I'm reviewing the last two samples of a set of Tea Side teas sent along with a black tea purchase, two Thai shou versions (listed here).
I've reviewed plenty of other tea versions from them, mostly black teas and Thai "pu'er-like" teas, but others too (Thailand is better known for rolled-style oolongs). I won't go into all that here but if Thai versions of such teas are of interest they're the most accessible vendor selling such things, or maybe the only one selling aged versions like these.
2006 left; direct comparison shows color change from aging, or maybe initial fermentation level difference too
2006 left, 2012 right; the older tea is a bit darker
2006: Even in the first somewhat light infusion the 2006 version is smooth, complex, full, and creamy. There's nothing challenging about the tea; it has had plenty of time for any rough edges to age into depth and complexity instead. Parts of the flavor relate to typical earthy range, warmer mineral tones, maybe roasted chestnut, but some of the flavor is still lighter, towards a mild form of black licorice. I'll add more related to a full list and feel as infusions go on but it's complex in an unusual way, really integrated, and smooth, almost simple in effect at the same time lots is going on.
2012: This version is getting a slower start; it will be easier to fill in detail on a next round. Both of these aren't brewed using a typical packed-gaiwan amount, so I'm sorting out adjusting infusion time to compensate. The rounds count will drop as a result. It's also very smooth, showing similar creaminess but with less complexity at this lighter strength, but it hasn't gotten started to the same degree yet. It might be slightly sweeter, still in an earthy roasted chestnut range, but it seems like some spice might develop, towards root-beer root spice, or a related lighter range, possibly dried fruit.
definitely brewed stronger (2006 left)
2006: not changed much; it's still complex but within an integrated range, earthy but not in any challenging ways, nothing like petroleum, tar, or peat. Part of that rich flavor in Guiness Stout comes across, towards coffee, but not quite coffee, which stands out more as that for the sweetness being pronounced for shou and the creamy effect. Or black licorice works as an alternative interpretation. Again it's funny how it's complex but comes across as simple; there's a lot in that range but it's all in a narrow, integrated set. I'm wondering if I didn't try this tea version before, although I doubt looking up old reviews would lead to matching it up.
2012: the flavor and general effect overlaps but it's quite different. This is a bit towards a woody character, but not woody in any sense I usually describe as such, more like a sweet, aromatic aged tropical dark hardwood. I guess I'm saying it's like my wardrobe smells (a furniture version of a closet). It's also very pleasant and not challenging in any way, and sweet and creamy, with a nice rich feel and nice aftertaste. Some of the character overlaps; both of these seem to have a nice roasted chestnut effect. It's a little towards a sweet mild spice but hard to pin down as a specific version, maybe like a root version of some sort.
In reviewing these teas something stands out I might not have made clear: I tend to like shou brewed a little stronger than some other tea types. It would work to drink them much lighter, and I do tend to prefer most sheng and oolongs made that way, but thick feel effect and strong mineral and other flavor aspects works well brewed stronger, to me. It only works when there aren't flaws to brew around, or moderating infusion strength to adjust flavor balance works better, but these two versions someone could drink at whatever brewed strength they want.
looks like I tried that round slightly stronger yet
2006: the character is transitioning some but it's mostly a matter of balance of aspects shifting. It's interesting how drinkable this tea is, how smooth and pleasant. I'm not brewing it lightly (maybe more the opposite, on the strong side) but no trace of negative earthy aspects comes out. I kind of like that bit of tar that can easily ruin a shou but that works well in the right balance, paired with sweetness and creaminess, but there's nothing in this version that walks that line. I suppose the base of rich earthy mineral compounds might remind some of tar, or the related aftertaste that trails on after you drink it. It tastes a little more like ink smells in this round compared to the earlier set I described, like a mineral range that would be hard to put a name to, in part probably related to infusion strength difference versus natural transition. Like slate, the rock type, works about as well as any other. Without the right other context and balancing aspects that could be unpleasant but it works well in this tea version.
2012: this changed a good bit over this third infusion; that's surprising. The warm hardwood and subdued spice shifted onto an aged book or furniture effect, and the licorice is more like the jujube candies. Usually when I'm referencing old furniture the rest of the tea context doesn't work as well in making that a positive effect. It comes up with rolled oolongs that can gain an aged flavor relatively quickly, over a few years, which isn't necessarily positive (or necessarily negative, I guess; that part would depend on preference). This is tied to that tropical hardwood aspect range I mentioned, maybe still with more of that effect shifting into an aged range, so it balances well. "Old books," as I would use the description, could be a musty, slightly off smell related to how the stacks back in a University of Hawaii library smelled, or to a rich, complex, clean range like aged leather-bound books (or at least in a dry library), and this is more the latter.
Sinclair (UH Manoa) stacks, a favorite place to study (credit)
outdoor tables at Sinclair, a great study-area view of Honolulu (credit)
As can happen this runs long, so even though the transitions probably still aren't finished I'll leave off after this round. It's probably been covered enough already but the nice thing about teas of this character is that they work well at different infusion strengths; you can't really get brewing wrong. There's no significant astringency to brew around and the aspects work well lighter or even brewed very strong. There doesn't even necessarily seem to be just one optimum to shoot for, although preference would determine that differently for different people.
2006: not really different; still very nice. It would keep transitioning some since it's not even half brewed out yet (or maybe that, since I used a more standard proportion and longer infusion times, on the order of 30 seconds), it just didn't change over this last round.
2012: the contrast between the two versions stands out more than a transition of either between rounds. These seem to be just leveling off a bit for character.
Conclusions, about variations in shou quality levels and pricing
The teas were great; complex, pleasant, novel, and interesting. The main conclusion is just that.
I only have one concern about them, which applies more to the general tea type than just to these two versions. As with any tea type versions vary a lot across a range by quality level or by individual aspects. But to me shou could reasonably be regarded as varying less than many other types. I'm not saying that good shou is nearly the same as great shou or medium quality versions, but I am claiming that--to me--that seems to be more the case for shou than for sheng, or for better oolongs or other types (maybe just not so much for black teas). They vary less.
That's a personal judgment, not an objective truth. To clarify what I mean there is surely a subset of shou that isn't very good, lower quality versions, that don't just exhibit some degree of fermentation related unusual flavors in the year or few years after being produced but continue to be a bit off later too. I've heard more about that than I've experienced; I've tried "bad shou" but not much compared to medium quality or better versions. I'm not even talking about that subject or character range here.
It comes down to a matter of preference, of course, as everything related to tea does, and plenty of people would disagree with what I just said. I didn't mean it as a critique or judgement against shou to the extent it may have come across; I like the tea type, and better versions clearly seem better. To place that, I see most types of Chinese black tea as a bit simpler and less varied than many oolong or sheng types too (or essentially all of them), in terms of range covered per a type or how any given version comes across, but I love black teas as much as any other category. I see them as more approachable and straightforward in character, not as inferior, but paired with that also varying less.
There's really no point in a tea type being complex, broad or layered in terms of flavor range, expressing transitions across infusions, with lots going on for mouthfeel and aftertaste experience, if part of it doesn't match your preference, or if you don't care for the way it all works together.
I'm not sure who I'm supposed to be saying all this to since people who are into shou probably already get all that, and for people who aren't it probably wouldn't make much sense (and few people with limited prior exposure to the type are probably reading this anyway).
It comes to mind because I criticized a shou for being relatively expensive awhile back, without really qualifying that. To be blunt using this review as an example: are these Tea Side versions worth what they're being sold for, in my opinion? They sell for $80 and $120 per 357 g cake per the 2012 and 2006 versions, respectively. That's a bit, for shou. Per my guess that's roughly the range of market price for teas on this quality level, for comparable Yunnan origin versions, with the odd twist that you can't buy these particular Thai origin versions anywhere else that I've seen. The critique of that other shou was about it not seeming quite as good as should be typical for the pricing level, to me.
Those two sets of ideas don't necessarily conflict, that there is a real range of difference that somehow varies less, although it might seem they do. Let's go further, with an example; 4 1/2 years ago, early in the process of exploring and writing about teas, I bought a set of three years worth of a classic version of shou, Menghai Dayi 7572:
It's not possible to compare the review impressions from back then with these two teas, in part because I wasn't writing detailed reviews then, but also because my baseline for expectations and past experience back then would make that worthless if I had been. What would those be worth today, one might wonder? Yunnan Sourcing lists teas that aren't so different, even if batches vary:
So maybe around $50. This isn't heading towards any sort of "this is about as good as that" type of conclusion, just laying out a general factory tea range. To me that general range of tea isn't as good as these Tea Side teas, but it's hard to place if it would make sense in value to spend twice as much on a tea based on the difference in character. It would depend on value per preference, tied to tea budget and specific expectations. Per my prior experience (I drank those teas) those factory versions are pretty decent; the difference between typical factory sheng and better, costlier versions stands out a lot more. But then so does pricing difference; around $100 doesn't go as far for aged sheng, or even for better new boutique / commissioned versions.
Citing a Moychay vendor multiple-type shou cake review, talking about value there, can help place this:
I liked that one label
That's quite a lot of cost spread, but that seems fair to me, how that age and quality range should work out. The lowest cost tea works well for an example of one that might be great in another 5 years, or even a good bit better in 2 or 3, if kept under the right conditions, and the other two were on the next corresponding levels, one a pretty good shou that's ready to drink now, and then an older version that has those extra levels of positive aspects.
So again the price range follows suit, with buying well-stored older teas naturally costing more (that is a real added value, related to both an extra input incurring extra cost, and to product rarity), and best-value relating to preference and budget inclination. Completely off that main point: I've tried that least expensive 2017 Moychay shou again in the last two weeks, with it positively transitioning quite a bit in the last three months, so I now think it won't take two more years for the initial fermentation effect to clean up, another year should improve it a lot.
It keeps coming back to "it all just depends." It's helpful to try a lot of different teas to place if any version is where it should be related to the quality level represented, a good version of the type and age, and these Thai versions seem that to me. I can see why some aged sheng drinkers tend to "look down" on shou as inferior for varying less, or just being less interesting in character, and I can't completely agree with that since I also like shou, but I can make some sense of it. There's just no accounting for taste, for subjective preference differences, and no way to make simple objective claims about that subject.