Like many venturing into the wild world of sheng puer, I started with the palatable, easy to drink mountains - Yiwu, Nannuo & Jingmai, before discovering the wonderful complexity of Bulang. My first experience drinking Lao Ban Zhang was an epiphany in cha qi & hou yun. Despite the price, the hype, and the fakes, I was blown away. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, my heart pounded, and my palms broke out in a sweat. 20 minutes after drinking, I still had a lingering sweet aroma in my throat, and felt curiously high whilst walking down the street. Why was this tea so potent & powerful? A new frontier in my tea journey had been revealed, and I was going to explore it.
From the beginning, Lao Man E was sold to me as the ugly stepsister of Lao Ban Zhang - a lesson in bitterness, a crude & spiteful old crone, producing more grimaces than smiles. The fragrant xiangqi and sweet lasting huigan of her beautiful sister, have been beaten out of her with the ugly stick.
Lao Man E is the Laphroaig of single origin puer. An acquired taste that separates men from boys. An outlier that challenges your understanding of what tea should be.
Perhaps this is why she is both easy and difficult to love.
In the guileless way an ugly dog can win your heart, Lao Man E is a tea you grow to love, the more time you spend with it. Full of conflicting flavours and aromas, there is always the potential of a new discovery each time you drink. The more you pay attention to it, the more it loves you back.
For this reason, I was excited from the moment I set eyes on the Bulang village of Lao Man E (老曼峨).
Lao Man E - love at first sight
Far more picturesque than the eyesore of Lao Ban Zhang, who’s charm has been bulldozed over and stamped out with concrete, Lao Man E is a more gentle maze of blue tin-roofed structures. A large buddhist temple, with golden chofahs, dominates one end of the village skyline, the barren quadrangle of the local school defining the other.
We arrived in the late afternoon, as the tea pickers returned from nearby hills, baskets brimming with luminescent green. Smoke drifted lazily from cooking fires, as we drove slowly down the village’s constricted laneways. Dogs & children darted down the road ahead of us. In the darkness under each house, men toiled at giant woks, clouds of steam rising from the tumbling leaves.
Myanmar workers frying Lao Man E spring leaves in the evening
Maintaining the right temperature is critical
We paid our respects to the outgoing village head, who was still fulfilling his official duties even though a new mayor had been voted in. Tea was brewed in a large soot covered kettle, which we greedily slurped down. We were introduced to his house guests, a middle-aged traditional Chinese medicine doctor afflicted with unrequited love for the headman’s young daughter, and a white haired Japanese man who took photos of us and withdrew to his room without so much as saying a word.
The next day we hiked up the mountain to pick tea. Free ranging over our host’s garden, we greedily climbed the biggest, tallest trees.
Picking tea requires good balance
There is something magical about Lao Man E’s tea gardens. Its trees are tall and splendid. The view from the top is amazing.
"Cha Guo" - tea seed pods growing in Lao Man E
I was very impressed by the local girls. Climbing muddy mountain trails and 5m high trees in high heels is no small feat!
Back at the village, our freshly picked leaves were spread out to wither. We sampled some maocha from a wild tea tree. It was bitter and harsh, yet full of complex flavours that made it very interesting. Like a symphony orchestra tuning up, the flavours were at first raucous and not quite in harmony, yet after a few steeps, resolved themselves into a pleasing composition.
Next up was a maocha that had been fried in a wok coated with wild beeswax. An interesting concept, but not so good in the execution. The wax coats the leaves, and mutes the rich cacophony of flavours one expects of a true Lao Man E.
Then we tried 3 different maocha samples that were sweeter than normal Lao Man E. Whilst still carrying the trademark LME bitterness, the unexpected sweetness brought it one step closer to a Lao Ban Zhang experience. The leaves from these sweeter trees were traditionally blended in, but thanks to Taiwanese advisors, it’s now possible to buy standalone, sweet Lao Man E. There’s only one problem, of the 3 "tian cha" samples we tried, all faded after 6 steeps.
After drinking the sweet tea, we tried 3 different batches of bitter tea ("ku cha"). The maocha from the bitter trees, suffered from another problem. These delivered in spades on bitter & smoky, and had staying power beyond 10 steeps, but were missing complexity & variation. Knowing that Lao Man E could be simultaneously bitter & sweet, led me to crave that complication in the first few steeps.
So it was back to the tasting table, to determine which bitter tea best complemented which sweet tea, and in what proportions we should blend. We wanted a strong traditional start with a surprisingly sweet highnote, Lao Man E’s trademark bitterness & cha qi kick, and enough staying power & complexity to round out the drinking session.
Needless to say, a few hours later, we were very much high on chaqi and full to the brim with tea. A secret formula had been arrived at, and it involved blending in some of the wild tea tree to provide some complexity across all 10 steeps. The only flaw in our plan was the liquor was slightly brackish. The prime suspect was maocha dust. We put the whole family to work, flipping giant pans of maocha, to shake out the tea dust.
Shaking out the tea dust & fannings
One more round of tasting proved the mix was just right, and the flavor was as wonderful as predicted. But the tea was still slightly murky! What could it be?
We speculated that the tea might have overheated during withering. Perhaps too many leaves had been layered on top of each other and the leaves on the bottom stewed in their own sweat. Or perhaps it had been a particularly hot sunny day and the picker had stuffed too many leaves in their basket, this can sometimes cause the leaves at the bottom to stew. The slightly brackish water could also be due to the leaves not being separated properly after rou nian, or not being turned evenly during the sun drying "shai gan"stage so some leaves took too long to dry.
Apart from the slightly muddled liquor, we were still very pleased with the full flavor of our first blend, so we bought 10kg and pressed it into 500g and 357g bings for further research & personal drinking.
The perfect pick: 1 bud, 3 leaves. Note the fingers calloused from sha qing!
As for the tea we picked ourselves? Our gracious host processed the maocha to perfection. Because we so meticulously picked the best looking buds, the maocha looked stunning. I pressed most of it into a 1kg commemorative cake which takes pride of place on my tea shelf, but I can’t bring myself to break it open. A little maocha was leftover for drinking, but unfortunately it’s all gone now.
Making your own puer bing is a wonderful experience that I encourage every tea lover to try for yourself. Once you’ve made tea with your own hands, you’ll find yourself reaching for it everytime you have guests, because it is a tea with the personal touch, a tea who’s story is intimately entwined with yours.
Our freshly pressed Spring 2011 Lao Man E bings
Belle & I pressed our 2011 Spring cakes at the Zheng Si Long factory in Yiwu.
Ji Hai, the masterful producer behind Hai Lang Hao, generously let us cut the queue and interrupt his own run, to get our small batch done. Carrying 10kg of maocha through Jinghong during Po Shui Jie (泼水节 the water splashing festival) was one of the stupidest & most stressful moments of my life! Marauding gangs of frenzied water splashers threatened to drench us and our maocha at every turn. Finally, we managed to get a taxi to the bus station. Even once we were on the bus to Yiwu, our precious cargo of tea was not safe. Children lining the road shot at us with pump action water guns, and adults riding on the back on the trucks, threw buckets of water through the open bus windows. But the gods of tea were on our side, and we eventually made it through to Zheng Si Long unscathed.
My tea mules DP & Belle, loaded up with 10kg of LME's finest maocha
This was just a small test run, but some lucky followers of this blog have received samples - check out this review of our Spring Lao Man E from "Disciple of the Tea Leaf".
You can purchase our 2011 Summer Lao Man E which is a small batch production made from just 4 large ancient trees, selected by our host's grandmother for their surprising sweetness. Check out Petr Novak's review of this special sweet Lao Man E tea on his blog "Pots and Tea"