More about that online friend in Vietnam sending teas to try, tea shared by Huyen Dinh (which will be a tea exchange, once I get around to sending some back).
Huyen, with a cool little teapot (which is quite old)
I thought I might have tried snow tea before, a tea I picked up travelling around the Hanoi area, but that may correspond more to another version Huyen labeled as "ancient tree," from the Son La province instead. That earlier ancient tree version reminded me of pu'er; a bit bitter, a little dry, and interesting. Looking back at that post it seemed a little rough, from March 2015; I was still working out some basics related to both tea and blogging (and it may not have been similar; that part was just a guess).
This version was labeled as both green tea and snow tea. There was no reference to ancient trees, as on the other sample, but I think this may be from "wild" (feral) old shan-type trees in the far North, but that really is as much a guess as anything.
Again I'm not going to have a specific original source to share, but Huyen does work for a local gift and local-goods sales company that does sell some teas. Maybe this one, but since it's not a conventional tea business contacting them to review specific tea versions could be a challenge. The company is Trà Việt (their website contact here), which has gift-shop / souvenir sales locations in Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It really doesn't look like they're set up for international tea sales through a website but someone could still try out paging through an automatically translated site version to see what turns up there; there are tea gift sets on the site.
locating Ha Giang (credit Hatvala site, a different vendor)
For tasting context, at time of tasting I was well along the way of wrapping up being sick with a throat infection. My sense of taste seemed almost completely normal again, but I was still a bit off in general then. I passed on a Lao Ban Zhang vertical pu'er tasting today, held by the same people who did a Yiwu tasting session version (mostly Bank), because it seems like drinking 20 or 30 small cups of intense tea might not be a good step towards being finished with all that. It's funny how when you're sick even if the illness isn't so bad there's that focus on being done with it.
The tea looks whitish-grey, a bit curled, not exactly like other teas one tends to run across (although a "fish-hook" sort of style is normal for Vietnamese green teas, just not this color). The initial infusion does taste like a green tea, sort of, but not all that close to other green tea versions. The pronounced mineral aspect does match that in the standard Vietnamese green teas (Thai-Nguyen region green teas).
It goes without saying but I'm using water below boiling point for brewing, just not on the low side for green teas. It might be typical to brew this using boiling point water in Vietnam, to really allow the bitterness to come out (funny how that came up again in talking about oolong brewing temperatures; I'll probably pass on more about that later). Of course I'm really talking about the flavor being bitter, not mis-labeling astringency, as does tend to come up. A Gongfu approach is also probably not standard, but really using Western brewing with hot water isn't going to change things entirely, it just shifts aspects balance a little.
A second infusion, also on the short side, is similar, maybe warming up a little and picking up a little depth. Bitterness stands out, then the mineral base after that (towards flint / chalk / limestone; a lighter version). Beyond that there is some vegetal range, along the lines of kale, and some sweetness. That sweetness seems to bring in a trace of a richer depth, something minor, buried in with the other complexity, along the lines of sugar cane, or maybe even maple syrup. The tea has a lot going on. The bitterness doesn't make it an automatic favorite but if that fades just a little and other range picks up the balance could be really nice.
a bit light in the early rounds, but with plenty of flavor
On the next infusion I let it go for about 45 seconds, not intentionally checking a stronger infusion, typing an idea at the start and not paying attention. One might wonder, how could I have developed an internal clock, and to what extent are those times ever really accurate? It wasn't from spending years brewing tea with a timer. I worked as a waiter (restaurant server) during an earlier life-phase, and that entails converting your consciousness into a timing device, along with picking up a few other capabilities (multi-tasking, reading people, not freaking out when you're in a hurry for hours on end). And I used to cook, a lot, and it more or less has to become natural to access an internal timer for that. It was natural for me to just time brewing based on estimation when I first started on loose tea, probably 9 years ago now, and by the time I became more serious about it around half that long ago I'd already been estimating timing for awhile.
This tea is nice and bitter brewed stronger; it's interesting to experience that way. It crowds out the rest a little but there is plenty to appreciate about the range, and I think it's transitioning a little too, "warming," if that makes sense, probably moving into a light spice range as much as anything. Flaws in this tea would be more evident brewed this strong but the balance is good, and the feel is nice, with an interesting aftertaste (quite strong, brewed stronger). Is it hui gan? Maybe. I'm going to guess yes, but I suppose at some point I'll just start winging it and saying that aspect is that when I think it is, as others tend to. I should send a little of this tea to my Chinese-Malaysian friend for a ruling.
Back to normal infusion strength the next time (four--I'll count them); the tea hasn't changed a lot but the balance of the same aspects is shifting. The bitterness isn't dropping out but the tea is falling into a more even balance, and although it does seem to be "warming" slightly there's more added in vegetal range than something else, at this stage. Kale may or may not sound nice in a tea; I guess it depends on how someone relates to the taste of kale. My main natural preference is for black teas and roasted oolongs, so richer, sweeter, more cocoa / cinnamon / fruit / baked yam flavors, but I can still relate to this; I can appreciate and even like it. The style may not be a close fit for everyone--and to some extent that's where I am--but somehow this seems like "good tea," in some odd, objective sense. The flavors are clean, the feel is nice, aftertaste pronounced and positive, and it balances. It is a little bitter though.
Bitterness keeps easing up in the next infusion (5) but that mineral expands to even include some metal range. Now that does sound odd; a tea tasting like a spoon that you can taste, when you shouldn't be able to. On the next infusion (6) the tea has softened into a more typical green tea range; the bitterness and mineral tones have faded back, leaving more vegetal character as dominant, and room for other space. A bit of woodiness adds some depth, which does track a little towards spice, it's just not close enough to that range to really pick out one (cinnamon versus something else, etc.). I suppose the kale is expanded too, as much green bell pepper now as kale, which probably was already evident an infusion or two ago. This tea version definitely seems more like a traditional Vietnamese green tea than any other type but it's also clearly not identical to those. Of course I can't speculate if that's because of a varied plant type input, growing condition, or processing step; how would I know that.
Infusion times are up around 30 seconds now just to get infusion level strength up to a normal level, and it seems to be fading, that it will require closer to a minute from here on out. It didn't exactly fade quickly since I'm on infusion 7, and it would easily brew several more. It hasn't changed much, but the current aspects range (in relative order) are green pepper, kale, mineral, wood, metal, and bitterness, with a good bit of depth suggesting added trace aspects beyond that, the complex range from sugar cane, with a bit more warmth seemingly related to that.
Or maybe an aspects list isn't familiar to everyone, and some strange comparison instead would help. This tastes a bit like biting a tree branch bud. I don't keep track of those (the tastes of different trees, or different parts of trees), but in earlier rounds it was like a more bitter version of a tree branch bud, and in later infusions just complex, and not as bitter.
I'll wrap this up for now, at least the notes part, although it will keep going. I'm sure there will be some deep thoughts and conclusions to add in editing, but in general I liked the tea, it was interesting, and had a lot going on. Bitterness could really put someone off, but although that's quite far from my favorite flavor-aspect range (along with the kale and green bell pepper) I still liked it. The overall complexity made it work for me, which extended beyond flavor aspects, and the transitions made it more interesting.
In talking to an online friend with lots of experience with Vietnamese tea he mentioned his take on bitterness in tea; he sees it as flaw related to processing that could be improved upon. It's hard to say if that even could be the objectively correct fact of the matter, but it stands to reason that processing may be a related factor, and that leaf characteristics prior to processing are another. My understanding of his point is basically that the same leaf could be processed differently to not be bitter. Personally I have no idea about that, just passing it on.
Of course sheng pu'er is the main tea type I've tried that includes pronounced bitterness, not always, but it's not exactly atypical, more the opposite in younger versions. Some people seem to be ok with sheng being bitter, and per my understanding both bitterness and astringency may not be seen as negative in green teas in Vietnam, which is why it's not a given to use slightly cooler water to offset at least the astringency part. According to Huyen there are two schools of thought on that, and two different preferences, either using near-boiling point water (even for green tea) or water down around 80 - 85 C instead.
I hadn't intended to pass on much for sources but this tea is almost certainly from local variations of Assamica tea plant types. Since I've just talked to a number of people involved with selling tea in Vietnam about it and that was taken as a given by all of them, that tea from this region is typically local Assamica plant types, it seems quite well established. It would probably be identical or else closely related to the "shan" tea types listed in this reference (a plant-type study conducted in Taiwan), but that conclusion is just speculation.