Really interesting looking teas this time, samples provided by John of King Tea Mall, in a set of three oriented towards exploring storage conditions (so one still to go). Interpreting that input together along with origin and other type differences could be a challenge.
Rather than saying much about these I'll include some relatively long product descriptions (from John) that focus quite a bit on the storage background. Tasting completely identical teas would make it possible to isolate that factor, or even teas that are very similar, but I'll just do what I can with that part, since these aren't supposed to be that.
2006 Li Ming "Zao Chun Yin Hao" (Earl Spring Silver Hairs) 200g Raw / Sheng Pu'er
Guangzhou natural storage. This tea hasn't been stored in a professional warehouse where the humidity and temperature were well controlled but affected by natural weather conditions. In Guangzhou, on average the humidity is around 77% and temperature is around 20-28 C. Under these conditions the tea ages fast but is affected by seasonal weather. During natural storage the ea conditions are near a medium level.
2006 Xiaguan "Ba Jiao He Qi Zi Bing" 357 g sheng pu'er
Guangzhou wet storage. On this individual tea conditions are near traditional Hong Kong storage. It is welcomed by certain old tea lovers who appreciate this aged and some earthy like taste. More mellowness and much less irritation than young puer raw tea. But to younger and new generations, this tea is not appreciated. During wet storage, this tea condition is near medium level but a little better.
I've tried teas stored under different conditions, so that input isn't completely unfamiliar. An interesting tasting of teas from one village area in Yiwu two years ago brought up some of those variations, and experiences since have built on that exposure. "Separated at birth" cases would make it all a lot clearer, comparison of only factor, but to some extent this should work.
Some readers might really want to question further what traditional Hong Kong storage is, pinning down control aspects and range stats, and isolate if the uniformity of that as a set of conditions holds, or if that linkage to conditions in this case is accurate. I'll just move on here instead.
Li Ming left; Xiaguan brews darker
2006 Li Ming "Zao Chun Yin Hao:" I am picking up a lot of fermentation related transition in this tea; it's pretty far along. This level, based on 13 years, seemingly isn't completely transitioned, it will keep aging, but it's getting into the fully aged range. Aging related flavor like slate and dry basement smell come across, but I expect some of that will change a good bit over the first two rounds, and it's not negative in this. It's not musty. Earthy flavor range stands out in the rest, forest floor, dark wood, leaning a little towards aromatic spice (frankincense and myrrh, not that I can separate those). Interpreting that as cigar tobacco instead would seem natural, even with a faint trace of dried mushroom.
It'll be interesting to see what the character is really like after another infusion. It's hard to be clear on how all that tastes relatively clean, given the flavor description I just passed on, but it does. Mustiness often pairs with aged range, in varying forms and levels, and there isn't much of that in this, even though the flavors have shifted to a warm, earthy place.
2006 Xiaguan "Ba Jiao He Qi Zi Bing:" this seems like the next level of increased fermentation and wetter storage effect, a continuation in the same direction. A good bit of beet or potato skin flavor comes across, geosmin, in the range of that mineral smell in potting soil. It's complex: there's an interesting sweetness that goes along with that, and it's not really musty either, although closer to what people might interpret as that.
Again I expect this to be a good bit different on the second of two more fast infusions. Intensity in these is pretty notable, even based on using a moderate infusion strength (towards 10 seconds, not exactly short); it will work to use fast steeps.
It's interesting the way that geosmin hits your palate pretty hard initially in the flavor experience and then sweeter, other complex flavor lingers on as an aftertaste. It still relates to how raw potato skin tastes but there's more to it, and again it's not really musty. Some of this range does relate to a damp basement effect but the mustier part of that doesn't come across. So dry basement, I guess.
The contrast in these teas is interesting, not just the storage effect, of course, but also in the way it all comes together. The first seems a lot lighter and milder, surely partly related to both starting point and conditions inputs. It would be easy to miss that intensity or misinterpret the differences in character beyond transition degree and type, if tasting these over a couple weeks apart, to remember them as more similar than they actually are, since there is some character overlap.
Color difference really stands out again, even though both were only brewed for around 5 seconds. It would be possible to rush that, to drop it to closer to 3, but it takes time to add and remove the water.
Li Ming "Zao Chun Yin Hao:" to me the overall effect of this is quite pleasant, the way it balances. It might have one more infusion to get into the main range it will transition across but it's nice like this. It's interesting how it's really intense, but also subtle in a different sense, earthy but also clean and on the sweet and mild side.
The same general character and flavor list really applies: very moderate earthiness at the level of geosmin, closer to old tree bark than potato skin, beet, or dirt, other flavor range towards cigar tobacco, extending into aromatic spice range. It's not so far off dried fruit, but not a typical, familiar, light form of that, not like dried mango or apple, more towards Chinese date (jujube). I suppose it works to think of that as near Middle Eastern date but shifted towards a medicinal range just a little, or towards the smell of ginseng root.
Xiaguan "Ba Jiao He Qi Zi:" that geosmin packs a punch; not everyone would love this. Oddly it's not nearly as musty as one would expect, with that being as dominant a flavor aspect as it is. It's hard to describe how it's really also clean in an unusual sense, how it really could be quite musty in a way that would match that range, but it's not. A touch of dried wild mushroom does join the more primary flavors, and in different types and levels I really don't care for that in aged sheng versions, but it works as minor input in this.
Beyond that there is lots of other range, it's just also warm, rich, and deep (just clean). There's an aged furniture quality to it, the way that old versions of dark wood combined with very old aromatic oils used to preserve such things comes across. Another part is a little medicinal in a way that's hard to describe. It seems a little sweeter than the other tea, and definitely more intense. It doesn't really work to try this tea and then switch to the other, because it seems muted. Tasting it the other way, with the other first, both seem intense and complex, just with this version more so.
Li Ming: this is nice, even cleaner. It definitely wouldn't come across as a subtle version but it is dialed down related to the other. A specific warm mineral aspect is increasing, or maybe a complex set of related or seemingly associated flavors is picking up. It includes the mineral one can smell from a natural well, a mix of whatever had been in the rocks below extracted and concentrated at the surface at an outflow. Cigar tobacco is still present but aged tree bark is picking up more intensity, covering more of a proportion.
It goes without saying but there is absolutely no working back to what these might have been like very early on in their production and aging; they're quite age-transitioned now. I do wonder about that. Given how intense both are they may not have been sweet, mellow, and positive to drink, perhaps on the bitter and challenging side instead. I'll get to doing more with that mapping later, after another decade of trying lots of teas.
Xiaguan: essentially not different than last round, although the proportion is shifting just a little. It might work for that geosmin to fade a little, and that might be losing a little ground in this. It's interesting how that hits you first in the tasting, then the other complexity washes across you, and the aftertaste is something else again, so that the flavors and experience comes in three distinct waves. The second part, what you taste before swallowing it, includes geosmin but plenty of other complexity. After you swallow mineral stands out, lots of it, including a good bit of sweetness.
Flavor range is so intense that it's easy to lose focus on feel. It's soft but has some fullness to it, just in a different sense than the younger teas I've been drinking. Aftertaste is even more notable and interesting, especially in the way a subset of this Xiaguan version remains, but parts you taste with it in your mouth drop out. For as intense as it is it's almost better that the aftertaste is slightly less strong in flavor than the actual tea.
Both of these are quite different than the other three China Tea / Zhong Cha, or supposed China Tea versions I've been drinking, two from 2006, and an 8891 version from Yunnan Sourcing from 2007 (quite likely the only "real" version). They include a lot more aged earthiness, and intensity. There's no comparison at all to be made with the range of Kunming stored teas I was on for awhile, a round of lots of different sheng versions from different source areas, producers, and of different ages from Chawang Shop. Even the two older Xiaguan versions from there weren't even close to the same thing, but then those were years younger, from 2010 and 2011.
To keep this from getting too repetitive (maybe already too late now) I'll limit comments to main transitions, and not run through lists and proportions of flavors and other aspect range.
Li Ming: the balance works well, that aged character scope, warm earthy range, cleanness, sweetness, moderate but considerable intensity. Of those Chawang Shop versions I bought a Yiwu brick that had great feel and depth, just lacking a typical flavor intensity to balance those. That was a 2008 version, reviewed here. In the end it was a very positive tea, but distinctive for missing that range. This includes that richness of feel, depth, and clean effect, but adds flavor intensity and complexity back in. A touch more sweetness would change things for this, and improve the balance, but even for that it's fine.
It doesn't really have rough edges to wear back off but I'd expect the flavor intensity to taper a little and it to gain smoothness and depth over longer storage time, to keep improving. The other version has so much flavor intensity to spare that in another decade it will still be intense, but this may be within a near enough optimum range over the next half dozen years. The transition and trade off is in a good place now. I'm only guessing, of course; I've tried few enough sheng versions between 15 and 25 years old.
Xiaguan: continually swapping out geosmin for the rest is improving this tea, round by round. It might just keep getting better, even more positive after a dozen infusions. It has a lot of depth and intensity. Listing out a half dozen flavors that it seems to resemble doesn't really do that experience justice. Pronounced sweetness makes it all work well. Part of that, and a related flavor, resembles well-roasted sweet potato. Some Dian Hong, Yunnan black teas, also express that aspect, but it's in a different form, and more than that situated within a completely different context of other aspects. No black tea covers this potato skin and other mineral range, or has anywhere near this much going on, but the relatively extreme earthiness is a trade-off, not completely positive.
A trace more mustiness would completely ruin the overall effect, but even that touch of dried mushroom faded and dropped out earlier on.
Li Ming: wood tone is picking up, a complex range of it that includes well-cured hardwood and also tree bark. Parts of all the rest I've kept describing join that, so it's relatively complex. I doubt this is transition a that marks the end point, that it will keep changing over further infusions.
Xiaguan: it is interesting how this tea is better every round. That geosmin is only part of a complex range of flavors now, not dominant at all. The other tea has complexity and depth but not on the scale of this one (but then again it also doesn't taste like dirt). This doesn't resemble brandy in flavor but there is a way that kind of flavor experience goes, an intensity and range to it, that this reminds me of. It's the opposite of subtle, but it's not as if heavy earthy range is out of balance. There are layers to this, all presenting as one continuous range: that geosmin, a warm mineral at the bottom, towards dried fruit (jujube), a medicinal edge, aged furniture as more a context, etc.
I keep coming back to considering John's input, the idea that "to young and new generations this [aged effect] tea is not appreciated." It's not a natural starting point for preference in this form, that's for sure, and not everyone would pick up a liking for this later on, or retain it as their preferences kept changing if they did.
I've had less exposure than many to a range of Xiaguan products, but some are really easy to appreciate, simpler, towards less challenging flavors. At the same time this is just earthy, clean, complex, and intense at this point in transitioning; it's not as challenging as the stronger geosmin aspect might've made it in earlier rounds. Brewing it wrong would make it undrinkable; there's that. As far as standard preference transitions go probably starting on mild, sweet, and complex shu would make more sense, moving onto teas like this after experiencing some other range, and surely a lot of people would never get far into preferring this range.
I'll probably let the notes go after this round and pass on final thoughts including more on later transitions. It's all way too much to read.
Li Ming: intensity is dropping off a bit; it works well like this but extending timing would renew that, if it was of interest. I like it slightly lighter. It's funny how it's more subtle in one sense but still really complex in another, related to covering a lot of range.
Xiaguan: this version is just hitting it's stride. Geosmin is relatively limited now, compared to earlier levels. The mineral and earthiness reminds me of the smell of an old horse's saddle. I mean that in the positive way possible, although I'd imagine few would get the reference as it's intended. There's an earthy, deep, sweet, complex smell to those that other forms of leather just doesn't have. It includes the smell of the barn, of age, dried hay, the sweet and complex scent of other feeds. Who knows, maybe that of the horse too, a little. To me it's very nice, that aspect set.
I tried these for more rounds but the teas were fading later on, without much for novel or interesting transitions coming up. When extending brewing time to retain intensity both picked up even more of an earthy range again, just slightly different in form than in the earlier cycle. For both it sort of reminded me of the high-roast effect of Wuyi Yancha oolongs, that touch of char. It wasn't identical to that, but not so far off it either.
Placing how much I like these is difficult. It seems to work well to reduce the main theme, reviewing storage input, to a few central themes, and consider that along with those:
-to what extent could I seem to isolate storage conditions input and fermentation level as a distinct cause for experienced aspects?
-was one such input preferable over the other (to the extent it worked to isolate it), per my preference?
-how would this compare to other aging transition effects I'm familiar with, related to other examples?
It's only a guess for me to specify answers to the first question, since the individual starting points and the difference between them wasn't familiar. It's a bit vague to answer "to some extent," but that's about it. The unique flavor I've encountered in trying wetter Malaysian stored sheng in the past did sort of link to the extreme fermentation transition in the Xiaguan version, it just went further than I've experienced, way into geosmin range and the rest. It was interesting noting related but quite different aspect range in the other tea, just missing that one particular flavor element, at least at a comparable level.
The second question, about preference, seems to tie to both starting points (suitability for aging, and initial aspect range and quality) versus just the storage and fermentation factor. It would work much better tied to trying very similar teas with that input as a difference. As far as only considering end effect I could appreciate both teas but the fermentation transition effects were a bit strong in the Xiaguan version. It was interesting trying that as a relatively fully aged version, seeing what worked and what didn't come across as well in that character. I've been trying a lot of teas that are around this age but not fully age-transitioned, which leads more into answers tied to third question, about mapping to other experiences.
I just retried the 2007 CNNP version today, to compare it. The Yunnan Sourcing description adds some thoughts on storage and fermentation transition input:
...Most importantly this tea is incredibly good tasting and has a very unique flavor profile. It's been stored in Guangdong since 2007 in a dry-wet storage condition (wet stored but on the dry side of the wet storage spectrum). The raw material is from Nan Jian area of Yunnan which is technically part of Dali prefecture...
...The tea brews up an orange-red tea soup with a pungent aroma of flowers, mushrooms and earth. The taste is clean with no musty wet storage notes, but does have some some earthy notes. There is a kind of pronounced spice and cloves taste and aroma with a strong viscous sweetness throughout...
That one sentence on what it actually is I left in as a reminder that it's just as much (or more) a factor than how the tea has changed, which really goes without saying. I wasn't trying to pin down tasting-notes aspects in that re-trying it, more to review general character and level of fermentation transition. It seems like a much younger tea than the other two did, seemingly stored in much dryer conditions. The leaves haven't darkened to the same level either, but you don't need to see that to notice the obvious difference. It's clean, and it is pleasant, as described here, but a completely different thing, at least related to fermentation effect, and perhaps not at all similar in starting point character too.
high level of compression may have slowed the CNNP cake aging
It was closer to the Li Ming, in terms of apparent fermentation input. The difference comes across in reconsidering the wet leaf and brewed tea appearance, in those two versions and in that 2007 CNNP version following:
brewed tea color is completely different as well
Price really doesn't work as a direct input related to tea quality, because vendors adjust pricing as they see fit. Demand shifts a lot related to individual producers, production areas, and other inputs that might relate to image or awareness much more than quality level or positive character. All the same it's worth considering: this King Tea Mall version lists for $30 for a 200 gram cake and the Yunnan Sourcing 2007 CNNP for $67 for a 500 gram cake. Oddly that's nearly identical; it works out to 15 cents a gram for the Li Ming version and 13.4 for the CNNP. I don't think that really tells us anything, it's just interesting to also consider.
I should mention that based on trying that CNNP, and two other cakes like it, buying this version for $55 (per standard size 357 gram cake amount, when really it's a 200 gram cake instead) seems more than fair, a good value for the tea. I spent $60 each on the other two I bought locally, which seemed in the right range, maybe not best-value related to all possible online sources. This Li Ming version is at least as positive as those, maybe just a little better. None seemed like the kinds of tea that really should be selling for much more, for much higher value and quality versions that somehow were a "steal," but they seem like decent aged teas for the modest selling price.
It's my impression that more dry-stored teas tend to cost less, that the demand is low enough for those that you would get a price break on just that factor alone. I'm not sure how storage perceived as wetter than optimum would factor in; a consumer would need more specific input about the tea version to make any call related to that, since just judging broad storage-area region wouldn't work. It's odd that all of these (the two reviewed, and that CNNP version) were stored in Guangdong, with these two stored under different conditions in Guangzhou, its capital.
I liked the teas, and even more so the experience shedding light on that one input. It didn't necessarily end with tidy conclusions but it was really informative and interesting.