growing regions or vintages together based on specific formulas or recipes.
  • Finally, the leaves are steamed to make them pliable again and compressed into shapes using the traditional stone molds or one of any number of mechanized systems of molds and presses.
  • The newly pressed cakes of tea are sometimes baked in a relatively low heat oven (200-250 F) to drive out any residual moisture and prevent the formation of mold.
  • Last, the finished products are stored in a low moisture environment to allow them to dry out and begin the aging process.

Newly produced Sheng Pu-Erh is drinkable almost immediately. When properly steeped, it is a wonderfully aromatic, astringent, sometimes bitter, and complex beverage. The flavors are sometimes described as a combination of "grassy" or fresh hay characteristics, camphorous or medicinal aspects, floral notes, and sometimes having hints of dried fruit.

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Thanks for the info on the processing.

an update-

infusions 3, 4, and 5 all grew more and more like a Chinese green tea in both aroma and peripheral flavors. The herbal and citric thing in the aftertaste persists, sorta reminiscent of Chartreuse liqueur. It continues to be interesting.

Christopher D. Holst aka "cdh"

Learn to brew beer with my eGCI course

Chris Holst, Attorney-at-Lunch

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The leaves have apparently lost more moisture than when Greg wrote the description on the Norbu Ta site. At this point the leaves will fit in a smaller gaiwan than a 150 ml. I use a 120 and smaller may be possible if they will fit without breaking.

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After the warnings about bitterness, and late hour caffeine/sleep concerns, I started off very cautiously.

First try in small (75mL) gaiwan (no leaves were broken in the making of this tasting, honest!): 1 gram leaf, water fresh off the boil, rinsed x 10 seconds, let hydrate briefly, then infused 10 seconds first time in about 40mL water--very dilute, interesting potential--smoky, earthy--but much too weak.

Using less water for the later infusions, to try to strengthen the flavor.

Water temp dropped much more than I expected by the 2nd infusion--about 170 degrees, surprise--and let it infuse longer, 30 seconds--very umami, earthy, almost salty but not the briny taste of a japanese green.

Reheated the water a bit, started to hear what I thought was a boil, but it was only 185 degrees, and after 30 seconds, that same flavor is back and intense. Some astringency is also there, but it serves well here, is not bitter and unpleasant, but wow, the other flavor is strong but smooth, like silky-caramelicious-umami. Quite interesting. There is a neat sweet aftertaste too--I totally get the bitter and sweet that Greg mentions.

Fourth infusion: drinking sips straight from the gaiwan (!), got a fair bit of astringency at the last drops, but several sips over a minute were remarkably consistent until that last drop: the strong caramel-silky-umami predominates. Gaiwan and all to fridge overnight.

Will play more with this tomorrow, to see how long the leaves can go, but also will be less anxious and try the next round with more leaf, full gaiwan, and a full kettle keeping near-boiling temps longer.

Edited by Wholemeal Crank (log)
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The sweetness was not caramel-like; I'm trying to find a word to describe the silky-smooth-umami-which did have some caramelized overtones. The sweetness was associated with some sharp astringency; and the sweetness and the umami were not perceived together.

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2nd tasting: enough leaf to fill the 75mL gaiwan 1/3 full when wetted (guestimated 2g, but scale malfunctioning), water to about 200 degrees, and filling to about 60 mL, so a typical 1g/oz ratio).

First infusion 10 seconds after flash rinse, too soon after eating a strong mint: pale liquor, ordinary puerh flavor, nothing standing out.

Second infusion, 10-15 seconds, minty flavor long gone: bitter, wow. Emergency dilution about 1:3 with same temp water: sweet, vegetal, spicy, that bitter is gone. Another sip of the undiluted from fair cup: yikes. Diluting remainder from fair cup: delicious. Diluting seems to eliminate the bitter rather than to just lessen the concentration of bitterness. Wild.

Third infusion, 15 seconds: straight up: bitter city! diluted 1:2--there is the sweet spot again. When I sip with a slurpy noisy inhalation, it feels sweet/spicy all over my tongue--no bitter. There is a slightly bitter aftertaste, maybe, but nothing like the straight up stuff. Where does the bitter go?

Fourth infusion, about 8 seconds (started trying to pour from the gaiwan at 5 seconds, took a few more to get it pouring quickly out): straight up, sipping gives that brilliant sweet taste, and a bit more of the slightly bitter aftertaste. But the sweet is so good, that I slurp-sip fast-fast-fast, it is sweet/spicy delicious, and now all gone! Must infuse more.

Fifth infusion, again about 8 seconds (start pouring at 5 seconds, done by 10 seconds), getting this one down: sweet/spicy, sip/slurp/sip, doesn't get time to cool much, all gone again, mouth feels a bit scorched, but aftertaste is mostly sweet, yum.

Sixth, same thing: the sweet is there, but so is the bitter, somehow lurking just behind the sweet, as though it is part of what makes it seems so sweet. I see what cdh meant when he said you wouldn't want to get rid of the bitterness. No change with 7th infusion, and the 8th, and the 9th, and my cup is EMPTY again.

I have definitely found some kind of 'sweet spot' for this tea: sweet like green tea/sencha/dragon well/mao feng. Today I am getting none of that silky umami I was noticing so strongly last night, likely due to the very different infusion conditions--water kept to near 200 degrees in the electric kettle and shorter infusions.

Last night was at home, today at work, but AFAIK same city tap water both places, using twin porcelain gaiwans.

This is *very* interesting.

(Before 10th infusion: checked a bit of plain water from kettle in same cup: not sweet. So it's not just that my mouth is burnt and thinks everything is sweet. 10th infusion: still sweet.)

Edited by Wholemeal Crank (log)
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I didn't need the dilutions after the 3rd infusion, total infusion time to that point was about 40 seconds or so, so I suspect you are exactly right. Will try that next time, because the later infusions are so good that just using less leaf doesn't seem like a good idea.

For now, I am still finding some sweetness at 12 or 13 infusions--getting careless now and have lost count.

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Yesterday I steeped this tea according to the recommended parameters- two 20 second rinses of 5G leaf then 5 OZ water at 200F for 10 seconds.

Holy moly was that a cup full of astringency and bitterness. I choked down about half of it trying to parse out taste elements but all I got was mouth full of dry cotton and bitter camphor. I was unable to finish the cup.

This morning I used the same leaves and steeped for 45 seconds with water at 175F. This cup is far more drinkable. The astringency is just a little bite at the end and is an enjoyable part of the tea. Today I get a slight sweetness from this tea while yesterday I could perceive none. Mostly what I get is camphor. I am not getting what WC described as a silkiness. The tea is on the thin side to me. I don't necessarily mean thin in a bad way rather it is a light tea, feathery maybe.

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