Thursday, November 1, 2018

Tea Village Thai dark oolong

their tasting area isn't currently open but we chatted there anyway

I finally made it back to Pattaya for two weekend outings (with a travel-blog themed post about that here) and visited Vee, one of the owners of the Tea Village shop there.  We met twice; catching up was nice.  I bought this more-oxidized oolong and an old tree source Assam black (in a style not unrelated to Dian Hong, it seems) during the first weekend, and some lighter oolong the second.

I've been critical of Thai teas in the past for being lower quality versions of what is produced in other places, and have claimed that Vietnamese teas can be better.  To me those generalities are accurate but there's something to be said for upper medium level quality good-value teas.  Even for an experienced tea enthusiast they can work for a daily drinker, as a tea to have with breakfast when you don't have time to put into brewing or appreciation, and for people still on tea-bag teas they could be a revelation and a gateway.

It all depends on the tea version too.  An average version of an average quality level tea might not be worth drinking, for many, but a much better quality version in the same general range, just on the higher edge instead, could seem very pleasant.  This review will identify where this version stands, per my judgement.  Brewing approach makes a difference, so it will cover a good bit about that as a factor.

Let's start with the vendor description first (from a sales-site web page, paraphrased since text cut and paste is disabled):

A dark (high oxidation level) oolong based on Assamica variety leaves, with flavors that include some tartness and flavors including prune, bark, and dark chocolate, produced similarly to Tie Kuan Yin.

That Assamica part jumps out, doesn't it?  It reads like a likely mistake at first glance.  I can only think of one version of Chinese Assamica-based oolong that I've tried, beyond teas coming out of India, but those aren't even supposed to be close to Chinese oolongs, it doesn't seem.  Tartness in an oolong is atypical but then an oolong made from Assamica would be atypical.

The rest seems right for more oxidized oolong, but the reference to Tie Kuan Yin could do with a little unpacking.  Per my experience--which isn't so extensive that I'm clear on everything, especially related to TKY range and processing--those Chinese versions aren't more-oxidized teas, they're moderately oxidized, maybe even still on the light side, with the roast shifting the profile more than that other processing input.  To be clear I really could've tried only atypical versions, because you tend to mostly only see the light version (bright green ones), and I wouldn't be surprised if producers trying to copy an older style would very often get that part wrong.

The Taiwanese more-oxidized or more-roasted oolongs I've tried spanned more of a range; those do tend to be made with either oxidation or roasting level increased, or both together, it just depends.  I could go on to say that I've not tried much presented as a more roasted or oxidized TKY from there (from that cultivar or plant type, which is also used to mention a characteristic style in some cases), but I wouldn't make too much of that, and here that point was just a description tangent anyway.

They recommend using full boiling point water and a modified Western brewing approach, with a somewhat typical proportion (maybe a little high) but backing off the timing and using 3 to 5 infusions of 45 seconds to 2 minutes.  That is kind of how I tend to adjust Western style brewing; we'll see about the temperature part though.

The tea is very inexpensive; the website lists 50 grams for around $2 (65 baht).  That is a standard price range for grocery store versions of Thai oolong here, or Royal project store versions, but tea quality levels vary a lot for both of those sources.  Among Western vendors tea just isn't sold in that price range, at least not decent oolong.

I've prepared it using an infuser cup, small glass pot, and gaiwan


I first brewed this tea Western style, so that's where this review will start, based on a relatively standard process.  I tend to go a little heavy on proportion and brew three rounds versus two, which seems to work better for me for oolongs (which often turn out better brewed Gongfu style anyway, with more on that in a next section).  I most often use water a little off boiling point.

The tea tastes like cinnamon.  The overall character is closer to black tea than oolong, with the balance in the middle working well in this case.  A typical aspect-list description comes to mind: warm and sweet dried fruit, along the lines of tamarind, maybe even cherry (although that's a stretch), leather or dark wood, a trace of mineral similar to rusted iron.  This range often gets interpreted as similar to pastry, like toasted and buttery Danish, which works.

Really how someone sees aspects depends on interpretation, as much or more in this case as any.  It's a little creamy in effect but that could be stronger with this set of aspects.  It could be seen as tasting like cocoa instead of cinnamon, but per my read it's cinnamon.


-not off in any way, sour, or oddly roasted, overly thin.

-clean flavored with good sweetness and balance.

-cinnamon is nice.  Other aspect range is positive but it could have more depth and complexity.

-this kind of tea works well prepared strong, both a strength and related to weaknesses, since it can't be over-brewed but lacks intensity to pull off lighter infusion strengths.

-inexpensive (kind of a completely different subject, but it is a factor).


-a bit thin as oolongs go; nice flavor but thin in feel and after taste.  I'd said in the "strengths" it wasn't overly thin, but I meant two different things.  This lacks the depth and fullness of higher quality oolongs but doesn't come across as so light in body that I'd call it a notable flaw.  I see it as a limitation instead.

-not as subtle, refined, or complex as better Taiwanese versions.  It needs to be brewed strong to compensate for both of these limitations.

Initial conclusions (prior to trying a second brewing approach, Gongfu preparation)

I like this style of tea and this version works. For a good value tea it's pleasant and positive.  Thai producers more often get this slightly wrong, and similar versions often have one more flaw that makes it not work as well (sourness, or some other slightly off character).

I'm curious if light roasting played a role in end effect but I get the impression that oxidation did all the work of aspects transition in this, or at least almost all of it, which works but limits the complexity.

The part about the tea being Assamica is curious; how did that change things (or could that not be accurate?).  Of course it could be Assamica; if you process those leaves in the same way a tea variation of oolong will result, it just won't turn out the same.  The leaves seem smaller than I'd expect, but then Assamica is a broad category and newer leaves are still going to be small for that plant type (just maybe not the first three, but then I'm thin on the botany side of background).  Using that plant type could explain why it didn't achieve the depth and fullness that similar but less oxidized oolongs tend to.

I would have expected the taste profile to skew further off typical Thai oolong range with that as a factor.  I've described this as a mild black tea, for the most part (the descriptions would match that), but that pastry-like character I've never experienced in the same form in any Assamica or Yunnan black.  The cinnamon can be common, and of course a broad range of fruit and mineral, but that other aspect tends to not come up.

It's not typical but I'll compare this from memory with a personal favorite similar style tea from Vietnam, Hatvala's Red Buffalo.  In a sense that's not a fair comparison because that's a favorite, but the styles mostly match, at a rough general level, and there is a general point I'm heading towards.  I haven't tried that tea in about two years but I did buy a lot at one point so it sticks in memory better.

They're so similar that only a side by side tasting would clarify exactly where they stand in relation to each other, and year to year that might vary.  I remember that tea as slightly creamier and fuller, lighter on cinnamon but fuller in complexity.  For a casual tea drinker it's still possible this flavor profile might work better (or more likely not; I really did like that tea), but at a guess that Vietnamese tea version depth in flavor complexity and feel would tip the balance for experienced tea drinkers, for people with more evolved preferences.

To me this is still nice tea as daily drinkers go.  Gongfu brewing might pull out an extra aspect or two (I'll cover that next) but in general western brewing is just as well for this tea type.  It's nice because it would be one of the best teas someone new to tea ever tried, a good gateway tea, even if it is probably too limited for a Taiwanese oolong enthusiast to appreciate it.

that tasting room area is really cool

two minutes in; impatient little people

Gongfu brewing

I really expected the tea to be almost the same but to perform better prepared Gongfu style.  Instead the tartness was a lot more pronounced, taking over the other range of flavor aspects, standing out as dominant.  In the earlier review section here I didn't even mention tartness.  I kept thinking it would fade, and it probably did some, in later rounds, but I noticed more of what seemed like cranberry for flavor than anything else throughout the cycle.  So what happened?

At a guess the teaware I was using to brew the tea Western style absorbed more heat, and allowed more to dissipate during the longer brewing process, resulting in an unintended parameter change.  That is just a guess, but it would account for that degree of aspect change.  Just using a different proportion and timing can change aspects some too but it normally doesn't to that degree.

Using a full gaiwan (once the leaves were wet) also made it harder to moderate infusion strength, although flash brewing would accomplish that.  While I usually go lighter on Gongfu style brewing infusion strength I might have accidentally inverted that, and had been brewing the tea stronger for most rounds instead.  That would be my first guess for causes of the difference (related to the tartness) if I'd only prepared this tea twice, but I've been drinking it brewed Western style a few times and that tartness doesn't come out to that degree, no matter how long I infuse it or at whatever proportion.  It seems likely using fast infusions with a thin porcelain gaiwan caused a significant temperature difference, even for using the same water temperature at the start.

A Steepster discussion of someone brewing what they described as moderate quality Tie Kuan Yin (mediocre, they put it, a little more judgmental but the same idea), and getting better results than they usually do relates to this.  It turned out that per their final conclusion they accidentally dropped brewing temperature and that worked better.  It's a standard idea that better oolongs can perform well (or best, as the typical take) at full boiling point, but that lower quality versions may not.  All that was covered in this blog post about best oolong brewing temperature.

It seems likely that I really do like this tea brewed just a bit off boiling point, brewed cooler, but that thinness and lack of body I mentioned in the first review is the trade-off for limiting that tartness.

It's still decent tea; it was never supposed to be a higher quality version than it is.  If someone didn't mind or even enjoyed tartness in tea (which I sort of don't) the opposite trade-off might be the way to go; brew it hot, and get that extra intensity and depth back, but give up some apparent sweetness and more flavor aspect range towards cinnamon or dried fruit. 

Related to value and appreciating a broad range of style of tea it's interesting to me how this can seem like nice tea and a good value at $2 / 50 grams, and the Hatvala Red Buffalo similar oolong can too while costing nearly three times as much (still not much for nice oolong), and my favorite Chinese oolong in a different style, Wuyi Origin's Rou Gui (reviewed here) can cost more than ten times as much and still be a great value tea.  It would work better for parallel structure to be referencing a better Taiwanese "red oolong" but I don't have a favorite among what I've tried of those.  In my own progression of tea appreciation in the past I was more at one particular place or level, liking the quality level I had learned to appreciate versus all of them, each for what it is.  I'm not convinced that's necessarily a higher form of perspective; it's just where I am now.

I bought some extra of this to share with my daughter's teacher since although it's not great tea it's quite good for the price.  She's British and doesn't have much exposure to teas beyond the breakfast blends and such; it'll be interesting to hear how that goes.  

on his 10th birthday; they grow up so fast

the other, with Yai

one of many cool moments; they help me appreciate the little things

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