Monday, August 20, 2018

Lessons learned from another open Bangkok tea tasting

with Sasha Abramovich (representing Penn State!)

I held a second free, open tea tasting at the Dusit Zoo this past weekend.  That went well.  It's kind of a strange theme but the point of these is just to share tea.  I don't sell tea, and don't even earn advertising revenue from this blog (there are no ads).  Vendors do pass on samples to review, standard enough for blog based review, so that's some compensation.  I share some of those in these events.

It's not the second time I've prepared tea for others in a group setting, the fifth instead.  We did a warm-up tasting in the Benjasiri park before that first event, with only four of us present, to dial in the process.  The first time was for a larger group, for a Random Thainess group theme (two years ago now), where I did a short presentation about tea in Thailand.  I made them an Anxi Tie Kuan Yin and Taiwanese Oriental Beauty, so two oolongs, passing out cups just before the speaking part started.  That was hectic, trying to prepare 25 small cups of tea at one time, in unfamiliar circumstances.

The second time was at another structured-theme event, through CultCheers.  That was attended by 8 people (about the same size as these tastings), covering just a few kinds of tea, where I was both preparing the tea and discussing it for an hour or so.  That was even more hectic, doing both at the same time.  The teas came out well that time, with the tea-background content addressed in good depth for that limited time, even allowing for some attendee input and discussion.  It's interesting how a more educational presentation premise shifts expectations.

I'll mention how this outing went, of course, but the main point here is to cover what works and what doesn't in these events, and at this most recent one in particular.

with Sasha, Nok, and Joseph in the Benjasiri Park; small scale works well

the CultCheers version; a completely different theme

Event description

7 people attended, or 8 including me, the same as at the last tasting.  Noppadol, the local vendor who sells Lampang Teas and others, including a nice Thai version of sheng pu'er, joined again and helped out with providing teas.  He brought nearly half of them, and did a good bit of brewing.

It seems like mentioning this type of event in large local Facebook groups won't work for drawing more attendees.  In a sense that's better; for any more than 10 people the format would have to shift to compensate.


That location worked well.  I arrived just before 10 and there were already plenty of people in the zoo, and some in that food court.  In a sense people having breakfast around me saved the spots, since they'd move on soon enough.  I picked a place beside the bird enclosure area beside an electrical outlet.  That part was going to be critical for using a kettle, or so I thought.  It turned out that outlet didn't work; in retrospect I might've tested it.

I felt a bit nervous about getting it started once 10:10 rolled around and I was still alone but I had expected that.  It's not an easy place to reach, coupling demands of parking and navigating inside a larger zoo complex.  Three people showed up around 10:15; the tasting was on.

the view out the window behind us:  birds

Background noise was a factor.  At 10:15 that was moderate but it ramped up over the next two hours, as expected.  It's easy to miss how that changes things.  From a lot of previous tasting experience it became clear that level of detail of experiencing the teas would scale back due to that.  Tasting a lot of different teas is also limiting.  Never mind; the point was to try a range of types, and to talk, to meet each other.

The pace was a little hectic, preparing teas.  I had to heat water in a kettle using an outlet somewhere else three times, and bought one extra bottle of water at one point.

This is probably a good place to list what teas we tried, more or less in order, with a general lighter to heavier theme (as much as there was any theme):

Gong Mei:  compressed white tea, a "factory" version, 3 years old.

Nepal white tea (buds and fine leaves):  more to follow about this source in another post; there is a lot more story to cover than about a standard vendor passing on samples.

Compressed Dian Hong, Yunnan black tea (from Moychay):  a nice version, just a little tart for my preference in black teas.

Bao Ing Huan Zhi Guangdong oolong (from Moychay):  in between Dan Cong and Tie Kuan Yin in style.  A nice tea; different.

Dan Cong (Noppadol contributed): I don't know the details, but it was a decent version, good tea but not great, type-typical, so fruity and sweet.

Myanmar sheng (Noppadol contributed):  probably the same as I reviewed previously, or maybe not.  It tasted similar, but I wasn't doing a really focused tasting given this background.

Lincang sheng (Noppadol contributed--no details):  an ok version, but that's not my favorite region origin for sheng.

Lao Man Er shou pu'er, huang pian version (again from Moychay; they were kind of an event sponsor).

Shui Xian Wuyi Yancha (Noppadol contributed):  again type typical, good tea, not exceptional but above average, which is a nice range for Wuyi Yancha (Fujian roasted oolong).

It was a lot.  Noppadol brewed most of the teas he brought, so he was doing a lot of the brewing for the last hour or so.  We kind of stuck to a general lighter to heavier order at first and then later jumped around between types a good bit.

just some of the aftermath

The Moychay-provided tea running theme relates to them providing a lot of teas for review this year (not news to regular readers; many thanks to them again for that).  The tastings are a good chance to use that input to share exposure to a lot of types, all pretty good teas, ranging from basic inexpensive versions to some pretty good stuff.  Most of these ones were more basic than some others I've reviewed--just how it worked out.  That Lao Man Er huang pian shou wasn't; it didn't seem like people were really appreciating the depth and subtlety of that tea, but under the circumstances that's understandable.

The tiny porcelain cups I bought in Jip Eu worked well.  I was concerned those might be too small, even though I've tasted tea from them plenty of times in the past.  It would seem silly to drink Western brewed tea in a half-ounce cup but somehow the large thimble-full makes perfect sense in a Gongfu brewing context.  Even for those being so small one large gaiwan didn't make enough to fill 8 of the cups, but it worked well to "stack" two quick infusions, to brew two and combine them in a sharing pitcher (or beaker-style measuring cup used as one, in this case).  It would have been easy to use two gaiwans for the same tea type too, if it came down to that, but combining subsequent infusions is roughly the same.

Noppadol and the Jip Eu owner, when I bought those small cups

The main point worked out, to share the experience of the teas.  It was nice to have a couple of local Thais join this time, and to meet Larry, who I'd been talking to online for awhile.  It was nice seeing Sasha and Pat from the first event, and nice of Noppadol to help out so much again.  Really everyone contributed their own perspective; meeting all the people was nice part of it.

Attendance / format issues

I'm a little torn between thinking it would be nice to get more people involved and exposed to the teas and thinking 8 is actually an ideal group size.  The same format could work for 10 people but for any more one person doing the brewing would be a problem; splitting into two smaller groups might make sense.  We had two people doing the brewing already, but it was nice trying lots of teas as one small group, round after round for a couple of hours.  We downed a lot of those tiny cups of tea, bordering on too many.

I had a contingency plan for how to scale it up for more people, beyond splitting Noppadol and I up into pouring for separate groups.  I bought a Western teapot on one of those Chinatown visits, and it would have worked to stagger in a couple of types brewed that way.  Making a pint / half liter at one time would speed things up, and two pots worth would fill a lot of tiny tasting cups.  And provide free up time for more heating water or swapping out leaves in a gaiwan.

That leads into a second concern a friend raised, about my role in leading discussion versus letting others share their views on the teas.  I was too busy making tea to keep up more than one person's even share of talking.  I only passed on minimal background about teas, a type and origin country, maybe also asking a question and mentioning a flavor I thought I noticed.

I would really need more help to do more with that, to draw on the front waiter / back waiter form to put more of the basic duties on someone else (or just drink less types of tea).  It might work to split that socializing part out, to do more freestyle tasting before and after, and then mix in more information along with some form of central tasting part.  It was nice keeping participants meeting each other as a main sub-theme, with the extra chatting keeping the tea background information limited.

I had been at a tasting event with Mhee before (the guy in both the first photo in this post and two people to the left of me in the one following), but we were more concentrated on the tea in that event.  Those teas sort of required it; it was an age-sequence (vertical) Yiwu sheng tasting, with differing storage locations adding an extra variable.

that Yiwu tasting last year, a more standard format

Participants passed on suggestions for theme changes at the end:

-hold an event at a tea shop instead (I have some loose plans related to this)

-boost attendance by linking up with a Thai online tea group (maybe not, but it's an option)

-hold a registration confirmation step, and possibly charge attendees

-narrow theme, down to a specific tea type, for example.  If I keep holding these eventually I would; it just makes too much sense not to move to doing that.

traditional shops tend to be small but one might work (Ong Yong Choon)

Lessons learned based on both tasting events

The outdoor theme was really nice, in that first event.  It didn't seem too "off" being in a food court, maybe dressed up a little for background for having a dozen exotic water birds walking around in a pool not that far out the window, but it was noisy.  A source of hot water is critical; that remains a sticking point that hasn't been resolved in ideal fashion yet.

The narrow versus broad tea type theme depends on the audience.  As a cold introduction to better tea broader is better; to really pick out details and fully appreciate the tea aspects narrowing in a bit makes lots more sense.  The same applies to an open chatting themed format versus having one central person guiding focus on the tea experience instead.

That latter group-oriented tea-exploration focus includes its own natural split.  It would work to have someone who really knows the teas cover half the discussion, to present background, and frame what they think is going on with each version for aspects and character.  Or it would be natural to cover that as more even input group discussion, but it would help out a lot if the group was sort of on the same page.  With friends or a group meeting regularly all that should fall together naturally.  In a random-mix intro theme maybe not so much.

review tasting is often round-by-round comparison instead

A second natural split comes in focus on either describing a tea, the typical wine-tasting context, or on just experiencing it, more of how many might take the Gongfu cha ceremonial aspect.  You can converse during most forms of ceremonial tastings, per my understanding, or even during an informal Japanese tea ceremony version, just not a more formal version.  In the most precise, ceremonial form those are about as close to performance of choreographed dance as to a more typical meditative experience.

That was a lot of tea to try in one go.  By the time we'd only covered an aged Gong Mei and Nepalese white--a good version of one; really something to experience by itself--everyone could tell it was going to cover some new ground.  Probably towards the end it started to get to be a bit much, just one new type, version, and experience after another, while the lunch crowds thickened and background noise level kept increasing.

I have some ideas for how to counter some of that, to keep a later event simpler, and more tranquil.  A natural space would be an ideal setting, and I might be able to arrange a really unique location that's tranquil, open, and comfortable but also set up for events. 

If any readers have their own thoughts to share about locations, format, or process I'd be happy to hear those at this related FB page, or sharing photos of your own event would be welcomed in an international themed tea group I'm an admin for.

there are natural open spaces, a bit crowded now since the zoo closes soon

from the day after that tasting, back there again

not all the wildlife is in cages

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