Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thai black teas from Tea Side (Jin Xuan as black tea)

I just spent months looking for better Thai teas, three or four years in all really, and as I've mentioned in other posts this latest vendor raises the bar.  My wife's aunt turned up a couple interesting ones on a trip this year but this tea I'm writing about is on another level.

The Tea Side vendor sent two Thai black teas made from a Jin Xuan cultivar.  This cultivar / plant type is usually processed as an oolong, but I've had it made into oolong, green, and black teas in the past.  They describe it as a red tea but that's just a different translation; red tea is what we call black tea in English, so it's the most literal translation from Chinese.  Somewhere along the way the English category name switched from the color of the brewed tea, reddish, to the color of the leaves.

Review part, Tea Side Red Tea Jin Xuan

Usually tea reviews are really objective, a careful taste by taste analysis, maybe including a guarded opinion about the tea at the end.  Forget that; I loved this tea.  This is probably my favorite black tea I've tried yet, although my long-term taste-memory is still a work in progress.

The tea smelled sweet and rich, like malt and dark cherries, and floral, maybe with a bit of cocoa.  Or then again that's sort of how a rose smells, sweet and complex, so a lot like that.  Brewed tea tasted a little more like peach, still plenty sweet, but nice and clean flavored, with a good bit of cocoa and malt, and some cherry as well, with a rich floral nature.  So good complexity across a range of awesome flavors.  It started to hint a bit towards sweet potato, somehow not my favorite taste element in teas, even though I like sweet potato, but didn't have the too-sweet aftertaste that can go along with that sometimes.

It can be hard to pin down specific taste elements when a tea has this much going on; all those tastes are similar but the specific descriptions are different.  Lets think back to that chocolate taster's expert advice on this same concern in a recent post, from Lisabeth:

In the case of Madagascar-origin chocolate, for instance, the chocolate is so clearly fruity that most people will identify that as a flavour in chocolate made from cocoa beans grown in Madagascar. But whether they taste raspberry versus grape or lemon, is a whole other thing. What we taste is also dependent on what we eat prior to tasting.

At any rate I love teas in this style, softer black teas with an interesting range of sweeter flavors, with good complexity.  It even had a little astringency to give it a nice feel, but not enough to come anywhere near bitterness.  It brewed a good bit of tea consistently, a good sign in a tea, without much flavor transition.  The smell of the brewed tea was also amazing, so fruity and floral you almost didn't need to drink it, you could just enjoy the smell.  Sometimes it works out that the empty cup will hold a strong fragrance after the tea is finished but I don't remember a tea liquid smelling this pleasant before.

good tea can be this exciting

It was so good it made me think about comparisons and weaknesses; how it related to other black teas that I loved.  I just bought a Vietnamese black tea I really liked from the beginning of the year a second time, a Wild Boar tea from Hatvala.  That tea runs a bit more towards earthy and cocoa flavors but can't match the fruit and floral aspects, and isn't as aromatic.  That astringency is also light as black teas go but a little stronger than this Thai tea, not quite as pleasant.

As I remember the character was not so far off the only Indonesian black tea I tried earlier in the year, from PT Harendong estate.  Another reviewer described the nature of that tea as "juicy," really seemingly related to the feel of the tea, and also "brisk," which would be a more familiar description.  It gets a little odd when you have to start using non-standard descriptions to bring across impressions, mixing taste and feel attributes together, but there's something to this.  There may be other effective ways to get there, comparisons to other teas or something such.

It's a stretch to say how it could be any better.  I guess for some the flavors could seem too sweet, but that's not really fair, saying that personal preference may not match up; of course that varies.

Before I even saw price of this tea I thought it would probably be a great value, since people tend to not even know teas like this exist, so hard for people to know to demand them.  Of course it seems fair to me after checking it; I just went on raving about the tea.  Although the taste is nice it's easy to have natural preference directed towards other tea types, lighter or darker oolongs, or maybe green teas or pu'ers, depending on inclination and experience with tea.  To me this is a tea a beginner could love and an experienced tea drinker might keep on craving, or as the vendor put it:

My absolute favorite for the evening drinking. Drink it almost every day. 

I would ease up on the Wuyi Yanchas if I had a lot of this around.

Red Tea From The Old Trees, #3

Again a bit unconventional, but I'll start with the vendor description:

The tea is notable for delicate aroma of sweet buds. Here are more buds then in Red Tea #6 and the taste is a little bit more strict but elegant, more floral and less sweet, with a large number of semitones. But the flavor profile is still the same - tea-rose, caramel and tulips laced with dried fruits.

So it's being sold as a higher grade tea, which it looks to be by appearance.  It is closer in flavor profile to a standard black tea, with a clean, refined, structured taste and feel.  It's a lot like a Sri Lankan / Ceylon tea without much astringency, so a bit more earthy and mineral in nature, with less sweetness, floral, and fruit elements.

This reminds me of the earlier post on traditional Thai flavored teas, which are now typically sold as an orange colored iced tea (and now made from artificially flavored powdered tea, but that's a different concern).  In that post research indicated that traditionally Thai flavored tea included orange blossom and crushed tamarind seeds (which I've yet to run across yet--I'll keep a lookout for those), and also said the teas were made from local and semi-wild Assamica variation plants from Thailand.  It could be the case that these are those plants, these old-tree sources.  Of course that's connecting a lot of dots based on different speculations, but still interesting.  This vendor didn't specify which variety of tea plant these trees were, var. Assamica or Sinensis, but it seems a good guess the former.

Some people would like this tea more than the previous one, # 6, but that tea is a perfect match for my personal preference in black tea, so it suffered a little in comparison.  Kind of strange saying that about a tea that seemed better in some ways, but there it is; subjective preference has me liking this tea and loving the other one.

I've had an experience like this once before, in buying a Lapsang Souchong from a Chinese vendor.  She sent samples of different teas and I really liked the smokiness of that tea.  As anyone who loves that tea type knows it's really about getting the type of level of smoke dialed in to personal preference, which is maybe even more subjective than other aspects of tea drinking, even though most sort of are in a sense.

For one person a smoked tea might be perfect, for another way too smokey, or not smokey enough, or too sharp flavored as that effect goes, leaning towards sour, and so on.  Of course I think people would tend to break one way or another on the smoke issue in general.  I tried one once that was so smokey I was tasting it for a half-hour after, an unusual experience of tea "finish."  It wasn't really bad but a bit much, I guess potentially a side-effect of them adjusting that flavor somehow.

To make a long story short, I tried one version of the Lapsang Souchong from that vendor and ended up buying a higher grade of the tea.  It was better in most of the normal ways, clearly a higher grade of tea, but I didn't like it as well; not enough smoke.  It was a lesson learned; if you can try a tea and buy one you know you like then good to go with that certainty.  It's one down-side of online buying, but the reach and range of products available and potential for great value are huge advantages.

I still love the type but I've had trouble getting back to finding that perfect level and type of smoke.  If I were back in Pennsylvania, where I'm from, I'd settle the matter myself by buying a good bit of black tea and experimenting with burning different trees growing all around, but here I just let it drop.  Here in Bangkok it is possible to walk around the sidewalks with a make-shift food cart selling meats grilling on a small wood fire but I'm not on that page at all.

About these other two black teas, it all depends on preference, but they represent why black tea shouldn't be marginalized by oolongs and the rest as they tend to be.  When one really clicks for you it's just as special as when more conventional tea-type hype applies, even if it still seems a little more like an "everyday tea."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Comparing tea and chocolate tasting based on the Ultimate Chocolate Blog input

Comparing tea and wine tasting has come up quite a bit, but what about chocolate?  Of course I mean specialty, bean to bar chocolate, the kind of thing many people aren't aware even exists.

Lisabeth; blogging seriously about chocolate

Some chocolate bloggers are just talking about things like how to bake a nice cake, which is surely very useful, but after some searching I found a chocolate blogger that is thorough and analytical, but still personable and genuine.  The reviews seem familiar, even though the subject is very different from tea.

I'm talking about Lisabeth Flanagan, author of The Ultimate Chocolate Blog.  I might go too far in mentioning it but she even reminds me of one of the tea blogging world's favorite daughters, who hardly even needs to be named after a scan of Lisabeth's blog mission statement, but I'll add the link to that tea blog since some chocolate people may read this.

Of course the point is that flavor description approach is comparable, and so on, but some of the rest of the results are shocking!  Wait, you are already reading this, and it's quite interesting but maybe not shocking.

Chocolate reviews:

Tanzania Origin Chocolate by Askinosie: 72% Dark Chocolate

This chocolate bar was creamier in texture than the other two origins, and to me, had and an instant bitter flavour reminiscent of tobacco smoke, spice and dark roast coffee before it opens up to a berry fruit flavour and perhaps dried cranberries. Also, maybe a hint of dried grass. It is my favourite.

For anyone else I'd edit those extra "u's" out of there...

Use of a similar type of taste-by-taste component analysis is clear in this, and to me it's a nice touch that it isn't completely objective, that personal preference is included.  In case you wanted to try this at home here is a link on some chocolate tasting basics.  Same post / maker following:

cacao pod, the beans

Davao, Philippines 62% Dark Milk Chocolate + Fleur de Sel (Goat's milk chocolate)

This is somewhat acidic, lightly salty, and has the taste of soft goat cheese, not as strong as in the white chocolate, but still very apparent. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes not. It depends on my taste buds at the time. It tastes great with red wine.

Almost nothing to break down further here; reference to subjective preference changing over time, a pairing suggestion, coupled with a clear and informal writing style.  If you don't already love her review style then the problem lies with you.  Of course I don't know if I'd like that chocolate, and if I had to pick just one I'd go with the Tanzanian one.

A bit more on texture in the next review, seemingly the equivalent to mouthfeel or body in tea.

François Pralus Chocolate: Intended for Indulgence

Many of the 'new school' chocolate makers focus on minimizing the cocoa butter content, and sticking to 'two-ingredient chocolate' for health benefits or to highlight the flavour of the bean. These two ingredient chocolate bars are often stiffer, with a slower melt-in-the-mouth effect. 

Ok, so at some point I'd actually have to try the chocolate to experience that, but I guess I could use my imagination based on having tried Hershey's Special Dark.

Fiji chocolate (photo credit)

So we've got taste description by flavor element, feel, pairing, some terroir scope, but it's still just chocolate, a few of the same ingredients sourced and blended differently, right?  Not so fast:

...on the Pralus chocolate bar packages, I learned immediately that the Djakarta bar is made from Criollo and Trinitario type cacao, whereas the Cuban bar is made from Trinitario-only beans, and the Indonesia bar is made from Criollo-only beans.

So there's that; cocoa bean cultivars (or maybe it's actually cacao; per this reference it's only called cocoa after you roast it, which involves different types of changes).

Still, you might be thinking, this chocolate is relatively large-batch standard ingredients blended per a standard recipe, nothing like tea leaves that are sourced from a small plot of land, hand picked and processed, then carefully brewed, so that each cup of tea is a natural, unique, semi-mystical experience.  Check out this processing step description, from François Pralus, chocolate maker and owner of his own cocoa plantation in Madagascar:

Francios Pralus (photo credit link)

I brew the cocoa in water, rather like making herbal tea and sweeten it slightly with sugar, then I leave it to settle. This gives me a precise idea of what the flavour will be like before I launch the manufacturing process.

So he seems to be a genius French Master Chocolate Maker; nice!  One product is even described as barres infernales; hellishly delightful.  Sounds good.

Just when you worried this post might end I asked her to cover some questions that dig deeper into comparing chocolate tasting to tea tasting, and then some.  She also makes chocolate related products, which helps explain the depth of these answers.

Comparing tea and chocolate tasting:

1.  my question: Tea tasting often compares tea tastes to other foods tastes, which I also see in specialty chocolate reviews.  To what extent do these seem like subjective judgments to you, that different people would cite different taste elements for the same chocolate?

Lisabeth's answer:  Certainly chocolate tasting is subjective to some extent. Everyone tastes food differently, and so will relate the flavours they taste in chocolate to different foods. In the case of Madagascar-origin chocolate, for instance, the chocolate is so clearly fruity that most people will identify that as a flavour in chocolate made from cocoa beans grown in Madagascar. But whether they taste raspberry versus grape or lemon, is a whole other thing. What we taste is also dependent on what we eat prior to tasting. It is important to give yourself one-to-two hours without eating or drinking (other than water), prior to tasting chocolate.

2.  Do you experience palate training in tasting chocolate?  That is, does it seem like over time with experience you taste chocolate differently, for example, can identify different flavors, or judge chocolate differently, or is it more a matter of just being able to compare the chocolate to more things you've already tried?

With palate training, it is more about learning how to identify and articulate what you are tasting. The more you taste, and compare, the more you will be able to identify the flavours inherently within the chocolate. And over time, you will get better at identifying those flavours. It's about tasting a lot of chocolate bars, and tasting them against each other (i.e. comparing a fruity Madagascar chocolate to a nutty Ecuador or Venezuelan chocolate, and then to a smoky Indonesian chocolate). It's also about research, and learning about the origin, the processing, etc. and what may affect the flavour within the chocolate. I imagine tea is the same thing - one change in manufacturing process can change the entire flavour. After a while, you will be able to taste it, and know what is affecting the flavour without needed to do research.

3.  In tea there may be a normal type of preference learning curve, although that's not something everyone agrees on.  For example, one might normally start with lighter oolongs and later move on to darker oolongs, or pu'er.  Is there such a thing with chocolate?

Over time, your tastes certainly change. As you are exposed to more and more types of chocolate, you might begin to dislike one of your former favourite chocolate bars, and love a chocolate bar that you may have spit out years ago. Certainly I could not palate chocolate with 85% to 100% cocoa solids 10 years ago, but now I enjoy chocolate bars as dark as those. I now love all chocolate and can appreciate it.  But certainly, if I am to enjoy a 100% dark chocolate, I cannot eat a super sweet chocolate bar just before, or sometimes within a few days before.  I work my way up so my palate is used to the bitter taste.

4.  Tea enthusiast circles are generally positive and supportive groups, but there is also the element of "tea snobbery," people telling others that "you're doing it wrong."  Are there examples of such a thing among chocolate enthusiasts?  Related to that, an article about the Mast brothers products seemed to cover some of the same disagreement over perspective (more background on them here, and that article covering that controversy).

Mast brothers, photo credit,

It is all about perspective.  For Mast Brother's - I believe - the complaint is that their chocolate is not consistent.  So I could go out tomorrow and buy a chocolate bar from them that tastes wonderful.  But in a month I may buy that same chocolate bar and it is not tempered properly, or has a funny taste. 

The chocolate 'aficionado' community is frustrated because Mast Brother's gets a lot of media coverage, but perhaps should not be the face of the craft chocolate movement, due to their product inconsistency.  They are worried that Mast Brother's will become the benchmark, and those that have tasted poor quality chocolate from them will never try craft chocolate again. 

I have not tasted Mast Brother's chocolate myself yet, but I still plan to. They may change their processes and become very fine chocolate makers over time. All that said, there will always be those that take tasting - of any food group - to a snobbery level.  But it is just best to ignore that and do it your own way.  Speaking from experience, you can find your own way over time and become knowledgeable and skilled at it, without always following the common 'rules' of tasting.

[editor’s note:  later allegations of the Mast Brothers using re-melted purchased chocolate, and their admission of limited early cases of this, not matching the extent of those allegations, made this subject an active news story at the end of 2015]

5.  What is an example of something you would want to tell others that don't know anything about specialty chocolate?

Two ingredients is all you need for a perfect, balanced tasting chocolate bar. Three can make it better, sometimes. But beyond that....well, let's just say that less is often better. So if you are looking to taste fine chocolate, seek out chocolate makers that focus on creating world-renown chocolate bars with 2 to 4 ingredients at most (cacao, sugar, cocoa butter and sometimes vanilla or lecithin). Then taste and research and do that over and over again.  Search 'craft chocolate' and 'fine chocolate' on the Internet and reference lists, like the bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers lists on my blog, or find some in your area, and taste.  Use brands like Michel Cluizel, Valrhona, Bonnat, Amano as starting points - then move on to others from there.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Wu Dong Dan Cong, a Phoenix mountains oolong

The tea:

one of the shop owners

I picked up a Wu Dong Dan Cong oolong at the Jip Eu shop in Chinatown on a second visit there, the place I was raving about related to finding good Wuyi Yanchas.  I spent an hour tasting different teas and talking with the owners during this last visit.  It was really a shame it wasn't half a day.  Talking to them was like skimming through a reference book on tea, and they were so nice.

The label for the tea was almost entirely in Chinese, with the main title translated as "Wu Dong Dan Cong." Of course this a location reference for the name of an area in the Phoenix mountains and a regional oolong tea type.

40 year old longjing; good luck finding that

This is not to be confused with the Wu Dang kung fu fighting style, although that's probably also interesting.

kung fu!  credit

Review part:

beautiful, but you really should smell this

Floral!  With fruit!  The tea is like a mixed bouquet of flowers distilled into a teacup, with a bit of light citrus, sweet peach, and honey for a base.  A mild vegetal taste and light astringency even matches the flower stems part.  The fruit component even tasted a bit like banana, and after thinking about it some of the flavor that seemed floral came across more as banana; funny how that can work out.

The sweet floral profile was so rich it might be possible to list out different flowers showing up in it, but I'm not the best person for that.  Maybe some type of orchid for that bright sweetness with something like chrysanthemom filling in a softer floral base, but really that's probably not even close.

The tea brewed lots of infusions, relatively consistently, although I did wonder if the proportion of different floral elements was changing and I wasn't picking up on it.  The astringency and vegetal component picked up a little after many but basically the tea stayed consistent.

The astringency was presented a little differently than I remember experiencing before.  I just wrote about an Oriental Beauty, where that astringency came across as a light dryness, resembling that in a black tea, just milder, with a different feel.  But this was nothing like that.  It was closest to some types of green teas, or maybe reminiscent of Darjeeling, with the degree being comparable but not the type.  It was interesting the way that bit of astringency integrated with other flavor components; it made sense together.


The tea was a relatively direct contrast to the Wuyi Yancha types I've tried a lot of this year:   soft, rich, earthy teas that emphasize mineral components over floral aspects, with very limited astringency.  Better versions are quite aromatic but across a very different taste profile range, definitely not so floral and sweet.

I feel like I was too overwhelmed to really do a taste-by-taste description justice.  Some of that dazzling sweetness seemed to relate to fruit components rather than flowers, bright citrus, peach, even banana but I was a bit star-struck to really sort it all out.  After tasting a lot of teas from one type it becomes clearer how other aspects relate to different presentations of the tea type, how aftertaste and feel factor in, but this was a bit new to me.


At first it seemed the name wasn't complete enough, just a location name and general type, but then naming conventions do vary.  In some cases they are based on plant types and locations; other times more details apply.  Research should turn up a bit more, maybe even about this specific tea.

This long reference article by Hojo Tea covers a lot of scope, about the general type, typical aspects and how better versions differ, the region, cultivars, preparation methods, how to brew the tea.  Actually one might do well to skip reading the rest of this post and just read that instead.  I'll cite a few key points here and move on to what other references cover beyond that.

Tea type:  they say the better versions are from Wu Dong mountain, and claim that most are varieties of Shui Xian, a plant type common to the Wuyi growing areas, but quite different versions even though there is some relation.  As in discussion of those types, they mention the most specific plant types vary a lot:

Due to a few hundred years of cultivation, the cultivar of Phoenix tea trees have undergone years of natural hybridization or mutation, where such biological changes brought diversify to the flavors of respective trees. Tea leaves plucked from different trees will produce different flavors, even if the processing methods or techniques were the same. The name of various Phoenix Dan Cong oolongs was given based on the flavor of tea leaves produced from its original tree. 

Citation editing note:  I had to take the "u" out of flavour.  They must have their regional dialect version set wrong.

There's a lot of such interesting background in that article, of course covering such subjects as old tea trees and tea processing steps, but the most relevant points related to the flavor of the tea:

If you try the authentic Phoenix dan cong oolong, I am certain that you will be shocked by the overwhelming extent of fruitiness. 

I was shocked.  It really was a unique experience, that tea.  The astringency was also a bit unusual, relating to a comment there:

... if the tea is plucked during early spring, it should not be bitter. Generally, the tea harvested during the late spring, summer or autumn, produces bitter and astringent taste, and it leaves a very unpleasant feeling on the tongue. 

I wouldn't describe the astringency as bitterness, or as an unpleasant feeling on the tongue, but it was a bit different than almost all other oolongs, which are typically very soft.  One online tea friend remarked that he would even crave this aspect in the tea, not just accepting it as a companion to the floral and fruity sweetness but regarding it as a positive aspect.  I'll have to keep drinking it and see.  

Echoing a completely separate but related discussion of aging Wuyi Yanchas this article claims that in some cases aging can affect the tea positively (but I won't go on about that; lots else to cover).  All the parts on tea processing are also too much to go into but definitely worth a read too.

I found a secondary blog source that goes into lots of detail about the type, but it's all really too much to treat fairly here, so I'll just cite that reference.  Suffice it to say it delves a bit deeper, with interesting points related to narrowing the scope of tea characteristics down from tea producing region, tea plant type, and estate / grower to teas varying as they come from specific tea trees:

And a bit on brewing advice:

Dan Cong names:

One more subject I didn't get to (one of several parts of the story, really) is differing names for Dan Cong teas.  One part of which relates to naming variations after characteristic tastes and scents.  The Tea Obsession blog goes into the standard names used related to specific fragrances:

Top 10 fragrance DCs were registered then, namely:

Yu Lan Xiang - magnolia flower fragrance 玉蘭香
Huang Zhi Xiang - orange flower fragrance 黄枝香
Xing Ren Xiang - Almond flavor 杏仁香
Zhi Lan Xiang - Orchid fragrance 芝蘭香
Mi4 Lan Xiang - Honey Orchid fragrance 蜜蘭香
Gui Hua Xiang - Osmanthus fragrance 桂花香
You Hua Xiang - Pomelo/grapefruit flower fragrance 柚花香
Jiang Hua Xiang - Ginger flower fragrance 姜花香
Rou Gui Xiang - Cinnamon flavor (not the same as Wuyi Rou Gui) 肉桂香
Mi3 Lan Xiang - Milan flower fragrance 米蘭香 - tinny grain size yellow flowering plant from the southern provinces of China)

It's interesting to note the complexity of this tea I tried could be an indication of a lower grade than those types, with that distinctiveness further emphasized when the tea is coming from a single tea tree source.

Of course the type that gets the most press lately goes by the unusual name "duck shit" Dan Cong (Ya Shi Xiang Dan Cong--not as catchy, at least to an English speaker).  One part of that is Forbes publishing an article on it, where it's described as a relatively mainstream trend (which of course is all relative; only widespread within a narrow scope).  Oddly the only description of the tea itself in that article says that it "doesn’t truly smell or taste like duck waste."  Good!  But not descriptive.

There is a nice Steep Stories review of one version of this tea here, and a Yunnan Sourcing vendor blog explanation of the name here (although there often tend to be multiple explanations for such things):

It's called "duck shit aroma" because in the Ping Keng Tou village area the soil has a somewhat yellow brown look to it and is unique to that area....  Villagers wanting to guard the uniqueness of their tea bushes told outsiders that the color and uniqueness of the soil in their village was due to copious amounts of duck shit...

According to the tea vendor source for the Steep Stories blog review cited here (White 2 Tea, which I see referenced more often for pu'er sourcing), about that tea:

the actual fragrance is floral in nature and the tea has a lasting sweetness in the mouth.

More on that type later then.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A second Thai Oriental Beauty type, Gui Fei, more on OB names

It just keeps going right, Oriental Beauty variations and story line.  I'll let the Tea Side vendor's background explain this as a starting point:

Semispherical high mountain oolong, bitten tea leaves, lightly roasted, medium fermented, hand picked. In dry leaves Gui Fei can be recognized by the white bloom on the buds in rolled balls. That is why it is also called as Bai Hao oolong (White bloom oolong)....

Gui Fei Oolong or also known as Oriental Beauty Oolong is produced exclusively from the leaves that undergo green wings cicadas bitting, usually in the period of June-July....  They're trying to keep plantations as natural as it possible, don't spray bushes and don't use chemical fertilizers trying not to frighten away the insects.

... Because of growing demand for Oriental Beauty Oolong some chinese farmers has begun to offer quite ordinary tea under the pretence of Gui Fei. You hardly be able to enjoy a nutmeg (muscat) fragrance of real Oriental Beauty brewing such tea. 

Should be notice that Gui Fei oolong is a near relation of a famous Taiwan Peng Feng Oolong tea. Sometimes they call it Champain oolong. Peng Feng in Taiwan is not rolled into balls, it has long twisted shape, and is heavy fermented. But white tea bud must present in any Oriental Beauty.

That sorts out the two sets of Oriental Beauty names, Gui Fei versus Peng Feng, one as rolled-leaf style and the other twisted.

This touches on one issue every tea drinker thinks through at some point: even if tea is marketed as organic, how do we really know chemical fertilizers and pesticides weren't used?  I've ran across a related concern in an article about a specific tea failing tests for chemicals upon import inspection (hard to turn that up though), that mentioned that testing for every possible contaminant in teas would be a real challenge.

I'm not saying that I think drinking tea might be dangerous--maybe there is real risk, maybe not--but given the amount of tea I drink the potential risk is increased, and the idea of going with only "trusted suppliers" may or may not make a lot of difference.  Others even question the value in organic certifications, similar to the questions surrounding fair trade claims; as a consumer it's hard to evaluate effectiveness related to actual practices.

Of course the general claim in Oriental Beauty-style teas is that they are encouraging the insects to eat some of the leaves, so that essentially covers the pesticides concern, to the degree one accepts the claims at least.

This tea did remind me of the last Oriental Beauty version I reviewed, and I guess next to get to how different, what the tea was like.  Per the vendor:   honey, forest berries, flowers... you can find almost everything.  It did have nice character and good complexity.

Review part:

This tea was relatively more oxidized as rolled-ball oolongs go, although judging from the character and color of the leaves perhaps slightly less oxidized than the last Oriental Beauty reviewed.  It brewed to a redder color so that one indicator of oxidation level was a bit mixed, possibly related to it being from a different plant type.  The distinctive flavor element was grape (along the lines of the muscat reference), so it did remind me a little of a Darjeeling profile, just situated in a very different style of tea, so nothing like that.  

The spice tones were a bit more diminished than in the other Oriental Beauty I'd just tried, the fruit a little stronger, still sweet, but less of the light floral tones.  I'd agree the grape element did span a range of berry flavors but maybe also towards fig, so a little heavier.  

The spice tone was again towards a cinnamon or cocoa, but different, I guess maybe a little like nutmeg.  But to me nutmeg is not really a simple flavor element on it's own, lots going on with nutmeg.  There was also a mineral component, so lots going on with this tea.

 nice and red for an oolong

The body of the tea was different, which gets harder to describe than the flavor lists.  The other tea had an unusual presentation of astringency, so it came across as a slightly dry feel, but this related more to feeling rich and full.  

 I kept thinking of how different aspects related to different teas, with tastes components familiar in others.  The richness reminded me of a favorite rolled ball oolong from Vietnam, and the body was really a bit unique.  Depending on how it stacked up against personal preferences it might be a favorite, at the least an interesting, complex, balanced, tea. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Thai Oriental Beauty from Tea Side (Dong Fang Mei Ren)

The tea does have that distinctive oriental beauty flavour:  sweet, floral, light, balanced, with fruit and a bit of spice.  Cinnamon is one distinctive element, with the sweetness resembling honey.  Peach is a predominant fruit flavor, or between peach and apricot maybe, but in a much different presentation than in a sweet black tea where that would join along with other heavier flavors, here coupled with bright tones.

The freshness of the first infusions is so intense it's hard to describe, almost like a light citrus element, but it doesn't really taste like orange or lemon, more a vague but positive impression.

The tea is light but not in the same sense as many other lightly oxidized oolongs; there is just a touch of astringency to balance the effect, not enough to come across as bitterness, but enough to give the tea a fuller feel.  It’s a lower-medium level oxidized tea, not a light oolong, definitely not a darker roasted oolong.  Of course the style is much different than in lighter oxidized Wuyi Yancha (hard not to refer back to that type since I’m a bit stuck on them, mostly in a good way), and nothing like other conventional Taiwanese teas either, even though this style did originate there.

Across more infusions the bright, sweet flavor persists, along with the richness of the tea, with the main transition being the cinnamon element drifting a little towards cocoa, still a really nice effect.  Even the empty cups give a nice impression, with a strong cinnamon / cocoa and honey scent remaining after the tea is drank.

Varying the brewing time to test the effect doesn’t actually change much related to the flavors; the same profile comes across, but the feel of the tea changes, the “thickness” and slight dryness in the body picks up.

After a lot of infusions (an awful lot) the flavor is still clean and positive, it just requires longer brewing time to get the tastes out, and the earthiness increases as the sweetness and fruit diminishes.

The Thai vendor that provided this sample, Tea Side, seems to deal more in Thai pu'er-style teas (hei cha, that really is, which translates as "dark tea," even thought it takes some time for the sheng / raw / green version to ferment and become dark).  They also sell other unconventional Thai oolongs, even Thai black teas, with a running ancient-tree leaf-sourced theme, so more on some really interesting teas to follow.

I was just saying in other posts I was happy to see the level of variation I had been in finding a few different examples of Thai teas but now it's really on.

brewed leaves;  a bit of oxidation

What is it?

So the tea is good, I suppose maybe great if one really likes Oriental Beauty, but then who wouldn't.  Of course for every type of tea once one has tried a lot of different versions the context shifts a bit, and I'm not that far along with Oriental Beauty, so I'd best leave off at saying I liked the tea.

In the last review of a related type I posted, also about a Thai version, I noted the tea had a number of different names:  Bai Hao, and Peng Feng, and now Dong Fang Mei Ren.  Of course it's normal for tea types to go by more than one name, and not unheard of for names in use to just be wrong.  In a sense it doesn't matter, right, as long as the person drinking the tea gets a good idea of what to expect in advance and then likes the tea, but while I'm writing why not delve in a bit.

I wrote on the background about leafhoppers eating the leaves in that earlier blog post, so more on that there, but in a nutshell:  it seems likely a defense mechanism causes the tea plant to change leaf composition, perhaps related to a defense mechanism, inadvertently making it taste better when prepared as tea, but that's not the only interpretation one runs across.

Before more on those names, and the typical aside on cultivars, here is the Tea Side vendor description of the tea:

Dong Fang Mei Ren (Oriental Beauty) Oolong Tea #AAA

Growing Region: Chiang Rai province, northern Thailand, 1400 metres. Hand-picked high mountain oolong tea.

Appearance: Lightly roasted, mildly fermented, long twisted oolong tea. Bitten leaves.

Taste: The tea has a solid taste, classical honey flavour with clear floral sweetness of tea tips. Very fragrant oolong. Bright notes of fruits and flowers here are in aroma. Strong velvety sweet aftertaste with tones of peaches and honey.

I was just discussing tea grading conventions; more on what "AAA" means another time, but obviously it's a judgment about the tea grade being higher.

Not much on the name but the description matches my impression; I just thought cinnamon made for an additional primary flavor element, with some transition to cocoa later infusions.  As I read back through my other Oriental Beauty oolong review that tea sounded quite similar, just with a bit more blueberry component along with the peach in the fruit range.  The spice and the effect of the trace of astringency in that other tea, similar in this one, also came across tied to a trace of yeast or bread dough, which wouldn't seem like so much of a stretch for this tea, but likely a good bit more subtle.

The style of tea might well go by lots of names (that I'd researched there too), but this could well be the "right name," much as there ever is one.  A Wikipedia article says it is:

Dongfang meiren is the chhiⁿ-sim tōa-phàⁿ (青心大冇) cultivar grown without pesticides to encourage a common pest, the tea green leafhopper (Jacobiasca formosana), to feed on the leaves, stems, and buds.

Lately I've been on the track of cultivar review (plant type), so a bit more on that.


A recent reference about cultivar types had me on this subject (a new, still being tweaked, World of Tea database).  I didn't find it there, not even looking for that cultivar name, which another nice general reference (the Tea DB Taiwanese cultivars write-up) identifies as Chin-hsin Da Pa (same as the Wikipedia article, just a bit more transliterated):

Chin-hsin Da Pa is not as popular as Chin-hsin and is predominantly used for Oriental Beauty. This cultivar is sweeter than Chin-hsin and produces a rich honey-like flavor. Chin-hsin Da Pa leaves are more oval. Chin-hsin Da Pa is also thought to originate from China and was introduced to Taiwan around the same time as Chin-hsin.

That same reference says another cultivar is also normally used to make Oriental Beauty, White Hair Monkey, and that Cui Yu and Jin Xuan also can be.  The implication here is that different plants will all change in a similar way when leafhoppers eat part of the leaves, but it's not possible to extend that to how they might differ.

I really don't have much to add about which cultivar I think this tea would be made from; with adequate research the leaf shape might tell part of the story.

Of course I'm not saying this is the final word.  Just as sampling a number of references pointed in some different directions in that first write-up I'm sure another dozen articles on "Oriental Beauty" related teas would fill in a broader picture.  I recently ran across an intriguing and very cool looking blog post about a Japanese version not so long ago, but the information was mostly visual there, a picture of a similar looking tea.  I'll take all this up again the next time I try one.