Friday, February 16, 2018

Assam Teahaus orthodox black tea review


I mentioned meeting a local online friend here in Bangkok awhile back, Sasha Abramovich, and he passed on this tea to try.  It's another Assam version, from a relatively new producer I've heard of but hadn't tried tea from.

I'll cite more from discussion with that vendor and producer at the end, but the prior Assam producer themes repeat.  They're ramping up orthodox tea processing quality level, and branching out into exploring different distribution options, with fair trade and sustainability issues as background.

that tea


Sasha!


it's the one on the right, Assam Orthodox


Review


The tea is nice.  I have to recalibrate a little to get back to expecting an Assam profile versus the Chinese black tea range I've been on but this is actually sort of in the middle style-wise anyway.

I'm not always clear on parameters but that may help explain what I mean related to the infusion transitions in this case.  I'm brewing the tea completely Western style, in a standard proportion, using boiling point water (or at least near it; it's easy to lose a little temperature along the way, even related to a factor like not pre-warming a device).  I'm brewing around 4 grams of tea (a lot, to some, but for me using 1 1/2 times that much sometimes comes up, if the intention is to use multiple shorter infusions), to prepare a full mug of water, probably slightly over 8 ounces (on the order of 250 ml).  I tend to like to make three infusions of tea brewed between 2 1/2 and 4 minutes made that way using black tea leaves, adjusting timing and count for leaf type, and for what I feel like drinking just then.

If someone only considers using 2-3 grams worth of tea and a cup of water as Western style brewing then this is a hybrid style instead, but to me variation within proportion still fits under that category.  Either way, what's in a brewing-process name.


The taste in the profile includes malt but it's not as pronounced as in most Assam versions, not really dominant.  The general character is softer, more complex, and richer.  It's still not exactly like a Chinese black tea, even though that is a little towards a standard Chinese black aspects set from what I've tried of Assam.  Those mostly exhibit malt first, and everything else is secondary.  Some varied versions included more fruit (citrus) and mild pine-like flavor, and this isn't completely different, just not exactly either.  A flavors list might help.

I'm noticing some malt and pine, balanced as the two main elements, but not dominant.  There is plenty of sweetness, not necessarily easy to place, not clearly tied to a fruit flavor, and not paired with a separate standard taste range like cocoa or toffee either.  It's just a little sweet.  The softness stands out as much as anything else; the feel is full but the overall effect is soft.  The tea comes across as richer than it seems that flavors list would; it's not dry or rough at all, a bit full instead.  The flavor is generally clean, but some other woody tone drifts slightly into a trace of fresh cardboard, which overlaps with the pine aspect.






It's interesting the way that all comes together.  It does taste like a very soft, sweet, complex version of an Assam, but towards that other range so much that it's not typical of others I've tried.  It's good tea, but "good" is relative, and it would depend on preference match how good.  More than that wood / clean cardboard throwing the flavor off trading out the typical yam, roasted sweet potato, cocoa, and toffee in different Chinese black teas for pine and malt is a potential drawback.  The complexity is good, and the feel is full enough, it's more a matter if it matches what someone likes.  The touch of citrus in some other Assam, and often present in Darjeeling, might work really well in this, but it's not one of the aspects expressed in this version.


That softness works well but for some others just a little more edge might give it better balance.  To me it's one more nice way that black teas can be, but that is a judgment call.  If someone loves Assams but finds the malt a bit much and has trouble finding one smooth enough this tea could be perfect.  Different people could miss the edge, or just prefer the other flavor aspect range more common to other tea types instead.

The second infusion is similar to the first, just faded slightly.


It almost goes without saying, and it's repetitive since I've already said it, but "malt" tends to be used in a range of different senses.  Malt in ovaltine or malted milk milkshakes, or Whoppers, is smooth and sweet, like a transitioned and sweetened form of mild grain (what that is, I think).  This malt is closer to a slightly dry mineral tone, with some overlap in the two, but also a little like rust.  That's also where it "meets" the pine aspect, which is in between pine needles (maybe red pine, to put a tree to that) and pine cones.


So, long story short, I liked the tea.  I'd be happy to drink lots of this as a daily drinker, and it's complex, balanced, and unique enough to appreciate for what it is on a different level than that, as a new experience.  It's not quite on the level of the best second flush and autumn flush Darjeelings I've tried, where the outstanding uniqueness, clean profile, novel aspect range, great balance, etc. make those stand out from all other black teas.  Per my preferences it's as good as more typical upper-medium quality range Darjeeling, which is quite an accomplishment, just much different in character.


Vendor profile, more on Assam Orthodox tea and Maddhurjya Gogoi


I had talked to that tea producer before, (Maddhurjya Gogoi, who Sasha actually met visiting Assam), just never connecting relating to trying a tea version.  We talked again and he provided more input about his business and company theme.  This Youtube video is a personal and business profile of sorts, with the rest here a text version in his own words.  As for contacts he's on Facebook, with another business page there, and a website contact here.


The rest is in his words, background on him and his business from discussion.  This runs a little longer than I usually cite from discussion with people but to me the personal story is interesting, and it highlights how deeper issues play out related to Assam tea production transitioning from one more limited process to a range of others.




That Tea is from November 2017.  I want to focus more on quality tea manufacturing from different varietals we cultivate in our small Tea Farm CHAH BARI: GOGOI & SONS (on Google Maps here).  My younger brother & I inherited this small Tea Farm CHAH BARI after our Father. It's about five acres.

Our Father was diagnosed with colon cancer back in 1994. It was a real hard blow in our family, and we were so broke with his expensive treatment that we could not take care of our small Tea Farm the conventional way with proper input of Chemical fertilizers, pesticides etc.

Actually his cancer was a blessing in disguise. Otherwise we would never know about Organic Cultivation.  Father was asked by the doctor to take Green Tea as a supporting medicine. In 1994/95 no one knew about Green Tea. So as expected, our Father use to get inside of his Tea Farm in the morning or daytime and chew some fresh Tea leaves as Green Tea.

Then on his check ups in 1997 the same doctor gave him few small packets if Chinese Green Tea.  Then only we all came to realize that there are different tea apart from our regular CTC Teas.  So we did many trial and error steps to process our fresh tea leaves in to drinkable Green Tea...

In 2007 I visited Japan and South Korea as a member of an Indian Business Delegation.  It was FOODEX2007 in Tokyo, where I gave my Green Tea to few Japanese and Chinese Tea merchant. To my surprise, they appreciated my efforts and one Japanese fellow ordered 60 kilograms of our Green Tea as a first initial order, which I couldn't execute.

Many years passed and I too closed my Entrepreneurship in Tea.  I become a Stock Broker and lived a happy life.  But during early 2013 my father convinced me that I should do something for our own fellow farmers and for our society since I am lucky to be exposed to the world, and I had experienced possibilities.

So in 2014 I travelled for three months  in Europe with my Teas again. And what a response!!!
I sold my Black Tea in Germany for 60 Euro a kilogram.  That was the turning point. I studied Export Management, having always wanted to be an exporter.  Then in March 2015 I went to Taiwan in search of Small Tea machinery.

Again in October 2015 I got the opportunity to visit Xiamen Tea Fair.  As I said earlier I am really blessed that I could travel far and wide despite I belong to middle class family background...  Then again in 2016 I joined Shana Zhang's ITA for a Tea sommelier course.  

Now I am fully focused on Tea and Organic Sustainable Farming practices. Our business is very small but I am highly focused and now share my experience and knowledge with my fellow Tea Farmers in different parts of Assam. People invite me to Tea workshops and I train them on ethical Farming to get rid of Chemical dependency.  This year I hope to process few hundred kilograms of quality Tea from our own small Farm.  My younger brother is my right hand and we are both continuously involved in the empowerment of Small Farmers and those marginal Tea Garden labourers. We are paying 20% extra wages to our partners (workers).

With our best efforts, we are trying to promote some best Teas locally and globally as well. I am confident that within this year I can double the wage of our partners and stop Tea slavery in our small Tea Farm.



Sasha and Nok visiting Maddhurjya (credit his FB page


Interesting, to me at least.  It's nice to get to mention Shana's training business (International Tea Academy), since she's the owner of the FB tea group I'm an admin for, International Tea Talk.  I've never had much direct contact with that training but one of my favorite online tea friends and producers shared having generally positive experience with it too.


The health claims part stands out, doesn't it?  I wouldn't be quick to accept that green tea is a cure for cancer but I'm guessing that lots of kinds of tea are very healthy, even if sorting that out through research evidence findings is problematic.  Using organic and sustainable farming practices also sounds good.  And the tea is nice, still within the range of better Assam versions I've tried, but it's always interesting trying varied styles.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Growing tea plants at home


The subject keeps coming up:  can I grow tea plants at home, and if so can I process them into tea I could drink?  I was asking the same thing myself awhile back, I just never did get around to finding those plants and getting it done.  I live in Bangkok, so I'd be looking into plants that are ok with quite warm weather instead of cold, but the concerns seem similar.

I never did get around to writing about the subject; not having followed up there wasn't that much to say.  Looking back I that was in 2013, right around the time this blog started, and I was a lot less chatty and diverse in tea writing back then. 

Back then I discussed it a little with a nursery (Camellia Forest Nursery, in North Carolina), a business that sells tea plants in the US.  They're one of the main plant sources that comes up in discussion, to the limited extent I run across that.  They mentioned this advice related to growing tea plants in hot weather climates (like Bangkok), or indoors versus outdoors:


home based tea plant garden in Mexico (related story)


Tea in general will tolerate high temperatures as long as it gets water.  They do need a cooler period in the winter as they go dormant for a while.  There are tea plantations in warm areas of China and Vietnam...


...For growing tea indoors, again they like cooler temperatures and high humidity during the winter so a hot dry house sometimes is stressful for the plant.  If you have a cool sunroom they will do well indoors.


We have a couple of nice, small garden areas at the house I live in, even though we're in the city.


at the house; we could clear a space for some plants out there


Online references:  a source for plants and tea growing group



The Camellia Forest Nursery website sells different related types of plants (other decorative Camellias and other plants), with a section on Camellia Sinensis (tea!).  It includes an overview of processed types, and a separate website on growing and producing tea (and a Facebook page).  It wouldn't be remarkably simple, getting the right version of the plants to thrive under local conditions, and then picking and processing leaves into good quality finished tea, but having a go at it wouldn't seem that impossible either. 

A second interesting reference is a Facebook group about growing tea in the US, Let's Grow Tea.  The group focus is really more about small producers helping each other share information, rather than for people with a few plants growing in a greenhouse themed room in their house, but even just paging through discussions would turn up good information related to common issues.  And the group members seem nice.


Wonosari plantation in East Java, Indonesia, from visiting in 2016



Input from David Parks, Camellia Forest Nursery co-owner


Those nursery website pages go through lots of detail, on different types of Camellia Sinensis plants, and on growing zones and specific plant weather tolerances.  It seems to be most of what someone would need to know related to if it would be practical or not.


camellia japonica version (credit Camellia Forest FB page)


From there other levels of concerns would crop up, related to growing inside versus outside, watering, nutrition, and pest issues, harvesting leaves, and especially related to actually processing tea.  It would seem highly impractical to actually try to produce substantial amounts of tea, even if someone did happen to live in a suitable US environment (to the South), but of course that wouldn't generally be the point.  What tea enthusiast wouldn't want to add some plants around their house that could actually produce tea to drink?  Even if is difficult, and recreating a favorite Wuyi Yancha or pu'er wouldn't be practical.



I asked the owners of the Camellia Forest Nursery if they could fill in more details, and David was kind enough to summarize some thoughts related to trends in that actually happening and related background, as follows.


The interest in tea over the last 30 years has grown from a few individuals and a handful of nurseries to a general interest in tea and tea potentially being sold in big box stores. There are even some nurseries that sell only tea plants but I saw in a large nursery R+D department that they are experimenting with tea that would be marketed to big box stores as a premade hedge. We have gone from selling a few dozen plants to thousands of tea plants-the nursery has grown ten fold also.

In general, people do enjoy the tea made from their own plants. They find it is very different from typical bagged tea but are pleasantly surprised. There are cases of people using mature leaves or even the dead leaves with rather poor success.

Since we are a mail order nursery we get requests from all over the country even locations that are too cold for growing tea. So many people try growing it indoors. The success varies but it can be done. Although actual production will probably be limited unless one is experienced growing plants to get good growth without getting too big a plant for a pot. Moving the plant outdoors in the summer and indoors in the winter is probably the best option. People also have success in small or large greenhouses. One customer grows tea in a polyhouse in Michigan.


USDA plant hardiness zone map (credit USDA site)



This year was a cold hardiness test for tea in North Carolina. We had one night when the temperature dropped to 3 F and almost 2 weeks of temperatures below freezing. So far most looks OK and even tender varieties are expected to regrow from the roots. One issue we see is that harvested tea will keep growing into the fall and not harden off so the top leaves of many bushes are completely brown but lower leaves look green. Although not attractive I believe this does not hurt the plants and we will prune off these leaves very soon in preparation for the new flush in spring. Surprisingly some varieties like Sochi appear almost unhurt. Other varieties that look good include small leaf tea, 'Dave's Fave', and Lipton Plantation.


Camellia Forest nursery photo from a 2013 ice storm (credit their FB page)



Snow actually protects plants although it can splay out tea branches if it is very heavy snow. It is the low temperatures that seem to damage tea the most. From reports I have gotten from customers Sochi tea does appear to be one of the hardiest. It comes from tea plantations around the black sea in Russia. My Korean strain and small leaf tea have also been hardy strains and the best variety has not been clear.


Some of those last parts overlap with a story about trying North Korean tea, and about how they were able to produce that there.

All of this encourages me to renew my own efforts to track down tea plants here.  Thailand produces tea, so I only need to go to the North and I can visit plantations up there.  And Bangkok is a big place, with a little bit of everything around; most likely tea plants are also here.


Nursery open house announcement (details here)


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Vietnamese maocha, a version of loose sheng


Geoff, visiting Bangkok, with Nguyen Thu Ngoc, the Hatvala co-founder


I met Geoff Hopkins not so long ago, one of the owners of Hatvala Tea.  It's been great discussing tea related issues with on International Tea Talk (a FB group I'm an admin for), and great to finally meet him. 

Hatvala is my favorite Vietnamese tea vendor.  They source small-producer limited production scope teas in different places, and this version he gave me a sample of they don't actually sell yet, but probably will.  For purposes here that doesn't matter so much; I'll pass on what I think of it.  And mention there's more about him in this profile article, in case that's of interest, with content in that article related to more traditional agricultural practices, which I'll go into more after a review.


I've been drinking a good bit of sheng pu'er over the last half a year so it should be easy to place.  Oddly although you can't call this tea pu'er, since that's a region-defined term, it might still work to call it sheng.  Or maybe not; "sheng-pu'er-like tea" might be the politically correct expression, or maocha still works.  Maocha means two different things, typically, either unfinished tea (eg. a roasted style oolong that's not yet completely sorted or finished roasting), or to a loose sheng, which is as finished as it's going to be, often except for being pressed into a cake / bing or other shape.







Review:


It's definitely sheng (or "sheng-pu'er-style" tea).  Northern Vietnamese snow teas also remind me a little of sheng, and I tried more of some of one that friend (Huyen) gave me over the past weekend, but this is exactly that type, not just a little like it.  There's a bit of that characteristic bitterness, which I've come to like when balanced properly with other aspects, versus not really being able to relate to it two or three years ago.  That aspect is paired with a pronounced mineral range, and the sweetness and other flavor is expressed as floral, per my interpretation.  A bit of warmth couples with the mineral tone, along the lines of Southwestern US desert slickrock versus flint or limestone, or maybe even the richer mineral tone from an artesian well source, or well-rusted iron.  More rounds will make it easier to pick up all that's going on.  This type of tea tends to transition most over the first few infusions, and in some cases quite a bit later as well.

The sweetness picks up a little in the second round, and I suppose the general intensity too, even for using a really fast infusion time.  I'm keeping the proportion fairly high even for Gongfu brewing, and using boiling point water, which I regard as a relatively standard approach.  It's conceivable that one might moderate astringency using lower temperature water but it's my impression that it would mute the flavors, and varying infusion strength works better.  On this second round the brightness picks up, so that the hint of warmer mineral evolves from the dryer mineral tone and floral just a little towards fruit.  I'm definitely not saying the tea tastes fruity, just that it's picking up aspect range and complexity that's hard to completely pin down that extends those others in that direction.  It's like just hint of juicyfruit gum flavor, not so pronounced that it's a main flavor aspect, but it's still there.




The tea only makes a slight additional similar transition on the third infusion.  Brewed really lightly it's very pleasant, full flavored, rich in feel, bright and intense.  The sweetness, lighter input of bitterness, mineral tones, and the rest all balances nicely.  Before I would question what this kind of tea might be like in a year or two, how those flavors might evolve and improve, but now I'm a little bit more inclined to think it's fine as it is.  That would be interesting as an academic pursuit, to see what happens, but only if coupled with drinking a good bit of it as it is now since it's already nice. 

I suppose this still isn't a set of aspects that comprises my absolute favorite range or combined experience but I do like the tea.  Other tea types aren't bright, fresh, and complex in the same way, and the feel and aftertaste are different.  I'll let it go just a little longer on the next infusion, more like 20 seconds, to see how that shifts things, although it seems easy enough to guess how that would go.

What I expected;  the bitterness plays a bigger role at the higher infusion strength, and the thickness and aftertaste ramp up.  A minute later after swallowing the experience of the tea is fading but far from gone.  The extra intensity is interesting but the balance isn't quite as favorable, per my preferences. 




The flavor is complex enough that different people would surely have very different takes on what is going on with it.  That could just be a complexity of floral range coming across, but to me that light fruit flavor aspect leans more towards roasted pear.  The warmth I'm calling mineral could be pegged as spice instead, although narrowing down which or a range is tricky.  I'd go with a mild root spice but it's not completely unlike cardamom.




The flavor keeps evolving towards being slightly softer and warmer.  It would be interesting to try this exact same tea stored for a year or two to see that transition further due to that influence.

I accidentally left an infusion sit for well over a minute, messing with something online.  It's interesting how that comes across; the bitterness really is intense at way over a normal infused strength.



Tea history, sustainable growth, and other related teas


Nice tea!  There's lots more I could say about placing it related to others I've tried, about aging potential, or about other relatively local regional teas.  I've been giving lots of thought to quality variation in sheng pu'er and how particular aspects relate to aging potential but another draft of a post covers more on that.

On the other subject, I just watched a nice TED-X video about "wild" teas from Thailand (at 2:06 here).  That's more a Northern Thailand vendor's development project that extends a very long tea tradition to trying to increase existing tea tree originated production to reduce cutting down forests for other agriculture.  It's hard to argue against that being a good idea. 

One part that might not be familiar is that eating fermented tea was part of an old Thai tradition, probably more familiar related to laphet in Myanmar, but also a custom in Thailand, referred to as miang instead.  I don't agree with everything Kenneth (of Monsoon tea, that speaker) said in the summary history about past tea production but it's splitting hairs to point out a secondary implication that may not hold up to review.  It really doesn't matter if tea plants were in Thailand 2000 years ago or 4000, or earlier, or if they probably spanned a broad range naturally or were brought by people instead.  All that is a bit academic. 

If someone is interested, this is an interesting paper on the history of tea, and also this study of genetic diversity of Assamica plants in China goes into the plants history a little.  That history will keep changing as genetic studies and other evidence comes to light, but as I see it that's all completely separate from an interest in exploring modern teas.


Other reviews here in the past have covered region-local teas with related history, some more similar in type to what I just reviewed than others, as follows:


Dhara white wild Northern Thai white tea, from Monsoon (from the same vendor that presented, but a white tea, not "sheng" style)

Myanmar old tree sheng pu'er-style tea from Tea Side

Kinnari Tea Laos loose sheng-pu'er-like tea

Vietnamese snow tea (Ha Giang province green tea)  (a completely different style, but the commonality is interesting)

Friday, February 9, 2018

Comparing identical sheng pu'er of different ages (Yiwu)


I'm back to comparing different year version samples of Yiwu Mountain Pu'er, as began in this earlier post.  I compared 2017 and 2016 versions then, which varied a lot more than I would have expected, 2016 seemingly a lot more age-transitioned than I thought it could be in that time.  As I mentioned in that earlier post this vendor sells samples as a set similar to this, with a bit more type variation in the standard tasting set.  These samples are designed to be relatively identical beyond spanning a number of years, provided by that vendor as much for my own exploration as review here, with thanks to them for that.  There would be more description of them in that site material, referenced as the Qiaomu or wild arbor sourced products (which can mean different things).

To check on pronounced differences in fermentation (aging effect) this time I'll compare a 2012 sample with a 2015 version, the two extremes of samples ages I have left to try.  That'll leave only 2013 and 2014, with not much variation in age for that last pair, but that might work to help identify if annual variations in starting point--the tea batches differing, versus aging--had been shifting results.

2012 version (Yiwu Mountain Pu'er Yiwu sheng sample)



2015 version (both from a cake, but separated)


a bit similar (I think 2012 on the right here)


Review:


This is going to be interesting, judging from tasting the rinse alone.  Of course these teas are quite different after one going through those extra years of transition.  I'll start with notes on the first infusion after a rinse, and then go round by round after, trying not to repeat the same comments over and over.  To the extent tasting notes do repeat I could edit it back out but after an hour or two of editing that gets boring and the review versions tend to stay long.


2012 on the left; brews just slightly darker


2012:   the flavor is rich, much different than the earlier, younger versions.  I was just interrupted a half dozen times during the tasting, issues I'll need to sort out if this is going to work, so I'll mostly skip the flavor by flavor review until next round.  The tastes extend into more of that root-spice direction, or further along in much warmer mineral tones (descriptions from the earlier versions tasting).  It heads a little towards tobacco but nothing like versions of aged sheng that taste just like a cigar smells.  Toffee sweetness rounds out the earthiness nicely.

2015:  this version is completely different in one sense and overlaps a lot with the other in another.  Everything I just said about the 2012 more or less also applies, just in a different sense, but the taste includes a bit more of a hardwood sort of edge to it.  Strange as it is to invoke non-food items in tasting I guess that summarizes my take on the main differences for now, a hardwood-like slight edge transitions to a tobacco-like softer aspect range.


Second infusion:


2012:  the intensity of this tea is really ramping up, but I still get the sense it will only really hit it's stride on the next round.  Unlike with a younger and more challenging sheng version--not that the 2017 sample was hard to relate to--that's not about edgy astringency or bitterness easing up, instead about intensity increasing.  I infused the tea for around 15 seconds at a standard proportion, so it's not that, it's just generally coming on.  The feel of this tea is interesting, not just in terms of perceived texture thickness, but the way that overlaps with flavor intensity and the range.

The flavor list doesn't change much, although I suppose the proportion does.  It's earthy, a bit mellow, towards a root or bark spice, but also including fallen-leaf tones and a trace of tobacco.  If someone really wanted to brew a tea that tastes as close as possible to how autumn leaves smell this would be a good option.  It wouldn't so much be like the piles of freshly fallen leaves, which have a really bright, almost tangy smell, but after they laid around for a couple of weeks, when the earthiness picks up.  Feel and aftertaste are ok but could be more notable; they're not really strengths of this tea at this point.

2015:  somehow this version is even more intense.  That wasn't a long infusion but these would be fine using quite short infusions; 5 or 10 seconds would work.  In one limited sense the flavors are a bit richer and darker in this version, not what one might expect, but the overall effect and feel is lighter and less smooth, with more structure.  There's more of that intense zap of integrated astringency, mineral, and bitterness younger sheng possesses, with a lot of transition in the presented form in an actual younger sheng.

This tea is less than three years old but it seems to have transitioned a lot, just nowhere near as much as the 2012 version.  It doesn't really work as clear and complete description of the teas but sticking with the wood and leaf theme this tea is more like a slightly aged hardwood, how cut versions of that tend to smell after some months, than leaves that had fallen a couple of weeks ago, which works as a partial aspect description for the other.


2012 on the left; slightly darker leaves


Third infusion:


2012:  this was brewed faster, between 5 and 10 seconds, and backing off the intensity does change things.  There is still plenty of flavor and feel to be experienced, and to me it comes across slightly better lighter, although an optimum for my own preference might have been between 10 and 15 seconds instead.  The aspects don't really seem to transition, so nothing to add about that, and trying to break apart how the change affects the experience would be splitting hairs.  It's just different how you'd expect it to be different; the tea is more lightly infused and comes across differently.

2015:  really just more of what applied in the other version comments.  Again it's interesting in how the flavors are different brewed quite lightly but that difference is subtle, and has to do with how feel and overall impression changes more than anything else.  I'm not sure how it's going to work to say which tea I like best since experiencing the difference is the most interesting part.  I like these teas, and I'd drink either version, at either age.  They're not at all "going mute" in middle age, as one type of standard discussion point describes.  It's probably more typical to hear people express that they just prefer sheng at different ages, and some instead say that experiencing the transitions is their favorite part.

Of course I don't mean those general observations or my comments about these two teas as an observation about how sheng ages in general.  Based on different starting points I'd expect that to play out completely differently.  In that Yiwu vertical tasting some teas did seem to give up a lot of intensity to others, and to some extent did seem to go quieter (less intense) as older versions progressed.  But my impression was that variation in the teas was a factor, in the initial quality level and aspects starting point, and that adjusting brewing parameters to not use identical brewing would flatten some of that final difference in effect back out.


palate training on a screen door; "metallic"


Fourth and fifth infusions:


I went a bit longer the fourth infusion (15 seconds or so) but the teas might be fading a little already, sooner than I would have expected.  The character seems similar but even longer infusion times would bring it to a normal strength, probably 25 to 30 seconds based on my preference, for what seems like a medium level to me.  Since they don't really seem to be transitioning that much it seems as well to not keep going on about minor variations anyway.

Ramping time up to 30 seconds on the fifth infusion did increase strength to a normal level for both.  The flavors are holding consistency, just pulling taste range a little further towards earthy woodiness for needing more infusion time to draw them out.

Conclusion, about the teas


It's not as if it's just dawning on me but I can see why preferences tend to crowd towards liking younger (newer) sheng and then older, well-matured versions, with some people defining their own personal preference at typically either 10 or 15 years aging and up.  These teas are nice but I could imagine that not everyone would love these flavor profiles.

A next concern is what these particular teas would be like in another 5 to 10 years, if they really do have aging potential that a lot of people would define as matching their preference.  That I can't really guess at, although I am working on a separate post that talks through more of that background related to online discussion of some factors.

It seems possible they would pick up richer flavors and complexity, and also possible that sheng in this range at this time (based on roughly the same starting point) would fade instead of becoming more interesting.  Or to some extent both things could happen, but fading might outweigh positive transition.  I mean that as expressing a gap in my own knowledge and experience, not as a guess that the outcome could still vary.

I liked these teas, but the most interesting part was experiencing the transition aging variation had caused, more so than enjoying them as an individual experience.  I think I did like the youngest (newest) tea of the set best so far, which I didn't expect.  Of course that could and would vary related to individual teas, probably by standard sets of characteristics, and by preference.  It would surely work for people to express clear generalities about what they prefer in aged sheng but I'm not as sure if a narrow range of consensus takes would emerge.  Perhaps it could; why not?   An online comment about that recent review of a Moychay Nan Nuo sheng, if it would continue to improve or not, turned up some interesting discussion input on the matter, but looking into it proved substantial enough that further discussion will have to wait for that other post.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Ten years in Thailand; on Thai culture and Quora answers


I've actually been in Thailand four months over ten years now so it's not exactly an anniversary.  More than that milestone other things have triggered me thinking about Thai culture versus US culture.  And of course also "what am I doing with my life?,"  which goes without saying.

One thing stands out as a prompt for introspection, perhaps not what you'd expect:  answering questions on Quora.  Quora is the social media site version of Yahoo answers.  They add functions and tracking to make it more personal, or rather to help people keep score for answering well (I guess, or at least for being popular).  Where Facebook has post and picture likes and a friends count Quora has answer upvotes, views and follower counts.  It's a little odd that knowledge sharing can be a form of entertaining interaction (like reading Wikipedia for fun), or that it would be possible to turn it into a popularity contest, but it all works together.

a recent school fun-day here; kind of a universal experience


About Quora and other forum participation


Initially I was just answering questions about tea, a continuation of this blog writing, and also forum and FB group discussion.  Then I answered a few questions about Thailand, travel, and Buddhism, even parenting.  More recently about Russia (where we vacationed), and even one about snowboarding, reaching back to expertise from a past life stage.

This does circle back to Thai culture, a central theme related to participating there.  I'll stick to meta-level discussion of Quora first, and say a bit about general format and discussion of those ideas, before getting back to that.  That won't include how Quora works, about using direct messages there, or how making comments, following, and giving "upvotes" seems to fold together with view stats.  There are already Quora answers and comments discussions there about all that, and I've not really got it all figured out.

I posted one link to Thai culture themed answer in an online expat group, to see how it would go over.  Expat groups--which are not really an example of native Thai culture at all, but still sort of a variation on that theme--cover a range of contexts.  Some forums are populated by bitter, older, barstool-crowd expats.  Many of those don't really care for Thai culture much, and spend hours a day complaining about local culture in discussion forums, some logging thousands of comments in doing so.  Somehow insulting other expats goes along with that, blaming people for assimilating with local culture, or just calling others names for no reason, trolling.  Good times.

I'll have to keep a description short but I think Jordan Peterson nailed the cause behind that in a Joe Rogan podcast interview.  His point:  you can't make it a practical goal to retire to drink margaritas on the beach, because even if successful after a few weeks of that you'd get bored, sunburned, and be in poor health from all the sugar and alcohol.  I suspect some expats set up low expense, comfortable lives out in the country and set to drinking beer for a pass-time.  Only later does it come up that maintaining limited ties to a local culture and lacking more to do is a real problem, along with the focus on alcohol consumption.  Of course there are well-integrated, personally balanced expats of different ages too, and different lifestyles can work out. 

Q & A or picture posting themes make up most of the rest of expat forum discussion scope, talking about travel or mundane subjects like where to get some type of Western food.  Introspective analysis of subtle culture variations isn't really well received where most of those other subjects are playing out.  Overthinking things goes over badly in general, which is one reason why Quora works:  no matter what obscure theme someone is on others are either right there with them or not seeing those posts.

One comment about that forum-posted answer about standard cultural differences was interesting, if a bit harshly framed.  The point was that it only repeated cliches, eg. Thais smile a lot, Americans are loud.  That was accurate, to an extent.  The funny thing about those cliches is that they're based on something; they're partly true.  It works to use those as a starting point, to describe in what senses they really are accurate, and the limitations of those generalities, or why a specific rough interpretation of them may be completely false. 

Most expats in Thailand aren't alcoholics, per my experience (which goes without saying, really, but it can't hurt to be clear).  About limitations of those two prior generalizations (about loudness and smiling), I'm American and I'm on the quiet and calm side, and there's no reason why any given Thai couldn't be quite somber. 

Let's examine another standard one:  Americans tend to be nationalistic, and to extend that to narrower group loyalties like following sports teams.  To some extent I've just described human nature, across lots of cultures.  It would be more rare for few citizens to associate with nationality, and hard to completely get away from sports enthusiasm, in most countries and cultures.  Not everyone in the US thinks America is number one (or that such a thing could really mean much), or is into sports, although on Superbowl Sunday it probably would seem that a majority are.

More on Quora and answer specifics


This might be a good place to swing back to more specifics, to dig a little deeper.  I'll see what I can turn up from a Quora question answer on something, but first a few of my Quora stats will serve as more background on what goes on there (from when I started this post draft, over a week ago now):


different ways to "keep score"

Answers338 / Questions0
Followers 56 / Following 19
Topics 28
241.7k answer views
29.7k this month

Pretty much what you'd expect, I guess.  It's hard to know what to make of those counts and easier to relate to how they seem to change.


I'll go further on that question about Thais smiling related to citing from an answer there, since it is a starting point on a main difference:


Why do people say that Thai people smile in different occasions than us Westerners?


...a smile can mean someone is happy, that they are trying to be polite when they actually feel neutral, or even to express disapproval or disagreement. That’s it; there are slightly different smiles that mean different things. Or maybe instead it’s that smiling comes across slightly differently when it’s supposed to be the same expression, that the expression seems more genuine when it reflects happiness...  I could swear that I can spot a distinct version of a smile that means “I disagree” though.

It just seems like part of the culture. It’s the same as some Americans being very open and genuine, and others more reserved, and in some other US sub-cultures in some regions a bit less genuine. To put locations to that I’m from PA, the mid-West side, and people are friendly and relatively on the surface, which switches to being more reserved on the East Coast (NYC and such). I visited LA quite a bit at one point and what is displayed on the surface there isn’t necessarily what someone is thinking or feeling. I was just in Russia and people there are more reserved and serious...


So that's it, self-expression norms vary by culture, the context for how open people should be, or how pleasant.  People in Japan are really reserved, to the extent that two people (Thai friends) who lived in Japan mentioned it taking a long time to break into as a social-group there, months just to talk to people normally.  I don't think Thais are actually any more open than Americans (or that much less), and maybe the form only changes related to the emphasis on public persona and appropriate reactions.  I covered more along that line in a post (answer) about Are Russians really as cold-hearted as they are portrayed in the west? 


The short version:  no.  Slightly longer:  again it's just a matter of public persona and how people present themselves in crowds or among people they don't know (per my limited exposure; we did only vacation there, which only goes so far).  Russians seemed to warm up quickly once you actually talk to them, and seemed the most somber when occupied by a commuting routine, which doesn't exactly bring out the best in everyone.  Thais looked like zombies while commuting when I started that here ten years ago, seemingly barely awake for the task, or even nodding off, and now they're all just staring at phones instead.  I could swear I noticed some of those same superficial patterns that one might pick up in comparing NYC and LA when we visited Sydney and Melbourne too.


a friendly Russian woman who helped with instructions in the Moscow metro


It really takes years to feel comfortable with a local culture though, to be able to "get it."  After two or three it felt a lot more familiar here, and after five or six I seemed to turn another corner in regards to relating to it more.

Onto deeper subjects (maybe, sort of).


On Thai beauty ideals (not the deeper subject theme yet)


What are the differences between living in Thailand and the US?

This is the post that was criticized, although I think part of that related to citing a short partial version of it as an intro, which didn't capture much of the detail (as this second partial citation won't).


...there are people living out a broad range of lifestyles in Thailand, which changes an answer more to a range of answers. Even rural people, living on a much lower income, are living modern lives in a sense (eg. entertainment and electronics use is similar...

Culture is something else...  For one person an emphasis on arts or literature is at the core of culture, the higher forms, or for another differences in everyday perspective, eg. how open people tend to be, in general. I’ll speak more to the latter here, how people tend to come across, extending into minor differences in worldview and outlook that shape everyday experience... To me minor variations are usually not significant...

...people share more attributes in common than they don’t share that separates them, across different countries and cultures...  Social roles are quite similar, and shared stuff to own and communication forms bring people together more now...  All other things being equal—which is never how things work—I’d probably be more comfortable in my own country, back in the US. Language issues drop out there and there’s less to deal with related to differences, for example observing Loy Krathong versus Halloween (not held at the exact same time but not far off).


my kids, one a bit put off by something, the other "as pikachu"

...It would be nice to describe the difference in Thai everyday perspective versus in the US. Lots of little, subtle differences add up to a worldview that’s not identical, even among IT professionals, even if both share lots in terms of broad strokes...  Humor isn’t the same; there’s one. My son—who is bilingual—says that he can’t make jokes in English.  I think it’s more because Thai humor is slightly different instead of that he can’t shift the same patterns from one language he is fluent in to another he also is. 


The water cooler talk in my office, which looks exactly like an office back in the US, is slightly different, in ways that would be hard to pin down...  Here I would always be a foreigner, always a little off the norm, approaching “getting” their worldview but never completely there.


That's a bit over half the answer but it catches the broad strokes; I mention a few specifics but mainly talk around differences and a bit more there.  I think beyond not designing an active life for their retirement that issue of integration is the other problem some expats are having.  If a foreigner can become completely fluent in the local language, eat the foods, work with Thais, share hobbies, etc. then they can relatively completely integrate, and the more of those things that remain separate the harder it is.

I really do like Thailand, of course.  My two favorite people are Thai, and I think it makes it easier raising kids, since shared experiences of changing diapers transitioning to going to piano and swim lessons are similar in lots of places.

a better look at that pikachu look


That's probably almost enough rambling on about Thai and US culture, isn't it?  I'll let this diverge a bit more with one more answer anecdote, not as directly related to culture.


What is your “only in Thailand” moment?


...[while ordained as a Thai monk] I once went out with an older monk to visit his father in the hospital outside of Bangkok, in the country, and realized in the taxi that was my first time in Thailand not being around anyone who spoke any English. I felt a bit of panic, but there was nothing to do.


with our cat, who I met there, a kitten then and now a ten year old


We stopped somewhere and looked over fruit at a stand (monks don’t buy fruit, or anything, by the way; they live off alms-round offerings), so maybe the driver was interested. I knew very few words but I wanted to try to use a couple I did know, so I asked a young girl selling the fruit if it was sweet (wan, mai). She looked a little uncomfortable and simply walked away. 

I only later found out that “sweet” can also be used to describe a person, maybe in a similar way as in English to describe pleasant character, and she probably thought I was asking about her, or even hitting on her, even though I was a monk, standing there in orange robes. It loses a little because there was no “shock-value” moment of me understanding it, but that did sum up my experience in a different way; I just didn’t catch everything.


I guess that I still don't completely catch everything.  My own kids can switch to Thai and know that I'll understand less than half of what they say, and they have to explain Thai culture to me.  At least the older one can; I'm at least even with a four year old's perspective on local culture, just not for long.

On that last trip to Russia (a subject I wrote about here in this blog, and in Quora answers) my son explained that in Thai culture if you lose something small it's a foreshadowing of losing something important, which drove my wife to great extremes to find a missing mitten.  That mitten was stuck between the seats in a tour van, but we kept being picked up for outings in other vehicles by the same guides after, and their staff weren't turning it up.  No one was ever going to explain that losing-things generality to me (superstition?), except for some reason he decided to, even though just answering direct questions is usually outside the scope of his interests.


somehow that image does describe him


Family relationships are seen differently here, emphasized more.  Public image is more important.  Formal speech plays a larger role, or rather changing communication form according to social level, and to some extent adjusting content too.  Small-scale prohibitions like not touching someone's head stick around, but that sort of thing and the superstitions they still adhere to don't amount to all that much (like you can't point at a rainbow, or my family members can't sleep in a room without either a window open or an air conditioner or heater moving the air around).

Loy Krathong; meant here to represent Thai culture

Meanwhile on the larger scale ethics are similar enough.  Marital infidelity is just as common, if not more so (although it's not my thing, obviously).  There is a word for "someone you only sleep with," gik, while in the American expression you have to spell that out as a string of concepts: "friends with benefits."  People really are more the same than different though, there are just lots of small differences that make "culture" a real thing, and foreign cultures something interesting to experience.


I should add that Thais are nice, and to some extent that pleasantness isn't just form.  But then I've liked the people in pretty much all the countries we've visited, a count that's starting to add up.  Either I'm just not choosy or maybe there are positive aspects in different cultures, or people in general are just ok in some sense.



Race and culture issues here and in the US


I just had lunch with friends visiting from the US, initially online contacts, now two meetings in friends "IRL," and a lot of these themes came up.  They have visited a number of times before, and were just here for something like six weeks, so they sort of have one foot in each culture, or at the least are familiar with here.  It's always interesting considering culture shifts back in the US, but that's something we'd talked through a lot more before online.

We talked about problems my son faces being bi-racial and multi-national, and compared those to theirs (they're not white, but that are completely American).  My son's mixed race / culture status is nothing overwhelming but it's not positive for him, not even neutral; he has problems to deal with.  He's moving into figuring out who he'll become, which I already covered in a few rounds of life-crises. 


my wife in an older form of transportation we took there

It's funny how for me beyond those kinds of broad strokes, making peace with specific Thai culture issues, a different level of comfort with experiencing things here emerges.  My wife and I just went on a short outing to Buriram, Isaan, to the Northeast of Thailand, and it felt oddly familiar to be in a small town again there.  I wrote more on that trip in this relatively neutral expat discussion forum post).


It's not familiar to me there in Buriram, at least not in the sense that it ties back to anything in my background from prior to a decade ago.  I'm originally from a rural area but it's much different, and I'm definitely still a foreigner.  At least in Russia I could pass for a Russian, at a glance, but not so much in Isaan.  It was an odd feeling, for once trying to pin down why I felt in-place versus out of place.


About that picture of the rickshaw / samloh, two funny things came up related to using that transportation.  That guy was a bit drunk, and it seemed like he didn't catch that we were asking about going several kilometers away, which really took it out of him.  Two street dogs went with us--his friends, it seemed--who he kept yelling instructions at to help them not screw up running along in traffic (very light traffic, by Bangkok standards).  It almost seemed like they went along to keep an eye on him instead, to help with things if something went wrong.


slightly more standard transport, a pick-up truck version of a local bus



So much for funneling to a central theme conclusion.  I'm not sure which parts of Thai culture became more familiar, or if it's just that spending a few days alone with my wife reminded me of that earlier time in our lives when we had the freedom to investigate Oahu together once in awhile.  I also think the small town vibe worked for me.

When we were in that pick-up truck shuttle (in the picture above) one part of it occurred to me:  I really didn't care how those people in the truck with us felt about me being a foreigner.  It probably helped that they didn't seem to care, although looking at that picture one woman might not have been keen on having her picture taken.

For a long time that had given me pause, how I might come across, and what I should do as an input to that.  It seems like letting it completely drop might be one key to other people also not really being concerned about it.  I've always thought there was a built-in flaw in the idea "it's not my business what other people think of me."  One part of that is about dropping obligations to appear a certain way, or even to fulfill a standard role, possibly ignoring societal norms, and another is about letting the internal friction go instead.  Taken in that second sense it completely works, and in the first it's more about bowing out of shared social obligations, and then maybe it doesn't.

It's been interesting offering perspectives on making those types of adjustments here in Quora, and also answering trivial questions, like Why does Bangkok smell?


monthly stats at time of posting; my score is improving