Perfect Menghai daily drinker: strong and endurant
We had the pleasure to visit Ai Xiang Nan in Lao Man E after the autumn harvest. He introduced us to his brand new factory. We had a side by side tasting of his latest productions, a rare occurrence in the tea mountains. The quality of his teas has been consistent over the years, they are all expertly processed, with a long cooking time at low temperature.
Lao Man E has a lot of natural tea gardens. The tea trees are only a few decades old, but they grow quite fast thanks to the relatively fertile soil and the natural tendency of the local varietal to grow into massive trees.
This tea from the most famous village of Bulang area is as you would expect. It gives a punch, but takes care of wearing white gloves for that. The bitterness is moderate and disappears quickly, the sweetness seizes the mouth after a few cups and will linger for hours. Astringency is moderate, it acts in concert with the sweetness to exhibit a mineral characteristic. Indeed, drinking Menghai tea can feel like sucking on a rock.
A tea that strikes well above its price range. You can use it as a daily drinker if you have the stomach for it.
We first visited this village in 2012, it was already famous at the time, mainly for the high bitterness of its tea. Throughout the years, Lao Man E has always increased in price and renown, despite the competition of many new contenders in the fame arena.
The village is located South of Menghai, let me show you a map of the area:
You could think high prices in tea is the result of hype. Yet, ask any tea professional in Menghai, and they will tell you nothing beats Lao Man E in terms of heavy sweetness, supported by moderate to high bitterness. Even large factories invest in Lao Man E material for their high end blend. It's a tea that can sell without mentioning the name, the taste of the tea makes it worth its price. Of course, we do here on Farmerleaf because we chose the path of transparency and exploration of the terroirs.
Its altitude is very low compared to other famous mountains, only 1200m in the village! Jingmai is at 1600m, Lao Banzhang at 1800m and gardens in Lincang or Ailao Mountain can grow up to 2200m.
We usually associate higher altitude with better quality, and Lao Man E is an interesting counter-example.
Maybe we should think a minute about what we call quality. In the tea industry at large, it's often related to fragrance. But that's not what you'd think as a Pu-erh tea drinker, right?
Lao Man E has decent fragrance, it is a very understated kind of fragrance, the opposite of Lincang teas. It won't burst in your nose, but will linger for a long time after drinking, stealthily coming back from your throat. The nature of this Lao Man E fragrance, which could be assimilated to Bulang area as a whole, is leathery, animal and herbaceous; don't expect a festival of flowers here, we're not in Jingmai here.
From the first cup, you can expect a good bitterness punch from a fine Lao Man E. Good bitterness should not linger for long, it should vanish within seconds, leaving sweetness in its trail.
There are two varietals of old-growth tea trees in Lao Man E: bitter and sweet. The bitter varietal has both long-lasting and short-lived bitterness, it is an intense experience that few people actually enjoy.
This is why we selected the sweet varietal, which displays a moderate to high bitterness, but only of a short-lived nature. This varietal is more expensive than the bitter one because it is the most enjoyed and sought-after.
Another characteristic of Lao Man E is to have a low level of astringency in relation to the bitterness. In Chinese, we tend to group the two tastes together in a single word, but Lao Man E is well known for being bitter but not that astringent.
Lao Man E will definitely give you a buzz if you're sensitive. We recommend you eat a good meal before drinking that kind of tea. While Jingmai tea tends to give out its power straight away, you need to be more patient with Lao Man E (and all Bulang teas in general).
Cup after cup, sweetness will accumulate on your gums and creep down your throat, you'll get plenty of that menthol effect that we like to call Hui Gan: a sweet and refreshing feel in the throat.
The tea is very long brewing, you can easily get 20 steeps out of a handle of leaves. This is partly due to the size of the leaves, they are among the largest you can find in Xishuangbanna. To give you an idea, we usually cook the leaves for 20 minutes in Jingmai, but in Lao Man E, they need at least 35 minutes.
When you're brewing the leaves, the water makes its way through the center of the leaves to dig out that good juice, and it can take some time, during which you'll be in heaven.
If you want even more information about this tea and the recent history of the village, you can watch this interview that we shot with Ai Xiang Nan, the producer of this tea: