This is tea made after the style of Oriental Beauty Taiwanese oolong (Bai Hao, Dong Fang Mei Ren--one tea type with many names), but from Yunnan. Different; we'll see how that works out. First, lets check some back-story from the Farmerleaf vendor:
The processing is similar to Taiwanese Oriental Beauty but the leaves are rolled like a Bi Luo Chun.... Summer ancient tea garden material was used to make this tea. In the 90's, a group of Taiwanese tea makers opened a tea factory on Jingmai mountain: the 101 tea factory. They would produce Taiwanese style tea and take advantage of the good raw material available on this tea mountain. They employed locals to help them in the factory, business was really good.
But soon, those who worked in the tea factory would leave their job and imitate the processings they had learn to make Taiwanese-style tea on their own.
Kind of what one would expect, except for more about plant type and a little about the leaf-hoppers. At least one quite decent version of Oriental Beauty (Bai Hao, Dong Fang Mei Ren--same thing) is produced in Thailand, but then there are lots of other close ties between tea production in Taiwan and Thailand, with plant types and processing styles directly copied over. One could naturally assume this tea is made from variety Assamica tea instead of variety Sinensis (the main category types). I didn't check on that, although the tea characteristics would seem to support that it is, and that vendor citing "summer ancient garden material" essentially means that, for those familiar with the rest of the location back-story.
This following table maps out types from Taiwan, with this post going into those more (and others). But that linked post isn't specifically about Oriental Beauty or Chin Shin, and this table identifies OB as made from different types, the main one perhaps a variation of Chin Shin:
tea cultivars table from Tea DB site (credit)
That's probably enough already about Taiwanese cultivars, since it was already clear that has nothing to do with this tea and post, but at the top of another table we can see more details about those. They're landraces, more original tea types versus newer hybrids, but then tea has been around for awhile with types mixing, and the chart bottom drifts into completely different subjects:
credit a botanical studies academic paper (great stuff)
Back on the subject of the bugs, the leaf hoppers, they are in China too, according to this academic paper on them. It doesn't seem to say they are definitely in Yunnan, and of course even if they were it doesn't establish a link to this tea version. On with reviewing then.
The look is unusual, different. The scent is nice, just earthier than a typical OB, maybe not as sweet, but it is a bit sweet. I decided to brew it Gongfu style, even though Western style generally works well for OB variations as well. It gives more range to mess around with brewing parameters, and shows off transitions.
The first taste wasn't like Oriental Beauty; definitely earthier, closer to a black tea. Appreciating the tea is going to take going beyond expectations of how close it really is to the original type range. OB types are typically around 70% oxidized, so pretty far up the scale as oolongs go, but this was pretty much a straight black tea, maybe backed off just a little (85-90%?). Teas in this range--at the borderline--could be sold as black teas or oolong, per my impression and past experience, but it seems more like a light black tea than a dark oolong. That range is fine, especially if it could cover some new ground.
It's a bit earthy, clearly seeming to be Assamica variety. The sweetness is fine, the balance of flavors, the effect is quite clean, and soft. The next logical question is if it shows any of the unusual fruit range in the original OB type, the muscatel, or other fruit, or spice notes. The other Jing Mai black tea was on the fruity side as well, just not exactly in the same range, and this isn't too far from that. Earthiness and mineral undertones join fruit aspects towards cooked yam, along with cocoa, with just a touch of raisin and pastry-like bread aspect. It's all quite nice, but still typical for a black tea; it works as a Dian Hong.
Another infusion along it may be shifting even more into fruit, not in such a different range, but lightening so I can sort of imagine spice and citrus coming out more. It's not so much muscatel, but not so far from that. The citrus is in between a heavier, sweeter type of orange and a little towards a red grapefruit. It's still not typical OB but it's interesting. Of course for someone that doesn't like earthier black teas in that type of fruit range it wouldn't be as interesting; for someone really wanting it to cover muscatel, brighter citrus, grape, and spice it could be disappointing.
The astringency level is quite light, a soft tea, but it gives the tea structure. I'm not attached to particular expressions of feel in teas, as some people are, but it centers in the middle towards the back of your tongue. That means next to nothing to me, but it's mildly interesting.
On the next infusion the citrus is still there but the other range shifts from those warmer, richer fruits into spice instead; the cocoa moves a little towards cinnamon, or really both show up. I'm sure this tea would brew just fine Western style but it does have some transition to show off, rewarding someone for bothering to use the Gongfu approach instead.
I tend to say a lot of teas have a clean effect, sort of wearing out that type of expression, but there is that and a brightness to this tea. It's nice, but not really novel in similar black teas, since lots of better versions couple those in varied ways. Other earthy black teas can come across as a little muddled instead, and lose that brightness for a drift towards murky versions of peat or wood tones. A black tea could be in the range of peat, dark wood, and forest floor, but still quite clean, but once wild mushroom and other fungus range comes in that "clean" effect starts to slip away.
It would be interesting to try this tea prepared Western style and see how it varies. I'd be surprised if it didn't come across differently, even though the aspects range should have a lot in common. I think in common with Taiwanese OB versions it might shift a bit related to water temperature used, more than most black teas do, but I'd need to experiment to determine that too.
Follow-up tasting, Western style
All that was written as notes for a complete review, but later I made the tea Western style with a quick breakfast. That's not ideal conditions since I certainly wasn't making notes, but it did work out well prepared this way. I didn't make much in the way of mental notes either, but I did notice how the tea was really on the sweet side, with good complexity, and a nice balance. I tried to pin down that sweetness effect, which flavor aspect it seemed to pair with, since sometimes it seems like parts of the flavor elements can sort of go together (does that make sense?). With a more typical Oriental Beauty the muscatel, citrus or spice would seem somehow linked to the sweetness in those teas, although I guess it's possible all of this is just me walking off the map. I did a traditional Christmas blend not so long ago and adding a touch of sugar really changed the effect of the orange-peel citrus (literally that taste and aspect input; it was a blend), so that somehow those aspects seemed coupled.
In this tea the sweetness seemed somehow related to maple syrup instead, that warm, earthy, clean flavor range, I suppose a little woody, but not in any normal sense of that. I don't really mean the taste range in syrup versions from a Denny's or IHOP though; that sort of is maple syrup, technically just flavored corn syrup instead. The real thing is something else, the condensed sap of trees. It was subtle in the tea, not something that stands out, while in the actual syrup (that my Grandfather made, and my Dad still does) it hits your palate pretty hard, just in a good way. It's like drinking fresh squeezed orange juice; there's nothing subtle about how tasting that goes.
For me the tea gains points for originality, for being novel, pushing it over the boundary of pretty good tea to something more. It's not that far from normal Dian Hong range, that Chinese black tea style, perhaps just picking up a little more complexity.
It occurs to me that this is a meta-level preference in tea types, preferring something novel, or at least types that I've not yet tried, apart from the other concerns. There is nothing wrong with someone tasting more broadly and then zeroing in on a half-dozen types they'd like to keep experiencing, or perhaps even skipping that first part. There would always be higher quality levels within types to experience, or other aspects variations.
In tea discussion circles all that can turn into a contest, which could be seen as positive, if one likes contests, but I'd think for many hearing any variations of "my tea is better than your tea" would get old fast. In case it wasn't already clear, I never intend that here, only to share experiences. I'm sure I must get swept up in judgments to some extent myself, an occupational hazard in reviewing, but I try to stay open for appreciating different teas for different reasons, even more ordinary types and versions.