Saturday, April 29, 2017

Nantou roasted Taiwanese oolong from the TShop in NYC

I'm finally trying a TShop Nantou roasted Taiwanese oolong, a tea I bought in NYC at the start of the year, only a week into the year (more on them here).  It's odd to get that far behind in trying teas, between tasting samples and all that illness, and continuing to buy other teas.  I bought 150 grams of another light oolong I'm only now getting low on, a Lin Hua Tai Shan Lin Xi version reviewed here (with more shop details here), which I'll taste along with this tea.  I have one more Lin Mao Sen shop oolong version yet to try (from a shop next door to them, with a long back-story about that), and also a black tea from them, both of which I guess I'm aging a little before getting to.

Lin Hua Tai Shan Lin Xi oolong

This is a completely different tea than the Lin Hua Tai tea, darker roasted, and from Nantuo county--where the mountain of Dong Ding is located--instead of that Shan Lin Xi (which per inconsistent transliteration convention in Taiwan goes by other variations of that location name).  Part of the idea is to compare similarities and differences, and also to help pin down quality level.  I keep saying that teas need to be similar for comparison tasting to work--sort of the opposite of this case--but that's also a function of how familiar they are.

It would still work to try two completely different Wuyi Yancha at the same time, for example, unless the style of both was unfamiliar, then that would just be too confusing.  It wouldn't be as informative as if they were quite similar but clarifying some attributes can still work through comparison, for example a difference in body / feel might stand out better than when trying a single tea.  That's more the point here, not to zero in on just how good a tea of this type is--a moderately roasted oolong--through comparison with another like it, but to help clarify background character differences, and maybe even to highlight style differences more through contrast.  Or it could just be a bad idea.

typical tea cultivars used per Taiwan region table (from TeaDB site)

These may be from the same cultivar / plant type, per this Tea DB site reference.  Chin-shin is now typically referred to more often as Qing Xin, which is just a transliteration style update, mentioned here, with more background in the gold standard of all references, a Wikipedia article.

That part about Chin shin / Qing Xin being Ruan Zhi may or may not ring a bell (covered here).  It ties back to an issue with almost all the Thai tea industry getting their tea names mixed up since they call a #17 hybrid Ruan Zhi, which doesn't match, since that's a landrace.  Or maybe it's technically not that, since it's foreign origin is known.  I'd be clearer on the use of those terms if I were a botanist, the main point being it's not one of their hybrids.

more on non-hybrid tea types from Taiwan, with another table on the TRES / TTES types there (source)


The tea is good (I'm skipping the appearance and dry smell parts; that's all what you'd expect).  It has that richness of more roasted but still light oolong.  Judging just how good the tea is will be no easy task, since I've tried different Taiwanese oolongs but trying lots regularly is the right background for doing that.  Just listing flavor aspects will be tricky enough.

Early on it shows light floral aspects, that light malted milk ball / light caramel sweetness, and a general smoothness and richness.  I think it could be a little thicker but the complexity and cleanness is quite good.  It's not a heavily roasted tea by any means but to me it strikes a great balance for that.

The Lin Hua Tai tea is much more floral and fragrant, and a little brighter, in a different range.  Mentioning flower names would be helpful here, it just wouldn't mean much to anyone that doesn't remember lots of floral scents, as I don't.  The aspects drift to a light green wood taste, which integrates well with the floral tone.  Both are just getting started so I'll keep going.

On the next infusion the TShop tea moves into a cocoa aspect a little; it's even richer.  I think it won't show it's full potential until the next round though, with the leaves still unfurling.  The floral aspect doesn't go anywhere but the balance works even better.  There isn't much mineral structure compared to the other tea but some undertones give it fullness.  It's too early to call related to this tea but the roast effect seems great, with the only limitation that it gives up some fullness of feel and flavor intensity, just not flavor range.  Put another way it seems thinner.  Any tea could be different in lots of ways, and the flavors could be more positive and complex, but they're quite good as they are.

The Lin Hua Tai tea is more intense, more floral, and fuller, with a longer aftertaste duration.  It's limitation doesn't relate to complexity or cleanness,  both are fine, but to that more vegetal nature not being a preference of mine.  I mean that in the sense of a light wood tone, nothing like vegetables, and it's definitely not grassy.  I would expect some of the differences to relate to regional characteristics, along with processing differences and the rest.  But then that's back to where lots of exposure would allow for saying more.

Lin Hua Tai Shan Lin Xi left, TShop Natou oolong right

I think if I were tasting either alone the flavor aspect list would be longer.  It's odd I've not experienced that before, or noticed it, that I tend to review teas a bit differently in comparison, or at least might.  Aspects other than flavor stand out a lot more so it's natural to focus more on them.

I was right that the TShop tea had a little more to give; the flavors richness and balance is very nice now.  Let's put that as a list:  light cocoa, floral now in a subdued underlying underlying presentation, light caramel sweetness.  The fullness of flavor really could be described as a few more things; it leans toward spice, includes an aspect like roasted chestnut, and fruit in the range of sweet cooked pumpkin and sun dried tomato (or maybe sweet potato; that's in the same range, and I am talking about a secondary aspect).  For all that the general character is still thinner than the other tea, less aromatic, less full feel, with less aftertaste.  This wasn't their higher end tea and those limitations are probably why.  But the flavor is great, per matching my preferences.

The other Lin Hua Tai tea hasn't changed much.  It's full in flavor and complex enough that I might not be recognizing two or three floral aspects, all mixed into an integrated range.  There are a few characteristic features of good Taiwanese oolongs, some of which aren't easy to describe.  Strong mineral undertone, floral nature, fullness in different ways, those aren't so hard to place.  This has a brightness and roundness to it that's harder to pin down, something there should be a Chinese concept for.  It's aromatic, so related to that, but I mean the range that's expressed in, the specific type of fragrance.  It's perfume-like, as if that helps.  That one aspect probably resembles an herb I'm not familiar with.

The next infusion is more of the same.  I'd expect these teas to produce a couple more similar infusions then begin a decline or transition that would take a long time to lead to them being brewed out.  I might mention that I really like both these teas; I'm not sure that preference take always comes across clearly.  It's hard to imagine anyone not appreciating these aspects ranges, or finding them boring, but preferences do vary, and any experience might get old under the right conditions.

These teas are a good example of why I'm often saying that Thai teas just aren't there related to this quality level.  I may have tried slightly better versions from Taiwan, although at some point that gets to be about type preference as much as quality.  But I've never tried a similar tea from Thailand (or Vietnam, or Myanmar) made in a similar style on this level.  Chinese teas span a broader quality range than I'll ever get around to experiencing, on the highest side, but Taiwanese teas tend to have really pleasant and unique character, and any above average versions are very nice.

Shan Lin Xi left, Nantou oolong right

On physical shops versus online sources, and tea value

TShop, like a studio cafe

I bought these teas from two completely different types of sources, opposites almost, so it's not really fair to compare them in terms of value, related to comparing price per gram.  I will anyway.

First I might mention that different types of vendors play different roles.  A tea cafe or local brick and mortar shop is an important resource, a place to try cups of tea, to enjoy the setting, or to at least try teas along with a person that can give advice about what you might like, or discuss background.  Obviously their overhead is higher than an online-only business, so shops are at a disadvantage related to selling for the lowest rates.  Tasting teas before you buy more in bulk is a different kind of savings, though; it doesn't help getting a great deal on a tea you don't like.

Wholesale oriented shops close to where producers are located, or buying from actual producers, are totally different things.  Of course value can be better, or in some cases selection could also be better, but that's inconsistent, it depends on the sources.  Some online vendors really are selling hard to find higher quality teas, and some are just saying that, and they're all over the map related to mark-up and value.  Onto more about these cases.

If I'm remembering right I bought this Lin Hua Tai tea for around the same price as the TShop tea, meaning I bought 150 grams of one tea for perhaps just a little more than 50 grams of a comparable quality version.  The TShop version might not be quite as nice in terms of grade, although the style suited my preference more, and the demand and typical price for that style range might be higher if enough others see that the same way.

Lin Hua Tai in Taipei; a different kind of tea shop

Again that's a totally unfair comparison, rating a wholesale-oriented shop in Taipei against a retail cafe theme shop in New York City, half a world away  TShop isn't even tucked away in a side alley in Chinatown, but rather a bit North of there, where I'd expect rental to be much higher.  I'd recommend visiting the TShop as a cafe experience, even though I'm not comfortable with spending $20 on a pot of tea too frequently, and as I recall their more interesting versions were more like $25-30.  But then different people have different expectations, and budgets.

It was odd visiting the TShop and hearing loose tea prices, and not really being able to explain why I'd just traveled from the far side of the world but couldn't conceive of spending $70 on 50 grams of tea (and I didn't; this version was $20 or 30, not one of their higher end offerings).  I can't really explain my expectations related to buying tea or my finances, although at some point I probably will get around to saying more about that here.  Part of the reluctance that day was because I was going to be in Taipei in a couple of days, probably a good place to be looking for Taiwanese oolongs, which is mostly what they carried.

And I did visit Taipei, outlined in this post, which is as much about travel there as details about what I found.  I'd highly recommend visiting Lin Hua Tai there, and also talk about some other interesting options in that write-up.

There's only one more loose end to cover; in that first post mentioning the TShop I said an online contact recommended the shop, but I didn't say who it was.  She is one of my favorite tea bloggers, Natasha, the creator of the Snooty Tea Blog and video series, here, or with lots more on Youtube.  She stopped writing and making videos about tea, on to other things now.  The life-cycle of blogging is another interesting theme to me, why people take it up and leave it behind, but even though she's not still posting them her videos are great.

Friday, April 28, 2017

About taking up the role of a grumpy old man in tea culture

I'm inclined towards inclusiveness related to tea culture, to accepting different perspectives, so for the most part whatever direction different people are taking the subject seems fine to me.  A post in the Tea Addict's Journal on the downside of people visiting tea producing areas triggered re-thinking some issues that keep coming up, about the limits of being able to relate to a broad range of perspectives.  The title is a reference to something one of my favorite tea bloggers said.  Maybe it will make more sense related to the rest of the post.

In that Tea Addict post his point wasn't exactly what I'm getting at in the rest of this, discussing an old tree that died due to too many people visiting a tea growing area.  That also related to preference for old tree source based products overtaxing the output of the limited number of old trees.  Of course the blame for the latter is on the producers; it's in their best interests to not kill those trees by harvesting too many leaves.  The point is really about economic pressures driving them to do that, or at least to test those limits, and sometimes fail in stopping short.  The author's main point could have been clearer, since it wasn't written to say simple things in a logic-oriented structure, it was conversational in style with a focus on covering background, but this is part of it:

In the last few years as tea-tourism has increased exponentially (I read one account that said this year 500,000 people are visiting the tea mountains during harvest season) there is an increasing number of people who really have no business going to the mountains in there, buying tea.

people in a tree (photo credit)

The obvious next thought:  on what grounds do those people have no business there, and who has such business?  Leaving that aside, there are lots of valid points in the piece, great food for thought.  He includes discussion of local tea industry history as context.  In spite of leaving potential for a bit more development even that general point still works, about possible impact of tea tourism.

this could be concern, and the outfit is Hawaiian

I discussed that a little with a Hawaiian friend, related to some areas only being able to support a certain number of visitors before there is an impact.  I lived in Honolulu for two years, in school there, and those islands definitely had experienced both the positive and negative effects of tourism.  They've done fairly well limiting the environmental impact of visitors, of course with the potential for some exceptions.  Per  my understanding Hanama Bay, the main snorkeling area on Oahu, is being damaged by visitors swimming in it, just due to being there, likely related to sunscreen components as a contaminant.

The economic benefits of that tourism in Hawaii aren't always shared by everyone in the communities, and some locals have moved away due to pressure from cost of living increases.  Some issues must parallel those in tea growing areas but it's as well to circle this back to different tea related concerns.

One related tea culture aspect I struggle with is accepting so many people becoming what one online friend called "pressure-cooked experts," related to going on vacation and becoming a tea specialist.  I just wrote a blog post about group buys, and it came up there that the line between tea vendor and tea-oriented tourist is now blurring.  To me that's no problem, although it might seem like a concern for established vendors and physical shops.  So what is the concern?  I think it's  partly about the volume of seeing such mentions, maybe even more than in the conditions in any one of them.  Every week I run across notice of a new person who has spent time in China, or wherever, and now they're bringing tea to the West.  Sometimes it's a gofundme venture instead; they're about to do that, and need money to.  It can become a relentless background noise.

large tea tree (credit)

It's like that controversy over tea-tree ages; it's not only a problem that there is a problem, or that people make and discuss dodgy marketing claims online, but at some point you just have to look away from the issue, to get space from it.  It's like US politics; it's important but it gets to be too much.

That recent commentary post I've just mentioned was so clear and offered so much background that I didn't find the theme problematic there (the part on tea tree ages, which I just also went over with a Yunnan tea producer about in an interview), even though it was already familiar ground.  It helps that I like reading posts by that author, that his ideas have been informative in the past, and the writing is clear with a nice flow to it.

I feel like I could be clearer on why hearing about new tea start-ups is a bad thing, since it is also about the content.  I'm working towards raising awareness and consumer demand as a goal for writing a blog about tea myself, it's part of the point, and in a sense new vendor market entry is just a sign that is moving forward.  Of course that's not substantially due to my own efforts, but a shared goal all the same.

Here is one example of why new tea vendor start-ups aren't necessarily tone-neutral:  I just ran across a new tea business themed around a health-oriented tea product, a claim that mixing shou pu'er and longjing and drinking those brewed together is a good thing.  Given that as background I'm not going to cite a link; good luck Googling that.  Of course that health advise is coupled with a significantly higher than market price offering of both teas, packaged as a set.

That's off-putting on a few different levels, beyond the overcharging:  1) it's surely a baseless claim, all but made up, regardless of an original source; 2) that would be disgusting, a waste of both teas.  I guess you could brew both and drink them side by side; still only a little better.  Even if that health claim is accurate--which is highly unlikely, since more general claims are usually tied to traditional wisdom, which wouldn't relate to blending teas types--that still doesn't justify mixing those particular teas together.  That traditional wisdom could be accurate.  But then, people have been selling teas since tea was discovered, so the claims being old might only relate to old forms of marketing (what people do now), and not confirmed knowledge passed down from a time when people lived closer to nature.  Who knows.  If tea is healthy I'm in good shape; if not it still tastes good, unless you screw it up by mixing things that don't match.

Other examples are endless, of people making nonsensical claims.  Or being so new to tea that they have next to no grasp of the basics before "bringing tea to the West." Hopefully they at least have enthusiasm and good intentions.  But one gets the sense that many of the same people would be selling rat poison instead if they thought it could bring the same revenue for them.

One guy I met in person here asked me if I wanted to go into business together selling tea, because he found out that he could buy it in wholesale quantity at lower prices than retail.  He'd not yet even tasted all the different Thai teas he wanted to resell.  He had no idea what "oolong" is, never mind Jin Xuan, or if the one in his hands was any good, but it still seemed a good idea to sell it.  After enough of cases of bad claims and cliche business ideas, drawing on random aspects of unfamiliar cultures, people randomly sourcing pu'er and bumping the supposed source-tree age up to 1000 - 1500 years old seems normal enough, only a minor insult.  After all, maybe the person selling it to them told them that.

I remember when I first got into tea, or at least more serious about it, I read from a tea-industry veteran that they wouldn't share a particular tea with novices because they just couldn't appreciate such a tea.  I felt turned off by that idea.  It's a little offensive that people would need to be a member of an informal club to drink a beverage.  One sees lots of variations on that related to using certain teaware, or words to describe a tea experience, or embracing ritual aspects, especially related to some types.  I really could be more positive, to just live and let live.  I'm not getting burned in tea deals, or slighted in online discussions, so I really don't have anything to complain about.  I wouldn't exactly say that I'm grumpy, maybe just not as positive about how it all the related culture sorts out as I was early on.

upset woman, and tea (credit)

It makes more and more sense why long-term bloggers eventually go quiet, talked-out related to sharing experiences of discovery mixed with other discussion that isn't as positive.  It makes me value the tea-veteran input even more, and to relate better to a bit of negative tone creeping in from time to time.

Often it's not about there being a good guy and bad guy among vendors, it's more the experience of a continuum, and about differing perspectives.  It's not clear that anyone needs to pay any learning curve related level of dues before they should sell tea, although to some extent that would be helpful, and respectful to their customers and the tradition.

There's a fine line between just practicing a fair trade, using ordinary marketing spin, and ripping off customers by making false claims.  Different vendors nudge closer to that line in lots of different ways.  There are some clearly better and worse examples, people selling quality products at a good value, providing as much information as possible, with others cutting corners, but many just fall in the middle.

my future tea teacher, hopefully

I value my tea friends and contacts that really are the good guys, to the extent it works out like that. I can't completely let go of the idea that people that like tea are somehow typically better people than those that don't, even though that's absurd, and counter-examples keep coming up.  I especially value people that keep teaching me.  Some feel a need to raise their voices about problems from time to time, but I won't be doing that much.  I'm just another guy who drinks tea; it's almost never my place.  Although it's hard to relate to whoever is reading this blog--I just see stats--I also appreciate being joined by readers in experiencing tea.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Interview with William Osmont of Farmerleaf, a Yunnan tea producer

William weighing harvested tea

Originally posted in two parts on TChing here and here.

Related to writing a tea blog and helping run a Facebook tea group I talk to lots of interesting people about the subject, recently including William Osmont of Farmerleaf.  I’ve reviewed some very nice teas from them, different Yunnan Dian Hong black tea versions (here and here), a Moonlight white, and of course pu’er.

This article is about his background with producing tea, and about typical questions that come up related to that area, about sub-regional variations, production and sourcing issues, and pu’er aging / fermentation.  In particular vendor marketing claims about Yunnan tea tree ages have been a source of controversy, related to some being disputed on social media, and William offers his opinions on the effect of tea tree age on tea character and about identifying tree ages.

How did you get started on an interest in tea?  

It all started on a sunny afternoon in French Provence.  With two friends, we were hanging out in the streets of our little town, and we stumbled upon a newly opened tea shop. We tried different flavored teas, and I really loved the different tastes. I hadn’t paid much attention to tea so far. I drank flavored tea for a couple of months and then got into Darjeeling, Chinese green tea, African black tea… until I tried a 1998 ripe Pu-erh tea. I clearly remember that first session with Pu-erh tea, and from that time, I knew I would dedicate my life to this beverage.

After high school, I went to Yunnan for a year, in pursuit of better teas. That was the best year of my life, I was 19 and free to explore. I studied Chinese in Kunming for six months and then moved to the South of Yunnan, in Xishuangbanna. I would visit one or two tea mountain every week, learning about the taste of tea and the different processing method.

One day, as I was visiting Jingmai, I met a beautiful Dai girl named Yubai, who had only started her own tea factory that year. We fell in love, and she is now my wife.

In a fair deal with my parents, I would return to Europe and go to university after one year. I was really interested in biology and ecology. I wanted to go back to China as often as possible and start something in tea. In 2012, I opened an online tea shop ( in which I sold mainly Pu-erh teas from farmers I had met. A large part of it was made by my girlfriend in Jingmai. This little website allowed me to put a foot into the tea business and I am really grateful to the customers who trusted us for all those years. The profits allowed my girlfriend and me to meet every summer holiday in China, strengthening our love and expanding our tea network in Yunnan.

I graduated in 2016 and obtained a master’s degree in agricultural development. Yubai and I are now married, and we live in Yunnan for good. We have started our Pu-erh brand Jing Yu Tian Xiang, which we retail in China and abroad. We’ve also opened a new website:, on which we sell a wider range of Yunnan teas from our tea factory as well as from other farmers.

Yu Bai processing tea

What do you see as the main differences in selling tea based out of Europe and from China?

Being based in China helps a lot with sourcing. As you know, building and nurturing relationships in the Middle Kingdom is extremely important, and it’s all the more convenient to be present all year-round.

Being based in a tea mountain in Yunnan is a great opportunity to understand the technicalities of tea production, and how the farmers make their choices in terms of agricultural practices. Some aspects of tea can only be understood by having a long term presence in a tea mountain.  Understanding the details of tea processing requires making dozens of trials, sharing tips with fellow tea producers and experimenting.

Being online-based, the distance with the tea consumers doesn’t affect the relationship, we exchange emails with our customers every day.  It is always great to receive feedback and questions. Our objective is to bring the tea lovers closer to the tea gardens. In 2017, we have decided to close the distance by running a Youtube channel. Some tea fellows even visit us in Jingmai, and it’s a pleasure to take them around our tea gardens.

What are some differences between Western tea enthusiast based tea traditions and the original Chinese traditions, or modern practices?  

The way tea is brewed in China varies widely, depending on the province and the interest of the tea drinkers. The most common way is to brew tea in a large glass, what is sometimes called “Grandpa-style” in the West.

Just like in the West, Gongfu brewing is reserved to the “hardcore” tea lovers and the professionals. It is more prevalent in Yunnan, Fujian and Guangdong, because these provinces have a long history of tea drinking. In the last decades, China has experienced a revival of the tea culture; this is a luxury few could afford in the past. Gongfu-brewing spreads along with high quality leaves, just like in the West.

Your website mentions producing pu’er; do you also actually make any other types of teas?  Do you produce shou / shu?  

Yubai, my wife, has run a small tea factory in Jingmai since 2011. We now operate it together and produce white, oolong and Pu-erh tea. Our teas are hand-processed, which mean we cook the leaves in a wok instead of using a machine. That allows a finer control over tea quality and opens more possibilities. We’re developing a line of semi-oxidized tea that is unique in Jingmai, and we’re always trying to improve our Pu-erh tea processing.

We do not produce Shu Pu-erh; the extra fermentation process involved requires special skills, big infrastructure and a lot of tea. Usually, the large factory productions consist in batches of dozens of tons. Nowadays, it is possible to ferment the tea in micro-batches (as low as 100kg), we’re considering making such a production, but it still has to be outsourced. A lot of the fermented Pu-erh tea is made in Menghai , Southern Yunnan.

Can you share a short summary of the character differences in teas within different pu’er producing areas?  

Pu-erh tea features a wide range of tasting profiles. That diversity is due to differences in aging, processing and producing area. Just like the terroirs of wine, tea tastes different according to the genetics, location and management techniques of the tea gardens. It would take a whole book to detail the subtle variations between each mountain and their underlying factors.

Jingmai is famous in the world of tea for its orchid and honey fragrance. Some bitterness is present; astringency is more present than average. In young teas, the mouth feel is generally light and sweet. The Jingmai profile is accessible to the beginners and makes a great introduction to the world of Pu-erh tea because it has a bit of everything. In comparison, Bulang tea is generally more aggressive, featuring more bitterness; Yiwu tea is soft and mellow, with a thick mouth feel. Menkgu is renowned for its complex fragrance and sharp sweetness.

However, there are many exceptions in each terroirs, and the result in the cup can be very different depending on the processing. In Jingmai, old-growth tea that received a high-temperature kill-green process will feature the typical high-pitched orchid fragrance, with fast-changing bitterness and a light body; while tea that went through a low temperature kill-green process will have a thicker body, more sweetness and a honey-like aroma. There’s a lot of possibilities in-between.

Some tea gardens are known to produce more bitter leaves, while others grow particularly fragrant leaves. It is indirectly influenced by the soil type, garden design and agricultural techniques. For example, tea that grows on sandy soil will receive less water and nutrients than tea grown on clay soil, and that will influence the physiology of the tea tree and therefore the taste of its leaves.

What tea aspects indicate that a pu’er will age well, or what types of teas it would make more sense to not age?  One sometimes hears that in the original Chinese tea culture pu’er wasn’t intended to be aged to improve it; any thoughts on that?

Good Huigan (sweet and fresh feeling in the throat) will be sustained through the years, and this is one of the main criteria on which pu-erh tea is evaluated.

Make sure the tea you aged doesn’t taste like green tea or isn’t too red when young. This degree of greenness depends on the way the kill-green process was done. An overly green or red pu-erh tea can be very enjoyable when young, and be disappointing after years of aging.

The big tea factory blends are generally intended to be aged, they are not suitable for immediate drinking. Blends can be a safe choice for long term aging, even though they rarely contain high-quality material.

Bitterness tones down with age, but it doesn’t mean bitter teas will necessarily give a better tea once aged. For example, Yiwu tea generally has no bitterness, but it’s a sought after terroir for long term storage, this kind of tea can be unimpressive when young and turn into great sweet and complex teas after a couple of years of aging.

The Pu-erh tea culture is constantly changing; in its most current form, it is considered this tea can be enjoyed young, as it was consumed in Yunnan, and aged, as it was consumed in Guangdong. The Tibetan way of drinking it with Yak butter, doesn’t seem to have spread much. In a pre-industrial context of smallholders, it was technically much easier to produce Pu-erh tea than other types of teas. When made in small quantity, the only piece of equipment required is a wok. Sun-drying was used to dry tea, just like it was used to dry fruits, corn or cabbage.

The tea culture has been shaped through the constraints of production and logistics. People like wet-stored tea in Guangdong because that is the way tea would turn out in those conditions. Some tea lovers in the West build “pumidors”, while I have never found one in China. It is beautiful to see the tea culture evolve as tea spreads throughout the world.

2011 Jing Mai gushu (old tree) sheng pu'er

What is the local (Yunnan) understanding of ideal and problematic pu’er storage conditions?  Is environment humidity the primary concern?

In Yunnan, few people actively control humidity; they typically store the tea cakes in their bamboo wraps in cardboard boxes. When stored in large quantity, the air flow is somewhat limited, which is believed to preserve the fragrance of tea. Some tea professionals limit the air exchange further by wrapping the boxes with plastic sheets.  This technique makes sense as long as the leaves are not vacuum sealed. The aging process does require oxygen to occur, but the air contained inside the box should be enough for decades. A minority advocates for a complete removal of oxygen, this slows down the oxidation process and the tea profile evolves in a very different way.

Aging is the result of enzyme activity, called “enzymatic browning” in the food industry, and the action of micro-organisms. The relative importance of each in the aging process depends on humidity. In wet environments, microorganisms take a large role in tea oxidation, while in dry environments, their action is negligible. This probably explains the difference in taste profile that we can observe between wet and dry-stored teas.

What is the difference between using tea from just one plant to make tea versus mixing it?  Per input related to other tea types (eg. Dan Cong) the range of characteristics would be narrower; is this the same?

Pu-erh tea Single tree productions have been popular for a couple of years. Since only one or a handful of trees are harvested, the result in the cup varies widely. Some can have a very good throat-feel; others can be bitter and astringent, or sweet and fragrant… A big part of the appeal is to have the picture of the big tree and the feeling of tasting something very old. Self-suggestion can go a long way to make your session enjoyable, even though such productions wouldn’t necessarily perform better than a standard “gushu” harvest in a blind tasting.

Such productions are valuable by their limited quantity; you can hardly get more than a kilogram of dry tea from a single ancient tree. They can feature traits that are unexpected in their area of production and tend to change less along the infusions than standard productions that involve thousands of trees.

How much tea (leaf weight and dry weight) can an individual tea tree produce?

It really depends on the size of the tree, frequency of harvest, varietal, nutrients availability, water, sunlight, pest and disease, pruning method… It can go anywhere between 500g and 5kg of fresh leaves per year (about 120g to 1.2kg of dry tea). Some trees are picked three times a year, while other are picked thirty times.

What is your impression of how tea tree age affects pu’er quality or characteristics?

The leaves harvested from ancient gardens tend to have a better Huigan (sweet and fresh feeling in the throat), they can feature more pronounced bitterness that turns quickly into sweetness. They have an oily mouth feel that can remind of chicken soup. Their fragrance can be more complex than tea made from young plantations. Old-growth tea can generally be brewed more times than young plantations tea.

These differences can also be noticed when comparing young and older tea plantations. A lot of great tea comes from 50+ year-old tea plantations.

[Editor's note:  this does match a recent direct review comparison of two of his teas, one from old tree sources and the other from younger plants]

It’s important to keep in mind that the age of the trees is only one factor among others that makes good tea. The agricultural techniques and the location of the gardens (including altitude, soil, environment…) will have a large impact on the taste of tea. Some young plantations produce excellent tea, while some old tea gardens are not highly praised.

To what extent can tea tree ages be identified?

Following some heated debates on the internet, I have looked into the questions. Interestingly, I have found published scientific articles that discuss the age of specific trees. At best, the circumference of the trunks is measured, and this is only loosely correlated to the age of the tree. According to farmers and experts I interviewed, growth rate of the trunk varies widely, depending on soil fertility and genetics. In some cases, we can know the age of the tea gardens from historical records, but not the age of specific trees.

The tree ring counting method does not seem to be used in the case of the tea trees.

Some vendors use the age of the trees as a selling point, but I would rather recommend using the size of the trees, which is easier to confirm.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Farmerleaf Jing Mai ancient tree 2016 autumn sheng pu'er

Posting the first half of an interview with William Osmont of Farmerleaf on TChing reminded me to get back to trying their teas; I still have a couple of pu'er samples left.  Although it's a touchy subject in general this one is an "ancient tree" Jing Mai sourced version (from autumn of 2016, described here).  William will say more about what that means or doesn't mean in the second half of that interview, which in his case definitely doesn't relate to specific claims about advanced ages of trees, so I'll leave that part alone for now and go on to review.

Initially this tea has a bit of bitterness to it; I guess that's a good thing, how it should be.  Some of that aspect doesn't ruin the experience of drinking young sheng but it's not exactly positive to me either.  Initially it will be hard to tease out what's going on with the tea besides that, as pronounced as it is, but such teas tend to "loosen up" a few infusions in.  Still, it's all relative, and some sheng have tasted just like taking an aspirin, and this isn't there, there's more going on.  It has some floral tones and mild earthiness filling out range beyond that.

It's interesting running across the idea that some sheng are more or less intended for aging.  I can't really can't add much about that; the short version I recall running across is that a bitterness aspect converts to being aromatic later.  It makes you wonder if processing tends to be adjusted to change character related to that potential, or more that different versions lend themselves to drinking very young or else aged instead due to naturally occurring factors.  Someday I might be able to taste a young sheng and try to project ahead to what it would be like in five or ten years but I certainly can't guess at that now.  At any rate William mentioned an intentional input that did affect this teas character in that product description, just not described there related to aging potential:

We gave a relatively strong kill-green process to the leaves in order to release the best of this tea. A side effect of this choice is the presence of many yellow flakes. We sorted out the largest ones, but there are still some in the cakes. They add sweetness to the tea and tone down the bitterness. The aspect of yellow flakes is not appealing to the Chinese tea drinkers; therefore many tea producers use low wok temperatures in autumn to avoid having yellow leaves. It results in reddened tea which can be more fragrant but features less throat and mouth freshness.

Yu Bai making tea (photo credit Farmerleaf)

Even by a third infusion, one of those just a quick rinse, it starts to mellow out.  That bitterness--not astringency really, actual bitterness--starts to transition to being mixed with strong mineral tones.  Although the tea isn't really so astringent in the sense of feeling rough or "mouth puckering" it does have an interesting feel to it, which is related to that.  It tightens the sides of the back of my tongue most, but since I'm not on that page in terms of aspects preference that doesn't mean much to me.

On the next infusion it falls into an even better balance.  A light wood tone, picks up, with a good bit of sweetness, and some floral scope rounding out the balance.  It's funny how preference works out; that character range is both the reason why young sheng isn't my favorite type of tea and also why I like it.  There's a freshness to the effect, and an interesting complexity and balance, with layers to the experience.  But it's still not warm, rich, and easily approachable as better black teas are.  It could just be a preference curve issue, related to a natural transition of likes over time.

I liked light oolongs the best initially, TKY and Taiwanese styles, which are very approachable and can be quite complex, and still do enjoy interesting versions, but the ordinary versions I started on can be a bit boring now.

From there the transitions level out and it just keeps going, of course brewing lots of tea, as if it could just continue indefinitely.

tea, in Jing Mai

I would guess that I would like the tea more in ten years but that's not based on much; I really don't know how it would change.  I guess that's part of the appeal of drinking lots of sheng and aging it, to experience that transition, even the uncertainty, even if it's not always positive.  For me it's nice to have more tea-space out there to experience, like visiting an interesting place on vacation and knowing you missed a couple of interesting sites; it leaves more to get to later.

I can't place this related to a non-ancient tree version, even though I reviewed one by them not so long ago.  So lets roll the whole process back and try out a side-by-side comparison of that tea and this one.  There is one limitation, that these aren't necessarily supposed to be identical styles of tea separate from that source difference.  For example, it's harvested at a different time, March to April, and there could be intentional processing differences leading to character differences.

Comparison tasting Farmeleaf's Jing Mai Miyun with this ancient tree version

Farmerleaf Miyun 2016 Jing Mai sheng

One more disclaimer:  due to personal preference scope I'll end up emphasizing differences in taste, when one running pu'er theme is that taste is only one of several aspects to appreciate, and to some not the main one, or maybe not even in the top three (related to effect, "qi", mouth-feel, and aftertaste).  I'll mention feel, for completeness, but it's odd doing that when I'm not really into teas feeling a certain way, some degree of fullness is interesting and that's about it.  Here goes anyway.

The flavors range of the two is comparable, it overlaps, but both are quite different. They're both a little floral, with mineral undertones, and a trace of bitterness, although not so much when brewed lightly the first few infusions.  That's not how I put it in the first tasting notes, related to bitterness level, which could relate to an expectations shift, or brewing differences.  Or I've been up and down related to a throat infection that comes and goes, and it seems at least possible that even being mostly over that perception of certain aspects shifts more than others related to changed sensitivity.

The ancient tree version is a lot sweeter and brighter.  That brightness almost comes across as citrus, as a citrus spray like effect, when you bend the peel.  The Miyun includes more earthiness, mainly coming across as wood tone, but there is more to it than that.  The wood is complex, light and bright fresh wood in a complex range that extends to wood bark.

ancient tree source left, Miyun right

On the fourth infusion I went a little longer to get more feel for the feel, but the teas probably haven't leveled off into the character they'll show more of later. The bitterness picks up brewed stronger, of course. I don't mean the infusion strength is stronger than typical for other tea types, just not as light as I often brew sheng; the steep time was still about half a minute.

The ancient tree tea picks up a lot of structure, a feel that's hard to describe, and a long aftertaste.  It feels full, like a tightening across my tongue--more the sides, in the back--and in the rest of the mouth, that settles into a dryness on the rear of my tongue at the end.  Someday it might make sense to me how anything remotely like that range of sensation is pleasant.  I don't dislike it, it's just not particularly interesting to me.  Mineral elements are pronounced, maybe towards shale.  That aftertaste takes awhile to wear off, like the effect from that one Golding tea in the last comparison tasting with this Miyun (so I guess to some extent I've compared both vendor's old-tree versions, just indirectly, both comparison tasted along with this Miyun version).

The Miyun picks up a touch of smoke, which isn't bad with that aspects mix.  It has a full feel, just not as full in comparison with this other tea; tasted side by side it comes across as a good bit thinner.  They both have some sweetness for balance but the ancient tree has more.  It's hard to separate floral tones, there for both, they're similar but perhaps a little different.  I think focusing on that would go better brewed very lightly, not just light but wispy.

I seem to pick up a trace of smoke in the ancient tree tea now, on the next infusion. The brightness wears off a little and more of a wood tone picks up.  It falls into a nice balance together, although it was fine before too.  Brewed lighter that feel is still present but less pronounced.  The Miyun gains a little more smoke, less bright yet, with that wood tone pushing to earthier, towards a light mushroom, just not getting there.

Of course mineral undertone is strong in both, and a trace of bitterness, but that's quite light when brewed lightly, and it subsides across infusions more than the other flavor range.  It's a little stronger in the ancient tree tea at this point but they both do keep transitioning.  It's nothing like taking an aspirin, or at least only a little like that.

ancient tree source left, Miyun right

It's funny how similar and how different the two teas are.  It wouldn't be possible for me to appreciate that tasting them days apart.  I guess it would be possible for someone drinking tea only for flavor to prefer the Miyun, provided the earthier tone worked well for them, and more smoke, and different woodiness.  But the ancient tree tea has a lot more going on, more initial brightness, more sweetness, more structure to the feel and aftertaste, and a bit more complexity.  It even starts to pick up a touch of spice tone later on, closest to nutmeg, but not exactly that.

This "ancient tree" effect starts to make some sense to me; maybe if I keep with it and try a number of other examples it will be even clearer.  Aging teas and relation of different aspects to aging potential is another part of the larger pu'er picture, and I'm woefully behind in doing much with that.  There are just so many teas out there to try, and pu'er hasn't become a natural main preference, but given how much I like the only old version of a sheng cake I do own (now 11 years old, perhaps just getting interesting) I really should get on that.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Gopaldhara Moondrop First Flush Darjeeling White Tea

I'm finally getting my palate back after a rough couple of weeks with a throat infection, so what better way to celebrate than with first flush Darjeeling.  It might even help me re-calibrate.

Tea Background, Gopaldhara Moondrop First Flush Darjeeling White

What to say, it's a first flush Darjeeling.  It doesn't show up on their website, but then they also sell teas through resellers, and there are plenty of versions there.  A random vendor selling it describes it as a black tea, raising the typical problem with sorting Darjeeling first flush into categories.

It seems closer to a green tea than a black tea, and really more like a white.  I spoke with the estate manager about that by message and he passed on more background, which gets a bit complicated related to the processing steps.  It's essentially a white tea that's been oxidized a bit, but not enough for it to seem anything like a black tea.  There's more I could add but as well to get on with review instead.


The tea looks like a first flush white tea.  The leaves are small, a little mixed between broken and whole, with a good number of tips.  The initial scent and taste is bright, fresh, and sweet, just what one would expect.  

This flavor profile is familiar from both Darjeeling and better Nepal white teas, but still not so easy to describe.  The total effect extends well beyond a flavors list, and even that part isn't so simple.  It's all right there to taste, but quite complex, even though it comes across as one element, in a sense.  I suppose a bright, light floral tone might be the starting point, the main range, but it also has a citrusy fruit character, quite bright, like the spray from an orange peel when you bend it, or maybe brighter, a tangerine instead.  The rest of the complexity extends into other range, not vegetal in the sense of spinach, bell peppers, or anything remotely like that, but something light and sweet in that general direction.  

Since the first infusion was fast and light I'll keep trying to pin it all down on the next few.  It would be typical to brew this tea Western style, and it would work well that way.  Out of habit and due to preference I'm preparing it Gongfu style instead, just not using the flash infusions or heavy proportion I might for some other types.  Really some teas--like a sheng, or dan cong--would tend to do well brewed very lightly, not using a high proportion or longer times, with longer being relative, towards a minute instead of 10 to 20 seconds.

I just prepared a unique compressed shai hong (sun dried Yunnan black tea) brewed on the stronger side, heavy on proportion, with a bit longer times, and I might make shou that way, if I don't feel like having it prepared lighter just then.  This tea works well brewed lighter or stronger, or maybe best somewhere in the middle, towards lighter since it doesn't need extra infusion strength to be flavorful, to bring the same effect across.

On the next infusion the warmed-up leaves really come to life.  A tea friend just compared this general style of tea to drinking perfume, in a good sense, related to that overall brightness, aromatic nature, and intensity.  That was related to me sharing some Nepal white tea, which is in this general range.  That tea might give up just a little in brightness and freshness to this Darjeeling version, but it's still a good general range to be in.

not so oxidized, a little

The aspect range and term "aromatic" complicates considerations a little past flavors, per my experience it's used in Chinese tea descriptions to contrast scent-intensive teas with flavor intensive character.  This tea covers both.  It strikes a good balance, coming across as simple in nature in one way and complex in others.

Reducing it to a flavors list is still not so simple though.  I'll stick with it tasting floral, but not the heavier floral ranges I've been running across lately in other tea types.  It's definitely not astringent, at all, but there is a bit of dryness and very light edge that reminds me of a light wood tone, more like tasting a fresh and sweet tree bud than the sense I usually use that description in.  But who tastes tree buds, really.

To bring that back to the range of foods that aspect, that feel element, could be like a light, fresh sprout used to make a spring garden mix salad, something sweet and that you almost feel just a little rather than taste it.  Or maybe like a light version of an edible flower, but not an orchid, even lighter.  The citrus is pronounced, maybe towards lemon from tangerine zest, or even lemongrass (not citrus, really, but not far off).


More than all that it's freshness that stands out.  All this sounds almost exactly like the last first flush Darjeeling white I reviewed, doesn't it?  I wouldn't get bored with some degree of repetition, in the tasting, I mean, although I suppose writing the same thing or reading it repeating would get old.  Case in point:  the next infusion didn't shift aspects much, and it's probably better that it didn't.

A bit more depth and warmness may be filling in, lighter floral brightness subsiding a little to make way for a richer complexity, but it's not that different.  On the infusion after that it actually moves towards spice a little instead, close to nutmeg, warming up even more.

A lot of infusions in, maybe at six or so, I let it brew a little longer, and that one element comes across more as pine instead of citrus zest or wood sap tone.  It's possible that would've been a good description all along, and I'm just now doing the matching, but seems likely the transition had something to do with it, that the flavor shifted there.  I like pine needle tea, having reviewed it here, but I don't think everyone would.  The tea keeps on brewing, producing lots of infusions.

I never put pictures of me in this

I suppose as with any tea not everyone would like this one as much as I do.  I tend to especially connect with a range of black teas and oolongs, and most of the range whites too, even though they're completely different.  First flush Darjeelings and fresh Longjing stand out as favorites outside the most typical range of teas I like, and this works as an example of that.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Blind tasting Teasenz Shai Hong, compressed sundried Yunnan black tea

This is an interesting tea, something new to me.  In with samples sent by Teasenz I found a compressed tea labeled as shai hong.  Since I like the idea of blind tasting I didn't check what it was, which I'll retain in this write-up, the unfolding of working that out, and in the end I'll circle back to a full description.

Review (edited original tasting notes)

The labeling only says "shai hong," which doesn't ring a bell.  It didn't seem to be pu'er, so I'm guessing some other version of a hei cha.  [Of course later it turned out to just be compressed black tea.]

what it isn't

The dry scent is sweet, raisiny, with a dark appearance to the pressed leaves.  It doesn't look like pu'er, or at least any pu'er that I've tried, it's compressed differently.  I suppose it's more like I'd expect bamboo pu'er to look, which I've never got around to trying.  It looks like brick weed.  It would probably be better if that reference didn't ring a bell, really.

The brewed tea is nice, sweet and a bit rich.  Raisin - like character stands out, just a bit more complex, but along that same line.  It's a really soft tea, closer to a mild black in character than a pu'er, even a shou.  Complexity relates to subdued earthy tones, just nowhere near as intense as shou pu'er, no leather and tar and the rest, mostly raisin / date.  I recently tried a shou mei cake and it's not as mild and subtle as that, but then few teas are.

On the next infusion the fruit stays heavy, a bit off the typical raisin profile, but still close.  A woodiness starts to emerge, in an odd range, like balsa wood.  It's still clean flavored with good sweetness so that works well.  Along with that just a trace of malt picks up, a mild version of the type found in Ceylon or Assam black teas.  The feel changes, picking up a little more structure and hint of dryness, which may only seem like dryness through comparison since the tea was completely soft before.  The concept of astringency doesn't even come up.

brewed strong a deep dark red

This tea seems to have been opening up for the first four infusions.  It gains intensity, even using moderate infusion times (about a half minute, but then I went heavy on proportion).  It's just a little closer to a standard black tea type, but still sweeter and softer.  Mineral had been ramping up, providing a solid base context in this infusion.

Of course it would be possible to drink this prepared lightly, perhaps more standard.  Trying a flash infusion worked a little better. The fruit falls into a nicer balance brewed lightly, and the tea still has plenty going on.  It's not as if it's necessary to brew around some aspects though.  It would probably suit different people better prepared differently, and for this tea I'd probably vary that based on my mood.

It's amazing that the tea isn't really fading much about seven infusions in, brewed strong, even at a heavy version of Gongfu proportion.  If anything the aspects balance has improved, although it didn't transition that much, just a little.

I could imagine some people not liking the character for it not being more subtle or refined but I do like it.  It's a basic style of tea in terms of character but a unique version of that as aspects go, in between other types.  The next question:  what is it?  The character resembles black teas but that may only be due to overlap, and it might not be made in exactly the same way.  It must be oxidized but it seems possible a light form of fermentation played a role.  It's odd that it came out so clean in effect if so, but I suppose stranger things have happened.

General impression, second tasting notes

brewed lighter; good both ways, just different

I don't feel like the notes really captured my general impression of this tea.  It was nice the way the aspects worked together.  It brewed lots of infusions, staying really positive and pleasant for an absurd count of those, getting on towards 15 or so.  I expect that by dialing in the right temperature, proportion, and timing one could get even better results out of it.  It worked well across a range of different parameters though, definitely not a tea you need to be careful to get good results from.

Tasting a tea completely blindly, not even knowing the general type, is a funny thing.  I've tried parts of unlabeled, left-over samples before and ran across pleasant surprises but this was different.  The experience of the unknown cleared up as soon as I tried those, for the most part.  Per the review notes I would have went with "variation of black," which it was, but not knowing was odd.

It was complex in a way that was hard to get a handle on.  I'll condense a second set tasting notes from two weeks later--just now--to make that point clearer.

The tea is interesting, nice.  Some of the sweetness and richness of better black tea is there, along with good complexity, mineral under earth with lots going on.  I'm picking up a little metal but I think that's just related to a mild throat infection that's back, a near permanent condition for me now.  A more imaginative tea reviewer could just keep on naming different flavors as description, and accurately so.

One part reminds me of toasted pastry, another fruit, but so heavy and complex it would  have to be a mixed fruit jam.  The way minerals layer in is interesting; maybe that part is like volcanic soil.  Some of the interesting earthiness is out towards leather or even crude oil, just nothing like shou pu'er where those might be primary elements.  It has a nice thick feel too, thick in an interesting sense.  That fruit aspect may have been similar to dried persimmon instead of raisin, with some of the other complexity hinting towards spice range, just not cinnamon or something familiar.  All that works well; it's still clean and balanced.  Putting those aspects in some order would be a challenge.  It's not just about relative strength, also interesting how those combine.

Vendor's take, other input

I might start by mentioning that I did order this tea before publishing a review of it.  That might make more sense after reading about how little of it the vendor has to sell, with the other part about what it is here.:

'Pu Erh Shai Hong' or 'Tai He Tian Cha'

Sun-dried black tea, also known as 'shai hong' is made based on a different processing method than mainstream black teas. Most black teas are made letting the leaves wither, followed by rolling and fermentation. Only the last step is different. The most common way is to roast the black tea leaves to stop the fermentation. However, as the name already reveals, for a sun-dried black tea, the fermentation is stopped by drying the leaves in the sun (as it's done for pu erh).
Because tea types are classified based on their processing method, a sun dried black tea can also be considered a type between black and pu erh tea. This is why it's not strange that sun dried black are also known as 'pu erh shai hong (普洱晒红).  The after taste of a Shai Hong is sweet and because it originates from Tai He, it's also known as 'Tai He Sweet Tea' or 'Tai He Tian Cha' (太和甜茶).

I wasn't completely guessing that out in review.  The tea struck me as close enough to a Dian Hong, but I didn't make the full connection to the sun-drying step.  That's even though I tried a sun-dried Dian Hong from Farmerleaf not too long ago, reviewed here.  The other difference is that it's a compressed tea.  They go on to describe more about the character:

The taste was really interesting and was 'confusing' because we couldn't really place it. The first sip told me it was the aroma of a Yunnan black tea, but then the after taste was kind of like a ripe sheng pu erh [presumably meaning aged sheng, not the way everyone uses those concepts].  The texture was indeed thicker as the grower told us, something that also reminded us of a shou pu erh. The smoothness is amazing and probably due to the 2 years of aging. We also noted that the aging allowed us to brew the leaves up to 9 brews, which is pretty amazing for a black tea. The aging seems to result in more yield. 

Pretty much what I experienced, with that aging potentially filling in some of the gap in how it arrived at that character.  All in all it's a nice tea, which made for an interesting tasting experience.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Reviewing two Doi Inthanon Thai teas

Doi Inthanon producer introduction

Not so long ago I reviewed an oolong from Doi Inthanon, a Thai tea producer outside of Chiang Mai.  It generally never comes up but I discussed experimenting with re-roasting that tea, and the character change was interesting.  This vendor page provides background on the small farming operation, which produces #12 Jin Xuan and #17 Ruan Zhi tea types, imported plant types from Taiwan typically used for oolong production in Thailand.  This post will review two more teas from them, provided by the vendor for review.

I like the idea of a small new tea producer extending production into a place it hasn't been before.  I hope to see their business and product offerings expand in the future.

plantation; plants growing (photo credit)

This earlier post goes into the background on that second plant type, identifying that #17 cultivar is Bai Lu.  Ruan Zhi (or Luan Zhi, an alternate spelling) is a different plant type.  That's a common naming issue here, with #17 and Ruan Zhi typically associated.  I guess to some extent it doesn't matter if it's really Ruan Zhi or Bai Lu improperly identified, although the #17 part seems likely to be accurate, so that it probably really is Bai Lu.

Related to Jin Xuan (#12) there's more on cultivars from Taiwan in this post, which mentions this reference table source (which doesn't itself include plant names, at least in this part):

Taiwan TTES / TRES cultivar table (reference source)

The other parts in that reference about landraces (original native plant strains) and plant types related to tea that aren't Camellia Sinensis (variety Sinensis or Assamica), or "wild" tea plant types, are even more interesting than these hybrid descriptions, but completely off the subject here.

These teas I'm reviewing were both nice, comparing well with other Thai teas I've tried.  That may or may not generally come across in the descriptions, with the broader issue being that "nice" spans a lot of different range.  Thai teas in general are not as refined and well-made as better versions from Taiwan and China.  Even related to teas sourced from those countries it makes a difference what a tea is, and what it's being sold as.  Moderately priced teas described as ordinary versions naturally wouldn't be judged against the same expectations and standards as versions costing twice as much, or perhaps a lot more, sold instead as higher quality level, difficult to find teas.  Thai types in general are more in the range of everyday teas, and they never command those higher price levels, at least not that I've seen.

Thai tea cultivation and production has only been going on for the past 30 years or so, so it's natural they are behind those older traditions at the higher levels.  Of course there are plenty of exceptions to that local industry history range; this post on an old-tree pu'er-like tea from Myanmar touches on the earlier tradition that may go back to prior to 200 BC, and that may have extended into the North of Thailand.

To some extent growing location, cultivation variables, and plant age are all factors in final tea quality, along with plant types used and lots of other inputs, but I think we will see Thai teas improve rapidly over the next decade related mostly to processing technique improvements.  Or maybe not.  Thai loose tea consumers are generally not as selective as Western tea-enthusiast consumers, some of whom are actively researching product options from around the world, so it is possible that the status quo will continue.  Of course there are well-informed Thai tea enthusiasts out there, they just seem to be a limited minority, perhaps even more so than in the US.  At least the current Thai teas are quite reasonable, in terms of being of quality and sold at low cost, with the first described related to these two examples.

Green tea review

The tea looks a bit dark, with twisted leaves, curled into circles.  It reminds me a little of Bi Luo Chun, a Chinese green tea type.  I don't end up drinking much of that, mainly because I like green tea the least of any category.  Longjing / Dragonwell works better for me since it tends to taste less like vegetables than others, not grassy, like seaweed or bell pepper or whatever else.

The dry tea scent is rich, a little vegetal with some mineral, but also with a touch of buttered popcorn, an interesting inclusion.  The taste is mineral and floral intensive, a sweet, heavy type of floral I really can't place.  It works well enough.  I don't really know what the plant type is, but they claim to grow only #12 and #17, Jin Xuan and Bai Lu, and that floral tone isn't typical of any other Thai teas I've tried based on those, which add up to a lot at this point.

The flavors are clean, the feel is nice, and it's not  really astringent.  The mineral element reminds me of that really uniform Vietnamese green tea flavor range, which really already works well without this tea's floral aspect included.  I suppose it would depend on preference if the floral element is positive factor or not.  It's heavy and sweet enough that it's not far from osmanthus, but maybe not a perfect match for that, probably off a bit in a way I'm not remembering.

In later infusions more light wood tone and rich earthy profile comes out, towards that popcorn or toasted rice, just not completely getting there. The floral and mineral both drop off some to make space for that.  A different read on that slightly biting fresh wood tone is that the flavor is green bell pepper instead, and once you think of it the tea tastes a lot more like bell pepper than freshly cut wood.  This tea brews lots of infusions, passing through infusions in the mostly mineral and floral range to get to that warmer and earthier range, and isn't finished once it does.

I like the tea, in spite of not loving the general type.  There's a freshness to green teas you don't get in the other types.  It's comparable to aspects found in lighter oolongs, just to a different extent and placed in a different context.

Luan Tze / Ruan Zhi / Bai Lu / #17 review

Initially I wasn't sure of the type but this tea is a version of oolong.  It's not processed just like Taiwanese oolongs, not rolled into balls, likely with some other processing differences indicated by the character differences.  This tea plant type is typically made into an oolong (Luan Zhi / Ruan Zhi, which per the earlier description is probably actually Bai Lu).  The description on the package I don't have in digital form or I could automatically translate it, but sorting it as a version of oolong is a good enough start.

The tea comes across a bit like a green tea, not completely unusual for lightly oxidized oolongs, since the oxidation boundary range isn't so different.  It's rich and floral, so not like vegetal or grassy types of green tea.  That richness is normal for oolong range, but those tend to drift further into buttery or even fuller in feel, and a little softer, although this isn't particularly astringent.  The color is slightly golden yellow, still normal for a light oolong.

It would be nice if I could pin down that flower, what the flavor is similar to, perhaps as I'd imagine a violet (been awhile since living where those grow), or again perhaps not that far from osmanthus.  Light mineral complexity fills in context below that.   There's just a touch of bitterness, something I'd expect more from a sheng, but it would likely be much stronger if it was one.

That might sound terrible, a bitter tea sort of in character range between green tea and light oolong (except maybe to young sheng drinkers), but it balances well enough.  It's light and there are other aspects to balance it, a good bit of flavors complexity, sweetness, and richness.

It smooths out a lot the third or fourth infusions in, fuller in flavor and losing some of the initial edge.  I suppose this would be a good place to mention that I brewed the tea gongfu style, although Western brewing might not turn out so differently.  It seems like regardless of proportion--the main difference in the approaches--backing off the temperature to between normal green and oolong ranges might keep the tea on the softer side.  Brewing it relatively lightly could support the same end.  It's not that it's very astringent, but there is some, and a touch of bitterness to offset.

The flavors range mellows further into more of a light woodiness on the fifth infusion, with that bitter / slightly sour edge faded to the scent of split fresh wood.  That might be something like birch, although my memory of wood scents has also faded a bit.  The sweetness helps round out those tones; along with the floral, now lighter, it all balances well enough.

different colors

The tea is interesting.  It doesn't really express that soft, rich range common to Thai oolongs, in between that and a typical green tea character instead, but it works for what it is.

Teas sold as Thai #17 based oolongs tend to be a little less buttery than Jin Xuan, with a touch more complexity, some even extending into a light spice effect.  Thai oolongs can be a little floral but typically not nearly as pronounced as that aspect in this version.  It's conceivable that this second is an infused tea, flavored with flowers, maybe osmanthus since that's not unheard of here, but since it's in a range that still could be natural I'd guess that it is.