Sunday, January 29, 2017

Farmerleaf Jing Mai Autumn Sun-Dried Black Tea

After a good long break for a trip back to the States, and doing some writing on teas from there, I'm getting back to a sample from Farmerleaf, the Jing Mai / Yunnan local tea producer and vendor.  The last black tea from them (a similar version, also an autumn tea) was just great, as I'd expect this to be (with their description of it here, along with an explanation of the versions differences).  They mention in that description that like pu'er this tea will improve with age, up to three years or so.  That's not something I'll be confirming with this sample but the reasonable pricing of this tea does lend itself to buying enough to drink some and also set some aside.

The tea is heavy on tips, with a typical cocoa rich sweet dry scent that implies a lot of earthy complexity.

The initial taste is nice.  The cocoa does show through, and sweetness, with just a hint of dryness in place of where an edgier astringency would be in some other black teas.  It's malty, with complexity that would list out as lots of aspects.  I went a little quick on the first infusion and drawing that out will allow for describing them better.

I'm brewing the tea in a gaiwan, a switch from more typically brewing similar black teas in a Western approach context, but shifted towards Gongfu parameters, so in a hybrid style, upping the proportion of tea to water and dropping infusion times.  But that probably ends up in a relatively similar place, related to these results.  It would be interesting to compare this tasting with results from true Western style brewing, using a 3 minute or so infusion time with a much lower proportion of tea to water.  Using a Gongfu approach the tea prepares a lot of infusions, more than a half dozen.

I was just explaining mixing those two brewing approaches and brewing each tea differently, or just differently according to immediate inclination, to a local vendor doing a Ceylon tasting.  I'm not sure they had any idea what I was talking about.  Maybe all that really doesn't make any sense, and gravitating to a set of more standard approaches instead does.

Brewed to a more typical infusion strength the dry edge comes across more like astringency, but the tea is still soft, so it's still more a structure to the feel than a bite (or "briskness;" you get the idea).

Malt and cocoa stand out.  That dryness is paired with a range of tastes in between minerals and earthiness, so autumn forest floor and mountain-spring mineral tones cover that (although already that's an interpretation).

It's a bit of a tangent, but that last aspect reminds me of something I've mentioned before, the mineral scent from natural flowing artesian wells back home in Pennsylvania, the scent of the minerals (rocks) being dissolved and carried to the surface.  What is an artesian well, one might ask:

PA deer's version of a multi-vitamin

If water reaches the ground surface under the natural pressure of the aquifer, the well is called a flowing artesian well. An aquifer is a geologic layer of porous and permeable material such as sand and gravel, limestone, or sandstone, through which water flows and is stored.

Back home I'd expect that to be sandstone, since the Appalachians are very old uplifted lands that must have been a sea floor at some point, given that the rock is mostly sandstone.  Of course I can't guess about rock or mineral types that have influenced this tea.  Back to tea review though. 

Some rich fruit comes across, date and cooked yam, which isn't so far from sweet potato, and plenty of malt.  The profile hints toward spice but doesn't quite lead to clear aspects from that range.  It's hard to go beyond that; the minerals, autumn-leaf / light wood scent, and fruit tones cover most of it.  The cocoa of the dry scent doesn't stand out as a main taste aspect but joins into the rest of the complexity.

Another infusion in that dryness lets up and the tea takes on a nice juicy feel.  The fruit stays pronounced, if a bit subtle, an underlying layer of complexity, and the mineral tones shift a little more towards spice.

It's hard to really describe the way the autumn leaf / forest floor and light wood tone fills in a main aspect.  I've just said what it is, in terms of naming a label, but somehow that doesn't really capture it.  It seems continuous with a malt tone that is more typically paired with dryer, astringent black teas based on Assamica plant types, which often have a good bit more edge.  

I like the tea.  There was a time I preferred variety Sinensis based black teas for being softer, fruitier, even sweeter, with a bit less earthiness range, but really nice versions of Yunnan / Assamica based blacks don't share in the flaws or limitations that might go along with that range.  They can also be soft, sweet, malty, and earthy, at the same time exhibiting plenty of fruit and complexity in a nice balance, as this tea does.  

It's quite clean; there are no off flavors or muddled effect that detract, another part of that general equation.  I just tried a Taiwanese black tea--a number of times, since I bought plenty in Taipei, but I only mentioned how it was in passing in this post on shopping for tea--that shows how much those types can share in common, and what separates them.  It's hard for me to say which I liked better of these versions, this tea, or the last from Farmerleaf, or the Taiwanese black I've been drinking, since all were quite nice, just different.  Side-by-side tasting enables a finer level of judgment but I'll probably try that at some point with the two different similar Taiwanese black teas I brought back from Taipei instead.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Reviewing a shou pu'er from Sun's Organic Garden (NYC shop)

shou tuocha; that's how they tend to look

It's been awhile since I've had shou pu'er.  I liked the type initially, and drank quite a bit some years ago related to buying 7572 Menghai Dayi cakes on sale, reviewing different years' versions in this blog.  Somehow I just got away from it.  Whenever I see random cakes or tuocha--like this one--I always wonder how it might be (not so much with the single serving versions, those pellets; I've not had the most luck with those).

Sun's Organic Garden in NYC, on that recent visit mentioned in this travel-blog theme post, seemed the ideal place to give some a try.  This source of version wasn't described in detail but it was identified as aged, 5 or 6 years as I recall, plenty of time for off flavors that can associate with a more newely fermented shou to fade away.  As a moderate amount of tea the cost wasn't much, so not much risk related to that part.  I might also mention this was the last of this particular tea to be sold, so visiting the shop just to buy it wouldn't work.

The tea is shou, a rich, full, smooth version of one. Someone not familiar with the general type might be taken a back by the earthiness but it's what I'd hoped it would be, complex and clean as those go, but still in that really earthy range.

crazy person on the NYC subway

It tastes sort of like one would expect peat to taste, or forest floor, related mixes of organic compounds that no one would actually taste.  It's about as close to the range of lightly roasted coffee as teas tend to get, although not so close it that tastes a lot like coffee.

There's a bit of leather too, in the range of old baseball glove, maybe even closest to catcher's mitt versus baseman's glove or outfield.  Is it obvious when I'm joking?  The scent of the tea does conjure images of that sports equipment we played with as a child, including an old beat up and stretched out football.

A second infusion isn't so different.  It might be cleaning up a little, but the first wasn't really musty or earthy in a bad or off sense; it was nice.  A faint trace of petroleum picks up. To most that would sound terrible, perhaps bringing forth an image and scent of changing the oil in a car, but fresh, raw crude oil is something else.  It has a beautiful, rich, sweet complex smell, not one that entices you to taste it, but much cleaner and more interesting than motor oil, new or used.  How would I know that? Being from Pennsylvania both my parents and grandparents had an oil well on their property, not high production operations but they produced, and I'd help go and drain off the waste water that pumped up along with the oil, one of many country-life chores.

Tar might also work as a description;  that is also related to fresh crude.  I mean that in a good sense,  as a trace of earthy mineral sweetness, like sweet, fragrant roofing tar, not the overwhelming blast of industrial smelling pavement construction.

That sweetness is nice.  That almost seems a contradiction,  doesn't it, saying it tastes like sweet peat, leather, and oil.  But it kind of does.

The complexity is also interesting.  Soft and full mineral tones below those forward facing aspects are harder to describe.  One mineral tone is a bit sweet, hard to pin down, something unfamiliar (I never will get back to that, so I'm not introducing the idea here for that purpose, just saying that describing one part escapes me).  Of course dark wood is also layered in there, very dark wood.  Or maybe it's two types, a dark mahogany giving it depth and a brighter redwood mapping onto lighter tones moving towards spice range, just not quite getting to there.

For all that description it just sounds like a nice version of shou to me, a typical profile, if the version is nice.  Another nice part about shou that's approachable and complex is that it brews a good bit of tea, it keeps on going.  I would expect it to hold up well, just not to transition flavors so much.  The third infusion bears that out.

Such a tea is also easy to brew.  It would be possible to use fast infusions Gongfu style to really stretch out taste experience, and potentially get the most out of it, or it works to brew it in a modified Western style and let it steep longer to be more intense.  It's just fine inky black and thick, or if preference isn't that relatively thinner versions would still offer a lot of flavor.  Or the reverse of those brewing approaches could work; brewing it stronger by Gongfu style and lighter by a Western technique (although that somehow seems less natural).  That would vary results a little but the range would probably be similar.

The next infusion lightens a little, even for lengthening brew time.  It moves a little towards spice, really in the range of redwood or cedar, to the extent those woods resemble spices.  A touch of petroleum remains,  which to me is nice.  Someone else might see that as a mild camphor component but to me it's not that, just somewhat related.  These flavors have moved into a brighter, lighter range to the extent someone might also start identifying fruit, or at least cooked sweet potato.  It's just not even close to the overall Chinese black tea range where that is more typical, still an earthier, different aspect range tea.

All in all it is just what I was hoping it would be.  Pleasant surprises can also be good but it's nice when a tea works out that way.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Revisiting Seven Suns cafe in Ekamai, Bangkok

I revisited a Bangkok tea cafe that's been renovated recently, Seven Suns, in Ekamai. That was the place where the owner Han, with a background in traditional Chinese medicine, was trying different approaches to healthy blends and cold teas to help people transition to appreciating plain teas.

some nice space, along with some alchemy-themed cold infuser equipment

The cafe is beautiful.  It was nice before, but the renovation idea was to turn an outdoor space in a nice shopping center into a partly indoor and partly outdoor space.  It's quite hot in Bangkok about two thirds of the time, or maybe almost always, and now most of the space is air conditioned.

In this last post I talked to the Han about his ideas beyond introducing people to plain, traditional hot brewed tea versions (what I'm into).  He was developing blends, some based on healthier ingredient alternatives, in addition to just focusing on taste, with more focus on cold teas.  He was even dabbling in tea cocktails, using teas as a basis for alcoholic drinks.

All that progresses, and he still sells plain teas by the pot and loose (take-away), and some teaware, a good selection for including different versions of that.  A local article just went into a little detail on that range, with some nice photos.

I tried a tea there again.  Normally I'd try the most appealing plain, single type hot tea but an exception seemed in order.  I  was torn between a matcha white chocolate frappe or a cold matcha with mint and elder flower drink, and went with the staff's recommendation for the latter.

I'm not really into matcha, even though in tea circles back in the US that's like a foodie saying they don't really get French food.  I've had it, and even took part in two formal Japanese tea ceremonies where they served it (both a long time ago--lets not get into that part).  But I've not tried it the appropriate number times that make that profile familiar; I've never acquired a taste for it.  Or maybe it's just that the Starbucks latte version really doesn't count, or that I don't care as much for green tea as any other type, and it's sort of in that general range.  I've even made it at home, although surely I bought an awful grade of it, even though I bought it in Japan.  I love matcha-based soft serve ice cream, for what that's worth; maybe I'll get there.

Anyway, the tea was fine.  It was iced, and came across a little like a juice with the flavor inputs of mint and some herb added in, bright and fresh.  It was a little sweet but nothing like the milk-tea level of sweetness, still on the natural side.  It occurred to me that I'd have probably liked it even better 20 years ago when I was more into juices and tisanes.  I probably would've also liked a more conventional matcha latte better, although I don't love those either.  I drink plain loose teas, steeped versions, and I can sort of relate to green teas, but I would only really miss Longjing if I stopped drinking any of those.  Lately I drink as much black tea as oolong, and not all that much lighter oolong, with white teas and pu'ers mixed in.

Where was I going with all this?  The iced teas and blends should be perfect for Thai tastes and brutal hot weather.  The shop has a nice cafe feel, and Ekamai is a good place for reaching out to trendy young Bangkok professionals.  They only need to make some numbers add up and it's all good.  I'll be curious to see how the range of new offerings maps onto the tea evangelist awareness function, if it really does work to sell floral blends and novel iced teas to help shift people over to "plain" oolongs and such.

For anyone local to here (Bangkok) there is a tea-social themed event there February 24th (link here), probably a good time to check it out and try some different teas.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Lin Hua Tai Taipei tea shop Oriental Beauty review

A first review of the more interesting teas I bought on vacation, of an Oriental Beauty from the Lin Hua Tai shop in Taiwan.  That tea type is also called Dong Fang Mei Ren, and also Bai Hao.  I just wrote a post on shopping for tea there in Taipei, with more about the Lin Hua Tai shop, or their website or Facebook page would have more details.  They're not so easy to email or send a message to though, not really set up for that, but I guess in a pinch one could call them.

The tea looks and smells like it should, on the darker side, multi-colored, with lots of tips, and a rich, sweet, complex scent with a bit of fruit and spice.

The taste is like that, just as it should be.  It tastes like a checklist of nice OB aspects:  sweet, light but rich, with spice, citrus, and a touch of muscatel.  The tastes are clean and distinct, not off, not overly earthy or muddled.  The spice effect stands out, some cinnamon, but then so does the fruit range and the brightness.  Sometimes the oxidation level in those drifts up towards black tea, which can work well, but this is well balanced as a slightly above average oxidation level oolong.  The general type is often cited as 70% oxidized, but then accounts of that do vary.

a fountain in the back of the shop, easy to miss

As I mentioned in the last post I found this shop with help from a lead from an American expat living there, Nick Kemble, who describes the type in this way:

Oriental Beauty (dong1 fang mei3 ren2 東方美人)
60% fermented, this fine tea has an amber color and earthy characteristics. Insects and insect eggs are intentionally left on the leaves when harvesting, imparting a unique flavor, and so it is typically grown organically. The dried leaves also have visible white tips, so it is sometimes called “white tipped wulong”. Oriental Beauty has gotten a lot of international attention lately, and some regard it as the world's finest wulong. It has a lovely honey aroma.

Of course that only touches on the idea that "bugs" (leaf-hoppers, a specific type) biting the leaves improves the tea aspects, related to a response by the plant that changes the taste.  I've written about all that before, in this post, which also reviews a Thai version, and the World of Tea blog did a nice article on all that, or there's always Wikipedia.

I tried brewing the tea very lightly first, like a long rinse, then at a standard level of infusion strength, light but not wispy, then a little stronger.  It worked really well at all levels, just coming across differently.  Astringency and body picked up when brewed stronger so that upper medium oxidation came across more towards the character of a light and sweet black tea.  Brewing lightly emphasized the sweetness and brightness, and the subtlety of the flavors.  I guess I liked it better lighter, even though I'm a fan of black teas.

One of my first thoughts was that I should've bought more of this tea, and that I shouldn't share any more of it (I gave some to a local monk before even trying it, not something I regret given that context).

Hotel Fun lobby (in Taipei); my wife loves those waving cats

Oddly I don't remember if this particular tea was their highest grade tea or second level (of four), although I think the highest.  For most it would've made sense to just get the highest grades / quality level (grade is used to mean something else as well, a gauge of tea leave wholeness as opposed to quality, but I do feel free to keep using common English terms as I choose).  The teas were selling for around $30 for 150 grams versus under $20 for the next highest grade, very fair pricing, what one would expect for a mixed wholesale and retail sales shop.

dressed for the relatively room-temperature Taipei winter

But it all added up a bit, what I spent on tea there.  I try to limit what I spend on tea, with my wife's encouragement. On the one hand a half dozen teas at the higher grade would cost a bit under $200, for nearly a kilo of quite good tea, a great value (and just a bit over what I actually spent).  Seen the other way buying the next highest level--also quite good tea--would save a third of that cost, and the quality of the different teas didn't seem to drop off sharply.

It's odd how in discussing tea in some online circles one might feel a need to justify tea expenses, and in others instead justifying limiting it.  Costs differences were even more pronounced in NYC where an expensive 50 grams of tea cost $70, and an inexpensive pound of tea about the same, of course in two different places.

even more colorful brewed

Perhaps more than pricing variances it would seem more unusual that I didn't retain all the details about what I'd bought, that it wouldn't have been on an invoice slip and also committed to memory.  Memory isn't my strong suit, and getting worse, probably related to a genetic predisposition that has my mother repeating the same ideas now and again.  If I'm still functional but just a bit more forgetful in a couple of decades I guess I'll be fine.

As for the invoice issue the shop was a wholesale and retail vendor, so really as much set up to ship another shop a half dozen kilos of mixed teas as to pass on half of one to me.  Things seemed a bit informal related to walking in and buying tea like that, as if I was in the distribution warehouse of some tea district business.  At least the owner, Shiow Lin, and his niece both spoke perfect English (he'd lived in Pennsylvania, the State I'm originally from, commonality I mentioned in the first post).  Both of them were very kind and helpful, so it seemed like a very inviting warehouse.

with the Lin Hua Tai shop owner, Shiow Lin

the other munchkin

This tea compares well with the other OB I've been trying, quite a few in the last couple years, but then how good is "good" is all relative.  There is always room for improvement, for other subtle positive aspects, or for that next fractional increment of refinement, but the tea is definitely nice.

Someone would need to be quite spoiled on high quality versions of Oriental Beauty to find much fault with this version.  As far as being a refined, complex, interesting and pleasant to drink tea it's definitely already where it should be.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Pine needle tisane ("herb tea"), nutritional / medicinal uses research

In a discussion of a recent blog post about making pine needle tisane (herb tea, to some) someone commented with references on pine needle infusion nutritional and medicinal properties.  Online discussion somehow never works out like that, with someone contributing both insightful content and good reference links.

Norway spruce (left) and red pine, fresh picked versions

This first source they mentioned was a general reference, with a good mix of information about history and uses of pine needle tisane (from here

Boasting four to five times the amount of Vitamin C found in a lemon, pine needle tea has been a medicinal favorite of indigenous peoples for centuries and is said to have helped scurvy-afflicted European settlers survive their first winter in the New World. Also high in fat-soluble Vitamin A - an antioxidant essential for healthy vision, skin and hair regeneration and red blood cell production, it is frequently prescribed by herbalist healers as an expectorant to thin mucus secretions; furthermore, it can be used as an antiseptic wash when cooled. Different varieties of pine have their own flavor, so some drinkers mix and match to find the taste they like best.

As related background on the last point, I tried four different pine needle infusions in that review post and they did vary, but all of them tasted quite similar, "piney."  I tried blending a couple at one point, and the mix was interesting, but they shared a lot of common ground.  I'd expect someone would typically either like all of them, and also blends of types, or hate them all instead.

The point here is to research nutrition or even potential medicinal use though, so back to that.

chopped fresh pine needles, hemlock pine (lower left) and white pine

What about a summary site like WebMD?  That's not exactly the last word on confirmed medical or nutritional facts, but here is their take:

Pine is a tree. People use the sprouts, needles, and bark to make medicine...  Pine is used for upper and lower respiratory tract swelling (inflammation), stuffy nose, hoarseness, common cold, cough or bronchitis, fevers, tendency towards infection, and blood pressure problems.  Some people apply pine directly to the skin for mild muscle pain and nerve pain.

So far so good, although the general "some people think that..." angle doesn't inspire confidence.  That first article (here) also went into some cautions; it's good to also keep in mind potential negative issues related to following online medical or supplement advice:

A few words of caution: while there are over 100 different varieties of pine, the Ponderosa, Norfolk Island and Yew needles should be avoided, as brewing can prove toxic. You’ll want to collect your needles from trees at a distance from the roadside to be sure they haven’t been exposed to exhaust or chemicals, and far away from dump sites. Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should avoid pine needle tea as it has been linked by some sources to miscarriage.

Related to that recent review post on lapsang souchong, the Chinese black tea said to be made using pine needle smoke to flavor tea leaves, it makes you wonder which pines are being used for that.  Hopefully not those toxic varieties.

hemlock pine (not the same plant that killed Socrates)

Another research paper source goes into more about possible health benefits:

Pine trees (Pinus densiflora) belong to the family Pinaceae and are widely distributed around the world. In East-Asian countries such as Korea and China, various parts of pine trees, including the needles, cones, cortices, and pollen, are widely consumed as foods or dietary supplements to promote health [4]...  In addition, pine needle drinks have been used as folk medicine, to treat hypertension for example [5]. Moreover, pine needles have been shown to inhibit leukemia cell growth [6] and protect against oxidative DNA damage and apoptosis induced by hydroxyl radicals [7]. For the remainder of the biological effects of pine needles, those from extracts of similar materials (i. e. pine bark) have pharmacological, antioxidant activity, antiproliferative, and antiimflammatory actions [8,10].

I'm not so sure about all that but a research-oriented reference does have a much more authoritative ring to it than some personal web page.  It's not easy to prove broad claims though, so regardless of the source sounding promising there's no guarantee those claims are accurate.  A close read shows them to not be even presented as conclusive as they might seem at first.

snowball fight battle, with lots of potential "tea" in the background

That paper isn't a light read, and even their clear and condensed summary sounds like the results could benefit from another level of interpretation:

Proanthocyanidins, known as condensed tannins, are among the oldest of plant secondary metabolites. These compounds are widespread in woody plants, but are also found in certain forages. Catechins and proanthocyanidins are strong antioxidants and are associated with many useful biological effects of tea and other plant products. The effects of bioflavonoids extracted from pine on free radical formation have already been investigated in murine macrophage cell lines, and strong scavenging activities against reactive oxygen species were exhibited [26]. 

There's more, that was just the clear, easy-to-read summary part.  The general point here is that they did site actual studies (more in the first citation, and another here) but this article is itself a summary of potential benefits with reference to compounds that may be causes for those effects.  It's not a summary of limited, specific findings and confirmed conclusions.  They're not saying that pine needle use as a tisane could cure cancer, lower blood pressure, or serve as an antibiotic, but they are summarizing a range of potential positive effects, some based on tradition, and also mentioning some related research.  This is one form of academic study that comes up but it's not the same as targeted research that tries to support or present limited evidence against narrow hypothesis based on targeted and controlled study.

The last research article mentioned in that discussion is addressing the anti-bacterial claims part, not so much as a survivalist wound-wash treatment, but in relation to potential for use as a food washing agent:

The antibacterial activity of water-soluble extract from pine needles of Cedrus deodara (WEC) was evaluated on five food-borne bacteria, and its related mechanism was investigated by transmission electron microscope. In vitro antibacterial assay showed that WEC possesses a remarkable antibacterial activity against tested food-borne bacteria including Escherichia coli, Proteus vulgaris, Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus cereus...  In a food system of fresh-squeezed tomato juice, WEC was observed to possess an effective capacity to control the total counts of viable bacteria. Shikimic acid was isolated from WEC and identified as the main antibacterial compound. All results of our study suggested that WEC might be a new potential source of natural antibacterial agents applicable to food.

Sounds so promising!  And this reads a bit more like actual research (although broader summaries citing other works instead of conducting testing do serve a purpose, just a different one).

snowy winter scene

Related to these findings, instead of as a food wash this might also support that one of those survivalist guys could just use a pine-based infusion for washing wounds, as mentioned in the other source.  Or maybe for washing their own vegetables, back to the point here, since they wouldn't have any vinegar or baking soda or related commercial products on hand.

The take-away:  with some deeper reading some really interesting and potentially very well grounded ideas about some obscure subjects can be turned up.  There seems to be a lot of potential for pine needle tisane / "tea," related to nutritional properties or possibly in relation to targeted health benefits.

At this point these other medicinal benefits seem to be based on traditional medicine use, already accepted by some practitioners, with a limited degree of supporting positive findings from research.  It seems this includes potential for pine needle infusions to be used as a medicinal antiseptic wash or as a food-sanitizing wash, although in modern society there would already be commercial alternatives for such purposes.

All of this might work best in the stranded-in-the-woods or end-of-the-world scenarios, but there seems to be no reason why an ordinary person with access to a modern society couldn't use pine needle infusions for the same purposes.  And to me it even tasted nice.

Everything I encountered on preparation seemed to be pointing towards using fresh pine needles to prepare infusions, but it occurred to me that if a dried ingredient version possessed similar characteristics then an entire Christmas tree could be converted for use as a tisane.  One might wonder about use of fertilizer or pesticides, since those trees wouldn't have been produced with food-related use in mind, but it might not be much of an issue for pine trees.  My grandparents ran a small Christmas tree farm and those trees really didn't require pest protection or fertilization to thrive, the same as those pictured here at my parents' house in Pennsylvania.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Reviewing Marou Vietnamese bean to bar chocolate

Something different, tasting and reviewing chocolate instead of tea in this blog post.  I used input from a chocolate blogger (Lisebeth of the Ultimate Chocolate Blog) to write a post awhile back comparing tasting and reviewing the two things, or really she contributed most of that.  I finally turned up a regional bean-to-bar chocolate that she spoke highly of, Marou, based out of Vietnam.  I live in Bangkok, a stone's throw away, one small country over.  Anyone unusually interested in chocolate should check out their site since it talks about terroir issues and cacoa bean fermentation, next-level stuff related to what chocolate is.

It didn't seem to be available in Bangkok at the time of that writing, or other similar types, although not being a well-informed chocolate enthusiast that would be hard to determine.  But a local business, Maison Jean Phillippe--really a bakery--was working on importing it then.  But they ran into problems with that, for months, and I lost track of the idea, and their progress.

Maison Jean Phillipe, in the Bangkok Thong-Lo Commons

First a little background on what I expect, and methodology, and I'll get to the tasting.  For one thing, this general category of chocolate seems to typically be darker chocolate than one normally sees, even among what is sold as commercial dark chocolate (with a bit more on that to follow).  Per Lisabeth's past input it takes some adjustment to that different range to appreciate just how diverse and positive the aspects are in higher grades of chocolate.  Of course some makers would also do milk-inclusive versions, which could serve well as a bridge, but the ones I ran across from ranged from 70% to 80% chocolate, without any milk added.  I'll know what that really means better after the tasting.

The general idea is obvious enough, but it might be helpful to explain it.  The point is that fresh ingredients (fermented and roasted cacoa beans) are made using better processing, but the rest of the idea is that distinctiveness of beans from a certain location comes through only when making chocolate from beans from a very limited area.  It's the terroir idea, common to wine and tea, and probably to other food items I don't connect it with.  These two bars, or really all of the half-dozen that bakery was selling, are from very specific locations within Vietnam, with differences in character based on that.  Of course there are also generalities connected to beans and chocolate from whole countries in general, but that's not something I'm familiar with enough to discuss.

As for anticipated results of this tasting, I don't expect to do the chocolate review justice being on the very first step of the experience curve.  I'll try both chocolates, at the 70 and 76% cacao level, with the first from Dak Lak (missing diacritics to identify tones and distinguish between letters, so not really spelled that way, technically).  The higher percentage chocolate is from Ba Ria (also missing accents).  It should be interesting.  I won't research any more to pin down specifics about those locations, or the chocolates, but will include some third-party review after that.  All I will go on initially are the percentages and some very limited vendor descriptions:

Dak Lak 70%:  a wonderfully complex bar with a long spicy finish, made with a selection of the finest cacao from the highland districts of Dak Lak province.

Ba Ria 76%:  A bold and fruity chocolate made from fine flavour cacao sourced directly from family-owned farms in the province of Ba Ria.

Dak Lak is the highligthed central area, Ba Ria the star near Vung Tau (and HCMC)

Sounds great!  Let's taste those.  At the risk of throwing off my palate range I'll compare both to some Hershey kisses I have around from a trip back to the US.  I don't expect that to inform the taste-list review section of trying those other two but it might result in an interesting observation related to the over-all effect.  I'd expect for texture those two will be a bit firm packing in a good bit of cacoa but who knows, maybe some insight will arise related to both texture and the very different type of chocolate.  I'll use cool water as a palate rinse between tasting those, with a little left over Oriental Beauty tea from breakfast mixed in just to clear out the overload of the one flavors range.

I might also mention that Hershey's sort of isn't chocolate at all, in the same sense.  Per this article by the Washington Post their chocolate contains 11% cacao, 1% over the category minimum limit in the US, so it's really chocolate flavored candy (according to that author).  So what is it?  Per Hershey's it's made from this:

cane sugar, milk, chocolate, cocoa butter, milk fat, lecithin, natural flavor 

other bars I didn't buy, from different regions in Vietnam and with different cacao percentages


cacao nibs, roughly ground roasted cacao beans

Dak Lak (70%):  The first smell of the first bar is pretty intense.  I've been using cacoa nibs--ground fermented cacoa beans--for tea blends just a little lately (described in a Christmas blend post).  I also made a version of hot chocolate just out of that, and that very sweet, rich cocoa / cacao smell is the same.  Everyone would kind of think they know what chocolate and cocoa smell and taste like but it's a bit sweeter and richer.  As for that cocoa / cacao naming split, per my understanding cocoa is the name for roasted and processed cacao.

That chocolate is pretty intense in taste too.  It tastes like dark chocolate, but there are layers beyond that (it is dark chocolate; I guess I mean it's more complex than what I've tried as such).  It has a fruitiness to it, just a little toward a dark cherry, but it also tastes a little like a mild version of coffee, but not bitter.  I get the initial impression that a main difference from typical dark chocolate might be that they've not roasted the beans quite as much, because those tend to pick up a bit more roast effect than I'm getting from this.  Of course all of that isn't something I've ever given much thought to, so it's odd reconstructing what I think about dark chocolate based on tasting it last awhile back (I had some a week ago, come to think of it, some commercial European version, grocery store brand chocolate).

About the finish, I guess it does last, a couple of minutes after eating the chocolate that taste range hangs in there.  About spice, I'm not so sure.  I cook with spices, of course, and I just tried a Taiwanese Oriental Beauty (oolong, of course) that was heavy on spice, so it's familiar ground, but the chocolate context here really isn't.  I'll try the other before trying to dig any deeper.

Ba Ria:  The scent of the Ba Ria is that much more intense, as likely from the elevated cocoa percentage.  It's getting pretty close to the smell of those cacoa nibs, those just pieces of fermented cacoa beans.  In tasting it--wow!  Chocolate that strong is hard to relate to at first, but it's not hard to appreciate the novelty of the experience.  The texture changes, I think due to that difference, so thick it takes a few seconds to melt and spread across your tongue to be tasted.  I'll never be able to separate the character of this particular chocolate from tasting one at this intensity, but I'm never at a complete loss to speculate.

Since it's that much less sweet (there's no milk in these, and sugar is the other percentage, and shifting it from 30% to 24% changes a lot) the flavor context is much different.  At first it almost comes across as more savory, but really that seems to not be what's going on, after more consideration.  Obviously it is less sweet.  It tastes like chocolate--I had to say that at some point.  The maker called it "bold and fruity," and it is bold, but I'm not getting fruit as much as for the other, but no spice either really.  I'm not getting far in general.  I'll try tasting the Hershey's to circle back to a familiar lighter baseline and try both again.

Hershey's Kiss:  it's hard to appreciate the role that milk had always been playing without tasting those others.  Again these "Kisses" are likely to contain 11% cocoa, with the Hershey's "Special Dark" chocolate at 45%; not all that dark in comparison.  Of course they are in the general range of typical chocolate, commercial products, on the light and sweet side.  It's like comparing a latte and a hot chocolate; they're not at all the same thing.  At first I'd think to use an analogy of comparing a mocha with the cocoa instead, but they're just so different that a bit of that common primary ingredient doesn't bring them into the same taste-space in the end.

one bar does look darker, but the pictures don't do the scent justice

It is interesting trying to separate out what the tastes of the cocoa add to the Hershey's beyond being focused on what the milk is doing, or being distracted by texture and sweetness.  It's just a generic "chocolate;" there aren't other layers of specific elements to try and taste.  That's not exactly horrible, just quite different.  I don't pick up a heavy roast element, so they seem to have not went to far with that processing step.  But then it's quite uniform, with comparatively much less chocolate flavor.  Of course it has the slightly chalky texture that it's known for, which is quite intentional, per a former co-worker who previously worked at Hershey.  They use crystal structure phase charts as used for metalurgy, with very specific cooling steps employed to get to that result.

Dak Lak, again:  it's interesting how the flavor changes over the taste experience.  The introduction taste isn't the same as it transitions to, which changes over a middle-period experience, then the aftertaste / finish is something else.  It was almost as if a trace of smoke showed up really early on, then it moved into richness and fruit.  I'm still not getting spice at the end but it's something unique, something I'll probably not pin down with accurate description.

Tea sort of does that too, transition flavors while you taste it, but I tend to not break tasting into phases, beyond what you taste during drinking it versus the aftertaste / finish.  Tea doesn't transition to the same degree that chocolate just did.  In that middle period it's cool the way the hint of bitterness and earthy complexity balances well with the sweetness, then fruit seems to pick up, and describing the finish is tricky.  It shares a little with the earthy malt-range astringency in black teas, even though I've just mixed a lot related to feel and taste, so that may well not make sense.

Marou image of cacao pods (credit Marou site)

Ba Ria, again:  that chocolate intensity is even more interesting when you know it's coming.  The chocolate may well be fruity but the intensity and range of what's going on remind me of sundried tomato, both in terms of flavors, and also how richness, brightness, and range play out in that.  The finish is different, the tasting effect different.  Related to a taste-list description, I'm going to have to settle for completely failing on that.  The overall intensity seems to overwhelm my normal processing into distinct flavor elements.

Hershey's:  I still like it.  I can relate to people sort of "moving beyond" it, to some extent, to developing an appreciation for all the rest going on, and that completely different taste range.  It is chocolate, to me, but not in the same sense as those other bars.

It's funny how I feel as if I have enough habits in the one subject, tea, so I don't really want to be a chocolate enthusiast, or get back further into tisanes, or other foods, etc.  I'd make a terrible foodie.  I'm in a Facebook Bangkok-oriented foodie group and it's cool the way so much of what they address really is on the common-sense page though, talking about good Mexican restaurants, or burgers, etc.  There are lots of other tangents they could be on, like better and stranger cheese, and foi gras, or even something like that strange molecular gastronomy trend that went through, eating foam as a companion to food, or freezing things that aren't normally frozen.  But they just appreciate normal foods in that group, for the most part.

Next I'll research these chocolates and cite "real" reviews to see how I did.

Chocolate enthusiasts / reviewers input

Lisabeth!  My favorite chocolate blogger

I wanted to find Lisabeth's reviews, but she only seems to have written one up for the Dak Lak bar.  In an earlier post she reviewed a different version, and described the producer company's mission in general:

Marou not only makes chocolate from the bean, but they make it at its source.  The cacao is all grown in Vietnam and their mission was to make "unadulterated chocolate made from nothing but cocoa and sugar" (ref). 

In that second review post she does elaborate on that:

The chocolate bars are more than simple single-origin chocolate bars; each chocolate is being made from cocoa beans grown in different regions of Vietnam. This is even more fun than the usual country-of-origin chocolate tastings because Marou showcases how regional differences can vary so significantly even within a small country.

I'm not sure those guys leave off with that; they probably could go on and on about the micro-climate details that each farm location is drawing on to produce individual ingredients with related flavors:  local temperature, elevation, rainfall, soil type, sun exposure, effect of other vegetation, etc.  In a series on terroir on their site Marou mentions one input they are testing, and also others:

we expect that mineral composition in the soil will affect the mineral composition of the cacao tree, its pods, the beans and eventually the mineral composition of chocolate.

Lets move on to check that Dak Lak review:

Dak Lak 70%, Batch #2929:  Tastes of the roast with a hint of smokiness, mint, berry fruit, smooth and full-bodied with a hint of blackberry flavours and a hint of black liquorice.

I caught some of that.  It would've been interesting if she'd try to say more about that aftertaste since I had some trouble pinning that down.  Here's another review to check on that, by the "Bean to Bar" blog:

Semi quick starting with roasted bread followed by a strong brown sugar aroma. Gently turning over to liquorice with small twinkles of acidity and bitterness popping up to keep the aroma interesting and ever-changing...  A deep and very satisfying chocolate flavor comes forth next. Near the end of the melt gentle wood aromas give body to the entire experience without overpowering the palate. The aftertaste follows the main aroma of the Dắk Lắk bar, slowly turning to volatile cacao, wood and faint spice aromas. The aftertaste keeps rolling and rolling in your mouth for an exceptional long time...  Unlike the other Marou chocolates I’ve tried so far, this bar doesn’t feature the nice, abundant spice tones and isn’t fruity at all, yet it delivers such an amazing warm and gratifying chocolate flavor...

internet photo of cacao pods; see next photo for clarification

I didn't pick up much of that, but then there's not much common ground between that and Lisabeth's take either.  It would be interesting to compare every review of this product on the internet to identify variability in those but I'll move on to the next bar instead.  Here's one of Ba Ria from the One Golden Ticket blog:

The chocolate tasted initially of a cocoa roast, but soon revealed sweetness and fruit flavors. The sweetness tasted similar to honey. The fruit was complex. Among the specific flavors I identified were raspberry and apricot, as well as a general citrus... The finish was somewhat acidic and somewhat tannin...  Ba Ria was much fruitier than the other Marou chocolates. Of the five, I think I liked Dong Nai best, though Ba Ria was a close second. 

Or another review of the same type from Mostly About Chocolate:

Marou cacao pod photo; not the same look as the last

This particular cote starts out with an intense dark flavour with an edge of acidity. Super dark coffee and I think I got a bit of tobacco coming in there (not like the smoker who sits next to me on the train sometimes – real tobacco). There is an edge of almost over-stewed tea in there... and a very quick finish...  I think there was some leather in there but overwhelmingly this is a dark bar that I want to call bitter but it really isn’t...

Again, completely different; interesting.  Let's sample a third to see how that goes, from Chocolate Codex:

The sour fruit and tea [scent] carries over to the taste. This bar is tangy (sour cherries, tamarind) and tannic like a strong green. The aftertaste is black coffee sans sugar. I also found some grassy/earthy notes wrapped up in there. This earthiness seems to be a defining characteristic of Marou bars.

Interesting!  These descriptions vary, but then the degree of complexity, intensity, and degree of flavors layering in these chocolates is something that can't really be explained or described, it has to be experienced.  Variations in interpretation seem reasonable based on all that is going on.

Back to my own typical subject scope, the degree of objectivity even possible in tea tasting--getting to a final description--has always been an interesting point for me.  I've suspected that's more or less asking the wrong question, that it's more interesting to consider why there are natural variations in interpretation.  But this post already runs long, so I won't get into that here.  I wrote a bit on that subject awhile back that didn't really get past framing the question more completely, and a year later revisited the general subject scope based on input from other tea bloggers.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Reviewing a very smoky lapsang souchong (from NYC!)

In a recent post on shopping for tea in New York City I mentioned gambling on a lapsang souchong (smoked black tea) in a visit to the New Kam Man Chinese grocery store there (on Canal Street in the Manhattan Chinatown).

New Kam Man shop in the Manhattan Chinatown

A bit of background first:  lapsang souchong has been getting a remake for some time from unsmoked versions becoming popular.  Around three to four years ago I first tried an unsmoked and supposedly higher grade version.  I liked that tea, but had mixed feelings about the lack of smoke since it somehow did seem on the neutral character side.  A great black tea doesn't need smoke flavor, but that is part of the point of the type, traditionally.  I more recently tried one that was a truly great black tea (from Cindy Chen--my favorite Wuyishan tea farmer and producer) and it would've been an outrage to smoke that, to cover up the great balance or obscure the nice citrus element that came through.

packaged commercial teas, lots of them

More background, the type history:  supposedly lapsang souchong is the first type of black tea produced (although who knows about that, since oxidizing tea isn't really that complicated a process, per my understanding).  The story goes that locals abandoned some tea leaves in the middle of processing--due to an emergency, maybe ran off by opposing soldiers, I think it was--then later somehow contact with smoke or drying the tea using smoke came up.  This is why they invented Wikipedia, isn't it, to get one clear version within easy access, even if it may or may not be right in the case of fables.  Or this is a nice video series on the subject of Chinese tea history that a friend shared; I should watch that.

Lets go back to that moment that I decided which teas to gamble on, and why it was a gamble in the first place.

just looks like a black tea, only a little broken

Large jar storage issues

So I'm standing in the basement of the New Kam Man Chinese grocery store, impressed by a vast array of tea and teaware, boxed teas, tin teas, large jars, lots to take in.  At the time I was jet-lagged, shaking off braving a blizzard, all not really directly relevant.  Then it hits me:  I don't usually drink boxed teas, and large jars aren't a great way to store tea.  I've actually had mixed results with commercial teas, which aren't necessarily all bad, but without much to go on that really would be a gamble (in retrospect I might've snagged a little longjing to see how it went though).  I was more curious about those large jars since I don't buy tea that way very often, even though I've seen that in different places, including in the Bangkok Chinatown.

It's obvious why that's a bad idea for storage, isn't it?  Every time that jar is opened fresh air full of oxygen and moisture is mixed into the empty air space, more of both to degrade that tea.  The tea might've been in there for a couple of years, put through lots of cycles of that.  Lots of the green teas looked a bit brown as a result.  Aged green tea isn't as horrible as hearsay would let on; it looses the freshness that is typically part of the appeal, but to some extent the flavors just change rather than transitioning straight to horrible.  I visited a shop Chinatown shop here once where they were drinking 40 year old Longjing, as black as this tea, although I didn't try it.  But some other teas would age better, or I should say, deal with non-optimum storage better.

jar tea in a different shop; the green is looking a little brown

I'm not the best person to say which teas change in which ways--I just learn about teas as I go, and I'm not a novice but closer to that than an expert--but I'll take a really complete guess anyway.  Let's format that as my guesses as to which teas hold up to storage best, in order.

1.  Pu'er (either type, sheng or shou):  kind of a given, since both are said to improve with age.  Sheng is supposed to change more, to some people to require aging to improve and lose some characteristics that young sheng possess that aren't as interesting as aged (fermented) sheng.  Of course that's too simple.  Some people love brand-new sheng, which is more like green tea, fresh, if potentially a little edgy.  It's not as if every new sheng starts from the same set of characteristics though.  The opposite is just as true, or maybe more so; versions vary in lots of ways.  Shou is described as changing less, requiring a couple of years to settle and lose newly-fermented tastes that aren't favorable, but lots of people prefer older shou too.

I wrote a post on fermenting pu'er that goes into parts of this, but really I just dabble a little in pu'er, so my own experience isn't a reference in that.  The interesting main point:  fermentation is caused by micro-organisms, bacteria and fungus.  It's as well to not dwell on that being too unusual; some micro-organisms are our friends, and yogurt is normal enough.  This means some degree of air contact is absolutely necessary for fermentation, along with humidity, since those organisms are going to need both for their own life processes.  Too much or too little of either and the tea is ruined, potentially, which is what that post is about, a debate over the best conditions.

2.  Rolled oolong:  to some extent this applies to twisted style oolongs too, but to some greater extent intentionally aging rolled oolongs is seen as an improvement.  Some of the same qualifications apply as with pu'er; it's not a given that any aging helps any oolong, with personal preference dictating which outcomes are better.  Maybe loosely corresponding to the shou issue--in outcome, at least--darker roasted twisted Wuyi Yancha teas are said to improve after a year or two of aging to let the "char" effect settle, even though there is no close parallel as to what's going on between those two teas and aging processes.  Unlike with pu'er ideal air contact is typically described as none.  The teas aren't fermenting, they're sort of resting, although I've not ran across a description of what changes in them.  Some compounds must become other related compounds over time, but I'd not know how, or which.

the kids playing violin with a Central Park performer

3.  White tea:  this is a judgement call, putting white tea next, but it is also intentionally aged, sometimes, so why not.  More often it's not intentionally aged, and how it changes and which white teas should be aged, and how, is more than I'll go into here.  Even if you leave a well-sealed pack of silver needle sit off to the side for a year it will change a good bit, or at least that has occurred in my personal experience.  Conditions must play a role, and living in Bangkok the naturally high heat is probably either good for aging or terrible for it depending on what one means by "good" and preference.  Green teas loose their freshness fast stored in the 90 F / 30 C range; that probably wouldn't be seen as good.  It's interesting that some white teas are even pressed into cakes, as with pu'er, in a form that's supposed to better support aging, but I won't get into more about that here.

This seems a good place to mention that I also bought a white tea, a peony / Bai Mu Dan style, because it seemed it would hold up ok.  It had degraded, to some extent, it was darkened a bit, although I guess it might be possible to see the aging / changes as neutral.  The freshness and sweetness gave way to a lot more earthiness and mineral tone.  I liked trying it, and it was quite drinkable, just surely different than where it had started.  Based on the traditional saying for aging whites "three years medicine, seven years treasure" maybe it just needed a couple more years, but I think it was getting too roughed up a little by periodic air contact to really blossom into something special.  Also who knows what these teas started out as; mediocre tea isn't going to turn into great tea by sitting around, or at least so the common understanding goes.

Times Square!  (also not about tea)

4.  Black tea:  per descriptions of which teas need to be consumed fastest and which can stick around black tea is durable.  It's not typically described as benefiting from aging but then aging is an odd concept, and some of people would describe special cases where they think it would.  Oddly I don't have much to add about that; to me it just seems to hold up well.

Given all that about types and aging I bought a black tea (lapsang souchong) and that white tea.  A pu'er or rolled oolong would've made more sense but I was about to go to Taiwan in a few days and would stock up on oolong there, and I'd just bought pu'er (two versions) in Sun's Organic Tea garden.  I'll definitely let you know how that goes with those in later posts.

Follow-up:  transportation issues and tasting

I'll come right out with it:  this tea smoked my luggage, not a good sign.  After not very long I noticed it was giving off smoke fumes and wrapped the package in a number of plastic bags, and separated it from all other teas I'd bought.  Me smelling like smoke is no big deal; converting all the teas I'd bought to smoked teas--even through their packaging--would definitely not be an improvement.  I was concerned that meant it was chemically smoked, since it seemed unlikely that stored tea could retain smoke so strong it blasted straight through plastic packaging.  But then ordinary types of plastic bags are a lot more porous than one would think.  One take-away:  don't store your tea in zip-lock baggies.

The tasting notes here aren't going to go far, I'm afraid.  It tasted like smoke.  A lot like smoke.  If you took the cinders from a campfire and brewed them they'd be just like this tea.  It wasn't bad, given all that.

the basic set-up my grandfather used (photo credit)

I'm not sure that I could detect a difference between a chemical smoke flavoring and real smoke, but of course I feel as though I might be able to.  I tried lots of crazy smoked foods my grandfather made when I was a child, so I was familiar then with outrageous levels of real smoke on foods.  He smoked things like cheese, fish, and venison bologna, things that it made sense to smoke.  It was just the over-smoking that wasn't conventional, going way past adding a subtle earthiness to cheese straight on to blackening it.

My grandfather passed on a rule of thumb for which types of wood to use:  if a tree bore an edible fruit it would be fine for use for smoking.  Hickory and cherry are good (which supply nuts and fruit).  Maple is ok, kind of an exception given the sap is used to make a food, syrup.  He made that too, by the way, and my own Dad still does.  That's a fascinating process but this is already running long; lets just say you "tap" the tree to steal some sap and boil that awhile, and voila, maple syrup.  Pine smoke, supposedly used for lapsang souchong, is a funny exception, but then I guess you could eat pine nuts, for some trees.

I miss those two, just great people

So it seems like real smoke to me.  I hoped to say more about the character; is it sour and sharp as one would expect from pine, or warm and rich as one would expect from maple or hickory?  In the middle.  Or maybe I'm just not a great judge of smoke.  I tried to see what I could pick up from the tea but the smoke was too strong.  I probably could've brewed smoked copy paper and I couldn't detect a lot of the difference, although then again there probably was some tea taste layered way, way under that.  The smoke was too strong for it to be a good lapsang souchong but it was still drinkable, still ok.  I just wouldn't want to drink much of it.

I reviewed a smokey lapsang souchong from a local Bangkok cafe that was probably nearly as smokey, but that came across more in the finish.  In retrospect that might've been more likely to be a chemical, or chemically enhanced, since it's unnatural for a taste to get stronger well after you drink the tea.

This tea might be better blended in some way.  I've tried using lapsang souchong in making masala chai before and that works out, a nice layer added in with spicing.  Of course this one would have to be "cut" with a normal tea or that wouldn't work, unless someone tried to take it to a daredevil level of flavoring.  At that point you  might as well add dried roasted peppers and just go crazy with it, and probably more layers like dried orange peel to give it depth and soften the blow.  We'll see, but I probably won't do all that.  Even for masala chai I like the way the different taste elements merge into a harmony, and I don't think that would translate if you cranked up the volume to 11 for all of them.

I'm not saying it was a gamble gone bad but it wasn't exactly a clear success story.  I even tried the lapsang souchong a second time and really had trouble with the strong smoke aspect again, so I'll either drink it mixed or give it away.  I mentioned in a forum discussion I could use it for a meat rub, not entirely joking.  I think it might be nice as part of a base for a turkey noodle soup, giving it that campfire effect such soup had when we would take that out hunting when I was a child.  A child, out killing animals for food, good times, but that was life in the country, and it still is.  I spent nearly two decades as a vegetarian in part as a result of that but now I see the bigger picture, and it is a positive, ethical alternative to factory farming.  But I digress.

The tea cost so little it was still worth it (in the $5 for 50 grams range, maybe), and in retrospect I really should've picked up a pu'er and rolled oolong too, and spared the extra $10 or so to try two more types.  The peony was just so-so too, but experiencing more-aged white tea was interesting enough, and it was more drinkable.

It might seem like I'm more critical of that store and that experience than I really intend.  If that store was here in Bangkok with the same selection and same pricing I'd keep sorting out what worked and what didn't from there, and be happy to have the option to do so.  It's nice having better tea options, in the kind of shop where a kind owner sits and talks tea with you along with doing free tasting before you buy; all that is ideal really.  But trying random and unusual medium or even lower quality versions of tea can be really interesting too, not always only informative when it works out well.