Monday, November 23, 2020

Small batch shu processing


First published in two parts in TChing, here and here.

Oddly the tea that reminded me to write about this may or may not have actually been post-fermented as a small sized lot.  I just reviewed the first Russian-origin shu "pu'er-like tea" version that I've tried, which was pretty good.  Since it was a test batch it probably was fermented as smaller amount, but I'm not sure of that production quantity.  It wasn't exactly the same character as the most standard Yunnan shu, but since those vary it could still overlap.  It was lighter, with an odd mineral / stone taste that probably would fade over another year of rest-time, probably from processing transition (wòduī processing effect).  But it was sweet and complex, reasonably well-balanced, with a good bit of dark rye bread and cocoa flavor.

that Moychay experimental version

That's a good lead-in for talking about non-standard shu types, since that essentially had to be a variety Sinensis based shu, with a completely different terroir background than Yunnan.  But I want to cover more on specific processing approach differences instead.

A Thai producer, Tea Side, first brought this subject to my attention awhile back:

As they say, Chinese technology doesn’t assume producing ripe pu-erh out of less than 3 tons of material. Allegedly, a smaller amount of material will not heat up to the desired temperature and, in general, the fermentation process will go wrong...

That time, I thought the vertical pressure of the big mass is important. But then on photos, I saw the tea spread out over a large area in an only one-meter thick layer. To make a one-meter high heap, 3 tons are not required. Moreover, as you know, Liu Bao cha has been done for hundreds of years and its taste is very close to ripe pu-erh. To make it Chinese use just 20-30 kilos of raw materials, but fermentation takes at least one and a half years.

That is how the idea to make ripe pu-erh tea in a basket was born...

photo credit the Tea Side blog article

I've heard of two other independent sources making basket-approach shu, Moychay (that first reference), and one discussed by So Han Fan, of the Tea House Ghost Youtube channel and Guan Yin Austin-based shop fame (which was replaced with a West China Teahouse business).  At a guess this practice didn't evolve within the last decade.  I'm not disputing that the Tea Side vendor didn't sort out processing independently, only clarifying that the idea was not a unique discovery, since at least one of those other sources pre-dated it.  His results are good (reviewed here), and that article is worth a read.

In looking for a reference to So Han's process and outcome I just noticed that the Steep Stories blog reviewed a few versions only a few months ago; interesting.  So Han posts in TChing, with an overview of sheng and shu background here, but I wanted to cite that basket fermentation theme instead.

I'll keep this general, as a summary of hearsay input, because long and detailed citations don't work in short posts.  Per my recollection they were selling very small batch processed shu, created in such a way that it wasn't even turned (mixed), allowed to ferment with varying degrees of air contact across small piles.  This allowed different parts of the mix to have different characters.  The marketing spin took an unusual turn in that case, with different parts of the piles named separately (the part I didn't find a reference to).

The Moychay owner, Sergey Shevelev, has described an experimentation process essentially identical to that covered in that Tea Side blog, about making batches of shu in baskets.  The "secret" is trial and error; keep making different batches until it works, then adjust for further improvement.  It would be almost impossible to do that without exploring the original larger scale processing first, to work without those details as a starting point (as referenced in this video).  Just trying a broad range of unique versions could be helpful, as are sold on that Moychay site.  It wouldn't help that shu often tends to need a year or so of rest to really be at its best, with some versions clearing up a bit in character over the next year or two.

Since so many variables can be open to exploration (using different tea plant type inputs, adjusting fermentation level, and time, temperature based on controlling the process, amount of water used, etc.) a very broad range of potential outcomes would be emerge.  Matching the standard-types and producers results would be hard enough, and surpassing it very problematic, but to some extent "different" results could be seen as better, across a broad range.

Cha Tou, or clumps of tea that form during shu processing, which are also referred to as "tea heads," are a different but related theme.  Here's an interesting description of that, part of a Chawang Shop product description:

Classify sun-dried leaves by grades, put into pile by wet treatment to made it complete the late fermenting course quickly, the leaves producing a great deal of dissoluble sugar and pectin during the fermentation process, therefore, some tender leaves stick together and form small nuggets at the bottom of the fermentation pile. These nuggets are called "Cha Tou."

small batch loose shu and a cha tou / tea nugget from Tea Side

The idea here is that even within conventional, large-batch processing there can be some variation in results and effect (with Sergey showing that outcome in the Moychay video I also mentioned).

All this never does justice to how unique and varied small-batch produced shu (ripe) pu'er can be.  But then that's a main point here, that you can't really capture that well in a limited set of examples.  If you try a number of good versions you can get a feel for the effect and variation range, but there would be no way to fully explore the full potential.  Different material could keep being explored from different places, with different specific steps working best with that starting point.  In one discussion the subject of shu / ripe processed Tie Guan Yin material came up, something that I haven't tried.  Maybe that's just amazing, or maybe it's a bad idea; no small set of results samples would be clear indicator (of the second case; any given sample could definitely pin down one particular positive outcome).

getting off subject, fermentation level seems to vary in loose versions (from the Moychay site)

One twist is that lower fermentation level may support potential for positive long-term aging results.  Sampling what was made over the last few years couldn't tell that story.  This Teas We Like product description hints at how that could work:

90s Kunming 7581 Brick

...In fact, the original wodui process for the 7581, which continued until 1999 and includes the cake sold here, only involves about half the level of fermentation of typical modern ripe puerh. The fermented tea would be moderately heated for drying, pressed into bricks... and then sent for traditional wet storage for a number of years. After this, the tea would be rested in dry storage, often for several years, and finally sold.

As usual storage is another main input, further complicating assessing results.  There's no need to overthink it all though; trying novel teas can be quite pleasant, without zeroing in on the best possible long-term results, or sorting out all of what might be out there.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Gopaldhara Darjeeling Jethikupi and Thor, 1st and 2nd flush

I'm reviewing two more samples sent for review by Gopaldhara.  All the others have been really exceptional, some about as good as conventional first and second flush versions seem to ever get, some really novel oolong versions.  

Picking what I'm reviewing as sets randomly hasn't led to natural type-overlap themes, and again that holds up, again comparing first and second flush versions (so contrasting them?).  Luckily I can review two dissimilar teas without that throwing me off, an outcome from trying to do that a few dozen times in the past.  If the two (or more) versions don't share much for common ground the experience of one doesn't inform much about the other, eg. highlighting a feel difference, or minor flavor character, but it doesn't really hinder the review process either.

I'll cite the vendor descriptions for these and get straight to the review notes, since it does add up.

Rohini Jethikupi White – First Flush 2020

...Rohini is mostly the first garden to produce the first flush teas in Darjeeling. The workers carefully pluck the tea leaves while making sure that only the best shoots with eminent buds are plucked. This season the growth of Darjeeling tea is very slow and the workers could only bring in a very small quantity of leaves that are very special. The plucking of tea leaves is of such fine quality that the tea is mostly hand sorted with very fewer machinery works involved.

The tea bushes are grown and harvested at an elevation between 1500-3000 feet. The bushes are fresh as they have just come out of an extended period of remaining inactive cause of the prolonged winters of almost about 3 months from the month of November to January.  The low temperature experienced during winters has given a very well defined character to the tea.

This tea is made from the best quality P-157 clones which is one of the best clones planted in Darjeeling. The dry leaves are bright green in appearance and consist of two whole leaves and a bud. The teas are very mildly oxidized and are delicately processed to induce minimal damage. All oxidation done is overnight and natural with nothing being induced vigorously.

This Darjeeling fresh First Flush Tea is very light on the palette, having a very mouthful flavor that leaves a clean note with smooth finish having an abundant flavor. The flavor is full and leaves a very pleasant and distinct aftertaste with zero astringencies. The infusion has to be kept absolutely green.

In some past reviews I've talked through typical first and second flush character but I skipped that in these notes; no need to keep going through it.

Gold (Thor) – Rare Hand Rolled Second Flush 2020

The tea is extremely full and expertly fully oxidized to extract all the flavor. It takes a lot of different processes to oxidize, without crushing and cutting the leaf. Every time you crush and cut the leaf you introduce harshness to the cup. This tea is very clean with absolute no hints of astringency and harshness. It is honey sweet with a very well rounded Muscatel finish and notes of ripe fruits. It has been the best lot in the second flush muscatel category.

It is 100% handpicked with no machinery involved. The garden workers are very careful in their plucking to make sure only the best shoots with prominent buds are plucked. The top elevation of Gopaldhara Tea Estate which stretches up to 5500-7000 Ft is planted with the best quality AV2 bushes, the most preferred clones in Darjeeling.

This Darjeeling muscatel tea is super fine to taste and has all the characteristics of a premium tea. It brews into a very bright orange and clear cup having smooth fruity taste and muscatel character. The finish is long, honey sweet & captivating. It is one of our finest second flush teas and a must try for every summer tea lovers. 

I don't really make a big deal of these not including much for astringency in the notes, just enough feel to give them richness of body.  Again that's because I'm doing the third or fourth review, and I've just went through all that in others.  In doing dis-similar combined tea reviews I tend to narrow aspect focus down more just to flavor, usually mentioning mouthfeel and aftertaste aspects, but not much.  Probably what I consciously experience of those aspects narrows in trying to take more in too, and to write it all down.


I skipped taking the dry leaf photo; strange.  This is an earlier 1st and 2nd flush set.

Jethikupi: interesting for tasting like spice, like fennel seed. These are offset a lot in oxidation level, so this isn't a normal comparison of similar versions [with them being 1st and 2nd flush, as one might expect].  This is quite pleasant, although match to personal preference at this stage would relate to a take on that spice flavor.  Richness and fullness fills in general character, and the flavor is complex. One light part leans towards lemon zest. Some light mineral gives it a nice base. Something like cured hay fills in some range in between, with all that integrating well.

Thor:  a bit unusual. Warm tones I expected from the color, and some fruit and floral range, all present. There is a but of other earthy range that I didn't expect, towards cured tree bark. It's not bad, not musty or off, just not part of the profile that a expected, a light, sweeter, citrus range. Since these early rounds are still evolving I'll break that to more of a flavor list next time.

2, Jethikupi:  evolving well; the fennel seed spice is still present but a lot of citrus kicked in. This is now mainly lemon range citrus with light floral and some fennel spice supporting that, instead of the other way around.  That distinctive brightness and intensity I had expected is there. The feel even has a fullness to it, and the citrus trails a bit as aftertaste. There is no astringency to contend with; whole leaf processing seems to drop almost all that out. This doesn't have a lot of feel structure to it but the rich fullness works, versus that being a lot more edgy.

Thor: this ties together and evolves to be better too. A bit of earthy edge drops back to be a base, with sweeter tones filling in complexity.  There is some citrus but it's not dominant at all, like a light blood orange tone, a milder variation of ruby grapefruit. Warm floral is along the line of rose. It seems a hint of spice joins, or maybe it's that an initial earthiness has already transitioned to warm spice. For these both shifting that much early the next round should be different too.  Feel is full and pleasant, with no astringency beyond that fullness.

3 Jethikupi: richness ramped up, and the citrus; this is much more intense. Probably brewed a few seconds longer too, although in both cases it seemed just under 10 seconds to me. For using a much lower proportion that short timing would need to be doubled. The same flavor list in last round applies, but the proportion of those flavors is different. This is really citrus intensive now. Given that I love fruit flavor in tea best that works well for me. 

You can't even notice a spice aspect in this now but it seems likely that input range gives it a complex effect. Even though it's mostly lemon citrus it doesn't come across as one dimensional. Probably that light tone of warm cured hay fills in the experience of depth too. This is relatively sweet and very clean in character, but how it all balances stands out more than any one input. It's good.

Thor: this version is more balanced across a broader range of flavor aspects. It's not the same as last round; it is shifting. A warm, sweet, rich flavor range like apple cider stands out. It's natural to try to interpret the current round in terms of the last round so it could seem like warm citrus, rich floral, and spice instead. To me it's onto apple cider range, with a trace of brown bread relating to the evolving earthier range.

This reminds me of a tea reviewer who writes long, round by round reviews, in which he seems to describe different teas each round, Mattcha's blog. I think he's focused on the opposite theme, on changes, and is mostly communicating only what is different, even though commonality runs through the infusions. It's probably both a bias towards noticing change and a communication issue. Taken for what it probably really means it seems likely to be accurate, and is interesting. 

The other side of that is that imagination does come into play when reviewing teas. You need to disassociate with expectations, to some extent, and to connect experiential and analytic (verbal) parts of your experience that more typically never link. Interpretive bias never fully drops out, so you need to try to work around it instead, to make allowance for it, and factor it in.

4 Jethikupi: richness and warmth picks up; the range shifts. That fruit tone is still mostly citrus but a bit of watermelon joins that. The neutral-tone depth I've described as cured hay picks up. Seeing that as similar to crysanthemum instead would make sense, as a relatively neutral floral tone. It integrates better than it might sound, citrus, watermelon, chrysanthemum, and cured hay.

Thor: a bit more malt tone pulls this towards a more standard black tea profile. It's interesting how citrus is present but it doesn't dominate, how lots of range balances. Again feel is pleasant, and overall balance. A hint more dryness might join that malt tone but it's on the opposite extreme of being astringent. 

I'll give these a slightly longer soak and leave off; my patience for writing notes is running out.

5 Jethikupi: integrating even better maybe. Mineral depth bumps up a bit brewed just a touch stronger. No negative aspects show through at all; that's nice. Citrus input, the balance, is lower but it's still a main flavor.

Thor: I could almost write a new flavor list for this, like "Matt" does in that other blog that I mentioned. A number of inputs all balance, with none standing out. It's not so different than the earlier list but the effect is different, the way it shifts to not emphasize any one or two parts. That list again: citrus (just not much of it), warm floral, touch of soft malt, some underling warm mineral, fruit. To me the fruit is more like dried mango at this point.


All in all good teas. They did brew a number of additional rounds, that was just a good place to leave off taking notes.  They were not exactly what I expected, more complex and novel, not just sticking with those dominant citrus and floral tones. That's probably a good thing, Gopaldhara's tea versions including that diversity of outcomes. This description probably doesn't convey how integrated and well balanced those flavor lists came across, or how the feel contributed, but so it goes with verbal description of experiences.  

I think as with the last Wuyi Yancha version I just wrote about I tend to be more blown away when I try a version within a different range again, then after reviewing some it just seems normal for one to be so exceptional.  These two tea versions really could re-write what Darjeeling potential is all about for someone, but since I've reviewed a half dozen recently it's just the range that they all fall in.  

They are right that whole-leaf preparation, versus the more conventional chopped leaf form, makes a huge difference.  There is no "brewing around" astringency, or liking the tea in spite of that harsh edge.  It would never cross anyone's mind to put milk in them.  For the lower oxidation level first flush range that wouldn't even match very well, but it just wouldn't make sense for the Thor second flush version either.  They are just right as they are.  Probably best brewed Gong Fu style, but I would imagine these would be great prepared Western style too, it just wouldn't optimize them, per my preference.

I just saw a post about their fall harvest teas, just now released.  It wasn't in this set, of course, but their Red Thunder has probably been my favorite among all their teas in the past.  It's hard to say why, and really not fair to comment a lot on a tea version I've not tried from this year.  People who are a fan of autumn harvest Darjeeling already know what I'm talking about though.  They might give up a bit of intensity to first and second flush but they can gain even more back in complex and well-balanced character.  

Their Red Thunder description is a biased take (of course) but it will pass on some idea of that:

A limited-edition Darjeeling Autumn flush produced from frosted leaves from the best clone of Darjeeling also known as AV2. It is the rarely special as not many bushes of AV2 can be found at these high peaks. Extreme cold weather conditions which in the night can touch 0 degrees at the high elevations of Gopaldhara induces special and complex flavour of ripe fruits into the tea. The tea brews into a bright orange cup with a very rich character and full rounded and dense fruity flavour. The aftertaste is very clean and sweet with a prominent finish of Honey.

a recent biking outing in a Bangkok park (rot fai, railroad park)

lots of that park is beautiful but these trees stand out as interesting

my tea circle (photo credit to Suzana)

both kids had birthdays this month (7 and 12 now); here giving alms to monks in observance

Wuyi Origin Shui Xian, exceptional Wuyi Yancha / rock oolong

This post reviews a Shui Xian version from Wuyi Origin, sent by Cindy for review.  Really for me to try, since she's a friend, but I'll review it too.

I'm probably biased in relation to how I expect their teas to be.  To some extent if you expect a tea to be really good or instead flawed that could lead to a more positive or negative interpretation.  At this point I think I'm able to get a relatively clear, neutral read on whatever I try but I guess you never know for sure.

I don't think this tea is listed on their site.  Two versions are, of Wuyishan Shui Xian oolong, but this was identified as roasted twice, and in those descriptions both are said to be roasted three times.  This may be somewhat similar to what is listed, and I can pass on how they describe their teas:

Gao Cong shui xian 高枞水仙

Gaocong Shuixian , first of all, it is also a Shuixian Cultivar , but has not been pruned for more than 10 years. Therefore, the tea tree is relatively tall, but the age of the tree is about 50years, so its taste is still the standard taste of Shuixian . Due to the difference in roasting fire, its aroma is not as high as Huaxiang Shuixian , but the Yan yun is more obviouse , more mellow, the taste is quite soft . and clean  . Its content is rich, and the taste is more layered. Half of the aroma is condensed in water, and half floats between the walls of the cup, the texture is very silky.

Let's check the other description, which looks a lot lighter, related to the photo shown on the web page, at least:

Shui xian (Narcissus) 2020 (hua xiang 花香)

Since ancient times to present , Shuixian is like a house keeper tea in every tea family. It is famous for its mellow soup and it's suitability for aging. After some years of keeping, its soup can be like rice water, sticky and mellow. the age of the tea bush in this garden is about 40 years old ,but every year in October we did the tea tree pruning , so the tea tree is no so tall , of 2020 harvest , the roast fire temperature is no so strong , keep its  original aroma ,  very Hua xiang  (floral )  . 

These cost $54 and $38 per 100 gram, respectively, so it's not "cheap" tea.  The best versions of Wuyi Yancha that I can buy locally aren't nearly this good, although some are quite decent, and a standard price for the highest level in my favorite Bangkok Chinatown shop is 1000 baht ($30) per 100 grams.  That is more or less completely irrelevant to people anywhere else, just offering that for comparison.  

Really appropriate price depends on quality level, and for teas in the range of as good as theirs tend to get presented in different ways and sold for different prices.  A lot of vendors would be selling "teas so good that they almost never make it out of China" that aren't this good for more.  But don't take my word for it; look up "Wuyi Origin" in your favorite tea group search function, and see what others say.



Just amazing. I won't do this tea justice with a description.  To be fair I've not tried related oolong anywhere near this good since whenever I tried theirs last, so the differential in quality level is probably making this seem all the more impressive.  I've been focused on sheng pu'er for about three years, trying to get that complex type sorted, and beyond that being impossible, a never-ending task, I think I've made enough of a start that I could move on, to some degree.

It tastes like good Wuyi Yancha, smooth, rich, complex, intense, and balanced. It's hard to describe a main flavor, never mind a set. I suppose interpretation as floral wouldn't be wrong but there's an earthier, towards-spice flavor that dominates. It's like how dark tropical wood furniture smells, sweet and complex, with layers of input.  

I think it's really a complex group of flavors causing this end effect: rich floral tone, dark wood, aromatic oil, fragrant spice (like frankincense, maybe, but I don't keep up with that range). It's so clean in effect; absolutely no trace of mustiness. Of course mineral stands out too, as a base. To me that mineral is like Utah desert slickrock, warm and slightly sweet. Of course anyone else's interpretation would be likely to vary, especially about a part as difficult to split out as the mineral tone.

2:  a bit more range towards sweet leather emerges, probably the tea opening up. This is better tea than 99% of all Da Hong Pao, or what is sold as that.  Saying that a DHP version might "just be Shui Xian" doesn't do justice to how good this plant input results can be. I'd expect that this flavor is exactly what many people think DHP should taste like, at best.

In this round the mineral reminds me a little of the smell of ink. The sweetness, cleanliness, complexity, and sophistication makes that work really well. The feel is great; not rough, but with some structure. The aftertaste is very pleasant, the way that mineral carries over. It's strange to think that a couple of the other oolong samples Cindy sent will be better than this, more subtle, complex in a different way, and more novel. For what this type is there might not be that much room left for improvement; it should be exactly like this.

3: Strange that it could still be improving. The level of roast is perfect in this; I'm sure that helps.

As I contemplate the flavor more roasted chestnut is quite close to the main flavor. Those usually pick up a little char flavor, and this didn't, so maybe it's light roasted chestnut, or one cooked at a moderate temperature. The  bumped mineral and slight shift in other flavor may have prevented me from making that association earlier, or maybe it's just a gap in my ability to describe the experience.

I may let note taking go after another round. This isn't changing much and I'm a bit under the weather, just a cold. Since my sense of taste seems fine it shouldn't be covid. That's not really here in Thailand at this point anyway; we've only had 2 or 3 cases of in-country transmission in four months.

4: not so different.This includes a hint of cinnamon spice I've not yet mentioned, probably increasing in this round to become more noticeable. This probably has 3 or 4 really exceptional rounds left in it, the another 3 or 4 tapering off, then for as good as this is I'll stretch it for more after that.

It's strange that pu'er gets so much focus, for as good as teas like this are. I like sheng too, and drink shu sometimes.  The intensity and range for those is amazing, and it's cool how they change with even moderate ageing. But Wuyishan oolongs are amazing for other reasons. Lots of people know, but it may be that the rarity of versions this good detracts from their image.

5: still great, similar to last round.

The picture of the wet leaves looks greener than it does to my eyes; interesting. This does taste like the oxidation level and roast level are moderate. To me it works really well. The quality level is so evident it's hard to split out a guess at objective quality level from preference. It seems high on the scale for both.

That lighter part seems to tie to the floral component of the complex flavor range that I've not said much about. Maybe like lotus flower? That set or list of flavors integrates much better than it sounds like it would, coming across almost as on broad-scope single flavor. Such a nice tea experience.