I've done this theme before, right, here, or trying more aged version shou samples here? There's more.
I've got a good number of teas around from different countries and wanted to review one of these three shou versions from Moychay for an unusual reason: the label of a cake. In reviewing others I ran across a translation description, and it reads "peace. hard work. tea." And there's a picture of a Soviet-era communist looking guy on the front (unless that's just my interpretation).
2017 Menghai shou / ripe pu'er
I like shou anyway, and it will be interesting to check out more of their products range sooner rather than later, while I still have some memory of the others.
Shou works really well as a breakfast tea, as something good enough to be quite interesting and pleasant but usually not such a subtle and high quality tea that you would want to set aside an hour and a half just to drink a long round of a tea. They're really complex, and easy to brew, and work relatively well with food, if that's how you want to take one. The best versions have a bit more going on, a different level of aspects to appreciate.
Low to medium quality and price shou work out much better than sheng on the same range, even if the character is also quite different, and at the higher end sheng variations and aged versions can be much more diverse, refined, and interesting. Of course I don't just mean $200+ cakes; moderately priced sheng can still be nice, but you tend to pay quite a bit more for aged versions (and fairly so), and choosing good quality but moderate cost versions takes some doing.
On this review theme, it does seem like the comparison reviews are getting to be a bit much, that eventually I should let that go a bit and just describe a few single teas in posts. I'll get to that.
2008 Menghai shou cake
All of these are sold as different types of teas, varying most in description by age, since all are only listed for source as being from Menghai county. I won't really get into their product descriptions here, even after the review description, since the comparison review sections tend to run a little long. One might naturally expect that the oldest cake would be best (beyond the input of one having been better quality tea or processed differently to begin with), but we'll see. The 1999 version is the only one cited as coming from older plant ("tree") sources, and it's made from the most whole-leaf material used, based on cake appearance.
Moychay 2017 Peace, Hard Work, Tea cake
Moychay 2008 "Tree" shou cake
Moychay 1999 old tree Menghai shou
As usual the tasting order was chosen intuitively, instead of in a sequence that actually makes sense. I was drinking them together anyway, round by round. I hadn't checked the ages of the teas, and with the third (2017 version) I didn't know it during tasting, because it's not listed on the label front. These notes kind of assume it's relatively new, as I'd written them on tasting, with that year added during editing.
Tree label image tea (2008 version): interesting! There's that one typical flavor in some shou that I can't place. It's gotta be towards betel nut, or light camphor, but I really don't exactly what those taste like. Camphor isn't right (I do have some idea of what that's like; Thais are really into healing balms); it's too sweet, aromatic, and too far towards dark wood or spice. It's not that far from a old, aromatic, dark tropical hardwood smell, mahogany and such. But it's clean, not musty at all, even though this is only the first round. The feel is nice too, full and rich, with enough trailing aftertaste to make it a full experience during and after drinking it.
I wouldn't say the tea is as complex as it could be, beyond there being that flavor complexity and those different layers to the experience. That range of flavor is full but integrated into a narrow set. It trails out a little towards some aromatic spice or cocoa but basically it's just that one set of things I can't describe well. The feel is soft and rich but full, quite velvety. It's clearly better than average shou, to be this clean and full and show off that much complexity, especially right away. In terms of flavors others can express more range, but this could pick up a little depth as it goes.
Old man label image (1999 version; that guy looks a little like Bodhidharma): This experience overlaps, but at the same time it's interesting for how different it is. The same: it's also full and rich, on the velvety side, with a good bit of sweetness, and good residual aftertaste, not thin in any sense. Different: the taste range isn't far from the other as broad strokes go but it is quite different in a sense, related to finer level aspects. There's an aromatic spice note that stands out, again something impossible to pin down. It reminds me a little of sassafrass or licorice because those are the only root spices I'm familiar with but it's not either of those. Saying it's in the middle between them sort of works, but it would be off a bit towards a dark, aromatic tree bark (not cinnamon; more dark and aromatic in a different sense). It comes across as a brighter, higher note, more interesting for integrating into that richer, deeper range.
Both of these express that depth that's common to a lot of shou, a bit towards tar, but not close enough that comparison comes to mind, just earthy with a deep mineral base. It'll be interesting to see where both go from here, the transition, and what layers add on. They're both really complex and approachable, so there's nothing that stands to improve from any "off" aspects dropping out. There's a conventional idea that young shou would tend to be like that (less than 5 years old), with a lot of fermentation taste yet to fade, but in my experience it just depends on the shou. My take is that it's hard to get great complexity out of a shou that's sweet and clean tasting when young, not "off" at all, that they lose something for being really drinkable right away. It would require pinning down variations in degree and types of fermentation better to predict what's going to work well at different ages. I'm just noticing some of the most obvious results from such patterns, not even close to putting that together as clear cause and effects.
Soviet guy label (2017 version): this tea moves a bit towards the petroleum side of the others, so that using that as a description does seem to work. That must sound worse than it actually is. It's my impression that this sort of aspect or effect is a sign of a younger shou version that will smooth out a lot over the next few years. It may relate to that aging potential I was just talking about. I've notice that as a pattern in this Kunming 7581 brick tea before. I didn't re-review that tea after it spent another year aging, when it became creamy, rich, clean, and complex, with most of that aspect dropping out, or really swapping out, transitioning. I could still drink this 2017 tea but the other two are in a more approachable range related to their earthiness. Of course this being the initial round it's possible all three will be a bit different in another couple of infusions.
I could be clearer what I meant about aging potential. There is an idea with sheng (raw pu'er) that if a tea is sweet, balanced in feel, floral or fruity versus a bit bitter, and easy to drink when it's young then it has been prepared in such a way that it's better right away but has very limited aging potential. It's that "oolong pu'er" idea, although my sense was that ideas about processing approaches and other forms of inherent aspects were mixing in those discussion citations (local origin related and such).
A 2014 Jia Ji Dayi tuocha I bought awhile back (which I mentioned re-trying in this other Moychay shou comparison post) served as a decent example: initially it was hard to relate to, at two years old, but in such a way that it seemed to show potential, and just a couple years later very pleasant, but still showing a lot of potential for improvement. Some other Yiwu sheng have seemed to go the other way; they're bright, sweet, floral, and pleasant earlier on, with just enough edge to balance well, and then some of the 5 to 10 year old versions I've tried were just flatter, faded out, as opposed to improved. I'm not saying Yiwu sheng can't age well but I am saying that I've experienced cases where versions seemed to fade more than improve.
After the first round I liked the middle, oldest version best; that balance worked well. But it's way too early to call this.
2008 left, 1999 top, 2017 right (also referred to by label image following)
I gave these around a 10 second steep and that looked to be a bit long for the proportion. I'm sure they'll be drinkable but it would be interesting to try a fast steep next to compare results.
2008 left, 1999 middle, 2017 right (same order throughout)
barely opened up yet
Tree (2008): On the one hand this flavor profile is a bit basic and subtle, especially for a shou, but on the other it has really nice depth, and it's catchy. That dark wood / old furniture taste really works well over the earthy mineral range base. It hints a little towards spice, or maybe cocoa, and the sweetness could be interpreted as dried fruit, towards dried tamarind, but at the same time it comes across as a narrow, integrated flavor range. It's funny how that's a contradiction. The experience is that of a contradiction; this seems like a relatively simple flavor set, as shou goes, but it has a lot of depth to it. That rich fullness, velvety feel, and aftertaste may be part of that; the experience happens on different levels.
Old man (1999): With this tea it's more the case that a good bit of clean, multi-layered complexity pairs in an interesting way with a more pronounced narrow aspect range within that set. That flavor is towards aromatic spice, but something odd, like frankincense or myrrh. Who in the world could separate those out to a range of distinct scents? I should drink this tea with an old hippie. The sweetness and earthiness extends a little towards dark chocolate; that part is cool. Interpreted differently that range might seem like dried dark cherry. All of this range is really far from the more petroleum oriented aspects I'm expecting to taste in the next version.
Soviet guy (2017): this tea is transitioning quite a bit; it's not what it had been. It's moving towards a dark wood / spice range not so far off the first version's. It just has an extra layer of depth to the range, and more intensity. Mineral is much heavier, like that strange smell of a volcanic soil beach, or even that you might smell in the lava flow area, a very dark rock. It works to interpret that as "peat" instead, but that shift from petroleum to peat seems to indicate it might clean up even more over the next couple of infusions, who knows into what range. I like it but for someone new to shou this would be too much. At the same time I suspect in another two or three years that story would change a lot, that this might just be a young version that has room to shift character and clean up a lot. I haven't read the descriptions--even much for labels, since parts are in Russian--so the theme is sort of to taste these without that input first.
Again I liked the "middle" oldest version best, but that first sample drew closer, and for as fast as the third is shifting character I'd expect the comparison to be different in the next round. I'll go with flash infusion (5 seconds; I'm not great with the speedy version of pouring tea in and out when tasting three), which should change how they come across a little.
That was probably still closer to 10 seconds; messing with three versions slows things down. Even smelling the wet leaves makes the different apparent in the tasting clear, the variance in the levels of different earthy and aromatic aspects.
Tree (2008): These teas look almost as dark but the lighter intensity is apparent in the tasting experience. I'm ok with shou brewed a bit heavy, with a dialed up flavor intensity and feel, but this is more standard for how I'd prefer any other kind of tea, and still on the heavy side for how I'd like many best. It didn't transition that much, it's just lighter, so to keep this from stretching out I'll move on. It works lighter, but then it had worked well a bit thick too.
Old man (1999): This version works even better lighter. It has more complexity to work with, and a more interesting flavor range than the first, so there's plenty to experience this way, and being brewed more intense than this lighter round probably takes away more than it adds. I'm saying all of these feel thick and are velvety but really this one is on a slightly higher level related to that, and the aftertaste stretches on more. It's probably because this tea has had time to transition all of the earlier, earthier range to a rich, sweet, complex smoothness. It works as an example of an answer to that question: can shou really age? Beyond the 3 to 5 years to "clean up" fermentation range flavor not much, but in the right tea it can keep gaining depth and smoothing out. Oddly this overlaps just a little with that Lao Man E huang pian version, which was thin in terms of flavor complexity (in one sense), and also just in a different range, but amazingly thick in terms of feel, aftertaste, and a subtle aromatic aspect.
Soviet guy (2017): the petroleum and dark wood / mineral are still there in this but it's picking up a bit of that one marine element people tend to describe as "fishy." It's funny how I like this tea but the description has to sound almost entirely negative. I get the sense that if you move forward in time 4 years or so this is going to be a completely different tea, while those other two might just shift a little. To me this is a tea someone would buy to experience and then hang onto, to taste a couple times a year to check in on, or a few, but really to experience as a later version. This must be what gets described as a high level of fermentation. It's probably a year old, although it could be two, and really needs a few more to shine. The creaminess also picks up a bit, that one Guiness stout effect; I wouldn't be surprised if that comes through a lot more in later rounds.
That could be a problem for someone who doesn't have anywhere near a typical pu'er storage environment at home. For almost anyone living anywhere "too humid" doesn't come up, since you'd have to be living in a swamp in Louisiana for this tea to mold if you sat it on a shelf. It's 70 to 80 % relative humidity level here in Bangkok a lot of the year and it's fine, close enough to ideal. I don't know how that transition would go if I were living back in Vail, Colorado where I spent most of my 20s (Avon, really). It's bone dry there, so it would fade a bit, but would it transition, or just drop in intensity and stay where it is now? I'll post this in a CO tea group and ask them.
I don't usually feel a "buzz" from shou, no matter what I'm drinking of it, but one or more of these teas is affecting me a bit. As I keep saying you give up identifying that from a tea in these combined tea tastings. In a sequential tasting you can tell; it sets in fast, but going by rounds like this not at all. I might say I'll try them later and get back to you about which it probably was, most, but I won't. I'm only "on the clock" for tastings on these weekend sessions and I'm not saying anything about other experiences.
leaves opened up more; plenty dark
nice rich tea; not for everyone's taste preference though
Tree: This tea isn't fading but it is more subtle. This tea seems to be fine for a clean tasting, reasonably complex shou, a version that can be drank light and still work or inky black. But the next one works on another other level or two, and as I'm interpreting it the third has more potential for aging transition to go well. Bumping up the infusion strength would give this tea the effect of greater complexity since everything going on would be more pronounced, and with nothing negative for aspects it would be good that way.
Old man: This tea isn't transitioning but the broader and very positive range of flavor aspects stands out in contrast with the first version. It's just much better tea. The first version is drinkable and positive but much less complex and not as interesting.
Soviet guy: This tea isn't really transitioning either; it wouldn't much, between infusion 3 and 4. At this point it's more a matter of how later rounds go, what broad themes follow and how it lasts in later rounds.
This seems like enough reviewing, even though there is a bit more to be described. I liked all three teas. The first seems like a nice drinkable moderate quality shou, the kind that would work well as a daily drinker, with great aspects, just a little limited in complexity. The second has more going on across a couple of levels; to me it seemed like really good shou. The third showed a lot of potential. All of those fermentation related flavors should fade quite a bit and it should be a completely different tea in the next 3 to 4 years.
It wouldn't always work out that the oldest tea is clearly the best; shou can be made from different quality source materials, or fermented to different levels, and can vary in other ways. I think this wasn't a fair comparison in that the one year old version really does need a couple more years to settle. Maybe a ten year old shou would tend to be better than five year old version, all other things being equal. The hearsay on aging shou is that past 5 years old they tend to not change as much, but the older versions I have tried (10 years and older) were typically smoother, with more depth. Some having more interesting character than others seemed to relate to those other factors, to source type, processing differences, and overall quality as it all worked out.
I don't always go there but I'll mention cost and value related to these teas. Looking them up on the site now the "Soviet guy" 2017 version lists for $21.17 for a 357 gram cake (quite inexpensive), the 2008 version for $16.33 for a 100 gram cake (or around $58 for the equivalent larger cake version), and the 1999 version 100 gram cake for $35 (or a bit over $110 for full size cake, multiplied out). That's quite a lot of cost spread, but that seems fair to me, how that age and quality range should work out. The lowest cost tea works well for an example of one that might be great in another 5 years, or even a good bit better in 2 or 3, if kept under the right conditions, and the other two were on the next corresponding levels, one a pretty good shou that's ready to drink now, and then an older version that has those extra levels of positive aspects.
One part people newer to the subject might miss is that this aging process isn't simply a matter of throwing the tea in a conventional warehouse and letting it sit in whatever conditions happen to occur; temperature, humidity conditions make a lot of difference, and maybe even degree of air flow. If something goes wrong the tea can lose quality and value or be ruined. The cost should be higher for the additional value input, and it makes sense on the demand side too, that shou that aged well is a more attractive product. It tastes better, and probably gains other complexity. Vendors with a lot of experience would move well past guesswork on what type of initial aspect range is going to turn out in what way but some end consumers would only tend to relate to experiencing the final ready to drink version.
It'll be really interesting to keep trying these and the other shou, to become more familiar with them through repeated tastings. I would probably shift judgment a little after a few more rounds of tastings but that's how it goes with reviewing; it's about passing on an impression.
I should update their pictures on here
this one got in a scrap at summer camp; not good
I don't usually include my picture; at a local water park a week ago