Friday, August 16, 2019

Online discussion of tea sources

to know the origins of your tea you should make it yourself (credit Tea Mania blog)

This is kind of an odd subject, transparency related to online tea sources.  I left that word out of the title (transparency) since it's not the most typical use of it.  Usually when transparency comes up it relates to something else, to tea vendors being completely clear about what products they are selling, and where those are coming from, which producers, if pesticides are used, and so on.  The idea is that falsified product information could be limited through conveying more information, or use of chemicals in production, and that would support fair-trade issues, getting the farmers better compensation.  I'm not sure how much difference any of that ever makes in practice; it probably varies case by case, and is often just marketing spin.

This is something else.   Transparency in online discussion of sourcing options has been discussed lately, specifically by tea bloggers about themselves and other bloggers telling others where they are getting teas.  Not vendor provided teas for review, instead about secret sources and such.

The latest post in an ongoing discussion works as an intro, but it's not quite as clear as it first seems:

Matcha's Blog:  Elitism, Illuminati, and the Secret Inner Circle of Puerh

It's a little more dramatic than things actually seem, and less revealing, but the main theme seems to be that in the past people openly discussed source options for pu'er (or other teas), and now there are newer foreign based channels that have developed that don't get mentioned, which represents a change in online tea culture.  These are sources like Taobao outlets (like a Chinese version of Ebay), foreign vendor site stores, or auction groups, with some of those on Facebook.  All fair enough.

There's a bit of an internal contradiction in that post content because it essentially said that there had been only a half dozen main sources in the past, so that earlier openness wouldn't have been remotely comparable to people using modern forms of overseas sources that are hard to even find out about.  Mentioning a favorite tea on an already known source--the earlier form of transparency, when there were less options--would have been a different thing.

All this really makes more sense in the context of a few other posts, along with comments, since it seems to have come up in discussion through Tea DB blog posts instead.  This latest one mentioning this issue works as a summary, with no one version really filling out the issue:

Tea DB blog:  What I’ve Been Buying Recently (The Past Couple Years)

James (Schergen) does mention one online foreign site source there, a rare case of this discussion becoming more tangible (or transparent, if you want to look at it that way, which really does apply).  As the title promises he mentions where he's been buying tea, just leaving out foreign travel purchasing, which wouldn't apply to people who didn't go to the same places anyway.

Why do I mention all this?  Mostly because it's interesting, and I rarely get around to mentioning interesting online discussion here, unless something really stands out, and usually not even then.

It would be nice if I could say I'm much more "transparent," that I spell out everything I know here, but really I'm not in those sorts of inner circles, and don't buy teas through Taobao, foreign websites, or auctions, or whatever else might not be known about.  Those two bloggers are both more exposed to a lot of range in the world of tea than I am, but then everyone only gets to what they get to, regardless of which scope gets more focus.

I have mentioned lots of sources that wouldn't make it onto most people's radar in posts, some great options, but for the most part I'm either talking about the main half dozen or so set of Western vendors (maybe now slightly expanded, with Yunnan Sourcing, White2Tea, Chawang Shop, and others on that list for awhile).  Or physical shops it would be hard to get to, like favorites here in Bangkok, or wherever I travel, or online exceptions lots of people already know about (Liquid Proust, King Tea Mall, Farmerleaf, Hatvala, Wuyi Origin, etc.).

Moychay doesn't fit in those categories, but as a Russian version of varied form perhaps loosely equivalent to Yunnan Sourcing--except they sell only their own brands or sourced versions, not factory teas--their name is getting out there.  Sometimes I make connections with smaller vendors and review their teas too; Tea Mania is a good example of that, a vendor based out of Switzerland.  Peter Pocajt, that owner, travels to Asia and buys tea relatively directly--in at least some cases--and can offer interesting products at great value related to that.

That background seems clear enough but I'll spell it out; if a vendor really does buy teas from a producer then there could potentially be more leeway for selling at lower costs, since the cost of tea being bought and re-sold a couple of times wouldn't have occurred within that particular supply chain.  That doesn't mean the tea would have to be good quality, or a good value, but it could add some potential.

I really shouldn't mention much for personal opinion on this original issue, the "transparency" theme, since I'm too far outside it to have an informed take, although of course I will anyway.  It seems worth pointing out that if someone went through a couple of years of sorting out potentially unreliable sources, buying plenty of teas that didn't work out along the way, and making foreign contacts, you wouldn't expect them to mention it all online.

Calling out someone like James of TeaDB (how this seems to have started, in post comments on a related theme long ago) makes for a special case, because he is talking about teas and sourcing on a weekly basis, and to some extent those contacts would be more freely available to him through having more connections.  That doesn't necessarily make sense to me either though; whatever James wants to communicate is exactly the right amount and type of information to pass on.  If he had "secret sources" and didn't want to share them that would be up to him.

This connects more with main-vendor stances on pricing and value than it might seem at first.  I've already mentioned a Tea DB post awhile back citing Yunnan Sourcing mark-up over the last 8 years, and for some types of teas prices are doubling every 5 years or so, based on 15-20 % annual increases.  That's on releases of similar in-house produced versions, but mark-up of semi-aged teas is also significant in many cases.

This discussion isn't so much a critique of vendors for charging too much for new productions, or a problem with related trends, tied to pricing for any range not being fair.  Again the main idea seems to be that semi-aged versions of factory teas (Dayi, etc.) are available through different sources overseas, and online discussion of options falls short of discussing those. 

In doing a round of tea purchases this year I've ran into my own concerns about how a lot of new teas that are only slightly better than what seemed standard not so long ago (4-5 years back) are now selling for $70-90 per standard sized cake, instead of half that much back then.  It's normal for supply and demand to shift, and that seemed to happen.  Vendors costs must have increased too, but of course one wonders if those main vendors aren't earning a lot more profit than they were 5 years ago, based on volumes going up and profit per unit also increasing.  I really don't know how all that factors in together, and that's certainly not intended as an accusation.

It comes up in these discussions that it's the "hot" or most in-demand versions this relates to most, versus more standard offerings (or probably both, with that an interesting special case).  If someone is interested in digging as deep as possible reading all the comments in those posts I cited adds more of others' opinions on the related issues.  I just read an interesting account explaining a little of how all that works (in one case of an "in demand" tea), which overlaps with a group-buy theme that I won't spend time on, here:  Dead Leaves Club; A Brown Mystery: Stamps and Skidmarks.

An interesting sub-theme in that particular story is that storage factors in a lot.  That's a given, but the form is informative and interesting in that account.  The same exact original cake can be stored differently and can vary a lot in present-day value.

Other solutions to a similar problem

Instead of speculating any more about foreign sources or spikes in demand for certain ranges of tea or versions I'll switch back to talking about a much more mundane, less sophisticated topic, about options for buying normal-range teas (sheng) that aren't expensive.  Someone just mentioned that King Tea Mall seemed to represent a good option for this for semi-aged Dayi and other factory teas, to them, but I won't get far with that idea.  I've been reviewing some teas John--that owner--has passed on recently, but nothing along that line though; not semi-aged commercial / factory teas.  The teas I have reviewed were interesting and pleasant and seemed to represent a good value, to me.

We're back to a familiar starting point I've been saying a lot about, since the example of the Chawang Shop 2012 produced tea I just reviewed (a Da Xue Shan version) will do to review this issue.

in the middle of that list

It's not a "factory tea," not from one of the limited set of main producers, more in the range of commissioned versions instead.  Various more-directly sourced teas span a range of paradigms along that same line, with typical stories told and claims ending up settling on common themes.  Again storage issues probably factor in a lot with those teas; the environment they were stored in within the Kunming area was probably a bit cool and dry, which is the subject of a lot of speculation about causing specific aspect features in the versions I reviewed from that order list (almost all of them; the teas were interesting and generally quite pleasant).

That last order price for that tea seems too low.  I tried to look up the price in earlier years but that takes a lot of paging around, and with the current pricing version that low there could hardly be much mark-up.  I didn't find an old listing for it, looking up archived copies of their website.

This 2012 Internet Archive site listing came up related to another tea on that order list, one I liked, which will cover how to approach that type of review:

That went from $7.80 to $10.50 in 7 years.  I'll not mention this post to Honza, the shop owner, just in case it might work as a reminder for him to adjust that sort of thing further.

To some extent the filtering of what's still around could make this approach less promising, checking out what a smaller scale vendor tends to still have, because favorites may well have been sold out, and teas people reported on not liking could be available longer.  Sticking with this example, I liked that 2011 Xiaguan FT cake a good bit more than the 2010 Xiaguan tuocha version also listed, and it seems possible that even more promising versions of similar age sold out of stock earlier.

This would affect those so-called secret sources too, one would expect.  Better versions would also be more highly regarded, would cost more, and would be more difficult to find.

All this doesn't necessarily reduce to a summary claim that main vendor pricing isn't competitive with in-China sourcing, even though at a glance that is what is seeming to be discussed.  There are also other layers of complications involved with those types of broad-stoke comparisons (eg. all the fake tea and bad sources to sort through; it doesn't make sense to compare only best-results cases when that wouldn't be typical of people's initial experience).  If an atypical level of awareness of options could suddenly become broadly known--kind of the objective, looking at the discussion from one perspective--then that would seemingly also extend to exceptional tea version cases (related to both character and value), not just vendor options, and those would vanish faster.

These concerns about other options, in a different form, reminded me of re-trying a Moychay tea that seemed an incredible value.  That was after seeing a post about that tea online, and seeing the cake moving around versions looking for something.  No mini-review here, but I really liked that tea for having interesting, positive character (probably just quite different from the other I've just reviewed), even though it was younger than I'd prefer drinking it most.  It was this:

2016 (pressed in 2017) Moychay Meng Wan Shan sheng

I couldn't find my own review of it, although I must have written one, maybe for an article within the Moychay site since I wrote some there.  I did turn up this aptly named Puerh Blog review looking for that, also mentioned on Steepster:

Heavy-spicy, bitter-fruity, discreetly kräutrig [?] and slightly astringent with very beautiful, intense citrus notes and a long-lasting sweetness. As the 2017 Bangdong rather coarse in processing but delicious and diverse. The citrus notes are reminiscent of Bada or a mild Lao Man E version, very good! A perfect daily drinker for a more than fair price.

That leads me to consider if citrus might have transitioned in the two years since that was written, and onto a tangent about refined / higher quality teas versus daily drinkers, but this is too long already.  I really like that tea, and I suppose that description matches my impression well enough, whether it's aspect-for-aspect or not.

These two example versions together (the Chawang Shop and Moychay unusually low priced options) highlight that you don't necessarily need local sources based out of China and Taiwan to drink interesting versions sold at unusual values.  Maybe to find the lowest market priced semi-aged Dayi you do need to take those extra steps, but then to some extent that discussion is still playing out, and I've only mentioned what may be some opening rounds in bringing up related issues.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

2016 Simao (Pu'er county) black tea from Chawang Shop

I initially did this as a comparison tasting session between three black teas but the comparison made no sense, trying it along with two others that were just different in ways that wasn't informative.  I pretty much always publish that type of content anyway, but somehow it makes more sense to cut these notes down to a simple tea review instead. 

Since this isn't exactly a typical black tea I'll start with the vendor description, versus rambling on in a section first:

2016 Simao Gao Shan Hong Cha

This rare red tea come from high mountain in Simao area and picked in early April. Similar with Wuyi rock teas in taste. Some Chinese sellers offer this tea like "Yunnan Da Hong Pao". Dry leaves are dark and aromatic. Taste is smooth, thick, balanced and rich and not similar with classic Yunnan red teas. Aftertaste is fruity, sweet and long. 

Maybe it would've made sense to read that first and then evaluate if the character seemed like that to me, in this case.  I tried the tea over the weekend and drank it a second time with breakfast to get a second take, with these notes from a comparison tasting (edited down to include only the one type). 

The style is interesting, not exactly typical of Dian Hong forms (other Yunnan black), although maybe not that close to Wuyi "rock teas" either, the roasted oolongs.  Maybe to a Wuyishan area black tea; that could work, given those can be fruity in different ways.  I might clarify that Dian Hong is either used as a reference for all black teas from Yunnan (so this definitely is that), or as a style reference to a subset of those that is supposedly more typical.  Since black teas from Yunnan span a broad range of character it would be hard to isolate that intended meaning, but then people do tend to use terms in different ways, and with the right shared perspective any particular use could be meaningful.

Onto the review notes first though, with that covered as a summary at the end.

including this order excerpt is typically about confirming which version I'm reviewing (the last one shown)

the vendor photo; could this have darkened with age?


On the first round it's nice, a bit light for being a fast early round, but the complexity is really kicking in anyway.  It's sweet, with layers of complex flavors already emerging.  There's some cocoa, but it's not mostly about that.  A fruitiness is a little towards Welche's grape juice, with mild earthy components giving that great balance.  It's so complex that a number of different interpretations could all sound like they're describing different teas.  I'll leave off for a round to attempt a clearer list.

Second infusion:  flavors in between cocoa and cinnamon emerge, or I guess spanning both.  I really do like Dian Hong in that style, although this isn't clearly typical of Dian Hong versions.  Rich floral tones seem to join that, along the line of rose petals, which could as easily be interpreted as fruit instead, towards dark cherry.  This tea is complex.  The earthier or heavier mineral base that rounds out that experience is harder to identify.  It doesn't necessarily come across as overly intense; well-balanced instead, if anything a bit subtle, but the flavor spans a lot of range.  The feel has some pleasant thickness to it and aftertaste extends longer than is typical for black teas.

Third infusion:  for being subtle in character this is great.  It would be the right round to bump up infusion time next time.  It has settled in more to cocoa range, with some supporting floral, and extension in all sorts of flavor direction.  Even on the light side the feel isn't thin and aftertaste carries over. 

It's not completely fair to say that black teas are just simpler than sheng or oolongs.  In one sense the teas I tried during that tasting, and others, contradict that sweeping judgment, while in a different sense they confirm it.  The range they tend to span, individually and as a set, is very broad, and definitely not limited to flavor.  At the same time the levels of experience are still slightly simpler than for those in those other two categories (which vary a lot; it makes no sense to group them that generally, really).

Fourth infusion:  this round I brewed closer to 30 seconds but this is still quite subtle.  If this tea wasn't a sun-dried version, which it seems not to be (really only a guess, given all the more background I have with that) then it may have faded a little in the past three years, versus gaining depth and limited flavor intensity if it was "shai hong" instead (sun-dried tea).  It's still very pleasant but it's time to use 45 second to one minute rounds to draw out intensity in it. 

Fifth infusion:  not different.  This is on the way out for brewing out but not changing, which I guess in itself is a good sign.  I get the sense this has a couple of rounds left, that it will be pleasant at longer infusion times too.

This tea might be fading a little due to that age.  I'd be surprised if some of the character wasn't more positive, along with giving up a little intensity, and it's easy enough to compensate for that with a proportion or timing adjustment, and brewing a round or two less.

Second tasting input and conclusions 

Sometimes I'll try a tea again before a review write-up, just to get a second impression, without the burden of taking notes, which I did with this tea.  Without trying to pin down specific aspects flavors come across as subdued, but the feel stood out as more unique, not really how black teas often tend to go.  It's not as thick and rich as some sheng can be, not necessarily viscous, but a bit fuller than black teas often are.  And just different.  A mineral base or an earth-range equivalent, or set of both, plays more of a role than tends to occur, but the fruit and cocoa were typical flavors.

I interpreted all that as being related to this being a few years old, expecting that it probably had started as fuller in flavor but evolved to gain depth and more feel over that few years.  Maybe that happened, or maybe I got the causation all wrong, since the description (which I hadn't read in the last few months, since back when I ordered this tea) said it wasn't typical of black tea style, or at least Yunnan black tea version style.

It was more odd because the dry tea scent is so rich, sweet, and intense, covering a fruity range one would expect in a more conventional black tea.  Fruit does show up, but the flavor range aspect is subtle, with the feel and some general impression of depth--that's hard to pin down--occurring instead.

It's hard to place that potential connection with Wuyi Yancha / rock oolong.  Some of that matches, it's just not exactly similar to those Fujian oolongs, just not typical for black tea either.  For a slightly aged black tea it's probably closer.

This is yet another tea that's a good enough value I probably shouldn't even be mentioning it (not just the value, the tea itself).  It would be better if no one ordered it at all, and it remained an anomaly in the range of tea options, something unique in character, and selling for an absurd value.  Then again if it gets ordered up and lost as a potential experience to new customers it is just a novel black tea, and some people would've had a chance to try it.

after singing at a China-Asean performance competition

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Kinnari Tea Phongsaly Laos local sheng

nice looking leaves, a little dark for being so new

I met Anna of Kinnari Tea of Laos not so long ago and she passed on some really interesting looking teas.  I don't remember the background of this one so clearly, but as I recall it was from an NGO led development project in the Phongsaly area, not made after any processing tutorial for local farmers (part of what that was about), instead representing their prior production techniques.  Sounds good.

It seems there should be more about Laos tea, development issues, or Anna, but I planned to skip that this review.  I wrote more about all that in this post.  Since Anna keeps a moderately low profile online the posts never really go too far into her bio, or show much of her.  I could mention that she's been developing a commercial kombucha product line over the past year in Laos; that's different.

A Facebook page is probably as good a place as any to try to check on that.  And to ask her about getting ahold of some Laos teas.  Why wouldn't someone be interested in Laos teas, and why wouldn't they want to bother her about it?  She's a tea enthusiast first and a vendor second; that helps, and that distinction will be familiar to many.


Before even trying the tea (after tasting the rinse, actually) the color looks unusual; this tea has oxidized some.  That's the thing with unconventional sheng processing, common in some versions throughout South East Asia (outside China); the inconsistency can make for pleasant surprises or shifts in methodology that don't work so well.

I just shared some of a Vietnamese sheng with Anna that she said seemed like green tea to her.  That would explain why it's supposedly three or four years old and not really age-transitioning.  I like that tea, but it is unusual.  I reviewed that tea here; it's odd how much South-East Asian sheng and black tea I've tried and reviewed this year.  I'm not sure I consider myself some sort of regional specialist but no one else is trying more, I wouldn't think, including vendors.

This one is nice.  The flavor is a bit warm, as young sheng goes, but it works, at least this early on.  That touches on warm mineral tone, versus a range that's more commonly lighter and towards flint / limestone.  Of course that kind of difference varies by source region, among other things.  Cedar stands out; that can be nice.  There's plenty of additional complexity to give it a nice balance, moderate bitterness, decent sweetness, all the usual.  The feel is slightly dry but it still works; being a bit structured is fine, versus rich and smooth.  It certainly doesn't seem like a black tea (related to the color, to it probably oxidizing a little).  Part of the rest seems floral; it covers a good bit of range for aspects.

Different forms of being off the norm in sheng processing tend to cost a tea in terms of aging potential, as I already mentioned related to that other tea's case.  That doesn't matter when drinking one young, as in trying this.  Since both white teas and sun-dried black teas (shai hong) can improve and transition in interesting ways with age it wouldn't necessarily always be true of variations; some might retain novel forms of aging potential.  One might want to guess that overheating a tea in processing, or heating it for too long, would make it more like a green tea, and that wouldn't work as well for aging potential, but I'm not sure that green teas can't age in ways that are positive in some cases.  Conventional wisdom definitely makes that claim though; that counts for something.

I'm not clear on why letting a sheng oxidize a bit during processing would necessarily be a bad thing; it might just change the character.  There would be less of the compounds present that transition to other forms through a more complete aging process, so maybe in the longer run it wouldn't be good, related to the form of a version that's 15 years old.

This is even more intense along the same lines the next round.  Warmth picked up a little, as did dryness in that feel.  Sweetness and bitterness are still working out, balancing those parts of the experience in a reasonable way.  Aftertaste is pleasant, that warm mineral and cedar range (or maybe redwood; I might mix up those more aromatic woods).  I'd go with judging floral tones to fill in depth from there, but those are harder to make out for being less pronounced.

I might mention that I don't think Anna will sell this tea.  That's odd, isn't it, a tea turning up that's just not available?  Closely related Laos teas will be on the market soon enough, just maybe versions produced after they tweaked processing, and put the new facilities developed there for that into practice.  As I'd mentioned before William Osmont of Farmerleaf is also supporting those Laos development efforts; a related tea might turn up there.  This version isn't a can't-miss experience anyway, but it is interesting, novel, and pleasant.  It's nice tea.  I like it as much as some teas I've bought off established vendors presented as intermediate quality, relatively higher value versions, as teas that cost in the range of $70-90 per cake, with the typical back-stories attached in support of that.

On the third infusion sweetness picked up a little and flavors shifted some.  I was drinking some varied source area black teas yesterday; it's not like that.  It's also not exactly typical for young sheng, although given how much those vary that isn't a meaningful thing to say anyway.  Some are a lot like this.  The range I'm interpreting as warm mineral and cedar is expanding to include tree bark, a thicker, softer, richer form of those, and gaining depth, along the line of a dry autumn forest floor.

Floral tone is still there, in the background for being a supporting element, while usually that stands out as a high note instead, as a main aspect feature.  With this being so sweet it might be natural to flag that as something fruit related instead, like nectarine at this point.  With these different-range dimensions combining interpretation is trickier; the complexity is nice.  Other than the mineral dryness it's quite clean in effect, and I don't see that as muddled or off.  Swap that out for a richer, thicker feel and this would really be an exceptional tea, but as it is it still works.

More of the same on the next round (4, I guess).  This might be an interesting tea to age a little since although it doesn't have excessive bitterness or astringency that would improve by fading there is some of each, and the astringency present is in an unusual form.  The other sweetness and flavor potential might be really interesting in another year or two.  It would seem a gamble to set this aside for a decade, but then that's how that goes in general, until someone is really familiar with aging transition patterns.

This would have seemed a lot more bitter to me two years ago, before I stuck to drinking sheng versions over and over.  It doesn't necessarily transition directly to sweetness after you swallow it, the hui gan effect, but it has sweetness already, and that carries over in aftertaste.  It's unusual the way that dry feel doesn't leave your mouth in the aftertaste phase.  When that's a richer, thicker feel that effect is quite positive, and in this it's not positive or off-putting, just different.  That one aspect would be just as common in black tea, that slightly dry feel, or maybe more so.  At the same time this is most definitely sheng; the bitterness, other feel structure, aftertaste, floral range; it's all straight, standard sheng.  Even the aromatic wood tone, and pronounced mineral.

these are all going to look similar, but it's cool looking tea

It's less dry the next round, although I can still tell that aspect is there.  The smoother feel works better.  Those flavors may be shifting a little in balance but it's not worth sorting out how; it wouldn't be meaningful.  It's nice the way that sweetness could really be tied to a fruit flavor (maybe a dried stone fruit); that matches well with the rest of the range.  It's enjoyable.  I'll probably only drink one more round due to doing a combined tasting yesterday and getting blasted on caffeine, an experience I don't care for.  I had stopped at just the right point, when it was just a little too much, but went back to try a couple more rounds not too much later, which was way too much.  Erring on the side of not feeling any of that today will seem nice.

a bit of color for such young sheng

This isn't changing that much (next round), and even if it is it's not doing so in an interesting way, just shifting around aspect balance.  That dry astringency dropping back works better, but it's at the point now where adding infusion time might come up, if only a little this far in (7 rounds or so).

It's positive and interesting tea.  She passed on three other versions, I think it was, that sounded really pleasant and even more novel.  I really should get more background on that source area before posting about that since those weren't from Phongsaly, as I remember, from the next province over instead.  From a different tea plant type for which the origin history has been lost, as I remember her describing it, probably one that came over from China around a century ago, but details about from where didn't stick in the oral history.  She said the flavor range is really unique; that should be interesting.

Some of her teas are so good that I can't drink them alone; it's a waste if I'm not sharing them, spreading out the experience to include others.  It's not a bad problem to have but some teas have stacked up a bit.

sweetness and attitude at the swimming pool; how it goes with these two

the warm-up laps

one of several waiting areas by the pool; looks good for tea tasting