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

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