Thursday, June 30, 2016

Trident Booksellers Long Feng Xia, compared to two other oolongs

I recently tried the last tea sent by Trident Booksellers (surely a decent place to try a cup of tea in Boulder, Colorado) as an extension of discussing teas with their knowledgeable tea procurer, Peter.

This Long Feng Xia lightly oxidized Taiwanese oolong was great, a very nice example of the type, and really of Taiwanese oolongs in general.  I'm too new to tea to place it in relation to other Long Feng Xia oolongs, since I'm only three years into making an obsession of tea, so to help place it I'll mention a couple of other teas that I've recently tried, Thai and Chinese oolongs.  The styles aren't so similar, with the point being to identify the variances through comparison.

Long Feng Xia review

The tea is lightly oxidized, as it was described (winter 2015 top-grade light oolong). The first taste relates to a normal lighter oolong profile, with a couple of exceptional characteristics.  The basic tastes are mineral and floral with a bit of vegetal scope, complex with different elements that integrate well together.  There is a notable fullness to the feel of the tea and a nice sweetness.  That mineral element is a bit hard to place, maybe in between granite and slate.  There's just a bit of butter, different than the expression of butter in a Jin Xuan, which can be stronger.

The floral element is more subtle and integrated than those sometimes come across.  I'm not so great with floral scent memory but the range might be lotus, sweet and rich, a little subdued but a nice complement to the other flavors.  It's hard to fully appreciate but there are no negative flavor aspects, no apparent flaws in the tea, and it all really balances and works.

A green vegetal flavor element gives the flavor range a fullness that reminds me of a Japanese green tea, just at a much lower level, the umami aspect.  It's not a principle component of the tea flavor or experience profile, but that bit of extra range stands out when tasting it initially.  After just a few sips it seems familiar and not so noticeable.  That component joins with the mineral tones in this tea, and doesn't extend to accompany seaweed or other vegetal aspects as might be associated with it in Japanese green teas.

Is that general point clear?  Umami is a savory taste, picked up by the tongue, overlapping quite a bit with MSG (it's an effect from glutamates; MSG is mono-sodium glutamate, one of those).  I wrote a lot more on that in reviewing a Japanese Gyokuro green tea (from Trident, as it worked out) in an earlier post.  Other vegetal flavors can seem to pair up with it, since seaweed and Japanese teas can express a common range related to umami and also other separate vegetal taste elements, more like spinach, but really most like seaweed (which of course is circular, saying that seaweed tastes like seaweed).

Brewed a little stronger the vegetal elements really stand out, and the flavor shifts a little towards sweet corn, towards a typical Tie Kuan Yin range.  Of course there is no astringency in the sense of other tea types, just a bit to give it a full feel and a hint of dryness.  After some infusions the taste gets richer yet and softer, with the fullness remaining, and after many more some of the aspects fade while the mineral element stays strong.

Compared to two other lightly oxidized oolongs

I've been trying to get in the habit of writing simpler, more basic reviews, and that would have been one place to leave off.  But it sounded a little to me like I was describing a standard high-mountain lightly oxidized Taiwanese oolong, without the full effect of how such a tea really comes across.  I've been drinking a couple of other lighter oolongs that will help place everything that goes right in setting up that standard experience, which really only typical in better examples, so maybe atypical.  These other teas just happen to be from Thailand and China, so not exactly comparing apples to apples, but the point is more about traits that come up, that compare or contrast.

I picked up a Thai Jin Xuan in passing very recently, the kind of thing I usually try not to do, since without proper version screening that tends to lead to an ordinary tea experience.  But I was at a local Chinese elementary school where we might send my daughter for pre-school, and they had a small Chinese cultural center or sorts, and I couldn't resist.  My wife reminded me that I tried the tea before (my son did a Chinese-theme summer camp there awhile back) and said it was so-so, and indeed it is.

It's typical for Thai Jin Xuan to have a bright, sweet, floral nature, with a distinctive buttery flavor aspect.  Better examples have nice clean flavors, and some degree of fullness, and worse examples just taste off.  This is in the middle, with an unusual wood-tone aspect dominating the flavor profile.  There isn't so much butter to it but under that there is a nice honey sweetness, which shows up better in smelling the empty cup than it does in tasting the tea.

Jin Xuan, but the label is in Thai and Chinese

It has a floral element, a bit soft and subdued, maybe along the lines of a light lavender, a bit less "bright" a floral component than many lightly oxidized oolongs exhibit.  It's not bad but it doesn't really fully come together; it doesn't click.  To use this as comparison for the Long Feng Xia, it's hard to fully appreciate that clean presentation of complex, positive taste aspects that does balance well, but easy to notice the lack of all that.

I've recently been drinking Tie Kuan Yin that Tea Village provided, one of the nicest vendors in Thailand, along with teas I ordered.  Tie Kuan Yin could get some negative exposure for showing up as a commonly available oolong, for turning up in grocery stores, but it comes in a range of different quality levels.  It's a plant type grown in Taiwan, China, and Thailand, maybe the most commonly seen prepared in a lighter style (although here Jin Xuan is more common).   This version is from the Anxi area in China, the origin best known for this tea type. The best examples have an amazing floral sweetness that words couldn't really do justice to, in bright tones like orchid.  Mid-range versions can also be very nice, as this one was.

nice and bright green

This version stood out for being very clean and bright, and relatively sweet.  The primary taste was closer to sweet corn, mixed with a vegetal element like fresh sugar snap peas or fresh green beans.  That doesn't sound as nice as it comes across, like nice fresh versions, nothing like frozen vegetables.  That clean, bright effect is really what the Jin Xuan was missing, relating to the effect and general quality level that such teas should have.  The other Taiwanese oolong was really on the next level, different in character, but also adding complexity, structure, full feel, and more subtle taste components to it, in addition to a lot of mineral range.

I guess to some extent this maps back onto a warning about sourcing, something along the lines of "you get what you pay for." Or maybe it's just that you can only trust sources to the extent that they actually try to find and sell you better teas.  Some random stall in a traditional market here is a gamble (not where I bought this Jin Xuan, but that has come up, with mixed results), with more consistency in shops you already know.  Finding rare, better teas doesn't really work well by chance, unless you happen to be in the place those are made, and even then maybe not.  Tea quality doesn't necessarily map directly back to cost but tea producers and vendors tend to sell teas for going market rates.  That Tie Kuan Yin was nice, for what it was, but I'd have rather paid twice as much for the Jin Xuan to get a better tea.

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