Sunday, September 10, 2017

Bai Ye Varietal Dan Cong black tea, and a Taiwanese honey black

Bai Ye Dan Cong black tea

Lin Mao Sen Taiwanese honey black

In ordering a set of various hei cha from Yunnan Sourcing not so long ago I added a Bai Ye plant type based Dan Cong black tea.  That was based on the recommendation of the friend who suggested the one shou puer in the first place, Rodino Ayala.  He would also be a good reference for tea in Indonesia, where he had lived not so long ago, or Las Vegas, where he is now.

Let's back up and formally introduce the teas:  one is a Bai Ye varietal ("Dan Cong") black tea from Yunnan Sourcing.  I'll comparison taste that with a honey black tea from Lin Mao Sen (with the a Facebook page here), a physical shop in Taipei, Taiwan.

That Taipei shop is beautiful; it would be worth it just to visit for the visual experience (with more on it in this travel-themed post), and also more than worth it to visit for the tea there.  They're a wholesale oriented vendor but sell in retail down to a level of 150 grams per sales item, or one quarter "jin." The teaware selection there is so extensive that it's hard to visually take it in.  Per usual I was in a hurry there, how I always experience vacation outings, so I sort of just didn't.

that Taipei shop; credit their FB photos

still on that shop; lots of teaware

It's strange it hasn't come up but I've not tried a black tea from this region (Guangdong province, where Dan Cong is from).  Of course it's better known for oolong, but it's not exactly a rare type of tea, still not that far off being a standard type.  I just hadn't got around to it.

I try teas somewhat organically; I'm not in a hurry to move through all the main types, and get to what I get to.  There's a loose queue of types I'd like to try, as with checking out more hei cha recently, and Assam teas, but it's a long enough list that I'll never get to all of them as fast as the list grows.  Pu'er exploration lags a bit, and I plan to get back to Japanese teas more later.

Why try the two teas together, one might wonder.  In cases where teas are common it helps separate finer aspects out, and makes them stand out.  If there isn't much commonality the contrast can be interesting but in general it's not helpful, and reviews will contain less description detail, typically with feel and aftertaste aspect descriptions falling by the wayside.  I've just been wondering how the styles compare myself, and although two individual versions don't stand in as ideal type representatives--they're whatever they happen to be, both due to being type-typical and other factors--it's a start on determining that.

I'll mention dry tea scent in this part and then move on to review.  The Bai Ye black is very fruity, a complex scent that seemed to include some grape range, with lots going on beyond that.  The Taiwanese tea is also sweet but richer and warmer, more like a raisin danish.  They might not be all that similar but at least I'll be trying two good teas together.  Even the color of the dry leaves says more about differences than common ground; the Bai Ye is inky dark, with small leaves tightly twisted, and the honey black is browner with some tips.  I've drank this Taiwanese black tea a half dozen times so it's familiar; that will help limit crowding experiential space for the analysis.


a superberry

The Bai Ye tea is just great.  It's sweet, rich, complex, and fruity.  A bit of tartness gives it a nice counter to all that, as if a touch of cranberry is one of the fruit aspects (which is the name of my home town, by the way, Cranberry, PA).  The fruit I picked up in scent as grape really is more in the cranberry range, but there is a touch of raisin to it.  There's a depth of flavors and aspect range beyond that, other fruit, a warm tone, a rich caramel layer.

The flavor complexity is so great I'd probably even interpret some of the rest in the background as floral, just nothing I can pin down as a specific flower.  I guess this tea could be seen as fantastic or not very good depending on how someone related to that tartness, which isn't all that common in black teas, at least not expressed like that, related to my memory of past experiences.  I'll go a little longer on the second infusion and see how it transitions and if I can separate out more that's going on.  I suspect some of the complexity relates to a mineral layer too, since my impression is there is lots of flavor range to this tea, but it's not clear that's right.

Bai Ye left, honey black right (different)

The honey black is completely different; so much for comparison making sense.  It seems a little better than I remember from making it last time; I think the tea does well if you bump up the proportion and cut the brewing time and brew a more intense, richer version.  Made in a straight Western style it's a bit thin, and comes across as more woody, but ramps up intensity without necessarily increasing brew strength a lot through more of a Gongfu approach (in the middle, really) helps the rest come across.  I am getting plenty of cinnamon raisin danish in the flavors.  It's not really tart at all, so different than the other in that regard.  It's about the same for sweetness level, and both are rich and complex, just quite different in character.  It's not as bright, and the flavors range is completely different.  There is fruit to it as well, but more along the lines of apple cider (so I guess there could be a faint hint of tartness, but in comparison none at all).

Again for this tea someone might love or hate it depending on type preference.  It's different, maybe even more than the extent to which different teas are always different.  On the down-side someone could interpret part of that flavor range as cork instead of apple cider / raisin danish, and that wouldn't necessarily be wrong.  Or maybe it's both.  The richness and complexity remind me of different ways that versions of malt come across in tea but to me it's not malty, in any sense (not Assam edgier mineral malty or Jin Xuan black tea ovaltine malty, which was showing up a little in those hei cha).

One strength of other types of teas, or limitation of black teas, from the reverse perspective, is that they can taste nice but flavor is what there is to experience, you drink it and it goes.  High mountain oolongs have a rich, full feel and long aftertaste; Wuyi Yancha have lots going on, seemingly extending into subconscious levels of exposure, aligning your chakras or whatever else.  Pu'er spans a broad range beyond those for taste, aftertaste, mouthfeel, and drug-like effects.  There is some fullness to both these teas, and I'm noticing that the Bai Ye flavor sticks around well after you swallow it.  If anything that tartness, sweetness, complexity and richness hits you when you first sip the tea and then a second time after you swallow it, with the effect transitioning afterwards.  It's not like with some types of sheng pu'er, where the aftertaste is almost stronger than the taste, and the experience doesn't re-intensify by taking another sip within five minutes since it's still going on anyway, but it's not exactly there and gone.

Second infusion

As I see it I'm brewing these teas in between Western style and Gongfu style, not ideal for passing on the type of experience others could duplicate, but it's not rocket science to work out a proportion and timing in between the two.  It's a little odd that I'm using a Western device, an infuser basket and cup, for the Bai Ye, and a gaiwan for the honey black, so this really isn't a controlled experiment, even though I have supreme confidence in myself to brew teas from instinct.  Judging from how these are doing early on both these teas might be much better suited for Gongfu style brewing than Western.  Often for black teas the results are similar, or in some rare cases Western works better, but it works best to check that by brewing teas different ways to know for sure.

I get it about most other people being on the other side of that, and using very standard approaches, for two different sets of reasons.  Some people newer to tea would want to follow whatever approach is considered best and get brewing right, or others with lots of experience could have dialed in forms based on a lot of exposure.  It probably wouldn't be atypical for people to prepare these Gongfu style, even though they are black teas.  As partial explanation for using non-standard approaches (hybrid forms),  I started out mixing tisanes randomly 25 years ago, and started on brewing loose teas by instinct in the range of 9 years ago.  I'm an engineer, which I guess could connect with me experimenting a lot to see what works, versus taking a rigid standard approach.  To me it's like cooking; some people use recipes, and go line by line, and I absolutely don't, I just wing it.  Except for making chocolate chip cookies; I'm not crazy (although those can be re-engineered, to an extent).

The Bai Ye hasn't transitioned much; it still has a good bit of fruit going on, paired with a tartness that works, with complexity below that, a sort of rich caramel range that is similar to that found in roasted teas.  This really does taste like a black tea version of a Dan Cong; that part isn't disappointing.  Those can be different in lots of ways, the oolongs, more subtle, or quite intense, fruity or floral, smooth, or a bit edgy, with tartness and a unique type of astringency bite.  This tea is more straightforward.  Since I'm not getting anywhere with describing changes this might be a good place to check the Yunnan Sourcing description of it:

"Bai Ye" (lit. White Leaf) Dan Cong is grown in Ling Tou village in the north of Raoping County (Guangdong Province).  Bai Ye Dan Cong varietal plants are special in curved large appearance with light yellow-green crowns.  The aroma has both Flower and Honey characteristics with a heavy pungent nectar quality.  The taste is thick and pure with a sweet after-finish.

Our Bai Ye dan Cong was picked in late April 2017 and processed through May. Instead of being processed like Dan Cong Oolong, this teas was processed into Black Tea by wilting in small cloth bags in the sun and then shade.  The resulting tea is incredibly complex and unique.  Bai Ye Hong Cha has thick sweetness and a very pronounced baked sweet potato taste that lasts many many infusions. 

He's probably right; that is sweet potato.  That tartness had pulled my interpretation of it elsewhere, since sweet potatoes definitely aren't tart, but I agree, that captures the rest beyond the tartness better than I did.  Baked yams come out a little richer and heavier, if I'm remembering the two right, and this is lighter and brighter than that, so sweet potato it is.  It's funny how the power of suggestion works, how interpretation goes.  They sell fresh roasted Japanese sweet potatoes in high end grocery stores here--priced way higher than any root vegetable sells for, several times over the normal rate; they turn that scent-experience into an impulse sale opportunity--and this is a good bit like that.  Even the raisin-like sweetness and touch of caramel are parts of that overall experience, natural results of roasting the sweet potatoes.  Strip that touch of tartness away and it's exactly like roasted sweet potato.

It's a bit of a shock to my palate drinking the Taiwanese honey black after this.  The two overlap so little it makes no sense drinking them together, and the contrast doesn't seem to inform much, but it is interesting.  The cinnamon-raisin danish effect is a lot stronger, and the spice tone has moved into a bit more range.  I just reviewed a tulsi (holy basil) and Assam green tea blend, and went into how licorice root seemed to relate to one flavor element, and the Wikipedia article said that flavor compound range shares some common ground with anise, star anise, and fennel.  Of all of those this reminds me the most of fennel, the one related aspect, which is only a secondary part of what's going on.

That probably sounds strange, that a tea that tastes like cinnamon raisin danish also tastes like a vegetable that's between licorice and celery, but it kind of does.  It's got complexity.  Brewed differently all of that would drift a lot further towards cardboard, or at least balsa wood; it wouldn't work nearly as well.  It's funny how for some teas it's hard to get them to express a broader range of character and for others they naturally shift a lot, based on only small changes in brewing approach.  This tea's aspects balance well but it is unusual, and it makes a big difference related to getting it right.  For some black teas using cooler water helps the flavors balance better, shifting the distribution of astringency and brighter, sweeter flavors, but I think this needs to stay brewed in the normal hotter range (perhaps a bit off full boiling point though) to keep that caramel or toffee element balancing the spice and earthiness, and to draw out more of the earthiness and structure.  There's not much astringency to be concerned about in either of these teas, really.

Being four relatively full glasses of tea in it's a judgement call going for another round (I'm brewing these in between the two styles, but using a good bit of tea and water for both).  Using small gaiwans works a lot better for comparison tasting; my instinct for what will work for brewing isn't always paired with foresight for how it's all going to play out.  I'm reminded of doing a four-way compressed white tea tasting that worked out great except for completely dosing myself with caffeine, which I finally came down from in the mid-evening.  I've got a touch of a cold too; that changes things, and I don't want to be drinking a lot of tea.  One more round though; there's tasting work to be done, and these two teas will go well beyond that.

Bai Ye left, honey black right

Third infusion

Right on schedule, a slightly longer steep in reasonably hot water draws out a bit more caramel in this later infusion in the Bai Ye.  That tartness has faded away, and the overall range is more like that specific complexity in Lipton tea (in a good sense; I don't mean it's starting to taste like low-grade overly-blended tea dust now, I guess it would work to say malt picks up, but that's too simple).  Mineral base is picking up; that's part of it, but it's really more about that one higher-end aspect.  It reminds me a little of baseball glove leather, not the musty 20 year old catcher's mitt type, the bright, sweet, almost tangy, newer equipment, newly oiled infielders glove version.  Sometimes I wonder if I'm actually still making any sense.

With the intense fruit mellowing out and earthier range picking up the tea is still nice but moving towards a more conventional black tea range now.  This could pass for a better Ceylon at the same point in the infusion cycle; the flavor range cycle paths cross.  The sweet potato is still there but not as intense, and a broader mix of flavors combine.

The Taiwanese honey black is showing even more warm, aromatic spice.  I completely wasn't getting this when brewing it using a standard Western approach.  That warm spice--which is hard to describe, really like a spice blend, cinnamon with a couple of lightly balanced root or bark elements--pairs well with apple cider fruit that's actually picking up.  The raisin and pastry-like aspect is still there but moving to a supporting element range.  Oddly while all that flavor complexity is so ramped up the tea is thinning quite a bit in feel and other effect.  Both these teas will easily go one more infusion, probably even a pleasant one for both, but earthier elements are probably going to be a bigger part of those.  Often that's a dark wood tone, but some Assams I tried not too long ago went to being pine-like.

Conclusion; subjective impression

The Taiwanese tea is better than I remember, or maybe better than I've experienced it since I've been trying it out prepared Western style.  It's quite good made this way, complex and interesting.

The Bai Ye is probably better, although that's always a judgment call, with subjective preference coming into play (which is why I don't always include a summary take like this).  I expect trying it prepared different ways and using a purer Gongfu approach I'll see even more out of this tea.  I ran across a couple of reviews of last year's version when looking up the Yunnan Sourcing page for it, which per my more typical approach I didn't read until editing the notes.  In this case even the Yunnan Sourcing description was a complete surprise until I checked it making notes; it can work out having such a bad memory.  That previous year's version was well received, to say the least, described as more complex than I've given it credit for, but it wasn't mentioned that the tea is a little tart.  Funny.

Both are exceptional teas.  The Bai Ye comes across as more unique, probably not unrelated to me already drinking through 150 grams of a very similar black tea I bought at the shop next door in Taiwan since January.

Post-script:  the completely unrelated slice of life part

I've been sharing some images of what things are like here in Bangkok (and even more of my kids, really), and related to the former I wanted to show what a front yard that resembles a jungle looks like here.  An old PA friend shared an article about a modern trend to live with lots of houseplants, to make a jungle of your home.  It's the rainy season now so things are as green as they're going to get.

The pictures won't completely bring across the feel, or the smell.  Different flowering trees and vines give off strong smells at different times of the day, most often at night, so it's nice walking around after dark and noticing that.

The plants are my wife's mother's passion; she is the owner, who we live with in a nice house in an older part of town.  It's not one of the oldest parts, per my understanding, a neighborhood the last King (Rama 9) developed when he moved the Royal residence from the Grand Palace to Chitralada, which would have been around 60-some to 70 years ago.  Bangkok and Thailand did a lot with modernizing over the last four decades or so, so it doesn't really feel like a "developing" country to me, but back then it would have.

breakfast spot

front yard

other yard, trimmed back a good bit; it had been getting wild

mango tree; the squirrel was surprised I climbed it for the mangos

a very green driveway view

there is a house too


  1. Very enjoyable read... it probably doesn't make sense to drink them together as cohort teas... but as two black teas drank side-by-side we really get a sense of how radically different black tea can be. Your mind is very free and this is a great way to drink tea. Thanks again for a thoroughly enjoyable read. Your garden area is just lovely. What do squirrels in Thailand look like?

    1. Thanks! I did reply somewhere else about that, but the answer was that they look about the same. I think the ones where I'm from (in PA) were a uniform tan / grey color, and these guys have a darker body here, but otherwise they look just the same.