Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Chinese black teas (Zi Juan and Da Jin Zhen) from Moychay

Da Jin Zhen left (big bud), Zi Juan right

I'll mention some of their description at the end too

I'm back to trying relatively completely different teas in a combined tea tasting, again from Moychay.  That's appropriately timed, given that I just mentioned tasting one of these at an event where the theme was trying pairs of similar teas.  It's nice to get back to black teas more; those and oolongs work out to be the two main natural favorites for me.  I can enjoy and appreciate white teas, pu'er, and other hei cha, but those two broad types are still most familiar.  I'll try to cover a lot of posts this week, to get caught up on a few parallel themes, so I'll try to keep this short, with less rambling on than average.

Sergey, that Moychay owner, just posted a picture of a new tea club that just opened in Moscow.  Of course that represents a business interest along with a general tea theme interest but the point I keep trying to make about them is that both seem common to their company and to how Russians embrace tea culture.  Better tea is appreciated, with awareness somewhat developed, and of course a business side goes along with that.

a new tea club in Moscow, credit this FB post


I brewed these in between a normal Western style and Gongfu brewing, or as a moderate proportion and longer infusion time variation of Gongfu, brewed for around 45 seconds.  I'll go with something similar for the next round, although it would work to brew these teas 20 seconds and drink them a good bit lighter.  They are a little strong for my preference as I've made them in the first infusion.  I'm in the habit of drinking black teas prepared a little stronger than some other types, but that's just a personal preference as I see it, not related to an objective optimization.  I went long on this first infusion to skip the part about trying them on the light side first, as I usually do, but I tend to vary infusion strength anyway, to see how teas are prepared in slightly different ways.

Zi Juan left, Da Jin Zhen right

The Zi Juan is really nice, and a bit unique.  I have just seen these descriptions, since I added the sample cover picture to the post, and it's just as complex as that list of aspects claims.  It says "warm and fruity, with chokeberry, spice, and honey notes, tart, sweet, with citrus and spice."  It really does have a lot going on.  I'm not familiar with chokeberry so I won't be able to confirm that part.  If that means the same thing as "chokecherry" that does ring a bell, but I couldn't place that for a taste from memory either.

The main flavor is like some sort of slightly sour apple, with a bit of spice, and other layers beyond that.  Usually sourness is a flaw in a tea but in this case it does match up with that unusual flavors set; it seems to be just how the tastes work out.  It balances well for all those parts working together; the sweetness offsets that touch of sourness (which could be interpreted as tartness; they're not far off, and it's probably really a little of both), and the warmth and spice compliments both.  It sounds like some sort of pastry, doesn't it?  The bread or pastry layer could be a bit more pronounced, but there is a little there that one might map back to that.  The spice part is faint so hard to pick out, but that does seem to be clearly where that "warm" part is situated.

The description of the Da Jin Zhen overlaps a little:  woody, sweet, with spice, honey, and citrus, and again with a bit of tartness.  Again the experience is that of a good tea, of being unique and distinct, completely different from the other, but overlapping in aspects to some extent.  There's a warm, sweet part that stands out that reminds me of bee's wax.  The honey is a bit more pronounced in this version, a good match for that part.  I'm not noticing much for tartness or sourness in this; it's warm, sweet, complex, and smooth.

I'm usually more a fan of leaf based black teas than buds-only black teas but when these work well they can be really complex and pleasant too, and this is a better than average version.  It's quite refined, maybe simple in the sense of the flavors covering a limited range or for structure not relating to what people call tannins (which I think are polyphenols as a group, and then something else at the next level of description).  But what is occurring in this tea for aspect range works really well.  "Honey sweetness" gets thrown around a lot in tea descriptions but almost no other versions end up actually tasting as much like honey as this does.

I just visited the Jip Eu shop and they passed on a Jin Jun Mei (not a sample so much; some tea, while I was visiting to pick up some tasting cups to support that interest).  Those can overlap a little with this range, that warmth, sweetness, and the way those aspects come across.  I described it to a friend as between honey and roasted corn, not so much the way that tastes though, but the way that sweet part smells when the corn is roasting at high heat, like an interesting and complex variation on caramel.

Second infusion

The Zi Juan has improved; that limited sourness / tartness dropped back, probably more a slight tartness now than sourness, and the intensity of the other range increased.  It would be possible to brew this a good bit stronger since there isn't anything negative setting a limit (no astringency, off flavor, or particular balance to "get right" or work around) but for my preference this is right.  It's nice the way that fruit and spice comes together.  It's picked up some depth, not just in the range of an unfamiliar type of apple, shifted a bit towards cherry or berry from that.  Describing that one aspect as in between a slightly sour cherry and a reasonably complex form of apple works.

There isn't a lot to the feel; it's a bit soft, not really "structured" or dry, although it doesn't come across as thin.  The aftertaste does linger nicely, with that very complex flavor range trailing on as a longer experience after you drink it.  It's hard to pin down the warm spice range; it's not exactly nutmeg or cinnamon but along those lines.  That part is really a minor supporting aspect in relation to the stronger fruit, but it adds a lot for giving the tea a nice balance.

The "warmth" of the Da Jin Zhen picked up; it gained complexity.  All the rest of the range hasn't changed but the way it all balances did.  The main flavor still reminds me of honey mixed with bee's wax, that warm, earthy, towards-spice tone.  Sweetness fills in beyond that, and a trace of citrus to give it more depth, maybe something like blood-orange zest, a citrus tone with some depth to it, a bit sweeter and richer and less edgy than a sweet red grapefruit. 

In one sense the overall experience is simple; the flavor range is limited, and the feel is not thin but not complex.  In another it has a lot of positive aspect range going on.  Anyone who loves the structure and edginess black teas like better Assam exhibit might not like these two teas (or second flush Darjeeling works in that example; those have a lot more body).  People who drink tea to experience complex flavor range filled in with lingering aftertaste probably would like it, given aspect preference matches up.  They're both definitely good teas, and unique, with some limitations but making up for those with their novelty.

Third infusion

Again I went around 45 seconds for these, long enough to draw out plenty of infusion strength, probably more related to some in-house drama than preference for that timing.  Typically on the weekends I get a nice quiet break during late mornings for a Chinese language class and swim class, on the two different days, but this being a long holiday weekend both aren't being held.  That timing would ruin some teas at this proportion but for these it should still work well.  Really the buds-only tea could work either light or stronger, with plenty of flavor coming across in that last light version, but more intense would be nice too.  As with white tea infusion strength it would just depend on preference.

The spice might be ramping up in proportion in this Zi Juan; it's just as good if not better.  The fruit range is tapering off a little but otherwise it's roughly the same, a nice balance between sweet fruit, slight tartness, and warm spice.  Usually I don't care for tartness in black teas but this works.  There's just a bit more finish to it, a trace of dry feel and lingering tart cherry and mineral tone that stays centered along the middle of your tongue after swallowing.

The Da Jin Zhen has picked up just a trace of intensity too; I did just give that a slightly longer soak than the prior round, and it still works at this infusion strength but a little less would be more optimum.  It shifts the flavor to come across as a bit more mineral intensive in tone, with a hint more structure and dryness.  That honey and bees wax flavor effect is quite catchy.

I'm getting the impression these teas might only be halfway through their infusion cycle, and beyond this I'd be talking about balance shifts in the same aspects.  Probably past three more rounds they would still produce flavor, but I'd have to check on how extending times and how the aspects staying positive worked out.  I often will brew black teas in a more typical Gongfu proportion and timing, and a little lighter, but I've been making these slightly stronger, in part for working around a lower proportion than I usually use. 

I'll leave off taking notes since I've gotta get on with this day (off to visit a local market and natural area today; maybe I'll mention that in a picture later).  Both teas did brew more rounds later but I won't go into that.

More vendor information

There isn't a lot more to cover, but I will pass on a couple of extra ideas from the vendor descriptions, the parts that don't appear on those labels.  The Zi Juan is described as follows:

"Purple charm" from Ailaoshan (Yunnan Province) spring harvest 2018...

The bouquet of ready-made tea is vivid and warm, fruity, with black chokeberry, spicy and honey notes. The fragrance is deep and warm, calming. The taste is full-bodied and sappy, velvety, a bit tart, sweetish, with light citrus sourness, spicy nuances and lingering finish...

Brew tea with hot water (95°ะก) in a gaiwan or in a teapot of porous clay. The proportion is 4-5 g per 100 ml. The time of the first steeping is about 6-8 seconds. After that do short steeps (just for 2-3 seconds), increasing steeping time for each subsequent step, if necessary. You can repeat this method up to 6-7 times.

Not exactly what I did, but close enough.  It's interesting they just mention a Gongfu approach for this tea.  It would still be ok prepared Western style but I think better like that.  This style of black tea would work prepared light, but then there was no astringency limiting how intense to make it, so it would be more of a matter of getting the aspects to balance best.

The other tea, the Da Jin Zhen, was described in this way:

Yunnan "Big golden pikes" from the Fengqing County (Linzang District) of the spring harvest of 2018.

In appearance: large pointed tips covered with silky red fluff. The fragrance is deep, fruity with spicy hints. The liquor is transparent, with meadow honey shade.

The bouquet of ready-made tea is refined and warm, multifaceted, fruity, with spicy, woody, honey and citrus notes. The fragrance is deep and warm, calming. The taste is rich and full-bodied, delicate, a bit tart, sweetish, with light citrus sourness and lingering finish.

at a fun-day sort of event last week

a view of the next office buildings from the 56th floor of where I work

Monday, July 30, 2018

Visiting Sasha for a tea tasting

Sasha, Jeff, and Miro (left to right)

This past weekend Sasha Abramovich had a few people over for tea, three plus himself.  It was nice switching format like that after doing different forms of tastings in the Benjasiri Park the two weekends before (just off Sukhumvit in central Bangkok).  Drinking tea in someone's home simplifies a lot of the parts of the process, about bringing gear out to some location, and using better water, and just having extra tea around since the host might have a whole stash to draw upon. 

I just mentioned editing this post to Sasha and he summarized that this way:

I think that the main ideas are mont fleur water (from Sahapat), purified with bamboo carbon (100baht, sustaina shop), and the entire concept of comparative tasting.

I'll say more about that last point later.  Sasha put on some nice Middle Eastern themed instrumental music (I think it was), and it's nice to be in a temperature controlled atmosphere in Bangkok around noon.  I typed this first draft at home around 10 AM and being in a shady spot at the dinner table the temperature was fine, but a couple hours later drinking hot tea might seem less natural without air conditioning on.

Jeff attended again, one of the guys at the park tasting, an American living here, and one of Sasha's local Russian friends, Miro.  Since I just visited Russia over New Years it was interesting getting back to talking about tea culture in Russia, and some pretty far out there tangents, like if a lot of the Russians in Pattaya really are mafia.  That's a reference to a Thai stereotype.  Of course if you walk around Tokyo and see a guy with a lot of tattoos more than likely he's just into tattoos, not Yakuza, and to some extent guessing about Russians in Pattaya would have to relate to a hasty generalization like that.  Russians in Russia are just like everyone else, if maybe a bit less outwardly cheerful and more plain-spoken, more likely to express what they actually think.  That's the opposite of here, since Thai culture emphasizes the importance of observing a defined social role and keeping things positive; one type of smile might indicate that a Thai disagrees with you.

look how cool that one at the bottom is

Sasha laid out what we might drink that day, a lot of tea, probably too much for anyone to try in one sitting.  In a really nice touch he asked us to choose our own style of tasting cup from a collection of a half dozen in different styles.  I'm not of the opinion that shape and material changes flavor and other experience as much as others would tend to claim but it is pleasant and positive to use a cup that you like; it definitely adds something. 

The one I used was very nice, basic, but colorful, not flat like bowl-shaped versions, but open enough to and deep enough to be easy to use and allow for the aroma of the tea to drift up and out.

I'll list out from memory what we did try, which worked out to fit into a comparison tasting theme, trying two similar versions at the same time.

very different silver needle-style white versions

Silver needle:  a version Noppadol passed on at the prior tasting (from Fuding, China?), and an Assam version from Sasha's tea collection.

Moonlight white:  I think we tried three of those, two from Darjeeling, and maybe a third I don't remember the origin of.  I could edit this once Sasha reminds me of that but it kind of doesn't matter; this isn't that kind of post.  He did fill in a lot of specifics about what we were drinking then but without notes I tend to not retain details.  That's one point behind writing a blog; so that I can look back on what I tried, and refer to links I've cited again later.

Taiwanese oolong:  two very good versions Sasha provided, one a Da Yu Ling.  There's a catchy, bright mineral and floral tone better Taiwanese oolongs have and that one certainly did.  Sasha mentioned that in his impression the best Taiwanese oolongs lose some of that initial intensity even after a relatively short storage time (probably related to air contact; they would hold up better well-sealed), and that tea probably had been even more remarkable some weeks before.

Black tea:  we tried a Moychay large golden needle version I brought, one I've written a draft of a review for, so I'll hold off on saying more about it until there. 

A Darjeeling black pearl black tea might have been the most novel tea we tried (from Rohini, if I'm remembering that right).  Oddly I tried an Assam-style Thai version of a rolled black tea that seemed to be a variation of the same thing two days later, but I'll get back to that.  It doesn't really work to pass on a one-sentence summary review from trying a tea three days ago but it seemed pleasant, complex in aspect range, and unique in style.  For a tea that unusual messing around with parameters is probably in order, even though it is a black tea, about as forgiving for brewing variations as broad tea categories get.

For as much tea as we drank I still might have missed mentioning one.  It was nice splitting the difference between closely considered comparative tasting and chatting about different things, alternating between those two themes.  We had planned to try a Jin Jun Mei version Jip Eu passed on in a recent visit but didn't get to it, so I shared some instead, in the tea-exchange part at the end.  It's nice to have even more interesting teas to try from Sasha but I didn't get to all of them from the last two tastings yet, so I'll be leaning into post frequency here to try and catch up.

On the tasting side those descriptions do seem a bit limited.  It works better to write those as you go, and it was hard enough just keeping up with what version of the two being compared we were on along with the conversation tangents.  Sasha has visited India and tea growing areas in Darjeeling and Assam, which made for a lot of interesting background about those places, and how visiting tea producers works out there.  It sounded like Darjeeling would be a really interesting place to visit, not only very beautiful but also one that wouldn't necessarily require a lot of pre-established connections to turn up some interesting visiting access options.

Sasha and Nok visiting Maddhurjya in Assam (photo from Sasha)

I'm not sure anything we tried was really a surprise, except maybe for that black pearl tea--that was different.  The Assam silver needle stood out for including some interesting regional-associated mineral aspects; kind of how that often goes.  I've noticed a similar pattern in trying Ceylon white teas before, how the style can be similar to versions from China or Southeast Asia, but parts of what make their black teas distinctive carries over, adding a cool extra layer that works well given how subtle white teas tend to be.

a bit off the subject, a Laos version of Moonlight White, Kinnari Tea's

Moonlight whites from India are nice, nothing like Chinese Yunnan versions, or that one Thai version we'd tried from Noppadol in a tasting two weeks ago.  They're not that far off white teas from Nepal, it seems to me, which are probably more or less copies of Darjeeling originated styles.  In the better related teas from both areas a really catchy, bright, intense floral and mineral tone stands out, in between flint and some bright floral range. 

To me those work a little better than trying silver needle in that setting since they're just a little more straightforward and intense, so you don't have to focus on them so much to notice of appreciate what's going on.  A small group of that size who had tasted teas together really could do a meditative, focused tasting session but when first meeting people some degree of spontaneous chatter seems natural, and really better.

Buds-only black teas, like that golden needle version, really do work much better for getting parameters just right, as with silver needle white versions or teas in a similar style.  It worked out since the general theme was trying different lighter teas but it might have also been more interesting for being paired with something comparable, as the others were.  The black pearl tea was really at the opposite end of the spectrum, on the intense and straightforward side, earthy but sweet, with a lot of aspect flavor range versus the other black being quite subtle.  Comparison tasting works best with very similar teas--you tend to pick out finer aspects that way, which stand out--but trying a contrast instead can be interesting in a different sense.

It was pleasant trying those two Taiwanese oolongs, and interesting comparing them.  That general range of styles isn't really new ground for me but better versions of those oolongs make for an exceptional experience, as those did.  I haven't been drinking much of Taiwanese oolongs since the beginning of last year, related to passing through Taipei at the end of a holiday-season vacation back home (to Western PA).

I'm not sure what the next tasting event will be like; when we will get back to holding a more open format version, or where.  I'm still looking into a really unique location for one, and availability for that will affect outcome.  I picked up some more equipment that would relate to such a function in a recent visit to the Bangkok Chinatown, but that's a different story for a different post.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

10 tea brewing tips

Originally posted on the TChing site (in two parts in consecutive posts)

I don't cover that many back to basics themes but in this I'll explain ten ways to improve an approach to brewing tea.

1.  ditch the tea bags and drink better tea

Tea in tea bags is typically terrible; low quality, ground-up dust.  Sticking with an old favorite brand is fine but in the end that usually amounts to drinking bad tea.

Beyond tea bags loose teas vary a lot.  In general if a tea looks ground up (as CTC, crush-tear-curl automated processed teas are, or just broken orthodox versions can be) then the brewed tea won't be very good.  It's difficult to summarize what makes up "good tea," since that can mean a range of different things.  Paying more is no guarantee, and not all vendors can probably even tell the difference themselves.  The look of a website or physical shop tends to not mean much either.  You have to go through a learning curve to judge for yourself.

Wuyi Origin old bush Mi Lan Xiang Dan Cong

2.  don't use boiling point water for green tea

Simple enough.  Preferences could vary, and for different green teas different temperatures would work best (per individual preference), but dropping down to something like 75 C / 170 F for most green teas works much better, for most people.  Even lower for some Japanese green versions; it's best to experiment a bit and read around.

3.  don't trust bloggers or vendors for input

So much for the rest of this list, right?  More than half the people offering advice about tea online--vendors included--know very little about tea, and haven't experienced much for varying parameters, checking out different versions, even trying very high quality tea, looking into background research, etc.  Even what I say should be taken with a grain of salt, to some extent.  Most input really would be helpful, it all just needs to be screened.

orthodox Assam in a For Life infuser basket and lid device

4. about infuser devices

I tend to de-emphasize this factor but brewing devices are a critical aspect.  For Western style brewing (the teaspoon per cup approach) it seems to not matter as much; you could use a ceramic teapot, infuser basket, gravity device (similar to a drip coffee maker in design), or even a French press, and results wouldn't vary much.  Some people brew green teas in a glass to see them swirl, which also works out using specialized tea bottles / tumblers, and those also travel well.  Covering a tea while brewing probably makes a difference; volatile components that make up the flavors could evaporate off otherwise.

5.  try out Gongfu brewing, versus Western style

There are two main ways to brew tea; Western style uses roughly a teaspoon or 2 grams of tea per one cup of water, infused for around 4 minutes, often twice.  Gongfu style brewing uses a higher proportion of tea to water and a different type of device, most often either a gaiwan or clay pot instead of a ceramic teapot, tumbler, or gravity infuser.  Different teas work better using different proportions, timing, and water temperatures.  One school of thought advocates using boiling point water for everything, adjusting for strength using shorter infusions.

For many people clay pots make for an optimum solution for some tea types.  Any porous clay material allows for tea components to soak into the pot, and to re-release flavor back into later rounds of brewing, once a pot is appropriately "seasoned."  It takes a lot of research to even get started on clay pot styles, ideal clay types (Yixing, a region also used to describe a range of local clay comes up), how to best limit use to one tea type (how narrow to go for range), and which pot style and clay types match with which tea versions.

gaiwans work really well but clay pots are handy and provide a different aesthetic experience

6.  try varying infusion strength

People tend to have a preconception about what infusion strength is normal for different types of teas, often based on how that typical Western proportion and timing works out.  I wouldn't go much stronger than that (longer, or just infused stronger), but lighter in strength can be nice to experiment with.  Sheng pu'er works better brewed quite light compared to black teas, for example.  White teas work across a broad range, brewed strong to match the thickness and style of black teas, or brewed very light to be enjoyed as a more subtle version.

the same tea brewed at two different infusion strengths (a Da Hong Pao)

7.  consider the water

Different mineral content in water can make or break a tea brewing experience.  This tends to be where dedicated (obsessed) enthusiasts separate from casual tea drinkers, but really anyone could try out using a bottled water instead of tap water.  One might think distilled water or reverse osmosis processed water--stripped of everything, minerals included--might be ideal, but the minerals play a role in the infusion process, and affect the final outcome positively (or negatively, if the balance or type doesn't work well).  Researching the absolute best water for a specific type is nearly impossible but trying out minor variation at home is easy.

Per most input even using a Brita filter could make a positive difference.  One odd trick relates to placing bamboo wood charcoal into the water--not while you brew, in a pitcher of some sort before heating it--to either absorb the wrong types of minerals or trace elements or maybe to add some others.  I guess if it seems to work you really don't need to know how it works.

8.  consider the cup

It's only psychological, I think, since you could drink tea out of a coffee mug, a fancy British tea cup, or a stainless steel camp cup (my typical water glass, at home) and it shouldn't make that much difference.  But most tea enthusiasts claim it really does, and I sort of have to side with that, even though my range of use of teaware is non-existent compared to most.  For people with no budget limits what to try out for teaware is an easy call; choose it all, and see what works.  For everyone else taking small steps in different directions can work; try out a few interesting variations from a thrift store, or splurge and try a beautiful bowl shaped version that looks more like artwork than an everyday use cup.

some teaware does have a cool look (photo credit)

9.  try different teas

This isn't advice about brewing, it's about sourcing the tea and the type instead.  If you like Indian or Sri Lankan black teas (Assam, Darjeeling, or Ceylon) it's still worthwhile trying Chinese blacks, to see how those vary.  Different oolongs can be approachable, not necessarily hard to brew (maybe just tricky to optimize in some cases), and many are good across a broad quality level range.  As your palate and preferences change, and as you try different types and better quality teas, factors that were less important earlier on can influence results more.

10.  make it your own

Experiment, and break rules!  It works to vary infusion technique every time you make tea, or even infusion round to round.  Or go the other way, make a science of it, and try to zero in on carefully controlled optimums through small adjustments.  That second approach would seem to tie together with researching other people's informed opinions more but I guess that could work either way; someone might experiment from the ground up on their own, based on conventional approaches, or read up on lots of crazy ideas to try new things that are unconventional.

To me the nice thing about tea is the range it covers.  It can be an inexpensive food-related interest, with lots of variation possible even at low cost, involving low effort and knowledge input.  Or the subject can be bottomless, involving ever deeper layers of exploration.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Holding an open tea tasting in a Bangkok park

A little over a week ago a friend and I, Sasha Abramovich, held that trial run tasting in the Benjasiri park, and this week the open version. It worked out.  I was concerned about rain and too many people showing up and neither happened.  If anything the attendee count was a little low, with 8 people actually joining the tasting, and two more women sitting nearby trying a few rounds of tea along with us (one visiting from China, as chance had it).

The way it played out was a little chaotic, as more ceremonial and theme-specific tea tastings go.  We just kept trying different things, sort of in a lighter to heavier order initially, but even that much structure gave way later.  Noppadol Ariyakura, the vendor who sells those two Lamphang teas I reviewed (with the reviews here), helped bring tea versions and also prepare them (many thanks to him for that).  That worked well for adding more variety and one more layer of discussion, but it also led to a "tasting a lot of different teas" theme, which was fine given the purpose of the event.

A group that small allowed for some other discussion too, personal introductions and such.  To place that related to other tasting themes it will work to talk around that range first, and get back to event details, like what we tried, and how water supply issues worked out.

all but me, and I didn't get a good picture of the two other women

the park background, before the tasting

one of my favorite pictures, her there 4 years ago

Keo as a 5 year old, that same day at that park

Different tea tasting themes

in a Moscow bookstore with Alexander and Dasha (left), Laos Tea "staff"

There are a broad range of intended purposes and process themes a tea tasting might relate to.  I went to an event at a local tea shop that was sort of along this line, at Seven Suns (a local cafe), about trying a broad range of teas.  Another event in Moscow trying Laos Tea products was also about mixing types and casual discussion as much as critical tasting.  That was nice, and those two Laos Tea "staff" were interesting and pleasant to talk to.

One local vertical sheng tasting related to trying different Yiwu versions of different years was the opposite.  Not only was the selection theme tighter, and the brewing process adhered to, but together that led to a more limited and controlled discussion context. It was nice though, just closer to a ceremony in terms of formality than hanging out in a tea bar or a park.  Of course tea cafes vary.

It should work to descibe theme differences more clearly as different factors.

Narrower themes work better for more detailed tasting resolution.  I keep going on about this related to comparison review:  to taste teas most effectively, in the highest resolution, covering a much narrower range is better.  "Young sheng only" is still a bit broad; the closer the types are the easier it is to focus on minor differences versus just trying different things.  Directly comparing two or more very similar teas enables picking out subtle differences in flavor range, the mouth-feel of teas, or the length and character of aftertaste aspects.  Some aspects can serve as markers for quality level, and these might stand out better through such comparison.

Tighter control of parameters helps with more complete and detailed comparison.  Water temperature, brewing time, the water used, tasting timing, should all be very uniform, if closer review is a goal.  But it may not be.  Casual conversation about subjects other than tea isn't necessarily a bad thing, it just doesn't fit well in all event themes. 

Tasting more teas over a varied range works better for a broad introduction.  It just depends on the goals.  To get people introduced to a broad range of types you have to give up focus.  Optimized brewing may or may not be a relevant factor; if half of the point is to support other discussion and conversation de-emphasizing a controlled structure may work better.

The theme may or may not focus on brewing and other tea background as subject matter.  This doesn't necessarily naturally pair with the formal / informal and narrow / broad type divides I just covered.  It would probably mean different things in each context, focusing on much more general issues if the theme is an initial introduction versus narrow type exploration.  It's possible to hold an event that's all about how to prepare tea, investigating how minor differences affect outcome, or serving as a preparation tutorial, or ceremonial aspects. 

Or it would work to push all of that into the background and focus on other aspects of the experience, or even separate discussion.  Somewhere in the middle works too; to cover that as one part of the theme.  We didn't for this; I noted when the brewing wasn't right, if I'd made a mistake, or pointed out trying varied infusion strengths a little, but that was about it.

Sasha explaining something

This event details

We tried more teas than would typically make sense at a more standard tasting, across a broader range.  Before the event I was concerned that attendance level might be too high, due to mentioning the event in a few online groups, so I brought teas that would hold up well to a loose brewing approach, or even Western style brewing.  It seemed possible that it would be necessary to split the attendees into smaller groups.  Of course I expected moderate turn-out anyway; it's just how that sort of thing often goes.

Noppadol brought a number of different teas, so that expanded range.  I'll list out most of what we tried, roughly in order, but here more split between what I brought and teas that he did instead:

2008 shou mei (aged compressed white tea)

Thai Yunnan-style black tea (an old tea tree version from Tea Side)

Lampang area Thai version of sheng pu'er

Menghai shou pu'er (2008 version from Moychay; pretty good shou)

silver needle (Noppadol provided; I don't have details for the teas he supplied)

Lapsang Souchong, a Chinese unsmoked version of a Fujian black tea

Longjing, Chinese green tea

Those might've worked better re-organized in a different order that made more sense.  Noppadol and I didn't really coordinate what we were each going to bring and brew, or plan out the event order.  Once you give up the typical structure and pacing it sort of doesn't matter as much anyway; when slightly overwhelmed by variety being able to notice a finer level of details in the teas more or less drops out.  We really did end up trying a shou and a silver needle back to back, or nearly in direct comparison; that was kind of extreme, even given the chaotic running theme.

Noppadol pouring tea; a squirrel also checked out the tasting in the tree by us

One main concern I had was about a source of hot water, and that factor also threw off uniformity of the tasting.  I brought two small thermoses of hot water, in order to have those to use as a start.  The main plan for water source was for Noppadol to bring a small gas stove, and for us to bring well-suited bottled water, but it turned out that you can't bring a stove into that park (which was not a complete surprise).  Plan B was to use hot water from a vendor, which you get from a concession stand there, as we had in the trial run a week before.  I'm guessing that was unfiltered Bangkok tap water, not unsafe to drink when boiled, but pretty far from ideal, and I definitely wouldn't live on that as a water source.

Noppadol's wife joined us (not at the event; she's not in the pictures), and she heated one round of water out in the parking area, so we switched back and forth between "local water" and spring water.  It's probably as well that we were drinking teas that were flexible about inputs like that, for the most part.  I think as chance had it white teas weren't ever brewed with that park vendor water, which was as well since you could tell the difference it made using it.  I brought a kettle (a "plan C"), but the only power outlets being located in those concession areas would make using one a bit more complicated.

Meeting people; other parts of the event

It was interesting that one guy was from Singapore, another Sweden, and two locals from the US joined.  Sasha, my friend prior to the event, is from Israel last, and his wife and Noppadol are Thais.  A Thai woman sitting next to us tried a number of teas, and a Chinese visitor did as well.  Bangkok is actually like that; people can be from all over.  I had expected some French locals to join who didn't, and a British expat friend said he might drop by.  If a good bit more people had joined the feel would've been different; it wouldn't have worked well to keep it formatted as one group trying teas together.

It was nice keeping the event theme loose; bridging into chatting about background and such, and switching back into tangents about tea processing or types.  We covered so much ground I forgot that I brought a snack to go with the tea, McVitie's Digestives, a British type of cookie that's perfect for tea tasting, very neutral but tasty and nice.

I'm not sure what works as a "lesson learned," or what I'd do differently.  Reining in the tea order or types theme to make more sense might not hurt.  It seems odd to ramp up marketing that sort of event to increase turn-out.  It didn't seem like Thais who saw the notice felt it related to them, but then based on the people I've worked with better loose tea interest isn't as common as it might be here.  Thai FB tea groups have lots of members; there must be lots of exceptions.

I'd like to try an event in a different place, and have a plan for where, but it will take until after this coming holiday weekend to check on that.  I added a survey to draw feedback about where to have a tasting in the International Tea Talk group that I'm an admin for.  It seemed like it might work to get a cafe to hold a related event (as Seven Suns once did), or even to get a few Chinatown shops involved, and set up an informal tasting tour.  At this rate I'd be helping expand tea awareness here bit by bit, but as long as the outings are pleasant and people enjoy them that's not so bad.

a nice space in the local Dusit Zoo that might also work

the animal prison theme is rough but we visit there more for open green spaces

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Assam Teehaus orthodox Assam, and about a Bangkok tasting

probably a 2017 Assam version, but that wasn't clear

It's been over a year since I met Maddhurjya Gogoi and Bulu Deka along with Sasha Abramovich in the Bangkok Chinatown.  The time just flies.  I met with Sasha again for a trial run at making tea in the park for an event next weekend and he passed on more tea from Maddhurjya (from Assam Teahaus).  I'll say more about that tasting event at the end. 

I talked to Maddhurjya not so long ago, about how things go with him, and it was the usual mix of ups and downs, about new directions and positive steps taken, including processing step and equipment improvements, along with set-backs and typical problems, like local power supplies being a bit unstable.  In an earlier review of one of their teas I covered more of his earlier story, and I'll have to get back to passing on an update about those other later steps.  The main running themes are about small Assam farmers trying to produce better orthodox tea and to sell more directly, to get away from the wholesale middlemen and tea wholesale market models, which are very interesting subjects to me. 

I'll share a few pictures for a start:

Maddhurjya's home; what Assam looks like

Assam region rice field; looks a bit like Thailand

Assam local tea gardens

another local tea garden

It'll be nice to get back to trying good Assam.  Sasha actually passed on three versions, one that looks and smells a little like Jin Jun Mei.  Before you start, of course it's not supposed to be Jin Jun Mei, and if you like we could start with a premise that I've never actually tried a "real" version, even though it's my impression that I have.

The one other sample I'm not trying yet may well be this year's version, and I may still be on last year's version for this session (I think this probably is a 2017 tea).  Either way I have two others to try, and I can sort that out more in the next post.  Black tea that's well sealed won't lose much over the course of the first year, as a green tea definitely would, so it may have faded slightly (if that's the case), or depending on how it was produced it may have improved slightly (the sun-dried tea case).

It'll be nice to try a tea brewed Western style for a review.  I'm just getting over a cold (which goes well; I've been resting a lot this weekend) and this tea type is perfect for that.  That note and context was from tasting last weekend, when I wrote this post's notes; I'm ok now, towards the end of the week. I might miss a subtle flavor or two but I'm not working with a significantly diminished palate since I'm almost over that already, and never was actually congested.  My immune system and I have reached an understanding:  my body lets me know I'm getting sick early on, and if I give it the rest and extra fluids right away that resolves it, and otherwise things go the hard way, and half the time I end up with a secondary infection too.  Onto that tasting.


I think this version improved over the last that I tried, although it is hard comparing a tea against another version from just over a year ago.  I was trying the 2016 version last year, which was nice, but they were still working out optimizing production steps.  Whatever I try today might be surpassed by the next version I already have on hand too.

It has good sweetness, good flavor complexity, nice aspect range for flavor, and it's very clean in effect, no woodiness or trace of anything odd at all.  The flavors are so complex and sweet they lean a little towards fruit, but it doesn't seem like a fruity tea.  There is some malt but it's very tame compared to most of what is produced as Assam black tea, a soft but full feeling tea. 

Some people would miss that citrus / pine needle / malt kick that was present in the Halmari versions I tried a long time back but this does well for working more in a Chinese black tea style, softer and less intense.  I'm using water just a bit off boiling to brew this and ramping that up to right at that level would draw out more of an edge, if that were desired.

After all that I've still not really mentioned a flavor yet.  The main range seems to be cocoa, with a bit of malt in between the typical edgy malt of Assams and the softer, mild and sweet malt in a malted milk ball or milkshake, or Ovaltine.  The trace of fruitiness hints a little towards fig but doesn't quite get to that.  The depth in terms of flavor and the rest doesn't come across as a list of flavors.  It's not complex in that sense, not intense in flavor, just positive in character, not thin, and pleasant for what it does express.  I went light on this first infusion though, a habit carried over from how I prepare tea using a Gongfu approach, so it may develop a bit in the next round.

Pre-warming the infusion cup to bump up brewing temperature this time did seem to shift the aspect range a little, drawing out that more caramel or toffee range sweetness that using hotter water results in.  The dryness and feel picked up just a little too; it's better this round.  It's still towards mild malt and cocoa for main aspects, with some degree of mineral and mild fruit underlying that, not a pronounced or distinct enough aspect to identify as one thing.  Along with that flavor range and feel shifting a little the aftertaste picks up too, the way the tea gains some fullness by leaving your palate a little slower.

There is still a little room for this tea to improve related to adding a little more complexity and a bit more for specific flavors to stand out but it's pretty good as it is.  Most people who think they like Assam probably don't know it can be like this, even though this is just a well above average version, not quite as good as they get.  It works well as a tea to drink with breakfast, tying back to a comment I just made in another post about how most shou pu'er comes across; as pleasant, complex, and enjoyable, good enough to appreciate with food or without but not so complex and refined that you need to just focus on it to really appreciate it.

It's nice to relax about brewing parameters a little, and not just focus on tea for an hour, and handy to have good tea that doesn't require that level of attention for with breaks or breakfast.  I won't brew a lot of the teas I normally drink at work because I won't go through all the Gongfu brewing steps there, both because it looks like a lot of messing around and to an extent it is a lot of messing around.  I will drink tea that needs some focus with a half-hour breakfast, going through a fast 7 or 8 infusions using a clay pot or large gaiwan, because it has become that automatic.

I think the other two versions are the better ones; one made with finer buds, and one the latest version, the 2018 batch.  It was nice doing a simpler version of a review today, and I'll try to keep those reviews simple too, even if there ends up being more to say.  I actually did try one of them, so I know how that's going to go, to some extent, and that tea was closer to what I've tried of other very good Assam versions, a little heavier on bud content, a bit drier, and maltier, and more intense.  One part of the taste is a bit towards pine needle, a little resinous, which is nice.  But I'll get back to that; I didn't make any notes on it yet.

Trying tea in the park

There should be a rare tea-event description post for next week too (related to this event on the 21st), since that meeting with Sasha was to try out brewing in the park (Benjasiri, the one beside the Emporium mall in Bangkok, near the Phrom Pong BTS station).  I can say a little about how the trial went.

Sasha, middle, his wife Nok (right), and Joseph (left)

Hot water was the main concern, and of course they don't have outlets around for people to plug a kettle into.  It is possible to buy a tumbler or thermos refill at the one vendor station by the door near the BTS exit.  At best that's filtered tap water, and it may not even be filtered, which is safe--to drink local tap water boiled--but not ideal, especially for tea.  For space there's a lot, just not in case it rains, and the temperature was fine for drinking hot tea yesterday, just getting a bit warm around 1.

Sasha brought his wife, Nok, and we ran into an interesting local guy, Joseph.  He's originally from Ireland, and we ended up talking through some interesting ideas about spirituality and how it overlaps with normal life experience with him.  I've sort of left off the theme of being a religious seeker but that is still familiar ground, interesting to get back to.  We tried some of that Thai Moonlight White tea from Lampang, and some sheng and shou that Moychay sent, which made for plenty of interesting ground to cover.  As far as what to taste with a larger group next weekend (maybe larger; I don't know how many will show up) sheng may drop out, since it's trickier to brew and harder to appreciate without acclimating to that aspect range first.  We might try shou mei white instead.  This being Thailand I was thinking of trying a Thai black tea from Tea Side too, with those more or less made in a Yunnan Dian Hong style.  We'll see.

this seating area might come in handy, or maybe the ground will do

Beyond the water issue and seeing how brewing in the park went it was interesting seeing what could be different.  I forgot a tray, which would help, and small towels might work well along with paper towels.  It was interesting to see how preparing tea with a gaiwan wasn't necessarily easy for me, due to the mechanics of holding the cup changing when sitting on the ground versus at a table.  I spilled more than usual, even though I prepare tea in a gaiwan almost every other day.  I'll need help; that I already knew, but the limit of what I could do for preparation and how the water heating issue work out made all that clearer.

Two people volunteered to help already, that one Lampang Tea vendor, Noppadol, and a random contact responding to that notice.  It should be interesting.  I plan to shift the format based on how many people are there.  I'll do more pouring tea myself with emphasis on Gongfu approach if it's smaller, and more managing others helping out with Western style brewing if more turn up.  Of course I'll mention how it went here.

a Thai scout

wearing something a bit different

Monday, July 16, 2018

Teamania produced 2016 Lucky Bee Yiwu sheng pu'er

I've tried just one Fukamushi Sencha sample sent by my vendor friend from Switzerland, Peter Pocajt, from Teamania, now onto a sheng as well.  I think I mentioned that I've actually met him in real life on a visit through Bangkok; always nice to move beyond just exchanging messages like that.  A lot of vendors are true tea enthusiasts too and that really comes across better when you meet someone.

This is a 2016 sheng from Yiwu (2016 Yiwu Lucky Bee); not really a sample, he hooked me up with a cake of it, with the rest of the teas samples instead.

One distinction that has come up in sheng is that some are produced to be drinkable when young, and others made in a traditional way that allows for aging, and also include more bitterness and astringency.  That also varies by production region, and other factors, by plant type, and so on.  That first statement implied reference to processing step choices that I've not really went into; there's more on that subject in this post about "oolong pu'er."  That's a bit of a misleading category nickname that references sheng style differences, as a pu'er that may have been produced allowing slightly more oxidation to occur, or else just based on processing that enables it being a bit smoother and more drinkable.

Since Yiwu tends to be approachable when young (which varies, of course) I'm not as worried about limiting this tasting to talking about aging potential, to how this tea is a bit rough going now but might really be good in another decade.  I would expect the processing to be on the traditional side (just a guess), so even for being two years old I'd expect it to not be a soft, smooth, sweet, bright-floral version of tea, to be on the intense side.  But we'll see.  It works to check on the vendor's description and even pricing to get some idea of what to expect but I tasted this without looking into that, since it's as well to keep the process more blind.


The first short infusion after a fast rinse is a little light so this round will just be first impressions.  The tea is good; that stands out already, already obvious from the first sip.  There's an intensity to it that stands out beyond it being light.  Floral tone is there, and some underlying mineral.  That mineral tone is a little unusual, similar to that bright, sweet, distinctive version found in Taiwanese high mountain oolongs.  I'm not saying this tea reminds me of an oolong; I'm saying the mineral aspect is common to that.  Or it really might be the pairing of a certain range of floral tone with a particular mineral aspect, a bright, sweet note that somehow connects with an underlying flinty, light mineral.  It's really catchy.  There is a bit of bitterness and astringency but this is in a balance that's going to work well, at least per initial impression.

just getting started

I gave this over 15 seconds to get going in the next round, since it will take more than two infusions to have it unfurled and brewing.  For once I'm not using a packed-gaiwan for proportion, in part to keep the amount I drink reasonable since I'm going out to meet someone for tea right after this tea.  I'm living out a one-track-mind theme, or two really, counting my kids.

The style is unusual; it's very pleasant, but not similar to a lot of what I tend to try.  It has floral aspect to it, so it's not completely off what I've tried for other Yiwu, but even that comes across just a little differently.  I'm already getting the impression that this is better than what I usually drink.  The balance is really nice, the way it's even across that floral range, with sweetness that's pronounced but also moderate, not intense.  The mineral range is also prominent but in normal proportion.  The tea is a bit light on bitterness and astringency but both are present, to a degree that works.  I may not do justice to what I mean, about which part or which balance of typical aspects works out better.

On the atypical side there's a catchy aspect that goes beyond normal Yiwu floral tone, but related to that, that's hard to place.  It might just be a lighter, sweeter, more subtle, and brighter version of a floral tone, or it could even extend slightly towards fruit.  It's a short step towards lemon citrus or pandan leaf, the herb that tastes like Fruity Pebbles cereal to me, but it doesn't quite get to those.

This is kind of a strange place to add the idea but I'm just starting to get a cold, probably working with about 90% of my normal taste sensitivity, at a guess.  I don't mean that I'm congested; I couldn't taste tea if that were the case.  I just feel different, and that will adjust my palate, dialing down sensitivity a little.  It's not an ideal tea to be drinking related to that; I could be reviewing a sweet, rich, basic and straightforward Chinese black or Assam instead, and that factor might not matter much then.  I have to go with intuition on what to try when though; what I feel like getting to.

after opening up

Another substantial length infusion later (around 15 seconds) the intensity of this tea really dials up.  It's still quite approachable, but the main impression is of it being balanced.  One of Bach's cello suites came on just now (the cable classic music program is on); that's an old favorite.  I'd see it as a good sign if I were into such things, but I'm just spacey and a bit random, not really superstitious.

Back to this tea.  There might be something in that set of aspects that supports why it works so well for me, why it seems so different, beyond the "balance" idea.  That underling mineral range is definitely a little different, not completely typical in form, and more pronounced.  The floral range isn't intense but slightly off the most standard aspect form for Yiwu (not that those are all one thing, of course), and it works well.  This was probably some really intense tea two years ago when first produced, or even more last year, with the aspects falling into a balance that really works now.

On that paradigm of a split between sweet, smooth, and approachable versus bitter, astringent, and structured with potential for aging it sort of doesn't seem to fit.  At a guess I'd like this tea better now than in another decade but I also get the sense it has enough complexity across a broad range of aspects to stand up to aging transition.  I'd expect it to improve instead of just fading.  It's not the kind of tea you'd want to forget you have for a half dozen years and check back in with later but I'm guessing it also wouldn't be wasted by hanging around.  Those are just guesses, though.  It's not really at full-blast intensity as some sheng comes across, sometimes across a lot of aspect range; it's well balanced.

A number of infusions in it's not really transitioning too much.  That one catchy brighter, sweeter note pulls back a little with a bit more warmth and depth picking up.  The taste is still really clean.  The feel is nice, not thin, with aftertaste trailing nicely.  I bet I'm losing the most read on that part, related to my normal sense of taste being slightly off.  As far as what I'm not describing well--a lot about this tea, it seems--that mineral range is also different; it has more depth to it.  One part is a bit light and dry, a little flinty, and another warmer and deeper, more like the scent of a well or spring, and it trails over towards spice range just a little, but doesn't get there.  I suppose the part that's catchy is really all of it together, the complexity along with the balance.

On the next round it occurs to me that part of what I like might be a lingering sweetness, that gives the experience an overall extra intensity.  It's not the form that seems to be what is usually referred to as hui gan; not so much tied to bitterness, extending into a taste that occurs on the back of your mouth and throat, a sensation that pairs directly with a taste.  It occurs throughout your whole mouth instead, a bit lighter, more bright-taste associated versus heavier and sweet.  One "test" a friend passed on for hui gan is to taste cool but not cold water after the round, and that sensation will become even sweeter.  The effect is different for this; it's still noticeable along with the water, but not ramped up in sweetness as for that other different aspect.  Anyway.

It would seem normal for someone to interpret this sweetness as some type of bright, sweet, but mild fruit instead of a floral tone.  It's not completely dis-similar to dried mango but not quite that.  I'll have to go so I'll give this one more round of trying it and that'll do, even though it's probably something like half-way through it's cycle.

Since it's tea-specific I might mention what I'm off to do; a practice run for an outdoor, in-the-park tea tasting to be held next weekend.  I'm meeting a friend, Sasha, to test out how heating water and other details go.  I bet one finding will be that it's too hot in Bangkok to drink tea outdoors from 11 AM to 1, even during the slightly cooler rainy season.  It's probably only around 28 or 29 C in here right now (82-84 F), which is cool for us, but we're tucked down in a miniature jungle grove in this house.  Since I'm editing this a few days later I could say how that small scale tasting trial went but I'll hold off until the next post to add that instead.

that local park (Benjasiri), the entrance of it

a giant bo tree there; the Buddha sat under one when he was enlightened 

The tea is the same; not shifting, quite nice still.  That sweetness might have shifted just a little towards a light sweet citrus, really just as much a fruit tone as a floral aspect at this point.  It had reminded me of lemon zest earlier but now it seems closer to mandarin orange; warmed up a little, less bright but richer.

Maybe this tea surprises me for being a bit unconventional as much as for being good and well balanced.  The plant type source might be part of that, but I'm guessing that it's everything together, using slightly older and more natural growth plant leaf input, and processing it slightly differently.  It might even work to say "better," related to that processing.

Vendor description

Since this tea has something of a story I'll mention that product description here:

This bingcha is made of tea leaves from teamaster Yans Ming own tea plantation in Yiwu. We are especially proud about this tea because it is one the first Bingcha we made by ourselves.

Together with our friends, the tea masters Yang and Panda we went on the search for the ideal pu-erh tea leaves. However, far we did not need search as Yang's tea plantation offered this kind of tea leaves. And because Yang Ming doesn't use pesticides nor artificial fertilizers are especially the bees are very happy.

Harvest: Spring 2016, Pressed: 2016
Type: Sheng
Taste: Honey sweet and a bit mineral.
Origin: Yiwu, Xishuangbanna, prefecture, Yunnan province, China.
Preparation: Appx. 3g per tea pot, temperature 100°C. Rinse the tea leaves before infusing with boiling water.
Tip: This tea is ideal to mature a few years.

I would have met Peter right around then, maybe just after that visit there two years ago.  All of that description works.  The aging recommendation in particular does; the tea is nice now but I get the impression it won't fade, it will gain complexity and depth over some number of years.  As far as long term aging prospect, where this would be in 10 to 15 years, I really don't know; that goes beyond what I should be taking a guess at.

The price was another surprise.  I ordinarily don't cover that in reviews but if there's something unusual to say I will; this lists for around $45 now.  Based on other teas I've tried of different quality levels that's probably on the low side, and double that might still work for a fair market price, or somewhere in the middle with good value still remaining a selling point.  All sheng tends to jump up fairly quickly in price as years of aging occur, which is kind of fair, since proper storage and aging provides an added value, and this is probably a good version to pick up while it's still listing for this.  It's no experimental version of sheng, not one of those cases where a new vendor / producer is sorting out processing details; whoever made this is quite familiar with how to produce sheng.

For someone new to better tea sheng might not be the most natural starting point, so there's that as a factor, but this has ran too long to cover another tangent about all that, and in general it works to assume that only people a bit down the path are reading this.

Yunnan sheng processing, from Peter's blog

Or at least all that is my take.  Beyond processing variations changing all pu'er aspects at a guess it might also be slightly atypical in character--mostly in quite positive ways--partly because the plant source isn't what I'm used to.  It doesn't seem to be plantation grown factory tea, or "wild tea," an older source naturally grown version.  Per my limited experience those are quite subtle in overall character and different in flavor aspect range, but this is instead somewhere in the middle, not exactly like a conventional grown plant or a "wild" source (forest grown; harvested when mixed with other plants).  Peter's Teamania linked blog post doesn't really go into that but he does mention some details about traveling in Yunnan a couple of years ago here, of course with photos of tea plants and processing.

the cat had mixed feelings about this pose