Partly related to co-founding and being an admin for an international themed tea group (this one) I tend to talk to lots of people about tea. After discussing teas with a contact in Vietnam (Huyen Dinh, her profile here), with her showing pictures of some amazing looking and sounding teas, she and I decided to swap some teas. If you meet the right tea enthusiast, someone really into tea for the love of the experience, then it's not that unusual for them to just share some with you, to want to spread the awareness. But a trade sounds nicer, to maintain balance, and I have some tea around that will work well for that.
I was already planning to send tea back to that friend in Kuala Lumpur (and still haven't; related to a glitch over someone being around to receive it). I bought that Dian Hong--black tea from Farmerleaf, from Yunnan--partly related to the idea, and also related to just liking it.
I'll try a tea labeled as "black tea #1" first. That friend works in a tea related business (in Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Vietnam) but my impression is that this is a personal exchange, so I'll only cite original sources to the extent that's relevant and available. I'll go with calling her a friend from here on out since she did just send me a bunch of tea, but she was on the borderline before anyway. As it turns out that's all the detail I'm going to have for this version, that it's a black tea from Vietnam, so the potential goals of supporting vendor marketing or others being able to track down this tea drop out. If it wasn't an exceptional tea there would be no point in even talking about it, but it is.
The tea has a rich dry leaf scent, sweet and complex, malty with a good bit of raisin (or along those lines; that could be a different dried fruit). The look is nice, with long, twisted leaves, with a good bit of bud material. I don't know what it is but the appearance reminds me of other sun-dried versions of black teas, with the look not so far off one of those Dian Hong. It seems possible the color variations could relate to also using yellowed leaves but I really don't know; I guess variations in oxidation in the leaves could be causing that.
The initial taste is intense, in a range that's familiar, but in a complex presentation that's still a bit unique. This tastes like a Chinese black tea, it's just a matter of which one. It's going back a bit but as I'm remembering it tastes more like Golden Monkey than that Dian Hong (but don't hold me to that; I've not been drinking Golden Monkey for quite awhile). At any rate it's whatever Vietnamese version of a black tea it is, and aspects description would seem more informative than a type-mapping attempt.
It is a bit malty, but nothing like an Assam, not even related to Ceylon. I usually contrast malt that's more like ovaltine, like a slightly fermented grain, close to cocoa, with versions that are sort of towards a mineral effect from there, "dryer" and more intense. This isn't really either one. It would be typical to describe the main flavor component as cocoa, I think, and that wouldn't be wrong. I'm seeing it as a complex range, as cocoa, and an unusual expression of malt, one that is richer and sweeter, combined with a roasted sweet potato aspect. There is next to no astringency.
It's hard to say if the body (feel) is actually light or if that's just because I'm only on the first infusion. I'm preparing this Gongfu style, so the count will probably get to well over half a dozen. It definitely expresses lots of fullness in terms of aftertaste; it doesn't just vanish from your mouth. I'm tempted to start passing on subject impression; I like it, but more about in what sense, which parts work better versus my preferences. But this is still just the first infusion, so first things first, I'll try the tea for a few rounds.
I went pretty light on the next infusion to see how it works made that way, since flavor intensity was already pretty good without upping infusion strength. I brewed it for around 15 seconds; not long, given that the tea is probably still opening up. It's a bit counter-intuitive but sometimes a light infusion can make sorting out flavors a little easier, although a stronger than average infusion might tell more of a story about the aspects as a whole, inform about what's going on with body / feel and aftertaste better. It still works quite light, and the sweetness is still very pronounced at this infusion strength. That set of aspects didn't change: cocoa, roasted sweet potato, and range I'm interpreting as malt. Really that could be better described as an aromatic version of a root spice instead, now that I think of it, earthy and sweet, but more subtle. Or it's not that far from sandalwood, as in the incense versions, it's just subdued, layered in with other flavor complexity, and one might tend to think of that as overpowering and dominant in that form, as an incense scent.
I went longer on the next infusion to give that a try, around a minute. The tea wasn't really fading yet, it was about trying it at different infusion strengths, although it may be leveling off a bit. It's plenty intense still, shifting again just a little in terms of flavors proportion. It's still plenty sweet but a darker form of cinnamon joins in with the roasted sweet potato and other range. It's a bit like that one taste aspect in Rou Gui, the Wuyi Yancha (Fujian roasted oolong, or rock oolong, as the translation goes). But there it tends to be a main flavor, and pair with a medium or even medium high roasted effect context, but here it's joining into a range of other flavor aspects instead.
That mix of a darker form of cinnamon and other spice range starts to invoke a dry, earthier version of autumn leaf scent. The incense part, I had called it sandalwood, but it could as easily be frankincense or myrrh; my hippie days are getting pretty far back there. I don't mean the rich, complex, slightly vegetal smell when the leaves are still falling, I mean the late fall / early winter smell when the piles of well dried leaves are all over the place. Again that aftertaste just trails off; after a minute it's half gone, after another minute half of the rest lets up, but it never really completely ends.
It might have made sense to cite these infusions by count; I really didn't expect the flavors to evolve in this way.
On the next infusion the tea is fading a little. The complexity is still there, scaled back a little, and the range is still nice, but it will take over a minute to draw out the same flavor range. Where I was using water down around 90 C / 195 F now I'm going with full boiling point. Not that being precise about it matters, or that using boiling point water wouldn't have been pretty the same all along, since there is no astringency to brew around.
Related to parameters, I'm using a small gaiwan relatively full of tea (sorry about the lack of measurements on that, which is not really how I approach tea; maybe 6-8 grams in a 100 ml gaiwan). Using a reduced proportion doubling all those times would make more sense. To me that's the beauty of Gongfu style brewing; you don't need the tea producer or a table from somewhere to tell you how to make the tea; each last infusion tells you what to adjust to match your own preference. This tea would be ok brewed Western style (putting two grams of tea in a cup of hot water and letting it sit for 4 or 5 minutes instead, more or less), but it would seem a shame to miss the transitions, to narrow it back to drinking two infusions of it. I'd at least double that proportion and go with three shorter, stronger versions myself.
Even using a two minute infusion this tea is still faded, but I hate to let it go. I'm tempted to go boil it and see what comes of that, but I'll give it one more long soak to see how that works first. This next one will have to be more than a half dozen infusions anyway, and that's sort of how it goes with better black teas that don't brew out very quickly, prepared using a higher proportion and shorter brewing times.
Conclusions, the rambling on part
With this tea being so good this set of samples--some aren't really samples, substantial amounts of tea instead--is going to shift what I've experienced of Vietnamese teas. I've tried some really good versions, from my favorite supplier Hatvala, and other sources (one black tea I found in a Hanoi shop I really should have bought a pound of), but a set this good covering this much range changes things. I knew better Vietnamese teas were out there, and I've tried Vietnamese teas that were this good before, but trying so many at the same time is something else.
I was just talking to Huyen about teas evolving and changing character across infusions (who sent the tea), related to discussing tea in a tea group oriented towards beginners. Obviously I have nothing against people new to tea, and I'm not putting myself on a level above them. The point of this blog is to help share what I experience, to help others move through their own tea exploration, which of course would take a different form than mine (everyone is different). If someone only ever drank Twinings they wouldn't experience a lot of the things I'm talking about in this post. I mean a tea transitioning aspects range across infusions, or a pronounced aftertaste, tasting cinnamon and other spice, and roasted sweet potato in a black tea. Not that I'm picking on Twinings; they are the producer of some of the best commercial mass-produced tea I've tried. And lower-medium level quality commercial tea is not a bad thing, even if drinking it never leads someone past it to better teas.
I've been talking about karma lately--this is going to connect, just stick with me--about how it doesn't have to be a mystical force that keeps a score. I suppose I never mentioned that I was into Buddhism for a long time, although I did mention that I was a monk once, but probably passed over a decade of self-study. I don't think I've brought up getting two degrees in religion and philosophy after that part (I'm also an industrial engineer, my current day-job). Anyway, my point was that we live out our experience as who we are, and to some extent the fruits of being a decent person are expressed as good things happening, and positive connections, and just experiencing being decent, versus living a life of manipulating and deceiving others. It might seem like being a corrupt, dishonest, despicable business-man or politician--or both--really does reward one for cutting those corners, but such a person lives out those lies; that's who they are. Would it be worth it to be one of the most powerful people in America to also be the most hated person in America? To some, yes, but in terms of the context of immediate experience I would expect there to be unusual levels of draw-backs.
the whole family is devout (not me, so much, I'm more pragmatic)
Moving on, it's nice that my karma, or at least random chance, has allowed me to have such a kind and generous online friend who shares amazing teas with me. I'm not going to get any more mystical or sappy about it; that's the whole point. Of course I appreciate other things even more than tea, especially my family, but I am really into tea. I want to pass that on, to help others experience versions like this one, but even when online Facebook group discussions provide an opening for that it can often come across as me saying "my tea is better than your tea." I suppose to some extent that's true, at least today, related to comparison with people drinking grocery store tea, but I intend to frame that as pointing out options, not putting myself above others.
A chance online contact shared this tea; I can take no credit for how nice it is. Someone visiting Bangkok might be able to look me up through my FB blog page--named after this--and maybe I can even out that karma a bit, and pass on a sample. Not of this tea; whatever else is around. No guarantees, but it couldn't hurt to check.
Kalani as Tinkerbell
the daughter I never talk about; probably a case of speciesism
while I'm sharing pictures, with the other one