Monday, January 20, 2020

Tea blogging retrospective; four busy years


First published in TChing in two parts, here and here.


I just took about three weeks off blogging, maybe the longest break in the past 4 years, over which time I wrote 451 posts.  It's a good time to explain what I've learned, and to question why I posted that much.

Originally writing about tea was part of exploring social media and online groups, checking if blogging was a good fit.  I was just messing around for the first 2 or 3 years, starting in 2013, and at some point shifted gears related to exploration.  TChing helped prompt that; I started doing interview and research posts, moving beyond the review form, starting just over 4 years ago.  It's appropriate that an interview with one of my favorite vendors, Cindy Chen of Wuyi Origin (a business started well after that) was my second post.




There probably never was any one point.  I liked to write, and kind of needed a hobby, and prior interests like cooking, wine, exploring Buddhism, and outdoor sports had cycled through.  I'd already been drifting towards deeper tea exploration even 6 years ago.

Lots of tea exposure worked out.  My own style of reviewing developed, conveying experience in more detail than most people would probably want to read.  That can help me place what I experienced of teas years ago now, if I factor in changes in communicating experience, and the shift in expectations and exposure.  Research posts covered themes like caffeine level, fluoride risk (right, it's in tea), pu'er storage concerns, mineral content in water as a factor, and lighter topics like why it doesn't work well to microwave water for tea.  Interviewing producers has been nice, and studying cultivar background; reviewing processing inputs hasn't went as well.  Conducting group tastings has been more of a miss than a success.

I was lucky to visit a lot of places in that time, some especially related to interesting tea culture:  China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, and Russia.  Family vacations never centered on tea producer visits, but I did visit a farm and a small plantation in Laos and Indonesia, and tea oriented markets here and there.  Oddly that never came up where I live now, in Thailand.




It's hard to summarize what I've learned.  Many things; it works to place teas in relation to lots of other types, and identify layers of components going into every tea experience.  Sorting out variations in sheng pu'er, differences tied to source area themes, aspect character types, aging transition patterns, etc., has been interesting and involved.  I'm a bit over 2 years into mostly focusing on that, but the initial start predated my blog.

Exploring South East Asian teas has been an interesting main sub-theme.  A few friends in Laos and Vietnam (two in each country) have made all the difference in providing access to teas that are most typically very difficult to come by, with Hatvala's online selection a pleasant exception.  Last year I met a main Myanmar producer, Kokang, and a small local farmer and two other vendors in Thailand helped with the same scope related to here.  I really should name more names, and say more about Nepal and Assam, and have been considering doing a post that lists out thanks in that way.

Discussion never really developed much.  A few people a year offer thanks, related to blog information and discussion input, and I meet a number of visitors to Bangkok, but beyond that I don't hear much feedback.  It was never about praise, or even mostly about me, so it has all worked out.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Mandal Goan Darjeeling and Mawlyngot Indian oolong


first flush Darjeeling left, Mawlyngot Meghalaya oolong right



A friend passed on an Indian tea I've forgotten the background on (that turned out to be an oolong), which I'll try along with a sample of Darjeeling I've been meaning to get to for months, from Tea Leaf Theory.  It's a first flush Darjeeling that looks relatively completely oxidized compared to those sometimes being in between green and black; interesting.  The other tea is made from slightly more whole leaf material, and it's relatively oxidized too.

That background should be clear to most, about how many Darjeeling first flush teas fall in between categories, not fully oxidized as conventional black teas, and definitely not intended as oolong.  Some go by the designation of white tea instead; that would relate to passing on a bruising step, along with limiting oxidation.  This isn't a processing background theme post, more about these teas.

That friend, Suzana Syiem, is the founder of a Facebook Tea group that I'm also an admin for, although I'm not the most active admin there.  A lot of monitoring Facebook groups is about making judgement calls about posts or comments in relation to group rules, and it's easier to do that in the International Tea Talk group where I'm the primary admin, so the judgement call is however I happen to see it.  Even something as seemingly clear-cut as member approval may not be; it's possible to flag which profiles are less "real," typically created for commercial purposes, or maybe for trolling (not so much an issue in tea groups), or some are commercial versus personal accounts.


I met Suzana a couple years back; she's really nice


About the teas, Tea Leaf Theory only lists producer background:

A lush green tea village on the mountain slopes of the Himalaya in Darjeeling at 5500 ft above sea level, known as Mandal Gaon. Like any other small tea grower in Darjeeling Mr Moktan also used to sell green leaves to the nearby tea factory but he hardly had any control over the price. With the liberalisation of the tea plantation laws in Darjeeling, Moktan also took to tea plantation organically.


The other tea is definitely more of an anomaly, produced in a small village in India, Mawlyngot, located in the Meghalaya state.



I reviewed this having no idea what it was.  Indian oolongs tend to never really seem like oolongs to me anyway, more like a black tea with backed-off oxidation level, similar to how first flush Darjeeling comes across.  This "Tale of Two Backpackers" blog post fills in some background (just not about the tea, so much):


The story of Mawlyngot is like that of a phoenix. At about 45 km from Shillong lies this somnolent village in the East Khasi hills of Meghalaya. The locals believe that the people from the Indo-Bangladesh border had migrated down the River Umsong and settled down here. The early villagers cultivated corn, millet, potato, chilli and banana in low yields that were not sufficient for their daily sustenance. And to aggravate the situation, the men were fond of the local country liquor ‘pyrsi’ made from rice and millet. The villagers had very little education and fought with penury. The place was infamous for alcoholism and drunken brawls...

...From a failed village, Mawlyngot is now producing one of the best teas in the North-eastern region of India...  The Urlong Tea Integrated Village Cooperative Society now produces purely organic and high-quality tea and supplying their produce to different parts of India as well as in Australia...


Sounds good; let's check on their results.

Review:


Darjeeling left, oolong right



Mandal Goan first flush (Batch No. TTLT 19, Ramro Cha):  a little smoky; that's different.  Since that's not a natural flavor associated with Darjeeling (as it is with sheng pu'er, for example) I'd assume this has came into contact with smoke.  In the right type and proportion that can be positive, but it is unusual.

Beyond that the tea is very interesting.  Feel has some structure to it, and richness, but it's not astringent, edgy, or dry.  Flavor complexity is good, and the range is interesting.  Dark earthy tones stand out, along the line of dark wood or rust.  To clarify, rust is at the edge of a mineral tone, or is that instead, and dark wood in this isn't mahogany range, more oak tree bark.  A bit of fruit tone fills in behind that, light citrus, or something such.  This may be a much different tea once some of the early round related flavor aspects shift next round.


Mawlyngot oolong:  the color is a lot lighter; this isn't as oxidized a tea version.  Interesting that came up in comparison with a Darjeeling first flush [then again with the missing back-story filled in that makes perfect sense].  I've drank a lot of types and styles of tea and this just isn't familiar; it's cool how that can keep happening.  It doesn't taste like black tea, necessarily, not oxidized to that level, without the astringency edge or structure, with flavors in a different range.  That's not good or bad, just different, but it does make for a double take when you first try it.

The primary flavor range is closest to something like pandan leaf, subtle, complex, rich in flavor, but light enough it's hard to place right away.  I love pandan leaf tisane (herb tea); that's going to help in this case.  Oddly there really is no black tea edge to this at all, no astringency, none of the associated malt and earthy flavor.  Being well off the norm is one thing, not overlapping at all something else.  The feel is rich and smooth, a bit full, as can happen with some herb teas, but typically doesn't.

Flavor intensity is low; that doesn't come up all that often across all tea types.  For white teas it does, and an aged Yiwu had a similar effect not so long ago, diminished in terms of flavor intensity but not body / feel.  Oolongs tend to be milder in character than black teas, with some exceptions where the form is just different, but even most of those contribute more flavor intensity.  Someone not open to a broad range of tea experience wouldn't care for this; it's not within normal range.  Judging it without that as a factor shifts related context to personal preferences.  It works for me; I like it.  I don't love it; it's not pulling off being completely novel in a way that's well above average for match to likes, but then it probably has some character transition yet to go through.

Editing notes:  I really might have guessed that this was intended to be an oolong.  It hardly matters, if it's an oolong or a much less oxidized than usual black tea, since the two are the same thing in the case of Indian oolongs.

Second infusion:





Mandal Goan:  color has evened up; this is slightly lighter, the other slightly redder.  Smoke lightened up in this too, and it never was a dominant flavor aspect, just noteworthy, odd for being present at all.  There's still a faint hint of smoke but it's essentially gone.  It's interesting the way that mild astringency and warm mineral flavor range seem to couple, and carry over to an aftertaste experience.  It's cleaner than that probably sounds; not murky in any way, with a good level of sweetness for balance.  Earthy tone is still slightly cured hardwood tree bark, maybe more along the lines of one year old hickory tree bark than oak.  I worked with a lot of wood as a child; it's interesting how this brings memories of that back.  We grew up a bit like Abraham Lincoln.

"Behind" that there's what I'm interpreting as a light fruit aspect.  It seems to really be a complex range that's hard to distinguish for not being in the forefront, a bit of citrus, along with something like not completely ripe nectarine.  It all works well enough; it makes for an interesting mix.


Mawlyngot oolong:  this really sticks with the tisane character theme but shifts.  Pandan leaf range is still present, but it adds more along the lines of warm root spice, or maybe even mild tree bark.  Now I'm curious what this even is, or how it manages to fall so far from the entire range of Camellia Sinensis scope.  I think it really is "tea," from that plant, but it's odd that versions never get this far out of the normal character scope.  It has the depth and body that very few tisanes ever have, one of the main differences between real tea and every other kind of dried leaf that I've tried.  I want to say it expresses more flavor complexity too, but that's only true in a limited sense.  It hits on more levels but forward facing flavor aspect range is limited.  A tisane blend could match this.  One couldn't match both the flavor complexity and full feel; it tends to not work that way.


Editing notes:  it is close enough to oolong scope, just not like Tie Guan Yin, or Jin Xuan, Wuyi Yancha, Dan Cong, Taiwanese versions, and so on.  Low flavor intensity was different for those first two rounds but that shifts on the next infusion.


Third infusion:




Darjeeing:  quite a bit of shift in how this comes across, probably in part related to pushing the tea a bit, letting it brew for around 15 seconds instead of 10.  Feel is interesting; that one astringency related element definitely ramps up.  The warm mineral starts to take on a salty character a bit stronger.  Optimum for this probably was back in the 10 second range.  Sweetness and other flavor (wood, light fruit) still work, just not as well in this balance.


Indian oolong:  this is at optimum brewed stronger.  One part even starts to resemble black tea more, a warm mineral and woody edge.  It had tasted a little like hardwood before, or hardwood bark, but that's stronger in this round, more of a central aspect, with other complex tisane flavor range now filling in as secondary flavors.  Feel is just right at this level; thick, rich, and full, but still soft.

Again the interesting part of this tea is the novelty; it almost seems like someone's take on novelty would define their reaction to it. 

Fourth infusion:




I think this will tell enough of the story; I'll let the notes go after this.

Darjeeling:  the balance is nice again after returning to a shorter infusion time (around 10 seconds versus 15; it's not that different).  Woodiness and underlying mineral stand out, along with supporting sweetness and other complexity.  Full feel, cleanness, and aftertaste fill in the experience, they support it.  The fruit seems closer to grape now; that probably is transitioning.  Did I just review a Darjeeling version without citing "muscatel?"  Sure, like that.

I like this tea but don't absolutely love this character range.  I'm more a fan of the cocoa / sweeter roasted yam and sweet potato Chinese black tea range.  It's not the astringency edge causing that, just general character overall.  For Darjeeling my favorite experience has probably been Gopaldhara's autumn flush versions, which are a bit mild in terms of feel, with lots of positive flavor aspects, and some degree of overall subtlety.  This particular tea version I'm reviewing would work even better with the wood dialed back a little and the fruit cranked up, but it would still be in the same general range.  It's quite good tea, very positive, balanced, and refined; it just comes down to style preferences.

Indian oolong:  more of the same for this version; it hasn't transitioned.  The flavor and feel structure is a lot closer to a standard tea version than it was for the first two rounds; probably someone brewing this Western style would wonder what I've been going on about, or think I just had it all wrong.  Back to the idea of preference for styles, this works better for me than the other version.  I would imagine that's not a relatively uniform response, that people would vary on that point.

If this had any flaws the entire experience would be quite different.  By that I mean that I'm not interpreting the unusual character as a flaw, which I would assign to an off flavor, sourness or mustiness, texture aspect that doesn't work for some reason, sweetness missing, unbalanced effect from varying oxidation levels, etc.  Including smoke could be seen as a flaw; that would just depend.  Per my interpretation this is just an unconventional tea, not a flawed version, and it's instead very well made, and based on what seems to be good plant material.

both on the green side; that Mawlyngot version is relatively whole-leaf as Indian teas go


Many thanks to both the Tea Leaf Theory vendor and Suzana for passing these on; I might've added that earlier.  It will be interesting messing around with this second version to see how it reacts to parameter changes.  I don't get the sense it's even possible to screw it up, and careful brewing wouldn't seem to be required to work around any limitation (eg. pronounced astringency), but it might change outcome a little.

Oddly not much changes in interpretation or brewing process related expectations for not "getting" the tea category initially.  Some people think oolongs should be brewed using relatively cooler water (kind of a long story), but I'd use essentially the same approach for a black tea or oolong, water not far off boiling point, related to using a heating and dispenser system that doesn't maintain full boiling point temperature.  I always tend to go with a high proportion and base infusion timing off results the last round, across types.


my wife never makes it into photos here, and Keo never smiles for one.


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Phongsaly Laos Tea old tree black tea


almost looks green in the photo, but light brown in real life


Not much intro for this tea version; I've reviewed sheng, black, and green teas from this Phongsaly Lao Tea producer (many thanks for sharing those for review).  It's supposedly old-plant, natural growth sourced tea, and it probably really is.  I take age claims with a grain of salt but those stand at 400 year old plant source estimates.  Sure, maybe, probably not but who knows. 

There isn't a website outlet to cite more details from, so this is just coiled style black tea, not unheard of from China, but a bit novel.  I do wonder about details but how it comes across is kind of the main point, and brewing it informs that.


compressed black tea (from their FB page photos); something different


Review:



First infusion:  a bit muted yet; I often do a short first infusion round for teas to let the start slow, to see how it'll go using that as much as a rinse, as I did this time (around 10 seconds).   The tea was a bit compressed, coiled into rings along the line of bi luo chun (a green tea type), so it will express more next round.  What is present is promising; sweet, complex, and clean flavored, just quite subtle as of yet.  A mild malt stands out, a version close to cocoa, not the Assam more dry-mineral type version.  Maybe actual cocoa and floral fills in beyond that, or it could be a light but rich fruit; it should be more evident next round.




Second infusion:  I didn't increase timing; the proportion is set for Gongfu preparation, and I think the flavor subtlety related to it opening up instead.  More of the same.  This tea is good, based on what it is expressing, but it seems that close to really developing a lot more complexity.  Clean flavored light malt, a bit towards cocoa, and underlying mineral works well, but moderate sweetness and only implications of other flavor complexity limits the experience.

Everything hinted at, which occurs in very subtle form, is very positive, it's just hardly there.  At this light level pinning down those aspects is a venture in free-association, using imagination as much as actual interpretation.  Cleanness saves the experience; this really lacks any negative character too.  Astringency isn't non-existent, but it has a soft, balanced body, with only a hint of dryness.  Even aftertaste carries over a little.  Beyond that at this round it's malt (in between Assam and Ovaltine), cocoa, towards aromatic wood (mahogany range; something dark), and maybe a hint of rose and dried tamarind.  That last part is more of a guess.




Third infusion:  wood picks up a little, a shift towards redwood instead of dark wood.  Cocoa might bump just a touch too.  If this were sweeter it would probably seem more like dark chocolate; that level being moderate keeps a natural overall interpretation closer to the wood and malt.  Mineral range helps the rest; I haven't really stressed that.  It's not exactly in slate range but towards that, in a warmer tone.

It might not sound pleasant, but to me it is.  Add just a little sweetness and a touch of dried fruit and this would be a really exceptional black tea, per my preference, but as it is it still really works.  The cleanness, balance, and novelty is nice.  It's not so far off orthodox Assam versions that stray from a more standard profile, at least related to one that's good, well-balanced, just not as distinct and complex in flavor as those get.  More body / astringency / dryness would ruin the effect, on the other side of expressing how this might be different.

I'll be clearer about how my own preference factors in:  I like Assam versions in the range I just described, but really love Dian Hong (Yunnan black teas) that are sweeter and more complex in flavor.  I think the other black tea I tried from this producer is an example of that general style.  That's not to say that I don't like this, but I do like the other version and general style better.

If this was comparable to sun-dried versions of Yunnan black tea, shai hong, there is a chance that it could pick up more flavor complexity with a limited degree of aging, over the next year or two, or maybe even more after 3 or 4.  Maybe not too (it does seem unlikely), but the subtle flavor profile reminds me of how things work out with young versions of those.




Fourth infusion:  the feel is even nicer; it picked up a touch more "juiciness."  Flavor range stayed towards cocoa, moving off the malt and wood a little, which I do like better than the round before last.  It is interesting how complex and balanced this is, with flavor range being a bit subtle, just like how brand new shai hong works out.  For people with a lot of exposure to versions of shai hong at least that comparison will fill in what I mean about the rest (maybe; all this is bit subjective).


consistent, strong infusions, just light as flavor intensity goes


Fifth infusion:  this tea isn't even close to being finished.  Part of that relates to using a high proportion even for Gongfu preparation (who knows the number of grams; I'd just be guessing).  Compression made a difference too; it probably wasn't really fully infusing the first two rounds.  And then it's just how the tea type and character go.  It's not really developing though; if anything it has just faded ever so slightly from how it was last round.  It will probably brew three more pleasant rounds that just taper off a bit.


Conclusions:


This would be an interesting tea to buy two packages of, one to drink now and one to try in a year and a half.  Aging teas only makes sense in some cases but this may be one of them.  In a lot of cases versions just pick up a depth and subtlety, with more pronounced, fresh, and intense flavors rounding off (or aspects like bitterness, potentially less pleasant elements, which this doesn't include).  Shai hong is a notable exception.  Flavor actually intensifies for that tea type, and shifts, in addition to adding the depth. 

If I'm completely wrong and this just fades it would be a waste, because an even more subtle version of this wouldn't work as well.  It would still be that much more novel; not all that much old-tree natural-growth Laos tea is going around, outside of Northern Laos, and almost none of that is aged.

I suppose it is a little disappointing liking the style of the other black tea from them better, but it is nice liking this enough to use the notes for a post.  The clean nature and overall effect really worked.  Even on the sixth infusion, after the notes stop here, the tea is clean, complex beyond lacking flavor intensity, and well-balanced.  You would never know it was a tea that had already produced five positive infusions.  Often woodiness ramps up in late infusions, for a lot of tea types, even beyond blacks, but in this that faded over the first three, with cocoa and mild malt picking up.

In some cases some teas do better brewed Western style.  I'm not sure that's how this would go, just pointing that out for completeness.  It was consistent enough across rounds that I'm guessing it wouldn't vary much, not better than the way I made it instead.  Even at a more moderate, conventional Western proportion this would probably still make three good rounds of tea.