I'm reviewing two more black tea samples from Tea Side, a Thai vendor, after comparison reviewing three Yunnan-style Thai black teas earlier. They sell some nice Thai black teas, interesting versions of them. Somehow it seemed like a good idea to try focusing on black tea for that last long weekend, to take up a type-related tasting theme. Reviewing dis-similar teas is a little strange but as I've mentioned it's familiar ground. These were close enough that it still worked well.
I tried condensing the normal conclusions into a summary that precedes the tasting notes this time. It's a format that Miro (Sasha's friend) suggested related to a potential way to make these reviews read as shorter, for people who don't want to read through the taste-by-taste / feel and aftertaste aspect detailed version. I'm not sure if I'll stick with it but that is a good idea, as long as I think to write those when doing the initial tasting and notes, since memory only goes so far days later.
Summary overview; executive abstract
These were two nice teas, very different in style. The Shai Hong is closer to a Yunnan style black tea, sun-dried black tea per definition, similar enough to other Yunnan versions I've tried before. The tea transitioned quite a bit over several rounds, covering a lot of ground for an individual tea. It's nicely balanced, clean in effect, complex, and not thin in any way across any aspect range. Individual flavors shifted, covering mineral that reminded me a little of the structure from good Ceylon, onto closer to spice and dried fruit, later slightly perfume-line floral at one point, then back into a slightly different fruit.
The Assam-style rolled black was a little more straightforward but also just generally different. One aspect that was mostly in spice range dominated the experience. That aspect or set of them wasn't easy to pin down, in between some root or bark spice, generally a little towards cardamom. Some degree of mineral and dried fruit joined that but it was less pronounced, more a base that gave it some complexity.
I liked the Shai Hong better but that may have related to personal preference for style as much as to the tea being better. It did seem slightly better, to me, more complex and a bit better balanced, but a reaction to the individual aspects would still tie back to preference.
I gave both teas a bit over 30 seconds infusion time the first round, even though the proportion is set up for shorter times, to get them brewing. Often I'll go with a light round instead and then start more of a review on the second, but this time I went the other way.
Shai Hong left, rolled Assam style black right
Shai Hong: this is brewed a bit too strong, a little over optimum. It's easy to see how it's going to fall into a much nicer balance using a shorter time. The flavor has good depth, and sweetness, with nice earthy range flavors (better described at closer to an optimum). The relatively strong astringency comes across well for being a bit much, just throwing off how it's going to work. To be clear this is a bit more astringent than a tea of this style would be brewed lighter; it's nowhere near the astringency level that would still be typical for second flush Darjeeling, never mind Assam. For flavor that astringency pairs with mineral tone, and there will be more to break down related to earthy range next round.
Assam style rolled black: this rolled tea probably did need that longer time to start brewing. This tea is also sweet, complex, and interesting, quite clean and balanced for expressing as unusual a flavor aspects set as it seems to. One pronounced flavor element between wood and spice really stands out, maybe an aromatic wood, or bark spice. Sweetness is along the line of a rich dark fruit, towards dried tamarind, in the general direction of sun-dried tomato, but really closer to that tamarind.
I'll go with a relatively fast infusion this time, the opposite, down around 15 seconds.
Shai Hong: even quite light that flavor combination is really catchy. Astringency drops back to a relatively low level brewed this fast; the tea has some structure and feel to it but it's relatively soft. That flavor aspect is a bit towards spice.
You know how Lipton teas have that smell that's pleasant, not exactly like tea, a little towards clove (but then taste bad when you brew and drink it)? It's a little like that one scent. I guess to some extent I'm saying the aromatic earthy range, that's not so far off a sweet version of tobacco, reminds me a little of better Ceylon. To me those are more distinctive for mineral range in flavor, at least related to when you actually brew them. The sweetness, balance, and aftertaste are all nice, not so pronounced that there seems to be a lot to say about them, but all pretty good for where a better black tea should be. For a lot of black teas different parts of those ranges will end up being thin and it's not necessarily easy to pin down what's missing.
Assam style black: in terms of description comparison, this tea has a warm, definitive earthy and spice range aspect the other doesn't, and gives up a bit for that deeper mineral layer, and the spice and dried fruit related range. It's just different. We just tried a "nuggets" sort of style black tea from Rohini (Darjeeling) that did taste a bit like this primary flavor aspect yesterday (at time of writing these notes last weekend, at that gathering hosted by Sasha). This version is probably slightly better; that one was a little musty, not as clean in effect and distinctive. I must admit that as personal preference goes I like the Yunnan-style black teas better, so the other tea I just tried works better for me, but really that might just relate to individual preference.
Both these teas would be fine with a 20 second infusion time instead, slightly longer; I'll try that next round.
Shai Hong: this tea was already nice but it's improving, partly related to getting infusion time right, and I get the impression the natural transition is in a good place too, where it is in the cycle. A catchy sort of aged furniture or perfume floral tone has joined in, a continuation of the earlier mineral, spice, and earthy range, but shifted from what it had been. That much floral tone in a black tea is unusual. It could easily not work well at all but it balances perfectly with the rest. The mineral tone, astringency related touch of dryness, good level of sweetness, and other complexity all balance well together. Someone could even interpret this as close to clove spice and that wouldn't necessarily be wrong, I just wouldn't see it as that. At a guess this might be better tea than the other three black teas I already tried from Tea Side, or at least the most interesting in character.
Assam-style rolled tea: I get a sense this is copying an established style I'm not really familiar with, even beyond having tried a tea that was relatively similar yesterday. I guess spice range is most of what's going on, beyond that dried fruit, more an odd version of a root spice at this point, but then a spice version of bark might also taste like this. Of the main spices it's probably closest to cardamom, but definitely not identical, not even all that close a match, just along the same line. If someone loved this they'd see it as a pleasant, aromatic spice, and if they didn't it might come across as a bit mustier, more along the line of fermented balsa wood. As I'm interpreting it the main flavor really is spice range though.
these photos look a bit alike, the leaves just move around. this one is larger to show leaf texture.
These teas haven't transitioned that much, so I'll mention a couple of very minor changes and leave off. Both are showing just a bit more dark caramel or toffee and a touch more mineral base astringency; I've probably went slightly longer on the infusion time, at a bit over 20 seconds instead of a little under.
I think the Shai Hong did transition again, a little; interesting that it keeps shifting. Fruitiness picked up a little, and the rest that had been there faded back, with that fruit along the line of a ruby-red grapefruit, but in between that sweet, rich fruit part and the tangy zest of the peel spray. It might sound like I keep mentioning flavors that shouldn't go together but they all do balance and match well; that's another strength of the tea. The Assam style rolled black is essentially the same as it had been.
In coming back to the teas later I noticed a little sourness showing up in the Assam version. It could be that it drifted into that range in late infusions (not usually how that works, but it could), or that it had been a minor component that I had overlooked. That last comment in the third round about the tea tasting a little like fermented balsa wood could have been an interpretation along the same line. In general it was clean flavored and positive across the range of aspects, so to some extent I'm just trying to be thorough here.
One part I didn't mention in this is about feel and aftertaste of these teas. That wasn't necessarily because they were thin in feel or didn't express much for aftertaste (or finish), but instead probably related to two factors in tasting. When trying dis-similar teas--these are both black teas, and along the same lines in a sense, but still quite different--it's easy to focus on a more limited set of aspects and I tend to notice taste first. Also my kids are around for this tasting, not at Chinese / Mandarin lessons or swim lessons this weekend, so the noise level in the house is up a bit compared to when I typically taste teas on weekend mornings. We have an outing to get to later today too, a timeline to stick to, and that doesn't help. It's better to be a little rushed and to hear some banging and shouting than to have a cold though; when I do get a clear few moments to try the teas I can pick up what I'm tasting.
not long after that tasting, a biking outing described here
Comparing vendor descriptions can be interesting; I think the "shai hong" version is this one (from the Tea Side website):
Black tea from old Thai trees of winter 2017-2018 harvest.
Made by a unique technology: oxidation of twisted leaves goes while drying in the sun. It has a bright and delicate floral taste. Holds infusions as well as good sheng pu-erh from trees so you can call it "Red Sheng Pu-erh". In China this kind of tea is also called Shai Hong which means “dried in the sun”.
Without distortions in taste, so common for black teas of mild oxidation. No doubt It will be finely aging.
All that sounds right; this tea should improve with age. I'm not sure over how long, if it really would still be better or even good in another decade, but over several years some sun-dried versions of black teas are said to gain complexity. I've checked that, by trying a version a year later before, and it seemed to really work that way. It can be hard to notice the absence of flaws, mentioned in this, but a main strength of this tea was how uniformly positive and well balanced all the aspects were.
The other tea description from their web page:
Black tea from young Assam tree leaves.
Do not be confused by its appearance, It is twisted in the manner of Taiwanese Oolongs and looks like Hong Shui. But this is a bush of Assamica, which has finally grown up in one of the Thai Oolong plantations.
The taste is soft, milky-floral with fruity notes. The cover of gaiwan gives an amazing aroma of floral perfume. However, in this tea there is nothing from oolong, this is a very true red tea of a good firmness... With age the taste will only get better.
Maybe this tea will improve with aging too; hard to say. Fruity kind of worked as a description, with some spice complexity too, which I interpreted as more pronounced than the fruit aspect.
This summary-first format feels a little cut short at the end, as if it just stops after tasting notes, but I could always include a few local-lifestyle pictures to fill in as a more natural stopping point.
a recent cool outing; ice skating, her first time