Doi Inthanon producer introduction
Not so long ago I reviewed an oolong from Doi Inthanon, a Thai tea producer outside of Chiang Mai. It generally never comes up but I discussed experimenting with re-roasting that tea, and the character change was interesting. This vendor page provides background on the small farming operation, which produces #12 Jin Xuan and #17 Ruan Zhi tea types, imported plant types from Taiwan typically used for oolong production in Thailand. This post will review two more teas from them, provided by the vendor for review.
I like the idea of a small new tea producer extending production into a place it hasn't been before. I hope to see their business and product offerings expand in the future.
plantation; plants growing (photo credit)
This earlier post goes into the background on that second plant type, identifying that #17 cultivar is Bai Lu. Ruan Zhi (or Luan Zhi, an alternate spelling) is a different plant type. That's a common naming issue here, with #17 and Ruan Zhi typically associated. I guess to some extent it doesn't matter if it's really Ruan Zhi or Bai Lu improperly identified, although the #17 part seems likely to be accurate, so that it probably really is Bai Lu.
Related to Jin Xuan (#12) there's more on cultivars from Taiwan in this post, which mentions this reference table source (which doesn't itself include plant names, at least in this part):
Taiwan TTES / TRES cultivar table (reference source)
The other parts in that reference about landraces (original native plant strains) and plant types related to tea that aren't Camellia Sinensis (variety Sinensis or Assamica), or "wild" tea plant types, are even more interesting than these hybrid descriptions, but completely off the subject here.
Thai tea cultivation and production has only been going on for the past 30 years or so, so it's natural they are behind those older traditions at the higher levels. Of course there are plenty of exceptions to that local industry history range; this post on an old-tree pu'er-like tea from Myanmar touches on the earlier tradition that may go back to prior to 200 BC, and that may have extended into the North of Thailand.
To some extent growing location, cultivation variables, and plant age are all factors in final tea quality, along with plant types used and lots of other inputs, but I think we will see Thai teas improve rapidly over the next decade related mostly to processing technique improvements. Or maybe not. Thai loose tea consumers are generally not as selective as Western tea-enthusiast consumers, some of whom are actively researching product options from around the world, so it is possible that the status quo will continue. Of course there are well-informed Thai tea enthusiasts out there, they just seem to be a limited minority, perhaps even more so than in the US. At least the current Thai teas are quite reasonable, in terms of being of quality and sold at low cost, with the first described related to these two examples.
The tea looks a bit dark, with twisted leaves, curled into circles. It reminds me a little of Bi Luo Chun, a Chinese green tea type. I don't end up drinking much of that, mainly because I like green tea the least of any category. Longjing / Dragonwell works better for me since it tends to taste less like vegetables than others, not grassy, like seaweed or bell pepper or whatever else.
The dry tea scent is rich, a little vegetal with some mineral, but also with a touch of buttered popcorn, an interesting inclusion. The taste is mineral and floral intensive, a sweet, heavy type of floral I really can't place. It works well enough. I don't really know what the plant type is, but they claim to grow only #12 and #17, Jin Xuan and Bai Lu, and that floral tone isn't typical of any other Thai teas I've tried based on those, which add up to a lot at this point.
The flavors are clean, the feel is nice, and it's not really astringent. The mineral element reminds me of that really uniform Vietnamese green tea flavor range, which really already works well without this tea's floral aspect included. I suppose it would depend on preference if the floral element is positive factor or not. It's heavy and sweet enough that it's not far from osmanthus, but maybe not a perfect match for that, probably off a bit in a way I'm not remembering.
In later infusions more light wood tone and rich earthy profile comes out, towards that popcorn or toasted rice, just not completely getting there. The floral and mineral both drop off some to make space for that. A different read on that slightly biting fresh wood tone is that the flavor is green bell pepper instead, and once you think of it the tea tastes a lot more like bell pepper than freshly cut wood. This tea brews lots of infusions, passing through infusions in the mostly mineral and floral range to get to that warmer and earthier range, and isn't finished once it does.
I like the tea, in spite of not loving the general type. There's a freshness to green teas you don't get in the other types. It's comparable to aspects found in lighter oolongs, just to a different extent and placed in a different context.
Luan Tze / Ruan Zhi / Bai Lu / #17 review
Initially I wasn't sure of the type but this tea is a version of oolong. It's not processed just like Taiwanese oolongs, not rolled into balls, likely with some other processing differences indicated by the character differences. This tea plant type is typically made into an oolong (Luan Zhi / Ruan Zhi, which per the earlier description is probably actually Bai Lu). The description on the package I don't have in digital form or I could automatically translate it, but sorting it as a version of oolong is a good enough start.
The tea comes across a bit like a green tea, not completely unusual for lightly oxidized oolongs, since the oxidation boundary range isn't so different. It's rich and floral, so not like vegetal or grassy types of green tea. That richness is normal for oolong range, but those tend to drift further into buttery or even fuller in feel, and a little softer, although this isn't particularly astringent. The color is slightly golden yellow, still normal for a light oolong.
It would be nice if I could pin down that flower, what the flavor is similar to, perhaps as I'd imagine a violet (been awhile since living where those grow), or again perhaps not that far from osmanthus. Light mineral complexity fills in context below that. There's just a touch of bitterness, something I'd expect more from a sheng, but it would likely be much stronger if it was one.
That might sound terrible, a bitter tea sort of in character range between green tea and light oolong (except maybe to young sheng drinkers), but it balances well enough. It's light and there are other aspects to balance it, a good bit of flavors complexity, sweetness, and richness.
The flavors range mellows further into more of a light woodiness on the fifth infusion, with that bitter / slightly sour edge faded to the scent of split fresh wood. That might be something like birch, although my memory of wood scents has also faded a bit. The sweetness helps round out those tones; along with the floral, now lighter, it all balances well enough.
The tea is interesting. It doesn't really express that soft, rich range common to Thai oolongs, in between that and a typical green tea character instead, but it works for what it is.
Teas sold as Thai #17 based oolongs tend to be a little less buttery than Jin Xuan, with a touch more complexity, some even extending into a light spice effect. Thai oolongs can be a little floral but typically not nearly as pronounced as that aspect in this version. It's conceivable that this second is an infused tea, flavored with flowers, maybe osmanthus since that's not unheard of here, but since it's in a range that still could be natural I'd guess that it is.