Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Comparison tasting three Dian Hong (Yunnan black) from Farmerleaf

I've been planning to finally change gears related to exploring pu'er, to stop dabbling in teas from lots of different countries and get a better start on that one rather complicated tea type.  But this is about my favorite category version of black tea instead, which I'll get back to after saying more about that context.

Farmerleaf Jing Mai black left, golden tips top, sun-dried black right

An aside about a completely different subject, pu'er

My favorite tea blogger just wrote a blog post in Steep Stories related to the theme of exploring pu'er taking a long time. 

By the time you add in all the factors related to variations in pu'er--origin, tree age, other material quality issues, processing--itself a range of concerns, storage, etc.--you can't just try a dozen samples and get a feel for the type.  And all that's for sheng alone (a type for which I probably have posted about a dozen reviews); never mind the category division into two types.  I think that trying these three black teas I'm comparing would work for a starter introduction to Dian Hong (Chinese black tea from Yunnan), but there's still plenty of range to get to beyond them.

To expand a little about pu'er complexity, there was recently a Tea DB article and discussion video about vendors selling young versus aged sheng, and Scott of Yunnan Sourcing responded about that subject, and about number of other issues.  One main sub-theme that's been of interest to me is how some pu'er is sold as from a narrow origin location, and for different reasons some with no reference to origin at all.  That subject relates to a recent Yiwu Ding Jia Zhai pu'er vertical tasting event, about comparing different years from a smaller area within Yiwu. 

But then in describing black teas in a Reddit post comment I mentioned Dian Hong as a favorite, and the Farmerleaf vendor related to them selling a few.  They sell directly out of Yunnan; one related part of the cost being on the lower side.  In effect I talked myself into ordering the tea too, and before I could change my mind I clicked through buying 100 grams of three different teas.

Of course they sell pu'er too, a number of samples of which I have reviewed, and it seems fine to me, to the limited extent that I have a developed opinion on those.  For around the same cost I could've bought a cake of it, for about the same amount of tea.  But I had these other complicated plans for trying different samples and starting in on certain types of cakes after that, which will probably all change by the time I get to it.  That "vertical" tasting was a bit of a prompt, but I already had this in mind when I went through that other recent hei cha phase (which has one chapter left to cover, for now).

There's one connection I meant to get to, related to bringing all this up.  I'd rather drink this black tea than any lower end or medium quality pu'er I've ever tried.  Surely I've not yet been exposed to much in the way the highest quality levels of pu'er, and may never be at this rate.  Acclimating to the type and learning the range were factors in that other initiative, along with exploring aging changes.  I own two sheng cakes around a decade old, and have finished two that were much younger, but for sheng pu'er that's barely even starting on dabbling.  As memory serves I've bought and reviewed three shou this year, although all modest cost and quality-level versions; I think I'm ok on those for now.  I'll get back to it all soon enough, after re-trying these nice black teas.  It's some consolation that Farmerleaf also sent a pu'er sample.

This Dian Hong tasting background

These teas are all from 2016.  One is a sun-dried version, Jing Mai Sun-dried black Autumn 2016, which was supposed to improve with some age (per William's input), so it might be better than when I tasted the same tea last year.  I've also reviewed the other two, or nearly identical teas, an Autumn 2016 Jing Mai black, and Spring 2016 Matai Golden Tips / Pure Buds. 

I've been considering trading some teas with a few different people recently, with one set of batches sitting on my desk just now (from an online friend in Malaysia; cool enough).  These teas will work well for that, teas that I love that I can part with a little of.  I think I might have meant to buy a Matai leaf based tea instead of buds, since those really do match my preference better, but for comparison of the range and for trading the buds-style tea will work better.

Side by side comparison tasting is new since trying them first, kind of the theme I've been on this year, but the teas should still be about the same as in those first reviews.  These tend to brew a good bit of tea, and won't infuse a few times and be finished, so I remembered to use the small gaiwans to avoid getting blasted on caffeine. 


an early infusion, brewed lightly (L to R, black, sun-dried, golden tips)

I went a little longer on the first infusion than doing a quick wash, so I could start the tasting then, but infusing for around 20 seconds the teas won't really be opened up yet.  The Jing Mai black seems to just be getting started.  It's malty, but in a completely different sense than the Assams I was just reviewing, more like ovaltine, that warm, sweet, light, but rich slightly fermented grain effect.  And it probably tastes as much or more like cocoa, which isn't that far from that other flavor.  I'll keep this first infusion notes short but there should be lots more to say about this tea.

The sun-dried tea overlaps in character with the first, the Jing Mai black.  But it is more complex; there are other layers of light earthiness going on, not the same types of leather and wood I've been describing in Assam and Wuyi Yancha teas, but not that far off those.  There is some cocoa to this too, and that light version of malt, but also other range, which will probably include fruit, and some other earthier range.  I expected to like the first tea the best, even though it might be simpler, and I still think that might be right.

The golden tips version is quite different (or it's called pure buds in a different description; I'll just go with golden tips).  Even with a short rinse, and not really fully beginning to infuse, the tea still has a strong effect, not completely unrelated to the other two but not really in a similar range.  It has an unusual level of dryness to it.  That ties to a flavor that leads back towards coffee, but probably a very light roasted version of coffee.  It will also have plenty of other range to explore, which I'll hold off on filling out until the next round.

Second infusion

On the next infusion the Jing Mai black tea is still a little light.  The combination of using water a bit off boiling point and relatively short infusion times (still just under 30 seconds) may not be ideal for this tea.  The flavor is nice but it would work better stronger, so I'll need to adjust that.  The taste range is still nice, light malt and cocoa, with hints of fruit beyond that, and background earthiness layered in lightly.  Personal preference is a funny thing, how different people would like teas best in different aspect ranges, and to me this set works really well.  Related to the intensity I would never really know if it had faded some since being made a year earlier.  It's really about how much you like a certain tea anyway, more than sorting out background for why or why not.

The sun-dried black is different, definitely more complex than the first in the sense of adding other aspect range.  As I recall it was a bit simpler last year; maybe it is already picking up some depth with age as William said that it would.  This could brew a bit longer too, or upping the temperature to full boiling would also work.  That particular temperature choice, not using full boiling point water, is usually used to offset astringency, which was never going to be an issue for these softer black teas, but also to shift the range of flavors that come out.  Water at full boiling point will extract richer, heavier flavors, upping the dark caramel / aged leather input in teas like these, and slightly cooler water will help the cocoa, yam, and lighter grain notes play a bigger role.  Or at least that's my take, but what do I know.  I'll test that next infusion.  The natural transition cycle the teas were going to go through using any parameters will throw off noticing that as a single factor; these teas were still sort of "opening up," just in a different sense than for other types.

The matai golden tips version is quite different.  That dryness to the tea almost comes across as a touch of sourness, an interesting effect that seems to bridge across flavor into feel range.  It's sweet too, with lots going on for flavor range, almost too much to separate out.  More pronounced mineral underlies all of the experience, in a soft, rich range.  A wood-tone along the lines of redwood forms part of the profile, along with fruit, roasted yam I guess, with some roasted sweet corn adding complexity to that.

The golden tips is the kind of tea that someone else might write a completely different aspects list for, and it's not as if either set would be wrong; both would just be different interpretations of a complex experience.  Rich floral tone would work as a description, and the sweetness could be described as a dark honey.  Some of that resinous nature that was present in Cindy's Jin Jun Mei is common in this tea, and the taste isn't completely different, although I wouldn't say it reminds me of that tea across most of the aspect range, it just overlaps some.

Shifting that trace of sourness would make the tea more approachable but it still works.  To pin down what I really mean about that aspect, the woodiness that I'm describing as redwood forms a continuous range with wood-tone that might be closer to balsa wood, something lighter, a little sweeter, but with a bit of sourness to it as well.  It's not unrelated to that sweet, rich, complex smell in brand new cardboard boxes, just not exactly that.  I'm not saying the tea tastes like cardboard, and it doesn't, I'm trying to describe how part of the aspect range can be earthy, sweet, and slightly sour in a way that all connects.  A fermented grain would potentially go in a similar direction, so I suppose a craft-beer enthusiast would be describing this related to that instead.  I'm just not sure if a connection to malt or hops is closest.

Third infusion

The Jing Mai black is better prepared stronger, going with more like 40 seconds and slightly hotter water.  The leaf preparation in these teas is completely different than for the other Assam and Ceylon I've been reviewing, made from larger leaves a good bit more twisted, so where using these same parameters would've made for an undrinkable strong brew for that last orthodox Assam it's just in the right range for this one.

a bit more color brewed stronger

This tea is simpler than the other two, but across a range of aspects I personally love, so I guess it works even better for me.  There is a light and sweet maltiness, cocoa, sweetness that someone could easily interpret as different types of fruit, slightly raisin-like, but probably more towards dried tamarind.  The feel isn't overly rich, or the aftertaste unusually long, but it's not thin and it doesn't just disappear when you drink it.  Altogether the effect is that of a very nice, basic tea, nothing too complex or novel, just nice.

The sun-dried version does show more complexity.  It wouldn't really be wrong to interpret all those same attributes in the last description as present in this tea too, but it has more of an aged leather higher end going on, not so far off the scent one might pick up in a mahogany cabinet.  It's not astringent but the feel is thicker, seemingly tied to that taste range.  The way that works out seems related to that mineral layer present in Ceylon; not the bite in CTC teas, of course, that complex underlying structure instead.  I've been talking down Lipton teas quite a bit lately, and they really are something to be avoided, but some of that aspect is present in them, as I recall, a complexity that extends from underlying mineral to dark-wood tannin, related to both taste and feel aspects.  But those are still inferior grade tea dust; the point is that they definitely don't get everything wrong in blending them.

That range of related flavors into feel (leather, dark tropical wood, mineral) extends a long step further in the golden tips version.  To me "resinous" captures that, but then I already know what I mean by it.  The "sour" effect even eases up in this last one, folding in more as a complexity and richness.  Mineral really plays a larger role.  I showed a picture of an old oil well holding barrel and steel pipe once in a post, trying to capture how mineral can come across as very sweet and rich, and this also invokes that.  In completely different senses all three of these teas are better than the other two. 

a common sight in rural PA oil country, artifacts of history with a cool smell

Fourth infusion

Some black teas, or even some lower quality roasted oolongs, would be starting to fade based on this infusion count and brewing time, but I'm expecting that these will just be hitting their stride, showing off their best character.  I'll stick with using identical parameters for all three but really the Jing Mai black could work well with a slightly longer infusion time and the golden tips with a slightly shorter  one.

The Jing Mai black is moving towards a bit more toffee sweetness.  That tends to come out naturally when pushing a black tea further to get more infusions later in a cycle, using hotter water when brewing off boiling point initially, and using longer infusions, but I'm still not using an extended brewing time, only a bit over 30 seconds.  Which I'm not timing; I don't care for that practice, since writing notes adds enough complexity to the tasting process as it is.  It's following the sun-dried black in deepening in aspect range, shifting from cocoa and light malt towards dried tamarind and a light sweet version of leather.  Not everyone would love this aspect set as I do but for my preference it's great; simple, basic, and well balanced.

The sun-dried version lightens a little.  Some of that interesting complexity fades, and the aspects range narrows, so these first two teas are closer in effect than they've been across the whole tasting.  The Jing Mai black has a bit more pull toward cocoa, and is a little softer, but still full, and this sun-dried black has a bit more tannin to it still, definitely not coming across as astringency, in the sense of roughness, but the feel is different.  Along with that feel, and slightly more mineral, and diminished cocoa, the slight sharpness of dried tamarind is stronger, not just slightly tangy as those are but also rich, towards a roasted pumpkin effect.  It's thinning but still quite complex.

Jing Mai black left, sun-dried top, golden tips right

The golden tips version strikes a great balance at this infusion.  It's slightly thinner too, but the balance of the same aspects is shifting, and they work well across these proportions.  Odd how it worked out but a lot of what I said about the sun-dried version also works for this tea.  The extra tropical dark wood tanin and dried tamarind tangy range extends towards an iron-pipe-rust mineral tone, with sweetness and complexity balancing that. 

One main aspect had initially been a slight sourness but that has dropped out now, and the feel has also softened.  The dark toffee effect in the Jing Mai black (more a tamarind / roasted pumpkin in the sun-dried) maps onto range in this closer to the second tea, but slightly different in this.  It's hard to separate out but one part reminds me of fire roasted sweet corn, it just doesn't taste anything like corn, only the way some of those fresh corn flavors evolve when you cook them in that way.

This runs long to be adding tangents but as a teenager growing up in a rural area we would occasionally hang out in some pretty remote places, and would sometimes would pick up a snack of corn on the way, from some growing in a field.  We would use a campfire to cook that, more or less just throwing it in beside the coals.  It's a primitive form of cooking, to be sure, but the results could be great, really fresh with a bit of complex char and sweetness, sort of a cooked sugar taste.

Fifth infusion

Since this is turning into a chapter-length tasting description I'll give these a longer steep and use this for closing thoughts.  The teas aren't completely finished but this infusion should be about how much they've faded.  I'll give them about a minute to steep, extending it a little to keep the infusion strength up.  It would work to give them a two minute soak at this point, and then I'd end up talking more about a heavier range flavors and feel aspects more in the description.  Even though the same relative level of these aspects would be present they'd probably come across as more dominant in a double-strength infusion, or closer to where the teas had been a couple of infusions ago, just transitioned some in aspects range.

The Jing Mai black is just fading; not much more to tell.  The flavors aren't really transitioning in any way, there is just less going on.  This tea has been really consistent in character across all the infusions so that list-description more or less told its story.

The sun-dried tea is also getting lighter, but a slight shift in how it comes across works well, not really negative.  That dark wood / leather / tamarind range of aspects shifts a little towards an aromatic bark spice effect, but not really cinnamon, something else.  Brewed again steeped twice as long this tea would have a slightly different but still interesting character.  The feel has thinned, and it wouldn't come back to where it was, but the tea isn't finished.

The golden tips is still pretty intense, for a black tea on the fifth infusion that I'm not pushing for intensity.  Softening in character with the aspects fading works well for this tea, in one sense, although those do diminish it in another.  It's losing some complexity but settling into a different nice range.


I love teas like these!  They're not challenging at all, on the simple and basic side, although not really quite as straightforward as some types, with a good bit going on.  I think that it's really my own preference for this range of aspects that makes these teas seem so nice.  I'm not really trying to put them on a scale for being type-typical Dian Hong, or better versions from that broad category.  The descriptions are just meant to convey what I experienced, and hopefully why I like them also comes across.

seems a little high

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