Thursday, July 20, 2017

Wild unsmoked Lapsang Souchong from Wuyi Origin (Cindy Chen)

Just when I've been feeling a bit burned out on trying different teas, tea research themes, discussion, moderating a tea group, and writing about tea Cindy Chen sent some of my Wuyishan favorites.  Her teas are always some of the best I ever get around to trying.  I think one of her Rou Gui versions and this wild version of Lapsang Souchong may be the two teas I've liked the most of any.  Of course that relates more to a preference match than them being outrageously good teas (I like fruit aspects in teas more than floral tones), but they are exceptional, so I picked one of those to try first.

Don't take my word for it; read up on some Steepster reviews here, or about that Lapsang Souchong version in this review.  Cindy started selling teas online not so long ago, here, with a Facebook page here.  They actually make the teas, so that's an unusual thing, for a tea farmer and processor to set up a web page and direct sales.  It was a step that followed on years of her talking to people online and gradually selling more directly.  I've written lots of reviews of their teas (which include Dan Cong, since she has family in that area too), but just shared some pictures of making them this year, and first wrote an interview post with her about making teas back in 2015.

Tea Explorer photo (credit Jeff Fuchs' Tea and Mountain Journal, from this post)

I remember reading one account of Jeff Fuchs meeting Cindy, himself a familiar name in tea.  His own tea movie is coming out right about now (the Tea Explorer documentary, click to a newer post than this citation to check on that, per that post first airing on television on July 23rd, so worth looking into right away).  His Tea and Mountain site post introduction of Cindy:

...She is in the midst of tea production season and the shift work (fresh tea leaves are impatient fellows) has left its mark on her. She is blearly eyed, clearly ripped on tea, but still as generous and welcoming as a family member...

On this morning Cindy uses a simple white ceramic gai wan or flared cup vessel for ease of examining colour and rapid fire infusions. Rapid fire they are, but with Cindy every serving is something fresh and perfect, though she in all of her modesty claims that she is “only someone who knows tea a little.”

Cindy is made of tea it seems. Rampant energy, talking of nothing else, she knows tea from the soil to the very skin of the leaf and through the various stages it is a subject that is part of her. Her entire family for generations has produced Rock teas...

Cindy!  and tea (my favorite picture of her)

That's her, to me, a bright spirit, kind and humble, while working from a different level of knowledge and experience; something of a tea saint.  That whole passage / article is well worth a read, and that documentary covers part of the living history of tea through the mountains of the great tea road.

Pre-review review review (it's like a stutter)

I never read other reviews of teas before I try them, but I thought to mix it up I'd try that.  If this tea is like the version I tried last year it should be quite fruity as Lapsang Souchong goes, more in the citrus range, with amazing complexity and great balance of aspects beyond that.  From one of those Steepster reviews I just cited, for the same tea I'm about to try (the only one posted for this year's version so far):

Initial taste is a cacophony of fruits. It’s syrupy like fruit punch mix. Important to note, there is no chemical, or artificial taste. The tea soup is viscous. It feels oil like on the tongue. Taste develops into an intense sugarcane, fruity sweetness There’s also a bit of citrus taste in the finish. More shaddock, than, say, lemon. This citrus flavor also comes through on the lips. The finish starts off sweet. That sweetness is joined by an undertone of citrus, and a cool sensation towards the back of the mouth.

I had to look shaddock up; that's another name for pomelo, a type of grapefruit--or similar to a grapefruit, maybe that goes--that's common in Asia.  It's less descriptive than it might seem because there are lots of versions of pomelo, some sweet, some quite sour, some with white-ish flesh (fruit), others more yellow (not exactly yellow; tan, like dried wheat), or red.  Red versions are usually sweet but some yellow ones are too.  As an aside, apparently there are lots of different versions of oranges, grapefruit, bananas, pineapple, and mangos, lots of tropical fruits out there, because we eat different versions of all of those here (even different types of lychee, my favorite).

That's fine for an aside; I'll get on with tasting.


On first sip this tea really meets the expectations.  I totally get what that guy was saying about grapefruit; there is lots of citrus in this but it's not in a typical range for orange.  Then again there are lots of types of oranges too.  I'm not going to have much luck pinning down which type of pomelo this reminds me of but it's not bitter, and has some sweetness, so I suppose closer to a red version.

There is great complexity, it's just not so simple to unpack what's going on.  Saying "mineral" works in general for most kinds of tea but it doesn't describe much.  I wouldn't say the tea is woody but there is an earthiness that's hard to spell out, nothing like wood or peat, not tobacco, out towards cinnamon or dark wood but not so close to either.  The thickness, complexity, and balance makes the tea exceptional.

the tea works well at different strengths

More of the same the next infusion; the balance has transitioned some, but I'll have trouble filling in how, or more specifics.  A citrus element is still the most pronounced aspect but other complexity ramps up.  It's interesting the way the mild malt range identifies this tea as black tea but there is very little astringency along with that, just enough structure to give it a fuller feel.

It could be wrong but I get a sense that stopping short of full oxidation allowed the tea to retain some degree of freshness and vegetal range, just not in any sense of any other tea that's coming to mind.  It's coming across mostly as citrus in terms of flavor, which is really unique, not so much related to her teas but I've not experienced the same degree in other similar versions.

That vegetal range I'm trying to describe is almost below the range of flavor, more exhibited in the feel and general effect of the tea, a hint of the experience of tasting a fresh tea bud or the top of a green wheat plant.  Right, tasting those things just doesn't ever come up.  But if it did there would be a sweet, mild, complex flavor involved that is vegetal but not in the sense of tasting anything like any vegetables.  I suppose some version of an edible flower might be as close as one might get, but who is familiar with the taste of different edible flowers.

There might be a bit of a straightforward floral aspect to this, one that's just not so simple to tease out for the rest of the complexity.  There's a lot going on in the tea, but at the same time the effect is that it's simple, clear and direct, and very clean in effect.  It's the kind of tea some people might not get, it might not match their preferences, and for them it would just taste strange.  But for others this would be an eye-opening experience, exactly the way tea should taste in a better world than this one.  I love fruit aspects in black teas or roasted oolongs so to me it's perfect.

On the next infusion things aren't changing much; the citrus is still wonderfully pronounced, maybe back to closer to where it was on the first infusion in terms of balance though.  Just a trace of woodiness is creeping in; I suppose that will be more pronounced in the next infusion, and will be a significant part of the profile after that.  That mild malt tone ties this tea to the other better Lapsang Souchong that I've tried but it's quite different, except for last year's version of the same thing.  Someone else probably could pin down a floral aspect, more than just saying it's there, and floral.  The sweetness really makes it work well, although it would still be ok if that was less pronounced.

I never really did address the complexity in the tea, to spell that out.  I get the sense different reviewers would pass on all sorts of different lists related to this tea.  So far I've covered citrus, malt, floral, earthiness and vegetal, in the sense an edible flower is that (not so clearly defined, some of those).  That fruit tone might extend into something warmer and deeper, along the lines of a dried longan.  The earthiness I was struggling to pin down is not that far from cocoa.  It would be interesting to hear reads from a couple of my favorite bloggers that tend to extend tasting all the way into the range of imagination.

I never said much about the feel or structure of this tea, the way the "body" aspect worked out.  As with most Chinese black teas it's on the softer side, to the extent that it didn't vary in character that much depending on the infusion strength.  It works well brewed relatively lightly but is fine brewed stronger.  It's hard to completely pin down what the "full feel" aspect range means so I just skip that here.

On the next infusion the tea just thins, but the citrus stays pronounced.  It loses a little for giving up some complexity and fullness but it's still the same amazing tea, four infusions in.  It did make another couple of nice infusions but there isn't much more to say for description.  I was brewing it on the stronger side, related to how light I prepare some teas, since it worked well at different intensities and those flavors were amazing experienced at higher intensity, but the tea really could brew closer to ten infusions if someone liked it prepared lightly instead.  Or a standard Western brewing process would work; the results probably wouldn't change that much for this particular tea, and then it might be back to three or so.  I wouldn't prepare this tea Western style but there's really no reason not to, if someone was more on that page.

Conclusion, and about related tea pricing

This is again one of the best teas I've ever tried.  I'm sure that relates as much to me preferring fruit aspects in teas as much as anything else, but it's also clearly an exceptional tea, not all that similar to any other version I've tried of any others.

A friend just mentioned checking out the Wuyi Origin website, specifically about how much he liked those teas, and we discussed pricing.  That's a subject I normally don't even touch on, more taboo than other taboo subjects for tea bloggers, especially since I consider Cindy a friend (online friend, if that matters, but I will get around to visiting).  I'm not good with observing taboo restrictions so I'll pass on some thoughts.

Some of their prices are higher than they were last year.  I suspect the higher demand for winning some local tea competitions is driving up the prices of some oolongs, the main tea types from Wuyishan.  Per my guess--given that I can't really judge the range of what a lot of other vendors sell--the most costly products on their site are still in the normal retail range, and still a good value for the quality level.  It's easy to see a tea selling for $10-15 for 50 grams on one site as a better value than another described as identical for $15-20 on a second but it really just depends.  The latter could really be a much better value, while the former might not be worth that, if it's mediocre tea, or might not even be all that pleasant to drink if the source choice is random.

A lot of her teas are probably still slightly underpriced, per my guess.

There may be some confusion over what teas would sell for in China versus in "the West," the US or Europe, and although I can't completely do the subject justice I've been to China a couple of times (and twice that if you count Hong Kong, but that's different), so I'll venture a guess.  The selling prices are not so different than in those other places.  Demand for tea is high, and awareness related to tea is better (although the average person isn't a "tea enthusiast," per my take, but that concept wouldn't transfer over directly).  It probably is possible to get great deals on the lower end for inexpensive, low to medium quality teas, especially if someone was interested in putting effort in, visiting wholesale markets, or chasing down more direct sourcing there.  But retail of better teas doesn't relate to selling them for any less, per my limited experience, with some exceptions for what "better" tends to mean, and for different types of sources using different supply chains.

this is really in Seoul, in 2012; my old Google Photo back-ups are patchy

It's important to keep in mind that personal preference is more a factor in how much you'll like a tea than it being a good deal, related to fair market value, or to what another vendor would charge for the same teas.  If you look through those Steepster reviews anyone that mentions cost or value there only does so related to saying that the tea was inexpensive when considered against comparable versions.  If they happened to not prefer a tea style they might not have felt that way; it can be tricky sorting out objective quality level and other factors that go into liking teas.

It would take some doing to sort through all the range of products they make and sell (having family that lives in Chaozhou making Dan Cong adds to that range), but I'd bet some are both unique offerings and great values.  I've not tried her white teas yet but those stood out for looking interesting.

Take all that for what it's worth; I can only share one person's opinion, and I'm biased.  Check out a related Steepster discussion thread too for a broader take, and see what those people say about them.  They don't know her, and aren't having free samples sent to them.

Singing Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes (not about tea)

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