Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Hua Xiang Shui Xian from Cindy Chen

Back to my favorite general category of tea, Wuyi Yancha.  I keep connecting with other types, styles, and regions, and those seem to draw more even with my preference for this category of oolongs, but I still love coming back to trying nice versions of these.

It's not brand-new news, but my favorite tea farmer and maker Cindy Chen--the producer of this tea, or at least her family is--has been working on a direct sales website, here.  Even if ordering teas directly from a well-recognized Wuyishan producer isn't of interest that site is worth a look to check out the pictures and descriptions (although she's still adjusting that content).  The language can be a little cryptic, since descriptions like the contrast of taste / flavor emphasis versus aroma might not mean much to everyone.

She is conveying how people in China describe teas within their tea tradition, which is essentially the root of all other tea traditions (in my judgment), which really may be of interest to some even beyond the function of the content, describing those teas.  This one point in particular, the flavor / aroma contrast, I've been exploring for some time, in tasting versions with either type of emphasis attributed to them, and it comes up in this review as well.

Before getting into that review, that's something new, isn't it, an actual tea farmer and producer putting up a wholesale and retail distribution website?  It's not so different than two wholesale distributors in Taiwan I just visited moving more towards retail sales, but sort of the next level up, from the original source instead.  I'm familiar with one other small tea farmer developing a website but it can be hard to sort out such claims.

Anyone could buy teas at a wholesale market and take some pictures of a farming area--or just download them from the Chinese version of a Google search--and they could position themselves as a traditional tea-growing family.  It's interesting to consider what the differences would be, although it's completely an unrelated tangent here.  I'll speculate a little before I get back to the point.

If someone instead sold teas they didn't produce they may or may not know the history of those teas.  Claims about organic processing could be completely meaningless, depending on what those were based on initially.  Regardless of their familiarity with sourcing they wouldn't know what the tea is in the same level of detail, related to variations in tea plant types, growing location and inputs, and processing details.

The tea quality level of wholesale-source tea might tend to be more average, although there wouldn't be anything stopping a farmer from producing below-average quality tea and selling it more directly.

It should be much more unlikely that a higher grade of tea could be offered at a reasonable cost, by a reseller, since at least one level of buying and selling would have already occurred, or potentially maybe more than one.  Then again there wouldn't be any reason why someone couldn't know a lot about tea in general, and couldn't learn about the history and type of specific teas being sold, and then source and sell at a good value.  It would just seem less likely for any one of those to occur and very unlikely for all of them to happen together.


This tea is a Shui Xian, a general type that's probably familiar, one of the main Wuyishan area produced rock oolongs (Wuyi Yancha).  I'll review the tea as I experienced it first then get back to what it is, the general type and this particular version.

The dry tea scent seems to indicate at least an upper-medium level of roast.  There's a good bit of complexity, with a nice cocoa aspect in the dry leaf scent.

From the first infusion the balance seems nice, not coming across as too much "char," so I'd guess it's medium level roasted.  Aging drops that effect off, per the common understanding, so it could also have been more roasted tea that has rested for awhile, but then I understand that for some tea types Cindy does wait and sell them the next year.

I went just a little longer on the second infusion and the experience of the roast aspect really did pick up, but the rest of the complexity still has it falling into an interesting balance.  The tea is earthy, and intense, with lots happening across the normal range for the type.  There are mineral undertones, but more going on with dark wood / leather / molasses flavors.  Those tastes extend across quite a range, coming across as great complexity, so it wouldn't take much imagination to list out a connection to a spice element, or to interpret part  of the taste as a well-roasted sweet potato (maybe just not quite fruit, although floral also works).  That's a little similar to the typical cooked sweet-potato / yam aspect more commonly experienced in some black teas, just experienced as a minor trace of background flavor element rather than as a main element, in a completely different context of other characteristics.

The sweetness is nice.  It has a bit of rich feel to it as well, not quite as thick as some other tea types can be.  Others that are more into that type of characteristic range might appreciate that more than I do.

The flavor range evolves over a few infusions.  It's still complex, still in the same general range, but the balance shifts.  The roast input is still pronounced enough that someone averse to heavier roasts might not like the tea for that reason, although it seems to me that it's really still in the middle-level range, and that it balances well.  The taste moves towards a root-spice aspect, not exactly cinnamon, but close to that, with a lot of related flavor elements coming together in the profile.  The overall effect and balance is nice.  I think I'd be more impressed if Cindy's teas weren't typically like that; something would seem wrong if the tea wasn't unusually clean-flavored, complex and well-balanced.

Some Wuyi Yancha have an aromatic effect, almost a liquor-like quality, and this does express that.  In some cases that comes across as coupled with the flavors range being thin, of the profile extending in that direction to the exclusion of some normal flavors, but this seems to balance in the middle, to work on both levels / aspects ranges.  For some teas that seems to be the point, the main aspect that one would appreciate, so it may not work or be accurate to describe that one-sidedness as a flaw or gap in some teas.  I see it more as being the style for a tea type or a final preparation of a specific tea.

An aside:  flavor versus aroma

All of this might not seem clear.  One might ask:  is the aroma character the same or different than the flavor character, in terms of the flavor and "scent" being different.  In a sense that question makes sense, in a sense it doesn't.  It's a bit much to fully fill out, but more or less common knowledge that really "taste" is what our tongue does, limited to some basic sensations (sweet, sour, bitter, etc.).  Most of the rest of flavor is coming from scent perception through the nasal passages, from traces of foods and liquids aerating and passing across sensory receptors located there.

That's why wine tasters--and tea tasters, some of them--slurp tea, to help with that aeration.  I'm kind of out of the habit of that, really, although I've experimented with it in the past, both for wine and tea.  Of course I use the term "taste: in the common sense here sometimes, mixed with the concept of flavor, since I'm in the habit of using English expressions in their common forms.

To drift back to making this clear, "aroma" is being used in a special sense here, in describing some teas as aromatic.  It can't be completely separated from flavors but it is a different thing.  I'll get back to this point but I never will completely pin it down here; it's funny how that experience works out in practice, not so easy to describe.  Back to a bit more reviewing first.

the brewed leaves

Back to the review

I'm not sure if I'd missed it before or if the tea is actually transitioning but tasting a later infusion that roastiness and earthiness reminds me of coffee.  Crazy, right, who wants their tea to taste like coffee?  It still is in the range of tea, I only mean that one aspect reminds me of that heavy roast effect one can't miss in French roast.  I think it might be that as you use longer infusions brewing a tea Gongfu style that seems to naturally shift the balance of aspects towards those that don't fade as quickly, and some aspects are emphasized by the longer infusion times used later in the process.  The feel often tends to shift, even for teas with subtle astringency levels, so that a mid-level or more oxidized oolong might pick up more structure in the later infusions.  It would be nothing like a black tea, certainly nothing like an astringent black tea, but both taste and to a subtle extent feel would change.

The tea still works well, still balances well in later infusions.  The dark woods and leather effect is still pronounced, maybe a little more so, and still balanced.  I never did get around to mentioning "cocoa" again in this taste-by-taste description, after noticing it in the dry tea scent.  After thinking about it that may be interpreted as the main contributing element flavor aspect, to really adding to the complexity by joining those other flavors.  It's just a bit hard to tease out those contributing aspects because they hit your palate as a complex and integrated range, not as a few distinct flavors.

It would also be possible to attribute the lighter, more aromatic, liquor-like quality I never did pin down with description as being floral.  Floral scents cover quite a range, and it wasn't bright and sweet like a daisy, citrusy and tangy like a dandelion, or rich, full and sweet like a rose, lavender, or lotus flower, or intense like jasmine.  It could resemble a more subdued type of orchid, which can range from quite bright and sweet to more subtle.  But really I'm not great with remembering flower smells, which is why I just listed only the most familiar examples.

Many infusions along the range of complexity does give way a little but the flavors stay clean and positive, and still balance, just differently.  The roast input softens and that root spice aspect picks up.  Or was I saying bark spice?  The general point there is that beyond familiar tastes there is range of what we can experience that doesn't map so directly onto what is found in a Western kitchen spice rack.  If I'm running across something towards root spice I'll often mention sassafras, although I've really not tasted a sassafras tea in ages, but the sweet, light, aromatic taste range is hard to describe without some limited and potentially flawed reference.  Bark spices might even be worse; cinnamon is familiar, but there is more in the way of woody, aromatic, rich flavor tones someone aware of more bark types could pin down, which I can't.

Cindy helping roast the tea

What the tea is

Let's start with the labeled name:  Hua Xiang Shui Xian.  In this translation page (or this one, or messing around with Google translate) it identifies as Narcissus.  That's another name for daffodil, described in the Wikipedia article as having this scent character:

Fragrances are predominantly monoterpene isoprenoids, with a small amount of benzenoids, although N. jonquilla has both equally represented. Another exception is N. cuatrecasasii which produces mainly fatty acid derivatives. The basic monoterpene precursor is geranyl pyrophosphate, and the commonest monoterpenes are limonene, myrcene, and trans-β-ocimene. Most benzenoids are non-methoxylated, while a few species contain methoxylated forms (ethers), e.g. N. bugei. Other ingredient include indole, isopentenoids and very small amounts of sesquiterpenes.

I was just thinking that!  Of course that's not helpful, maybe only interesting to help appreciate what is going on with floral scent complexity (a lot).  I am impressed with people that can remember those complex impressions well.

Shui Xian is familiar enough, one of the main types of Wuyi Yancha, the name of a plant type used in making versions of those.  Of course there are variations within specific plant types, in the more extreme case with Dan Cong in general described as being made from Shui Xian plant type variations.  That's a different Shui Xian, although possibly distantly related, but evolved into a broad range of plant types and final aspect styles in the example of that other region's oolongs.

Shui Xian is described as a very common plant type used to make teas, as being the basis for restaurant-grade tea, or also for making better Wuyi Yancha.  I can't even guess as to how differences in related plant types used, growing conditions, and processing styles all factor in relative to each other, and mapping any of that out definitely isn't the point here.

On Cindy's new Wuyi Origin website two versions of Shui Xian are described.

Shuixian (Narcissus) 水仙 - floral taste... 
Baking level: Medium;
Feature:  Good in aroma, a very balanced body, well rounded mouth feel, and good sweet back

Shuixian (Narcissus) 水仙 - orchid scent.. 
Baking level:    Medium-roasted
Feature :  ... It is famous for its mellow soup, quite suitable for aging.  Some years keeping [after aging] its soup can turn to be like the rice water, sticky and mellow.

According to Cindy it was the orchid scent version, which matches well with the emphasis on aroma in the tea (so I didn't have to re-write the review p) ).  I didn't notice a lot of inclination towards floral tones versus other range, in taste or aroma, but the aspects could have been interpreted different ways (as described in the review).

I've written a little more about differences in aroma and taste emphasis in a comparison review of types of Jin Jun Mei, also from Cindy, with three types described as emphasizing those varying aspects.  That distinction seemed to become clearer through that experience.

I think I was running up against a similar divide in Dan Cong tea versions from the Lin farm last year, and that I liked the versions emphasizing flavor over aroma more.  I loved Mi Lan Xiang and Ya Shi versions (honey orchid scent and duck shit, reviewed here), which exhibited pronounced flavors, but didn't connect as directly with the Da Wu Ye version that was more aromatic:

It seems still in the orchid range, light and sweet, just more aromatic, and a bit richer, more towards lavender, but not that heavy-handed...  Tasting it is a strong experience, one that occurs as much after you drink as during, but in a different way than for the other teas, not so much focused on taste.  The tea has a full feel, one you feel all across your tongue after drinking it... I like this tea, but I absolutely loved the other two versions, so I guess in a sense it pales in comparison.  I really think that has to do with personal preference, not the quality level or character of the tea, related to being good or not, or more accurately "how good." 

So a lot of the same applied for this Shui Xian.  It was nice, balanced, and not really one-sided related to aspects, but I'd probably prefer her other Shui Xian version.  It is a very nice tea though, one I enjoyed and anyone interested in Wuyi Yancha style teas would probably enjoy.

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