Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Halmari Gold orthodox Assam

I'm trying a sample of an Assam black tea sent for review by the Halmari Tea Estate.  I'll start in with review, and get back to how this relates to other versions they make at the end.  It's sold as an orthodox tea, with leaves a bit chopped as some other orthodox tea versions go, but it's certainly on the more tippy side.


It's malty!  The flavor profile is clean, with good balance and complexity beyond the malt, so it seems like pretty good tea.  Beyond isolating more flavors one main question will arise:  how good?  I might also mention that I first brewed this tea in between a typical Western proportion and timing and a Gongfu approach, using a gaiwan, so really closer to the latter.  Using a hybrid style is actually somewhat typical and familiar to me, but I'll get back to trying it prepared more conventionally as well, using a straight Western approach, and will mention how results vary for both.

In their instructions they are almost certainly assuming that someone would use boiling point water, but trying out backing off that temperature just a little is probably worth checking out, since the slight variation in outcome would map differently to different personal preference.  I made this using water just under boiling point for the first brewing, and I'll get back to using hotter water in the second Western brewing trial.

instructions; basic, reasonable

I would guess that it's the high proportion of tips giving the tea a more resinous feel and slightly piney flavor, both positive.  The tea really just tastes like a better version of Assam; mostly malt, some mineral range grounding that, not quite as pronounced as in some better Ceylon I've tried.  There is also an earthy range, pretty close to cedar wood, or maybe redwood instead.

For the second infusion I went slightly cooler and faster to try a light version of the tea.  I can check a more standard infusion strength next time to see what transition might be occurring.  My impression doesn't change much trying a very light brewed version instead; the same list of aspects and relative proportion applies.  The feel and flavor intensity lighten but the aspects stay the same otherwise.

On the next infusion--medium in brewed strength--the malt drops down to a more evenly balanced level related to the other two higher range aspects, pine and cedar wood.  If using a Western brewing approach based on a three or four minute steep time someone would experience the average of those first three steeps, more or less (but sometimes results do vary more than one would expect, and it's not that simple).

Brewed stronger the next time the pine aspect picks up.  It's actually in between the somewhat rosemary-like flavor of pine needles and the earthier, richer scent of a pine cone, tying into the wood aspect.  Mineral underlies that, but in a way that's subdued compared to in some Ceylon.  It's still plenty malty, of course; that's still the main aspect, balanced by the others.

I'm assuming this would seem like one version of an English Breakfast tea to many, an unblended variation.  It's probably just a good bit better than most versions related to tea quality level, and more distinctive related to being a single type, perhaps giving up some complexity due to not being a blend of tea types.  Blending teas might relate to two different factors, really:  achieving a balance of aspects by combining teas that vary, as for Bordeaux blend wines, a mix of five grape types, and for covering up flaws in one or more of the teas, or offsetting using lower quality versions of all of them.  There is no flaw to compensate for in this tea (although essentially any tea version could be better in some ways), but it does express a specific and limited aspect range, with intense flavor most pronounced.

It would work really well with a range of different foods, probably better than drinking it without anything.  It's not really astringent, at least as I'm preparing it, but not really a soft or mild tea either.  The taste range is bold, for sure.  It would offset either savory or sweet foods well, I would expect.  I did try it in later infusions along with a mild vegetable and tofu mix with rice at lunch, which worked, but it could hold its own alongside stronger food or counter sweet pastry well (more my typical breakfast).

It would almost be a shame to blend a tea with this clean effect, balance, and complexity.  But that could work; it has a lot of that particular flavor range to contribute.  It would probably be fine with milk, I'm just not used to tea prepared that way.  This tea's flavor profile would work well in some type of Christmas blend, along with cinnamon and fruit elements (like in this post, or this one).

Brewed Western style; a second trial

It's pretty much the same; again with malt dominating, pine and wood filling in the flavor range, with mineral tones as a base.  Some sweetness balances those aspects, and the overall flavor profile seems relatively clean in character, not muddled by any off earthiness. I expected using hotter water, brewing at full boiling point, to ramp up astringency more but the feel of this isn't an issue for drinking it plain.

The strength of flavor of the tea is plenty strong enough in a relatively light preparation.  I can see why this type of tea would make sense for blending; it's as intense across that limited flavor range as any type or version I've ever encountered.  CTC Assam is like this but with much stronger astringency, and the flavors aren't quite as distinctive.  That's per my past experience, at least; it's not as if I drink that much Assam.  I've been reviewing other Assams recently, but I won't really focus on comparing this tea to those.  Maybe later, after I've tried a few versions, but comparisons across months of time can be problematic, not just related to taste memory, also to factoring in the effect of expectations shifting.

brewed leaves

Background on the type

I just ran across an interesting introduction to black teas that covered the general types, so it seems a good starting point for mentioning more about what Assam is, then moving on to introducing the producer and this specific tea version.

it kind of works

That article was called "Black tea:  global variety for every taste" by Peter Keen.  The trick for writing a general summary overview like that is what to include and what to leave out, in addition to getting the ideas right.  Both were fairly successful.  Since this is a tea blog I'll have to criticize some choices and content a little but in general it all works.

Assam is listed as the boldest, most full-bodied type.  That matches this review fairly well, and my general impression; they're not light black teas, not really even medium.  Astringency and flavor tend to mix as factors, with the former really relating quite a bit to processing style, and probably also growing conditions, but as flavor intensity goes Assam tends to be on the strong side.  That author mentions this producer in citing some characteristic source examples:

Hamrutty is soft and smooth. The leaf is flecked with gold tips. These are a common feature of great Assams and help lessen the astringency common to most. Halmari offers a wide range of both high end and broken leaf teas. Mangalams teas are lighter than most Assams, without losing their punch and robustness.  These are terrific buys.

Ceylon may well be a little lighter, as shown in that graphic, although to some extent it tends to just swap out malt for ramping up the underlying mineral effect too, still lighter, but also just different.  The "brisk" reference in that Ceylon section of the graphic really relates to astringency, as I understand it, which varies by other factors than origin.

Darjeeling and Chinese teas tend to be lighter yet, and I'd even agree with this placement, saying that Darjeeling tends to be a little stronger in flavor between the two.  Here's where a complication comes in that didn't make the cut for level of detail:  first flush Darjeeling tend to be less oxidized, and not really black tea at all, so it almost doesn't make sense to consider them as the same type of thing.  They're lighter than all other black teas because they're not black (fully oxidized).  Some Darjeeling first flush have a good bit of a characteristic form of astringency but that also relates to lots of factors, and some are quite soft, even fruity.

I've ran across the description "congou" for Chinese teas but it doesn't come up much.  Per one source it was a reference to Gong Fu, used more often to describe a general brewing approach, converted to a marketing term that isn't common now.  Area diversity is the complication there; Keemun and Yunnan blacks (Dian Hong) are mentioned in the article, but per the standard story Lapsang Souchong, a Fujian black, was really the first example of a fully oxidized tea.  But who knows, really; I'm not sure how well conventional understanding and the actual history matches in this case.

Beyond all that missing the next level of detail is kind of a given for a shorter work.  The overall take and choices for where to cut that off weren't so bad.  I'd have covered more characteristic flavor descriptions but that's how related choices would go; people would say different things.

About this producer, Halmari

tea plants!  (photo credit Halmari site)

For purposes here it may not be necessary to say more than that they're a tea plantation in the Assam region, but I will anyway.  Their own intro, the start:

Halmari is located in the Moran district of Dibrugarh, Assam and comprises of 374 hectares of land.

Apparently that works out to 924 acres, a lot of space, and they have 100 year history to go along with all that land to work with.  Their description of this tea:

Leaf : A fine blend of deeply rolled clonal orthodox leaves with a sprinkling of golden tip.

Liquor : Bright, full bodied with hints of clonal character.

Per the site descriptions and pricing their GTGFOP1 Clonal is essentially the next level up of a similar tea, with the pricing on this particular tea quite fair for as good as it seems.  By that I mean this tea costs a fraction of Chinese teas at a comparable quality level, but then I am comparing direct online producer sales to foreign retail outlet sales, not really the same thing.  I still have other samples to review, including an oolong that should be interesting, and I'll see if more doesn't turn up about plant type somewhere along the line.

"Clonal" is a reference to preserving consistent plant genetics by using cuttings as opposed to seed-transmitted growth, an idea that comes up with Darjeeling and other region teas, but there are still details about what the plant actually is.  Variety Assamica as a general type, of course, but I mean beyond that, how it might differ from what was growing wild hundred of years ago, or is present in Yunnan, China now.  All that is really only of academic interest anyway; all you really need to know is experienced by brewing the tea.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Ya Shi (duck shit) Dan Cong from Jip Eu, a Bangkok Chinatown shop

I'm reviewing the first of two teas from visiting the Jip Eu shop a couple weeks ago, this one a Ya Shi (duck shit) Dan Cong.  I usually pick up Wuyi Yancha from that shop, more or less their specialty, but I did try a commercial version of Dan Cong that seemed reasonable awhile back.  I wasn't really familiar with the tea type then (two years ago; the time just flies), so it will be interesting to try another based on a good bit more exposure.

Along with the various versions I have reviewed I tried a round of four Dan Cong samples from a European vendor passing through town this year on a sourcing trip, but didn't write about those teas.  Without really knowing an origin part of the point drops out, reviewing what someone else might try, and they were essentially presented as some random samples.  One was even a mao cha, an unfinished tea.

Based on the last commercial version from this shop I'd expect this tea to be good, just with a bit more astringency than is present in some of the others I've been writing about.  As for appearance and dry scent the tea seems about right, rich and sweet, with just a bit more yellowed leaves than is typical for well-sorted tea but not really much for extra stem.


The rinse, which I didn't discard, is in the right range, sweet, complex, and rich flavored.  It seems heavy on aroma versus flavor, if that means anything, typical for the type.  And perhaps just a little edgy, with just a bit more of that unripened fruit bite than some other better Ya Shi had (like this one reviewed last).  It's an odd aspect, a feel element, really, but one that also can be combined with a bitter flavor aspect in some instances.  There are two different ways to moderate that:  to drop brewing temperature, as is common with other tea types, or to use very short infusion times, which seems a standard approach for these types of teas. 

I'm using water around 90, so not full boiling point but not really cool, and I'll see about shifting timing to make it work out.  Maybe it goes without saying or maybe it's only a judgment call on my part but to me Dan Cong as a type really do require Gongfu style brewing to draw out most of their potential; they just haven't turned out well experimenting with Western style brewing in the past.  This particular tea would also be great cold-brewed, which I normally wouldn't use for Dan Cong due to trying to maximize the potential of a tea, but a moderate cost version like this one is suitable for experimentation.

The tea is nice.  It isn't quite as soft, subtle, and aromatic as some versions I've tried but it's nice tea.  It does have a similar complexity and flavor range as other Ya Shi, which is all not so easy to describe.  It's mostly floral, but a soft, subdued range of floral tone.  There is good sweetness, towards the range of honey, and complexity that extends beyond obvious flavor range.  It tastes like Ya Shi Dan Cong, but that's sort of a circular description, only saying that it tastes like what it is.

The most promising approach would be to zero in on floral tones it relates to, but I'm not so good with flower flavors.  Beyond that the sweetness reminds me most of yellow watermelon, which itself is a bit non-distinct.  It's bright but rich at the same time, with plenty of high tones similar to flowers or that fruit, extending and connecting to a richness that is subtle, like a very light form of toffee, not so far off honey.  Oddly my wife bought yellow watermelon the day after I made these notes, and the red kind; I should try that again before my kids eat all of it.

Something about the warmth and aroma-based nature of aspects in the background also reminds me of spice, but no specific spices come to mind, maybe a mild and sweet root spice, along the lines of sasafrass.  Astringency is pretty limited, not the potential issue I thought might come up.

Mind you it's good tea, just not great tea.  There is another level out there, a way that similar flavors and feel can extend into a really creamy and full richness, covering lots of subtle range that defies description.  For the price--550 baht, as I remember, for 100 grams, just over $15--it seems a steal.

On the next infusion the brightness gives way to more richness.  It might have related to using a slightly longer time but the astringency picked up just a little, not making the tea edgy, just shifting the balance a little.  The light toffee moves towards light caramel, and the feel thickens a little, maybe related to being brewed a little stronger, or it could just be transition.  To bring that back to talk about flavors the bright yellow watermelon fruit tone diminishes and the bright sweet floral moves to a richer floral range.  The astringency isn't just a feel in this tea, it ties to a trace of light bitterness, like biting a plant stem, but not much of that, so it still works well.

The level of roast seems to work well for this tea.  It's not roasted much, so it doesn't push the flavors to be much richer and heavier, but it must be a little, softening the tone and filling in some of that light toffee / caramel sweetness.  This tea is really exactly what I'd hoped it would be.  It could be slightly better, more like $20 / 50 gram quality tea instead, but for costing less than half that it seems a lot better than it should be.  There are certainly specialty vendors out there selling tea that's not this good for twice the price, or more, and they could still be right in claiming that the various quality level versions are type-typical.

At around the sixth infusion in the flavors are shifting to thin out and astringency (that light edge) is playing a larger role.  The best Dan Cong go a little longer in the original range, or stay more positive longer, but at the same time it's also not that unusual for the type to transition on that time-frame.  It's still what I would have expected.  It went on to brew a good number of infusions, it just lost that most positive and interesting character after the first five or so infusions, transitioning throughout those as well.

For a daily-drinker type tea this version is great, better tea than a lot of people who consider themselves tea drinkers might know exists.  For tea enthusiasts with broader types exposure it seems worthwhile to appreciate a range of teas for what they are, to not get caught in the trap of expecting every tea to be better than the last.  Supported by the right tea budget someone could stick with only curated, high level versions of teas but even a limited degree of trying out different sources would bring up variation in tea quality and aspects range.

at a piano lesson, actually looking at the phone / camera

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Yiwu Ding Jia Zhai pu'er vertical tasting (comparing different years)

tasting in progress

It was an interesting experience,  a vertical (multiple years) tasting of teas from Yiwu, more specifically from the Ding Jia Zhai area.  I wasn't making tasting notes so I'll keep this general, just some random impressions, after a quite detailed event summary that outlines the teas:

Puerh Tea Tasting Event - Yiwu "Ding Jia Zhai" vertical tasting - 8th October - 14.00 BKK time
งานชิมชาผูเอ่อร์ "ยี่หวู่ ติงเจียจ้าย" แบบ vertical tasting ข้ามปี วันที่ 8 ตุลาคม เวลา 14.00

Yiwu Dingjiazhai 2013 ร้านชาทีดี (Teadezhang)

Yiwu Dingjiazhai 2011 Chen yuan hao

Yiwu Dingjiazhai 2008 Xi Zhi hao 

Yiwu Zhengshan 2005 Chang Yu Hao

และชาเก่าพิเศษ หนึ่งตัว (and a special old "secret" tea)

Address: The Hive Sukhumvit 69, 200m from BTS Prakanong

ค่าเข้าร่วมงาน 700 บาทต่อท่าน รวมค่าชาและสถานที่จัดงาน ขออนุญาต "งดขนมขบเคี้ยว" เพราะจะทำลายจุดประสงค์ในการชิมชา

Attendance fee 700 Baht per person inclusive of tea and the space. No snacks between the session for the best tea tasting experience.

comfortable tasting space, prior to the event (credit Ty Pip, FB group post)

I've left some Thai text versions in the notice to give a feel for what listening to a language you really don't comprehend is like; sort of a blank space.  I can catch bits, but not so much.  In case you wonder how much 700 baht is I'll save the Google search; just over $20.  I've bought a pot of tea here for about the same, in a cafe I won't name where I'm definitely not a regular, so trying five teas instead is a good value in comparison.

The event started with a glitch on my end when I went to the wrong shared work-space called "the Hive" two elevated train stops down (BTS), due to blindly following a suggestion by typing that name into Google Maps.  It's always about the little details.

Since I won't be going into what Yiwu region teas are like versus others (or certainly not Ding Jia Zhai locale teas within that) I'll cite an interview with a pu'er producer and vendor, William Osmont of Farmerleaf, giving his take on what the different main areas are like (a few of them; it's just a start):

Pu-erh tea features a wide range of tasting profiles. That diversity is due to differences in aging, processing and producing area. Just like the terroirs of wine, tea tastes different according to the genetics, location and management techniques of the tea gardens. It would take a whole book to detail the subtle variations between each mountain and their underlying factors.

Jingmai is famous in the world of tea for its orchid and honey fragrance. Some bitterness is present; astringency is more present than average. In young teas, the mouth feel is generally light and sweet. The Jingmai profile is accessible to the beginners and makes a great introduction to the world of Pu-erh tea because it has a bit of everything. In comparison, Bulang tea is generally more aggressive, featuring more bitterness; Yiwu tea is soft and mellow, with a thick mouth feel. Menkgu is renowned for its complex fragrance and sharp sweetness. 

However, there are many exceptions in each terroirs, and the result in the cup can be very different depending on the processing. 

He's based out of Jing Mai, so a bit biased towards that origin, but all of that should still be reasonable.  These teas should be relatively "soft and mellow, with a thick mouth feel," with plenty of room for variation by version based on all sorts of inputs.

(credit Ty Pip, FB group post)

How it worked out

Of course a lot of the younger versus aged sheng character one would expect to experience was a part of the experience.  Even the younger teas were relatively approachable though, not so astringent or bitter.  I had more problems initially getting into pu'er because there is a tendency for those aspects (tasting too much like taking an aspirin), but not so much across any of those we tried there. 

Yiwu Dingjiazhai 2013 ร้านชาทีดี (Teadezhang), I think this was, some intense tea

The first two teas were a lot stronger in terms of feel, aftertaste, and effect.  People refer to that last part as "qi," a drug-like effect, but I'm never completely sure what the experience is supposed to relate to.  Those two teas hit hard, definitely imparting some type of buzz.  If that continued to escalate it really would've been too much, but it worked out the other way, and later teas seemed to contribute a mellowing effect.

(credit Ty Pip, FB group post)

The other novel experience related to aftertaste, especially for the first two teas.  I've experienced that before,  most in a Golding Kuala Lumpur vendor tea sold as a Jing Mai origin gushu (old tree), here compared with a Farmerleaf version.   One of those first two teas had a pretty strong related effect, and the other was significant, but I've lost track of which was which.  When tasting water between rounds, more or less to cleanse the palate, the water had a comparable level of flavor as the tea, and was a bit sweeter than it, even though it was just plain water.  Cool!  Thaneadopol (Bank; Thais always have a name and a nickname) explained this was the hui gan effect I'd been writing about not so long before.

From there it was interesting noting the way the different storage conditions and ages changed the teas.  Different versions were stored in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Malaysia, as I remember.  It's tough doing this without notes, but it was nice to be off the clock related to that level of reviewing.  Of course the starting point product also varied, so it wasn't just those factors.  One of the teas in the middle of the cycle had an interesting feel, more in the rear and center of the tongue, extending into the throat.  After that--in later year versions--the flavors kept shifting but the feel aspects seemed to diminish.  I was wondering if I wasn't also burning out a little from all the rounds, if that wasn't coloring perceptions.

It wasn't so much that the later, older teas seemed inferior as that intensity shifted to a softer feel and deeper flavors, and again the teas seemed more relaxing.

The special tea, and conclusions

In the end we tried a Liu Bao from the 60s. That was especially interesting for being on that page lately, for reviewing a number of Liu Bao this year, three of them recently.  It was a bit mellower than the much younger versions I've been trying, and better, really. Somehow I expected more variation yet though; the character was still similar.  A slate - like mineral aspect grounded the flavor and maybe the taste was like betel nut, a flavor element related to the type in some references.  I don't know what that tastes like, so I couldn't say. 

I guess I expected something more unusual out of a very old tea, the oldest I've ever tasted, older than myself, given the description was accurate (as I would expect that it was).  It was mellow, and complex, and the experience had some depth, without much in the way of mustiness.  I'm not sure what I expected to be different; nothing specific.

cool when I'm in the pictures (credit Ty Pip, FB group post)

Was it all what I would have expected, all of the tasting?  The idea of an experience and the experience itself are two different things, and I wouldn't have known what to expect, but I guess beyond that maybe.  It was cool experiencing that much tea, and covering that much related ground in one go, especially related to picking out aging and storage input differences.  I missed lots of the discussion for not being fluent in Thai but they would translate parts, and ask what I thought of teas, or transitions in infusions.

It was hard to frame the experience as liking some better than others.  The most interesting part was experiencing the differences, the whole experience together.  It reminded me of an idea from the movie "Pi," about the name of God being a series of numbers, the knowledge of which drove the main character crazy.  That character said it wasn't about the numbers or the sequence, but there was something more compelling about the spaces in between them.  I liked the experience of variation more than any one of the actual teas.

There's something deeper to that point, it seems, something I was just discussing with someone.  I've liked the pu'er that I've tried (only a few dozen versions, and quite a bit less counting only teas I've owned a good bit of; barely getting started).  But the general context and novelty of the type is more interesting than any one of the teas has been enjoyable in terms of aspects. Strange as it is to quote myself conversing I'll go there, since it's directly to that point:

That may end up being what is so interesting about it to me [pu'er], why trying more types and experiencing teas aging has so much appeal.  At the same time there is the opposing point that the pu'er teas I've tried were fine, easy to appreciate, but not where I am for liking teas, at least not as favorites.  It feels a bit like leading the process to try what I think I will like more in the future, but then I drink lots of types, and the experience of variety is part of it too.  

It's funny to hear people say the same so often about pu'er, about trying to like it, or thinking they should, or taking time to "get it."  For any other tea type they'd tend to just not express that range of ideas, they would just move on.  But variation is an interesting part, not to be discounted.

It's hard to really clarify the sense I meant that in.  I'm not really trying to like pu'er more than I already do, but I naturally do like experiencing different tea types.  The addition of aging and fermentation as a factor makes the type more interesting, beyond that of other tea types in that one sense, because any one tea is no longer just one thing.  Wait a few years and it changes. 

Heavily roasted Wuyi Yancha improves with a year or two of mellowing, but of course that isn't an equivalent.  I compared related 21 year old and 30 year old oolongs but they seem to mostly just get a bit more plumy, or pick up a bit of raisin aspect.  People make claims about white teas improving with aging, and I've been on that page quite a bit this year with compressed versions.  Maybe it's a limiting factor that I've only tried four versions, or that the oldest is only nine years old now, but while those white teas were interesting and pleasant they sort of didn't seem to change so much.  Or so it seems to me, compared to those pu'er.

Beyond all that it was nice finally meeting an online tea friend.  All of those guys were friendly, pleasant to spend some time with, but Bank has been something of a reference to me over some years, passing on advice about types or sources, lots of things.  It was a lot to take in, a great experience on a few different levels.