Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Making Thai iced tea from scratch

Originally published a tching.com/2016/08/making-thai-iced-tea-scratch/

Editing note:  a comment on the TChing version pointed out that the original recipe cited used a lot of sugar (3/4 of a cup for four cups of tea), and I might clarify that I used about a third of that, and made more tea.  Sweetening depends on preference but that version would be as sweet as a soda, which is far too sweet for me.

I recently ran across a recipe for Thai tea, a from-scratch version of the iced milk tea.  Here in Thailand that's often made from a powdered mix, artificially flavored and colored orange.  I researched the original ingredients once (here), and that flavored tea may have been made with orange blossoms and crushed tamarind seeds, but the modern version isn't clearly one thing.  Most variations seem to include star anise; beyond that they seem to vary.

I usually don't address health claims related to teas, but it was interesting noticing that a compound extracted from star anise is used as the basis for making Tamiflu, per WebMD:

it [star anise] is a good source of shikimic acid, which is used in the manufacture of oseltamivir (Tamiflu), a flu treatment.

Hatvala Wild Boar black tea

I can't imagine the few stars I used making much difference to my health, but it's quite rare to see a tea or herb component trace so directly to a derived medicine, so interesting in that regard.

That recipe was based on star anise, clove, and cardamom.  I have those at home, but the last two only as spice jar ground versions, not whole fresh spices.  I also added a little cinnamon and vanilla bean, and used two types of loose black tea.  I'll mention that original recipe here for reference, although not much of what I used was a close match:

4 cups (960ml) water
4 organic black tea bags
3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
2 anise stars
1 green cardamom pod, smashed
2 whole cloves
about 1 cup (240ml) half and half (some folks also use coconut milk, whole milk, sweetened condensed milk)

The recipe had called for black tea bags; best to just ignore that and anything it might imply about where that source stands related to loose tea.  A friend had passed on some CTC Assam not so long ago (which I've not yet tried alone, but it smells earthy and smoky), and I used a Wild Boar black from Hatvala, a Vietnamese black tea.

That Vietnamese black tea is a better version than one would usually blend with, sweet and soft, complex, with some fruit and a little earthiness.  I used palm sugar instead of white sugar, and less of it.  Palm sugar tastes about the same, maybe just a little towards how sugar cane juice tastes, less refined.  The recipe called for half and half, which would have been nice, creamy, but since I only had whole milk handy I went with that.

CTC black tea, ground up

a palm sugar disc

For brewing technique I boiled the tea and spices for about three minutes, let it sit ten minutes, and re-boiled briefly and let sit another ten minutes.  All that is really borrowed from standard approach for masala chai (with earlier posts on making that here and here), although their instructions were similar, one boil and a thirty minute steep.

The sweetness level wasn't right, after trying the tea with milk and ice, so I strained the tea and re added a little water, re-boiling with more palm sugar.  After a long steep the black tea aspect was a bit lighter in that second batch compared to the clove and anise, so I mixed the two infusions.


brewed leaves and spices

It's probably the best Thai iced tea I've tried, not that I drink it very often.  Of course it wasn't orange.  That color is from food coloring in commercial versions.  The recipe article pictures bring out more orange by leaving the black tea and white milk in separate layers, and where it mixes at one point it looks orangish, but the blend just looks like black tea with milk.

It tastes like those ingredients, with a good balance in terms of choices and relative levels. The smokiness of the black tea added a very subtle aspect that combined well with the others.  I've made a masala chai before with Lapsang Souchong that had a similar effect (mixed with another black tea, to moderate the smoke level).

Adding cinnamon and vanilla did pull it towards masala chai; it was just missing ginger, and maybe black pepper, used in most versions.  It was quite light on cinnamon, by design, not really intended as a main aspect.  It would still work well without vanilla beans, although those do add lots of complexity, and a cool thick feel to the tea.  It would also be fine with twice as much star anise or clove, pulling the flavor in either direction.  I do like a little salt in masala chai, which doesn't show up in every recipe, but that doesn't seem to make sense for this blend, so I would agree with that recipe version in leaving it out.  Any version with sugar and milk, as both Thai tea or masala chais typically include, takes away some concern over astringency and spice flavor balance, since those tend to compensate.

Two of the other relatively fresh versions of Thai tea I've tried were from commercial blends, one made in a cappucino machine (apparently not so uncommon here) and one in a capsule format coffee maker.  They were better than they sound.  A twenty second brew process really shouldn't work well, but apparently they had tweaked the spice blend and grind to work out, or at least to work out as passable.

From experimenting with a Christmas tea blend version last year (here) I think a bit of dried orange rind might work in this Thai tea.  That's easy to make, using a peeler to strip off a thin outer skin layer from an orange, then drying that in a warm oven for a half hour.  Or any number of adjustments might work well, different fruits or spices, which is the nice part of making naturally flavored tea blends, it's easy to make variations according to preference.

Aside from mixing interests in cooking and tea I really don't love flavored teas, or drink many, but they're worth making since I do like the process of experimenting as much as the tea.  It seemed a lot of messing around just to make a flavored iced tea but it would last a few days refrigerated, and it is something different.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Jip Eu Chinatown shop Horsehead Rock Rou Gui

This tea is everything some people love and some people hate about Wuyi Yancha  (roasted oolongs from Fujian, China).  It's quite dark roasted, for sure.  Even the dry tea smell is earthy with lots of sweetness and complexity, leather and dark woods over mineral tones.

The first infusion was intense, more of the same, great sweetness, all the range of flavors from the scent, and of course a bit of char.  It is a familiar combination that I love.  For a favorite tea type it's much easier to put it on a range, compare it to others, even though I've only drank that one atypical Wuyi Yancha recently (a Shi Li Xian, here).  That tea was from the same Bangkok Chinatown shop, Jip Eu, the version I bought when they gave me this sample (full disclosure:  the sample was included free).

looks kind of oxidized, but I think extra roasting changed the color

The tea is quite good; flavors are clean and pronounced, the balance and range is right, for a darker roast.  It's so dark that a hint of the roast effect from French Roast coffee starts to come across, that mix of dark toffee sweetness and hint of bitterness.

Some people don't like darker roasted versions but that's a different thing, personal preference.  Some even say that darker roasting processing is most typically used to cover flaws in teas, or mask blending types, but I'm not so sure.  It seems level of roast is a style preference to some extent, although of course nothing is ever so simple as that.  This would be a different tea if roasted lighter, better for some, potentially better for me backed off a little, but this is what it is.

Lately a friend gave the feedback that I'm describing teas in too many ways that could be read as positive or negative, and my subjective impression of a tea doesn't always come across, if I actually like it.  Oddly I get the impression that can still apply when I explicitly state "I like it."  But again, for this tea, I like it.  I love good Wuyi Yancha and this is that; clean and complex, sweet with lots of great flavors (dark wood, toffee, mineral, maybe even leather).  The better types are quite clean in effect, with the right flavors and other aspects pronounced, and this one is good.

same tea, with leaves spread out a bit

I don't expect lots of transition across infusions from the tea; where would it go?  The relative strengths of those aspects could shift, maybe a hint of something already closely related could join in.  It's interesting considering the tea related to type, as a Rou Gui versus a Da Hong Pao or Shui Xian (or whatever else).  A year ago I was drinking a lot more of those so the typical aspects per type may have been clearer, but to some extent the teas vary more by quality and preparation style than type, and vary by specific version for characteristics.  Or so it seems to me.

For example, last year I tried an excellent Rou Gui from my tea-maker friend Cindy Chen that was unusually fruity, in the peach range, while those might more typically have dominant aspects in a spice range (along with earthiness and mineral, common across the general category).  Rou Gui translates as "cinnamon," but it's not like the case with Dan Cong names where the tea really is named after a supposed primary taste, although it must have been related.

Per conventional wisdom aging it a year or two would diminish the char effect.  As occurs with other tea types the characteristics that some people don't like come across better and make a lot more sense in the better versions.  You can't miss it in this tea but to me it integrates well with the rest of the aspects range.

This might be a great gateway tea for someone that loves cinder-dark French Roast coffee, even though that's a crazy idea, that this could work as a starter tea.  It's as close as a tea is going to get to French roast coffee, although that 40 year old Tie Kuan Yin I tried at this shop actually did taste a little like coffee, surely related to both roast and aging effect.

I liked even lesser versions of such teas, back when I started on them some years back.  Better versions have much cleaner flavors, and good sweetness, a toffee like quality that pulls the earthy and mineral tones together.  Some are very aromatic, staring towards a brandy or cognac effect, and this takes a small step in that direction.  It could be just a little more aromatic, or have a slightly fuller feel, so to me it's quite nice tea but those secondary aspects leave just a little room for improvement.  To put it on a scale, it's still well beyond the grade you could hope to walk into a random shop and find, with level of roast the other limiting factor for preference, too dark-roasted for people who don't like that style.

It does just fade over infusions, softening some, but it was soft to begin with, just rich and full.  The flavors range doesn't change, much.  The char eases up, letting the dark wood / leather / toffee stand out more, and the longer infusions pull out more mineral character.  The flavors stay clean, positive,  and well balanced through lots and lots of infusions; a good sign.

nice view, nice smelling rocks

As far as which rocks it tastes like I'm really at a loss.  It's not the lighter limestone / flint / shale range more common in teas from Taiwan; it's not the red sandstone / red clay mineral range more common in Ceylon (Sri Lankan teas).   Back in my rock climbing youth I had my nose pressed against some completely vertical walls of stone, in different US states, but I wasn't thinking about how those cliffs might taste in a tea.

dark!  greenish-black, heavy on roasting

I'm reminded of how some vacations are about exploring new places and activities, and others are about going somewhere very familiar to repeat past experiences, to enjoy that extra level of comfort.  All that recent pu'er exploration was challenging but rewarding for covering new ground.  Drinking this tea was like meeting an old friend;  no surprises, just picking up where we'd last left off.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Golding Jing Mai Xiao Shu sheng pu'er

I feel a little like writing one of those tea reviews that just basically says "wow."  That would definitely be easier than describing this tea.  I tried the tea twice to adjust brewing--the running theme for me getting back into pu'er--and more tries would make it more familiar.  One obvious thing is nice initially:  it doesn't have the mineral / green tea / smoke / taking an aspirin bitterness young sheng pu'er tends to have.

Since the Golding Shop website doesn't include full details, and it was only described as the name, Jing Mai Xiao Shu pu'er, I asked them to describe what it is:

The Jing Mai Qiao Shu is from the year 2013, so it is not really aged, just lightly so... The Jing Mai Xiao Shu is of the small/young tea tree variant. It is approximately +- 80 years old. Hence Xiao Shu = Small tree if translated literally. Gu Shu/Da Shu means old tea tree, and for these, we use only trees that are above 100 years old. 

Given all the debate and accusations over pu'er source descriptions and tea tree ages in the last few months that goes straight into controversial territory.  I'll get back to all that in another post, eventually, leaving it at that for now.  I will mention that they are directly involved, on-site in Yunnan, with the leaf sourcing and production of their privately made pu'er, so it's not just a case of someone repeating initial producer claims.  Most agree the impression of the tea itself is more critical than the age of the trees, or even origin location and other back-story, and the tea itself was nice.


Even the dry tea has an unusual scent to it, rich, sweet, with a bit of spice, and one other element it's hard to make out, maybe along the line of brandy (sure not really it, but that gives the idea).

It took a few infusions to really get the tea going, to loosen up and extend the expression of flavors, but even immediately there was a nice range of aspects going on.  Floral was probably the dominant aspect range, with just a hint of the spice I picked up in the smell (or thought I did).  Spice can be a nice range for teas to express, as often happens not one clear spice element I found easy to pick out, towards clove, but really stopping at a different aromatic bark spice range.  The rest of the range didn't get any easier to describe, floral, just a touch of date, leather, and wood, and more pronounced minerals, but not the sharp, light, flinty limestone range minerals, more like how a dark red clay might smell.

None of this sounds great, to me at least, but the effect was really nice.  There was an overall balance, a subtlety.  As far as feel and aftertaste go this infusion level seemed a little light to really get the most out of that.  Drinking a tea brewed very lightly can mask negative aspects, for example offset astringency, but to an extent it can also make it easier to separate out minor aspects, even though that seems a bit counter-intuitive.

People more into pu'er seem to pick up preferences that could make perfect sense with a lot more experience, but I'd not have an opinion as to what feel or aftertaste elements are desirable.  At the end that rich mineral taste remained as an aftertaste, in an unusual range, not something I've experienced before, and that did seem nice.  I almost want to say there was a dryness to it but that's not the right word; it just had an unusual feel in the center of the back of my tongue and the roof of my mouth.  That didn't change things much for me, for better or worse, but it was interesting.

I think drinking that Hong Tai Chang Thai hei cha did help me appreciate this.  I wouldn't say the two were similar but there was some overlap in the range of experience, the unusual tastes, relating to adjusting to more mineral aspects in teas.  This one is a good bit cleaner, more subtle and sophisticated, and somehow more interesting in general.  That tasting comparison wasn't direct, for what that's worth; I tried that tea over the two days prior.

Some of the dark wood / leather / unusual mineral range was similar, just very faint in this tea, but the trace of spice not so much, and for being in such a strange range (novel to me) the flavor aspects were pleasant.  The tea is quite subtle, even though listing a lot of flavor elements and other aspects might seem to contradict that.

Across infusions the tea didn't seem to change much, but then I suspect someone more familiar with a taste range would pick up more transition, or if someone was more tuned in to other aspects maybe related to those shifting too.  There wasn't much in the way of astringency or a bitterness to subside but the tea did become a bit smoother all the same.  I suspect these brewing parameters were getting close to a "right" range, much as there might be such a thing, but I'll experiment a little, try it just a little stronger and see what happens.

Second tasting review:

Even the initial wash gives off sweetness and complexity, a rich floral taste with some underlying element that is really interesting, towards red wine or spice.  I just read an interesting article on pu'er fermentation that gave one reason for discarding a rinse rather than drinking it, more for shou or aged sheng.  It relates to what fermentation actually is, what the micro-biological components are doing and what trace compounds are being created, but I'll hold off on mentioning details just yet.

Related to talking to the vendor about the tea he wasn't getting that spice element, so maybe it's just in my imagination, or I'm interpreting something else in an unusual way.

The tea is still subtle when brewed slightly stronger, still with great complexity and interesting character.  Unusual aspects are layered together, just nothing too forward.  There is plenty of floral tone to it, and a lot of mineral going on, but somehow that more minor aspect that gives it the extra layer of complexity is more interesting, since it seems to pull the rest together into a really unique experience.

The tea isn't really bitter but there is a bit of effect across a broad range of tastes that supports an impression of fullness and complexity, and a little bitterness is part of it.  It's so light that it's really more about filling in range than an element that's either positive or negative.  It would be easy to overlook the role the sweetness plays, since all the rest works better with that as another context element.

As infusions pass the tea softens and becomes more full but I'm not experiencing a lot of flavor aspects transition, maybe just shifts in the balance of the different aspects.  The feel shifts from the sides of the mouth to the rear of the back of the tongue.  But then I'm still not clear on how that sort of thing is interesting or relevant.

It's a cool tea.  The general subtlety makes it nice to drink water along with it--not warm or cold, neutral in temperature--to keep experiencing it more fully, with a fresher palate.  I might contrast it with a Dian Hong I reviewed recently, a great Chinese black tea.  It had lots going on, and great character, but it was all right there to be tasted, with one interesting feel element as background.  Then again maybe someone more familiar with this tea range might say the same thing; a reasonable number of aspects are right in front of you, no mystery to it.

I don't need to consider if I like the tea, as I've been going through with others lately, since I do, but I do wonder if I love it.  I wonder how my experience of it would change over time, or how the tea itself would, with age.  Pu'er has been that one tea type I didn't really get around to, the unexplored range.  Teas like this one highlight that there is still a lot of novelty to experience, beyond interesting aspects into different overall effects.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

China Life Jin Ya Dian Hong, Yunnan black tea

A friend passed on this tea in a recent visit to Bangkok (full name Feng Qing Jin Ya Dian Hong, from China Life).  It's a nice friend that gives you tea this good to try, an interesting and very pleasant Chinese black tea, with a style that doesn't really match conventional black teas.  I'll describe what it is more at the end, with a little research into the type and explanation of the name, but basically it's a buds-only black tea from Yunnan.


The taste is just what one might hope for, soft, full, complex, a bit sweet, with a nice dryness to the feel, nothing questionable or out of place.  It works well to describe this particular tea as a list of flavors since there are so many to pick out.  So lets do that:  the package cites cocoa, malt, and hay, and this tea includes those as predominant elements, although malt seems to be used to describe a range of different closely related tastes in teas.  Flavor aspects also include yams, with just a hint of smoke, and I could swear there's a little vanilla in the background.  I'm not noticing pepper so much; maybe.

For me the sweet potato / yam range can be too much in some teas, leaning towards an artificial sweetener taste if too strong, but in this case it's all in great balance, all expressed as positive aspects that work well together.  I think there is even a mild mineral tone as a base flavor that helps it all really integrate, but that's hard to pick up, more like the context for the rest of the flavors.

It's the feel and balance that make the tea work so well though.  That slight dryness--nothing like astringency in typical Assamica black teas, although it is vaguely related--offsets a generally soft feel.  Along with that a nice sweetness brings all the aspects to a good balance.  I get the impression that the tea would deal well with being drank at different strengths, based on preference, working well quite wispy or standing up well to someone liking tea brewed strong.  It also seems like a tea that would be hard to screw up.

Some teas are difficult to brew, expressing a range of aspects depending on slight shifts in parameters, tricky to optimize, and this doesn't seem like that.  There seems to be no need to completely dial in approach, no astringency to brew around, no subtle aspects that are hard to draw out.  I guess one might see it as a trade-off that it's easy to get great results but capable of less variation.  For me it's really nice as it is so that's not really a trade off.

Seems too early to stop there, but that about reviews it.  From drinking pu'er lately I almost want to describe how the feel comes across within your mouth, where it's located, or how the aftertaste plays out, but those things don't seem to add so much (in general, for me, perhaps more than for this tea in particular).  For what it's worth I feel the tea more on the sides of my tongue, and a little in the back of my tongue at the end, which means nothing to me.  The taste does stick around after you drink it for a black tea, with that dry cocoa effect and a trace of yam sweetness lingering pleasantly.

About brewing, it's pretty simple, still black tea even though it is from tea buds (more on that in the next section).  The one interesting twist is that it brews really nice later infusions, not giving up much at all in terms of that full taste profile, sweetness, clean flavors, etc.  As with Silver Needle style white teas it keeps on brewing nice tea.  After several steeps you need to go a bit longer on time, and that draws out a little more mineral and dark caramel flavor but that's really nice too, and the sweetness and clean-flavored effects stick around.

Even after white teas seem done, having brewed lots, you can draw out one extra one by cold-steeping the leaves again (or buds only, depending on the tea).  To do so you just put the tea mixed with warm--but not hot water--in the refrigerator for a good long time, and let it steep on it's own.  How long doesn't seem to matter, six hours or a day.  I didn't think to check if that would work with this the first time I made it; I'll have to.

Dian Hong research section:

Why not a bit more about the general type.  It doesn't take much reading around to get to the idea that Dian Hong can include buds and leaves, and Jin Ya Dian Hong is just the buds (kind of obvious the tea was that from looking at it), with Feng Qing as the location, a county per the China Life description.  Here's a bit on the type from Seven Cups (a vendor, who's version I've not tried before):

Yunnan Province first began producing black tea in 1939.... Jin Ya was invented in 1958 by Feng Qing tea company. Instead of using 1 bud to 2-3 leaves, they started picking only tea buds. Yunnan Province was the first place to make black tea entirely from tea buds. If left on the tea bush, healthy tea buds will open in to five or six tea leaves...  The tea master must completely control the oxidation process throughout every layer of the bud... Black tea that is too oxidized will be sour, and under oxidized tea will very heavy and tannic.

This version wasn't tannic or sour at all so I guess they nailed it.  Not really about this tea type but there's an interesting mention of an old tea tree, a subject that keeps coming up:

There is one famous tea tree in Feng Qing County, called “Xiang Zhu Qing Cha Zu”. It is the largest and thickest tea tree that has been found, and is protected nationally because of its botanical significance. This tea tree is estimated to be 3200 years old and the diameter of the trunk of 1.84 meters thick.

Good to know!  They should try to make pu'er from that (just kidding).  I noticed a Seven Cups guide for brewing Dian Hong Jin Ya on You Tube looking for a China Life reference for it there, but as the video describes there isn't much to it; it's black tea.  China Life does post a lot of nice brewing and type guides on YouTube, just not related to this type.  The tea works out well brewed Western style using boiling water, steeped for three minutes or so, then for more time for later infusions.  As with any brewing all of that could be adjusted for preference, shifting any parameters as one is inclined, but again it seems to me a strength of this tea is that you don't need to fine tune brewing conditions to get great results.

It would even be possible to brew this grandpa-style, to use unregulated infusion time, to just drink the tea as leaves mixed with water without separating them, but I wouldn't.  The tea is too nice when brewed to a good infusion-strength balance point to give that up.

May Zest Oriental Beauty (Bai Hao oolong)

The tea tastes like an Oriental Beauty (what I'm going to call Bai Hao here; the same thing).  It's a pretty good version of one from May Zest tea, but of course good is always relative.  Per my understanding the typical type profile aspects include muscatel, citrus, other fruit, and spice, with good sweetness and aromatic characteristics, and this one is like that, heavy on the spice.  That spice in this version is cinnamon, not really atypical, just not normally so pronounced, and quite pleasant to experience since I like cinnamon in a tea.  There is some citrus and a good bit of muscatel, with nice clean flavors, and good sweetness, with fruit in the range of peach as a secondary element.

I feel like that's just about it for the review; it tastes like a nice OB should, just a spice intensive version, while some go heavier on fruit aspects (peach and such, maybe even berry for some).  It's right in the middle for level of oxidation, the normal amount for the type, on the high side as other oolongs often go, even those described as mid-level oxidized.  Or maybe level of roast might complicate all that a little, but I must admit I'm not completely clear on how processing this varies from other conventional oolong types.  Some OB / Bai Hao versions could have more tips that this one, but it does include some, and the look and dry leaf smell are what one would expect.

This tea is one of several grades of OB that May Zest sells, not the highest, per my understanding, since they were out of some others at time of order.  Since I understand this is a summer tea maybe that will change in a month or two, and for a tea like this type what they find and sell might well change a good bit year to year.  Per the general type it depends on a specific type of insect eating just the right amount of the tea leaves.  I've recently read a good World of Tea general type reference about how that works, or a more conventional Tea Masters blog review format (Taiwan based blog) says more, and I wrote a blog post summary of the same issues last year.  China Life made a video summary about the type, for people that prefer to watch video (but still read this blog, I guess, since I'm mentioning it here).

How would the other grades differ?  I'd expect they could have more fruit, a brighter effect, shifting the balance from spice to citrus and more muscatel, maybe even into berry and such.  Quality level also depends on sweetness, for this tea, and a full feel, and clean flavors, how well a tea brews consistently across a number of infusions.  This version performs well related to those, per my understanding, compared to other versions, so a main factor is if cinnamon as a dominant taste element is preferred or not.

The China Life version I recently reviewed was different for being more oxidized, another variation someone may or may not prefer.  Per both the Tea Masters blog post and the May Zest description OB versions are typically 70% oxidized and up, so not exactly mid-level compared to other types of oolongs, on the high side, but on the upper end of that range a tea would start to seem like a black tea.

Tea blogging and preference judgments

a Thai version of an Oriental Beauty; not so different

Lately I've been considering the idea of saying exactly how good teas are, or rather working around that, feeling a gap when I don't give a full opinion.  To communicate my full impression of an Oriental Beauty, when I've tried others relatively recently, it would make sense to compare the teas directly, but that wouldn't seem so necessary to a vendor if their tea compared less favorably.  I'd be communicating my opinion, though, and someone else's might well vary.  In this case someone could love cinnamon in a tea and not prefer fruit, or vice versa, and that would tip the balance of their impression.

This concern also leads to the role of a blogger.  Is the writing for marketing, speaking for vendors, in order to get some free product out of it, or is it objective review, to inform the readers?  Related to that part about samples, I bought this tea, but they sent some extra samples, and they've passed on free samples in the past, so it's a factor that still applies in this case.  It may seem like bloggers that only discuss aspects get the balance right; a tea tastes or feels a certain way--that's it.  But two teas could share virtually identical aspects as they would be defined, and still be different quality level teas.  For example, I just tried a Dian Hong that tasted like malt, chocolate, hay, and yams, and a better or worse version might also taste like that list of aspects, but not be as good, or could be better.  It only goes so far to specify how "feel" relates, or how "clean" flavors are, or the issue of a tea brewing more consistent infusions.  Bloggers / tea reviewers get their own sense of this, how good a tea is, but again it mixes with issues of subjective preference.  I'd think most would get some sense of how those two inputs play out.

A lot of this ties back to my recent post about unwritten rules of blogging about tea, on reviewing conventions.  Citing personal preference related to teas breaks with convention, although it's also normal for tea bloggers to imply that they absolutely love every tea.  I claimed that it violates convention to review a tea from a wholesale source, and May Zest is that, they just don't sell teas per 50 gram sizes through a check-out website.  Why wouldn't someone review tea from different types of sources?  It would be strange to review a tea from both an original source and the vendor that resells it (that tend to give bloggers free samples), especially since that resale vendor would rather not publicize where the teas come from.  It also violates a convention--breaks one of those rules--to talk about tea pricing, but obviously along with a requirement to buy higher volumes pricing is lower from wholesale-theme vendors too.

The trend now is for vendors to buy direct, right, if not directly from a tea farmer then from someone who claims to have done so.  In a sense it doesn't matter that it's almost impossible to verify that, that a reseller in the middle could still pass on where the tea came from, who grew it, so marketing could just refer to the more upstream step.  In that example it would seem to not matter which company someone bought it from, but each step would add resale cost.  One other issue with final-level vendors buying tea from wholesale sellers (that might buy from aggregators, another layer) beyond adding costs is that it's possible that more mediocre, mass-produced teas would take such paths.  The "best of the best teas," or at least those not good enough to be spoken for before they're even made, would instead be carefully sourced by tea-curator theme specialty vendors.  Or at least that's how the marketing stories go.

The reason I go into all this is to reinforce that regardless of the story attached in the end it's about how nice the tea is.  Of course nothing is ever so simple; there are also concerns related to a tea being organic, for some, or if a well-paid and happy worker picked and processed it, or if someone being oppressed by a life of poverty did instead.  But I'll move past all that.  Someone could curate crappy tea directly from a farmer, or tell a very nice story that's not true, or a long, typical, multi-step wholesale process could procure and sell a great tea, even at great value.

This tea I reviewed is pretty good, and that's a lot of the point, beyond the "naming names" related to aspects.  One other thing I've been saying lately; even though I've tried a number of Oriental Beauty teas I'm not the right person to put it on a well-informed objective quality scale, even if I weren't conflicted in doing so (and I'm not all that conflicted; I'll keep on with the tea hobby regardless of how samples play out, so I'll keep saying what I think).  So to be even more direct:  I think I might like that Thai version I kept writing about a little better (that was some nice tea), and the higher oxidation level in that China Life version might not work as well for me.  But someone else might have different preferences and switch the order, since all three were decent versions of Oriental Beauty.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Tea Side 0802 HTC 2006 Thai sheng re-review

I must admit, I feel like I'm starting all over again with tea in getting back to pu'er (hei cha in this example; it's a Thai tea).  And I don't mean in only a good sense, although that's part of it; I'm way back at figuring out brewing.

Anyway, the tea is a Tea Side 0802 Hong Tai Cha (HTC) Thai sheng hei cha.  It's not really a pu'er since it's from Thailand instead of Yunnan.  Pu'er within Yunnan varies by specific origin location (most blanket statements like that require qualification, but that seems conservative enough to stand alone), and this could be all the more "varied" due to being grown in a different climate.

But that's not really something I'll address here, how it compares to Yunnan versions, or related to tea sourcing issues.  That last subject and the history would be interesting; there are "old" tea trees in Thailand, although old is quite relative, and dating trees is problematic.

About the tea, even the dry tea smell wasn't what I expected.  It comes across a lot like a shou, too dark, too rich and sweet, too much caramel and raisin range, with a bit of old leather.  But clean; no mushroom or peat, none of that other range that can stand out in shou, definitely nothing remotely like fish.  I'd tried this tea before, a sample of it, reviewed here, so it's odd to be going back through all this, being surprised by how it comes across.

Part of why I'm re-reviewing it relates to testing my own experience against my earlier experience, not that I could really separate out error, subjective preference changes, and other possible changes.  What are those, you might wonder, since a nine year old pu'er shouldn't change that much in the 10th year (or could it?).  If storage conditions had changed over the last year it would be different, and people tend to speak of pu'er resting from travel (seriously).

I've had this tea for around two months so it should be feeling ok, settled.  One odd variable is the tea being sold as either 0801 or 0802, apparently two different but closely related teas, perhaps not identical to what I tried last year, one more thing I won't really get sorted out.


After overdoing it with a Golding Nan Nuo sheng pu'er proportion of tea to water (a real pu'er, with Nan Nuo being one of those distinct regions), and after getting better results the second time, but brewing slightly too thin, I went light to start on this one.

This tasting is going to have to go in rounds, and more ideally several sessions would be better.  I was reading up and watching videos on brewing and drinking pu'er and a Tea DB video talked about trying the same pu'er ten days in a row to get a feel for it; sounds about right.  I'm not sure if those guys actually have jobs to schedule tea drinking around.  On to review then.

The first infusions were way too light, although still nice, interesting fruit and earthy flavors.  Later when I get my sense of taste adjusted I may well drink the tea like that, but I just wasn't getting much out of it at first.

It's early for a tangent, but related to that, I was just talking to a friend about subjectivity in tea tasting, and to me that means a lot of different things.  One thing is that preference determines what is good; very straightforward (eg. tea can be enjoyed at different infusion strengths, a preference which can change over time).  Another is that one person might "get" a taste as plum and another as raisin; a bit more going on there, seemingly that one person is right and the other is wrong, but maybe it's not that simple.  Or two people might have completely different impressions, and this is where it all gets strange.  Other factors could account for real differences, brewing parameter differences, even using different water, or tea ware.

so much for straining

Where am I going with all this?  One other interesting case--interesting to me--is that maybe I could taste a tea differently at different times, for reasons that might not be so easy to explain.  In that post where I tried to comparison taste a black tea from one year to the next to determine that I couldn't separate the effect of different tea versions from year to year.  Now I'd like to do the same for this tea, compare the tea and my sense of taste, and to practice on the type.

Once I did get the tea brewing--it sort of "opened up" after some infusions, and after I lengthened infusion time a little--it was even more interesting.  It was complex enough that it would be hard to describe, but that's the whole point of this exercise.  The tea tastes of dark wood and raisin, maybe a bit of leather, possibly with just a touch of peat (much as I know what that tastes like; maybe I really mean "forest floor").  Oddly by all that I mean the tea is nice.  It has a cool feel, not a dryness, but towards that, something in the range I'd need more vocabulary to say much about.  From there aspects get even harder to describe.  Even if I added another three or four taste aspects I'm not sure I could really describe the tea through them.

It has an earthiness that tastes like actual earth, like dirt, but in a good sense.  That isn't helping describe it, is it?  It's like the smell from digging up roots from under the ground, dirt mixed with an unusual vegetal smell, heavy on minerals, something different.  Oddly that's one of the smells from my childhood, playing with dirt, damming small streams, or playing in basements and root cellars, out in the woods knocking down different kinds of plants for no good reason (I think the last relates more to green tea range though).  It's rounding things off too much to say it's a taste of age itself, but there's something to that.  Like a really old baseball glove, or at least along that line.

So why do I like this?  Maybe there really is no accounting for taste.  Something in all that effect I kind of connect with.  I think it would work good and strong, since there is no astringency to brew around, beyond whatever component is giving it an unusual feel.  I don't mean unusual as in how fresh teas come across, it's a full bodied and complex feel, just different.  Some teas taste better as strong as possible, based on a limitation from one aspect, and more often a great balance point works best, probably how this one goes.

I honestly can't say if this is a good sheng pu'er or not; I don't have enough background to have a clear judgment on that.  Me just liking the tea is a good start.  It has an aftertaste but nothing too unusual, not so lingering.  I'm not sure if that feel is preferable to pu'er enthusiasts or not.  It coats my mouth and tongue in an unusual way, which I feel in the top of my mouth, but I'm not really feeling it in the throat.  I never really got that part anyway, about taste or feel in the throat, how that's such an interesting thing.

junior taster likes hei cha, just a little

My junior assistant had no idea what to make of it so she said it tastes like flowers.  She's stuck on that.  I guess if I had to give it just one taste description I'd go with old leather, which isn't even something I've ever actually tasted, at least not that I remember.  I'll give it another try before I finalize this, and compare it to last year's description.

Re-tasting, a second go and earlier notes:

I tried the tea a second time, with a higher proportion of tea to water, with somewhat similar results.  I didn't need to keep adjusting time to get some flavor out of it but did need to adjust time to keep it in the right range, soft and balanced enough.  The basic flavors were similar, raisin and date, dark wood and old leather, with an odd feel, a slight fullness and dryness, all of which seemed to work.  It's consistent enough with the first tasting, I just need to get parameters dialed in a bit finer.  I'm sure it does evolve across transitions but I wasn't noticing as much of that as I expected, probably related to still messing around with parameters.

This is probably a good place to check that review from last year:

not dark, not green, in the middle

Very nice; the tea is smooth and rich, full flavored, not astringent, complex, a little sweet.  Flavors are all layered together:  plum and fig, molasses, earthy tones, tobacco, a bit of mineral, maybe something like roasted almond in there.  A number of infusions in the flavors mellow a little, deepen, with some of the fruit giving way to stronger earthier tones.  The fig and plum element is still prevalent enough to give good balance, and the texture stays smooth, with just enough astringency to give the tea some body but no bitterness.

Sounds a little better than my last description, but similar, although that difference could just relate to paying more attention.  I'm not sure what it's all about but my kids are louder than ever lately, often engaged in minor battles with their mother, interesting in small doses but not a great background for tea tasting.

Maybe as well to cite the vendor's take, given going this far:

The tea is made from old and wild 200-300 years old trees. This Sheng resembles a sheng of purple bushes in looks - the tea is very dark for its age. This is my absolute favorite among Thai Shengs...

Dry flavor: Raisins, tree bark and spices. Neat leaves are carefully ripened. The infusion looks like dark amber, it's absolutely clear.

Taste: Full-bodied, very smooth (balanced) and intelligent. Nice raisin profile laced with spicy woody tones. Notes of plum are also present. Velvety and spicy aftertaste remains long after the drinking.

Close enough.  The parts about tea tree age are a bit taboo these days but I couldn't resist including it, and his subjective judgment wasn't necessary, but why not.


Oddly I find myself considering how much I really like this style of tea.  Usually that type of response is easy to sort out, it's right there, I do or don't.  I had said I did, but now I wonder if I like the tea as aspects and a whole experience, or if it's more about the novelty, since this is quite different from most tea experiences.  I think I like it, but it's not that "wow, I love this" experience people tend to express.

It makes me think more about shifts in preference curve, that idea of people acquiring taste for some teas, as they do Scotch, in the other post.  Perhaps a different tea example will put more context to this.  Related to sweetening tea, I recently commented in a Facebook group that there is a natural tendency to evolve a preference away from sweetening tea, expressed as such (quoting myself, again--strange):

There is a natural tendency to use less sweetener over time, as a result of preference change, brewing technique improvement, and from drinking better tea. I only use sugar in masala chai now. There is nothing wrong with the existence of a preference curve or people being at different places on it, and I wouldn't pass judgment on someone that stopped in a different place.

As for preference shifting from one type of tea to another it's not so simple.  I keep referencing back to an idea I'd read in another blog (Tea Addict's Journal) that people drink tea for taste preference first, then others, related to feel and other aspects next (body and aftertaste), and then effect (qi).  I've mentioned before which teas seem like better gateway teas to me (light oolongs, to go with a short version, but it's more complicated related to better oolongs from Taiwan).

So what about pu'er (hei cha, in this case); is there a natural drift in preference to that type?  It doesn't seem to be so simple.  Pu'er is really two types of tea anyway, sheng and shou, and maybe it does work to say shou could function as a gateway to aged sheng preference, or even young sheng (another idea from the Tea Addict's Journal, but then he says lots of stuff).  But really it's not clear to what extent anyone would naturally change what they like over time, or how exposure is going to work related to that, or if there really would be a natural direction or number of likely stopping points.  A lot of people seem to keep drinking broadly related to types.

Some types are trendy, and expectations factor in, group "consensus" direction.  One could find justification to continue to prefer pu'er or oolong in tea groups, and might feel a bit marginalized if black tea seemed best for some reason (or green; both don't get much respect--individual teas can by the types sort of don't).  White teas are different, held in higher regard, fine to cite as a favorite type, but it would seem strange if someone just drank white teas.  For now I'll stay on the same path, trying a broad range of teas, but this is an interesting way to evaluate preference shift, by experimenting with one type I'm not so attached to.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Golding (KL shop) private Nan Nuo gushu sheng pu'er

Back into pu'er!  Based on talking about tea with people online a shop in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Golding, sent some tea samples to try, including this Nan Nuo version; many thanks to them for those.

I'm relatively new to pu'er but not completely new, but as well to clarify that first.  I tried many around three years ago when I found a pu'er shop near my office (what are the odds), JRT Imports.  There is no website to mention; strange, but a street-view link is here, and a Tea Chat discussion of local Bangkok pu'er shops goes into background.  A friend recommended that I try drinking a lot of one type of pu'er, buying and drinking a lot of one cake, to get adjusted to brewing and the general profile.  I did that, finishing a lot of one back then--two and a half years ago?  the time flies--but I got side tracked on other tea types.

The Tea Side vendor sent a good number of Thai hei cha samples last year, but I didn't really make the switch to pu'er then either.  I didn't dislike what I had tried, sheng or shou, or variations from different regions, and it kept coming up a little.  But I tend to explore tea types organically, almost randomly, which led to drinking a little of every other main type instead, from lots of countries (except yellow tea, that's only came up once).  I just bought a 2006 HTC Thai hei cha cake / bing from Tea Side (reviewed in this post), sitting at home now, so maybe I'll do a comparison review of trying the same tea again later.  I tried that idea with a Thai black tea in a recent post, a re-tasting test, but I couldn't pin down year-version variations against review-interpretation changes.


Even the first rinse was promising; lots of sweetness, interesting mineral tones, not much similarity to taking an aspirin.  The first infusion was more of the same, sweet, lots of mineral, with a hint of smoke, really lots going on.  The general range was familiar, I'd just not been drinking teas in that range for awhile.

Brewing was going to be unfamiliar; still using quite short infusions the taste strengthened a lot due to the tea starting to brew.  In retrospect I'd added too much tea; more on that related to brewing difference description from the second go.

Texture came into play more, of course hard to describe.  At first it seemed like a dryness but really the tea caused a bit of mouth watering, the opposite.  What came across as mineral was really vegetal and mineral, in a kale range, with a little mineral close to chalk.  That might sound awful, or maybe to a pu'er drinker just a normal general range.  The effect was interesting, and it reminded me of a tea drinking friend's comment that people tend not to drink pu'er for taste, or at least there is less necessary connection, less emphasis on that.

With short infusions the tea still brewed light, with sweetness offsetting vegetal / mineral / slight bitterness, with just a hint of smoke.  The tea did cause an aftertaste, but I have no idea about throat feel or taste in the throat, those more exotic properties (more on all that here).

My assistant taster liked it. She said it tastes like flowers.  Either that's a standard answer (I had been drinking some Chrysanthemum in the evenings recently) or she's on to something.  It is a little floral, maybe especially after you drink it, the aftertaste more than the taste.  The scent on the gaiwan lid or in the empty cup includes more honey than I'm noticing during drinking it too.

After more infusions the smoke picked up a little and the honey sweetness became even more noticeable.  The mineral / vegetal / aspirin / sheng taste mellowed a little, and the tea was probably nicer for being more familiar, again.  The aftertaste was kind of different than the taste, related, essentially overlapping, but not as closely connected as is typical with other teas.  It seems to just not go away, to the extent that I wonder if I'm imagining it a few minutes later.

my back-up taster's back-up

I forgot the tea, interrupted by my kids, and gave it a long infusion; that didn't work.  At lighter strength the taste balance works; I think the floral-related aspect did pick up.  Other aspects are more interesting, the feel, a fullness and juiciness, and the aftertaste, which is pleasant, different. The light smoke seems to come and go, and a very mild bitterness sort of works.

I'm reminded of a recent Dan Cong, with a tartness that could be seen as a flaw or an integral positive aspect that gives the tea a nice balance.  Other tea types, oolongs, blacks, and whites, usually don't really get into much tartness or bitterness, so the challenge of how to interpret them doesn't come up.  A word on this bitterness; it's not astringency, a feel of the tea, but really a subtle taste element, odd to experience.  This could be one aspect people might describe as medicinal but it's really just bitterness.

Brewing parameter variation:  from light to quite light

A friend recommended brewing the tea very lightly, using relatively little of it in proportion to water, in addition to short infusion times, so I tried that.  This was really probably more standard practice; I just hadn't adjusted for the tea type properly, long out of the habit.  It was better, and also just different.

The bitterness essentially didn't come out, and taste range shifted to include some spice, maybe clove.  Clove is nice in tea, although real clove seems to be a complex set of related taste aspects, so this might have been just a part.  Everything evident in the tea was very positive, and there still was plenty of taste left to experience, so it was really more a matter of not being familiar with drinking tea prepared this wispy.  There was still evident aftertaste but issues related to feel sort of dropped out when prepared so lightly; it didn't feel like much.

I think there would be a balance point between prepared lightly and very lightly that worked best.  I mentioned in a post not so long ago I'd been drinking plenty of white teas lately, and that I was calibrated for the type, and I think I'm just not for sheng pu'er, related to brewing and drinking the tea, about taste range and brewed strength.

It's my understanding that some people enjoy white teas, particularly Silver Needle style, prepared so lightly that there is barely any taste to experience.  The subtlety--on the sort of getting something level--and feel is more the point, but I'm not one of those people.  I don't need to brew them up to black tea level flavor strength to drink them either, related to some people using really long steep times, but I tend to like having more going on with aspects in Bai Mu Dan style white teas anyway.  But then I've been drinking an interesting Ceylon Bai Mu Dan lately that you don't really taste as much as sense in some general way, even brewed stronger, and that's turned out to be a cool experience.

My impression is that it's a better tea than I can really fully appreciate, not just interesting and nice but refined, with complexity and depth to it.  It makes me further consider the issue of acclimating to a tea type.  As an analogy, I can't appreciate Scotch whiskey at all, but do I need to?  Coffee and beer worked like that, as acquired tastes, maybe not great examples since I don't drink much of either just now.  I think this may be a different case than with Scotch, that there's a shorter gap to bridge since I already like tea, in general.

But I will keep going with the other pu'er samples, and pu'er in general, and see what I make of it.  I'm reminded of something one of the more out-there tea friends I've met said, that one of the worst things that could happen to you is finding a pu'er that you like.  Maybe I'm playing with fire, and I'll turn into an even worse tea-junkie than I already am.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Shi Li Xiang; a Wuyi Yancha cultivar mystery

During the last visit to the Jip Eu tea shop in Chinatown, where I tried some interesting 40 year old aged Tie Kuan Yin, I also picked up an unusual version of Wuyi Yancha (Fujian oolong), a Shi Li Xiang.  I understand that to translate as ten league fragrance tea, or something such; that unit of length just isn't going to translate properly, and "ten kilometer aroma" does put a more modern spin on it.

This is an unusual type of tea.  I think I've had a Thai version before, or at least a tea sold as this, but it wasn't good.  I'll have to look into what it even is.  I wouldn't have bought the tea except I tried it first and liked it.  It's immediately evident that it's decent tea, nothing like a strange tasting grocery store version, but it's not familiar.

It's fragrant, and aromatic, as the name implies.  A primary taste element is similar to almond, but it's complex enough that listing out tastes isn't so simple.  The effect is that the tastes are clean, and the tea is reasonably balanced, and well made, but there's a lot going on, so it's not exactly subtle.  It's a medium roasted Wuyi Yancha, so the roast effect is something else, not coming across as "char," but starting in that direction.

Mineral undertones are the base; normal for the general category (Wuyi Yancha).  The vendor said that the tea would change a lot over a year, which is the way to settle out that char effect (if there had been one), by a relatively short one to two year aging process.  He said that the fragrance would also diminish, so a year of aging would be a trade-off in characteristics.  They had both versions there, this year's and last year's, so if I'd have more time I would have tried both, but I was in a bit of a rush that day.  I tried this one so that's what I bought.  They're nice to visit with in that shop, by the way, with a deep history related to selling and making tea, so better to plan out an extra hour or two of trying teas and talking about tea if you do stop by there.

In the end it's nice.  It's not a tea one would be likely to drink all the time, but then it's probably not a tea one would find a good version of very often either.  That aromatic component is familiar, from a related aspect in a Bei Dou from this vendor, a "real" Da Hong Pao.  Or so the shop said in selling it; I get it that people tend to be skeptical about claims about some tea types, that one more than most.  This post covers why Da Hong Pao isn't always even intended as a plant type, used as a generic brand name, even though it's the general understanding that it is plant type.

looks like a medium roast oolong

This tea is hard to place related to other Wuyi Yancha types.  For having a lot of earthiness, mineral, fruit and floral apsects, whatever else they tend to have, they don't usually come across as having lots going on.  They typically seem to retain a subtlety, in a limited sense, based on showing a few interesting aspects, with some degree of layering of characteristics, at least the better versions.

This could almost be a flavored tea for the range of flavors it exhibits, and that aromatic quality, but I'm certain it isn't one.  The effect is too light and clean, and integrated.  I think using light brewing, experimenting with the normal range of gongfu brewing approaches, one could really draw out some variation from the tea.  That's actually how I tried it initially, prepared gongfu style, brewed a bit lightly, standard enough, but tweaking that might prove interesting.

Research section; background on cultivar versus variety first

I looked up what this really is, since that name seemed to be a branding name, not a description related to a tea plant type, or something that clearly ties to a regional tea.  It was sold as an ordinary Wuyi Yancha type, so that does include the region (Wuyishan area, Fujian), and that it's a well-roasted oolong, but it wasn't sold in a labeled package, just packed separately from bulk tea.

this particular plant, per the vendor

Before getting into more details, lets do a nice long tangent on tea plant types, starting with this decent Hojo vendor tea reference on tea plant naming.  Such references tend to vary a little in how they use the terms (surely with some correct use well defined), but for the most part this matches what I currently understand.  To sum that up, below the genus and species names for tea (Camellia Sinensis) variety (often written as var.) identifies the main, naturally evolving subtypes (Sinensis and Assamica, and some others), with additional cultivar type as the designation of intentionally bred, specific plant types with different characteristics (eg. Tie Kuan Yin).

The World of Tea site weighs in on all this, backing up the other reference, and clarifying the obvious next question that arises, what if a natural variation occurs that people continue to propagate:

Some confusion arises with the fact that a cultivar is simply a cultivated variety, meaning that someone has recognized variations in a plant and has cultivated it to maintain these variations. The plant is still a variety, but because we’re cultivating it, we call it a cultivar. We know that in the tea world, cultivars are created from one of the main varieties or hybrids between the main varieties of Camellia sinensis used for tea production: sinensis, assamica, and to a lesser extent, parvifolia. This is why we sometimes see a variety and a cultivar listed for tea plants — when a plant exhibits variation within a variety, and is cultivated to maintain this variation, we end up with both a variety and a cultivar.

Simply put, varieties are found naturally in the world, once we propagate them for their variance, they become cultivars.

So there it is; if we determine this plant type is a derivation of another type, be it a hybrid (mix from different genetic inputs, from two varieties) or a change from an existing type then it's new cultivar.  It's unlikely that it's not just a variation of the Sinensis variety, although that is a possibility.

What would it take for this type to be identified as a new variety?  Of course not necessarily new in the sense of just starting to exist, since this tea is coming from old plants (more on that later), but in the sense of recognition?  The first Hojo article sort of addresses that, but only in mentioning a limitation, that the new hybrid plants used in Darjeeling, crosses of Assamica and Sinensis varieties, do not have a clear scientific name designation; there is no identified variety.  Per a recent post on Darjeeling these go by clonal tea type names, like AV2, discussed in that post.  These would still be cultivars, of course, cultivated distinct types of plants, but per my understanding with no variety designation assigned (which of course could be mistaken; I'm still sorting all this out).

It makes you want to check out a table-style reference of tea-plant types, doesn't it?  Or maybe that's just me.  I'll include one I've mentioned before here, back to Taiwan teas as a reference, where they keep such things well defined.  The earlier section of this table is on the numbered cultivar series, familiar to most (eg. #12 is Jin Xuan), and if it's not you should check this reference out, although it's partly unreadable due to lots of talk about genetic marker testing, but fascinating nonetheless:

The A and S variety are familiar, but the F is interesting, right?  This from the footnotes:

Abbreviation S:C. sinensis var. sinensis, A: C. sinensis var. assamica, SA: C. sinensis var. sinensis × var. assamica hybrid, AS: C. sinensis var. assamica × var. assamica hybrid, F: C. formosensis, FY: C. formosensis var. yungkangensis.

Note#: G green tea, P Paochong tea, O oolong tea, B black tea.

Lots more one might get into there (landraces, wild teas!  I'll get back to those ideas), but lets get back to that other tea.

Back to Shi Li Xiang; what is it?

per this, it's just tea, var. Sinensis

The Shi Li Xiang name is relatively Google-proof; odd.  Except Chinese restaurants tend to use the name, which seems irrelevant.  A relatively complete database of teas reference lists a Kun Ming Shi Li Xiang tea that's seems to clearly not be it (the page is interesting though; described as an International Tea Database).  That listing is for a compressed tea that might be a tisane, not what this is, or at least seems to be.  An academic paper mentions this as a tea tree type here, titled "Research on Protection and Utilization of Old 'Shilixiang' Tea Trees in Kunming," but the paper isn't publicly available.  Since that's already interesting I'll cite the description of that work:

Research was done on the cultivation history, present status and protection value of old 'Shilixiang' tea trees in Kunming in order to deepen the recognition of the precious tea species, and to carry out scientific protection and utilization of the resources.

That brings up an interesting part of that other database citation:

Category:  dark, compressed.  Note:  Uncertain classification. Could be a herbal tea.

This tea was unusually aromatic, so much so I just asked the vendor by message how they made it so.  But it seems natural to me, a taste from a tea, just not exactly like any other I've tried before, except overlapping a little with that one Bei Dou.

A mystery solved, sort of

I asked around and a lead from a Tea Chat discussion seemed to crack the mystery.  Per that input the tea is probably the same as Qian Li Xiang, which is 1000 mile fragrance (so it travels 100 times further, but it's the same tea?  probably just a name anyway, and I might mention that I didn't actually verify those translations).  This tea name (type) does come up in Google search, just not as very many results, and standard tea information sites don't seem to come up, in general (not as if I spent a day cross-checking possible listings, Google just wasn't mentioning them).  All the same, any mention takes it as a given that it's just another cultivar type, and probably var. Sinensis, same as other Wuyi Yancha, just a bit rare.  Descriptions aren't a perfect match but a general impression that it's a very aromatic tea are enough; it's likely the same.

One discussion comment suggested the name may relate to a processing style, not a plant type, which would makes sense, naming conventions do tend to shift about.  I'm reminded of Cindy (a tea-maker friend) mentioning the tea plant name of a Dan Cong she was referring to by the aroma name instead, a more common designation for those:  "its name is juduozai ,but its aroma is xin ren (nut) [almond, typically], so we also call it xin ren xiang [almond aroma]."  She also said that "danzhu" means picking from one tree, and processing in one machine, for harvest and production lots all taken from a single tea tree (which is completely off the subject, but I just saw that looking up that Dan Cong cultivar name discussion).

Here's a vendor description under Qian Li Xiang that seems typical, which says almost nothing about the tea except that it's aromatic (although at first read it seems to say a lot; funny how that goes).  Most likely there is another cultivar name out there for the tea, so something like the World of Tea cultivar database would be no help based on listing plant types only by the actual plant name, and in fact it isn't any help.  The other listing of tea plant types I'd already cited also didn't mention it.

So it was an interesting find, not quite as interesting if it had been some really novel wild tea-related plant, but it drinks the same either way, or probably better for actually being tea.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Re-reviewing Jin Xuan Thai black tea from Tea Side

cool looking tea, with just as nice a dry smell

I've already reviewed this tea, a Thai Jin Xuan based black tea, sold by the Tea Side vendor.  The point here is to compare my own impression of it from now and when I tried an earlier sample that vendor sent, about nine months ago, in this post (the time just flies).  I liked the tea so much I ordered 200 grams of it, to have a nice daily drinking tea around.  That just took time; I tend to get side-tracked, as on that Indonesian teas tangent.

The trigger for finally buying a version was trying an aged 21 year old Thai oolong from Tea Side a few posts back, which I really loved, the kind of tea that might not be around to order in the future (with another Steep Stories review of the same tea here, with nicer story telling).  I'll have more to say about the teas, including a Thai hei cha I liked and bought a cake of (and already reviewed, the 0801 HTC 2006 sheng; would seem a bit repetitive to keep repeating posts about identical teas), and a sample of an hei cha from Myanmar that sounded interesting.

tea haul!  great teas, including one sample that sounds really interesting

I could see why I loved the tea from the smell; lots of floral character, sweetness, a richness that almost smells like a red wine component.  The brewed version was nice too, but it was a little different than I remembered it.  It is a soft, sweet version of a black tea, with those elements, floral aspects, maybe some cocoa, malt, and a bit of bread dough, a slight yeastiness.  It sounds like some sort of cobbler, doesn't it?  I didn't remember that last part as being as much of a factor.  I like the tea, and it doesn't really detract from it, but it seems possible I really loved that general effect a year or year and a half ago and I'm sort of moving on from there.

Why would I say that?  The Vietnamese oolong Red Buffalo was the same, in a lot of ways.  I loved the tea, the softness, full flavors, malt and cocoa aspects, and also fruit and spice components, but the bread dough / yeast aspect would really be a make-or-break for someone to love the tea or not.  I think I loved it more initially, then still liked it a lot when I bought a lot of it (a kilogram; some extra to give away), but I was less in love with it the second time.

I think this will be a perfect tea for giving away too, a type that would serve well as an introductory tea, although I still like it enough it will be hard to part with much of it.  All the same I did give away samples already, to three people at work, and they liked it, so that worked out.  I'll keep at least half to drink so I won't feel shorted.  It is perfect for a tea that you drink when you don't really want to challenge yourself to make or drink some incredible tea, just as something nice with a breakfast or afternoon break.

A related tangent, about everyday teas:  I deviated into an Earl Grey drinking tangent recently related to that, which I'd been considering mentioning, but didn't.  I bought a Cordon Bleu version on sale (the French cooking training school brand), and I'd bought some of a Twinings version (which I did mention here).

A blog-post comparison might have worked, but it was hard to take Earl Grey seriously enough to do that, and there was no real story.  The Twinings version had a floral component added, and the other straight bergamot, so they were just different.  The Cordon Bleu version was right at the limit of too much bergamot, the perfect balance point, to me.  Standard-recipe Earl Grey is the way to go, for sure; hold the flowers.

Compared to prior review of the Tea Side Jin Xuan black tea

A lot of the point was trying to see if my description of an identical tea changed.  Related to that, I reviewed the tea last year here, with this description:

Brewed tea tasted a little more like peach, still plenty sweet, but nice and clean flavored, with a good bit of cocoa and malt, and some cherry as well, with a rich floral nature.  So good complexity across a range of awesome flavors.  It started to hint a bit towards sweet potato, somehow not my favorite taste element in teas, even though I like sweet potato, but didn't have the too-sweet aftertaste that can go along with that sometimes. 

Versus this year, no bread dough no yeast mentioned then, this year perhaps a bit lighter on fruit, but still floral with cocoa.  So what changed?

same tea, different lighting

The idea was to test my taste-memory and palate, to write a new review and compare it, but of course there are problems with doing so.  It might well be the next-year's version of the tea, or the last could have been hanging around awhile, not necessarily a bad thing for black tea.  Storage could come into play, and this actually leads into another subject that's been coming up lately, tea aging.

Per the vendor a taste of yeast or bread dough is an indicator of a recently-made tea, and will fade over time.  I can't confirm or deny that based on my own experience or prior knowledge, so just passing that on.  According to discussions with tea vendors it's not just about getting the processing right, and storage, but tea characteristics also relate to growing and harvesting conditions, so how much it rained, or when, could affect a tea from year to year, a lot.

So I really can't say if I was "tasting it wrong" before, and missed a main component, or if not how those other issues came into play, what caused the difference.  I guess it's possible it could be essentially the same but could use a few months or a year to rest (although that line of thinking really isn't familiar to me, related to black teas).  It's not exactly a major flaw in the tea, the one aspect I keep talking about, tasting like bread dough / yeast, but I suppose I did like it less for trading out rich fruit tastes like peach and cherry for that.

Eventually it would be possible to even "outgrow" a taste black teas, but I don't see that coming.  An online friend just mentioned that pu'er drinkers don't drink those for the taste, that drinking tea for taste (flavor) is something one moves on from (an idea I covered in an earlier post about hei cha, a Thai version from Tea Side, go figure).  Obviously I notice some other factors, and mention here when they really come together, but taste still seems like the main aspect of tea, related to where I'm at now in a preference development curve.  Here is a list of other attributes one might appreciate instead in teas, proposed by that friend:

body, viscosity, aftertaste, huigan, inside aroma.  

I don't have much to add related to those, but here is a nice reference explaining some of them, of course related to pu'er.  In that other post of mine I reviewed ideas from a Tea Addict's Journal post that there is a trend to drink teas for taste, then feel and other aspects, then effect, or qi (roughly summarized).  The last part is interesting since he also tends to claim that most teas have very limited qi effect, which of course lots of people have lots of different takes on.  I'm not so sure I can really notice how caffeine affects me, never mind qi, but maybe I'll get there later.


Dunno, really, the tea seemed a little different.  I was expecting to have missed an attribute or two the first time but it didn't seem to work out like that, although it seems conceivable the same attributes were there, and just shifted a little.  I still like the tea, perhaps just not as much as I had last year.  It could be related to drinking a lot of different black teas, and expectations shifting, or a gradual move away from preference for the type, but then I've been drinking a lot more oolong for a half dozen years now, but I still like interesting black teas.