easy to tell which is which (older version on the left)
Being mentioned in a recent Steep Stories review of some Tea Side Thai teas, which included discussion of Thai oolong cultivar issues, reminded me that I have a few more samples from them to try. I forgot what they were, or maybe it really never did register, given that these two I'll review are some of the more novel versions I've encountered.
That novelty is based on age, of course. The oldest sheng I've experienced may have been this 1998 version shared by Olivier Schneider. I just don't have the kind of real life tea friends who pass on 80s or 90s pu'er, or the budget to even consider buying such old teas. I'd be skipping out on too many other options. Tea Side actually sells these two tea versions, which I'll get into in a section after the review, and buying only a little wouldn't amount to that much expense. If this wasn't a vendor I've had plenty of contact with, who lots of people regard highly, I'd doubt those ages, but as it stands I don't. I suppose they could be off a little due to minor error in record keeping but I'm sure the teas really are that old.
That 1980 version does look old, in the dry tea form. The 1998 HK stored sheng I tried had a good bit of charcoal effect to work through in the first couple of rounds, after that smoothing out a lot and displaying a lot of really positive complexity. Let's check back on that 1998 tea appearance for reference.
That tea was 5 years younger than the newer of these. Fermentation depends on environment as much as time, and the range of differences related to starting point is something I'd have trouble placing.
I had guessed that maybe fermentation taken that far tended to transition some of the material towards charcoal, based in part on what I tasted in that tea, and that under the right conditions a century old tea might only be charcoal. That tea was great after a few infusions cleaned up the aspects. It'll be interesting to step back another 18 years to try a 38 year old sheng version and see where it stands. I won't know of the initial starting point character, of course, but the experience should be no less novel and interesting for that.
The 1993 version looks a bit aged but youthful in comparison, only browned but not blackened. The colors and texture come out better in the individual dry tea photos.
1993 Thai Tea Side sheng
1980 version; on the dark side
I'll not drink an initial rinse for these, keeping with that convention for once. They'll both need a rinse to wear off some of the less positive aspects of age, not to mention related produced toxins. I'll taste that anyway, just to get a sense of how much char is being removed, so against convention I'll start a review with evaluating a rinse.
A flash rinse of the 1980 version brewed inky black, like shou given a 30 second soak. This is going to be interesting. I think from here on out I'll be using really fast infusions for both, delayed only by the time it takes to pour both in and out.
The 1980 version rinse tastes exactly like a chalk board smells. Oddly that's a bit cleaner than I expected; I really thought more charcoal would come across than dark slate. This just being a fast rinse may have offset that, only catching what was loose as very aged material on the outside of the tea. All the same I expected that to taste like a charcoal briquet for two infusions, not like stone, as it does.
The 1993 version is interesting. I could drink this infusion; it would be judgment call whether or not to. Rinsing is also about removing toxins, although pu'er drinkers tend to not make that connection as often as citing removal of any other loose material. I think if someone was drinking teas like this a few times a week it would be a real health issue but for a couple times a year not at all. For drinking 10-15 year old versions on an every-other-day basis I'd expect that function would make sense, removing a bit of what you really shouldn't drink in quantity. This initial rinse isn't so positive that it's like brewing a fresh bai mu dan and wondering why you are throwing away that bright, sweet flavored rinse (but then I wouldn't rinse white teas, typically not even aged versions, when this same issue may apply).
Per what gets communicated in discussions a lot of people would give these teas two more typical length rinses, 10 to 15 seconds each, to really clean them up. I'm guessing the second rinse, which I'll try as an infusion, will help explain that.
1980 version left; doesn't look it but these were very short infusions
Second rinse / first infusion
1980 version: yep, that's still a bit heavy on dark stone mineral, with some char. It's funny the way that smooth, rich, complex underlying range is still blanketed by the mineral / earth / light char range but showing through. On the initial taste it's all that dark stone mineral but the aftertaste is smoother and sweeter. It's layered across your whole tongue, not as a tightening or bitterness related effect found in younger sheng, just as flavor and an odd feel, like there's something on your tongue.
1993: this tea has great complexity too, and it's starting to show where it's going to lead, in some interesting directions. There must be a whole vocabulary I'm missing to describe the range these flavors will have. The feel is interesting too; thick, but in a much different sense of how that's used in describing oolongs and the rest. Given this tea will evolve a lot over the next infusion it seems as well to not try going too far with describing flavor or feel until that next round.
Oddly I'm feeling these teas halfway through this first set of small cups. I'm a little skeptical of most of what I hear about "qi," the drug-like effect in teas, but when it really does set in there's nothing to be skeptical about. I could see why for some drinking these two teas together would be one of the craziest things you could do, to mix that effect from two teas when you'd not have the chance of experiencing each alone another time.
Beyond just that it might be like mixing drugs, for some, when experiencing each drug is the point. I'm not into drug use myself, not even related to tea. Teas causing an unsual feeling is interesting and definitely novel, maybe enjoyable, but beyond tea calming you and giving you a bit of lift I don't seek out the rest.
Preference is a funny thing, how it can lead in different directions and take different forms, and options and levels of details that an unconditioned person would be unlikely to take in could become important and clear over time. I can relate to why people might seek out that range of experiences, I've just not become attached to it myself. I'd probably see it in a different way if I didn't have a personal history with drugs that I'm happy to leave in the past.
again a very fast infusion, picking up color and intensity quickly
I let this round brew a few seconds but not for very long. It's about the balance of not overbrewing these, which would happen fast, and diluting the experience by drinking them on the thin side.
The 1980 version never did get into as much char as I expected, and the little that's present and the high balance of mineral are clearing up. A character and flavor I've described as closest to old furniture is a main flavor range, but that really doesn't do justice to the experience. I've said the same about oolongs that had been around a few years, and to some extent the two were related, but this is something else entirely. Lots of root-spice complexity seems to develop, and it even hints towards cocoa. It's so complex that for someone with a really good imagination they could take sips and write lists, over and over, different versions of them. To me a main thread is that root spice, not far off licorice, with a lot of what might be interpreted as very rich dried fruit filling in some range. The complexity and smooth earthiness would probably seem a close match to a lighter roasted coffee, to some. I think the tea is beyond any flavors interpretation really doing it justice; it has too much going on.
The feel and the way it coats your tongue is also interesting, and the way the aftertaste remains as a sweet, earthy, root-spice oriented complexity. It's interesting enough that someone could spend a couple of hours drinking this tea, doing nothing else, not so much to pin down descriptions--almost better not to--but just to experience what's there, which will probably be much different in the next round. That drug-like effect might support that; a few hours out in nature drinking it might be nice.
The 1993 version evolved and transitioned even more. It's really gaining strength in the mineral range. It's woody too, very powerful in taste combining very pronounced broad-range mineral flavors with an aged wood taste. It's not the same as that "old furniture" aspect, but describing the difference goes beyond what I have concepts handy for. It comes across a bit like tree-root. Of course I mean the smell; I've not tasted that, or brewed it. When you dig up a root base for a tree, or even just dig deep into the ground, there's a mineral smell and a vegetal range smell that's unique. It's not as much like any form of wood as one might expect, nothing like fresh green wood, cut lumber, aged wood of different kinds, fermenting sawdust, and so on. It's a little like the taste you get when you bite into a raw potato, or eat a fresh piece of the peel. Not exactly like that, but in that general range.
It doesn't remind me of any other tea I've ever tried, really. That alone is nice, and it's probably a lot more pleasant than the description makes it sound. Again it's definitely not astringent in any sense but the way it coats your mouth is interesting (less centered on the tongue than the other), and the way that different flavors remain after you swallow it. I'd expect the range to sweeten a bit in the next infusion or two, with the really intense mineral and root tones evening out, but it's pretty cool as it is.
One thing I've never been able to describe is why all tea is more complex than any tisane I've ever tried, and why sheng is typically a good bit more complex than any other tea. I'm not going to try to justify or explain that further; if you get it and agree that's nice, and if you disagree or have no idea what I'm talking about it's as well to let it go. It's just a part of the underlying context that doesn't seem to get much attention, and probably for a good reason. Focusing on those aspects that make it a complex experience instead--as I am in detail here--doesn't really describe or help explain the overall effect. It reminds me of the saying about missing the forest for the trees; I'm not describing a forest here, I'm just talking about trees.
going with a limited proportion might work, along with limiting infusion time
I can't regret trying them together (just yet, at least) since for me that's a helpful tool for noticing differences in a lot more detail than trying them one day after another; the experience of each tea helps shed light on the character of the other. But really for drinking these for enjoyment versus review description trying them together doesn't make any sense at all.
They're way too strong in effect to be drinking as much tea as I easily could for other types, even for decent young sheng. Setting them aside for an hour or two could help compensate for that, but I am working within a window of time when two little people aren't shouting in here, and being shouted at by their mother. I'll probably drink these two cups and then wander around aimlessly for a short while and see what comes of that.
not helpful for tea tasting, or quiet in general
This isn't the intense high that comes with drinking a powerful young sheng, which is closer to getting stoned. This current effect isn't really an experience that I'm familiar with at all. I feel it in my body and in my head. With the only LBZ version I ever tried I literally went outside to look at the colors of the green leaves for awhile, but for this I'd probably as soon just lay down. I could probably sleep; it's strange.
The 1980 version is evolving but not changing fast. Everything I said the last round about flavors still applies: limited and integrated dark mineral, root spice, toward cocoa, not that far off coffee, with some sweetness that might trail towards dried fruit. The feel and aftertaste are cool too, but I'll skip repeating in what way, just all a bit cleaner and lighter than in the last round.
The 1993 version shifted more again; not surprising this time. That woodiness that had been similar to tree root is still there, onto more of a complex expression, covering old furniture some, but more into tree bark and fermenting sawdust now, balanced with a nice amount of sweetness. A touch of vegetal range is more like tree leaves than anything else, not like familiar food items. Of course some mineral underlies that, and the parts about feel and aftertaste again I'll not keep repeating.
Both of these are really complex experiences. In both cases what you experience extends beyond that split into taste, feel, and aftertaste, and I'm not really even talking about that drug-like effect, a bit like I've taken a valium. It just seems like there's more going on than you can really take in.
after several rounds but not completely unfurled yet
I took a break for about an hour. These teas may not have really had a sedative effect, it might have just related to enhancing whatever feeling I was already experiencing. I'm not really a morning person (even late morning, which it had been), so I was experiencing a lower energy vibe to begin with. I'm back to it, but probably just for a couple of rounds, since I've got a daily schedule to get to. I let the teas brew around 10 seconds this time, a little thicker, but that should pass on the full effect.
1980 version: the char and slate-mineral ramps up a little brewed that little bit stronger. The old furniture effect is also pronounced, with all those other aspects and layers giving this amazing complexity. It's more than worth drinking this tea just for the way all that trails along your tongue as taste and feel after you swallow it, in a very novel way. It's a little licking a blackboard, but probably more pleasant than that. I think sweetness and dark wood / spice range is picking up a little in balance. This might be a much more pleasant overall profile in another two infusions, but it's been nice already, very interesting.
1993 version: "interesting" doesn't quite capture the complexity of this tea. Dark wood, tree root, mineral undertone all ramp way up, with some fainter spice and mild dried fruit beyond all that. Now instead of this tasting a good bit like potato skin it tastes like beet root. For someone who doesn't like beet root that might sound awful but for me it really works. I don't mean cooked beets, really, although it's common to that, more like the effect in drinking a carrot and beet juice, a brighter and sweeter version, but still really earthy in a pleasant way. This tea wouldn't be for everyone but I almost get the sense that people who couldn't appreciate it would be wrong in some way, personally limited instead of just on another page.
I've said it before so I won't go too far with this idea but the complexity in both could lead to a broad range of different interpretations. This 1993 version could come across as old furniture related in flavor, or old books, or that could seem like some variation of a liqueur instead to some, or I suppose even towards nail polish. Obviously I interpret it as I've described it, but more experienced or imaginative reviewers might write a long list, or at least a different one.
1980: this shifts more to a flavor I'd always imagined betel nut would have, I just never get around to trying that. It's not nutty at all, more like a mineral intensive version of a leaf. I suppose the other earthiness might be pulling back from dark mineral and char into the range of leather, like old baseball glove. It's funny how all this sounds negative to me but I love the aspects. Again it's more about the intensity than the flavor, and there's no describing that.
1993: it works to say this version is close enough to the last round. Again very complex on different levels, just not all that similar in character. The flavor is actually stronger after you drink it than when it's in your mouth, and it still has a presence in your mouth, the feel. That effect is cool.
These both might be just starting to level off in intensity. They'll transition more, and they're really intense still, but it seems to moderate a little.
1980: this round is about the balance of earlier aspects changing quite a bit. It's hard to describe how, so I guess I just won't.
1993: kind of the same as the last round, maybe just a touch thinner, leveling out a little for intensity. Few enough teas are ever this intense of complex though, and I get the sense this is far from finished.
how those look opened up
Later rounds / conclusions
I did get back to these, and the next few rounds--all I've tried so far, but they're not finished yet--were still very nice, just thinning, decreasing in intensity, and it would've been repetitive to talk about those minor shifts. They should brew an awful lot that's quite positive, maybe just with a bit of char picking up in level again due to being drawn out more from long infusion times.
These were two great teas, very interesting, novel, and pleasant. Of course I can't place them related to a broader range of 25 to 38 year old aged sheng versions. The one tea I remember trying from the 90s was similar in some ways, but I don't have even a starting point of experience with 20+ year old sheng.
The "qi" effect was also unique, but I'll hold off on saying more about that along with the vendors' description, which goes into that too.
Tea Side vendor information / their description, and about "cha qi" effect
As I mentioned they sell these two teas; different to have such an option. Surely there wouldn't be a large supply of either. I'll cite most of their description for both here.
1993 Thai Aged Raw Pu-erh Tea
Classic old tea of dry or semi-dry storage, which Malaysia or Thailand can boast. Gives a dense dark-ruby infusion while brewed (see fast steeps on the photo). In the taste there are hazelnuts, sweet spicy wood notes and dried fruits. Feels soft, oily and silky on the throat. Deep taste and long, rich oily aftertaste leaves no doubt that the tea is made from very old trees material...
Its Cha Qi deserves a special attention. If you have some puer experience, you’ll guaranteed get drunk. By its power, this tea can compete with the best samples of Lao Ban Zhang pu-erhs. The effect is deep, sedative. The body boundaries dissolves into oily emptiness, the movements become soft, and the mind calms down.
This tea pleases with its great re-steeping ability. 7 grams confidently hold two liters of water. Make a 1,5-hour brake, put aside matters and enjoy the tea. Don’t plan anything serious for later.
That's a funny way to put it, that last part. That effect of both teas was intense, and again it would've made more sense to review them individually to compare the effect separately. Mixed, there was no splitting that out. It gave me a strange feeling, which I'll say more about after mentioning their other tea description.
1980 Thai Aged Raw Pu-erh Tea
This raw (sheng) pu-erh tea has been aging since 1980. It was made from Thai old tea trees material, Chiang Rai province. Thai storage all the way long.
Exterior of the tea is excellent. Old school is easily detected - the leaves are one to one. Instantly brews into black liquor, but at the same time the infusion is surprisingly transparent. The taste is solid, perfectly smooth and soft.
There are three main notes: camphor and sweet hazelnut flavor on a spicy wood background.It is interesting, when a wet storage produce camphor, it feels pushy. But here camphor flavor is soft, natural. Tea has acquired deep sweetness and, despite its age, it's very tasty and easy to drink. The cover of gaiwan gives a light aroma of buckwheat and wheat.
6 grams of dry tea for half liter of water. The Cha Qi here is very different from the one of old 1993 raw pu-erh of the same master. "Covers" softer and gentler, you don’t feel such "swagger". The tea strongly warms up the body, calms and collects your thoughts.
I might have swapped out some mention of camphor for that of slate-range mineral, but close enough. I get the sense that camphor is being used in different ways in tea descriptions. Some teas really do remind me of the ingredient that is used in medicinal balms, just not very many. This really didn't, but it did have some of an aged furniture effect that seems to get assigned that naming too. Hazelnut, mentioned in both vendor descriptions, kind of works per my interpretation.
About the feel; they are saying the two teas have a completely different "qi" effect. I can only pass on what happens when you mix those, which of course would make no sense to someone drinking tea primarily or even partly for that effect.
They were calming, with a sedative effect, but providing an unusual type of energy. I wouldn't say I loved the feeling but it was novel. Somehow even though calming and providing energy together sort of are the point of teas that produce a qi effect the energy seemed edgy, and a little unsettling. I can't rule out that my starting point state wasn't a factor in that. It was on a day off, when I had plenty of free time, but my days off tend to carry over some of the stress levels I've experienced from earlier.
Another Chinese tea vendor has raised a complaint against pu'er that echoes what I just experienced, that the energy from the tea makes her feel edgy versus calm, that it's somehow aggressive in nature (versus a type she likes better, and also happens to sell, so maybe not an unbiased take). I'm not saying pu'er is like that in general, and I'm not even sure anyone else would have the same reaction to the exact same thing I just experienced. It's interesting and relevant so I'm passing the ideas on.
I'll explain further by comparing these two two other tea "qi" experiences. The strongest I felt was from an LBZ sample, reviewed in this post. I felt stoned from that, as if I'd smoked marijuana. I guess for someone into getting high that might be great, but then they have marijuana for that.
More recently I tried two young Yiwu sheng together and those passed on a good bit of effect, again the calming + energy pairing, but more mild, and nothing like being stoned. That was more typical of what I've experienced in the past; milder, calming but more related to being energizing, and more moderate.
All of this is really more for someone who likes such effects, and seeks them out. Some people pass on that they experience changes in energy level and calmness, or mental state of mind, based on drinking lots of types of tea, or I guess potentially all of them. I don't reject that; people would be more or less sensitive to it. I'm skeptical that they aren't imagining some of it. That's in the same way I accept that maybe someone can identify a dozen distinct flavors from a tea (even one I've drank and not noticed any of them from); I just doubt that imagination wasn't a significant, or even critical, supporting input.
That could be taken in two different ways. Imagination in terms of "just making it up" is one; some of that surely goes on at some point. I also think to be most sensitive to effects of tea, or flavors, or any other aspects, someone would need to be very open to subtle inputs. Imagination could support that, in order to help identify what really is there, just down at the threshold of what can be experienced. This might occur well below the threshold of what most people would or could experience, in some cases. Anyone who could notice that they've had a few beers would be able to notice the effects of these teas, easily enough.
Anyway, this makes for a chance for people to try and experience this for themselves, since these teas are being sold per weight versus in any set quantity. They both certainly made for a novel experience on multiple levels that I really appreciated the chance to try.