Friday, April 30, 2021

Meetup with Joshua Linvers, a Canadian tea sommelier

 

photo credit Suzana, as usual


Another meetup!  At least the people we meet with are completely different, from different parts of the world, varied cultures, and with completely different takes on tea.  This time my friends--Suzana, Ralph, and Huyen--and I met with Josh Linvers, a Canadian tea vendor and sommelier (on Facebook, Instagram, and his own vending and blog reference site). 

An hour into this session we were still on random small-talk, covering a bit here and there on how we got into tea, on Japanese and Vietnamese versions, tea history, and broad preference trends, all over the map.  It didn't seem like this was going to lead to something unified to write here about.  Eventually the tea sommelier theme came up; that works better.  As an aside, his site name is "sommerier," which someone might wonder about relating to tea instead of wine, but dictionary.com seems to clear this up:


ORIGIN OF SOMMELIER

1920–25; <French, Middle French, dissimilated form of *sommerier, derivative of sommier one charged with arranging transportation, equivalent to somme burden (<Late Latin sagma horse load <Greek ságma covering, pack saddle) 


I wrote the basics about Joshua's thoughts on tea pairing with food last year, with a longer and more detailed summary on his own page about that.  It's not that complicated, or at least the basics aren't.  Tea can't necessarily stand up to strong flavors in foods the way wine can, so it needs to play a more complementary role.  Most typically you can't pair similar combinations, because it overpowers the tea expression of the same scope, so you need to settle on offsetting balance, aspects that enhance each other, which is where it gets more complicated.  A quote from a wine-making friend in that post describes that context well, from Dan Senkow, a really great guy, very insightful and funny in his own way:


In simple terms one may either use an element in the wine to compare or contrast. So, this may be done with flavors, textures, weights, or a mixture of the above. Example a heavy lobster bisque with a light crisp wine or a rich opulent creamy one. 


So the creamy wine--or tea, in this example--won't match with a creamy soup, because real cream in a lobster bisque is much heavier and stronger than it could ever be in a milk oolong (Jin Xuan), so that oolong could end up tasting like water.  Per Joshua's input and approach that milk oolong could pair really well with any food that works well with a creamy, buttery input, that isn't expressing a lot of that itself, which would tend to overpower the related range.

There is a Taiwanese oolong example on a menu graphic shown in that post I just cited but I'm not sure it works as an example of this tea aspect.  Maybe; that was a fushoushan oolong and pumpkin mille-feuille, pumpkin layered with cream and pastry sheets.  Me speculating about how that pairing works seems pointless.

I'd mentioned in that earlier post that all this wasn't something I am eager to take up, and I've not tried to pair any tea with food in the year since.  Except for that happening on its own having breakfast, but that's definitely not an example of that.  I just had some Anhua Qian Liang hei cha with a mango; I suppose the towards spice range earthiness and sweet citrusy fruit were fine together.  Maybe just not some sort of complementary, magical combination.

Joshua did list out some of what seemed to work really well for him, with my memory not tracking most of that well.  Gyokuro and scallops comes to mind, and savory pork, like pork belly, with a fruity sheng.  Lots of sheng isn't fruity but I'd imagine anyone reading this would get the reference; some is, and sweet, approachable, and flavor intense floral range can lean towards fruit in some versions.  I tried a Mannuo sheng that was pretty fruity recently, and a wild-origin Yongde sheng that was, in a slightly different sense.  He also mentioned that smoked Lapsang Souchong works really well with cinnamon buns, which does sound interesting.  If more of that was around here I'd check on that.

It was interesting getting more of his input on how universal this appeal seemed to be, if most customers "got it."  Back in that mention of Dan's input about wine pairing, he emphasized that what people like is the right yardstick, not what an expert tells them they should appreciate, or what is objectively best.  We see a lot of that play out in ordinary tea appreciation, people being on completely different pages.  Josh didn't extend all the way to root causes but it seemed like people self-selecting as foodies who open to exploring tea and wine pairing probably come into it with a broader than average appreciation of food range.  What clicks most would still be individual, but most could still relate to what kind of works in a general sense.


in-depth discussion but less than ideal screen capture results


It would be nice if I could collect some of the other fragments of discussion into novel facts or insight to pass on here.  We talked about purple tea a good bit, what that's about, and what we've tried (an Assamica plant type or set of types that evolved naturally to become purple).  I think I may have only ever tried one version, or at least that's the only one I remember trying.  It was ok but unremarkable, and trying one version of any tea tells you nothing at all.  

If you try a single tea version and it's the best quality, most exceptional, most type-typical version you can learn a lot from the experience, but you couldn't place it as being that by just trying one version.  You couldn't place that context even if someone you trust told you that was the case, that a version represented that.  But we can pick up good information from others in lots of cases, and if someone had said that about a few other versions in relation to types then they would probably be right.

I've really not did justice to that tea and food pairing theme.  It was especially interesting how Josh can shift how he sees a tea to tie that in, to get a sense of where to place it in relation to food.  But he specifically stated that 90% of all tea just isn't good enough for exceptional aspect character to support a great complementary pairing, and that it doesn't really work in all of the other 10% of cases.  In some cases a tea is just good, and can express one or more very exceptional aspects, flavors or otherwise, but may not pair well.  In the best case a combined food and tea experience can evoke a certain response, a surprise at how the sum is greater than the parts, maybe even triggering a vivid memory of a prior experience.  

I get flashes of that reminder of other experience in relation to aspects, more so than dominant flavor elements.  A tea aspect will remind me of walking in a certain type of outdoor environment, the forest scent there, or a food I've had in the past but haven't experienced in a long time.  One tea was a bit grapey in a way that reminded me of visiting my great grandfather, of a specific type of grapes that grew there, not so far off Welch's grape juice but different than any other kind I've ever tried. 

Of course the pairing idea isn't mostly about recreating a nostalgic experience, more about a marriage of inputs that work well together.  Since tea can't "stand up" to flavors the way a dry white wine can (let's say a Sauvingon Blanc, although I was really a red drinker myself), it has to be more subtle than that.

In Western tea circles less is more in relation to what you experience of food along with tea.  I don't want to go as far as saying that something could get missed related to that, because we have to miss most of all the range of possible experience when we choose to have any specific experiences.  Focus and deeper experience is all about narrowing down range.  All the same there is something there.  Joshua gave a good example that only highlights part of what I mean.

He said that fruit tends to not be overly sweet and intense in flavor in Canada, because the growing season is so short.  And because of mass production farming as an input, a part we really didn't get into. Strawberries can be pleasant there but almost never sweet, rich, and full in flavor as in the best examples.  It's a bit sad, when you think about it, that beautiful, expensive, large and colorful grocery store strawberries in Canada or here--tropical fruit is the way to go in Thailand--have almost no flavor compared to the wild strawberries I would pick by roadsides as a child in Pennsylvania.  Back on the initial topic, he said that if you drink a bit of matcha before having those strawberries, or any fruit, that shift in your palate makes the fruit taste much sweeter and more intense.  That's a novel thought, isn't it, that we could move off considering what flavors might negatively impact tea experience (or positively, as I've covered here), and move on to how a tea might radically shift the food experience instead. 


Josh is also into Japanese pottery, with more detail on this example and photo credit here


Changing topics a bit, it has been nice how friendly, interesting, and insightful these people joining these sessions have been.  It was great meeting people I already knew well in earlier rounds, and introducing them to my friends, but this adds depth, not knowing what's coming in the discussions.  Josh is really more in the middle; we've talked a good bit.

One more tangent and I'll let this go.  It was interesting the way that Josh seemed to approach tea through the lens of wine appreciation and food pairing.  In general Western tea enthusiasts track through a fairly consistent form of tea appreciation, where at first they embrace complex, intense, and approachable flavors, as in Tie Guan Yin light oolongs, then onto other range that takes more acclimation, like sheng pu'er, or maybe at least white tea or hei cha. Then it's often onto appreciating mouthfeel and aftertaste aspects more, the whole experience, and then maybe ending on "cha qi" appreciation, folding in how a tea makes you feel.  What he is describing isn't completely different but the focus is a little off that sequence.  He's definitely not learning most of the background he is applying through online tea group discussion and the same references familiar to most Western tea enthusiasts, so he's not necessarily tied to those forms.

Josh even talked about how focusing on tea experience, and maybe also how it interrelates with food, can support experiencing more sensory depth in everyday life.  It can make it easier to notice scents around you.  I was just talking to Ralph about how odd it was that when I first moved to Bangkok I was struck by how novel everything smelled, not just the stinky canals and fragrant flowering trees, and very aromatic Chinatown shops and mixed-input old markets, but all over.  Now I rarely smell anything at all; it's all so normal it blends into an unnoticed background.  It seemed like that was part of what Josh was getting at, that we can tap into that background more than we typically do, if we choose to.  Some focused range of sensory experience can help serve as a gateway to that.  Or who knows, maybe I got that part wrong.


I am planning to do a different form of discussion soon, having a guest join who is more suitable for explaining a complex set of ideas versus discussing personal exposure, and other conversation.  I'm not saying that I plan to turn this form into a podcast theme, but I do intend to do a more open meeting version.  I'll mention more about that in the usual places, in that one international theme tea group I moderate, or in a Quora Space I write about tea.


Monday, April 26, 2021

Meetup with Gundega Silniece; tea culture in Latvia


credit Suzana; she always takes the best pictures


About yet another social meetup with an online contact.  I've not met Gundega Silniece before in person, a tea vendor based in Latvia.  It was a very relaxed, free-flowing, and pleasant discussion though, as if she was already a friend. It was great getting to know her better, since we hadn't been in close contact through online discussion, but I'm not going to emphasize that part here.  Let's just say that she is nice.

I want to share more about tea culture in Latvia instead.  I've done a number of local area posts about tea culture in different places, in Russia, Poland, Sweden, even Kazakhstan, with this post covering other writing about those and other places, mostly about us visiting a lot of Asia.  This won't be like those posts, not a more comprehensive glance at a local tea scene, or preferences, just extracts from a conversation about those same themes.  

I had considered having Gundega contribute more about her tea business, but she didn't want to use this content as a way to self-promote, to move discussion into more commercial scope.  That's respectable.  And practical; I can't have that much of a Latvian audience.  To check out more background she also has an Instagram account or a local shop sales page.

She did contribute pictures, which I'll mostly add at the end, that tell some of the story, just not more about the context.  Related to this discussion I only had the Zoom-style pictures.  Those didn't turn out as well as screen-capture versions since we experimented with using Teams, the Microsoft version I use for work.  Zoom and Teams are about the same; it wasn't different.


Gundega in her Riga shop


Latvian tea culture


The main interesting part about tea themes there is how hearing bits makes it come across as developed and complex.  I specifically asked her about connection to Russian tea culture, since a lot of the same themes seem to carry over:  an emphasis on both tea and tisanes, an appreciation of Chinese tea culture, and a diverse tea vending theme, which includes a tea club form.  I mean "club" in the sense of a night club, not a cafe, or an interest group, like Tea Masters, which she is also involved in.  That's also an educational institution, and they host competitions; probably all that is familiar to many.

Her answer to that was informative.  They do have different types of cafes and shops there, and also a night-club oriented business.  It doesn't seem as heavily based on the old Chinese social club theme, which in a negative spin resembles former opium dens there, with the version Gundega described more tied to a bar or concert event theme.  How is this possible, one might wonder, that two forms that don't exist in other places can thrive in these two places?  She offered her opinion on that, framed as speculation, not a final answer.

She thought that the form of the local culture in Latvia enabled certain themes or forms of interest to work that wouldn't necessarily work elsewhere.  It had to do with other artistic appreciation, and forms of social gathering.  Fair enough.  Ralph, another member of that group, is familiar with club scenes and outdoor events, and to some extent surely also related subcultures extending beyond Germany. He seconded that there are sub-culture groups and perspectives, tied to Germany and a region further East, that may embrace themes like music, live entertainment and other gatherings, and beverages in novel ways.  It's absolutely not the form they were both talking about (which might not have been the same), but all that reminded me of that catchy old "Techno-Viking" video.


live music with tea and tea cocktails; pretty cool


One interesting point Gundega made was that very localized "scenes" in Riga might support different themes, which may not work at all a couple of blocks away.  I definitely don't doubt that. It makes more sense in relation to places I've lived in the US than in Bangkok, where all the areas are a mix of different themes.  That's at least outside the red light districts here, which probably include a narrower band of sub-themes I'm not familiar with.  In the US there can be a clear edge to an area in cities, and a block or two over it's a completely different place.  She made it sound even more locally distinct than that.

To back up a bit, earlier on Gundega explained what general tea preference is like in Latvia.  People drink a lot of tisanes, which is common across Eastern Europe, per my understanding.  Then they also explore a lot of types of better "real tea," which I didn't necessarily expect.  I'm sure the uptake is somewhat limited across a lot of scope (eg. the number of people into Darjeeling, or Japanese green tea), but it's not as if it doesn't come up.  In Russia the grocery-store level of preference and awareness tied mostly to Ceylon, with some blends, and then at the higher end there was a lot of focus on Chinese teas, mostly on sheng and shu pu'er.  Gundega clarified that although there were commonalities with Russian tea culture there really is no direct cultural link; that just relates to common causes, like being nearby, and of course an earlier political association, which doesn't necessarily involve an ongoing connection.

I asked how the pandemic was affecting tea sales and functions, and the answer was exactly what you would expect, one that would apply to most places:  impact was significant, and definitely not positive.  So it goes.  She was upbeat about that, grateful that her life is still working out, even with significant impact in terms of income and normal daily routine experience.  I guess that's as good as most of us can do, take it for what it's worth, and try to see the positive in it, like spending more time with family.

Gundega had met Huyen related to attending a Tea Master's competition event in Vietnam some years ago.  That didn't launch into a lot of shared experience discussion, but it did help us bridge to discussing tea themes there that she had already learned a good bit about.  It was really interesting hearing about detailed uptake of regional tea interests there in Latvia, and a little about her impression of some, and about import issues, just a bit off the topic here of local main forms of tea culture.  We had a nice discussion about the age that children can drink tea, that bridged into her account of children's tea ceremony competitions, held through the Tea Master's organization.




a childrens' brewing form competition


To be clear all this really hasn't done justice to the range of things Gundega is working on, related to selling teas, developing new experience themes related to tea (that club context), Tea Master's participation, or supporting tea tours.  I think we missed a main one entirely in that discussion, about a new European collective organization being developed, or maybe that only came up in a short set of comments about reviewing tea quality issues.  These meetups are more social than about interviewing people joining about such things though, and hearing background about tea in Latvia and some of what she is working on was enough.


one competition related to identifying tea versions


compressed tisane blends are a type subtheme there too



the Teams captures from the Windows version have narrow landscape form issues


approach to tea and the local area and culture there all sounded great


Monday, April 19, 2021

Song Yi Tea blind sheng tasting (old plant source Mannuo)

 



I'm trying the second tea version sent for review by a Taiwan based vendor I reviewed versions from awhile back.  At least initially this is a blind tasting format; the label is Chinese, and I didn't look it up prior to tasting.  I just assumed it was rolled oolong at first, since they sell both sheng pu'er and that, but it was clear enough even before opening it that it wasn't that, from the feel.  It's really nice smelling sheng.

I'll fill in what it is in the conclusion section at the end in a final version of write-up, but it turned out it was a 2020 Mannuo Ancient Tree sheng pu'er (with their main website here).  The post title theme works either way, as a direct review of that or tied to the form in which I tried it, or failing to choose, and listing both.


Review:


First infusion:  very pleasant, sweet and creamy.  It's fruitier than sheng typically is, reminding me of a Nannuo that was a favorite in the past, or maybe even the somewhat matching character of several LBZ versions.  This is too light yet to really get a read on where bitterness level and type will settle, but surely it's moderate. Feel is a bit soft too, not necessarily thin but lacking a typical structure.  Some of that is probably related to a processing style input, but I won't go into guessing about that part.  This has that white grape / pear flavor aspect range I really liked in that one Nannuo (the first tea I bought from Moychay, a random pick that worked out well).



Second infusion:  a pleasant bitterness picks up in this, moderate in intensity but positive in form.  It tastes a bit like biting a tree bud, kind of "towards aspirin" as all bitterness is, but in a pleasant form within the broader range.  Sweetness stands out more, still in that fruit range, and the creaminess.  Sheng usually isn't this creamy; that part is hard to place.  It pulls that taste, which is moving more into a light orange citrus, towards creamsicle.  Creamsicle with a bit of complementary bitterness is interesting.  

Along with flavor extending a bit into cream the feel is like that, full and round, not missing structure typically present in sheng but swapping out a good bit of that for a very different fullness.  That Moychay Nannuo was like this related to flavor, a bit, and it was a low-bitterness and approachable feel tea, but it didn't have this creaminess, and didn't shift into citrus range like this.  Next round it should be more where it's going to be across a longer cycle, maybe just a bit more novel.

That bitterness is present in a stronger form in the aftertaste, or at least a higher proportion in relation to the rest.  That's pleasant.



Third infusion:    intensity is good; this is really hitting, even for being brewed relatively quickly.  Now bitterness does match the sweetness and creaminess, with complexity ratcheted up.  Right after you swallow the tea you get a rush of the experience strengthening, then the rest lingers.  A bit of stronger light mineral fills in; that's part of this becoming more complex and intense.  Feel is a bit more structured, but not astringent or challenging.  This really does seem like quite pleasant tea.  

I'm curious about what it is, and how old it is.  It could be a very young tea that just happens to be on the soft side, but it would make perfect sense for this to have had a couple of years to round off rough edges to get to this character.  The brightness and apparent freshness marks it as not really transitioned much by age at all.  If this was stored very dry this could be 3 or 4 years old but if it had spent time in Taiwan in more humid environment I wouldn't expect it to be more than 2 years old, and it could be quite young, just a soft tea to begin with.



Fourth infusion:  the real story of this tea is how appealing that set of aspects is, and I can't really do justice to that subjective experience.  It's just good.  It's so good that considerations about how it might improve with aging kind of drop out; it doesn't need to improve, and I'd need to be holding a lot of this tea to want to see the results of that experiment, versus just drinking through it.  "Creamy" may not be as clear as it could be; this coats the inside of your mouth.  It's a cool feel sensation, along with that pleasant and novel flavor range, well-matching bitterness level, and positive form of aftertaste.  

If this tea cost a good bit that would be justified, regardless of its origin story.  It's a more positive tea than I tend to usually drink.  I've reviewed an LBZ version not long ago (or "presented as such," for the skeptics, who probably shouldn't be reading this blog anyway); it would be interesting to compare the two.


Fifth infusion:  the flavor is so complex that it's hard to do better with a description.  It's on the fruity side, but that complex range of flavor could be interpreted differently, and it's my impression that it covers a set.  The list hasn't changed:  creaminess (both feel and taste), citrus (between light orange and lemon, maybe tangerine), mineral (just a bit warmer now), other fruit (kind of subdued and in the background), floral undertone (really as floral as fruity now, but in a form that comes across as vague for covering some range).  Then there's sweetness and bitterness, with both relatively intense while you drink the tea but hitting like a wave as aftertaste when you first swallow it.  

I'll skip further rounds; I have a couple of things to do.  I will look up what this is and write some thoughts on that.  Related to trying those later infusions it stayed positive but dropped off, not extending into as long a sequence of similar range character rounds as many sheng tend to.  I didn't see that as a sign of moderate tea quality, more a function of how "approachable sheng" tends to work out.  It wouldn't be unusual for people to frame that more negatively, looking for structure in their sheng, and a different kind of intensity.


Conclusions:


I looked up what it is

2020 Spring Ancient Tree Raw Pu'er sheng Puerh Loose Tea 150g (950 baht; about $30)

Name: 2020 Mannuo Gushu Sheng Puerh

Year: 2020 Spring First Harvest

Country of Origin: Yunnan Province, China

Altitude: 1300m above sea level

Flavor: Sweet Flowery Scent, strong aftertaste


That age makes sense; it was just a soft tea to begin with, with quite moderate but notable bitterness, and mild astringency.  The brightness and freshness definitely matched it being young.  The "ancient tree" part we can almost set aside, but to some extent older plants and more natural growth teas can seem to relate to moderate astringency and novel flavor range (respectively).  Gushu often can be subtle in flavor intensity with a strong mineral base flavor, but then more wild growth versions would shift that to be softer with more focus on fruit or strong floral flavor.  But it's best to take the mapping of marketing description and hearsay character per input with a grain of salt and just go by what the tea expresses.  It's definitely not a personal strength of mine to map out a large matrix of origin locations and input conditions to experienced aspects, which is why I keep the guesses a bit vague in more blind tastings.

I've tried tea from that origin before but not enough to establish any baseline.  I think I might've reviewed a pressed version from them (yep, a 2018 version, a pressed cake, the more conventional form).

Again value stands out for this tea, as much as the character.  This is selling for $60 per standard cake, more or less, 20 cents a gram (not far off what the other one was).  This is much better tea than some prior $80-90 versions I've tried from Yunnan Sourcing and Farmerleaf, although there is some adjustment to be made in that "better" evaluation related to it being based on preference, and me liking fruity and approachable sheng.  That said, this tea is a steal.  

The general character reminds me of a "wild tea" version I tried selling for well over 50 cents a gram not so long ago, which may or may not have been a good price for that; it can be hard to tell when versions aren't mainstream, types that don't turn up often (as far as I know).  That was this Moychay Yongde "wild" sheng version related to sweetness, interesting flavor, moderate bitterness, great intensity, and softer feel structure.  Then again if I tried them side by side maybe I would think my memory of that character similarity was off in some way.

One might naturally wonder if there isn't a character limitation at play that I've referenced a few times but not completely spelled out, related to the "oolong pu'er" theme, and this being so approachable at this young age.  Related to letting this sit for 15 years and appreciating it then, probably.  This will warm in tone and drop out some freshness over the next two years, but there's no astringency to soften and transition to something else.  I don't think it would be more positive after that two years, and would probably decline in appeal after that.  It's really good now though.  

To some this bitterness could be disappointingly limited, and the creaminess could be a flaw, a gap in expressing more feel-structure instead.  This is a sheng an oolong drinker would love, and for some that would be a huge turn-off.  I couldn't relate to seeing this character as a gap, the set of aspects I've expressed, but subjective preference is like that; we work with the perspective that we have.


Post-script


I've stated clearly that I really like this tea, and that it seems like a great value to me, with one more aspect of my own experience highlighting that.  I bought some for my niece as a wedding gift before this post was finally finished.  I might get around to buying more for myself too.

I didn't criticize the "ancient /  old plant source" part here.  Was it that?  I don't know.  I think I can accurately spot some typical patterns related to older plant source sheng, tied to a certain feel range, and strong underlying mineral content, and this doesn't match of that.  The "wild" plant type theme might match up better, and those two ranges can overlap.  

I asked the business owner, or business-front staff, (Sonya?; I'm bad with names), why this tea is as good as it is, which couples with the question of why it sells for what it does.  I probably sound really skeptical of any kind of input in this post write-up, since I must have said "take that with a grain of salt" a few times, so it's odd that I even ask, but there had to be a novel story there.  She said that having a close contact in Yunnan was a factor in buying pretty good tea.  

As I understand it the rate isn't necessarily the thing; it's being able to find pretty good tea versus pretty mediocre material, lower elevation plantation grown leaves. Both of those tie to local market rate expectations, perhaps not as differentiated by quality level as a factor as one might imagine, although that part is way outside the range of my personal experience.  Old plant source tea not being from plants that are that old might factor in too.  But for as wishy-washy as I am about stating clear opinions I'm pretty sure this is good tea.  Good in relation to my preferences, definitely, but I think the other kind of good too.


the kids; been awhile since I've shown pictures of them


Kalani is doing an over-dramatic pose phase


a house for a kitten we may adopt


it has a door and windows, and a decoration theme



there is even a bed, and artwork on the walls