Monday, March 12, 2018

Yiwu Mountain Pu'er 2013 and 2014 sheng comparison

2014 Yiwu Mountain Pu'er sample

2013 Yiwu Mountain Pu'er sample

Farmerleaf 2012 Nan Zuo sheng

Back to comparing the last two samples sent by Yiwu mountain pu'er, of samples of sheng from 2013 and 2014.  Those are part of a sample set designed to allow for exploring aging differences, relatively identical annually produced teas.  There would always be variables, but buying teas intended as very similar produced from the same source by the same people eliminates some of those.  Earlier posts compared other years, 2016 and 2017 here, and 2012 and 2015 here.

I mentioned what was in that set before but at the risk of this bordering on sales pitch--which is not really how it's intended--I'll mention it includes eight tea types, 3 sheng, 2 gushu sheng, 1 shou, and 2 black teas, so totally 160 grams for $35.  I've recommended people essentially create their own tasting set like this one through Farmerleaf before, since they sell samples, but that would tend to be Jing Mai versions instead of Yiwu.  Someone might not be so interested in black tea or shou but I wouldn't relate to that particular reservation since I love Dian Hong (Yunnan black teas), and like trying shou. 

Obviously Yunnan Sourcing is a natural resource for trying samples (while I'm mentiong vendors), but them selling a little of everything can make that more complicated, harder to sort out.

This drifts off the subject but I have tasting notes still in draft form for a really cool Myanmar version of shou I just tried.  Good shou, or at least interesting shou, is different than something that "just tastes like shou," which does also come up.

In order to add depth to this I'm comparing them to a third tea.  I don't have a 2013 or 2014 Yiwu sample on hand--I don't think; easy to lose track--so it'll just be whatever I do have that matches this age, in this case a Farmerleaf 2012 Nanzuo (Jing Mai region) sheng.  Of course lots of variables could shift this being the same sort of direct comparison (the region and local area, growing conditions, processing differences, where it spent that time, other aging factors, etc.), but it will help to place things comparing the two others against even a relatively random, somewhat-aged sheng.  Aspects like body and feel stand out better in contrast, and of course I'd just expect the flavor range to differ.

Philip recommended trying the tea in pairs, and as I commented in one earlier post that is already plenty of input to consider for tasting any tea.  In a couple of senses tasting one tea at a time works a lot better than two.  It's less to focus on, it challenges you less for switching between versions, and it allows for noticing the effect of the tea (qi, something I tend to never talk about).  As other people describe tasting teas the feel of the tea develops over a lot of exposure, a lot of sips (mouthfeel, I'm back to, off drug-like effect), and mixing types would throw off that build-up and more gradual development of awareness.

On the other side of all that once someone practices trying multiple teas it works out as easier than it is to do initially.  Comparison brings out contrasts, both broad contrasts of one type or version not being like others, and it also highlights subtle, minor variations.  It's that last part that's really the main benefit, as I see it, since tasting teas one day to the next makes for too much of a demand on experience memory to pick up very minor variations.  For example one tea could just feel a little thicker, or affect the mouth differently, and that would stand out better in a comparison.

Of course different people would reject lots of what I've just said.  It really does seem like a judgement call, or a personal way of relating to teas that could vary by person, or would really tend to shift in nature over time.  Part of the idea here is that if these two teas are nearly identical, which I would expect, it will be more to experience and consider, and some degree of contrast can be helpful.

This part goes without saying but if you have smaller tasting gaiwans, versus a larger size for drinking what for some would be a more typical amount of the tea, doing a three-way tasting is the time to go with those smaller versions.  Five or six rounds in it really starts to add up.

First infusion:

2013 left, 2014 top, Farmerleaf Nan Zuo right

I won't say too much since these will just be getting started.  The 2013 has some deeper, rich flavors.  They'll be easier to pick up next round when it opens up the rest of the way.  The 2014 is different but relatively similar, moved on from anything like bright floral into a heavy mineral and earthier range, maybe even a little towards bark spice.  

The Farmerleaf Nanzuo, Jing Mai (versus Yiwu) origin tea is going to be completely different in flavor, but the overlap might be interesting.  It's also deeper and richer, towards bark spice but a brighter version, maybe a little lighter than the other two even for being that one extra year older.

2013 left, 2014 top, Farmerleaf Nan Zuo right

Second infusion:

The 2013 Yiwu Mountain pu'er sheng is still a bit subtle.  The flavor range is nice, and there is body to the feel, but those two relatively short infusion times might not have allowed it to really show off where it's going yet.  Of course there is no challenging bitterness or astringency to consider in a tea this softened and altered by age, and the 2017 version wasn't unapproachable anyway.

The 2014 tea is quite similar, maybe with hint more of a bark-wood or autumn leaf earthy edge to it.  I suppose it's conceivable that the 2013 quieted a little in that extra year of aging but it seems more likely that's just year to year version variation, playing out in an unusual form since that a lot taste range wouldn't seem likely to have been there when both of these were produced (just a guess, really).

The 2012 Nanzuo tea is quite different.  It has developed a similar earthiness to part of what is expressed in the 2014 version, a similar warm and complex mineral range brought out by aging transition, but a primary flavor range is different.  It reminds me of root spice versus bark spice in the others, less autumn leaf and more of an aspect that's probably closest to a tisane type I'm not familiar with.  It's off towards pandan leaf a little, if that helps, but not that.

On the next round I'll let the infusion run a little longer to say more about the feel aspects and aftertaste, which will allow for more flavor review.  Bumping the intensity up over what I'd probably consider optimum (light--no need to go mediumish level to get plenty of effect) will probably help in one sense but not work as well in another.

Third infusion:

I didn't brew these strong by any means (still just under a 30 second infusion time), but that does provide plenty of infusion strength to pick up subtle differences, or feel elements.  These 2013 and 2014 Yiwu versions really are similar teas.  If anything the only difference seems to be a touch of earthiness being slightly more pronounced in the 2014 version, again due either to year to year version differences, or I guess to an extra year softening the tea that little bit further, transitioning to a smoother overall effect and a more subtle flavor balance.  A more judgmental read on that would be that the tea is instead fading away, the aspects are dropping out, and I can't really pass a clear judgement on that.  Sheng is often said to go quiet in some age range and then return in a different aspect range later anyway.  It's probably just slightly different.

Again the large difference in flavor range stands out as the main shift in the Nanzuo sheng.  It retains a full feel (with "full" really needing some more unpacking to be meaningful), and a good bit of subtle dryness, and I suppose the aftertaste may stick around a little longer.  That tisane-like unusual taste is drifting more into a woodiness, an aged hardwood effect, versus the brighter and sharper effect of a younger wood related aspect that might be more common in a younger version (less aged tea).

Those differences in effect would determine if this is a more pleasant tea to experience or not.  I'm still not as focused on feel and aftertaste elements as many sheng drinkers describe developed preferences for, and it seems quite atypical to base most judgment about a sheng on flavor, as if that's not supposed to be the point.

Fourth infusion:

I did give these teas around a minute infusion this time, not so much to test that effect as to not paying attention while messing around online.  The end effect will be the same, unintentional or not.

2013 left, 2014 middle, Farmerleaf Nan Zuo right

The 2013 tea really is more subtle than the others; even brewed out to this time and infusion strength it's still approachable.  The aspect range is nice, just on the quiet side.  Warm overall flavor range includes mineral, and an autumn floor and bark spice range.  The feel isn't exactly thick or aftertaste pronounced, especially for using a substantial brew time like that.  The way it balances and the overall effect is nice but the tea character is a little subdued across different levels.  I'm not sure if this would serve as a trigger to a sheng enthusiast that this tea is on the way out, or if it's just entering a quieter period.

The 2014 version is a lot more intense--funny how that works out.  The character isn't completely different but it has more of an edge in terms of astringency, a feel that's not exactly biting but more like one might expect from tasting actual wood or tree bark.  That darker, richer tone comes across as a slight shift towards tobacco in this, which also works as a tie-in to the extra edge it has.  In wine tasting terminology it would be called drier; the astringency has the effect of drying your mouth.  It's not really astringent in the sense of green tea or CTC black but the feel isn't completely unrelated either.  It's funny how different it is from the 2013 version, on those different levels, while still overlapping at the same time.

As expected that one unusual taste range in the Nanzuo sheng (2012 version) is much more pronounced at higher infusion strength.  I guess someone might love that, but to me it's just a little odd.  On the positive side it tastes a bit like a root-spice or less common herb, complex, a little earthy, but also light.  On the negative side that drifts into woodiness, not completely unrelated to tobacco, but maybe a little more like a balsa wood.  I guess that's not necessarily negative, as much an observation I wouldn't value my tea tasting like balsa wood.  The feel isn't as intense as the 2014 Yiwu, but with more to it than the 2013, slightly dry, with a slightly longer aftertaste experience than either of the other two.

Fifth infusion:

I'll use this for some final thoughts and move on.  These teas are still going but this adds up to 15 small cups of tea and I'm a bit over the tasting process.  The 2013 Yiwu is still nice enough, still decently balanced, but it does seem to be fading, and it would take longer infusion times just to keep it going.  In one sense this is the best of the three teas (but only in one sense), but also the least intense by far.  The 2014 Yiwu version has moved into being a bit woodier, as it had in the last round, but it's still ok, with feel and intensity balanced well prepared lightly.

I've not said much about personal preference relating to these teas, beyond that balsa wood comment.  The novelty stands out as interesting, noticing so much difference, more than an experience of really loving any one set of aspects.  They're all interesting teas, and all pleasant to drink. 

I suppose as personal preference goes I'd either like the bright, intense, sweeter effect of a younger sheng more (when bitterness or astringency doesn't make those unapproachable), or the effect of the few significantly older teas I've ran across, the way they develop completely different range of aspects, more complexity.  That's not to say I don't like these teas, maybe just that I would have initially expected to like sheng aged between four and six years more than I have in a lot of cases.  But of course I'm only trying three tea versions here; that most definitely cannot be extrapolated to anywhere near that extent.

If someone loved that unusual taste range in the Nanzuo version it would clearly be the best of the three, but I have mixed feelings about the flavor range.  It did exhibit the longest aftertaste.

I suppose 4 to 6 year old tea might just fade in that one regard, in general, and the feel could naturally thin, but I'd need to try lots more to have an opinion on that.  I would expect it to tie back to initial starting point aspects more than to other factors. 

To stay grounded related to how different sheng vary I keep trying different versions I have around, and since this tasting (since I wrote these detailed notes) I tried that 2014 Dayi 7542 again.  It's definitely not a very soft tea yet, and still a little bitter, and might be better in a couple more years.  That's probably where those expectations for liking slightly older middle-aged teas are coming from, related to drinking teas like that one.  I'm not sure if at its optimum age it would be any better than these teas in the newest year or two samples.  Maybe it would just be different, and "better" would need to tie to preference.

Related to what matches my own personal preference most better Yunnan black teas draw even to drinking any of these three versions I reviewed, to be completely honest.  They're interesting, but trading out the freshness and intensity of younger sheng versions for that earthy, richer mineral range didn't improve them, and the limited feel-aspect range of all of these might indicate they could have been better teas to begin with.  I liked the newest two versions best, I think, those 2016 and 2017 samples.  That was probably because they started out as approachable tea, so the extra freshness and intensity wasn't offset by the experience of too much bitterness and astringency.

I should add that Philip sells different versions of teas, and these aren't his older-tree better version samples, really the more ordinary grade of teas.

Closing thoughts

These samples were interesting teas, to me, well worth trying.  Experiencing that range of age transitions in the Yiwu versions was really novel.  Even the variation that seems to tie back to the teas probably not having been identical from year to year was interesting, these 2013 and 2014 versions being as different as they were in this tasting.

To me that's a lot of the appeal of sheng, the character changing slightly year to year.  It's really the next challenge after trying samples to figure out which to buy cakes of, to get a chance to experience that transition, and then onto tongs, to actually have more to drink in a decade or longer.  I have a few sheng cakes around but I've yet to really get far with any of that.

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