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.
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
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
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.