Saturday, December 26, 2015

Comparing Indonesian and Thai Silver Needle White Teas

Finally on to tasting one of the more interesting teas I picked up in Indonesia, a silver needle white tea from Wonosari plantation, in Eastern Java.  Two other posts go into some more background on there and those teas, but the short version is that it's a government associated, Dutch influenced tea plantation.  At least true per what little I've read or heard; without their own reference material, or a website, or more direct communication from them that's not confirmed.

The other tea is a Thailand originated Lana Silver Needle tea from Monsoon teas, a tea shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with this sample provided by them.  Per usual the combined tasting format was to help identify subtle character differences better, which stand out better in comparison.

Monsoon Thai silver needle left, Wonosari Indonesian right


The teas look quite different.  The Indonesian silver needle looks like I would expect, silver-white individual buds, while the Thai Lana silver needle tea is a light greenish color.  I've read critiques of white teas described as not being true white teas based on using different processing, with different outcomes, but that is not familiar enough for me to address it here, and I didn't research it further for this post.

The Wonosari Indonesian tea had an unusual smoke scent, with a pleasant rich sweetness beyond that.  The Thai tea smelled sweet as well, but with a vegetal scent beyond that, in between the light, subtle-earth scent of white tea and a profile more common to green tea.

Wonosari tea; nice and silver

The first taste of the Indonesian tea was essentially just smoke.  Actually the first few infusions were like that, overwhelmed by it.  After two or three I was able to try and taste past it, and the tea seemed to have a full, rich feel to it, and good sweetness, with the typical subtle earthy / light floral flavors of a white tea, towards chrysanthemom or chamomile, but less explicitly floral.

The smoke kind of worked, after the first infusions, when it had diminished, it just seemed a really odd idea to be drinking a smoked white tea.  As many infusions passed it faded out and more rich, sweet flavors came to the fore; a really nice white tea.  One of the distinctions between good white teas and better ones has seemed to be the feel of the tea, and this one is full and smooth.

packaging; a filler picture

So the comparison idea didn't work out so well, given that one aspect, smoke, colored the effect of that tea so much.

The Thai silver needle tea was nice, but different than I expected.  As with the scent some flavor elements resembled green tea.  The vegetal character didn't resemble grass, or spinach or peppers, none of that typical range, but it was close to green hay.  If that's not familiar, it is a pleasant, relatively neutral, soft vegetal element.  If you happen to walk through a field of growing hay give it a smell; and try pulling out the top green flower top from the bottom of the stalk, and taste the soft, rich part growing inside; quite tasty.

The tea itself had none of the astringency common to green tea, not even a start in the feel of the body.  It was even a bit thin, really, not a problem for me since I don't value white teas for the feel as much as that seems more crucial to some other types, presented differently in those.  It wouldn't have stood out so much but the Indonesian tea seemed much fuller in body in comparison, and a bit sweeter.

Monsoon left, Wonosari right

Both teas brewed lots of infusions, somewhat consistently, beyond the smoke element dropping out for the Wonosari tea.  The feel of the teas changed a good bit as I increased brewing times to compensate 8 or 9 infusions in, along with the effect and presentation of the flavor profile.  The Thai tea picked up a bit of astringency comparable to that in a black tea, just a much lighter version.  The Wonosari tea really didn't; it stayed quite smooth and went to a fuller feel rather than changing in that way.  All this reminds me of an interesting aside, which I'll add after this part.

As for final conclusions, it seemed without that smoke the Wonosari tea may well have been a really nice example of a silver needle tea.  It still worked well for me, and even the smoke was interesting, especially experiencing it dropping out.  It combined with the other elements in different ways as it faded, while the other aspects didn't change as much.  I could imagine other people taking that differently, more negatively.  It's odd to smoke a white tea, and it would seem likely that wasn't intentional.  Or maybe it was.

The Thai tea was nice.  Again a tea purist might have been put off by the deviation from normal silver needle character, in terms of flavor profile, and the thinner feel of the tea, but to me it was still quite nice, maybe even interesting for being different.

Aside about varying brewing time and tea strength:

In the past I've noted how white tea brewing suggestions tend to fall into two completely different sets (more on general brewing guidelines in this post), with one standard preparation method calling for relatively long brewing times (based on Western style brewing), of 4 to 5 minutes.  The other approach prepares the tea very lightly, more conventional for a gongfu approach, although really someone could brew tea Western-style very lightly and gongfu-style as strong tea, using longer times.

It's odd how the different proportion of tea to water comes into play, so that a white tea brewed as a strong version might infuse for 4 to 5 minutes for Western-style brewing, and still under a minute for gongfu style.  For a lighter version infusing Western-style for 2 minutes might do, and gongfu style only 20 seconds, or one could drink a very wispy version flash-infused, in contact with the water only as long as it takes to pour it in and then back out.

same teas, brewed stronger

It all depends on preference, doesn't it?  That's true, but it can be unsatisfying just leaving it at that.  I recently read a great related comment on a tea group thread that added lots of detail, what the difference in effect would be (not just that the tea would be lighter and stronger, I mean).  The discussion was in the The Great World Tea Group, kind of newer and smaller as Facebook tea groups go, but I guess typical of those.  To me they are either somewhat exclusively about pu'er or not; this one not (or some about Darjeeling only, to be fair).

Kirk O'Neil, the group owner, raised this question:

I don't know how people can drink any tea that's too light; it confuses me.  Sometimes I see gongfu brewed tea brewed lightly.  I like strong brewed teas except for most strong brewed young shou (ripe) puerh.  Is weak brewed tea being not as enjoyable as strong brewed tea a bad thing?  Is it a good thing I enjoy strong brewed tea?

To be honest I'd love to see more discussion of tea in a tea group anywhere, so I'm impressed that Kirk would share his own preference to initiate a discussion.  It's all too easy for the comments to drift towards "you are wrong," even in cases clearly related to preference, like this one.  I help moderate a different FB tea group, and I post different random things there, but even I don't usually address questions like that outside this blog content.

Christmas!  but nothing to do with tea

One response was more interesting and insightful than the others, by Thomas Smith, someone I have talked about tea a bit with online, and he's got a fairly developed take on things:

It is a matter of preference per focus. Lighter intensity and body allows a much wider range of flavor elements to be perceived, though they may be too light to be appreciable to some. Steeping longer will truncate flavor range to just a handful of easily identified characteristics, reduce number of total infusions that may be yielded, reduce spread of flavor deviations between infusions, hamper expression of sweetness and aromas, and promote potential astringency. The payoff is heavier impact of the relatively smaller set of flavors, increased viscosity, and greater consistency or reliability of cup character. 

Those who enjoy Assam, Yunnan, and Fujian red teas and many quick adopters of Shú Pǔ'ěr and similar accelerated-fermentation dark teas may gravitate to longer steep times both out of familiarity and from these teas not really offering much on the light approach compared to the texture payoff in protracted infusions.

Next level deeper analysis, right?  Does it match your experience?  I've noted in this blog that lighter tea brewing can actually allow for separating flavor elements better, so the main point I completely agree with.  For a white tea this variation in infusion time and strength seems even more pronounced, emphasizing completely different elements, not just shifting how they come across.

Wonosari plantation; outside Malang, East Java

Other factors also relate, including a learning curve for preference (or preference curve, if one would rather), related to appreciating different aspects of a tea.  Somehow it seems like preferring stronger tea first and gravitating towards lighter is natural, but of course it's not that simple either.

There is an underlying assumption that one would want to optimize brewing to suit their own preferences, but I don't necessarily end up there.  I experiment with brewing a lot just to see what it changes, sometimes even infusion to infusion.  That contradicts the appreciation of the "flavor deviations between infusions," as Thomas put it, at the core of what many tea drinkers regard as an essential part of the experience.

This would be a good place for a summary wrap-up, maybe something like "to each their own."  As I see it the beauty of the experience of tea is that it does keep going, new experiences, changing understanding, varying preferences, with change and diversity a big part of the appeal.  Of course, to each their own; others might figure out what they like and tend to stick with that.


  1. Seriously cool comparison here. I'm definitely curious about the Thai take on Silver Needle. The Indonesian take reminds me a lot of Darjeeling whites in character.

    1. It would be interesting to hear about your impression of these. I've tried some Silver Needle teas from China and India but not enough to really pin down the profiles, to place those examples in the normal range. I have a second Indonesian Silver Needle from either that plantation or another in Eastern Java, from a tea shop that sells from different sources, per what I've been told, so I may be able to review a version that's easier to interpret without that smoke. About those Thai teas, that one and others seem nice enough, but according to the Monsoon shop owner their potential could be developed further in the next few years.