This is an interesting tea, something new to me. In with samples sent by Teasenz I found a compressed tea labeled as shai hong. Since I like the idea of blind tasting I didn't check what it was, which I'll retain in this write-up, the unfolding of working that out, and in the end I'll circle back to a full description.
Review (edited original tasting notes)
The labeling only says "shai hong," which doesn't ring a bell. It didn't seem to be pu'er, so I'm guessing some other version of a hei cha. [Of course later it turned out to just be compressed black tea.]
what it isn't
The dry scent is sweet, raisiny, with a dark appearance to the pressed leaves. It doesn't look like pu'er, or at least any pu'er that I've tried, it's compressed differently. I suppose it's more like I'd expect bamboo pu'er to look, which I've never got around to trying. It looks like brick weed. It would probably be better if that reference didn't ring a bell, really.
The brewed tea is nice, sweet and a bit rich. Raisin - like character stands out, just a bit more complex, but along that same line. It's a really soft tea, closer to a mild black in character than a pu'er, even a shou. Complexity relates to subdued earthy tones, just nowhere near as intense as shou pu'er, no leather and tar and the rest, mostly raisin / date. I recently tried a shou mei cake and it's not as mild and subtle as that, but then few teas are.
On the next infusion the fruit stays heavy, a bit off the typical raisin profile, but still close. A woodiness starts to emerge, in an odd range, like balsa wood. It's still clean flavored with good sweetness so that works well. Along with that just a trace of malt picks up, a mild version of the type found in Ceylon or Assam black teas. The feel changes, picking up a little more structure and hint of dryness, which may only seem like dryness through comparison since the tea was completely soft before. The concept of astringency doesn't even come up.
brewed strong a deep dark red
Of course it would be possible to drink this prepared lightly, perhaps more standard. Trying a flash infusion worked a little better. The fruit falls into a nicer balance brewed lightly, and the tea still has plenty going on. It's not as if it's necessary to brew around some aspects though. It would probably suit different people better prepared differently, and for this tea I'd probably vary that based on my mood.
It's amazing that the tea isn't really fading much about seven infusions in, brewed strong, even at a heavy version of Gongfu proportion. If anything the aspects balance has improved, although it didn't transition that much, just a little.
I could imagine some people not liking the character for it not being more subtle or refined but I do like it. It's a basic style of tea in terms of character but a unique version of that as aspects go, in between other types. The next question: what is it? The character resembles black teas but that may only be due to overlap, and it might not be made in exactly the same way. It must be oxidized but it seems possible a light form of fermentation played a role. It's odd that it came out so clean in effect if so, but I suppose stranger things have happened.
General impression, second tasting notes
brewed lighter; good both ways, just different
Tasting a tea completely blindly, not even knowing the general type, is a funny thing. I've tried parts of unlabeled, left-over samples before and ran across pleasant surprises but this was different. The experience of the unknown cleared up as soon as I tried those, for the most part. Per the review notes I would have went with "variation of black," which it was, but not knowing was odd.
It was complex in a way that was hard to get a handle on. I'll condense a second set tasting notes from two weeks later--just now--to make that point clearer.
The tea is interesting, nice. Some of the sweetness and richness of better black tea is there, along with good complexity, mineral under earth with lots going on. I'm picking up a little metal but I think that's just related to a mild throat infection that's back, a near permanent condition for me now. A more imaginative tea reviewer could just keep on naming different flavors as description, and accurately so.
One part reminds me of toasted pastry, another fruit, but so heavy and complex it would have to be a mixed fruit jam. The way minerals layer in is interesting; maybe that part is like volcanic soil. Some of the interesting earthiness is out towards leather or even crude oil, just nothing like shou pu'er where those might be primary elements. It has a nice thick feel too, thick in an interesting sense. That fruit aspect may have been similar to dried persimmon instead of raisin, with some of the other complexity hinting towards spice range, just not cinnamon or something familiar. All that works well; it's still clean and balanced. Putting those aspects in some order would be a challenge. It's not just about relative strength, also interesting how those combine.
Vendor's take, other input
I might start by mentioning that I did order this tea before publishing a review of it. That might make more sense after reading about how little of it the vendor has to sell, with the other part about what it is here.:
'Pu Erh Shai Hong' or 'Tai He Tian Cha'
Sun-dried black tea, also known as 'shai hong' is made based on a different processing method than mainstream black teas. Most black teas are made letting the leaves wither, followed by rolling and fermentation. Only the last step is different. The most common way is to roast the black tea leaves to stop the fermentation. However, as the name already reveals, for a sun-dried black tea, the fermentation is stopped by drying the leaves in the sun (as it's done for pu erh).
Because tea types are classified based on their processing method, a sun dried black tea can also be considered a type between black and pu erh tea. This is why it's not strange that sun dried black are also known as 'pu erh shai hong (普洱晒红). The after taste of a Shai Hong is sweet and because it originates from Tai He, it's also known as 'Tai He Sweet Tea' or 'Tai He Tian Cha' (太和甜茶).
I wasn't completely guessing that out in review. The tea struck me as close enough to a Dian Hong, but I didn't make the full connection to the sun-drying step. That's even though I tried a sun-dried Dian Hong from Farmerleaf not too long ago, reviewed here. The other difference is that it's a compressed tea. They go on to describe more about the character:
The taste was really interesting and was 'confusing' because we couldn't really place it. The first sip told me it was the aroma of a Yunnan black tea, but then the after taste was kind of like a ripe sheng pu erh [presumably meaning aged sheng, not the way everyone uses those concepts]. The texture was indeed thicker as the grower told us, something that also reminded us of a shou pu erh. The smoothness is amazing and probably due to the 2 years of aging. We also noted that the aging allowed us to brew the leaves up to 9 brews, which is pretty amazing for a black tea. The aging seems to result in more yield.
Pretty much what I experienced, with that aging potentially filling in some of the gap in how it arrived at that character. All in all it's a nice tea, which made for an interesting tasting experience.