Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Moychay (Russian vendor) Nan Nuo commissioned sheng

that Japanese tea company, Hangetsu

I already mentioned buying a nice Nan Nuo sheng cake in St. Petersburg, from the second Moychay tea chain shop branch I visited there.  I just didn't review it, which I'll cover here.  Chance led me to that shop, along with Google Maps search results, surveying the area near our hotel.  It's right beside a vendor just starting a business selling Japanese teas I dropped in on there, but not being into Japanese teas so much I didn't even try one.  It wasn't really a cafe or typical shop outlet anyway, more of a distributor, but cool to know people are working on different things related to tea there.

St. Petersburg Moychay store staff, very friendly and helpful

small cafe area (they said there's a larger shop in the city though)

the shop is small but the product range isn't


The initial infusion the tea is nice, as I remember it, very bright and fresh.  Astringency and bitterness are a little more pronounced than I remember because I'm preparing it brewed a bit strong for this first infusion, using a relatively standard high proportion of tea for Gongfu brewing.  I let the time run a little long, out toward 30 seconds, as a result of talking to my daughter about something.  I was thinking of writing about how low bitterness and astringency really could be a limitation of this tea, since those are connected with aging potential by many (issues it'll take me years to piece together more), but this tea isn't thin or soft.

Prepared more normally the slight bitterness works in combination with the sweetness and fruit, which I'll say more about over the next couple of infusions.  It also still allows for a pronounced aftertaste aspect of the tea; it draws out over a period of a minute or so, fainter but still present after that.  That particular aspect isn't really long or pronounced as better sheng versions go but in the range of decent sheng, per my limited experience. 

I tried a flash infusion on the next round.  Astringency and bitterness drop way back, although aftertaste stays consistent, still pronounced for the first minute, remaining after.  The tea was described as tasting like fruit and it really does, plum and white grape.  That bright, sweet flavor and overall freshness are so pronounced that it's hard to notice much beyond those aspects.  There is more going on; some warmer aspect range fills in more flavor experience grounding the rest, maybe towards a hint of nutmeg. 

Mineral range seems the right description for covering what tastes that bitterness and astringency map back to (as much as flavors and feel seem to tie together related to the second, probably as much my interpretation as an objectively solid link).  Or it also tastes a little like a touch of aspirin, I guess, but invoking that seems unwarranted for this tea.  Maybe a very light metal aspect is closer than mineral, or traces of both together describe it.  Mineral and even bitterness can be very positive when those balance well (and it's hard to imagine sheng not including any mineral range, really), and they do balance in this. 

I love the fruit in it, and that overall "bright" effect.  Often when I'm drinking sheng made within the past year I'm saying this might be better in a year or two, a little less edgy, but in this case I'm not so sure.  If that brightness were to decline, as it would to some extent, the balance might be just as positive, or more so, or the tea could've been best drank when very young like this.  I'll have to try to not drink or give away too much of this tea so I can keep trying it over the next few years.

Lately I've been going over value and cost a lot more than previously in posts.  The idea has been that what a tea is sold as defines part of how well it lives up to that billing.  A tea sold as a "basics" $6 / 50 gram Dian Hong (Yunnan black tea, really a general range of types) isn't supposed to be on the same level as a similar version sold as a "high quality level" $16 / 50 gram version.  Forgiving some limitations of range or very minor flaws in the first tea sold as "average" would match those expectations; a tea sold as the second wouldn't meet seem to without covering such scope and including a bit more complexity and depth, and being distinctive and interesting in some way.

On this version's page instead, related to sheng, a tea sold as a $35-45 factory-produced decent sheng should show some nice character (or maybe potential, depending on the aspects theme), and be pleasant enough, without significant flaws that detract, but a tea sold as a $60+ privately commissioned version should go further.  This is the latter; I paid just over $60 for it, if I've got the exchange rate right.  To be fair that may equate to paying slightly less for an online shop version; physical shops tend to price in a bit of their higher overhead.  That's reasonable; being able to talk to a human in person or look at things adds some value.  It's a longer story about how it seems to me that expectations shift (in terms of desirable aspects) as one moves from basics sheng into better versions, a process I've not experienced that much of, relatively speaking, since it takes lot more exposure for this general type.  Oddly enough--for having just spent time introducing all that--I'm going to largely drop that sub-theme and just describe if the tea meets my own expectations for a tea in this type of quality range.

Since I love that flavor range and the overall effect and other aspects really work for me it does.  It wasn't so long ago that someone asked in an online group about what shengs are fruity, seeking out that in versions, and I commented that maybe other tea types would be a natural better fit.  Some oolongs are really fruity, for example.  Floral aspects comes up a lot in sheng, and mineral base aspects, lots of directions of complexity in aged versions, etc., but I've not experienced much for a very fruity sheng.  This one is an exception.  It's not just that; the balance of the aspects really works (for me), related to pronounced sweetness and all the rest.  So far this is my favorite of the teas I've tried there or brought back from Russia.

Bonus review; a compressed tea of an unknown type

I mentioned buying a compressed tea sold in the Moscow Moychay branch as "not a standard hei cha," a version we gave most of to a monk (in this post, reviewing Laos teas made by Russians).  I've included pictures of it before but I'll add them again here.

It raises a lot of questions, doesn't it?  What is it?  How in the world did they separate out that middle part, and why?  What might that taste like?

I don't know what it is.  I'm going to keep assuming it's actually tea (and it was sold as such) but even that could be clearer.  They cut the large block with a saw in the shop.  My wife requested a section that included that symbol, since somehow that made sense to her related to giving it away as a gift.  I often feel bad for people who deal with my wife (not so much including me; I brought it on myself, and she's generally ok beyond being difficult).  Obviously the tea contains some stems, and smells as earthy as it looks.

I'll keep the review part short:  it's earthy, to a degree no other hei cha or shou I've tried ever reached.  It tastes woody, a bit like aged barn door might, with a light version of peat or tree bark as alternative descriptions.  The tea doesn't brew completely clear, and the liquid is actually brown (which I've not photographed yet--a bit of a gap), but the taste is a lot cleaner than it sounds for being in that range.

I'm not sure if I like it but I think I do.  Sometimes new versions of tea are so far removed from expectations that it really takes time to settle into an opinion.  It's not a standard flavor or other aspect profile for tea, for sure, but the novelty counts for some points.  I guess it works for me in the way Liu Bao does (a type of hei cha).  I reviewed five of those last year, none the exceptional quality level 20 year old version that might be ideal for the type.  They're earthy, in a different sense than this tea is, but it's possible to appreciate them for an unusual range of aspects, if someone can adapt preference to extend to that range. 

It more than meets my expectations for trying something unusual and inexpensive, and with more exposure I might come to like it even more.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Reviewing multiple year versions of Qiaomu Yiwu Mountain Pu'er

Based on talking about pu'er online with Philip Lee, owner of Yiwu Mountain Pu'er Tea, he generously offered to send some teas for review.  In this case it's partly about supporting my exploration of sheng pu'er, probably as much as getting feedback about the product or whatever promotional value there is from mentioning products here.

One aspect of pu'er that I've not explored much yet is how aging changes specific teas.  It typically takes time to gain exposure to that experience.  No matter how much you try different teas of different ages, even relatively identical versions from different years, it's very difficult to place storage conditions variations related to other factors.  You don't always know where those teas spent the prior years, and even relatively consistent annually produced teas could still vary related to minor condition variations.

Phillip sent a number of similar teas from different years (qiaomu origin pu'er from Yiwu, which refers to wild arbor trees).  These were stored and therefore aged in similar conditions, so this should be a great chance to experience aging differences more directly.  That's as good an alternative as is likely to come up, aside from owning cakes and drinking them year to year over a long time, and remembering back or reviewing notes to identify transition.  I've bought a couple of sheng cakes in the past few months but I'm still not really doing justice to that standard project approach, and may never ramp it up to a relatively ordinary level.

Since I'll be trying a number of teas from them it seems as well to mention their background and the description of this set, starting with the intro in their website:

Our Mission: provide authentic premium-quality Yiwu Mountain Tea and support the families of Yiwu

My wife's family is based in Gaoshan Village, Yiwu Mountain, Mengla county, Xishuangbanna. We currently operate a small family business in Guangzhou, selling authentic premium-quality Yiwu teas.  This website was created to help support the sales of pure Yiwu-sourced teas to the global market, as our physical location focuses on local customers... 
How it all began:
This business started with Mr Li Jia Cai, our father and a true local of Yiwu, who has been tending to the family tea plantations ever since he was a young boy.  As the eldest son of his immediate family, he took responsibility for selling the family tea planted by his ancestors and this helped to build his reputation for sourcing organic, high-quality tea...  To this day, most of our teas are still sourced by his local knowledge and immaculate ability to find great tea.

Sounds good; that's the kind of background one might hope to hear about.  Onto a description of this sample set (which they do also sell as a commercial product offering, not exactly in the form of samples I received, but something comparable):

It is a very accessible set of teas, especially good for those relatively new to Puer and/or Yiwu.  If you are relatively new to tea, this pack will help you learn more about specific characteristics of different Yiwu productions.  If you are a more experienced tea drinker, you will still be able to learn more about our company products, clean Guangzhou ageing, and likely experience nuances about mouthfeel, cha qi and huigan, especially when compared to blended or non-Yiwu products.

The version he sent me includes all years from 2012 to 2017, so designed to really emphasize aging as an input, with that sample set listed online including the following instead:

2017 Yiwu Qiaomu
2012 Yiwu Qiaomu
2017 Yiwu Gushu
2012 Yiwu Gushu
2015 Yiwu Huangpian
2016 Yiwu Ripe

Yiwu shou; that's different.  The versions I have aren't gushu, matching those Qiaomu samples instead.

A couple of last details before moving onto tasting notes.  Philip suggested paired tastings, which makes sense.  It is possible to taste three or four teas at the same time but even with tasting two versus only one the detail of what you pick up can fall off.  It gets to be a lot to take in.  That really also depends on practice in doing comparison tastings, and how ideal the tasting environment is for focus, related to background noise and such.  Tasting in a hurry doesn't really work either, at least not for tea that's not very straightforward or already very familiar.

Initially it looked as if there were two 2016 sample versions, based on my interpretation of the handwriting.  The samples look like maocha, as if none of them were pressed, but in discussion with Philip the 2017 hasn't been pressed yet but all the others were.  It seems they were carefully separated back out into loose tea again for distribution as samples, probably a little more broken than an unpressed maocha would be, but it's hard to notice that difference at a glance.  Philip explained why this is possible related to the teas being hand pressed instead of machine pressed, and not as tightly compacted.

Next one might wonder if Guangzhou climate is wet or dry, related to other familiar storage locations (with more graphs related to those other areas in this post).  Here's a chart (no graph turned up right away; this format will do).

Temperature variation is interesting (or relative lack of it), but humidity is more of a concern (66 to 84 as monthly averages).  It doesn't look quite as consistently warm and damp as Malaysia but not so different than Hong Kong, still on the humid side, more humid, warmer, and more consistent than in Kunming.

Tea storage areas throughout East and SE Asia (and where I am, BKK)

That one friend I keep referring to in Wuyishan just mentioned that it's right around zero (C) there for a daily low lately; odd it seems a little cooler being so close, based on noting Fujian just slightly to the North on that map.  But local weather does depend on elevation and other factors.

Review, comparison tasting 2017 and 2016 Yiwu sheng:

2016 left, 2017 right; lots of color difference

The 2017 sheng version experience is nice; bright, intense, and complex.  The profile is as I generally expected from previous exposure to other Yiwu versions, not that I have sub-region and other variations completely mapped out.  Floral range accounts for a lot of the taste, along with a strong mineral base that links with feel and aftertaste effect range (or at least seems to).  The tea is intense while you drink it and the experience stays with you, the taste and feel not subsiding after swallowing it.

Astringency versus bitterness and feel can be an odd range of somewhat related aspects to describe for young sheng.  That full feel is essentially the astringency of the tea coming across, and the apparent tie to mineral range flavors is a typical part of the experience.  Sometimes it also relates to a taste of actual bitterness.  Not so much in this case, but the experience is complex, so it does include just a little of that too.  Sweetness and other aspect range makes it work; it balances.  I'll get back to those next levels of detailed description across other infusions.

The 2016 version experience is quite different.  There is some overlap, but a warmer, sweeter, richer range of tastes dominates.  I was concerned this initial tasting would mostly point towards a likelihood of more significant change across more years (the ages of samples extends back to 2012), but that won't be the case.  I wouldn't have expected this much change in a tea in one year.  Of course there are going to be other factors since tea producers can't make exactly the same tea year to year, for lots of reasons.

2016 left, 2017 right; slight color difference in brewed liquid as well

Before going further with similarities and differences, it occurs to me that there is a reason essentially no one gives clear, detailed, specific, meaningful review descriptions of teas (even me; the rambling on here doesn't necessarily count as an exception).  Breaking down and describing the flavors requires interpretation, and the feel and other range all the more so.  Even related to a relatively accurate, clear, complete description from an experienced, more-objective reviewer a different person with similar background and skills could easily interpret the same tea slightly differently, or perhaps even completely differently in terms of individual aspect-description sets.

I also suspect that it's a flawed premise underlying reviewing that a tea's flavors can meaningfully be reduced to 5 or so flavor elements.  That's only true for that description being objectively accurate and complete; of course it can work to pass on a very descriptive impression, especially after a reader has tried some of the same teas as a reviewer to identify how those descriptions and interpretations match up.  Enough reviewing philosophy aside; back to these teas.

The flavor range I would associate with sheng aging is apparent in the 2016 sample, or at least that's how I interpret it.  The general flavor warmth is based on an aspect range that moves from bright floral and intense mineral a little towards a root-spice effect.  It has softened and rounded out more than I'd expect possible in a year (again based on assuming a very similar starting point, which isn't a given).  That did lead to trading off the brightness and sweetness, with the mineral layer intensity also softening.

It's a character trade for one type of appeal for another, and for many this second one year older version would be more approachable, even though I expect for most young sheng drinkers the 2017 sample already is that.  I think maybe two years ago prior to more sheng exposure that would've been more true for me, that it would be easier to relate to the softer tea.  Related to trying a tuocha of Dayi pu'er I would guess is somewhat type-standard awhile back this 2017 version is very smooth and pleasant tasting, and that tea had been around for a few years already.  It drifts into a subject I won't treat here but it's a given that tightly compressed teas--like that tuocha--age relatively slower.  Of course the starting point had to be much different, since the comparison is with a very young tea (less than a year old) and a very slightly aged one, not yet into middle-age (3 years).

next infusion (2016 left); again both bright with a slight color difference

The 2017 version softens a bit on the second infusion; I'd expect it will transition a bit more over the next couple.  It's funny how softening and warming a little leads it to being so similar to the 2016 version on the first infusion.  It still does retain more mineral in the flavor, and more brightness and freshness, and pronounced floral aspect.  The aftertaste seems more pronounced for this version (in a sense I associate with hui gan, if I'm using that concept to map to an experience properly).  I wouldn't be surprised if it is actually a slightly better version of tea than the other, and that's not just an age related factor, that aspect diminishing a little.

I think it's not just the flavor difference that makes the experience so dramatic, but also the feel, and not just related to some general level of fullness or astringency, also where the tea affects your mouth.  The first you feel more in sides and rear of the mouth, and the part that lingers on, also on the rear of the tongue.  This 2016 sample feel (and to some extent taste effect, it seems) is more pronounced in the middle of your tongue.  I wouldn't naturally guess these two samples are from the exact same origin, if tasting them blind.  Of course there are lots of other factors beyond growing conditions and plant types that go into how a tea turns out, with processing as much an input as those, or even more, according to some opinions I've ran across.

I accidentally went a bit longer on that next infusion, a bit over half a minute instead of more in the 15 to 20 second range (for once I didn't go overboard with proportion, keeping it in a more normal range, or I'd be on flash infusions instead).  In general it seems to work to try the teas brewed very lightly to notice more about flavor aspects and more medium strength to focus on feel and aftertaste (just my impression; take that part for what it's worth).

The 2017 tea has softened enough in "opening up" that it's not bad at all slightly more intense, and for someone drinking the tea more to appreciate that feel and aftertaste intensity maybe this is actually optimum.  The experience of the tea is still really pronounced a minute later.  I've tried tea versions where that extends lots further, so that five minutes later it's still not really diminishing much, but this still seems significant.

To be honest it's not an aspect range I'm particularly attached to anyway.  I sort of get why people learn to appreciate it, and why that's a common theme within strands of tea culture (often regionally based, leading into a longer story).  But at the same time you have to learn to want to experience that, it seems to me, and that type of appreciation seems more a developed cultural aspect than a natural inclination, or one that develops naturally with experience.  Then again I never really got why some experienced wine drinkers love French wines that taste like a nail was stored inside the bottle, back when I was into that.  There was probably a natural preference transition going on I never did follow that interest far enough to appreciate, only moving from liking merlots and red zins into syrahs and different blends.

It would be nice if I could place that flavor range in the 2016 version better.  It tastes like storage effect to me (fermentation, but an effect that varies with conditions), a very specific warming, softening, and flavor-range shift, but one that's hard to describe.  Moving into a flavor like sassafrass is as good a description as I'll probably come up with, but it's not that simple.  Extending into warmer mineral tone is also part of it, and the flavor complexity isn't describable in tasting like one thing, or even as a set.  I'd expect that for either of these teas aged for a few more years (as in the 2012 and 2013 samples) I might still struggle with description but the transition would be so pronounced into a different range that more might come to mind.  Or I might just continue to fail to capture what I mean by "warmer mineral" aspects instead.  The one year older version kind of makes more sense brewed slightly stronger, to me, even if the feel and aftertaste don't match that range of experience in the other, or maybe because of that, because taste just intensifies but the rest still isn't as significant.

The next infusion sees both teas smoothing a bit but not transitioning much.  It seems they're going to produce a lot of consistent infusions, which is a good sign, but really also just kind of what I'd expect.  Both teas strike a really nice balance related to the prior described aspect range, and continued to do so for another half dozen rounds, with allowance for extending brewing time to keep infusion strength up.

Thai demigods; unrelated filler photo


They're nice teas.  They're also just what I would have expected, and quite similar to the range experienced in that Yiwu tasting event last year (a Ding Jia Zhai village area sheng pu'er vertical tasting, to be more specific).  The difference in years (with one year of aging) is a lot more significant than I'd have expected, but trying other samples might inform if that was instead related to differences in tea versions as much as to one year of aging.  It was a good start on tasting a range of different related teas, the first time I've ever experienced such a thing to this degree, or at least in a form anything like this.

These two samples raise as many questions as they answer, and trying the others should help cover some of them.  I'm curious how aging will change the older samples, with the sequence going back to 2012.  It will be interesting to see to what degree I can separate out any year-by-year variation from that input.  I'm wondering what age / level of fermentation I'll prefer, or if it just doesn't work out that they're all different, with the variation more interesting than any one version.

Per some accounts sheng pu'er is said to typically age through a middle-age period where aspects flatten out, and then re-emerge in a different positive form later.  How that cycle times out, or even how regularly that particular pattern holds, probably relates to both the starting point for aspects and personal preference for a particular range.  Per another standard take pronounced bitterness and astringency are critical elements in brand new sheng that relate to aging potential, translating into aroma later.  This samples tasting series won't be able to fill in background related to those sorts of issues, but it will be fascinating to experience more about how one approachable, pleasant version of Yiwu sheng changes across a number of years.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Laos Tea Tasting in Moscow, review of a black tea and shou

I'm in contact on Instagram with Daria Biryukova, who is involved with Laos Tea, a Russian based business that produces local tea in Laos.  She invited me to an informal tasting at a bookstore after seeing a post about us visiting Moscow at that time, the week before the Western Christmas (the Russian version is on January 7th).   Alexander Zhiryakov, a tea maker and business founder, was preparing the tea.

This event description is also an introduction to a review of two samples they passed on, beyond only covering the tasting.  That outing was around a month ago now and my general impressions of it are still clear but finer details not as much so. One tea poured was an oolong, the other a black tea.

The oolong was a bit unconventional, interesting, and maybe a little rustic.  The black tea was nicer and more refined, pretty close to a style of Dian Hong I had brought with me to drink (on the trip, not to that event).  Alexander wasn't quick to compare the Laos teas to any other origin style, since teas' character does vary related to lots of different inputs, and they did seem distinctive.  But that tea did seem to taste like a Dian Hong (along the same lines as these), which for the most part is a good thing.

always nice being in a picture once in awhile

I've heard of Laos Tea before, years ago the first time.  Most recently it was mentioned by another online friend who runs Kinnari Tea, another Laos tea producer.  A Bangkok tea friend who is stingy with praise said that Laos Tea's sheng was ok a few years ago, which is a more positive endorsement than it would sound, but still not much to go on.

Alexander and Daria were very nice and the event was enjoyable.  We talked about tea and also culture and travel, if only a little, since two discussions in two languages were running at the same time.  One guy there was from Siberia, I think it was.  He encouraged me to go and visit some remote region, I think in part because it was funny to him to promote that place as a tourist draw.  Alexander definitely has a lot of experience with different teas and travel to draw on in discussion.

Tea review:  Phongsaly shou pu'er and Banchicho black tea

Laos tea Banchicho black tea

Laos Tea Phongsaly loose shou pu'er

both teas brewed (black left, shou right)

I've tried these tea samples they passed on before, on that trip, but reviewing isn't part of my vacation routine.  It takes time, the tasting and then editing, and it's hard to account for water as a variable, or to overcome differences a shift in climate can put your sinuses through.  Traveling to a more ideal setting and doing a tasting would be an interesting experience, like on a camping outing with good weather.  The water in that Moscow hotel seemed fine, so I'm guessing that I had a relatively sound initial impression of the teas.  In St. Petersburg the hotel water was so bad I switched to buying an inexpensive Earl Grey to drink there.  They don't have kettles in Russian hotel rooms, it seems, as they do in most Asian versions, so without bringing or buying one you're at the mercy of whatever hot water is available at the cafe or restaurant.

I'll review both tea prepared using a modified version of Gongfu style brewing, at a low enough proportion one might see it as a modified version of Western brewing instead, or in the middle.  Even more unconventionally I'm drinking both together.  Comparison won't help at all (they're not similar enough for that to be useful) but I'm working through a slight backlog of what I mean to write about.

On first taste the shou is as I remember it, but it will probably improve after the initial rinse and first infusion.  It's not unpleasant in any way, not "off," and beyond that earthy, towards peat and dark wood, with a little sweetness.  It seems like normal shou.

The black tea is slightly better than I remember it.  It's relatively clean flavored and complex, with a lot of bud content extending a base of malt, a clean version of forest floor, and sweeter elements trailing towards a dried fruit and into a touch of pine.  It's not so much that taste of pine needles, instead that texture and hint of dryness that is normal in bud-heavy black teas.  One of my favorite bloggers (Amanda of My Thoughts Are Like Butterflies) used to call it a resin-like quality, which as I take it she meant in a good way.  I like that aspect, I just like leaves-only black related tea versions more.

The shou did improve on the second infusion.  A trace of mustiness eased up, still not completely clear but not pronounced.  Per my understanding--not memory; I've lost track of a specific production year--this tea is 3 or 4 years old, so the initial fermentation tastes should've had plenty of time to fade.  In my past experience shou also experiences changes related to storage conditions, so it is possible to open a 3 or 4 year old version that's a bit odd and experience it clearing up in fermentation related aspect range a lot over half a year or so, once it gets some limited air contact.  One relatively commercial (mass produced) shou version I tried last year moved from tasting like petroleum to being smooth, creamy, decently balanced, and tasting nothing like petroleum.  That tea was about the same age, improving based on being opened to be exposed to a little more air contact for less than a year.

black tea left, shou right

The flavor intensity picks up too, beyond improving, but it's still in typical shou range.  A touch of creaminess (think "Guiness stout") joins in the peat and dark wood, and the depth starts to resemble French Roast coffee a little.  No spice-like complexity or anything like fruit adds to that.  It's not that far from a standard-issue Dayi shou I bought from Yunnan Sourcing last year, one billed as tasting like fruit, which was clean and decently balanced, but also just in the general neutral shou range.  For someone on this page this tea would be fine if it didn't cost much, since it is a basic shou.

The black tea is more interesting and distinctive.  It does remind me of lots of other black teas, and I don't get an impression that it's great tea, but it's nice.  The flavors are clean and reasonably complex.  Soft malt works well as a base, and there is earthiness and other sweeter range beyond that.  It's one or two interesting flavor elements away from being much better tea, mostly limited by nothing really standing out about it.  A touch of woody forest floor gives the malt some depth, and the balancing sweetness makes that work, but both the description and the experience would work a lot better if there was something else to it.  That forest floor component hints a little towards a root-bark spice aspect, but it equally hints towards dried wild mushroom, in the end settling in the middle range of soft malt and clean flavored light wood.

Neither tea transitions on the next infusion or later ones.  Providing a number of consistent infusions is positive, and related to feel of the teas and the rest they seem fine.


If a vendor had sent these two teas I might skip mentioning them in blog review since doesn't make for a novel story or work well for vendor promotion to conclude that a tea is "ok," good in a more moderate sense of good, but the whole experience was interesting, that event and trying tea versions from a unique location.  

The teas were nice, and it is always interesting trying teas from different origins.  These versions weren't really presented as two teas that best represent their product line, or the best they make, it didn't seem, just samples of what was on hand.  Either this black tea or the other we tried Alexander said was thrown off by heavy rain late in the harvest and processing cycle, an input that wasn't positive.  That other black tea in the tasting my favorite, as I recall.  I bet their sheng is better, and that other black tea versions would also be.

I have tried a number of teas from Laos before.  I first visited Laos exactly ten years ago (funny how fast that went), and we didn't see tea then, and I wasn't so into it then anyway.  On a visit about two years after that I bought tea directly from a farmer, and also coffee, one step towards getting drawn into loose tea.  The teas weren't very good, from that small farm, not on the standard level these are, probably due to their processing skill being limited.

Laos tea in that bookstore; I should have focused in and picked up more

They sold a few more teas at that small bookstore but I didn't get around to buying any others.  That early in the trip I was a bit single-minded about searching out Russian teas, which sort of worked out and sort of didn't.  I bought two Russian teas later (at Perlov and Moychay shops), a green tea and a compressed tea presented only as "not any conventional form of hei cha."

some earthy, unusual tea, but I'll hold off on description for now

Post-script; more about that trip and a Russian sense of humor

Related to the Russia trip in general, some relatively trivial experiences sum up the tone of experiencing the culture, which I'll share here.  I've already talked about main highlights like seeing auroras or the experience of visiting Red Square, and this is about how the people seemed instead.  As broad strokes go Russians were mostly friendly and helpful, and seemed genuine, but one part of interactions was unusual, funny in a different way.

Of course I don't get Russian culture, and only took away so much insight from spending two weeks as a tourist.  People were a bit of a contradiction, in a way that sort of worked.  They were reserved but friendly, not cheerful but pleasant, at times a bit condescending but in a way that didn't really seem mean spirited.  If anything instead of being insulted by that type of joking I took it as a sign of familiarity, and a type of inclusion, related to us being in on the joke more than being a target of one.

The first:  my wife and I were walking together and she turned to say something, but directed it to a random Russian guy by mistake (I was probably lagging, looking at something).  He was startled but then laughed and said “nihau,” Chinese for hello.  It’s difficult to explain why that was funny, to him and to me (but not so much her).  I doubt he was convinced that she was probably Chinese, and in fact she's Thai.  Or maybe he did think she was Chinese, and I misread his take on all of it.  It seemed an indirect example of how Russian humor can be funny but not necessarily in a conventional way.  Why was it funny for that guy at the tasting to say you could see an aurora at some remote lake in Siberia, when it's not that far North and you can't?  It was just a form of banter.

our guide, Ivan, saying "I'm not your fond memory; take a picture of a stuffed bear"

I can't really explain it, but since I'm doing anecdotes I'll add one more.  Late at night we tried to check out of a grocery store, using self-checkout since only that was open.  It wasn't completely working; that kind of thing isn't always seamless in any country.  The guard there told staff to help us, in Russian, and as an aside commented on our status by saying in English "help me," mimicking us crying out for help.  It was funny, but I suppose it wouldn't be funny to everyone.  A Thai or American security guard would not think to say that.  Of course he was in the process of helping us, and over and over people helped us, and my final impression of Russians relates to that, of people being friendly and helpful.

My overall favorite memory was of taking those long escalators up and down to the metros, carrying my daughter on them.  There we talked about what we were going to see, or what we just had seen, about the cold weather, or the the trip in general.  We saw images of a circus or ballet on signs in St. Petersburg, triggering excitement before and after experiencing those.  Another fond memory is of walking around the Peterhoff palace with my son, talking about the trip, and about the unusual feel of visiting gardens in the winder.  My favorite part of every trip travels with me, the experience of spending time with my son and daughter.

I was usually holding her

typical view back down the escalator

elevator group selfie

Keo at Peterhoff Palace

on a hop-on-hop-off local tour bus

flashing V signs and drinking shakes in a Moscow burger restaurant

chilling in Gorky Park

funny I don't remember this, a TV fire

at the St. Petersburg Bolshoi circus

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Vietnamese Oriental Beauty from Ha Giang province

I exchanged some teas awhile back with an online friend in Vietnam (or contact; whichever concept you would use), Huyen Dinh.  I did finally get around to sending her back some tea but I won't go into what: just some of what was around. 

It's a little unconventional reviewing the teas she sent because I don't know specific sources, who produced it.  That's true if you buy a tea from a typical online producer too; they would sell it as this post is labeled--with type and area--but the origin wouldn't be more specific.  Any potential marketing angle drops out since she's not selling this tea, she's just another tea enthusiast.  In a way that almost seems better.

Here is a map reference of where that tea is from, Ha Giang, right beside China, a reference from Hatvala (one of my favorite Vietnamese tea vendors).  They sell an amazing Oriental Beauty version, which I reviewed here, that is quite type-typical compared to Taiwanese versions, only exceptional for being an above average quality example.  This will prove to be a bit different, not necessarily related to being inferior, but different in character.


My first impression is that it doesn't look exactly like a Taiwanese OB, which are often more brown and white, with multi-colored shades related to those.  This has more of a black and white appearance, more similar to a moonlight white or a bit like the Vietnamese snow teas.  It's quite well twisted, so compact that I overshot the quantity a little and ended up with a gaiwan mostly full of brewing leaves once it infused.  That doesn't throw off the brewing effect, in most cases, it just requires using really short infusions.

It's quite heavily oxidized, really a black tea in an Oriental Beauty style.  OB's are a very oxidized version of oolong (70% gets mentioned sometimes, but it's hard to be sure of what that means, or if it doesn't consistently mean any one thing).  It's not so unusual for some versions to seem to blur the line, to be that little bit more oxidized and to seem like a novel black tea instead of a well oxidized oolong.  How well the aspects and overall effect work out are more important, although I guess someone else might value a tea matching an expectation of a type more than I do.

trying it out brewed a bit heavier

The brewed tea flavors include some earthiness typical of black tea, that malt and mineral range, and also plenty of fruit.  Mineral is pronounced but I'll skip guessing out what rock it tastes like ("warm" will do; not like limestone).  That fruit range isn't the typical light and bright OB flavors (citrus, muscatel, spice), but instead deeper fruit flavors, black grape, raisin, currant / elderberry, and some limited brighter range towards mango or pineapple.  The overall effect is unique, a mix of other types and styles.

It does transition through infusions, with some of the heavy mineral and maltiness giving way to even more dried fruit.  The fruit effect brightens; the black grape and currant seems more like blueberry as it keeps going.  It's a very cool aspect range and overall effect, especially that transition cycle.  But also the balance the aspects strike too, the way it comes together.  The flavors range is very complex and clean, and the feel is nice and full, with no notable flaws.

well-oxidized small leaves


It reminds me a little of an OB version from Yunnan, from Farmerleaf (which I reviewed here; they take down their own site pages once a tea is out of stock, so there isn't one).  Looking back the flavors range was a bit different, with that warmer and slightly earthier, mixing in cinnamon, pastry, and heavier fruit (raisin and cooked yam, a bit in between fruit and a sweet vegetable range).  Both are unconventional in appearance and character.  Both are relatively more oxidized and off-typical-region versions of Oriental Beauty.  With Farmerleaf teas coming from Yunnan (and that tea from Jing Mai, within Yunnan) these aren't produced that far from each other.  I could speculate about similarities related to local climate or plant types used but I really have no idea, it's just interesting to consider.

I really liked this tea.  It wasn't as light and bright as some Oriental Beauty versions are, but for more typical examples you have to get a really good version for the bright, intense flavors to be really complex and not exhibit any musty earthiness, or to not transition in a way that's completely positive.  I'm not claiming that medium quality OB versions tend to taste like cardboard, the point is that only better examples show off that intense fruit range in a really clean and bright way that holds up through an infusion cycle, typically transitioning some in nature as you brew them.  This fruit and general character is different, more of a black tea, with some heavier fruit and some nice berry aspects, but it paralleled how it works out for quite nice more-typical OB versions in that range. 

You can usually adjust parameters and get some variation in aspects from an OB, with them performing well across a range of preparation approaches, and I'd assume that's true of this tea too.  I don't have lots of it but enough to make it again, at least once or maybe twice more, so I can check on that.  For some that would lead to the challenge of optimizing the brewed tea character, dialing it in, and for others messing around and exploring changes would be more the point, but it works out well either way.

Many thanks to Huyen again for providing interesting, unique, and pleasant Vietnamese teas to try.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Trying Moychay black teas from Georgia (teas bought in Russia)

These two teas I bought in Russia, in Moscow, in a Moychay shop there.  They're from Georgia instead of Russia, which is still trying something new to me, so just what I was looking for.  I'll post some pictures of tea shops but this post is really about reviewing the teas.

I just did post a long travel-blog theme review of visiting Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Murmansk (seeing Northern Lights) but I'll steer clear of most of that scope too.

one of the Moychay shops in Moscow, where I bought these

Yesterday (at time of making notes, at least) I met Sasha Abramovich (FB contact here), a local guy who I've talked to online about tea and we first tried this version.  He's local in the same sense I'm local in Bangkok, not from here but living here.  He just toured the tea producing areas of Darjeeling and Assam so that made for plenty related to tea to talk about.  He translated the package description, which is in Russian, and compared his impression to other Georgian teas he's tried.  I won't really be doing justice to talking about Sasha or the teas' background, since this a review runs long enough as it is.

I might at least mention that we tried two other very nice teas yesterday, a Castleton Moonlight white, and a Thurbo Darjeeling.  Both tasted like good first flush Darjeeling, bright and fresh, sweet and fruity, complex and not overly astringent.  I just had a similar experience trying a Makaibari first flush version I had left over from samples shared by the Lochans (a good source of various Darjeelings, and a producer of their own Doke location products).  It seems odd circling back to focus on Darjeeling first flush well into winter (in a post about Georgian black tea) but I think I might say more about that last tea later in another post.

So many tangents, so little patience to write pages about them.  I was planning on cutting short tasting notes and reviews this year.  All the comparisons and long tasting sessions last year started to extend into two page tea write-ups, going a bit far.  In the past I've researched new locations or tea types when writing about them, and there would be plenty to say about teas from Georgia, but I won't, at least not in this.  I talked to a half dozen people about those Georgian teas and everyone said different things, all quite interesting and worth hearing but difficult to summarize.  Most of those people read the Russian descriptions (I've been talking to a good number of Russians about tea lately), and a few others had substantial background with Georgian tea sources, one essentially a tea producer there.  For now I'll leave off at mentioning a Georgia-local Facebook tea group, which is more accessible using English than one would expect.

Related to the two specific teas, this initial label content was completely in Cyrillic, not an easy starting point.

The pricing I can decode on my own; around 60 rubles equates to one US dollar, so those two versions are around $8 per 100 grams and more like $20 for the other.  For Thais it works to divide rubles by two to estimate baht, so 245 baht (give or take) per 100 grams and then also 630.  With one tea costing 2 1/2 times the other one might expect it to be much better (or at least I would), but things aren't always that simple, the supply and demand factors, and personal preference can muddle what is "best."

The full description is on an English language Moychay website, with the container lid on the right in the image as this tea (I think):

friendly Moychay shop staff

"Organic Red Tea" is made of spring shoots of wild tea bushes (harvest May 2017) grown in Guria County.  In appearance: tiny, lengthwise twisted leaves of dark purple-brown color. The liquor is transparent, chestnut color.  The brewed tea has warm, refined, fruity-biscuit bouquet with berry, herbal and citrus hints. The taste is refined, silky, sweetish, with berry acidity, transforming into refreshing finish.

That's pretty much what Sasha said, and the price matches up, give or take some conversion fluctuation.  I didn't see a listing for the second.

I'll refer to them here as "the first and second," not much of a place-holder for specifics, but that's how I wrote the initial draft, and going with "wild and not-wild" instead isn't handier.

More back-story, in pictures

Even though I'm not really saying more about Sasha, Moychay, or Georgian tea in this post I can pass on some pictures.

visiting with Sasha Abramovich (contact and photo credit here)

a nice Gongfu brewing area in that shop

looking ahead; something different from that shop

Moychay staff in St. Petersburg (a different subject)

I'd mentioned in the last post that I found two shops at the same time in Moscow, also the Perlov tea shop (quite near this Moychay branch), which I'll get around to saying more about along with a tea review.  The exterior and interior of that shop was beautiful, but I was slightly disappointed to find the selection as commercial boxed teas or one regional version per type jar tea, without much for local or regional products.  Both presentations can still be fantastic tea but based on prior expectations it's not exactly what I was looking for.  I bought a Russian green tea there, one of only two Russian teas I found, and an "Ivan chai," or willow herb tisane, which I'll review later.

Picture references related to that:

Perlov tea shop

these could be good, just not what I was looking for


the previously referenced wild organic tea from Guria County

It can be tricky keeping track of labeling when you can't read it, but these prior two pictures do match, that's the Russian description of that tea I tried with Sasha, matching the website description.

the other tea, as of yet not really well defined (by me at least)

I'm writing these initial notes related to a first round, and I think brewing it a little stronger the next time and being a second infusion will tell more of the story.

The first tea that I'd already tried yesterday is nice, more or less matching the description for it.  When I first tried it the tea seemed a little disappointing, I think related to build-up, carrying around teas for awhile like that, and trying tea from a new country.  The parameters were probably just a little off too, since it was much better today.

The package description said it tastes like bread or pastry, with some fruit aspect, and a bit of citrus.  We had tasted it using relatively standard parameters for Western style brewing and I'm shifting that towards a hybrid of Gongfu instead, which to some people might just be considered a low proportion and longer time frame version of Gongfu brewing.  Or others would see it as tea brewing practice abomination, I guess, to adjust parameters to whatever you like versus following some convention.  I've brewed a lot of black teas a lot of different ways so how variations shift results is familiar, it just varies for different teas.

The tea is like that description, which works as a starting point.  The bread or pastry like element gives it a rich body and nice flavor base, not unlike that found in some Taiwanese black teas.  That fruit and citrus comes across as a tartness that reminds me of a Dan Cong black tea I've reviewed.  Tart black tea isn't unheard of but it's not really typical of most types.  The complexity is ok, and it's not really off or flawed in any way.  I suppose it might trace over into balsa wood or cardboard flavor a little, not exactly off or flawed, but not ideal related to that aspect range either.

Up until that cardboard part it sounded pretty good, didn't it?  Tartness isn't a favorite aspect for me in black teas, and I don't love it when it's dominant in oolong oxidation level Dan Cong, the more normal version for teas from there, but I could imagine others relating to it differently.  I do love orange citrus in black teas, in wild Lapsang Souchong I've tried, or variations in Oriental Beauty, but I'm picking up more cranberry than "warmer" citrus in this.

The second tea--I think sold as an inferior grade of tea, or at least at a lower cost--looks the part of a superior tea, whole leaf instead of broken.  At first I was considering if I mightn't have that switched.  After thinking it through the tartness in that "first" version (listed as berry and citrus in their description) seems to more or less guarantee that the shop staff didn't accidentally switch those labels.  The "second version" leaves are long, twisted, and whole versus being quite broken for the other tea.  They're medium brown in appearance versus a darker black too.

The taste of the second version is fine, maybe just a little thinner.  It comes across as warmer, with less fruit, and not tart.  Toffee or caramel is more pronounced, extending a little towards a spice aspect, not cinnamon but towards that.  Again there is a woodiness that starts to remind me a little of cardboard.  That's really not that uncommon in Taiwanese black teas, per my past experience (which this aspects set reminds me of).  Shifting brewing aspects can minimize it, and bring out the flavors more beyond that trace of mustiness, but it's part of some teas that is more or less something to work around.

first version ("wild") left, other right

Second infusion:

The first tea version (the "wild" leaf tea) is similar to how the first infusion had been when brewed a bit stronger in this second round, but now fully "opened up," as much as that relates to black teas at all.  I am liking this tea quite a bit more than when I had it with Sasha that first day.  He and I both enjoyed it but it seems to do better with a bit more infusion strength, or maybe the higher proportion and shorter time somehow works better.

For some teas it doesn't really matter, and they work really well made lots of different ways, just coming across differently.  Two of my favorites work out like that:  Oriental Beauty (Taiwanese more-oxidized bug-bitten oolongs) and Dian Hong (Yunnan black teas, which actually vary quite a bit to be generalizing like that).  Sheng pu'er often really needs to be enjoyed brewed in a way that suits a particular version best, often better brewed very light, on the other side of the scale, although those vary a lot in character too.

elderberries (photo credit)

There is plenty of fruit, coupled nicely with a pastry-like complexity.  It reminds me of cranberry because of the tartness but really the fruit range goes beyond that, a bit into dark cherry instead, or maybe closer to elderberry.  Elderberry pie is fantastic, by the way, one of my best childhood memories.  They're tiny, sweet, distinctive flavored fruit that takes lots of work to pick, and we'd collect them up for my mother and get a pie in return for our trouble.

Elderberries taste like a blueberry but heavier on earthiness or mineral, probably as close to how ink smells as anything else, but they definitely don't taste like ink.  If I just loved tartness more in tea this would seem exceptional; as it is it's still interesting and positive.

The other tea is a contradiction for tasting rich and full, sweet and complex, clean-flavored and positive, and also slightly thin in a sense that's hard to pin down.  The style is enigmatic too.  It seems closest to Taiwanese black to me (honey black from a Jin Xuan cultivar, to be more specific).  There's an intriguing rich aspect layered in that is really interesting and positive (maybe like hazelnut?), and again a slight woody mustiness that's less so.  It's a little towards spice range as found in root beer or sasparilla.  For having that slight bit of wood tone the flavor is really clean.  With this being so inexpensive it's a great buy given the novelty and complexity, even if it has limits related to range and overall effect.  I really should have bought 100 grams of it, but I expected to pick up loads of tea in different places later, which really didn't work out.

a lot of color difference beyond the leaf wholeness differing

Third infusion / conclusions:

Both teas seem like decent teas related to overall impression, to flavor, and also thickness of the tea and complexity in terms of aftertaste.   They don't seem like really exceptional tea versions related to those last ranges of aspects, but then a lot of that scope applies more to other types; oolongs, pu'er, or even white teas can express more depth in those directions.

The first tea is thinning a bit faster than the second.  The leaves being more broken might have something to do with that, or maybe not.  I suppose it's conceivable that the results might have been better for a using less broken leaves related to other aspect range too.  While the first is just fading the second is just as complex and interesting as it had been, still subtle but with nice intensity.

I do like these teas.  I wouldn't mind having more of both to drink more of, to mess around with parameters and such, or just to enjoy experiencing.  Based on the tasting yesterday I was a bit on the fence of whether or not to even write about them, which would have been a shame, exploring a new country source and finding teas in Moscow, and then not going into details due to not really being into them.  Both teas have limitations or aspects that aren't personal favorites but both compare reasonably well to two very interesting and desirable ranges of teas I've tried, to black teas from Taiwan and in China where Dan Cong is from (outlying Chaozhou city in the North Eastern Guangdong province).  Related to value these compare well to other online sourced teas and for tea-shop versions (where overhead usually adds a bit to expense) the value is quite good, especially for the relatively inexpensive version.  It's hard to find black tea that good in that price range, of any type.

I've also tried that Moychay Nan Nuo in-house production sheng a couple of times and that will be a different kind of story; I liked these black teas but really loved that tea.  The brightness, freshness, and fruit flavor range was so intense it extended beyond what I normally experience in sheng.  Floral aspects are normal for lots of sheng, but bright plum / white grape fruit is something else. There's always room for more mouth-feel or aftertaste improvement, especially given that some people associate those a lot more with that tea type, or even value them more than flavors, but regardless of all that it was pretty good tea in a deeper sense, and quite novel.

Post-script; a few more images on the Russian travel theme

Kalani showing off a Russian doll souvenir haul

selfie with a cool mural in a St. Petersburg metro station (subway)

that full mural, with Kalani for scale

I would assume that image is Peter the Great

amazing decoration themes in the metros (this one in St. Petersburg)