Tuesday, December 11, 2018

1997 2 kg. sheng pu'er brick (Tibetan style)

in the Tea Village shop tasting area (in October)

When I last visited the Tea Village shop in Pattaya one owner, Vee, let me try a really interesting version of aged pu'er that seemed as much like a hei cha.  That's essentially what this is.  I'll let his website description of it tell more of the details:

And that's what it is; just a bit of a mystery tea.  The "made in the Tibetan style" more or less says "hei cha" to me, and tasting it does too.  It's a fine material, very hard pressed tea, which was very difficult to extract for a brewing sample.  Vee used a hammer and chisel to remove this part, I think it was, and I used a pick for pu'er, a knife, and eventually a bottle opener (it gave good leverage and mechanics for snapping off small chunks).

You read that one part right; they sell this as 2 kilogram bricks, equivalent to nearly a half dozen typical size pu'er cakes (although it lost weight in storage, so it's down to only 5).  It sells for 12,900 baht, now equivalent to $393.  For five tea cakes worth of tea that comes out to around $80 a cake, a pretty good value for 21 year old tea.  Of course it's not pu'er, so it needs to be compared to a hei cha scale instead (in my opinion), and I doubt there is enough equivalent product on the market for this for there to be any clear fair market value.  If you want it you have to find it first, which is essentially all but impossible, and a vendor can charge whatever they want for it that makes it sell.

As for what the tea tastes like I've had it before, in the shop with him, and it seems like a hei cha to me.  It's smooth, rich, warm in effect, and centered on the plum-like range that I've encountered in other hei cha.  "Plum" may or may not be the best description for a primary taste aspect but it gets across the general range.  Onto tasting notes then.

looking bored with the tea theme right away

I think this was that tea, from trying it there


The story of this tea starts with how hard it was to break up.  That initial chunk Vee used a hammer and chisel to break off, I think.  I tried to use sharp spiked tea pick to flake off some pieces but that didn't really work.  Eventually I used that, along with an actual knife (luckily that didn't end in me impaling myself), and finally a bottle opener to crack off some pieces.  It's a well-compressed tea.

I used a standard brief rinse for this tea, which wasn't going to do much for getting the small chunks of tea started brewing.  It was a judgement call as to how to brew it, related to what I broke off including both dust and small chunks.  It's not optimum to brew two completely different types of material together, since that dust will be starting to infuse within a second round (the first after a rinse), and the chunks will take a few rounds to even get soaked enough to start.  When I drank the tea with Vee we had at least 10 rounds of it and that tea may well have continued for that much longer.  The issue I'm referring to is uneven infusion exposure instead of longevity; one part of the tea will be brewed out (changing flavor to where teas that you discard as spent are in the cycle, often turning woody in flavor character) while the other just starts going.

The obvious work-around is to separate out the finer material and not use it, to set it aside for a later round.  I didn't do that though.  Per my best guess this tea won't "brew-out" to be unpleasant, but instead will retain a similar character and just fade over a very long infusion cycle, so it won't make as much difference.  And as usual intuition is my main guide for how to approach brewing teas; somehow my gut said the right thing is to mix it all and use it together.  Of course it's hard to track how frequently that's wrong.

a bit too light

I brewed the tea for around 10 to 15 seconds for a first infusion, which turned out to be more of a second rinse, too thin to get a lot of effect from.  Then for 30 seconds a second cycle, to get the tea chunks started soaking and to get the dust pretty far along, and mixed those two infusions ("stacked" them, to use the catchier formal term).  From here on a more standard approach should work, something like 15 second brewing times.  I just checked Vee's website recommendation and they said to use two rinses; that makes sense.  From there adjusting time as works best for you is the way to go.

This first infusion won't be the best representation of the tea's character but it's nice.  It has that plum effect already.  Mineral is present as a base but it's in a really soft and subdued form compared to the sheng and shou themes I've been on.  It's the other layers of complex flavors that make this nice, which are harder to pull apart.  One part is like incense spices, frankincense or myrrh (I still have to get my incense habit going to tell what that is though).  Another is a very fine trace of menthol.

As a primary flavor aspect I hate menthol (just a personal preference issue), so that #18 Ruby or Red Jade black teas from Taiwan almost always seem awful to me.  As a minor supporting element that integrates will with the rest is a completely different case; that can be great, and this works.  From there I could keep going but it seems as well to add more description related to a second round instead.

Second infusion

This opened up faster than I thought it would.  It seems to be loosened up and brewing nicely already.  I gave it about a 15 second infusion time, about twice as long as it would need to draw out flavor if astringency or other aspect moderation was an issue but this tea will be nicer at a slightly more intense brew intensity.  That's just a matter of preference; it would work well brewed wispy light or twice as strong again.

The same flavor list as last time applies:  plum, mineral, some supporting spice (which is continuous with some dark wood tones), and just a hint of menthol, which might be more faint, so that I wouldn't identify it in this round if I hadn't noticed it in the last.  It's nice the way that complex mix coats your mouth and remains as an aftertaste effect.  There isn't that much structure to the mouth-feel to talk about; the intense flavors give it a complex over-all effect but not a lot of mouth-feel structure supports or contributes to that.  The wood is similar to redwood, that aromatic, almost spicy range of wood tone.

The mineral is more intense in this round; it really covers such a range that it would be possible to write a short review description of just the mineral.  It's warm and complex in nature, towards that artesian well / red sandstone range.  It extends to being almost metallic, which could be a bad thing depending on the metal character, but it works in this.  It's not completely different than rusted iron bar but it seems to extend to metal-range complexity.  For being a flavor-intensive but simple in structure tea experience this covers a lot of ground.

Third infusion

mostly wetted and loosed up already

It's not transitioning; the taste is like before.  I could keep free-associating to come up with different interpretations for the same set of flavors and other aspects.  Probably the balance of what is there has shifted a little too; there's more that could be said about that.  That menthol background element is so faint that it may or may not be there at all at this point, but I'm going to say that it is.

dried persimmons!  I'm not sure what this coated version is covered with.

Plum still works as a fruit aspect description (for a tea that's more in the mineral and earthy flavor ranges anyway; that just stands out for some reason) but it really is closer to a dried persimmon.

Which reminds me, I was just in Chinatown and walked by those, and the looked really nice, but I was in a hurry and didn't buy any.  I love those; that flavor is as close as anything else to fig (so this tea isn't far from that either), but it's just a little lighter (but just as sweet), less rich but more complex in some sense that's hard to place.

Fourth infusion

I'm running out of time, off to get a haircut after completely losing any style due to not making that work.  It's still similar.  I remember that from trying an awful lot of rounds with Vee; it stays fairly consistent.  I like this character so that's a good thing.  I think the mineral and metal levels move around a little, that the relative proportion of those individual aspects is varying, but the overall character and effect aren't.  The aromatic wood component seems a bit stronger this round.

It's my impression that changing infusion strength shifts that balance a good bit for this type of tea.  It narrows things down that astringency and mouthfeel in general isn't a concern; optimum is whatever seems best for taste.  Aftertaste is substantial too, but it still occurs in a lighter brewed version.  Probably shifting temperature would change things a little too but I can't imagine that using anything other than full boiling point water makes any sense (not that I'll check that).

It's a very nice tea experience.  I've had a hei cha before that this reminds me of, a version of Fu brick.  It's a bit simple in effect; you either like that flavor or you don't.  The flavor is complex, and it wouldn't be familiar to everyone, but to me it's likable.  I'm not going on about how clean it is but it helps a lot that there is no trace of mustiness in this tea, or that the metal, fruit, and earthy range balances as well as it does.

This tea is probably far from finished; there might be another 15 infusions to enjoy out of it.  It'll be nice if it works out that I can do another full session in the afternoon with it since I'll squeeze in a couple of more and be off for now.

Fifth infusion

completely loosened up

The balance of those aspects is definitely shifting around.  It's much stronger towards the redwood / aromatic spice range now, although there is plenty of dried persimmon flavor balancing that (and related sweetness), and a nice dryness from some very complex mineral.  That probably works well as an overall description of this tea, even though earlier the aromatic wood was lighter.

Later infusions

I drank a couple more infusions before going out, and left the tea fully drained to try again the next morning (early afternoon; I got a late start on it).  Using extended infusion times to keep the intensity up changed the character in an interesting way, drawing out more earthy leather range flavor, still with good molasses sweetness, and a bit of spice, again supported by mineral tone.  The molasses and leather trailed into a tree-bark edge, but it was still nothing like astringency in other tea types.

Placing that style; potentially related tea versions

This tea is a little different than anything that I've tried, but all the same I'd like to cover a little more about the teas closest to it in style that I've tried.  I mentioned a Yunnan Sourcing Chinese hei cha that was similar, which was their 2007 Xiang Yi "Hei Cha Zhuan" Hunan brick tea, which I reviewed here

To be fair to this Tea Village version it probably a was a bit more refined and distinctive, beyond just not being the same thing, maybe because the extra decade of aging helped it, or maybe it started out different.  It definitely doesn't look similar, even though the brewed character shows some similarities.  This tea just reviewed is made of fine material, very tightly pressed, with that other hei cha more from larger leaf pieces, along with a good bit of stem. 

the initial chunks of that tea, YS Hunan brick

broken up in a gaiwan

loosely compressed compared to this other tea (credit YS site)

Even though they're probably not the same the character was similar, so I wanted to add a bit more about what it was, from that YS vendor description, which I'll explore further with other types descriptions afterwards.  Part of the point is to try to zero in on what that tea was in more general terms; for example, would it have been pre-fermented or not (as it was described by Vee).

Back to that Yunnan Sourcing Hunan brick description:

This is from the Xiang Yi Tea Factory in An Hua county of Hunan Province.  Xiang Yi is the second oldest producer of Hunan Hei Cha after Bai Sha Xi Tea Factory.

Hei Cha Zhuan (lit. Black Tea Brick) is composed of An Hua grown tea that's been picked and processed with frying, rolling, wilting and then sun-dried.  The bricks are tightly compressed which allows for slow but determined post fermentation. These are unique from Fu Bricks in that the golden flower spores are not introduced into the tea and as such don't exist.

This particular brick was stored in An Hua County of Hunan from 2007 until June 2016.  The smell of the dry leaf is that of dried fruit... very sweet and dense fruitiness happening.  The brewed tea is sweet and thick with (not surprisingly) strong fruit sweetness (think dried plums).  Tea can be infused 7 to 10 times if brewed gong fu style.  We recommend loosening the tea using a pick into smallish chunks layer by layer.  We also recommend using a clay pot and the hottest water possible.

One of things that stands out about this tea, besides the unique character, is the unusual level of value; they sell it for $126 for a one kilogram brick.  Supply, demand, and production costs all factor into a final tea price and apparently this end up being inexpensive.  Description in my review summarized flavor aspects as:

"fig, older hay bale, mineral, and molasses as a start but really I think cocoa sort of works, and there's another dried fruit element that's quite pronounced..."

I think that may have been a bit mustier, and also complex but maybe not in exactly the same way.  It's interesting that this tea version isn't post-fermented through any piling step, isn't it?  At least as presented, but the description from original content could be clearer.  I lose track of what typically is or is not though.  I'll cite a reference about this type (the YS version; not this Tea Village tea, since it's not as clear what it even is), from Tony Gebely's Tea: A Users Guide (a really good general reference for a lot of scope):

Hei Mao Cha (黑猫茶, hēi māo chá), Semi-Finished Dark Tea

Nearly all styles of Hunan hei cha begin with the production of Hei Mao Cha or semi-finished dark tea. Hei Mao Cha is made by fixing, rolling, pile-fermenting and drying fresh tea leaves, usually from descendants of Camellia sinensis var. assamica known as Da Ye Zhong (大叶种) or large leaf type. Another way to refer to Hei Mao Cha is pile-fermented Mao Cha.

Note that this says "nearly all styles," and goes onto say this generally refers to a pile-fermented tea.  Of course the Tea Village product description cites that being made based on a Tibetan tea type instead, not Hunan (China), but versions of that aren't listed in this book reference.  The description of it as "sheng" (which means "raw") refers to it as a non-pre-fermented tea, although I'm not sure if that's intended as a conclusive description or not. 

That description cited was only about the general category; a further passage from that User's Guide reference relates to this YS tea type I'd mentioned:

Hei Zhuan Cha (黑砖茶, hēi zhuān chá), Dark Brick or Black Brick Tea

Hei Zhuan Cha is a fermented tea made by steaming Hei Mao Cha and pressing it into special rectangular molds. The bricks are then dried in a warm room and wrapped. The finished product is a rectangular brick with a flat surface, usually without markings.

It doesn't fill in much, and that's especially not helpful for not clearly linking back to the tea type I'm reviewing anyway. 

Tony's book does list another type from China most typically used to make Tibetan style yak-butter tea (the association to that country that does come to mind), describing that hei cha as follows:

Kang Zhuan is a style of Nan Lu Bian Hei Cha brick from Sichuan province. Kang Zhuan is made up of a mixture of older tea leaves and stems... Leaves and stems destined for Kang Zhuan are fixed, rolled, and pile-fermented...  Kang Zhuan tea is the tea of choice when making Tibetan Yak Butter Tea. Production of this tea has spread from Sichuan to Hunan and Guizhou.

Not onto Tibetan originated tea yet (given there is such a thing; I think there is), but that does mention that final preparation style from there.  That sounds a lot like a tea I tried from Moychay, an odd looking pressed large brick made from a good bit of stem material and leaves, reviewed here, and pictured as follows:

They made no type or style claims in selling that tea, and even made it clear that it wasn't like other standard types of hei cha.  That review actually covers one of my favorite sheng from them, in the first section, a really nice, fruity version from Nan Nuo.  As far as that tea goes it was a bit rustic; as I remember it tasted a bit like barn door.

Yunnan Sourcing does list a version of that last tea type (mentioned in the Tea:  a User's Guide citation), with the description connecting with that reference:

These "Kang" bricks were produced in the small tea factory in Province of Guizhou and then sent to Tibet where they were stored in a family home for more than ten years.  These are packaged in long (1 meter) bamboo baskets, about 20 to each length.  

credit related Yunnan Sourcing page, the link just cited with the text

Given this tea I reviewed seems to contain no stem material at all (unless that was ground too fine to identify), was finely ground leaves, and was well-compressed into a brick shape instead it doesn't seem to be at all related.  Even if I did research for other different Tibetan style compressed tea versions (a reasonable next step) it would be hard placing those in relation to this tea without tasting them, or probably still difficult even with trying them.  It would be easy to note how close aspects land but not possible to separate out different causes for why (eg. tea plant type differences, growing area as an input, processing differences, where the teas spent the last 20+ years).

At any rate this was an interesting and unique tea; it's always nice trying those.  With more research it would probably be possible to come to a better guess about what this is.  Enjoying it for what it is in the cup doesn't require all that; the tea was nice.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Lung Phin and Bo Duot Vietnamese Ha Giang sheng

Lung Phin sheng left, Bo Duot right

the actual spelling (accent included)

Lung Phin sample

Bo Duot sample

I've been really lucky to be able to try a broad range of very interesting teas lately.  I've been through a lot of local, diverse versions of sheng from Vietnam earlier this year, after exploring some from Thailand and Myanmar, then lately onto Laos versions, now back to more from Vietnam.

These teas are from Hatvala, samples sent by one owner, Geoff, for me to try.  Many thanks!  A lot of times vendors sharing tea doesn't necessarily relate to a marketing function, as in this case.  Per discussion one of these teas might be sold later, and one probably never was a good source option related to that.

Why wouldn't they sell them, one might wonder?  They need to be able to source reasonable amounts of consistent products, and per my understanding that can be a limitation from these types of local teas.  They can vary a lot batch to batch, or volume produced can be quite limited.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, from a consumer perspective, since slight variations in tea types harvested and processing methodology could be interesting.  But it wouldn't work as well for selling a single branded tea type.  They do already sell one very pleasant Vietnamese version of sheng, but these two and one other sent are from two other provinces in Vietnam.

Laos "young" Phongsaly area sheng for comparison

Somnuc shared the last set of interesting teas (Laos sheng), with the last one mentioned in this post, and one I liked better reviewed here.  I should get a chance to meet Somnuc passing through Bangkok this week.  Anna of Kinnari Tea also just visited; it's been an interesting week.  She has provided lots of novel and very good teas in the past, the best of what I've tried from Laos, although I didn't get that far through Somnuc's set to place them.  Anna dropped off lots more too, and told cool stories about visiting remote places in Laos, about difference in tea plant types, economic development, processing variations, and so on.

It seems like all the networking and talking online is starting to pay off, not that it hasn't been.  Noppadol, a local vendor selling teas that typically don't make it out of Northern Thailand, helped with sharing teas from there (mostly from the Lamphang area) and from Myanmar earlier.  Huyen--the best kind of tea enthusiast, so genuine and positive--visited here in Bangkok before and shared some from Vietnam.

Lamphang (Thai) sheng left, Myamar sheng right (reviewed here)

It helps that Bangkok is a South East Asia crossroads, that people tend to go through here to get to those other countries.  Narendra, that small producer in Nepal, working on a new processing model, just sent some tea with an acquaintance visiting here for a convention.  Next year I hope to get out more too, with some related development to follow.  Onto actually talking about these teas.


These Vietnam sheng teas are going to be amazing.  The dry tea scent hints at that but the scent of wet leaves after the rinse step makes it clear.  I could write a review just of the wet leaf smell, of how complex and varied they both are, but I'll pick this up with the first infusion instead.

Something interesting did stand out in the Bo Duot version wet leaf scent (which is not actually the right spelling; I'd need to find a version of both to copy to here adding the diacritics, the accent marks).  It's complex, warm and sweet, but one part smells a little like dill, maybe even with a hint of sourness matching how pickles end up.  The tea seems like it'll be great, even though "sour" isn't a positive start for description.

I infused both just over 10 seconds, and will probably be going with pretty fast infusions even though the proportion is moderate, just normal for sheng.

It's odd that I never cite weight estimates, isn't it?  I started brewing loose tea by eye, guessing out the amounts, the better part of a decade ago (or it might've even been 10 years now; I've been here for 11), and it always seemed unnatural to go back and put weights to that, or adjust the form of control.  I'd been drinking a lot of tea by the time I would've made it to that step, which is not how that usually works, so in the end I just passed on it altogether.

Lung Phin left, Bo Duot right (still very light)

Lung Phin:  a very interesting tea, very pleasant, but a bit unusual.  The character is a little closer to green tea than sheng typically seems, more in the "snow tea" range.  That's nothing like conventional green tea, although it does share just a little aspect range with green teas that would be conventional in Vietnam, the Thai Nguyen area versions.  It's mineral intensive; that stands out the most.  There's some bitterness, not a lot for sheng aspects balance, but plenty related to how other tea types work out.

There's more vegetal range than sheng typically has, the tie-in with green tea style I mentioned.  It's mostly towards green bell pepper, but it could probably be unpacked as a lot more complex than that.  The mineral range alone is complex.  It's more a dry mineral type, like limestone, but with depth to it, and it may even trail into a hint of smoke (which is hard to pick up, and really more a judgment than an objective read; it leads into that, it seems to me).  I'll add more and get into feel and aftertaste in later rounds.  It's a complex tea so there will be a lot more to add.

Bo Duot:  the flavor for this is quite different, mineral intensive as well, but much warmer, in a different range.  This was the tea I was saying smelled more like an herb with some sourness, dill, but it's not sour or even bitter, as sheng goes.  It's complex too but across a different scope, and a bit warmer and smoother at this early stage.  One interesting aspect is slightly savory, which one might describe as a hint of sun-dried tomato.  I don't need to say that seems positive, do I?  It would depend on how it worked with the rest.  The warmth and other range is hard to pin down since it's still developing but it reminds me of the effect of incense herbs, frankincense and myrrh.

I know some local hippies in Thailand; I should get into scent-testing those incense inputs for review training.  "Tea people" often tend to lay off the incense since even moderately strong foods can alter your palate, never mind burning strong smelling herbs.

Second infusion

Lung Phin:  again great complexity.  The tea has transitioned some, opened up a bit, but it wasn't slow to start.  This really isn't so far off teas I've tried presented as "snow tea;" it could be one of them.  It has a bit more dry mineral than those tend to, and the vegetal range is backed off a little, so it's not clearly a green tea (or not clearly a sheng, but I'd peg it as a sheng).

Expectations factor into how people take teas.  For a lot of sheng drinkers I'd expect that range to not work well, just because they aren't used to it, more than because it's too close to green tea character.  This is more bitter than the other, but then the second may have taken a round to infuse as strong as it's going to, to get started.

The mouthfeel is pleasant; it has some structure to it.  And the aftertaste lingers, especially that bitterness, trailing into a sweet effect.  It helps it all that it's so clean in effect.  Vegetal range can seem odd if it doesn't work, if it goes too far towards a type of woody tone that doesn't balance well, for example.  Wood does inform part of the base flavor context, along with a lighter balance of green bell pepper in this round.  It comes across as tree-bud to me, that biting, bitter, complex and fragrant character.

Bo Duot:  again this tea version is much warmer and softer.  Mineral also stands out but a different version, not the dry limestone-flint range in the Lung Pin version but an earthier dark clay / rusted iron pipe / artesian well version instead.  It's interesting the way that warm mineral trails over into a mild spice, not cinnamon or the other standard cooking spice range, again an aromatic incense-type version (which I can't place).

It seems a bit more subdued, not quite as intense in effect as the other, but something like the bitterness being limited to none in this might swing the effect a lot.  Other flavor intensity seems milder too though.  I'll wait until the next round to try to break down flavor aspects further; this might develop a bit more then.

Third infusion

Lung Phin:  I brewed these quite fast this round, around 5 seconds, which may work better for this first version than the second.  It is much nicer, probably related to being so light, and also to natural transition being positive.  Intensity is just fine, right at optimum.  Mineral is still pronounced.  The vegetal range had already transitioned more to green wood in the last round, and it's moving on a little from there in this.

There's a faint sweet aspect that gives it an interesting complexity.  Sweetness comes across as a certain level in teas, as bitterness does, or umami, but it can tie to a flavor that somehow seems to connect.  It's picking up a mild fruit range.  It's not too far from dried mango but not quite that, or that could work given how many kinds of mango there are, with how much that description actually varies.  It's very positive the way the different aspects fall together in this.

Bo Duot:  this didn't lose any intensity at all for being brewed fast, and may have even gained some.  Warm mineral still stands out as most pronounced but this tea is transitioning too.  The feel changed too; it's more structured, a bit dry in effect.  That hint of sundried tomato still gives it a nice overall balance, a touch of umami along with other warm and very different vegetable range.  It's also a little towards how a very well roasted red bell pepper comes across, how those are sweet and rich, nothing like other pepper range.

As far as interpreting these flavors go I wouldn't be surprised if someone else landed on a completely different list.  It's natural to expect floral range, for example, and then one ends up mapping these same attributes to different ranges of flowers instead.  The warmth in this would be most similar to sun-flower, maybe.  The other tea aspects might be more like a flower that's light, bright, and a bit sharp in a limited sense, or maybe just daisy, mapping onto only a limited range of what is there, possibly including a touch of stem.  I'll try that next round, free-associating to see if these aspects can remind me of other ranges than what I would naturally connect first (here more mineral and sun-dried tomato so far).

Fourth infusion

Lung Phin left, Bo Duot right

Lung Phin:  the character changed quite a bit due to using a longer infusion time, relating to snapping a picture of the teas while infusing.  Time passes quickly; that makes for a longer than 10 second infusion time.  Bitterness stands out more again.  This tea is well-suited to using very fast infusion times; the flavor intensity and other aspect range is ideal, more than strong enough, when brewed very quickly.  It's still nice though.

Lotus flower growing at the house

As for mapping this to floral range, or trying to, it occurs to me that a limited awareness of flower scents might actually change how I interpret teas.  I think it is floral; that part works, but as to what flower I don't know.  Maybe lotus.  If lotus is completely unfamiliar it's like a sweet, rich version of orchid, unless I've got that completely wrong.

It's quite pleasant in overall effect; that part is also hard to describe.  Tolerance for bitterness, or even appreciation for it, would have to go along with that take, but to me the aspects balance nicely.  This jumps ahead to the part about interpretation I was going to put at the end, but in discussing what I like in sheng with someone I recently said I can't describe how the overall balance "clicking" for me is a main factor.  It all works really well together or else it doesn't.  I can't help but wonder if I'm not overlooking supporting aspect range as primary factors in that judgement, for example if I'm not missing how much mouth-feel plays a role in overall effect (just an example, but it is possible).

Bo Duot:  this tea probably isn't that different than last round, although it's a bit stronger than optimum too, brewed just over 10 seconds to allow time for taking a picture.  It comes across as drier prepared this way, and softer just a little lighter.  For guessing about floral range (interpreting what's there as that) it might be warm and earthy, like sunflower, and then also sweeter, more fragrant, like rose.

Fifth infusion

These teas will keep brewing tea and transitioning, to some extent, but in the interest of keeping this post length moderate I'll leave off notes after this round.  I went back to a faster infusion and the balance is much better for the Lung Phin tea.  That sweet, mostly floral tone character really works well.  Bitterness drops back to very mild when brewed quite lightly but the flavor is still intense.  It never did transition so that the trace of dried mango fruit was stronger than the floral range but there is some complexity to the flavor, beyond a substantial mineral layer grounding it all.

The Bo Duot is actually lighter than optimum this round, a bit too thin.  Even for that the feel isn't thin and the sweetness in the aftertaste is substantial.  It has been interesting the way the bright, dryer intensity of the Lung Phin contrasts with the warmer richness of this Bo Duot version.  Sometimes tasting teas that vary just gets confusing but in this case the degree of style overlap and contrast seemed to make for a nice pairing.  I guess drinking a lot of pairs of varied teas probably helped with that.

Placing the styles related to other Laos and Yunnan sheng

It's easy to just say "every tea is different," and that catches a lot of what really is going on.  The broad patterns in aspects do map onto input differences and tea style themes, in some general sense, but even if someone had a great feel for all that discussing it might still muddy the waters as much as crystallize into meaningful trends.

I get it why the most experienced sheng drinkers don't add much at all to discussion about such inputs and patterns.  Instead they might just answer narrower scope questions to help people, show off some pictures, or criticize others for being wrong about something (pu'er discussion circles can be a bit nastier than most, for some reason).

It's hard to say how these compare to the Laos teas I've been drinking, never mind reaching across to the broad range of Yunnan styles, regional input effects, quality level differences, commercial teas versus small-producer commissioned versions, and so on.  There's a divide between more traditionally produced sheng and  modern styles made to be approachable right away that's very difficult to define (that I wrote about here, related to the misnomer "oolong pu'er"), never mind mapping to trends further.

Local, regional teas vary based on all the same inputs as others; terroir related (growing conditions, climate), related to plant types varying, and across a broad range of processing differences.  More wild-growth or combined plant type farming seems to lead to a softer, earthier, at times fruit or spice ranged more flavorful style, that's more mellow (less bitter and astringent) in character.  Of course for every clearly defined, narrowly stated generality there are exceptions.  I most recently reviewed an old-plant sourced Laos sheng (that was probably wild-grown) and it was really mineral intensive in flavor instead, not astringent, but also not complex in flavor in that particular way.

I was just discussing some of this with Geoff, the Hatvala owner, in particular mentioning that I think these local South-East Asian teas should get more attention and appreciation.  He mentioned this about one terrain input:

It is curious as to what factors most influence final character.  The processing is relatively simple but that doesn’t mean to say it is unimportant and taking correct care and making judgement on when,  where and how long to dry would be crucial.  As for the leaf material, differences will naturally come from age of tree, location and soil.  If there was to be a tea heavy in minerals it would be Lung Phin as it is a very rocky limestone environment.  Ha Giang sits on two geological plates with the eastern part being very different from the west.

That echoes the notes description about varying mineral input in an interesting way, doesn't it?  And for me makes me want to get out more, to see some of Northern Vietnam.

Ha Giang region photo (not necessarily where either is from), credit Hatvala

processing tea by hand (credit Hatvala blog site)

I think people focusing on demanding what is most in demand, limiting development of exploration of teas to what is most common--or even to what costs more, in some cases--misses a lot.  There is something to that though.  There are reasons for why people tend to move in parallel directions for later, more developed preferences.

There's also something to be said for diversity.  For people newer to sheng (or tea in general) a more horizontal approach to trying more broad types versus trying to try what is seen as best makes lots of sense to me.  Trying a lot of versions of Yunnan factory sheng isn't what I mean; those could just continue to taste bitter, or woody, or in worse cases like kerosene or dipping snuff.

There just aren't many mainstream options to try teas like these, or other related regional versions.  It's coming though; the word is getting out, and the world is getting smaller.  I feel like nothing I ever say really communicates what these teas are like (but then experiential subjects are like that in general), with this quote from Hatvala's blog page section filling in how that works out:

Old trees with deep roots and slow growth give these wild mountain teas their special character which can be very different to farm grown equivalents. A wild tea may not have the same intensity from the first steep but it will continue to develop, have greater depth and complexity and deliver flavour for longer.

Wild teas can be an acquired taste but when you have discovered a good one there can be no going back.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Moychay Menghai Gongting and Bada shou pu'er comparison

Menghai Gongting 2015 shou

Bada (Pu'er County / Simao) 2017 shou

Moychay Menghai Gongting 2015 shou

Moychay 2017 Bada

Menghai left, Bada right

Along the running theme of going back and trying the more interesting teas I've had around I'm reviewing two shou from Moychay (not a new theme; this topic search pulls up 3 more reviews of 8 more shou versions from Moychay).  They're a good source for shou, with more on that to follow related to what these are.

These posts are slightly out of order because it seemed to make sense to keep sheng posts closer together, even though I've tasted and made notes for two more sheng from Vietnam since that I haven't posted yet.

I'll skip ahead to the conclusion part:  these shou are really good, with one standing out for exceptional quality and intensity and the other for one particular character aspect (creaminess) and value.  This is what they are:

Bada Shan Shu Cha (2017), 357 g.

Menghai Gongting Cha (2015 picking, pressed 2017), 100 g.

Since I'm going with a detailed intro and conclusions first approach I'll also list their (Moychay's) take on both, starting with the Menghai Gongting tea:

Ripe puer "Royal" was made in 2015 by Menghai County (Xishuangbanna).

Yellow-reddish buds. The aroma is mature, with nutty touch. The infusion is dark, reddish-chestnut.  

Spicy herbs and leaves are ready to be made and ready to go. The aroma is warm and deep, multifaceted. The taste is full-bodied and rich, velvety, a bit tart, sweet, with light berry sourness and lingering finish.

It did turn out to be quite complex, with more of an interpretation to follow.  About the other "Bada" version:

"Shu Puer from Bada Mountain" (Mount Wuliangshan, Puer County)

In the appearance of 357 grams, small fragments and small cuttings. The aroma is mature, nutty. Reddish-chestnut hue.  

Nutty with woody, corny, herbaceous and autumn notes. The aroma is warm and deep, nutty. The taste is full-bodied and sappy, sweetish, with light bitterness, transforming into lingering finish.

It was like that, maybe with leaf size larger than this seems to describe.

This version also had strengths that stood out and overall positive character.  The Bada had a full and creamy feel, and in spite of being a bit mild and subtle as shou goes the overall effect really worked out.

A review-notes impression spells that out in detail.  Note that these are just an impression, and an extra "cocoa" or "roasted chestnut" would swap in here or there based on trying these a few more times and sorting out the overall flavor complexity, for both.  Both had an overall positive character, and a lack of notable flaws, which doesn't necessarily come across as well in a positive description.  Something like "good balance," "complex," or "clean" starts in on that, with both a little better than a simple flavor, feel, and aftertaste description lets on.

A Yunnan Sourcing in-house produced similar region Gongting product description explains what that reference means:

This tea was grown in the area of Simao and was harvested in April 2016, and wet piled in the summer of 2016.  Gong Ting grade ripe pu-erh tea is the smallest leaf grade, has a very potent cha qi, with a thick tea soup, dark chocolate like bitterness and fruity sweetness.

It's interesting comparing the cost of these three cakes too; the Bada (Pu'er county) version lists for $16.60 for a 357 gram cake (that was a bit of a surprise; this tea is really good for that price range), the Moychay Menghai county 100 gram cake for $13.83, and the Yunnan Sourcing Simao / Pu'er county (two names for the same place) 100 gram Gongting shou version for $13.80.

If value is a main concern the Bada comes out ahead, but really character of the teas just varies.  Not the YS version; I didn't try that, but I'm sure it's interesting and positive too.


After a fast rinse I gave both around a 15 second infusion, long enough to give them time to get started.  The next couple of rinses will still complete fully soaking the leaves but there will be plenty of flavor to get started since I'm in a hurry today, off to see "Wreck It Ralph 2; Ralph Breaks the Internet" before too long (which I really did like, added later in the editing phase).

I'm into outdoor tastings lately, with a very light breakfast

a bit light the first round (Menghai left, Bada right)

Menghai Gongting:  Some of the fermentation flavor seems to remain, not in any overly "off" way, but I'm guessing this is still a bit young.  [later edit:  not so much; it's a 2015 tea.  It just still had some fermentation taste to clear through in the first infusion or two].

That fermentation related taste can come across in lots of different ways, as tar or petroleum, or even as fishy.  In this it's bit heavy on a certain range of peat.  The tea is still fine, I'm sure, it just might be a little more rough-edged in this tasting than it would be in another year.  That can be a good thing; the shou I've tried that was smooth, sweet, light, and approachable within a year or so of being made seemed to not have the same depth of complexity or potential as those that needed time to mellow out a bit.  This shows a lot of promise at this early infusion round stage; some range that seems like it could be spice shows through, and it's quite clean, it just has a peat edge.

Bada:  This is smoother, with a different kind of depth, a rich creaminess that doesn't always show up in shou but that's nice when it does.  It wouldn't be a fair comparison if these are different years; I should've checked that.  [later edit:  it turned out the Bada is much younger, 2017 versus 2015, so just a milder tea].

I'll break down flavors next round to avoid repeating, and they'll be more typical of where they're going already then.  This tea is really complex, showing the range that really redeems shou (to me), the character that some people complain about not turning up. 

Per appearance the Menghai Gongting version seems to be made of much younger leaf material, including some tip content, a bit more broken than in the Bada material, which is whole leaves.  That's going to affect how both brew, and the final character of the teas.  The Bada will brew slower and will come across as less intense, requiring longer times to infuse as much flavor, but the Gongting won't be quite as smooth and mellow, more of what would be astringency in a black tea or sheng will extract.  In shou it won't have the same bite but it will still be a different proportion of compounds coming out.

Second infusion

I went around 15 seconds this round, just not on the ball for pouring it back out, which will be on the stronger than typical side for going with relatively full gaiwans for this tasting.

clear difference in infusion rates for the two teas

Menghai:  The peat-like character in the first infusion is still present but it's transitioned to a slightly dry mineral tone, including dark minerals like slate (of course; it's shou), and also a bit of dryness more reminiscent of limestone.  It's better already, and this would come across better in an infusion half as long.  Not that strongly brewed shou is as difficult to relate to as sheng or black tea would be; it works well across a much broader range, to me.  The complexity in this is nice; one other flavor aspect is a bit like cocoa, hinting a little towards spice.  And it balances well, it's clean, and feels full and thick (moderately so; it could be a little thicker), with a pleasant lingering aftertaste.

It's good shou, considerably above average, if I may venture a judgement.  I think the character of the Bada might be just as good, just in a different sense, the way that creaminess comes across in a much milder version of tea.

Bada:  This tea is just as complex, maybe eased off slightly for intensity, in one sense, but very refined and positive.  This is a balance you don't run across that often in shou.  I loved the Moychay Lao Man E huang pian version for being really smooth and having an unusual feel and subtlety, and this matches that creaminess, with as much flavor depth.  For someone looking to get blasted by the most intense earthy aspects, lots of tar, coffee, dark mineral, or black licorice, this might be a bit too subtle, but for anyone else this would really work.

Layers of complex, subtle flavors integrate really well.  One part is like light roasted coffee, another a little like cocoa, with just a hint of black licorice.  Mineral is present, of course, and there's some relation to peat, but that's expressed more in the form of autumn forest floor.  Great sweetness and balance makes it work really well.  It's thick and full in feel, with decent aftertaste (not more than the Gongting), but flavor, balance and subtlety, and overall effect and feel stand out more than aftertaste.

Third infusion

The color is still quite different in these teas (brewed fast this round, in well under 10 seconds); the Menghai version is extracting much faster.  It'll throw off direct comparison a little, drinking one lighter, while brewed at the same time, but that'll work better for shou than for most other types,  It's easier to interpret around, beyond just working better for preference.

Menghai left, Bada right; color difference is clear even with the reflection

Menghai:  That cocoa note (tied to dark mineral) is moving more towards spice, still a bit non-distinct for placing it.  This is sweet enough that it works to interpret part as dried fruit, along the line of dried tamarind.  It's definitely plenty intense brewed for such a short time, to me right at optimum strength, which would be brewed a bit too strong for other tea types.  The hint of dryness from one mineral contribution softened; now that's just present as complexity.  It all balances well.

Bada:  This is brewed much lighter, infused for the same time, due to being larger whole leaves, versus bud content, finer leaves, and being more broken.  Without accounting for that as a factor it could seem thinner in comparison.  It's just as complex but a more subtle tea.  The flavors list hasn't changed enough to run back through that last set; it's still similar.  I had been liking the Bada more in the past rounds but that one cool spice-like aspect extracting into the Gongting evened that up during this round, after the flavors cleaning up in general across the first infusion or two.

Fourth infusion

I gave the Bada twice as long an infusion time to balance out the difference ininfusion rates, 20 seconds instead of 10.

Menghai: More of the same, which is really nice.  Dark mineral, some drier mineral, cocoa, a spice that's hard to describe, forest floor:  it's complex.  Both of these are so nice I'd like to try either of these teas with someone who doesn't like shou and see how that goes.

Bada:  More of the autumn forest floor in this tea, slightly sweeter, definitely more subtle, with a smooth, full feel that really stands out.  In terms of flavor intensity and flavor-list range this tea gives up a lot to the other but related to being well balanced, subtle, and sophisticated it's perhaps slightly better. 

only the opening credits; I left off snapping pictures during the movie


To me these two teas both work well in different ways, both about as good as any shou I've yet to try.  The Menghai is better for what people tend to look for in shou; overall complexity, intensity, balance of strong flavors, coupled with pronounced mouthfeel and aftertaste.  The flavors present are nice.  There's something catchy about the Bada creamy feel character though, and nice flavor aspect balance, and in this case this more subtle, slightly less complex shou worked well for me. 

I had been guessing that the Menghai was brewing faster for being more broken and finer leaves, which would lead one to expect that it would fade away faster in later rounds, but it might turn out that it was just more intense tea in general.  Using longer infusion times to draw out the same intensity from the Bada might even that factor up.

Shou only gets so good, only so intense, balanced, complex, or refined, and these are pushing at the limits of that in two different directions.  Shou being more straightforward and simple in character than aged sheng isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just different.  The flavor range is different too, that earthiness that's common to both of these, the "tastes like shou" dark mineral / mild peat / autumn forest floor range, which bridges over into cocoa or roasted chestnut, or even dried fruit in some cases.

Given that I've seen a lot of turnover in Moychay pu'er stock over the course of this year this Bada version would be a good tea to buy right away while they still have it, related to both that character and value (teas this good don't cost that).  I really liked the development potential and value in this "Soviet guy" Peace / Hard Work / Tea (it smoothed out a bit over just a few months), but it didn't stick around long.  And I liked the label, but that's a strange reason to buy a specific tea.

This Menghai version might be even better in another year or two, versus the Bada not having any rough edge of fermentation effect to wear off.  But given how the Menghai version is now just drinking through that small cake straight away would seem reasonable.

random picture sharing; I saw a white peacock not long ago

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Phongsaly (Laos) old plant source sheng from Somnuc

label reference:  old source Phongsaly sheng

the other "young" version; maybe more yellow leaf (huang pian)

This follows up on an earlier post about comparison reviewing a Vietnamese bundled tea along with a Laos sheng.  That second tea had only been identified as "young," which I usually use to describe sheng that hasn't aged, but in this case which seemed to refer to plant age.  That's per Somnuc Anousinh (who gave me these teas), but I might hear additional details if I get a chance to meet him later this week when he passes through Bangkok.

People tend not to visit me here all that much.  Thailand is not a tea culture hub.  And it's on the exact opposite side of the world as where I'm from, a 12 hour time difference from the US East Coast when it's not daylight savings time.  Oddly this week seems to be an exception, although there have been other exceptions.

I also met Anna of Kinnari Tea of Laos this week, and a friend of Narendra's dropped off some Nepal tea samples earlier this week as well.  I suppose I'll say more about those visits and sources when I get around to reviewing those teas.  Meeting Somnuc might work out, but that often depends on timing, if availability allows.

I visited here again, Chinatown

a look at other parts of Bangkok from a Chinatown river view

some cool building art I saw walking around

This tea an old plant source sheng, assuming that I'm understanding the labeling convention right.  Based on trying it the tea isn't aged, which I don't really get into in the description much, but it would be different if it was.  It's my impression that the practice of aging teas isn't even common there in Laos, or in Northern Vietnam.  They've surely heard about pu'er in Yunnan transitioning with age, but they seem to just drink their own teas as they would any others, when they get to it, versus after any certain number of years.

I've been comparison reviewing a good bit of interesting sheng and shou.  Some were Yunnan versions, so the "real" tea, as labeling convention and original source area goes, and some from Vietnam, with a post draft in the works for another two from there.  It'll seem like being on break to just try one tea.  I am on break (or was when I made these notes and post draft), using up some extra vacation time since I somehow didn't get out that much this year for actual vacations.  Blog posts mentioned ducking out to Pattaya, or earlier to visit Keo as a novice, or to a library-commissioning theme in Kamphang Phet, but those were all rushed weekend trips, on time-frames designed to not pull the kids out of school.  That works out to be the opposite of a vacation in terms of relaxing, since you pay a price in being exhausted if you travel over a three-day weekend.  Especially if fighting holiday weekend traffic, which is usually how that went.


just getting started

The first infusion is a bit light (back to that starting point), but it tastes a bit like a lot of older plant source teas from South East Asia that I've tried.  It's sweet, a bit floral, with some bitterness and a lot of a specific mineral aspect standing out.  The floral tone in this one is inclined towards fruit; that may be closer to dried apricot than flowers as it gets going.

basic version of a tasting set-up

I didn't mention I'm going with an outdoor tasting environment for the second day in a row.  Yesterday that was because the whole family was in the house making noise and today my kids are back in school, so it's just to avoid my wife making noise or asking questions.  It's nice outside, but sleeping in makes it a lot hotter than yesterday, probably close to 30 C, or over 80 F.  This cool season isn't all that cool.

More of the same on the second infusion.  Heavy mineral lends this a different form of dryness, even though it's not all that bitter as it might be.  That floral / fruit aspect splits between a warm, rich version of flower and dried apricot, which works for me.  Mineral really stands out the most though.  It's a lighter mineral than I've been going on about in lots of other teas lately, more towards flint or limestone.  It's a young tea (not aged); that description did relate to the plants, not when it was made.

The tea doesn't have that much of a full feel as some versions do, just a bit of structure, and the aftertaste is limited to that mineral really hanging around.  The aftertaste version is even slightly more metallic, like tasting a spoon (which shouldn't come up; spoons shouldn't taste like anything).  As I often say that's probably more positive than it sounds.  The style and character works for me but it's as much mineral as would still balance reasonably well in any tea of any type.  The mouth-feel is a little dry the mineral is so heavy.

I might have drank a whole round without making notes, related to talking some online by message.  That's really the story of this tea already, and it's not transitioning that much.  Mineral stands out, and other aspects and sweetness gives it decent balance.  I'm used to bitterness coupling more with that mineral in similar teas but it's not strong in this version.  The fruitiness is nice, that there even is fruitiness.  For me it works best related to being novel, even though the general style is familiar.  Related to match for my personal aspects preference it's so-so.  It's enjoyable and positive but not exactly what I love most in sheng.  It's rare that mineral is almost too much but in this that's where it stands.

Related to aging potential I guess if it doesn't need to hang around to be positive then why bother; why trade out the initial intensity for what may or may not develop.  It definitely has enough intensity and structure to it that I wouldn't expect it to just fade but it would make sense to me to drink it young.  I've tried a very bitter version similar to this from Thailand (before this blog even started prior to 5 years ago, so there's no write-up), and that's a different case; a few years would probably mellow such a tea out, and allow for positive transition. 

That on Lamphang area (Thai) sheng was different (reviewed here in comparison with a Myanmar sheng version).  That other Thai version was even more bitter than that), but it works as an example; it'll probably be quite nice in 3 or 4 years, and very interesting in a dozen.  If you knew for sure that a few years would increase that fruit range in this version I'm reviewing it would be better, but I'm not the right person to best guess about finer level aging / fermentation transitions like that.

I finally gave this tea a really long infusion (forgetting about a round, not intentional) about 8 or 9 infusions in, so I can report how that works.  The mineral resembles tasting a tree branch tip when brewed stronger, or a bit like the potato peel aspect in that one bundled tea.  That mineral is really strong across my tongue made that way, and this will probably signal a good time to stop drinking the tea.  There's not much for flaws that showed up.  If mineral being on the heavy side is seen negatively this tea didn't work start to finish, but the flavors were clean and the balance was pretty good beyond that.

Level and type of mineral usually stands out as a marker for where a tea is from (the "type" part), with level also seeming to tie to plant age, per noting what vendors pass on.  To some extent that's still guesswork but it's informed guesswork; I've tried lots of sheng in the past year to base guesses on, and a good bit the year before that.  Other characteristic flavor range seems to mark out when a tea is wild-grown versus a farmed plantation product; those tend to be sweet and mild with a distinctive soft spice and warm fruit earthiness, often with bitterness very moderate. 

Processing differences shift things so much that it's as well to muse over cause inputs and use source descriptions to match up teas to preferences but as well to not take all that too far.  This tea seemed atypical to me, but then different is good, to some extent.  For someone who sees level of mineral as the main factor in what they like in more-local sheng, with more always being better, this would be just the tea for them.  I liked the young plant source version better (reviewed here), but then it's hard to place if plant age was a main factor, since it would seem likely that plant type, growing conditions, or processing differences also could be.