This hei cha version Kittichai, the owner of Jip Eu, passed on in one of the visits there a couple months back (my favorite Bangkok Chinatown shop). I tend to bring them teas to try, and they give me more in return, and I buy some to drink, related to wanting to own that tea, but almost in part to keep up the pretense of being a customer. To me they're great to visit with; that stands out as much as the shopping opportunity. I don't even know if they sell this but it was my impression that they don't, that he was just sharing something interesting. Or maybe they do.
I bought other tea I liked so much I've bought it three separate times now, a sheng tuocha that's on the basic side but well-aged and seemingly quite underpriced, which I will get around to writing about. I almost want to just buy the rest of what they have of that tea and let it go at that, but somehow that seems selfish. Maybe I should split the difference and buy a couple more tuochas.
I might as well cover what this is first, even though I tried the tea and made notes without looking that up:
It's Qian Liang hei cha from Anhua, Hunan. Kittichai mentioned that, and about it being made as a long cylinder, aged for a long time, and then sliced in parts. Teapedia lists a short description:
Qian Liang Cha (千两茶) is a speciality from Anhua. Anhua county of Hunan province is famous for many dark teas. The tea is similar to Pu-Erh produced and post fermented. Qian Liang Cha is pressed to long and heavy poles from which later small discs or cakes are sliced. Qian Liang Cha means translated 1000 liang tea. Liang is a traditional Chinese unit for mass. While 10 liang are appx. 1 pound and therefor a Qian Liang Cha is about 100 pounds (50kg) heavy.
Tony Gebely's "Tea: A User's Guide" adds detail to that, beyond identifying it as hei cha:
Hua Juan Cha is produced by pounding steamed Hei Mao Cha into a cylindrical bamboo basket lined with a layer of bamboo leaves and a layer of palm husk. The cylinder is then pounded with a large wooden hammer as it is rolled tight by several people. It is then tied off and allowed to dry outdoors for several weeks...
Each Hua Juan variant uses a Chinese weight measure called a tael (两.). During the Qing dynasty when this style of tea was first produced, a Tael was equal to 36.25 g. The most common sizes produced are Qian Liang Cha (千两茶, qiān liăng chá) or thousand tael tea, Bai Liang Cha (百两茶, bǎi liǎng chá) or hundred tael tea and Shi Liang Cha (十两茶, shí liǎng chá) or ten tael tea.
That does go on to list this version out as a size of 36.25 kg, 150–160 cm tall, and 20 cm in diameter. My wife would go crazy if I brought one of those home.
The first infusion is a bit light; this will need to be brewed significantly longer to show its character well. I didn't weigh out the sample but this proportion is low compared to what I tend to use for other types, intended for a longer infusion approach. I'll skip to the next infusion to say more.
earlier round infusion brewed a bit strong
It's different, earthy in a unique way; that is kind of how I thought it was supposed to be. It tastes like brewing aged wood and dried fungus, so mushroomy. I expect that will clean up a bit over the next two infusions or so, and even using really long infusion times will produce a lot of steeps. It's not musty or sour so the flavor doesn't need to clean up in those senses; it's pleasant. A dark caramel sweetness supports that other range well, with plenty of flavor that is more towards dried fruit, closest to date, or between that and fig. The thickness is nice, a slightly oily feel.
It transitions a little on the next round but the same description still applies, the balance just shifted a little. The fungus / mushroom range mostly cleared out, and might be faded further in the next round. The other dark wood / dried fruit range is nice. A mineral layer played more of a role than I described, which stands out more in this round. Of course it's warm and towards earthy, between a dark version of a rock and corroded metal.
It's like you might expect a meteor to smell. There is a big chunk of one at the temple we keep visiting, but to be honest I don't remember picking up any smell from it. This doesn't have the same kind of feel structure that even softened aged sheng has but the version of thick feel is interesting.
It's not that different on the next round; I think transitions may not make for much of a story for this. This does match up with the only other "golden flowers" version of hei cha I've tried, a Fu brick tea, based on distant memory of that experience.
One would expect the flavor to be earthier in a much different way than it seems to come across, heavier on fungus (it is mold). But to the extent it works to extrapolate from only two versions--which doesn't work, of course--the resulting flavor is sweet, distinctive, and clean in effect. It's a bit faint and mild, something like dried bamboo smells (not that it's so familiar; that description is a stretch). Like some sort of tisane, maybe, a root-spice version, not so different than a smell component of visiting an herb market in Seoul that sold a lot of ginseng.
Back at that 20+ second infusion timing it's better again, light on flavor and limited in body but interesting and pleasant. It's interesting comparing this to a 10 year old Malaysian-storage aged sheng I tried yesterday, the final rounds of that, now surely around 15 infusions in. It's not right to say the experiences are similar but there are some parallels and overlap. The flavor is in a comparable range for type, with that sheng including more tobacco towards dark tree bark, now light in feel for being somewhat brewed out, but still substantial. It's catchy.
This hei cha is earthier, with more in the range of corroded metal or mountain spring mineral scent, like the smell from a pipe coming out of the side of a mountain with water flowing out of it. Some people would love it, but tea drinkers acclimated to better aged sheng range might not, as much for being different as being inferior in character. To me both are nice.
I can't really place exactly how good this version is, to pin down trueness to type or quality related to a standard range for versions. The other golden flowers Fu brick tea I tried a long time ago might've been slightly nicer, but similar in nature, or then again maybe I've just been drinking a lot of better teas in the past year, so this is being judged against a tougher baseline. Either way it's interesting and pleasant, if a bit simple across some of the aspect range. The mushroom and corroded metal range could put some people off but sweetness hinting towards dried fruit and other complexity balanced that in a reasonable way.
I sort of start to get it why people evolve a singular preference for better aged sheng, in a range of character types I've barely been exposed to yet. I'm not sure that I'll drop out my liking for all other kinds of tea, as is common enough. There was just a discussion in a FB tea group about that, with results splitting in both directions. Some even claimed to have been really into pu'er earlier in their tea experience but have since moved on to preference for other types, the opposite of the more standard form of transition. I probably wouldn't switch my tea drinking habit over to include a lot of this form of hei cha but it is interesting and pleasant to try different teas.