I'd mentioned there being a couple of additional pu'er to get to from King Tea Mall samples, one a Lao Ban Zhang mini-disc (8 grams; single serving size), branded as Bokuryo. I'll try it.
It never works but I was going to keep the rambling down, to keep this minimal. I'll not talk about my pu'er background, or LBZ in general, or get side-tracked talking about parameters, water sources, my day or whatever else. I've never tried a tea from this area--even though it's probably the most famous area related to pu'er production--so that sort of baseline is just not there. I also don't tend to notice effects of tea as much as others, "cha qi," although there have been some exceptions, but I'll pass on what comes up.
The vendor description can serve as background: 2017 Bokuryo Lao Ban Zhang gushu (old tree) autumn mini cake sheng cha.
They explain that per their definition gushu refers to tea tree plants over 300 years old. That web page has some nice pictures of the local area, and of a comparison tasting between tea leaves from this age and from younger plants. They also explain that spring material is so expensive that offering versions of that is prohibitive. These cost $38 for 7 pieces (a tiny tong), or 56 grams, which is a bit, but then price is all relative for teas. Later I would also be able to make adjustments to expectations related to the different seasons for leaf sources (for this being an autumn tea) but for now I'll just describe the tea. That last related King Tea Mall sheng review did cover two teas from spring and fall, but they were from two different source areas too (from Yiwu and Naka), so even if obvious generalities did emerge I'd have to set a lot more trials into memory to sort out causes.
There was one other unusual factor in this tasting: my wife took my phone to get a screen cover replaced, and my spare phone (its replacement--if I was doing tangents here I'd add more about that), and two of hers. There is still a tablet at the house, and a couple of basic cameras, but I decided to just let the picture taking drop. I thought I had pictures of the mini-disk / tea coin from before, and there are some in the vendor page I'll cite. I did take this picture of the leaves after it was all over, way after, when I brewed it a few times the next day too (the tea just wouldn't quit):
So I'll post a section of vendor pictures in the middle, but the normal running pictorial companion isn't happening for this review. For description, the leaves were a bit lighter than in that picture the day before, and the tea brewed to a light gold / straw-like color, as sheng tends to, both darker and more golden when brewed stronger.
The initial taste is nice, but it's still not that far into opening up. I keep expecting these teas to be really harsh and bitter, but it won't be that. On the next infusion I can actually taste it; the tea really is nice.
I've tried a lot of teas something like this, in a very similar range of aspects, but this one pulls it off really well, maybe slightly better. Even those Vietnamese old-tree teas weren't that far off this, but different. There is a little bitterness to it, but way less than I would have expected, a level that integrates well with the rest. It's "warm" and aromatic. There's a catchy aspect range that I'm definitely not going to do justice to. I guess mineral is probably the right range for that. But talk of different rocks, mineral springs, and corroding metals, like the smell of an old oil-rig structure from 100 years ago all really don't bring across what those actually smell like, or what flavors that might relate would be like.
With similar aspects shifted just a little this could be harsh, and I'd be talking about redeeming characteristics and how it isn't so bad. In this balance with these specific aspects it completely works. I guess a green-wood tone is another part of it, and as a long list of aspects--which I'll say more about next round--is going to indicate over-all complexity might be what is really positive, more than any one catchy aspect or trait. Or it could be both. Now it's interesting to consider how this should taste, against all that, if it's actually type-correct or not. Some patterns emerge between trying spring and autumn versions of the other two shengs earlier but it would be pointless to make much of guessing about that.
It's not as if the tea is really soft and approachable, as other tea types are, it's just in that range compared to my expectations. On the third infusion the intensity picks up, the tea is fully in the brewing cycle, and although I went with a relatively short infusion time (10 seconds or so) very short steeps would probably be as well, using flash infusions instead. It's nice to get the full effect of feel, and there is quite a bit going on related to that, and aftertaste (the same, it hits hard and stays with you). It's interesting to just let minutes go by and keep experiencing that range, to notice the tea flavor and feel not going away. You could probably spend an afternoon drinking this tea, taking a couple of sips every five minutes and then just staying in that. It's funny I put it that way in these notes, given how the tasting did work out later. All that's a bit beyond how I tend to experience tea, I kind of just drink it, but the extra depth of those aspects being stronger is interesting.
Back to taste, the bitterness did pick up a little (as if I infused it longer, but really it was just opening up, so it wasn't about that), but it still balances well. There's a mineral-range warmth to it, and some fresh wood-tone, and the experience seems to extend towards a spice range. "Bitter" doesn't really capture that part of the aspects; the taste is almost a little towards citrus, closest to the range of lemon peel, so it's as if both that flavor set and feel relate. I don't want to say the tea is sour, because it's not, but the coupled astringency and taste of bitterness I've experienced in a good number of shengs has more depth in this, more is going on. That citrus taste might instead relate to something like a less than fully ripened nectarine. It's not stone fruit in the sense of a ripe, juicy peach but what I'm identifying as lemon peel could be read in different ways.
like a tiny cake, 8 grams worth
comparing gushu and shrub (younger tea plant); description follows
"Left is gushu, and opposite is shrub. After same times steep, leaves of gushu have dark color, but shrub’ have bright and green color like brewed green tea."
it looked like this, straw-like gold
Subjectively, do I like it? Sure. It seems like exceptional tea, that's for sure. I love experiencing new things in tea and that's what this is. There's a lot to like and the novelty is cool. It would be interesting to see how this tea is in a couple of years too, to check on aging transition. It definitely doesn't need change to be drinkable but I get a sense it might improve, per my preference. The bright, intense freshness might drop off a little but the tea flavor range should become a bit "warmer" in context and deepen a little.
I was concerned that 8 grams might be a lot of this tea. Sheng tends to brew a lot rounds, and to be intense, and only 3 or 4 infusions in I'm wondering how far I could go with rounds. I am definitely feeling it. It's not as if the "cha qi" effect is a complete unknown, I've just not experienced strong versions of it that often, or loved the experience in the past. I've got a history with alcohol and drug use that I really won't get into here but I will say that I've done enough with all that. I'll drink two beers at a time sometimes, but usually one is plenty, and I'm happy to leave behind any type of chemical stimulation. Life stimulates me, or else sometimes it doesn't, and adding just a little caffeine to moderate tempo is plenty of adjustment. I'll keep trying this and ride out more of it but getting stoned on tea would never become a habit for me. Not that there is anything wrong with liking that. As one fellow tea-lover put it, who was also not really on that page, if he wanted to get stoned he really could smoke a joint.
On the next infusion the tea softens, warms further, and deepens; the balance is even nicer. As strong as this tea is it's imperative to not give it long infusion times. By long I mean 10 or 15 seconds is probably still ok, with it being a matter of preference if 5 isn't much better, but 20 is too much. You often see references to people doing staged times, saying they start with 10 seconds (or whatever it is) and add 5 or 10 seconds to each infusion time after. I've never really related to that. A lot of the teas I'm drinking don't taper off in intensity much at all through the first 6 to 8 infusions, or even more, and it would be odd to brew them progressively longer like that; it would make no sense. For teas that die fast that works, maybe, but most often that seems to relate to a specific range of flaws in teas, not about some types brewing less. Some tea types brew out faster, some black teas, or really roasted Wuyi Yancha, but even for those that staging as it's typically described would be too pronounced, the timing ramp-up would be too fast.
I finally made an infusion that was a little too light, a quick in and out, but I really could drink all the tea like that, it still works. I also just took 20 minutes off drinking the tea in the middle of the session to let that drugged feeling play out a little. I'll try a few more infusions in short order to see how going with it goes. Someone who is more into that sort of thing could describe energy patterns change in their body, which chakra was being activated or something such, but I'll have to pass on that part. I just feel strange.
On the next infusion--which I've lost count of--I wouldn't say the tea is fading but it is letting up a little. At this point 15 to 20 second infusions make sense to keep the intensity up. I can list out flavors but they're not different, just transitioned in how they layer: bitterness is quite limited, but still present, and mineral tone gives a broad base, with so much range even the mineral range is complex. There's a mellow warmth to the flavor range, sort of part of the wood-tone effect, something along the lines of fresh-cut hickory wood. Those aromatic hardwoods are completely different than the wood-tone you get to when a medium quality range oolong brews out, but I probably wouldn't be able to do the contrast justice. It all trails towards some sort of spice range, but in such a subdued sense it's hard to capture which. Again the brighter range also reminds me of lemon peel zest, with potential for alternative takes on that in other fruit range description (being a secondary aspect it's harder to pin down). It's got some depth, with the mouth-feel and aftertaste ranges really complex too.
I only made it through two more cups before going out to sit on a swing in the yard. Colors look more vivid now, and my sense of time seems altered; I am stoned on this tea. I had some breakfast while I was drinking it (a mild version of a granola), and it would have been even stronger without food, too much for me. I'd recommend getting outside while drinking it. Saturday mornings are my tasting window, since the kids go to a Chinese lesson and swim session, or else the shouting and banging in the background might not be as positive. It's our cool season now, so Bangkok is nice, only around 30 C and dry (86 F; funny how that really does feel cool).
it felt a little like that, but her normal level of joy is hard to match
I just accidentally brewed this for something like 45 seconds not paying attention; the tea really is fading or else that would be bad. From here one minute steeps would still be ok, or a bit over 30 seconds strong enough to drink. It's probably up to somewhere around 10 infusions, or maybe just over.
It's my impression that with more experience in focusing on sheng people tend to like it lighter, and it would easily brew 20 infusions on the very short side, with plenty of intensity, given that someone liked that lighter brewed-strength range. From drinking other teas that work better brewed stronger I'm not completely in that habit, and it seems to me that liking very lightly brewed teas occurs as a natural preference drift. Someone could easily pick it up, and just go straight there, and for people who talk of optimums in brewing tea that's probably what they would be referring to, after a naturally evolving change. Taken in one way that kind of expectation for there to be optimums in tea brewing can ignore personal preference as valid, and accept that a natural preference transition is valid only at the end point, or that majority opinions are right and others are wrong, but that's not how I see the experience of tea at all.
Countless infusions in the tea isn't giving up, it just transitions to a bit thinner, with a wood-tone edge becoming more pronounced. It was an interesting ride being stoned on tea for a number of hours but I'm not sure how often I'd want to go through that. Cutting the dose by half would make it more manageable (snapping that disk in two). The flavor range was nice too, although I suspect I'd really like the tea better in a couple of years, even though it wasn't harsh at all now. It was a cool experience, definitely not disappointing.
The tea never did completely fade. I tried brewing a few infusions with it the next day and it just became thinner, and the profile became less positive, so I let it go.