Thursday, June 27, 2019

Xiaguan 2010 Teji Tuo special grade sheng tuocha







Given this is a standard tea type (producer and products) the vendor source matters less, but this was from an order from Chawang Shop, from which I still have a few more teas to try.  It's nice trying a range of less expensive but still interesting versions, teas I've been meaning to get to, like Xiaguan tuochas, along with some pretty good sheng versions.

These teas really need age, and trying limited counts of versions of any type, source, or quality level tea is relatively meaningless in comparison with a reasonable size sample set.  This is the kind of tea someone would stash a bunch of instead, once they sort out preference a bit, versus tuochas just serving as samples.  Buying 2007 Tulin versions at a local shop turned me back onto this page, but I've written about at least one Dayi version before, which at five years old now is just starting into a long middle age, which these two versions are still in, but at the other side.

I'd meant to try this as a simple, stand-alone tasting, to not clutter the experience and write-up with any form of comparison.  Then I remembered that I wanted to try that 2011 Xiaguan mini iron cake along with this at some point, to see how they differ, given the origin year isn't too far off.  A review of that was already covered in the Tulin tuocha review I just mentioned, so the point here is only comparison.  I expect that both will be much better after another 5 or so years of age, but this should work as an interesting earlier-form snapshot, especially in comparison.


label of that other 2011 Xiaguan mini iron cake


it's even more tightly compressed than it looks




It seems crazy to compare pricing prior to a tasting, but the point of referencing the whole list of what I bought wasn't that, it was to check on tea volume for both.  It is odd that the Xiaguan mini iron cake amounted to 125 grams of tea and this tuocha 250.  I was just looking through those and wondering what that "2008 Yong Pin Hao Yiwu" sheng brick is; I'll keep going on trying these.  Three more sheng I bought look interesting too, and they've definitely rested a bit from the trip a couple of months ago.  It's odd I didn't try that 2006 Myanmar Kokang version yet; there's really no pattern to the order I get to them.

Related to value, since the pricing is right there for both, the tuocha is selling for around double the mini-cake (around $20 versus around $10).  Both seem a steal to me for nearly completely aged sheng versions, at a lower per-weight cost than most vendors sell mid-range brand new teas.  In a sense I shouldn't even be talking about this, since eventually I would want to order more of some of these, the ones I like the best, and drawing attention to them won't help with that.  It's not as if that many people read this blog anyway, and some would be into better or at least different teas.

One last point; it seems like there should be a number code that goes along with this product, that they would separate products that way.  Yunnan Sourcing sells a slightly younger version also only identified by this name, so I guess just using a branding name works instead, which just seems odd to me since that's only referring to it as a "special grade."


Review


2010 Xiaguan Teji Tuo:  the first infusion went really long, mostly due to messing around with writing this, rather than that being planned.  Sometimes I do use a longer first infusion to clear past the initial transition anyway, to get the tea saturated, in tea versions for which I think that won't be skipping over something interesting.  This tastes a bit like coffee; cool.  I mean to the extent that if you gave someone this they would probably think it is that.

The tea is reasonable.  It's definitely intense, but bitterness and astringency work at these levels.  I'm picking up some wood tone and a trace of mushroom beyond that coffee range, and it will probably shift some over the next two rounds, so it's as well to do more with flavor-by-flavor description on the next one.


2011 Xiaguan FT Yun Mei Chun iron cake:  interesting!  This tastes a bit like coffee too, but there is a warmer, aromatic sweetness to it, in a completely different range.  It tastes a little like that sweet scent of pipe tobacco, which is not all that closely related to the experience of smoking a cigarette or tasting forms of chewing tobacco.  The other tea seemed moderately clean in effect, especially for being an early round (the first), and for brewing a bit longer than optimum, but this is even sweeter and cleaner in effect, and slightly more complex.

I'm already getting the sense that these probably would improve in a few years but they'd still be ok to drink right now.  Conventional wisdom would say don't even think about it, that the true depth, complexity, and transitioned character isn't there yet.  It's not as if I'll struggle to not drink these up but it will be interesting to check back in after another year, and I really should put more of what I like best away at this point, given where it already seems they're headed for character.

Second infusion


tuo version left, FT cake right


2010 tuocha:  that mushroom really picked up; now this is equal parts coffee and mushroom (earthy, like a dried shitake).  I used a more typical faster infusion time but for as intense as these are closer to 5 seconds might work better than 10.  It's hard to say this tastes "clean" given the flavor range covers that much mushroom, with a bit of barn door as well, but in a limited sense it still is that.  Those are odd types of earthy flavors but it's still not really musty, earthy, or expressing mineral range in any unusual or off forms.  Per preference for flavors it would be as well if it moved off the mushroom but it's fine.

Feel is also fine, quite full with a decent amount of structure but still smooth in a limited sense, "mouth watering" versus dry (ok, maybe a little dry).  Intensity and aftertaste are fine; that feel and these flavors could transition to a softer and deeper form and the overall experience would be great.


2011 iron cake:  there's a sweetness, richness, and complexity to this version the other just doesn't have.  I'd described it as similar to the aromatic range of pipe tobacco, which is close enough, but it could be interpreted in lots of different ways, and it's complex enough that a broad set would probably fit better than any one association.  It's also like the rich, sweet, earthy scent of old tree bark, extending into how aged leather would taste (if anyone ever actually tasted that), like brewing up an old bomber jacket or leather bound book cover.  A simpler but also intense and complex coffee-like range fills that in, like the effect of a light roast, not at all towards a higher roasted char.

Breakfast was a little light (I just ate a mango) and I'm really feeling these teas already.  I'll eat a bit of chocolate and a few longkong (fruit that's hard to describe) to pad my stomach and limit this head-buzz effect.  I don't mean it's stoney like a really old sheng or gushu version but I'd as soon that whatever the effect is like it's moderate.

I had already mentioned that it's lychee season, didn't I?


Third infusion




2010 tuocha:  better!   The mushroom is easing up, falling into a better balance with a lot of other range.  Barn-door aged wood tone has given way to more aromatic wood flavor, not quite the cedar I keep bringing up in different reviews, maybe a milder version of well-cured redwood.  I wouldn't consider this experience to necessarily be narrow in flavor range or lacking in rich, smooth feel but in comparison with the other version it gives up a little.


2011 FT iron cake:  that one additional dimension makes a lot of difference, not just in terms of flavor (sweeter, richer, as described), but mapped onto feel richness and depth too, and trailing aftertaste range.  This could almost seem older, as if a couple of extra years added more sweetness and depth, but it's a year younger, and a much more compressed version.  I doubt that storage made the difference, given I'd expect it had all stayed local, being sold out of a Kunming shop.  That FT or "for Taiwan" indicator seems unlikely to mean that it had made a round trip.  It could just be from completely different material.

Oddly this version is much finer chopped, and more compressed, exactly how one would expect a tuocha to more typically be comprised, while the other looks a lot more like cakes tend to.  So strange!  I wouldn't expect it to be able to age faster due to finer chopped material contacting the air differently, given that it was so tightly compressed, but then really what do I know of such things.

Bitterness and astringency are playing reduced roles in these profiles related to how they must have been for the first half of their existence, but there is enough of both present that it seems the aging process definitely hasn't played out.  I wonder if that mushroom flavor in the other would tend to transition and diminish?  In a few years I'll have some idea, but I expect these will be better after 5 more.


Fourth infusion


2010 tuocha:  it has transitioned the least between these two rounds but the character evolving over every infusion does add a nice depth to the experience.  More of an old furniture flavor is picking up, aromatic components that relate to old wood or aromatic oils used in preserving old wooden objects.  Mushroom is finally giving way, hardly noticeable in that balance in comparison to the prior level.  It's not all that heavy on any aspect similar to coffee, as it had been, with the aromatic wood in the last round filling in that space instead.  It's nice.


2011 FT iron cake:  not so dis-similar to last infusion either, but the one sweet, rich tone somehow seems stronger and cleaner every round.  It's not that far off a warm, aromatic spice.  Maybe the idea of all this being tied to aroma has stuck in my head, as much a shift towards any different range than I normally experience has occurred.

Beyond the aspects break-down this version is a bit more pleasant; it has that extra bit of depth, along with more sweetness and a different flavor range, and it all balances that much better.  It has retained a little more flavor tied back to coffee range, but again a light roast, no trace of char in this.  They have a wood-tone range in common but it's not an identical version of it; this one's is darker and warmer, more towards a dark tropical wood, with the other lighter, less sweet, and dryer, which I'm interpreting as related to redwood, not so far from cedar, but in between that and balsa wood.


Fifth infusion


tuo version left, FT cake right (not aging fast, from the looks of these)



This will probably do it for notes; the late-round transitions aren't of as much interest to me, and the reviews seem best limited in length.  Both these would really be six infusions along now if not for giving that first round a long soak, so well along the middle of the cycle already.


2010 tuocha:  it's as good as it's been, just losing some points in comparison with the other, for covering a less complex range and not having quite as positive a character.  It would make for a fairer assessment to wait a few more years and see how it ends up though.


2011 FT iron cake:  they have transitioned to be the most similar they've been yet.  Some of that aromatic sweetness is wearing a little thinner and the wood-tone is picking up.  Again I think both will add more positive aspect range with just a bit more aging (3-4 years, with 5 or more better), and the traces of bitterness and very mild rough-edge astringency, which wasn't pronounced enough to say much about, will soften and shift.


I should probably sit both away for another two years before checking them again, but will probably do so whenever something reminds me of it.  I should probably also try that 2008 Yiwu version brick before too long, while the impression of these is still clearer in mind.  11 years still isn't fully aged by most people's assessment, not even in the earlier edge of the fully aged range, but it's enough time to transition a little more.  I would imagine that tea has started out in such a different place originally that comparing character with these wouldn't amount to much, but the contrast might be interesting.

I'm mixing a lot of themes but between making these notes and final editing I retried that 2006 random-brick version I bought in Shenzhen.  It was better than I remember.  I looked back through the notes and I'd liked it during that review, with an initial slightly harsher earthiness dropping out after early rounds, but I wasn't noticing all that much of that this time, trying it just a month or so later.  I was wondering if the teas couldn't have been either speed-aged or just wet-stored but it seems the character shouldn't be cleaning up this fast even if so.  Maybe I'd been on younger sheng around the time of that tasting and trying these not-quite-there-yet 2010-11 Xiaguan versions reset expectations related to rough edges.


almost the end of "reception" year, a couple days left

her last day of the school year



Tea shopping in a market in Shenzhen, China


First published by TChing in three parts, this one and two entries just prior.

I visited a wholesale tea market in China not so long ago, in Shenzhen, and this is about how that went. More than the actual outcome being positive it was an interesting theme, seeing how picking up tea would go differently in China.  Beyond buying it at the grocery store, I mean; selection is slightly better there in that country but the end result would typically still be kind of similar.


cheap pu'er in a Shenzhen grocery store; different (one reviewed here)


To be clear this isn't really about how people make tea in China, how it is experienced.  That subject just came up in a Reddit discussion (here), and there are two good answers to that.  Some people are tea enthusiasts, and they are using gaiwans and clay pots to prepare better teas, similar to Western tea enthusiasts.  Many more others use very simple brewing techniques to drink lower quality level basic teas, or don't drink tea at all.


I'm no authority on Chinese culture since I've only visited that country three times, never to a tea producing area, or with that subject as a main vacation theme. The first time I was there for work, and while waiting for other project members in an odd version of an old local shopping center I hung out in a tea shop. That wasn't exactly my main entry point to tea interest but it was a main step.  A few months after a second visit to China I started a tea blog; maybe that wasn't a coincidence.

Luohu area railway station market; it was near here


I'll back up; a more senior tea blogger I  respect very much passed on advice about shopping for tea in China. His advice, as I took it as a summary: if you don't speak Chinese, and know tea well enough to already know what you want, and to know when you're experiencing it, then local shops won't work out, and you may as well visit overpriced major chain outlets. That actually works, in a sense, but a lot of this will end up touching on possible exceptions.

On that initial shop outing way back when I didn't buy interesting teas (as experienced enthusiasts would judge), or get a great deal on what I did buy. We visited Beijing and Shanghai on that next vacation outing, a year or so later (about 6 years ago--the time flies), and visiting local markets was really interesting. Again I didn't buy tea that was as exceptional or as good a value as basic online sources would sell. Except for running across an unusual green tea version (which I never will reliably identify) that's different. I think explaining how it went in the Shenzhen wholesale market will cover what I mean more clearly.


Visiting the Shenzhen Tea World Terminal Market (location covered here)


Language was a problem in that market, for sure. On the next subject of tasting reliability, I can't blind taste teas for identifying a narrow type or quality level consistently, but given how much tasting I've done over the last three years I'm probably above average at trying to. It hardly matters anyway, because if you can't communicate clearly with a vendor it's only going to work out so well. Vendors would start by assuming that you have little idea what you want, and limited exposure, and talking past that and their own sales expectations wouldn't work well (for general type preference and the next levels of specifics, and price range, whatever it is).

There's a story about someone selling a horse that tries to explain why you need to justify to a Chinese tea vendor that you should even try above average tea, but the parallel never really does make a lot of sense.  The short version:  that one horse wouldn't be the right horse for everyone, so people who don't know tea should drink low quality tea.  Maybe it works, except that they really can't identify expectations through a language barrier, any more than someone can intentionally communicate them.



It was still interesting trying. I was with my wife so I wasn't going to spend any realistic amount of money to buy upper medium level quality tea anyway (the vendors were right, just not for the reason they probably assumed), so the idea was to hack through making the best of buying iffy and cheap tea.  The irony was that I had a good bit of tea either recently on hand or on the way from Western facing Chinese vendors, so it's not that I wasn't spending money on tea, but that part is a longer story.

My wife had spent a bit over half a year studying Mandarin, going to a class one full day a week; it was interesting finding out how far that would go. It barely helped in restaurants; it went how you'd expect it would go.


dim sum in the restaurant beside that market was nice


Of course tea shops are selling tea, and communicating a general type is definitely possible, oolong or sheng, etc. Finding, trying, and buying something is simple enough, and if that process is interesting--and it should be--then it's as well to not focus on the senses in which it doesn't work out.  We walked out with tea.

You would think that tasting teas would make all the difference, that spending countless hours browsing tea groups or vendor sites could fill in lots of levels of background, but not about what you like, but taking a sip would. I'm not at the level of wondering if I like rolled oolongs, Chinese black teas, or sheng pu'er, and to some extent the existence of a broad range of styles and quality levels of any of those throws off exploration being simple.

I find that the more familiar and comfortable I am with a shop the easier it is to get a good read on teas.  Struggling with communication issues came into play there, of course. Initial starting points for expectations or preferences hardly came across at all, but just isolating broad tea types did work. It would be nice to have tried a dozen different teas, or more, to get a feel for what I liked there, but in practice--under those specific limitations, and my wife wanting to leave before we walked in--I didn't taste much.

Again tasting a sample should have indicated what I was getting (unless the vendor trick of swapping out that final purchased product came up), but beyond that risk it's hard to reliably taste on the fly. Slight changes in preparation method and even water used shifts a lot, and mental context is something else altogether. It would be familiar trying teas in random settings after awhile, factoring out some variables, adjusting for randomly trying lots of versions, but for most all that would probably throw things off.

so much 90s sheng for sale seemed a little suspicious, but who knows


Oddly the few teas we bought seemed fine. Not ideal based on preference and what was there, but definitely close enough. Probably if I'd tried to buy teas presented as better versions some of the background on what the teas were wouldn't have been accurate, but leaving off at the "buying something" level cut that risk back.  Two seemed interesting in style and good buys, with potential to improve through aging.  One was just a bad decision; the taste wasn't a favorite range (like mushroom), but the odd feel structure should have been more of a red flag.  Two unusual bundled tea samples were interesting, a Da Hong Pao oolong and a sheng pu'er, and I bought a cheap pu'er pick.


sheng top, Da Hong Pao below (the second wasn't bad, reviewed here)


So in the end the advice to go into a more Western facing outlet and accept paying well over best local shop rates works. Except for the part about dropping out the experience of exploring, the random shopping activity itself, and the mixed-results benefit of buying some moderate quality teas. All that could be pleasant, with unusually positive results, or frustrating, leading to making bad purchase decisions, but beyond the results it should be interesting. It doesn't work reducing a goal to only relating to what you buy, without considering the value in hacking through the unproductive part of the early learning curve. It was nice, all those times.

I'll let some pictures here highlight what turned up, and show how things looked, since all this cuts that short.  Reviews spell it out in painful detail, but as a summary it was cool looking around that market, even if I did buy better tea versions online at essentially the same time instead.


an IT electronics sales area; perfect for buying knock-off tablets


Sunday, June 23, 2019

Chawang Shop 2016 Mengsong (sheng pu'er)








Back to an interesting range of sheng pu'er from Chawang Shop, just a few more to go before reviewing that wave of tea purchases more or less wraps up.

It was interesting seeing how an informal tea community, of sorts, explored these same exact Chawang shop versions a couple of years ago (since they're from 2016), communicated in the form of Steepster reviews.  I mentioned that in the Bada version review, how it was unique to compare it to trying the tea two years later, but the input there about this version seemed a bit more limited.

Luckily the aging process seems relatively moderate, compared to how fast teas transition here in Bangkok, where it's hot and humid, so that these seem on the younger side versus what I've kept here.  That's good in this case, because it gives me a chance to experience them before all of the younger-range character wears off.


I've also mentioned a series of "Late Steeps" blog posts that experiment on aging conditions, and tentatively conclude that hotter storage isn't necessarily a bad thing.  "Conclude" is too strong; the author experiments with split conditions experiments, and describes results, without necessarily extrapolating that to conclusions beyond what is experienced in the test case.


This isn't a comparison review, although I will try a 2016 Tea Mania Lucky Bee version at the same time, to compare aging transition differences.  That tea I first tried a year ago.  It won't help with working backwards to what this Mengsong version was like a year ago, or prior, but beyond serving as a baseline for comparison I can check out how it has changed here in that year.  The comparison idea occurred to me when I was retrying the Lucky Bee version along with breakfast, so I stopped a few infusions in and will go onto trying this Chawang Shop tea, now later in the morning.  It's as well to not include a round-by-round comparison anyway; the volume of what I've been writing adds up.


This intro has been a bit all over the map; sorry about that.  I'll add the Chawang Shop vendor description while I'm at it and get on with the review:


This tea come from Mengsong mountain, wild arbor tea garden. Trees are 80-120 years old, growing wild in forest.¨ We visited this garden in Januar 2015 and very like the place. We bought first harvest which was just lest than 30kg.

Hand processing in every step and sun-dried, traditional stone pressed in December 2016.

Typical Mengsong taste, aromatic tea soup, sweet, full and strong, bittersweet long aftertaste. Compare with 2015 Mengsong we sold out, this tea is stable for more infusions.

Manufacturer : Cha Wang Shop

Production date: Late March 2016


Review


The taste of even a fast rinse of the leaves was very nice; it was hard to stick with convention and toss it after trying it.  Given that I've used a fast infusion for the first round it will probably only show it's character more in the second.



As with the Bada version an impression that the quality of the tea is on the high side hits you before you really piece together what that's based on.  It's the balance, the overall feel, sweetness, clean and complex flavors, and that distinctive main flavor range.  It's mostly floral, hinting a bit towards a light dried fruit range, like dried pear, or not completely off the range of apricot.  It's just delicious; this wouldn't require any exposure curve for anyone to appreciate.  Bitterness is quite moderate at this point, but then it is a really light infusion at the outset, brewed fast to show the transition better.  Even for being on the lighter side, and not really fully saturating the leaves yet, there's a creamy fullness to the feel, which I wouldn't describe as a structure, but definitely an aspect that adds depth.

For once I've backed off the "packed gaiwan" level of proportion (or the dry tea amount that would end up there a few infusions in); it seemed best to moderate that in this case, maybe even a little disrespectful to this tea.  I think that does produce relatively positive results, using a high proportion and quite short infusion times, but easing up just a little lets you moderate outcome better.  It probably just comes down to preference, and I surely will try it the other way before too long.


Bitterness joins in on the next round, and more feel structure, but the overall balance and character is still great.  The pronounced floral range, with a hint of dried fruit, that covers a good bit of range itself, is joined by a touch of spice-like range.  It defies description, somewhere in between cinnamon, tree bark (a dark version of peeled or thin bark), and exotic spices, probably better isolated by someone familiar with a much larger set of spices than I am.  I let this infuse for around 15 seconds, an unnaturally long time for me given my normal proportion range, but it's about where it should be for infusion strength for using less.  Lighter would still work but that would trade off some degree of experiencing the feel.  There's lots more I could say about how feel or mineral range is developing but probably as well to hold off a round to get to that.



Bitterness ramps up further in the next round; this tea must have started out with a good bit of that aspect range, three years ago.  It's still quite approachable and well-integrated now, still part of a profile that leads to an impression the tea is of relatively high quality.  The floral range still stands out, but the bitterness masks the fruit range, which is probably only present in the form of giving the experience depth now.  Feel is soft and rich but still structured; an interesting character. 

The bitterness aspect stands out as the main difference between this and the Bada version, it seems to me.  It's not of the type or level of younger factory sheng, teas that really need another decade of transition to be approachable at all, or how it would've been in Xiaguan versions I've been trying, but it's clearly the main thing you experience in this round.  In ten more years this may well make for a much more intense, layered, complex experience than the Bada for including that range, but as it is now--in this round--someone would've needed to develop a liking for that as a main aspect to appreciate it more.

It does trail over into a pleasant sweetness after drinking it, with an interesting and complex feel and aftertaste after swallowing.  There's no reason why that couldn't be seen as the main part of the tea experience, given that it's not going anywhere soon, so in a temporal sense it accounts for a much higher proportion of what is experienced.  Some of the bitterness echoes with the sweetness, along with the feel, and after-impression of the mineral range.  This is all going to be a contrast to the experience of that Yiwu version, especially since spending a year here in Bangkok probably altered it as much as at least two in Kunming, and probably in a slightly different way, not just an amount.  I'll try this one more time and then fill in how a round of the Yiwu compares, which I've already tried for about 5 infusions worth earlier, so it's in the middle part of its brewing cycle.



Brewed a little faster the balance works better per my preference (7-8 seconds, versus 12-13).  The flavor range re-emerges as more complex related to bitterness falling back in proportion, and the over-all intensity is still more than sufficient.  It's definitely a multi-layered experience; the flavor is complex and interesting, feel is developed and full, aftertaste is pronounced and extended.  As tends to happen in better versions level of sweetness lends it a nice balance, and mineral range fills in flavor complexity. 


It's a matter of how the bitterness is perceived, related to how positive the experience is, but even someone who sees that particular aspect balance as tipped further in intensity than they prefer might appreciate and enjoy the rest.  I would expect that two years ago "balanced" isn't how I would've interpreted this as it was then, but then my preferences and range of what I appreciate in sheng has changed a lot in that time, not just this tea due to aging.


It's strange experiencing the Yiwu in the middle of this round; it's so different.  It's a good further along in an infusion cycle, maybe three rounds ahead, but that's probably a minor part of the differences.  An unusual warm, rich aspect stands out in it, beyond the typical floral tone, sweetness, and varying mineral range that's in most sheng.  It's hard to place.  It doesn't seem to be within the normal scopes of varying wood tones or warm mineral, and not quite a spice-related aspect either.  It could be a complex experience that comes across as just one thing that has a foot in all of those ranges instead.  It's interesting how it seems to be moving away from the sweet, bright floral tone I remember it as having, and how the bitterness that was present (in a different form than in this Mensong version) is also transitioning, leaving it kind of in the middle now, between where it's coming from and where it's going.

It's pleasant, and intensity is nice, but the character is outside the range of what I tend to typically experience.  It might go through an odd version of picking up depth and muting a bit from here on out, for a number of years, re-emerging from that transition in a different form.  It's definitely worth experiencing now but it may be a lot better in 7 or 8 years.


The mineral tone changed in the Mengsong version on the next roung; that increased in depth.  The one aspect towards spice increased and changed in form; it won't help in pinning that down if it changes every round, but it does make for an interesting experience.  One part is like aromatic cedar, a familiar range, and one part isn't familiar at all, more towards an unconventional spice.  I was just discussing with someone in a Facebook thread how training in a lot of exotic spices and Asian oriented flavor aspects (floral range, vegetables, fruits, and so on) wouldn't necessarily add depth to the experience of tasting tea, but in this case it might add to my ability to describe this one better.  It's not far off the parts of clove complexity, just not the spicier range of that experience, more the aromatic, sweet, broad range that's not as sharp and intense.  Maybe a fresh version of clove is more similar to this than the dried versions I only ever experience.

I'll have to do another round and let this experience go for now; I'm tapping out for tea exposure.  There surely is a late-rounds transition story to be told about this Mengsong but I'm fine with describing the first half.


The Yiwu (which I'm trying again) is very interesting for character; the flavors and feel cover a lot of scope too.  There's a slight refined edge that Mensong possesses that's only present in moderation in the Yiwu version but it's also clearly quite pleasant tea.  That unique flavor complexity and in-the-middle character range is interesting.  Swapping out the brightness and freshness was a trade-off but there is also plenty to appreciate at this stage, with the character implying to me it still has good long term potential (although that's just a guess, based on limited experience; time will tell how it changes further).


Yiwu left; darker leaves and liquid


The Mengsong version is very pleasant for expressing as much complexity, in a different form, and sophisticated character, spanning a good bit of range.  It's much stronger in presence as an aftertaste, with a richer and thicker feel.  Bitterness has backed off so that it's no longer a challenge to appreciating the rest, and what is present transitions to a powerful aftertaste experience.  Some of the positive character that I couldn't describe in the Bada version also applies to this, a general richness and overall balance, a refined character.  I can't guess what mix of inputs is contributing to that, if it's mostly related to a growing location character (per narrow region or related to a polyculture or natural growth environment), or tied more to processing, but it surely must relate to a combination.

That Yiwu version did seem like spending time here threw off comparing similarly age-transitioned tea versions, that it was probably a little further along, even for being made at the same time.  Given how different starting points would muddle interpretation I really didn't try to sort all that out here in description.


I'll probably try all these teas (this and the Bada from Chawang Shop, and this Tea Mania Yiwu) a couple more times over the next months to get a better feel for them, then let them sit, to see what they transition to later.  I can see why it's somewhat unconventional to drink three year old sheng versions, why these probably didn't gain as much through changes yet as youthful character and intensity dropped out.  I bought a 2019 Mengsong maocha version with this set; it will be interesting coming back to getting a feel for a newer-character range through that, even though establishing narrow regional character type doesn't work well over just a few examples.


Kalani and a friend at her "reception year" graduation




Thursday, June 20, 2019

Comparing different age versions of Liu Bao from KL


2018 "younger" version left, but it looks older



That one friend in KL that I've mentioned sent more Liu Bao.  Not just to try either; he sent a lot, tea to just drink, with extra to share.  Everyone should have friends like that.

The idea here is to comparison taste it along with one he sent well over a year ago.  I'm not certain what years these versions are but they may well be 2018 produced tea (the newest one), and the other could be going back to 2016 (reviewed in Oct. 2017; it depends on how old it was then).  Liu Bao requires processing time (post fermentation), and isn't necessarily a Spring tea (not that I confirmed that by looking it up), and it's hard for me to work back to when a certain year's version would be available, which wouldn't have to relate to when one is typically sold.

The idea of exploring age-transition in relatively younger Liu Bao through this really doesn't work since I can't address the similarity or difference in starting point, how identical they were at the outset, before aging transition.  I could refer back to that post, the better part of two years old now, and check differences in my take from that, and I will scan through it before the final edit of this [I did; my reviews were less specific then, which probably actually made them more readable].  For reference I think both versions are from here, Kong Wooi Fong Tea Merchants, with a website link here.

For now it will be interesting just to see what differences there are, regardless of the causes.


Review


2019 left; going a little heavy early on to rush character transition


2019 version (which may be older than a 2018 production, but that seems likely):  the mineral is pronounced; it tastes exactly like an old slate chalkboard smells.  I guess people would split on whether that's a good thing or not.  It's not as musty as that might sound, although the flavor will clean up a little over the first two rounds or so.  A bit of peat comes across along with the mineral now.  A touch of char is present as well, the same smell (and also taste) of charcoal.  I suppose I like all of that more than it sounds like someone would; to me it's nice.  It'll be nicer once the flavors mellow a little over a couple of rounds of transition.

Upon reflection that "peat" part is really geosmin, that characteristic taste in red beets, which really does sort of taste like dirt.  Raw potato skins have a similar flavor, if those more familiar.


2017 version (as related to the first I don't know the production year):  this version overlaps in character but it's quite different.  Every flavor aspect I mentioned in the other is also present, just in much lighter form, and it's offset by more sweetness, and a warm tone closer to spice, or at least aged tree bark.

Regular readers would be familiar with where that odd flavor reference is coming from; I grew up in Pennsylvania and split a lot of wood as a child, using wood not just for a fireplace but also for home heating.  And for heating an indoor swimming pool; we didn't exactly live in a log cabin, although the exterior style did draw on that aesthetic.

dressed for -40 F when it was -15 during a polar vortex


same view showing that house exterior, on a warmer day and year


If this really was exactly like the other version when both were first made then it would seem like a few more years might really soften it, add sweetness, complexity, and depth.  A lot of people tend to only drink 10+ year old Liu Bao, not because it completely changes character over that time-frame as sheng pu'er does, but because it does soften into a relatively different range related to effect, and to some extent for experienced aspects too.


Second infusion


2018 (I'll just guess production years):  the flavors are cleaning up a little but the slate is only giving way to the geosmin, the potato skin / red beet / dirt flavor.  When I say "cleaning up" I tend to mean tasting less musty, less muddled, not necessarily literally less like dirt.  It probably will move back to tasting more like char in the next round or two, with that mineral and the geosmin pulling back to supporting range.

Some teas are an acquired taste (someone new to tea wouldn't start with this version), and some work better with food.  This would pair well with dim sum, with a broad range of oily, savory, complex-flavored and sweet foods, cutting across all that complexity to reset your palate.  Some teas work much better brewed Gong Fu style (what I'm doing here, using a higher proportion and short steep times) but this one may come across better brewed using an approach closer to Western style, one longer infusion at much lower proportion, or a variation on that theme.


2016 / 17 (probably produced in 2016 though):  the aromatic wood / spice / fermented tree bark range picks up in this; it's interesting, quite complex.  It's cleaner in the sense of tasting less like dirt (or potato skin, however one puts that), but really neither is musty or murky in effect.  It's sweeter; a lot of times natural sweetness helps different ranges of aspects that could be challenging balance.  With sheng pu'er that might relate instead to balancing out bitterness, which can be very pleasant when the rest of the range in a tea makes sense along with it.  A lot of black teas aren't challenging in any way (although CTC / ground-up commercial versions tend to be), so the sweetness just works well with other rich and complex flavors, along with aspects like cinnamon, cocoa, roasted sweet potato, cherry, or mild and "darker" mineral tones.

It wouldn't seem wrong for someone to interpret this version as tasting a little like fruit, towards a dried fruit aspect.  Really the earthier range comes across a lot stronger, what I interpret as tree bark, or which might get called a wet version of "forest floor," the complex, sweet, earthy scent from a forest environment.


Third infusion




I'm brewing these about 15 seconds; shorter would also work at this proportion, since that relates to drinking them on the strong side.  That will help push both through a transition cycle, and although this won't go long for rounds descriptions I can try a shorter brewed round to see how that works instead too.


2018:  this is turning a corner for style, "cleaning up" further.  The same flavor list as last round still applies but it's lighter, milder, and better balanced.  At even faster infusions from here on out it would be quite pleasant and drinkable, only lengthening those once it starts losing intensity, which would probably take awhile.


2016:  the same applies to this version; it's not different in terms of how a description would go, but a shift in how the aspects balance changes things.  I don't remember this tea being this sweet and complex, or this far off that mineral / geosmin / char range; it may be transitioning nicely.  My friend in KL doesn't necessarily try to age these teas (to store them to get them to change), or value them for being different than they originally are, when young.  That's because he likes them that way; simple enough.

I see it as similar to how acquired tastes across a broad range of other foods changes what one likes when new to the theme versus later.  Initially beer tastes bad, in general, and then later seeking out bitter versions of pale ale or pilsner might seem preferable, beer versions that would taste even worse to someone new to the subject than Budweiser.  Or Leo, here in Thailand; Chang and Singh are the two main domestic brands but Leo is even more simple, light, and sweet, or watery, if someone sees all that as a bad thing.  The same could apply to people liking oak-chip adulterated sweet Merlot early on and then later preferring structured Cabernet versions that taste a little like there was a nail stored in the bottle.   The "preference curves" or patterns of variation probably follow some standard patterns, but it also might be as well to not overthink it, and keep sticking with what you like as it changes.

Fourth infusion




I'll let this go after this round, trying a fast infusion to write out how that goes (around 10 seconds instead; not a flash infusion), but then skip the last half or more of the infusion cycle.  The teas will be at their best in the next 3 to 4 rounds, and a new trace aspect or two could turn up in description, but the general character will probably just soften and deepen a little.


2018:  a warm wood tone picks up, closer to the forest floor I was describing in relation to the other than anything that has been present.  It seems quite clean in effect, with that geosmin / beet / potato skin down to a supporting trace of aspect, along with slate mineral.  Char is present but hardly noticeable; that never did really stand out in this.  Feel is complex, the way it stands out in adding a dryness or tension across your entire mouth, trailing into a pronounced aftertaste.  An aged sheng drinker (or shu drinker; those who prefer the pre-fermented pu'er type) may not love that for the form being so different but it does add complexity to the tasting experience.


2016:  the sweetness moves a little more towards a root spice from earlier balance, nicely sweet, quite a bit more approachable than the other profile in a conventional sense.  A little of an "old furniture" effect stands out beyond that, a trace of mineral oil or aged exotic hardwood (not "old couch;" that would be something else altogether).  If what I'm getting at seems completely unfamiliar think of how an old collection of leather bound books would smell in a dark-wood paneled den or study; it's like that.  To me it's quite pleasant but all tea experience is a matter of taste.

I looked back to see how it had changed in nearly two years, this version, and ran across a general type description of Liu Bao character passed on by that Malaysian friend (which he calls "Luk Bok," the Cantonese term for the type):


In many aspects, almost indistinguishable with Pou Lei [pu'er], but distinct and different at so many levels...  The tea tasted like decaying dry wood or tree branches as its elementary characteristic, with layers. At certain times, it is like the smell of tree bark. On numerous occasions, it tasted like the oh-so familiar of biting the '叉燒' or 'Char Siu', thus the similarity with Pou Lei. However, this tea, it is the additional smell almost associated with the smoke emanating from the burning of the dry leaves and old tree.

Luk Bou also evoked the feeling of one surrounded by furniture made of '酸枝木' or 'Shuin Ji Muk'. Sometimes, it is like walking into a room with old books lining the shelves, not exactly moldy but dry with warmth and inviting, not the secondhand bookstores with a mixture of acerbic feel and unforgiving.

There is this intrinsic 'old-time' quality, an almost antiquated attribute about Luk Bou, not found in Pou Lei. These are the layers of characters, making Luk Bou lavish in its character, but a constant not 'in-your-face' taste that neither scream for one's attention nor being intrusive, when drinking this tea, of which I believe the uniqueness of Luk Bou. Also, the fact that I am partial to Luk Bou.


In a different discussion he described one savory taste aspect as similar to that in crispy barbecued pork; that also works.  Not only is it nice to have a friend who generously shares tea his writing is great, as if speaking from an earlier time period.  The style and tone seem to predate English language use becoming simpler and less detailed, when people took making ideas clear more seriously, and valued form as an aspect of language.  I loved all that, at one point, before settling on just rambling on as a personal communication style.

The rest of my own description in that earlier review (in Oct. 2017) isn't clear enough to piece together a change vector.  In those notes I mention the same types of aspects (char, mineral, old furniture) but it's the balance and overall effect that describes the experience, not such a list.  I mention that tea (this 2016 version, maybe it was) softens to become more like a mild form of coffee in later rounds, and that works; it still does.  Not this younger version, so much; maybe it did start out a little edgier than the other, even within a year or so of the production time of both.


In conclusion, both teas are nice.  It seems I'm seeing a lot of value in age-transitioning these teas a little, letting the flavors soften and deepen, and become slightly more complex.  Some of the mineral intensity is swapped out through such a process; it wouldn't be positive for everyone.  In two more years I can do a re-tasting and get a clearer picture of to what extent it was age-transition causing the difference in character, versus the two just starting out as different.


a cheerful tasting session visitor


that "just the basics" reviewing set-up


Saturday, June 15, 2019

Yunnan Sourcing Early Spring "Bao Hong" Dragon Well




I'm not the best person to review Longjing, but it is my favorite type of green tea.  Every spring I usually buy a version of it, I just didn't get around to that yet this year.  It's really not "spring" here; I live in Bangok, and we just started the rainy season last month, but it's something else; it ends in October.

I've tried some decent versions so I'm not the least qualified judge of this type either.  One sent by Peter of Trident Bookstore in Boulder stood out as the best I've had; it was competition grade, exactly as those should be (although it seems I didn't actually review it related to a search not turning it up; odd).  You could tell from just the dry tea scent that it was exceptional.  I think I had one last year from a local Chinatown shop (Jip Eu), and one the year before from Teasenz

About a year before this blog started, so maybe around 7 years ago now, Longjing was one of the first better teas I bought in the local Bangkok Chinatown, based on a shop recommendation from a Chinese work contact.  I just don't drink much green tea now though; that Longjing once a year, and some Japanese greens that turn up as samples.


I'm not optimizing this related to brewing either.  I have measured water temperatures before but more often just mix a little cooler water with that from a filtration system heating function outlet to get it to an approximate range.  Brewing precision in general isn't one of my things.  I'm not measuring weights of tea, and I change how I prepare it in terms of timing from round to round, based on immediate preference and what I experienced the last round.  On to it then.

Often I've included the vendor description prior to reviews lately, but it seems to work to hold off on that until the end, matching my own experience, since I've not checked before trying it.

Review


I normally wouldn't review appearance or dry tea scent but in this case those sort of matter, or at least work as better indicators than often applies to other versions.  This is a darker green than a lot of Longjing tends to be (which I actually can't place as meaningful, just being thorough).  The scent is in the Longjing range but doesn't cover that bright, intense, vegetal, toasted rice / nutty range to the extent that Trident version did.  That's madness, comparing dry tea scents across about three years of time, isn't it?  Take that part with a grain of salt; brewed tea character is always the main thing.

that touch of cloudiness comes up in discussion here later


This is actually pretty good tea, and a fair version of what it's supposed to be [which later turned out to be different than I thought, but I think this does work to compare it with a standard and location-specific version].  It's missing some of the characteristic intensity, that punch of a narrow but complex set of flavors and other attributes, but the character that is there is in the right ballpark and very positive.  I don't say that unless I mean it; this tea is interesting and positive.  It's not exactly the set I expect from this tea type but what is present works really well.

One might wonder, does the tea always need to be made in exactly the same style to be a valid example of the type?  Processing choices alone vary how a tea turns out, and year to year changes in the weather do as well.  Maybe not, but for some of the most conventional types it seems to work out more that way.  The effect they tend to be shooting for is narrow, exactly the known style people seek out year to year.


Sweetness is good, vegetal tone isn't grassy, instead more in a toasted rice / other grain range, with a pleasant but subdued floral highlight that works.  It's clean and balanced, with reasonably thick feel (which should develop; this seems thinner for being an initial lighter infusion).  The floral range isn't so typical, and the toasted rice should be a little more pronounced.  General vegetal tone is in the right range but it's ramped up from this effect in some versions.  It's good, just not great, and not exactly that specific type I would expect.  Onto checking that next round then.


On the next round a specific version of vegetal range picks up.  It's still not the grassiness I like to avoid in green teas, the reason I prefer Longjing, for typically lacking that, but also not exactly that sweet toasted rice / slightly nutty effect.  This is in the right general range though, for sure.  It has a decent amount of umami effect, which in this balance works well, lending it flavor complexity and fullness, and a good overall balance.

Leave aside expecting this tea to be something in particular and it's a well above average green tea, a version so good it might not be easy to randomly run across.  Focusing on that expectation it would be possible for someone to conclude that it falls short, and judge it negatively.  Mind you all this is based on my own preconceptions and frame of reference, and others who have focused more on this type over a longer time may well come to a different conclusion.  The trace of floral tone is nice in this, it's just not typical, per what I've experienced elsewhere.  But what if the gap was in all those other versions, or my interpretation and memory of them, and a trace of floral tone should be there?  It seems as well to not overthink it all.


The third infusion is holding up well, continuing to develop.  The rich savory aspect is moving a little towards that nut / toasted rice range, closest to typical of the narrow profile type that it has been yet.  It's still clean, well balanced, with good sweetness, and entirely positive character.

To some extent people seeking out a "competition grade" higher level experience or a very narrow type in a version doesn't make sense to me, because teas just naturally vary, as agricultural products in general would tend to.  I can kind of relate to the pursuit though, even if it doesn't match how I approach tea.  In some cases you really can sort out a narrow ideal for some tea versions, not just a limited set of attributes but how those "should" come across, in what intensity, arriving at what overall balance.  I'll cite examples, in case that helps.

Rou Gui that tastes exactly like an earthy version of cinnamon is out there (a Wuyi Yancha type), in some better versions balanced perfectly with a medium level of roast that doesn't taste like char, but fills in complexity and range.  One might go further and expect other levels of aspects to match an ideal, a certain feel, a degree of aftertaste, and so on.  But then one of my favorite tea producers makes an great fruitier style of Rou Gui that's one of my favorite teas (this Wuyi Origin version).

The same approach seems to work well with narrow-region sourced high mountain Taiwanese oolongs; narrow character types can emerge, certain flavors, an unusual intensity, strong mineral base, thick and structured feel, long aftertaste, etc.  It seems to work for Longjing as well, expecting and seeking out a narrow character.




I'm trying it the next round brewed a little faster; that can let aspects show through in a different way.  The floral tone really picks up.  I should be able to describe what it is, which flower, but that's long since been a limitation in these reviews.  It's light and sweet; there's that.  I could say "orchid" but for all I know the broad range of those flowers comes across differently in different versions, and I don't remember smelling one for a long time.  I often dislike quite floral green teas because that range often pairs with a straight-grass flavor aspect and in this it doesn't.  This isn't "quite floral" anyway; it's just one aspect, a bit stronger in this round but relatively subdued compared to the rest earlier.

I'm going to skip the rest for review; I have things to do, and the point here was getting a take on this version and comparing it to my expectations and prior experience, which is covered.  I liked the tea.   As someone who likes Longjing a lot more than every other green tea version for being distinctive and not expressing range typical of other green teas (grass or seaweed) this works for me.  It will be interesting to read the product description and see if any of what I've been noticing turns up there, a type description that accounts for it being distinctive related to standard type expectations.

I did brew it a lot more rounds (that works using a Gongfu approach, better for better quality teas in general).  It kept transitioning a little but was more positive and consistent than I would have expected.  Ten rounds in the character was still somewhat similar, just dropping off in intensity, and usually green teas don't work out like that.



On quality markers and type background


I've talked here about markers, or particular aspects, that tend to work well to identify quality level in different kinds of teas, and that type of perspective seems to apply here.  So far I've only made the claim that a certain range of flavor identifies the ideal for this tea type, which is somewhat consistent and and narrowly defined.  Framed in that summary form it goes a little further than what I meant to claim but that still sort of works.  Typically one would want to consider the feel of a tea and aftertaste effect as crucial points of reference, across most types, although aftertaste does apply more directly to sheng and oolongs.  I've got one more point of reference in mind for this type, which I'll get to after one other point.

I also claimed that the color was a bit dark as some versions go.  That's hard to completely sort out, since leaf appearance can vary for different reasons.  One might think a green tea is darker because it has been allowed to oxidize more, or did so after processing, and there could be something to that, but I can't be certain that other variations come into play.

For this tea type, early harvest Longjing, the amount of fine hair content on the leaves is often a marker for it matching the standard range.  I've not mentioned that here, because I really didn't notice anything resembling that in this version.  Often a brightness in character and creamy feel seem to go along with that aspect, probably not necessarily directly tied to it, but perhaps not unrelated, in that tea harvested at such a time would have that character and that type of "fuzz."  I'll look up a reference to go further with what I'm talking about.

A Tea Vivre vendor's post comes up first in a search on this:


Pekoe is the fuzz on the tea bud, also named as tea hair and often present on the young shoots of tea tree, which is rich in nutrients such as theanine and tea polyphenols. In general, it plays as an important indicator of tea tenderness in many cases...

Pekoe will also affect the taste of tea. It carries less tea polyphenols and caffeine itself, let alone pairing with young leaves, which are relatively fresh but without bitterness, so as to directly affect the taste of tea. For consumers, pekoe can be used as one of the important criterion for the assessment of tea’s quality...


That works for a start, but I was thinking of a differently type of explanation, and I thought the fuzz was called trichomes.  Maybe something more scientific, and research oriented:


Scanning electron microscopy was used to investigate the ultrastructure of trichomes on Maofeng, a special Chinese green tea. The trichomes were cylindrical in appearance with a length of 0.6–1 mm, wall thickness of 0.2–0.3 μm and a mid‐point diameter of 9–10 μm. The angles between the trichomes and the leaf under‐surface were below 30° in Maofeng tea though they were 45–75° in fresh green leaf. The trichome wall consisted mainly of fibre and its outer‐surface was unevenly covered with waxy substances and striped. The trichome joint, by which the trichome was attached to the leaf tower epidermis, was expanded and filled with essential oil droplets...


Maybe in the middle for tone would be better.  It's strange none of the blogs that tend to cover this sort of background seemed to ever write about it (Tea Geek, and World of Tea, both of which stopped posting years ago, or Tea DB, which focuses on pu'er, so they wouldn't have).  Other vendors mention it in marketing content but I've already referenced that type of source.  Another blogger friend mentioned her take, in My Thoughts are Like Butterflies:


This specific Long Jing was harvested pre-April 5th, making it a Pre Qing Ming tea, one of the more coveted of harvests [prior to typical Spring rain season, if I remember that part right]. When looking at the leaves I noticed some had wonderful trichome fuzzballs, a sign that yep, these are picked super early and have their young leaf fuzziness, most of the fuzz gets rubbed off during pan firing, but some gets left behind as little fuzzballs... 

Take bell peppers, green beans and Lima beans and saute them with some sesame seed oil and a touch of sweet honey and you have the aroma for these leaves. Just at the start of the saute process too since the bell pepper note still has its crispness...


No mention there of all that vegetal range not matching some standard expectation; I guess the character can vary.  If this YS version had tasted like green peppers, green beans, and lima beans to me I suppose my comments would have come across as complaining about that.


Yunnan Sourcing description


What is this version, after all that?  A sales page description follows, which usually I'd edit down, but the content is interesting, even the parts that aren't required for character description:


"Bao Hong" tea is from Yi Liang county of Yunnan.  It's leaf is quite small and it carries a high level of aroma.  The leaves are always picked when very small and fresh during a two hour window of time in the early morning of mid-February.    The aroma is intense and fresh.  It was first grown in the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) at the same time a Buddhist Monastery was built on Bao Hong Mountain.  The original tea plant was brought by a visiting monk from Fujian.  This tea has been growing on Bao Hong Mountain since that time (over 1200 years ago).  

Yi Liang county has a very moderate  climate with a mean daily temperature of 16.3 degrees celsius, and an average yearly rainfall of about 950 centimeters.  The Bao Hong Mountain tea garden is an average of 1550-1630 meters above sea level, where it is often shrouded in mist diffusing the sunlight just enough to create a perfect light balance.  Bao Hong mountain is remote area of Yunnan where the tea plants enjoy a natural un-adulterated environment.  

The tea itself is full and plump but small.  It has a high level of fragrance and the tea soup is thick and awash with the little hairs that grow on the tea leaves.

Comparable in many aspects to a Dragon Well, but unique in its own right.


It didn't seem that thick to me, but then I've been accustomed to drinking a lot of sheng, which varies a lot, but can express different types of thickness in texture.  I didn't notice those hairs but otherwise all this works.

Even on that subject of fuzz / trichomes though, the initial rounds looked slightly cloudy, which is usually a bad sign for teas, but in reading around about this type it's said to tie in with the effect of trichomes, so that it's a good sign in this case.  I was drinking the tea in a shady spot outside so maybe I just didn't have the right lighting to pick up on the fuzz in the brewed versions.  A little is evident on the leaves in the photo and it tends to show up as very fine hair-like particles on the surface of the brewed tea.

For this version being a variation of Longjing / Dragonwell, rather than being presented as the most type-typical and standard region sourced version, it's exactly as one would expect.  Even that touch of extra floral tone is very positive in that light, exactly the kind of variation one might expect and would value.  Overall the quality of the tea is very positive.  Splitting out and pinning down "quality" as some abstract attribute, separated from preference for aspects or expected character for a type, doesn't necessarily work.  But it's the kind of thing that you know when you experience, indicated by other aspects, like having a bright, clean, complex, pleasant nature, matching expectations or varying in a positive way, expressing good thickness or aftertaste effect, brewing lots of positive infusions, and so on.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

King Tea Mall Nan Nuo and Zi Qi comparison


Nan Nuo left, Zi Qi right




Both of these are sold as 2018 Spring gushu versions; should be nice.  They're part of a set provided by John of King Tea Mall for review purposes, and to provide me with some exposure to different tea versions (many thanks for that).

Related to the "gushu" theme, I don't worry too much about how old the tea plants might really be compared to that description, but to some extent some typical aspects tend to show up along with more reliable claims of tea plants being older (pronounced mineral, longer aftertaste, general intensity, etc.).  The extent to which a tea matches that character seems more relevant than a plant-age average that no one could possibly know for sure.

If I were more into the "cha qi" or drug-like effect there's that; it could correlate to plant age, to some limited degree.  I'm already high on life though.


Per what is becoming a standard approach I'll cite the vendor descriptions here first, which I didn't read prior to doing the tasting and review notes:


2018 SPRING “NAN NUO BA MA” GUSHU 200G CAKE PUERH SHENG CHA RAW TEA


BaMa(拔玛) which means “Old Arbor Tree” in local AiNi dialect. On the elevation of above 1600m in NanNuo tea mountain(南糯山), here has national original forest called GuoYouLin(国有林) . When I went there first time in spring of 2018 year, I was totally astonished by the well preserved natural environment and forests there...

Dry tea leaf is fragrant, long and strong... The sweet taste near sugar cane not just come from HuiGan(one kind of aftertaste when bitterness retreats) but also can be felt when sip tea liquid... 

...Richness, Fruity, Wild flavor, Strength in ChaQi


This is selling for $69 for a 200 gram cake (equivalent to around $125 per 357 gram version).  Given the character (after the review tasting) that seems quite good for value.  I tend to almost never buy any teas approaching 50 cents per gram ($.35, really), which ties to a budget themed issue, but the positive character of this tea really stood out.


2018 SPRING “ZI QI ” CAKE 100G PUERH GUSHU SHENG CHA RAW TEA

This tea was made from spring tea materials of GuShu(old tree) from YiWu(易武) as main and sub-materials of BanPen(班盆 where belongs to BanZhang tea area, also called one of five BanZhang villages).  YiWu tea is famous for it’s softness and floral tea flavor... 

Tea liquid is rich and soft.  Bitterness is stronger than general pure YiWu tea because of mixed BanPen tea from BuLang tea mountains.

Astringency is on medium level.

HuiGan is on high level with unique sweetness from YiWu tea, soft and lingering in mouth even deep into throat.


This version is listed for $30 for 100 gram cake.  It's on the low side for tea material claimed to be from older plants but it is a mix of two types, which isn't usually how that goes, even if it somehow makes perfect sense related to a complimentary character of the materials.

Review


Nan Nuo left (in all of these pictures)


Nan Nuo: the characteristic flavor in one of my favorite sheng versions shows up in this, a white grape / pear fruitiness. It would be possible to interpret that as floral range but to me it's clearly not mainly that, although some additional floral range gives it a nice complexity.  It all comes across well: great balance and intensity, nice clean flavors, good sweetness, a mild but well integrated bitterness, supporting light mineral, good feel and aftertaste.

Mineral stands out a little more than in the version I keep citing as a past favorite (this one, from Moychay, reviewed here), which works.  Looking back on that (and the next-year 2018 description, and another gushu Nan Nuo version from them, the fruit theme keeps repeating, even in this same general range).


Zi Qi (Yiwu and Ban Pen blend):  the character overlaps a little but it's also quite different. It's warmer toned, with a richer, heavier mineral range, and more floral than fruity. The mineral is so pronounced it comes across as spanning a range of warm rock mineral with a hint of metal (maybe nickle?).  These were brewed relatively fast but this is still too strong.

I think outside of that I'd still prefer the Nan Nuo version related to the character range clicking but this is also clearly good tea. I usually follow that with noting that "good" is relative, but quality level is evident in both, the range of markers for sheng is there.  The other is brighter and sweeter, with flavors in a different range, all of which matches my own type preference, but I'm sort of trying to communicate something else. Back on the preference side how the metal edge in mineral tone plays out will define how much I end up liking this version.


Second infusion


Nan Nuo: intensity comes across clearly even in a relatively fast infusion; at a normal proportion (normal for me, at least) flash brewing would be strong enough. Mineral warms and intensifies in this round; in a limited sense it approaches the other version. The sweeter fruit range flavor is still present though, still primary. It seems to be clearly "better" tea than that personal-favorite Moychay version as markers go, tied to the intensity, pronounced mineral, balanced bitterness, and aftertaste, but I'm not so sure that I like it better. That version had a rich feel as well, a creamy edge, and being softer and less complex across some range didn't necessarily seem like a drawback. It was just different in style.

The split in opinion on more drinkable sheng versus more intense versions would dictate preference, in reference to the range I just mentioned, with that implying more perspective orientation than is necessary or easily sorted out or justified. I'd expect this would hold up to aging better but I'd probably not prefer it much different than it is anyway. Maybe it would outshine that version as a 2 to 3 year old version, not as an aged tea but with some transition.


Zi Qi: this is still intense; flash infusions it is. It's pleasant though; that warmer tone and really pronounced mineral works.  The effect isn't so different but it has shifted a little towards aromatic wood range, like cedar or redwood. Calling that spice sounds better, I'm just not familiar with which spices are similar. The other version expressed a pronounced aftertaste but this version's is really strong. The feel isn't really dry but there's a structure to it that comes across as towards dryness. It's definitely not a straight-cedar version of sheng but splitting that and warm mineral isn't completely dissimilar.

The effect of these teas is kicking in, the "cha qi" buzz. Of course comparing them gives up distinguishing which is the more pronounced source of that, and probably throws off a purer experience of it for that mixing. My ordinary brain state suits me well enough, so although it's heresy to express it those types of changes are just different, not necessarily better, or even of interest. I could feel a little clearer all the time but tea can only help so much with that; more consistent sleep and exercise would help more.


Third infusion




Nan Nuo: that light fruit is transitioning to a richer, deeper toned dried fruit range, at this point a little towards dried persimmon. If those aren't familiar it's something to keep an eye out for on your next Chinatown outing. Warmth picking up could be compared to a wood tone, or autumn forest floor scent. Both together, bridging across from light fruit, with pronounced mineral, all works well.

This is already one of my favorite teas to have tried this year. That last Bada version from Chawang Shop stood out for an unusually rich feel and character effect but this adds a couple of dimensions, those marker aspects (mineral, feel structure, long aftertaste), and matching my preference in flavor range. The Zi Qi version would end up being described more positively (or at least seeming so) tasted along with lots of other teas instead.


Zi Qi: this could easily be a tea that clicks with someone more than the character does for me; the complexity is good, positive aspects span a broad range, intensity is really something, and aromatic wood towards spice with warm mineral tones works. It doesn't necessarily come across as sweeter than average and I think I'm biased towards that, seeing it as not just positive taken alone but helping lots of other range seem to balance. The metal trace never did intensify, and to most that would probably just seem like very pronounced and complex mineral.

Fourth infusion


These are intense; this may have to be it before getting a break.

Nan Nuo: more or less in a similar range, but a bit more green wood tone that had only been a vegetal background picked up to be primary. It's still very nice, quite complex and well balanced, just no longer as fruity in character.


Zi Qi: this evolves to express that same wood tone; different. There's more warmer and aromatic wood tone backing it, the cedar, so it's different, but the two are by far the most similar they've been. I should go mess around online until this buzz subsides a little and try one more round, or maybe walking around outside would be better, even though I've got a sprained ankle now. That's annoying, taking 6 weeks off walking normally. It helps with appreciating the little things though.

Fifth infusion




A half hour break settled out some of the stoned effect so I'll try one more round to get a better feel for mid-cycle transitions.


Nan Nuo: at this point this could be a version of lots of better than average teas; that particular main wood tone flavor aspect is common enough. The rest marks it as a good version, balanced bitterness, mineral, extended aftertaste, etc. It will probably taper off to lose range over a few more rounds, and then become less pleasant after a few more, but who knows.


Zi Qi: it is odd how these approached each other in character. Some layers still don't match but they're relatively similar across primary flavor and most others.




[Notes prior to reading the vendor description]:  I'm curious about pricing for these. I've been accustomed to seeing $1 / gram on versions sold as gushu, so that a match to what is implied about typical character becomes the main issue, overlapping with general quality level issues but also tying to a specific form. They generally match the form, but one matches my own likes much better across flavor range, maybe even for general character.  At a guess demand per local area is as much a factor as anything else, which of course I'm not keeping track of.


[Conclusions added later]:  They seemed like nice teas for that price range, $.35 / gram for the Nan Nuo and $.30 for the other (which turns out to be a mix of Yiwu and Ban Pen materials; Zi Qi is just a brand name from an old Chinese story).  There's an odd sort of sub-theme related to me liking Nan Nuo versions, or anyone else really:  they're often fruity, per my still-limited exposure to them.  I looked back through old posts and I tried a boutique version that was probably pretty good three years ago (this one) but in reading that review my impression is that I just didn't have enough sheng background to pull together what I was experiencing.  That applies now too, just in a different sense; it's all relative.

A point in that King Tea Mall covers what I'm getting at:

Also I think this is a kind of tea could be recommended to new comers.


I'm not actually new to sheng at this point but I don't get the impression that fruit taste is what a lot of sheng drinkers are looking for, or even certain flavor range in general, really.  I wouldn't say it's a soft, approachable "oolong pu'er" but it's rich in texture versus structured, with limited versus moderate bitterness, and on the sweet and flavorful side.

Then again Yiwu versions tend to not be challenging either, and those are well-regarded, with versions I've tried presented as better teas often soft and floral, as this Zi Qi version vendor description claims.

Related to that Moychay Nan Nuo version I keep saying is a favorite, I re-tasted that a couple of days ago, in part to get a feel for how it's aging, and also related to a project to try and evaluate quality level beyond individual aspect range (a work in progress).  Even in the first month I bought that I expected it might not be as good as it was then at any point in the future, that it shouldn't be aged at all, since any transitioning away from that initial character wouldn't be positive.  It's not as good as it was a year and a half ago, I don't think, but at least it's partly just different.  That ties into a part of the Nan Nuo King Tea Mall description I didn't cite:

A pity that the unique and floral like fragrance only appears on newly processed tea leaf has turned to weaker and weaker, though I try my best to preserve that in my warehouse. 


The most typical summary and divide of aging concerns one runs across insists that better sheng improves with age, and that a newer style range of smooth and initially drinkable style of versions only degrades instead, with those lacking some degree of complexity, bitterness, and feel structure (astringency character) versus more traditional styles.  All that was covered here.  It's not quite that simple, it doesn't seem.  A lot of that pattern may well be valid but to me distilling down a style opposition of two broad types of sheng drops out or glosses over a range of other character differences.  A lot of good Yiwu could potentially get caught up in being "new style" and inferior just for being naturally approachable, per typical regional character.

A response to that might be that Yiwu is a big area (and it is), and that examples of versions that are initially structured (astringent), somewhat bitter, with intense mineral input exist, and could be regarded as the best versions.  And to some extent I'm guilty of the same problem here that's creating that divide in the first place, framing things as clear oppositions in character, when a complex range of styles and aspect profiles can occur.

In any case these were both really nice to experience.  The Nan Nuo version clicked with me better, and I think it's great as it is right now, but I'd probably not buy a version to hold onto and see how it transitions later.