Thursday, October 27, 2016

Visiting Tea Village in Pattaya, Thailand, and about a Bai Mu Dan

Last week I visited the Tea Village shop in Pattaya, Thailand, the closest beach resort area to Bangkok, where I live.  Pattaya is famous for adult themed nightlife but we go there mostly for our kids to play in a hotel pool.  I had a nice visit with the owners, who had added a nice tea tasting area to a standard tea shop environment, a bit small but very well designed and comfortable, a great place to drink tea and chat.

a Pattaya show-girl, one of the main attractions there

I mention their Thai version of Bai Hao / Oriental Beauty most often in posts, a really nice tea.  This time I picked up some of a Bai Mu Dan / Peony, a Chinese white tea I missed out on the last time I ordered tea from them since I gave away what I bought earlier this year, to a monk and to a friend that visited.  I've had other versions before, and tried theirs, so I was really looking forward to drinking it again.

Thailand's most interesting tea drinker (nah, just kidding)

I suppose there's lots more I could say about the shop, their selection, tea-ware options there (which I didn't get around to reviewing much for talking too much), but I'll just mention that it's really worth a stop if you visit Pattaya, and they do sell online.

Those two teas I mentioned are in the range of mid-range quality tea pricing, and good value for that given what they are.  Some of the more modest Thai teas they sell are quite inexpensive, a good value for a different reason, and they carry different tisanes (herbs and floral teas), and blends, good for catering to a broad range of tastes.  Some other Thai tea vendors are set up more for sourcing the highest levels of specialty teas but demand is so limited that it also sort of doesn't come up much.

Review of the Bai Mu Dan / Peony style white tea

The general profile is familiar from drinking a Ceylon version of a Peony / Bai Mu Dan lately.  It's subtle, rich, and full, but light in terms of how flavors stand out, altogether a nice balance.  Flavors that do emerge are light hay, along the line of sunflower seed, and some light floral, like the less sweet and aromatic aspects of chrysanthemum range.  Or maybe chamomile is closest, but with a little more going on.

The rest, the general effect, is hard to describe.  It's smooth, full in feel, clean, and subtle, but complex (in a limited sense).  Based on the dry and brewed tea color the oxidation level is relatively low, not far from a green tea, in the light oolong level, but there is no astringency at all, no grassiness, and it's not vegetal.

I could imagine people loving this style of tea or not liking it at all,  even more than for other types.  It's so light in terms of pronounced flavors that it's almost odd that I like it as much as I do, since I generally prefer more oxidized oolongs and black teas.

That Ceylon Bai Mu Dan version (which I had reviewed in this post, a tea originally made by Ebony Springs that I tried from Luka cafe) is interesting for sharing so much common ground and also for being so different.  The richness, complexity,  and subtlety are the same but the flavors profile is different.  It expresses very light mineral tones, extending into a light wood or hay range, where the teas' aspects start to overlap, and there is one more aspect I couldn't place as easily.

that Ceylon, like a Bai Mu Dan, a bit broken for being the end of the bag

Mineral is really a range, of course,  different for high mountain Taiwanese teas, Wuyi Yancha, and Vietnamese green teas.  I can't specify a rock for that Ceylon but it reminds me of the smell of red clay.  There is no mineral component in the Tea Village version, and neither tea is particularly sweet.  There is an effect of brightness and freshness that isn't easy to trace to other individual aspects, in both, maybe more a part of the Chinese version style.

After drinking through nearly 50 grams of the Ceylon Bai Mu Dan I've got it, related to that one element that was hard to place:  forest floor!  You just never get to say that, even though it turns up on those tea flavor wheels, and it sounds like a tea might eventually taste like that.

fall color in Western PA (photo credit)

I'll add a little more about the "forest floor" idea, although I'd expect that would be familiar ground for many.  Different forests smell different, and the same places smell differently at various times of the year.  It could be intended to mean the same thing as peat, or it could be used quite differently.  I'm from Western Pennsylvania, so I really do miss that fresh, fragrant, intense vegetal smell of the spring forest, or the warmer, woodier, more diverse summer smell, dryer and more earthy then, and especially that rich, warm, almost root or bark spice intensive smell of the fall leaves.  Colorado mountain forests were more subtle in general, with the smell of rocks playing a larger role, and with vegetal tones like sage coming across in places.

This tea smells (tastes) more like fall, like the heaps of oak and maple leaves that are beautiful to see before they fall.  As a child I would pile up those leaves and play in them, and stuff clothes with them to make something like a scarecrow; it's a familiar smell.  The forest smell includes the ground too, and that matches with the very subdued mineral tones.

How to summarize?  Bai Mu Dan style teas can be nice, and diverse.  Floral and sweeter elements could've potentially been more pronounced in both but the aspects and profiles they did have worked really well; no need for all lighter teas to be fruity or floral and sweet.

Monday, October 17, 2016

About Thai teas and tea in Thailand

Originally posted as:

I presented about Thai teas at an unusual type of expat meet-up event in Bangkok a month ago, described here, and I just realized that I've never discussed Thai teas in a TChing post.

I've been living in Bangkok for nine years now--the time just flies--and blogging about tea for three years.  I was drinking loose tea for longer than that previously, with Thai oolongs as one cause for getting further into tea.  The full story of Thai tea is too much to cover but here goes a start on it.

a Thai oolong made in a Dong Ding style

Modern Thai tea production relates to a government and Thai Royalty initiative to replace opium production with tea around 25 years ago, importing cultivars from Taiwan to be grown in the Chiang Rai area in the North.  Those are typically processed into lightly oxidized rolled oolongs, as in Taiwan.

Most common are TRES cultivar #12 / Jin Xuan or #17 / Bai Lu (which somehow are typically marketed as Ruan Zhi, even though that's a different plant type).  More recently they also make some green and black tea versions from those, and Bai Hao / Oriental Beauty, and just a little hei cha, but not much else.

local brewing gear (photo credit)

The older tea tradition is also interesting.  Tea plants are growing here that are old; how old or related to what earlier cultivation history being a bit of a mystery, but I did go into that a bit researching a pu'er-style tea I reviewed from Myanmar.  Chinese immigration to this area started some time ago, perhaps thousands of years back, so tea really could have been native to here or cultivated here a long time ago.  Per an article cited in that post a trade route from China to India through this region went back to at least second century BC, maybe earlier.

It's my understanding that Assamica-type based teas, mostly made into black tea, are most typically grown in the Chiang Mai area, representing most tea production prior to those recent oolong related initiatives.  Of course black tea is considered a newer development related to earlier forms of green tea, compressed tea, and powdered teas, when one goes back far enough into tea history.

The typical question people ask is "what is Thai tea like; how good is it?"  That's too broad for one simple answer, but to oversimplify by a lot it's ok (the oolongs), like tea from Taiwan, just typically not as good as lighter oolongs from there.  Beyond that summary things get complicated.  The demand for tea is much higher in Taiwan, and it's my understanding that some of the best Thai teas go there to be sold as tea from Taiwan, counterfeit versions of it, since the style is similar.

How do I know that?  From hearsay, of course.  It's an idea that comes up a lot, related to both Thai and Vietnamese teas.  One anecdotal confirmation came in the form a Tea Chat thread; someone visiting the North of Thailand recently saw Thai teas being labeled and sold as tea from Taiwan, with the vendor there openly confirming the true source.  Odd, right, counterfeit tea being sold right where it was from, sold as from somewhere else?  It would seem more natural for the teas to make that trip to Taiwan, and be sold from there, but of course I can't even guess to what extent this does go on.

Thai iced tea, made in an espresso machine

Part of the explanation for limited range of teas produced is that Thais don't drink much loose tea.  That's a very broad generalization, since some do, but most really don't.  People here typically have some idea what "oolong" is, so might be that slight margin ahead of many Americans in terms of exposure, but they tend to drink coffee instead, or bubble tea.

Thai iced tea is an exception, a spiced blend not completely dissimilar to masala chai, just not the same.  The characteristic orange color in the modern "Thai tea" version comes from food coloring.  Per research more traditional versions might not be based on star anise, as they are now, but instead on blending crushed roasted tamarind seeds and orange blossoms with black tea, Assamica based  (more on how to make a version here, and the history here).  The other "traditional" Thai tea is black tea brewed and served with sweetened condensed milk.  Again it's hard to say what pre-dated that, before sweetened condensed milk became common; maybe just black tea with milk and sugar.

Conventional Chinese teas can be found in Chinatown, and of course other people from other countries that live here bring their own tradition.  Thailand has longstanding close ties with lots of countries and cultures, especially Japan.  Lots of sections of Bangkok serve as immigrant neighborhoods and cultural centers, with the degree of influence limited by distance (not much of a "little Mexico" here).

with the Jip Eu shop owner, a 90 year old Chinatown shop

Along with China India influenced Thai culture the most, related to Buddhism, and language and culture development, but that didn't seem to carry over into much related to modern tea consumption.  Beyond that there is a wave of modern, new tea cafes opening in Bangkok, really only beginning in the last few years.  To some degree various floral and herbal blends are leading a new discovery of tea here, and matcha, but those are limited at this point, with matcha flavored ice cream a good bit more common.

Secondary concerns like diversity and selection of physical tea shops, online tea vendors, or number of tea bloggers all progress gradually.  I post a good bit about new tea sources and cafes as I run across those but there's not lots to tell.  I found two sources for Sri Lankan teas in the last year, and although there aren't many Thais drinking better Ceylon just yet it will continue to go like that, with greater exposure and demand leading to more options, with better domestic Thai tea production going along with that.  Every new cafe pushes those boundaries that little bit more.  Peace Oriental helped introduce high end matcha appreciation and a Zen theme cafe environment (and the idea of a $20 pot of tea), Seven Suns is trying to expand on what's going on with blends and "ordinary" specialty tea, and Peony is trying to make it all mainstream with mall shops.  It's an interesting time for Thai teas.

with deepest respect to the King of Thailand, 1927-2016, a truly great man

Oriental Beauty / Bai Hao, tea sample #8 from May Zest

I went through a bit of a complicated tea tasting yesterday, comparing three different Jin Jun Mei, so I wanted to go more basic today.  I'll try to do a simple, short review of a random tea sample sent by May Zest.  They are a wholesale-oriented tea company in Taiwan that I bought a good bit of another OB and black tea from not so long ago.  Related to that sales model, they don't sell sample packs or by 50 gram lots, but it is possible to buy as little as 250 grams at a time from them.

This sample was a truly random selection as well; I just knew the number prior to opening it, #8.  Turns out it's another Oriental Beauty, and a nice looking version at that.

The dry tea smells like cinnamon, mostly.  The brewed tea tastes like it too, with other aspects that round out that primary taste nicely.  Of course there is plenty of sweetness, and a rich fullness under that one flavor element, into a supporting range of aspects that work well, dried hay and such, neutral flavors.  The sweetness is good, the feel is full, the flavors are clean and balanced, if a bit less complex in terms of a list, but then it is just getting started.

There is enough complexity that someone with a good imagination could really extend that assessment, by a lot.  Maybe it tastes a little like blackberry as well, probably a little more like citrus really, and that full richness could come across as a hint of butter too.  The general effect is a brightness, fresh and dynamic.  It's nice when a tea this oxidized can somehow pull that off, as is unique to OB (or Bai Hao / Dong Fang Mei Ren; the type goes by a few names).

The preparation style and oxidation level work out well.  It isn't drifting into black tea territory as can occur, retaining that upper-middle-range oolong effect that really works.

A few infusions in it doesn't shift much.  I'm brewing it Gongfu style, although it would work to brew this Western style, but worth a bit more messing around to see if there is transition to notice.  Those same aspects shift a little in proportion, with the buttery richness picking up, cinnamon toning down, and citrus becoming more pronounced.  As bright as the citrus element is it reminds me of pineapple, but it's not clearly one distinct form of citrus.  The blackberry seemed to really be a hint of muscatel, or maybe the two were just in a related flavor-space and it's moving from one to the other.

This is pretty good OB.   This tea type changes more than most year to year, due to the input insects contribute (more on that here), so it's more likely exactly the same version isn't available year to year.  On their detailed listing (not on the website) teas in the category are just sold as OB / Bai Hao / Dong Fang Mei Ren, along with a ranking of grade, (A, B, etc.).  Really tea characteristics vary in the type, spice versus fruit and such, one I reviewed from them even had a touch of sun-dried tomato, so grading in a completely linear way like that is limited; different people would like different versions.

Related to all those other OB I've been reviewing this year--a similar one from them here, and a taste comparison of three here, including one version from Thailand--if someone likes cinnamon as a main element this is a strong contender to be the best one.  Even if they didn't it's hard to imagine someone not liking the tea, unless they hate cinnamon, which is odd to even type out.  What kind of a twisted sense of general taste preferences would that correspond to?  Maybe "not preferring cinnamon as a primary taste component in tea" is more understandable.

the usual look

There's even something catchy going on in the feel of this tea, a fullness, a wetness, with a hint of dryness.  I've been reading about components in teas lately and that might mean something to someone, just not to me, at least not yet.  The aftertaste is nice too; full, lingering, clean.

After many infusions the longer brewing times draws out more of a woody taste, not bad, just different.  The brightness subsides but the flavors stay nice and clean.  The tea wasn't really a surprise after trying a lot of OB versions this year but it's always nice to try a really nice one.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Comparing three amazing Jin Jun Mei from Cindy Chen

Jin Jun Mei, golden version

It's a tall order, but Cindy sent good-sized samples of three different Jin Jun Mei to try, so it seemed obvious to taste-compare all three together.  There were lots of noticeable differences in the dry scents, but it seemed as well to start with reviewing the brewed tea, not the dry tea scents.  Even that is going to be a bit much.  Comparing two teas in tasting is interesting, and it can really highlight minor differences in aspects, but adding making comprehensive tasting notes to a detailed review gets to be a lot, even for two teas (even for one, really, it can be much nicer to just drink the tea sometimes).  A few notes about impression of lots of teas would be one thing but a detailed, aspect-by-aspect review is something else.

JJM, "good in aroma" version

The three teas are a golden Jin Jun Mei, a "good in aroma" JJM, and a "good in soup" version.  It's always seemed like people stumble over trying to translate whatever "brewed tea" works out to be in original Chinese languages.  It must be close to "soup," as Cindy has used, or liquor, as one also commonly sees, but brewed tea is not soup or liquor, as we use those words in English.  People understand what is meant, so either works, or dragging out the extra word and saying "brewed tea" would also do the job.  It's "soup" here, shortened from "good in soup" in that version description in lots of places.  Straight to it then.

The first infusion of the golden JJM is nice, right in that ideal range.  I would imagine a paragraph on that taste profile would just be a write-up about how JJM tastes in general, and then the comparison would vary from there.  I did struggle with a more general description in this post comparing the tea style to Lapsang Souchong (the LS version that isn't Jin Jun Mei, the type made of leaves).  Even that first part isn't so easy, about the type and general range.  It's a softer type of black tea, but very rich and complex, with good sweetness and a full flavor profile.  There are fruit and earth aspects to it, probably some spice layered in, and a slight dryness, but nothing like the dryness and earthiness in that last tea from Nepal I just tasted, the golden tips version.  That was a nice tea but these are some next-level teas.

JJM, "good in soup" version

No written description could do this tea any justice; kind of a strange place to start in doing a review, but that's how it is.  The complexity, that range of flavors you just don't ever see, the way it integrates, the feel, the cleanness, the way sweetness balances earth and other elements--it's absolutely off the charts.  I'm reminded of a comment about the wild Lapsang Souchong Cindy sent a sample of in a forum discussion (do I even need to clarify the tea wasn't smoked?):  it's just damned good tea.  Even the basic flavors list description is too much to grasp, too much complexity to describe as a list.  The others likely are too, in different ways.  This would be a lot easier if I'd just say these are three different related versions of damned good tea.

The "good in aroma" version comes across a little sweeter, a little lighter, across a lot of the same range but quite different.  It's a little sweeter, more subtle, less of the mineral undertone and butternut squash / yam range, more floral, but not exactly floral in the sense lots of other teas that describes are.  But then I'm not going to finish this comparison in one taste; I'll fill more details in as I go.

The "good in soup" version is completely different.  It's more like an unsmoked Lapsang Souchong (well, technically it is one, but you know what I mean, the other kind made with leaves instead of just buds).  It has more of a black tea taste, just not at all in the range of other black teas, more earth of a different kind and more mineral, not as sweet and light and subtle as the aroma version.  Mineral is more pronounced, a lot more tie to the other Wuyi Yancha range people are familiar with, which itself comes across in a very broad range.  I definitely don't mean the cardboard / dark wood / leather / cinnamon range ordinary versions of Wuyi Yancha exhibit, I mean the characteristic mineral undertone.  It's still sweet, still very complex, and would still be the best Jin Jun Mei most people have ever tried, by a good bit, but I'm not sure which of these three I'd like best yet.

golden lower left, "good in aroma" top, "good in soup" lower right

On the second infusion the golden JJM picks up the flavors profile a lot.  This could be a tricky tea to brew in the sense that you want to get it just right to optimize it, not that it wouldn't work well across a range of infusion strengths or made in different ways, but you'd want to get the most out of it.  Brewed perfectly this type of tea can go from great to transcendent, at least great versions.  It's a bit complex to describe.  Earthiness picked up a little, almost like a touch of coffee, along with a hint of smoke, but still plenty of sweetness, in a soft, rich, full tea.  It's really amazing.  There's malt present, and that familiar Chinese black tea sweetness people attribute to yams or sweet potato, which to me is great or not so good depending on how it balances with other flavors--here working well, to say the least.

The "aroma" JJM picked up a lot more floral character, although "floral" really doesn't do it justice.  The flavors range experience is different than the golden version, maybe in a sense not as complex, more limited, but that other level of experience is really something.  It really does a lot with subtlety, still complex, just not as complex and in a different range of experience.

The soup version is moving off in it's own direction.  Now it's not like other JJM I've tried, or Lapsang Souchong so much, but complex, still nice.  It has a good bit of woody character, still a bit sweet with mineral tones but not like the others.  The floral / sweet aroma from the aroma version isn't really pronounced, and the flavors complexity in the golden version isn't present.  It is nice within the range it expresses but I think I like the golden version better, at this point in the tasting.

More of the same next infusion for the golden JJM.  It's interesting that flavors aspect range extends to include a touch of coffee like that, along with the normal range, sweetness, yam / sweet potato, and toffee, probably a touch of some spice, just not a familiar spice, in the wood-bark spice range but not cinnamon.  I'm not saying much about feel but it's what one might expect, rich in an unusual way, a bit "resinous," as fellow-blogger Amanda of Rambling Butterflies blog describes it.  Maybe it's not clear; that's saying it's a good thing, although I guess that would depend on preferences.  On the whole the complexity and the way all those different aspects come together is just great.

The aroma version keeps gaining depth.  Floral is shifting to a nice, light, subtle root-spice range, towards sassafras, although probably closer to some spice I'm not familiar with.  I'm reminded of visiting a spice market in Seoul, in a giant open room full of roots, tree barks, and herbs, being overwhelmed by a complex range of wonderful spice smells.  It was so amazing I could just stand and smell, nothing discernible, just a cacophony of experience, except related to smell and not sound, and pleasant instead of harsh.  This is much simpler but pleasant and unfamiliar in a similar way.

It is odd how the taste profile in the sense of one part of the range of experience is limited but a lighter, different range is so pronounced.  I get it, about the "aroma" description.  It's not that liquor-like aroma that some Wuyi Yancha express, lighter, complex, floral extending into all sorts of subtle range.  It would be possible to go a little stronger on the infusion strength to draw more body out of it, since it comes across as light, but I don't miss that, and the effect of the flavors in that "aroma" range is plenty to experience.

The soup version goes just a little further in the same direction.  When you taste it some component that hits your palate first is a little shocking, but it transitions into a rich, different range so fast it's hard to identify that element.  It might just be the shock of tasting it after the other two but I think there is something unexpected there, maybe in a wood-tone / vegetal range.  It also has a bit of root-beer character to it, and a little mineral, just not much.  If you drank this tea alone you'd likely say "now I get JJM," but alongside these other two there is a lot more range to experience, and depending on how preference plays out it could easily be a least favorite.  Or maybe a favorite; preference variation is odd like that.

good in soup upper left, golden upper right, good in aroma lower

All three are good teas, or really a bit better than what I usually mean by "good."  For other teas that are good but not on this level the experience is about appreciating one or more positive aspects, or complexity, or feel, or cleanness, but for all these it's just a given that the whole range of general positive aspects is sort of covered.  It's not about focusing on something positive, or appreciating that the range and effect is nice, but instead about narrowing into how unique aspects in the absolutely right kind of context relate to preference, or enjoying the synchronicity.  Or it would be nice to not analyze it, and just be swept along by all that.

Tasting these together feels a little like a turning point in my experience of tea, like that first visit to a decent tea shop when you think "I get this!"  Of course I don't completely get it, in the sense of a veteran tea expert completely placing a tea based on vast experience, but it all clicks a little better.

Relating to my own preference; I liked the golden version best, aroma next best.  The "soup" version wasn't a flawed tea, not bad or even in a more average range, it just didn't click with me in the same way.  I could easily imagine someone liking the "aroma" version even more, that to some it would capture the essence of what JJM is supposed to be; that experience is unique, the brightness, subtlety, sweet floral tones in a black tea, the balance.  A lot of people might not feel like it was a black tea, given how all that comes across, since it's absolutely the opposite of commercial grade Assamica based teas.  There is no astringency at all, not malty or earthy, much ligher, brighter, sweeter and more complex--in it's own way, in a limited scope.  It shares a lot with some aspects range of oolongs, in a sense, it just doesn't remind me of any in particular; it's unique.

Cindy and her uncle; tea legends

I could imagine some people not liking the golden version; the mineral aspects leading into a coffee range being too much.  Since I love dark roasted oolongs (maybe mid-roasted a little more; not the point here) it's still on the lighter side of where that general range can lead.  Without the rest of the range, that feel, the sweetness, the other flavor complexity it might not work, but to me it strikes an incredible balance.

Taken together with the last wild Lapsang Souchong I reviewed from Cindy these teas have given me a new appreciation for Wuyishan black teas.  I get the sense I'll never stop turning new pages related to all the teas from that area.  It's nice when tea type just clicks, and you absolutely love that, and want to have very similar experiences over and over, but this experience is nice too, when those subtle variations add up to relatively new experiences.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Kanchanjangha Estate Nepalese teas, review of Gold Tips and Green teas

Review of Nepal Gold Tips

This post is a follow-up to an earlier review of teas from samples sent by the Nepal Tea company.

This Gold Tips version is not exactly what I was expecting;  I was thinking it would be more along the lines of a Ceylon gold tips or Dian Hong (which aren't that similar), but it reminds me of  Chinese style black teas more.  I can't say for sure what cultivar it's made from, or place it relating to comparing it to another specific tea type.

I'll start with mentioning what the Nepal Tea vendor says about the tea:

Kumari Gold is a special black tea produced by Kanchanjangha Tea Estate, which is processed from the young tea bushes grown and carefully nurtured in the foothills of Mt. Kanchanjangha.... A medium to full bodied tea with caramel, and baked fruit flavors, and a long lasting finish. Bright golden liquor.

The smell is malty, a little sweet.  The initial taste has plenty of malt, and an earthy complexity  along with a bit of dryness.  The tea is nice, just a bit earthier in range than some of my favorite black teas.  I really like soft black teas with a lot of sweetness (and this one is soft, not astringent), with aspects  into fruit ranges the best, which is why I really loved a unique lapsang souchong I just reviewed that was heavy on orange citrus.

The flavors are relatively clean, with good complexity, a nice feel;  it's good tea.  Malt is joined by a bit of cocoa, but in a dry / earthy range, so edging a little towards peat.  That's not a bad thing, but it probably sounds better to compare it to something closer to a food, maybe tobacco.

A few infusions in (preparing the tea Gongfu style) the flavors soften and sweeten, become richer, but there never really was an astringency to dissipate.  The earthier flavors do transition to more of a fruit range but it's not pronounced enough to separate into a list of fruits, and it blends together with the diminished earthier aspects.  It's a good version of a tea in this aspect range, unique and positive.

Review of Nepal Premium Green Tea

I think this was the Ganesha Green from Kanchanjangha estate, listed here on the Nepal Tea website.  My description of the flavor aspects isn't a perfect match for that website listing--vegetal, but not as kelp and seaweed mentioned there--but the rest fits.  Variations in identifying aspects is normal, and changes in brewing parameters or water or other inputs does cause real flavors changes.

They mention using lower temperatures for brewing, which is quite standard for green teas, on the site advocating "temperature 65 to 71℃ (150 to 160℉)."  That's a little lower than some recommend for green teas, but then there are usually two sets of green tea temperature recommendations, one for Chinese-style pan-fried green teas and a lower range for Japanese-style steamed green teas.  As with everything it comes down to preference as well.  In general cooler than for other tea types is going to work better; as for specific temperature people can sort that out based on experimenting a little.  The Kanchanjangha estate website recommends "The finest green tea is brewed with water at the temperature of 80 to 90 degree Celsius."  I'd think around 75 might be more of a standard range (170 F), even lower than that for steamed green teas.

The scent of the dry tea is not what I expected,  a bit vegetal, quite complex, with a cocoa aspect, and fruit beyond that.

The brewed tea is complex too.  It reminds me of a Vietnamese green tea, without so much mineral, and some aspects range that doesn't match.  There's just a touch of smoke, not pronounced, but it stands out for being unusual.  The tea is vegetal, starting out as green beans, but that effect is subtle,  the background context.

I'm not picking up a lot of cocoa or fruit,  those aspects hinted at in the day scent, but the complexity that is there may relate, and could develop more in the next infusions.  I'm preparing this tea Western style this time, for what that's worth, and I'd expect it wouldn't differ that much brewed Gongfu style, but checking by trying would be the only way to know for sure.  Part of that difference is to experience the transition of tea aspects better, and this tea does vary as it brews; it's not at all one-dimensional.  There's not much astringency; the feel is nice, not as full as oolongs can be but not thin, with no bite to it.

The smoke actually picks up the next infusion; odd since  I was expecting it to drop out.  The vegetal nature tones down a little and mineral picks up so it's even more like a Vietnamese green tea.  For people not familiar with those, that's a good thing, to me.  They have a nice flavor profile and feel, typically clean and a bit structured, even for moderate quality versions.  Vietnamese people tend to use boiling point water and ruin them because they like astringency, but you can't blame the teas for that.  My judgment that very astringent green teas brewed using boiling point water and long steep times have been ruined is just a preference, perhaps relatively standard among Western tea enthusiasts, but still not necessarily more correct.

This tea has good complexity.  It's hard to pick out aspects beyond those pronounced mineral and vegetal ranges (a little into kale instead of beans on the second infusion), because those are so pronounced.  There might well be a bit of cocoa; there's definitely a nice sweetness, and the flavors presentation is quite clean.  In the last infusions both the vegetal and mineral aspects ease up and it moves towards a neutral but full, rich flavor, in the range of dried hay, the kind of range that could be interpreted different ways (like mild wood-tone, or a sweeter version of fresh mushroom).  There's enough complexity and depth more probably is really going on than I've described but judgement about what that is would likely vary, and brewing variations could help draw other aspects out.

I don't always love green tea but this one is nice.  That might partly relate to not drinking many green teas this year, making it easier to appreciate them.  Or maybe after the last pu'er I'm liking that the tea is straightforward, with good complexity, but not a mix of different levels of aspects that takes sorting out.  Of course it comes across as fresh too, which is nice; it's green tea.

Rambling on section

These are good teas.  It's interesting how "good" is so relative, and how good a tea seems to someone relates to preference as much as some abstract, objective quality level.  For more standard types trueness to type is also an issue, a tea tasting just like that particular type should, or in the normal range is more how that goes.  Related to teas from Nepal the producers seem to have freedom to develop styles as they like, not so constrained by a past history of standard versions.

Related to my own preference, although I typically like black tea more than green tea of these two examples somehow the green version clicked a little more.  I didn't get the impression that related to flaws in the black tea, more to me preferring certain styles within the scope of black tea more than this tea's style.  I might have even liked their more standard black better, which seemed more like a Darjeeling, just not exactly like one.  This black tea was still a good tea, and I'd be happy to drink more of it, but in general I like softer, fruitier, sweeter black teas, and this one was definitely on the softer side but with more malt and earthier in nature from there.  Others could easily have the opposite experience, based on having different preferences.

Comparing the green tea to a Vietnamese green tea could be read as a quality-level assessment by some, but I don't see it that way.  It does seem true to me that even many ordinary examples of Vietnamese green teas can provide good results, if brewed properly, but I didn't intend that as an implication in the other direction, that this compares to more commercial versions of teas from Vietnam.  The character was different anyway; it only had some aspects in common, for example a mineral and vegetal nature, but even these aspects weren't exactly the same.  In my experience--which of course is still limited--Vietnamese green teas tend to tip the balance of aspects towards more mineral with vegetal characteristics second to those.  Here's an earlier review of one, but my reviews were a bit thin two years ago, maybe a better balance would be in the middle, shorter than this one.  Longjing is my favorite green tea, for what that's worth, but how that maps out related to these isn't so clear.

Obviously enough I'm trying to balance just describing aspects in these teas, providing a narrow objective assessment, with including some of my own opinion about them, even related to my own preferences.  I appreciate your patience as I try to learn to communicate clearly if not simply.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Myanmar old tree sheng pu'er-style tea from Tea Side

There is one more pu'er sample I'd been looking forward to but it had slipped my mind, from Myanmar, sent by the Tea Side vendor with an order awhile back.  The type is clear enough to me; the same as pu'er, but from another country, so nearby a distinction is a bit odd, just across a border.  Sheng may or may not be considered hei cha, since it's really not fermented, but mapping out that term more is a project for another post.  There is a lot of interesting background I could go into related to this tea, obviously, and I will include a bit of background review after the tasting review sections.  I will start with their description though:

Unique tea. Dry leaves aroma has unusual notes of grape wine. Tastes like no other sheng I know. There are notes of wine, berry jam, plum, grapes and cut wildflowers, tartness of fresh tea. The finish has light and beautiful fresh peach.

My review list-of-flavors differs a little but I completely agree that the final impression is very unique and positive.  This is one of those teas where the overall effect is amazing but it's hard to express which set of aspects leads to that.

that is a big tea tree (photo credit)

I'll clear past one other part of their description first as well, that the tea trees are ancient, 1000 years old.  Of course that subject has been a bit beat up lately, to the extent that many vendors would be inclined to just leave it alone.  The trees are massive though; it's clear enough in the pictures that they are very old.

People tend to only live for 80 years or so, give or take, so first-hand accounts couldn't verify that claim, and there wouldn't be pictures or written descriptions from even a century back, given the location.  I'd be inclined to just set that aside, and judge the tea on it's merits, accepting that based only on the images this is definitely "old tree" hei cha, and the actual year-count doesn't matter.  Personally I'd have no trouble accepting that the trees could be much older than 100 years old, and how much older doesn't matter to me, or even that the plants passed the century mark, really.

One last point:  the tea is sold compressed as a cake / bing, but the sample was from the same tea but in loose form.  Maocha, people tend to call that, although it seems odd to me that means either unfinished tea that is still being processed or else finished sheng that didn't get compressed.  At any rate it's a relatively new tea (2016), so aging differences related to that pressed form would seem to not come into play just yet.

Tasting review

On to review then.  I'd tried a loose prepared sheng from Thailand awhile back, also from older tea trees, or so that story went.  It was nice, different, not great.  Now that I think of it that really was awhile back, more than three years ago, before I started this blog, so there's no write-up to mention.

The scent of the tea is not what I expected,  sweet with a raisin - like scent aspect.   I brewed the tea a bit lightly, based on experience with other sheng working out well that way.

The taste is different.  There is sweetness to it, and an unusual character.  Raisin is part of it but not dominant. To be honest it has a flavor profile that's hard to describe.  Mineral is present, but not as pronounced as in some sheng, and it's not bitter or astringent.  The taste is mainly vegetal, but in an unusual sense, like that unusual flavor when you bite into a grape seed, a bit tangy.  Below that it's complex, warm and full, and someone could probably separate out all sorts of flavors, maybe floral aspects, or a subtle but rich fullness as in dried hay.  But separating out any is tricky;  it integrates into a full experience that's hard to break apart.

From the complexity, the taste range, and the feel presentation it seems nice, maybe a good bit better than nice implies.  My personal take leads back to how much I love sheng pu'er, or really don't, and I think I'd like it a lot more if I loved the type more, and I could place how the aspects relate to my own preference better with that as context.  It's nice, per a distant memory quite a bit better tea than the Thai version, more complexity, more interesting subtle aspects, definitely more honey sweetness, nothing like taking an aspirin.

I feel like I didn't really do the tasting justice, that I wasn't able to get my senses around the experience.  There was enough for one more brewing session so I decided to try it again, this time compared to another pu'er (a Yunnan version, so real pu'er, by the regional definition), and see if that helped.

Second tasting; comparison to a Nan Nuo pu'er

I tried the tea again tasting it side-by-side with one of the Golding samples, the Nan Nuo (first reviewed here, a tea produced independently by the Golding shop in Malaysia).  My first thought in tasting both:  the teas are too different for comparison to work well, but at least the contrasts might be telling.  In retrospect I probably should have tried the Jing Mai tea along with it instead (reviewed here), but it may work better than it seems at first.  In general when you comparison taste two teas that are very close in style that helps highlight minor aspects or underlying aspects that are harder to notice drinking one tea alone.

The Myanmar tea is floral, smooth, and light.  There is a richness to the tea and an underlying complexity, but it's subtle.  It's not like I've been brewing it so wispy thin there is not much taste to go on, the tea just comes across as complex and rich without having lots of pronounced flavors; different.  But then it is just getting started.  There is a trace of sourness and bitterness as well that gives the tea a fuller effect.  Those might sound negative but I don't mean it that way.  When you struggle to pick out what's going on that gives the tea that full effect it seems like it is those elements, which are pleasant in that light presentation, even if a list of fruit flavors and such might sound better.

The Nan Nuo tea is not so subtle.  A smokiness stands out, and also complexity, but in a different range.  It's possible for the stronger astringency to stand out, to be out of balance, but easy to temper by brewing lightly.  There's more of a savory effect to the tea, not exactly like the strong umami in a Japanese green but it seems possible the aspect overlaps.  This tea also has a touch of sourness, which comes across differently in the different context range.

The Myanmar tea develops a bit early on.  It's also rich, but sweeter, lighter, with an effect more like a butteriness.  The flavors depth is almost like a touch of salt is present.  It's still not forceful related to flavors-list aspects standing out, maybe mild mineral and floral.  I suppose that salt could really be a different mineral element, not something typical in other teas described as tasting like stones.  The fullness in the flavor context is hard to describe, partly related to that, but with a depth of subtle aspects mixing, something like dried hay, maybe more like a mild version of sassafras root.

The Nan Nuo tea moves to be a bit more vegetal, hard to tease out particular vegetables though, maybe artichoke.  It tastes a little like tree bark can smell though, out of normal foods and spice range but closer to the latter, with mineral and a touch of smoke added to that, and a trace of tartness.  The feel is interesting, and it somehow corresponds well to those flavors, a juiciness with a little dryness.  The bitterness and astringency can move towards that of biting a grape seed, potentially something to work around, or someone might really enjoy that effect.

The Myanmar tea gains depth,  opens up more, but never did need to loosen up in terms of being unapproachable. The fuller taste moves into something like a fresh cork, probably better than that sounds though.  Maybe sassafras root still works better for description, with just a touch of fruit, a hint of raisin.

Both of these teas were much better than those aspects citations sound to me.  Both were complex, refined, unique, and positive.  To keep saying the tea from Myanmar (Tea Side) was subtle it might sound like it didn't have much to offer, but the actual experience was the opposite, it just didn't come across as a clear list of flavors.

I pretty much never get excited about an aftertaste effect, or different feels of teas, although I can sort of see where people are going with all that, there is a lot of range to be experienced.  Only some of what stood out for these two teas was on those levels.  Both teas were interesting within the range of flavor as well, but still subtle and complex within that scope, and quite different from each other.

Background research

I'll try to keep this brief; the post runs long already, but there are a few interesting threads to follow a little.  Past research into tea types based out of Taiwan have identified native plant types of variety Assamica tea coming out of Myanmar and Northern Thailand, as listed and in this research article:

Introduced variety
Original from Myanmar
Introduced variety
Original from Thailand
Introduced variety
Original from Thailand
Introduced variety
Original from Thailand
Introduced variety
Original from Thailand
Introduced variety
Original from Thailand

Of course I don't know which plant type this tea is from, and the reference to this study of plants being imported from Thailand doesn't indicate that the original plant versions weren't from Myanmar instead.  The tea plants native to Taiwan are listed as "landraces" instead of "introduced variety," since the study is about teas growing in Taiwan.  But that designation seems to only indicate plants are native in the sense that past origins can't be traced back further.  Another research article summary offers an interesting observation, based on examining genetic characteristics of local plant types:

The cultivated teas in the estates of Southeast Asia region also belonged to C. sinensis. However, the native cultivars in Myanmar and southern China had a genetic similarity to C. taliensis and C. irrawadiensis. 

It would take a lot more review to know what to make of that, but interesting.  It seems quite possible, based on genetic testing results, that this variety Assamica tea should be unique.  The other issue, which is also likely to remain mostly open, is how long tea plants have been growing in this area.  If it's less than 1000 years the age claim couldn't possibly be true, and even if longer there's still the matter of how old the actual tea trees are.  This reference gives some insight to the history:

Any attempt to understand the natural environment in which the tea plant evolved... is hampered by the fact that it is very doubtful whether any truly wild tea still exists. In Yunnan there are patches of tea still to be found which appear to be wild, with the occasional large tree which is several hundred years old. It is difficult to decide whether these plants are truly wild or might better be described as feral, that is the residue of earlier cultivation by native peoples. Charles Bruce explored much of Northeast of Assam in the 1840s and discovered a large number of tracts of apparently wild tea amongst the Singpho people [25]. However, both he and, a century later, Frank Kingdon-Ward [26] noted how the tea plant had been spread by the Shan tribes migrating through Burma and Manipur as far as Assam. An ancient route connecting Yunnan to Assam through Burma is known to have been in use at least as early as the second century BC, and possibly much earlier.

Fascinating stuff!  This is implying tea trees can only reach several hundred years old, but then it is a historical study, not a botanical-oriented work.  The author doesn't really speculate how far back regional tea plant distribution occurred but offers that more than 2200 years ago is possible.

For most of you that's enough with the research, plenty of history and plant type genetics, but for that other minority I'll mention a couple of other studies, related to Chinese (Yunnan) plants instead:


Genetic diversity and differentiation of Camellia sinensis L. (cultivated tea) and its wild relatives in Yunnan province of China, revealed by morphology, biochemistry and allozyme studies

You might wonder, how could any of that possibly be relevant to me, to what I'm drinking.  Trace compounds do cause the taste and feel in brewed teas, along with the input of processing, which changes those present.  But all that gets complicated.  Related to that consider the following excerpt from the latter source:

As a whole, caffeine content had the highest variation with CV of 22.7%, water extract solid showed the least variation (13.4%) and content of polyphenols (20.0%) and free amino acids (18.8%) showed intermediate variations.

I would assume that implies two different answers for relevance depending on personal interests.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Wild unsmoked Lapsang Souchong from Cindy

Back to one of my favorite experiences in tea, new samples sent by Cindy Chen, my favorite tea farmer and tea maker.  I've reviewed a Dan Cong from her recently (she also has family in that area), with other black teas in this set.  No oolongs this round, but I'll get back to those at some point.  I reviewed another unsmoked Lapsang Souchong from her family not so long ago but this tea was something else altogether, really unique.

I've mentioned her so often this could get repetitious, but you can hear more about making tea in her own blog, or see more images of tea growing or being made on Instagram, or talk to her on Facebook.  Of course her activity level on those varies with the demands of making or shipping tea.  On to review!

The dry tea scent is intriguing, a very complex profile for a black tea.  A sweet maltiness hits you first, followed by an impression of the complexity, a sweetness, an orange-zest element, layers of smooth earthy scents.

The taste is like that; clean, pleasant, rich, and complex.  I'm brewing the tea Gongfu style on this first try, but it would work well brewed lots of different ways, it's just better to be careful with a tea this good no matter how you make it.

Sometimes a tea being suitable to being brewed different ways means that you can draw out different aspects or shift the profile, true to a limited extent for this one.  But for this tea type when you get the optimum down it goes from a great tea to a unique experience, at least for the best versions, so it's about it all really clicking if you get it just right.  

The sweetness in the scent shows up nicely in the flavors.  An orange element also present, not completely unrelated to Darjeeling muscatel but at the same time nothing like that, more like orange zest.  There is essentially no edge of astringency, no bite or dryness at all, but then brewing the tea lightly would minimize the feel aspect of what is there.


The other layers of flavors aren't so easy to take in and process as a list, and I don't think a list of flavors and aspects would do the experience justice.  But here goes.  After a rinse and an infusion the flavors move off citrus a little into a stone fruit (peach / apricot), or even butternut squash range, but definitely not vegetal, sweet and rich and very clean in effect.

A light malt is present as a context for that but it's a far different presentation than in lots of black teas, nothing like that strong, sharp, imposing flavor aspect found in Assamica type black teas, and not exactly like malted milk balls or a milkshake, but closer to the latter.  It works to say cocoa is present, but it layers in with a light, mild earthiness as a background in a way that makes distinction more difficult.

I went a little longer to try the tea as a stronger flavor profile and it changed things.  The sweetness, a trace of orange, and the fruit is still present but the mineral tones picked up.  It leans a little towards that complex set of flavors people mean when they say "it tastes like tea," just nothing like the tea-bag blended black tea version they would be referring to.

The feel is nice, not full related to what that description means for lots of teas, but the effect is definitely not that of being thin either.  You know how Dan Cong can get an oddly full feel, while at the same time not being heavy or thick at all, with a trace of oiliness that totally works?  It's like that.  Some of these aspects are somewhat unique, mixing fruit and citrus in a light, mild black tea like that, or the feel, but the most novel thing is the way it all comes together.  

There is a freshness to it that reminds me of Darjeeling, the way unconventional processing lets teas that are sort of black teas, and sort of not, span a range of unique aspects.  The aspects profile overlaps a little with those but it's different.  And I don't even think I'm close to optimizing brewing for this tea just yet.  After a half dozen infusions the tea isn't transitioning much, but staying in that same nice range.  Mineral tones are more pronounced related to using longer infusions to brew to the same level, but astringency doesn't pick up.

I tried the tea made Western style the next day, really using a modified version of it, a proportion of tea to water in between the two approaches (the most typical versions).  It was nice that way too, and different.  Of course the tea works well at different strengths but the feel and flavor aspects profile both changed.

The feel thickened,  towards that unusual and pleasant texture some Chinese black teas get, especially Jin Jun Mei and Dian Hong.  Those are quite different teas, with much different flavor profiles, but some versions can have a feel aspect in common.  Amanda of Rambling Butterflies tea blog calls it resinous, and it would be hard to describe better, even if that would really only be meaningful to people already familiar with it.

The taste was earthier, even extending into a rosemary (pine) aspect.  The flavor elements weren't completely different but they had shifted.  I've mostly noticed a pronounced rosemary element in good Wuyi Yancha teas that are getting close to completely brewed out, drawn out by a much longer infusion process, but in this case that set in earlier in the brewing.  I love rosemary, so it was nice, especially combined with sweetness, clean and light earthiness, and fruit.

Cindy also sent samples of a Qi Lan and three Jin Jun Mei.  Those last are related to this tea type, technically a type of Lapsang Sounchong, but different, made of mostly buds or only buds.  All of those should be interesting, or even amazing if anything like this tea.