Monday, November 30, 2015

Shangrila estate white tea from Nepal

An online tea friend, Ethan, visited Bangkok last week and we tried some teas and traded some.  One was a really nice version of a white tea from Nepal, from the Shangrila estate.

Ethan!  Rouging it local-style in a Bangkok hotel restaurant

First a bit about what it is.  This link includes some information about the grower, but the tea he bought from a shop in Nepal, with nothing like a shopping-cart style website with product descriptions to go on, so I'm just not turning up those sorts of details.  It's white tea, with lots of fine buds and very small leaves, of course grown at elevation--it's from Nepal.  It would take more research to get further, but there is more for a lead to look into in the Buddha Tea Shop in Katmandu here, or in their Facebook page here.

an interesting look; lots of buds, a bit of oxidation

The dry tea has such a strong fruit smell that it reminds me of some oriental beauty teas I've been trying lately.  Of course some of that general range is also common with Darjeelings, intense fruit aroma with so many aspects that it's hard to separate them, grape and orange, berries, with some fresh vegetal aroma.

The first time I tried the tea with Ethan we had it brewed lightly, which does work for this sort of tea.  Of course I brewed it stronger the next time; easier to tell more about what those subtle flavors are that way.  I split the difference between Western style and gongfu approach, using a relatively high proportion of tea to water, and limited infusion times, steeping around a minute rather than the range of 20 seconds or less.  Why would I do that?  Intuition; just trying it out.

brewed lighter, orange-gold

It comes across more like a Darjeeling prepared that way, but as a unique version of one.  It was still hard to list out the flavors with so much going on, definitely fruit oriented, with lots of orange-citrus, maybe hinting towards a berry character, most like blackberry, with a bit of subtle earth element.  Of course it's natural to compare the orange citrus element to muscatel, that related component in Earl Grey, essential oil from a bergamot orange, but it's really more like orange zest than that, lighter and brighter.  There is a bit of astringency, but of course adjusting brewing parameters varies that aspect.  In this case it wasn't along the lines of needing to brew around a flaw, more about balancing and optimizing the different aspects.

brewed stronger, more copper colored

The next time I tried it I went with an approach closer to standard Western brewing, a bit longer with a more typical proportion of tea to water, backed off of boiling point water temperature (so more like a Darjeeling is normally prepared).  The character of the tea changed.  The flavors might have been a bit brighter, with the astringency dropped off.

It tasted of bright orange citrus, more pronounced this time, and grape, even raisin, again with some berry, along with a little underlying richness, something like walnut coming through better.  It tasted a bit like a fresh fruit salad.  Changing the brewing adjusted the effect of the astringency, not just the level but the feel of the tea.  It shifted from seeming like a greener Darjeeling towards how lighter and softer versions of black teas come across, and of course with aspects related a white tea, which it actually is.

buds and small leaves, just a bit of oxidation

Someone just raised the topic of general impressions of Darjeeling teas in a tea group, and I guess some of the strengths and weaknesses apply to this tea.  It doesn't give up much in terms of complexity and strong fruit flavors compared to any other teas, although preference for tastes within certain ranges would vary.

The body or feel of the tea is a bit thin compared to some styles, which--per my experience--holds true for Darjeeling in general as well.  It's just not rich and full in the way oolongs from Taiwan generally are, or some darker oolongs (Wuyi Yancha--I can't go a post without typing that), or even as Silver Needle teas can be.  Definitely an interesting, pleasant, unique tea though, with a lot of range of aspects expressed by one single tea.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Jin Xuan Taiwanese oolong from May Zest tea, and more about cultivars

One thing I haven't had much luck with is writing a simple review; just saying how a tea struck me and moving on.  I tend to get stuck on research tangents, a tea reminding me of something to look into, like the last post related to cultivar types from Taiwan.  But I'll try to do that for this post; keep it simple.

Seems odd to be reviewing a Jin Xuan oolong (this one provided by May Zest tea; my thanks to them for that) given that I just went on in the last post about how I'm burned out on lightly oxidized oolongs, due to trying too many of them this year, sorting out Thai tea sources.

This was a nice tea though, for what it is, and at least it should be easy to compare it to lots of other examples.  I might add first that this tea type (plant type, and processing type) is relatively consistent, with less range than for some between an ordinary example of the tea and a really good one, and it's more rare to run across a "bad version," although I definitely have before.

looks like a lightly oxidized rolled oolong

Review section:

Nice, creamy, soft, and a bit floral.  "Creamy" is the distinctive characteristic for this tea type, and it's prevalent in this one.  People actually say "milky," and the effect is sort of like that, a feel or even taste like milk.  One hears of artificially flavored versions that bring that out even more through additives but I'm fairly certain such things are rare here (meaning where I live now; South East Asia), maybe because it's already present in the tea, not necessary.  Or maybe just because they run behind in how to doctor up teas.  The taste is very clean and natural, consistent across infusions, with the normal range of variation through them; it seems quite unlikely it was adjusted in any way.

The tea has an unusually prevalent sweet-corn flavor element, along with the typical floral components (which I'm not good at separating out, as I'm mentioned, not up on memorizing those to describe them separately).  In later infusions a stronger mineral undertone comes out and that bright sweetness diminishes a little, and the tea drifts from sweet and floral towards a light wood aspect, but the tea is still consistent, and pleasant.

For people really into Jin Xuan it's a good example of the type.  Better than Thai versions?  Maybe, a little, in general, but sort of the same at the same time.  Terroir and processing changes teas but Jin Xuan is pretty consistent as tea types go, or at least decent versions tend to be.

That sweet corn element reminded me of a comment by a tea-friend that better Tie Kuan Yin she'd tried was really floral and sweet, and more mid-range versions tasted more like sweet corn.  I was wondering if maybe that's because they were really Jin Xuan, but of course I'm not trying to imply they were, just mentioning that as a possibility.  Seems more likely than this really being Tie Kuan Yin somehow, but different examples of the same types do vary.

So this is really where tea reviews tend to go; I've described a tea, no rambling on about some background research.  It seems a little sparse.  Why even bother to have read this, since a lot of other teas taste a good bit like this (although again it is a pretty decent version).

Maybe this type isn't so common if you don't live in a country that grows and produces it.  If this were someone's favorite tea it could be very interesting, and if someone loves oolongs and somehow never tried a Jin Xuan from Taiwan--odd as that would seem--they really probably ought to.  This vendor sells other tea types so it would be possible to try something from them that is a bit less conventional, at least typical from my perspective since they mostly grow Jin Xuan in Thailand, and perhaps nice to try this one as well.

Here is the vendor's take on it; nothing I'd disagree with:

Jin Xuan Tea was put forward to market by Taiwan Tea Experiment Station in 1981. The file no.of successfully bred seed is 12 (experimental code no. 2027). Its flavor has a kind of milk fragrance. Through baking, its flavor turns into fragrance of cane sugar or candy. These are all natural fragrances without artificial spice. The leaf size of Ginshan Tea is wider and bigger than that of Oolong Tea, and its edge has the form of zigzag.

The main leaf vein almost forms straight angle against branch leaf veins. The upper height limit for growing Ginshan Tea is 1600 meter above the sea. As its resistance to cold is weaker than that of Oolong Tea, this height is the altitude limit.  As for quality, the output from over 1200 meter is excellent in both flavor and tasting. 

leaves, as they described

Cultivar research section:

Right, this is the part I wasn't going to include.  Two different people gave a lot of great input related to that last post, Thomas Smith, who I'd mentioned, and the Tea Side company owner.  One part of that is a better reference chart of cultivars and tea types from Taiwan, which I'll add here.

The terms get a bit slippery, seemingly used in different ways in different places, but the basic plant types seems to be one thing, derived through prior ordinary plant cross-breeding practices, then later hybrids seem to be referred to as cultivars.  This reference just calls types "germplasms," which works for me.

Perfect!  Jin Xuan is #12 on that list; no controversy over that.  But what about other plant types that aren't those hybrids?  Here you go:

So there it is!  There are a few details to tie together yet, and it doesn't resolve all the cases of multiple names, but this is a lot more to go on than I've seen before.  I wrote a post once about traditional Thai flavored tea, and semi-wild versions of tea plants.  There has been plenty of debate over that in different places, but since tea has been cultivated for about six millenia the "wild" plants are simply not well tended now, not exactly wild in the sense of not previously tended by people, per a conventional take.  The overlap with research in that blog post isn't clear but there are lots of types those might relate to listed here.  It could relate to those listed as "Shan" tea types, but that would just be a guess.

On to those loose ends then; more about the rest that appears in this table.  This is a reminder about the name of that agency changing, from the last post:

Before 2003 it was called TTES (Taiwan Tea Research Station). 
Since 2003 it's TRES (Tea Research and Extension Station).

On those species / varieties mentioned, the abbreviations in that column:

S:     C. sinensis  var. sinensis, 
A:    C. sinensis var. assamica
SA:  C. sinensis var. sinensis × var. assamica hybrid
AS:  C. sinensis var. assamica × var. assamica hybrid 

F:     C. formosensis
FY:  C. formosensis var. yungkangensis

Wow, right.  That last part is about a different species of the camellia genus--if I'm using those terms right--so not really a tea plant, but related to it.

Oddly enough I just read the same general idea in a Steep Stories blog post on the exact same day, yesterday.  In that case it was about  Lao Shu Dian Hong, a species Camellia taliensis plant used to make something similar to black tea.  So I guess that would be another version of a related-plant oxidized-leaf "tisane."

One column had initials for countries too:  TW - Taiwan, IN - India, CN - China, TH - Thailand, MM - Myanmar.

And then some recommended types:  G green tea, P Paochong tea, O oolong tea, B black tea.

Fascinating stuff, at least to me.  I'll have to get back to what the "Paochong" reference relates to later.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tea Side Ruan Zhi Oolong from Myanmar, plus a cultivar mystery

My first tea from Myanmar!  It's a Ruan Zhi oolong from Tea Side.  I spent some time once trying to find tea from there but it didn't work out.  In the end it was a little anticlimactic since this is a decent version of a very familiar type of tea, but not all that different than the same type from Thailand or Taiwan.  But it is from Myanmar, so interesting related to that.

the normal look, rolled oolong


The tea is like any other # 17 / Ruan Zhi from Thailand or Taiwan:  smooth, rich, sweet, full-bodied, with a light and smooth base flavor profile.  These teas brew to a golden yellow color, not quite as bright yellow as Jin Xuan does.  That base component is like the full-bodied aspect of chamomile, or maybe a little like dried hay, with a bit of mineral.  The mineral element isn't as pronounced as these can be from Taiwan (for other oolong types), a flintiness or limestone aspect, a bit softer like Thai versions typically are, maybe just a little different.  One subtle spice-like component is nice but hard to pin down; it reminds me of one part of nutmeg, part of the flavor base of that spice, not the sharper and spicier part.

Aung San Suu Kyi; congratulations on democracy in Myanmar!

The flavors are clean, the body is good, with a nice taste profile, all depending on preference for lighter oolongs, or else these might not seem so positive.  It seemed there could have been a little more complexity to the flavor range, there was just a bit of floral tone hiding behind those other aspects, not so much specific standing out, but that's how the general type usually goes.

Similar oolongs from Taiwan are not so different.  The main difference--in my experience, which isn't so extensive it should serve as a last word--is that many oolongs from Taiwan tend to have a slightly fuller feel to them, and a more substantial mineral profile that underlies the more "top end" flavors.  This tea was nice but it could have had a bit more flavor complexity.  Since it was described a bit differently than it came across it seems possible some of those aspects faded a bit during storage somewhere along the line.

It would be easier to be even more positive about this tea if I hadn't burned out a bit on similar lighter oolongs due to trying so many from Thai sources this year.  I was looking for different versions of Thai teas (although the standard versions are nice), and eventually did, from the same vendor that provided this sample, Tea Side.  There are several posts here about another great black tea, Jin Xuan based, pu'er-style teas (Thai hei cha), and two completely different versions of Oriental Beauty, the type where insects bite the leaves to improve the tea characteristics, some really amazing teas.  But if this tea matched someone's natural preferences better they might well appreciate the positive aspects more, that smoothness and the complexity that was there.

One interesting point relates to what it really is, since # 17 is not really Ruan Zhi, per some later research, even though it's universally referred to as that in Thailand.

Thailand produces most of two types of oolongs:  #12 Jin Xuan and #17 Ruan Zhi (at least sold as such), both universally lightly oxidized rolled oolongs.  Jin Xuan is lighter, sweet, with a milky effect, not exactly like Cremora (artificial coffee creamer powder), more subtle, but the range of the effect differs.  Ruan Zhi, or whatever it actually is, has a hint of spice to it, but not so strong it's easy to identify, with a slightly fuller body effect.  This tea is not so different than many other versions I've had from Thailand, maybe with some flavors shifted just a little.

Ancient Temples at Bagan; photo credit

On oolong cultivars from Taiwan:

Best to be clear at the outset:  per most references I've reviewed TRES #17 (Taiwan Tea Research Station and cultivar / plant hybrid name) isn't called Ruan Zhi, so that name is wrong.  #17 is Bai Lu.  Ruan Zhi is harder to place, although it is explained differently, so perhaps not just an alternative name.

To begin, what difference does it make if the tea is a Ruan Zhi or a Bai Lu, or if it were a Qing Xin?  What's in the cup would be the same, along the lines of "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  Different tea plants do produce very different teas, but it seems to make more difference if you are trying to buy something in particular and aren't sure what the vendor is selling.

All teas sold as #17 here in Thailand are quite consistent, so even if there is an inconsistency or error related to the naming (if it's really Bai Lu, as it seems it might be) it's still really what a consumer is expecting, at least based on having tried most of the similar teas here.

I guess the same is true of tea sold as Dong Ding, but from Thailand.  Maybe that makes no sense, being the name of an area in Taiwan, whether they've went through the paperwork of protecting the region name or not, but the tea is at least what you'd expect based on having tried other Thai versions of Dong Ding here.  But I digress.

This would be a good point to get back to references, to what those names and cultivar types are supposed to relate to.  Here is a good summary table of cultivars from Taiwan from the Tea Db site:

Ok, not so much help there since there is no #17, no Ruan Zhi, and no Bai Lu.  Through a process of elimination they are claiming that these aren't common plant types, which may or may not be the case, but we're really talking about two other countries more anyway (Thailand and Myanmar).  But still interesting; according to them a lot of those regional teas are made from Chin-shin (more typically expressed as Qing Xin), or at least should be according to this.

One interesting post about teas from Taiwan was a guest post by Kevin Craig in the Tea For Me Please blog, which said this:

The other TRES development that I will focus on is the Bai Lu, or TTES 17. TTES 17 is a mix of the TTES 1958 and TTES 335 bushes... The Bai Lu is incredibly aromatic. Generally produced on the lower side of the oxidation scale, Bai Lu boasts some fruity and floral flavors, a rich aroma, and a lively yellow liquor color...  The Bai Lu, also known as Ruan Zhi, is also known to be cultivated in Thailand and in Anxi county, China. The cultivar may be the same, but the tastes of the teas from each region differ based on the terroir.

All quite interesting!  And the parts on other teas is as well, worth a look.  The Teapedia site says the same thing, but then to some extent different references use common sources, so any number of them being the same doesn't necessarily make them right, and some of those types of references get adjusted over time.

The TRES / TTES dual name references get a bit odd, but a comment by Peter Pocajit on a discussion about that on LinkedIn claims to resolve an apparent conflict:

Before 2003 it was called TTES (Taiwan Tea Research Station). 
Since 2003 it's TRES (Tea Research and Extension Station).

And the main TRES website also says this here, really a more authoritative source, so that first reference to a comment from Peter just clarifies that people also talk about such things in LinkedIn groups.  One would think another click or two would lead to the definitive list on that TRES site and all would be settled, but it seems to not be there.  There are links to 13 publications I didn't read all of there, #21 through #33, but one of the first 20 probably had what I'm looking for instead, the basic cultivar list.

There is one more relatively authoritative database being developed by the World of Tea site (by Tony Gebely), which says #17 is definitely Bai Lu.  But Ruan Zhi doesn't turn up at all, so it's not clear if it's a different cultivar or only a second name for Bai Lu.

A Google search indicates Wikipedia weighs in, although this definitely isn't the best source for the last word:

Ruan Zhi (軟枝; pinyin: ruǎn zhī; literally "soft stem") is a variety of oolong tea. The tea is also known as Qingxin (青心; pinyin:qīng xīn; literally "green heart") and as # 17. It originates from Anxi in Fujian province, China. The taste is light and is often referred to orchids. This tea variety is used to produce famous highland oloong teas such as Dong Ding, Oriental Beauty, Pouchong and Ruan Zhi.

So that definitely doesn't match everything else, especially the last part, but this still may shed light on what's going on.  Back to the Teapedia reference, which had suggested Ruan Zhi might be another name for Bai Lu:

TTES #17 Bai Lu or Ruan Zhi, cross between TTES #1958 and TTES #335...

Qing Xin (green heart), some claim it's a Ruan Zhi, some that it's a different varietal. Other names are Zhong Zhai and Zhong Cha.

The tea cultivar database entry on World of Tea does back this up (the claim that Ruan Zhi = Qing Zin, not the other version that it's really the same as Bai Lu):

Qing Xin is a tea cultivar from Taiwan.  Country of origin: Taiwan  Other names: Green Heart, Ruan Zhi

More contradiction.  We're almost back to asking if any of this really matters.  In a limited sense it does; either all that #17 is really one of the most common tea types produced from Taiwan, a relatively original version that may have came from Anxi, China, or else it's a later hybrid.  The two really are different teas, aside from confusion over names, and it's an interesting case that one of the main types of tea sold in Thailand, and now also Myanmar, is probably identified incorrectly, sold by two different designations that don't match each other.

I asked a tea contact on Facebook, Thomas Smith, who had lots to add, information which he said originally came from one of the directors of the TRES agency (his instagram profile is where he seems to post most review content, with really, really detailed descriptions of teas):

Ruǎn Zhī is the predecessor group of tea plants that Qīng Xīn Wūlóng came from. It is a bit problematic referring to it (or Qīng Xīn in some cases) as a cultivar, as that word should be exclusively applied to clonal plants while Ruǎn Zhī has been established and spread through seed, with  the derived Qīng Xīn also sometimes being spread by seed. Neither have an assigned Táichá number, because even if Qīng Xīn essentially was borne out of the Fujian Ruǎn Zhī seed stock in Taiwan it is not a registered clone.

TTES No. 17 'Báilù' ('Egret') is a true registered cultivar - note the use of single quotes - established in 1983.

The number only applies to the tea if from the Taiwan Tea Experiment Stations (no tea registered by them is supposed to ever leave the ROC, BTW). Ruǎn Zhī is what I'd put bets on...  Technically most of the clones out of Taiwan can be referred to as it since it is a seed propagation plant and the clones fall within its range of variance. I don't know the full pedigree on TTES No. 17, just the two clones that were crossed to produce it, but I'd say it is not inaccurate to say it is from the same family.

All that sounds right somehow, doesn't it, even if it doesn't fully answer the question of what the Thai and Myanmar versions of the tea is, assuming they are the same thing.  It would be possible to fully resolve the matter with extensive genetic testing, of course, and short of that a lot of pictures of plant leaves and flowers might shed more light on it all.

All of this is quite interesting to me, but I could see how many others would've concluded "I just don't care" before this much of the story unfolded.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Chi Ye Dan Cong!

Back to this general tea type, with an example that was even better.

I comparison tasted a Chi Ye Dan Cong sample my tea-producer friend Cindy Chen sent along with the one I bought at the Jip Eu shop in the Bangkok Chinatown (the shop link, and that earlier post link).  It was amazing how they did come across as a general similar type of tea but very different.  Related to the source, it might seem odd that a tea maker from Wuyishan would provide tea from a different part of China, but Cindy has family there too, so it's definitely not tea that routed through some market.

Chi Ye Dan Cong

Usually I feel like I can't completely describe what I taste and experience in a tea but I do go ahead and express a lot about them.  For this tea I had even more trouble with that, especially at first.

Where the other Dan Cong was complex, exhibiting a range of floral and fruit tastes,  this tea had a much simpler profile, at least related to number of taste components.  It was sweet and rich, subtle and well balanced, probably even a bit elegant, but the first time I tried the tea it was hard to describe, to put my finger on a primary flavor.  I guess the general range was floral or fruit (which is really general), but not so much like a flower I'm familiar with, or similar to other floral teas.

shows color but the focus is never right

The second time I tried it there seemed to be a clear primary taste to it:  peach!  How could that be, that I'd missed that?  It hinted a bit towards plum, and the profile had a depth that could easily extend into a floral range, but it wasn't really complex, a unified but substantial range of flavors, along with a nice rich feel.  I think part of the difference related to comparison tasting, which did help with comparing some common attributes, the "brightness" or feel of the tea, and with contrasting the effect of the astringency, but somehow it was all too much going on.

loves tea; not getting the meditation aspect yet

This part might seem a little strange but I think the main factor was background; it was too noisy the first time I tried it.  I often try teas on the weekends when there is more time to sit and brew them for longer, to run through lots of infusions, but this time my daughter was calling for me to go and play with her, yelling quite a bit.  Between the brewing details and trying two teas and that racket it was too much for really focusing in.

The astringency in the other version isn't really present in this tea, but it wasn't completely soft either, it had a little bit of body.  It was sweet, but even that isn't easy to describe, nothing like honey, not the same type of bright sweetness the other tea had, maybe a little towards caramel but nowhere near as heavy handed, so nothing like that.  At some point the words just don't capture it.

I drank an Earl Grey not so long ago and in lots of ways it was the opposite of that tea. Of course the flavor profile is completely different, a lighter oolong versus a flavored black tea, but I mean even beyond all that.

Where Earl Grey is a familiar tea, not so subtle or complex,  straightforward and easy to brew, something of a "comfort" tea maybe, this tea benefited more from getting it just right.  It seemed to have an unfathomable depth of character, subtlety, with a simplicity to the range of taste that contradicted how full that was in a different sense.  It was more to take in.

The feel and aftertaste weren't necessarily as pronounced as for that other Chinese oolong category I'm usually dwelling on but it gave nothing up in total effect.  All those crazy things tea people tend to say about getting subtle details right that could hardly matter, like how you pour the water onto the tea, probably do actually apply for it.

The research section:

Nope; not this time.  If you ask Google about Chi Ye Dan Cong it's a bit stumped.  A few vendors sell something they call that, but they don't offer any description at all.  There must be some reference articles that go deeper than I've turned up yet but nothing an hour or two of shaking down the internet points out.  Some teas go by multiple names but it takes a reference to identify that.  Cindy did mention that "chi" means red and "ye" means leaves; obvious enough connections come to mind there.

The Tea Obsession blog, by Imen Shan, includes a lot of information about the general type (a lot!), but I went through background about that last post.  I didn't mention this Los Angeles Times background article on her, and on Dan Cong in general, which describes her as "America's only specialist in Dan Cong."  This was back in 2009, so maybe there is another by now.

Of course I'm not claiming this tea I tried is as good as the ones mentioned in that article, or comparing them to what she's discussing in her blog.  It was a very good tea, unlike any other I've tried before, but I'd need more experience to make those sorts of relative judgments.  I'm still considering whether it objectively tastes like peaches or not, although to some extent it really does.  It may well be a dead-on match for some unfamiliar floral taste that I don't recognize, which just happens to also come across like peaches, to me.

It's a good chance to revisit another subject I just got around to starting in a post about Thai pu'er-style teas, about differing experience of tea, an identified natural progression of preference not just for tea type but instead for ranges of aspects of tea.

Tea preference by aspect experience curve, revisited:

It's a bit long to quote it all, but that was all started with a progression of preferences referenced in the "Tea Addict's Journal" blog:

It is indeed true that beginners tend to drink with their noses – fragrance, above all, is what they focus on. This explains why jasmine is a perennial favourite of so many casual tea drinkers, and why a light oolong or green teas tend to be “gateway” teas that get people in the door – they’re fragrant and they’re nice to drink. Then, as you progress through the collection of more experience and the like, you start learning about the nuances, and the mouth comes into play – the body of the tea, whether it stimulates the various part of the mouth, the tongue, whether it is smooth, etc. Then finally, you get to the point where you are drinking the tea with your body, where the taste, the fragrance, etc are all less important than how it makes you feel. You can call it qi, even though I dislike the opacity of the word...

I talked around those ideas just a little in that earlier post, but input from Imen about them an online comment pointed out a bit clearer how it all might fit together:

I have to disagree with the last part where aroma fragrance are no longer a significant part in selecting a tea that can also have obvious qi impact. One can say they prefer richness over aroma when all elements exist separately only in different teas, but when one single tea has all those elements combined, that's then called a truly supreme tea. A tea without both aroma and yun (depth and a bunch of other words) is not a great tea by standard. 

Seems obvious enough, right, that a tea has to exhibit the whole range of positive qualities to be a great tea, but again it's not so simple to put it all in such a clear perspective as that comment did.  Turned around a bit, flaws or limitations in a tea would seem to impact the overall quality to a degree that relates to what a person prefers or doesn't prefer in a tea, tied to these characteristic preferences by both type and specific aspect.  In that comments discussion I expressed it this way:

It is interesting the degree to which people really do say they essentially don't care about some factors, like taste, but what they mean is that they will focus on others more, not that they are ok with drinking flawed or mediocre tea.

Or maybe some are.  A vendor whose company would be familiar to many recently expressed that he's not overly concerned with taste elements, so it seemed natural for him to not list anything at all about that on a product description.

The obvious limitation to that, which I mentioned to him before writing this other related post, is that the description could benefit newer tea drinkers that may not be as familiar with the product, who may make a decision to buy it based on such information.  There was no description, actually, so it was implied by omission that it was a good example of that relatively standard tea type, presumably with the additional positive attributes that he was concerned with (feel, etc.).

To switch to one more tangent before closing, all this reminded me of reading an article on the role of a tea master recently, in an interesting reference called "The Leaf," with the article written by Thomas Leons:

A cursory survey of the internet on any subject, including tea, will, for example, turn up an astronomical number of websites.  Searching through them you will find thousand-page-long blogs, and after reading through them you then realize that the person making all this noise only started learning one month ago, and—like you—has no teacher… how can you ever really accept what you overhear? 

Of course I'm not going to get into answering that, at all, except to point out the obvious, that tea is on some fundamental level experiential, so the basic point is never really what you learn or hear anyway.  It takes some doing running across better teas though, and you still have to prepare it, so knowledge does play a role, and there is an experience curve to contend with.  It's probably best not to get too overwhelmed by what is available to read, and various other forms of input, to work with what appeals to you, with whatever you've got, but to not try to drink a river of knowledge or obsess about finding a master (unless you're really into that--then why not).  For me it's even helpful to look at drinking tea and learning about tea as two separate but related things.

And of course I am one of those beginners, so best to take what's here and most places with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Review of sage tisane infusion (an herb "tea")

Originally posted on the TChing website (page link)

I've only reviewed two tisanes before, but both interesting ones, a mulberry leaf "tea" and coffee leaf "tea."  To keep this simple I'm going to recognize that tea enthusiasts don't like to share the word "tea."  Dictionaries are divided on whether "herb tea" is valid use of that word or not (I wrote a blog post on that), but it doesn't seem natural to use "tisane" or "tisane infusion," which is probably actually a bit redundant since the definition seems to cover the herb and the liquid, as for tea.  I'll call it "sage tea" from here on out, not trying to step on toes, but I've got to call it something.

Dalmatian sage

A little background:  I drank tisanes, which we used to call herb teas, for a long time before "real" tea, Camellia Sinensis.  Of course I had black tea from tea bags as a child too, but I mean I first drank loose tea regularly only about seven or eight years ago, after trying lots of tisanes for a lot longer than that (so I'm not exactly young now, per the math).  Sage tea was my favorite.

It's not really high on a list of popular herbs to be made into tea (still sounds strange putting it that way, but not like "made into an herbal infusion" doesn't).  I probably only ever tried sage because I experimented with so many.  Of course there wouldn't really be any limit to what could be brewed as a tea-like drink; any herbs, any flowers that aren't poisonous, berries, fruits, fruit rinds, tree barks, edible roots, etc.  My former favorite producer sold plain versions, forty six on this website version, but probably others too.  Their description for sage:

Since ancient times, sage (Salvia officinalis) has been associated with good health.* The herb’s Latin name, Salvia, translates into "to be saved." In Chinese, Indian, and North American herbal practices, tea made from sage leaves has been used as a soothing, cooling digestive aid.  ... produces a peppery fragrance with a mildly astringent flavor.

This introduces the two things I'll say more about, the description / review and health benefits.  I'll also mention the source for what I'm reviewing first.  It turns out that you simply can't buy sage tea or decent loose sage in Bangkok (who knew), so I did finally find it from a tea and tisane vendor in Croatia, Pampa Tea.  Getting out there, right, a different part of the world.  Apparently Dalmatia, essentially a part of Croatia, produces some of the best sage (remember the word on the spice bottles?), although I'd expect different sources with similar climate or other plant type variations might be fine.

Health benefits, or at least a bit on the claims:

Of course I'm skeptical of the claims, with all the same context related to Camellia Sinensis appling to that too.  In short, it's hearsay, likely partly true, or maybe not, nearly impossible to verify or to evaluate related studies as evidence.  And the claims are most often coming from people selling the products, so bias factors in.  It's an interesting twist that Alvita vendor site and product reference includes a warning:  WARNING: Do not use if pregnant or nursing.

All that said I'll cite one reference for a health claims description, which may or may not relate to actual health benefits, but still interesting to consider:

Saliva officinalis originates in Mediterranean regions, and is well known as a culinary and medicinal herb. It is largely used for digestive and menopausal problems, particularly hot flashes, and is traditionally associated with longevity: modern research has shown that it can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease. Garden sage is a valuable antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal agent. Taken internally, the herb will fight infection and will also diminish secretions of all kinds, including perspiration and saliva. Garden sage tea or tincture is specific for drying up milk production during weaning. The herb stimulates memory.

Wow, right.  Given my memory maybe I should drink it just in case.  In the one other tisane review I did here, for mulberry leaf tea, I did some sampling of where those separate claims stood in terms of research references, and at a glance some of it looked ok.  But again, who knows really.  I ran across a seemingly impartial US Department of Health site that took a more balanced look at what the evidence really says:

Two small studies suggest that sage may improve mood and mental performance in healthy young people and memory and attention in older adults. Results of another small clinical study suggest that a sage extract was better than placebo at enhancing thinking and learning in older adults with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.

Good, but not based on much research.  And then also a warning against going overboard with dosage:

Extended use or taking large amounts of sage leaf or oil may result in restlessness, vomiting, vertigo, rapid heart rate, tremors, seizures, and kidney damage. It also may lead to wheezing. Ingesting 12 drops or more of the essential oil is considered a toxic dose.

Review part:

It was interesting to try the herb tea with my new-found tea-trained palate (based on two years of going overboard; moving on to in between completely new and trained).  I still liked it.  I had to make it twice to adjust brewing since it's a good bit stronger than tea leaves, and there was some expectations shift, but it will be great to as something I can drink later in the evenings.

as a radar graph

The taste is sweet, but also a little peppery.  Secondary taste components include pine or rosemary elements, pine nuts, sweet corn, and fresh hay.  Subsequent infusions tasted more like pine, more peppery, and less sweet, with less of those softer earthier components.  You might naturally say, wait a minute, it just tastes like sage, not like those things.  Or you might point out that I forgot to put pepper on this graph, but I'm not sure if the tea tends to taste like pepper or if that's a slight spiciness common to chilis and black pepper, more a feel than a flavor, so I skipped it there.

That's sort of the point; tea enthusiasts might tend to think of a lot of flavors as "atomic," singular, but tea in completely the opposite way, open to break-down into countless taste components.  There's almost an implied contradiction in that.  For me some tastes naturally seem complex, like those found in nutmeg, so at times I'm wanting to compare a tea description to part of a separate taste.

Maybe that taste analysis in graphical form would make more sense referred back to tea.  Here is an example from Tealet's site and tea analysis, related to a Sencha.

It's funny how even though I tasted that sage tea it's odd to think it tastes like corn and fresh hay but somehow more natural to think a Sencha might taste like moss, spinach, roast nuts, hay and bamboo.  More on such tasting standards can be found at this World of Tea reference page, not really related to making graphs.

All of this started me thinking about how tasting different types of things might have common elements, which of course started with comparison to wine tasting, which I've already written some about.  The next tangent is even more interesting, and much less intuitively comparable, but still in the works, so I'll chase those ideas and save it for another post.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Earl Grey from Hatvala (Vietnamese tea)

A nice version of an Earl Grey tea (from Hatvala, although it wasn't on their website yet last I checked).  I end up reserving this tea type for when I'm stuck at a work function at a hotel but I suppose it deserves better.  Maybe it just took awhile for me to open scope of drinking tea to appreciate more of a variety of types, even though I drank more Earl Grey years ago than I do now.  The things I appreciate most about drinking tea haven't related to it, like trying new types, and experiencing the range of subtle characteristics a conventional single type and source tea can have.  But there is something to enjoying an "everyday" tea.

Earl Grey!  looks pretty good as those go

Earl Grey tends to just taste like orange oil flavored black tea, because that's what it is.  Wikipedia is the perfect completely generic source to fill in some details:

Earl Grey tea is a tea blend with a distinctive citrus flavour and aroma derived from the addition of oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange, a fragrant citrus fruit.[1] ...

...Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia) is a small citrus tree which blossoms during the winter and is grown commercially in Calabria,Italy....

According to the Grey family, the tea was specially blended by a Chinese mandarin for Lord Grey, to suit the water at Howick Hall, the family seat in Northumberland, using bergamot in particular to offset the preponderance of lime in the local water.

So there's all that.  Maybe bergamot is also the perfect additive to offset whatever is in Bangkok tap water, but for other health reasons probably as well to not drink that without substantial filtering.  To me this tea is all about how well the bergamot taste balances, more so than the other normal factors, like the grade of tea, and taste contribution from the oil, although those surely relate.  In this example those flavors balance well.

A tea friend once commented that blending teas is usually about covering up flaws in one of the teas. A bit negative a take, right?  Still, there could be something to that, and roughly the same idea in a positive form still works, that blending is about making the most of various qualities or strengths of different teas, and possibly herbs, by combining them.  This is a flavored tea anyway; not exactly the same thing.

It probably works out that most tea ever produced he just wouldn't drink, and to be fair the same is probably true to some degree of most tea enthusiasts; they seem to tend to draw limits.  But not all; some are very open and flexible, so they even might go back and give the standard Lipton tea bag a second look to establish a base-line.  I wrote about an even more basic tea bag here once, messing around, but I'm not going to link to that; it was what you'd expect.  I guess these ideas naturally lead towards some definition of what is really "better" tea, although that is completely subjective.

One direction these sorts of concerns could go might relate to a definition of specialty tea, but that's really a different thing.  I'm talking about subjective preference, not trying to make tea type variations and categories less subjective.  I've ran across a different sort of personal account of this in a blog recently, so I'll pass on a little of that.  It's from "the Devotea" tea blog, by Robert Godden.  This post also related to the tragedy in Paris over the weekend, just horrible that, but this excerpt is about preference:

I’m not fussy at all.  I do require, of course , that the tea not be made from a teab*g. That’s not fussy...

If it’s a black tea, it has to have some tannins. That’s not me being fussy, that’s a fact. But not too many tannins. It can be chewy and leathery if over tannined, and I don’t want that... 

I also like a lingering after-taste. I hate it when you drink tea and it vanishes from your mouth as soon as it’s gone down, It’s not too fussy to expect a memory of the taste to linger on your tongue for five to fifteen minutes, is it? No! ....

Subjective, and funny.  It keeps going, and I've trimmed some from this part too; the rest is perhaps worth a read.  The point is that what someone prefers varies, and whether that includes different broad categories or Earl Grey or not, is just up to them (or if Japanese green teas make the cut, etc.).  He as easily might have said he'd never drink blends, if his natural preferences had led there instead, but he didn't, and in fact he creates and sells those.

It's hard to say any tea is really objectively "good," to take subjective preference out of it, although I sometimes get the impression that one really is.  I suppose it's easier to describe a tea as matching a type well, or having certain qualities.  I don't drink enough Earl Grey to be a great reference for the matching part but I can describe this tea.

Review part:

as black as my wife's soul

The flavors are clean, astringency limited, with plenty to give the tea some body, just nowhere near enough for me to start considering adding sugar or milk.  The bergamot element is pronounced but it still also tastes like a black tea.  The specific nature of that tea didn't show through so clearly, but then that's how Earl Grey goes.  I could tell a bit about what the tea itself started out as but couldn't really describe it without the orange oil, which really is part of the point though, they should blend.

I brewed it western style (would be interesting to see orange flavor transition across gongfu infusions), and the flavoring taste was stronger and more aromatic first infusion than second, but it still worked to do more than one, and the "orange" definitely didn't drop out.  The tea contribution stayed consistent, full flavored, balanced, with good structure and some nice earthy elements, and good complexity, maybe smoother than I would have expected.

Vendor input:

I asked the Hatvala owner about the tea since there isn't a web page mention yet, and that follows:

The black tea is produced from wild tea trees (camellia sinensis assamica) from the northern provinces of Yen Bai and Ha Giang.  In fact the current tea is mainly from Van Chan and from the same producer as the Wild Boar although we will not market as a single origin and will perhaps use other black teas in future but they will always be from wild tea trees.

The bergamot oil we use is imported from Singapore but its origin is Reggio Calabria in the very southern tp of  Italy.  It is an extract from 100% natural organic Bergamot (Citrus bergamia Risso).

So there is that.  It did seem like a pretty good version of black tea to start, I'm just not so good at reviewing a tea as an ingredient.  It's interesting to consider that if I drank more decent Earl Grey I might be able to do that to some extent, or say something about the flavor profile of the oil.

There are advantages to drinking tea that's not some amazing example of a rare tea type; it takes the pressure off.  For better teas or some tea types I won't brew them Western style, but I don't usually have time to sit down for a dozen tiny cups of tea over a half an hour, so I can't typically drink tea like that for breakfast or on a work break.  Black teas in general work well for Western-style brewing, and from there experimentation helps point out how varying brewing affects different tea types, or specific teas.

I recently bought a lot of two other Hatvala Vietnamese teas for this purpose, a black tea (Wild Boar) and darker roasted rolled-style oolong (Red Buffalo).  That oolong would respond differently to brewing different approaches, it just works out well across a range of them.  This tea was a free sample sent with those; my thanks to Hatvala for that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Tea Side Thai Hei Cha (shou and sheng pu'er-styles), plus lots of background

I've reviewed pu'er teas before but this is the main type I run behind on really getting into.  Hei cha is the general category name for compressed tea, of course, only called pu'er when from Yunnan, China, so these Thai teas aren't actually pu'er.  I will refer to properties of pu'ers throughout, since that's what I'm comparing these teas to, other compressed tea versions I've tried from Yunnan.  They won't be exactly the same, but it makes for an obvious base-line for comparison, and they are being sold as pu-er style tea.

One problem with getting into pu'er--or rather pu'er-style hei cha; see how awkward to keep repeating that?--relates to aging.  You can drink a brand-new sheng (green / raw) pu'er but the whole point is that the tea ages to become a unique fermented final product, which takes years.  Another issue is cost, also related to typically buying them by a 357 gram cake (or disc, or bing), although some are different sizes, or even different shapes.  Of course some vendors also sell them as samples, or in different quantities, as Tea Side does.

Tea Side 2004 HTC sheng; cool look

To be honest the main gap in me trying a lot of them has been about not really being attracted to the general flavor profile compared to some other types, but that could just lead back to it being harder to find good examples.  Or maybe it's that I liked lower grade versions of some teas better, and followed up those tea types to get to better teas based on that.  I keep trying different versions from a range of types of teas, so I'm chipping away at those sorts of gaps, but that's all relative.

Related to naming it could be called pu'er, pu-er, or pu-erh, but I like the first convention, perhaps the most common, and shou rather than shu (referring to cooked or black pu'er, pre-fermented versions).  They're just transliteration variations; it's really this:  , or this , when you add the character for tea, , as for hei cha  黑茶.  As well to stick with the Roman lettering.

Tea drinking transition; idea of a natural preference curve

To help frame some context, I read a blog post comparing shou and sheng pu'er that stuck with me, so I'll cite that here.  It's about how it may well be a natural transition to start with drinking shou and transition to sheng, although the quote doesn't say exactly that, and of course it's not that simple, natural preferences vary.  From "A Tea Addict's Journal," a blog by Marshal N., about how tea preference changes over time:

We all have moments like this at some point in our tea drinking career.  Teas that, when we were younger, we thought were great, full, and flavourful will almost always appear less interesting, less full over the years.  Some of us got started drinking flavoured teas but have long since swore off such things.  Others may occasionally return to the qingxiang oolongs or green teas that got us into tea in the first place, but find far more pleasure drinking different types.  Still others will turn to cooked puerh from time to time, but would much prefer aged teas, even though cooked puerh may very well have been the “gateway drug.” 

A great metaphor, right?  I'm not claiming to be on any level of tea drinking, related to pu'er or any other kind, but I like the description, and can certainly relate to at least some of what Marshal N. is saying here.  I started on tisanes (more than 20 years ago now; the time just flies), and jasmine green tea did help get me started on conventional teas, although I'd been drinking some Japanese green teas prior to that, and I drank mostly green tea at the outset, and now not so much.  But this is supposed to be about pu'er.

Since I'm reviewing both a shou and a sheng here it may seem like I'm saying this framework applies to these examples, and to some extent the review content bears that out, but really preference is a funny thing, not so linear.  It is interesting there seem to be some learning-curve patterns but these don't work as general rules.  Some people don't like Wuyi Yancha, beginners or experienced tea drinkers, and that's where I've been focused for a good while now.  The tea trends that come and go might seem to muddle how tea enthusiasts generally regard more basic or higher forms of teas, not that preference and hype should necessarily relate.  Pu'er has been well-regarded for a long time now, for what that's worth.  One more tangent that's interesting to me, which I won't be doing anything with here, is how one might like one kind of tea, transition away from it, then come back to it later with a different type of appreciation.

Tea Side HTC 2006 shou "pu'er" (Thai pu'er style hei cha):

Tastes like a good shou pu'er.  To reiterate, it's definitely not a pu'er; it's from Thailand.  It's hei cha, or  "dark tea," more or less as directly translated.  Here is more on the processing for shou in this vendor reference, which is a type of wet piling, a little like what your leaves might go through in your yard (obviously my own reference).  

The tea flavors are rich, earthy, and complex, with a thick, oily feel.  More than separating out individual taste elements a review description seems like a project in expressing what shou pu'er tastes like, because it sort of mostly just tastes like shou to me.

The main flavor component might be a dark version of leather, not like an oiled football or baseball glove in this case, maybe more like my old combat boots (long story, but I wasn't a goth kid).  It might sound odd but I mean that in a good sense.  Beyond that mineral tones are harder to pin down, between slate and graphite, maybe a bit like volcanic rock, the kind on those black sand beaches.  Is that basalt?   Been forever since that class.  There is some sweetness and a fruit element but harder to pick out for those other heavier flavors, maybe something like fig or plum.

The flavors are nice even in the first infusions, sort of rich and clean, but after a number of them sweetness and complexity picks up a little and darks woods join in more, while the other earthy elements tone down a little.  There isn't really any astringency to moderate so there is nothing standing in the way of brewing this as black as ink, if so inclined, but it provides lots of flavor at normal brewing strength, so aside from experimenting with that I didn't.  If someone loved really soft but full teas this would be perfect; for someone inclined to prefer the structure a bit of mild astringency can bring, in different forms for different teas, this could be a little too soft.

as brewed light

There was a time I drank more shou pu'er and I liked the flavor and feel, I just got away from it, off to explore other realms in tasting and to focus on my one true love in tea, Wuyi Yanchas.  So what is the difference in general types of teas, aside from a different flavor profile?  Feel is an interesting part of tea but to me there's something about aromatic components, not exactly a taste or feel.  Of course we are really smelling the taste, the subtle aspects, but for better versions of those teas something is going on that I can't describe.  I've read a lot of descriptions but none get really close to capturing it.  Even within the scope of flavors complexity can be exhibited in different ways, of course.

This tea is great if someone is on that page, smooth and rich and full.  It would seem possible for a few more subtle taste elements to join in, for a little more complexity, but otherwise this is pretty much where shou seems to be headed, with the strength and weakness of the type.  Not that I'm the best person to judge that from extensive experience, just giving my impression.

I don't generally go there but under the circumstances of reviewing a tea from an unconventional region for the type let's consider the vendor's take (from Tea Side):

Traditionally soft. The taste is harmonious, balanced and pure, without extraneous smacks. In dominant there are baked apples, tree bark and light notes of prunes. Surprisingly pleasant fruity aftertaste, like of a good old Sheng. But despite this, the tea gives the classic thick opaque infusion when brewed.

Maybe I could adjust brewing and bring out more related to the apples.

Tea-side 0801 HTC 2006 sheng "pu'er" review:

Very nice; the tea is smooth and rich, full flavored, not astringent, complex, a little sweet.  Flavors are all layered together:  plum and fig, molasses, earthy tones, tobacco, a bit of mineral, maybe something like roasted almond in there.

pieces of the tea

A number of infusions in the flavors mellow a little, deepen, with some of the fruit giving way to stronger earthier tones.  The fig and plum element is still prevalent enough to give good balance, and the texture stays smooth, with just enough astringency to give the tea some body but no bitterness.

The smell of the brewed tea is really nice, close to that rich leather smell, like a bomber jacket or oiled baseball glove this time, but a little towards molasses from those. Plenty more infusions later the flavor just softens and fades a bit, but the tea really holds up to a lot of consistent brewing.  Even after brewing the tea for so long I couldn't believe it when it started to fade and I really had to get on with doing other things I switched it to Western-style brew for a couple of extra long steeps and it was still great.  The character even changed a little, more lighter sweet fruit came out.

This is really what I've been looking for in sheng pu'er; something that ages to be complex, with a nice range of flavors, with a lighter, balanced astringency, without smoke or camphor components.  It's not that those two taste elements are so terrible, just a matter of preference, and maybe camphor would grow on me.

I love smoked teas but I'm particular about the type of smoke, if that makes sense, so I love lapsang souchong but don't like most lapsang souchongs.  I don't try enough nine year old sheng pu'er to put this on any sort of scale, though, so other veteran pu'er drinkers (pu-heads) could fill in that type of comparison better.

I'll give the vendor a say again, from the Tea Side description, having already set that precedence for this post, plus that adds some background detail:

Growing Region: Province of Chiang Mai, north of Thailand, 1500 meters. The tea is made from old and wild 200-300 years old trees. This sheng resembles a sheng of purple bushes in looks - the tea is very dark for its age. This is my absolute favorite among Thai shengs...

Taste: Full-bodied, very smooth (balanced) and intelligent. Nice raisin profile laced with spicy woody tones. Notes of plum are also present.  Velvety and spicy aftertaste remains long after the drinking.

Effect: This Sheng is very strong tea, one of the most powerful of all pu-erhs in our collection.

A bit different taste-by-taste but close enough.  I want to say a bit more about that last point, the effect.

Tea drinking for taste, for mouth-feel, and for effect

Not that this post really needed one more long tangent but this brings up another point Marshall N. made in a different post that is too interesting not to share, about preference changing over time, not just related to flavor but also to what someone desires from a tea.  If this sounds at all interesting read that whole post because a quote doesn't do it justice, but here goes:

It is indeed true that beginners tend to drink with their noses – fragrance, above all, is what they focus on. This explains why jasmine is a perennial favourite of so many casual tea drinkers, and why a light oolong or green teas tend to be “gateway” teas that get people in the door – they’re fragrant and they’re nice to drink. Then, as you progress through the collection of more experience and the like, you start learning about the nuances, and the mouth comes into play – the body of the tea, whether it stimulates the various part of the mouth, the tongue, whether it is smooth, etc. Then finally, you get to the point where you are drinking the tea with your body, where the taste, the fragrance, etc are all less important than how it makes you feel. You can call it qi, even though I dislike the opacity of the word...

this guy is on pu'er

He's absolutely on another level, not so much because he's been through this process but because describing very complex ideas so simply as this requires a different level of experiencing it and thinking it through.

Within this context I would be on step two of three, and perhaps not that far along that.  It's my impression that some people might notice the effects of tea much better than others naturally, though, although really it's hard to know what to make of what people say they feel.  Their impression of taste is hard enough to relate to, and presumably that's a bit more common for everyone, maybe not a given that it's exactly the same.

I talked about this issue with a tea-mentor type of online friend, the kind of person that's pretty far along the learning curve, a vendor of amazing teas (not Cindy, although that all sounds a bit like her).  She said that to really recognize the type of effect a tea has on you it's helpful to not mix what you drink so much, to stick to one type over a period of days or even weeks.  That could be part of my problem, I really do mix types I drink a lot.  But I think it's more about not sleeping regularly, mostly relating to my two kids taking turns waking me up at night.  I just slept 8 hours straight two nights in a row so maybe I'll turn a corner related to that, and can try what she suggests, I just have to try a few samples first.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Comparison tasting two Rou Gui and a Da Hong Pao

More teas from my favorite Wuyi Yancha farmer and vendor, Cindy Chen!  Many thanks to her for providing those latest samples.

Cindy making tea

Since reviewing a number of her teas earlier in the year--this was the first related post, a Rou Gui in March, but there were others--I ran across a vendor profile of her by Tealet, a tea company that needs no introduction.

But just in case, Tealet's business premise relates to selling better teas directly from farmers.  It's essentially a type of a fair-trade theme since they can provide better compensation to farmers, and at the same time settle issues of sourcing transparency; customers are really clear on what they are getting.

It's a lot more difficult to just get in touch with a tea farmer, but to some extent that would work too, with the obvious limitations.  Someone you only talk to online claiming to be a tea farmer could just sell mid-grade tea from a wholesale market, so any claims about specific growing areas or not using pesticides wouldn't count for much.  It might be a problem just identifying what type of tea you are actually buying.

Reviews, one of the Rou Gui from Cindy:

Nice!  A very good, normal Wuyi Yancha; normal if you normally run across good Wuyi Yancha.  The level of roast comes across first in the scent; it's medium, maybe leaning towards darker.  The typical sweet earthy and mineral scents also stand out; lots of complexity.

Wuyi Yancha!

The tea has the distinctive Wuyi Yancha flavor profile, mineral, some earthy components, a pronounced aromatic element, and the slight edge of the roast, but not much in the way of "char" as some versions can have.  In some dark roasted teas it can actually incline a bit towards charcoal, which can be hard to appreciate.  The aromatic aspect is perfume-like, hard to describe, sweet, related to floral, but also leaning towards slate or graphite or ink.  Cinnamon is a primary flavor, accompanied by sweet earthy aspects, like fresh dark leather, which I mean in a good sense.

The feel is full and smooth, with a pleasant lingering taste.  A year ago all that would have been a more unique experience for me, but now I try to compare it to other nice teas.  Is it richer, is the balance better or worse, is the roast level a great compliment to the other characteristics?  I'm really not completely sure.  It's better than the average Wuyi Yancha one runs across, by a good bit, but it's harder to place it related to other better versions.  Taste is a factor, but another part is gauging if the feel and the aromatic qualities are exceptional or just quite good.  Comparison tasting would help with that.

It seems odd turning around the experience, drinking a great tea and asking what isn't as great about it, instead of just appreciating it.  Reviewing a lot of similar teas could lead in that direction but it wouldn't necessarily have to.  It seems partly the effect of tea-forum talk, too much input of "my tea is better than your tea;" taking that up and trying to pin down exactly how good a tea is.

I'm also reminded of the differences between what tea bloggers do, give a description of a nice tea, and an impression, versus people judging and grading the teas, where that type of process needs to go much further.  To be clear I'm not even ahead of the curve related to tea bloggers, just another guy drinking tea.  Cindy just mentioned taking part in a Wuyishan tea contest related to black teas, which helped raise that subject.  They took 7th in that category; probably really exceptional for that type of event and the range of participants.  But the review of their specialty scope is coming up next week, related to oolongs.  My favorite!

Back to the tea though:  it seemed like a very good example of a Rou Gui, but that it could be better in a few minor ways, slightly better feel, slightly more aromatic element, slightly more complexity.  But it seemed odd being that negative about it.  The tea is ridiculously good, better than almost anyone will ever know exists (of course it helps liking Wuyi Yancha to have that impression), but there was perhaps room for those tiny improvements.  This was roughly how Cindy passed on the grade of the tea, as they evaluate it, a good tea but not the best they produce.

One might wonder why they produce different levels of tea, why it's all not equally great, aside from minor differences related to slight variation in plant sources.  I've written a post about that, something very informative, based on input from Cindy about different tea processing, so I'll get back to that, just not in this post.

tea legends:  Rajiv Lochan and Cindy (she is one to me)

I also tried comparison tasting this tea made from bottled spring water against  filtered Bangkok tap water, related to discussing water differences with someone recently.  Of course the filtered tap water retained a bit of mineral taste, towards chemical, that threw off the taste a little.  Both had been boiled, so that shouldn't be chlorine; hard to say what else was in that water that contributed to it.  We plan to install a much more sophisticated multiple-filter multiple-step reverse osmosis filtration system to get away from using bottled water in the future (the kind that office water coolers use).

To really help identify subtle characteristics of a tea it's best to comparison taste with a second, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each.  So I tried that next, the next day, but with two different teas.

Round 2; a different Rou Gui compared to a Da Hong Pao

Rou Gui!  Another one.

Ideally these should be the same tea type to limit the natural variances and highlight subtle differences, but I wanted to compare one of the Rou Gui samples to a very good Da Hong Pao example I bought not long ago.  The idea was more about comparing grade related issues than the teas related to those types.  I bought that tea from the Jip Eu shop in the Bangkok Chinatown, the same place I picked up this Ban Tian Yao (another Wuyi Yancha type).

I wrote a review of that Da Hong Pao but haven't posted it yet since I'll be sharing it somewhere else too, along with a lot of back-story about Da Hong Pao.  Lots of the research-theme blogs working lately; I guess it goes in cycles.

In one sense that's about a much more interesting subject than this post, just reviewing teas.  As a preview I will say that Da Hong Pao is not the only name for this tea, and the general type has a bit of an identity issue.  Suffice it to say this one I'm writing about is one the best Wuyi Yanchas I've tried, although hard to place what that really means.  This tea made me reconsider that the unusually strong aromatic element I'd tried in Rou Gui teas before was only related to that plant and tea type, and not just related to a potential in other similar teas.

Both teas were excellent, both quite different.  Different in a limited sense, of course; if someone wasn't so hung up on trying different Wuyi Yanchas they might seem about the same. Since characteristics by tea type and specific tea properties are separate things, with lots of possible variations, maybe all this could be a little less clear presented this way, with the ideas mixing.

Da Hong Pao!  Really.

The Rou Gui is very nice, perhaps more distinctive than the other, in the sense of exhibiting complexity and the aromatic component better.  A pronounced cinnamon flavor stood out, with other mild earth tones underling that.  One spice element was difficult to identify, something like an unfamiliar sweet root herb, towards sassafras but not exactly that.  Combined with the sweetness it came across a little like butterscotch.  A mild wood flavor joined the other tastes.  Do I even have to keep saying "mineral?"  To me that's the context of the flavors, not a pronounced primary element, just part of the background.

The Da Hong Pao is even more aromatic, almost like a perfume, but with a different flavor character.  Both share that similar mineral undertone, without much in the way of "char" for either.  Both have good sweetness, clean flavors, a good feel to the teas.  The flavors of the Da Hong Pao extend more to typical range for better examples of this type:  floral, seemingly related to the aromatic element, dark wood, leather, sweetness related to a brown sugar range, falling short of the flavor strength of similar molasses components.  Of course brown sugar and molasses are kind of related, with raw cane sugar juice the unprocessed input for both, which you can buy fresh in tropical areas.

In terms of aftertaste the Da Hong Pao is stronger, and lasts longer, related to the one aromatic component carrying over.  It could be too much related to some people's preferences, although it seems generally regarded as one of the characteristic components, so I'd  imagine it would normally be seen as positive, no matter the level of intensity.

Just thinking that part through makes me consider how identifying the positive aspects of the tea individually seems to leave out something about balance, considering how well it all works together, the synchronicity of the tea.  It's some good tea when taste and feel and general impression references stop being enough and it's time to focus on balance.

Across infusions both stay really clean, full, and consistent.  Although the flavors differ the character is similar enough that a preference for one over the other might well come down to how one feels about the aromatic component in the Da Hong Pao.  Again it's worth noting that the Rou Gui is also quite aromatic, just in a range that is intense but still more familiar.  Or maybe the shift in the profile related to the two different types would tip the balance for some.  For me I love them both, and feel lucky to experience such tea.

the Rou Gui was a little darker (top)