Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Wuyi Origin wild Lapsang Souchong

I'll try to keep this simple and short, and just describe this tea (this year's Wuyi Origin wild Lapsang Souchong).  I've had it before so it should be familiar, just a matter of revisiting it and comparing it to past years, to the extent that my memory can do that.

The taste is rich and sweet; that is familiar.  It's less citrus oriented than I remember, but more complex.  There is a bit of what could be interpreted as citrus but plenty more to try to separate through description.  Of course it comes across as a unified, complex range of integrated flavor, not as tasting like a lot of separate things as a review list-style description would imply.  It just tastes like very good Lapsang Souchong.  Of course it's not smoked, so not like that.

There's a catchy, positive distinctive part of the flavor that I'm not pinning down, close to fruitiness.  To me it seems in between a mild sweet malt (not like in Assam, like in a slightly fermented sweet grain) and leather, possibly with some integrated floral input.  There is no astringency to speak of; it doesn't come across as thin but there's no trace of any harshness.  This tea has about as pronounced an aftertaste as any black tea ever would.  That catchy main complex flavor element (or set of flavors) lingers on, tapering off for a minute or two, not completely gone after that.

The citrus effect is in the range of orange zest, but not in the sense of a tea like second flush Darjeeling or Oriental Beauty can be, not as pronounced and intense.  All the flavor components are so well integrated it really does come across as one flavor, but it's very complex, an interesting effect.  There's a brightness to the flavor and overall effect, and a depth too.  I checked how they described it on the website:

Ripe Peach aroma, with very obvious milk flavors. Last more than 10 infusions. No any kind of bitter even you steep the tea for a long time. Quite bright in the tea soup, orange color 

Of course when you think "peach" it seems to be that.  They're right that it's that subset flavor of ripe peach, nothing like the tangier, different range of a typical grocery store peach, fruit that hasn't been naturally ripened and never will completely get there.

That reminds me; I've probably had no peaches at all in the past 10 years, or in the two years prior in Hawaii.  Or the pears that are common to North America too, only the Asian kind.  For all I remember this might taste a bit like a fresh, ripe nectarine too; maybe even a little more like that (a close relative of the peach, as a hybrid from those).

The tea is creamy, but it's odd describing that as milk flavors.  That's closest to the part I was matching up with malt.  It tastes like milk powder does more than fresh milk, that sweet flavor towards malt.  Fresh, whole unprocessed milk probably matches much better than what we drink from grocery stores, the way that much higher fresh cream content would come across.  Or I guess it works to just compare that flavor aspect to cream instead of milk.

About mentioning the trace of leather awhile back, it's possible to emphasize the softness, fruit, and sweetness of this tea simply by using water a bit off boiling point, or also possible to get to a relatively different effect by using boiling point water, or closer to that.  By the first I mean in the range of 90 C; 85 would still work but much below that and flavors just wouldn't extract well.  Brewed hot a trace more edge comes out, a touch of leather, and a bit more toffee effect, with the citrus shifting from a bright near-peach range to a dried orange zest effect.  An Assam drinker might like it brewed hotter, shifting the profile to that, and a lighter oolong drinker might prefer to maximize the fruit and softer effect by going a little cooler.

I remember citrus being a bit heavier in earlier years' versions of this tea but this one seems better related to overall intensity, complexity, and a well balanced range of positive aspects.  Of course it really does produce a lot of infusions, as they mentioned in that product description.  This tea would still work well brewed Western style but for a version this exceptional it seems well worth the extra messing around to use a Gongfu approach, to experience more rounds and track how minor variations play out.  I get it that lots of people would want to optimize every infusion instead, to draw on past experience and prepare each exactly as they like the tea best, and not experiment with variations so much, and of course that's not wrong.

This reminds me of the first time I tried better unsmoked Lapsang Souchong, just a bit before I even started this blog, so something like 5 years ago.  The main taste range was pretty close to this tea but the fruit range and overall intensity weren't even close, with nothing matching up with that cream-like aspect.  A touch of cardboard filled in for that instead.  It's funny how really good versions of types of tea enable the style to make lots of sense, how the overall effect is so different if the tea just isn't quite as refined.

messing around with infusion strengths; it works well across a broad range.

Lots of infusions in (it just never stopped, not even transitioning much in lots of later rounds) it occurred to me what the distinctive, familiar taste was, which I hadn't really been placing:  butterscotch.  I'd mentioned the tea was sweet, a bit like malt or toffee, sort of like fruit or floral aspect range, probably closest to peach but not exactly that, and very creamy.  It was butterscotch.  I'd have to try another round of infusions to see if it was almost exactly like butterscotch the whole time or more fruit-oriented range that had transitioned to very close to just that later on.  That's my guess, based on memory, that it leaned towards fruit more earlier, and then shifted to quite close to butterscotch.

To me this is how flavors interpretation tends to work out.  I think butterscotch probably is the best single description of this tea, but describing it as peach, citrus, and cream isn't necessarily getting it wrong.  Those are all just different interpretations of parts of the flavor range, and the balance of different tastes probably did change over the whole cycle of infusions.  I was talking to Cindy about the flavors and she thought the fruit was mostly peach or maybe also included strawberry; more of the same about different interpretations being possible.

Per my preferences and judgment it would be an understatement to only say that this is a good black tea.  I see it as on par with any really good black tea I've ever tried, distinctive and unique, complex and balanced, a refined, high quality well-made tea.  I really love the way some sets of Dian Hong aspects work out too, maybe even slightly more than this aspects range, but I really like this one. 

Teas like this are why I feel confident in telling people every single tea they will ever find in a grocery store isn't very good, relatively speaking.  Of course there is a whole level of above average teas between commercial versions and this one, but teas like it solidify that conclusion.  It's hard to express that sort of thing and not come across as a tea snob, but then only someone with a bit of similar exposure would make any sense of that claim anyway. 

To help place that, I drank a lower-medium quality level Chinese Tie Kuan Yin with lunch today (something I bought as loose tea on impulse in a Chinese restaurant), and an inexpensive Earl Grey with lunch yesterday (I bought that one in Russia to give to the staff here).  I'm not averse to much lower quality forms of tea.  Both probably represent the high end a grocery store might conceivably carry.  But if the idea is discussing better tea those aren't that, and this Lapsang Souchong is.

more photo editing with my favorite subjects

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Moychay Menghai Lao Shu and Lao Teji shou pu'er (2008 and 2009)

Onto more samples from Moychay, the Russian vendor who was so kind as to send a good number, first reviewed in this compressed sun-dried Yunnan black tea post.

I'll add a little more detail about what they are at the end, but for now I'm comparing these teas:

Menghai Lao Shou Cha 2008 loose leaf ripe pu'er (shou)

Lao Teji 2009 loose leaf ripe pu'er (shou)

Menghai Lao Shou left, Lao Teji right

labels (I've copied these descriptions below)

These might well raise the bar a little for what I've tried of shou pu'er in the past.  That does lead to an interesting concern about the difference between good shou pu'er and shou that's better than you tend to run across.

The lower level divide between shou that tastes like tar and oil, or fish, and more positive versions is easy to experience.  It's also not that hard to work through shou that is decent and positive but on the thinner side, into versions that are more complex and interesting, that have more layers.  The latter takes a little seeking out but they're not expensive as sheng pu'er goes.  Finding a next level could take more doing.  We'll see if that's how this works out per my impression in a tasting.  It goes without saying that one person trying teas one time isn't much to go on, definitely not a complete, objective read on the tea.

It goes against my normal process (except the part about varying approach a lot as habit) but I'll mention the description on the label for these as a starting point.

Menghai Lao Shou Cha:  The bouquet of brewed tea is mature, spicy-woody, with earthy, auturnal, nutty and spicey notes.  The aroma is warm and deep, nutty.  The taste is rich, slightly tart, velvety, with light bitterness and nuances of spices.

Lao Teji:  The bouquet of brewed tea is rich and mature, with nutty, woody pastry and spicy notes.  The aroma is warm and deep , nutty.  The taste is full-bodied and soft, velvety, sweetish, with delicate fruit sourness, spicy nuances and a lingering finish.

So similar but different, I guess.  Some of that could influence tasting a bit since I wrote that just before trying them but those two sets of ideas will mix in my head almost immediately.  The idea behind tasting blindly is not to just let preconceptions lead to echoing a lot of the description, to arriving at observations and conclusions for myself.  But it's nice to mix things up too.


Menghai left, Lao Teji right

Menghai Lao Shou Cha:  it's like that description.  Describing more specifically how that earthiness plays out and balances the rest is probably as much a key to description as anything.  The complexity is really something.  It's earthy, towards damp autumn forest floor and peat, but still that comes across as clean in effect.  Nuts and spice probably do fill in supporting elements but I'd expect the other earthiness will be stronger in the first couple of infusions, and then it will transition to a range it will stay in throughout most of the tasting, with balance of aspects shifting less then.

Lao Teji:  this seems like a more conventional shou profile to me, more what I'm used to, but it's clearly one of the best shou I've ever tried (also true of the first, but in a completely different sense).  It might actually help comparing and contrasting these to describe them further, a nice switch from me saying that it makes no sense to taste the two teas I'm reviewing together since they're so different.  This is earthy, nutty, and a little spicy, with just a touch of tar or oil filling in that beyond that range.  For the other tea only forest floor and peat filled a similar space.  Both are probably more positive than they sound, or rather I'd expect people who have had a similar experience to relate to how overall complexity can be positively supported by those ranges of flavors, and how they can be quite pleasant and contribute a lot, and people without such experiences couldn't place that very well.

The tart and sour parts aren't necessarily wrong but that could be misleading.  The one tea wasn't at all tart as in how a black tea can come across (like that Dian Hong cake I reviewed, an aspect that faded out after the initial couple of infusions), or a "Dan Cong black" I tried awhile back (descriptive, but perhaps a bit of a contradiction).  Those ranges may be contributing a little to complexity but they're not primary aspects, at all, at least at this stage.  I'll go through more of untangling aspects in the next round, placing the earthiness, nuttiness, and spice better.

Second infusion

It's a little early in for the messing around but I'll give this round a 15 to 20 second infusion, brewed strong, and move to a 5 to 10 second infusion next time, the more standard range.  I already know there aren't flaws in the body of these teas (the feel aspects), or issues with astringency, so it's just about seeing what changes, not pushing them to get a stronger read on those aspect ranges.

not ideal brewed inky dark but the teas do still work that way

Something like spice really does pick up in the Menghai version this round, and it does clean up quite a bit, even though it wasn't murky at all in the first infusion.  A lot of the autumn forest floor / peat range moves into something in between spice and nut.  The closest nut is probably chestnut, with that fresh roasted effect coming across too, the way that nut flavor warms and transitions, becoming sweeter and "darker."  This is a really nice shou; pleasant, clean, complex, and interesting.  There's always range for more complexity or for some other aspects to make for a potential positive input but it really works.  Of course it would seem odd, if someone isn't into shou, but it would seem that most people who are would love it.

Again the Lao Teji profile is more what I'm used to in shou; again it's earthy, but in a completely different sense.  Nutty and spicy sort of work again but I'm also noticing an aspect range base that reminds me of petroleum.  Tea tasting like oil is going to sound negative, surely, but there's a sweet, mineral intensive earthiness to fresh crude and aged wood-soaked oil barrels (two different scent ranges, related but quite different), with both potentially very positive.  New or used engine oil or road tar are completely different things.  It's more of a sweet mineral range than what typical petroleum range includes (both those comparison aspects I was on and the shared space with this tea).  The tea flavor is very clean though, rich and deep, with a pleasant pronounced aftertaste.  Both of these are full in experience range, really, across how intense they come across at first, then the feel while tasting, and the aftertaste.

Aging has probably rounded off a lot of what might have been negative in these teas, with both around a decade old now.  They have a depth to them that works really well paired with how clean they are in effect.  It's odd saying teas that taste like peat and oil are clean in flavor effect but they most certainly are.  I can only guide a reader so far through making sense of that apparent contradiction; if there is no prior experience to draw on to help with that it surely wouldn't work.  I think someone who has been through some exposure to shou might appreciate these experiences more, not for forgiving or making peace with aspects that are negative but for appreciating aspects that really are positive.

Third infusion

The Menghai Lao Shou Cha shifted character again; cool it can transition that much being a shou.  It's not different, in one sense, it's just that the balance of aspects that had been there is completely different.  This tea does taste like something someone else could pin down better, I'd expect.  The description of betel nut comes up a lot and I always wonder what those taste like, and never thought to buy that the few times I've seen it in Chinatown.

It would work to break the taste down to comparisons to other things but given how many vague references that would entail and the deconstruction and reconstruction process required it might not be informative or worth the trouble.  One trace of that would be "old furniture;" that probably helps indicate why it's not going to help.  I do really like the complexity and depth of the flavor and the rest though; it works well.

Both of these teas have a lot to offer brewed very fast, and they're better brewed lightly.

The Lao Teji is transitioning less; this is perhaps where it's mostly going to be across more infusions.  Again it's clean and complex.  Nutty works as a description, but that's not as pronounced as the roasted chestnut effect in the other tea.  Part of the "deeper" context flavor range does remind me of those forms of petroleum.  It is complex, but I'm not noticing that much in the way of sourness.  This fits the description "tastes like shou" better, which I guess could be very positive or slightly negative, depending on who meant what by that.  To me it's less distinctive and original than the other version.

interesting the Lao Teji (right) looks lighter and brews darker

Fourth infusion:

My wife finally started in about other things I'm supposed to help her with--she's going to China soon, kind of a long story--so this may be the last round I write notes for, or else I'll just add something short about the next round.  These have both leveled off in terms of initial transition anyway, I think, and the next transitions to discuss would be how later rounds play out, how they react to longer steeps around the 8 or 9 infusions level.

The Menghai version is similar to the last round, which is very nice.  Sweetness is picking up a little, and the roasted chestnut effect is moving a little towards a dried fruit I'm not familiar with.  A dried version of yam probably gets the impression across, even if that's not completely it.  Almost all of that old-furniture depth dropped out, replaced by mild dried fruit.  That other aspect had been positive, but I like the fruit better. 

I'm really impressed with this tea.  It could be my favorite of every shou I've ever tried.  It's complex enough that lots of people would probably free-associate the flavors in lots of ways.  As a more regular reader might know that's probably as much about it matching a specific fruit and spice inclined range--my preference--as some objective quality level or whatever trueness to type means for decent shou. 

The Lao Teji is also still transitioning a little and becoming very slightly more positive but is much more consistent.  If the desired premise is sticking to a range that seems more type-typical and reasonably high in quality this shou might well be better.  It's odd it can be that that earthy across that flavor range and still be clean, sweet, and complex, with nothing negative going on at all. 

Fifth infusion:

More of the same.  There is more to go on about, especially related to later transitions since the teas aren't fading yet, but I will let the note taking drop.


Both were really nice versions of shou.  The Lao Teji seemed more familiar from past versions' aspect sets, more typical of the type, but to some extent I liked the Menghai Lao shou better for that reason, for being a bit more novel.  Both were as good as any shou I've tried before, but then it's not as if I've put a lot of effort or expense into trying great shou.  The range of how they come across seems a good bit narrower than for sheng to me, based only on what I've tried, and it was nice these push that range just a little further.

I reviewed a 2010 Myanmar shou not so long ago that was nice, but I didn't care for a bit of char-like effect in that tea compared to these two versions not really including anything like that.  If that aspect did match preference that tea might have been equivalent to these, for being complex and interesting, but as that stood I liked both of these more.

It's nice that the vendor descriptions seem to match the teas; that's helpful.  Shou is the kind of range of style that can be interpreted in different ways but they're descriptive and accurate enough to give you a great idea of what the tea will be like.  Often enough vendors either don't say much or seem to just add a couple of extra adjectives to make a tea sound nice, given that with enough interpretation an extra dried fruit or spice tone might be in there, but if anything these descriptions may have undersold the teas by just a little.  They mentioned tartness and sourness for these, for example (not positive descriptions, as I take those, although different combinations of flavors can work out if they balance), and I didn't really notice them.  Those aspect ranges could've dropped largely out with aging.

I'm curious about pricing, if one was sold as better than the other, or if the cost escalated as sheng tends to related to the age / storage time.  Of course it is fair to charge substantially more for pu'er that someone has stored properly; the vendor has experienced the cost of holding that tea, and accepted the risk of potential problems if there were problems with storage.  Just by hanging around for around a decade a tea product becomes a lot rarer a find.  I'm guessing the tea I liked better (the "Menghai" version) would cost more but that's just a guess, and really what matches what I like and objective quality level are two completely different things.  I'll check their site listings to see.

Menghai Lao Shu Cha 2008

Detail:  Shu Puer «Menghai» was made of the Menghai County plantation tea harvest 2008.  

This tea lists on their site for $16.48 for 100 grams, which would equate to a 357 gram cake costing $55.  That sounds pretty good, really, on the higher side for shou but for better shou than I've ran across, with price increase relating to aging hard to factor in.  I've definitely tried shou that's not nearly as good that cost more.

Lao Teji 2009

More detail:  Aged ripe Puer «Special Grade» was made in Menghai county from spring tea shoots of plantation tea grown in Bulangshan mountains (harvest 2009).

This one sells for $15.93 per 100 grams, so essentially for a similar priced product.  The description sounds a little higher end but really the experience is the thing.  This seemed more typical of other shou versions I've tried, and to the extent I could judge quality versus aspect variation they didn't seem so far off each other.  Neither was flawed in any way, and both were complex and interesting.

In checking their Moychay shou website page they list a number of pressed shou versions as well.  They range from just under $20 to up around $45, but that highest price version is from Lao Man E.  One smaller 100 gram cake described as made of higher grade material from 1999 is under $40.  Spending $20 on 50 grams of shou might not come up too often for many people but there seems a good chance that's exceptional tea. 

I also browsed through Yunnan Sourcing options for shou of comparable ages but there's really no matching up equivalent quality products.  CNNP bricks (250 grams) seem to run from $80-100 for 1999/2000 options there, so it just depends on how tea quality plays out if that one I'd mentioned is a steal or just more of the same at a standard price.  For whatever reason YS seems to sell older shou or newer shou but not as much in the 10 year old range.

I'm even more excited to try all these tea samples after this pair; they were quite a nice experience.  It seems like Moychay is probably a really good source for shou, for people on that page.  I like shou myself, and keep buying it and trying it, but in the past my experiences were more that the moderate priced versions I would buy were not really interesting or novel--kind of what one might expect.  There have been some exceptions.

One brick of shou I bought, a typical, lower cost mass produced version, was a lot better when I tried the last of it around a year later after first tasting it.  That may be some of what was going on, that those other teas just needed a bit more time to develop, for processing related flavors to soften and deepen.  I never really noticed much from shou I bought tasting fishy, as people describe, but that one did evolve from tasting a bit heavily of tar and petroleum to richer, sweeter, and creamier.  I just saw a comment from one of the main pu'er vendors online suggesting that it can take around 5 years for the initial processing tastes to completely settle out, for what that's worth.

messing around with photo editing with her (#picsart)

one of Keo's editing trials

Friday, May 18, 2018

Tea and the concept of experience economy

I recently attended an Adobe software conference tied to the theme of experience business or experience economy.  The general idea behind that concept is this:  as economies evolve people go from demanding basic goods (agrarian and then industrial based economies) to demanding services and specific forms of experiences (service and then experience based economies).  The higher the level of value the more that can be charged; “experiences” can command higher pricing than typical services.

It’s not necessarily simple to tie this back to tea.  A bestseller “The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary” outlines how that company built an empire by shifting themes and adding more value. 

Of course we’ve now seen that approach not work related to being duplicated for tea sales.  This World Tea News article from January 2016 explained how all the Teavana cafes were closing, but the retail stores were doing fine, and then in July of 2017 Starbucks announced they were closing all those shops.  I won’t try to interpret that, since related factors were surely complicated, but it probably works to say that sorting out the best approach to selling tea isn’t simple.

Former NYC Teavana café (photo credit)

I’m noticing a divide in experiences related to this theme and tea.  By far the most popular teas sold in Bangkok are bubble tea, or other flavored, sweetened, milk-based take-away versions that might as well have tapioca pearls at the bottom, even when they don’t.  It’s a beverage item and that’s it.  Tea enthusiasts are at the other end of the spectrum.  There can be secondary emphasis on ceremony or collecting gear but it’s mostly about the overall experience.

Of course it’s still about the tea, right?  Discussion arises about teaware, preparation methodology, and even subjects like health concerns, in places like online groups or at events, but in the end it comes back to liking aspects of the brewed teas.  That’s where the experience is, there is just plenty of room left for framing that.

Related to this split there might be a normal experience or preference curve of sorts, as people shift from floral blends, Tazo tea bags, and matcha lattes onto Gongfu--style brewing something like Dan Cong oolong or aged sheng pu’er.  True to the theory, as the demand transitions to a different focus it’s much less about price. 

Focus on minimizing level of cost can even invert.  Someone recently claimed in an online comment to have only spent under $200 on a sheng pu’er cake once this year, quickly qualified as a smaller 200 gram cake.  Bulk order photos are a different form of demonstrating status in consumption level.  $200 orders can look impressive, but then a single cake can cost more, and name-dropping decades old version references trumps any quantity.  A foreign tea enthusiast recently upped even that ante, describing commitment level as best expressed by a percentage of overall income spent on tea.

Wuyi Origin Mi Lan Xiang Dan Cong; better teas don’t need to cost a lot

It seems all this really isn’t describing a general trend into expanding tea as a service-based experience versus a commodity.  The priciest local café here in Bangkok charges over $20 for a pot of tea, for a scant few grams; that’s at least back to purchasing an on-site experience. 
How to build that into the next version of a Starbucks, or did that prove to be a flawed goal?  Are these people focused as much on experience or on displaying status instead, or can the two really not be split?  It’s a bit of a tangent, but I’m reminded of a far more absurd topic coming up in an article about a golden taco:

The world's most expensive taco is specially prepared at Grand Velas Los Cabos resort…  Ordering it will set you back $25,000 — almost the price of a new car.

The taco's foundation is a gold-infused corn tortilla, which is then layered with Kobe beef and lobster. Toppings include black truffle Brie ($100 per ounce) and a dollop of Beluga caviar ($700 an ounce). Then, more layers of gold are added on top to finish… 

I'd take a cheap Tex-Mex version over this any day

Complaining about a $30 pot of tea and people spending enough to buy a car for a taco seem worlds apart.

These diverse threads make it hard to stick to the train of thought of what experiences people might want next related to tea, or what will become popular, and how expenses would factor in.  Seeking out traditional, quiet, feng shui designed cafes doesn’t seem likely to catch on.  Even the committed tea bloggers I read sometimes speak of setting aside the better teaware and complex brewing processes due to just getting busy, maybe taking up a grandpa style approach instead.

I drank Tazo ages ago; I have no hate for tea-bag based blends

All the while in beginner oriented tea groups I keep finding myself arguing the merits of basic, plain, inexpensive loose teas.  In one recent discussion someone asked if mixing peanut butter powder into tea might work (and it might, I guess), and I wondered if that person ever tried a Tie Kuan Yin of any quality level before, or a single example of Chinese black tea.  It turned out they were really looking for Thai iced tea (which can be nice). 

Plain, simple teas can be amazing experiences, but it’s only easy to package and sell the leaf.  It’s not as simple to bring the rest of the experience to everyone.