Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Thai Moonlight White from Lampang Tea




A chance contact from Lampang Tea shared two unique versions of Thai tea with me, this one a Moolight White from Pamiang Village in Lampang.   The other is an Assamica based maocha, a version of loose sheng pu'er, from the same location.  Of course these are based on traditional teas in Yunnan, China, with "pu'er" registered as only officially describing teas from there.

As far as I know "Moonlight White" isn't a protected name convention, but limiting use of style labeling sort of just forces adding "-like" to remain a politically correct definition.  A description like "Darjeeling" is something else; that's an area.  I guess Nepalese producers could brand their teas as a "second-flush-Darjeeling-like" tea but it's as well for them to just make a version that's similar and let naming reference drop.

Moonlight white is one of my favorite styles of white tea.  A good version would be my favorite.  They can express lots of complexity, including fruity sweetness, or even trail into interesting savory aspect range.  I like them for not being so subtle; the quest for a good "Silver Needle" style tea is about finding one that tastes like something without resorting to long steeps.  Some are flavorful, of course, and personal preference can allow someone to like a tea with very limited flavor that expresses other aspects, like a thickness in feel or subtle depth. 

From the scent this tea is not lacking in flavor, even a bit complex towards that savory, sun-dried tomato range.


a close-up showing the colors and texture


Tangent about local teas in neighboring countries


It's been a running theme in this blog covering Northern Thai, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnamese teas, many of which are based on related traditions and similar styles as Yunnan teas.  In some cases the current borders wouldn't have reflected the way those groups of people local defined themselves in the past, or as earlier country borders did. 

I won't get into all that here but I will mention some tea post examples of related versions:


-about sheng pu'er-style tea from Myanmar from the Tea Side vendor, and a Myanmar shou version from Olivier Schneider

-reviewing a sheng variation and white tea from Northern Vietnam from my friend Huyen, and a local sheng version more similar to Yunnan styles from Hatvala

-reviewing a Laos Tea shou from Northern Laos (from a producer based out of Russia), and a Moonlight White style version from Kinari Tea (from a local producer, or really a consultant who helps local producers improve processing styles)

-comparison reviewing two versions of aged sheng from Thailand, one from Tea Side and the other a sample from Olivier Schneider


This isn't the same thing (similar teas from outside Yunnan) but review of a Yunnan Moonlight White version from Farmerleaf works for comparison.  That particular version was a bit floral, fruity, and slightly savory, with a few other minor dimensions to give it more complexity; a nice, interesting tea.

That was already a bit much to cover as background but it does remind me of trying an interesting white tea from Indonesia, a Toba Wangi White Beauty, which wasn't so far off the Moonlight White style.  And the style and overall effect is different but Monsoon produced a Northern Thailand wild tree white I tried a year ago that shared some commonality. 

There are some interesting teas out there, so many that I'm sure I'll never try the last of them.

Review


As for brewing approach for this type of tea you have options; it would brew ok Western style, but I'll use Gongfu brewing anyway since that'll convey transitions better, and just because I'm used to it.  It's typical to back off brewing temperature a little, to use 90 C instead of full boiling for white teas like this one.

Then again I just checked the Kinnari recommendation, since I was going to look up the link anyway, and they recommended 95 C.  It's always something.  Experimenting wouldn't hurt, checking different results using different parameters.  As a rule using hotter water will extract stronger flavors, giving a tea more astringency or emphasizing richer, earthier flavors and feel / structure, and brewing using even slightly cooler water will keep it more subtle and sweeter, shifting the balance to milder flavors.

It kind of depends on the specific tea version characteristics more than the general type which is optimum, and on personal preference along with that.  Different people would prefer different versions, a different aspect balance, so there wouldn't be one optimum. 

A pattern seems to emerge for people to prefer a less mild and sweet version (or more structured, complex, mineral-intensive, and astringent) as their taste evolves, so in general it might be normal to prefer using cooler water for brewing earlier in their exploration of different teas, and later move to hotter water once that transition occurred.  I think of it as the pattern of new wine drinkers liking Merlot, and there being a natural shift to go to Red Zinfandels and Syrah next, then onto complex blends and finally edgier structured Cabernet later.  The main thing:  you do you, go with what works.


Kinnari Tea's Moonlight version and recommendations (a Laos version)



After an initial rinse I elected to go with a really light infusion, under a ten second steep, even though it seemed as if this tea would hardly be brewing yet.  Somehow I wanted to check out the whole infusion process, to see where it started early on.  Part of the reason I skipped an initial fast infusion on the last Thai black tea comparison review was because I tasted this the day before (and posted out of order), so just to change to the opposite of that.

An online tea friend I respect and have learned from mentioned that blog reviewers should try to keep things more standard, and describe exactly what parameters they used, so that others could know exactly what caused those particular results.  There's something to that.  If I'm using 85 C water and you brew with 95 the tea will be quite different, and the same goes for tea to water proportion, infusion times, down to the characteristics of the device used and the mineral content in the water.  I've always wondered how much relative humidity and barometric air pressure might even be factors, but one could safely not even consider that.  But a reader would notice that I do the opposite; I don't typically mention specific water temperature, never include weighed tea amounts versus brewed liquid ratio, and I'm loose about mentioning infusion times, which vary round to round anyway.  It's just how I make tea.

I don't cook with a recipe either, ever (maybe for chocolate chip cookies; I'm not crazy).  I don't wear a watch, and when I present in public speaking or for meetings I never use a set script.  That might relate to a lack of orderliness (conscientiousness, as a "big 5" personality aspect, which I think corresponds in general with being more liberal, ideologically).  At any rate it's just not me.  I am an engineer, so you might think I'd value experimentation and repeatable results, but the kind of engineer I am relates to winging it more (industrial; we just get things to work).  I love the idea of using statistics and modeling for abstract simulation but even that's about replicating relatively chaotic and random inputs to create order more than building up a structured model to impose it.  The model is usually carefully controlled but even then the inputs can be intuitively assigned then adjusted through iterations.  Back to the tea.


It's light and sweet, partly due to this being such a light infusion.  There is a hint of savoriness that should develop in an interesting way along with the fruit-range aspects, which I'll describe more in the next round.  The overall effect is clean, bright, and intense, with an interesting juicy feel and complexity.

just starting to brew


The second infusion:  wow!  That savory effect came on fast, based on giving this a 20 second steep time this round.  The balance is still great, with plenty of sweet fruit, but this mix is unique.  That one aspect is closest to sun-dried tomato but that's not really it.  Sun-dried cherry tomato is closer.  The fruit will be hard to pin down; it's complex, and could be interpreted in lots of different ways.  Some would go straight to some kind of citrus comparison since that's always easy to consider.  Within that range it's closest to mandarin orange, but that's not a perfect fit.  Still, sun-dried cherry tomato along with mandarin orange gets you about as close to an understanding as splitting all that out to 3 or 4 different aspects that actually would correspond better.


The mild earthiness underlying those is really interesting.  I'll guess at that more the next round.  I'll go a little hotter too, moving from the 90 C starting point up to the 95 Kinnari recommended for their version.  That should shift the balance a little, not dropping out much fruit but drawing out more of that earthy range.


And it did.  The savory aspect shifted from sun-dried cherry tomato range towards a more standard sun-dried tomato range.  There is still fruit along the line of mandarin orange there, but it's deepened, and has been joined by a whole new layer.  That part moves towards plum.  It's been ages since I've tried a ripe, sweet, complex flavored plum and this is as close as teas tend to get to that.  The way this coats your mouth and remains as a flavor along the middle of your tongue after you swallow is interesting.  To me it just makes the experience seems fuller and more complete, although maybe someone else would either like that a lot or dislike it, hoping for something else.


There is more depth to this that might be described in all sorts of different ways.  A light but complex earthiness could come across as cocoa, but it's tied to a sweetness and spice-like range that pushes towards clove a little.  I'm not really noticing a match with standard earthy aspects (rock mineral, wood, leather, mushroom) but the depth, something underlying tying the fruit and savory range together, does sort of move towards that type of aspect, it's just very subtle.  I wouldn't be surprised if a Western brewing approach compressed this other range together more and let that show through more in a longer steep.

It transitions on the next infusion, just a bit different.  The sweet-savory range is dissipating a lot, with the rest moving towards a teaberry range, a fruity and earthy form of mint.  This tea is great; what tea version goes through that interesting a transition over four light infusions?  If it wasn't as clean and sweet as it is all that wouldn't work nearly as well, but it's not muddled or unclear in the least.  There's still lots of complexity, that plum range and the rest still there.  It doesn't seem like it's going to settle into one set of flavors it sticks with, as if it will just keep transitioning.  I'll try a longer steep, the first over 30 seconds, to see how that changes results.




On this next round the intensity is up just a little but the tea strength itself is probably leveling off.  With this being as subtle as it is it would still work well brewed twice as strong, infused for a minute or over using these parameters.  There was a time when I probably wouldn't have appreciated the infusions prepared this way nearly as much as I do now, but I'm accustomed to lighter versions now.  I just drink whatever level matches the tea.

All those earlier aspects are still there but the tea flavor range seems to unify, to one complex flavor set that would be hard to unpack if it hadn't built to this range in steps as other flavors kept joining in.  It's not clearly minty, savory, fruity, or spice-like but lots of different range contributes in a way that comes across more as just one flavor.  It's catchy.  That fruit comes across a little more like juicy-fruit gum now than the earlier mandarin orange and plum, nice but more nondescript.  I'll keep on with hot water and give it even a little longer, but I don't expect much transition round to round at this stage.

The tea is leveling off in the next infusion; it will still provide a few more nice rounds but the aspect range is narrowing, requiring longer times to get that intensity.  It's still really good, just thinned in terms of intensity and flavor range.  I'll stop with the notes here.  I did brew another five infusions or so and the range kept thinning but the tea was still nice.



Conclusion


Really nice tea.  As with other Moonlight White versions the tea is complex, with an interesting mix of sweet fruit flavors and other savory range.  This stands up well in character and quality level to any of those I mentioned on that list of other regional whites I tried (with many on that list pu'er-like variations instead, related to the other sample I'll try later).

It would work well brewed Western style too, and might work even better than that brewed grandpa-style, just mixed in a tea bottle and drank without removing the leaves, "brewing out" over as long as it took to drink it.  Any tea low in astringency would work that way but this version would change some across the time you drink it, and as you subsequently refill the water for additional rounds.

It's what I would have expected but better.  More "local" teas can express less complexity or be off in some ways, just a little less clean for processing not being ideal.  This tea is cleaner, sweeter, and more complex than I expected.  It doesn't seem like this represents rounds of someone experimenting with production styles, or if it does they've already been through a lot of rounds.  It's odd that it would be a local style, though, since I've never heard of versions of Moonlight White coming out of Northern Thailand.  They did good.


Source and cost


I asked about cost, which is listed on the Facebook page, but it's harder to read for being in Thai.  Noppadol Ariyakrua, the business owner--who is a mechanical engineer and manager now, which seems cool to me--cited pricing as follows:




Moon light white Spring 2018 
Bht 250/70 grams.
(this works out to around $5.50 per 50 grams; pretty fair)


Tuo Cha Spring 2018
(sheng pu'er-like tea, the other kind I didn't review yet)
Bht 330/100 grams
(more like $5 / 50 grams, about the same)



That's the second tea version in that photo; they've pressed the loose sheng version I have yet to try into tuochas.  There's just something cool about compressed tea versions, isn't there, beyond them being much more practical to store.

Per most accounts white teas also improve with age, although not everyone agrees with that, or prefers them as aged teas.  Given how good this tea is now it would seem really strange to tuck away an extra hundred grams for a few years to see how that worked out, but you might be the only one who owned a version of it then, good for novelty at least.

Once demand ramps up and they can get production increased too they should press this white tea into a tuocha as well, since they're already on that page, doing that with the sheng version.  Who in the tea world wouldn't want to get a tuocha of Northern Thailand white tea as a gift?  You just don't see that kind of thing.  You'd kind of want two instead, one to drink and one to set aside, and then if it aged well you'd wish you had more.

I really do tend to like fresh white teas better though, even though I did go on an aged compressed white tea tangent last year (best summed up here).   That fresh, sweet, bright fruit nature would transition to richer, deeper flavors, which may work well, maybe headed towards flavor along the lines of dried pear, but it works just fine as it is now.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Thai Ancient Tree and Ruan Zhi black teas


I'm comparing three samples of black teas I've just purchased from Tea Side.  Last year I bought a few Dian Hong from Farmerleaf so in a sense this works as a follow-up, tasting comparable Thai versions.  Only two of the three are made from Assamica plant types, and not exactly in the Yunnan style similar to Dian Hong (more on that after the review section), and the third is a Ruan Zhi based black tea instead.  That's a cultivar similar to Jin Xuan, just different in nature, the #17 instead of #12 in that Taiwanese developed and cataloged cultivar series.


Per some reliable input the name for that plant type probably should be Bai Lu, and the more conventional designation in Thailand as Ruan Zhi isn't actually right.  Or really that was confusing, since vendors often mixing a number designation and a name that didn't match always made it impossible to know which one it was, which label is right, and Tea Side (the vendor) hasn't actually called this #17. I'm making that connection because those are the two main oolong plant types grown in Thailand, which also get used for making black tea, but it's much less common seeing Ruan Zhi (or Bai Lu / #17) based black teas than Jin Xuan.  Per that prior research Ruan Zhi was more of a category name, a more general designation that was either tied to an original plant or to a grouping of plants instead.  Here's the post that goes through that, and that related idea:


Ruǎn Zhī is the predecessor group of tea plants that Qīng Xīn Wūlóng came from. It is a bit problematic referring to it (or Qīng Xīn in some cases) as a cultivar, as that word should be exclusively applied to clonal plants while Ruǎn Zhī has been established and spread through seed, with  the derived Qīng Xīn also sometimes being spread by seed. Neither have an assigned Táichá number, because even if Qīng Xīn essentially was borne out of the Fujian Ruǎn Zhī seed stock in Taiwan it is not a registered clone.

TTES No. 17 'Báilù' ('Egret') is a true registered cultivar - note the use of single quotes - established in 1983...




a lot to take in, with more to read up on in the original source


Qing Xin is the main original plant type used in Taiwan for oolongs (or Chin Shin, as transliterated in that table), at least per my understanding.  At any rate I'd expect this tea to be made in a Taiwanese style instead of as a Yunnan tea, and since it is Camellia Sinensis variety Sinensis instead of an Assamica plant that will also change things.  It's the only tea of the three I've already been drinking, so I already know how it is.  It is like Taiwanese black tea, similar to what gets sold as honey black (typically produced from Jin Xuan, unless I've got that wrong), but it's different.  The review will cover all that, so onto it.


from left, 2018 Ruan Zhi, the 2017 and 2016 ancient tree versions


2018 Ruan Zhi black


2017 ancient tree black


2016 ancient tree black tea, less oxidized (and lighter in color)


Review


The three teas look quite different and brew to much different colors.  I won't say much about that--the pictures describe it--and just move onto tasting.  I could pick up variations in dry leaf scent too but since brewed tea flavors can vary a good bit from that for comparison reviews that are going to run long I skip making notes on that part too.  As for methodology I'm using water just a bit below boiling point, roughly 95 C / a bit over 200 F, and a probably a bit more than optimum for the gaiwans, typical for proportioning for different tea types.


Ruan Zhi:  the tea is nice; rich, sweet, and complex.  It's generally fruity with a dark earth range of flavors mixed in, along the lines of sweet dark cherry with leather.  I suppose some of that fruit one might describe as another dried fruit, mandarin orange peel, or a bit towards tamarind.  The earthiness could be described in different ways too, or as trailing into cinnamon spice, with cocoa also standing out.  It all works.  The feel might be just a little thin, but then that's how similar Taiwanese style blacks tend to come across too, as very positive in flavor and thin in texture and finish.  They don't tend to last long either, producing a few infusions (or a couple, made in a truer Western style), then fading out.


2017 Black tea from ancient trees number 6 (maybe as well to just use that year or number):  this tea is intense, brewed a little strong using the same parameters.  I often go with a short infusion when brewing black teas or other types Gongfu style but went the other way with that this time, letting it brew for well over 30 seconds to get a full strength infusion, and for this tea at that proportion that was too long.  It not only got wet to start infusing it also overbrewed a little.  It probably does make sense to use a rinse for these teas instead of a long first infusion anyway, I just tend to mix up the approach.  It's always opposites day in this blog, versus shooting for optimization.

It has a somewhat similar dark cherry aspect that stands out in it; interesting it worked out that way, that a main flavor aspect matched.  And someone might describe this earthiness as leather, but it's relatively different.  The first would resemble a clean, bright, sweet scent of a hand-bag or expensive jacket, and this is closer to a bomber jacket or baseball glove.  It has an unusual dryness to it, which does work.  One layer of aspects is not far off coffee; that's different.  In this case I mean a very light roast, that cocoa-range coffees can express, not French roast char, which is a lot more common in roasted teas.  Or that could just be interpreted as cocoa.  Brewed just a little lighter this balance is going to work better; the intensity is a bit much with the way the feel works, and the flavors are dialed up too much.  It's just a little sour; that might throw off a positive impression a little.  It's good tea too though; no doubt about that.


2016 ancient tree medium oxidized number 1:  very different than the other two, but with some overlap.  Fruit is a common ground for all three, which works really well for me since I love different forms of fruit in teas.  For someone else they might hate these teas for that; funny how preference really could vary.  This infusion strength is pretty good; it works.  It has a touch of dryness too, and a similar pairing of fruit towards dried cherry / tamarind with underlying cocoa / leather / aged hardwood, but comes across quite differently related to balance of aspects and different feel.  It feels smooth and a bit juicy compared the previous one being full and a bit dry.  That fruit is quite different, even though it does overlap; I'll have another go at describing it next round.

That "medium oxidized" part in the vendor description probably did play a role in how this tea came across, but throughout these notes the importance of that doesn't stand out, and I don't get around to saying anything about it.  The earlier 2017 version brewed leaf looks lighter, but the brewed tea liquid is a lot darker, and again I'll not try to make too much of those differences.  The first and third teas in this round didn't come across as overbrewed, just prepared slightly strong, but the second did.


that first round; brewed a bit long, especially for the 2017 version (middle)


Second infusion


Ruan Zhi:  not a lot of development or transition, but it does brew another positive infusion using a very short brew time, around 15 seconds.  It's fruity, but really that cocoa / cinnamon aspect stands out most, and then a fruit (dark cherry, mostly, which could be interpreted differently), then the earthier layers supporting that.  The feel is still a little thin but the aftertaste picks up a little, giving an impression of more depth.  I do like the way that flavor set works.  It's not far off how Jin Xuan blacks come across but maybe a little more complex for flavor range, but then those can vary.  I suppose it's heavier on cocoa and spice than most of what I've tried for Thai Jin Xuan black tea versions, which are more fruity, but Taiwanese versions can be like this.  There's just a touch of balsa wood type mustiness, which can be a negative factor in some Taiwanese black teas (unless that unusual range seems positive to someone, then it's a positive one).  It doesn't stand out though, and for me it works in combination with the rest, more giving it complexity than throwing it off.


2017 ancient tree:  it's much nicer just a little lighter, and the flavor / effect is "cleaning up" some.  The sourness drops off and the feel gains some juiciness, not quite as full in a way that contributes a bit of dry feel.  A flavors list won't do this tea justice for catching the overall complexity and intensity.  Another tea could be almost exactly the same in what it expresses but lack this level of intensity, and not have the same effect.  That list:  sweetness, fruit (dark cherry, to me), cocoa, leather, a touch of coffee.  In talking about that dry feel what I mean is the way a lightly brewed, lightly roasted, good version of coffee comes across.

The structure (in the sense of feel) is different in coffee than for tea, and this leans towards that.  But the feel is full, the aftertaste experience is fine, and the flavor intensity and range is good, so the overall effect if very nice.  That last part, the flavor range, is interesting.  That sweet dried fruit gives it an interesting higher note and a clean version of earthiness a good base, with some cocoa in between, so it covers a lot of ground.  There's even a trace of what someone might see as mild mint developing.  That bit of sourness faded quite a bit, and I'd expect given that transition difference it won't be noticeable in the next round at all.


2016 ancient tree:  this is transitioning, the most of the three, beyond that dry texture and touch of sourness dropping out of the 2017 version.  The fruit has diminished and it's picking up a woody aspect, swapping out some range closer to cocoa and leather for that.  The tea can't be finishing up yet; it's hardly getting started.  It will be interesting to see where that leads though.  It lends it an interesting character since it starts to resemble malt more too, but it's lighter and less intense than the other two now.  I'd expect it to last a lot longer related to overall intensity than the first but not the second.  We'll see.  In going back and trying the three again, the last of the cups, I think this tea might've seemed less intense for trying it just after the 2017 version.  It's normal in flavor intensity, but that 2017 one before it was unusual for the high level of intensity.


Ruan Zhi left, 2017 top, 2016 lower right


same order.  the color difference is interesting.


Third infusion


Ruan Zhi:  more of the same from the last infusion, based on using relatively short infusion times, not quite 15 seconds.  If anything that same balance of flavors is working even better now, adjusting to an evenness that really works.  Fruit balances spice and clean earthiness, the same aspects I won't run through describing again.  Again the texture is a little thin but the aftertaste compensates for that.  I don't mean it has significant aftertaste in comparison with good young sheng or high mountain Taiwanese oolong, of course.  A few seconds after drinking the tea the flavor is still there, and thirty seconds later it's still tapering off.  With intense young sheng just after drinking it the flavor can seem to strengthen, stronger than when it was actually in your mouth, and minutes later it might not diminish all that much.  It still gives an impression of a more complex experience as it is.


2017:  this tea's balance really fell together; that intense, structured feel softened and isn't dry, and the sourness is gone.  It has lots more flavor (in terms of both intensity and range), more thickness of feel, and more aftertaste effect than the Ruan Zhi.  That Ruan Zhi is a nice black tea but this is on a different level.  These teas weren't presented as being close to Dian Hong in style (typical Yunnan black tea) but since they are from Assamica plants from a nearby region I'll mention some comparison.  It's not as if a Dian Hong style black couldn't be more complex and intense, beyond just being different in lots of ways, but this character works well for me.  The flavor range varies a good bit in those so to me saying it's typical or not typical of a Dian Hong is problematic.  Some really are like this.  Or it seems possible there are conventions about what should or shouldn't be called "Dian Hong" from Yunnan that aren't clearly identified or adhered to by a lot of producers and vendors.

That reminds me; what I've been describing as dark cherry really could be interpreted as roasted sweet potato instead, just a sweet, clean version of one.  It probably is closer to that, at least in this round for this tea.  It's not like roasted yam, it doesn't seem to me, not that rich, softer, "deeper" flavor complexity towards pumpkin range, more the light, sweeter part.  I think the cherry might have worked better as a description in the earlier rounds, and it's moving towards this now, with the whole cocoa / leather layer thinning a bit.


2016:  this transitions too.  Roasted sweet potato works as a description for this too, just not as well.  The cocoa and cinnamon effect is picking up relative strength instead of dropping back.  In part due to going with lighter infusions the leather and earthiness is more subdued in all of these; simply brewing the teas stronger would make that stand out more.  The lighter, sweeter, more subtle fruit, spice, and roasted root vegetable range would increase in strength more but the proportion would shift how that's perceived, with a different feel mixing with and varying taste experience.  All that makes you wonder if I'm just making all this up, to some extent, doesn't it?  That last part did start in on some guessing.

This third tea could be brewed a little stronger to be ideal.  It works well as I'm making it but it's less intense than the other two.  Did two years of aging give it more depth and a cleaner effect at the cost of dropping intensity a little, shifting some fruit to spice?  Who knows.  I think personal preference would dictate which of these three is better.  The last two are a lot more interesting to me, and seem more complex.  I suppose I like the second the best, but some aspect range others wouldn't necessarily like, especially that bit of dryness and sourness in the first two infusions, which this 2016 version didn't express.  It would be possible to get this third tea to draw more even with the second in terms of intensity just by brewing it slightly longer, not doubling time to compensate for it being a weaker tea, just adding some seconds to adjust that.  I think the overall range of the second would still be broader though; it has a lot going on.  Judging by the first two infusions it probably wasn't as good as the other two but judging by this last one I see it as the best of the three.


this was around a 15 second infusion, on the moderate side but still dark


Fourth infusion:


Ruan Zhi:  this tea might well be thinning a bit now.  I gave those around a 25 to 30 second infusion, so not really lengthened a lot yet to account for losing intensity but some.  I am using a high proportion of tea and all those other infusion times were limited, after going a bit long on the first one.  The same aspects are there, nice sweetness, cocoa and cinnamon spice standing out, but it's diminishing.


2017:  the flavor is shifting a little, some of that sweet potato transitioning to catchy flavor that's hard to isolate.  It's more towards a dark toffee, but the flavor includes different version of dried fruit, a little like a dried mango or dried papaya, but "darker."  I bet there is some dried fruit out there this closely resembles but I'll probably not get to making that connection.  Dried papaya is as close as I'll get, or to connect that with something a Western audience was more likely to try towards date, but not quite that earthy.


2016:  the balance seems similar to the last round in the this third tea.  The balanced complexity works; it covers plenty of range.  One part reminds me a little of the mild mint in teaberry, which was part of what was going on in the 2017 version earlier, I think.  You can eat those "berries," from teaberries, but I don't think they're actually really berries.  And I've read you can dry and brew the leaves, and that they'll even oxidize, if you could manage to bruise them.  If any readers have experience with this I'd like to hear of it.


All of these teas would probably benefit from increasing the infusion time to 40 seconds or so.  It would've worked better to split that first infusion into two, so I'd be on the fifth round now.  The teas aren't fading yet (or maybe just the first one is), but they need longer times to keep up intensity.  Assamica based black teas generally seem to last longer, and they tend to produce positive infusions even when you need to run out steep times to longer to get more out of them.  In a Western style brewing cycle that might relate to getting a third infusion instead, depending on proportion used, and letting them soak awhile.  Experimenting with transitioning from slightly cooler water to hotter water later on is interesting too, but to me just using water a bit off boiling point (95 C / 200 F range) works just as well, and keeps things simpler.  Of course if messing around and noticing variation is the idea simpler isn't necessarily better.

Fifth infusion:


I went over 30 seconds for this infusion but elected to check what they have left for intensity and drink a slightly weaker round instead of running it out to closer to a minute to get a stronger version.  I'm just going to add some thoughts instead of detailed review, and these will brew a couple more infusions at longer times.

The Ruan Zhi is still nice, just thinning.  Again longer times would compensate for that.  The flavor profile is still nice, that cocoa / cinnamon range, it's just narrowing slightly.  It is interesting the way a touch of balsa wood base more or less dropped back; those longer times might bring that out more again.

The other two are pretty much where they were in the last round.  Using longer times in late cycles shifts aspects in different ways, in lots of cases drawing out more of a wood tone, and changing feel, but I don't necessarily see that as part of the main experience of a tea.  It's nice when the last two or three longer infusions stay really positive, versus not so nice, and these will be fine.  The overall intensity of the 2016 version is now even with the 2017; funny how that one tea seemed to brew faster through a lot of that cycle, how it was more intense at the same brewing time, beyond covering a slightly broader range.

Conclusions



not even the whole Tea Side selection; there are six more black teas, and lots of oolong and pu'er-like versions



So I was trying a 2016 Old Trees Black Tea Medium Oxidized, the first tea on the top left, and the second from the left on the bottom.  Why didn't I order Dian Hong style black teas instead?  The Tea Side owner included some tea samples; maybe I will get back with a review of one or more versions of those.


Dian Hong vary a lot in character, and assessing quality level and trueness to type are two different things.  It would be difficult to summarize if these teas were as good as better than most Yunnan blacks, or if it matched that broad range of style and aspect sets as well.  Related to aspects, Dian Hong often go further with including a roasted yam aspect instead, and one I've tried not too long ago expressed a lot more cocoa than these, and general intensity (one of the best Dian Hong versions I've tried, just not one that's commercially available, as far as I know).  At a guess if you'd buy a similar Yunnan black tea from a US based reseller for the same price you wouldn't get tea this good. 


I can't place them related to those Farmerleaf versions I reviewed last year from memory; it's too much to reach back to that.  They could be roughly on the same level but it doesn't work to guess out if they're slightly better or slightly worse.  As I recall I might've liked the black that wasn't sun-dried from them a little better initially, but not their sun-dried tea, and then when I tried it a year later, after it had aged a year and transitioned, I liked that tea more than I did initially.  Given my limited memory take that for what it's worth.


I noticed the Tea DB bloggers reviewed one of the 2016 Dian Hong versions recently.  It would be interesting to critique their assessment but since I'm trying different tea versions--here, at least--I can't.  But the Tea Side owner mentioned something about general character in a comment to that video:


This black tea is made of material from trees 300-500 year old. Such material has a rather pu-erh character. Most of the Yunnan Dianhongs are sweeter, vanilla-floral, because they are made from bushes. Tea from ancient trees has a more modest organoleptic, but deep taste, a long aftertaste (as you noted) and powerful energy (Cha Qi). That is, it is such a "red pu-erh", if I may say so.


Interesting; that could work for description for these, but I'm guessing the character should be different.  Only some of the teas listed specified being sun-dried, and it didn't say for these, but that is a main distinction that changes character in Yunnan black teas.  Sun-dried versions are said to age better, to actually improve, and the same claim isn't usually made of oven dried versions.

That quote kind of maps onto a lot of what I said about the Ruan Zhi version, about that having a pronounced, intense flavor but giving up a lot in terms of texture and complexity.  I'd been attributing that to the plant type difference but maybe it related to the growing condition and plant age differences too, with potential processing differences left a bit open ended.  In the end it's about the experienced tea anyway, not making a study of why it landed where it did.

In trying sheng versions--which I won't say too much about, since so many factors tend to mix--I've been noticing patterns of more wild-grown trees coming across quite differently, being more subtle in nature, and just different in aspect range, earthier, more complex, but not as intense related to astringency, sometimes towards mild spice instead of or along with floral aspects.  Plant age seems to tie to a different sort of intensity difference; sheng from truly old tree sources has a completely different feel, and more aftertaste.  It's not an aspect I value or tend to notice as much as others but the "qi" or physiological effect from older tree plants does seem greater too.  I didn't notice the same degree of effect as when comparing gushu sheng a week or so ago.  Since these are black teas instead comparing across types might be of limited value but some general trends do seem to match up.


For expressing very positive but limited range flavor intensity in one limited sense the Ruan Zhi stood out as best among the three, to me, but to be clear it was my least favorite.  For overall complexity and character the other two were better, and the 2017 matched my preference better, but then they were also just different.  For judging by the first two infusions the 2016 was much better, which would have mapped onto three light infusions instead.

These were interesting, good teas.  It will be nice drinking more of them to mess around with parameters and enjoy the experience without taking notes.  If there were other black tea samples sent with them (and I think there were) it will be interesting seeing how those vary too.


the Thai life section; an old barbershop, where I get my hair cut too


with short hair and a serious look





Thursday, June 21, 2018

Jing Mai, Nan Nuo, and Ban Pen gushu sheng tasting





Jing Mai left, Nan Nuo upper, Ban Pen right


I'm comparison tasting three versions of sheng from Moychay, more of teas they sent (there are more; I'll keep coming back to this).


Jing Mai 2017 gushu

Nan Nuo (check spelling) 2013 gushu

Ban Pen 2016 gushu


That's a bit of variation for direct comparison tasting, but as covered in past posts prior training/ practice in accounting for variation can help make sense of a limited degree of matching, and should allow for this to work.  In particular tasting teas of different ages will throw off comparison, more than by region.  Mixing those two factors is probably more of an issue than either taken alone.

As far as just tasting a tea to enjoy it one at a time is probably better.  For tasting for review there are pros and cons.  Comparison adds more complexity, more to notice and deal with, which is negative.  It also allows for comparison and contrast across a broad range of aspects, which can be helpful.  It could be difficult to duplicate isolation of finer points of feel, or evaluating length of finish, all of which become much more obvious in direct comparison (although practice would enable that judgment too).  Of course "qi" effect of any one tea as an input becomes indistinguishable in combined tasting; another negative.

No need to repeat it in too many reviews but to really fully experience a tea trying it several times over a longer period helps a lot.  These reviews are to pass on a limited impression, not to map out a complete objective final take.  Even with subjectivity as a factor someone could make some headway towards that kind of a goal, but it should be based on multiple tastings along with varying some inputs (parameters, water used, taste at different times, etc.).

A friend recently asked if a vendor sending so many samples of tea is a conflict, or if receiving more quantity is, a cake versus a sample, for example.  These were just samples, provided by the vendor, but enough to try a number of times.  The idea was that if a vendor sends a few small samples I'm doing the review out of interest for trying and communicating about a tea, but if I get more tea I might be inclined to be more positive; in effect, biased.  My impression about vendor intentions in this case was that the company owner, Sergey, is a tea enthusiast himself, and sharing tea with someone who appreciates it and can pass on feedback is of interest even beyond the marketing angle, which also works out. 

I get all that; I give people tea all the time myself, earlier today last.  It's really hard to pass on the last I have of favorites but I try to let people try teas I think they'd like, more than I keep track of what it's costing me.  I recently gave the work support staff good Longjing to serve at a meeting I wasn't involved with so they could try better tea; "tea people" can be like that.

People being people that kind of bias could come up, even if the reviewer intention is the opposite.  But in my own case I don't think I'm varying these review descriptions based on how much tea vendors send, or even related to when I buy the tea versus receiving free samples.  Really anyone else's impression about teas should be taken with a grain of salt anyway.  If a reader can compare a review opinion with a tea version they've tried the match or disparity in communicated impression should be clearer, and if not it would be hard to judge that.  The same would apply to potential bias across vendors.  Preference for a certain style, or against specific aspects, or lack of knowledge or exposure to varying quality levels of teas, or just bad judgement, could all be factors in a reviewer's take on a tea. 

Readers are encouraged to provide feedback about some of that; how am I doing?


Jing Mai 2017 gushu


Nan Nuo 2013 gushu


Ban Pen 2016 gushu


Review


I'll start with the initial infusion (after a rinse); it'll be a little early to judge the teas but this will point towards where tasting these will go.  I'm not going to get too far with mapping out my impression of these teas versus other supposed "gushu" versions, or get into what that means.  Some of the aspects tend to relate more to that difference, and I'll just comment a little as it comes up.

The Jing Mai version is sweet and floral, typical of other versions I've tried related to that range.  It is a bit astringent, on the strong side, with that characteristic edge older plant teas tend to have, the intensity.  In terms of flavor that's expressed as a mineral base, as much as anything, but really just that intensity more so.  It's definitely a young sheng; approachable as those can go, but still a little edgy.  At least it's not really bitter or astringent, or smoky, but then I'd not have expected any of that for a Jing Mai version, based on the limited number I've tried.  Yiwu would be just a hint mellower and more floral, with a slightly different flavor range, but not so far off, just different.

The Nan Nuo comes across much differently; no wonder comparing a 2013 tea to a 2017 version.  The warmth, softness, and depth of slightly aged tea is as expected, and giving up some brightness and "top end" intensity.  I like that flavor range.  It reminds me of the other Nan Nuo sheng version I bought from Moychay over New Years; there's a bit of white grape to it, with the plum in this version a bit more subdued, but also present.  It's a softer tea but it still has plenty of edge related to not seeming too subtle.  Of course it comes down to a matter of preference for character but many of those somewhat aged Yiwu versions I've been trying had softened up a lot after just a few years.  If drinking softer, approachable tea was desired those could've been better; if someone saw that balance of aspects including more structure as better then this tea might be (aside from it being way too early to call; this tea is still opening up).  The flavor range is different too, and comparing teas overall is something else.

The Ban Pen has an earthier flavor range that's familiar, still not necessarily easy to describe.  Mineral is part of it, and it traces over into mushroom range, and also a bit of white cardboard.  It is lower in intensity than the other two, but the flavor is just as pronounced; the range it gives up relates to feel, and that one characteristic mineral undertone and astringency edge.

I'm feeling this three-way sheng tasting after one round; that's going to be an issue.  I can make it through a number of rounds but it won't even be close to these teas "playing out."  I could discard the tea instead of drinking it but I'm not really into that.


Jing Mai left, Nan Nuo center, Ban Pen right (Nan Nuo was a touch darker, but similar)


Second round / infusion



The Jing Mai tea is nicer; it opened up more, with a slightly better balance and good intensity.  It seems like it will really only in the normal range next round but it's coming on well.  The sweetness is nice, and that flavor range, a distinctive floral flavor I'll not be able to narrow with flower names.  The brightness and cleanness is nice, and the way that intensity trails off to a nice long finish, a sweet flavor that remains in your mouth and coats your tongue and rear of the throat.  This tea definitely doesn't need age to make it drinkable; it's great as it is now.  It would just be a trade-off over the next couple of years to soften and deepen parts of that range but the overall effect and intensity are good as they are now.  The astringency trails into a bit of actual bitterness but it's moderate; it balances well.

That age difference stands out a lot with the next tea, the Nan Nuo; the effect is completely different.  It's interesting experiencing that; contrast instead of commonality.  It doesn't help to isolate minor aspects or clarify any through comparison but it is interesting encountering both experiences one after the other.  It would've made sense to taste these in age order; that sequencing is partly random and partly intuition.  The first two origins are familiar, and the third isn't, so the order related to best known to least.

Drinking a bit of water after these teas makes for an interesting experience, the way that sweetness really escalates while you do that.  Thaneadpol mentioned that in that Yiwu age sequence tasting last year, how it only works with certain teas, and how he interprets that as another way to experience hui gan.  I sometimes use water to clear my palate during tasting, but with these teas it takes a few sips to clear past that sweetness.  It's kind of a shame to rush tasting these, or to try to describe them during tasting; they deserve closer attention.  I'll try them again later without either distraction.

The sweetness, aftertaste, and hui gan might be even more pronounced in this Nan Nuo sheng.  It transitioned a lot related to that, as intense as I've ever experienced those aspects.  The other actual flavor isn't stronger than typical, and the astringency is quite moderate, with the tone of the flavors a bit dialed to warmer and more subtle by that age transition (5 years).  But the sweetness and aftertaste aspects are as intense as they could be; quite powerful related to the normal range of the others.  Going back and tasting the Jing Mai again just after it (with water in between to clear the aftertaste) that touch of bitterness almost comes across as sour, since the Nan Nuo is so far removed from that.

The Ban Pen flavor range transitioned, warming a little, moving towards earthier, into a bit of smoke.  It has sweetness that helps balance that but seems oddly earthy after drinking those other two teas.  The Nan Nuo has an earthiness to the character related to the flavor softening, to tasting the age, but the base range is more fruit (or so I interpret it), with the Jing Mai more floral.  I think all three will be closer to where they're going to go across the sequence in the next round though.

I can't pin down which of these teas has the strongest qi effect or how the three vary in that nature but at least one of these teas is on the powerful side related to that.  Maybe I'll think to check back later on thoughts on that based on individual tastings.


Jing Mai left, Nan Nuo center, Ban Pen right


same order


Third infusion


The Jing Mai version keeps getting better; the balance keeps improving, depth fills in, and intensity ramps up.  It was nice before, but at this rate it'll be fantastic in another couple of rounds (although I think it's in the range of where it's going to be now).  It's on the soft and approachable side for a newer sheng, but really intense in some aspect range, with some balanced astringency and bitterness.  Given how I relate to astringency in sheng and how some are not drinkable this young across the whole range I'd expect that's quite moderate in comparison to many.  The bright sweetness is nice, and that characteristic flavor range, but really how it all fits together is the best part, for this version.  Hui gan is pronounced but I think that really stands out more in the next one.

I've mentioned before how sometimes you just need to try a better version of a tea and an aspects set makes more sense, even for lower quality versions, even in retrospect, when they hadn't in the past.  This Nan Nuo version lets that earthiness in lots of other teas make more sense (as is present in the Ban Pen, but within a different aspect set).  Shift it a little and the warm earthiness could be murky, or mushroom-like, or could resemble cardboard, or a struck match, but as a related aspect range appears here it balances really well with deeper fruit tones, underlying warm mineral, and very pronounced sweetness and aftertaste.

It's funny how different this tea is from the first, a testament to how much range sheng covers in general.  Sweetness sort of overlaps, and some type of general intensity, but individually the aspects are different, and the set and overall effect vary a lot.  If someone just wanted to experience hui gan this tea would work for that.  It's not really bitter, so that part is odd, how normally a conventional bitterness has to pair with a remaining sweetness, but there is enough layered in with the other range that it then connects with a much stronger after-effect than is typical.  I wouldn't be surprised if this tea was the main one giving me a solid buzz right now (what people refer to as "qi" effect).  It's almost too much; I'll eat something after one more round to help counter that effect.

The Ban Pen is drifting more into warm spice; that's nice, an improvement.  It's quite soft and not notable for sweetness or overall intensity related to the other two but part of that relates to comparison.  That Jing Mai is quite intense related to a bright, sweet, powerful balance and the Nan Nuo has a depth of warmer, subtle flavors, sweetness, and aftertaste that's unusually pronounced.  The balance of this tea is fine, and probably will improve further if it keeps going in this direction.  The sweetness isn't bad, and it isn't thin, it just gives up a lot compared to the other two, perhaps related as much to my preference for an aspect set as this tea being not as good.




Fourth infusion


I need to go do something else, and this has been plenty of tea; this round will be it for these for now.  They're only halfway through their main cycle, before longer infusions will shift character for infusions out around 10 and on, but this will tell enough of the story, and I'll factor the impression from later rounds into the conclusion.

The Jing Mai is picking up some warm spice to go with the lighter floral; that's nice.  There's a balance to the feel and flavor I've not been able to communicate yet.  It's substantial, a bit thick, but in an unusual sense, almost a little syrupy.  Or maybe it's more like how brandy has that one deeper tone that fills in around the sweetness, whatever flavor it has, and the alcohol effect.  I'm not into brandy but that one part of feel overlapping with flavor works well in this; it's interesting.  Flavor is positive, and intense too, with good sweetness and bright intensity, but really the strength of this tea is how it balances.  Adding some bitterness would diminish the effect, per my preference, and taking the bit that there is away might also lessen the tea.

The Nan Nuo is completely different; a richer, deeper experience.  If that tea I bought a cake of in St. Petersburg is headed to this range I shouldn't be so quick to drink through it to enjoy it while the brighter intensity stands out.  That wasn't sold as gushu material; it will be different.  It probably didn't start in the same place, but I'm not experienced enough to guess about specifics, to project back from trying a five year old tea.  I've probably said enough about flavors and other aspects for this one, even though I'd struggle to mention a short list that works for that now.  That mild plum and white grape is layered in there, but warmer tones fill in beyond that, maybe like an aged hardwood, or redrock mineral base.  The flavor is fine but the overall depth of the experience and pronounced aftertaste steal the show.  You experience this tea with your body, not just your sense of taste.

The flavor of the Ban Pen does keep improving, that light spice shifting in level and balance, with a different version of wood filling in some complexity that matches it well enough.  It's just not as deep and intense as the other two, in two different ways.  It's not thin; the feel is fine, the sweetness is ok, and the tea doesn't just vanish after you drink it.  The feel is even picking up a catchy sort of light dryness.

Overall three interesting, very different teas.  I'd bet there would be a lot to experience of further transitions over the next four rounds, that these teas would show other sides of themselves.  It's just a lot to cover in one go, and telling all of the story isn't part of the goal anyway, passing on a limited but clear impression is instead.


after lots and lots of infusions



The review within a review theme


As I edit those notes on a later day I just tried two other younger Yiwu versions with breakfast, teas I've already reviewed before.  Given these are from different areas there's no point in trying to compare them directly, but some running themes for comparison did come to mind.  They were closest in nature to the Jing Mai version, being younger, relatively approachable teas, although this Jing Mai version probably did have a touch more bitterness than either.

There's just a cleanness, depth, and intensity that comes across in better sheng versions, which all of these expressed to some extent.  It might have been more pronounced in the first two reviewed here, and also in those two Yiwu teas and the Ban Pen version.  The Jing Mai tea had a nice floral towards fruity, almost lemony aspect given the brightness, and the Nan Nuo was more fruity and a bit earthier and more subdued, due to the age difference,with the Ban Pen showing more earthier range and then spice.  Preference for aspects sets was a main factor in how I experienced them.  I really liked the profile of the first, and the second worked well for me too but was just different, and the third not as well as the other two.

I also like experiencing something new as much as experiencing the same tea that I already know I like most, favorites.  Those two kinds of experiences are just different.  That's what made that Lao Man E huang pian shou so interesting; it was way off the page of anything I've experienced before.


Conclusions


These were all three really nice teas.  I think I'd probably get even better results out of the Jing Mai version for dropping the proportion a bit; I tend to go heavy on that and use very short infusions to counter it, and the character varies based on that difference.  I don't think it would change drastically, or be that much better, but I think perhaps slightly better.  All three were interesting, with their own unique strengths.  All three transitioned across long cycles of infusions, staying positive for many rounds.

About the "gushu" theme, there's an intensity to older plant teas, and a shift in aspect range, and these fit with what I've experienced of better versions.  I'm not sure the Nan Nuo really needed that much age, or that it might not have even been slightly better--per my preference--a couple years younger.  But it was very good as it was, and as I keep saying experiencing variation is part of the appeal too.  For me if a tea is soft, sweet, and complex to begin with it seems I like them a bit on the young side, when that balance works well, and then only teas that are more challenging initially I might like better some years later.  Others would have different preferences and experiences.


I looked up pricing for these, not something I always get around to mentioning.  The first two were in the $50 per 100 gram range, which is probably fair for what the teas are; you don't find lower cost versions of teas like these.  The third was around $90 instead, a good bit more.  That seems odd given that I liked it the least of the three, but then preference for aspects sets can go like that.  Drinking a good bit of Yiwu lately has me dialed into that soft, sweet, floral nature, and I always do like fruit range in teas.

One other thing I've noticed about how they sell these loose teas:  they don't adjust the rate much at all for volume, not dropping it much at higher quantity.  That works really well for someone wanting to buy 50 grams of lots of versions, or even 25, which is getting down to more like a large sample, just not as well for someone tying to get a better buy on 100 to 200 grams instead.  That would seem to make for a mismatch, getting hooked on gushu sheng and then valuing lower cost range in tea as a primary concern.  I remember a friend once commenting that the worst luck you could ever have is to try a good version of sheng that you like.  It definitely could put you on a different kind of path.

If I had to narrow that difference in good sheng (relatively speaking--there's always a broad range) and decent versions down to one thing I'd say complexity.  Oolongs or even black teas can express great flavor range, and have decent body, and might even transition some across infusions, but whole levels of experience just aren't the same as with better sheng.  There's that unique "qi" themed physiological effect, but even aside from that the mouthfeel, transition cycle, and aftertaste / "hui gan" effects don't occur in other types of teas, or in lower quality sheng versions.  It'll be nice to go back and try the three individually, to go a bit deeper into those experiences without the distraction of writing about it while doing so.  That ties to this positive complexity; subtle differences in approach or even just varying perspective can bring out more to experience in such complex teas.


the munchkins eating fried chicken (not related)


Monday, June 18, 2018

Top 100 tea blogs list critique, and about tea review


Originally posted as:  tching.com/2018/06/top-100-tea-blog-list-critique/


I recently saw an online group post about a top 100 tea blogs list, which I'm critiquing here.  According to the listing part of the criteria is as follows:

"The Best Tea blogs from thousands of top Tea blogs in our index using search and social metrics."


Facebook and Twitter follower counts are cited, so there is some justification, although for some entries both are listed as "n/a."  I'll mention what they missed, and why the list doesn't work related to that.  Of course many of the entrants are good blogs and reference sites, with a lot of familiar names:  World of Tea (which changed names and theme), TChing, Tea DB, and Tea For Me Please.  It includes some of my favorites:  My Thoughts are Like Butterflies, Oolong Owl, Sororitea Sisters (good for basic reviews), and Lord Devotea's Tea Spouts, which is nice for opinion posts (rants).


A lot of entries are sales sites.  If a vendor creates reference content that's a different thing, and many do also put out a blog.  Evaluating if content transitioned from product marketing description to actual background information would be difficult (if a blog really is a blog).  The Hojo vendor articles seem like a good example of such an effort; they create nice articles, even though I'm not sure their content is 100% accurate.

What's missing might be a bigger problem than what's there.  I'll cite my FB group discussion comments about that:


It's missing Steep Stories, Tea Geek, Tea Addict's Journal, The Half Dipper, Death by Tea, Tea in the Ancient World (my own blog), and the Global Tea Hut's magazine.

Also Tea Master's Blog, probably the best reference about Taiwanese oolongs, and Tea Journeyman, a good basic review blog.  Tea Obsession is now inactive but the old posts are a great reference on Dan Cong.  Mattcha's Blog has moved onto other scope, after a period of inactivity, but old posts are still a great reference on Korean teas. 

Steep Stories is my favorite blog, and for overall reference Tea Addict's Journal is pretty far up the list, definitely top 10. Tea Geek is mostly inactive now but still a good reference blog. My Japanese Green Tea is the best Japeanese tea reference blog I know of, and Puerh.fr is a great classic pu'er reference site. 

This list is just not a well-informed effort.  



It is what it is, a blog ranking site that cuts and pastes search results material, a Top 100 Tea Blogs list that stops at number 86.  If a bot made that list then it's not a very thorough bot.  I checked the Top 60 Whiskey Blogs list there and that leaves off at # 53.


What goes into a good tea blog?  About tea review methodology. 


Whatever someone happens to like in a tea blog defines what is good, so any list would be subjective, unless it was only an attempt at ranking stats.  Stories can be nice, or a lifestyle theme, about everyday experiences, or research.  If the criteria used is Facebook and Twitter followers along with Google search metrics that actually sort of works; it's clear and objective.




I'm not implying that tea reviews are at the core of a good tea blog (although many are only that, for content), but I did comment on how those map out further in that online discussion.  It related to a criticism by someone else that many blogs aren't informative, that they really don't describe how good the teas being reviewed are.


It's natural for reviewers to not want to say negative things about teas, to communicate what is positive instead, probably at least partly related to being given free samples for review.  A reviewer skipping mention of teas they don't like only solves part of the problem.  No matter how that's cut off there would always be some boundary condition, or aspects that don't work as well in some teas, or typical attributes that could be there but aren't. Different bloggers deal with all that in different ways. 

Some reviews express so little description that this particular problem hardly comes up, but that's an exception. More often bloggers include no subjective content at all, to the degree that's even possible, mentioning aspect descriptions but not how much they like the aspects or tea in general. It works better than it sounds but that approach skips a lot. 

There are two other potential approaches that tend to never come up: placing the tea quality on a scale related to what else they've tried, or evaluating trueness to type, if it's what one would expect from that version. Bloggers almost never mention value either; teas are sold as better or worse with pricing indicating that level, implying it. If you buy one Longjing for $8 per 50 grams and a second for $25 you'd expect the second to be better, even if the descriptions were a close match. There's no way to really wrap all this up in the form of conclusions, just talking through the background a bit.


Of course actual vendor pages are something else; they're describing what they sell, and may or may not include any other content.  Lots of vendors do go further but more don't.

Even if a person did try to evaluate tea review or research theme content, versus condense a Google search ranking, they would need to be very familiar with tea to do so.  That listing site, Feedspot, seems to be more an automated rating system with a link forwarding function, like Bloglovin (a feed reader), designed to also include ranking along with subject type sorting.  At least it did work well as a starting point for talking about my own favorites and what goes into a tea review.


follow a really nice tea blog here



Sunday, June 17, 2018

Trying a 1998 Hong Kong stored sheng




This is the last tea sample passed on by Olivier Schneider, that pu'er authority who founded his own reference page (puerh.fr).



If the tea was from anyone else there would be less reference value in one sample that's not really well identified.  It's described as sheng puerh 1998 Hong Kong Storage.  The second description reference reads more like "1948;" that can't be right. 


Any tea, tasted even completely blindly, is fine for experiencing what you get from that, but it wouldn't work to assign any degree of confidence that the version might be good, or typical of a certain style or background in any way.  Based on trying those other samples this will be an interesting tea, and a positive experience, that provides insight about aging transitions within a broad but typical range.



One more qualification about that, which extends into a bit of a tangent here before the actual review:  aged sheng pu'er reviews in general tend to draw on forms of prior exposure and expectations more than other types.  Or few people write reviews of aged sheng, probably a sort of "those who know don't talk; those who talk don't know" running theme (a Tao Te Ching reference). 


To the extent discussion takes place in particular qi effect is described in detail, not just a typical range of how a tea makes you feel, but also specifics about energy patterns experienced within the body.  Also mouthfeel effects come up, learned preferences for certain types of experiences related to tightening and sweetness effects in different parts of the mouth or throat.


It doesn't necessarily diminish the importance or validity of those experiences that such preferences have to be learned, that they wouldn't be experienced as inherently positive by an untrained individual.  Full-bodied French red wines or Scotch drinking aren't less valid because those things would taste awful to someone without a lot of the right prior exposure.  It would be possible for an inexperienced tea drinker to dismiss most of that as subjective preference that's not well grounded but something would seem to be missed in that.  At times limited groups of people do learn to value experiences that aren't necessarily meaningful or positive to everyone else, as in the case of these forms of appreciation, but most typically within the context of those groups there are real, valid, meaningful grounds for those preferences. 

I drank red wine for a few years, and without a lot of specific training in the form of group indoctrination I moved from liking milder, sweeter versions into more subtle, complex styles, and I may well have been headed towards becoming a burly Cabernet drinker eventually, I just stopped before that happened.  As with tea drinkers experiencing oolongs or aged sheng as natural end points people with different inclinations in red wines might well be headed towards appreciating subtle, complex Pinot instead, or fruit-forward Bordeaux style blends, or maybe those rough-edged French reds that taste like a nail was stored in the bottle to a newer wine drinker.

In the case of art it relates to forms of meaning being carried in styles that one really needs to be familiar with to appreciate, to completely human-developed patterns of forms.  Tea styles and aspects appreciation might not be so far from that but even if so that wouldn't make them less valuable for only be valued through learned association.  It also seems possible that unlike in how art forms can match current trends and meaningful patterns, based on earlier trends, an individual would learn to appreciate some of the same aspects in tea without training, just maybe in a different form.  I was never really into art, just to be clear, but a grad-level class in aesthetics philosophy made for a confusing but interesting investigation of what it was all about.


To simplify:  I can appreciate teas having a more complex feel, and can recognize obvious physiological effects from some teas, but I don't value those to the extent many others do.  I haven't been trained to appreciate some versions over others, whether those goals are tied to conventions or to an organic natural preference curve, or both.  Sheng drinkers tend to drink sheng less for flavor than for most other types, but to some extent that's still the main page that I'm on, the main range I appreciate.  That's not to say that a pronounced aspect in another range can't stand out and make for a very interesting experience.  That occurred in trying a Lao Man E huang pian shou recently; that tea was unusually thick in feel, unique in a way not mostly based on flavor.  On to it then.



Review


First infusion:  I did taste the rinse, just to get an idea where this tea is going, and it was heavy on slate with some mustiness and char (probably as well to not even sip a few drops of that; it'll be there next round too).  This tea might not be so positive for the first couple of infusions.  The first infusion is just a little musty but it's nice how fast that is clearing up.  There's lots of depth to this tea, apparent very clearly beyond any more challenging aspects, which seem like they'll largely be faded by the next round and perhaps even more so on the next.

It reminds me a little of Liu Bao, that intense slate-mineral effect.  It's a little different in this expression because there's more depth behind it.  But then I've probably not tried higher level, fully aged Liu Bao yet, so I would be comparing apples and oranges.  The smoothness is nice.  Even for expressing a range that earthy and still being a little musty it's quite smooth.  The depth is nice too; it covers a lot of that old-furniture range of flavor, and the sweet nutty range that gets hard to describe, not so far off roasted chestnut but not exactly that.


the leaves did take awhile to unfurl, even though not compressed so much



The next infusion is what I expected; it picks up a good bit of depth, and cleans up quite a bit.  It might sound like I'm saying that the tea is "off" more than I intend.  That one range of slate-mineral flavor can easily bridge into different levels of mustiness and it's hard to pin that down on a relative scale without any mention making it sound more significant than it is.  The feel is interesting.  The tea comes across as really rich and really smooth, which will spare me talking about which parts of the mouth it impacts.  The overall experience lingers quite a bit but that relates to there being a depth to it, not one particular feel in the mouth or one distinct, limited trailing flavor.  Breaking any of those parts of the experience further would definitely be possible but somehow wouldn't seem more informative.

People tend to ask how aged sheng compares to shou, and I definitely won't have a clear and final answer to that based on trying this one tea, and little to go on based on trying more in the 10-15 year old range.  But it could work as good input; I can see how shou, this aged tea version, and Liu Bao map together better related to trying it.  I probably won't get far with explaining it though. 

In one sense this tea shares some common ground with those cheap, char-intensive droplet / tablet mini-tuo version of shou.  In a couple of others it's relatively not like those at all.  Some flavor range is common but the overall effect of dropping some charcoal into a cup of hot water is closely tied to the mini-tuo experience, and not this.  Slate mineral and subdued charcoal are main flavor aspects though, but there are layers below that.  It seems possible this tea will transition more over the next couple of rounds to move to a balance further away from that, and if it doesn't that'll make it easy to keep these notes short.


even short infusions were a bit dark


It does take another very pleasant step the next round; good.  That slate / mineral / char falls back into a nice balance, and an aspect I think of as "something I'm not familiar with" moves forward and develops.  It's not completely unrelated to "old furniture," but sweeter, better balanced, and cleaner.  This tea has already moved way past whatever any Liu Bao or shou I've ever tried can express, in terms of depth and complexity, just in a sense that's hard to describe.  Thickness escalates quickly.  It's so full in feel that it's a bit oily, in an interesting and nice way.  I get the sense it'll evolve to a place easier to describe in the next infusion, so I'll say more about that in the next round.

Next round:  maybe not; I was wrong about this getting easier to describe.  There's a depth to the experience that I can't put words, or maybe even completely grasp.  Breaking out any description of part of it doesn't cover the rest at all.  Flavors could be like roasted chestnut, or anything else I've already expressed, but the flavors-list approach drops more out than it catches.  It works to say it balances, that subtle, complex range of feel combines with flavor range that has an unusual depth and complexity, but that altogether it amounts to a sum greater than the parts.  I'd be writing poetry to describe it further than that.  You kind of just have to experience it.  I'm not saying this is some sort of heavenly transcendent experience but it is definitely one of the most interesting and positive teas I've yet to try.

It's like shou but nothing like shou, depending on which level one would mean.  In terms of flavor it's not that far off, just more complex.  Some shou I've tried were complex and smooth but not to this degree.  I'm not even sure this tea is completely where it's going to transition to, that it has went through its own version of "opening up" yet.


More of the same on the next round.  It is still transitioning, but I can't describe how.  It keeps getting cleaner and sweeter, with the slate-mineral receded to a mild supporting element very different in form.  That "old furniture" aspect also cleaned up and transitioned, not gone, but different.  A richness like roasted chestnuts remains, but the effect closest to char also smoothed out and fell into a different supporting layer.  There's an effect you get in some better Wuyi Yancha that matches how certain types of liqueur come across, sort of a perfume-like aspect, but nothing like a chemical, the nail polish remover type ranges that would make up a base for those.  All this range is subtle and well integrated.


Flavor isn't the most interesting part of the experience.  The smooth fullness also isn't.  I don't even mean the same thing by "smooth" and "full" as I typically would; kind of an extension of those instead.  The experience after tasting the tea isn't like an aftertaste, although there is some part that corresponds to that.  I don't mean a "buzz" as I've experienced with some teas either, the form I connect with some "qi" effect.  Levels of experience continue on after you swallow the tea, a mix of taste and how it feels.  Back to the poetry, it seems.


I might just leave off there and drink another half dozen infusions without the note taking.  The aspects will change, for sure, but for being so hard to describe it'll be a similar form of rambling on anyway.  I will say this:  two infusions later the balance is even nicer; the tea just keeps improving.  I can see why people might get hooked on this sort of thing.  The depth of the experience is much different than for other tea types that just taste nice, have a nice full feel, and some aftertaste effect.


maybe 15 infusions in, still a bit thick and oily


Around 10 to 12 infusions in the tea suddenly required longer infusions to produce the same intensity, and a couple more rounds later it dropped off that much more.  It was still far from finished though, but longer infusions shifted the range of aspects quite a bit.  The char came back, extracted more from the longer times.  The tea was still positive around the 15th or so infusion (where I'm tasting it now), interesting, pleasant, and oddly still quite complex, but not as nice as that range had been from rounds 5 through 12.  It definitely made for a unique experience.

I won't have much for additional conclusions, so I'll mention some closing thoughts here.  I can't place this tea related to other relatively fully aged versions, related to other teas that had spent 20 years aging under similar conditions.  I'm sure different starting points and slightly different storage conditions would change results.  As with any new range of teas it is possible to try just one "good, typical version" and get some sense of where things are headed, but it almost never works out that the variations are something that you'd expect.


More input, and an event notice (in Europe)


I talked a little to Olivier Schneider about this tea, the person who passed it on.  It doesn't shed that much light on the storage environment but it is interesting hearing him say a little about that:


This tea is a sheng (raw) puerh from 1998, mean that it was raw when he left Yunnan, with a very good Hong-Kong traditional storage, aka. wet storage. HK traditional storage is a traditional way to age puerh, made in Hong Kong and guangzhou area for long time. Because we speak about Hong-Kong "storage" many beginers think it's just a question of storing tea in the humid atmosphere of HK, but in fact it's not. HK traditional storage is like shu cha (shu cha was inspired by HK trad storage), an artificial method to age tea, but when shu cha is an industrial process which take around 6 weeks, HK trad storage is an slow and hand made process which usually take at least 15 years for a high quality product. It's really an art, like whiskey aging or cheese aging, and when it's badly done it's really terrible (with typical moldy taste), but when it's made by good house, like this one, it makese really amazingly great teas!


Surely a few details beyond that about related factors are familiar to many, even those without broad experience, but in the end trying a tea that has been through a positive version of this sort of transition is the thing. 

One thing I didn't mention in that review:  I would've believed that the tea had been stored a lot longer than 20 years.  Versions of sheng not that much younger than it that I'd tried in the past had seemed very young in comparison, not all that affected by age at all, beyond more limited related transitions occurring.  I've had limited exposure to teas being ruined by poor storage.  A Liu Bao was way off due to being stored too wet, really musty, but it sort of came back from that after sitting around for a year.

The slate-mineral and char effects that were stronger in the beginning and end of the cycle seemed to be outcomes related to that transition.  On the more positive side the smoothness and level of depth in those infusions in the middle were new to me.  Even in those earlier and later infusions when those aspects weren't necessarily positive they were still more neutral than they might sound, and the overall effect and complexity was positive in ways that was hard to describe.


To move onto another idea kind of related to this tea, but not directly related, Olivier is doing a series of tea tastings and ceramics displays in Europe over the next month or so.  My Vietnamese tea-friend Huyen might even make it to one in Paris, but I think she's still working out paperwork and travel planning.  Either way, I'll mention that schedule here, by citing a FB post, and the related link:


Before to leave Asia, choosing the teaware I will bring with me for Europe! This year there will-have two special guests I would be happy to show the thesis work during tea events: The great tea ceramics artist Emilio Jose del Pozo from Taiwan, and Xunhuan Wǎngfù , amazing cloth and Chabu designer from Norway!


credit his FB page (probably as well to just link to the contact pages here though)


Happy to see you in Europe in some days:  (full program here)

June 28 in Paris: Blang Vibration, immersive sound and tea experience
June 29 in Paris: Vietnam mountains tasting tea
June 30 in Paris: Free puerh tasting tea
June 30 in Brussels: Workshop on green puerh
July 1 in Paris: Tea and gong fu cha time
July 2-8 in Paris: Complete puerh tea education
July 11 in Waterloo: Free puerh tea tasting
July 12 in Namur: Free puerh tea tasting
June 12 in Namur: Blang Vibration, immersive sound and tea experience
July 13 in Brussels: Free puerh tea tasting
July 13 in Brussels: Puerh tea bar and surprises
July 14-15 in Brussels: Two days puerh tea education
July 21 in London: One day puerh tea education


I'm sure with that many events going on a detail or two could change, so it would be as well to check that page and check in about the planning, of course also related to seeing where an event is, and how to check in about plans to attend.

I've been very grateful to him for sharing these teas.  He's said a little more about them in discussion but not all that much, and it wasn't really framed for making up extra sections in the review posts, which are more about passing on an impression. 

It's nicer to discuss tea in person though, since you can also try some, and I hope that some of you get that chance over the next month or so.  If Huyen does make it to one in Paris that would be a nice added bonus, to get a chance to discuss a tea tradition that doesn't come up much (Vietnam's) with someone from there who has been looking into it.  Even beyond that information her enthusiasm is a bit contagious.  I've not done much with passing on contact information for her--the tea trades were never about marketing anything--but her family's gift business site may be of interest, since it does include some teas.  I think they're more standard types though, not like those local-style sheng I just reviewed, but glancing through to snag a picture I did see tuochas, so it's definitely not just Thai Nguyen green teas.

Huyen at work (credit their site)