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.

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