Thursday, August 18, 2016

China Life Jin Ya Dian Hong, Yunnan black tea

A friend passed on this tea in a recent visit to Bangkok (full name Feng Qing Jin Ya Dian Hong, from China Life).  It's a nice friend that gives you tea this good to try, an interesting and very pleasant Chinese black tea, with a style that doesn't really match conventional black teas.  I'll describe what it is more at the end, with a little research into the type and explanation of the name, but basically it's a buds-only black tea from Yunnan.


The taste is just what one might hope for, soft, full, complex, a bit sweet, with a nice dryness to the feel, nothing questionable or out of place.  It works well to describe this particular tea as a list of flavors since there are so many to pick out.  So lets do that:  the package cites cocoa, malt, and hay, and this tea includes those as predominant elements, although malt seems to be used to describe a range of different closely related tastes in teas.  Flavor aspects also include yams, with just a hint of smoke, and I could swear there's a little vanilla in the background.  I'm not noticing pepper so much; maybe.

For me the sweet potato / yam range can be too much in some teas, leaning towards an artificial sweetener taste if too strong, but in this case it's all in great balance, all expressed as positive aspects that work well together.  I think there is even a mild mineral tone as a base flavor that helps it all really integrate, but that's hard to pick up, more like the context for the rest of the flavors.

It's the feel and balance that make the tea work so well though.  That slight dryness--nothing like astringency in typical Assamica black teas, although it is vaguely related--offsets a generally soft feel.  Along with that a nice sweetness brings all the aspects to a good balance.  I get the impression that the tea would deal well with being drank at different strengths, based on preference, working well quite wispy or standing up well to someone liking tea brewed strong.  It also seems like a tea that would be hard to screw up.

Some teas are difficult to brew, expressing a range of aspects depending on slight shifts in parameters, tricky to optimize, and this doesn't seem like that.  There seems to be no need to completely dial in approach, no astringency to brew around, no subtle aspects that are hard to draw out.  I guess one might see it as a trade-off that it's easy to get great results but capable of less variation.  For me it's really nice as it is so that's not really a trade off.

Seems too early to stop there, but that about reviews it.  From drinking pu'er lately I almost want to describe how the feel comes across within your mouth, where it's located, or how the aftertaste plays out, but those things don't seem to add so much (in general, for me, perhaps more than for this tea in particular).  For what it's worth I feel the tea more on the sides of my tongue, and a little in the back of my tongue at the end, which means nothing to me.  The taste does stick around after you drink it for a black tea, with that dry cocoa effect and a trace of yam sweetness lingering pleasantly.

About brewing, it's pretty simple, still black tea even though it is from tea buds (more on that in the next section).  The one interesting twist is that it brews really nice later infusions, not giving up much at all in terms of that full taste profile, sweetness, clean flavors, etc.  As with Silver Needle style white teas it keeps on brewing nice tea.  After several steeps you need to go a bit longer on time, and that draws out a little more mineral and dark caramel flavor but that's really nice too, and the sweetness and clean-flavored effects stick around.

Even after white teas seem done, having brewed lots, you can draw out one extra one by cold-steeping the leaves again (or buds only, depending on the tea).  To do so you just put the tea mixed with warm--but not hot water--in the refrigerator for a good long time, and let it steep on it's own.  How long doesn't seem to matter, six hours or a day.  I didn't think to check if that would work with this the first time I made it; I'll have to.

Dian Hong research section:

Why not a bit more about the general type.  It doesn't take much reading around to get to the idea that Dian Hong can include buds and leaves, and Jin Ya Dian Hong is just the buds (kind of obvious the tea was that from looking at it), with Feng Qing as the location, a county per the China Life description.  Here's a bit on the type from Seven Cups (a vendor, who's version I've not tried before):

Yunnan Province first began producing black tea in 1939.... Jin Ya was invented in 1958 by Feng Qing tea company. Instead of using 1 bud to 2-3 leaves, they started picking only tea buds. Yunnan Province was the first place to make black tea entirely from tea buds. If left on the tea bush, healthy tea buds will open in to five or six tea leaves...  The tea master must completely control the oxidation process throughout every layer of the bud... Black tea that is too oxidized will be sour, and under oxidized tea will very heavy and tannic.

This version wasn't tannic or sour at all so I guess they nailed it.  Not really about this tea type but there's an interesting mention of an old tea tree, a subject that keeps coming up:

There is one famous tea tree in Feng Qing County, called “Xiang Zhu Qing Cha Zu”. It is the largest and thickest tea tree that has been found, and is protected nationally because of its botanical significance. This tea tree is estimated to be 3200 years old and the diameter of the trunk of 1.84 meters thick.

Good to know!  They should try to make pu'er from that (just kidding).  I noticed a Seven Cups guide for brewing Dian Hong Jin Ya on You Tube looking for a China Life reference for it there, but as the video describes there isn't much to it; it's black tea.  China Life does post a lot of nice brewing and type guides on YouTube, just not related to this type.  The tea works out well brewed Western style using boiling water, steeped for three minutes or so, then for more time for later infusions.  As with any brewing all of that could be adjusted for preference, shifting any parameters as one is inclined, but again it seems to me a strength of this tea is that you don't need to fine tune brewing conditions to get great results.

It would even be possible to brew this grandpa-style, to use unregulated infusion time, to just drink the tea as leaves mixed with water without separating them, but I wouldn't.  The tea is too nice when brewed to a good infusion-strength balance point to give that up.

May Zest Oriental Beauty (Bai Hao oolong)

The tea tastes like an Oriental Beauty (what I'm going to call Bai Hao here; the same thing).  It's a pretty good version of one from May Zest tea, but of course good is always relative.  Per my understanding the typical type profile aspects include muscatel, citrus, other fruit, and spice, with good sweetness and aromatic characteristics, and this one is like that, heavy on the spice.  That spice in this version is cinnamon, not really atypical, just not normally so pronounced, and quite pleasant to experience since I like cinnamon in a tea.  There is some citrus and a good bit of muscatel, with nice clean flavors, and good sweetness, with fruit in the range of peach as a secondary element.

I feel like that's just about it for the review; it tastes like a nice OB should, just a spice intensive version, while some go heavier on fruit aspects (peach and such, maybe even berry for some).  It's right in the middle for level of oxidation, the normal amount for the type, on the high side as other oolongs often go, even those described as mid-level oxidized.  Or maybe level of roast might complicate all that a little, but I must admit I'm not completely clear on how processing this varies from other conventional oolong types.  Some OB / Bai Hao versions could have more tips that this one, but it does include some, and the look and dry leaf smell are what one would expect.

This tea is one of several grades of OB that May Zest sells, not the highest, per my understanding, since they were out of some others at time of order.  Since I understand this is a summer tea maybe that will change in a month or two, and for a tea like this type what they find and sell might well change a good bit year to year.  Per the general type it depends on a specific type of insect eating just the right amount of the tea leaves.  I've recently read a good World of Tea general type reference about how that works, or a more conventional Tea Masters blog review format (Taiwan based blog) says more, and I wrote a blog post summary of the same issues last year.  China Life made a video summary about the type, for people that prefer to watch video (but still read this blog, I guess, since I'm mentioning it here).

How would the other grades differ?  I'd expect they could have more fruit, a brighter effect, shifting the balance from spice to citrus and more muscatel, maybe even into berry and such.  Quality level also depends on sweetness, for this tea, and a full feel, and clean flavors, how well a tea brews consistently across a number of infusions.  This version performs well related to those, per my understanding, compared to other versions, so a main factor is if cinnamon as a dominant taste element is preferred or not.

The China Life version I recently reviewed was different for being more oxidized, another variation someone may or may not prefer.  Per both the Tea Masters blog post and the May Zest description OB versions are typically 70% oxidized and up, so not exactly mid-level compared to other types of oolongs, on the high side, but on the upper end of that range a tea would start to seem like a black tea.

Tea blogging and preference judgments

a Thai version of an Oriental Beauty; not so different

Lately I've been considering the idea of saying exactly how good teas are, or rather working around that, feeling a gap when I don't give a full opinion.  To communicate my full impression of an Oriental Beauty, when I've tried others relatively recently, it would make sense to compare the teas directly, but that wouldn't seem so necessary to a vendor if their tea compared less favorably.  I'd be communicating my opinion, though, and someone else's might well vary.  In this case someone could love cinnamon in a tea and not prefer fruit, or vice versa, and that would tip the balance of their impression.

This concern also leads to the role of a blogger.  Is the writing for marketing, speaking for vendors, in order to get some free product out of it, or is it objective review, to inform the readers?  Related to that part about samples, I bought this tea, but they sent some extra samples, and they've passed on free samples in the past, so it's a factor that still applies in this case.  It may seem like bloggers that only discuss aspects get the balance right; a tea tastes or feels a certain way--that's it.  But two teas could share virtually identical aspects as they would be defined, and still be different quality level teas.  For example, I just tried a Dian Hong that tasted like malt, chocolate, hay, and yams, and a better or worse version might also taste like that list of aspects, but not be as good, or could be better.  It only goes so far to specify how "feel" relates, or how "clean" flavors are, or the issue of a tea brewing more consistent infusions.  Bloggers / tea reviewers get their own sense of this, how good a tea is, but again it mixes with issues of subjective preference.  I'd think most would get some sense of how those two inputs play out.

A lot of this ties back to my recent post about unwritten rules of blogging about tea, on reviewing conventions.  Citing personal preference related to teas breaks with convention, although it's also normal for tea bloggers to imply that they absolutely love every tea.  I claimed that it violates convention to review a tea from a wholesale source, and May Zest is that, they just don't sell teas per 50 gram sizes through a check-out website.  Why wouldn't someone review tea from different types of sources?  It would be strange to review a tea from both an original source and the vendor that resells it (that tend to give bloggers free samples), especially since that resale vendor would rather not publicize where the teas come from.  It also violates a convention--breaks one of those rules--to talk about tea pricing, but obviously along with a requirement to buy higher volumes pricing is lower from wholesale-theme vendors too.

The trend now is for vendors to buy direct, right, if not directly from a tea farmer then from someone who claims to have done so.  In a sense it doesn't matter that it's almost impossible to verify that, that a reseller in the middle could still pass on where the tea came from, who grew it, so marketing could just refer to the more upstream step.  In that example it would seem to not matter which company someone bought it from, but each step would add resale cost.  One other issue with final-level vendors buying tea from wholesale sellers (that might buy from aggregators, another layer) beyond adding costs is that it's possible that more mediocre, mass-produced teas would take such paths.  The "best of the best teas," or at least those not good enough to be spoken for before they're even made, would instead be carefully sourced by tea-curator theme specialty vendors.  Or at least that's how the marketing stories go.

The reason I go into all this is to reinforce that regardless of the story attached in the end it's about how nice the tea is.  Of course nothing is ever so simple; there are also concerns related to a tea being organic, for some, or if a well-paid and happy worker picked and processed it, or if someone being oppressed by a life of poverty did instead.  But I'll move past all that.  Someone could curate crappy tea directly from a farmer, or tell a very nice story that's not true, or a long, typical, multi-step wholesale process could procure and sell a great tea, even at great value.

This tea I reviewed is pretty good, and that's a lot of the point, beyond the "naming names" related to aspects.  One other thing I've been saying lately; even though I've tried a number of Oriental Beauty teas I'm not the right person to put it on a well-informed objective quality scale, even if I weren't conflicted in doing so (and I'm not all that conflicted; I'll keep on with the tea hobby regardless of how samples play out, so I'll keep saying what I think).  So to be even more direct:  I think I might like that Thai version I kept writing about a little better (that was some nice tea), and the higher oxidation level in that China Life version might not work as well for me.  But someone else might have different preferences and switch the order, since all three were decent versions of Oriental Beauty.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Tea Side 0802 HTC 2006 Thai sheng re-review

I must admit, I feel like I'm starting all over again with tea in getting back to pu'er (hei cha in this example; it's a Thai tea).  And I don't mean in only a good sense, although that's part of it; I'm way back at figuring out brewing.

Anyway, the tea is a Tea Side 0802 Hong Tai Cha (HTC) Thai sheng hei cha.  It's not really a pu'er since it's from Thailand instead of Yunnan.  Pu'er within Yunnan varies by specific origin location (most blanket statements like that require qualification, but that seems conservative enough to stand alone), and this could be all the more "varied" due to being grown in a different climate.

But that's not really something I'll address here, how it compares to Yunnan versions, or related to tea sourcing issues.  That last subject and the history would be interesting; there are "old" tea trees in Thailand, although old is quite relative, and dating trees is problematic.

About the tea, even the dry tea smell wasn't what I expected.  It comes across a lot like a shou, too dark, too rich and sweet, too much caramel and raisin range, with a bit of old leather.  But clean; no mushroom or peat, none of that other range that can stand out in shou, definitely nothing remotely like fish.  I'd tried this tea before, a sample of it, reviewed here, so it's odd to be going back through all this, being surprised by how it comes across.

Part of why I'm re-reviewing it relates to testing my own experience against my earlier experience, not that I could really separate out error, subjective preference changes, and other possible changes.  What are those, you might wonder, since a nine year old pu'er shouldn't change that much in the 10th year (or could it?).  If storage conditions had changed over the last year it would be different, and people tend to speak of pu'er resting from travel (seriously).

I've had this tea for around two months so it should be feeling ok, settled.  One odd variable is the tea being sold as either 0801 or 0802, apparently two different but closely related teas, perhaps not identical to what I tried last year, one more thing I won't really get sorted out.


After overdoing it with a Golding Nan Nuo sheng pu'er proportion of tea to water (a real pu'er, with Nan Nuo being one of those distinct regions), and after getting better results the second time, but brewing slightly too thin, I went light to start on this one.

This tasting is going to have to go in rounds, and more ideally several sessions would be better.  I was reading up and watching videos on brewing and drinking pu'er and a Tea DB video talked about trying the same pu'er ten days in a row to get a feel for it; sounds about right.  I'm not sure if those guys actually have jobs to schedule tea drinking around.  On to review then.

The first infusions were way too light, although still nice, interesting fruit and earthy flavors.  Later when I get my sense of taste adjusted I may well drink the tea like that, but I just wasn't getting much out of it at first.

It's early for a tangent, but related to that, I was just talking to a friend about subjectivity in tea tasting, and to me that means a lot of different things.  One thing is that preference determines what is good; very straightforward (eg. tea can be enjoyed at different infusion strengths, a preference which can change over time).  Another is that one person might "get" a taste as plum and another as raisin; a bit more going on there, seemingly that one person is right and the other is wrong, but maybe it's not that simple.  Or two people might have completely different impressions, and this is where it all gets strange.  Other factors could account for real differences, brewing parameter differences, even using different water, or tea ware.

so much for straining

Where am I going with all this?  One other interesting case--interesting to me--is that maybe I could taste a tea differently at different times, for reasons that might not be so easy to explain.  In that post where I tried to comparison taste a black tea from one year to the next to determine that I couldn't separate the effect of different tea versions from year to year.  Now I'd like to do the same for this tea, compare the tea and my sense of taste, and to practice on the type.

Once I did get the tea brewing--it sort of "opened up" after some infusions, and after I lengthened infusion time a little--it was even more interesting.  It was complex enough that it would be hard to describe, but that's the whole point of this exercise.  The tea tastes of dark wood and raisin, maybe a bit of leather, possibly with just a touch of peat (much as I know what that tastes like; maybe I really mean "forest floor").  Oddly by all that I mean the tea is nice.  It has a cool feel, not a dryness, but towards that, something in the range I'd need more vocabulary to say much about.  From there aspects get even harder to describe.  Even if I added another three or four taste aspects I'm not sure I could really describe the tea through them.

It has an earthiness that tastes like actual earth, like dirt, but in a good sense.  That isn't helping describe it, is it?  It's like the smell from digging up roots from under the ground, dirt mixed with an unusual vegetal smell, heavy on minerals, something different.  Oddly that's one of the smells from my childhood, playing with dirt, damming small streams, or playing in basements and root cellars, out in the woods knocking down different kinds of plants for no good reason (I think the last relates more to green tea range though).  It's rounding things off too much to say it's a taste of age itself, but there's something to that.  Like a really old baseball glove, or at least along that line.

So why do I like this?  Maybe there really is no accounting for taste.  Something in all that effect I kind of connect with.  I think it would work good and strong, since there is no astringency to brew around, beyond whatever component is giving it an unusual feel.  I don't mean unusual as in how fresh teas come across, it's a full bodied and complex feel, just different.  Some teas taste better as strong as possible, based on a limitation from one aspect, and more often a great balance point works best, probably how this one goes.

I honestly can't say if this is a good sheng pu'er or not; I don't have enough background to have a clear judgment on that.  Me just liking the tea is a good start.  It has an aftertaste but nothing too unusual, not so lingering.  I'm not sure if that feel is preferable to pu'er enthusiasts or not.  It coats my mouth and tongue in an unusual way, which I feel in the top of my mouth, but I'm not really feeling it in the throat.  I never really got that part anyway, about taste or feel in the throat, how that's such an interesting thing.

junior taster likes hei cha, just a little

My junior assistant had no idea what to make of it so she said it tastes like flowers.  She's stuck on that.  I guess if I had to give it just one taste description I'd go with old leather, which isn't even something I've ever actually tasted, at least not that I remember.  I'll give it another try before I finalize this, and compare it to last year's description.

Re-tasting, a second go and earlier notes:

I tried the tea a second time, with a higher proportion of tea to water, with somewhat similar results.  I didn't need to keep adjusting time to get some flavor out of it but did need to adjust time to keep it in the right range, soft and balanced enough.  The basic flavors were similar, raisin and date, dark wood and old leather, with an odd feel, a slight fullness and dryness, all of which seemed to work.  It's consistent enough with the first tasting, I just need to get parameters dialed in a bit finer.  I'm sure it does evolve across transitions but I wasn't noticing as much of that as I expected, probably related to still messing around with parameters.

This is probably a good place to check that review from last year:

not dark, not green, in the middle

Very nice; the tea is smooth and rich, full flavored, not astringent, complex, a little sweet.  Flavors are all layered together:  plum and fig, molasses, earthy tones, tobacco, a bit of mineral, maybe something like roasted almond in there.  A number of infusions in the flavors mellow a little, deepen, with some of the fruit giving way to stronger earthier tones.  The fig and plum element is still prevalent enough to give good balance, and the texture stays smooth, with just enough astringency to give the tea some body but no bitterness.

Sounds a little better than my last description, but similar, although that difference could just relate to paying more attention.  I'm not sure what it's all about but my kids are louder than ever lately, often engaged in minor battles with their mother, interesting in small doses but not a great background for tea tasting.

Maybe as well to cite the vendor's take, given going this far:

The tea is made from old and wild 200-300 years old trees. This Sheng resembles a sheng of purple bushes in looks - the tea is very dark for its age. This is my absolute favorite among Thai Shengs...

Dry flavor: Raisins, tree bark and spices. Neat leaves are carefully ripened. The infusion looks like dark amber, it's absolutely clear.

Taste: Full-bodied, very smooth (balanced) and intelligent. Nice raisin profile laced with spicy woody tones. Notes of plum are also present. Velvety and spicy aftertaste remains long after the drinking.

Close enough.  The parts about tea tree age are a bit taboo these days but I couldn't resist including it, and his subjective judgment wasn't necessary, but why not.


Oddly I find myself considering how much I really like this style of tea.  Usually that type of response is easy to sort out, it's right there, I do or don't.  I had said I did, but now I wonder if I like the tea as aspects and a whole experience, or if it's more about the novelty, since this is quite different from most tea experiences.  I think I like it, but it's not that "wow, I love this" experience people tend to express.

It makes me think more about shifts in preference curve, that idea of people acquiring taste for some teas, as they do Scotch, in the other post.  Perhaps a different tea example will put more context to this.  Related to sweetening tea, I recently commented in a Facebook group that there is a natural tendency to evolve a preference away from sweetening tea, expressed as such (quoting myself, again--strange):

There is a natural tendency to use less sweetener over time, as a result of preference change, brewing technique improvement, and from drinking better tea. I only use sugar in masala chai now. There is nothing wrong with the existence of a preference curve or people being at different places on it, and I wouldn't pass judgment on someone that stopped in a different place.

As for preference shifting from one type of tea to another it's not so simple.  I keep referencing back to an idea I'd read in another blog (Tea Addict's Journal) that people drink tea for taste preference first, then others, related to feel and other aspects next (body and aftertaste), and then effect (qi).  I've mentioned before which teas seem like better gateway teas to me (light oolongs, to go with a short version, but it's more complicated related to better oolongs from Taiwan).

So what about pu'er (hei cha, in this case); is there a natural drift in preference to that type?  It doesn't seem to be so simple.  Pu'er is really two types of tea anyway, sheng and shou, and maybe it does work to say shou could function as a gateway to aged sheng preference, or even young sheng (another idea from the Tea Addict's Journal, but then he says lots of stuff).  But really it's not clear to what extent anyone would naturally change what they like over time, or how exposure is going to work related to that, or if there really would be a natural direction or number of likely stopping points.  A lot of people seem to keep drinking broadly related to types.

Some types are trendy, and expectations factor in, group "consensus" direction.  One could find justification to continue to prefer pu'er or oolong in tea groups, and might feel a bit marginalized if black tea seemed best for some reason (or green; both don't get much respect--individual teas can by the types sort of don't).  White teas are different, held in higher regard, fine to cite as a favorite type, but it would seem strange if someone just drank white teas.  For now I'll stay on the same path, trying a broad range of teas, but this is an interesting way to evaluate preference shift, by experimenting with one type I'm not so attached to.