As background, this vendor, Tea Side (Facebook page and website link) claims to have "the largest collection of Thai pu'ers, oolongs, and red teas," which we could automatically translate to "pu'er-style Thai origin hei cha" and black teas (unless one is really attached to the literal translation from Chinese of highly oxidized teas as red tea instead of black tea, in which case, sure, they're red). The teas really do live up to those claims; kind of odd they could pull off finding so many unique, nicer types to that extent.
I'll get back to some additional review about the type but will go straight to what the tea is like first.
some dark looking tea
The smell is unique as well; strong dried dark cherries, with a bit of chocolate, not cocoa so much as that sweet rich smell processed chocolate has (so like cocoa butter as well, I guess?). There is plenty of earthiness as context for that, with a uniquely dark appearance to the rolled-ball leaves, so an interesting start even before brewing.
brewed; prepared a little lighter would be just as good
In gaba teas (teas processed in a nitrogen environment to completely change the "oxidation" process to be something else, as described here in an earlier post) that same general component typically has seemed too strong to me in the past, taking over those teas, exhibiting almost as a sourness. It's lighter here, so it tends to work better, less towards sour and more towards a hint of yeast, but I'm not sure I wouldn't trade it out for some more cocoa or something such.
There's a creamy feel to the tea, which together with the sweetness, malt and cocoa aspects, and bit of berry / cherry fruit (and other fruit aspects harder to separate out) reminds me of one of my favorite dark oolongs, the Red Buffalo from Hatvala.
brewed Wuyi Yancha leaves, for reference
To back up, per the vendor description the tea is highly oxidized, within the range of oolong or else this would be a black tea, and it is medium roasted. One might wonder if this is a standard part of the conventional style for the type, with a bit more on that in the next research section.
Per past review in a different tea type, Wuyi Yancha, or dark roasted oolongs from Fujian, China, some sources claim that a variety of roast levels relate to the preference choices and the tea type, and others claim that less oxidized and roasted relate to a higher standard of tea. I can't resolve that based on my own experience but I have tried some really nice lightly oxidized and roasted versions, which really do match my preferences well, but also very nice teas prepared in other styles related to these factors. This is probably a good place leave off and review a bit of background about the tea type.
Background and research:
Let's start with the Tea Side vendors take, quoted at length since there's a bit going on to look into:
Hong Shui oolong is an unusual and rare thai oolong with high degree of fermentation and of medium fire. It is produced from the specially selected leaves of Chin Shin and Jin Xuan variates...
Taste: leaves of Hong Shui oolong are rolled into dark-brown, almost black, bolls and they have strong, captivating sweet smell. Brewing them you must appreciate the infusion - it has really ruby, cherry red color. This Thai tea possesses full-bodied and complex taste, spicy and slightly tart flavor with wooden notes. Distinctive fruity berry tones are in the foreground. Aftertaste hints of hazelnut. Somebody can compare Hong Shui oolong with red Gaba tea, but anoxic fermentation technology is not used in production process for Hong Shui.
Interesting, but lets go further by referencing some other descriptions and background. Individual tea versions will vary, or even the same ones will vary with brewing changes, but the Tea Masters Blog claims this tea type should be relatively lightly oxidized, between 25 and 30%. Of course even if there was one particular style connected with this tea type, and even if that doesn't match what I'm trying in this tea, I'm not so concerned about that; the tea is exceptional prepared as it is.
A "Some Tea With Me" tea blog post goes into some interesting description worth considering, of course about a different version of the same general type of tea:
Hong Shui is a slow and careful roasting of a flavorful rolled oolong. The roasting lasts a long time compared to other oolongs, interspersed with several resting periods to avoid over-baking the leaf. It requires great skill to produce the stone fruit flavors of Feng Huang and the charcoal dryness of Wuyi-style Yancha in a Dong-Ding-style oolong, often from a High Mountain (> 1000 meters) garden, without losing the sweetness of the underlying leaf.
Interesting! I guess all that makes perfect sense. I didn't completely get stone fruit from the tea I tried but I didn't feel like I'd completely nailed the brewing parameters either, that this might be the rare type of tea that responds better to Western style brewing than a gongfu approach, which I did use (prepared in a gaiwan using water not so much under boiling point, for what that's worth). It's interesting to consider his flavor-list description of that version:
My favorite of the bunch was the 2013 Winter San Lin Shi Hong Shui. The brownish-green leaves have a heavenly aroma when warmed. A little bit like roasting butternut squash combined with the sweetness of ripe pear. After a few infusions I noticed the taste of smoked wood. It was something like almonds or cinnamon bark: a delicate sweetness underneath a woody flavor that lingers in the mouth.
tasting assistant, dressed for a Thai cold spell
In researching this post I also ran across a review of the same exact tea from one of my favorite bloggers, Amanda from "My thoughts are like butterflies." Since I just talked about complexity in a tea, brewing variance, and how even suggestion can affect a take on a tea, I'll mention a little of her description. Also tea bloggers absolutely never do that, quote other reviews, so it makes perfect sense for me to do so:
The taste reminds me of an ice-cream covered fruit cobbler, complete with crust. Sweet notes of peaches, plums, cherries, and dates dance with creamy notes in my mouth, and the aftertaste, oh how it lingers... As the fruity notes start to fade towards the end they are replaced with mineral notes and a gentle woody quality. One thing that never fades is the intensely creamy finish and subsequent aftertaste.
It's kind of like that! She brewed it Western style, which I often would but didn't this time. This tea would come across differently depending on the strength one prepared it to, really better on the lighter side, which is an advantage to gongfu style brewing, having more chances to adjust that. As complex as the tea came across it seems that brewing variations could change the tea a lot. I hadn't considered how the dryness really could relate to more of a bread-dough / yeast taste element, or in her description cobbler crust, but it does match.