I couldn't really place the tea related to style, and as chance had it I just found the last of an African white tea to compare it to (Satemwa Estate Malawai Shire Highlands Peony, to be specific). More on that in a later section.
translated: health benefits of tea
I've given or thrown away a few exceptions on the low end of Thai teas, but on the positive side very few ever match the best teas I've tried from Taiwan, of course without the diversity found within the range of Chinese teas. This "oriental beauty" style Thai tea did, but as they say the exception proves the rule. This oolong I'm reviewing is a really interesting tea, unique amongst others I've tried, and I liked it quite a bit.
It wasn't exactly a mystery tea; it has packaging description of what it is, but it's all in Thai, and most of that translates to marketing. It's attributed as hill-tribe produced but information like the cultivar type isn't on the package, so I only have "Thai oolong" to go on, and even then it's clearly not a conventional style oolong.
The tea looks a little like darker-roasted twisted leaf-oolongs I love, except not as consistently shaped, with more random presentation. The roast / oxidation level also looks to be a bit inconsistent, some leaves darker, others lighter, with more sticks included than is typical. The smell is a bit different than any tea I've tried, with a nice sweet malty character, but also vegetal in an unusual way, a bit like dried oak leaves.
interesting; varying oxidation level
I tried the tea prepared lots of different ways, with vastly different results by varying brewing method and conditions. In general the sweetness and malty nature was pleasant, with a just a little of the roasted toffee typical of darker roasted oolongs. There is a pronounced wood component, and hints of cherry and stone fruit, a good bit of sweetness, even a trace of sun-dried tomato depending on how I brewed it, and mixed with an unusual vegetal taste component related to the dried tree leaf scent.
Brewing the tea gongfu style with a gaiwan allowed for varying brewing times and resulting flavor profile, but it wasn't easy to optimize the most positive elements. It actually seemed to do a bit better brewed Western style with a good bit cooler water, allowing the nice maltiness really to shine through as a primary flavor element. As I experimented with preparing it with cooler water it kept producing better results, with much cleaner flavors, until finally I was brewing it down in the white or green tea water temperature range.
I ended up with mixed feelings about the tea. It seemed like there might have been potential for a truly great tea hindered by inconsistent processing. Or maybe that was completely wrong, and the processing really did make the most of an unconventional leaf, maybe unfamiliar related to plant type or growing conditions. I loved the novelty of the tea, unlike any other I'd tried, with some interesting positive aspects. The tea kept getting better, or seemed to, as I adjusted brewing, and the unexpected flavoring became familiar. I'll probably never cross paths with this tea again but I'd definitely buy it if I did.
There were so many sticks included I ended up separating it a bit myself, reminding me of doing that with another more conventional lightly oxidized Jin Xuan Thai oolong once before. That tea also had an unshaped dried leaf appearance, but somehow it ended up tasting a lot like the rolled-ball oolongs that one always sees in Thailand. I've always wondered how the sticks affect the tastes, so after separating some in this tea I tried an infusion of just them.
Brewed tea branches review
I brewed them essentially Western-style, based on adding a relatively small amount of sticks to water at boiling point, infused for about 5 minutes (in a gaiwan, but Western style--odd). The taste was--woody, I suppose with a bit of spice, along the line of cinnamon, although not as clearly that particular spice as in some types of darker oolongs. Kind of what I might have expected, but I always wondered how positive that would be, if it could contribute in a positive way to the leaves and final brewed tea, or if it was just scrap diminishing it. The taste wasn't really bad, not astringent, not off.
As with the tea the level of roast showed through, giving it a bit of malty character, just not in the exact same taste range as the tea leaves. I probably wouldn't make it a habit to drink tea from twigs, and this probably wouldn't help the other tea leaves as much as throw the flavors off a little, but it wasn't bad. I suppose I could even say it was better than a good number of teas I've had made from leaves, and maybe would seem even better once adjusted to the unusual taste range, as I had been going through with the oolong leaves version.
Satemwa Estate Malawai Shire Highlands Peony
beautiful tea, originally much better with lots of large leaves
As luck had it I just found the last of a Satemwa Estate Malawai Shire Highlands (African) white tea to try and compare this one to, a tea I had bought through the now-closed Tea Journeyman online shop. I thought surely I'd written up the tea in a blog review but I hadn't got to that, busy back at that time just back from visiting the States.
practical spiritual guidance, of a sort
I liked the tea so much I gave most of it to a local monk, something I sort of regretted since I didn't get to drink it, but given that context I needed to share one of my best teas, not something I don't really like. Per my wife I'm not supposed to be sharing opened tea packages with him but it's hard to think through buying more than one package, and clearly impossible to part with really interesting teas I've not yet tried.
oolong left, white tea right (both a bit red, really)
I've just compared the two teas in tasting them together, and it the Thai oolong seems potentially less like an oolong for the review. The Satemwa tea is a good bit better tea, pleasant and soft with lots of complexity, and great flavors, but in spite of not sharing flavor profile other elements of the character is quite similar.
This white tea has great natural sweetness, different fruit elements, and subtle underlying tones in common with better black teas, but without comparable astringency. It has a great feel to it, and nice finish. There is an unusual earthy element that's really nice but subtle and hard to identify, maybe close to that rich sweet oxidized element in apple cider.
In reading up on this tea I read two separate reviews of teas that seem to be the same, by the Tea for Me blog and Sororitea Sisters blog (interesting to me to consider what others think of the same teas, even if direct reference to that is a bit unconventional). Note that the vendor site lists several white / peony teas, so these could be reviews of related similar products that are not necessarily identical, and the variations in the pictures would support that.
The Satemwa Estate producer site doesn't sell tea, but it does describe these and other offerings (amazing looking black teas--one way or another I'll be trying some of those), and lists vendors that do sell them. By all accounts it's a unique tea. It was a shame I just had the one sample I had set aside left over, and there's a good chance that even as good as it was a half-year of storage over the Thai hot season hadn't helped it.
In researching their teas I also ran across an unusual separate version made not of tea leaves but only the "sticks" of the tea, Satemwa White Antlers, (vendor reference to those here), the first I've heard of such a thing. This was kind of an unusual synchronicity, given I'd just included a review of the sorted sticks of this Thai oolong in the draft of this review.
It almost seems a stretch, doesn't it, that I brewed tea sticks for the first time, then first heard about a tea-stick tea days later? But it happened. The more unusual part is that I found a bit of tea by the same producer that I'd essentially lost track of at the same time, leading to this research and comparison tasting. I never tried that tea, the "Antlers," but here is a typically comprehensive review by Kevin Craig (Tea Journeyman blog).
So why put the two blog reviews together here (three, counting the part about the sticks)? It's interesting to think through how relative oxidation level works for different tea types, along with how other processing steps change the final tea. I guess what started the line of thought, other than stumbling across the second tea at the same time, was that this oolong is not conventional related to either lighter or darker roasted oolong styles I've tried, and doesn't match mid-level oxidized teas either. The two teas were quite common in body and feel, even though the flavor profile differed by a good bit.
The following chart serves as a refresher related to processing by type (a high level overview of steps):
Since processing for white teas doesn't add a step to stop the oxidation process, as shown in the other "fixed" steps, some variation of steaming, roasting, or frying the teas, they wouldn't be as low in oxidation as a green tea. Comparing the brewed teas shows how the level of oxidation seemed roughly similar, at least based on brewed appearance, with the white tea more consistently mid-level oxidized, and the oolong leaves a bit inconsistent, some greener, some darker:
Thai oolong left, Satemwa white tea right
In conclusion regarding the first Thai oolong, I can't say it wasn't really a roasted oolong prepared in the conventional way, but the interesting character makes me wonder. I'm not familiar enough with tea processing to know how or why the oxidation level varied as it did. It suffered a little in comparison with the complex and fruity Satemwa Estate white tea, but I still like it more and more as I keep drinking it, and I'm looking forward to trying more teas of different types from both areas.