Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Moychay compressed Da Hong Pao brick (Zhong Huo)

I want to try something different for this review, no round by round detailed description.  I'll mostly just clearly describe one main, complex flavor aspect.  In a sense that should be easy, but to some extent only people already familiar with something very similar might completely get it.  I'll also cover a bit about how I think this tea being compressed changed things, about the infusion cycle, and differences in comparison with aspects present in loose Wuyi Yancha Da Hong Pao oolongs.  I didn't know this actually was DHP initially (the brick itself isn't labeled, and I didn't look it up), but I expected that's what it was (it would be that), and tasting seemed to confirm it, then reviewing the actual product description during editing did.

The main flavor first:  it came across as similar to a sweet version of leather, like a bomber jacket might smell, just a bit towards molasses from that.  Of course different people would express that in different ways.  It could seem like aromatic woods instead, or it's a bit of a stretch but maybe like sweet dried fruit and spice.  It was complex, so a touch of the rich and savory but still sweet sun dried tomato range might work for description.

To me that's not atypical, but the way it was presented was. Some good DHP is like that (with "good" all relative; really high quality versions tend to be more subtle and aromatic versus flavor intensive), with versions not quite as good more towards a plainer version of wood or even cardboard, or heavier on char.  The way that sweetness and complexity was expressed it seemed slightly more oxidized than is typical, towards a sweet, rich black tea, with some limited degree of toast input but not enough that you could really place it.  The character was typical of DHP in one sense but parts weren't typical, which I interpreted as being related to being compressed.  It's funny how the sweetness, earthiness, and mineral stood out, parts that can relate to a tea being roasted more, but this didn't have much of the explicit "char" effect.  Maybe a year + of aging dropped out some that had been present?

it takes some doing to get it started

an early round, a little light

Some of the same themes played out in evaluating a compressed Yunnan black a year and a half back (Shai Hong, a reference to being sun dried).  I loved that tea, and I really liked this version too.  They're quite different, so I don't mean that they're close in character or flavor profile, but some of the sweet, rich range overlaps.  It's a step towards being jammy, like a cooked and reduced fruit, but it stops in an earthier place in this oolong version.  That would be cool to comparison taste them together, not for the 2000 word round by round write-up, but just to experience that.

To be clear there is a different lighter, more subtle, more structured aspect range Wuyishan area oolongs can express, even if they are earthy and a bit sweet, in the leather leaning towards dried fruit range.  This tea version (the aspect range) seems a little unrefined, a bit basic, but in a way that really appeals to me.  Yunnan black tea drinkers would totally get it.  There is mineral range as a base context, and thickness of feel and after taste I've not described to also appreciate; it's good tea.  But one related general Wuyi Yancha oolong range of character types is fruity, and another earthy or even towards spice, and another liquor-like, all potentially quite straightforward and flavor-forward (like this one is), or more aromatic and subtle instead. 

The last post about a really nice version of Rou Gui works well as a contrast in styles; that was completely different in character, much more refined and distinctive.  I appreciate teas for what they are, with some styles clicking better, matching preference.  Green teas tend to fall outside the main part of that range, with good Longjing an exception, and umami-intensive Japanese greens interesting in their own way.  This tea clicks, in a basic, flavor-forward style that I like.  It seemed blended more than that one (with that one a better than average example of a smaller batch tea), giving up refinement and pronounced subtle aspects in exchange for picking up flavor-range depth.

a little further along

It is odd how it brews, kind of like getting a more compressed shou to get going, but even shou tend to be pressed looser than this.  It would be possible to use a long soak as a prep step and first infusion then pry it apart, but I was fine with it brewing a bit unevenly, with the process taking time.  That pronounced flavor isn't going to transition so much anyway, and it works really well a bit light or strong.

I brewed a chunk gongfu style in a 100 ml tasting gaiwan, or it would be fine in a clay pot seasoned for Wuyi Yancha oolong (cue some people rejecting that it would match other typical style closely enough, and throw off the residual effect).

That sweetness and the way that the earthiness played out reminded me a little of a Fu brick hei cha awhile back, for being sweet, straightforward, and novel, with that a little more towards prune from sweet leather.

There's always more to say, a different take on flavor, more about a secondary aspect, some consideration of how this would age (I don't know, but I'd expect it wouldn't be fading much over a few years, if anything probably developing instead), but that's already a basic take.  I'd expect this isn't costly tea but if it was above average for pricing for type and style (as good tea but not a great tea) to me it would be worth it, on character and novelty both (I was actually shocked about that part; see the next section reference).

Vendor description

I really didn't even know for sure this was Da Hong Pao, but it's good that it was, since that saved me some explaining for getting it wrong.  It might still be Shui Xian; that's how that can go, with DHP used as branding for a style of tea (a character type) that's often a blend or else all that other tea type.  It was and is a plant type too, related to those six plants that are still standing, covered in more detail in this post.  This is dead on a typical good version of normal Da Hong Pao style so I don't mean that as an accusation, just background context.

Moychay's description is cited here:

“Big Red Robe” is squeezed from fragments of leaf (middle and small fraction), sorted during production of high-grade Dahongpao harvest 2017 (various batches). It was the heat of the fires.

100 grams of tile, compressed sufficiently tightly, but easily brokens into segments (12 pieces). The aroma is deep, with smoked pastry notes. The infusion is transparent, with dark amber hue.  Baked tea; the aroma is deep and viscose, complex. It is a bit tart.

Brew tea with hot water (95-100 ° C) in a porcelain gaiwan or a teapot of porous clay. The proportion is 1 cube for 200-250 ml. The time of the first steeping is about 10 seconds. After that for short seconds (for 2-3 seconds), increasing steeping time for each subsequent step, if necessary. You can steep the tea up to 6-8 times. Also it is well revealed in cooking on fire.

The price stood out to me more than anything in that description; they're selling it for $7.50 for 100 grams.  How to put this?  If you like standard range DHP at all you should buy it; if you already love the novelty of varied compressed teas picking up two bricks might make more sense.  I don't remember ever suggesting that someone should buy a tea that directly, since it's bad form for a blogger to do so, but this tea would be a really good value at double that price.  That's just related to aspect range; I love novelty in teas and this is a little different in character too.

To critique their description a bit I wasn't really picking up tartness.  It is possible that a year of aging rounded off the flavors to subdue that, or it could just be that I'm interpreting it differently.  That "smoked pastry" does make perfect sense.  It's odd saying a tea tastes like leather, which I had it pegged as closer to, or like any non-food item, but regular drinkers of DHP variations should be able to make sense of the intended description range, even if it's not easy to place in ordinary concepts.

The last part, about "cooking on fire" brewing may relate to using a samovar (this is a Russian vendor).  Unless I'm way off that relates to using a long brewing process not all that far off simmering a tea for a long time, or at least an extended brewing time where the water doesn't go cool after a half dozen minutes.  This probably would be good made that way.

samovar in use at a dogsled camp we visited in Murmansk

It would work well grandpa-style too; brewed in a tumbler or tea bottle, filled and refilled with hot water, drinking the brewed tea with the leaves still in it.  A broad range of different infusion strengths would still be pleasant, which is a main criteria for that.

Oddly Chinese people tend to use that style for green teas, which are the opposite, getting quite astringent without balancing the time and infusion level, but then aspect preferences do vary.  Vietnamese people love astringent hot-brewed green teas too.  They also use that brewing approach for rolled lighter oolongs, per my understanding, the other main "common-man's" tea in China, which makes a lot more sense to me.  I like shou mei (compressed white teas) and mild black teas prepared that way and this falls into that general range, even though the flavor profiles for all three are different.

in that camp break-room, with more on travel in Russia here

Friday, October 12, 2018

Fruitier style Rou Gui from Wuyi Origin (from Cindy)

I've not been buying as much tea as I'd like this year (ever, really), ordering some online but sticking to picking up a little here and there to supplement trying more tea than ever sent as samples.  All that is a long story that I'll skip telling, but it ties in here.

Cindy Chen of Wuyi Origin sent some of my favorite tea to drink, more to share it than for review coverage, really.  How do I know that?  It would've been easy to send a small amount of a half dozen versions instead, and of course I'd have written about most of them or all of them, since their teas are among the most interesting I get around to trying.  She didn't do that; she just sent a good bit more than just a sample size of my favorite, this fruity style of Rou Gui.

I'll be clear about personal bias related to this tea source; beyond her sending teas to try I consider her a friend, even though we've never met.  I'm not impartial.  I'd like to think that doesn't change the tea aspects I experience and write tasting notes about but who knows, really.  We kind of experience what we expect to and want to experience, to some degree, don't we?  There was a test awhile back related to people trying white wine colored to match red wine appearance with subjects evaluating the flavor as if it were red wine, reporting that separate aspect description range:

The research, later published in the journal Brain and Language, is now widely used to show why wine tasting is total BS. But more than that, the study says something fascinating about how we perceive the world around us: that visual cues can effectively override our senses of taste and smell (which are, of course, pretty much the same thing.)

I'm saying it might work to extend that, that maybe we don't just experience taste affected by visual cues but that maybe different levels of expectations could factor in.  That "wine tasting is BS" part is surely an oversimplification; I'm guessing that trained professional tasters would be able to tell you that the wine tasted like white wine, that something seemed wrong with the test.

Tasting sensation isn't so simple that a machine could do exactly the same thing we do (although I did just write about to what extent machines can taste and describe teas now).  Related to the part about my impression being positively biased, and adjusting for that, it can help to read multiple reviews of the same tea (this Rou Gui) to read across different impressions, which is easiest to do using Steepster, the main tea review site.  One of the reviews (of last year's version) captures how flavor aspect descriptions really don't do the tea justice:

I think this is an art piece from a Rou Gui that combines an excellent ground, beautiful leaves and a careful baking process. The perfect combination between nature and human creativity.

Another review captures the same idea and places the tea related to others:

Multiple roastings combined with well-sourced leaves make for a complex and well structured tea...  I’ve had only a few teas like this, but for a much higher price, so I definitely intend on grabbing another bag of this one.

There are other great versions of Wuyi Yancha produced and sold, with tea quality coming in levels.  A version related to this tea did win a Wuyishan competition a couple years ago, so I guess that relates to another form of moving towards objectivity.

About that value issue mentioned, this lists for $58 for 75 grams ($38 for 50, divided out, since that quantity rate is more familiar).  There are plenty of versions out there selling for half that, but this is probably still be a very good value for what it is, only potentially available since it's sold directly by the producer.  I'll also mention their website description here before the review:

Location: Ma tou yan (马头岩)


Roasting level : Medium Roasting (4 times charcoal fire roasting ) complete tea leaves, uniform looking, a superb workmanship, a unique mountain field, careful -Charcoal baking techniques . The cinnamon of this garden has been a favorite of my family tea guests year after year. The taste of tea is quite rich. In addition to the cinnamon taste of cinnamon itself, you can feel the very obvious taste of fruit. It is sweet and delicate. The taste of tea soup is mellow and smooth, the endurance is lasting, the lips and teeth are fragrant, and the Yanyun (岩韵) is very obvious.

That location sounds familiar, translating to "horse head rock," a famous area inside the park there.  It was funny that if you put that in the Google online translator to check it they transliterate it to ma tou yan, not so helpful, but the Yandex version confirmed the meaning.


Per typical process I went light on the first infusion, as kind of an introduction to the tea, to let it get started.  Some people would rinse most teas but I don't, only fermented versions, sheng, shou, Liu Bao, and other hei cha.

The dry tea scent was interesting, complex, with a bit of roast coming across, but after brewing really complex aromas emerged, even before tasting.  This will have some fruit to it.

It's brewed fast, so light, but it's really intense as it is.  The balance is perfect; plenty of fruit, peach along with citrus, but with enough warm, sweet aspects that lightly carmelized toffee and toasted almonds stand out.  This is fantastic tea.  I suppose if someone didn't like fruit aspects in Wuyi Yancha it might not even seem good, and I have heard someone mention that fruity oolongs seem too much like hot fruit punch to them.  Our preferences definitely vary on that point; fruit aspects in roasted oolongs are my favorite across the range of all teas.  I guess they couldn't appreciate lot of Dan Cong either; kind of strange to even consider that.

Having opened up the tea is even more intense on the next round.  Again I used a very moderate infusion time, around 10 seconds, with tons of flavor emerging in that infusion time.  The fruit is in the same range, ripe peach with citrus, maybe in between tangerine and tangerine peel.  It's the balance of flavors and overall complexity that makes it special though, not any one or two components.  Roast level is moderate but enough to draw out warm aspects to support the brighter, sweeter fruit.  There's nothing to it I would label as ''char."  Warmth might have picked up a little, with roasted almond flavor edging into a more roasted range, not quite getting to that more char-like character that's a part of roasted chestnuts.

A lot of mineral serves as a base, hard to isolate as tasting like any one thing, but complex and intense, providing a foundation for the rest of the experience.  For feel the tea isn't really thick or thin, in the middle, with aftertaste standing out more.  The fruit and mineral range trails off after you drink it, very pronounced as oolongs go (not so much for Taiwanese high mountain oolongs, but that mineral aspect type is completely different).

People sometimes ask what my favorite tea type is and I can honestly say I appreciate lots of different teas for lots of different reasons.  I once considered Wuyi Yancha as a favorite overall type but others have drawn even.  If I had to pick just one tea that's a favorite out of everything I ever tried it would be this one.  It's much better than almost any other Wuyi Yancha versions that I've tried, which is part of it, but really it's probably more about that style clicking with me.

I can see why people might be more accustomed to earthy, mineral intensive, and subtle aromatic variations of Wuyi Yancha instead of this fruity range, maybe associating fruit more with Dan Cong (or other floral range; those cover both), but I expect not having a related preference could tie to just never trying a version on this level.  I'd put different range of Wuyi Yancha as a close second, more subtle and aromatic Qi Dan, probably with that tied with good versions of Ya Shi / duck shit Dan Cong.  For any of those if you try a version that's as good or better than any other you've had during and just after that tasting experience each might naturally seem a favorite overall type.

I went a little longer on this next round, a bit over 10 seconds, more to see how that changes it than to optimize it.  Fast infusions would probably be best, between 5 and 10 seconds, not to limit astringency or any negative factor, but just related to tastes coming out better in teas brewed lighter once you adjust to that.  The mineral picks up; the fruit is still pronounced but the warmer, earthier tones seem more pronounced brewed stronger (still light, as some people would tend to brew most teas Western style; it's all relative).  The bright tangerine range citrus edges more into dried peel range, versus fresh fruit and zest, and the ripe peach expresses a little more edge related to peach skin.  Of course it's still quite sweet.  This is far from astringent, or challenging in any way, but complex in a different sense.  I think most of that minor character change relates to being perpared slightly stronger this round but the tea would naturally transition over infusions.  I'll go back to really light next round to sort out which input was which.

Even brewed lightly the warmth had been picking up.  If someone hasn't experienced this sort of combination of peach, citrus, warm toffee, and underlying mineral it's hard to describe how it balances, why it all works so well together.  It occurs to me I was missing the most obvious warm spice-related aspect present, which serves as a base for the brighter, more forward flavors:  cinnamon.  That's what "Rou Gui" translates as, the literal meaning, and that's typically the most dominant flavor in this oolong type.  I tend to think of cinnamon as the warm, sweet, mild spice we use in apple pie in the US, which is lighter, not so far from cocoa in character (it just tastes different), but this is much different.  My favorite local shop owner says this cinnamon, which is more intense, mineral related, and slightly "darker," is similar to a version of cinnamon from Vietnam.  I've went through that tangent plenty of times though; cinnamon is really one thing, the "true" version, and then related cassia plant types barks it's something else, but those are also sold as cinnamon.  To be honest I'm not sure which version this aspect is closest to across all those potential plant types.

Enough messing around; I'll give this around 15 seconds infusion time to try to optimize it, and probably after another infusion at around that length of time it'll be time to extend those times a little.  Some of the brightest fruit has faded some and the cinnamon spice and mineral has picked up; it's still great, just different.  The feel is still just medium, not thin and not overly thick, with a nice extended aftertaste, just dropping a little in intensity and duration.  Citrus still stands out as the main fruit range at this point, mostly a sweet version of dried tangerine peel, which balances with the warm tones really well.

I have no further conclusion to add; the tea is amazing, with that description definitely not doing it justice.  It prompted me to try another version of Wuyi Yancha I'd been meaning to get to, and maybe a comparative description of the range of styles within that type in that review can help place it.

Cindy shared this picture; she's like a little angel

her older sister is really growing up

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

2006 and 2012 Thai shou from Tea Side

I'm reviewing the last two samples of a set of Tea Side teas sent along with a black tea purchase, two Thai shou versions (listed here).

I've reviewed plenty of other tea versions from them, mostly black teas and Thai "pu'er-like" teas, but others too (Thailand is better known for rolled-style oolongs).  I won't go into all that here but if Thai versions of such teas are of interest they're the most accessible vendor selling such things, or maybe the only one selling aged versions like these.

2006 left; direct comparison shows color change from aging, or maybe initial fermentation level difference too


2006 left, 2012 right; the older tea is a bit darker

2006:  Even in the first somewhat light infusion the 2006 version is smooth, complex, full, and creamy.  There's nothing challenging about the tea; it has had plenty of time for any rough edges to age into depth and complexity instead.  Parts of the flavor relate to typical earthy range, warmer mineral tones, maybe roasted chestnut, but some of the flavor is still lighter, towards a mild form of black licorice.  I'll add more related to a full list and feel as infusions go on but it's complex in an unusual way, really integrated, and smooth, almost simple in effect at the same time lots is going on.

2012:  This version is getting a slower start; it will be easier to fill in detail on a next round.  Both of these aren't brewed using a typical packed-gaiwan amount, so I'm sorting out adjusting infusion time to compensate.  The rounds count will drop as a result.  It's also very smooth, showing similar creaminess but with less complexity at this lighter strength, but it hasn't gotten started to the same degree yet.  It might be slightly sweeter, still in an earthy roasted chestnut range, but it seems like some spice might develop, towards root-beer root spice, or a related lighter range, possibly dried fruit.

Second infusion

definitely brewed stronger (2006 left)

2006:  not changed much; it's still complex but within an integrated range, earthy but not in any challenging ways, nothing like petroleum, tar, or peat.  Part of that rich flavor in Guiness Stout comes across, towards coffee, but not quite coffee, which stands out more as that for the sweetness being pronounced for shou and the creamy effect.  Or black licorice works as an alternative interpretation.  Again it's funny how it's complex but comes across as simple; there's a lot in that range but it's all in a narrow, integrated set.  I'm wondering if I didn't try this tea version before, although I doubt looking up old reviews would lead to matching it up.

2012:  the flavor and general effect overlaps but it's quite different.  This is a bit towards a woody character, but not woody in any sense I usually describe as such, more like a sweet, aromatic aged tropical dark hardwood.  I guess I'm saying it's like my wardrobe smells (a furniture version of a closet).  It's also very pleasant and not challenging in any way, and sweet and creamy, with a nice rich feel and nice aftertaste.  Some of the character overlaps; both of these seem to have a nice roasted chestnut effect.  It's a little towards a sweet mild spice but hard to pin down as a specific version, maybe like a root version of some sort.

In reviewing these teas something stands out I might not have made clear:  I tend to like shou brewed a little stronger than some other tea types.  It would work to drink them much lighter, and I do tend to prefer most sheng and oolongs made that way, but thick feel effect and strong mineral and other flavor aspects works well brewed stronger, to me.  It only works when there aren't flaws to brew around, or moderating infusion strength to adjust flavor balance works better, but these two versions someone could drink at whatever brewed strength they want.

Third infusion

looks like I tried that round slightly stronger yet

2006:  the character is transitioning some but it's mostly a matter of balance of aspects shifting.  It's interesting how drinkable this tea is, how smooth and pleasant.  I'm not brewing it lightly (maybe more the opposite, on the strong side) but no trace of negative earthy aspects comes out.  I kind of like that bit of tar that can easily ruin a shou but that works well in the right balance, paired with sweetness and creaminess, but there's nothing in this version that walks that line.  I suppose the base of rich earthy mineral compounds might remind some of tar, or the related aftertaste that trails on after you drink it.  It tastes a little more like ink smells in this round compared to the earlier set I described, like a mineral range that would be hard to put a name to, in part probably related to infusion strength difference versus natural transition.  Like slate, the rock type, works about as well as any other.  Without the right other context and balancing aspects that could be unpleasant but it works well in this tea version.

2012:  this changed a good bit over this third infusion; that's surprising.  The warm hardwood and subdued spice shifted onto an aged book or furniture effect, and the licorice is more like the jujube candies.  Usually when I'm referencing old furniture the rest of the tea context doesn't work as well in making that a positive effect.  It comes up with rolled oolongs that can gain an aged flavor relatively quickly, over a few years, which isn't necessarily positive (or necessarily negative, I guess; that part would depend on preference).  This is tied to that tropical hardwood aspect range I mentioned, maybe still with more of that effect shifting into an aged range, so it balances well.  "Old books," as I would use the description, could be a musty, slightly off smell related to how the stacks back in a University of Hawaii library smelled, or to a rich, complex, clean range like aged leather-bound books (or at least in a dry library), and this is more the latter.

Sinclair (UH Manoa) stacks, a favorite place to study (credit)

outdoor tables at Sinclair, a great study-area view of Honolulu (credit)

Fourth infusion

As can happen this runs long, so even though the transitions probably still aren't finished I'll leave off after this round.  It's probably been covered enough already but the nice thing about teas of this character is that they work well at different infusion strengths; you can't really get brewing wrong.  There's no significant astringency to brew around and the aspects work well lighter or even brewed very strong.  There doesn't even necessarily seem to be just one optimum to shoot for, although preference would determine that differently for different people.

2006:  not really different; still very nice.  It would keep transitioning some since it's not even half brewed out yet (or maybe that, since I used a more standard proportion and longer infusion times, on the order of 30 seconds), it just didn't change over this last round.

2012:  the contrast between the two versions stands out more than a transition of either between rounds.  These seem to be just leveling off a bit for character. 

Conclusions, about variations in shou quality levels and pricing

The teas were great; complex, pleasant, novel, and interesting.  The main conclusion is just that.

I only have one concern about them, which applies more to the general tea type than just to these two versions.  As with any tea type versions vary a lot across a range by quality level or by individual aspects.  But to me shou could reasonably be regarded as varying less than many other types.  I'm not saying that good shou is nearly the same as great shou or medium quality versions, but I am claiming that--to me--that seems to be more the case for shou than for sheng, or for better oolongs or other types (maybe just not so much for black teas).  They vary less.

That's a personal judgment, not an objective truth.  To clarify what I mean there is surely a subset of shou that isn't very good, lower quality versions, that don't just exhibit some degree of fermentation related unusual flavors in the year or few years after being produced but continue to be a bit off later too.  I've heard more about that than I've experienced; I've tried "bad shou" but not much compared to medium quality or better versions.  I'm not even talking about that subject or character range here.

It comes down to a matter of preference, of course, as everything related to tea does, and plenty of people would disagree with what I just said.  I didn't mean it as a critique or judgement against shou to the extent it may have come across; I like the tea type, and better versions clearly seem better.  To place that, I see most types of Chinese black tea as a bit simpler and less varied than many oolong or sheng types too (or essentially all of them), in terms of range covered per a type or how any given version comes across, but I love black teas as much as any other category.  I see them as more approachable and straightforward in character, not as inferior, but paired with that also varying less.

There's really no point in a tea type being complex, broad or layered in terms of flavor range, expressing transitions across infusions, with lots going on for mouthfeel and aftertaste experience, if part of it doesn't match your preference, or if you don't care for the way it all works together.

I'm not sure who I'm supposed to be saying all this to since people who are into shou probably already get all that, and for people who aren't it probably wouldn't make much sense (and few people with limited prior exposure to the type are probably reading this anyway).

It comes to mind because I criticized a shou for being relatively expensive awhile back, without really qualifying that.  To be blunt using this review as an example:  are these Tea Side versions worth what they're being sold for, in my opinion?  They sell for $80 and $120 per 357 g cake per the 2012 and 2006 versions, respectively.  That's a bit, for shou.  Per my guess that's roughly the range of market price for teas on this quality level, for comparable Yunnan origin versions, with the odd twist that you can't buy these particular Thai origin versions anywhere else that I've seen.  The critique of that other shou was about it not seeming quite as good as should be typical for the pricing level, to me.

Those two sets of ideas don't necessarily conflict, that there is a real range of difference that somehow varies less, although it might seem they do.  Let's go further, with an example; 4 1/2 years ago, early in the process of exploring and writing about teas, I bought a set of three years worth of a classic version of shou, Menghai Dayi 7572:

It's not possible to compare the review impressions from back then with these two teas, in part because I wasn't writing detailed reviews then, but also because my baseline for expectations and past experience back then would make that worthless if I had been.  What would those be worth today, one might wonder?  Yunnan Sourcing lists teas that aren't so different, even if batches vary:

So maybe around $50.  This isn't heading towards any sort of "this is about as good as that" type of conclusion, just laying out a general factory tea range.  To me that general range of tea isn't as good as these Tea Side teas, but it's hard to place if it would make sense in value to spend twice as much on a tea based on the difference in character.  It would depend on value per preference, tied to tea budget and specific expectations.  Per my prior experience (I drank those teas) those factory versions are pretty decent; the difference between typical factory sheng and better, costlier versions stands out a lot more.  But then so does pricing difference; around $100 doesn't go as far for aged sheng, or even for better new boutique / commissioned versions.

Citing a Moychay vendor multiple-type shou cake review, talking about value there, can help place this:

I liked that one label

Looking them up on the site now the "Soviet guy" 2017 version lists for $21.17 for a 357 gram cake (quite inexpensive), the 2008 version for $16.33 for a 100 gram cake (or around $58 for the equivalent larger cake version), and the 1999 version 100 gram cake for $35 (or a bit over $110 for full size cake, multiplied out).  

That's quite a lot of cost spread, but that seems fair to me, how that age and quality range should work out.  The lowest cost tea works well for an example of one that might be great in another 5 years, or even a good bit better in 2 or 3, if kept under the right conditions, and the other two were on the next corresponding levels, one a pretty good shou that's ready to drink now, and then an older version that has those extra levels of positive aspects.

So again the price range follows suit, with buying well-stored older teas naturally costing more (that is a real added value, related to both an extra input incurring extra cost, and to product rarity), and best-value relating to preference and budget inclination.  Completely off that main point:  I've tried that least expensive 2017 Moychay shou again in the last two weeks, with it positively transitioning quite a bit in the last three months, so I now think it won't take two more years for the initial fermentation effect to clean up, another year should improve it a lot.

It keeps coming back to "it all just depends."  It's helpful to try a lot of different teas to place if any version is where it should be related to the quality level represented, a good version of the type and age, and these Thai versions seem that to me.  I can see why some aged sheng drinkers tend to "look down" on shou as inferior for varying less, or just being less interesting in character, and I can't completely agree with that since I also like shou, but I can make some sense of it.  There's just no accounting for taste, for subjective preference differences, and no way to make simple objective claims about that subject.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Pasha Ciao Mu Yunnan black from Moychay

I have a little more downtime lately due to being out with an eye infection; finally an ailment that doesn't affect my sense of taste (last week really; I was behind on converting notes to posts, due to that tea taste profiling / machine testing post).  In between diligently working from home I had a chance to make up notes on a couple of extra teas this week, including this nice black tea version from Moychay. 

I'll taste them without referencing descriptions, and the vendor info section at the end will fill in their origin story some.  The Pasha Cioa Mu description doesn't mean much to me (listed as Qiao Mu instead on the site, with the labeled transliterations one letter off); I don't know where that is.  I didn't check the vendor description prior to tasting, until editing now, but I'll cite it:

«Red tea from tea trees of Pasha village» is made in the small farm situated in Galanhe district (Manhai County, Xishuangbanna) from the first spring shoots of tea trees growing at an altitude of 1800 meters (harvest March 2018).

In appearance: large flagella of brown leaves and buds. The aroma is restrained, spicy-floral. The liquor is transparent, meadow honey color.

The bouquet of ready-made tea is vivid and warm, multifaceted, fruity-spicy with woody, floral and citrus notes. The aroma is delicious, warm, with fruity and spicy notes. The taste is juicy and rich, refined and silky, sweetish, with light lemon sourness, turns to lingering finish.

I did try another similar black tea from this set, their Pasha Yesheng Hong Cha (wild tea from Pasha Village), and I really didn't care for that tea.  The oxidation level seemed a good bit lighter and it was more sour and just didn't work for me.  Usually if I review teas I don't like I just don't mention them, but this seems appropriate and fair to break form and say that much.  If deciding between the two or considering buying some of each I'd just go with only this Ciao Mu / Qiao Mu version instead. 

It sells for $33 / 100 grams, on the high side for Chinese black tea, but it is a pretty good version, complex and interesting, and it wouldn't be that unusual to find lower quality teas selling for that same amount.

It gets to be a bit much trying so many teas for review, given how long the note taking and editing process takes.  Still, it's nice trying the teas.  I've always had a thing for black teas and oolongs so although it has been nice doing a lot with sheng and shou pu'er for the past year it's always nice getting back to those.  I don't try to place this related to other versions I've tried (not simple since styles and individual aspects vary a good bit for better black teas) but it was nice tea.


The dry leaf scent is interesting, sweet, rich, and complex, slightly earthy with a good bit of fruit.  It seems familiar from Dian Hong range, maybe just a bit intense as dry scent might go for those, which are very complex and pleasant, and not really subtle.

I'll brew this Gong Fu style.  Western would work but for better black teas it's nice to catch the next level down of transitions.

this might have been the second infusion

This infusion is still a little light, still plenty strong enough to taste.  I went a bit under 30 seconds for this round, but then I'm not using a completely packed gaiwan for proportion, and the tea needed some time to open up.  Complexity hits your palate first; there's a lot going on.  There is a broad range of fruit in this tea, which would be described differently based on impression.  One part if warm and rich, towards tamarind.  That keeps extending into a savory direction, into a trace of sun-dried tomato.  Some of the range is brighter and sweeter.  It's not exactly blackberry but towards that.  A soft sweet malt fills in depth along with that, with warm mineral tones as a base.

The way those fits together makes it work well; it's complex but integrated.  The flavors are clean and intense, trailing into a long finish, with that mineral standing out at the end.  The feel is even nice, not thin, not rough at all, not exactly dry but maybe a little, with substance, a thickness and edge that seems to connect with the earthy flavor range.

Second infusion

This is really nice brewed a little stronger.  The earthy mineral range tone picks up, just a trace of rusty nail to go along with the fruit and light malt range, in a level and form that works well, still clean and balanced.  The fruit still seems to span a range of rich dried fruit:  tamarind, or maybe dried cherry, with depth that may extend into dried lotus root, and also into sun-dried tomato.  On the brighter side again blackberry works as a description.  It hasn't transitioned beyond that earthiness picking up slightly.

Third infusion

The cocoa picked up a good bit, or rather what I was interpreting as fruit and mild earthiness shows up more as cocoa to me in this round.  That probably would have been a reasonable description all along, but it's more evident now.  This flavor range seems to match up with Dian Hong style better on this infusion (it sort of is a Dian Hong, since that just means "Yunnan black tea," so I guess I mean for a type-typical style, as much as there is one for how much those vary). 

it works well brewed stronger or lighter

I suppose intensity has dropped off a little, so that a 20-some second infusion time wouldn't be enough for the next round, at least to maintain the same intensity.  The other range even fills in closer to Dian Hong typical profile, to me, onto more of a roasted pumpkin / butternut squash effect.  In losing a little intensity the feel is thinning some, but it still maintains a nice but lighter aftertaste that lends to an overall impression of complexity.

Fourth infusion

This round brewed just over 30 seconds; that should pick the infusion strength up.  It hasn't transitioned much since the last round but it's really nice as it is.  To me this would be a standard profile for a Dian Hong, where this has transitioned to.  Fruit stands out, a bit non-distinct for being complex, for covering a range.  It could be pegged as dark cherry, dried fruit, not far off date (or dried dark cherry), or as roasted butternut squash or sweet potato instead.  The brightness could come across as a dried orange peel, or maybe dried tangerine peel instead.  Earthy range has dropped off; the cocoa is still there but the rusted nail / warm mineral effect has diminished.

Fifth infusion

color a little darker from going longer

The tea isn't finished yet, I don't think, but from here on infusions will be drawing out what's there, and I expect it to keep thinning.  I'll give it more like a minute to keep the same level.  When you see infusion counts in reviews it's important to keep in mind that infusion proportion and length of time will be proportional to how many infusions a tea produces.  Add more tea and drop the infusion time and any tea produces more rounds. 

How strong someone likes that version of tea prepared (tied to proportion and infusion time) factors in as well.  I tend to like sheng brewed very lightly, since they are intense in flavor and other aspect range, and it moderates the inputs of astringency and bitterness to drink them like that.  I brew black teas stronger, because they're softer and sweeter, with less challenging aspects to work on balancing.  Shou just depends; if I'm in the mood for it I'll brew those inky black, and in a different mood I'll go with a more standard and lighter infusion strength.

Sweetness in the range of toffee steps up a little in this round.  Longer infusion times and switching from water temperature a little off boiling point to right at boiling point can draw that out (this is still brewed using just off boiling point temperature though, probably close to the 95 C they recommend).  It's similar to the last round, just thinner.

It's very pleasant, not "going off" in any sense, not turning woody as some tea types can, but then for this black tea type and aspect range that seems normal.  The character stays really positive no matter how much you stretch the teas, so that using long infusions or maybe resorting to a cold brew to draw out an extra one makes sense.  It might work to simmer this for a few minutes, to actually boil it; that's pushing it for taking an extra step but I bet that would still be tasty.

I tried the tea again within a week, brewed Western style that time.  Often it doesn't make much difference, and you just lose transitions detail for brewing it 2 or 3 times versus over a half dozen.  I did pick up a different aspect I hadn't noticed making it the other way, with a bit more spice present, that tasted like sage to me.  I love sage, it's my favorite of all brewed herb tisanes, so that was a nice surprise.  In general water temperature difference will draw out different flavor aspects but just changing proportion and length of time won't so much, but odd things can come up experimenting with changes.  Some teas are better prepared Western style; that's not unheard of.  I don't think I liked it more prepared that way but noticing that one aspect difference was interesting.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Dento Hon Gyokuro from Tea Mania

I've still running behind in trying all of the really exceptional teas a couple of vendors have shared, with a good bit more from Tea Mania to get to after this one (and I still have more from Moychay; I'll get back to those).  I can only review teas so fast and beyond that it seems to burn me out, and readers, to go beyond one or two reviews per week.

This general type of tea is familiar, Gyokuro, but I haven't tried that many versions of it.  In one sense really good Gyokuro would be wasted on me because I'm not experienced enough with the range to place a version.  In a different sense anyone can try any good version of any tea and appreciate the positive aspects they experience, just not on the level of detail as someone with a lot more prior exposure to better versions.  I'll keep this simple and relate what those positive aspects are like.

As for brewing the main mistake to avoid in preparing this tea style is going cool enough; recommendations stress that using conventional green tea water temperatures is too hot.  As I recall 125 to 140 F / 50 to 60 C is cool enough, with some saying that going on the cooler side of that range is better, even though that's getting down towards bathwater temperature.

I'm not even going to talk about parameters used for this trial; suffice it to say that the tea deserves better control than I'm applying, but at least I'm sticking to using cooler water.  This isn't really intended as a review of this tea prepared optimally, but hopefully at least a reasonably well-prepared version.


The first infusion is fantastic; kind of what I expected.  Green tea isn't my thing, in general, but the best versions of teas have a way of transcending typical experience range.  I've spoken many times of how sometimes the best versions of a type or range can help with a type profile "clicking."  After that experience a type or aspect set can make more sense, so that even lower quality or less interesting related versions might seem better after.  I've tried nice Gyokuro before, so it's not new ground in that sense (but it's been a couple of years).  To some degree it's just easier to limit the range of what I do try to pursue, since all the other tea types across China, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, and the rest of SE Asia are way too much to get to anyway.

This tea is sweet, and of course umami stands out.  It tastes a little like seaweed but that aspect isn't as pronounced as it can be.  It's complex; it tastes a bit like sweet corn too, like the freshest, sweetest version you might ever try, like the butter and sugar two-colored version that was a local favorite back in Western PA.  The best versions we would get were picked up from an uncle there who farmed out of a love of tending the land, even though it wasn't an overly profitable pursuit.  From there that vegetal range includes a bit of fresh sprout flavor, that tasty, really green, hard to place range.  There are also interesting pronounced mineral undertones, which are tied to that.  But description by aspect label won't really do the experience justice.  The way the sweetness, brightness, depth, vegetal themed range, and umami all balance is what makes it work.

brewing in a basket infuser device, probably not optimum

Just describing the umami aspect itself is difficult.  In seaweed, one of the more pronounced sources of the aspect, the savory nature is paired with strong vegetal flavors, and that particular seaweed range is quite limited in this.  It sounds crazy but it's a little like chicken stock, or maybe even poached salmon, but in a way that works.  One part of that comes across as sea salt, as a sweet, mineral intensive version of salt; that's different.  That first infusion was on the light side, brewed especially cool; it will be interesting to try the tea on a second round and see how it changes.

On the second infusion the flavor deepened, probably as much from parameter variance as standard infusion cycle transition.  There's still plenty of sweetness and umami but the mineral undertone ramped up, and seaweed vegetal nature edged up slightly.  The effect is less like bright sweet corn and some type of sprouts, still including that range, but moved to add a bit more seaweed, and stronger on the sprout, or maybe onto a different version of one.  A touch of cooked vegetable joins in too, which could be interpreted in lots of ways, maybe not far from seared zucchini.  I didn't mention it last round but it's interesting the way that even for being prepared slightly on the light side (since the tea doesn't need concentrated infusion to be intense) the aftertaste draws out in an interesting way.

In a comment in a Tea Fix podcast Leona mentioned liking Japanese green teas prepared strong, to be drank like a shot, sort of shifting brewed green tea towards the experience of matcha.  That would work for this, but it wouldn't seem appropriate, maybe a better approach for getting a good umami hit out of Sencha versus good Gyokuro.  I think I will try this brewed stronger next round, to see how that changes things.  Most likely the transition to more mineral and stronger vegetal range that occurred between the first two infusions would only continue so far, probably moving into more cooked vegetable range, or onto stewed spinach, if the water used is too hot.

In the third infusion the seaweed finally picks up.  Not the umami, which had stood out already, the vegetal range that reminds me of seaweed.  It's still complex, with a lot going on, but in this round that one flavor aspect joins the others in level of intensity.  Seaweed itself comes in a range of different types, with many actually spanning complex flavor sets on their own.  Since the flavors in earlier rounds had included vegetal scope with a good bit of mineral and pronounced umami it already had overlapped.  On a different interpretation this may taste more like cooked spinach instead.

my wife loved poke in Hawaii, raw tuna with seaweed;  me not so much (credit).


I drink Gyokuro so infrequently it's hard to place if this is a good version or a great one.  At a guess it's quite good, but that is a guess.  Once you get to know a tea type better "good" starts to take on a broad spectrum of potential meanings that someone who infrequently drinks the type wouldn't be familiar with.  Judgement becomes more specific, about trueness-to type, and aspect variation within a narrow range.  Markers that serve as quality indicators for that type become familiar, which often also evolve to become preferred characteristics, not just a way to tell how good the tea is.  I'm not there with Japanese green tea or Gyokuro.  That said, I'm not completely new to the general range either, and broad exposure to lots of teas helps to some extent.

Quality level versus what else is available for options and the issue of value both tend to come up.  To some extent the price a tea is sold at indicates how good a vendor implies that tea is.  It's a mistake to think the two would necessarily correlate, because it's up to individual vendors to decide how to brand, market, and price their teas.  More direct sourcing chains open the option for a vendor to sell better tea for less.  Or a vendor could buy a very average version of a tea directly from a local farmer and inflate the price to an entirely unjustified level.  An interesting and true back-story doesn't define how good a tea is, the tea character and aspects do.

Some vendors probably can't identify quality level or trueness to type themselves, lacking the background experience, even if they do travel to Asia annually, so not every case of what seems like misrepresentation would have to be based on opportunistic deception.  Based on prior exposure to Tea Mania's teas, and especially to two versions of in-house produced sheng I've recently tried (like this Yiwu version and Jing Mai version), Peter of Tea Mania knows what he's buying and is fair about sharing savings from buying more directly, in my opinion.

I'll pass on the Tea Mania's vendor description to add more background:

This Yame Gyokuro is cultivated and processed according to the "Dento Hon" method. "Dento Hon" is a very unspoiled and natural way to make tea. The tea bushes are not trimmed into rows as usually but let naturally grow. Such tea fields are not very picturesque and it makes it impossible to do harvest by machines but but in return the reward is an extraordinary aroma. In addition, these tea bushes are at least 20 days prior to harvest shaded with straw mats. The straw mats are called in Yame "Sumaki" while elsewhere they are called "Honzu".

Harvest: May 2017 
Taste: Sweet aroma with a immense amount of umami.
Origin: Hoshino, Prefecture Fukuoka, Japan.
Varietal: Yamakai
Preparation: Appx. 5g per serving, temperature 50 - 60°C,  time 1-2 min.
Tip: Use rather a higher leaf to water ratio and infuse repeatedly for short time. First infusion max. 60s and all futher infusions only 30s as the leaves are already soaked. Use a Kyusu tea pot.

not the same farm, but showing how cool managed nature looks in Japan (credit)

Sounds good, right?  I have no further comment about all that.

I don't usually mention price in reviews but why not; this is selling for $30 USD for 50 grams.  That sounds about right, and could be very fair for what this tea is.  I'm not really mentioning it to evaluate that part, just adding it for completeness.  One might wonder, how does this compare to a standard pricing range for Gyokuro, or how would types and pricing vary across those of different quality levels?  I couldn't place this (I keep saying), but it's simple enough to look up what one of the main Japanese vendors sells (based on input from a Japanese tea blogger about what businesses represent main sources; even that I'm not familiar with).

Ito En lists a number of Gyokuro versions, spanning $15 to $30 per ounce, with a hand-picked version listed at the top of that range, at double the cost of the this Tea Mania tea.  It doesn't work to place the versions in relation to each other by website description, and only a very experienced taster could do such comparison justice, but it seems likely this is a good value tea.  How good depends on quality, and the tea seeming very positive makes for a good start on that.

Luckily Peter passed on enough of this tea I can try it a few times.  I'd probably shift the interpretation a bit as I get parameters down better, and familiarity beyond that.  Reviewing teas doesn't work like that; it takes too long to do a review just based on one take, and combining two sets of notes is quite difficult.

I did actually try this a couple times after writing that review (I'm behind in converting draft notes to finished posts), but don't have much to add.  When I drink teas without making review notes I kind of just enjoy them without doing much for evaluation or internal description.  Sometimes an extra aspect, interpretation, or idea jumps out but this just kept seeming like a really nice version of a higher quality Japanese green tea.

Peter shared a picture of the plants being shaded

Extra local Bangkok life section

part of Bangkok, a composite picture of Paragon mall, a temple, the sky-train, and some skyline

the last day at that local zoo I kept talking about

my memory of that place, my favorite people enjoying things there

paddleboating, a bit hot from going for speed

a week earlier at that zoo, with the other one

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Tea taste profiling and machine testing "tasting"

Part one of this two part post series covered a Singapore tea expo / conference, with input from two participants about how that went.  To me one of the most interesting parts of the theme was them trying out a profile preference mapping approach integrated with the products theme.

Per a photo reference in the last post that Teapasar process surveyed tea aspect range preferences to result in recommendations for attendees for what to try, even narrowed to teas on display at different booths, if I understood that correctly.  Just brilliant!

The natural first consideration is if that would work, and then next if the form they used would work best, versus other types of approaches that might be taken.  Let's start with what they were doing first.

Their related website reference mentions some background on that, but this never does go into a lot of detail, because there is only so much on it there. A couple of Teapasar reference page captures explain the basics behind the profile system:

All of that definitely works, but of course I was expecting something similar to the tasting flavor wheels, like this Tea Masters version:

The full reference description of that Teapasar system (the organizer who held the event, who isn't limited to event production) runs a little into marketing, but it also serves as a background explanation:

Firstly, ProfilePrint can accurately recognise the tea leaves of the same type, whilst being able to differentiate between different tea regions; quality; production methods; and even between different seasons. Such a methodology allows us to authenticate the tea leaves sold by retailers or wholesalers, preventing unfair pricing and misrepresentation. All single-origin teas sold via teapasar’s marketplace will first be authenticated against the origin, and re-tested periodically to verify its purported quality.

Our ProfilePrint methodology also identifies distinct taste profiles of each tea listed on the marketplace. At the same time, when customers create their personalised taste profile online, their unique preferences can then be matched to our database of teas, and the closest matches can be recommended. This allows customers to shop with confidence and discover other blends of tea they may enjoy.

All of that rings a bell, doesn't it?  I get the sense it's really talking about two different things, based on how the content overlaps but isn't the same.  Flavor aspect preference mapping (in the second paragraph) and identifying teas as genuinely from a region in the first paragraph could be regarded as two completely different subjects.  It's easy to see how those two could connect but not as simple to see how they could be exactly the same thing.

This relates to a subject I spent a few months researching last year, tea quality testing and machine "tasting," which never did turn into a finished blog post.  What they are saying here could mean a broad range of different things, extending several steps beyond having a potential customer fill out a preference by aspect survey and matching that to standard tea version descriptions.

Background on tasting and compound types

It would be nice to jump ahead to what machine testing is about but a short aside on different compounds in tea, or those we taste in general, will help clarify what all those testing processes really relate to.  Our process of tasting is complicated, making it not so easy to replicate a lot of it.

It's helpful to start with a tea chemistry basics article from a familiar reference blog site (formerly the World of Tea site, now the Specialty Tea Alliance):

...on the bush, tea leaves contain thousands of chemical compounds, when they are processed, these compounds break down, form complexes and form new compounds. When we steep tea leaves, our senses are tingled by the thousands of volatile compounds (collectively known as the “aroma complex”) from the tea liquor and the thousands of non-volatile compounds and the complexes between them, not all of which are water soluble...

So all of this makes it very difficult to generalize and say that x chemical is responsible for y taste. Many tea chemicals have been categorized into broad groups, and collectively we have some idea of what happens to these groups during processing and what flavors and aromas they are responsible for... 

Of course that does go on to pass on some insight about categories of components:

In steeped tea, polyphenols are largely responsible for astringency...  Flavanols are also referred to as tannins, and during oxidation are converted to theaflavins and thearubigins—the compounds responsible for the dark color and robust flavors notably present in black teas. The major flavanols in tea are: catechin (C), epicatechin (EC), epicatechin gallate (ECG), gallocatechin (GC), epigallocatechin (EGC), and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG)... 

Amino acids give tea its brothiness, or umami taste. Tea leaves contain many amino acids, the most abundant of which is theanine... 

Methylxanthines in tea include the stimulant caffeine and two similar compounds: theobromine and theophylline...  Methylxanthines also contribute to a bitter taste in the tea infusion...

The rest of that is well worth a read, but those few points cover some basics.  Defining individual flavor characteristics in terms of specific compounds is problematic but defining the broad categories and some generalities works.

It's interesting considering how volatile compounds map onto individual flavors.  The subject is too broad to get far with it, but some summary-level reading up on Wikipedia on aroma compounds connects some of the dots:

An aroma compound, also known as an odorant, aroma, fragrance, or flavor, is a chemical compound that has a smell or odor. A chemical compound has a smell or odor when it is sufficiently volatile to be transported to the olfactory system in the upper part of the nose...

Flavors affect both the sense of taste and smell, whereas fragrances affect only smell. Flavors tend to be naturally occurring, and fragrances tend to be synthetic.[1]

Aroma compounds can be found in food, wine, spices, floral scent, perfumes, fragrance oils, and essential oils…

just a sample; other different types and examples are listed

None of this summarizes just how complex the sensation of taste really is.  At this very low resolution perspective it should be simple to isolate the inputs of taste, identified by the tongue, and aroma, carried by volatile compounds and identified in the rear nasal passages, and map the influence of specific types and levels of compounds to a human perception.  Those are the broad strokes (just skipping "feel" related aspects, chemesthetic compounds or irritants, like astringency) but it's not at all that simple.  

This following reference guide fills in some of the methodology and related complications, even through only reading selected samples in the Google books passage citations:

This is already bridging over from the subject of how we taste into what machines can replicate of that, and why it would or wouldn't make sense to attempt that.  That reference is from 2013; the research scope has surely expanded since that was written, even in that short time, but it seems it would take time for the findings to be applied for food production industry use.  For now there is some limited application for quality control, expanded on more in that reference.

Related to just reading up on the subject of research of machine replicated tasting, it's more a problem that the subject keeps expanding as you look into it, than that there isn't good information out there.  There is a lot of research available about the science behind food tasting, and even the extension of that into research on tea evaluation.  The following section selects some ideas and themes about testing of tea components and flavor compounds relatively randomly, not "backing up" to explain the overall context of sensation in people further, or machine testing related to aspects of those processes.

These ideas were selected for being interesting, not so much because they represent a good overall summary of current research, or of the subject in general.  In reading back over what I had researched on the subject the initial notes and citations amounted to 13 pages, and I quit at that point because the potential scope and material just kept expanding, not due to exhausting what turned up easily.

Machine testing / "tasting" of teas 

Machines can actually "taste" tea now, to a very limited extent.  That ends up meaning a broad range of different things.  One part is that certain aspects (compound type and levels) can serve as a type indicator or quality marker.  Or more generally, but even more complicated in form, a profile of levels of flavor related compounds can be identified (for example, by identifying specific compounds related to volatile compounds and aroma through use of gas chromatography).

It sounds crazy, doesn't it?  The reason I never finished a summary of those findings was because the subject just kept expanding, and there was no way to isolate and simplify parts of it for an easy review.  Here's a citation of part of what I mean, by no means representative of the whole scope of what is currently possible for this type of testing:

In this paper, we have (analyzed using a metal oxide sensor (MOS)-based electronic nose (EN)) five tea samples with different qualities...  The flavour of tea is determined mainly by its taste and smell, which are determined by hundreds of volatile organic compounds (VOC) and non-volatile organic compounds present in tea. Tea flavour is traditionally measured through the use of a combination of conventional analytical instrumentation and human organoleptic profiling panels. These methods are expensive in terms of for example time and labour. The methods are also inaccurate because of a lack of either sensitivity or quantitative information. In this paper an investigation has been made to determine the flavours of different tea samples using an EN and thus to explore the possibility of replacing existing analytical and profiling panel methods... 

It's my impression that what Teapasar is doing falls somewhere in between using surveys and rough summary descriptions, along with spiderweb graphs, which would only relate to the profiling side of the work described here.  It would really be another completely different step to use complex sensors with advance AI processing to replicate more of human tasting, to try to build that part of the analysis into a program.

Parts of the reading of various references on the subject expanded considerably on the comparison role played by combining human taster input with machine results.  Testing can identify what compounds are present but can't necessarily clearly place those related to human perception, as strong versus weak, pleasant versus unpleasant, related to interpretation tied to food items or specific flavors, etc.

The data output by any of the various forms of testing results tends to look like unfamiliar graph forms.  It can be evaluated and summarized as a table of relative compound types, as related to that study output in the following:

Not necessarily familiar, are they?  Referencing back to that Wikipedia aromatic compound page will fill in a little detail, related to the three "linalool" compound types listed:

A clearer description requires a bit more detailed reference, but in general linalool is a subset of linear terpene compounds that represent floral, sweet, woody, or lavender scents.  About the "hexanal":

Aldehydes:  High concentrations of aldehydes tend to be very pungent and overwhelming, but low concentrations can evoke a wide range of aromas.

Acetaldehyde (ethereal)
Hexanal (green, grassy)
cis-3-Hexenal (green tomatoes)...

Really those only work as broad strokes; the next level of detail beyond a Wikipedia page reference would work better for a clearer rough image of what compounds pass on what aroma aspects.

Here are a few other interesting references, articles available for review as free online pdf copies, with more sampling of taste and aroma testing research:

4. Conclusion [final summary]

We have developed a simple, rapid, and reproducible SALDI-MS approach for the determination of the con- centrations of theamine and four catechins using TiO2 NPs as matrices and CAP as internal standard. The SALDI-MS approach was further validated by the analy- sis of tea samples from Taiwan and four other areas.

Each sample has its unique SALDI-MS profile, revealing that the source, harvest region and seasons affect the con- tents of the analytes. The amounts of theamine in the Jin Xuan tea samples from Alishan and Zhushan are much higher than those from other counties (Table 2). Our rapid and simple SALDI-MS approach reveals that the amounts of ECG and EGCG in Taiwanese Oolong tea samples are lower than those from other countries. Our preliminary results suggest that our SALDI-MS profiles shall be useful for the identification of tea samples.

That's back to the first subject raised in the Teapasar cited content, machine testing used to confirm what a tea really is.  It's a different subject than tasting for flavor profile effect but per that reference measuring the relative distribution of compounds in different teas can be used to accurately identify where the teas are from (still in the research phase for most of this material, more an indication the direction is promising in that paper than as a worked-out system).

This next reference covers some similar ground but shifts research further back towards connecting with flavor aspects in teas, with mapping what the machines test back to what humans sense:

The Joint Use of Electronic Nose and Electronic Tongue for the Evaluation of the Sensorial Properties of Green and Black Tea Infusions as Related to Their Chemical Composition

The objectives of the present study were to determine the effects of the brewing method on the amount of the major catechins, methylxanthines, total polyphenols and antioxidant capacity in green and black teas, and to correlate the chemical composition of tea infusions to their sensorial properties by the combined use of the electronic nose and tongue. For this purpose, tea infusions were prepared from 7 green teas and 6 black teas...

 Electronic tongue and electronic nose were able to discriminate green teas from black teas on the basis of their sensorial properties. Considering the taste, green teas were characterized by astringency and aftertaste-astringency and this sensation was increased by prolonging the infusion time; black teas were perceived as more bitter, sour, salty and the extraction time affected the astringent sensation. The aroma of green and black teas was discriminated by specific sensors and the increase of the extraction time produced more richly flavoured infusions. This work adds information about correlation between sensorial properties, antioxidant capacity and chemical composition of green and black teas.

That work is interesting for including a lot of reference data related to different types of compounds in the various teas.  I had referenced it in the past related to reviewing caffeine levels, in a combined table as follows (with "CA" relating to amount of caffeine expressed as mg / gram of dry leaf):

Caffeine does affect taste, but this study is also covering a lot of scope that one might associate with trying to review health effects instead.  This research wasn't about getting machine testing to simulate tea tasting, in the sense of replacing human functions, or even conducting a detailed mapping, but the results are compared to tasting experience in the write-up:

It is known that tea taste is influenced by the processing method and the infusion conditions, which affect the extraction of phenolic compounds and caffeine [5]. The e-tongue score plot (Figure 1(a)) showed the discriminative ability of this device in distinguishing the taste of green and black teas. In particular, green teas, grouped at the left of PC1 (explained variance 56.9%), were discriminated from black teas, which were more dispersed along PC1 and located in the lower part of PC2 (explained variance 28.4%). At the right of the score plot the Bancha Tostato Hojicha tea (G1-G2) was completely separated from the other green teas. Moreover, different teas of the same type (for example different green teas) were not overlapping each other, indicating the sensitiveity of the e-tongue. From the loading plot (Figure 1(b)), it can be noticed that green teas were characterized by astringency and aftertaste-astringency, while black teas were perceived as more bitter and sour and were also characterized by saltiness and aftertaste-bitterness. Concerning Bancha Tostato Hojicha tea (G1-G2) its taste was similar to Grand Keemun black tea (B5-B6); these two samples were perceived as the least astringent and  the most bitter.

Figure 1a. Principal component analysis of electronic tongue data: Score plot of green and black teas defined by the first two principal components.

A bit different format than my tea review tasting notes.  It is possible to take different types of testing even further, to explore how individual compounds beyond these being measured there relate to a range of other flavors experienced, by measuring aromatic compound components.

This is all drifting away from the initial subject of machine testing / "tasting" teas, isn't it, as much into quality control range.  That study focused on broad types of compounds and general attributes, which worked to describe tea character in a limited sense but not necessarily what different teas taste like, related to individual flavor aspects.  Another reference shifts back to replicating human taste, it just doesn't get far for completeness related to that:

Discrimination of Green, Oolong, and Black Teas by GC-MS Analysis of Characteristic Volatile Flavor Compounds

I won't do this paper justice but a citation of the intent and then a bit of results is interesting, with that link leading to a complete download version of the paper for further review.

...In our study, we collected more than 38 kinds of tea products including green teas, oolong teas, and black teas from different production areas, investigated their volatile compounds to study the different manufacturing processes on the tea aroma profiles as well as relationships between particular processes and tea aroma compounds.  We aimed to develop a fast method to determine the origin based on profiling of volatiles by GC-MS and statistical analysis.

So back to the type mapping and origin study idea, with some parts of that paper easier to follow than others.  Not so far in a type of characteristics mapping turns up, back to the theme of flavor profiling that started this review:

In a limited sense this is a simple measurement, summary, and mapping function of flavor related elements in different teas.  It's not quite that simple, and only goes so far, identified by a citation related to the role and types of volatile compounds:

In general, the aroma profiles of black teas and oolong teas are more complex than the ones of green teas. In green tea fewer volatiles can be found and among the 200 volatiles about 30 compounds essentially contribute to the typical green tea aroma [5] [6]. Besides short chained alcohols and aldehydes, geraniol, linalool, 2-phenylethanol, benzyl alcohol, indole, and coumarin lead to green tea aroma. In black tea infusions about 600 constituents have been identified and 41 compounds importantly  contribute to the aroma of black tea infusions [11].

Interesting!  Reading further about the different compounds is also interesting, but it doesn't map back directly to ordinary experience very well:

Several of these important aroma compounds have been found in all kinds of black tea, among them Z-3-hexen-1-ol, linalool and its oxides, geraniol, and 2-phenylethanol contributing to the green, citrus-like, rose-like and honey-like notes, respectively. Linalool and its oxides, benzylalcohol, and 2-phenylethanol were detected as volatiles in all oolong teas. Although contents of most volatiles in black teas are higher than oolong teas and green teas, jasmine lactone and indole were the highest in oolong teas. Both volatiles possess jasmine-like floral and fruity fragrances and importantly contribute to oolong tea aroma [12]. This result is identical with previous reports [13]. Methyl salicylate, previously described as characteristic aroma component of oolong tea, has been only found in some teas of Chinese Taipei (Table S1 No. 7, 8, and 10) or Japanese (Table S1 12 and 13) origin [14].

So not much overlap with ordinary language and ordinary taste experience, but it does seem like the description of the role of different compounds in tasting can be pushed down to a lower and more specific level.  It just can't be a complete mapping, yet; a machine can't replicate our experience of taste, with the results more in the form of a summary of chemical proportions than main and secondary flavors.  They can make a good start, though, with the final interpretation step still requiring more development work.  One recurring question and theme that keeps coming up is why to do it, why to get a machine to replicate tasting, which I will get back to.

Initial conclusions

When I first considered whether or not a machine could "taste" tea it seemed to me that of course they couldn't.  Even if testing could identify main compound types and specific levels of very clearly identified specific molecules, mapped directly to aspects that people taste, there would have to be severe limits to what testing results could determine.

Two things in particular came to mind that a machine couldn't do:

1.  identify the role of all potential "off" flavor related compounds.  A testing process could identify standard compounds and flavor contributions, the typical positive flavor-related compounds that occur in different types, but couldn't map out everything that might conceivably be in tea, and how some of it might throw off a standard positive profile.

2.  mimic subjective interpretation of overall balance of flavors and compounds present.  When we taste we summarize how well it all works together, how the unique mix of aspects "works" to us, and it would seem that a machine or testing and analysis process would have problems replicating that.

That earlier cited reference, Instrumental Assessment of Food Sensory Quality: A Practical Guide, adds a concern to the second issue, beyond the problem with mapping out what the flavor impact of every single compound might be, especially in different combinations (on page 56 of the sample text):

...laboratory instrumentation is not as sensitive to many odors as is the human olfacotry system.  It is widely accepted that as few as 8 molecules of a potent oderant can trigger one olfactory neuron and that only 40 molecules may provide an identifiable sensation...

Even though that text source only sites samples of the entire book it's well worth a read, and for those more interested in the subject obtaining the book may be.  As I interpret this well beyond the problem that machine testing can't even match human sensation the interpretation step that comes after this, mapping all potential volatile compounds to effects, makes for a second impossible task.

Of course machine "tasting" research is really back on the basics; identifying what we do when we taste, which more basic or standard compounds cause which reactions or interpretations, and setting up testing processes to copy that.  With advanced enough testing procedures and interpretation (AI / artificial intelligence interpretation) most if not all of what we are doing could be replicated.

That testing process, software, and related data set would need to be just as experienced as a human taster to get there, with input across trying thousands of samples of teas.  It would have to somehow map each related input and sets of compounds to actual subjective interpretations by experienced human tasters.  It would have to be drilled down to component by component analysis, and mapped back up to how countless combinations were experienced by people, somehow accounting for individual preference / subjectivity, at least to some extent.  It's all a nearly impossible task, at present, or really completely impossible based on current capabilities.  But of course it will become possible, it's just a matter of when.

Most of what is currently possible was developed in the last 20 years, it seems, at least related to advanced forms of testing equipment, software, testing methodology, and analysis in use.  In 20 more years there will be development work in progress on what we can only imagine to be possible today.  How long until an apparently sentient program can discuss tea tasting with us, and move beyond human capability?  Who knows.  It's more interesting to consider what is possible now, even if the research doesn't make for light reading.

Another starting point on profile mapping

It's difficult to summarize the extent to which any of this flavor profile mapping works, either the relatively simple Teapasar Singapore expo event version, informed by questionnaire input, or any version based on test results.  The cumbersome and problematic verbal aspect category descriptions of teas in review formats seem to go a lot further now.  But people are working on that, providing summary formats that go further, even onto attempting a more complete and objective assessment.  It starts with coming at the problem from different directions, using more basic tools to collect and present data.

I first heard about the project of mapping out tea aspects in graphical form related to the Penn State Tea Institute's work on exactly that.  It's not related, but I first graduated from PSU, an age ago, as an Industrial Engineer.

visiting back at PSU nearly two years ago now

This article covers some of that early background:

In a small house in State College, a group of college students and recent graduates sip Bolivian black coffee... After each one takes a sip, they record the flavors they taste on a circular graph via a mobile application they built from scratch.

This is a daily tasting at the Hacker House, the nickname given to the home and office of Analytical Flavor Systems (AFS). AFS is a Penn State startup bringing technology to the artisan beverage industry (coffee, beer and tea) with its unique quality control system, the Gastrograph.  AFS was founded in 2011 by Jason Cohen who was later joined by John Dori...    The duo met at the Tea Institute at Penn State, a part-tea house, part-research lab that Cohen founded as a student in 2010.

Gastrograph microbrew beer mapping (details and photo credit)

A Guardian article titled "Tastemakers: Can a robot really know what we’ll want to eat?" goes into how the related graphic mapping works:

...Analytical Flavor Systems’ main data collection tool is its smartphone app, Gastrograph. The app’s central feature is a wheel with 24 spokes, where each sliver represents a discrete category of sensory experience – such as “meaty”, “bitter” or “mouthfeel”. Tasters map the contours of flavor perception by tracing the spokes corresponding to the qualities they detect, designating the intensity of each on a scale from one to five. A submenu allows for a more granular record of experience: specifying that “meaty” quality, for instance, as beefy, sausage-like, or more exotic options (moose, kangaroo). Tasters are then prompted to give the product a preference rating, on a scale from one to seven.

That article goes further than short citations here could about the overall vision and goals, also covering the opposing view, related to problems with the approach taken.  But this second citation does map out some of the broad strokes, based on an author's summary of that interview input from Jason Cohen:

Ultimately, what Analytical Flavor Systems is selling is not a food or beverage: it is a descriptive picture of experience, a predictive image of desire, and a vision of a food system fragmented into niches of highly attached consumers. If the future is, as its founders say, in foods optimized to our most personal appetites, the company’s success will ultimately depend on the Gastrograph’s ability to tell food and beverage companies what you will love, the flavors that you won’t be able to live without – and to do this more accurately, efficiently, or cost-effectively than established companies...

They're not moving into machine tasting as one foundation for setting this up, it doesn't seem (the main theme addressed in the rest of this post), but the work is interesting nonetheless.  Starting from much more sophisticated mapping of how people experience and communicate flavors may turn out to be a productive step towards meeting up with machine testing and tasting results once the two scopes are mapped onto each other better later.

Those two themes didn't necessarily connect as well as they might have in this blog post.  As of now tea aspect profile mapping is something people can do, with limited coordinating help from application tools like the Gastrograph program.  Eventually machine testing could support that, or potentially in the very long run replace it.  For now using testing to confirm a tea version is from a certain region seems more promising.  Exploring use of individual measured aspects as quality markers is still just an interesting idea, and actually replicating more of tasting in the form people do that seems pretty far off.