Friday, February 4, 2011

2001 MengKu "Yuan Yieh Xian" ("Original Aroma From Wild") of MengSa Mountain, thin vs. thick paper versions

I was up very early this morning and have been waiting to do the big comparison of this notorious puerh.  It's a dark gray typical Seattle winter day today.  Not much sun out, so my apologies up front for the wonky color in some of these photos (like this one).

This is the 2001 MengKu "Yuan Yieh Xian" (or "Yuanyexiang") cake, which appears to have been reviewed by everyone and their cousin.  I managed to find myself a little bit of each version (thick and thin papered) and have been curious to taste these for myself, particularly for what it could teach me about the differences that wet versus dry storage can bring to a tea.  MarshalN recently posted a very insightful discussion about possible confusions of the term "wet storage" which can be found here and makes for good reading.  For my own purposes in this tasting I'll simply refer to the wet (or traditionally) stored cake as "thick" (referring to it's distinctive thick paper wrap) and the dry stored cake as "thin" (being the thin-papered version of the two).  I purchased a sample of the thick-papered version from Hou De, and the thin-papered version from Bana Tea Company.  Bana labels this cake as "2001 Original Aroma From Wild", which is also the title found in Cloud's big review of this cake, here.  In addition to samples, Bana also has a few of these cakes for sale and they're not cheap.  I found a Taobao vendor selling the thin-papered version for a bit less, but once you factor in shipping costs it's not that much less than Bana's listing price.

Thick paper version on left, thin on right
Appearance: I was fortunate to get a nice big chunk of this cake (thick) from Hou De that also included the neifei, so I was able to compare them between the thick and thin papered versions.  The central Chinese character on the neifei of the thick papered version is a very faded silver gray color.  So faded, in fact, that it was only faintly visible.  The neifei on the thin paper version doesn't show the same degree of fading.  This difference of fading also seems to be present on this side-by-side comparison photo below, from Cloud's review of these cakes.  I suppose it can be assumed that the more humid storage environment has degraded the silver ink to some extent.  Also, the thick paper version is predictably a shade darker than the thin dry-stored version, and also a bit more "stuck together," as seen -- 
Comparison from my own samples (thick version on left)
(Photo from Cloud's Tea Collection review page)
After about a 15-second rinse I went to take in the aromas.  A clear difference between the two.  The thick papered version smells musty and a bit sour, an aroma that's nowhere present in the thin version.  The thin, on the other hand, smells predominantly of camphor with clean leather and wood, and a brief and faint hint of fruity undertones.  The first infusion of about 6-seconds shows a difference in color, with the thick version pouring darker by a few shades.

Thin version on left, thick version on right
Taste:  The thick is smooth and woody with strong overtones of wet storage smell.  The taste of the thin version is a little more dimensional, plenty of clean wood with some higher taste notes that the thick version lacked.  The thin also carries a bit more ku with it.

Second infusion, 8 seconds:  aroma of the thin is strong camphor and sweet woods.  The thick still smells strongly of wet storage reminding me distinctly of old socks, although there's a bit of that minty pine-like camphor underneath.  Taste-wise, the thick is again predominant with old socks although there's more dark wood and maybe a hint of tobacco underneath.  The thin again excels with much rounder flavor, reaching both low and high notes.  There's more mouth activity with the thin, as well.  More ku and resulting salivation.  It shows a good hui gan down into my throat with a simultaneous warm/cool sensation.

Thin on left, thick on right
Third infusion, 10 seconds:  The aroma of the thick paper version is finally losing the wet storage smell.  It's all dark sweet woods now, revealing more of that pine-y/camphor aroma present in the thin version.  In fact, between the two (and thanks to my having spent the first half of my life on the dry east side of the Cascade mountain range and the last couple decades here on the wet west side), I find the smell of the thick version reminiscent of the hemlock and cedar-heavy wet forests of the west side of the mountains, while the thin version reminds me very much of the dry long-needled ponderosa pine forests of the drier eastern slopes.  The thin version also carries strong scents of mushroom and pine pollen.  In taste, the thick is smooth wood with a tiny bit of rough dryness on the tongue and top of the mouth.  The thin displays clean airy woods and mushroom, again showing more activity in the mouth, with more ku and stronger hui gan that returns camphor on the breath with a hint of sweet around the edges.  I'm noticing some movement of qi as well, more so with the thin than with the thick.

Thick on left, thin on right
Fourth infusion, 15 seconds:  Every time I go to take in the aroma of the thin version I feel as though I'm cooking.  It's heavy with rosemary and mushrooms.  The thick version is best described at this point as "wet leather shoes and NW forest" with some camphor tucked in.  These two versions are settling into their general characters now.  The thick is all lower deep notes of dark wet forest, while the thin is more rounded, hitting both low and high notes with airy pollen-laden pine and savory mushroom.  I'm paying more attention to the movement of qi now and finding a similar story here.  The thick goes low and deep, very concentrated.  After sitting with cup after cup I'm aware of a quiet pool of warmth in the lower center of my torso with the thick.  In contrast, the thin version also shows strong qi but it's far more penetrating, not only inhabiting my torso but also extending up into my head and ears and out through the arms.  Throughout the rest of this tea session I kept testing this again and again and the difference was clear.  The qi of the thin version was much more active and penetrating, while the thick version was more low, concentrated and still.

I sat for several more infusions of each of these.  Both were enjoyable in their own right but if I were pressed to choose a favorite it would definitely be the thin papered version.  Overall I found that it had a broader taste profile and a more active qi.  Living in the Northwest I feel quite water-logged as it is, and while I love all things dark and forested the thick papered version was such a concentration of it.  Maybe if I lived somewhere drier I'd be more inclined to choose the thick-papered version as a favorite for how it reminds me of home.


  1. I've found that the thick papered needs to be aired out, so seperate out servings and keep them in a bowl lidded with a paper towel for a couple of weeks. You'll enjoy subsequent servings more...


  2. Cool Blog! I look forward to reading more of your entries - in fact, you've inspired me to try out Mengku stuff again, which is something i've put aside somewhat. Happy Tea Drinking!

    -The Green Poet

  3. shah8 -- A very good idea. I've got some sitting out now and will be interested to see how much it takes care of those old wet socks. thanks :)

    Green Poet -- welcome! You've got yourself a fun read of a blog, as well. I'm looking forward to keeping up with it.

  4. Hi,
    I am new to this blog - how nice!
    I think it really gives a shot in the arm to the once-tired 'tea review' blog.
    Thanks for the great detail.

  5. Brandon -- welcome and a very humbled thank you. Just took a look at your own blog and nearly fainted at the quality, especially those gorgeous pictures! Oh my. Tea and visual gorgeousness -- two things that get me drooling. My own photos suffer greatly from lack of good lighting, not to mention lack of beautiful tea gadgetry (I'm working on that one ;) But thank you for stopping by :)