Monday, December 22, 2014

Vietnamese teas! Green and Black!

I just went to Vietnam (Ha Noi and surrounding, the North) and of course tried some teas.  I liked Vietnam and the teas so much I'll have to ramble and show pictures a bit more than usual.

A stunning country (nice even if one doesn't like tea).

Green teas:  the typical experience

What to say about the green teas?  My first reaction was amazement at how fresh the different teas taste.  The one I had today starts off with a really fresh vegetal kale-like taste, which softens a bit to different flavors as you keep brewing it.  The predominant flavor might be the mineral nature, along with the vegetal character that's never exactly grassy, different vegetable notes with a wood undertone.

One odd tendency of the teas I've tried is they just keep brewing consistently good tea, hanging in there infusion after infusion like decent Chinese or Taiwanese lighter oolongs.

beautiful bluish green tea, tastes like it looks:  intense

Bitterness can be an issue with any green teas, but the twist with Vietnamese teas is some people love that flavor component (astringency, however you put it), at least per one seemingly informed person I talked to about that.  At least one type is even sold as "bitter tea;" not so much of a selling point to me.

The first time I ordered a tea in a restaurant they brought it steeping in boiling water, which of course will bring out the bitterness in any green tea.

The first taste was really nice anyway, fresh and light, but it occurred to me that continuing to steep green tea for a long time in boiling water wasn't going to end well.  I asked for extra glasses to halt the brewing process but it was too late (pictured here); that wonderful fresh character turned extra-bitter.

Of course I was still intrigued, ready to keep on tasting teas.  This was my second visit to Vietnam but since my tea obsession really ramped up after my last visit (when I was happy to check out tea and herb blends from there that were new to me).  This time I was going much deeper for sure.

 Later the same sort of thing happened at a tea shop, of all places; they were brewing green tea at boiling temperature, and not taking the leaves out of the tea, they let is keep on brewing.  They were doing it on purpose!

Actually I was still in denial about that until a forum discussion after the trip absolutely confirmed it.  Aside from that being odd, preferring bitterness, it seemed a shame to drown out the range of other amazing flavors these teas were capable of.

At a shop near our hotel they sold a number of different teas (and coffees) from larger bins, offering the tea by sampling smells.

Only one was a pure green tea (Thai Nguyen Tea--a province name reference), and one other black, and all those others tea flavored or blended with different flowers, and one rice tea.

It would've been sensible to buy them all given that pricing and those smells (that "green tea" bin says 60,000 dong for 100 grams; about $3--almost criminal to not buy the tea).  Tea purist that I am, and given my wife was about to go crazy over all the tea I would buy anyway, I just bought the black and green.  If I'd tasted that black tea instead of just smelling it 100 grams wouldn't have been nearly enough.

Vietnamese black tea

This tea is an orthodox tea, for sure.  You really can't judge quality on smell but at a guess the tea would have warm cinnamon notes and decent malty character.

The first time I tried it (back at home in Bangkok, later) I was surprised at how good it was, a soft, rich tea, with good body, including those taste elements and maybe a hint of citrus and woody undertone.  

This was still a mid-range tea, without quite the same subtlety, remarkable "clean" flavors, balance, and complexity I've experienced in some nicer Chinese black teas, but definitely a better tea than most people know exists.  Better than any black Vietnamese tea I expected to find, especially at rock-bottom prices ($4 for 100 grams; I'm going back for sure, even if the airfare does add few hundred).  Oddly it was much softer than a lot of black teas, nice for me.

I kept on seeing more teas, and buying them here and there, almost all green.  I saw a couple oolongs along the way but kept thinking I'd make it to a shop where I could taste them, and see a selection, and dodge buying one so-so oolong and then wondering if it was regional character or just what I bought.  Of course if I'd brewed the black tea in the hotel room I'd have bought one at random and hoped for the same luck.

In conclusion

This isn't really where I'll leave off because I have a few more teas to try.  One is an ancient tree high mountain green tea (might be nice), another bought from a local hill-tribe village, along with some dried apple chips and local almonds (which are good).

The herb and flower teas are a different story I won't be telling, but that one rice tea showed a lot of promise (the smell did), and one lotus tea I tried there was quite nice.  So maybe some explaining is in order, since I skipped so much:  it wasn't really a tea theme vacation.

trying bia hoi, fresh beer (me, not him)
We visited Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa (mountains--cold up there), and Tamkok (hills, I guess) all in a week, and wasted precious tea shopping time snapping up great deals on winter gear and kids' shoes (so mundane; every country has that!).  Vietnamese food was an aside worth wasting time on; pho is only the beginning (Asian chicken noodle soup).

It seems likely I never did stumble across the best of what Vietnamese tea has to offer, perhaps not even trying one from the main growing region--Tan Cuong--in that Thai Nguyen province  (review of one such here).  I'll be back.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Ruby / Red Jade Taiwanese black tea review

I tried a really interesting tea awhile back I didn’t get around to writing about, a Ruby / Red Jade tea, a black tea from Taiwan.  I first reviewed this type of tea here, and I’ve since tried the next year’s version of the May Zest tea, but I’m behind on writing about that too (more at the end here).

The Tea Village version was one of the more interesting teas I’ve tried.  Note they don’t actually sell it in their store or on their website; in the course of talking about teas they gave me a sample of their own.  So I’m not trying to help them sell it, since they don’t, but I suppose I’m not impartial given their generosity in sharing it.  

In one last aside before actually describing tea, they wouldn’t offer samples of what they don’t sell as a rule but do freely offer tasting of their products prior to purchase, which is a best-case when it comes to buying teas.


The other May Zest version Ruby (or Red Jade, or TTES #18) was a nice tea with predominant natural mint element.  I could still detect a mint tone in this tea, but the main flavor element struck me immediately as sun-dried tomatoes.  At some point flavors seem to wander a bit far from “tea” right?  Of course I don’t mean if you steeped sun-dried tomato for a long time you’d get a very similar infusion, rather that the balance of natural sweetness, a fruit / vegetable element that straddled both, and a nice earthiness ended up there, at least to my sense of taste.

rich as it looks

This was a good thing.  It made for a balanced, clean, unique flavor profile.  It doesn’t sound like that would work, or even that tastes like black tea, a mild and sweet mint, and sun-dried tomatoes could all combine, but there it was.  I’ve tried it a couple times since and it’s hard to really tease out other taste elements given how obvious that one seems to me.  

The rich body and feel of the tea is also notable, in a subtle way that is hard to describe (or then again that type of thing is always hard for me to put words to).  After a couple infusions it changes to a slight dry feel to the tea, which also works.

Related points

A discussion on a LinkedIn group covered how black teas tend to produce less than other types, that they run out faster than green or oolong cousins, which can just keep brewing.  Some of my favorite teas are really like this, dark oolongs (near black) starting off with wonderful cinnamon and cocoa tones that drop out as the tea disappears after one or two infusions.  This Ruby tea seemed to last a bit longer, holding up to produce consistent infusions of nice tea. 

with gaiwan for scale--some long leaves

That discussion didn’t get far with people even guessing why this happens, and no one noted that for some reason some less oxidized higher-quality oolongs can just keep on making infusion after infusion of consistent tea to an extent that’s a bit odd.  

My guess about the black tea is that the processing that changes the nature of the tea causes this, but then that doesn’t add much, right.  It also seems possible I’m actually using less tea when I brew black teas (I don’t weigh it), and that they could brew faster, and that those two factors together could make it just seem like black teas brews less tea, when it’s actually somewhat comparable.

As far as being a favorite, this is a wonderful tea but all the same the quality and unusual elements only make it one of the better teas I’ve tried, but not really a favorite, due to personal preference.  It’s odd how one tea can taste like leather or wood and that really rings a bell and another sun dried tomato and it’s only a good tea.  It would be nice if I were preferring these teas because of a sophisticated grasp of balance, body, and finish but it seems likely subjective taste (flavor) preferences might be more of it.

Versus the May Zest Ruby / Red Jade tea

For the same reason a similar flavor profile with a bit more mint is slightly less preferable to me (essentially the same as the tea I reviewed last year, referenced here on their website).  There is good complexity to their version, and it’s a quality tea, but the slightly stronger mint element seems to disrupt the balanced effect to some degree.  

Then again if someone absolutely loved that element, as I do when cinnamon or cocoa shows up in a darker oolong, or malt in a black tea when it’s not paired with too much astringency, this would automatically be a favorite.  Natural mint is a much more interesting flavor element than mixing mint into a tea, which would probably defeat the purpose of using a quality tea to make it anyway.

It's interesting that on their site they mention the type of mint as "peppermint:"  Taiwan Ruby tea is a broad leafy tea cultivar, with tea soup having natural cinnamonic fragrance and light peppermint flavor.  Given how the mint is just one element it's not so easy to determine which mint it is.  After trying the other tea I noticed a sun-dried tomato element to this tea as well, and that was really a blending of elements that might include cinnamon, sweetness, earthy tones, a mild fruit bordering on vegetable, underlying earthy tone, etc.  It all did merge together into a rich and complex profile, just the mint was a bit predominant.  

It's a softer mint taste than relatively spicy peppermint candies offer, so to me it seems it could be wintergreen, but I'd need to comparison taste the actual fresh mints to be more certain.  It reminded me a little of a wild mint we ate from my grandmother's garden as a child, a flavor we loved but from a plant she saw as a weed that she hated.  As they mention it's definitely a memorable tea worth trying, with complexity and balance that add to it's appeal, regardless of which way preference for the mint element goes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Comparison tasting dahongpao (and golden monkey, sort of)

I comparison tasted two different dahongpao teas recently.   Both were so similar that a description of a typical taste profile might have fit either:  a more oxidized oolong with a distinctive mineral flavor as a main component,  along with earthy elements (towards wood), and pronounced cocoa and cinamon elements.

One tea I bought at the Tea Village shop (see last post) and the second was sent as a sample along with other tea I bought (lapsang souchong) through an online contact in China, Linda Lin.

Of course I had written a post about this type of tea before, here.


Both teas had a relatively similar flavor profile that I would associate with the tea type.  The tea from Tea Village (hereafter the "first") had a more distinctive cocoa taste and the other was closer to cinamon, and the vague woody flavor in such teas differed.

In the first it seemed to relate to an undertone that was almost orange citrus,  but not quite that,  and the other was closer to the woody element that reminds me a little of fresh cardboard.  It sounds like a negative thing but I don't mean it that way, since I like that flavor.

Just putting it a different way, as by saying it reminded me of a fresh-cut hardwood scent, perhaps hickory, would turn that back to more of a positive description.

Being from a rural part of Pennsylvania I did cut plenty of firewood as a child and many years ago I might have remembered what different woods really do smell like but for now I've sort of lost that.  As I recall cherry wood is nice, sweet, but then one would expect that.

I'd like to say that one tea was better, or at least something semi-descriptive like "cleaner" but I can only say I preferred the Tea Village tea.  I think with even a few days between tasting it would have been hard to distinguish those minor taste differences because the teas really were similar.

Description.  As for pricing conversion, let's just say if you stop by then buy this tea

Teas like this make me think about how personal preference causes some elements that would be negative for some to be favorites for others.

An opposite extreme,  it seems to me,  is a tea like tie kuan yin.  Higher grades are more floral and sweeter but any typical example is a very agreeable lightly oxidized soft oolong  (although it is possible to prepare is as darker tea).   But in contrast a tea like dahongpao, at least the grades one might ordinarily run across,  one might more naturally like a lot or dislike since the taste is a little more unusual.

I recently tried a golden monkey tea that seemed to share this, an unconventional taste profile that would seem to turn one towards really liking it or not liking it, although the taste elements didn't click as well for me.

Aside about a different tea, golden monkey (bonus review)

The golden monkey tea was sold as a red tea, or as I understand it what we call black tea, with the color difference essentially referring to black teas brewing to a reddish brown color.  I always held out hope "red" could relate to some sub-genre but per every online mention it's just black tea, essentially completely oxidized, described by a different color.

That tea tasted naturally sweet, with plenty of stone fruit flavor, peach or maybe apricot, and some earthy or spice undertones.  It seemed to be quality tea, and quite interesting,  but some component didn't work so well for me.  It reminded me a little of cantaloupe,  the only fruit that I hate, along with other melons beside watermelon, so maybe that alone explains it.

Or it just could be an indescribable preference inclination.   A friend in China gave me a very similar tea once, perhaps the same but with packaging only in Chinese, and over time I've come to appreciate the tea more, but it wouldn't be a favorite.

Some others might see shou pu'er as possessing a strange range of ways for tea to taste, a little towards dark wood elements, or even root beer or charcoal, but I like what I've tried of it.  Most tea types work for me to some degree, even that golden monkey tea, maybe just less so.  I do also love lapsang souchong, with a post in the works about that since I just tried three versions.

Other aspects beyond taste

Of course appeal could also relate to the quality of the tea, in ways beyond taste profile issues.  Minor variations in the two dahongpao teas related to aspects that seem to me to identify a tea quality level other than taste:  the feel or body of the tea, the way the flavor lasts, which I think of as "finish" from wine tasting,  or how the tea varies across different infusions.

Better quality tea seems to not only make more tea but also remain more consistent, or at least change in ways that still relates to appealing tea.  Sometimes a lesser quality tea seems to shift flavor after an infusion or two or just fade out quickly.  This also seems to relate to tea type, but that's as well saved for another post.

Those two teas were so similar (with only minor differences related to these) that I left them out of the review.  But then for someone else that valued different aspects of tea more or was able to determine them more clearly that might not be the case.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Taiping Houkui, Monkey King tea

I tried an unusual green tea recently, Taiping Houkui, or Monkey King tea.  For once I'll try and write a simple tea review, not delving into too much research or deeper thoughts on tea.  It was a green tea, not really my favorite type, since I'm more taken with darker oolongs and black teas these days, but who doesn't appreciate interesting, good teas (if they like tea).

The review part:

Some of the taste elements were common to a lot of green tea:  a grassiness, some floral tone, and a generally fresh taste.  More notable to me were a nutty flavor and slight smokiness.  The body of the tea, the feel, was also different, a bit heavy, thick.  In general it was a nice tea, and different.

Per a little research--a good reference here, and a little from the vendor on a G+ reference here, or more on their website--and the labeling that floral was supposed to be orchid, but I'm still working on remembering and identifying the taste and scent of different flowers.

The appearance of the tea is perhaps more notable than the taste, which was distinctive, but what more to say of that; long leaves and a single bud are pressed as a giant version of a tea like Longjing.

I think I would probably adjust the review if I tried it a number of additional times, and having bought a decent sample of 50 grams I will do so, but I'm getting behind on reviews so I'll just write up first impressions first.

A green tea lover would surely fall in love with the distinctive nuttiness of the tea (like cashew?), or freshness, or pleasant balance of floral and vegetal undertones.  The other aspects--in particular the unique body, the thickness of the tea--I'll need to try a few more times to get a feel for, but I like it.

There didn't seem to be much astringency to speak of, a smoothness familiar from drinking "greener" oolongs.  Surely this was part of the character of the tea and not the result of careful and ideal brewing technique.

The shop, Tea Village in Pataya

This place is definitely my new favorite shop.  Just too bad it's not where I live, in Pataya instead of Bangkok, but I do get over there sometimes.

For readers not familiar with it, Pataya is known for night life, and to be honest it's the sordid sort Thailand is infamous for rather than a club scene.  But different kinds of tourists also go there for different reasons, for example Bangkok families getting away for a weekend.

What would be the ideal tea shop?  Maybe a place with a good selection of basic teas, at good prices, with good product quality, and other far more unique types, along with a good bit of teaware?  Or a shop where friendly owners love to talk about tea, and are happy to let you sample different kinds before you buy any?  That's this place.

They're even good with five-year-olds asking lots of questions, trying out herbal teas, and threatening to break everything in the store as an energetic boy might, which is over the top hospitality.

After this excessively positive review I should mention that although I did buy this tea and a few others they did give me a complimentary sample of a Red Jade tea that they don't even sell, and some blue pea tisane (floral herb tea), and a small tea cup to Keoni, my son, for free.

But I was a big fan before all that.  I really like a couple other shops in Bangkok but in terms of interesting selection combined with overall value this shop matches any I've visited.  I'll write more about that Red Jade and a nice Dahongpao presently and it will be clear why I was so impressed.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tisane or herbal tea; which is it?

Which terminology is correct comes up from time to time in tea discussion groups, and recently a Facebook tea group once again discussed using the term tisane versus herbal tea.  Of course the idea is that tea might only refer to the tea plant and a beverage made from it, and not one from herbs.

One article describes background on a court case between Celestial Seasonings and Lipton over the use of these terms, with credit to Robert McCaleb for this account.  The case is said to have been dismissed, with Merriam Webster's definition referenced as evidence that "tea" might also refer to an infusion of different herbs.

In the Merriam Webster dictionary the term "tea" includes "tisanes", as both are being used in the discussion, cited following in the online form, :

: a drink that is made by soaking the dried leaves of an Asian plant in hot water

: a similar drink that is made by using the dried leaves of another kind of plant

: the dried leaves that are used in making tea

In the same reference source tisane is "an infusion (as of dried herbs) used as a beverage or for medicinal effects" so according to them either herb tea or tisane is a reasonable way to describe something like chamomile "tea."  Put another way, tea and tisane are interchangeable terms, except the other flowers and herbs themselves aren't tea, only the leaves of the tea plant are (Camellia sinensis; the third definition prior).

Oddly an unrelated court case agreed the two companies could merge without violating an anti-trust law (Celestial Seasonings and Lipton).  A separate account reported that the merger failed,  so it's not clear if this related to the dispute over use of terms or not.

LinkedIn discussion:

Two separate discussions of this same issue have occurred on a LinkedIn group over the last year  (Tea Enthusiasts and Entrepreneurs group on LinkedIn):

My own comment in the first of these two discussions follows:

Usually conventional use of English is a lot clearer than it is in this case. The average person in America probably isn't familiar with the word "tisane," but people working in the tea industry or just very interested in tea sometimes tend to reject using "herbal tea." A quick look at dictionary definitions of tea shows they may or may not accept "herbal tea" as valid but that clearly is the common term. 

Since English is a living language that evolves through changes in use it could be argued that's the right expression based mostly on that widespread conventional use, which could change if tisane really did enter common use. More likely there would still be separate formal and informal terms for the same concept used in parallel instead since that's common. 

It's even harder to get to an ideal terminology for barley tea since tisane seems to not fit either, but something like "barley infusion" is awkward and wouldn't be clear to many. In most contexts herb tea and barley tea would be fine, it would just depend.

So I didn't really commit there but it seemed like ordinary language conventions are set by actual use, and people really do seem to say "herb tea."  This is also accepted by at least one dictionary, although of course likely not by all.  It seems possible "tea" could be used as a broader concept in American English than in British English but I'm not claiming that, and it would take a lot of research to gather convincing evidence.

credit and William Shakespeare

Related expressions

This led me to consider if there are other similar naming conventions that might be informative.

A few come to mind:  soy milk, veggie burger, on-line newspaper.  Of course in these cases it's difficult to imagine someone arguing for specific use of the normal concepts and terms of milk, burger, and newspaper.

Then again maybe it's odd Lipton and Celestial Seasonings took it that far too, or it would be odd to most that in conventional tea enthusiast group discussions you just can't say "herb tea," at least without someone else seeming to take offense.

But what does that mean?  Those people feel a connection to the concept and expression used for tea, a personal relation to the product, beverage, concept, and word.  But it also seems to be a marker for association with other people that feel the same way, or at least that have similar interests,  so that a "newbie" might be readily identified by saying the wrong thing.

she could go for a cup of tea
I'm reminded of reading an account of the origin of the concept of "trolling," now used to describe someone that says something antagonistic and most likely untrue to get a reaction in on-line discussion.  But that account was different, of the original meaning, said to have changed over time.  The source said that in early days of internet use, even before the world wide web was invented--can you imagine? text only!--it was used as a way to identify people in groups.

"Regulars" would mention a subject others were familiar with in earlier discussion as a test of how they would react.   In the source the example mentioned was the mistaken idea that glass is really similar to a liquid in that it can flow over time.  If a person didn't know the actual truth of this case, that this doesn't actually happen, they would be identified as new to the group, as a newbie.  Trolling here relates to the fishing practice of slowly reeling in a lure, analogous to the on-line discussion participant "taking the bait."

My understanding of the actual issue related to glass flowing or not flowing, really a separate thing, is that in earliest times glass wasn't produced at the same consistency level so thickness varied, and it was standard to put wider parts of sections at the bottom.  Later observation and measurement would seem to prove the glass had flowed by an imperceptible but measurable amount, but really it hadn't (one more account of glass as an amorphous solid, in case you really want to get to the bottom of this).


It seems like the concern relates as much to one group, tea enthusiasts, identifying with a certain word use to identify themselves as it does with the confusion that the expression "herbal tea" might cause.

The broad or limited use of the concept of "tea" seems a bit insignificant since it's generally always used to include tisanes  (in the broader sense) when identified with the modifier "herbal," or with the name of the herb itself.  There is as little chance of any real impact as of someone accidentally buying soy milk instead of a dairy product (which I guess could happen).  But then  it seems possible that someone with a close enough personal connection to dairy production might regret that naming convention as well.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review of Lishan (Taiwan) oolong from May Zest Tea

A very nice tea, this region-specific Lishan (Taiwan) oolong from May Zest tea.

Flavors are very clean, good brightness, natural sweetness, initial buttery / creamy flavor, although the creaminess was most pronounced in the first infusions.  Brewed color is yellow gold.

There is a distinctive flavor profile that reminds me of tea I’ve had from Taiwan, perhaps terroir related, or maybe I’m just making it up.

A floral component is subtle and well integrated, towards a mild chrysanthemum but more fragrant, but then I'm really not good at identifying floral component tastes or cataloging such scents (so maybe orchid?).  Vegetal tones are harder to separate but contribute well to overall profile, a bit towards fresh hay, but that's not it.  The scent reminds me of the smell of trees in the spring when it's cool and wet and the trees are budding.  So tastes like tree buds?  Maybe not.

dry tea; a bit dark, but related to lighting issues

The May Zest tea photo

This was one of those teas that has a unique taste element that’s hard to put your finger on, something you don’t ordinarily taste in tea, a predominant flavor, so clearly there but not easy to define.

Later on I got it:  pear.  After recognizing it the tea just tasted like a very fresh, sweet pear.

In fact I’m reminded of the time my parents bought me some expensive pears in a mail-order gift set that made me feel as if I’d never actually tasted a pear before.  Like that; not just pear, but better.

I’m getting off topic, but I think it might have been these pears, a steal at $3 per pear sold as a set of nine half-pound pears.  Of course my wife would go crazy if I told her I wanted to buy a piece of fruit for 100 baht, but if the street vendors in Bangkok sold those pears I’d eat them every day for sure.

The feel of the tea is also nice, full and round, with a long clean, sweet finish.

A second infusion was consistent.  I brewed the tea in a way that combines standard "teapot" or Western brewing with typical gaiwan brewing elements;  higher ratio of tea to water,  slightly shorter times, around 2 1/2 minutes (using a french press, for what that's worth).

A little of the sweetness was replaced by slightly more earthiness, starting in towards a pleasant subtle flintiness, and a light trace of wood (so maybe that was tree bud), and the same clean and bright overall impression remained.

It sort of goes without saying there was no astringency to speak of, but then I couldn’t imagine it from a lightly oxidized oolong from Taiwan.  It takes the pressure off when brewing because if you leave it too long the flavor is still great (I didn’t this time—that would be disrespectful to this tea), but it's better to keep the infusion time shorter and flavors lighter so they somehow emerge more clearly for being more subtle.

brewed leaves (a bit of stem, maybe a good thing)

Third infusion:  still very nice.  This is a sign of a good quality tea, isn't it,  clean and distinct flavors over multiple infusions.  Fourth infusion:  still very nice.

And I wasn’t using gaiwan-style 30 second infusions; these were full cups at full strength, so this tea really kept on making tea.  The fifth infusion was still much better than most of the tea I’ve been drinking recently, and the sixth infusion still nice, although the flavor was definitely fading (I was at work; so why not just keep drinking the tea).

Evaluating tea grade

I'd mentioned that the tea seemed to be a high quality tea based on a few related indicators:  clean flavors (distinct and pleasant individual taste elements), generally nice taste, natural sweetness, distinctive character, consistent brewing results across a high number of infusions, with no unpleasant flavor elements developing throughout.

But just how superior is this tea related to other typical teas of this type?  Is it simply a good tea, or as exceptional as higher forms of marketing content praise sometimes indicates (see following section)?
Maybe I'm really not the right person to say based on previous experience.  I've tried a lot of different lightly oxidized oolongs in similar styles from Taiwan, China, and Thailand and this was one of the better versions, certainly a quality tea, surely with a distinctive character.  But then there is always the tea-expert myth of tasters that have tried countless versions of everything, along with years of serving under a recognized tea Master--which isn't me.

I would compare this in quality to the better tiekuanyin versions I've tried, although the character was a bit different.  Maybe I've not tried enough different Thai oolongs to get the whole picture (only a couple dozen, and those likely only mid-grade) but none would compare to this tea, period.

Related Lishan tea references

Tea is really about how it tastes, so research is a bit irrelevant, but given the interesting distinctiveness I did some reading.  To me it was interesting to catch bits of information but these really aren't even supposed to be standard reviews, descriptions of the taste of similar teas, instead just marketing overviews.

Of course I have no idea if the tea I reviewed is the same, better, or worse than these teas, but just from the reviews it sounds quite similar (except in general they don't mention flavor elements, so who knows about that).  My understanding is that ever-escalating grades of higher and higher quality rare teas really isn't a myth, it's like that, and you don't need to have a degree in tea to taste it, so there really could be a lot of range within "very good tea."

The following are their words, and I've only tried the first tea, so who knows.  Either way they all make some interesting points, not necessarily any less true because they are selling.

It seems fair to mention that May Zest is typically selling tea in higher quantity, perhaps not even generally focusing on retail level sales, so the typical purchase quantity would be a good bit higher and pricing level a lot lower.  But that's normal.

May Zest tea description on their site (this tea):

Lishan Oolong tea is high-mountain oolong tea, harvested from the tea plantations of Lishan, located in altitude of 1,600 to 2,600 meters.  Lishan is in the county of Nantou between Hualien and Taichung counties.

Li Shan translates to "Pear Mountain". Our Li Shan tea farm is located at an altitude of 8,600 ft (2,600 m). At such a high altitude, our tea farm is constantly emerged in low clouds and fog. This provides considerable moisture to the tea plants. The temperature difference between day time and night time can be as much as 35 degrees F (20 degrees C), which provides warm and cool air to the tea plants. This causes the tea to grow slowly and produces plants with leaves that are robust, thick, and soft.

Our Li Shan Oolong tea is fragrant because the tea leaves are harvested when the essential oils of the tea are the strongest. Its taste is mellower than green tea due to its oxidation. Its flavor is refreshing and rich. It provides a strong taste in the beginning with a lingering hint of sweet finish in your mouth and throat in the end.

Tea liquid looks transparent in golden yellow color. It tastes full and mellow, with long-lasting sweetness and fresh fragrance in the mouth. The floral aroma and smooth flavor still stays after ten or more steeps. As it cooled, its fragrance and sweetness retains in your cup. This is a special characteristic which only can be found on high grade teas.

Another characteristic of Li Shan High-Mountain Oolong Tea is the natural fruity scent. It is a result of the high mountain and low temperature condition. Unique climate and fertile soil bear the tea trees that are grown with the natural fragrance.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tea and personality; is one type suited for you?

I recently discussed the subject of matching a specific tea to a personality type with an online friend.  Of course that's not really how I've experienced this type of preference in the past.  In this blog entry comparing tea and wine I discussed how it seems natural for preferences to evolve over time, maybe in the form of some teas as natural entry points, and others as natural final preferences.

But there could be something to this.  The two ideas could even work together, so that the natural end point for each person might be determined in part by personality type.  If that's true then the order one experiences other teas could be by chance but one normal final preference would in a sense be pre-determined.

Surely many tea drinkers have had some experience of something like this, not just that a taste element or profile in a tea is new and interesting but that in some way that's how a tea should taste.  For me it related to more oxidized oolongs and their soft nature but rich flavor profiles, with corresponding cocoa and malt flavors.  Or maybe--given this idea is correct--I just need more exposure to different mild Chinese black teas and some other similar flavors or feel in a final range of preference will emerge.

Or maybe it really doesn't work that way.

Entry to tea type by personality reading

The online friend I was discussing it with is Jenny Tai, with more information on tea classes on her website here, although it might help to be in Shanghai to join those.  There wasn't a formula that is simple enough to communicate about how it should work; she evaluates people individually, and it seemed like intuition was part of the process.  I also couldn't really say how well it works based on limited discussion and results, although the idea is interesting.  

Just to give an example she guessed I'd prefer a tea with a "less aggressive, more subtle and calm flavour," which works well for a relatively mild oolong tea.  To play the devil's advocate I'll criticize that point a bit here.  

To begin, "cold reading" is the practice of saying relatively general things in giving some type of formula reading that doesn't really work (eg. astrology), not that I'm saying this doesn't.  The start is statements that apply to nearly everyone to some degree, followed by pursuing those that match better with follow-up.  This is perhaps also why if you read down a list of astrological personality descriptions most seem to apply; they are phrased generally, and with interpretation most apply to everyone, especially if they want to accept it.  

So to cut the example short almost no one prefers a harsh, strong flavored tea (although some might), and tea itself generally doesn't cover an "aggressive" range of flavors, as hoppy ales, dark french roasts, or tannic cabernets  might.  But again, she still might have been onto something.  And who knows; maybe astrology also works.  I've had some interesting experience with that too, but that's a different story.

Tea references related to personality

Not to be negative but I should preface this by saying the research sources really didn't seem to work.  Here's why, shown through citing two different searched sources, using black tea as a common reference (although that really is a rather broad category):

Black tea without sugar:   You are a perfectionist. You even see the smallest details that others miss. Sometimes you feel that you’re fighting windmills, and perhaps you do so. Therefore, you should try sometimes to just go with the flow.

The other descriptions in that reference relate personality type by other types of teas and what you add to tea.  It doesn't really seem valid for a few reasons, starting with black tea being too broad a category.  A Lipton tea bag and a decent loose lapsang souchong are two different things, and you might add sugar to the former just to cut the astringency, not because of your personality type, somehow relating to being a perfectionist.

Also the list contains no oolong (an even more broad category, in a sense), and it really doesn't seem to be geared towards "decent" tea (also no white, no darjeeling, or pu'er, etc.).  It's almost as if for those with a deeper interest in teas this analysis doesn't really apply.

Black tea:   You’re a simple person with simple needs. You know that our time on this planet is short and shouldn’t be wasted mixing flowers and herbs to flavour what is essentially hot water.

Where to go with that?  No tea enthusiast would say that, that tea is not so different from water.  If someone never made it past ordinary tea bags maybe they're not very adventurous in terms of beverage choices, or aren't really that into tea anyway, so maybe they would say that.  Instant coffee might also work then; save the three minute wait.

It's almost secondary that being a perfectionist and having simple needs doesn't seem to match (the two assessments).

The Traditionalist:  You are Queen Victoria English Breakfast [text order changed, citing the only "black tea" referred to]

You learned from the best, your mother. You have strong values, and hold them highly in your life. You take pride in each aspect of your life, and ensure everything is to your liking. You show your loved ones how much you deeply care for them.

Seems like a lot of personal analysis for someone liking black tea, right?  Or maybe there is something to this.  Maybe someone that likes the most traditional type of tea--blended black tea; traditional within the English tradition at least--follows other established role related patterns as well.  

It's a bit limiting that the other types are heavily blended teas, so for example there is no way to compare any sort of plain green tea to a personality type.  In a way that also could work too; whatever that type is, it's not the type of person that's buying tea from this vendor.

It gets to be a bit of a stretch but people really might seek out different types of vendor sources by personality type (eg. value versus brand image).  So the three different groups as targets for the three sources might allow for all three assessments to be different but accurate:  vegans / such people, Australians, and tea drinkers sourcing image-branded blended teas, presumably higher-end, but you couldn't really determine that from either marketing content or pricing.

Online tea personality test

Now we're talking, right; an online test with questions and a calculated result.  The questions seem to match those standard personality type tests (Google it for more examples, but here is one at the top of a search list, to determine types like "INFP" and so on).  That assessment format is relatively well accepted; it's real.  The problem is the results it gave for tea preference.

You are iced tea [BAH!].  You are full of energy and enthusiasm. You are always engaged in some kind of activity! You have the ability to deal with difficult tasks quite well. You know what you are doing and don’t hesitate in tackling any issue. But at the same time, you also tend to take a casual and relaxed approach in some of the activities you undertake.

cc use Wikipedia & Melissa Doroquez
I'm not even sure that matches what the standard tests say about personality (the energetic but casual assessment), but I've never been so big on iced tea.  Or maybe I've got it wrong and I should be drinking it.  Of course the positive attributes are entirely correct, except I've nothing against down-time too.

I think these results mostly relate to answering that I like to hike.
Of course if anyone loves tea enough to go to the trouble of researching and blogging about it then it would be unusual to pour the tea over ice.  Some teas work better than others for that but it kind of throws off the normal experience of the tea:  the natural presentation, the way the flavor profile emerges, and the finish.  

They might as well go on to say you like RTD tea, sold out of a vending machine, and at least that would match well with staying so active.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Sheng puer review, comparison to research

I've recently purchased a sheng (green) pu'er, a good chance to compare some of the research in the last entry.

I bought this tea at the tea shop near my office,  in Sathorn,  Bangkok, at the JRT (Thailand) Co. store.  I would recommend the shop to anyone visiting or living in Bangkok since the owner, Paula, is friendly and open to talking about and tasting pu'er.  She says unusual things about tea that are either deep insights or sales pitch, or maybe a mix of both.  Of course a lot of different types of shops sell tea by letting you try the teas, but that can also seem to involve some awkward feeling out process where they assess your background and interests so it can feel like a job interview by the time you try a tea.

The tea is moderately priced, not really the grade of ancient tree sourced tea the shop seems to specialize in.  I hoped to try a more modestly priced tea and adjust to differences in the tea type, and practice brewing technique, and determine preferences better  before buying better tea.  Paula had recommended another superior tea in a similar style at three times the cost but I'll get back to that step later.

Tea details

The tea is labeled as Yu Nan Qi Tse Bing Cha,  the first and last a reference to where all pu'er is from and that it's a tea cake or disk, and the labeling also states "produced in Yunnan Tin Yu."

Paula said the tea is about 4 years old, with aging seeming to show as a slight darkening of the leaves.

Tea tasting

The tea exhibits some flavors I've read of as associated with pu'er,  not all completely positively:  a mineral element, some astringency, a trace of smokiness, and a light honey finish, bordering on a subtle floral tone.  The sweetness, bitterness, and subtle other flavors almost come across as a faint citrus element, although it's really only similar to that type of flavor, not actually an orange flavor or such.

The tea tasted a bit different in the shop due to use of a gongfu type brewing method (very short infusion time in a clay yixing style pot) versus when I tried out different brewing parameters.   It seems as long as the brewing process is very fast and the tea produced relatively light astringency is less of an issue,  but it's still not a soft or smooth tea, at the other extreme related to the Jin Xuan oolongs produced here in Thailand.
Is it good?   Depends on preference,  of course,  but I suppose I liked the last sheng I reviewed here better,  if only for tasting more like a conventional green tea with some other more unusual taste elements, hinting towards a clove flavor.  For the limited cost it seems like decent tea, and the flavor profile is not familiar, so it is interesting in that regard.  It seems possible it may be better after more aging, but I couldn't be certain of that, and it's a bit of  a strange idea that another decade would tell the full story.

I've even experimented with adding sugar to the tea, and that does counter the astringency, but adjusting brewing technique already offsets most of that.  Somehow sweetening a tea of this type seems wrong, in a way that wouldn't so much if it were an inexpensive other type of green tea.  I've been avoiding that concern altogether by drinking oolongs more lately,  along with the last shu pu'er I'd posted about.  With green teas just drinking slightly better tea and getting the water temperature right seems to also eliminate the same concern, so I've fallen out of the habit of sweetening any tea.  I'm not philosophically opposed to it, though, so if it comes up I still could.

It seems the only way to really sort through variations and preferences in pu'er is to get enough exposure,  complicated by styles not being so easily tied to clear types as with other teas.  During discussing this general point one vendor suggested I order a lot of tea, a bit offensive as an obvious sales pitch but really still decent advice.  So far research has identified some general ideas, several written up in the last post, but there's a limit to how helpful that could be.

Relation to pu'er tea research

How does this tea compare to some of the research ideas in the last post?  It really doesn't help that none of the source references really tried to write at length related to the same types of questions one might normally ask, and most of the answers were along the lines of "it just depends."  That's part of the intrigue of pu'er tea, right, that you have to experience it for yourself, and tasting a few isn't going to go far.  At this point I've tried more than a dozen but I'm still really just starting out.  I recently read an article that went through point after point in detail but it didn't help that it was an automatic translation and not so clear (from French; strange right).

Nonetheless I'll add some thoughts:

-required aging of tea:  per the vendor this tea is about 4 years old, and has been improving, but the unspoken implication was more time would help

-aging of tea versus quality of initial product:  this is really a main issue when it comes to aging tea, but hard for me to assess related to this tea.  It was inexpensive, so presumably a moderately priced offering to begin with.  One way to take that is that it was low quality tea to begin with, and another is that the shop owner really knows pu'er aging and potential and bought a tea that would be much better later for relatively low cost.

-flavor preferences, re: smokey, astringent tea:  a blog comment from one of the sources reviewed last week implied these are potentially common characteristics of tea that never would age to be good, although that wasn't stated explicitly.  The mineral element and other subtle flavors were interesting but I can't imagine this tea being a favorite or converting anyone to pu'er, unless it could continue to trade out astringency for complexity in the future through more aging.

-brewing technique:  for pu'er more than most others there seems to be less concern over this; you either use the gongfu method or you do it wrong.  According to a former Chinese philosophy professor "gongfu" actually does mean close to method, as a general term that can be applied to any type of skill or even more generally than that, so it seems a bit odd to express "using the technique-method."  

The last sheng that I reviewed could be brewed different ways with different interesting and positive results (varying infusion time and tea to water ration), but this tea really needed a fast infusion time to limit astringency.  One comment I'd read said any pu'er brewed for over one minute would become bitter (seemingly not related to shu as directly) but that other sheng I reviewed recently would just produce different flavors and strengths of tea, even though a much longer steeping time really didn't make sense anyway.

-feel of the tea:  not so sure; still working on "feeling" tea.  I've experienced some unusual mouthfeel in some teas, some quite positive, but this one isn't easy to describe, or completely separate from taste elements.

As far as "qi" and the rest (subtle effects of the tea) I think I'd need a few days to meditate and center to really call that.  That probably sounds like outright skepticism so I'd like to relate a tangent that might clarify it.  

When I was younger I would go vacation alone in the Utah desert for a week at a time, and only after two or three days I would become less noisy internally and experience both myself and the desert quite differently.  At first the heat felt hotter and hiking distances strenuous but later a lot of that just dropped out.  Maybe it was just me but I imagined I could hear the desert, the breeze moving in those unusual rocks.  I guess in a way I was "centered."

That story doesn't lead back to tea; I'm just saying I'm not open to accepting that others might experience more than I do.  I was also a monk once, and meditated some then, but that's a different story, also not related to tea.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Menghai Dayi 7572 pu'er -- research and discussion

This tea subject scope is a bit endless (pu'er and related issues like aging and identifying fake teas), so I'm devoting a blog entry to research and reference links, specifically related to the earlier Menghai Dayi 7572 pu'er tea tasting blog entry.

For someone interested in reading further or glancing through some summary ideas this might be a great reference, and for someone else only interested in tasting notes on a specific tea all of that was already in the earlier related post.

Aging pu'er teas

One of the subjects that interests me most is what occurs when pu'er ages, how flavors change, etc.  A lot of that background is generally about ideal or problematic storage conditions, or other specific problems, with the most obvious concerns seeming to relate to humidity.  Higher humidity conditions are said to age a tea faster, up to the point that very high humidity or intentionally "wet" storage conditions would require careful monitoring of tea condition, and very dry conditions would interfere with the normal long-term fermentation process pu'er undergoes.

At this point I'm more concerned about more basic issues, especially what changes in terms of the taste of the tea.  Since I now live in Bangkok I need not be worried about low-humidity storage concerns but might keep reading up on the possible effects of storage in a hot or variable environment.

Related to the three production years of the same tea that I've been trying, it seems possible there could be other differences.  I wouldn't know to what extent the produced tea itself changed over those years, and couldn't be completely certain storage conditions were the same for all three.  It wouldn't seem possible to assess what extent aging played in the differences related to other considerations.

Discussions of the issue of aging shu pu’er--"cooked" or additionally processed tea, really not cooked but wet fermented--in various on-line conversations don’t move toward a consensus.  Opinions vary between a position that these teas really don’t age after a few years of somehow settling, to claims that they do improve with age, including more improvement and significant change in taste over long time periods.

The descriptions that came with the tea from the manufacturer claim it would improve over time if stored properly.  It’s generally said to be more of an issue with sheng pu’er, with the additional processing more or less simulating long term aging, but that relative difference doesn’t change the same general types of concerns for shu pu'er, it just limits them relative to the less processed type.

An article in "The Leaf" reference publication on what changes when pu'er ages and how flavors might change, with a little on storage condition factors, doesn't provide simple summary answers.  The article essentially says that aging and changes depend on so many factors so it wouldn't work well to generalize them.

One personal blog entry by Nicolas Tang addresses the issue of aging sheng (green) pu'er directly, especially the question of what type of sheng pu'er tea should age well, and how astringency (bitterness, roughly) relates to that: seems that it’s not the case that strong astringency is better...  Good young sheng should have a “thickness” in the liquor. However “thickness” does not equate to “bitterness”. “Thickness” should relate to a thick taste, a fullness in flavour (as opposed to thinness), abundance of interaction with the mouth.  Applying a strong brewing period (in excess of 1 minute), we also find that all puerh tea becomes bitter...

I'll write more about it in a later post but another sheng / green pu'er I've recently tried, and a second previously I did already write about, which lead to as many questions as answers about bitterness and sheng pu'er aging.  One tea isn't dated but seems likely to be quite young, but the taste isn't astringent / bitter in any way, while another that has been aged for years requires careful brewing technique to limit this aspect.

Another tea vendor and reference site I've found very informative, Peony Tea's site, includes a passage on subject of tea aging:  (note this selection is edited; follow site link for additional details and discussion of other tea aging, specifically white teas and oolongs)

Basically dark teas such as Pu-er improve with age....  Aging is especially essential for sheng pu-er or raw pu-er.... Young sheng Pu-er tastes bitter, astringent and generally consumption is not encouraged because it is considered very damaging to the stomach (伤胃) in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) belief. Generally consumption is not encouraged within the first 3-5 years of harvest and the taste- as well as health properties- improve with age.

References about this specific tea (Menghai Dayi 7572):

The more interesting point is the tea being described alternatively as either a beginner’s tea or a classic favorite recipe, a baseline other similar pu’er types are gauged against.  One “tea friend” said both descriptions could be right in this case.  At any rate the tea wasn’t overly expensive, and seems to be widely available, so the point of seemingly opposing references was more interesting than any relative ranking these implied.

I'm including a few references to the tea here, most descriptions from vendor sites selling it.  These are not suggested as the best sources to obtain this tea, just some Google search results to show how descriptions of the same tea can vary:

Steepster tea 2009 7572 reference page:  there isn't really a general product review on this page (individual reviews to other year versions are linked elsewhere), but there is a lot of description content which I'll cite here:  

This ripe cake is Menghai Tea Factory’s archetypal ripe tea product. It was first developed in 1970’s. It has used golden hairs fine leaves for the cake surface and fat green leaves for the center. Moderately fermented, it is brownish red in color, yielding a bright red broth. The overall quality is high, and this product enjoys broad acclaim. This tea is considered the market standard for ripe Pu-erh tea products.

The 2010 7572 Steepster reference page contains several product review entries on this page.

One in particular by Charles Thomas Draper   references an issue I've already been discussing, how pu'er teas age over time, but in this case in relation to shou instead of sheng and in particular this specific tea:

I noticed a vast improvement since my last tasting.  I have several young Shu such as this that I will sip from time to time to see how they are aging. This one is getting there. Another raising of the score….

Given this review was written two years ago (2012) for the 2010 tea this implies a lot about specific timing of this type of tea aging.  That is, at least from his perspective, which I accept as significantly more informed than my own, surely at the other end of the experience spectrum.

Yunan Sourcing site:  "classic recipe," recommends at least a year of aging to improve flavor.  The description is dated since tea is now 5 years old, but it raises an interesting question about changes over following years.

Tuocha Tea website:  classic recipe, a standard for ripe pu'er, not so different than the other references, just one more

Identifying "fake" pu'er tea

A reference blog post by Nicolas Tang covers his experiences with buying fake versions of the same tea.  This includes a very detailed description of various ways to determine authenticity related to both the packaging and the tea.  The photos of counterfeit packaging elements are amazing, similar in sophistication to forgery related to currency, and in the end they still need to include tea.

A "Tea Classico" site blog about how to identify fake Menghai tea company labels (again very specific and detailed).

Tea Chat discussion forum of the subject.  It is interesting that one comment by "Zhi Zheng" suggests

The tea's either good or it's not.  It's possible that a tea in a 'fake' wrapper could be better than a tea in a 'genuine' wrapper.

Others go on to discuss that if the tea isn't from Yunnan it wouldn't be considered real "pu'er," and of course if not by the same manufacturer and of the identified product it wouldn't be the tea meant to be purchased.  It would seem unlikely that many "fake" teas would use a superior product but the obvious reason to sell tea as something it isn't would be cost difference, and supply and demand issues would relate to that.  Other references have suggested at lower prices it is less likely a tea would be "faked," and the effort and expense required to produce all of the counterfeit packaging would cut into the margin.

"Puer Tea Blog" reference, blog related to a pu'er vending site:  repeats the idea that the tea might not necessarily be so much worse than the genuine tea, or even could be better, but raises the issue that depending on what tea is used and how it was treated (for example to appear more aged than it is) it might not age well later even if it tastes good initially.

Another vendor site reference, JAS eTea's,  references some basic advice ("5 ways to tell if your pu'er is fake") that includes the general guidance:   the taste of a true pu-erh tea cake will be complex, ranging from lightly floral, heather, fruity, and honey-like to leather, harsh peat, tobacco, organics, wood, grass, and deep earth.

This matches my limited prior experience with tasting pu'er teas, but would need to be considered along with the general advice that pu'er teas will be more complex and superior related to appropriate aging.

It's getting a bit off-topic, but I've recently read a nice "A Tea Addicts Journal" post that includes a reference to a fake pu'er tea in a story, more about the practice of storing teas versus drinking them than about fakes.  There was another blog post on aging pu'er, and a separate one on the learning curve related to such teas and aging issues, but these posts don't really lend themselves to citing a phrase or two as main points.  Given the depth of content anyone interested in these subjects really should just read those entries.

Feel of the tea (qi)

I won’t have much to say about this since I really don’t get it, but I’ve discussed the subject of different feelings different teas cause with different people.  Pu’er from old (ancient) tree sources is mentioned most related to this topic and effect.

It’s really not possible to summarize what the claimed effects should amount to, but lots of general concepts like alertness and relaxation relate, typically described as not to be captured by such simple concepts.  One friend also claims that you can feel the tea effect in your mouth, on your tongue, or in other parts of your body, in addition to a more general feeling typically described.  A couple reference links on this:

One vendor cites a number of reasons to drink tea from "wild" ancient tree sources without the emphasis on a feeling derived from the tea.  The reference points out there are likely to be no pesticide issues related to consuming such teas, and other reasons as well, including better taste:

Friday, May 9, 2014

Menghai Dayi 7572: tasting multiple years, part 1


I recently purchased three Menghai Dayi 7572 shou pu’er cakes, also referred to as disks or bings.  They were sold as a special when purchasing multiple year versions of the same tea, in this case 2009, 2010, and 2011.  I'm still a bit new to pu'er, so some of these observations are likely to be a bit basic, or maybe some even relatively "wrong," but here goes.

Most notable about the tea is how someone could love or hate the same tea based on the same characteristics.  A tea like longjing (Chinese green tea) might or might not be a personal preference, based on liking green, grassy, teas, with a range of other flavors like toasted rice, but it might seem odd if someone that liked tea in general hated longjing.  Even though I personally liked the teas that would make sense with them, and related to shou pu’er in general (also referred to as "cooked" pu'er due to a fermentation process).

I’m reminded of a comment on a discussion thread about shou pu’er, about how it looked and tasted like horse manure.  A bad version could be pretty awful, but due to personal taste preferences better versions might not work for someone either.

The tea is earthy, somewhat typical of the type.  Flavors include sweetness (reminiscent of toffee, or maybe caramel), wood, and tar, maybe even other unconventional tastes that are hard to pin down, like leather.  Almost more notable than the flavors are the feel and finish of the tea; it has a thick, oily mouth feel and the flavors last long after finishing a sip.  I'm not one to get attached to how a tea "feels" in most cases but there really is something interesting to that.

I tried the 2011 tea first and liked it; an interesting complexity and mix of flavors.  My wife and her mother commented that it tasted like dried fish to them.  Funny how they both like dried fish but I don’t, and I like the tea but they don’t.  I could see why they might say that but it seemed the taste element might be closer to a separate earthy flavor instead, maybe leather, with a bit of cardboard.   Still, they were right that it wasn't within the normal range of tastes for a tea, maybe just not so unusual for a shou / cooked pu'er, and maybe it even did taste just a little like fish.

I’ve read  before of how a fish taste might be somewhat normal, of course just not preferable, and would likely tend to fade over subsequent infusions.  In this case the taste did improve in that way; that element subsided to some degree.

When I encourage my wife and her mother to try other teas they'll sometimes comment “it tastes like tea,” but these teas are different enough they try to go further, even if they don’t seem to conclude with complete and accurate descriptions.  I was happy to hear my mother-in-law comment the tea had a “thickness” to it, an oily body, even though she was saying she didn’t like that (even though it is really very nice).  Maybe next time it will be about some variation of a “long finish,” except they don’t want to keep trying these teas.

brewed tea

Comparing different years / disks:

The 2010 version was different, a bit smoother, less of the unusual earthy element my wife found offensive, probably a little better, but I liked both.  It seemed to also have a charred taste element, a bit like charcoal, evident mostly in the first infusion of the tea, that completely dropped out in later infusions.  It’s odd since the 2011 tea didn’t seem to have it, but I have ran across this in an even stronger form in other shou pu'er.

The other taste elements are similar, maybe with the 2010 version a bit “cleaner,” less earthy, but still with a pronounced tar element that I like.  The wood taste is hard to describe, like a very dark wood might “taste,” I suppose a teak or mahogany.  I liked the 2010 version just a little more even though it gave up a little in complexity.

The 2009 version was better than the others, quite smooth, without any char element or without earthy taste elements that might be a bit challenging.  All the complexity remained, perhaps with a bit more of the interesting “tar” component, but with a very clean and balanced flavor profile. 

tea after brewing
I suppose it could seem odd that I’m describing a tea as tasting like tar at the same time as saying I like it, especially since I’ve never actually eaten tar (or leather, wood, or stones, for that matter).  Of course the common ground is that scents comprise taste elements, and I suppose I like a tea that would taste strange to most people in this case.  Surely it sounds crazy but given the flavor profile I've considered brewing a cigarette just to compare it to them, although I wouldn't expect that to work. 

Experimenting with brewing differences

At the pu’er shop I frequent most (sometimes just to visit--I don't buy lots of pu'er) they tend to prepare pu’er teas as very fast infusions, in a very light style, which does lend to separating out and appreciating fine taste components and feel.  It seems to not be the main purpose but this would also allow for brewing a lot of infusions of the same tea, maybe even 15 or more.  The instructions in the different tea cakes (included with the different years of this same tea) tended to be a bit general, allowing for variation for personal taste, but they did differ. 

For some a more conventional Western brewing technique involving a bit more infusion time might give better results, although it is relatively standard to use some form of clay pot in a tea to water ration close that in a gaiwan, along with very short infusion times, versus a western brewing method.  My friend in the tea shop once showed me how the taste differs in using a gaiwan versus the clay jixing style pot but I really couldn’t pick up the difference, and probably still couldn’t.  I've read on-line references claiming the more standard short infusions are "correct" but it seems a given that personal preference could vary and take precedence over any convention.

By adjusting different ratios of water to tea and contact time I tried different resulting tea that was nice in different ways.  It seems possible I would adapt to preferring a much lighter brewed tea, as I’ve tried in that shop, but for now tea brewed closer to a conventional strength for tea seems better.  I’ve tried brewing stronger tea, at strength resulting in a color and flavor strengths closer to coffee, and the tea is still good, and not astringent, but I don’t prefer it that way.  One friend that loves different kinds of tea went as far as saying he’d rather have coffee than pu’er if the flavors are comparably strong anyway, but that seems to work better as a comparison for shou than sheng (“cooked” than green), and the end result isn't that similar.

One obvious drawback of using a gongfu style of brewing--many short infusions based on a higher ration of tea to water--is the time required; brewing a dozen or more small cups of tea would require at least a half hour of doing nothing but drinking tea.  For many that would be a good thing, but with two kids to take care of and long work hours to work around it’s not really for me as a regular habit.  Another tea friend says he re-brews the tea throughout the day, so he is spending a good bit of time drinking small amounts of tea, and that seems more practical.

Tea research (to be continued)

There are so many other related directions trying this tea lead to related to reference sites, brewing and aging background, other's impressions of the same tea, considerations about "fake" pu'er teas, etc. that I'll revisit some of all that in a different blog post.