Thursday, April 28, 2016

Gyokuro from the Trident Booksellers and Cafe Boulder, Colorado

I recently reviewed a very nice Japanese green tea an online friend sent, from Peter of the Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boulder, Colorado.  I talk to lots of people from different places online about tea, mostly in one Facebook tea group, and in this case that led to him sending some teas to try out (very nice!).  It's an unusual case because they don't sell tea online, but then different background for sharing tea isn't unheard of.  I lived two places in Colorado for a long time, in the Vail Valley and Fort Collins, not really related, just saying.

A bit of back-story about Japanese green teas:  I usually don't drink them.  That's odd because they were one type that served as a gateway for me to get into loose tea, initially from drinking tea in Japanese restaurants.  And we picked some up tea in Japan a long time ago, and a little there again last year; kind of a shame I'm not more on that page.

There's not really much to explain about that preference.  People seem to get into tea based on trying what they cross paths with, and then later other exposure can help steer them in different directions.  I drifted towards Chinese teas, more to oolongs and black teas, although I drink a lot of different types regularly, and go through cycles related to teas from different countries.

Type reference:

Although I won't get far in identifying the tea trueness-to-type I can give an opinion of the experience, but first I'll start with a little background on the type.  This is from the "My Japanese Green Tea" blog by Ricardo Caicedo, a site that's really worth a look for reference about Japanese teas, really not limited to green teas:

Gyokuro (玉露, literally gyokuro translates as jade dew) is considered to be one of the highest grades of green tea in Japan....  Gyokuro has a dark green color, and when brewed it is slightly sweet, with a refreshing aroma.

How is gyokuro made?

The process to make gyokuro is very similar to sencha, the only difference lies in the cultivation method. At least 20 days prior to harvesting, the tea leaves are shielded from sunlight. Because of the added difficulty in shading, the production cost is higher.

What difference does shading the tea make?

The characteristic taste of green tea is due in large part to an amino acid called L-theanine. This compound intensifies the umami taste in tea and also adds sweetness to it.

The rest is really worth a look, with lots on brewing process recommendations, and more on those compounds in the tea.  The short version for the recommendation is to brew it using very cool water, relatively, but it's as well to read the long version.  I didn't actually read this prior to making the tea but I was already familiar with that being standard related to this type, since standard brewing parameters keeps coming up.

As for description of this particular tea, Peter passed on that it's from Asahina, Shizuoka, Japan, and it's made from the Yabukita varietal, which is the primary varietal used for Gyokuro.


My first impression:  the tea tastes like seaweed.  That's Japanese green tea for you.  Some might read that as an insult but tasting like seaweed isn't necessarily a bad thing.  There really is a range of what seaweed tastes like though, since it's not just one plant type (but then most people know that, right?).

I don't particularly love seaweed but I have come to appreciate it in limited forms, in sushi, of course, or with miso soup or ramen, or separate as a roasted snack, common in Korea but kind of an Asian thing in general.  In Hawaii they mix it with raw tuna as poke (a different kind than sushi is wrapped with), which probably would have been going too far for me, but since I was a vegetarian when I lived there it never came up.  Anyway, seaweed can be nice, it's just a matter of getting used to that flavor range, and the general idea.  I tried a very nice roasted river weed from Laos before as well, which was relatively similar, but there is no related point I'm headed towards, just passing that on.

I think the tea is probably very good, even though it's a type I'm not so accustomed to.  Past tasting like seaweed the flavors are nice, fresh and clean, with a nice roasted sesame effect coming across "under" the vegetal elements.  The sweetness is nice, and the complexity, and although it's not the same a I'm used to from oolong the feel of the tea is nice.  Once I "got back into" that range a little more I liked it.  The vegetal aspects really stand out but it seemed like a complex mineral undertone really made the balance of the tea work.  The seaweed effect seemed to level off a lot over infusions, but I'm not so sure that wasn't just me adjusting.

I did really used to like Japanese green teas, although I surely wasn't drinking versions as nice.  I've probably prepared Japanese loose green tea a couple of hundred times, although I take tea a lot more seriously than I did years ago when I first started.

Long tangent about tasting process

I just did a post about tasting, and sort of researched the subject a little, although it's a stretch to call the review I did that.  That taste is related to umami, although that's only one component, which of course Ricardo said a little about, surely with lots more on his site about all that.

I don't want to take this to being a research post because I've got plenty to say about it besides that, so I'll just mention the Wikipedia article on umami as background.  From there I'll go into a few points made by Barb Stuckey in a video on tasting.  She wrote several books that cover taste background in more depth, perhaps most completely expressed in "Taste What You Are Missing," but for purposes here only a few basic ideas are required.

It's sort of common knowledge, but umami is one of the basic tastes.  It's sometimes translated as "savory," although it doesn't translate well, the reason for leaving it with a Japanese name for description.  It tastes like seaweed, as much as anything, but really one part of what seaweed tastes like.  One odd part from that video was that it's really tied to a range of glutamate compounds, so MSG--mono-sodium-glutamate--is one of several compounds picked up by related taste receptors on the tongue, along with others for sweetness, saltiness, and bitterness.  Of course MSG is also known as the flavor additive that's perhaps best known for being used in Chinese foods, which gets a bad name because some people are sensitive to it.  It would be interesting to see how those people react to eating a lot of seaweed.

In that video I'd mentioned Barb Stuckey did an experiment that's easy to reproduce that can very quickly help us determine to what extent this is a taste, something identified by the tongue receptors, versus a flavor, a more complex sensation also informed by sense of taste but also related to smell.  The other portion is picked up by receptors in the nose from aromatic compounds making their way through air passages, essentially in the lower rear sinuses (but don't just take my word for that, since this isn't my field, read up if you like).  To determine the difference you taste something with and without your nose pinched shut.  It seems too simple to work, but it does.

For the experiment it might help to have a second type of tea on hand to use as a control, and I did cold-brew the last of a nice (but mid-grade) dan cong I have on hand from drinking it previously, so I used that.  If you try it pinching your nose closed most of the taste drops out (flavor diminishes, really, and the "taste" aspect from the tongue stays the same).  We tend to use the terms interchangeably in ordinary language, but there is a distinction.  So the question is:  does the "seaweed" taste drop out if you try that with this tea, is it really umami, or is it flavor and scent based?  The suspense...

Both, sort of.  It is related to a basic taste, so you still "get" a little of it tasting with your nose pinched, but not much.  A range of other characteristics that seem related do drop out from doing that, and then come back as soon as you stop pinching your nose.  It's kind of a funny experience.  This is not exactly science but it seems to support that the one aspect really is umami, a taste element, but that as I experience it that's very continuous with other aspects that are not that, picked up as scent instead.

Kind of really a tangent but something unusual came up related to the dan cong, the "control" tea.  It was still pleasant without scent-based flavors included but most of the experience of the tea stopped when tasting it that way.  A floral component really defines that tea and it just wasn't there.  But the interesting part related to sweetness instead.  It's a naturally sweet tea, but of course that can't be from a sugar compound.  Per input from Michael Coffey in another post this is what natural sweetness in tea comes from:

Sweetness typically comes from amino acids, but not always.  Amino acids are influenced by a number of factors--for example, the cultivar might naturally produce more than other cultivars, or environmental conditions might be just right for the plant to produce more than usual...

Since the sweetness isn't coming from sugars, what your tongue would pick up, that effect of sweetness should stop if air flow to your nose is completely cut off.  And this happens; easy to check by pinching your nose and tasting.  This also explains why tea tasting doesn't work as well with a cold.


Japan, Spring of 2015

After just a few infusions I was really enjoying the tea; funny how expectations and experience range can come and go like that.  As Japanese green teas go the "seaweed" / umami aspect is only part of what might relate to connecting with personal preference, or not.  This tea reminded me of the other positive aspects, and the better experiences I've had with Japanese green teas, and why those helped get me interested in loose teas to begin with.

I won't be switching back to drinking a lot of Japanese green teas right away but I always did expect to go through some related phase again eventually, and this just confirms that will probably work out.  I think this tea would make for a great experience for anyone, even if they don't like green teas or Japanese green teas, to at least experience some of the novelty and potential in them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Toba Wangi White Beauty, a unique Indonesian white tea

Following earlier reviews of great black and oolong Indonesian teas, and a vendor profile related to where those were made (Toba Wangi plantation), I'm reviewing the most interesting looking tea of the set, the White Beauty.  It's white tea from buds and leaves, so in the Bai Mu Dan / Peony range, but it's not really like other white teas I've tried, definitely unique.


The appearance and dry scent of this tea is amazing.  It really is sort of black and white as in the picture, or more silver really.  The smell is very sweet, and complex.  Fruit in the range of peach stands out, although maybe shifted a little towards what a dried peach might be like, not that I clearly remember trying dried peach. There is some floral aspect to it too, and a rich, sweet, complex smell close to sundried tomato.

from the vendor, looking even more black and silver

The brewed tea is a dark gold, shifted just a touch towards the range of more oxidized teas.  The taste / flavor profile includes peach, but it's complex, so it's not clear at first if that's even the dominant flavor.   It's quite floral too, a sweet floral tone towards lavender.  One aspect ties back to the sundried tomato scent but it's very subtle.  The tea has a nice natural sweetness, and a pleasant feel, but a really strong and long finish stands out.

For all that description I feel like I'm only scratching the surface in "getting" this tea.  I brewed one infusion a little stronger and the profile shifted a lot.  Some of the subtlety dissipated but the body and feel changed completely, with more mineral related tones picking up.  As the infusions progressed it seemed to me that the fruit element faded back and the floral picked up even more.  The peach range shifted a little into blueberry.  The dry leaf smell had initially implied that the tea had potential to express a rich and sweet vegetal range, the sundried tomato, but it never really did develop as much as the fruit and floral.

Later yet--the tea kept brewing lots of infusions--both fruit and floral faded to let a more earthy fresh hay element, not far from a lighter wood.  Hay is still sort of in the vegetal range, of course, moving towards light earthiness, but the underlying character moved from sweet to rich.

I was just discussing with an online friend how silver needle style white teas aren't really a favorite and this tea helps highlight what I meant by that.  I tried the Toba Wangi silver needle style tea not long ago,  and it was nice, with some overlap in aspects, rich with a lot of floral.  But this bud and leaf tea has that extra complexity that comes from really being two types of plant elements, with lots of flavor aspects and good complexity.  That extended range comes at the cost of some of the subtlety, and emphasis on some distinctive light elements that is possible in buds-only white teas.

Related to that, I recently retried that silver needle style tea and it had lots of character, great flavors, mostly floral, and nice sweetness, with good depth and a nice rich base of underlying flavors.  This is probably a good place to mention that there's always more to the story of how a traditional tea type is made in a certain narrowly defined way, or even in cases when it's not tied to a region by definition should be related to one informally, so even restricting that to description "silver needle type" would likely be partly inaccurate, even though that's common in vendor naming for a range of styles of white, bud-only teas.  Maybe a general name works out better in Mandarin, except that I don't speak it.

But then I'm really not planning for this to drift into a second review.  I'm just saying that maybe my preference for Bai Mu Dan or tea and bud style white teas will shift based on drinking more white teas, or maybe that's already underway.  I'm kind of buried under bud-only white tea these days, with five types at the house now, from three different countries.  These include a second from Indonesia (from West Java), after finishing a third from there recently, with one from Thailand, and another from Sri Lanka, some of which I plan to mention again later in a comparison review.

A guest review

Ok, so not really a guest review, but an online friend described this tea in an interesting way, which I'll pass on here (from Rodino, if that means anything):

It reminded me alot in smell and taste of the Moonlight White from China Life, though it had a much younger and livelier taste. Like a cheap riesling, then it got interesting in the aftertaste. Tasted like Peach Gummy Rings! Remember that stuff you can buy at any gas station?

Maybe it was like that; there is definitely a very unusual, very sweet taste element and "finish" to the tea.  When I tasted it again and thought of those candies it did seem a close match, although even better for being a natural version of a similar flavor.  I'm also sure Rodino meant the "cheap Riesling" comparison in a good way.

Sweet and fruity teas can sometimes remind me of how artificial banana flavor can come across, as in the banana malt milkshakes I loved as a teenager, but I usually don't mention that in reviews.  The effect is usually more positive than it sounds, similar in effect to an artificial candy element but not exactly the same.  I guess if it were a breakfast cereal, like Fruit Loops, somehow that would be easier to relate to.  To me those taste a lot like pandan but that wouldn't be a familiar flavor in temperate climate countries.

Rodino and I talked more about the tea after I made notes for this and he also mentioned melon as a component, and I must have added at least one more potential trace element.  It's the kind of tea that's not so simple to narrow down to a list of flavors, and that really wouldn't do justice to the overall effect anyway.  It seemed like one could experience a lot of range of different aspects based on small shifts in brewing parameters, or maybe even just from noticing more going on, with sort of a layered effect happening (maybe relating to the mix of buds and leaves?).  White teas can be like that, also possibly related to an unusual oxidation level input, not fresh and grassy or vegetal as green teas can be, not earthy or heavy on tannins as black teas can be, but in an unusual place in the middle.  At best they are flavorful but still subtle, sweet, rich and complex, like this one.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Tealet Tea 101 video review, introductory overview of tea

I recently watched a Tealet Tea 101 introductory video, based on their offer for access to review.  The video was nice, a bit basic, but good for a reference for people new to tea.  As background I'd expect most readers to be familiar with, Tealet is a tea vendor based on a fair-trade-issues related premise, with a direct from farmers approach, with coverage of both wholesale and retail sales (see more here).

General Review

Well-produced, including background on types, history, growing areas, tea processing, and brewing.  In about 45 minutes it would be impossible to go very deep over all that range, so the main concerns would be getting that content right and drawing limits well, and for the most part they succeeded at both.  For someone who's been reading up on tea for awhile, probably for most readers of this blog, most of the content would be familiar, although anyone could have awareness gaps in subjects like history or processing if they don't intentionally look into these areas.  I mostly read up subject to subject but it adds up.

The production quality was good, with lots of nice pictures and video from tea growing areas and processing facilities in different places, along with some use of reference graphics, so a bit more developed than other general content usually is.

In online discussion Elyse (a Tealet founder) mentioned that one purpose was to serve as a training reference for related businesses, which makes sense.  For personal knowledge someone really could watch a lot of varied content online, which I'll say a little more about at the end of this.  That would be more hit and miss, typically not as well organized, or even as accurate.  The range and depth could be a lot broader, with the trade-off that the process would take lots of time.  It probably wouldn't work to have tea shop employees watching 20 miscellaneous videos of different types for a couple of days.  So for a general introduction I thought it was good, appropriate and well chosen.

The next section will cover errors, implying there were more gaps in the material than there really were.  The intention isn't to express my own knowledge of tea (which tea bloggers tend to do), but rather cover some interesting related ideas.

Video error log; some interesting tea trivia

History of tea timing:  The video mentioned the standard history of tea, the part about the Chinese emperor accidentally dropping a leaf in boiling water.  It's a good story, and it would be nice if that had happened, but relatively recent archaeological evidence pushed back the time of intentional tea cultivation in China to more than a couple millennia prior to that time-table.  How is that possible?  Read this reference, or look up others.  The short version is that archaeologists are very clever, and they found some unusual clues from long ago.

History of tea bags:  The standard story they mentioned is that Thomas Sullivan starting sending out tea samples in silk bags in 1908, and these were used to actually brew the tea instead--another good story.  More recently lots of references mention that he actually re-invented the tea bag since there was a patent for the same basic design prior to then.  In a sense it doesn't matter, but then if the standard story is interesting then so is the actual fact of the matter, at least to some people.

From there most issues relate to choices about what to include or leave out instead of errors.  A more notable gap:  a brief white tea mention in the types section really missed explaining that there are two main types, Silver Needle / buds only style and Bai Mu Dan / Peony / buds and leaves style, and implies this is instead just a grade difference.  It's still not much.

The processing section was fine, for being as brief as it was, and that's not easy content to narrow down without including errors.  Same for tea brewing; that subject is endless, but for a short start it worked.  A little more on there being two main brewing approaches would have been informative, those being Gongfu and Western, based mostly on using different proportions of tea to water.  This was less clear since they covered both but made it seem as if oolong should be brewed Gongfu style, but not most others, when really it's just up to preference.

Then again, it gets old repeating "this really varies by preference," and the videos included that at a few other relevant places, about temperature and infusion time and such.  Related to that, most of the brewing section was a good starting point, although maybe the white tea brewing summary could be clearer.  There are two schools of thought on that, in general, that you infuse white teas very lightly, or instead for a relatively long time, five minutes, to get to a more conventional strength for how other teas turn out.  One typically wouldn't brew white tea for longer than that, aside from cold brewing, which is as well to not mention initially.

Other video content online

This subject has come up recently, in a Facebook tea group discussion before I saw this video, about what else is out there for tea introduction.  To me the content by the China Life vendor stands out as a good video-based introduction, like this guide to brewing tea.  It's not set up to be a "Tea 101" short overview, though, so even this "how to brew" video is a half hour introduction versus the Tealet short version, covering all that other range in not much longer.  Given the depth it might be better for someone with time to spare but in a way it's just a different thing.

Tea DB is a good example of a video blog format (their You Tube channel), but it's essentially a blog, not an introduction.  Lots of vendors also produce introductory content, typically written instead of video based, but the quality and objectivity vary quite a bit, much of it clearly just extended product marketing.

Somehow there really was a gap for a clear, short, comprehensive video summary like this one.  Depending on where Tealet goes with this in the "102" video they really could flag and cover other types of related gaps.

A post-script about tea culture

That covered the part about the content, but after posting it I feel like I've left something important out.  Why is it that some people really feel connected to those Tea DB guys, to the extent that an online blogger friend calls them "the boys"?  Why is it that their tea reviews might appeal to people in a much different way than something like the former Walker Tea Review blog, even if there wasn't much room to improve on the thoroughness of Jason's reviews, or to cover more scope?

Jason seems ok, by the way, those were just a little dry, and actually seem to have been discontinued awhile back, but the example still works.  I've been on Indonesian teas lately and here's a good example of an Indonesian Harendong tea video review by him.  In contrast I barely even described the same tea a year ago, five months after this video.

As another example, why would Steepster appeal to someone when Tea Chat wouldn't, or vise-versa (two different tea discussion sites)?

In short, people connect with others that seem familiar, that approach things a similar way, online as well.  From those videos I had a sense that it would be nice to share tea with those girls, and it makes learning the content much more pleasant.  Or it would have, if any of it had been new to me, but then I go way overboard with this tea theme.  Not much of a point, right, a bit fuzzy?  I'm really just putting it out there as food for thought.  I typically don't tend to connect with my blog readers much, but I do help moderate a Facebook tea group and we talk it all through a little there.

If anyone gets the sense that I know too much about tea to talk to that would be an odd form of indirect compliment but it's really not like that.  I'm only three years in to taking it so seriously; new to tea.  My tea-maker friend Cindy Chen says that she is no expert, just learning like anyone else, and she's more like three decades into actually making it (good versions of Wuyi Yancha at that, my favorite type).  I see that as a nice perspective, the humility.  Tea really should be about sharing experiences and ideas, as I take it, not about being proud of some level of mastery.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Imagination and subjectivity in tea tasting, with blogger and expert input

I've been considering a crazy idea about how internal mental processing of tea tasting goes, and decided to ask some favorite bloggers for input on tasting process.  The following is where that led.

Starting point, request for input, and some crazy initial ideas of my own

I'll start with a description I passed on to one of them with the request for input, a mix of some odd ideas that never did summarize particularly well:

I'm working on a blog post that is based on input about tea tasting, one very narrow and unusual aspect, and I'm asking you for help with that.  It's about something I've been considering for awhile, the possible role of imagination as an interface between more raw sensory input and description, analysis.

The standard take, per my understanding, is that flavor description for tea is essentially a memory function supported by practice and training, so no mental function related to imagination needs to be invoked.  Of course taste is only one aspect of tea, but this limitation--considering only flavor descriptions--seemed a good way to narrow scope for discussion and input.

Even if imagination does play a role that function should be subconscious, I shouldn't be able to notice it, but I could swear I seem to. Of course I'm still talking about objective experience, picking up flavor elements others would be likely to agree are there, although variations in perceptions related to this are interesting, people noticing relatively different aspects.

So the initial question wasn't really if tea tasting and evaluation is subjective, but rather if it's possible to say more about how it works, the internal mental processing of taste into description.  Actually liking tea aspects has to be subjective, and to some extent comparisons of flavor aspects must be objective, with more coming up about that in the input.

Geoffrey Norman:  author of one of my favorite blogs, Steep Stories

Most discussion input I'm citing from him here isn't about internal tasting process but it does work for a nice intro to a standard review approach, along with a description of how he deviates from that:

When I first got into tea reviewing back in 2008, I was contributing to another website - Teaviews. When I was on there, I tried to stick to the typical review format, but I tried to add my own flare to the introduction. Of course, I always began with a background about the tea, about the company selling it, a personal anecdote of some sort. 

Then this was followed by tea leaf descriptions - size of leaf, aroma, color, etc. 

That was then followed by brewing instructions.  Next after that, taster notes,  And lastly, closing anecdote. 

For the most part, I still stick to that sort of format, but I've now structured the narrative to be more story-like. It's what I prefer, aesthetically. What few readers I have seem to appreciate it, too. 

As for how my taster notes evolved . . . they really haven't. To tell you the truth, I deviate from the standard taster practices almost as a personal mandate. Sure, some standard notes are in my lexicon - floral, chewy, herbaceous, etc. - but for the most part, I like to record what my sensations are in real-time. What you see on the page is EXACTLY how I'm feeling about that tea - right that moment. 

Really that's what I like about his writing, the story-based aspect, and also the non-standard use of descriptions that enable you to share in his experience by any means necessary.  He doesn't push the flavor-list style of reviewing, and sometimes will rely on comparing a tea as in between two other styles, which is unconventional, but it can really work.

I'll add a bit more he passed on about the subject I had described as a starting point, about an internal process:

Taste, like a person's memory and imagination, are purely subjective. 

I think [the ideas about the role of imagination] also has something to do with what I heard about from a Taiwanese tea seller.  It's not just about the taste, it's also about the sensation.  And that triggers the imagination.

Interesting, right?  He is either saying that taste preference is subjective (most likely, or at least including that), or that there could even be variances in what is tasted, with completely different aspects described.

In truth we see in reviews that people experience teas in vastly different ways, not just related to preference but in how they describe teas in terms of basic flavor components. Of course the experience itself isn't just about a list of individual aspects, it relates to the feeling the experience invokes, the last part mentioned.  More on all that follows.

Amanda Wilson; another favorite blogger (My Thoughts are Like Butterflies)

Amanda writes very detailed blog post tea reviews, with a good bit of rambling about whatever else comes up in them, to me an interesting mix.  She talks about one thing that might help her write reviews in a different way:

I think due in part to the way having autism wired my brain, I perceive the world primarily through taste (this gets me into trouble at times) my memories of tastes are significantly stronger than any other sense. Not sure how much help I will be since I am 'special.'

I get asked a lot how to train to make taste as strong as mine, so to speak, and I never really know what to say other than go experience a lot of things. It comes off better than 'be born with a broken brain.'  

The exact term for it is Sensory Processing Disorder, I go on the 'over stimulated' end of the spectrum.  It is a comorbidity with Aspergers.  Autism is an annoyingly complex spectrum.

Cool!  And definitely different, a line of thought I had never considered.  Really there is too much there to go deeper in this type of post so I'll just leave it as some interesting input about the way people's minds and sensations really can and do differ.  Leaving objectivity and subjectivity aside, with the basic experience varying the description and response to that experience would naturally also vary.

Micheal Coffey (Tea Geek blog, and he's got other things going on); input from an unusually well informed tea enthusiast

After some initial discussion of that background Michael recommended looking into a great resource:  "Taste What You're Missing" by Barb Stuckey.

Taste is influenced by all kinds of things.  One example that Stuckey uses is that of airplane food.  It sucks, right?  Well that has more to do with how loud the engines are than with how cheap the company is.  If you tasted airplane food with the engines quiet it would have a totally different flavor.

And that's the big difference.  You don't experience "taste" (the raw sensory input), you experience "flavor" (a mental construct that blends multiple sensory inputs into whatever you experience).  This may be where your idea of imagination comes in.  

Also, the need to "refresh the palate" because you've been tasting too much tea, or one flavor is bleeding into the next is a similar effect.  It doesn't have anything to do with your actual taste organs, but with how the mind is putting them together.  When you smell a funny smell but eventually it fades?  That's your brain just ignoring that input, not a change in your olfactory nerves.

I've heard that first point before, and have considered it related to trying to taste tea with the sounds of Legos crashing together in the background at home.  It seems to not just relate to noise but stimulus in general, so that the more engaged I am in whatever is causing the problems (like two kids fighting versus them just breaking toys) the further I get from a full experience of tasting.

All in all some great input, some connections one might not normally make, really what I'd hoped to get out of this sort of input process.  This digs a little deeper into how if the basic experience of tasting varies with environment and related to factors in individual processing even any one person might experience a tea differently at different times, beyond differences that could relate to different people having varied impressions.

Citing a chocolate blogger on subjectivity in tasting (Lisabeth of Ultimate Chocolate Blog)

A chocolate blogger gave some great input on an earlier blog post that is worth considering here, that fits in with some other ideas, presented in that earlier blog post in a Q & A format:

my question:  To what extent do these seem like subjective judgments to you, that different people would cite different taste elements for the same chocolate?

Lisabeth's answer:  Certainly chocolate tasting is subjective to some extent. Everyone tastes food differently, and so will relate the flavours they taste in chocolate to different foods. In the case of Madagascar-origin chocolate, for instance, the chocolate is so clearly fruity that most people will identify that as a flavour in chocolate made from cocoa beans grown in Madagascar. But whether they taste raspberry versus grape or lemon, is a whole other thing. 

What we taste is also dependent on what we eat prior to tasting. It is important to give yourself one-to-two hours without eating or drinking (other than water), prior to tasting chocolate.

More on subjectivity and yet another input; our sense of taste will vary based on what we are eating, not just then but for hours prior.  This is probably a good place to mention that Lisabeth is not just a veteran chocolate blogger but also a chocolatier, a chocolate maker, so her experience with tasting extends beyond review blogging into daily experience.

Time of day seems to make some difference to me too.  That haziness some people experience in early mornings seems to extend to my sense of taste as well.  All the same I tend to write notes for tea reviews when it comes up, not by tuning my sense of taste based on optimum time of day and eating patterns.  I try to compensate by tasting teas more than once for reviews, and often different aspects will come up, but I really see my review role as providing an informed impression of a tea, not laying out an objective last word.

My wine guru input; advise on tasting from a wine maker

looks like, but not him

My friend Dan, a very experienced professional wine maker, independently mentioned a point that overlaps with Lisabeth's, that prior personal history is a factor in tasting.   Related to his wine making resume, I could mention some wineries and then you would be impressed, but only if you follow higher end wines.  According to Dan people taste what they expect to taste, to some extent, which depends on lots of factors.  Preconceptions and the other senses' input come into play, and their history of tasting other things.  This ties in to a common idea cited in taste-testing process articles, of even experts getting attributes completely wrong when white wines or pale beers are dyed to look like a different type.

It's odd how much Dan restated Barb Stuckey's ideas about how tasting works in general, but I guess that makes sense since they're both working from the same current awareness.  If you don't get around to reading her books there is a nice Google Videos reference of her presenting a summary of some ideas.  In particular he essentially repeated the parts about the role of taste versus other sense elements, and the description of what astringency is.  The main point is that astringency is not a taste element, definitely not the same as bitterness, and not even a flavor aspect, it's a "feel."  She described astringency as an irritant that can be pleasant in moderation (towards the last parts of that Google Videos reference).  Of course Dan took that same line of thought in the direction of this element adding body and structure to a wine or tea. This is familiar in the world of wine and to a lesser extent common in tea description.  Even if the description is typically not clearly defined people are noticing the same effects, that feel and taste are two different things, of course with some relation in the final overall impression.

In discussion with him I never did get to the point of breaking tasting process analysis down to some manageable defined subset.  His approach to wine tasting is intentionally holistic, leaving space for subjectivity in the tasting process, and he sees enjoyment as the main goal and condition.  In discussing objectivity, or the limitations of that, Dan wouldn't say that people generally taste things that aren't there, although he said that can happen.  Instead he said that judgment and experience are based on past experience and preferences, so that different people won't prefer or even notice exactly the same things.  The issue that identified lists of flavors can vary--whether or not there is a "right answer" for taste analysis--seemed essentially separate from the main point to him, the experience of subjective preference.

Dan!  I'll leave in his stand-in picture for comparison though

Of course I'm coming to the problem from a tasting and review writing background, so in the end written description has to occur in some form.  It serves as an assumed goal to make the review as objective and descriptive as possible, although people go about that in different ways.  

Dan didn't seem to see a relatively complete and objective description as a workable goal, but then we didn't extend discussion to the number scoring system for wines, the natural place that would lead.  I would expect that his feedback about that gets a bit complicated, not completely rejecting objective analysis, but likely limiting how relevant such a thing can be to pinning down subjective preference.

To clarify all this he drew an analogy to physical beauty:  what defines a beautiful woman or man for one person is not the same as that preferred by another.  This did lead to an interesting related point; beauty in people does relate to one absolute, to preference for symmetry.  He compared this to the balance that people seek in wine, or tea.  Their preference for type and characteristics could vary widely, and certainly does, but in some sense the different elements coming together in a balanced form is a general underlying preference.

Of course the physical symmetry is a bit more clearly defined, the left eye looking like the right eye, and so on, whereas taste balance is about things like sweetness existing in proper proportion to level of astringency, which all lead back to a more subjective realm.  But it's a nice analogy, the kind of input only a guru would end up bringing up.

Kevin Craig; former author of the Tea Journeyman (a great review blog)

Kevin isn't actively reviewing these days, but when he was his reviews were so detailed and clear and flavor-description oriented that they really got the sense of the teas across, even the feel, to some extent, which is not so easy to do.  He gave some good input on the process:

I would be able to separate the tastes, and individually identify that there were a certain number of tastes that I was experiencing. Yet, some of the tastes I could not specifically define. For example, was the taste lemon, or another citrus fruit? Was it papaya, or another tropical fruit? Is that wet stone, or another mineral?

I agree with you that when you are familiar with specific tastes more than others, you tend to identify those familiar tastes, perhaps even when they are not truly there. Case in point, the cherry taste, which is easily identifiable. I swore I was able to taste cherry in so many teas that I began to intentionally leave it out of reviews just to avoid redundancy. Like you, I began to question if I really was tasting cherry, or just convincing myself that I was.

Additionally, I recall tasting the same tea months separated from writing the original review, and I experienced totally different tastes. Same steeping parameters, same exact tea kept in proper storage, but my taste had evolved.

I have this experience from time to time, catching something that I had missed, sometimes even something that seemed obvious.  But I could never be sure it related to my taste evolving, or somehow really "getting" the tea after more introduction, or exactly what variation led to it.  This almost seems to supercede the idea that objectivity may or may not be available across multiple reviewer inputs, if tasting can vary according to an individual at different times.


me!  that really should be tea, not ramen

There is too much here to really wrap up.  I had planned to include more on research of the initial subject, how internal taste evaluation actually works, a bit about brain functions and such, and there is a little out there as references on that, but this is already a bit much.  I'm much indebted to these people, who have each been my teachers in different ways, for that previous help and for helping bring these unusual observations together.

If more turns up I'll continue this review, perhaps further in that original direction, or to wherever else it leads.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Indonesian grower profile with Galung Atri; on Indonesian teas

I've been reviewing some great teas from Indonesia recently, a black tea and an oolong from Toba Wangi plantation, and these are really only the beginning (maybe with even more updates on their Facebook page).  Since the uniqueness of regional teas and the status of their industry and tea demand are of interest to me I've been discussing this with the owner, Galung Atri, and I've extended this into a grower profile interview, following.

If you aren't familiar with Indonesian teas, these teas I'm trying really aren't typical, although I can't say there aren't other equally interesting and great teas out there, since I'm just getting started on this origin myself.  I visited Indonesia in December (two words--active volcanoes!) and didn't find anything like these on two different islands (the Eastern part of Java and Bali), in spite of visiting a tea plantation on that trip, so I doubt Indonesian teas on this level would be easy to turn up anywhere.

1.  Could you share a little background about yourself, what led you to be interested in tea, is the plantation from an older family business growing tea?

My tea business was started by my father.  We`ve been in this business since 1972 (Local Indonesian Green Tea).  There are three major roles in the tea business:

1. Tea Plantation / Tea Farmers as a tea producers.
2. Trader as a collector from tea farmers and act as a first layer quality control. 
3. Retailer as a packer.

Our company started as a trader and we are still doing this business.  My father and I planned to build a tea plantation since 2009 to produce a special tea (planning about use of clones / tea plants, place, etc.), and started planting in 2010, 40 hectares for Sinensis Si Ji Cun (around 26 hectares planted), and 70 hectares for Assamica Gambung (around 40 hectares planted).

Editorial aside:  Si Ji Chun is a common plant type in Taiwan, also referred to as Four Seasons.  Here is a recent blog post about the type, and an earlier post with more cultivar types background, a subject that keeps coming up in this blog.  Note that table shown in the second post lists cultivar / plant types by region and final tea product type in Taiwan.

This division is fully handled by me, with my father of course still acting as a mentor.  So for  the time being, I've continued studying in China for three years, and in Japan for one year, learning about tea as much as possible.

After four years, my plantation started producing tea leaves, importing a machine from China for processing.  I asked my master from China to teach me how to produce Chinese teas, then I began producing tea on my own.

I loved to drink tea since I was a child, but my interest on this business began after my graduation.  And for now at 27 years old I’m the youngest tea master in Indonesia (tea master as a tea maker, which they call a tea master).

2.  To what extent has the specialty or higher quality tea industry in Indonesia changed in the last decade, according to your understanding (on the side of what is produced)?

The specialty tea industry in Indonesia is still like a baby, with just a few companies making these types of teas, and it`s mainly for the export market, not for local consumption.  It just started around ten years ago or so, so I can say it's just beginning as an emerging market.

3.  In what way has awareness and demand for higher quality Indonesian teas changed in the last decade?

It has changed over the past six to eight years, but not much, as most people aren't really aware of better teas, or how to get those teas.  I am a part of the Indonesia Tea Lovers Community, a group that educates peoples about tea.  It helps to market our tea as well, since we need to sell tea to continue what we do.

4.  Related to discussing tea plants, different types in use, ages of some plants, can you say a little about what types of tea plants you grow (var. Assamica versus Sinensis, Taiwanese hybrids, local plant types).  What are the oldest plants that you grow on your plantation, and the youngest?  What changes do you plan in the future related to use of new tea plant types?

We have two plantations as I mentioned before, both growing a single clone tea plant type, sijicun for sinensis, and gambung 7 for Assamica (best for white tea).  The oldest tree just around 5.5 years old, and the youngest one just one years old.  We are expanding the tea planting every year, until its full planted.  And we have created our own nursery, so its 100%  pure single origin clone.

5.  Can you describe more specifics about tea processing techniques you carry over from China?  Where did you train to process tea, and what types of existing processing techniques do you use or have revised?

their Wu Mei oolong

I have more background with the Wuyi style techniques for tea processing, and I learned in study with my master that I prefer the Wuyi styles the most.  I tend to modify processing a bit for my technique.  I learned the basics, and improvised myself from there, because producing this Chinese style tea is more like an art.  It depends on climate, weather, plucking time, condition etc., and China and Indonesia are really different in terms of growing conditions.  It cannot always have the same result, but the basic characteristics can’t be changed.

6.  Is there a tradition of local Indonesian tea processing and related techniques, and tea products, that you draw on that make some teas more regionally unique, beyond just influences from being grown in Indonesia?

My Green Tea processing combines Chinese and Indonesia styles.  I do an outdoor withering which I take it from Chinese green tea style processing technique, so it has a unique characteristic that cannot be found in any other green tea.

7.  Related to one particular processing technique, why are your teas more tightly twisted than one typically experiences from other tea types?  Does this help give them their unique character?

Tightly twisted tea is just a shape, part of my tea processing style.  I mean it's more like my tea identity, so peoples know my tea from its shape.  The black tea is a bit of a different case because the shape plays a role in the oxidation process for that type.

it really is sort of black and white in real life

8.  Can you say a little about the unique white tea type you produce (White Beauty), what style it falls closest to, or what input lead to that development?

My White Beauty is like an Oriental Beauty  or bai mu dan style, with a similar processing technique. But the clone is different, as I mentioned, based on the Gambung 7 clone, which is really good for White Tea.  The first leaves are still silver in color.  I showed it to couple of tea specialists in China and they were amazed.

9.  Is there any particular limitation to growing tea in a tropical environment?  Is heat an issue, or the lack of a cool season, or the lack of a change in sunlight trigger that informs the plants of changes in seasonal times?

that White Beauty again, closer up

The main limitation of tropical environment relates to a tendency towards astringency in the tea.  No matter how I try to limit or get rid of the predominant astringency it is still there.  That is from the typical tropical climate and soil.  I have discussed this topic with fellow tea masters and they have  similar understanding.  On the other hand, we can produce tea throughout the year.  The Dry and Rainy seasons are really good for plantations though.

Another aside:  based on having tried a black tea, oolong, and now that White Beauty (with that post only in notes stage) none of his teas are particularly astringent, all smooth bodied, balanced teas.  Per Galung this is a result of processing choices that offset natural tendency for less balanced astringency.

10.  Is there a particular issue related to Indonesian people's tea awareness you would like to mention?  In Thailand an example people just aren't aware of loose tea brewing in general, so that even relatively common types of Thai oolong are not widely consumed, and awareness of more rare and higher quality teas is very limited.

In this case, Thailand has the same problem as Indonesia, people just drink tea when they are thirsty instead of appreciating the uniqueness of it.  In Indonesia, along with related economic growth, now people start looking for better teas, and start to spend more money for specialty food products.  Thus I could say the market is emerging.  I don't have any quantity left for export, as all we produce is consumed by the domestic market, but then my product quantity is still limited too.

11.  People in other places are using flavored teas and herb and fruit blends to bridge the gap between current tea preferences (RTD tea, flavored tea, bubble tea) and more traditional tea drinking.  Do you plan to take such steps, or to instead just create better awareness of more traditional teas?

I am not a fan of blending teas.  I love straight tea; I love to explore the tea character and tastes.  I do what I love, and as for now I wouldn’t start on blending teas.  I just learn some about that subject in order to sharpen my palate.  I do some blending just for Jasmine tea, since Jasmine tea is a traditional Indonesian tea, so this works well related to demand here. 

In conclusion

Amazing input, really not so much to add to that.  I love it that so much work has went into drawing on different resources and inputs and in the end it results in such a unique product range.  

Not long ago I talked with a tea cafe owner here (Bangkok) about emerging trends in tea preferences, maybe more a discussion of getting people into tea than about developed appreciation, and the perspective emerged that some people can see old-style tea preparation and learning as too formal, or too involved, or even boring.  It's great that the Toba Wangi teas are originating directly from those older traditions, without a narrow focus on creating what people already know about and demand, and more emphasis on producing the best teas that they can.  It shows in the teas.

As unique and exceptional as the black tea and oolong I already reviewed were that White Beauty really is a bit unusual; more to follow on that tea.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Wu Mei Oolong from the Toba Wangi plantation in Indonesia

A little back-story:  this is the second tea I've reviewed from this source, after trying an interesting black tea recently.  I visited Indonesia last December (they have active volcanoes there!), and had tried one very nice tea from Harendong plantation prior to that, but didn't find any great teas on that trip.  Grocery store tea in Indonesia isn't so bad, and it's almost free, but it's definitely not great.  That black tea was sort of a warm-up since a few others from them look amazing.

Review section, Wu Mei oolong:

The dry tea smells like nectarine, in the range of fruity, sweet, and light.  The dry tea leaves are long and tightly twisted, on the vendor site described as looking like a dragonfly.  There are some different colors showing, definitely not the dark brown of highly roasted oolongs.  In tasting it I was surprised that it seems exactly like a Dan Cong (Chinese oolong), or at least it did to me.  In retrospect it looks like a Dan Cong too, but I hadn't made that connection.

The tea brews to a golden yellow, nothing like more oxidized and roasted oolongs, which might be more light amber or golden red instead, at the opposite end of that oolong spectrum.  The taste is bright fruit and floral.  At first it seemed more based on fruit to me, but upon reflection it's really a good bit more floral.  At first it seems like a very simple, unified taste, but then later it seems more like a complex flavor that comes across as very simple and clean.

The exact floral description I can't place.  This is really my weakness when it comes to tea reviews, scent and taste memory for flowers.  It seemed possibly a type of orchid since it's very sweet but I can't distinguish between those, or be sure that's it.  I discussed it by message with the plantation owner immediately, while still drinking it, and he said he thinks it tastes like "mi lan" flower, or honey orchid.  Here is an interesting reference related to typical Dan Cong types and flavors, and that makes the list, but of course matching the taste is the difficult part.  The taste matches what I do remember of various orchid smells, but it's much lighter and brighter than actual honey.

As for other taste elements or description, it comes across as perhaps related to a type of melon, a bright, sweet aspect that's not exactly like one particular type of melon but still seems related.  I don't like most melons, actually, so odd to say that, but I do like this tea.  The taste aspects are completely positive, if all that makes sense.

There is even a trace of that astringency that can come with Dan Cong, but it's very mild, really just a hint of the crispness that can relate to a novel form of astringency in some versions, a counterbalance of sorts.  If you brew it strong--which you normally shouldn't, per my own preference, but I tend to experiment--it will increase and be a primary flavor element, or maybe more of a feel, and it's not so positive that way.  Brewed lightly it's got a great balance, with nothing that someone would normally consider astringency, just a light feel of a little additional body, but still very smooth.  People already familiar with Dan Cong might be thinking this is enough description already, I get it, but for others these other aspects are sort of hard to explain.

The taste is strong and consistent across infusions, although with more tasting I might work out more about transition or possible variations.  After brewing the tea for many infusions I cold-brewed the leaves to draw the rest of the flavor out, and it made one more normal strength infusion and one lighter one, both of which were nice.  The tea works amazingly well cold, very light and refreshing, almost as sweet as if the tea had been sweetened, which comes across as a natural taste element that blends in well with the rest of the flavor profile.

It seems like I could somehow be even more specific on some of these points.  As I see it they've recreated a good version of a Dan Cong, which is no small feat.  Surely that wasn't really the original goal, instead just creating a great oolong.  From talking to Galung, the plantation owner, the choice of degree of roast related to what made the most sense for the tea, and they've nailed that.  And the oxidation level, and for all I know that tightly twisted preparation may help with the final effect as well.

The next day I tried a conventional commercial Dan Cong version I have at home for comparison and the general profile is really similar.  That tea suffered in comparison to this one from Toba Wangi, not nearly as nice a tea, even though I would have described them similarly, bright flavors that are floral in nature, with mild astringency, etc.  That tea wasn't as bright, the flavors weren't as clean, and the astringency came across as stronger, muddling the feel and the flavor profile that makes this Wu Mei oolong so special.  It is a nice tea, just not quite on the same level.

Two types in and these Toba Wangi teas are just amazing.  For most producers that would already be the best they have to show, but there is much more:  a golden needle black, a "needle" style green, and most intriguingly a White Beauty bud and leaf white tea that looks nothing like anything I've ever seen.  I'll be in touch about those.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Mission Impossible: reviewing teas from North Korea

Originally published on the TChing blog, as part 1 and part 2.

I can't believe I did get to try these teas.  It started last year when a Tea for Me blog post listed which countries produce tea, compiled from a number of sources.  Having recently visited South Korea--which was on the list--I wondered if North Korea might not also grow tea.  Google turned up a couple of related articles mentioning that they do, so she added them to her list:

Located mostly above the 38th parallel north, the DPRK is not supposed to be an ideal place for tea planting, as tea bushes won't possibly survive in chilly and arid climate. It is even widely believed that growing tea above 36 degrees north latitude can hardly succeed by traditional techniques.

However, the late leader Kim Il Sung gave instructions as early as in 1982 that the country should produce tea on its own. His successor Kim Jong Il continued to put the task on the agenda and ordered to further advance research in tea growing.... 

Despite unfavorable natural conditions, the Kangryong green tea was eventually produced on a large scale in Kangryong County in South Hwanghae Province on the western coast between 37-38 degrees north latitude, almost a southernmost place in the territory.

Both green and black tea, as it now stands.  Anyone who has visited South Korea in the winter would confirm this really doesn't seem like it should be possible, related to a Seoul climate stat from Wikipedia:

Sometimes, temperatures do drop dramatically to below −10.0 °C (14.0 °F), in odd occasions rarely as low as −15.0 °C (5.0 °F)...

I once visited Everland in the winter, an amusement park near Seoul, and it felt like such an exceptional cold spell was occurring, or that could've just related to my tropical acclimatization.  So how can South Korea grow tea?  It helps to grow a lot of it on Jeju island instead of the mainland:

Typical mild coastal climate with minimum temperatures just below 0 degree celcius even in winter due to warm currents.

So North Korea has probably selectively bred or genetically modified tea plants to survive the extreme cold.  Great job!  But how can someone go about ordering it?  The short answer:  you can't.

Mission Impossible:  how to get tea from a closed country

The internet just doesn't work there, at least for people outside the country contacting web sites inside it.  There are internal official news source sites but they don't really field questions of any kind.  The latest outside news story is about North Korea publicizing a picture of a "miniaturized" nuclear device; not really the best news for some, but I'm setting aside PR concerns to focus on tea here.  Besides, the country I live in now and the one I'm from have their own inconsistencies to sort out too.

Apparently Thailand isn't so concerned about a trade embargo that they would mind if a bit of tea got out, but one by one less and less obvious indirect internet search options completely failed.  It didn't work going through a chain of North Korean restaurants linked back to the country (the closest one to here in Phnom Penh, Cambodia), or external groups related to North Korean interests, or through local embassy contacts.  I even tried to contact Dennis Rodman.

That did bring up a promising indirect route, though, tour group companies going to North Korea, essentially all of them based in China.  To make a long story short, Andrea Lee of Uri Tours, the same guide that helped arrange access for Dennis Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters, offered to look into it, and she did come through with picking up the tea.  From my perspective she did the impossible, but to her it was merely ironing out a few details since that's her line of work (more on her background and tours there in this article).

Oddly I almost managed to get the tea through a completely separate source, since a Facebook contact An Sonjae, also known as Brother Anthony, has a friend in North Korea, and he offered to look into it.  But once Andrea was involved things moved quickly.  If anyone is interested in Korean tea, literature, or culture, much of which would almost certainly pre-date the current North / South split, Brother Anthony / An's work is a unique resource.

Tea reviews:  green and black

pressed leaves, looks familiar, maybe slightly darker green

First, about the green tea: it's actually quite good!  I didn't see that coming.  The taste at first reminded me a lot of longjing.  That's no surprise given the appearance, small leaves pressed flat, even though the smell wasn't a close match.  The dry leaf scent was vegetal, between spinach and dried seaweed, with just a hint of the toasted smell dried seaweed often has.  The initial taste was sweet, buttery, rich, and nutty.

I've ran across description of longjing claiming the "right" primary flavor should be toasted rice instead of nuts, another type-description one commonly sees.  To me this tea tasted just a little nutty at first, with that creamy feel overlapping with a bit of butter flavor element, odd for a green tea.  The second infusion had changed, which I'd brewed slightly longer, shifted to more vegetal, to bell pepper.  The buttery effect diminished a little but there was still a good bit of background sweetness.

a pale yellow-gold, nice for a green tea

By the third infusion that pepper element had softened and the taste shifted closer to green beans, together with fresh cut grass, and just a bit of mineral background.  The seaweed implied by the dried leaf scent never really kicked in.

The tea is nice, reasonably full and sweet, with good complexity.  The astringency element was mild, one of the aspects I like about longjing, maybe with just a little less of the soft earthy elements longjing teas can tend to have, more toasted rice element or at least rich background trace of dried hay or the like.

brewed, small leaves and buds

By the third infusion (on green bean taste aspect) the sweetness really hung in there, with a decent length of finish (aftertaste or lingering flavor effect).  Green teas sort of aren't my natural favorite, at least at this point, but this one is nice, with a complexity and balance that works out.  I liked this better than any of the green teas I've been drinking from Indonesia or Thailand over the past few months, all much earthier, with more typical astringency.  A lot of that has to do with more narrow personal preference related to green teas.  I like longjing, other styles not quite so much, although I still drink them, a nice "fresher" tasting counter to more oxidized teas.

The fourth infusion drifted to a more balanced and mixed vegetal scope, really more of what I'd been expecting prior to tasting the tea, still clean in nature, just thinning out a little.  Even after a few infusions it was still decently balanced.  This might be a good place to mention that I was using a hybrid Western / gongfu parameter style, basically Western brewing with a higher proportion of tea to water and reduced infusion times, not so unusual for me, but not ideal for reviewing in the sense that others might tend not to go with that.

Overall the tea was maybe a little soft for someone that really liked that slightly edgy astringency effect green teas often have, even when more or less brewing around that using cooler water (which would kind of seem odd to me), but on the whole it was really nice, in addition to being novel.  I'm really more curious about what the black tea is like though.

Black tea review

looks a little darker in real life; this could be longjing

yellow-gold; could be green tea

The tea looks and smells like a slightly darkened longjing; obvious enough they've just modified the processing style for that green tea.  The dry tea leaf scent is straight longjing with a bit of toffee; intriguing.  I brewed it at water a bit below boiling point, not as cool as for green tea, but but it seemed the tea might respond better than to very hot water.

The brewed tea is golden yellow, not unusual for a lightly oxidized oolong but not in the normal black tea range (which is supposed to be reddish, earning it that Chinese naming convention).  So this gets interesting;  what would a more oxidized version of a green tea be like?  Oolong isn't exactly the same thing, but that has to at least be where this oxidation level left off, not even to the extent more oxidized oolongs reach, and without the complexity the roasting step adds to those.  The first taste is straight longjing, and a decent one at that, very rich and buttery.  Flavors include a taste element between nuts and toasted rice, a subdued soft undertone of dried hay, and a vegetal touch,  just a hint of green bell pepper.

oxidation level:  not that much

The next infusion shifted to more vegetal; no surprise there.  Some of the brightness and "grassiness"--not completely accurate since the taste profile of both tea versions was mostly off the range of grass, but I mean the general effect--had softened, with the richer feel of an oolong.  Overall the effect was somewhere in between normal green and oolong range.

On the next infusion things got more interesting.  The taste moved to a very complex but continuous range of flavors, something like roasting a half dozen types of vegetables together, maybe with a bit of some grain mixed in as a base.  Ok, maybe just a touch of grass too.

Still no astringency,  really, and clean flavors, well presented, with decent balance and sweetness.  They hadn't succeeded in making a black tea but they did make a good tea, and a very interesting one.  Given that they've produced this in a colder environment than tea should thrive in it's quite an accomplishment.

more oolong-ish

On one last infusion I tried out boiling point water instead, just to see what would happen.  The flavor shifted to a rich, buttery butternut squash, a bit different range than I remember from any other tea.  Apparently adjusting brewing style could get a range of different flavors out of this tea.  And the tea has legs, it can brew a lot of infusions, but then decent teas oxidized in the mid-oolong range are often like that.

I would really like to try a true, fully oxidized, sweet black tea version but the novelty still carried the experience.  I'm really glad that Andrea sent enough to keep working with since I get the impression there's a lot more to these teas than one tasting is going to turn up.  The leaf presentation, very small leaves and buds, reminds me of a white tea from Nepal I tried not so long ago, made in the peony / bai mu dan style, but an unconventional version.  This tea would turn out much differently if processed similarly, since processing is only one major factor for tea, but it might be really nice.

How could they do it, about producing these in such cold weather?  Selective breeding, maybe.  I'm also reminded of how growers in Vietnam used greenhouses to grow vegetables or fruit off-season.  You might think Vietnam is tropical, like Bangkok, but some parts get cool, yet another surprise that went badly on a poorly planned vacation.  My grandparents used a simple modified version of this greenhouse concept by covering plants with plastic sheets using simple, removable wood frames, extending the Pennsylvania planting season a month earlier.  I don't know if they used such methods, not so easy replicate on fields of taller plants, and not so cost effective, but they may have been able to since they are working within atypical economic constraints.

Post-script; what if you want to visit North Korea

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il; By J.A. de Roo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

One might wonder, why go there?  For me, the uniqueness.  The country being a bit removed makes it more interesting, like the USSR had been before that re-org.

I was in Berlin less than two years after the Berlin Wall came down but I missed seeing how anyone had really lived there.  The rough edges on the East side of town wouldn't have changed much but the culture and feel were different; that time had passed.  I've been to China twice and to be honest it was disappointing how much the places I visited looked like the West, really a lot more than where I live now (Bangkok), and this city has been Westernizing and modernizing for half a century.

Sure, North Korea is a closed country, a rogue nation, if one must be negative about it.  They've got a beef with my home country, some hard feelings.  It's odd contrasting that to a place like Vietnam, where people would be justified in being upset about a war that tore their country apart, or Laos, where they are still finding bombs in the ground.  Some must still be upset in those places, but the impression you get there is the opposite, that of a warm welcome from a friendly and gracious people.  People move on, and the younger generations don't care so much about what happened before they were even born.  I'd love to see if the response is the same in North Korea.

The one limitation about visiting relates to being guided; that's how it works.  All the visit accounts describe limits to exposure, and rules, and of course visit aspects managed by a guide service like Andrea's.  There are no Bangkok-style back-packers randomly drifting around; probably as well given how that can go here.  Those trip stories usually mention how oddly normal people seem, how friendly, how some aspects are common, children play, some people are quite poor, some aren't poor at all.

There are mass gatherings and unfamiliar cultural elements, and propaganda, but without some of those it might be too similar, like Laos becoming like Vietnam which isn't so different than Thailand.  Anyway, I'd love to see it.  The main attraction I've read of visits tying to relate to running a marathon or half marathon, but that's not for me; I've put in all the time on the roads I ever will at a younger age.  Here is one news story account of that, and a personal account.  At least those say you can sign up for different race lengths, and run a repeating 10k circuit, and I might still have the potential for a 6+ mile jog.

Of course the images are also compelling, like this story including pictures from a visit, or this one linking to four instagram accounts.  The look and feel of those pictures tell some of the same story as the related personal accounts do.  It's different there, and of course the people and the country as a whole face their own challenges, but it seems that the common ground of human spirit stands out most.