Friday, September 23, 2016

Taste comparison of three Oriental Beauty teas (Bai Hao)

Tea Village (Thai) left, May Zest (Taiwan) right

Who doesn't like Oriental Beauty teas?  That style of oolongs is approachable, complex, sweet, and distinctive, typically expressing a nice range of fruit and spice flavors.  Here I review three of them, directly tasting a Thai and Taiwanese version against each other, then reviewing a third from Taiwan.

One is a tea I've talked about a good bit in the past, a Thai Oriental Beauty sold by Tea Village, a shop in Pattaya and an online vendor; the other two are from May Zest, the first I'll discuss already reviewed separately.  Having covered that ground already the point here is noting how direct comparison goes, since sometimes that points out subtle differences.

Note that this tea type can vary a lot year to year due to the input of the insects in the process (the bug-bitten idea), which Google search will say more about, or other posts in this blog describes.  Tasting the same teas these vendors sell in another year could go differently, or May Zest might sell other versions for that reason (not lots of OB coming out of Thailand to choose from, although I have reviewed others).

Comparison review of two versions

Per appearance the Thai tea has more tips / buds, a good sign, but otherwise the general shape is not so different.  The Thai leaves are darker, the Taiwanese browner versus nearly black.  We'll see what that means related to oxidation level, but I thought both were around the same, quite oxidized.  The standard for the type is 70% oxidized or more (from sources I've referred to in the past), so relatively far towards black teas as oolongs go, even though measuring that may not be so simple.  The scent is different, both sweet.  The May Zest / Taiwanese version comes across with more cinnamon, and the Tea Village / Thai version showing more varied spice and also some earthy tones that are hard to separate.

May Zest left (darker), Tea Village right

Per the rinse this is going to be closer than I thought.  I thought I'd like the Thai tea more, that it would show better complexity, a larger range of interesting flavors, but both seem nice at this early stage, complex and sweet, with lots going on.

The first infusion was a bit light, good for separating out some trace aspects, but the tea will really get going more on the next.  The Tea Village / Thai OB is just beautiful, light and sweet, complex and balanced, clean flavored.  It has fruit aspects (maybe towards peach; I'll check again next infusion), and a cinnamon / nutmeg component, just not as heavy on the cinnamon as the May Zest / Taiwanese tea.

The May Zest tea has good flavors, pronounced cinnamon and honey sweetness, and good complexity, but it does give up just a little in being as "clean."  Related earthy flavors can easily include a little scope that isn't exactly a notable flaw in the tea, but in this case it doesn't come across quite as well in comparison.  It's hard to describe as a taste element, since it comes across as an aspect of how the flavors are, sort of a mustiness, but just a trace.  More on that next round.  Both teas are quite soft, no astringency to deal with, not exactly with a full, rich feel as some other lighter oolong types tend to go but with a nice feel to them,.  Both have a reasonable degree of fullness and just a hint of "structure" from being relatively more oxidized teas (a term borrowed from wine tasting, referring to how the tannins give a tea a certain type of body).

The next infusion goes a little further; things get clearer.  The Thai tea is still sweet and complex, with that spice coming across somewhere between cinnamon and nutmeg, a nice place to be.  There is fruit too, in the peach / apricot range, again more in the middle than being one of those.  The tastes are positive and well balanced, and clean, but subtle enough they don't jump out as a flavor-aspects list, it all comes across as a fruit and spice blend.  Being stone fruit and spice it does come across a little like a cobbler, there just isn't much in the way of a bread / pastry element (maybe a little though).  It's definitely not yeasty, it doesn't have that bread-dough characteristic some teas have.

The cinnamon really picks up in the May Zest version, taking over the other flavors, along with a lot of honey sweetness in the background.  Sometimes when reviews mention honey it almost seems like they are being generous, trying to add some depth to saying a tea has sweetness, but this tastes a lot like a dark amber honey, not so much like the lighter golden type.  A lot of tea sweetness does resemble honey though, so it just depends, in part on interpretation.  The mustiness clarifies a little, but it seems to have evolved to a light background mushroom aspect.  That sounds worse than it really is; it's not like a cinnamon, honey, and mushroom consume, but it does have a touch of earthiness below those other spice / sweetness aspects.  Someone might interpret some aspect as fruit but to me the cinnamon and dark honey cover most of that related flavors range.

May Zest left (a little darker), Tea Village right

This might be a good place to note that I really do like both teas.  There's something that I'm attaching to related to the Thai tea I can't completely place, maybe the complexity, maybe the balance, or general effect, of subtlety.  It's hard to completely eliminate that I might like the idea of the tea better, that something about past experiences may have led to a bias.

That Thai OB is a pretty good tea; worse things could happen than for someone to feel an attachment to it.  It seems to give up a little intensity to the May Zest tea, in terms of sweetness and that cinnamon aspect being so pronounced, but the cleanness and balance is really something.  Then again, per personal preference differences someone else might like the May Zest tea more, especially if that blast of cinnamon really did connect with them.  I might also mention that a friend tried the May Zest OB and didn't thing cinnamon was all that pronounced, although when I first tried it I checked to see if the tea was just plant leaves or includes any shaved cinnamon bark (it doesn't).

Next infusion:  more of the same.  I kept the infusion strength at a medium to get a good idea of what's going on with the teas, and they're not really fading yet, a few infusions in, just transitioning a little.  For this general type that's often not as pronounced as for some others, changes over infusions.  It can vary a lot by brewing approach, Bai Hao / OB (or this variation also goes by Dong Fang Mei Ren).  The Tea Village version softens a little, maybe fades slightly, just not much, but still in that same range.  Probably a little additional complexity creeps in, in the range of dried hay, but it's subtle and integrated with other tastes, not so easy to identify.  The May Zest tea shifts to straight, strong cinnamon, with that musty trace that had shifted to mushroom now shifted towards a dark wood element, which works better with the tree bark / cinnamon spice aspect.

This  general tea type works well brewed Gongfu style, as I'm doing, using multiple, shorter infusions, and a higher proportion of tea to water, but it does just fine brewed Western style too.  It wasn't transitioning a lot, the main reason to use Gongfu style brewing instead, the main difference, aside from the tea potentially turning out differently brewed using different parameters.  Or if you like messing around Gongfu style is nice, not worse in any way.  That general brewing approach also combines well with other interests, like buying things, or owning things, since endless amounts of gear and teapot collecting pairs well with that approach, and can support some sort of Zen meditation experience.  You could even take a video of yourself doing the brewing, which would look cool to other people, especially if you wear some unusual clothing, some sort of robe.

From there both teas just taper off a bit.  Longer brewing times are required to get the same infusion strength, and some of the more earthy background aspects and that oxidation-effect structure stand out more in each.  The May Zest tea may seem just a little more oxidized, also tied to brewing a little darker, but the difference between in the range of 70% to 80% instead isn't notable except for tied to that sort of minor aspect shift.

Review of a third OB, also from May Zest

It looks like an Oriental Beauty, a Bai Hao oolong.  The smell is sweet but in the range of spice and sun dried tomato; different.  The brewed taste includes a good bit of sun dried tomato, and the spice range is cinnamon.  It's an unusual tea, but it comes across better than it sounds (unless that sounds really good,  then maybe just equivalent).

The type often include spices, so the difference is swapping out muscatel or other fruit for a sweet but different taste, something a bit richer.  On the second infusion the cinnamon picks up and the sundried tomato fades back so it's back in a more conventional OB range.  It has some citrus, expressed as orange zest, altogether a nice set.   The empty cup smells like honey, but that's not so uncommon from different teas.

The feel of the tea is nice, well oxidized but in that upper middle range, as OB goes, with that bit of dryness, nicely mixing with a juicy feel.  Later infusions aren't shifting a lot.  Cinnamon stands out as primary, that feel is next most notable, with decent sweetness and relatively clean flavors.  It's almost a shame that rich, vegetal leaning sundried tomato aspect dispelled a little, although still part of the profile.

I wouldn't brew to minimize that astringency since it has no bite or edge, it just gives it a dry feel, but you could coax this tea to being really soft instead, by dropping temperature and drinking it as very light infusions.  To me I'm preparing it as medium, but that would mean different things to different people.  To some I'd be drinking it way too strong, for others perhaps too light.  I like OB's prepared stronger than Dan Cong, if that helps, typically in a similar range as Wuyi Yancha teas maybe, probably just a touch stronger, with black teas brewed a bit stronger yet, usually.  All that depends on the tea, and on my inclination just then.

I tried cooler water and that sundried tomato taste picked way up, maybe for the dry feel and related mineral aspects dropping back.  Or maybe it's not that simple, and it all just shifted.  The mineral component is quite different, like iron ore might taste, earthy in a different way.  This is nothing like the drier, lighter minerals in pu'er, not like mineral tones in Vietnamese green teas, also nothing like that rock taste in Wuyi Yancha.  It would be interesting to visit these places and smell some rocks and dirt, to see how direct the mapping of mineral aspects to soil impressions is.

I could imagine people loving or hating this tea.  People seem to love OB for the fruit aspects, and for being easy to drink, and this works for both but it's not fruity in the normal range (muscatel / grape / citrus / spice).  It's not like drinking a green tea that transitions across a range of vegetables, where you really have to be on that page to appreciate it at all, but it's a bit dry and leans a little towards a savory effect, something different.  I don't mean it includes umami, like a Japanese green tea, but heavy minerals and that one rich, sweet dried tomato effect.

I'm not sure if I'd like it more or less after drinking a couple hundred grams of it but to me it was nice, not too novel, not challenging, and obviously a high quality tea, clean and well balanced.

Subjective comparison; which is better

I think preference for those characteristics I mentioned would determine which is better, and no one of these three clearly is.  The first May Zest OB didn't come across quite as clean-flavored as the other two, and that's one way to judge how "good" a tea is, but it was such a subtle difference that it wouldn't be so evident without direct comparison.  It was still slightly better than the average of other OB types and versions I've tried.  All three were quite decent OB versions.

Perhaps they aren't on the level of those storied most-sought-after teas that never leave their country of origin, but all are good teas.  The Thai version seems better than it ought to be, in reference to every other Thai oolong I've ever tried.  I'd be happy to drink lots of any of them.

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