Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Potential separated at birth versions review; 2006 Thai HTC sheng

0802 HTC version I bought left, tea Olivier sent right

Olivier's sample; a cool looking chunk

I'd mentioned that an online contact, Olivier Schneider of puerh.fr, had sent some versions of sheng to try (and a little shou and Dian Hong), and that a 2006 Thai material originated HTC sheng was one of them.  I own what's left of a cake of 2006 Thai HTC sheng I bought from Tea Side awhile back, a tea I first reviewed as a sample in 2015.  Of course I'm assuming here that it's ok to call a Thai version of sheng pu'er sheng, even though officially pu'er is a regional designation; that could as easily be read as "sheng pu'er-like tea."

I first reviewed that cake I bought in 2016, and compared it to another sheng version last year, and the tea seemed to have been improving.  That really could have been that I was developing a preference towards it, in addition to actual changes.

the labeling for that Tea Side 0802 2006 HTC cake

It turns out these cakes were probably not identical, but since I don't know they weren't I'll leave that working title, qualified by "potential," suggesting investigation as opposed to a claim.  I asked Olivier about the HTC name and origins of that tea, and he said this:

HTC basically dont exist anymore, so recent production came from several factories who use this name (more or less legally according to the case)...  Most of them have absolutely no connexion with original HTC, some get some knowledge from old master, workers, etc...

It's mostly impossible when you find a HTC cake on the market to know where it came from, except if you really found it in the factory. More or less like "CNNP" cake in China.

Interesting!  I've been drifting away from researching what's what in this blog and just focusing on tea reviews, which I'll mostly stick to here, but something interesting does turn up.

This sample's description cites some background, including mentioning "dry storage," which should be interesting to consider.


Even in the first initial infusion "my" version (the Tea Side 0802 tea) is sweeter, a bit more aromatic, more like the complex scents in incense, frankincense or something such.  Of course I never will get such descriptions right; I'm not familiar with aromatic woods and spices and it's been a long time since my hippie days.

Olivier's sample is a touch smokier, deeper and richer, "darker" in flavor, even though the tea itself is slightly lighter in color.  I'll break both more into aspects on the second round, which will be a fairer comparison of where the aspects are going through later transitions.

good color, not so different

The Tea Side version opened up a lot in that first round.  It tastes a lot like prune now, moving into that particular dried fruit range.  I could swear it didn't taste nearly this much like dried fruit or prune the last time I tried it, but then I've not been drinking it very frequently, checking it a couple times a year.  Beyond that there is an aromatic dark wood range, that spice I'd noticed in the first infusion.  It's nice enough, different.

The smokiness picked up a good bit in the other version, the one from Olivier.  Some of the underlying dark wood or aromatic spice aspect range does seem common but there isn't nearly as much dried fruit range.  It might come across a bit more like date, where that other was close to matching prune.  This has a slightly different body feel too, a bit dryer, with just a bit more structure.  The other tea wasn't thin but the effect was different, and not pronounced.  It really does remain in your mouth after the infusion, but in a different sense than in younger teas, not as intense and location specific, but significant in a different way.

Both of these teas are complex enough that lots of labels could pin down supporting aspect range, probably related to flavors and also feel and aftertaste.  Sweetness, earthiness, and complexity are expressed in a lot of depth of flavor in both.

I went a little longer on the next infusion, not so much doing that varying times to experiment as I tend to but instead because there's lots going on here that's distracting.  Doing reviews with kids in the house is problematic, but it's the life I'm living.  These teas only infused for between 15 and 20 seconds, versus around 10, but the effect is going to be completely different.

Tea Side version left, Olivier's right (the "long" infusion)

The Tea Side / Bangkok stored tea is much different slightly stronger and more opened up.  That dried fruit flavor shifted, no longer straight prune but more complex, more mixed.  Part a bit more like date develops, and the aromatic spice / hardwood notes increase to match the fruit level in effect.  The depth of the flavor is amazing; it just extends down to lots of "lower" level.  Mineral grounding picks up, a bit along the line of wet sandstone.  All those parts are quite clean though, and they integrate well together.

Tea Side version left, a bit darker; could be the storage difference

The smoke is diffusing in the other version, giving way to other range.  I'm guessing these aren't the same tea; they're just too different.  Some of the aromatic hardwood effect is common but the overlap between the two is limited.  The feel is different too, even though the Bangkok version did pick up structure for being brewed a bit stronger and opening up a bit more.  There is a bit more of a autumn forest floor effect in this version.

For both one might interpret a mild supporting aspect range as tobacco but it's nothing like an aged sheng that actually tastes like tobacco, when that's mostly what the tea tastes like.  It's problematic to put a label on these different earthy ranges, and describing that as "some sort of darker wood, or maybe spice" doesn't work well, especially since that would be two different sets for both.  This second tea does taste just a little more like tobacco though; that's how the greater autumn floor range comes across compared to the other dried fruit and mineral.

The Tea Side version falls into a nice balance on the next infusion, not different than before, but somehow evened out across aspects range.  The sweetness and fruit is balanced by aromatic dark wood and underlying mineral, all clean and positive.  Olivier's sample version is improved too, not different, but balancing well at this level.  The touch of smoke is still present but warm autumn floor range aspect, with a touch of tobacco, round out a nice effect, with a nicely structured feel even brewed a bit light.

More of the same on the next infusion; I'll leave off note-taking for now, and see what chasing around these kids require.

at the zoo with the trouble-makers the next day


Both teas were really nice.  They just don't seem all that similar; it seems unlikely they were closely related versions to begin with.  Storage differences could cause variation but it wouldn't seem like this much, to cause them to seem like completely different teas across most aspect range.

About the smoke aspect, Olivier said that teas can develop that as a natural result of an aging change, and that it's possible to notice a difference from an input due to smoke flavoring the tea during processing.  If you'd owned the tea and noticed it not there, and then later it was, unless there was some chance of real smoke contacting the tea that would have to be what occurred.  I guess I'd tried enough young sheng that seemed smoky that I assumed it was usually either from smoke contact during processing or a natural and original aspect in the tea, not an aging related input.

Both versions were nice.  I liked the one I'd owned better due to liking that dried fruit effect more than the earthiness, smoke, and additional tobacco / dark wood range.  I didn't notice that much difference I could clearly attribute to a storage condition difference, to Olivier's being stored in a relatively drier place (per the description, at least), but given the range of differences that may just relate to not being familiar enough with transitions to guess better about that.  The color was different, with that tea much lighter, and it could be that the transition to those sweeter flavors was the result of a faster, therefore more advanced aging process.

I talked to the owner of Tea Side, and he recommended looking at the description for another 2006 HTC cake he sells that does include smoke as an aspect, their 0803 numbered product.  It's conceivable that's exactly what I'm trying.

Or not; it would seem a stretch to try to guess at the probability of that.  It is interesting to consider his description of that tea:

Dry tea smells with bark, dried fruits, spices. In the taste there are various dried fruits: raisins, dried apricots, plums. Light smoky flavor reminds of some Chinese raw puers and makes dried fruits taste more like prunes. There are some savoury wood tones and spices.

Pretty close; maybe.  That page passes on more of the story about the HTC producer but it sounds like there is still more to be told about it:

Old raw (sheng) pu-erh tea from the Thai factory that produces pu-erhs under the name Hong Tai Chang.  The tea is made by a Chinese master, a native of Yunnan. He has been making Pu-erhs for more than 40 years. Then he’s been retired and passed on all his knowledge and experience in producing and storing pu-erhs to his disciple, whom we’re working now with.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Meeting Huyen Dinh in the Bangkok Chinatown, and a Longjing review

with Huyen and Kittichai at Jip Eu (his Bangkok Chinatown shop)

I finally met Huyen Dinh, that one Vietnamese tea friend I did a tea swap with last year.  She's as cool as she comes across in the pictures and messages, very bright in spirit, enthusiastic about exploring lots of kinds of teas.  Her family does gift packaging (kind of a Chinese theme that carries over in Vietnam more than here), so she's building on a lot of prior exposure to a broad range of Vietnamese teas.  She passed on a few more Vietnamese tea versions so I'll say more about that part in another post.

so cheerful!

We visited Jip Eu, my favorite Chinatown shop.  As usual the owner, Kittichai, was very kind about visiting with us and sharing tea, and talking about teas from Thailand and China.  He has family in the Wuyishan and Anxi areas in Fujian; I've seen a picture of him processing tea in a small family operation within the park boundary in Wuyishan before there was even a park there.  Jip Eu has been around for 90 years or so, so that's his main background, buying and selling tea his whole life.  His wife wasn't there; kind of a shame since she's nice to visit with too.

Short visits like that tend to feel a bit rushed but it is nice visiting a shop where sitting down and trying teas for an hour is fine.  As with that shop I mentioned near the flower market, Ong Yng Choon, a lot of local tea demand seems to relate to drinking blended versions of Shui Xian, basic oolong.  It's definitely more moderate quality tea, in terms of character and cost, but blending can offset some of the rough edges that a modest version of a single-origin tea could express.

I should say more about Huyen since meeting her was the main theme.  She has a bright enthusiasm about tea and genuine nature that really works well together.  And Vietnamese tea is a much, much broader subject than most people would be aware of, a really solid grounding compared to being familiar with teas from almost any other countries.  China has a broader tradition, of course, with a bit more higher end to consider, but it's my impression that Vietnam's tea tradition is as developed as India or Japan's.

the shop from the front;  it's old school

they also sell commercially packaged teas, or different others

Huyen mentioned that people in the far North of Vietnam produce tea identical to pu'er (it's from quite near Yunnan, and the plants would probably be nearly identical to some versions there), but that they aren't familiar with pu'er.  They call it dried tea, since after a light frying step (sha-qing) and rolling the tea is dried in the sun.  I've not been completely clear on what some versions of high mountain ancient tree green teas were and she passed on another sample of one.  It's not pu'er, and it's not snow tea, but also not conventional green tea, nothing like the Thai Nguyen area "fishhook" style.  To look at it I'd think it was loose sheng.  I'll say more about that in that review post.

We talked a little about how her visit went, and Thai culture, and of course about different types of teas, and brewing.  It's odd considering people you only know online as friends, although I do, and also odd basing a real-life friendship on a short visit worth of exposure, but that's where it stands with her now.  I kept saying she should meet my kids, since they're the coolest thing to experience in Bangkok, but that'll have to wait until another time.

she visited a nearby shop after I didn't make it to, K Mui Kee

that other shop info

About Longjing and Jip Eu shop background

I bought some Longjing (Dragonwell) during that visit there.  I've been behind in checking out this Spring's teas this year, which loses something due to not being so into green teas.

Some people would have a more developed take on where this stands in relation to other Longjing than I do.  I tend to buy a fresh version once a year in the spring and that's it, and I can mostly compare year to year if it's pretty good or not, not matching up aspects.  That shop owner discussed different alternatives a little and seemed to present this one as the best version, as much as there is a best versus just preference difference.  I've lost track of his description of this tea but that almost seems as well, to just describe this Longjing version and leave off about style or region claims and other background.

That shop specializes in Wuyi Yancha sales, with Anxi Tie Kuan Yin seeming like an emphasis beyond that, and I've bought some Dan Cong there, so green tea is a little off their normal range.  But they do sell a bit of pu'er, and I did buy a compressed silver needle cake there (that one I gave to a Thai princess).  It's not as if Longjing is unfamiliar to even those large-jar lower-quality shop vendors in the Bangkok Chinatown; it's quite central to the Chinese tea tradition.  I've bought it in other shops where they keep fresh versions separate from all that, typically refrigerated since Bangkok heat isn't great for fresh green tea.

If you bought only 50 or 100 grams and planned to drink straight through it and your room temperature really is a normal room temperature, around 70 F or 25 C (funny how those two don't match; room temperature here is 25 C or about 77 F) then it probably wouldn't matter, storing in a normal cabinet would be fine.  Well sealed, of course.  Opinions vary on that point though; some say that cooler is much better, that as with food freshness good green tea is just much better stored cooler.  Others warn that even minor condensation relating from taking a tea in and out of the refrigerator is worse than the warmer storage effect.

Longjing (Dragonwell) Review:

People might interpret the color or size of the leaves in different ways but I'm not really on that page.  To me as long as it looks like Longjing and smells like Longjing the brewed tea effect can decide things from there.  I'll prepare the tea Gongfu style, using shorter infusions versus a Western approach, and of course cooler water, around 70 C.

The initial infusion is light, on the short side, but still very sweet and intense.  The flavors are bright, with that characteristic nuttiness or toasted rice main aspect, supported by fresh tasting vegetal aspect range.  It has a bit of grass to it but that complements that other more pronounced range.  I'm not a fan of most green teas because the grass and vegetables get to be too much, even brewed lightly to emphasize sweetness and offset astringency, but this balance works well for me.

On the next round this is brewed a bit stronger, still nice, still sweet and smooth due to using a low temperature, but a bit more subtle would be optimum.  A bit more green bell pepper comes through, essentially replacing the grassiness, still coupled with the distinctive toasted rice aspect.  I've heard that called either nut or toasted rice, and it can seem like either depending on how you interpret it, or I suppose maybe some people can make a clear distinction when it's more one or the other.

Intense brewed lightly (you can see the fuzz)

The tea has nice sweetness, and an intensity that doesn't describe at all as an aspect list.  It doesn't have a structured feel in the same way some other tea types do, as they affect a different part of the mouth more than others, but it feels full, and flavor is definitely drawn out long after tasting the tea.  It would be a shame to drink it when in a hurry, as I tend to drink teas with work-day breakfasts.

I notice a lot of the fine hairs on the tea surface (trichomes) that can occur when brewing green or white teas, typically seen as a good sign, that the tea is made from fresh and healthy younger leaves.  Even on the third infusion there is lots of that.

Brewing the tea quite lightly drops the aspects back into a great balance; it was nice last round but even better.  Of course what's going on with that relates to preparing this tea Gongfu style, and I think it would still be fine prepared Western style, that it's not necessarily an example of where that would clearly be a mistake.  Western style seems to not work very well for sheng pu'er and oolongs, in general, at least per my preference.

This tea is about as good as I can evaluate a Longjing to be based on remembering one version a year.  The flavors being in the right range identify that, and the overall intensity, and sweetness, and full feel and aftertaste.  Flavors aspects can shift in different ways and it could be slightly nuttier / more like toasted rice, but it's definitely in the right range for better version.  It's my understanding that would change based on how it was prepared, the frying step, and that different people might prefer different things.  A lot of that effect, a bit more frying, could indicate the processing is compensating for flaws, using that step to draw out complexity, instead of relying on the initial tea character.  Of course in saying that I've moved onto guessing, but it's based in part on the practice of re-frying green teas to wake them back up, to change character later.  This tea is definitely really fresh.

The next round is more of the same, a good thing.  I suppose I wouldn't mind a touch of the green bell pepper and underlying grass swapped out for more toasted rice but this isn't the kind of tea one would normally try and wish they were drinking something else.  Huyen raised a good point in discussion about trying teas, related to reviewing them as much as appreciating them:  trying a tea once or twice doesn't give you a full, developed impression.  People vary across different time frames, and that along with minor brewing variations and just noticing more can shift an impression of a tea.  Reviews here are meant to pass on an impression, but not a final, complete, objective interpretation.

Huyen visiting Tea Village in Pattaya, on a short Thailand tea tour

This tea's character is why I like Longjing; that intense, characteristic, fresh taste, and limited grassiness compared to most other green tea styles.  I remember trying a sample a tea friend sent, Peter Jones (of Trident bookstore in Boulder, CO; probably worth checking out), and I knew it was the right tea as soon as I opened the package, not even needing to taste it.  This Jip Eu version may or may not be quite on that level, a true competition grade tea, but towards the higher end of quality level differences become minor, and personal preference for specific characteristics is still as big a factor. 

Both are as good as the average tea drinker could appreciate, with subtle variation in the upper quality range becoming not so subtle once someone tunes into a specific tea version's aspect range more.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Wuyi Origin wild Lapsang Souchong

I'll try to keep this simple and short, and just describe this tea (this year's Wuyi Origin wild Lapsang Souchong).  I've had it before so it should be familiar, just a matter of revisiting it and comparing it to past years, to the extent that my memory can do that.

The taste is rich and sweet; that is familiar.  It's less citrus oriented than I remember, but more complex.  There is a bit of what could be interpreted as citrus but plenty more to try to separate through description.  Of course it comes across as a unified, complex range of integrated flavor, not as tasting like a lot of separate things as a review list-style description would imply.  It just tastes like very good Lapsang Souchong.  Of course it's not smoked, so not like that.

There's a catchy, positive distinctive part of the flavor that I'm not pinning down, close to fruitiness.  To me it seems in between a mild sweet malt (not like in Assam, like in a slightly fermented sweet grain) and leather, possibly with some integrated floral input.  There is no astringency to speak of; it doesn't come across as thin but there's no trace of any harshness.  This tea has about as pronounced an aftertaste as any black tea ever would.  That catchy main complex flavor element (or set of flavors) lingers on, tapering off for a minute or two, not completely gone after that.

The citrus effect is in the range of orange zest, but not in the sense of a tea like second flush Darjeeling or Oriental Beauty can be, not as pronounced and intense.  All the flavor components are so well integrated it really does come across as one flavor, but it's very complex, an interesting effect.  There's a brightness to the flavor and overall effect, and a depth too.  I checked how they described it on the website:

Ripe Peach aroma, with very obvious milk flavors. Last more than 10 infusions. No any kind of bitter even you steep the tea for a long time. Quite bright in the tea soup, orange color 

Of course when you think "peach" it seems to be that.  They're right that it's that subset flavor of ripe peach, nothing like the tangier, different range of a typical grocery store peach, fruit that hasn't been naturally ripened and never will completely get there.

That reminds me; I've probably had no peaches at all in the past 10 years, or in the two years prior in Hawaii.  Or the pears that are common to North America too, only the Asian kind.  For all I remember this might taste a bit like a fresh, ripe nectarine too; maybe even a little more like that (a close relative of the peach, as a hybrid from those).

The tea is creamy, but it's odd describing that as milk flavors.  That's closest to the part I was matching up with malt.  It tastes like milk powder does more than fresh milk, that sweet flavor towards malt.  Fresh, whole unprocessed milk probably matches much better than what we drink from grocery stores, the way that much higher fresh cream content would come across.  Or I guess it works to just compare that flavor aspect to cream instead of milk.

About mentioning the trace of leather awhile back, it's possible to emphasize the softness, fruit, and sweetness of this tea simply by using water a bit off boiling point, or also possible to get to a relatively different effect by using boiling point water, or closer to that.  By the first I mean in the range of 90 C; 85 would still work but much below that and flavors just wouldn't extract well.  Brewed hot a trace more edge comes out, a touch of leather, and a bit more toffee effect, with the citrus shifting from a bright near-peach range to a dried orange zest effect.  An Assam drinker might like it brewed hotter, shifting the profile to that, and a lighter oolong drinker might prefer to maximize the fruit and softer effect by going a little cooler.

I remember citrus being a bit heavier in earlier years' versions of this tea but this one seems better related to overall intensity, complexity, and a well balanced range of positive aspects.  Of course it really does produce a lot of infusions, as they mentioned in that product description.  This tea would still work well brewed Western style but for a version this exceptional it seems well worth the extra messing around to use a Gongfu approach, to experience more rounds and track how minor variations play out.  I get it that lots of people would want to optimize every infusion instead, to draw on past experience and prepare each exactly as they like the tea best, and not experiment with variations so much, and of course that's not wrong.

This reminds me of the first time I tried better unsmoked Lapsang Souchong, just a bit before I even started this blog, so something like 5 years ago.  The main taste range was pretty close to this tea but the fruit range and overall intensity weren't even close, with nothing matching up with that cream-like aspect.  A touch of cardboard filled in for that instead.  It's funny how really good versions of types of tea enable the style to make lots of sense, how the overall effect is so different if the tea just isn't quite as refined.

messing around with infusion strengths; it works well across a broad range.

Lots of infusions in (it just never stopped, not even transitioning much in lots of later rounds) it occurred to me what the distinctive, familiar taste was, which I hadn't really been placing:  butterscotch.  I'd mentioned the tea was sweet, a bit like malt or toffee, sort of like fruit or floral aspect range, probably closest to peach but not exactly that, and very creamy.  It was butterscotch.  I'd have to try another round of infusions to see if it was almost exactly like butterscotch the whole time or more fruit-oriented range that had transitioned to very close to just that later on.  That's my guess, based on memory, that it leaned towards fruit more earlier, and then shifted to quite close to butterscotch.

To me this is how flavors interpretation tends to work out.  I think butterscotch probably is the best single description of this tea, but describing it as peach, citrus, and cream isn't necessarily getting it wrong.  Those are all just different interpretations of parts of the flavor range, and the balance of different tastes probably did change over the whole cycle of infusions.  I was talking to Cindy about the flavors and she thought the fruit was mostly peach or maybe also included strawberry; more of the same about different interpretations being possible.

Per my preferences and judgment it would be an understatement to only say that this is a good black tea.  I see it as on par with any really good black tea I've ever tried, distinctive and unique, complex and balanced, a refined, high quality well-made tea.  I really love the way some sets of Dian Hong aspects work out too, maybe even slightly more than this aspects range, but I really like this one. 

Teas like this are why I feel confident in telling people every single tea they will ever find in a grocery store isn't very good, relatively speaking.  Of course there is a whole level of above average teas between commercial versions and this one, but teas like it solidify that conclusion.  It's hard to express that sort of thing and not come across as a tea snob, but then only someone with a bit of similar exposure would make any sense of that claim anyway. 

To help place that, I drank a lower-medium quality level Chinese Tie Kuan Yin with lunch today (something I bought as loose tea on impulse in a Chinese restaurant), and an inexpensive Earl Grey with lunch yesterday (I bought that one in Russia to give to the staff here).  I'm not averse to much lower quality forms of tea.  Both probably represent the high end a grocery store might conceivably carry.  But if the idea is discussing better tea those aren't that, and this Lapsang Souchong is.

more photo editing with my favorite subjects

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Moychay Menghai Lao Shu and Lao Teji shou pu'er (2008 and 2009)

Onto more samples from Moychay, the Russian vendor who was so kind as to send a good number, first reviewed in this compressed sun-dried Yunnan black tea post.

I'll add a little more detail about what they are at the end, but for now I'm comparing these teas:

Menghai Lao Shou Cha 2008 loose leaf ripe pu'er (shou)

Lao Teji 2009 loose leaf ripe pu'er (shou)

Menghai Lao Shou left, Lao Teji right

labels (I've copied these descriptions below)

These might well raise the bar a little for what I've tried of shou pu'er in the past.  That does lead to an interesting concern about the difference between good shou pu'er and shou that's better than you tend to run across.

The lower level divide between shou that tastes like tar and oil, or fish, and more positive versions is easy to experience.  It's also not that hard to work through shou that is decent and positive but on the thinner side, into versions that are more complex and interesting, that have more layers.  The latter takes a little seeking out but they're not expensive as sheng pu'er goes.  Finding a next level could take more doing.  We'll see if that's how this works out per my impression in a tasting.  It goes without saying that one person trying teas one time isn't much to go on, definitely not a complete, objective read on the tea.

It goes against my normal process (except the part about varying approach a lot as habit) but I'll mention the description on the label for these as a starting point.

Menghai Lao Shou Cha:  The bouquet of brewed tea is mature, spicy-woody, with earthy, auturnal, nutty and spicey notes.  The aroma is warm and deep, nutty.  The taste is rich, slightly tart, velvety, with light bitterness and nuances of spices.

Lao Teji:  The bouquet of brewed tea is rich and mature, with nutty, woody pastry and spicy notes.  The aroma is warm and deep , nutty.  The taste is full-bodied and soft, velvety, sweetish, with delicate fruit sourness, spicy nuances and a lingering finish.

So similar but different, I guess.  Some of that could influence tasting a bit since I wrote that just before trying them but those two sets of ideas will mix in my head almost immediately.  The idea behind tasting blindly is not to just let preconceptions lead to echoing a lot of the description, to arriving at observations and conclusions for myself.  But it's nice to mix things up too.


Menghai left, Lao Teji right

Menghai Lao Shou Cha:  it's like that description.  Describing more specifically how that earthiness plays out and balances the rest is probably as much a key to description as anything.  The complexity is really something.  It's earthy, towards damp autumn forest floor and peat, but still that comes across as clean in effect.  Nuts and spice probably do fill in supporting elements but I'd expect the other earthiness will be stronger in the first couple of infusions, and then it will transition to a range it will stay in throughout most of the tasting, with balance of aspects shifting less then.

Lao Teji:  this seems like a more conventional shou profile to me, more what I'm used to, but it's clearly one of the best shou I've ever tried (also true of the first, but in a completely different sense).  It might actually help comparing and contrasting these to describe them further, a nice switch from me saying that it makes no sense to taste the two teas I'm reviewing together since they're so different.  This is earthy, nutty, and a little spicy, with just a touch of tar or oil filling in that beyond that range.  For the other tea only forest floor and peat filled a similar space.  Both are probably more positive than they sound, or rather I'd expect people who have had a similar experience to relate to how overall complexity can be positively supported by those ranges of flavors, and how they can be quite pleasant and contribute a lot, and people without such experiences couldn't place that very well.

The tart and sour parts aren't necessarily wrong but that could be misleading.  The one tea wasn't at all tart as in how a black tea can come across (like that Dian Hong cake I reviewed, an aspect that faded out after the initial couple of infusions), or a "Dan Cong black" I tried awhile back (descriptive, but perhaps a bit of a contradiction).  Those ranges may be contributing a little to complexity but they're not primary aspects, at all, at least at this stage.  I'll go through more of untangling aspects in the next round, placing the earthiness, nuttiness, and spice better.

Second infusion

It's a little early in for the messing around but I'll give this round a 15 to 20 second infusion, brewed strong, and move to a 5 to 10 second infusion next time, the more standard range.  I already know there aren't flaws in the body of these teas (the feel aspects), or issues with astringency, so it's just about seeing what changes, not pushing them to get a stronger read on those aspect ranges.

not ideal brewed inky dark but the teas do still work that way

Something like spice really does pick up in the Menghai version this round, and it does clean up quite a bit, even though it wasn't murky at all in the first infusion.  A lot of the autumn forest floor / peat range moves into something in between spice and nut.  The closest nut is probably chestnut, with that fresh roasted effect coming across too, the way that nut flavor warms and transitions, becoming sweeter and "darker."  This is a really nice shou; pleasant, clean, complex, and interesting.  There's always range for more complexity or for some other aspects to make for a potential positive input but it really works.  Of course it would seem odd, if someone isn't into shou, but it would seem that most people who are would love it.

Again the Lao Teji profile is more what I'm used to in shou; again it's earthy, but in a completely different sense.  Nutty and spicy sort of work again but I'm also noticing an aspect range base that reminds me of petroleum.  Tea tasting like oil is going to sound negative, surely, but there's a sweet, mineral intensive earthiness to fresh crude and aged wood-soaked oil barrels (two different scent ranges, related but quite different), with both potentially very positive.  New or used engine oil or road tar are completely different things.  It's more of a sweet mineral range than what typical petroleum range includes (both those comparison aspects I was on and the shared space with this tea).  The tea flavor is very clean though, rich and deep, with a pleasant pronounced aftertaste.  Both of these are full in experience range, really, across how intense they come across at first, then the feel while tasting, and the aftertaste.

Aging has probably rounded off a lot of what might have been negative in these teas, with both around a decade old now.  They have a depth to them that works really well paired with how clean they are in effect.  It's odd saying teas that taste like peat and oil are clean in flavor effect but they most certainly are.  I can only guide a reader so far through making sense of that apparent contradiction; if there is no prior experience to draw on to help with that it surely wouldn't work.  I think someone who has been through some exposure to shou might appreciate these experiences more, not for forgiving or making peace with aspects that are negative but for appreciating aspects that really are positive.

Third infusion

The Menghai Lao Shou Cha shifted character again; cool it can transition that much being a shou.  It's not different, in one sense, it's just that the balance of aspects that had been there is completely different.  This tea does taste like something someone else could pin down better, I'd expect.  The description of betel nut comes up a lot and I always wonder what those taste like, and never thought to buy that the few times I've seen it in Chinatown.

It would work to break the taste down to comparisons to other things but given how many vague references that would entail and the deconstruction and reconstruction process required it might not be informative or worth the trouble.  One trace of that would be "old furniture;" that probably helps indicate why it's not going to help.  I do really like the complexity and depth of the flavor and the rest though; it works well.

Both of these teas have a lot to offer brewed very fast, and they're better brewed lightly.

The Lao Teji is transitioning less; this is perhaps where it's mostly going to be across more infusions.  Again it's clean and complex.  Nutty works as a description, but that's not as pronounced as the roasted chestnut effect in the other tea.  Part of the "deeper" context flavor range does remind me of those forms of petroleum.  It is complex, but I'm not noticing that much in the way of sourness.  This fits the description "tastes like shou" better, which I guess could be very positive or slightly negative, depending on who meant what by that.  To me it's less distinctive and original than the other version.

interesting the Lao Teji (right) looks lighter and brews darker

Fourth infusion:

My wife finally started in about other things I'm supposed to help her with--she's going to China soon, kind of a long story--so this may be the last round I write notes for, or else I'll just add something short about the next round.  These have both leveled off in terms of initial transition anyway, I think, and the next transitions to discuss would be how later rounds play out, how they react to longer steeps around the 8 or 9 infusions level.

The Menghai version is similar to the last round, which is very nice.  Sweetness is picking up a little, and the roasted chestnut effect is moving a little towards a dried fruit I'm not familiar with.  A dried version of yam probably gets the impression across, even if that's not completely it.  Almost all of that old-furniture depth dropped out, replaced by mild dried fruit.  That other aspect had been positive, but I like the fruit better. 

I'm really impressed with this tea.  It could be my favorite of every shou I've ever tried.  It's complex enough that lots of people would probably free-associate the flavors in lots of ways.  As a more regular reader might know that's probably as much about it matching a specific fruit and spice inclined range--my preference--as some objective quality level or whatever trueness to type means for decent shou. 

The Lao Teji is also still transitioning a little and becoming very slightly more positive but is much more consistent.  If the desired premise is sticking to a range that seems more type-typical and reasonably high in quality this shou might well be better.  It's odd it can be that that earthy across that flavor range and still be clean, sweet, and complex, with nothing negative going on at all. 

Fifth infusion:

More of the same.  There is more to go on about, especially related to later transitions since the teas aren't fading yet, but I will let the note taking drop.


Both were really nice versions of shou.  The Lao Teji seemed more familiar from past versions' aspect sets, more typical of the type, but to some extent I liked the Menghai Lao shou better for that reason, for being a bit more novel.  Both were as good as any shou I've tried before, but then it's not as if I've put a lot of effort or expense into trying great shou.  The range of how they come across seems a good bit narrower than for sheng to me, based only on what I've tried, and it was nice these push that range just a little further.

I reviewed a 2010 Myanmar shou not so long ago that was nice, but I didn't care for a bit of char-like effect in that tea compared to these two versions not really including anything like that.  If that aspect did match preference that tea might have been equivalent to these, for being complex and interesting, but as that stood I liked both of these more.

It's nice that the vendor descriptions seem to match the teas; that's helpful.  Shou is the kind of range of style that can be interpreted in different ways but they're descriptive and accurate enough to give you a great idea of what the tea will be like.  Often enough vendors either don't say much or seem to just add a couple of extra adjectives to make a tea sound nice, given that with enough interpretation an extra dried fruit or spice tone might be in there, but if anything these descriptions may have undersold the teas by just a little.  They mentioned tartness and sourness for these, for example (not positive descriptions, as I take those, although different combinations of flavors can work out if they balance), and I didn't really notice them.  Those aspect ranges could've dropped largely out with aging.

I'm curious about pricing, if one was sold as better than the other, or if the cost escalated as sheng tends to related to the age / storage time.  Of course it is fair to charge substantially more for pu'er that someone has stored properly; the vendor has experienced the cost of holding that tea, and accepted the risk of potential problems if there were problems with storage.  Just by hanging around for around a decade a tea product becomes a lot rarer a find.  I'm guessing the tea I liked better (the "Menghai" version) would cost more but that's just a guess, and really what matches what I like and objective quality level are two completely different things.  I'll check their site listings to see.

Menghai Lao Shu Cha 2008

Detail:  Shu Puer «Menghai» was made of the Menghai County plantation tea harvest 2008.  

This tea lists on their site for $16.48 for 100 grams, which would equate to a 357 gram cake costing $55.  That sounds pretty good, really, on the higher side for shou but for better shou than I've ran across, with price increase relating to aging hard to factor in.  I've definitely tried shou that's not nearly as good that cost more.

Lao Teji 2009

More detail:  Aged ripe Puer «Special Grade» was made in Menghai county from spring tea shoots of plantation tea grown in Bulangshan mountains (harvest 2009).

This one sells for $15.93 per 100 grams, so essentially for a similar priced product.  The description sounds a little higher end but really the experience is the thing.  This seemed more typical of other shou versions I've tried, and to the extent I could judge quality versus aspect variation they didn't seem so far off each other.  Neither was flawed in any way, and both were complex and interesting.

In checking their Moychay shou website page they list a number of pressed shou versions as well.  They range from just under $20 to up around $45, but that highest price version is from Lao Man E.  One smaller 100 gram cake described as made of higher grade material from 1999 is under $40.  Spending $20 on 50 grams of shou might not come up too often for many people but there seems a good chance that's exceptional tea. 

I also browsed through Yunnan Sourcing options for shou of comparable ages but there's really no matching up equivalent quality products.  CNNP bricks (250 grams) seem to run from $80-100 for 1999/2000 options there, so it just depends on how tea quality plays out if that one I'd mentioned is a steal or just more of the same at a standard price.  For whatever reason YS seems to sell older shou or newer shou but not as much in the 10 year old range.

I'm even more excited to try all these tea samples after this pair; they were quite a nice experience.  It seems like Moychay is probably a really good source for shou, for people on that page.  I like shou myself, and keep buying it and trying it, but in the past my experiences were more that the moderate priced versions I would buy were not really interesting or novel--kind of what one might expect.  There have been some exceptions.

One brick of shou I bought, a typical, lower cost mass produced version, was a lot better when I tried the last of it around a year later after first tasting it.  That may be some of what was going on, that those other teas just needed a bit more time to develop, for processing related flavors to soften and deepen.  I never really noticed much from shou I bought tasting fishy, as people describe, but that one did evolve from tasting a bit heavily of tar and petroleum to richer, sweeter, and creamier.  I just saw a comment from one of the main pu'er vendors online suggesting that it can take around 5 years for the initial processing tastes to completely settle out, for what that's worth.

messing around with photo editing with her (#picsart)

one of Keo's editing trials

Friday, May 18, 2018

Tea and the concept of experience economy

I recently attended an Adobe software conference tied to the theme of experience business or experience economy.  The general idea behind that concept is this:  as economies evolve people go from demanding basic goods (agrarian and then industrial based economies) to demanding services and specific forms of experiences (service and then experience based economies).  The higher the level of value the more that can be charged; “experiences” can command higher pricing than typical services.

It’s not necessarily simple to tie this back to tea.  A bestseller “The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary” outlines how that company built an empire by shifting themes and adding more value. 

Of course we’ve now seen that approach not work related to being duplicated for tea sales.  This World Tea News article from January 2016 explained how all the Teavana cafes were closing, but the retail stores were doing fine, and then in July of 2017 Starbucks announced they were closing all those shops.  I won’t try to interpret that, since related factors were surely complicated, but it probably works to say that sorting out the best approach to selling tea isn’t simple.

Former NYC Teavana café (photo credit)

I’m noticing a divide in experiences related to this theme and tea.  By far the most popular teas sold in Bangkok are bubble tea, or other flavored, sweetened, milk-based take-away versions that might as well have tapioca pearls at the bottom, even when they don’t.  It’s a beverage item and that’s it.  Tea enthusiasts are at the other end of the spectrum.  There can be secondary emphasis on ceremony or collecting gear but it’s mostly about the overall experience.

Of course it’s still about the tea, right?  Discussion arises about teaware, preparation methodology, and even subjects like health concerns, in places like online groups or at events, but in the end it comes back to liking aspects of the brewed teas.  That’s where the experience is, there is just plenty of room left for framing that.

Related to this split there might be a normal experience or preference curve of sorts, as people shift from floral blends, Tazo tea bags, and matcha lattes onto Gongfu--style brewing something like Dan Cong oolong or aged sheng pu’er.  True to the theory, as the demand transitions to a different focus it’s much less about price. 

Focus on minimizing level of cost can even invert.  Someone recently claimed in an online comment to have only spent under $200 on a sheng pu’er cake once this year, quickly qualified as a smaller 200 gram cake.  Bulk order photos are a different form of demonstrating status in consumption level.  $200 orders can look impressive, but then a single cake can cost more, and name-dropping decades old version references trumps any quantity.  A foreign tea enthusiast recently upped even that ante, describing commitment level as best expressed by a percentage of overall income spent on tea.

Wuyi Origin Mi Lan Xiang Dan Cong; better teas don’t need to cost a lot

It seems all this really isn’t describing a general trend into expanding tea as a service-based experience versus a commodity.  The priciest local café here in Bangkok charges over $20 for a pot of tea, for a scant few grams; that’s at least back to purchasing an on-site experience. 
How to build that into the next version of a Starbucks, or did that prove to be a flawed goal?  Are these people focused as much on experience or on displaying status instead, or can the two really not be split?  It’s a bit of a tangent, but I’m reminded of a far more absurd topic coming up in an article about a golden taco:

The world's most expensive taco is specially prepared at Grand Velas Los Cabos resort…  Ordering it will set you back $25,000 — almost the price of a new car.

The taco's foundation is a gold-infused corn tortilla, which is then layered with Kobe beef and lobster. Toppings include black truffle Brie ($100 per ounce) and a dollop of Beluga caviar ($700 an ounce). Then, more layers of gold are added on top to finish… 

I'd take a cheap Tex-Mex version over this any day

Complaining about a $30 pot of tea and people spending enough to buy a car for a taco seem worlds apart.

These diverse threads make it hard to stick to the train of thought of what experiences people might want next related to tea, or what will become popular, and how expenses would factor in.  Seeking out traditional, quiet, feng shui designed cafes doesn’t seem likely to catch on.  Even the committed tea bloggers I read sometimes speak of setting aside the better teaware and complex brewing processes due to just getting busy, maybe taking up a grandpa style approach instead.

I drank Tazo ages ago; I have no hate for tea-bag based blends

All the while in beginner oriented tea groups I keep finding myself arguing the merits of basic, plain, inexpensive loose teas.  In one recent discussion someone asked if mixing peanut butter powder into tea might work (and it might, I guess), and I wondered if that person ever tried a Tie Kuan Yin of any quality level before, or a single example of Chinese black tea.  It turned out they were really looking for Thai iced tea (which can be nice). 

Plain, simple teas can be amazing experiences, but it’s only easy to package and sell the leaf.  It’s not as simple to bring the rest of the experience to everyone.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Wuyi Origin old bush Mi Lan Xiang (Dan Cong oolong)

2018 harvest, I'm not sure which tea type (credit the Wuyi Origin FB page)

Cindy!  this was last year though.

Cindy of Wuyi Origin sent some teas for review, including this one, an old bush Mi Lan Xiang.  Their season's Wuyishan oolongs, the Wuyi Yancha, aren't finished processing quite yet but Fujian black teas and Dan Cong oolongs are.

For regular readers there's no need to add background about this producer.  For others I'll just say they're the unrealistically rare case of a tea producer trying to sell directly to "the West."  If 100 random contacts on Facebook tell you that they are Chinese tea farmers maybe all 100 of them really aren't.  Farmers in China don't tend to speak English, use Facebook (it's blocked there, but people can use a VPN), or develop websites.  Eventually there was going to be an exception, though. 

I wrote a post showing pictures and video of Cindy and her family harvesting and processing teas last year.  That could all be staged, and those could just be separate vendors they source tea from, not her family making it, but I'm pretty sure they're the real deal.  That's also supported by accounts from a number of people who have visited there.

I should get back to ordering more instead of just trying a little but I can get to that after this set of samples, once the other oolongs come out.  Their fruit intensive Rou Gui (typically with pronounced citrus) is probably my overall favorite, a tea that's won them first place in local competitions before.  Of course it depends on a lot of factors coming together year to year; nature has to cooperate.  And on preference; I tend to love fruit intensive teas with a bit of natural citrus (or cocoa, so some Dian Hong--Yunnan black teas--work really well for me too).  While I'm mentioning it their wild Lapsang Souchong is another favorite (unsmoked, obviously), and their Jin Jun Mei versions are really nice, just a bit outside that range I tend to like most.

At the risk of adding too many tangents I was just recommending their teas in an online discussion and mentioned that checking different people's inputs is probably a good idea.  I could be biased and judge this vendor's teas more positively, even if that's unintentional, or might have unusual preferences.  I just looked up the closest reviews to this version on Steepster, reviewing last year's, and beyond one saying they thought it was a black tea they seemed to match up and were positive.  That reviewer also reviewed their most closely related black tea so I'm not sure what was up with that; maybe just a slip.

I'd expect this is about as good a Mi Lan Xiang as I've ever tried; so much for not burdening the experience with expectations.  Level of roast changes character quite a bit so there's that for variability.   Going lighter on roast brighter fruit character can emerge, and roasting a bit more adds depth, transitioning bright fruit and floral tones to deeper versions, maybe mixing a bit of caramel aspect in.  Producers would probably favor a certain style or else try to optimize what each season's harvest brings as a starting point each year.

For other kinds of tea (not really how it works out with Dan Cong) upper medium roast levels and beyond can be used to mask flaws in the tea.  Producers tend to keep level of roast light to medium with this general category of oolong, both per standard convention and related to what works out best.

it's nice looking tea


Even on the first light infusion the tea is amazing.  It's bright, smooth, intense, creamy, sweet, and complex.  I'll need to add more specifics about aspects to that.  It's definitely not light or heavy roasted, it seems to me (on the relative scale for the type; this would be quite lightly roasted as Wuyi Yancha goes), so it doesn't give up anything for brightness but it does pick up some warmth.  The aspect flavors transition just a little into lightly cooked sugars versus just fruit and floral range flavors.

Is all that clear?  I'm mixing some different ideas about how typical flavor aspects tend to pair up.  I'll do more with flavor description aspect by aspect next round, and say more about what "full feel" means.  As for basics this isn't just floral and not mostly fruit; that peach flavor that tends to come across in some versions mixes with floral tones in this version.

not quite fully opened yet

The tea seems similar the next round but also exponentially more intense, even for being very lightly brewed.  I'd expect it to take one more leap in intensity on the next round and then level off, transitioning less over later infusions, and to last for an awful lot of them brewed so lightly. 

This is definitely the kind of tea that I'm trying to let people know exists.  It's so good that someone might try it and then not tell a soul in order to keep the supply availability intact.  I can break the experience down as a set of individual aspects but it would be like describing a sunset as a range of specific colors.  You really have to be there.

The main flavor aspect, it seems to me, is very lightly roasted peach, or maybe just fresh, ripe peach with a trace of browned sugar.  Not commercial browned sugar, the effect of actually lightly browning white sugar, like a very light caramel.  There is more floral range to it than that aspect, but it's a trace that pulls how the peach comes across; the impact of the two interacts.  The peach seems like a front end effect; that hits you first, then the depth and fullness of that floral range sweeps in and stays with you.  It's amazing the way the tea can be so intense but also bright, clean, and balanced; it seems it would have to give up one to some extent to include the others.

I can't imagine that there would be a much better version than this, that there's any room left for improvement.  Of course there's always something a bit more exceptional out there.

that one infusion brewed stronger

I let the next infusion go a little longer, now on 15 or 20 seconds being a long infusion versus letting sheng go over 30 to check how that changes things.  I'd mentioned more about the reasoning behind that practice in the last post, just to see what changes, and to identify feel aspects better, or notice flaws.

I'd hesitate to call the tea astringent but that structure and edge does pick up a little.  The tea will be much better brewed fast, between 5 and 10 seconds, with plenty of flavor and full feel in that range, but it's still interesting looking at it from different perspectives.  That feel is so subdued compared to lower quality level versions that it's probably misleading to say anything at all about it.  The trace of astringency gives better Dan Cong a full range of aspect character, and in lower quality examples it's something to brew around, more negative, something to compensate for.

It's not even astringent at all, in the same sense as in an Assam or more challenging sheng.  It's more a fullness in feel that comes across in a certain way, and a component that lingers in a long aftertaste, along with that sweetness and flavor range (peach and floral).  It's a very pleasant experience, all the parts of it, but how it comes together is indescribable.  It would be a shame to drink this tea without plenty of time and space to just absorb it.  There's one part about the feel and the flavor sensation moving across your tongue, settling in a different place than it lands in while tasting, ending up as a sensation in the rear of your throat.  That's different.  The aftertaste never ends, it just keeps trailing off.  Minutes later it's just less, not gone.

leaves unfurled

I went with a faster infusion the next round, more standard, around 10 seconds, and it's nicer, but then it was amazing on that last round too.  I can see why someone would prefer it at that strength to get the most out of the feel and aftertaste effect.  The flavor was still great but in drinking the tea for taste faster works better, and it's not at all thin.  I guess it would come down to preference.

There's not more transition to go on about; it's still expressing a lot of peach and floral, with a slight trace of light caramel or toffee.  "Peach and floral" really could be developed a bit.  That hint of astringency tapers into flavor just a little but it's more a light structure to the tea, which comes across as soft and full. More of the same on the next too.   The warmth might be picking up a little, the aspects shifting balance some, but the character stays similar.

I did keep drinking it for lots of infusions, but I'll spare the detailed notes since as can occur the aspects shifted balance more than changed.  I don't feel like I got as far as I typically do with separating aspects into a description; I kind of lost focus a bit in just enjoying the tea.  But I'll include more details in a conclusion section.

Celebrity guest review video

She loved it.  I didn't get any real description out of her though, just her joking around in that part.

Vendor description

After the actual tasting I checked the producer's notes for their description:

2018 old bushes Mi Lan xiang 蜜兰香老枞
Location:Li zhai ping village in Phoenix Moutian about 1200m 
Harvest date :2018.4.5th 
Cultivar: Mi lan xiang  (Magnolia )
Roasting level:  one time roasting by traditional charcoal fire by 90'c fire degree, 15 hours, Medium roasting style 

Feature : this tea just finished processing on 5th, and than we did the hands -sorting and Roasting by Litchi Charcoal. The age of the tea bushes is about 100 years old, we used the ladder to do the picking. 4 trees together.  This year is 15 kg in all.  More than 2017 Quantity. Because of  small quantity, we get ready them  more quicker than other big quantity tea.  The tasting  feature is  similar to 2017, because from same garden ,same bushes, and same makers processing, Peach or Nectarine, Lychee, Juicy Fruity cocktail and very milky aroma. 

I was going to edit that but somehow it makes sense to include it nearly character for character.  Note that this tea isn't being re-sold by someone with a Western background; the person or persons writing those words helped make the tea.  Cindy probably wrote that.  She wears a few different hats so she's not out picking tea or processing it all day but she is involved.

Lychee stands out; I wouldn't be surprised if I re-tasted that tea I'd notice that it is a good description, and it matches up from recent memory.  I just had fresh lychee over the last few days, and tried that tea too, but didn't make the connection.

lychee in the upper right (that other is rambutan)

Lychee varies a good bit, by variety of that fruit plant type (there are several), and by how ripe it is, and how good versions are.  The one I just had was so-so, only sort of sweet and just a little sour.  A really good version is very sweet and complex, with bright citrus-like tones that span almost into light spice range.  I haven't have had a really good lychee in a year since the season is just starting now and I've only had fresh versions twice so far.  I think expecting the tea to taste like peach and flowers and it also tasting like those things threw off making that connection.  And the effect of the feel and aftertaste were really interesting to me this time, so I was doing a bit less free-associating about flavor components.

As for the milky aroma I'm not sure.  It can be hard to pin down feel aspects as a description, and per my understanding she uses "aroma" in a specific different sense, not in a way I'd be likely to shed light on by describing it.

Unless I'm remembering wrong this version is just a little better than last year's.  The character seemed similar but there was something about the way it all came together that worked better, just that extra bit more exceptional.  Some of that could be a match of aspects with preference, or bias can come into play, expectations leading interpretation and memory.


This is probably the best example of a Mi Lan Xiang Dan Cong I've yet to try.  I did quite a bit more with the category last year so I'm basing that on memory, but I don't think I've ever experienced positive aspects coming together to this extent or one balancing as well.  Even theirs; it seems similar to prior versions but slightly better.  I might qualify that by saying that in general Mi Lan Xiang versions have typically come across as a bit more straightforward to me, more flavor intensive, with types like Ya Shi (duck shit) more interesting for being complex in different ways.

It's not as if it's completely different than other years', except for that overall effect, and related to the way the taste and feel seemed to really impact my mouth differently.  I suppose it's possible that also relates to trying a lot of sheng, to focusing more on those aspect ranges, and experiencing lots of different complex teas over the past half a year.

cartoon addicts watching Peppa Pig