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.

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