Friday, November 8, 2013

mystery tea investigation

Back in August I was lucky to travel a lot, which is a lot easier here because so many countries are relatively local.  Traveling to the North of Thailand or over to Laos or Cambodia (or Malaysia, Vietnam, etc.) is like someone visiting the next state back in America, and probably costs less.  An overnight sleeping berth train ticket to Chiang Mai (the North of Thailand) or to the Laos border costs just over $US 20 (second class; more like 40 for first class in a two-person cabin).
I bought teas I didn’t completely identify in both Chiang Mai and Beijing.  China is a bit further out there, of course, with more visa paperwork, which costs around $100 to process. 
In Chiang Mai the tea was labeled as oolong, grade #1, but based on my wife’s translation of the package (entirely in Thai) there was no cultivar designation.  It seems possible there was more information she just wasn’t catching since there was Thai language all over the vacuum sealed bag.  One could assume the tea was grown in the Chiang Rai area since most grown in Thailand is, although it might not have been.

tea before brewing
The tea from China was more of a mystery, sold in a small shop in an old-style market from bulk, labeled as high mountain organic green tea.  I bought some oolong and longjing tea at the same shop (possibly knock-off longjing, which is a different story).  Both turned out to be quite decent, reasonable mid-grade, much as I could tell such a thing.  The “high mountain green” tea had a very unusual look, quite like pine needles, with more to follow on the taste. 

A short aside on what an old-style market is, since that can mean a lot of things.  Local food markets in Thailand are really interesting, large rooms full of tables with people selling goods, sometimes in buildings that look like an old warehouse.  In the rougher versions bare light bulbs hang to show goods packed on crowded tables, with troughs in the floor as drainage since the refrigeration for foods that require it is just ice.  The smells can be incredible, a mix of interesting and some unpleasant smells that takes some getting used to.  It's like the smell equivalent of being in a loud room where lots of people are talking.
But this market wasn't like that.  Traditional goods markets are a bit more orderly, with large buildings separated into stalls, often with different types of things on multiple floors.  I also bought tea in a Russian market like that Beijing (mid-grade oolong; decent, but not quite so mysterious).  This tea shop was just a counter and shelves in the middle of lots of other things, with lots of types of teas in different containers.  The market in Chiang Mai wasn't so different, a traditional market selling all sorts of dry goods, but with teas sold pre-packaged.

Thailand oolong

I experimented with different brewing techniques with this tea, probably just not getting it right at first, and the tea seemed mediocre or good depending on how I made it.  Or maybe it was varying with my mood, or what I had with it, or the noise level in the room (little boys really do love noise). 
After already trying it a few times I brewed it Western style in a large glass pot and was amazed at how buttery the tea tasted, and trying it again later brewed in a gaiwan the results were the same.  To make a long story short right away it seemed it must be Jin Xuan, which is a very common Thai cultivar best known for this “milk oolong” effect.  The teas can have a creamy feel or taste to them that can even resemble butter, or some taste nutty instead.  I've read of the possiblity of fake versions of milk oolong, flavored to emphasize certain tastes, but for reasons I'll skip it seemed "real."
This cultivar is also known as #12 from the registration numbered list of hybrids, widely imported from Taiwan back when Thailand was trying to get farmers to switch from opium to other crops.   More on all that here, and more description of Jin Xuan. 
I just shared this tea with my favorite local pu’er shop owner this week, Paula from JRT Gallery and Tea shop.  There really should be a website to link to but the Google maps location will have to do for now.
Paula is an amazing source of tea information, although I’ve always wonder how much of it isn’t grounded in solid facts when it starts to get unusual (she’s Chinese, and from China, not Thai).  For example, she talks about the effect different teas have on mood and feelings, the chi / qi idea, or how the tea in the top of the cup can taste different than the tea in the bottom of it, when the cups are holding half an ounce of tea. 
She said the oolong probably wasn’t made using a lot of fertilizer or pesticides because you could check the leaf by rolling it between your fingers and see if it makes a ball or starts to shred.  The ball is the good result, so apparently chemical use can degrade the structure of the leaf to some extent (my interpretation, of course).  
Paula said the tea is good--so I was right for liking it, much as external validation is valid--seeming to like the buttery taste, floral undertones, clean flavors, long finish, and nice feel.  But she said since this tea is from a high production plant type it is seen as an everyday tea in China, potentially a good tea but not an expensive one.  She also said it’s a tea women would tend to like more.  Gender-based tea preferences; odd.  I’ll check back later on which is a really manly tea.

Chinese high mountain organic green

leaves after brewing
This tea wasn’t so easy to identify.  At first it was so unusual I couldn’t be sure if I liked it or not but it soon had me appreciating vegetal flavors more than I had before.  

It starts out with a touch of astringency but with a nice pine / rosemary flavor.  By the second infusion the astringency really drops out and other vegetal flavors join the rosemary, a grassiness, even a hint of green beans.  As infusions go on the rosemary fades and the green beans get stronger.  More than just the taste there is a feel and impression to the tea that is nice.  The flavors are bright with a hint of sweetness, with a little dryness to the feel of it.  The brewed leaves are still very small. 
So what type of tea is it?  I don’t know.  It seems like with more tea experience (rather than the relatively little that I have) I’d probably have more information to go on.
I asked someone with a lot of tea background on-line and he said: 
“might be a Chinese-grown sencha (either Chinese copy of a Japanese tea, or a Japanese-commissioned tea from China) or one of the various "bird's tongue" style teas.  I'd lump Lu'an Gua Pian (Lu'an Melon Seed) into that group as well .”  
Pretty good for an off-the-top-of-the-head guess based on limited information, right?  I researched those teas and they didn’t sound or look exactly right.  I Googled “green needle tea” since that’s what it looked like and nothing fit well.  It’s not like this is the only tea ever made of its kind, I’m just not sorting out what it is.  It’s interesting to consider if it might be a copy of some other type of tea, but under the circumstances it would seem not to matter. 
After the horror stories about China and fake foods there (industrial chemicals used in place of food ingredients, steamed buns made from cardboard, fake eggs that come in a shell, with a fake yolk) at first I was wondering if it might be something other than tea. 


I’ve bought more teas that were not so good tea-shopping at random in South East Asia—more on all that in other posts—but sometimes it works out.

1 comment:

  1. The brewed result looks kind of like that Zhu Ye Qing we talked about. But the flavors you describe sound different than what was characteristic of that tea. Nice post John.