Monday, March 28, 2016

Si Ji Chun Thai oolong (four seasons) from Tea-Side

The tea has a nice smell, a lot of sweetness, with subtle promise of some spice element.

Tasting the tea, the sweetness and spice come across right away, although the spice element is somewhat faint.  There is also a feel to the tea that defines it even more, one that seems integrated with a range of mineral taste elements.  The overall effect is that of a clean and complex tea.  I think if someone really loved that structured, mineral effect from a lot of Taiwanese high mountain oolongs this would be very positive, for me maybe just a bit neutral.

On the positive side,  that bit of extra flavor and slight dryness give the tea a nice balance, more interesting than simple, soft, sweet teas.  Potentially negative, the tea doesn't emphasize the floral or fruit elements many would associate with their favorite light oolongs.  More to follow on the type in the next section, but based on reading up in general this type is known for pronounced fruitiness.  The mineral range really isn't far from the range typical in oolongs from Taiwan, maybe limestone, if I had to guess a rock.

I've mentioned before about not remembering floral smells, and I struggle a little with specifying types of wood elements, so how is it that I'm guessing the smell of different rocks?   When I was younger I did some rock climbing.  Hanging on by your fingertips and the rubber edge of a very tight special shoe gives you a special perspective on rock type differences, even if there is no special focus on the smell.  Limestone is not so ideal for climbing, by the way, a little slippery; a nice hard granite gives you much more to work with.

like a lightly oxidized oolong, light golden yellow

Odd leaving off saying that the tea is good but it just tastes like a rock.  There is a hint of spice under that,  just hard to place as faint as it is.  Other taste range might relate to a soft lighter wood (the type of which I'll skip guessing). There is some sweetness to go with the dryness, and some taste in the floral range, so the balance is ok, just leaning towards dry.

The flavor softens and deepens as infusions progress, and this seems the type of tea differing brewing might get different effects from.  Maybe that's true of more teas than it doesn't apply to,  just in different senses.  After some infusions the pronounced mineral range gives way to more earth and some fruit, but it's hard to list out one or more distinct fruit flavors since that is combined with the mineral and earth / wood tastes.

Research and rambling section

I don't think I've reviewed a four seasons oolong before, although I've tried a number of them here.  General reading up identifies these more commonly produced as an everyday tea.  The type is capable of being made into a high quality tea but given that it's easy to produce in good volume at lower elevations it's more often made as a more mid-range tea.  This is probably the best version I've tried, although it is difficult to remember every instance of a type.

The vendor reference gives more background:

Si Ji Chun (Four Seasons Like Spring, TTES #15) Oolong Tea #AA

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

Appearance: Lightly roasted, lightly fermented, tightly rolled into hemispherical shape...

Taste and Aroma: This Si Ji Chun possesses bright and intense taste with sweet floral tones. Apparent lilac flavour that appears here in the foreground reminiscent of taste of Tie Guan Yin.

Seems like all that, maybe it just seemed a bit less floral, to me.  The taste range wasn't similar to a very lightly oxidized oolong, as Jin Xuan are often produced, or Tie Kuan Yin sometimes referred to as "nuclear green."  I sort of like the freshness that goes along with that really lightly oxidized oolong preparation, but I wouldn't want to drink that too often, and this tea seemed to have a bit more balance due to being either oxidized or roasted just a bit more, or both (although it's not a darker oolong by any means, just not bright green oolong).

Cultivar-type designations sort of don't matter so much but since it's an interest I'll go into that, in relation to a second reference, from "Teapedia":

Oolong Si Ji Chun, translated "four seasons" is a 1980 developed cultivar from Taiwan. Si Ji Chun is also marketed as "Four Seasons" but has no TTES number as it wasn't breed by the Taiwan Tea Research and Experiment Station. The appellation "Four Seasons" is due to the cultivars ability to produce a even quality during all seasons. Oolong Four Seasons is intensively fruity in taste and should be infused only for short time as it tends to astringency if steeped too long.

That tea didn't seem astringent in the least, but it may have worked better infused even more lightly, using a bit less leaf than I did.

There's also a contradiction here; the first vendor reference says this is TTES # 15, this source says it has no number, but is a recent cultivar type created outside that system of numbered types.

It's difficult to ever fully resolve these issues, since different references could continue to say different things, but one research oriented article I've mentioned in the past at least seems authoritative, with the related table reference cited here:

Type of germplasm
Processing suitability#
Origin or Parent@
O, P
Planting in Nantou, Taiwan

Fascinating!  They say this is a landrace, an original native plant type.  Of course if one goes back far enough these types were surely imported or developed through selective breeding at some earlier point.  It was a minor point anyway, a bit academic if the plant type really was developed in the 1980s or not.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Tea Village Hojicha, roasted Japanese green tea

I've covered what hojicha is before, along with reviewing one, so this is about trying a different version supplied by the Tea Village shop in Pattaya, sent along with two other teas I recently bought.

The tea is relatively familiar, not so different than the others I've tried, but a quite decent version.  Hojicha in general is a roasted green tea distinctive for using the branches / sticks of the tea plant in addition to the leaves, or even mostly instead of leaves.  In other words it's made from bancha, a green tea version that includes more use of tea stick material.  It's only most commonly made from bancha, per a reference from Ricardo Caicedo, who writes a blog on Japanese teas, which I had cited in that first post.

The taste is close to toasted sesame, maybe just a little towards toasted rice, with a good bit of sweetness, in the caramel range, with a smooth richness and a nice clean taste.  There is no trace of astringency, and very little in common with the vegetal / grassy / seaweed effect some green teas can have.  It would make a nice everyday tea, a varied type to rotate in with other basics.

Ricardo and other sources have mentioned that this tea type is lower in caffeine, so it's sometimes used as a transition tea for children to drink in Japan.  I've researched caffeine consumption limits for a separate post I've not published yet and per that background caffeine wouldn't be a problem for most people based only on drinking tea, unless they drink a lot of it, maybe over two liters a day, a limit which would vary a lot by strength and type.  For younger children restricting any caffeine intake is recommended, per some relatively reliable medical sources, so although it's not that uncommon for some people to allow young children to drink limited amounts of normal tea that's worth considering.

As with any type of tea the strength or weakness depends on how someone's individual preferences relate to the type.  This one is definitely approachable, easy to drink, and relatively easy to brew tea, so the limitations might relate to someone not liking the somewhat unconventional taste profile, or the limited complexity of the tea.  A tea having a range of subtle aspects or the right kind or level of astringency can give it an interesting balance, but then I do like to drink different types of different teas depending on what I feel like at the time.

I'm reminded of two separate discussions about a very different type of tea, dan cong, a sweet, typically fruity oolong from China (which varies in taste profile by version), in which others commented that the light astringency in that type really helps to offset the strong fruit flavors.

It occurred to me that this might work well for blends since it does have a pleasant, rich flavor, that might work for mixing with other elements.  I don't drink or prepare much for blends myself, mostly just the odd masala chai, so it's just a thought.  Maybe with the right fruit elements this taste range could stand in place of a cobbler or pie crust, but adding a vanilla ice cream component to that would get tricky.

For readers in Pattaya--and I can't imagine there would be that many, although we visit there sometimes, in spite of the predominant "adult" resort theme not matching family vacationing--the Tea Village shop has opened a tasting room.  This expands their shop a little into the cafe arena, to compliment already selling a range of Thai and imported teas.

Seven Suns tea cafe, and visions of the future of tea in Bangkok

Per first impressions Seven Suns is a stylish modern cafe in a small shopping area that looks like a shop in Ekamai should, simple and pleasant.  Being an outdoor cafe it's a bit warm in March, but at least there are never any problems with cold weather in Bangkok.

small cafe store with loose teas selection

The tea menu is novel, lots of variety and blends, not the most standard tea and flowers blends one typically sees, but different takes in different directions, more herbs, drifting into fruit elements.   Being a tea purist--which really could seem a bit boring to an outsider, I suppose--I picked a nice plain black tea and sat down with Han Mei, the owner, to talk about tea.

It turns out he has a background in selling herbs as Chinese medicine, owning a prior business related to that.  Part of his current direction is to make teas people will demand with some basis in function, positive health effects.

That tea I had was nice.  It was a slightly malty, slightly dry black tea, with reasonably clean flavors and good balance.  Someone could get hooked on this as their daily tea, depending on preference, and finding interesting, decent Chinese black teas is not a given in Bangkok.  But there is a range of options out there, which I'll go into more later.  First more on two much more interesting subjects, teas blended for health benefits and how to tailor teas to Bangkok tastes, to get people started.

I wasn't going to do much more with a detailed review but I will mention the original vendor's take on the tea, a China Life product:

the tea; more on the brewing device here
PHOENIX BALL BLACK - Hong Long Zhu:  Incredible hand rolled black tea from Fujian. An aroma filled with cocoa and black cherry similar to a black forest gateau. Rich with autumn forest tones, nuts and stone fruit astringency.

It was like that!  I would add malt, and the effect of the astringency was unusual, a little dry in a pleasant way, but I'd have trouble going further with describing that aspect anyway.  The sweetness and good balance really made it work.

About the tea service, I recently reviewed a cafe where they just didn't seem to know tea.  They presented a teapot with two cups of tea infusing in a large pot with no way to stop brewing while you drink the first cup, and later they made no offer to refill the pot.  In other places they leave you alone to brew gongfu style or walk you through that as need be, which at least is functional, if potentially a little tricky.  It really shouldn't be that hard to put some simple system in place, and they had it sorted out at Seven Suns, in this case using an unusual Western style infusion device, a suitable alternative for the tea type.

Tea related to Chinese medicine

Han, but the picture really doesn't do him justice

We didn't get too far into this subject but since I've been drifting into it lately I'll pass on some of what Han said.  His family business in England was in Chinese medicine, one he'd continued here on his own, so he drew on a lot of prior exposure.  I didn't get the impression that he's trained as a medical herbalist, although he may have more knowledge and exposure than many with formal training that do get around to making extensive claims.

I asked how all that works and the answer was basically what you'd expect.  One would go to see a specialist, similar to a doctor visit, and explain symptoms or other health related factors.  There would be a limited degree of examination, in a slightly unfamiliar form per Western medicine, taking a pulse, looking at your tongue, etc.  For what it's worth Han that said there is a lot to be learned from the appearance of someone's tongue, related to health status, perhaps similar to my masseuse telling me that I had a specific type of back problems once when giving me a foot massage.

Next this specialist would prescribe a custom treatment, related to resolving ailments or supporting organ functions.  He never extended this to discussion to the more exotic concepts of internal "heat" or "wind" but for a skeptic it would all seem headed in that direction, the description of improving liver and kidney functions.  Of course if it all really worked the specialist could describe the treatment in terms of magical spirits or astral planes and it wouldn't matter if these existed or not; regardless of cause and effect it would still be working.

cold-drip brewing apparatus

This shop has little to do with all that; it was more just an interesting tangent, to me.  Han uses this knowledge to create blends designed for certain effects, more closely related to nutritional supplements than medicine, for example, a tea and herb blend designed to offset the impact of stress.  It's a bit more "one size fits all" related to causes and resolution but then I do just sit at a desk a lot of the week, just like lots of people in this city, so I suspect there are health-issue related patterns that repeat.  That's only one direction he's going with tea, and to me the next main one is more interesting, enabling entry to interest in decent tea.

Prior to getting into that, I will mention that Han is experimenting with cold drip brewing, using a really cool looking device really designed for coffee.  There isn't much to say about that yet since he's still experimenting, so I'll rejoin that line of thought later if I try some.  He's also experimenting with tea and alcohol cocktails.  It's a lot, right, traditional plain loose teas, blends, health related blends, new brewing techniques, and alcohol blends / tea cocktails, many of which might sound familiar.  But he's really just getting warmed up; his mission is really to figure out how to ramp up interest in real tea.

Getting Bangkok into tea

This was the subject we talked about most: what will get people in Bangkok into tea.  The traditional tea cafes are coming, it's just taking time.  One cafe a few blocks away does a Zen-oriented theme (Peace Oriental), and I reviewed another new one recently that seemed to draw on the modern early-industrialist-aesthetic artisanal-product theme (Luka cafe).

seating view, Ekamai plaza shops

A few Chinese people here drink Longjing and Tiekuanyin and Dahongpao, closer to the page I'm on.  It has since occurred to me that the most obvious entry "gateway" might be hiding in plain site:  the thousands of "bubble tea" or powdered Thai tea stands crowded next to every major commuter exchange point.  Of course Han is looking for the next step instead, pushing past that and RTD teas.  Seven Suns does sell a relatively conventional brewed Thai iced tea, the orange one, just of course not made from powder.

The most obvious gateway is herb and floral blends; nothing so new about that.  His take is new, making it his own, and tying it back to function, to health benefit.  These are mostly prepared in cold-tea ready-to-drink forms since this is the tropics, through use of novel combinations.  It's hard to describe one tea that really made me think he's onto something new, but then we were talking more about the general approach, and it would've helped to actually try a blend to get the effect.

He's also still working on the expectation for soda-sweet products without sacrificing the health function that comes with a drink not based on lots of sugar.  That's a tough one.  The easy way out seems to be to put a small pour-bottle of simple syrup on the counter, as Japanese people have used for a long time, and let customers ruin their own tea.  Han didn't seem comfortable with that, as if it was faltering at the last step and dropping the vision, so he tries to balance more natural flavors.  In my experience from seeing other tea-bloggers' paths people naturally seem to go this route on their own, moving from blends and sweetening teas to better plain teas prepared well enough to be experienced just as they are.

This might not come across as interesting as it was to me, that they're selling iced tea blends, something Snapple started decades ago.  The interesting part was combining these different ideas in this way.  Snapple was tea stripped of what tea is supposed to be on lots of levels, if good for anything only as a starting point.  More recently people in Bangkok have only traded the bottles for artificially flavored powders that someone else stirs into water for them.

Although I've not really done justice to Seven Suns product range in this I'll move on to a bit about the tea landscape in Bangkok, sort of an overlapping subject.

Bangkok tea cafes  (what I've reviewed of them, with names as blog post links here)

Seven Suns (this place):  a great resource for traditional, plain teas and blends, and a cafe stop for hot and iced teas.  In Ekamai, an older trendy Bangkok area.  Great value for a broad range of products (in the Starbucks price range), including take-home loose teas and blends.

Double Dogs:  the old-style Chinese tea cafe in Chinatown, off Yaowarat, the main road, comfortable if a bit plain and dark.  The traditional Chinese teas are nice, just a bit costly (a pot of tea around 300 baht / $10), unless you compare them to even more costly newer cafe alternatives.  The value isn't great for loose teas given that it's in Chinatown but better teas aren't as easy to turn up as you might expect, even there.

Peace Oriental:  also in Ekamai, going for the Zen-cafe higher-end specialty tea market.   This is a modern, quiet, pleasant place to drop $20 / 600 baht on a pot of tea, unless that pricing sounds absurd.  But that's really just how the economics work out for that business model and product range since that quality level of tea is not easy to find, and the theme isn't based on volume sales.  Dry loose tea pricing (take-away) is still eye-watering but more feasible.

Peony tea shop:  basic teas, blends, a mall-cafe chain, moderately priced.  For a tea purist further along the curve there might not be much here of interest but for someone starting on floral blends or basic loose teas it's fine.  At least they're not going to try and sell you a tea bag, or at least I think they wouldn't.

Luka cafe:  a newer entry, that trendy modern-artisanal early-industrial-vibe place I mentioned.  The teas seemed nice, definitely better than ordinary types, worth checking out, but as a coffee shop with more focus on food there's really no emphasis on tea, they just happen to be selling good versions.

Rocket cafe:  a trendy coffee shop that crosses over into loose tea, with more focus on food.  So this is exactly what Luka is, just the 1.0 version, where that concept stood a couple years ago, with more ordinary grade teas, and less interesting decor and food.  Since Luka was a bit too trendy and cool for me, really, I'd feel more comfortable grabbing a lunch here anyway.

Tealicious cafe:  mostly tea bags, some real loose tea; a Sathorn tourist area cafe.  This is the problem with limited tea awareness; a cafe could sell tea as tea bags with the owners and customers thinking that's ok.  It's really not ok.  It's just as well to drink an instant coffee instead, or better still to drink a cup of hot water, tastier.

Bridge Cafe and Art Space:  one of thousands of places selling ordinary teas in Bangkok, but at least they had a reasonable version of the traditional Thai iced tea, brewed to order using an espresso machine, not the only place I've seen that.  This is really where tea stands here in general.

Twinnings:  the one cafe I've not been to--so no link--but too obvious not to mention.  Who hasn't had Twinnings teas; some are ok, some not that ok, just don't buy the tea-bag versions, and pass on the English Breakfast Blend, but maybe others I've not tried are really good.  The cafes are geared towards people having a nice tea in an impressive mall cafe with lots of wood and ceramic and polished metal decor.  Bangkok hi-so's are just as likely to appreciate high prices as a sure sign that they are in the right place.

Mind you these are only cafes.  Two shops come to mind as stand-outs, my favorite in Chinatown is the Jip Eu shop, and the mall-based Tea De Zhang shop is the main one that "tea people" in Bangkok frequent.  There are other places to get tea here in town but nothing I've turned up on the same level, except online, which I won't go into.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review of an unsmoked Lapsang Souchong from Cindy Chen

This tea (from Cindy Chen, my favorite tea farmer) reminds me a lot of a Jin Jun Mei.  That type really is a subset of Lapsang Souchong, a variation of it, but one made from only the buds, hence the name (golden eyebrow).  This Lapsang version uses leaves but only smaller leaves, those tightly twisted.  It's an unsmoked tea, going against the original and more common convention that such a tea is typically pine-smoked, something just discussed in a Facebook tea group.  So an unsmoked version is perhaps not so unusual, but maybe not what everyone would expect.

Review, or really background related to Jin Jun Mei

If I were to describe Jin Jun Mei I might be describing this tea.  I might as well start with that and then mention the differences afterwards.   The unusual characteristic flavor (or set of flavors, might be better) relates to a sort of dryness, to me, but then that's a feel, not a taste, right?  It's hard to describe.   It's malty, but then different teas have different types of "malt" related tastes.  It also tastes a little like balsa wood smells, that stuff model planes might be made out of.  That's vaguely related to fresh cardboard or cork but that doesn't sound as nice as it is.

It's really more complex than it comes across at first, so although it seems like there is one distinctive taste it's really a distinctive flavor profile, a complex combination of a number of tastes, that malty taste, a little towards cocoa, extended to an earthiness, with mineral undertones, all packed together into a tightly related range.  Given how the flavors combine I'd expect people to express that set differently, maybe even to associate one part with fruit.  I kind of don't, but maybe there is a hint of apricot in the mix.

It's the kind of taste--or set of tastes, profile, whatever--that one might not love at first but once you've had it a few times might really crave it.  I guess Keemun could be a little like that, perhaps just slightly less so, to me.  I've had the opposite experience before, a taste or set of tastes in a tea that seemed nice that later I sort of got over.  Hojicha was like that for me, but I have a sample at home, so I can check on that, if I'm truly over it or if I just felt like a long break after a couple.

Even though this is all still just a long tangent let's reference a review from one of the more taste-sensitive bloggers that I end up referring to, in a review of a Jin Jun Mei, by Amanda in the My Thoughts Are Like Butterflies blog: starts soft in both texture and taste, with notes of malt and molasses and I swear a touch of maple syrup. Towards the end it picks up notes of sweet potatoes and dates with a touch of roasted peanuts.

She mentioned a scent of wood in the range of pine in the aroma, but really you already get the gist, it's complex, not just that one tea but the type in general.  Maybe it's just me but in this type of tea more than others somehow that complex range of flavors seems to come across as unified, as one continuous range.  She mentioned a quality she described as "resinous," which I think might relate to that one aspect I'm not having much luck with pinning down, sort of tied to a taste range but really also about an unusual feel, not necessarily good or bad but just different, distinctive.

The actual review

dry leaves.  I should almost add a coin for scale; these are some fine leaves.

The extra maltiness is where this tea starts to seem more like a lapsang souchong, or at least a lot like one other higher grade example I've tried.  That element may not show through in a smoked version nearly as well, since it could just merge into the background behind a more prominent smoke effect.  The rest of the profile is nice, a nice sweetness and balance, some subdued earthiness beyond that, a clean feel and presentation of the flavors.  Again for this tea I could imagine lots of people describing this in lots of different ways.

looks like a black tea

The type stands apart a bit from other black teas, but then it's easy to say that of the other types too.  Of course it still tastes a little like a black tea, in the same way good and bad red wine all sort of taste like red wine.  There isn't much astringency to worry about, although lower quality versions can vary related to that.  The tea flavor is in the earthy and sweet range but one part of it can come across as hinting towards sourness, in a great sense if someone loves such teas, and I do like them.

Some black teas that are sweet in the sweet potato range can be a bit much for me, and can seem to lack balance, or to have too much of a certain type of aftertaste, but the bit of dryness and slight shift towards a savory / sour range in this tea works out well (per my preference; I don't see this sort of thing as an absolute, or even less so than some other factors).  Since pine smoke also can be sour for me smoked versions are great or terrible largely related to level of smoke and how far the tastes drift in that direction, since it can join together in a wonderful balance or not really work at all.  I had one once that I liked that was so smokey it was as if I was breathing smoke for a half an hour afterwards, like the smell of smoke had stuck to my clothes, but somehow that tea still worked.

Since it's a black tea it's not as particular about brewing but it is important to get the flavor strength or intensity right to strike the right balance.  Brewed very lightly it still works well, and that's how someone might prefer it, quite wispy, but if it's even a little too strong the overall effect isn't the same.  As an example for comparison, to me for light oolongs it doesn't matter related to that concern so much, infusion strength, and for those it's more about reaching an optimum than about a risk of botching the tea, since it works ok stronger or lighter.  Which reminds me, I finally did drink a green tea using a variation of "grandpa style" recently, but it seems I've done a lot with tangents in this post to go into that.

Compared to the other nice version of a Lapsang Souchong that I've tried last year (and bought a lot of, actually) the difference is that dryness and taste element of Jin Jun Mei, that extra complexity that extends into the range of a feel.  That tea was sweet and malty with a little nice earth background but not as distinctive.  My favorite Bangkok Chinatown vendor shared some of their own tea, JJM I mean, and it was close to this in terms of some aspects (relatively--it is a different type), but I didn't get around to writing it up in this blog.

Post script, some other ideas

I didn't mention it before, but in a post mentioning Cindy Chen's family doing well in a Wuyishan tea competition (if you consider taking first place for Rou Gui and second for Shui Xian doing well) I didn't say that they also placed--just lower--for black teas.  Since someone in that Facebook discussion mentioned Cindy's Jin Jun Mei is nothing like this tea I also wanted to try it (I bought both recently, and a Rou Gui they make) and then say a little about it.

To sum up how that went:  forget what I said about these two teas being similar.  That one taste aspect is common but the Jin Jun Mei is a completely different thing, that much further from a conventional black tea in flavor profile (if there is such a thing), with just loads of malt and a decent amount of cocoa and a really unique character.  But maybe it will work better to do more with comparison when I review that tea in a different post later.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Tea Village Bai Hao (Thai Oriental Beauty), and about aging tea

The owner at Tea Village sent a sample of another year of their Bai Hao Oriental Beauty, the 2013 version instead of the more recent one they sell now, along with an order I placed for the current version.  Both are a bit unconventional for having been grown and produced in Thailand, based on tea cultivars from Taiwan.  I bought two packages of that tea for gifts, and their white peony / Bai Mu Dan, a quite decent version of that style of tea (a tea from China; more conventional in that regard).  At least that's the plan, that I won't even try those, both of which I have bought there before, but it might be hard to actually let those go.

To back up a bit, Tea Village is a physical store in Pattaya that also does mail order.  Their teas are especially nice because they know what they're selling and price the moderate quality teas fairly (the ordinary grade Thai teas), or on the lower side.  If a tea seems to be in the more normal, medium retail price range then it's because it's a nice tea, like the two I've mentioned just buying.

the normal look; darker leaves and silver buds

later infusion, stronger to retain the profile

Straight to a description then.  The tea is nice, distinctive, clearly within the normal range for Oriental Beauty. The interesting part is how fruity aspects come across relating to this tea being as oxidized as it is, definitely not a black tea but towards that range.  It mutes the fruit just a little by bringing in a good bit of malt tone to join it, all of which matches the slight dryness of the tea type.  Of course there is no astringency relating to bitterness, nothing like black teas can be, really just enough to give the tea an interesting feel.

So expressed as a list of flavors: fruit is in the grape and orange citrus range, drifting towards peach, but expressed almost as a background, mixed in with other elements, and a nice sweetness, a bit like honey.  Sometimes when Oriental Beauty style teas can shift towards really bright, sweet, and complex fruits, maybe even expressed more like berries, but not so much in this case.  Malt is joined by cinnamon and cocoa, again not in the malt range common to some black teas, an earthy and edgy expression, but sweeter and lighter, more like malted milk.

All those flavors extend to a nice lingering finish.  The feel is nice, rich, and a little dry.  Those aspects together make for a balanced, complex, interesting tea, but then really that's how reasonable Oriental Beauty teas made in this style go in general.  Some novel tea types would take more exposure to like, or more skill to brew properly, but this type of tea works well brewed in different ways, and would be easy for anyone to appreciate.

dark brewed leaves, as expected

How would three years of age have affected this tea?  I'm not so sure, but I'll get back to that idea.   In addition to aging considerations I always wonder how much my palate varies over time, over a longer range or even day to day.  I had been off reviewing tea for two weeks due to having a cold; hard to factor that in.

This earlier post reviewed a more recent version of the same tea, along with a good bit of research about what Oriental Beauty is all about, the part about insects biting the leaves.  It's hard to spell out differences from a tea I reviewed and described a year ago but the versions from different years seemed roughly the same, maybe just not exactly.

This review of another Thai version of this type of tea from the Tea Side vendor from last year sounds almost identical too.  Athough the pictures don't look exactly the same they really could be the same tea (or maybe three years production of the same tea, judging from website descriptions, so very closely related).  That tea was sold as a Dong Fang Mei Ren, per my understanding just an equivalent alternative name.  That blog post and the one after that one reviewing another type go into how these different names overlap, but it's hard to get to the bottom of such things, alternate naming convention use.  A short version is that Dong Fang Mei Ren / Bai Hao (seemingly completely equivalent names) is a preparation of twisted leaves, and a Gui Fei version--not the same thing, but still "Oriental Beauty"--is prepared as rolled balls, more like a conventional Tie Kuan Yin.

To save readers from going back through all that it's as well to just mention what another vendor summarizes about "Bai Hao" instead (the Fragrant Leaf vendor):

The name Bai Hao means white tip and refers to the small tender white buds that are picked along with the top two leaves. Bai Hao originates from Xinzhu County, Taiwan. This area in northern Taiwan is especially humid and foggy and the natural environmental conditions help to create the special characteristics of Bai Hao. Unlike most high-quality Taiwanese oolong teas, which are picked in the spring or winter, the best grades of Bai Hao are harvested in June and July. Once harvested, the leaves of Bai Hao are processed to a greater degree of oxidation (around 50-60%) than other Taiwanese oolong teas. The result is a tea with a very smooth and sweet flavor, virtually no astringency, and a unique aroma of ripe peaches and honey.

All of that works really well as a description of these teas, except the part about the tea being tied to a region in Taiwan, since this version is from Thailand.  One of the reasons they produce Taiwanese oolongs here is that the growing conditions are somewhat similar.  Another is that the tea plants can make nice teas, of course.  Per my understanding the tea being bitten by insects and specific processing steps define this tea, along with other obvious factors like location and plant type, with how it is processed factoring high on the list of inputs.

The part mentioned about harvest time brings up an interesting consideration about tropical areas having a direct equivalent to spring, or any temperate climate seasons.  Surely plants can take some cue from lighting changes, but this close to the equator there isn't much shift in length of days, and instead of four seasons there are three (hot, cool, and rainy, but it's sort of always hot).

The cool season is usually only remotely cool during one week sometime at the end of December, although we did have an unseasonably cool room-temperature spell last month.  The hot season covers most of the Northern Hemisphere Spring into summer, and the rainy season is next through the fall, so basically the growers use the elevation in the mountains (hills, really) in the North to get the tea plants enough cool weather for the break they'd like to have.

Aging tea, especially oolongs

This isn't so much of an issue related to this tea being three years old, but it does seem as good a time as any to drift off to discussing that.  I asked the Tea Village owner about his impression of how the tea had changed, or how changes go in general, and what he said was interesting:

It's my opinion that the taste fades a little with age.  It's not the same as before.  I think it's like a fresh apple and a dried one; both can be eaten, but I prefer the fresh one.

A nice analogy.  This matches my impression, that aging changes a tea, over a relatively shorter time-span like three with flavors just fading a bit, but of course the longer term is the more interesting part.  I've tried older oolongs, beyond 10 years and such, but I've not really liked the resulting taste profile in the examples I've tried.  But for as limited as that exposure was it could say more about those examples than my own preferences.

40 year old Longjing, aged green tea

Of course this subject requires so much context and qualification that it's no wonder that it's often left undiscussed, even in reviews of aged teas.  Pu'er (heicha) is a different thing entirely.  A lot of the point is that those are supposed to age, undergoing a fermentation step unique to the type (mostly related to sheng though, per my understanding, but people do age shou).  I won't go into all that here, but will pass on a really interesting article on it which does, written by Jeff Fuchs:  If you love that reference also read this one about his visit awhile back to a wholesale tea market in Kunming.

Of course it makes sense to age oolongs too, or at least there's plenty of reference to that practice in Taiwan.  As one more aside before I drift back to the point, I visited a Bangkok Chinatown tea shop once (the Jip Eu shop) and they'd just finished tasting a 40 year old Longjing green tea, not something they sell, just what they'd been drinking.  Madness!  If I get back to hearing more about how that works out I'll pass it on, but on that day I got swept up in talking about other teas instead.

Since I don't have the background or tasting experience to do aged oolongs justice I asked someone else about it that's tasted more than his own share of tea, and ran across plenty of ideas, Geoffrey Norman, author of the Steep Stories tea blog.  His blog is written in a beautiful, flowing style (nothing like this rambling on), in addition to including cool ideas woven into narrative frameworks.  Since it's a shame to edit down what he said I won't:

Aged oolongs are a funny thing. Unlike heicha, they were never specifically designed to age. Rather, merchants in Taiwan found that they could resell their surplus of new teas (after a re-roast) a few years down the line.

There's an old Fuding, Fujian saying, "One year tea, three years medicine, seven years treasure." The term is used mainly for aged white teas that have passed a certain point. 

The Oriental Beauty you have is within the "medicine" stage. So, it's not considered ready, yet. It would need another light baking (I assume) at around year four or five. 

So, in short, in answer to the question: No, it's not aged . . . yet. It'd have to be passed the seven-year mark. Most teas that have had some amount of oxidation can (and do) age well if great care has been placed in their storage.

Interesting, especially about that timing, and this originally relating to white teas.

A couple of those points remind me of very different but related ideas about aging my favorite category of teas, Wuyi Yancha, darker roasted oolongs.  The issue of re-roasting is no simple matter but it definitely comes up.

The short version on aging those teas is that the most heavily roasted versions benefit a lot from sort of resting for a year or two for the "char" effect to subside, but that's only the beginning of the story.  The taste is supposed to continue to change over time, and although I've tried teas at a variety of ages--maybe very few beyond seven years old, but now that I think of it I think I have one sample of an older one stashed away--I still don't completely get how the transition is supposed to go over different ages.  I've seen some references about people quite old teas but I'm not clear on how changes are supposed to go.

So none of this really did get specific about changes.  The typical take is that in general oolongs sort of "taste of the age;" some aspects fade but in a way that's apparently not so easy to describe they take on a depth.  So this is yet another subject I'll get back to at some point.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Tea in Kazakhstan

originally published on the TChing tea blog site:

An online contact mentioned plans to visit Kazakhstan--not about tea--and it sounded interesting to do research related to an unknown country, removed from even the vague hearsay one might catch about a country like Turkey.  Some hearsay about tea in Turkey:  they drink typical black tea there, not so different than Assam or Ceylon, brewed strong, taken with sugar but no milk.  But that's only what I've been told by a couple of people there.

I've researched local tea culture in preparation for trips to Korea, Japan, and Indonesia in the last year--with mixed results--and the review process itself was interesting.  In addition to tea background I ran across some interesting tangents in those searches, like finding a traditional medicine / herb market in Seoul, where I did find green tea, just not the quality level I was hoping to find.

Central Asia Ethnic groups,

Background / what to see in Kazakhstan:

Trip Advisor contributes a good initial summary:

The world’s ninth-biggest country is the most economically advanced of the ‘stans’, thanks to its abundant reserves of oil and most other valuable minerals. This means generally better standards of accommodation, restaurants and transport than elsewhere in Central Asia. The biggest city, Almaty, is almost reminiscent of Europe with its leafy avenues, chic cafes, glossy shopping centres and hedonistic nightlife. The capital Astana, on the windswept northern steppe, has been transformed into a 21st-century showpiece with a profusion of bold futuristic architecture.

Moving their capital city from Almaty to Astana essentially related to building a new city from the ground up.  This planned-city capital theme comes up in Australia and Malaysia, related to Canberra and Putrajaya, or for that matter also in Washington DC.  The same happened here in Thailand, just awhile back, with modern planning results thrown off by replacing a canal system with roads.

Wikipedia covers the general level of background detail well, explaining that 63% of the 17+ million people are ethnically Kazakh, 70 % are Muslim, and so on.  Due to Soviet influence--from being a part of USSR--use of their original language has been joined by Russian.  Of course not that many people are still living in yurts (nomadic culture tents), with current housing options separated by price and style, from Soviet era apartments on the low end to condos and houses beyond that.

No dedicated tea shops turn up as Trip Advisor reviews, so apparently the tea cafe scene isn't much yet.

Astana, the planned city work-in-progress capital (attribution, Wikipedia)

Russian / Soviet tea history:

Prior to Soviet inclusion (as part of USSR) related to a nomadic culture, the tea history was probably not unlike Mongolia, especially since they were conquered by Mongolia at one point.  Russian tea history initially related to close ties with China, not just during that brief communist common-ground phase but well prior, but the Eastern-bloc fall-out Soviet countries and cultures switched completely over to black teas from other places, essentially where they stand today.  Here is more on Russian tea history cited from an interesting Tea Tips site related reference:

In 1567, Cossack atamans (chieftains), Petrov and Yalyshev, visited China, where they tried a local drink — tea. In 1638, an ambassador, Vasily Starkov, brought a present to the Russian Tsar from one of the Mongol khans — 64 kg of tea.

So far so good.  Those may be the same teas we order from China today, some maybe not, seems likely less black teas in that time period, but to jump ahead:

In 1970, for the first time in several centuries, the supplies of tea from China were cut off — due to political discrepancy between the two countries. Soviet tea industry could not meet the demand in full — the USSR began to import tea from India and Sri-Lanka. Our citizens appreciated Indian and Ceylon teas, and they forgot Chinese teas very quickly — nowadays, the share of Chinese teas in the Russian tea market is hardly higher than 5%.

a very nice yurt (attribution:

Kazakhstan traditional  butter tea

Here is one rather vague reference to Kazakh specific tea history:

Regional drinks: Kazakh tea or chai is very popular and there are national cafes called Chai-Khana (tea-rooms) where visitors may sip this Kazakh speciality. It is drunk very strong with cream. 

Of course since chai just means tea in some languages--"cha" instead in Thai--this doesn't clarify if anything was mixed with it, as with masala chai, the tea and ginger and various spices blend from India.

One site passes on a recipe for traditional Kazakh tea that includes black tea, salt, and butter, with optional inclusion of pepper or sour cream (!?).  A Wikipedia article for a related Mongolian tea describes that as made with either black or green tea, butter, and salt.  The tea type naming included "Suutei tsai (Mongolian: сүүтэй цай, Turkish: sütlü çay) (literally "tea with milk")," and the cross-referenced naming for Mongolian tea (tsai in Mongolian; shay in Kazakh).

So adding butter and salt to tea covers the general idea.  That also included an unusual reference to tea grade and storage:

The tea that the Mongolians use for suutei tsai commonly comes from a block. The block consists of a lower quality of tea that is made up of stems or inferior tea leaves and is compressed into a block that can be easily stored.

Tea production:

The standard Google-results take is that they don't produce tea in Kazakhstan.  Someone on an expat-themed forum mentioned that her grandmother grew tea in the South of the country, so given that is correct it is possible.  It's far too cold in most of the country for tea plants to thrive but of course tea production is tied to micro-climate conditions, not general averages, so South Korea can grow tea even though the national average winter temperatures would kill tea plants.

If online review doesn't work how would we really know if they do produce tea there, or not, or in what very limited quantity?  Not easy to say.  One could take a look at annual tea industry production summary records (like this report) and the lack of any mention would confirm production is negligible at most, but that's a bit unsatisfying.  The right person living there would know, just not so easy to reach them.

I'm reminded of an online tea-group discussion about Mexican tea production, related to a discussion comment that no tea is grown there.  I checked on that by asking a tea shop in Mexico City, listed in Facebook, and as far as they knew absolutely none is grown there.  One of my Facebook contacts grows a few tea plants in Mexico, so the total isn't zero plants, but probably on the low side.

Modern tea consumption:

Too easy a question for Google, here is one good reference that's close enough to complete and accurate for this review:

Kazakhstan is steadily increasing its import of tea, which reached 32,000 tons worth $147 million in 2013 alone...  On average, tea import is worth $100 million in Kazakhstan annually and it is growing...

Kazakhstan imports tea from more than 28 countries. India, Sri-Lanka, Russia, China, UAE and Keny are among the biggest suppliers. Other countries that supply the Kazakh market are the Netherlands, Czech Republic, France, Austria, Korea, Ukraine, Italy, Morocco, Armenia, Pakistan, Iran, Germany, Indonesia, Poland and Georgia. 

The Kazakhstanis prefer various kinds of black tea to green tea. Almost 90% of the tea imported to Kazakhstan is black tea packaged in tea bags and placed in boxes weighing up to 3 kilograms. 

Tea bags!  It all sounded so reasonable up until that last part.  It could be that they mean sold to end consumers as tea bags, since it seems odd that high a percentage could arrive in packaged form, but either way they really need to check out some loose leaf tea, and branch out related to types.

It's hard to place how much tea they drink in relative terms from those totals, right?  Per one online reference their consumption is # 10 in the world, reported in 2014.  Per another online reference they're not even included, again reported in early 2014.  Given that the rough numbers seem to say they drink about 3.5 pounds of tea per person annually, and Russia is on that second reference list for 3.05 pounds per person, so the results seem to have been combined.  The rest of those findings are interesting for being so inconsistent, but as a baseline England is somewhere in the top five consuming 4 to 6 pounds of tea per person annually (more research would pin down better numbers).

about the same size as Eastern Europe

What about local trends, the latest changes, for example did they ever take up matcha, or bubble tea?  It's back to the idea of going past a Google search, actually asking people there.

Social networking research:

Tea groups on Facebook:  It really doesn't help that English isn't one of the primary languages, so there is a limit to how well it could possibly work out.  I found groups related to Kazakhstan, like this one, but nothing tea related, and discussion of tea didn't get far (even worse than the Tea Chat forum).  There is a tea shop page on Facebook, Tea Masters of Kazakhstan, and a link to their website, but non-Russian-speakers would need a translate function to read it.  That vendor does sell Chinese teas, and teaware and tea-pets, etc., so some of that common take goes on there.

Expat groups / "Interpals" site:  since I'm an expat these types of channels are familiar, so I tried searching through a few such sites (,, and also  The advantage to these is that English use is more likely; the disadvantage is that such sub-forums tend to be quiet places.

I talked to some very kind people that really didn't have much to say about tea, except that they drank a good bit of it, generally not loose tea though.  One expat from Nepal mentioned that tea from that country is available there, although I'd expect one might need to mail-order to access better versions of it.  Another contact mentioned a native tradition of offering tea to all guests, with a convention that one keeps refilling cups to half full.  One person offered some interesting input that I'll quote:

...some (not many though) drink black tea with milk and onion(!) . The black tea with milk and salt is called "atkanchai" which is in Uigur language. Never heard of a Kazakh term for the tea; I guess it originated with Uigurs (one of many nationalities living in KZ). 

My general impression was that the most traditional lifestyles and practices, the yurts and such, are consigned to a distant past, along with even basic awareness of butter teas.  Related to their history, it probably doesn't help that I'm limited to talking with people that are using English and social media, the opposite of groups likely to be most in touch with that earlier culture.  It seems that better quality loose teas never did find an audience there, now or in the past, so that almost all tea consumed is ordinary mass produced black tea.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Luka Cafe in Sathorn, BKK, with a Ceylon Peony-style tea review

Trendy cafes aren't really my thing but they are quite common in Bangkok. This one, the Luka cafe, is near where I work, in Sathorn, which according to a local review of this cafe is becoming a more trendy area (perhaps a good thing).  Sathorn is a business district, mostly office buildings, with some embassies and businesses scattered in, so hard to say how trendy it could really get, but there have been nice restaurants around for awhile.  I guess cafes like this could be part of that transition, or in a different part of Sathorn I wrote about an art gallery, with at least one other gallery near that one--trendy enough.

coffee / tea bar area

The look is modern; large open spaces, exposed brick and concrete, with natural woods, rustic shelving holding traditional looking things, lots of windows for natural light, supplemented by indirect, natural-toned lighting, with a touch of neon for contrast.  It was so trendy that I had to fight an urge to walk right back out.  But for some this environment would feel like home, for Bangkok's "hi-so's."  It might as well be in Ekamai or Thong-lor.

I was torn between choosing a conventional black Ceylon that sounded nice and a white peony / bai mu dan style tea from Sri Lanka (still Ceylon, obviously, just the country name reference instead of the former colony name that stuck to teas from there), and finally I went with the white.

The tea arrived in a small infuser pitcher; functional enough.  Brewing that tea with boiling point water, as it came, wouldn't match most recommendations for the type but the tea should still be fine.  I tried it after about two minutes and it didn't taste like much yet but standard brewing technique--the Western style version--would entail a long soak, 4 to 5 minutes, although I expect most tea enthusiasts would stop on the shorter side.

Brewing by inner timer is fine for me, and of course I did have a phone on me,if I really wanted to go there, but I'm not usually concerned about optimizing teas.  This one might not turn out that well if the temperature, time, and proportion of tea to water are all a bit off though.

The review part

The tea is subtle.  It seemed brewed adequately,  between 4 and 5 minutes in, but it just didn't taste like much.  I don't usually use anything like infuser-structured gear and it seemed the limited contact of tea with water restricted the brewing process a little.  White teas can be subtle but this was really a bit too subtle, but nice all the same.  The effect was like a very mild black tea, at least the flavor profile that did come across was, earthy, with a little mineral, even a hint of copper, which sort of worked.

The design of the infuser didn't really let it keep steeping, at least not much, but it was slightly stronger for the second cup, the second half of the liquid initially poured into the device, left to sit with minimal contact with the tea.  This I liked more.  Somehow the white tea I'd had with breakfast seemed better, a much more forward and fruity white tea from Nepal, but I could see this tea growing on me if I had time to mess with it, dial in making it properly.

The feel of the tea had picked up, in addition to gaining some flavor profile, with the light astringency coming across as dryness, not completely unlike that white tea from Nepal but coupled with a completely different flavor profile.  It was a real shame to not brew it again and see what it had left, but I'd expect more of the same, another nearly identical infusion.  At least it didn't seem likely to transition anyway, or that it would've been close to spent.

In general peony / bai mu dan style teas tend to come across this way to me, a bit subtle at first, almost too wispy, but once you get used to the flavors not hitting you over the head the complexity and balance and mix of fruit and earthy tones is really appealing.  This version was inclined more towards earthy tones, with a bit of mineral, opposed to the more fruit-oriented Chinese versions of the general type that I've tried, perfect for a Sri Lankan tea.

a nice snack-sized lunch

The croissant sandwich I had with it was basic but pretty much perfect.  It was even better than I would prepare myself--just a bit odd to even be thinking that--since finding good versions of croissant, cheese, and bacon isn't a given here, although possible.  It also takes a degree of attention to get those basic ingredients to come out perfectly; cook the bacon or egg just a little too much or too little and it's still ok but it really loses something, falling short of the optimum.

So it goes with trendy cafes,  it seems.  Along with the pleasant light-jazz influenced contemporary music background, and good indirect lighting, it's all very comfortable, especially if one is into such environments.  By the end of the stay I was into it.

copper cups; cool enough

I looked around those rustic shelves a little, at the interesting items, and upstairs, and it seemed a lot like a trendy furniture showroom.  I don't mean that the decor was so consistently themed that it could be a showroom; it really didn't seem intended for actual seating.  It looked instead as if they were selling the furniture and the rest, and the space was just to show them, but I'm not sure about all that.

like a large studio apartment den

Research section

Some looking around related to what the tea was made for interesting reading.  A few different, apparently completely separate tea outlets were using the name "Atelier."  Google informs us that the word means "a workshop or studio, especially one used by an artist or designer," which does go with the aesthetic.  Let's go back to that BK Magazine description, since I wouldn't be able to go beyond describing what the place actually looks like:

Just like the other Casa Pagoda shops, this location's decor is meant to look like the edgy Provence villa of a couple of urban weekenders: a mix of 1900s bistro paraphernalia, distressed tufted leather couches, and vintage-looking seats upholstered in salvaged fabrics. It all basks in plenty of light, befitting Luka's menu. 

Bellocq Tea Atelier, Brooklyn, NY shop

That is just what I was going to say!  Apparently the food design has a nice background history as well, but I'll stick to the tea here.  Before I go into it's origins, I'll mention another, apparently completely unrelated "Atelier" tea reference is found in a Tea For Me Please review of Bellocq Tea Atelier in New York (in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NYC, to be more precise).

One could make comparisons to that Bangkok cafe and draw some conclusions but I won't.  There seems to be no direct connection, aside from the designation "Atelier," although I can't really exclude the potential for some relation.

that tea, Ebony Springs / Tea Atelier Ceylon Peony

The tea is from this vendor instead, or at least that's an online channel to buy it (an "Onner App" version of a store), not really a source reference.  There seems to be no vendor website but this is their instagram page, which seems to be advertising for a shop called The Selected, in Siam Center.  They mention sourcing the tea originally from a craft-theme vendor, Ebony Springs, who also doesn't sell teas online, but they do show a picture of this tea in that link.

That original source sounds interesting, a retreat / home-stay themed destination in Sri Lanka, where the natural setting and tea making are both part of the draw, like a trendy, craft-tea-production oriented version of eco-tourism.

So there really are no online descriptions of the tea, beyond describing a "unique aroma that gives a comfort feeling" in a picture caption, a bit of a throw-away.  It might be convenient to walk into one of those places to buy it, and hear a bit more there, unless someone isn't in Bangkok.  If not there was that online outlet, no old-style shopping-cart format site, mind you, a trendy app-based version.