Monday, May 26, 2014

Sheng puer review, comparison to research

I've recently purchased a sheng (green) pu'er, a good chance to compare some of the research in the last entry.

I bought this tea at the tea shop near my office,  in Sathorn,  Bangkok, at the JRT (Thailand) Co. store.  I would recommend the shop to anyone visiting or living in Bangkok since the owner, Paula, is friendly and open to talking about and tasting pu'er.  She says unusual things about tea that are either deep insights or sales pitch, or maybe a mix of both.  Of course a lot of different types of shops sell tea by letting you try the teas, but that can also seem to involve some awkward feeling out process where they assess your background and interests so it can feel like a job interview by the time you try a tea.

The tea is moderately priced, not really the grade of ancient tree sourced tea the shop seems to specialize in.  I hoped to try a more modestly priced tea and adjust to differences in the tea type, and practice brewing technique, and determine preferences better  before buying better tea.  Paula had recommended another superior tea in a similar style at three times the cost but I'll get back to that step later.

Tea details

The tea is labeled as Yu Nan Qi Tse Bing Cha,  the first and last a reference to where all pu'er is from and that it's a tea cake or disk, and the labeling also states "produced in Yunnan Tin Yu."

Paula said the tea is about 4 years old, with aging seeming to show as a slight darkening of the leaves.

Tea tasting

The tea exhibits some flavors I've read of as associated with pu'er,  not all completely positively:  a mineral element, some astringency, a trace of smokiness, and a light honey finish, bordering on a subtle floral tone.  The sweetness, bitterness, and subtle other flavors almost come across as a faint citrus element, although it's really only similar to that type of flavor, not actually an orange flavor or such.

The tea tasted a bit different in the shop due to use of a gongfu type brewing method (very short infusion time in a clay yixing style pot) versus when I tried out different brewing parameters.   It seems as long as the brewing process is very fast and the tea produced relatively light astringency is less of an issue,  but it's still not a soft or smooth tea, at the other extreme related to the Jin Xuan oolongs produced here in Thailand.
Is it good?   Depends on preference,  of course,  but I suppose I liked the last sheng I reviewed here better,  if only for tasting more like a conventional green tea with some other more unusual taste elements, hinting towards a clove flavor.  For the limited cost it seems like decent tea, and the flavor profile is not familiar, so it is interesting in that regard.  It seems possible it may be better after more aging, but I couldn't be certain of that, and it's a bit of  a strange idea that another decade would tell the full story.

I've even experimented with adding sugar to the tea, and that does counter the astringency, but adjusting brewing technique already offsets most of that.  Somehow sweetening a tea of this type seems wrong, in a way that wouldn't so much if it were an inexpensive other type of green tea.  I've been avoiding that concern altogether by drinking oolongs more lately,  along with the last shu pu'er I'd posted about.  With green teas just drinking slightly better tea and getting the water temperature right seems to also eliminate the same concern, so I've fallen out of the habit of sweetening any tea.  I'm not philosophically opposed to it, though, so if it comes up I still could.

It seems the only way to really sort through variations and preferences in pu'er is to get enough exposure,  complicated by styles not being so easily tied to clear types as with other teas.  During discussing this general point one vendor suggested I order a lot of tea, a bit offensive as an obvious sales pitch but really still decent advice.  So far research has identified some general ideas, several written up in the last post, but there's a limit to how helpful that could be.

Relation to pu'er tea research

How does this tea compare to some of the research ideas in the last post?  It really doesn't help that none of the source references really tried to write at length related to the same types of questions one might normally ask, and most of the answers were along the lines of "it just depends."  That's part of the intrigue of pu'er tea, right, that you have to experience it for yourself, and tasting a few isn't going to go far.  At this point I've tried more than a dozen but I'm still really just starting out.  I recently read an article that went through point after point in detail but it didn't help that it was an automatic translation and not so clear (from French; strange right).

Nonetheless I'll add some thoughts:

-required aging of tea:  per the vendor this tea is about 4 years old, and has been improving, but the unspoken implication was more time would help

-aging of tea versus quality of initial product:  this is really a main issue when it comes to aging tea, but hard for me to assess related to this tea.  It was inexpensive, so presumably a moderately priced offering to begin with.  One way to take that is that it was low quality tea to begin with, and another is that the shop owner really knows pu'er aging and potential and bought a tea that would be much better later for relatively low cost.

-flavor preferences, re: smokey, astringent tea:  a blog comment from one of the sources reviewed last week implied these are potentially common characteristics of tea that never would age to be good, although that wasn't stated explicitly.  The mineral element and other subtle flavors were interesting but I can't imagine this tea being a favorite or converting anyone to pu'er, unless it could continue to trade out astringency for complexity in the future through more aging.

-brewing technique:  for pu'er more than most others there seems to be less concern over this; you either use the gongfu method or you do it wrong.  According to a former Chinese philosophy professor "gongfu" actually does mean close to method, as a general term that can be applied to any type of skill or even more generally than that, so it seems a bit odd to express "using the technique-method."  

The last sheng that I reviewed could be brewed different ways with different interesting and positive results (varying infusion time and tea to water ration), but this tea really needed a fast infusion time to limit astringency.  One comment I'd read said any pu'er brewed for over one minute would become bitter (seemingly not related to shu as directly) but that other sheng I reviewed recently would just produce different flavors and strengths of tea, even though a much longer steeping time really didn't make sense anyway.

-feel of the tea:  not so sure; still working on "feeling" tea.  I've experienced some unusual mouthfeel in some teas, some quite positive, but this one isn't easy to describe, or completely separate from taste elements.

As far as "qi" and the rest (subtle effects of the tea) I think I'd need a few days to meditate and center to really call that.  That probably sounds like outright skepticism so I'd like to relate a tangent that might clarify it.  

When I was younger I would go vacation alone in the Utah desert for a week at a time, and only after two or three days I would become less noisy internally and experience both myself and the desert quite differently.  At first the heat felt hotter and hiking distances strenuous but later a lot of that just dropped out.  Maybe it was just me but I imagined I could hear the desert, the breeze moving in those unusual rocks.  I guess in a way I was "centered."

That story doesn't lead back to tea; I'm just saying I'm not open to accepting that others might experience more than I do.  I was also a monk once, and meditated some then, but that's a different story, also not related to tea.


  1. You are (as expected) so much more knowledgable about tea than I ever will be. Also, you were a monk. You win... something... on both counts.

    Mostly, I have a sudden hankering for a desert.

  2. that tea would be good for pairing with a really sweet and rich desert, and not really "soft" enough for drinking on it's own, for example as oolongs tend to be, whether more or less oxidized