Friday, May 29, 2015

Oriental Beauty from Thailand (Bai Hao, Peng Feng, lots of names)

Not to knock Thai teas, but I keep thinking I'm missing something.  If someone were to really love mild, sweet, rich textured, lightly oxidized oolongs (Jin Xuan or Ruan Zhi based) then I have tried good teas here.

interesting looking tea

But my natural style preferences lean towards more oxidized teas, and I've tried better versions of similar teas of those types from Taiwan.  The only more-oxidized oolongs I've tried from Thailand were unpleasant,  but I have a version at home I've not tried yet, so one more chance at that.  So why never something else, better, or at least different.

Finally I've found that in a Bai Hao tea from Thailand, also sold as Peng Feng, most commonly referred to as Oriental Beauty (see vendor reference here, the Tea Village shop page).

another picture, same tea

Of course the main story from this type of tea relates to insects eating part of the leaves, which is said to improve the tea.  I'll do the review part first here (makes sense that way), and a bit of review of that story and research on the reality of it, but the vendor description of that follows:

Peng Feng is made of selected tea leaves that have been bitten off by small green cicadas.  At the site of the bite, the tea leaf juice is released, which causes a fermentation sheet to occur long before harvest.  At the final stage of production, the tea has an exquisite aroma with a honey-sweet and fruity aftertaste.

I'm reminded of reading a similar description of the same basic thing in a New York Times article recently, along with comments on a tea group discussion mocking it for not being accurate enough:

Picking up the steeped leaves, he pointed to bite marks. They are made, he explained, by a small green insect called a leafhopper. The bites expose that part of the leaf to air, changing its chemistry and giving the resulting tea a distinctive sweetness that has traces of honey.

If memory serves the change in the tea leaf was about stress response, not a direct reaction with air, but I'll get to that in the research section.  It would only make a difference to someone pretty obsessed with tea, but then I am writing a blog post about the subject.

The review:

The tea was nice, one of the most interesting I've tried in Thailand, probably per my own subjective preferences the "best" Thai tea I've tried, but that could relate to my preferences as much as tea grades or whatever else.

It tasted like a more-oxidized oolong, probably mid-range as that goes, not really close to black tea, unusual since oolongs tend to gravitate towards one extreme or the other.  But then what you find in a typical tea shop--or God forbid a grocery store--need not be an indication of what exists for the range of better teas, and needn't really overlap so much.

The taste was unusually sweet, with a lot of fruit, and a cinnamon component.  For some teas I get the sense that someone with a different type of palate might list off ten different flavor components, but for me I work through sorting out what the tastes remind me of.  A rich, "round" type of fruit flavor reminded me of peach, but there was something else, a brighter tone, harder to pick out.  Eventually I decided blueberry would describe it best.

It sounds like I'm talking about a cobbler, right, peach, blueberry, and cinnamon.  But of course the tea didn't exactly taste like a cobbler, although some taste components did.  Or then again maybe it did; maybe if I'd made a peach and blueberry cobbler heavy on cinnamon spice and tried it with the tea I'd be amazed at the similarity.  The vendor description mentioned honey I suppose that fits too.

Really the tea flavors are complex and hard to describe.  Those are basics that initially occurred to me, and there's a trace of yeast / bread dough underlying the stronger fruit flavors, which I suppose could possibly be teased out to both fruit and floral components. 

A discussion of the general tea type on a Tea Chat (forum) thread  mentioned taste range (and brewing advice), listing citrus, honey, plum, muscat, Champaign, perfume, vanilla, and caramel, and of course other fruit and floral elements are also typically ascribed to different versions.

As for astringency, there was none.  The partial oxidation level gave the tea an unusual rich underlying flavor profile, almost more a feel, although the two are separate, as can occur with white teas.  I had the sense that experimenting with different brewing techniques could probably optimize this tea better than with some other types.  To me this is the opposite of most lightly oxidized oolongs in the sense that you only need to avoid screwing them up, and getting the same type of basic flavor profile out of them is kind of a given (although one could always adjust to optimize).

The leaves were unusually small, so this actually looked similar to two different white teas I'd reviewed not long ago, one from China and the other Darjeeling.  The appearance was a bit unusual, not really a rolled-style tea, not open in the way Bai Mu Dan white teas are, not really twisted like black teas or darker oolongs tend to be.  It seems like I should be going somewhere with those two unrelated ideas, some conclusion I'm about to draw, but I'm not.  It was interesting tea, unusual, but then the taste and feel of the tea had already determined that.

Research, mostly about insects biting the leaves:

I must have tried a version of Oriental Beauty before but it's been so long I don't remember what I thought of it, and don't really have a baseline for expectations.  For research I'd move on to the bit about the insects soon enough but I'll reference a couple mentions of flavor profiles to start first.

One of many people's favorite tea blogs, Tea For Me, recently included a review of an Oriental Beauty:

The taste was full of floral sweetness with notes of honey and a very subtle hint of spice. There was also an interesting biscuity quality that I seldom see in Taiwanese teas.

So maybe a little similar, although floral and fruit might seem different enough.  To be honest I was thinking of that difference when I tried the tea, about how a general sweetness really could be interpreted as tied to floral tastes by one person and fruit by another.  I keep coming back to the issue of objectivity; what would someone else taste, and to what extent is any of this "real."  About being "biscuity" the tea did have an unusual character I described related to oxidation level, a  mild yeast-like flavor, that was hard to pin down, which could relate.  I don't mean the tea was sour, or the flavor wasn't "clean," so maybe a trace of mild bread-dough sounds more positive and accurate.

Another Oriental Beauty citation by the same blogger will help fill in a bit more detail about variation across type:

Just as with the traditional oolong version, the leaves were bitten by leafhopper insects. This causes the oxidation process to begin while the leaves are still on the tea plant.... At first it tasted like a typical Taiwanese black tea. With each sip a really nice honeyed fruit quality became more and more prevalent. If I stopped drinking for a bit, a really nice floral after affect popped into my palate too.

So there's a second introduction to the concept related to the insects, which I'll get back to, and mention of this tea being prepared as a black tea (interesting), and fruit flavors but floral aftertaste.  Since these are all different teas the taste of one doesn't really inform another but we could get a feel for some basic range here, and comparing descriptions is interesting to me.  It's no coincidence both of these are teas from Taiwan; that is where this general type comes from, so it's really odd the version I'm trying came from Thailand.  But in general the tea types (cultivars) and processing techniques were imported from Taiwan, and the terrain is similar, so not so unusual.

It would be nice to refer to something that isn't a vendor's blog, or even standard review, to get more background about the insects or teas.  One Teamaster blog reference covers the standard story, but it's more a general "the legend goes" version than a research piece on what really happens:

During each summer, the tea farmers would be upset to see their crops eaten by swarms of small criquets... They didn't even bother to harvest the leaves...  One farmer in Hsin Chu county didn't accept this fate. He harvested these bitten leaves nonetheless and managed to sell them for a high price... Legend has it that this tea was so good that it supposedly made its way to the queen of England who named it "Oriental Beauty" (or 'Dong Fang Mei Ren' in Chinese.

The same post goes on to describe several different specific teas but these don't add much to the rest of the background (interesting for someone really into learning about tea types though).  Per the descriptions some versions do have significant astringency, and complexity, sweetness and fragrance, and mixed interesting flavors are the common elements, including some not ordinarily referenced, like pineapple.

Taken together it is curious these leaves of the tea I've reviewed are so small; how could there really have been time for an insect to get to them?  That is presented as a genuine part of the tea story though, not as legend that may not apply to some versions.

One research-oriented reference on the tea tried to identify what the change in the leafs amounted to, with much of the abstract cited here (original source reference:  Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2007 Jun;71(6):1476-86.  Chemical profiling and gene expression profiling during the manufacturing process of Taiwan oolong tea "Oriental Beauty"):

Oriental Beauty, which is made from tea leaves infested by the tea green leafhopper (Jacobiasca formosana) in Taiwan, has a unique aroma like ripe fruits and honey. To determine what occurs in the tea leaves during the oolong tea manufacturing process, the gene expression profiles and the chemical profiles were investigated. Tea samples were prepared from Camellia sinensis var. sinensis cv. Chin-shin Dah-pang while the tea leaves were attacked by the insect. The main volatile compounds, such as linalool-oxides, benzyl alcohol, 2-phenylethanol, ... increased during manufacture. ...  Many up-regulated transcripts were found to encode various proteins homologous to stress response proteins. ...  Thus the traditional manufacturing method is a unique process that utilizes plant defense responses to elevate the production of volatile compounds and other metabolites.

It's not even clear what this means, from the limited citation.  The change during the manufacturing process isn't of interest as much as the change when the insects eat parts of the leaves (note they are referred to here as "leafhoppers").  Naturally one would want to scan the whole of the original article, which is found here.

cited from research paper, note tea leaf appearance difference

A reasonably close read (it is a bit dry) seems to identify the research really doesn't relate at all to how leaves change originally, since only leaves related to plants attacked by insects were tested, and the changes that result were only referenced by research or prior understanding.  They do make a lot of interesting points related to secondary research, but these don't relate to the actual work here:

It has been reported that volatiles of monoterpenes such linalool and ocimen and of C6-compounds such as hexanal and hexenols are produced by insect attack and wounding.

Interesting, if not meaningful to me.  So the article is worth a read but the sources used would probably be of more interest if the main goal was to find out about that particular change.  It makes the conclusion statement in the abstract portion seem a bit misleading; the manufacturing method and the plant responses may well work together to produce unique compounds in the final dried tea product, but without a comparison to leaves that hadn't been affected such a conclusion relies on what they already knew or expected.

I recently ran across a Siam Tea post about a Thai Oriental Beauty tea, which I'll cite from here since there is good background on the tea type (with more information on the sales order site).  It can't be the same tea because it looks different, a completely rolled-ball preparation for the Siam Tea, unlike the one I reviewed.  The tea is also described as floral (versus fruit components), and the brewed tea is yellow versus orange-brown, possibly less oxidized but hard to be sure.

Most of the information is the same, the basic storyline, tea description, etc.  Thomas (the site owner and author) mentioned a recent discussion of citation of an old article on a tea competition in Taiwan that I had read of, but I've lost track of the original source of that.  That discussion was a bit vague anyway, a possible link to one of those historical stories actually being true (related to the "braggers tea" part of the legend, only indirectly related to the rest).  From that post:

...the interaction of a particular leafhopper type...  with the tea plants of the Cing Xing cultivar effects special – and highly desirable – taste properties in the resulting tea.   The leaves of the tea plant are bitten by the small animals during the time before the harvest, whereas their proboscis leaves behind a secretion in the tea leaf that mixes and reacts there with the remainder tea juices.

Note that this is really a different account than the other two I've referenced, that air exposure causes a reaction and that plant stress response does instead, possibly related to protecting the plant, although I'm not seeing that spelled out.  In a way it doesn't really make any difference, except the fact of the matter is at stake, and it may change how leaf harvesting and appearance relates.  I'll try to tie a few ideas together about all that.

The research paper picture seemed to indicate the plant was undergoing a stress response, not that individual leaves changed composition related to air exposure, or at least that's how I interpreted the color change in all the leaves shown.  If this is the case then leaves wouldn't need to show bite impact for all of the tea leaves to be affected, but if the other effect is responsible (air contact, or direct reaction relating to a leaf being eaten, really two different things) then any tea made up of mostly whole leaves wouldn't be affected in the same way.

Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so in that sense it doesn't matter, the tea is really good or it isn't.  It is one of those cool tea stories, though, with a bit of science behind it (if a vague bit), and this particular tea was really nice.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Shui Xian tea review (a third Wuyi Yancha type)

Straight to it, a review of a third type of Wuyi Yancha, from the same vendor as the others I reviewed earlier (for Da Hong Pao and Rou Gui teas, in two different earlier posts.  Note that the vendor, Cindy, uses a Facebook contact for Western (English language) tea correspondence, so there are nice pictures there of the recent growing season as well.  The tea I'm reviewing was labelled as 2011, so it's back to the issue of tea aging too.

Very beautiful leaves, large, relatively whole and dark.  Smell is very sweet and fragrant, a bit earthy but mostly sweet, with a toffee smell.

The tea brews to great pronounced natural sweetness,  again in the toffee range, with typical Wuyi Yancha type undertone flavors, mostly dark wood, a bit of cinamon, hint of leather.  Some degree of mineral element might also be typical but in this case earth tones fill in the basic character, perhaps with a trace of mineral "below" that.

The sweetness also relates to a subtle fruit component, closest to apricot.  Altogether these make for a really nice flavor profile.  It's similar to Da Hong Pao but without the slight musty earthiness in some (which isn't always so negative, and varies by tea), similar to the Rou Gui teas I had tried but with less of the distinctive aromatic element (floral, but not exactly floral).

Complexity is good, very rich and clean flavors; I could drink this tea every day.  It has no astringency,  not unusual for the more general type.  The tea doesn't have any flaws or weaknesses, a very nice tea, but someone preferring other types might perceive a lack of those distinctive elements in the teas they prefer, a different body (the softness could be seen as a negative),  more aftertaste.  The rich flavor does linger after tasting, it's just a different experience in different teas, not as pronounced as in the Rou Gui examples.

Second infusion is consistent and just as nice (using western brewing, adjusted to narrow tea to water ratio and limit time, a modified version).  A third infusion brewed longer retained the wonderful flavors, with the cinnamon picking up a little, the flavor profile just thinning out slightly.  

The research part

Sharing some reading up has become something of a habit, which I'll continue here.  

One vendor (Tea Spring) said this about the taste:  strong and full-bodied Oolong with a refreshing floral aftertaste. Aged Shui Xian have a smoother mouthfeel.

This tea I reviewed was four years old, and very smooth, and of course I wonder what the differences would be in a recent version.  The vendor that provided it said the teas are preferred aged, that the teas gain smoothness, and that the flavors associated with roasting process diminish (towards char, but not exactly that), so in general the flavors improve rather than diminish.

Related to aging, another vendor (Tea Trekker) said:  heavy roast oolongs are often rested for 2+ years before drinking, as the flavor of the roast can overwhelm the flavor of the leaf in newly made tea. 

So that's it, although there are generally no simple answers when it comes to tea.  Of course the article had more to say about aging other types, specifically pu'er.  Odd I've heard differently related to one point they made:  shou Pu-erh comes to the marketplace ready to drink and needs no further aging. But it can be successfully kept and aged - over time, shou Puerh will also mature and mellow.

I don't recall a specific time-table but it seemed I'd heard there was a period past which negative manufacturing process related flavors would diminish, so similar to the point they just made about roasted oolongs, but I'll skip past that for now since this is supposed to be about Wuyi Yancha research.  White tea aging came up in a recent post and this reference addresses that too; the short version is that it can age, depends on preference, but they say Bai Mu Dan shouldn't stick around for longer than a year.

Related to this tea type in a different article, that same vendor (Tea Trekker) said something similar about the typical flavor profile::  expect simple but satisfying scotch-like peaty flavor and a rich, smooth mouth-filling body from this tea.

Peat was a little closer, although I wouldn't describe the tea I tried as such, more wood and leather, but close enough.  They raised a few other interesting points:  recommending a rinse for their tea and oolongs in general.  In the past I did rinse most teas but am out of the habit now, due as much to losing interest in the trouble of the extra step as beliefs changing about why to do it.  The reference also mentioned large number of infusions possible from oolongs, which in my experience applies a lot better to less oxidized versions, but this tea held up well enough.  

These references are nice for making some interesting points but don't cover how such a tea might age over time, how it would change.  This reference does, from the Tea Masters blog (edited to show a shorter version of this progression, but still long because they've made some interesting points):

The younger Shui Xian displays the usual roasting characteristics: heavier fragrances like black chocolate, coffee, Macadamia nuts. The charcoal smell is strong in the pot of wet leaves, but doesn't impact the tea very much... 

The 9 years old Shui Xian shows additional complexity and develops more old wood, forest smells. The roasting seemed lightest here.... 

The 14 years old Shui Xian had yet another change in fragrance: this one actually reminded me of some Chinese wines like Maotai. It's not as obvious as from the old LiShan Oolong jar... but the same post fermentation processes are at work here. And the taste continued to feel richer and softer than the young Shui Xian.

Lots going on there!  This definitely expands on and adds detail to the idea that roasting related flavors diminish over time, and that the aging process changes the flavors in other ways.

I've tried a few aged oolongs from Taiwan and China but none that completely sold me on the positive impact of aging, but then it's hard to separate the cause as the teas I've tried or my own preferences.  It's even possible I'd appreciate the same exact teas differently now than when I tried them, so I'll come back to the subject at some point.

The different online sources seem to be talking about two different teas related to Shui Xian, a cultivar used to make inexpensive restaurant teas, or a reasonably high-grade tea comparable to the other Wuyi Yanchas, a dichotomy explained well by this TeaDB reference::

Along with Rou Gui and Da Hong Pao, Shui Xian (also Water Lily) is one of the most represented Yancha in the western tea market... sold far more frequently than any of the other famous bushes and possibly even more than Da Hong Pao.  Shui Xian is even commonly consumed unknowingly often being marketed as Da Hong Pao... 

...It is traditionally fired a shade darker than most Yancha although this is not necessarily a steadfast rule. Why is it far more consumed than for instance the three other famous bushes (Tie Luo Han, Shui Jin Gui, Bai Ji Guan)? Simply put, Shui Xian is a highly prolific bush.

...Shui Xian’s prolific growth rate makes it a highly viable product for mass-produced commercially-driven tea...  Does this mean Shui Xian makes only mediocre/bad tea? Definitely not. Given the right terroir and processing, Shui Xian can make top-notch Yancha. The best Shui Xian is grown deep within the nature reserve with the four famous bushes. 

So the common themes of cultivar character, production differences, growing area, and multiple processing differences all come together in the form of very different grades of teas.  The plant type can be used to produce high-volume ordinary grade tea or quite nice tea.

A lot of these same concerns are familiar from differences in Jin Xuan production in Thailand, the most common plant / cultivar type used to make lighter / less oxidized oolongs here.  It is also a high-productivity plant type, also associated with relatively common-grade tea, and I've also tried it as a number of different quality-level final products.  I didn't like any as well as this Shui Xian example, but some of that could relate to what I've tried, and to a personal preference for more oxidized teas.  Of course I'm only speaking from the limited perspective of one tea drinker, but I've tried Jin Xuan as better teas produced in Taiwan than in Thailand, with a substantial character difference in teas from the two regions.

Tea "counterfeiting" is also a common theme in these regions, but on a broader scale, so that one reads mention of teas from Thailand being sold as teas from Taiwan.  To me, in general teas from Thailand are smooth, sweet, rich, and buttery, with a bright yellow brewed-tea appearance, and the teas I've tried from Taiwan have a more mineral-toned nature, perhaps less sweet, with a different type of full feel to them, not "buttery" but complex in a different way.  

But I'm getting way off the subject.

I really liked the tea.  It fared well enough in comparison to my favorite related type, Da Hong Pao, and to some really interesting and distinctive examples of Rou Gui teas.  I did compare it to a Da Hong Pao  I've been drinking a good bit of lately through side-by-side tasting, and the teas really weren't so different.

Of course I've always wondered if some of the Da Hong Pao teas I've tried really weren't something else, but that's a subject I'll keep coming back to.  Judging tea authenticity and origin along with tea grades is only possible with more experience and training.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Sharing tea, getting started on loose tea

I recently gave a friend a number of samples, and not so long before that introduced my family to loose tea on a visit home.  The results were kind of what you'd expect, but since I had two examples of introducing people completely new to tea to a lot of different types I wanted to talk through how that went.  And I get bored with just writing reviews, although I do love the tasting and research parts.

Visiting home (Pennsylvania):

SNOW!!  And wild turkeys, who should be freezing to death.

Just in time for a polar vortex and the coldest weather you could ever find outside of the Arctic, I visited home in America in February.  Perfect for hot tea, really.  It wasn't about bringing tea for them to try but of course I did.

Recommending "real" (loose) tea to someone always starts with something like "what do you like?"  If the answer is black tea as tea bags and some Celestial Seasoning blend--not bad for what it is, but not the same thing--then you start from scratch.  When you are also drinking the tea it's much different; you just grab some and go.

roughing it!

I brought some standard favorites for me to drink, and to share, black teas from different countries, different oolongs (different levels of oxidation, from different countries), different green teas, etc.  While I was there I could finally "get in on" mail-order shopping in America, without paying to ship the teas back to close to their starting point in Asia.  A tea contact was just then offering specials due to closing an on-line shop (Tea Journeyman store), so I added a white, Ceylon, and Indonesian black tea.

I'd just been to Vietnam not long before then and green teas are nice there, and pretty consistent.  I'd just ordered some really nice black and darker oolong from a source in Vietnam after that trip (Hatvala), so between those and others we were drinking teas I liked.

I expected black teas to seem familiar, since they are related to what goes in tea bags.  To me lightly oxidized oolongs also seem a really approachable form of tea.

excited about tea or cold?  both!

I was surprised it was all so well received.  My nephew seemed to love the teas the most but everyone tried them and for the most part liked all the teas.  Later my Mom said she didn't care for one, the Ceylon, likely due to that edge of astringency, but she liked all the rest.

Since I was there brewing technique was a bit less of an issue; I could keep making it.  I can still over-steep my own teas from time to time but in general the process is relatively automatic, and I'm informal enough about it I'm not setting timers all the time.  Adjusting water temperature for green tea brewing is another issue but I also don't mind getting that roughly right.

For some others this would be the chance to really get on it, break out more gear, introduce Gong Fu Cha (Chinese for tea technique, essentially, but it sounds much more impressive than that), and try out lots of teas most would never cross paths with.  But I took it the other way, as a chance to normalize drinking decent tea, interesting teas but to me ordinary teas.  Plus I was really jet-lagged (the time shift is 12 hours, opposite side of the planet), so I needed lots of tea, ideally with minimal messing around.  Given that starting point my family could also soon make the tea in the same way, and continue to after I left.

visiting with a very special person

Seems there should be lessons learned, right, what to do differently, what worked and what didn't.  Not so much.  Everyone liked the teas, but if anything it all seemed more normal to them than I'd have expected, not so different than tea bags, even though it is.

I'm sure there is plenty of work to be done ramping up their brewing technique, and tea gear stock, and working through sourcing issues, but all of that depends on them wanting to keep drinking loose teas.

Giving teas to a Bangkok expat friend

One of my expat friends here mentioned considering getting into teas related to reading some claims about health benefits (see, that marketing spin does work).  One irony is that we've talked a good bit about tea (people have trouble completely dodging the subject with me), and he doesn't really care for it.  And he's British--supposed to like tea.  But of course not even all Chinese people like tea, even with some really nice options all around them; those are just stereotypes.

Really the main thing one could do in sharing an introduction to tea is provide some approachable types that span a range to see what they like.  Next after that packaging should keep the tea in decent shape for a minimal time to drink it, and ideally some basic labeling would say what it was.  I sort of covered the first point, the others not so much, just different bits in whatever I had on hand.

Conveying brewing basics are a tricky thing; it seems kind of simple once you practice for a few months, aside from optimizing it, or delving into better and better gear, but starting from scratch is a different thing.  So I did the obvious thing:  sent a couple links.

I did send my friend a description of the different teas, after thinking through that I really should have labeled them better (in cases when packaging didn't).  Hopefully he could figure out if he liked black tea or oolong (for example), and go from there about more specifics later.

Here are the descriptions I sent, not exactly tea blog review level of detail, just saying what the teas were:

black, fine chopped pieces of tea:  black tea from Cambodia.  I'm not so sure why it's a little smokey but I like that, but not everyone would.  It's a decent black tea, to me, but still mid-grade, I guess even lower-mid-grade.  It could still make sense to prepare this tea with milk and sugar (although I wouldn't), or without sugar if you like, but a little would change flavor without any significant impact to healthiness of the tea.

brown, chopped tea, some stem:  hojicha, roasted Japanese green tea.  This tea is supposed to be low in caffeine and easy on the stomach.  To me it tastes like sesame, or even towards genmaicha, the Japanese tea mixed with toasted rice.

green tea (only one looks like a green tea):  green tea from Korea, a bit extra vegetal (teas can be sweet, or grassy; this one wasn't great, just an ordinary tea I ran across in a traditional market).

osmanthus oolong:  tea rolled into balls with strong floral scent (infused flower tea), from Thailand.

Vietnamese darker oolong, balled tea:  the other tea prepared rolled into balls, one of my favorite teas really, so my favorite of all I've given you.  To me it has a nice natural cinnamon taste.

dahongpao (Chinese dark oolong, prepared as chopped leaves):  darker tea, in the original labeled package.  This is my favorite type of tea but a medium grade version of the type, decent but not great (but in this case I mean decent tea; the Korean green is sort of not so good in comparison, to me, surely not a good example of one).

lapsang souchong (smoked Chinese black tea):  this version is so lightly smoked you really can't tell, but it is a nice grade of tea, probably the best I've passed on in terms of grade.  I love versions with stronger smoke flavor but some can be a little sour, so it varies by individual tea even more than most types.

taiping houkui:  green tea from China, very broad leafed tea (  It's a very mild green tea, and a forgiving one, so it won't matter so much what temperature you use or how long you brew it (but better at normal range, using cooler water than boiling, not too long of steeping time).

Icing teas:  you can drink any teas you like as iced tea, but for me it only makes sense for certain types, and although I keep making it for my wife's mother I would still drink hot tea on the hottest day.  Green teas and lighter oolongs would be nice iced (or darjeeling, but I didn't include any), and darker oolongs I wouldn't drink that way, or for me maybe not the lapsang souchong too.  But it's really up to someone's taste.  To me iced tea sort of needs a little sugar, when I do get around to drinking it, but again it depends on preference.

Thais drink black tea with condensed milk iced, but given that you want to avoid sugar that wouldn't make sense, and it's a strange thing to do per standard tea enthusiast take.

His feedback:  he liked them, but some seemed a bit bitter to him, so he passed on that someone new to teas should start with a sweeter and lighter versions.  Fair enough.  Of course brewing technique could relate, so adjusting that would be one part of it, something I kept emphasizing.  

Oddly the dahongpao was his favorite (also essentially my favorite type in general, or really Wuyi Yanchas in general since the other types are also nice).  There's something telling about his preference; even though a light, smooth oolong might be a good place to start someone new to tea might like something else better.  I get dahongpao but to someone new to tea it could easily taste like brewed cardboard or rocks, or maybe even to someone that just doesn't like the type.  Or maybe I'd like cardboard brewed with rocks.

My general take is that people can easily adapt to normal versions of loose teas, by which I mean mid-grade (decent) loose teas, and begin to appreciate them for what they are right away.

Tea grades and introduction to tea

Perhaps I didn't really do that experience justice for any of them, since it's not that hard or really that expensive to pick up something like relatively higher grade Tie Kuan Yin (quite sweet and floral, not astringent at all, nothing to "get used to" about it).  It's also not that hard to break out a gaiwan to brew it the other way, gongfu style, it just doesn't work well for larger groups of people trying teas.  Related to that brewing approach, a different ratio of tea to water and shorter brewing time usually does result in better tea (usually; it's possible results could vary by tea type, and the difference could be relatively minor for many in comparison to Western brewing).

I guess I'm not so much an advocate of people drinking tea for optimum results as I am of getting started and continuing on, drinking better teas than they've ever had, and continuing to drink better tea by improving the different inputs as they like.

For me right now that's more about exploring new tea types than pursuing higher grades or teaware options, although I do cross paths with quite decent teas now and again.  I can see why others focus more on brewing aspects:  teaware, or use of timers, or ways to control water temperature, experimenting with different types of water--these things matter.  I guess I'm more or less careful about process issues depending on what tea I drink, or under what circumstances.

I expect for myself that at some point I'll focus more on optimizing the experience of trying better versions of tea types I've had lots of times, rather than focusing on trying lots of different teas.  My palate has adjusted to picking out flavor elements better but I've got a ways to go related to that and other aspects of tea experience.  Of course for me it's also about research to some limited extent.

When I run across other's "introduction to tea" stories sometimes they imply a different approach might work better for some.  For them the tea experience really just clicks when they try that one very special tea, so maybe drinking a half-dozen relatively ordinary versions of tea could somehow not enable that.  I say "ordinary" but of course that's a bit relative; the average person would never try most of the teas I've been talking about sharing; they wouldn't know the types exist.

I remember the first time I tried a good version of Tie Kuan Yin, or the first time I tried a good Darjeeling tea, and those experiences wouldn't have been the same with just-decent teas. I try to think back to one trigger when tea really made sense to me but for me it came in steps, about different types of exposure that led to wanting to continue on to other experiences, not about drinking one tea.  Time will tell if I've successfully shared that experience or not.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Thurbo Moonlight Darjeeling white tea from Golden Tips

I wanted to break from just reviewing teas at some point but recently tried a nice white tea, and I'd been saying white teas aren't a favorite in some online discussion, so I wanted to set it all straight.

Of course I did just review a bai mu dan, saying I liked it, and past reviews of silver needle teas have been generally positive, so the comments weren't that negative.  My favorite types are darker oolongs and interesting black teas, and I can definitely appreciate white teas, and Darjeelings, and lots of other styles.  I always try to keep expressing thoughts on teas simple, but it never works out like that, so there are two tangents in this post.

beautiful, but you really should smell this too

I should note first that the tea is from 2014, first flush, so it's odd to review a tea that's essentially a year old now.  The vendor sent the sample earlier in the year, so part of that was just about not getting to it right away, and the rest about not getting to it.  I'd planned to say more about the other darjeeling samples related to posting about a different version here (black Thurbo Moonlight, second flush).  That intention related in part to saying more about seasonal differences and Darjeeling as a non-traditional type of black tea, neither of which will really work since this is most distinctive related to being a white tea.

I wonder if a bit of extra aging had changed the tea, but would never really know.  Based on my limited understanding of how different teas age green teas typically are intended for consumption as soon as possible, and white teas generally aren't intentionally aged, but more oxidized teas, including oolongs and whites, can actually benefit from changes related to even extended aging. So of course I looked around a bit about that, and ran across a discussion thread on aging white teas on Tea Chat (tea discussion forum).

Of course different people say different things in such a discussion, but aging white tea isn't unheard of.  It would be more familiar related to white teas pressed into cakes, it would seem, but the discussion is more about aging loose white teas.  A tea that's one year old isn't really aged all that much, but of course I'm still curious about the difference a year could make, if any, and changes another few years would bring.  That discussion doesn't settle it at all, and barely gets into descriptions of changes, but it is a few pages of informed input on the subject from people that are into tea enough to go to a site like that to talk about it (of course with differing levels of background--which goes without saying).  Storage conditions would relate too (another thing that goes without saying), kind of sore subject if you live in Bangkok, one of the hotter places on the planet.

What would a tea expert say about this?  Probably different things from different people.  One vendor, from Peony Teas, who writes about tea background, says:  with age, white tea actually changes its properties to sweet and ‘cooling’.  Who doesn't love those Chinese nature-themed properties references?  Maybe easier for many to relate to comments about taste changes though; I'm not sure if I should be getting cooled or warmed, or if it matters.  I guess this is one more idea to keep on the back-burner for later review (or two; aging white teas, and the cooling).

the review part:

At first I thought the tea was a silver needle, but it contained some leaf fragments, maybe closer to an even mix of buds and very small leaves, not the normal balance towards leaves in a bai mu dan.  It is sold as a "white tea," see reference page here, so they don't commit to either style, and I probably like this mix better than either other traditional type (all buds or mostly leaves).

My first impression related to how floral and sweet the tea tasted, but then I also appreciated how fruit was a component (closest to pear, it seemed to me), and how complex the flavors were, and the rich body of the tea, so lots going on.  The second infusion shifted more towards fruit than floral, with a bit more earthiness and less floral nature, with more of the trace of distinctive grape / muscatel more pronounced in second flush teas and more oxidized versions.

To me the complexity came across as a consistent expression of positive traits of both white teas and more subtle darjeelings:  sweetness, floral and fruit components, rich depth, floral transitioning to earthier flavors in later infusions.

As I ran through what I thought and later expressed about the tea it didn't seem I'd really captured the essence of this tea in the description.  Really no set of accurate concepts does get you far towards the experience of actually trying the tea, but it can describe it to some extent.  To me the richness of the tea, along with sweetness and bright flavors, gave it an interesting overall effect.  The feel was so full it was almost a bit buttery, but not really in the sense it tasted like butter, but maybe just a little creamy in a way.

My main reason for not appreciating some white teas in the past, even though I really have liked all I've tried, is the subtlety, the way interesting flavors and a nice body can still be exhibited as flavors that come across a bit wispy.  This tea wasn't like that, no struggle to taste it along with feeling it.

The vendor recommended the typical longer brewing time for white teas, four to five minutes, and based on varying brewing times it seemed to me the flavors were still full using a shorter steep, maybe even better in some ways.

A shorter and lighter infusion enhanced the brightness of the tea without coming across as weak, without limiting the floral or fruit elements, still with an exceptional body, but just didn't bring out the full rich complexity that would seem more typical of an even more oxidized tea.  I guess this could relate to a touch of astringency, but not in the same sense as more typical black teas and other Darjeeling types, definitely not bitterness.  For some brewing lighter style versions of the tea would be more enjoyable; it would depend on which elements someone liked best about the tea.

It raised the question of just how oxidized the tea actually was, since an earlier and lighter infusion seemed to have a different character than a later or heavier infusion (two separate factors, but taken together it could come across almost as two different teas).  Some tea lovers might well read this with disgust and think optimizing tea experience is the obvious and only goal, so messing around with brewing times and drinking a tea as different types of final infusions is madness.  Good for them; I love reading blog posts from people that have tea process and their own preferences so carefully dialed in.  It's also interesting that different people have equally strong preferences and convictions about how they brew different types of teas.

Of course the two main general brewing techniques also relate, and it would seem more natural to brew a tea "stronger" using a Western approach than gong-fu style, whether in a gaiwan or differing types of pots.  At the same time the higher tea to water ratio for the latter would change the brewing time required, and resulting flavor profile, so that a comparison of relative "strength" wouldn't really make sense, or the opposite could be concluded.  For what it's worth the vendor instructions for this tea related to Western style brewing, which I used, except for trying on shorter infusion time.

Really I'm not the right person to specify how all this "should" go, or describe different techniques as they apply to different tea types, and references you find online differ quite a bit, as these describing gong-fu preparation here and here.  Note in particular the brewing times are relatively opposite, with the two approaches one generally runs across described in each, very rapid brewing time and use of 30 second infusion and subsequent longer periods.  Now I'm drifting a little but you might read this about reasons to prefer use of a gaiwan (and related gong-fu style brewing).

I've been impressed with this and the few other white Darjeeling teas I've tried, very novel teas with unusual strengths, and this one stands out.

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Longjing tea review, and a philosophy of tea

I just tried a second tea purchased from the Tea Village shop, Longjing or Dragonwell (their reference on it here).  As chance has it I’ve been discussing this type of tea separately as my favorite example of a green tea, so I wanted to write about it before some other interesting teas I just bought, and the queue of others stacking up at home.  As for post layout here I’ll ramble a little first, and then review a tea, and move on to some deep thoughts (sort of).  Somehow it seems a good time for talking about tea in general.

Longjing was one of the first "decent" teas I tried, based on the advice of a Chinese work associate.  Thais don't drink much tea, and I've not met any that are really into them.  He said that Chinese people prefer to drink fresh tea (later it turns out aging can be positive in different contexts, but still right for that tea), and he advised that Longjing spring teas had just been shipped to Bangkok, and even mentioned one place to get them in Chinatown.

Different blog references about Bangkok Chinatown shops tend to caution about tea being stored improperly or for a long time in some shops (the large jars you see in different places), and of course weather conditions here for tea storage are the opposite of optimal:  really hot and humid.  But somehow Longjing typically falls under a separate category and when you ask about that in a Chinatown shop they go and get sealed bags from a refrigerator.

At that time I tried different grades of the Longjing teas they were selling, and could tell some difference in them, but wasn’t so clear on what the difference meant or which I preferred, so I sort of just picked one.  I’ve not really progressed in terms of Longjing character or grade understanding or preferences, but then I’m not really angling to be that type of tea expert, a walking reference on tea types and flavor profiles.  I research what interests me, try lots of teas, talk to people about all that, and whatever sticks I retain.

I will repeat one fragment I recall about Longjing from research, although this really won’t pass as knowledge.  I watched a tea review video once where Jason Walker (a well-known tea reviewer) said the characteristic flavor element in Longjing should be toasted rice rather than nuts (see a different review of a similar tea here; or maybe it is the same one, I didn't actually watch it prior to writing this).

As much as anything this raised the issue of what “should be" related to tea, in this case related to a flavor element, the type of thing tied to grading, along with other details.  But what does this "should" mean?  It could mean people are describing it wrong, one common element generally found in most examples.  It could instead mean that better versions taste one way and others with a different characteristic element, sort of related but not the same.  I took it as some of both.

Location is also an issue, with different types of Longjing produced in different places, similar in preparation styles but essentially slightly different teas (but to be clear grade level and location really are separate).  It all gets a bit complicated, just sorting out this one tea.  You could read more about that here in one general reference, or there is always Wikipedia's take, or lots of vendors have lots to say.  Note that all these references links here are about Longjing, but the range of possible tea subjects is a bit broad, not just about tea types (processing, regions, tea gear, brewing--on and on).

There are different other references if someone wants to go overboard, a tea forum (there is more than one, actually), Steepster (review post site, with some reference and discussion content), and plenty of reference sites (I've been mentioning the Tea Guardian lately, but there are others), and so on.  If the concern is about buying tea, which would surely come up, a bit deeper look might make more sense than idle curiosity would drive.  Subjective preference could well be a completely different set of concerns, of course.  No one can help with that part, except to point in different directions based on input about what you like.

This review is just to say what this tea is like, and a little about what it is, and I suppose to start in on where further investigation might lead.

Review section:

The tea tastes fresh to me, very lively.  I'm not saying it necessarily was made a lot more recently than most teas I've ever had, but rather that it tastes like that (so maybe).

The typical descriptions one runs across for green teas are grassy or vegetal, and it’s along those lines, but with the distinctive flavor only Longjing seems to have.  Again someone might say the primary taste component is similar to toasted rice, or nuts, and that may well vary a lot by the actual tea (growing location, grade level, preparation style, handling, proper brewing process, brewing water type and vessel used, etc.).  So I’ll just stick to this tea.

I’m not sure how to describe it.  Great work reviewing tea, right?  To me it tastes like Longjing, as if in some strange way that might be a basic flavor, but of course that doesn’t work as a description.  The tea is sweet, light, and slightly vegetal, but not so much like grass or a vegetable.  The closest actual vegetable flavor might be very fresh sweet peas, nothing like the dark green mess that comes with overcooked peas, or frozen ones, or--the horror--canned peas, but a sweetness and freshness that sort of transcends and tastes like something else.

Pardon the tangent, but the days of people knowing what truly fresh vegetables taste like seems to have passed.  If you grow your own green peas, pick them when completely ripe, and prepare them just then it's far different than what a grocery store or market is going to give you.  Or at least that's how I remember it when I did that.

It almost works better to talk about the character of the tea without breaking it into a list of flavor components, even though that is the standard approach.  It has an unusual feel to it, a soft sort of astringency that gives it an unusual dryness, but in a subtle, pleasant way, nothing like the way stronger teas can really stretch such sensations (no need to name names).  There is depth to the way the lightness and sweetness mixes with that feel, and a light vegetal character, and another component that is hard to fully determine (below that toasted rice and the vegetable elements and sweetness, a very light and soft mineral, something...).

It seems the main distinctiveness relates to the tea essentially being fried, versus Japanese teas being steamed.  In cooking when you fry almost anything the flavor changes significantly, differently for different ingredients, and varied per how you’ve prepared them.  Roasted garlic is wonderful, very different than raw garlic, and not so far off in terms of preparation steps from the much less pleasant bitterness of overly cooked garlic.  If all the conditions are just right the final product is just right, and no one could prepare it based on a description of process steps, it takes more than that.

After discussing the Malliard reaction (what happens to toast) related to a recent post about Hojicha (Japanese roasted green tea) it almost seems one should dig much deeper to see what’s really going on with this Longjing, but I won’t.  The tea gains a wonderful distinctive nature from whatever combination of causes, all the while staying even more fresh for going through the processing.

A philosophy of tea

On the one hand I’ve loved all the different Longjing teas I’ve tried, and on the other the teas referred to as such can vary a lot, described by growing locations, types, and grades.  As with many types they are rumored to routinely be sold as knock-off versions.  The brewing process isn’t quite as forgiving as for lightly oxidized oolongs, which are sort of hard to screw up (optimizing them is still a different thing).  So trying one from a reputable vendor would likely be an indicative experience (probably a very positive one, per my experience), but even trying a few teas doesn’t really let you learn of the type in any detail.

dedicated to future tea gurus

It’s these types of contradictions I love about tea; it’s how you take it, and you sort of never do get to the bottom of it.  One could be fearful of what to buy, from who, the actual value, and brewing variances, and focus on gear, or get lost in research, and online discussions, and be better off drinking coffee in the end.  Or you could just go buy some loose teas and dump them in hot water, and keep improving every step of that process over time, what you buy and how you make it, marveling at the degree of achieved success each time and always building on it.

With this type of perspective in a way it’s almost best to know nothing; beginners mind, the Zen idea.  Once someone has actually tried loose tea (maybe decent loose tea; it’s not all so interesting) the journey is begun, but it could be all the more interesting for being much closer to the beginning than far down the learning curve.

I suppose that's not completely true since someone could keep brewing decent Longjing at boiling point water temperature and more or less ruining it (it would be bitter, which it shouldn't be), but I mean aside from such concerns.

It’s possible that some could instead turn to the dark side of tea, tea snobbery, criticizing others for not knowing what they know, and not being worthy of higher tea experiences, likely prompted by fear of being judged themselves.  But in general tea people are balanced, open, positive, nothing like that (even vendors; and without them the tea stays where it started out, essentially with Asians drinking most of it).

So one should walk the path of tea experience with an open mind and light heart.  One should drink decent tea, then better teas, to learn and find their own way.  It's always pleasant to find that most other people that are into tea have a similar perspective.  It can be daunting that vocabulary and the concepts being described by advanced tea drinkers can be a bit much, even for me after two years of obsessive study, but taken for what that's worth it's just an extension of the same type of exploratory approach it begins with.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Bai Mu Dan (white peony) from Tea Village

ready for the pool!

I finally made it back to closest beach to here, to Pattaya, and to Tea Village, that tea shop I was raving about way back when.


There's more I might say about Pattaya but I only ever see a hotel pool there, nothing to do with the unconventional nightlife alternatives.

Really there is more to Pattaya than first meets the eye, like this great local tea shop.

I bought a few teas this time, and they even gave me extra samples at the shop, so I'll have more teas to talk about (I'm actually getting a bit behind; could be worse).

The first tea I'll cover in this post is Bai Mu Dan, also known as white peony, one of two types of white teas (see Tea Village vendor information here).  The other type of white tea is silver needle, made only from tea buds, while this tea type is made from both tea buds and leaves.  White tea is known for being the least processed of all the tea types (with a bit more in my last blog post on tea processing, related to what yellow tea is).

I really wanted to just say what I thought of the tea, and include no research in this post, but it crosses my mind to comment on relative degree of oxidation (natural enough, right?).  My understanding is that white tea is the least processed but not the least oxidized because unlike with green tea the withering process (and oxidation) isn't stopped right away by a heating step.  In one of the first entries of a search of this subject, oxidation of white teas, one author says the opposite, and a comment corrects her to express essentially what I've just said (comment cited here, not the article--odd to do that):

Tea leaves indeed begin to wilt and oxidize as soon as they are picked, and this process is stopped by heating. In the case of Chinese teas, this usually means pan roasting, while in the case of Japanese teas, it usually means steaming.  Now white teas are *not* heated immediately after picking. They are instead picked and then left to wither for 1-3 days before they are heated. They are thus not the least oxidized of teas.

But then everyone knows that, right?  As for the parts about less processing tying to more caffeine or more antioxidants (healthier tea) who really knows; lots more out there to read to try and find out.  On to what this tea is like instead.

Review section

The smell of the tea is very fragrant and very sweet, perhaps in the fruit and floral range.

beautiful!  to me, at least

first infusion

The tea has a light, sweet flavor, very bright and fresh.  Predominant tastes are floral and fruit, with a bit of sweetness, maybe honey.  From there I'm having trouble separating which floral components, even which fruit.  The taste experience goes back to my childhood but I want to claim one element is similar to yellow watermelon.  I suppose other melon fruits could be related but I don't like most melons--about the only fruit I don't like--and I do like the tea, so who knows, maybe it's not that.

Second infusion I brewed longer to see how that changed results,  since it's common to see that advised for white teas.  The character of a tea can change over infusions so really separating out the two effects would require making the tea again.

I did this on purpose this time (really!) since sometimes it seems a light-brewed tea can actually help subtle elements stand out, or maybe that just seems so to me.  Brewing longer allows a white tea to reach a more conventional flavor strength but some subtlety might get lost, so in the end the best way is subjective, however you like.  As far as me not knowing which flowers the tea tasted like that's just about me not being good at identifying that.

second infusion

The stronger brewed version changes the character,  a bit more body but less bright (but again, could relate to normal changes across brewing steps).  It almost seems earthier, a small step towards other tea types, but not earthy in the same sense more oxidized teas can be.  It doesn't get easier to pin down flavor components.  The fruit and floral transitions a little towards fresh hay, but doesn't quite get there, so maybe more like chamomile, from floral to herbal.  It seems light and complex at the same time, an interesting effect.

The third infusion is a bit consistent,  still rich, just a touch more herbal, maybe just flattening out a little. The forth infusion became a little earthier, with just a trace of mushroom joining the dominant herbal flavors, which still worked well, still coming across as bright and clean.  And the tea wasn't really finished yet.

I'm reminded of a comment in an online discussion about how white teas are preferred by people who don't like most teas (not offered as a complete generality, just an observation, and someone else's at that).

I could imagine people loving this tea or not liking it, whether they love other teas or not.  It should be easier for people that love herbal teas to relate to, a very soft and approachable tea, but the complexity could appeal to anyone that likes the general flavor profile.  It's hard to know what that person was really getting at; maybe that white teas are approachable and could bridge the gap from herbal teas, or someone else might have intended a snipe about them not drinking whatever else.

My strongest preference in teas lies elsewhere, with more oxidized teas, but I really like this tea, and I'm intrigued by the type, and could drink it regularly.  I've only tried two other teas of this type (Bai Mu Dan) and all three were consistently positive, and I suppose to some degree similar.

Conclusion section

Well worth a try if you go to Pattaya, or maybe even to order online if someone knows they like the tea type.  It's probably best to set aside some time if visiting there since the Da Hong Pao is worth a look, and I just bought some nice Long Jing there (dragonwell, if you'd rather), a good start on drinking fresh spring teas.  I'll be reviewing a Thai version of an Oriental Beauty (Bai Hao oolong) that I didn't try yet.

In the process of looking around at websites I noticed T2 had a great description of it (not the same tea, just a version of the same type), a tea I bought a good while back but never did get around to reviewing because my daughter was born just then:

A fresh and lively aroma becomes a delicate, light and engaging flavour with flowers, honeydew melon and a hint of chocolate to finish. High in antioxidants and low in caffeine, this is a multilayered, deceptively complex and refined tea.

Nice!  Someone with a savant-like taste-memory would compare the teas across a year and a half span, but I'm probably trying this second tea with a slightly different palate, so hard to say.

One other aspect of white teas a blogger would never usually address is cost; white tea is known for being the most expensive category, in general.  Really pricing relates to source and grade even more than type though, so it can be fair for one tea to cost several times over what another of the same type does, or you could just be getting ripped off , or paying for nicer packaging, etc.  Usually that last comment would be about one more way to waste money but tea packaging is functional and important; more on that in another post though.

The T2 teas I tried were really nice, probably worth what I paid (two subjective determinations, and the pricing is full retail).  The Tea Village teas I've tried were all a great value, and for very nice teas at that.