Posting the first half of an interview with William Osmont of Farmerleaf on TChing reminded me to get back to trying their teas; I still have a couple of pu'er samples left. Although it's a touchy subject in general this one is an "ancient tree" Jing Mai sourced version (from autumn of 2016, described here). William will say more about what that means or doesn't mean in the second half of that interview, which in his case definitely doesn't relate to specific claims about advanced ages of trees, so I'll leave that part alone for now and go on to review.
Initially this tea has a bit of bitterness to it; I guess that's a good thing, how it should be. Some of that aspect doesn't ruin the experience of drinking young sheng but it's not exactly positive to me either. Initially it will be hard to tease out what's going on with the tea besides that, as pronounced as it is, but such teas tend to "loosen up" a few infusions in. Still, it's all relative, and some sheng have tasted just like taking an aspirin, and this isn't there, there's more going on. It has some floral tones and mild earthiness filling out range beyond that.
It's interesting running across the idea that some sheng are more or less intended for aging. I can't really can't add much about that; the short version I recall running across is that a bitterness aspect converts to being aromatic later. It makes you wonder if processing tends to be adjusted to change character related to that potential, or more that different versions lend themselves to drinking very young or else aged instead due to naturally occurring factors. Someday I might be able to taste a young sheng and try to project ahead to what it would be like in five or ten years but I certainly can't guess at that now. At any rate William mentioned an intentional input that did affect this teas character in that product description, just not described there related to aging potential:
We gave a relatively strong kill-green process to the leaves in order to release the best of this tea. A side effect of this choice is the presence of many yellow flakes. We sorted out the largest ones, but there are still some in the cakes. They add sweetness to the tea and tone down the bitterness. The aspect of yellow flakes is not appealing to the Chinese tea drinkers; therefore many tea producers use low wok temperatures in autumn to avoid having yellow leaves. It results in reddened tea which can be more fragrant but features less throat and mouth freshness.
Yu Bai making tea (photo credit Farmerleaf)
Even by a third infusion, one of those just a quick rinse, it starts to mellow out. That bitterness--not astringency really, actual bitterness--starts to transition to being mixed with strong mineral tones. Although the tea isn't really so astringent in the sense of feeling rough or "mouth puckering" it does have an interesting feel to it, which is related to that. It tightens the sides of the back of my tongue most, but since I'm not on that page in terms of aspects preference that doesn't mean much to me.
On the next infusion it falls into an even better balance. A light wood tone, picks up, with a good bit of sweetness, and some floral scope rounding out the balance. It's funny how preference works out; that character range is both the reason why young sheng isn't my favorite type of tea and also why I like it. There's a freshness to the effect, and an interesting complexity and balance, with layers to the experience. But it's still not warm, rich, and easily approachable as better black teas are. It could just be a preference curve issue, related to a natural transition of likes over time.
I liked light oolongs the best initially, TKY and Taiwanese styles, which are very approachable and can be quite complex, and still do enjoy interesting versions, but the ordinary versions I started on can be a bit boring now.
From there the transitions level out and it just keeps going, of course brewing lots of tea, as if it could just continue indefinitely.
tea, in Jing Mai
I would guess that I would like the tea more in ten years but that's not based on much; I really don't know how it would change. I guess that's part of the appeal of drinking lots of sheng and aging it, to experience that transition, even the uncertainty, even if it's not always positive. For me it's nice to have more tea-space out there to experience, like visiting an interesting place on vacation and knowing you missed a couple of interesting sites; it leaves more to get to later.
I can't place this related to a non-ancient tree version, even though I reviewed one by them not so long ago. So lets roll the whole process back and try out a side-by-side comparison of that tea and this one. There is one limitation, that these aren't necessarily supposed to be identical styles of tea separate from that source difference. For example, it's harvested at a different time, March to April, and there could be intentional processing differences leading to character differences.
Comparison tasting Farmeleaf's Jing Mai Miyun with this ancient tree version
Farmerleaf Miyun 2016 Jing Mai sheng
One more disclaimer: due to personal preference scope I'll end up emphasizing differences in taste, when one running pu'er theme is that taste is only one of several aspects to appreciate, and to some not the main one, or maybe not even in the top three (related to effect, "qi", mouth-feel, and aftertaste). I'll mention feel, for completeness, but it's odd doing that when I'm not really into teas feeling a certain way, some degree of fullness is interesting and that's about it. Here goes anyway.
The flavors range of the two is comparable, it overlaps, but both are quite different. They're both a little floral, with mineral undertones, and a trace of bitterness, although not so much when brewed lightly the first few infusions. That's not how I put it in the first tasting notes, related to bitterness level, which could relate to an expectations shift, or brewing differences. Or I've been up and down related to a throat infection that comes and goes, and it seems at least possible that even being mostly over that perception of certain aspects shifts more than others related to changed sensitivity.
The ancient tree version is a lot sweeter and brighter. That brightness almost comes across as citrus, as a citrus spray like effect, when you bend the peel. The Miyun includes more earthiness, mainly coming across as wood tone, but there is more to it than that. The wood is complex, light and bright fresh wood in a complex range that extends to wood bark.
ancient tree source left, Miyun right
On the fourth infusion I went a little longer to get more feel for the feel, but the teas probably haven't leveled off into the character they'll show more of later. The bitterness picks up brewed stronger, of course. I don't mean the infusion strength is stronger than typical for other tea types, just not as light as I often brew sheng; the steep time was still about half a minute.
The ancient tree tea picks up a lot of structure, a feel that's hard to describe, and a long aftertaste. It feels full, like a tightening across my tongue--more the sides, in the back--and in the rest of the mouth, that settles into a dryness on the rear of my tongue at the end. Someday it might make sense to me how anything remotely like that range of sensation is pleasant. I don't dislike it, it's just not particularly interesting to me. Mineral elements are pronounced, maybe towards shale. That aftertaste takes awhile to wear off, like the effect from that one Golding tea in the last comparison tasting with this Miyun (so I guess to some extent I've compared both vendor's old-tree versions, just indirectly, both comparison tasted along with this Miyun version).
The Miyun picks up a touch of smoke, which isn't bad with that aspects mix. It has a full feel, just not as full in comparison with this other tea; tasted side by side it comes across as a good bit thinner. They both have some sweetness for balance but the ancient tree has more. It's hard to separate floral tones, there for both, they're similar but perhaps a little different. I think focusing on that would go better brewed very lightly, not just light but wispy.
I seem to pick up a trace of smoke in the ancient tree tea now, on the next infusion. The brightness wears off a little and more of a wood tone picks up. It falls into a nice balance together, although it was fine before too. Brewed lighter that feel is still present but less pronounced. The Miyun gains a little more smoke, less bright yet, with that wood tone pushing to earthier, towards a light mushroom, just not getting there.
Of course mineral undertone is strong in both, and a trace of bitterness, but that's quite light when brewed lightly, and it subsides across infusions more than the other flavor range. It's a little stronger in the ancient tree tea at this point but they both do keep transitioning. It's nothing like taking an aspirin, or at least only a little like that.
ancient tree source left, Miyun right
It's funny how similar and how different the two teas are. It wouldn't be possible for me to appreciate that tasting them days apart. I guess it would be possible for someone drinking tea only for flavor to prefer the Miyun, provided the earthier tone worked well for them, and more smoke, and different woodiness. But the ancient tree tea has a lot more going on, more initial brightness, more sweetness, more structure to the feel and aftertaste, and a bit more complexity. It even starts to pick up a touch of spice tone later on, closest to nutmeg, but not exactly that.
This "ancient tree" effect starts to make some sense to me; maybe if I keep with it and try a number of other examples it will be even clearer. Aging teas and relation of different aspects to aging potential is another part of the larger pu'er picture, and I'm woefully behind in doing much with that. There are just so many teas out there to try, and pu'er hasn't become a natural main preference, but given how much I like the only old version of a sheng cake I do own (now 11 years old, perhaps just getting interesting) I really should get on that.