Thursday, October 4, 2018

Dento Hon Gyokuro from Tea Mania

I've still running behind in trying all of the really exceptional teas a couple of vendors have shared, with a good bit more from Tea Mania to get to after this one (and I still have more from Moychay; I'll get back to those).  I can only review teas so fast and beyond that it seems to burn me out, and readers, to go beyond one or two reviews per week.

This general type of tea is familiar, Gyokuro, but I haven't tried that many versions of it.  In one sense really good Gyokuro would be wasted on me because I'm not experienced enough with the range to place a version.  In a different sense anyone can try any good version of any tea and appreciate the positive aspects they experience, just not on the level of detail as someone with a lot more prior exposure to better versions.  I'll keep this simple and relate what those positive aspects are like.

As for brewing the main mistake to avoid in preparing this tea style is going cool enough; recommendations stress that using conventional green tea water temperatures is too hot.  As I recall 125 to 140 F / 50 to 60 C is cool enough, with some saying that going on the cooler side of that range is better, even though that's getting down towards bathwater temperature.

I'm not even going to talk about parameters used for this trial; suffice it to say that the tea deserves better control than I'm applying, but at least I'm sticking to using cooler water.  This isn't really intended as a review of this tea prepared optimally, but hopefully at least a reasonably well-prepared version.


The first infusion is fantastic; kind of what I expected.  Green tea isn't my thing, in general, but the best versions of teas have a way of transcending typical experience range.  I've spoken many times of how sometimes the best versions of a type or range can help with a type profile "clicking."  After that experience a type or aspect set can make more sense, so that even lower quality or less interesting related versions might seem better after.  I've tried nice Gyokuro before, so it's not new ground in that sense (but it's been a couple of years).  To some degree it's just easier to limit the range of what I do try to pursue, since all the other tea types across China, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, and the rest of SE Asia are way too much to get to anyway.

This tea is sweet, and of course umami stands out.  It tastes a little like seaweed but that aspect isn't as pronounced as it can be.  It's complex; it tastes a bit like sweet corn too, like the freshest, sweetest version you might ever try, like the butter and sugar two-colored version that was a local favorite back in Western PA.  The best versions we would get were picked up from an uncle there who farmed out of a love of tending the land, even though it wasn't an overly profitable pursuit.  From there that vegetal range includes a bit of fresh sprout flavor, that tasty, really green, hard to place range.  There are also interesting pronounced mineral undertones, which are tied to that.  But description by aspect label won't really do the experience justice.  The way the sweetness, brightness, depth, vegetal themed range, and umami all balance is what makes it work.

brewing in a basket infuser device, probably not optimum

Just describing the umami aspect itself is difficult.  In seaweed, one of the more pronounced sources of the aspect, the savory nature is paired with strong vegetal flavors, and that particular seaweed range is quite limited in this.  It sounds crazy but it's a little like chicken stock, or maybe even poached salmon, but in a way that works.  One part of that comes across as sea salt, as a sweet, mineral intensive version of salt; that's different.  That first infusion was on the light side, brewed especially cool; it will be interesting to try the tea on a second round and see how it changes.

On the second infusion the flavor deepened, probably as much from parameter variance as standard infusion cycle transition.  There's still plenty of sweetness and umami but the mineral undertone ramped up, and seaweed vegetal nature edged up slightly.  The effect is less like bright sweet corn and some type of sprouts, still including that range, but moved to add a bit more seaweed, and stronger on the sprout, or maybe onto a different version of one.  A touch of cooked vegetable joins in too, which could be interpreted in lots of ways, maybe not far from seared zucchini.  I didn't mention it last round but it's interesting the way that even for being prepared slightly on the light side (since the tea doesn't need concentrated infusion to be intense) the aftertaste draws out in an interesting way.

In a comment in a Tea Fix podcast Leona mentioned liking Japanese green teas prepared strong, to be drank like a shot, sort of shifting brewed green tea towards the experience of matcha.  That would work for this, but it wouldn't seem appropriate, maybe a better approach for getting a good umami hit out of Sencha versus good Gyokuro.  I think I will try this brewed stronger next round, to see how that changes things.  Most likely the transition to more mineral and stronger vegetal range that occurred between the first two infusions would only continue so far, probably moving into more cooked vegetable range, or onto stewed spinach, if the water used is too hot.

In the third infusion the seaweed finally picks up.  Not the umami, which had stood out already, the vegetal range that reminds me of seaweed.  It's still complex, with a lot going on, but in this round that one flavor aspect joins the others in level of intensity.  Seaweed itself comes in a range of different types, with many actually spanning complex flavor sets on their own.  Since the flavors in earlier rounds had included vegetal scope with a good bit of mineral and pronounced umami it already had overlapped.  On a different interpretation this may taste more like cooked spinach instead.

my wife loved poke in Hawaii, raw tuna with seaweed;  me not so much (credit).


I drink Gyokuro so infrequently it's hard to place if this is a good version or a great one.  At a guess it's quite good, but that is a guess.  Once you get to know a tea type better "good" starts to take on a broad spectrum of potential meanings that someone who infrequently drinks the type wouldn't be familiar with.  Judgement becomes more specific, about trueness-to type, and aspect variation within a narrow range.  Markers that serve as quality indicators for that type become familiar, which often also evolve to become preferred characteristics, not just a way to tell how good the tea is.  I'm not there with Japanese green tea or Gyokuro.  That said, I'm not completely new to the general range either, and broad exposure to lots of teas helps to some extent.

Quality level versus what else is available for options and the issue of value both tend to come up.  To some extent the price a tea is sold at indicates how good a vendor implies that tea is.  It's a mistake to think the two would necessarily correlate, because it's up to individual vendors to decide how to brand, market, and price their teas.  More direct sourcing chains open the option for a vendor to sell better tea for less.  Or a vendor could buy a very average version of a tea directly from a local farmer and inflate the price to an entirely unjustified level.  An interesting and true back-story doesn't define how good a tea is, the tea character and aspects do.

Some vendors probably can't identify quality level or trueness to type themselves, lacking the background experience, even if they do travel to Asia annually, so not every case of what seems like misrepresentation would have to be based on opportunistic deception.  Based on prior exposure to Tea Mania's teas, and especially to two versions of in-house produced sheng I've recently tried (like this Yiwu version and Jing Mai version), Peter of Tea Mania knows what he's buying and is fair about sharing savings from buying more directly, in my opinion.

I'll pass on the Tea Mania's vendor description to add more background:

This Yame Gyokuro is cultivated and processed according to the "Dento Hon" method. "Dento Hon" is a very unspoiled and natural way to make tea. The tea bushes are not trimmed into rows as usually but let naturally grow. Such tea fields are not very picturesque and it makes it impossible to do harvest by machines but but in return the reward is an extraordinary aroma. In addition, these tea bushes are at least 20 days prior to harvest shaded with straw mats. The straw mats are called in Yame "Sumaki" while elsewhere they are called "Honzu".

Harvest: May 2017 
Taste: Sweet aroma with a immense amount of umami.
Origin: Hoshino, Prefecture Fukuoka, Japan.
Varietal: Yamakai
Preparation: Appx. 5g per serving, temperature 50 - 60°C,  time 1-2 min.
Tip: Use rather a higher leaf to water ratio and infuse repeatedly for short time. First infusion max. 60s and all futher infusions only 30s as the leaves are already soaked. Use a Kyusu tea pot.

not the same farm, but showing how cool managed nature looks in Japan (credit)

Sounds good, right?  I have no further comment about all that.

I don't usually mention price in reviews but why not; this is selling for $30 USD for 50 grams.  That sounds about right, and could be very fair for what this tea is.  I'm not really mentioning it to evaluate that part, just adding it for completeness.  One might wonder, how does this compare to a standard pricing range for Gyokuro, or how would types and pricing vary across those of different quality levels?  I couldn't place this (I keep saying), but it's simple enough to look up what one of the main Japanese vendors sells (based on input from a Japanese tea blogger about what businesses represent main sources; even that I'm not familiar with).

Ito En lists a number of Gyokuro versions, spanning $15 to $30 per ounce, with a hand-picked version listed at the top of that range, at double the cost of the this Tea Mania tea.  It doesn't work to place the versions in relation to each other by website description, and only a very experienced taster could do such comparison justice, but it seems likely this is a good value tea.  How good depends on quality, and the tea seeming very positive makes for a good start on that.

Luckily Peter passed on enough of this tea I can try it a few times.  I'd probably shift the interpretation a bit as I get parameters down better, and familiarity beyond that.  Reviewing teas doesn't work like that; it takes too long to do a review just based on one take, and combining two sets of notes is quite difficult.

I did actually try this a couple times after writing that review (I'm behind in converting draft notes to finished posts), but don't have much to add.  When I drink teas without making review notes I kind of just enjoy them without doing much for evaluation or internal description.  Sometimes an extra aspect, interpretation, or idea jumps out but this just kept seeming like a really nice version of a higher quality Japanese green tea.

Peter shared a picture of the plants being shaded

Extra local Bangkok life section

part of Bangkok, a composite picture of Paragon mall, a temple, the sky-train, and some skyline

the last day at that local zoo I kept talking about

my memory of that place, my favorite people enjoying things there

paddleboating, a bit hot from going for speed

a week earlier at that zoo, with the other one

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