Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Vietnamese white and sheng teas, samples from Huyen

Huyen Dinh and family; well prepared for drinking tea at home in Saigon

As of the initial tasting I didn't know what these teas were.  I'd talked a little about them with Huyen when we met in the Bangkok Chinatown, when she passed them on, but I didn't catch specifics, and only the one of three I'm not describing here was labeled (as an ancient tree green tea).  My impression was that they are Vietnamese versions of sheng pu'er, but not necessarily made in exactly the same style as Yunnan pu'er.

I did talk to Huyen in mid-tasting (online, via Facebook message), and she clarified that part, as one is more or less white and the other essentially the same as sheng.  More on that along with tasting results follows.

The tea on the left turned out to be more or less a white tea, and on the right a variation of sheng.  They're not exactly the same as Chinese versions of either; locally produced Vietnamese teas made by traditional processing methods that evolved there.

The teas have a pleasant sweet, mildly earthy smell to them, floral with a light mineral scent beyond that.  And they look cool, like a cross between loose sheng pu'er and moonlight white.  Each is a bit closer to one of those styles, but maybe not exactly like those either, more like a variation of them.

Initial rinse:

I'll taste the first light infusion as well.  What's the worst that could come of skipping a rinse?  Of course I get it why rinsing and throwing that away makes sense, the two different reasons, to wash the tea, and to wake it up or start the infusion process, but I only consistently use a rinse for shou or aged sheng.  A flash rinse of most other types doesn't strip that much flavor, or make all that much difference related to starting an infusion process (the next round of water isn't any wetter), and it probably doesn't really remove that much for dust or whatever else, so it probably doesn't matter much either way.  It seems odd to me when people rinse teas like Dan Cong, when they really are throwing away some flavor, but even then I can see the justification.

The first lighter version is nicely sweet, fresh, and light.  Based on using a 10 second or so infusion time, not long for a tea that wasn't wet, it's still light but very promising.  This does taste more like a variation of a white tea than a sheng, with a good bit of bright floral range, maybe even light fruit.

The next "darker" tea is completely different (I didn't know what types were--I tasted them blind--but I'll edit in calling them white and sheng through later notes, even though that's more an approximation).  It's also sweet but not as light, with an interesting warmer spice range earthiness, nothing remotely like any black tea or shou, or even sheng, really.  It tastes as close to cardamom as any tea is going to.  Ordinarily I like the other spices better than cardamom, which just seems a bit neutral to me compared to a spice like nutmeg, but the way this comes across really works.  Both seem like very catchy teas, not challenging at all, and both are perhaps slightly different than anything I've ever tried.

It's easy to get Vietnamese tea completely wrong, to just try a few fishook style Thai Nguyen area greens of varying quality, rolled oolongs, and a snow tea and think you've got it all pegged.  Or one might even run across a number of exceptions, someone roasting that rolled oolong more, or black tea versions, a producer mimicking Japanese green tea, Oriental Beauty copies, versions of sheng, silver needle, jasmine and lotus flavored teas, etc., and think "now I've got it."  But you don't have it.  As with China or Taiwan you're never going to try the last traditional variation, never mind all of what people are experimenting with or importing for styles.

just getting started; white left, sheng right

Second infusion (first real one)

These teas are probably going to be two more infusions just opening up, getting unfolded and soaked and hitting the normal range of aspects they'll express.  The first (lighter, white tea) version is much improved, and it was already really nice.  At least one more layer of depth joins in.  It's still sweet, and mainly floral or fruity, along the lines of dried apricot.  But a subtle depth joins that, something I'll have better luck describing next round when it really comes out.  That interesting sweetness does remind me of some versions of moonlight white; it's odd that with the other tea's leaves more a mix of dark and light it looked more that part.  The tea thickened quite a bit too, and aftertaste picked up, but it's not even really "going" yet.

The complexity in the second version escalates that much more.  There's something really familiar about that set of flavors or range that I'm not placing.  A main flavor element is now close to dried hay, but with a lot of sweetness and a lot going on beyond that.  It's that fresh, warm, sweet effect of drying hay when you just bale it.  Or I guess instead the complexity might include that vegetal sweetness and also some of the warmer, richer sweet tones the bales of hay will pick up after they've been sitting and drying--curing, really--for some months. 

You might think that you don't want to drink a tea that tastes like hay but unless your preferences are far removed from mine you definitely do.  I dislike grassy green teas and this couldn't be much further from that.  Below that there is warm spice range, or maybe subdued mineral, what seems to be a couple of subtle layers of things going on.

If there's one main lesson in tasting these teas so far it's that people should try to swap teas with Huyen.  I bet very few Vietnamese people know these teas exist, probably a relatively limited subset within the set of people who like tea, maybe even a small proportion of "tea enthusiasts" there.  These are no experimental teas; I'm pretty sure that someone didn't mess around with processing variables to make these.  Over a very long period of time people did, for sure; these have to represent the better output of traditional processing, good versions of interesting traditional versions.  "Good" is always relative to expectations and preferences but these teas are good.

Third infusion

after "opening up."  this was probably one infusion later though.

The first lighter tea stays similar, very sweet and bright, just picking up more depth in terms of a bit of astringency and more feel.  It's not like a young sheng related to that, unless it's an unusually soft young sheng [and of course later it turned out it's not that].  That added feel and trace of what I'd not call bitterness but is towards that makes it seem a lot more like a sheng than it had at first.  I'd imagine that messing around with water temperature would let you adjust the character of this tea to preference, to use straight hot to bring out more of that edge, which a lot of experienced sheng drinkers would strongly prefer.  Or white tea drinkers could go a little cooler, down at 90 C or so, and they'd experience a lighter, sweeter, thinner bodied and astringency oriented version with very little compensating bitterness (or something like that).  I'd like it both ways, at this point, or maybe dialed in the middle.

Again the contrast with that second tea is amazing.  It's also a soft, light, sweet tea, not in that far a range for general character, but the flavors are so different that it almost comes as a shock.  That slightly cured hay warmth, sweetness, and vegetal character is shifting a bit to mineral, more into a desert slickrock sandstone range.  It's still light and subtle but has the kind of depth that lots of people would describe in completely different ways.  It could be seen as what I've described so far (also as spice range, etc.), or as mostly floral (just a warmer floral), or as light wood (in between balsa wood and fresh cut sweet maple).  To me it's really catchy, both that flavor range and the way a soft, sweet, complex tea pairs a hint of fullness and dryness with that.

lighter, more white tea left, darker sheng right

Huyen's input about what the teas are

I just did talk to Huyen by message (in mid tasting) and she said both are sheng.  Of course when we talked she said they didn't call tea sheng in the North of Vietnam in traditional areas, since they typically aren't familiar with what's made in Yunnan, they called it dried tea.  That does lead back to a guess they're using a style that's in between, which they've evolved on their own.  She admitted one is probably just as close to white as sheng, and that processing might not completely match Yunnan sheng pu'er traditional or modified processing steps, since they're not really shooting for that.  They make tea as they know how to make tea, and don't describe it related to a type made in the next country over.

It does make you wonder.  Both were sun dried, but how much were either heated?  I'll probably never know.

World of Tea processing chart (credit; odd their site converted into something else)

Fourth infusion

I dropped the temperature a little to shift the effect.  The lighter version just dropped back to sweeter, giving up that trace of bitterness, as I expected.  I'll probably use hotter water again, close to full boiling point, to try it that way again.  It's not normal to experiment with brewing temperature that way during an infusion cycle, of course.  But what does "normal" mean to me?  I've already offended any readers who prefer not to hear about loose process, narrowing the audience down to only who I should be talking to, or random clicks.

This lighter, closer to white version is going to express less complexity than the other; it's a simpler tea, narrower in profile and transitioning less.  But the range that's there is quite positive.  I'm going to stay with dried apricot as a main aspect description, with some depth beyond that, but it's on the sweet, light, and simple side.  That simplicity might seem like more of a flaw if it wasn't so good.

The darker tea is actually moving into a light smoky range.  It's crazy how it's a different tea each infusion.  This aspect range really does make sense for being sheng now.  I'll try both using hotter water next and the greater body and compensating bitterness will return, but I like the tea this way too.  That rich sweetness really coats your mouth after you drink it, giving that effect that it might taste a little stronger after you swallow it.  In this infusion's style that's just sweet, rich, and a bit full, but on the next round bitterness and the different feel will pair as a effect that either balances and improves the experience or throws it off a little, depending on preference.  For me it'll just be different.

sheng / white left, closer to sheng right

Fifth infusion

I did go back to hot water and used a 15 second or so infusion for these so the character should vary, slightly stronger but also just different.

This first tea probably is perfect just like this; that extra taste range and ramped up feel and aftertaste is how it should be.  It's interesting messing around with it but I'd understand someone wanting to drink their tea at an optimum every single infusion.  A touch of bitterness, very faint, remains across your tongue to offset the sweetness and light feel.  This tea is simple but great.

The pace of transition slows down for the second but it did return to the prior character, definitely better balanced.  One part of this tea reminds me of that slightly musty, smoky, mineral range earthiness in cheap tightly compressed sheng, but expressed as a mirror opposite, as that working out amazingly well and balancing.  More than that an entire other range balances that trace, sweet and earthy like a fresh cut hardwood, deep and flavorful like a sun-dried tomato, complex and balanced, as expressed by a mineral layer that reminds me of Southwestern US sandstone.  I wouldn't be surprised if others listed out any number of other interpretations.

Later infusions

I kept brewing both teas for another half dozen infusions, I just stopped taking notes.  Both transitioned to a bit more bitterness (the actual flavor; I don't mean astringency), probably related to adding infusion time to compensate for intensity falling off with that longer steep drawing out different compounds.  Both teas seemed better in the first half dozen infusions but quite nice later too, the most interesting and positive range just narrowed back a little.

As with sheng pu'er they just wouldn't stop making tea.  I would've expected that first version that was closer to a white in style to fade faster but it just became more faint; it didn't drop out.

They didn't seem exactly like sheng to me, although one was closer.  I suppose both would probably be much more approachable and positive than most versions of sheng to people who aren't on that page (who don't love sheng), and disappointing for not being a closer match to others who are.  As far as comparison with white teas go that one is just a bit different than the other range of white teas I've encountered, but then all of those span a broad continuum of styles and aspect sets anyway.  It's tempting to say it was closer to moonlight white, since that is a Yunnan version based on roughly the same plant types (I think), and I suppose that does work.  It's not exactly the same as others I've tried but then that range can vary some too.

I don't have much for conclusions; they were both nice, interesting, and quite positive.  These are the kinds of teas you'd probably want to own a few hundred grams of since they are approachable, interesting, and not something you'd probably get tired of right away, or would only want to try for the sake of novelty.  Both would vary with different preparation methods and both would probably improve over time instead of just fading.

As far as I know you can't find or buy these teas anywhere, unless you know where she got them in Northern Vietnam (Ha Giang).  It's funny mentioning those two conflicting ideas one after another, how good the teas are and that they just don't exist on the foreign market.  If the curiosity was absolutely killing you looking up Huyen and bugging her for leads might work out, but she's not a tea vendor; her family works in a corporate gift business.

Hatvala's tea areas map (credit)

More on Huyen Dinh

Speaking of bugging Huyen, I asked her for some photos to share, since she'd showed me a Vietnamese tea brewing practice and some teaware collection at home by video call.  Before I get on with showing those pictures I might mention that it's still in the planning stage but she might be attending an event held by Olivier Schneider in Paris on June 29th (with more of a mention than actual details here).  If you like pu'er and his name doesn't ring a bell you probably should click around this reference site.  Learning about tea can be seen as a separate interest from enjoying the tea itself, but at the same time you can't make informed decisions about what to try if you know very little about the types you like.

Onto some pictures from Huyen then.  She and her family really love tea; it's obvious in talking to her and from the pictures.  She describes their preparation approach as just basic, functional but not really ceremonial, but they've put some thought into how to make tea and effort into collecting gear to support that goal.

That last one is a local version of Ya Bao, the tea bud tea version that sometimes is sometimes sold as white pu'er (which I reviewed a version of here).  I don't think it's all that close to pu'er, a bit closer to a white, but what's in a name.  Huyen mentioned she thought the inconsistent level of oxidation in that version is a processing flaw, but I guess depending on how the tea tastes it may or may not be a problem.

Vietnamese teas in general are part of the reason why I write this blog.  Even I'm not in on most of what's being produced and sold for Vietnamese teas, and I've been to Vietnam and bought tea there twice, and Huyen has passed on a good number of interesting versions (a dozen or more), and I've tried most of what Hatvala sells.  It's not just that these teas are interesting and good, although they are, but also that there is a relatively complete disconnect between the local producers of these teas and the potential consumer market in "the West."  Hatvala alone bridges some of that gap, but they don't sell versions of what I just reviewed, or that Ya Bao, or most of what Huyen passed on at the end of last year.  There's just too much variety.

Huyen at one of the Chinatown shops

It goes without saying, but I don't see this as a zero-sum game.  It's not that local shops or online vendors in the States or Europe need to lose a sale every time a new person there discovers a new option.  The idea is to get people off tea bags, or even branching out from coffee, I guess. 

The nice part about exploring Vietnamese teas, as opposed to Chinese, Taiwanese, or Japanese versions, is that foreign awareness of types is nill and internal demand doesn't match up with production.  The teas are cheap, if you can get them.  And probably a bit inconsistent, I suppose.  I'm raving about them because I'm trying exceptional versions turned up and screened by a local tea enthusiast, Huyen.  I found a good, interesting, novel black tea in visiting Hanoi awhile back and I was hooked then, and I keep having that sort of experience, of new discovery of Vietnamese teas, over and over.

Even though this already went one tangent long I'll close with a couple pictures of local fruit, the kind of thing I have for breakfast, often along with some pastry or a piece of toast.

papaya, mangosteen, rambutan, longkong, and mango

lychee is my favorite though

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