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:  tea-and-mountain-journals.com/pu-erh-tea-basics.  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.


  1. Informative post man and on subject of what we discussed a few days ago. Interesting comment from the Steep Stories guy in regards to any tea having the potential to age with proper storage. I guess it would be a matter of what is optimal storage for which tea. Like was mentioned Pu Erh goes through a process where aging is encouraged much like a Belgian Farmhouse would do with their Beers. It can be drunk fresh, but doesn't have to be. Oolongs seem to go through a much less complicated or intensive process to ferment which would make its storage different.

  2. It's also interesting that comment he made and the convention was supposed to relate to white teas, in the original source. I've heard of aging white teas before but I'm not at all familiar with what changes are supposed to be like, or how the idea of "medicine" comes into play, what effectiveness might be claimed. It's always nice when reviews point towards so much more to experience and learn like that. I forgot about an opened Silver Needle version once at home for over a year and the changes were far from promising, but Bangkok weather might be too extreme for proper white tea aging, or the packaging may not have been appropriate, even though it seemed conventional enough, multi-layer self-sealing and such.