Friday, September 23, 2016

Taste comparison of three Oriental Beauty teas (Bai Hao)

Tea Village (Thai) left, May Zest (Taiwan) right

Who doesn't like Oriental Beauty teas?  That style of oolongs is approachable, complex, sweet, and distinctive, typically expressing a nice range of fruit and spice flavors.  Here I review three of them, directly tasting a Thai and Taiwanese version against each other, then reviewing a third from Taiwan.

One is a tea I've talked about a good bit in the past, a Thai Oriental Beauty sold by Tea Village, a shop in Pattaya and an online vendor; the other two are from May Zest, the first I'll discuss already reviewed separately.  Having covered that ground already the point here is noting how direct comparison goes, since sometimes that points out subtle differences.

Note that this tea type can vary a lot year to year due to the input of the insects in the process (the bug-bitten idea), which Google search will say more about, or other posts in this blog describes.  Tasting the same teas these vendors sell in another year could go differently, or May Zest might sell other versions for that reason (not lots of OB coming out of Thailand to choose from, although I have reviewed others).

Comparison review of two versions

Per appearance the Thai tea has more tips / buds, a good sign, but otherwise the general shape is not so different.  The Thai leaves are darker, the Taiwanese browner versus nearly black.  We'll see what that means related to oxidation level, but I thought both were around the same, quite oxidized.  The standard for the type is 70% oxidized or more (from sources I've referred to in the past), so relatively far towards black teas as oolongs go, even though measuring that may not be so simple.  The scent is different, both sweet.  The May Zest / Taiwanese version comes across with more cinnamon, and the Tea Village / Thai version showing more varied spice and also some earthy tones that are hard to separate.

May Zest left (darker), Tea Village right

Per the rinse this is going to be closer than I thought.  I thought I'd like the Thai tea more, that it would show better complexity, a larger range of interesting flavors, but both seem nice at this early stage, complex and sweet, with lots going on.

The first infusion was a bit light, good for separating out some trace aspects, but the tea will really get going more on the next.  The Tea Village / Thai OB is just beautiful, light and sweet, complex and balanced, clean flavored.  It has fruit aspects (maybe towards peach; I'll check again next infusion), and a cinnamon / nutmeg component, just not as heavy on the cinnamon as the May Zest / Taiwanese tea.

The May Zest tea has good flavors, pronounced cinnamon and honey sweetness, and good complexity, but it does give up just a little in being as "clean."  Related earthy flavors can easily include a little scope that isn't exactly a notable flaw in the tea, but in this case it doesn't come across quite as well in comparison.  It's hard to describe as a taste element, since it comes across as an aspect of how the flavors are, sort of a mustiness, but just a trace.  More on that next round.  Both teas are quite soft, no astringency to deal with, not exactly with a full, rich feel as some other lighter oolong types tend to go but with a nice feel to them,.  Both have a reasonable degree of fullness and just a hint of "structure" from being relatively more oxidized teas (a term borrowed from wine tasting, referring to how the tannins give a tea a certain type of body).

The next infusion goes a little further; things get clearer.  The Thai tea is still sweet and complex, with that spice coming across somewhere between cinnamon and nutmeg, a nice place to be.  There is fruit too, in the peach / apricot range, again more in the middle than being one of those.  The tastes are positive and well balanced, and clean, but subtle enough they don't jump out as a flavor-aspects list, it all comes across as a fruit and spice blend.  Being stone fruit and spice it does come across a little like a cobbler, there just isn't much in the way of a bread / pastry element (maybe a little though).  It's definitely not yeasty, it doesn't have that bread-dough characteristic some teas have.

The cinnamon really picks up in the May Zest version, taking over the other flavors, along with a lot of honey sweetness in the background.  Sometimes when reviews mention honey it almost seems like they are being generous, trying to add some depth to saying a tea has sweetness, but this tastes a lot like a dark amber honey, not so much like the lighter golden type.  A lot of tea sweetness does resemble honey though, so it just depends, in part on interpretation.  The mustiness clarifies a little, but it seems to have evolved to a light background mushroom aspect.  That sounds worse than it really is; it's not like a cinnamon, honey, and mushroom consume, but it does have a touch of earthiness below those other spice / sweetness aspects.  Someone might interpret some aspect as fruit but to me the cinnamon and dark honey cover most of that related flavors range.

May Zest left (a little darker), Tea Village right

This might be a good place to note that I really do like both teas.  There's something that I'm attaching to related to the Thai tea I can't completely place, maybe the complexity, maybe the balance, or general effect, of subtlety.  It's hard to completely eliminate that I might like the idea of the tea better, that something about past experiences may have led to a bias.

That Thai OB is a pretty good tea; worse things could happen than for someone to feel an attachment to it.  It seems to give up a little intensity to the May Zest tea, in terms of sweetness and that cinnamon aspect being so pronounced, but the cleanness and balance is really something.  Then again, per personal preference differences someone else might like the May Zest tea more, especially if that blast of cinnamon really did connect with them.  I might also mention that a friend tried the May Zest OB and didn't thing cinnamon was all that pronounced, although when I first tried it I checked to see if the tea was just plant leaves or includes any shaved cinnamon bark (it doesn't).

Next infusion:  more of the same.  I kept the infusion strength at a medium to get a good idea of what's going on with the teas, and they're not really fading yet, a few infusions in, just transitioning a little.  For this general type that's often not as pronounced as for some others, changes over infusions.  It can vary a lot by brewing approach, Bai Hao / OB (or this variation also goes by Dong Fang Mei Ren).  The Tea Village version softens a little, maybe fades slightly, just not much, but still in that same range.  Probably a little additional complexity creeps in, in the range of dried hay, but it's subtle and integrated with other tastes, not so easy to identify.  The May Zest tea shifts to straight, strong cinnamon, with that musty trace that had shifted to mushroom now shifted towards a dark wood element, which works better with the tree bark / cinnamon spice aspect.

This  general tea type works well brewed Gongfu style, as I'm doing, using multiple, shorter infusions, and a higher proportion of tea to water, but it does just fine brewed Western style too.  It wasn't transitioning a lot, the main reason to use Gongfu style brewing instead, the main difference, aside from the tea potentially turning out differently brewed using different parameters.  Or if you like messing around Gongfu style is nice, not worse in any way.  That general brewing approach also combines well with other interests, like buying things, or owning things, since endless amounts of gear and teapot collecting pairs well with that approach, and can support some sort of Zen meditation experience.  You could even take a video of yourself doing the brewing, which would look cool to other people, especially if you wear some unusual clothing, some sort of robe.

From there both teas just taper off a bit.  Longer brewing times are required to get the same infusion strength, and some of the more earthy background aspects and that oxidation-effect structure stand out more in each.  The May Zest tea may seem just a little more oxidized, also tied to brewing a little darker, but the difference between in the range of 70% to 80% instead isn't notable except for tied to that sort of minor aspect shift.

Review of a third OB, also from May Zest

It looks like an Oriental Beauty, a Bai Hao oolong.  The smell is sweet but in the range of spice and sun dried tomato; different.  The brewed taste includes a good bit of sun dried tomato, and the spice range is cinnamon.  It's an unusual tea, but it comes across better than it sounds (unless that sounds really good,  then maybe just equivalent).

The type often include spices, so the difference is swapping out muscatel or other fruit for a sweet but different taste, something a bit richer.  On the second infusion the cinnamon picks up and the sundried tomato fades back so it's back in a more conventional OB range.  It has some citrus, expressed as orange zest, altogether a nice set.   The empty cup smells like honey, but that's not so uncommon from different teas.

The feel of the tea is nice, well oxidized but in that upper middle range, as OB goes, with that bit of dryness, nicely mixing with a juicy feel.  Later infusions aren't shifting a lot.  Cinnamon stands out as primary, that feel is next most notable, with decent sweetness and relatively clean flavors.  It's almost a shame that rich, vegetal leaning sundried tomato aspect dispelled a little, although still part of the profile.

I wouldn't brew to minimize that astringency since it has no bite or edge, it just gives it a dry feel, but you could coax this tea to being really soft instead, by dropping temperature and drinking it as very light infusions.  To me I'm preparing it as medium, but that would mean different things to different people.  To some I'd be drinking it way too strong, for others perhaps too light.  I like OB's prepared stronger than Dan Cong, if that helps, typically in a similar range as Wuyi Yancha teas maybe, probably just a touch stronger, with black teas brewed a bit stronger yet, usually.  All that depends on the tea, and on my inclination just then.

I tried cooler water and that sundried tomato taste picked way up, maybe for the dry feel and related mineral aspects dropping back.  Or maybe it's not that simple, and it all just shifted.  The mineral component is quite different, like iron ore might taste, earthy in a different way.  This is nothing like the drier, lighter minerals in pu'er, not like mineral tones in Vietnamese green teas, also nothing like that rock taste in Wuyi Yancha.  It would be interesting to visit these places and smell some rocks and dirt, to see how direct the mapping of mineral aspects to soil impressions is.

I could imagine people loving or hating this tea.  People seem to love OB for the fruit aspects, and for being easy to drink, and this works for both but it's not fruity in the normal range (muscatel / grape / citrus / spice).  It's not like drinking a green tea that transitions across a range of vegetables, where you really have to be on that page to appreciate it at all, but it's a bit dry and leans a little towards a savory effect, something different.  I don't mean it includes umami, like a Japanese green tea, but heavy minerals and that one rich, sweet dried tomato effect.

I'm not sure if I'd like it more or less after drinking a couple hundred grams of it but to me it was nice, not too novel, not challenging, and obviously a high quality tea, clean and well balanced.

Subjective comparison; which is better

I think preference for those characteristics I mentioned would determine which is better, and no one of these three clearly is.  The first May Zest OB didn't come across quite as clean-flavored as the other two, and that's one way to judge how "good" a tea is, but it was such a subtle difference that it wouldn't be so evident without direct comparison.  It was still slightly better than the average of other OB types and versions I've tried.  All three were quite decent OB versions.

Perhaps they aren't on the level of those storied most-sought-after teas that never leave their country of origin, but all are good teas.  The Thai version seems better than it ought to be, in reference to every other Thai oolong I've ever tried.  I'd be happy to drink lots of any of them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Mi Lan Xiang Dan Cong from Cindy Chen

More tea from Cindy; like Christmas in September.  She sent a number of different teas, and although it might make more sense to start with a Wuyishan tea (where she's from) I tried the Mi Lan Xiang Dan Cong first.  She didn't send Wuyi Yancha oolongs this time, just this one and black teas instead, saying the wet weather there now isn't ideal for the final roasting processes for those from this spring.

Of course Mi Lan Xiang Dan Cong means honey orchid aroma or scent Dan Cong, one of the main types.

As far as other Dan Cong types go, there is a great older blog that covers those, Tea Obsession, with this post on naming and different versions, and another listing posts on the basics.  I've heard that blog author referred to as "the queen of Dan Congs," but then I'd expect most people familiar with that nickname reference would also know of the blog.


This is exactly how you'd hope this tea would be, an absolute joy to experience.  Peach flavor initially comes across as primary, very sweet and full in taste, so clearly defined that along with the rich flavors of a ripe peach you can almost pick out the tangier taste of the skin.  This could relate to a different type of astringency is also common in Dan Cong, a feel and some related flavors that could be said to resemble unripe fruit, a nice pairing with the very sweet and fragrant teas, when it balances well.  This tea is on the softer side, so the feel doesn't add up to the same type of edge that is present in some, just giving it a little body.

standing by orchids, holding a cat; not my normal look though

Beyond the peach a floral aspect joins in, maybe similar to what a honey orchid smells like.  I have an idea of what that component should be but I can't compare it directly to that flower.  Even though I do end up walking by orchids often enough here I don't recognize the types.

The peach and floral elements are intense but there is complexity beyond that, maybe even a trace of cocoa.  That might sound strange, since cocoa would make perfect sense along with malty, more oxidized (mid-range) oolongs, with stone-fruit flavors like peach but also combined with other elements.  It all combines well, as one full, well-integrated, complex range of flavors.  There is plenty of sweetness, and the tastes are very clean, all balanced really well.  A lot of those complex aspects hangs around on your tongue well after drinking the tea, more important to some, only a little interesting to me.

The level of oxidation and roast seems perfect for drawing out those nice flavors and other aspects.  It's roasted on the lighter side, much less than the standard Wuyi Yancha range of oolongs.  You wouldn't want this to be the first Dan Cong you'd ever tasted or else you might be spoiled for the more ordinary range of those teas.  The flavors and other aspects aren't so unusual, individually, but it really all comes together.

Across the first few infusions I'm not noticing the aspects transition much, but then it would be as well if they stayed close to this range.  The balance seemed to shift into floral a little more, with the peach fading.  I had a kiwi with breakfast and something similar is going on there, just with quite different flavor aspects range, with a fruity, sweet character countered by a citrusy edge.  It might be partly power of suggestion but that slight edge in this tea reminds me of kiwi, in a good sense.

some well-twisted leaves

Some of the more subtle, secondary aspects are nice, but harder to describe.  It just seems fresh and bright.  As with other teas in this type the feel isn't as full and rich as with some oolong types, but it has it's own style of fullness and depth.  A richness comes across as almost like the oiliness in shou pu'er types, but coupled with a much different style of tea.

In part due to preferring this brewed lightly the tea goes on forever, lots of infusions, without that brightness or sweetness fading at all.  Later it takes longer infusions to draw out the flavors, well over thirty seconds versus quite short initially.  Sometimes that process change does shift the flavor profile a lot, but not so much in this case, and the flavors aspects never really go "off" in later infusions.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jun Chiyabari Nepalese Himalayan Orange

A friend visited Bangkok recently, Ethan, and passed on some tea, a nice Himalayan Orange tea from Nepal.  The last really interesting tea he passed on was a Shangrila White tea from Nepal, reviewed here.  I'll say more about what the tea is in the second part, the shortest possible version being that it's like a Darjeeling, which aren't always so easy to categorize.  But I'll go ahead and review it first.

Ethan!  He's out there, but more conventional than he looks.

The tea is nice.  The dry scent seems a little faint, citrusy, with lots more seeming to go on below that, in the fruit range or maybe cocoa, just hard to pick out.  It smells a little like Fruity Pebbles, which to me means it smells like pandan leaves, since that seems to be a characteristic scent / flavor in those (surely artificially based in that cereal version).

The brewed tea strikes that nice balance that nice black versions of Darjeeling get to, lots going on, in the black tea range but different and unique.  Fruit not completely different from muscatel is there, it's just not really like a second flush Darjeeling, not pronounced and distinct, not the main element.  Citrus seems more predominant to me, more like sweet red grapefruit than the other types.  Maybe there is a touch of pandan leaf component in it, which comes across close to a tropical fruit range (an awfully broad scope, that).

It has that black tea character that is typically described as malt, that one limited range pronounced in Assamica teas, but really to me malt can be expressed in different ways.  Some milder, less oxidized teas can taste like a malted milk ball, or Ovaltine, especially when the flavor pairs with cocoa or other softer elements.  Coupled with astringency and other earthy, drier aspects it can be a totally different thing, still like malt, but not the same.  This is sort of in the middle.

I get the sense this tea would change aspects based on brewing parameters.   Brewed stronger it could seem like astringent black teas, a bit stout and full in feel, a bit astringent with earthy aspects.  Brewed lightly and easing up on temperature one could probably draw fruit out more without as much astringency, or maybe even get the fruit related aspects to vary some.  It seemed different across even the first two infusions, perhaps not so much from transitioning as me not minding brewing time closely (more kids' shouting than usual in the background, a bit of a contradiction in saying that because it's so typical in our house).

I  tested that with a really short, cooler infusion next, far from optimizing brewing, just messing around. This would be a good place to mention that I was using a modified western brewing approach,  going a bit heavier on tea ratio so it won't brew out in three infusions, as a more standard Western approach to a black tea might.  That fruit eased up a lot even by the third infusion.  The tea is still malty,  a bit dry, with traces of that complexity layered in.

I tried the tea again two days later, with similar results.  It has good complexity, with lots going on, striking an unusual balance between being a fruity, complex, relatively soft black tea, but also a bit dry, with some earthier components.  It has an unusual version of a typical black tea astringency.  That astringency is not so pronounced one would need to "brew around" it but it is a factor one could balance in different ways, based on differing preparations.  I could imagine different people describing the tea in different ways, even beyond those real variations in how it turns out.  It's really in between a lot of other types and styles, definitely closest to Darjeeling, which one could also say about teas from that region.  It would be interesting to do a comparison tasting directly with a nice second flush Darjeeling, but I didn't.

Beyond the review

Ethan describes a little about what the tea is, and some on brewing, in a recent Tea Chat post on a general black tea discussion thread:

I have been drinking an organic black tea from Jun Chiyabari in Nepal, Himalayan Orange (HOR) most days for > 2 years & have sold much of my large stash to teachat members. 

Lately w/ all tea, I have found myself employing less time for steeping w/o increasing the amount of leaf I use. This practice usually does not cut down on the aroma & flavors I like & avoids most bitterness or astringency that I don't like. For the HOR cutting the time down a lot was not close enough to perfect & keeping steeping almost as long still produced some astringency & bitterness that I used to feel was "body" or "fullness".  Today I accidentally scooped a bit too much leaf & decided not to remove the extra & go "semi-gongfu". A combination of a 45 second, 25 second, & 15 second infusions is excellent. To confirm I like this semi-gongfu & perfect it, I've made a 25, 15, 15 blend that is just what suits me these day when even slight earthiness or bitterness puts me off. This quick steeping is the best.

Interesting about the brewing, isn't it?  He's talking about "stacking," combining different infusions, not something I even try, but an interesting idea.  It seems odd to use such longer times first, then cutting those so much, since a standard practice would be to use a rinse to offset tea needing time to open up (which one could replace by using a slightly longer initial time), then generally adding times as infusions progress.  At any rate I was using an intermediate approach between normal Western and Gongfu styles as well, using a tea to water proportion and time-frames in between those two normal sets of parameters.

Related to buying a lot and sharing it (selling it), he had to buy a number of kilograms to get the tea from the source he did, and he said that still has some left, so he could still sell more of it.  He also said more about sourcing issues in conversation, and you could ask him about all that through this contact (  Initially one might wonder how two years of storage has changed the tea, which Ethan commented on:

My conclusion is that this HOR has strengthened w/ time. All it s flavors & characteristics are stronger.

I tried this tea once over a year ago, based on the Tea Village shop owner in Pattaya sharing some Ethan gave him to try then, and the tea isn't like I remember it.  But then a distant memory of trying a tea in passing is not much to go on.  It's a bit of an aside, but it's a nice sign when a tea vendor shares teas they don't even sell with you, not the only time that's came up.  This tea seems more like a conventional black tea now than I recall, more oxidized, less literally "orange" than I remember it, with a bit more astringency.  Or maybe the other flavors are just more subdued, which would take results to roughly the same place.  Or maybe I just remember it wrong.

I'm curious about what cultivar the tea is made from, and which flush it is.  Since it seems more like a black tea than I remember, a lot like a second flush Darjeeling, it would seem like Chinese tea plant type or else a related hybrid, and probably second flush.  But then the typical characteristics profile for second flush Darjeeling relates to multiple factors, to changes in the leaves across different harvest seasons, and also to those teas being prepared as more oxidized than first flush (typically, per my understanding, but that wouldn't always be the case).  I remember the tea as not being oxidized to the normal black tea range, which is close to how it comes across now, except the brewed leaf appearance tells a different story altogether.  Lets look at that:

Fully oxidized tea brewed leaf is brown; this retains a greenish color.  It also has a slight greyish-green look to it, which can be characteristic of aged less-oxidized leaves.

The Jun Chiyabari website (link here) doesn't mention this tea, or any specific teas, just general categories and background, so there is nothing to go on there.  A US vendor tea blog (Happy Earth tea) mentions some background, and a little on types:

Jun Chiyabari was set up in 2001 by two brothers Bachan and Lochan Gyawali. The 75 hectares garden was situated in the hills of Hille, just about 50 miles east of Darjeeling. The well-travelled brothers planted varietals from Dong Ding, Taiwan and wild forests of Miyazaki, Japan, unlike other gardens in the area that limited themselves to tea plants from Darjeeling.

Of course that really doesn't say what this tea is, and is nonspecific in general, and they don't sell this particular tea to help clarify it in particular.  Another vendor site, Klasek tea, goes further (they're in Prague, Czech Republic, totally unrelated to this tea or producer, but cool):

The tea garden in the eastern Himalayan region of Nepal, located in the hills around Hile in Dhankuta district...  The garden falls within an elevation of 1600 - 2000 meters above sea level. This area is about 200 km east from Kathmandu; 55 km west of Ilam in Nepal and 65 km west of Darjeeling, India.

From Nepal came plants (cuttings and seeds) from the original seeds plants given by the Qing (??) Emperors (1850’s-1860’s) to Nepal’s rulers. Locally available plants from Nepal Tea Board like AV2 were also planted.  From Darjeeling we got cultivars like T1, T78 and Phoobshering 312 and many others. Also valuable cuttings and seeds from China seeds plants were obtained through friends and well wishers.  From Japan common variety like Yabukita and some special tea plants growing wild in the forests in Miyazaki ken were planted out.  From Taiwan plants like Si Ji Chun (??? / Shikiharu) and Chin Sin Oolong (????) from Dong Ding in Nantou were brought and planted.

Could be anything then.  Si Ji Chun and Chin Shin are familiar enough; not sure what the question is related to those.  I've had some great luck with Gopaldhara tea versions based on AV2 cultivar, a hybrid of variety Sinensis and Assamica plants, but that's just part of this list.  That vendor does sell a tea described as Himalayan Orange, a second flush black tea, but their description doesn't include a plant type:

Clear gold red-brown in a cup with full rounded and smooth flavor with tones of cocoa, cinamon, tropical fruits and long sweet nutty aftertaste.

The tea I tried seemed a bit heavier on fruit than this description, and I wasn't noticing much cocoa (maybe in the scent, not as much in the tea), and no cinnamon, but the rest sounds close enough, probably the same tea.

After all that hard to know what note to end on to wrap it all up.  It was a nice, unique, interesting tea; between this one and the Shangrila White a sign that some novel teas are coming out of Nepal.