Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Two classic oolongs from the Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boulder, CO

One thing I haven't been able to master in blogging is writing a short, simple tea review, the standard form for most such writing.  I'll fail here too, but since Peter Jones of the Trident Bookstore was kind enough to share some exceptional tea samples it's a good opportunity to practice towards that.  I'll review and compare two very different standard oolong types, one from China and the other Taiwan, a dark roasted Tie Kuan Yin and medium-level oxidized and roasted Qingxin.  In an earlier related post, on a Gyokuro Japanese green tea, I definitely drifted way off on a tangent about a scent-based taste element experiment.

The general point here is that better teas are out there, with a context of oolongs being my favorite general category of teas (for some reason for most tea enthusiasts it usually seems to be those or pu'er).  The idea isn't to provide an in-depth analysis of either tea, or to do justice to describing the origin locations and types, since that would take the usual wordy in-depth review to even start on.

There are places in Bangkok (where I live) where you can walk into a cafe and try some nice tea, many more than existed two or three years ago, but it's still not a universal thing here.  A cafe has to really work at it to identify and offer good versions or else selection can be spotty at best, and Peter has obviously put the work in.  He also sent a sample of a good Longjing (Dragonwell), which would be hard to review since the list of flavors approach doesn't capture what a good Longjing is like.  To some extent the flavor can be described (related to toasted rice, or nuts, maybe an element of fresh cut hay, etc.) but the effect of freshness that comes across is hard to capture.

Most of the original supplier information is missing, who actually made the teas, which is fair for sales from a cafe, a different sourcing paradigm than online sales where comparing this information makes more sense.  It's odd reviewing teas sent as samples that isn't under that typing but as mentioned in that first review this was more about sharing tea, an outgrowth of ongoing Facebook tea group discussion than a marketing initiative.  It makes more sense if you know "tea people."

Anyone near Boulder could go to this store, or to another shop on a similar page, and get the rest of the experience, since writing doesn't do it justice anyway.  People living out of range of such shops have their work cut out for them.  They could just stick to coffee, but never mind about tea-bags, which truly are the tea equivalent of instant coffee (which can be ok, but it's not the same thing).

Dark roasted Tie Kuan Yin from Anxi, China (winter harvest version)

Oddly I've not tried many versions of this style of tea, although I have drank lots of the lighter style, and just as oddly the last I remember prior to this was a few months back.  I might start by saying the appearance of the tea is a bit unconventional, as unusually small and dark rolled balls, with more tasting notes following.

The smell of the dry tea is mineral intensive, something like slate, with a lot of roasted element coming across.  One predominant taste element stands out initially:  roasted popcorn.  This is somewhat new to me.  The tea even has a buttery taste and feel to it to go with that, but the next steeps should draw out even more sweetness and complexity.

The next infusion still has that unusual aspect but it's transitioning to a more conventional roasted tea range, with a light, fresh, smooth taste joining in.  This aspect is the same as found in many lighter oolongs, on the less oxidized end of the spectrum, typically prepared as lightly roasted as well.  The flavors are clean and complex, with some floral and light mineral elements joined by traces of what could be fruit.  It's a lot going on for me to express all of it as a list, even with the Gongfu style brewing enabling better experience of the subtle aspects and flavor transitions.

The sweetness really keeps developing through the infusions, with the dark roasted influence shifting to a more familiar expression, one I struggle with describing as other reviews tend to.  It reminds me of black ink, or it could be seen as closer to perfume, even an element found in liquors.  Although the tea is still very sweet and there is more there related to those other lighter ranges the taste of that element is still predominant.  There is still a trace of roasted popcorn but more floral aspects pick up, maybe in the range of a rose. But then I'm not that great with memory of flower scents, so maybe not that.

brewed leaves:  quite dark

An underlying mineral taste is like some variation of rock, never so easy to pin down, maybe granite, and the earth is like a darker wood, maybe not as dark as a mahogany, let's say teak.  It would be understandable for someone else to "get" more floral, since that's still there, or to get hung up on the roast element,  the aromatic component, which really does stand out.  The feel is full and the taste lingers long after drinking, signs of a good tea.  I'm not so sure of the impact of the winter harvest element indicated on the package.

All in all it's a nice tea, interesting, but that heavy roast would make or break it for people depending on their preference related to such things.  Without ever trying one made like this that would be hard to guess at, but trying this tea would let someone know right away.  Dark roasted and lightly oxidized oolongs are not the most typical combination, but this is one conventional style, perhaps most often seen in this form, as TKY.

Nantou Qingxin Taiwanese mid-roasted oolong

There is so much going on with this tea, and so much back-story, that it really deserves it's own post, but in the interest of developing brevity and cutting it back for readers' sake I won't.  But I will start with some background.

Is this Dong Ding, one of the best known types of Taiwanese oolongs?  Maybe.  Per this Hojo (vendor) reference:

The authentic Dong Ding oolong comes from a village called Lugu (鹿谷) in Nantou County of Taiwan. Lugu is a village where the Dong Ding Mountain is located. The altitude of the Dong Ding Mountain is lower than other famous tea growing areas in Taiwan like Ali Shan or Li Shan. However, in judging the quality of tea, altitude is not an important indicator...

I've tried what was presented as Thai Dong Ding before, which is way off, since it's really supposed to be a very limited regional designation, the name of a mountain in a different country.  They must have meant the tea was made from the same plant in a similar style, or something such, but of course growing location does affect the tea.  Sometimes "mountain" in tea region naming is used to describe a narrowly defined mountainous area, not something like Mt. Fuji, so it can just depend.  In this prior post I cover some background on Taiwanese cultivars (really talking about a tea from Myanmar in that, but the plant-type subject overlaps there), and there is more detail in this other post.  That second includes the best reference on Taiwanese cultivars I've yet seen but the site was down at the time of writing this, hopefully just for an update of some sort.

Note that Qingxin is being referred to as Chin-hsin in those post references.  It's very handy how China updated and made their transliteration system consistent some years back, with the only draw-back being that the change-over in convention made reading older materials tricky.  Of course Taiwan doesn't feel a need to be on exactly the same page, so they didn't follow suit.  Or at least that's my understanding; I'm no linguist, and I don't read any version of Chinese language.

Dong Ding, or teas sold as Dong Ding, are typically medium roasted (almost nothing in Wikipedia about them, but maybe it's worth a look, with more about the region).  But this example from What-Cha, described as 30 % oxidized and 50% roasted, looks quite green in comparison, doesn't it?  I can't really fill in the most complete background about conventions from personal knowledge, and can only say that finding a good example of a truly medium level of oxidation and roast is not as easy as it might seem.  This Trident tea should be just a typical example in that regard, but in fact lighter versions can be relatively common.  Finding one with a good medium balance depends on your sourcing choices are working out well.

The tea is very nice.  It's a bit judgmental on my part, but for my preferences it's really on the next level compared to the Tie Kuan Yin, a very well made tea.  I didn't seem to make detailed tasting notes--one tends to lose track--but I've tried it a couple of times now, and made some notes in my mind last time, not really the most secure place to be keeping those.

The tea is rich and full in feel, with a nice flavor profile centered around aspects like roasted almond--the main one--and butternut squash.  The taste actually does have a buttery quality to it, in addition to the feel sort of going there, probably closer to a lightly browned butter versus some lighter oolongs tending towards regular butter.  Those basic tastes are not that far from sweet potato but I don't really get that, and it seems more common to notice it in black teas.

And that's about it; not much content in the mental notes.  As I tried this tea I didn't notice a lot of range of different flavors in terms of a long list, with aspects coming across as an integrated but limited range of different flavors.  What was there was complex and very pleasant, if all that makes sense.  It struck me as the kind of tea one wishes they could find and drink regularly, a step above what most might consider everyday tea.  In some regards it reminds me of one of my favorite teas, the Red Buffalo roasted oolong from Hatvala in Vietnam.  That tea's taste range is a little different, more cinnamon and cocoa than roasted almond and butternut squash, probably with not quite as rich a feel, but the general range and effect related to the oxidation and mid-roast could still be comparable.

This kind of tea works well for lots of types of brewing.  Prepared Gongfu style one could coax out some additional aspects and witness some degree of flavors transition, although perhaps not as pronounced as some other types would enable.  The nice feel and flavors comes across well prepared at different strengths (I checked), and it wouldn't lose much for preparing it Western style compared to some teas that do better with a more limited range of preparation parameters.

brewed leaves:  a little dark

It seems insulting to a tea this good to say it but it would hold up to brewing Grandpa style well, being prepared in a tea bottle and drank at different strengths as unchecked brewing time lets those transition.  For most teas made that way the general point is ease of preparation, not making the most of a good tea, and the main concern is them having limited astringency enabling that to work out.  For this tea one could also appreciate the variation in how it came across brewed differently, and not just accept that it did sort of work to cut preparation steps, or make the tea travel better.

I didn't really notice it changing in flavor profile a lot as I prepared it different ways, with the browned butter versus roasted almond and the rest shifting in proportions to some degree, but the tea was nice enough that it would be a labor of love to become more familiar with it and explore it's potential.  I suppose to some extent my preference for this tea over the first relates to a preference for this style, for balancing a medium level of oxidation and roast versus others appreciating the freshness and more pronounced floral aspects that lighter oolongs can exhibit.


Different teas are different?  Preference dictates which teas one would prefer best, but finding good versions makes all the difference in giving different styles a fair judgement.  Dark roasted Tie Kuan Yin is sort of out of style compared to the "nuclear green" versions (more on that in a related tea blog here, and there are other types he doesn't go into), but for Dong Ding and closely related Taiwanese oolongs being such a standard type finding a good version is not at all a given.  I visited with a tea friend here not so long ago who had just came back from vacation in Taiwan and I don't think we tried any teas as nice as this second one.  At some point it's about both seeking out the better tea examples and then paying a market price for them, since a high demand for good versions is out there.

As a contrast, both the supply and awareness and related demand for those Indonesian teas I just kept going on about is very limited.  Those were the opposite, non-standard types that most people generally don't know exist, potentially much harder to find since there are so few made.  I may have even helped screw that up by spreading the word, but plantations like Toba Wangi will help maintain the balance by producing more of them.  Oddly Taiwan has been moving in the other direction, in related news stories, dropping back production by completely removing some high-mountain farms based on public lands use due to erosion concerns.  This popular article makes it sound worse than it is, and this blog post clarifies the actual status a good bit.  But then all that is tangent, a story for another post, if I even get to it.

For me it's best to not worry too much about which teas I need to try, to take them as they come, but it is nice experiencing both novel teas and good versions of classic types, like these two.


  1. Was the Tie Kuan Yin really lightly oxidized? I though the general technique for traditional Tie Kuan Yin was a higher oxidation. For example, Tea Trekker says that it's version is around 65–75% oxidation, which is higher than, for instance, their Da Hong Pao (35–45%), Rou Gui (50–60%), and Shui Xian (35–45%) offerings.

  2. Although in comparison, Tea Trekker sells a Taiwanese version (Muzha Tie Kuan Yin) that they say is 35–45%. This one is definitely more floral than the Anxi one to my tongue/nose.