2008 Tao Tea Leaf Lao Banzhang
Tao Wu is the proprietor of my local Toronto tea shop, Tao Tea Leaf. He is very active in tea education in the area: he is the main organizer of the Toronto Tea Festival, which will be held for the 5th time next year (Jan 28+29). I was aware of his shop before I got interested in puerh, and bought some oolong from him a couple of years ago. After seeing Cwyn’s post about one of his cakes, there was quite some discussion and understandable skepticism regarding it: it’s a 2008 Lao Banzhang, offered at a price which is, shall we say, unusual.
The story behind this cake is as follows (two provisos: 1. I am writing from partial notes, so there may be slight inaccuracies and 2. I can’t verify the authenticity of this story, but neither do I have any evidence that it is false). Before arriving in Canada and starting his shop (sometime around 2009), Tao was living in China. Exposed to tea from an early age, he only got seriously interested in it in 2001, and started exploring it in greater depth with a circle of friends. By 2004 he was quite serious about both oolong (light roast Tieguanyin and later more interested in Wuyi oolongs) and puerh. In 2004-5 he and his friends organized some small group pressings of puerh. This allowed forming some relationships with farmers and some processors which he utilized over the next few years.
The 2008 crash of maocha prices affected Lao Banzhang, as detailed in this interview, and Tao was aware of the opportunity this presented. He travelled to Banzhang and bought tea from a farmer there. The claim is that the tea is from trees growing in Lao Banzhang, the trees are not bushes (they are 3+ meters high) and so would not be considered taidicha.
Tao pressed a number of the LBZ cakes – in the low hundreds as far as I can tell. In addition to the LBZ cake, Tao also pressed a much smaller number of cakes from Nannuo and Jingmai, all in 2008. He did not keep pressing LBZ cakes on a continual basis, since maocha prices went back up.
Proprietor’s preferences in tea
A few words about Tao’s tea preferences: Some of his preferred types of puerh are from Lincang, Bingdao, Jingmai, Banzhang and Nannuo. In drinking tea, he focuses a lot on “thickness” of the liquor, which I would describe as a cohesiveness of the liquor as it enters the mouth. Ideally it would stay together as you sip it, rather than dissipating quickly into the mouth crevices. He enjoys complex bitterness and likes to explore the bitterness. He’s not a huge fan of Yiwu, although I didn’t press him on why. Finally, he has a strong opinion that water used for his teas should be as “pure” as possible, with few dissolved solids. that is, not spring water. I think the water we used was RO filtered but I’m not certain. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask him if his ideal water is distilled water. He used 10g of tea for 190ml gaiwan and he tends towards slightly longer steepings, something more like 30, 15, 15, 20, 25, … Perhaps a little longer, I was not timing it with a stopwatch. He likes his tea strong.
Famous Toronto storage
Now for the legendary Toronto storage: he keeps his tea in a room in his house in west part of Toronto. He keeps a canister of water in the same room to keep humidity up (especially in the winter when the room is heated), and in the summer he opens a window (summers can be very hot in Toronto). The tea is obviously aging quite slowly, I’d guess that it’s aging about half as quickly as Hong Kong dry storage.
The LBZ cake:
The maocha was 1 bud and 2 or 3 leaves and that is clear from looking at the cake. It was not pressed in LBZ; instead, Tao brought it to Menghai to a company there that he was familiar with and whose work he liked. He had trouble with one of his other pressings from another outfit since it was too tightly compressed. It is clear from the LBZ cake that we have relatively loose compression and large unbroken leaves. One thing which annoyed him at the time was that he was not able to source the kind of traditional paper he wanted to use for the wrapper in a timely manner and had to go with a default paper and design used by the company.
Review of the 2008 TTL LBZ
I had a long session with Tao at his shop, and I had another session at home. The two sessions were extremely similar and I will write about the session I had by myself at home.
Nov 6, 2016, 3.9g/70ml Novak Shibo.
Loose compression, silvery and hairy leaves, quite similar in appearance to the Bana LBZ. Dry leaf has a fresh, pungent floral aroma. Pleasant. The damp leaf has an interesting kind of sweet and sharp floral perfume which I haven’t encountered. Clear young sheng aroma, with hay and fine smoke.
The wash is yellow, giving a hay arrival and salivating aftertaste. Very coating and juicy, lots of huigan right away and I can feel the coating down the throat. The wet leaf now has strong tomato plant-like pungency, mixed with some more aged aspects. Body feel is starting with the wash – increased alertness and some rustling warmth in the pit of the stomach.
- Light yellow and cloudy. Fine smoke on aroma. Remarkably strong huigan, with good salivation. Mild herbal savoury arrival, leading to a sweet aftertaste. Warming in the chest and arms. Weak aroma but present, wildflower and hay. Coating of throat very long lasting. Can feel quite strong warming effect like facing a large heat lamp. Radiating heat into face and back. The wet leaf has smoky sweet wood and honey.
- Very thick, coating. Mild arrival again, herbs with hay, more interesting complex bitter development with sweet and savoury undertones. Now a big pungent aroma on the empty cup. Frisson and uplift beginning, but still mild.
- Pungent aroma is now coming readily off the liquor, thick and mouth coating with stronger huigan. Now a very strong body effect, waves between chest and the top of the head, going out along arms. Numbness spreads to the sides of the face and the back of the neck. Quite strong vibrations felt in the face actually. Not inducing sleepiness, still quite alert.
- More clear sweetness now. More astringent but still the level of astringency is quite low. Bitterness is quite mild and well integrated with the sweetness. Major circulating energy behind the eyes, in the face and upper back. Some spiciness and oily gasoline strength on the tongue.
- Significantly more radiating heat now. Arrival continues to be mild and herbal, giving lots of sweetness in the development. Noticeable astringency on the lower cheeks in the mouth.
- Maximum body effect, very uplifting, going out in all directions. One of the stronger body effects I have experienced.
- Forehead sweat. Goosebumps. Hiccups and heating in the chest.
This kind of thing went on for quite a number of steeps; the thickness of the tea as well as the body effect continues to around 15 steeps, as the mild flavour recedes.
This tea is actually rather simple to describe. The flavour is mild, herbal, with hay notes, very faint smoke. It has a bit of bitterness and astringency but this is quite low and never becomes in any way unpleasant. It leads to a very strong huigan. The aroma is also relatively mild, wildflower and honey, with hay, but it does penetrate and, like the flavour, does stay with you for a very long period. The tea has a very strong texture, high cohesion which lasts past 15 steeps. And most significantly, the body effect of this tea is very powerful. The style of the qi is radiating heat together with lots of circulating and expanding waves of frisson, supporting a calm alertness.
Something which could be easily argued to be a weakness or deficiency of this tea is its mild arrival taste and aroma. If you are looking for a bold flavour this tea simply won’t deliver. What flavour it does have is subtle and does stick to the mouth for a long time though. For me the flavour is interesting and complex; the aroma is where I wish it would perform better. It would be interesting to know if the aroma will remain mild or if it will bloom at some later point.
I have also sampled the 2012 Bana LBZ brick, and it shares a lot of similarities with this tea. The flavour of the Bana brick is very similar to that of this tea: light, fresh, slight grassy hay, with a mild floral aroma, although the Bana LBZ brick had some fresh corn in it, which this one does not. I think the Bana flavour is stronger than this tea, as is its astringency, but the body effect of this tea is quite clearly stronger.
I will continue comparing and contrasting this tea with other available LBZ, but as it is, I very much enjoy the experience with this tea and it has without question one of the stronger (and very enjoyable) body effects I’ve experienced.
The last photo is spent leaves of TTL LBZ on left and Bana LBZ on the right.