Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Ceylon tea tasting with SNSS (a Bangkok wholesale vendor)

from left:  two black teas, silver tips, and gold tips

Last year I attended a Bangkok coffee and tea expo and tried out some nice Ceylon there, from the SNSS wholesale tea distribution company (with a post about that event here).  To be honest I don't have a lot of depth of experience with teas from Sri Lanka (better versions; ordinary commercial lower-quality tea is a different thing).  I tried a couple of Malou versions at Luka cafe in Sathorn (with posts on that here and here).  Their Ceylon Peony / Bai Mu Dan style tea really did grow on me after buying some and drinking it for awhile.  The taste range was much different than for Chinese teas, or other South East Asian or Indian tea versions, mild but with interesting subtle earth and mineral tones.

I'd meant to get around to trying SNSS's gold tips, which they were out of at the time of that expo.  The idea is that it's white tea similar to silver tips, just different (which is similar to silver needle teas, just different, probably related to processing differences in addition terroir influenced variation).  I did buy a really nice version of a black tea from them then that I seem to have not reviewed in this blog.

So after the better part of a year of infrequent contact we finally set up a time to meet again, the owners and I.  I didn't know what to expect, and didn't realize one of their owners was from Sri Lanka (Poorna Perera).  Not that their nationality changes things, but the closer ties to original sourcing does, which I'll just touch on a little here.  The meeting was set up as an informal private tasting; nice enough.  But a little back-story on them first.  This never does get far as a biographical account, covering who they are, and relations to other existing business and interests, but there is more story there I didn't cover.

They are an importer, with connections within Sri Lanka as a tea buyer there, so not just a reseller based here.  Their focus is providing local shops and businesses with true single-origin Ceylon teas, not large-lot teas blended from different production batches to offset flaws in those.  All familiar ground, right?  They also emphasize freshness as a selling point.  There is no way to know how fresh or old more typical by-the-container-load Ceylon teas sold here are, but SNSS is controlling their own tea sourcing, from the auction purchase step through bringing it here, so they know.

I might have smiled

We talked a good bit about how tea buying and sales go in Sri Lanka, and how importing tea goes here.  It turns out they could also function as an exporter to other countries, given that their range of operation spans the initial sourcing chain.  And it turns out that buying process is very complicated in Sri Lanka, nothing like in Thailand.  It's my understanding that here if you turn up at a plantation you can buy a kilogram of tea or as much as you want, with next to no regulations about the purchase process or resale process, beyond taxes applying.

Import taxes in Thailand are kind of on the high side for lots of things in Thailand, not something it's easy to miss noticing, and that's true of tea as well.  We just visited the States (US), where I'm from, and we stock up on all sorts of things there, some because selection is different, and some because the same products imported to the US and to Thailand cost different amounts due to taxation.  Some examples:  shoes are less expensive there, and toys, bikes, tools, vitamins, lots of things.

Of course Trump is about to try and screw that up, through the US levying additional taxes on the import side, with the resulting trade wars not likely to stop there.  But it's probably as well to stay off the subject of politics.

One other subject we talked a lot about was demand for teas here.  Thais drink a lot of bottled tea and bubble / milk tea, and beyond that lemon tea and "Thai tea" (a spice-flavored variation of milk tea, or some versions are just black tea and condensed milk).  Thailand produces black tea and decent oolong but most Thais don't drink much of the latter, or foreign-imported versions.  One might run across exceptions to that rule in Chinatown, or of course in the Japanese community, but specialty shops selling a normal range of blends and plain teas are slow to ramp up here.  There are some exceptions, which of course I've written about.  As for Ceylon, container loads are surely being brought in and used for those milk-tea versions but few people have ever heard of gold tips or that Ceylon version of Peony / Bai Mu Dan.

On to the tasting part then, how that went.

a bit off subject, but I took a ferry to meet them, like a bus but on the river


It was interesting experiencing the format of the tasting, closer to standard plantation tasting practices than I'm used to (with a post related to that here, more formal processes of preparing and judging teas).  We first tried those gold tips and their silver tips, another general type (white tea) that works well brewed using a Western approach.  I prepare tea in different ways, often using a Western style modified as closer to Gongfu brewing, varying how I make each tea based on past experience and preference, or immediate inclination.  In lots of cases I switch that to a more conventional Gongfu approach for reviews to keep it more standard, to observe the range of flavor aspects better.  I more often use Western brewing in the case of black tea, or a variation of it, but I'm not consistent about that.

Gongfu-style brewing Yunnan black tea recently; why not

The gold tips were interesting.  I didn't make notes, and didn't retain enough--or probably pick up enough--to do them justice with a flavor-by-flavor review here, but the general character was along the lines of that Peony.  The tea is subtle, so that at first one might not pick up much at all, and it could seem a little thin, but after even a very short acclimation and expectations shift a range of earthy and mineral tones was evident.  I've had a similar experience with white teas in general, just over a longer period of time and acclimation.  That tea was nice, sort of what one would expect, in between a Chinese white tea and a mineral-intensive black tea, just not astringent.  I think tweaking preparation style to move off a more straight Western brewing approach would work better for me too.  Lets say a little more about that, brewing.

at that Expo last year; they carry a lot of different teas

Per my understanding formal tasting often uses a very rigid and consistent approach to allow for teas to be tasted under the exact same brewing process conditions (see that other post for more details).  The point isn't to adjust brewing to optimize a tea to preference, it's to use a very standard approach to take variables out of the equation.

I've ran across the idea that it's accepted that some standard approach versions "overbrew" tea related to a typical end-consumer optimum, in part tied to the idea of process standardization, and also to allow for stronger infusion to highlight character and flaws in the tea.  One implied premise seems to be that someone could "taste around" that approach and guess out where a different and more optimum preparation might lead, and with enough experience it seems reasonable that could work.

To an end consumer it would be more intuitive to adjust brewing to optimize the tea instead, but that line of thinking would run into problems for consistent evaluation if someone thought they should brew different teas in different ways.  Really a tea buyer could take whatever approach they wanted, within the scope of that working with providers' support.  A reputable source in Indian tea production once mentioned some buyers prefer to do tastings of tea with some milk and sugar added, the opposite approach related to everything I've just said.

Per normal practice that type of tasting is done with a spoon, emphasizing slurping to increase exposure of air-born flavor components within the nasal passages.  All that is familiar ground, something I did more of related to tasting wine a lifetime ago, and some with tea too, but it's a practice I'm out of the habit of.  I could've switched over and embraced it, but instead they poured a bit into cups for me to try as I'm accustomed to.  I had more going on to adapt to as things stood, trying unfamiliar teas brewed using approaches different than I normally would use.

I didn't like the silver tips as much as the gold tips, and the other black teas were interesting.  This led to another deviation from my normal tea-drinking practices:  they didn't have a version of whole leaf tea to try at this meeting (OP, or orange pekoe, versus more Broken Orange Pekoe, with more on those letter codes in this general reference, or a longer version here).  We tried three grades of black tea, here used in the sense of tea wholeness, not the standard English meaning of "quality," but instead of leaf presentation, how whole.  Two looked like well-chopped leaves to me, and the other looked as it was named:  dust.

that Malou Ceylon Peony (really a different subject)

It was interesting that the color and taste varied by a lot more than just due to astringency ramping up the more the leaves were broken, although that did happen too.  I've been drinking some soft and sweet Taiwanese black tea lately, and just reviewed a really good Yunnan black tea, and of course these were nothing like those, ranging from only slightly brisk to downright edgy.  Other mineral and earth tones were part of the other variation.  One tea was quite nice, distinctive and pleasant, another interesting but not as close a match to my own preference, and that dust was a bit rough.

It's hard to steer all of this to some simple conclusion.  I'll meet them again sometime and pick up more of a couple kinds and mess around with them, and do a more detailed review then.  There is surely a lot more range of experience I haven't crossed into related to Ceylon, but then I knew that.  I'm not sure how I see all of this relating to Thai tea drinking practices.  They can sell the less expensive versions to vendors making milk tea, in high demand here, but there is an awareness gap to jump before anyone in Bangkok starts drinking more of those interesting teas.

Malou teas--the Luka cafe supplier--has been chipping away at that, but I'm not sure how much ground they've covered yet.  Ordinarily it would seem odd mentioning a competitor in a blog post, as I've been doing here, but it seems these two vendors really are working on different ranges within one country-origin tea type.  Malou is trying to sell relatively high end teas through established connections, even branching into ready to drink, and SNSS is trying to ramp up business as a general wholesale seller.  Of course there could be some overlap but the core focuses are different.

It remains to be seen if SNSS can push further into having cafes and other resellers join them in supporting consumer awareness and selling better Ceylon, or if they'll stick to being an upstream supplier for milk teas.  I'm a big fan of Chinese teas (and Taiwanese, Indian, Nepalese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, etc., and Thai teas can be ok) but based on trying a limited number of nicer Ceylon those really do deserve more attention.

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