After such wonderful raw pu’erhs in previous months, why subject yourself to lowly factory tea. Believe me. I asked these questions many times. So why do it? (a) I really need to do a stash check and determine how these teas really are. (b) I’ve made alot of mistakes in buying pu’erh, wasting both space and money. Many of these were my tuition, and I think it can be an illuminating exercise to look back and reflect. If you’re only interested in my opinion on young or old premium tea you can probably stop reading and come back when the younger Menghai County report comes out in a few weeks.
Note: Shoutouts to Brian for sending in the 2005 8613…. Otherwise, this was an entirely self-funded masochistic event.
Note #2: One thing this report definitely doesn’t do is try to determine the best Xiaguan productions. That would require alot more targeted sampling. Perhaps later.
Note #3: 1.5 years ago these + random mediocre Menghais were my entire pu’erh collection. These currently take up 25-30% of my pumidor real estate.
Primary vendors sampled from:
- Yunnan Sourcing
Approximate Brewing Parameters
Getting Started with Raw Pu’erh & A Bit on Tuition Tea
Drinking and getting into raw pu’erh can be daunting. It’s hard to pick the right place to start. There’s a ton of different entry points. It’s appeal can be very much an acquired one. It takes a long time to finally break down some of those biases. Alot of people have an especially awkward introduction to raw pu’erh. It’s not a forgiving brew and can come up nasty with western parameters.
As someone that has a tendency to buy the cheapest stuff possible, I started as low as I could go. My rationale in 2013 when I bought 90% of these teas:
- Do I really trust western vendors to make better pu’erh than big Chinese factories without messing up or charging egregious prices? There’s a cynical part of me that always doubts western vendors until proven otherwise.. I was also deathly afraid of drinking young sheng which veered me more towards factory productions with at least 4 or 5 years of age.
- Most other brands heavily reviewed back in the day were unavailable or were dubbed overpriced (i.e. Douji, Xizihao, Hailanghao).
- Reviews… I tried to find something that was well-received, but also as cheap as possible. There’s a certain appeal to buying whole cakes as opposed to samples. My filtering usually started with a Hobbes review and the occasional corroborating review on Badger & Blade or TeaChat forums.
- Brand labeling. If you don’t have a clue what the hell you’re doing you gotta cling to something.. FT = good. Right!?
- Cheap! These teas cost hardly anything..
The end result: about 10 cakes and 15 tuos most of with torn wrappers from my mishandling. There’s 30-50g chunks missing each.
If it’s so cheap, why so much whining? $300 for tuition really isn’t that bad. Hell, a nice cake or two costs about that. Really the biggest costs and dangers aren’t monetary. It’s about not showing more potentials/qualities in raw pu’erh to a newcomer. Not to mention the physical space and the mindspace that thinking and storing pu’erh takes.
One of my other hobbies is watching through alot of random genre cinemas. Samurai films, spaghetti westerns, chop-socky westerns. I also enjoy trying to pique people’s interest in these.. If I were to try to show someone a samurai film, I wouldn’t randomly pick a old chop-socky film from the 70s even if I thought it was awesome. I’d be far more likely to show them something that you thought was good and had a broad appeal, like Yojimbo. With pu’erh it’s similar. The most common (bad) entry point is stanky ripe tea, but I think the sorts of raw pu’erh covered in this report have severe limitations too. It may work for some, but the appeal is limited IMO.
It took Denny a long time to gravitate towards raw pu’erh, especially younger tea. I suspect this was shaded by experiences early on with young, overly strong factory tea.. My taste buds were a bit more forgiving, but you can’t fault him for preferring oolongs to young plantation tea.
Note: This report also exposes all my dirty little purchases. Noone knew them except Scott and Honza. Well, for the most part.
Marathoning Teas & How I Drank this Month
Whenever I do marathon sessions to evaluate tea, it’s nearly always teas that I don’t expect to love and am OK not steeping out. I’ll give it two rinses (maybe three) and do about five steeps at half dosage/half-filled gaiwan, tossing cups whenever I think they’re unnecessary. The point of the rinses in this case is mainly to get to the best content of the tea. I’ll usually conclude by tossing the leaves onto the table for comparison and move onto the next tea. If I think the tea has more interesting content to come I’ll keep going and do a new session the next day (a second audition). It’s a good way to cram through a bunch of teas, and I usually feel pretty good about my evaluations because it’s very easy to compare with all the other consumed teas and pick out the true standouts.
Of course, there’s some obvious drawbacks to this. Teas don’t always brew the same under these sorts of parameters. It’s also possible the tea has complexity and depth that comes out beyond the first five or six infusions. With these Xiaguans, I deemed this an acceptable risk. Perhaps these Xiaguans shed their cocoon and morph into a wonderful and elegant butterfly on the seventh steep. I wouldn’t know.. I tossed it.
My toilet has a picture of a crane on it. I suspect that this part of Xiaguan’s subliminal marketing plan and partially convinced me to do this report.
2009 FT 8603-9 (bought for $14/357g, $0.04/g)
I bought this one inexpensively for $14 from the YS US site over 2 years ago. Feitai is supposed to be good, right? It’s still very available and very cheap on Taobao.
A little sugary with the classic Xiaguan taste. Good body and a bit more floral. By steep four it gets bitter, smoky, and generally not fun.
2008 FT #6 (bought for $25/400g, $0.06/g)
Bought for largely the same reasons in the same order as the 2009 FT 8603-9. It’s similar. Smoky, floral, decent body, touch of fruit on the finish. Gets bitter and rougher as it goes on. There’s some substance primarily in the body, so it definitely won’t be evicted. Still it’s screaming for time and humidity.
2008 Xizi FT Tuo (bought for $6.40/100g, $0.06/g)
Alot of bloggers have insinuated that this is better than other Xiaguan productions (Jakub, Hobbes). I’m inclined to agree. It’s decent and I could actually get myself to drink this. I bought one of these from Chawangshop (since been finished), and then in a very meek bulk buy, bought an additional four.
It is sweet while maintaining a reasonable density. It’s pungent and somewhat smoky but these are integrated with other notes (pine) and the enhanced sweetness makes it alot easier to drink. A little minty/cooling. Brews out fast as is expected for a small leaf plantation material. Frankly, I was a bit worried that this may end up being a dud, but I’m actually quite happy with it.
2006 Baoyan (bought for $8/250g, $0.03/g)
You get what you pay for. What does a 5g/$0.15 session get you? In this case, a really shitty session. This one even has some humidity and maturation in it and it’s still awful. Bought from Chawangshop.
Smoky/fruity smell. Heavy smoke, acidic. While it’s kinda smooth at first, the smoke is so heavy at the tail-end that it’s not really possible for me to enjoy. Rough on the throat, body, and pretty much everything. Amazingly, the only eviction of the month. I salute those with the body constituency to drink this stuff.
2006 Dali Tuo (can be bought for $13/150g, $0.09/g)
This is starting to get into a more drinkable area and I could see some Xiaguan hounds really enjoying this. Looking for some humidity in the highly compressed Xiaguan is smart and I’ve noticed that Yunnan Sourcing has started to target Guangdong dry-storage for their Xiaguan selection. Given to us by Scott during our trip, it’s since been passed on to Denny.
A pleasant, sweet raisin aroma. Leaves are smallish. Still fairly bitter, there’s a few sweet notes mixed in. Smokiness comes in late. While the initial forefront of the taste is smooth and reasonably tasty, there’s still considerable roughness/smoke on the finish that will be smoothed out with time.
2006 FT Purple Box Fangcha (bought for 50RMB, $8/125g, $0.06/g)
Bought from taobao (MX-tea) where it was presumably Guangdong stored. This is also sold by Houde for something like $27. It should be noted that all taobao purchases end up with a couple fees, making the actual cost much higher than the actual item cost (I estimate this around 40-50%, making this a ~$12 Fangcha). Like the Xizi tuo this is a drinkable tea.
Smallish leaves. Minty/camphor, keeps the mouth cool. Smoother/more appealing than the 8653 (same source). A base of pine. Heavier in smoke compared with the 8653. Smooths out as it brews, kinda like the Old Bear.
2005 8653 (bought for 198RMB, $31/357g, $0.09/g)
Bought from MX-tea on Taobao in the same order as the purple box fangcha. The idea was to get some mid 2000s Xiaguan with a little humidity. It’s a sound idea that I think will suit many, but I can’t confess to loving either tea. The purple box is drinkable enough and this is too, although a step beneath it.
Stable, dense aroma that’s been aided by the relatively tight compression. It is sweet, a little fruity, with a well-rounded wood/pine base. It hits a little slower than some of the small leaf recipes. I’m either not at all sensitive to smoke or there’s just not much left. This description probably makes it sound good, but like the Dali Tuo probably not something I’d drink often. Would probably satisfy any Xiaguan fans out there and I’d encourage people looking at the young Xiaguan productions to look at something like this instead.
2005 8613 (sells for $49/357g, $0.14/g)
Sent in by Brian (double B) who got it from Yunnan Sourcing. Thanks man! Like the Dali, this one has had some Guangdong dry-storage.
Small leaves, with a classical Xiaguan profile. Sweet, floral, smoky. Like many of these, it has a good stable aroma. Seems a bit less mature than the Dali or 8653. It’s not really a profile I go for but I think it’s materials are better quality than something like the the Dali. Better mouthfeel, body, etc. I think I would take the 8653, but that boils down to personal preference.
2004 Songhepai Teji (bought for $19/100g, $0.19/g)
This was bought for $19 from Yunnan Sourcing, ~1.5 years ago. After drinking it, the storage doesn’t seem particularly humid but it also has clearly aged.
Smallish leaves. Similar aroma to the Dali. Smooth, sweet, simple. Pushed a bit it gets a little thicker and tangy. It doesn’t have any smoke left. Hard to see it aging into anything great, still not terrible as a daily drink.
2003 Xiaguan FT 7623 (bought for $14/100g, $0.14/g)
Bought for $14 from Chawangshop about a year ago. It now sells for $19. 2003 to 2004 seems like somewhat of a turning point for big factory pu’erh, especially Dayi. Judging from the price jump of tea for Xiaguan for 2003 to 2004, there may be something similar going on here. Regardless, I think this tea does a decent job showing the potential of what the combination of Xiaguan and Guangdong storage can be.
Smoky aroma. Brews up a dark, heavy orange. This is the direction you want your Xiaguans moving. It’s not great, but has a medium body and is smooth and sweet with an herbal tinge. Most of the smoke rinses off, but there’s still a bit in the taste and aroma early on. One of the better teas.
2003 Xiaguan WDJG Yiji Lanyin (-)
A free sample from Fine Pu’er when I ordered my Yongde Daxueshan. Not sure what this would cost for a full beeng. You’d have to email Alan of Sample Tea.
Relatively smooth. Darker than the Xiaguan FT 7623. Creamy and smoky, smallish leaves. It’s decent and more enduring but has a little bit of abrasiveness that isn’t present in the FT 7623.
|2009 FT 8603-9||Yunnan Sourcing||$14.00||357||$0.04||OK-.|
|2008 Xizi Tuo||Chawangshop||$6.40||100||$0.06||Good-.|
|2008 FT #6||Yunnan Sourcing||$25.00||400||$0.06||OK-.|
|2006 Dali Tuo||Yunnan Sourcing||$13.00||150||$0.09||OK.|
|2006 Baoyan||Chawangshop||$8.00||250||$0.03||Not Good.|
|2006 FT Fangcha||MX Tea||$8.00||125||$0.06||Good-.|
|2005 8613||Yunnan Sourcing||$49.00||357||$0.14||OK+.|
|2005 8653||MX Tea||$31.00||357||$0.09||OK+.|
|2004 Songhepai Teji||Yunnan Sourcing||$19.00||100||$0.19||OK+.|
|2003 Xiaguan FT 7623||Chawangshop||$14.00||100||$0.14||Good.|
|2003 Xiaguan WDJG Yiji Lanyin||Sample Tea||–||–||–||Good-.|
Random Assorted Tuos & Bricks
Part of the appeal to these comparisons is being able to cross-compare other teas that might live in the same drinking niche. Xiaguan certainly isn’t the only factory making decently priced tuos and cakes for the masses.
2006 Old Bear (bought for $18/100g, $0.18/g)
Perhaps the most logical inclusion into this section, due to its name and purported smokiness. So how does the Ahab, pu’erh hunter do here? Fairly well.
I compared it with the Purple Box Fangcha, see inbetweenisode #44, and I peg it as better than the equivalent Xiaguan with a similar level of value. More rounded, more sweetness, smoother. Taste is mainly wood/pine. Interestingly, it’s also smokier than most of the Guangdong stored Xiaguans of a similar age.
2006 Changtai 642 (sells for 52RMB, $8/357g, $0.02/g)
Alright, you ebay buyers.. I’m calling you out. Advice: If you really, really want to drink alot of factory tea. Learn how to use Taobao.
I understand you like free shipping and all (psssshhhh.. it’s not really free), but with a few well-orchestrated Taobao orders you’ll get all the same teas for half the price. Oh.. And the selection is much, much larger. I fully understand shopping through good western-facing vendors with their own productions or curated/hard to find selections. But most of these ebay vendors just offer grab bags of mass-produced factory tea and mark it up. I just don’t see much of a reason to buy mass-produced teas from them. By buying from taobao you’re just cutting out middlemen, reselling tea. Why not buy more directly?
Anyways… This tea costs about 52 RMB (~$8) for a proper 357g cake. It’s very drinkable and I suspect it’ll satisfy anyone looking for a cheap drink. Either way, it pretty much destroys all cheap ebay tea in bang for buck. Clean, welcoming fruity aroma. Smooth. Very sweet, with just a touch of tang in it. Moving from the Xiaguans to this, I’m reminded that I can push a little more on the brewing without being smacked in the back of the head with bitterness and smoke. This reminds me a little of some of the inexpensive Yiwus that Chawang sells. It’s definitely thin, but if you don’t expect fireworks, are shopping on a budget, and enjoy a basic sweet taste it’s hard to go wrong.. Free sample from mx-tea.
We don’t even have to speculate how much this tea would cost on ebay. It sells for $58.60 and there’s not even free shipping..
2004 Nanjian Jiaji (sold for $12.50/100g, $0.13/g)
Price has since gone up ($16/100g). I drank this for the Wuliang/Ailao report and my opinion really hasn’t changed. It’s different in profile than the Xiaguan equivalents, but I’d peg it around the same caliber.
Pungent, smoky in its first few steeps. A bit softer and more granary in its finish which makes it a little more palatable. The smoke leaves this tea faster than the Xiaguans and is replaced with a granary taste and a fruity aroma.
2004 Jianshen (bought for $9.90/100g, $0.10/g)
Given the size, shape, and north of Banna profile, TwoDog must fashion this at being a cut above the Xiaguan equivalents. I’m inclined to agree. It’s got a base of dense wood and grain. Not too smoky and balanced with nice bits of fruit/raisins. It’s still rougher than the Old Bear and lacks the endearing smoky quality but is very decent for the price.
2002 White Whale (bought for $15/100g, $0.15/g)
Has doubled in price since purchase. I don’t have a ton of new things to add here. It beats all the teas here and is now priced accordingly.
It is pungent and there’s not much discernible smoke. Pine/wood base. Smooth, sweet, reasonably full. Brews steadily for 13-14 steeps at least. A little mouth cooling.
|2006 Old Bear||White2Tea||$18.00||100||$0.18||Good.|
|2006 Changtai 642||MX Tea||$8.00||357||$0.02||OK++.|
|2004 Nanjian Jiaji||Yunnan Sourcing||$12.50||100||$0.13||OK+.|
|2002 White Whale||White2Tea||$15.00||100||$0.15||Good+.|
Closing Thoughts & Recommended Teas
In the end, many Xiaguans have a fairly similar profile to one another. There’s definitely a house taste. They’re all cheap (even with 10g sessions, the most expensive come out to ~<$1/session). Yes… Even if you buy em from ebay.
Coming into this, I wanted to see if any of these teas would fit daily drinking? Should any of them be evicted?
Nearly all of these teas are OK enough to keep, a few good enough to fit into a drinking rotation, and just the Baoyan finding its way to the compost bin. I can also conclude that many of these teas definitely do not to be revisited for several years. Since they won’t be getting all that much humidity in Seattle, I’d guess that many of them are 10+ years from being enjoyable cups for me. The 8653, 8613, and Fangcha are alright and will probably be consumed at some point, but are only really worth it if you are into that sort of thing.
My own personal preferences lead me to seek:
- Xiaguans with humidity. Guangdong, Hong Kong, Malaysia, bring it on.. These are some heavily compressed teas. They sure as hell aren’t going to get enough browning in Seattle and I’m definitely not planning on waiting 40 years. The difference in price is not significant and I’d willingly pay $30 (vs. $10-20) for 10 years of aging and better base material.
- Xiaguans with age. The base material is likely better.. I am also no fan of the stomach courage otherwise known as drinking young, cheap factory productions. These are rough and rugged teas. For me to enjoy em, they need time.
These things are probably obvious to experienced pu-heads, but if some hapless newbie stumbles across this, hopefully it will serve as prudent advice for what to look for/expect.
XG Recs of what I drank (and is available):
- 2003 FT 7623 (Chawangshop)
- 2006 Purple Box Fangcha (Taobao)
Next… Onto young Menghai County for real.
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