Recently, Alex and I orchestrated a small group buy among a few friends to get our hands on some teas hoping to find some promising “winners.” One of these happened to be a ’03-’04 Brown Chantai that I picked up from a gentleman I very frequently purchase pu’er from in Taiwan. While I have had a sample of this tea before that was traditionally stored, I’ll admit I didn’t pay it too much mind despite enjoying it – admittedly I never really bothered to learn much about this tea, or Changtai in general.
Changtai is probably best defined as, well….inconsistent. Let’s be clear: no tea producer is going to hit the mark and make an incredible tea each time. Even Menghai Tea Factory, as James over at TeaDB points out (and I certainly agree), despite its fame, has created both masterpieces and underwhelming teas. The history of Changtai is somewhat curious and likely not very interesting to many. Admittedly, before stumping myself with this most recently bought tea, I never thought I would see the day where I bothered myself to learn. Since that day finally came, I will drop a brief history here for those who may find themselves in that place as well, and then get back to our current Brown story.
Brand Intro: Changtai Group (昌泰集團) previously Changtai Teahouse (昌泰茶行) was formed in 2000. Desiring to follow the rapidly developing Pu’er market and having access to diverse sources of material, Changtai decided to develop a new line to distinguish from their Yichang Hao line (易昌號), thus Changtai Hao (昌泰號) was established. The goal was to make a line that focused on high-quality material from outside of the Six Famous Tea Mountain region. A decision was made at this time to use Jinggu wild arbor tea as a primary material for productions under this label.
In 2004, Changtai made another line focusing on wild grown pu’er (野生茶), creating the Chen’s Teapot series (茶壺陳), and in 2005 Changtai pushed yet another series of cakes, “Old Chen’s Tea” (老陳的茶) and The Menghai Arbor Cake (勐海蕎餅).
As 2007 rolled around, Changtai had already earned decent levels of respect for its teas up to this point, and so boldly released the Changtai Hao 7538, 7548, and 8588, using experts out of Menghai to try to create teas according to the MTF 7532, 7542, and 8582 recipes.
Navigating the multiple series and productions of Changtai Group is a daunting task. Today, we look at one production from 2003-2004, that alone requires some knowledge to navigate: The Brown Changtai. Punching in at 380g, this tea is also said to use Jinggu arbor material as its base. I hope you didn’t think it would be that easy – this is a Changtai tea, after all.
Many different batches of the Brown Changtai were made between 2003 and 2004. Some of the differences are still unknown to anybody (other than those within Changtai), but over time tea drinkers and collectors discovered that there were distinct differences in taste and quality between the different batches. Changtai did not write out convenient batch numbers on cakes – still, enthusiasts found ways to discern the batches nonetheless. In general, the batches are broken down by two key identifying factors:
Tian Shu Stamps and Barcodes.
Stamps: Drinkers discovered that among the different Changtai browns, the neifei nestled into the loosely pressed leaves of the brown was not consistent. There were two different neifeis found buried in these cakes. In some cakes, only one stamp was found. These became known as DanTianShu 單天書. Other cakes found two stamps in the Neifei. These became known as ShuangTianShu 雙天書. There is still no clear cut answer as to what the one vs. two stamps indicates.
Barcodes: Similar to our stamps, there are two different wrappers to be found. Cakes pressed and released in 2003 lacked barcodes (無條碼) and those produced in 2004 had barcodes located on the back of the cake (有條碼)
Combining these two variables, different batches started being ranked in terms of quality and taste. Cloud (a very famous tea blogger/vendor based in HK) wrote praise about one particular batch of Changtai and was even so bold as to call it the “88 Brown Changtai” considering it a potential successor of the esteemed 88QB. This batch was a Single Stamped Barcoded cake (單天書，有條碼), but most importantly, was pure dry stored (純乾倉). Cloud sang praises for this particular batch and storage condition.
Moving back for a moment to our most recent tea buy – the teas come in and one of our participants is asking me which of the batches we happened to purchase. Considering the price ($65ish) I landed these cakes for, I jokingly replied back “Not the super famous one.” I had a very basic knowledge of Cloud discussing the “88 Brown Changtai” version at this point, but knew it to be very expensive compared to what I picked out. Feeling obligated to follow up with a more informed answer, I went to the Taiwanese and Chinese forums to quickly look for which batch I had put in people’s hands. I purchased these from a collector I trust very much – and of course – this gentleman, in his decades of collection and experience, surely was not selling gold for pennies, nor insinuating that this product was in any way some impossible steal of the “sought after” version.
At this point (after coming across the batch information I shared above), I casually pulled out my cake to see which version we had actually acquired. To my surprise, I found…a single stamp and a barcode. It was, in fact, the very batch that Cloud had eluded to being the “88 Brown Changtai.” Knowing that there was no way I had accidentally struck gold, I asked my source what information in my inexperience had eluded me. The answer was much simpler than I had imagined. The cakes we ordered were indeed the very same batch; however, they had not pure dry stored their whole lives. They had been in natural storage for some period of time in their early years before coming into his collection.
For those wondering at this point: Dry storage and natural storage, at least in the circles I tend to seek information in, indicate slightly different conditions. Pure Dry Storage (純乾倉) indicates that there was human control over either humidity, temperature, or both. Natural Storage (自然倉) simply implies that the cake, wherever it may have been, was simply left to its own devices in that environment. Generally, the term implies that the cakes are somewhere in between dry and more humid storage. Of course, where the tea was naturally stored will matter very much in how that storage affects the cakes.
Different storage conditions make this same Brown Changtai cake go from somewhere around $65USD in price to $400USD or so. This fact alone cements me even further in my opinion that you pay for storage as much as you pay for any product’s original “quality”. This is why so many people warn starry-eyed newcomers to be wary of auctioned pieces.I find it hard to fathom how much better a pure dry stored version of the naturally stored cake I tried could be. I don’t know if it would deserve being more than quadrupled in price.
On a final note, Despite Cloud’s excited praise of this 88 Changtai, there are mixed opinions about even the best of the Brown Changtais. Not to say that it isn’t good tea, but perhaps that it has not obtained quite that level of greatness. While admittedly I have not tried that particular version yet, and will happily update my opinion should I find myself swayed when I do, I think the prices the 88 Brown are being sold at essentially confirming that overall the market disagrees with Cloud so far. At ~$431USD for the Brown from Cloud’s Tea House versus a crisp $15,000USD at Best Tea House for the 88QB, we will see how that gap closes in the future….
As for the Brown we landed, I’m more than happy with where it sits. I believe the quality of the tea for the price makes it more than worthy of being comfortably aged daily drinker. I put it in a similar category to the Changtai Hao Chen’s Teapot Jin Zhu Shan in that I happily reach for it on days where a sweet and smooth tea that doesn’t require too much focus. That said, it still benefits from mindful brewing, and never disappoints. I mean to convey this tea as a “daily drinker” in the most positive tone this phrase can be applied to tea.
Still, Changtai’s tastes may not suit everyone. If you ever find yourself with the opportunity to try some Changtais, I’d say go for it.
Really, there are only two types of people in the world of tea: People that like Changtai, and bitches, @jscherg.