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.