More of a large set of samples sent for review, which I'm slow to get to. I've already tried this one before, an experimental, small-batch theme Russian shu ("pu'er-like tea," since they restrict use of that category to Yunnan). It's good.
It's not a new subject, making pu'er, or pu'er-like tea, in smaller batches. I reviewed versions from Thailand awhile back (which were also good), with that vendor, Tea Side, posting about the experimental trial process. I suppose results would vary, depending on process used and starting point. Especially for versions not made from similar Assamica plant material. This has to be variety Sinensis plant type, being grown in Russia, since only versions of that broad plant type category tolerate colder weather (per my understanding, at least).
But I won't really look into this here, to fill in more on how this was processed, or what the plant type is, or even where it's grown. I'll could probably only turn up a link to a later batch, since this one is sold out [or not even that, as it turned out]. This will be more about passing on results, how the tea comes across. Maybe I'll even finally write a short review.
In looking on the Moychay site section related to loose shu (and to Russian teas, from Krasnodar) I didn't see this, or anything like it. This video by them covers background on shu wet-pile fermentation, if that's of interest, covering a visit to a producer in Menghai.
this is a product description, for people who can read Russian
If these batches are experimental they might sell out quickly, or only be released informally, not sold through their site. I talked to the owner about this tea, Sergey, and he said that this #2 version is sold out, that they had some of #4 left at that point, but that kind of status would change. Sergey is the one narrating that video about fermentation (the original Russian, not the English voice-over); in addition to being a tea vendor he is a true tea enthusiast, and a student of the subject. Anyone regularly ordering from Moychay anyway might want to keep an eye out for it, and add a bit to an order, since for novelty alone it's well worth trying (assuming that the price is reasonable, which is typically the case for their teas).
That Moychay site loose leaf shu section bears that out about good value (all Yunnan teas, at a glance); those are all selling for between $5 and 8 per 100 grams, so at most equivalent to just under $30 per 357 gram cake worth, with most under that. A sampler of 4 or 5 100 gram choices of whatever sounds good would still be in the range of cost of a pu'er cake, even for shu, and it would amount to an intro to how shu versions vary.
Just judging from the photos, the colors, a lot of it is not fully fermented, which is kind of a long story to get into here, what that means, and how it works out. Such tea can be more subtle than fully fermented shu, but better to drink early on (needing less rest to settle), without as heavy a processing flavor requiring time to fade. More lightly fermented versions may have slightly more aging potential, but buying a few hundred grams of loose shu to get to in another decade is kind of an odd idea. It's completely workable, just not how that usually goes. A bold enough person might consider trying pressing some into cakes on their own, but I'm definitely not going to try and say anything about how that might work.
The flavor is a little unusual in the first infusion, but I know from trying this before that this range will "burn off." An online friend just described the funkiness in some lower quality versions of Da Hong Pao as tasting like "wet sidewalk," and I think this is close to what he meant. He said those can taste like wet sidewalk and grapefruit zest. To me lower quality DHP tends to taste like cardboard, which doesn't mean that I don't like it, since it's cardboard in a context that can work.
This has good sweetness and interesting range. Beyond a flavor tasting a bit like that sidewalk reference, or like how a shoe box smells, the rest is quite clean. Even that part isn't bad, necessarily, just odd. If this was produced this year then there's a good chance that taste would fade, or even drop out completely, within the next year or so.
There's a fruitiness to the rest that is pleasant. Flavors are a little heavy, and earthy, as is common for shu, but quite light within the typical shu range. It's funny how that works out, that it's light and heavy at the same time, in two different senses. This should gain intensity and clean up a lot over this next round, and move on to other range later, if memory serves. It's weakness is that it doesn't have the same full feel and depth some shu has, but for being a light and novel version it worked. Fruit flavor in shu is really nice, per my preference.
Second infusion: oddly this picked up more quite positive range and more strange flavor range too. On the strange side, that wet sidewalk / cardboard aspect shifted, now more like blackboard, slate. That's not as odd as it might be, but in this presentation it's a little towards cement block from straight slate rock smell. I kind of like that part though; wet slate, the effect from cleaning an old blackboard, is a cool smell. On the more completely positive side the fruitiness hung in there, but a distinctive root spice sort of range picked up, even stronger than that now. I tend to get tripped up in describing floral tones and root spice range; I'm just not great with either, mapping it out further.
This tea could be interpreted lots of different ways though, many of which would be roughly as correct, just a different interpretation. Bark works as a flavor comparison, probably a version from a tree that had been dead for awhile, with some fermentation, a hardwood tree trunk laying out in a wet forest environment. I kind of see this as "getting" cocoa. The hint of fruit isn't standing out in this as much, with all the rest going on. It's there, but hard to tease out as one distinct thing. Maybe it's along the line of blackberry, or elderberry. One warm, rich flavor could be interpreted as whole wheat pie crust. I'm not the kind of reviewer that just free-associates their way through a dozen-description tasting, like that one vendor is known for, but this does have a lot going on.
I'm not talking about gap or limitation much yet though. The earthiness lacks a grounding depth that many shu have, a heavy flavor range. Feel is also a little thick but thin as shu range goes. It has some creaminess, so I mean that in a relative sense, tied to a very specific expectation. To me the character works; the set of aspects makes sense together, and comes across as complex. Someone with more specific expectations, who either sees specific aspect range as a quality marker, or just prefers a narrower specific set in shu, per their own preference, may not like this. I think someone open to a range of different tea experiences would tend to love it.
Third infusion: creaminess really bumped up. I mean the sort that turns up in a Guiness Stout, but without that one edge in that. Some of the sweet, warm flavor range in that beer type carries over too, similar to that found in a black bread (pumpernickel and such). Now that I think of it this is really close to a good version of a dark black bread. It might be great to drink this with a lightly smoked creamy cheese, probably brewed even stronger than I am making it, to really get the full effect, and be able to stand up to food. Of course it works well as a singular experience too. I'm interpreting that root spice as moving closer to something like the spice in some rye versions, caraway seeds.
Fourth infusion: just beautiful, the way this comes together. I could imagine someone hating it too, the relative lightness (for shu), the heavy rye bread range, trailing into between slate mineral and shoe box, the bit of fruit, cocoa, and root spice (but those last parts seem relatively entirely positive). I remembered a touch more fruit from that first tasting, towards the one berry range; that might just be interpretation variance.
Again people could reasonably interpret this in lots of different ways. Seeing the sweetness as related to dried dark cherry versus a berry would make sense. To me the grain flavors are in between light rye, dark rye, and whole wheat pie crust, but that could be taken lots of different ways. Cocoa stands out, to me, but a read of that as more towards forest floor would make sense. What I'm calling lightness could be seen as thinness, a significant gap instead of a normal style variation. Expectations related to form come into play. And so on.
Fifth infusion: I brewed this slightly longer, around 20 seconds instead, and heavier mineral flavor resulted (kind of what one would expect). "Pushing" the tea in that fashion would draw out heavier and more intense flavors, and to some extent would bump feel range. To me that makes the one flavor I keep saying is a little unusual (wet sidewalk, transitioned to wet slate, covering some white cardboard range) push on into the fermented tree bark range more. I suppose stretching infusions from here would cause some of that to stay a main aspect.
This tea is far from finished, but using the same 10 to 20 second infusion times wouldn't extract the same really significant flavor intensity range as it had; it's thinning. On the positive side pronounced cocoa is extracting along with that warm mineral / dark bread range (with the last a bit narrower in form, and not exactly like the bread, now just similar). The heavier flavors can tend to resemble a light roast coffee at this stage, which is also nice.
I haven't been mentioning aftertaste range, which is a weakness in this tea. It just doesn't have that length of experience, which seems to be more common in sheng or oolongs than shu.
Interesting shu; very positive, as I interpret it.
For someone with fixed or narrow expectations about shu character the opposite interpretation might result, that it's "off," or missing some parts. Including significant range of heavier tones and depth--which this lacks--would be normal, along with more significant aftertaste. To me a tea version just being different is often better, versus focus on repeating the best example of a standard type.
As I see it anyone who can appreciate Liu Bao at all would have no problems with the wet slate / cement block flavor range. Of course not everyone is on that page. To me this tasting like dark rye / pumpernickel bread, along with a good bit of cocoa, and traces of berry or dark cherry, and root spice sweetness were all really positive. Even the fermented tree bark part, maybe closer to peat or wet forest floor, as others might interpret that, I saw as positive. To me the sweetness and creaminess really helped the unusual range tie together and work, and narrowness of that range across some scope wasn't much of a gap, because I didn't expect that (a lot of body structure, for example).
It goes without saying but if this is batch #2, and they've sold out and are on #4 now, that tea won't be exactly like this, or who knows, maybe not all that similar. I'm not sure what lot size they are using to make this, or how minor shifts in air temperature or seasonal leaf character might change things. Or just not getting the process exactly the same; it's somewhat experimental. I wouldn't mind owning a kilogram of this, to drink it regularly, and see how it changes. That's one way of interpreting a take on degree of success, if a novel tea is more just interesting to try, or if you'd really like to drink a lot of it. To me this is more pleasant and interesting than an above average standard factory sheng, although those can be nice too.