Monday, October 17, 2016

About Thai teas and tea in Thailand

Originally posted as:

I presented about Thai teas at an unusual type of expat meet-up event in Bangkok a month ago, described here, and I just realized that I've never discussed Thai teas in a TChing post.

I've been living in Bangkok for nine years now--the time just flies--and blogging about tea for three years.  I was drinking loose tea for longer than that previously, with Thai oolongs as one cause for getting further into tea.  The full story of Thai tea is too much to cover but here goes a start on it.

a Thai oolong made in a Dong Ding style

Modern Thai tea production relates to a government and Thai Royalty initiative to replace opium production with tea around 25 years ago, importing cultivars from Taiwan to be grown in the Chiang Rai area in the North.  Those are typically processed into lightly oxidized rolled oolongs, as in Taiwan.

Most common are TRES cultivar #12 / Jin Xuan or #17 / Bai Lu (which somehow are typically marketed as Ruan Zhi, even though that's a different plant type).  More recently they also make some green and black tea versions from those, and Bai Hao / Oriental Beauty, and just a little hei cha, but not much else.

local brewing gear (photo credit)

The older tea tradition is also interesting.  Tea plants are growing here that are old; how old or related to what earlier cultivation history being a bit of a mystery, but I did go into that a bit researching a pu'er-style tea I reviewed from Myanmar.  Chinese immigration to this area started some time ago, perhaps thousands of years back, so tea really could have been native to here or cultivated here a long time ago.  Per an article cited in that post a trade route from China to India through this region went back to at least second century BC, maybe earlier.

It's my understanding that Assamica-type based teas, mostly made into black tea, are most typically grown in the Chiang Mai area, representing most tea production prior to those recent oolong related initiatives.  Of course black tea is considered a newer development related to earlier forms of green tea, compressed tea, and powdered teas, when one goes back far enough into tea history.

The typical question people ask is "what is Thai tea like; how good is it?"  That's too broad for one simple answer, but to oversimplify by a lot it's ok (the oolongs), like tea from Taiwan, just typically not as good as lighter oolongs from there.  Beyond that summary things get complicated.  The demand for tea is much higher in Taiwan, and it's my understanding that some of the best Thai teas go there to be sold as tea from Taiwan, counterfeit versions of it, since the style is similar.

How do I know that?  From hearsay, of course.  It's an idea that comes up a lot, related to both Thai and Vietnamese teas.  One anecdotal confirmation came in the form a Tea Chat thread; someone visiting the North of Thailand recently saw Thai teas being labeled and sold as tea from Taiwan, with the vendor there openly confirming the true source.  Odd, right, counterfeit tea being sold right where it was from, sold as from somewhere else?  It would seem more natural for the teas to make that trip to Taiwan, and be sold from there, but of course I can't even guess to what extent this does go on.

Thai iced tea, made in an espresso machine

Part of the explanation for limited range of teas produced is that Thais don't drink much loose tea.  That's a very broad generalization, since some do, but most really don't.  People here typically have some idea what "oolong" is, so might be that slight margin ahead of many Americans in terms of exposure, but they tend to drink coffee instead, or bubble tea.

Thai iced tea is an exception, a spiced blend not completely dissimilar to masala chai, just not the same.  The characteristic orange color in the modern "Thai tea" version comes from food coloring.  Per research more traditional versions might not be based on star anise, as they are now, but instead on blending crushed roasted tamarind seeds and orange blossoms with black tea, Assamica based  (more on how to make a version here, and the history here).  The other "traditional" Thai tea is black tea brewed and served with sweetened condensed milk.  Again it's hard to say what pre-dated that, before sweetened condensed milk became common; maybe just black tea with milk and sugar.

Conventional Chinese teas can be found in Chinatown, and of course other people from other countries that live here bring their own tradition.  Thailand has longstanding close ties with lots of countries and cultures, especially Japan.  Lots of sections of Bangkok serve as immigrant neighborhoods and cultural centers, with the degree of influence limited by distance (not much of a "little Mexico" here).

with the Jip Eu shop owner, a 90 year old Chinatown shop

Along with China India influenced Thai culture the most, related to Buddhism, and language and culture development, but that didn't seem to carry over into much related to modern tea consumption.  Beyond that there is a wave of modern, new tea cafes opening in Bangkok, really only beginning in the last few years.  To some degree various floral and herbal blends are leading a new discovery of tea here, and matcha, but those are limited at this point, with matcha flavored ice cream a good bit more common.

Secondary concerns like diversity and selection of physical tea shops, online tea vendors, or number of tea bloggers all progress gradually.  I post a good bit about new tea sources and cafes as I run across those but there's not lots to tell.  I found two sources for Sri Lankan teas in the last year, and although there aren't many Thais drinking better Ceylon just yet it will continue to go like that, with greater exposure and demand leading to more options, with better domestic Thai tea production going along with that.  Every new cafe pushes those boundaries that little bit more.  Peace Oriental helped introduce high end matcha appreciation and a Zen theme cafe environment (and the idea of a $20 pot of tea), Seven Suns is trying to expand on what's going on with blends and "ordinary" specialty tea, and Peony is trying to make it all mainstream with mall shops.  It's an interesting time for Thai teas.

with deepest respect to the King of Thailand, 1927-2016, a truly great man

Oriental Beauty / Bai Hao, tea sample #8 from May Zest

I went through a bit of a complicated tea tasting yesterday, comparing three different Jin Jun Mei, so I wanted to go more basic today.  I'll try to do a simple, short review of a random tea sample sent by May Zest.  They are a wholesale-oriented tea company in Taiwan that I bought a good bit of another OB and black tea from not so long ago.  Related to that sales model, they don't sell sample packs or by 50 gram lots, but it is possible to buy as little as 250 grams at a time from them.

This sample was a truly random selection as well; I just knew the number prior to opening it, #8.  Turns out it's another Oriental Beauty, and a nice looking version at that.

The dry tea smells like cinnamon, mostly.  The brewed tea tastes like it too, with other aspects that round out that primary taste nicely.  Of course there is plenty of sweetness, and a rich fullness under that one flavor element, into a supporting range of aspects that work well, dried hay and such, neutral flavors.  The sweetness is good, the feel is full, the flavors are clean and balanced, if a bit less complex in terms of a list, but then it is just getting started.

There is enough complexity that someone with a good imagination could really extend that assessment, by a lot.  Maybe it tastes a little like blackberry as well, probably a little more like citrus really, and that full richness could come across as a hint of butter too.  The general effect is a brightness, fresh and dynamic.  It's nice when a tea this oxidized can somehow pull that off, as is unique to OB (or Bai Hao / Dong Fang Mei Ren; the type goes by a few names).

The preparation style and oxidation level work out well.  It isn't drifting into black tea territory as can occur, retaining that upper-middle-range oolong effect that really works.

A few infusions in it doesn't shift much.  I'm brewing it Gongfu style, although it would work to brew this Western style, but worth a bit more messing around to see if there is transition to notice.  Those same aspects shift a little in proportion, with the buttery richness picking up, cinnamon toning down, and citrus becoming more pronounced.  As bright as the citrus element is it reminds me of pineapple, but it's not clearly one distinct form of citrus.  The blackberry seemed to really be a hint of muscatel, or maybe the two were just in a related flavor-space and it's moving from one to the other.

This is pretty good OB.   This tea type changes more than most year to year, due to the input insects contribute (more on that here), so it's more likely exactly the same version isn't available year to year.  On their detailed listing (not on the website) teas in the category are just sold as OB / Bai Hao / Dong Fang Mei Ren, along with a ranking of grade, (A, B, etc.).  Really tea characteristics vary in the type, spice versus fruit and such, one I reviewed from them even had a touch of sun-dried tomato, so grading in a completely linear way like that is limited; different people would like different versions.

Related to all those other OB I've been reviewing this year--a similar one from them here, and a taste comparison of three here, including one version from Thailand--if someone likes cinnamon as a main element this is a strong contender to be the best one.  Even if they didn't it's hard to imagine someone not liking the tea, unless they hate cinnamon, which is odd to even type out.  What kind of a twisted sense of general taste preferences would that correspond to?  Maybe "not preferring cinnamon as a primary taste component in tea" is more understandable.

the usual look

There's even something catchy going on in the feel of this tea, a fullness, a wetness, with a hint of dryness.  I've been reading about components in teas lately and that might mean something to someone, just not to me, at least not yet.  The aftertaste is nice too; full, lingering, clean.

After many infusions the longer brewing times draws out more of a woody taste, not bad, just different.  The brightness subsides but the flavors stay nice and clean.  The tea wasn't really a surprise after trying a lot of OB versions this year but it's always nice to try a really nice one.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Comparing three amazing Jin Jun Mei from Cindy Chen

Jin Jun Mei, golden version

It's a tall order, but Cindy sent good-sized samples of three different Jin Jun Mei to try, so it seemed obvious to taste-compare all three together.  There were lots of noticeable differences in the dry scents, but it seemed as well to start with reviewing the brewed tea, not the dry tea scents.  Even that is going to be a bit much.  Comparing two teas in tasting is interesting, and it can really highlight minor differences in aspects, but adding making comprehensive tasting notes to a detailed review gets to be a lot, even for two teas (even for one, really, it can be much nicer to just drink the tea sometimes).  A few notes about impression of lots of teas would be one thing but a detailed, aspect-by-aspect review is something else.

JJM, "good in aroma" version

The three teas are a golden Jin Jun Mei, a "good in aroma" JJM, and a "good in soup" version.  It's always seemed like people stumble over trying to translate whatever "brewed tea" works out to be in original Chinese languages.  It must be close to "soup," as Cindy has used, or liquor, as one also commonly sees, but brewed tea is not soup or liquor, as we use those words in English.  People understand what is meant, so either works, or dragging out the extra word and saying "brewed tea" would also do the job.  It's "soup" here, shortened from "good in soup" in that version description in lots of places.  Straight to it then.

The first infusion of the golden JJM is nice, right in that ideal range.  I would imagine a paragraph on that taste profile would just be a write-up about how JJM tastes in general, and then the comparison would vary from there.  I did struggle with a more general description in this post comparing the tea style to Lapsang Souchong (the LS version that isn't Jin Jun Mei, the type made of leaves).  Even that first part isn't so easy, about the type and general range.  It's a softer type of black tea, but very rich and complex, with good sweetness and a full flavor profile.  There are fruit and earth aspects to it, probably some spice layered in, and a slight dryness, but nothing like the dryness and earthiness in that last tea from Nepal I just tasted, the golden tips version.  That was a nice tea but these are some next-level teas.

JJM, "good in soup" version

No written description could do this tea any justice; kind of a strange place to start in doing a review, but that's how it is.  The complexity, that range of flavors you just don't ever see, the way it integrates, the feel, the cleanness, the way sweetness balances earth and other elements--it's absolutely off the charts.  I'm reminded of a comment about the wild Lapsang Souchong Cindy sent a sample of in a forum discussion (do I even need to clarify the tea wasn't smoked?):  it's just damned good tea.  Even the basic flavors list description is too much to grasp, too much complexity to describe as a list.  The others likely are too, in different ways.  This would be a lot easier if I'd just say these are three different related versions of damned good tea.

The "good in aroma" version comes across a little sweeter, a little lighter, across a lot of the same range but quite different.  It's a little sweeter, more subtle, less of the mineral undertone and butternut squash / yam range, more floral, but not exactly floral in the sense lots of other teas that describes are.  But then I'm not going to finish this comparison in one taste; I'll fill more details in as I go.

The "good in soup" version is completely different.  It's more like an unsmoked Lapsang Souchong (well, technically it is one, but you know what I mean, the other kind made with leaves instead of just buds).  It has more of a black tea taste, just not at all in the range of other black teas, more earth of a different kind and more mineral, not as sweet and light and subtle as the aroma version.  Mineral is more pronounced, a lot more tie to the other Wuyi Yancha range people are familiar with, which itself comes across in a very broad range.  I definitely don't mean the cardboard / dark wood / leather / cinnamon range ordinary versions of Wuyi Yancha exhibit, I mean the characteristic mineral undertone.  It's still sweet, still very complex, and would still be the best Jin Jun Mei most people have ever tried, by a good bit, but I'm not sure which of these three I'd like best yet.

golden lower left, "good in aroma" top, "good in soup" lower right

On the second infusion the golden JJM picks up the flavors profile a lot.  This could be a tricky tea to brew in the sense that you want to get it just right to optimize it, not that it wouldn't work well across a range of infusion strengths or made in different ways, but you'd want to get the most out of it.  Brewed perfectly this type of tea can go from great to transcendent, at least great versions.  It's a bit complex to describe.  Earthiness picked up a little, almost like a touch of coffee, along with a hint of smoke, but still plenty of sweetness, in a soft, rich, full tea.  It's really amazing.  There's malt present, and that familiar Chinese black tea sweetness people attribute to yams or sweet potato, which to me is great or not so good depending on how it balances with other flavors--here working well, to say the least.

The "aroma" JJM picked up a lot more floral character, although "floral" really doesn't do it justice.  The flavors range experience is different than the golden version, maybe in a sense not as complex, more limited, but that other level of experience is really something.  It really does a lot with subtlety, still complex, just not as complex and in a different range of experience.

The soup version is moving off in it's own direction.  Now it's not like other JJM I've tried, or Lapsang Souchong so much, but complex, still nice.  It has a good bit of woody character, still a bit sweet with mineral tones but not like the others.  The floral / sweet aroma from the aroma version isn't really pronounced, and the flavors complexity in the golden version isn't present.  It is nice within the range it expresses but I think I like the golden version better, at this point in the tasting.

More of the same next infusion for the golden JJM.  It's interesting that flavors aspect range extends to include a touch of coffee like that, along with the normal range, sweetness, yam / sweet potato, and toffee, probably a touch of some spice, just not a familiar spice, in the wood-bark spice range but not cinnamon.  I'm not saying much about feel but it's what one might expect, rich in an unusual way, a bit "resinous," as fellow-blogger Amanda of Rambling Butterflies blog describes it.  Maybe it's not clear; that's saying it's a good thing, although I guess that would depend on preferences.  On the whole the complexity and the way all those different aspects come together is just great.

The aroma version keeps gaining depth.  Floral is shifting to a nice, light, subtle root-spice range, towards sassafras, although probably closer to some spice I'm not familiar with.  I'm reminded of visiting a spice market in Seoul, in a giant open room full of roots, tree barks, and herbs, being overwhelmed by a complex range of wonderful spice smells.  It was so amazing I could just stand and smell, nothing discernible, just a cacophony of experience, except related to smell and not sound, and pleasant instead of harsh.  This is much simpler but pleasant and unfamiliar in a similar way.

It is odd how the taste profile in the sense of one part of the range of experience is limited but a lighter, different range is so pronounced.  I get it, about the "aroma" description.  It's not that liquor-like aroma that some Wuyi Yancha express, lighter, complex, floral extending into all sorts of subtle range.  It would be possible to go a little stronger on the infusion strength to draw more body out of it, since it comes across as light, but I don't miss that, and the effect of the flavors in that "aroma" range is plenty to experience.

The soup version goes just a little further in the same direction.  When you taste it some component that hits your palate first is a little shocking, but it transitions into a rich, different range so fast it's hard to identify that element.  It might just be the shock of tasting it after the other two but I think there is something unexpected there, maybe in a wood-tone / vegetal range.  It also has a bit of root-beer character to it, and a little mineral, just not much.  If you drank this tea alone you'd likely say "now I get JJM," but alongside these other two there is a lot more range to experience, and depending on how preference plays out it could easily be a least favorite.  Or maybe a favorite; preference variation is odd like that.

good in soup upper left, golden upper right, good in aroma lower

All three are good teas, or really a bit better than what I usually mean by "good."  For other teas that are good but not on this level the experience is about appreciating one or more positive aspects, or complexity, or feel, or cleanness, but for all these it's just a given that the whole range of general positive aspects is sort of covered.  It's not about focusing on something positive, or appreciating that the range and effect is nice, but instead about narrowing into how unique aspects in the absolutely right kind of context relate to preference, or enjoying the synchronicity.  Or it would be nice to not analyze it, and just be swept along by all that.

Tasting these together feels a little like a turning point in my experience of tea, like that first visit to a decent tea shop when you think "I get this!"  Of course I don't completely get it, in the sense of a veteran tea expert completely placing a tea based on vast experience, but it all clicks a little better.

Relating to my own preference; I liked the golden version best, aroma next best.  The "soup" version wasn't a flawed tea, not bad or even in a more average range, it just didn't click with me in the same way.  I could easily imagine someone liking the "aroma" version even more, that to some it would capture the essence of what JJM is supposed to be; that experience is unique, the brightness, subtlety, sweet floral tones in a black tea, the balance.  A lot of people might not feel like it was a black tea, given how all that comes across, since it's absolutely the opposite of commercial grade Assamica based teas.  There is no astringency at all, not malty or earthy, much ligher, brighter, sweeter and more complex--in it's own way, in a limited scope.  It shares a lot with some aspects range of oolongs, in a sense, it just doesn't remind me of any in particular; it's unique.

Cindy and her uncle; tea legends

I could imagine some people not liking the golden version; the mineral aspects leading into a coffee range being too much.  Since I love dark roasted oolongs (maybe mid-roasted a little more; not the point here) it's still on the lighter side of where that general range can lead.  Without the rest of the range, that feel, the sweetness, the other flavor complexity it might not work, but to me it strikes an incredible balance.

Taken together with the last wild Lapsang Souchong I reviewed from Cindy these teas have given me a new appreciation for Wuyishan black teas.  I get the sense I'll never stop turning new pages related to all the teas from that area.  It's nice when tea type just clicks, and you absolutely love that, and want to have very similar experiences over and over, but this experience is nice too, when those subtle variations add up to relatively new experiences.