Saturday, September 29, 2018

Singapore tea expo, and on tea flavor profiling

I spoke with Cedric Teng, who I first met at a Bangkok park tea tasting awhile back, about going to a Singapore tea expo / festival held recently.  He agreed to pass on some photos and notes, which are really closer to a complete guest blog post than limited input.

Cedric in blue, listening to Sasha explain something

Narendra Kumar Gurung, the Nepal tea grower who started on developing local processing capability this year (covered here in three posts), was also in Singapore over that time frame.  He only visited the event briefly since he was there on other business, but I'll also pass on input from him as well. 

A second related post to follow will cite the organizer's online reference about one of the more interesting aspects, a flavor profile evaluation technique.  That was used to make suggestions to participants for which vendors to visit and what teas to try at the event, related to aspects preference.  That post will extend discussion into related methodologies and evaluation approaches.  Here the subject just gets covered related to Cedric's take on how it worked for him, with his complete account of the visit following.

Cedric Teng's guest post style input on the tea festival

The Singapore Tea Festival 2018 was held at ION Orchard from 21-23 September, and featured a plethora of tea enthusiast selling any and all things tea-related. The event was organized by Tea Pasar, an online tea marketplace that hopes to help tea drinkers understand their tea preferences, and connect them to tea suppliers and producers across the world. There were also workshops and masterclasses available for people to find out more about teas and the brewing process.

(Photo: 1a – Tea Festival Map; 1b – Workshop)

First and foremost, visitors were encouraged to register for an account on the Tea Pasar website, and were given a free porcelain sampling cup upon registration. This cup was to be used to sample teas from the booths available.

(Photo: 2 – Sampling Cup)

 Once into your account, users were prompted to select their tea preferences based on 8 different tea characteristics, namely sweetness, umami, saltiness, sourness, astringency, bitterness, aftertaste, and richness. The online algorithm will then formulate an individualized Profile Print based on these preferences, and offer some suggestions for teas that you may enjoy and the percentage match.

(Photo: 3 – Taste Profile)

Many of the teas available on the website were available for tasting at the event itself, making it super convenient for visitors to discover first-hand the type of teas they like, and also to tweak their preferences there and then as they sample the teas available. For me, my Profile Print started me off with a Wuyi mountain Oolong from Camellia TeaBar. The great thing about the festival is that you get the chance to talk with the tea brewers themselves, who can provide feedback and recommendations before you decide which ones you liked the most. Although my recommended tea, the Lapsang Souchong, was not available for tasting, I tried a few of their other Oolongs, my favourite being the House Orchid, which was lighter with some floral notes.

(Photo: 4 – Camellia Tea Bar)

With the number of booths available, it soon became more convenient to just go from booth to booth rather than follow the website recommendations, and I found myself sampling a bit of everything. Starting with the Oolong, I moved on to try a few different types of Pu Erh, before ending it off with some tea blends at The Tea Depot. In particular, I liked the Eight Secrets tea, which was a blend of eight different teas, which had a nice fruity aroma of lychee.

(Photo: 5 – Aerial)

All in all, I feel that the Tea Festival is definitely a great way for people to start figuring out their tea preferences or explore new brews, and with the array of teas available, it is likely that you would be able to find quite a number of brews that suit your tastebuds. Even though I started off preferring teas which were stronger and more bitter, I found myself gravitating towards sweeter teas with floral or fruity notes in the end, but I think more tea needs to be drunk before I decide on my preferred tastes.

Narendra Kumar Gurung's input

There's a lot more I might comment on related to all Cedric covered, of course starting with noting that his account was well-developed, detailed, and clear.  Before moving onto Narendra's input about the same event I'll add a couple comments about Cedric's experience. 

One part that stands out is his reaction to the tea profiling system they used.  His description didn't seem to reject that it was practical, or critique the form, but due to him still exploring which basic types and aspect themes he likes best in tea it seemed the functionality was limited.  I'll get back to all that in a second post about that subject.

He also didn't seem to experience their "workshop and activities" functions, an interesting looking part of the event.  To some extent that would be more relevant to people with a deeper interest in exploring some specific tea theme, or so involved with the subject they'd want to explore many.  Here is that event workshop schedule, cited from the event page as follows:

I really should have visited that; Singapore is right down the road from Bangkok.  Even just visiting the booths and trying and discussing different types of tea would've been worthwhile.

Narendra and I discussed the same event online by message, here condensed down to a few key points, covering his impression.

I visited on the last day of the festival, at around 6:00 pm, after attending a Nepal Day event held in a central area.  The tea expo was only three MRT stations away [Sinapore has the most functional subway system I've yet experienced].  I visited with my daughter and brother who lives in Singapore.  It was quite busy, with a large number of people eager to try many teas one after another, asking various questions to each of the exhibitors, with the event seemingly a junction of teas from around the world. 

We went around to each stall and tried teas from many different countries and places. Of course each had their own unique taste, flavor, packaging and presentation style. Singapore is truly an international hub, represented in that diversity.  But the tea tasting part of the experience seemed a little less genuine in form than the original preparation and drinking styles can be, probably due to demands of the format and the rush to serve so many people.

From my days in Fujian tea college the more genuine taste of many of the teas may not have been carried over due to the fusion of different preparation styles, which may have resulted in changes to different aromas experienced.  On the positive side there was a good energy from that crowd participation theme, and exposure to a greater number of participants.  Some teaware on display was also very eye catching.  But due to time constraints we couldn't meet the various tea masters and hold in-depth discussions about the products.

That event forum definitely has potential as an opportunity to explore and expose a larger number of people to the original character of Nepal tea. Nepali teas grown in high altitude and an organic manner could definitely attract a lot of tea lovers there.  But there could be some more work to be done in terms of better branding, packing, and advertising to support that. Nepali teas already produced have their own distinct, original style that compares well to others, but it may also be helpful to add more value by adjusting style to meet differing preference demands.

Conclusions, and about Singapore

The event sounded great to me.  In the initial draft of this post the next section covered the Teapasar flavor profiling system used at the expo, but that ran so long that I've split it out into a second post to follow.  That system seemed very novel, creative and forward thinking, obviously not something put together quickly for marketing purposes or event organization.  I'll get back with more details, and more about other related systems of tea aspect evaluation and summary.  Regardless of those details the general theme can all serve as food for thought for tea groups and event organizers in other places.  

I'll close with a bit more background about Singapore instead.

Narendra and his daughter, and part of the Singapore harbor area (credit)

Singapore is one of the two most culturally diverse cities I've ever visited, roughly on par with Honolulu for not having any one majority of race or background culture among residents.  It's the country I've visited the most in South East Asia, at least a half dozen times in vacation visits and work trips. There are four main groups living there, related to background:  from China, India, Malaysia, and "other," Westerners and people from all over.  As a former British colony that English background would have been more influential in the first half of the 20th century but Singapore is very diverse and mixed today.  Singapore was a part of Malaysia after that, and later split off to be an independent country.  You can imagine how diverse the foods offerings are there.

It's unique for being a city state and an island, literally just across a bridge from Malaysia.  A co-worker was just talking about how you can reach the closest town / city in Southern Malaysia by bus in half an hour or by high speed train in 10 minutes (seems a bit too fast, doesn't it; it takes me 45 minutes to get to work within Bangkok, and I don't live that far away).  We've visited the Legoland theme park in that area from Singapore on a day-trip before, by bus, and it seemed to me that took more like 45 minutes or an hour, but either way it's close.

Related to the infrastructure there, and more specifically to commercial expo / conference events, Singapore is clearly the most developed country in SE Asia.  Many parts of Bangkok are as modern as places get but Singapore is still ahead overall.  I'm not surprised that the event was managed professionally, with vendor participants showing mature development of supporting products, packaging, and marketing themes. 

Beyond developing an amazing subway system in expat discussions Singapore is regarded as having the best airport in the world, Changi.  I completely agree.  It's a hard point to argue, getting into details about efficient processing, food and shopping options, look and feel, internet services, transportation, and so on, but I'll cite an example that puts it in perspective: there's a butterfly garden in one terminal.  They cover the basics better than any other airport I've visited but also take things to another level.

I haven't been to Singapore in about 4 years, so I was already writing this blog the last time I visited, but I've ramped up tea interest and exploration quite a bit since then.  At that time I just looked around Chinatown to see what was there for tea and didn't turn up much.  This general commentary section stops short of describing broader tea culture in Singapore then; it's not something I've been exposed to much.  Of course I've talked to people in Singapore about tea by message; that comes up related to lots of places, in part due to being an admin for an international themed Facebook tea group.  But I have no summary version or additional observations to offer.

Part two of this post to follow will continue on about tea flavor profile evaluation, about the approach taken at this event and other related frameworks and systems, even about to what extent machine testing can cover related scope.  Can a machine taste tea?  Of course not, in the sense that we do.  But the extent to which one can might be surprising.

9 years ago, when Keo was a baby

with baby Kalani that time, on Orchard Road

visiting a botancial garden, and natural areas outside town are nice

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Three exceptional sheng from a Liquid Proust introductory set

Yiwu, Yunnan Sourcing Impression, Kuura Vector (from left)

I've been meaning to take part in a Sheng Olympiad event by Liquid Proust (Andrew Richardson) since interviewing him about group buys and selling teas in interesting ways a year and a half ago.  He had been into selling novel blends for awhile, like French Toast Dian Hong, but switched over to plain sheng a few years ago.

This set isn't the Sheng Olympiad, the group buy he talked about then, it's a beginner's set, designed as an introduction to pu'er.  In a sense that's not ideal because I'm already introduced but I'd still like to see what it's about, to check out the range.  I'm sure some of it will be new ground to me.  To some extent it could work to share a more informed impression with others who are trying the set based on limited background (more his intent), but taking part wasn't really mainly about that.  It's not as if I could communicate what these teas are really like; I'd just have one more person's opinion on them.  The point is to help get the word out, or maybe more about just seeing a notice in time.  He posts about these things on Steepster and Reddit but people not active in those places wouldn't even know he even sells tea, never mind about catching word of a group buy.

Andrew seems to not do this for profit, probably losing a considerable amount of money on this particular venture, using profits from more conventional sales forms to fund it.  I had to double what he asked for in compensation so he would make back some tea expense instead of just covering overseas shipping.  Towards an explanation, selling tea is not his day job.  That's all very admirable, isn't it?  I've taken up some degree of role of tea evangelist myself but not like that.  I'd recommend for others who are interested to take part in his group buys, and also to help him keep going with it by buying teas at closer to market rates (probably still on the really low side for mark-up, from the looks of things), from that sales page.

all about the sheng (credit his FB page)

Choosing teas to try in order from a large set is an interesting aspect, in this case as a set, as I tend to for comparison posts.  One approach might be to try less expensive to more expensive, to get a feel for the range from more basic offerings first.  Or trying more familiar teas first might make sense, for the same type of reason, to ease into comparison from a familiar direction.  Ordinarily side-by-side tasting only works well if the teas are very similar, and that would involve considerable reading up to try to make that judgement.  Most in the set have limited information available about what they are, with one only listed as "raw."  I'm curious about that one.

Given how critical aging is as a factor comparison tasting from the same year makes sense, and probably starting with this year or last year's versions, to take out storage and aging as a variable initially.  I suppose that's a reference to the "familiar versus unfamiliar" approach.  Aging changes different teas in different ways, with storage environment playing a large role in that.

What the teas are

I won't write out a list but it is reasonable to post a set photo to start:

Just wow.  I'll get back to what all that is in other posts.  For now I chose these to start:

2017 Yiwu Chichang: given handwriting that may not be it, but it's surely a 2017 Yiwu.  There's a Yiwu Chawang on his site that looks interesting but the writing can't say that, it's too far off.

2017 Impression:  I assumed it wouldn't be hard to sort out what that refers to since it kind of rang a bell.  It turned out to be a basic in-house blended cake from Yunnan Sourcing, explaining that.

2017 Kuura Vector:  that's a commercially labeled product; exactly what it is will turn up (although their site is offline just now)

I won't read up on these further before trying them, saving that for the edited write-up.  I know what to expect from Yiwu versions, the general range, but for the other two I kind of only know the year.  Better that way.  It also seems as well to not make this write-up a description of what else is in the set.  One is labeled as "LBZ;" that stands out.  Some are various ages, most with a year and location origin mentioned versus specific version, with some exceptions.  One is a Liu Bao (a different hei cha), another a huang pian sheng (yellow leaf, people tend to call that).

For a sheng drinker it's Christmas in September.  I try a lot of tea samples due to writing here and this still stands out to me as a unique experience.

The next section is on general tasting concerns, with a longish round by round tasting notes following, ending with vendor input about what these teas are and limited conclusions.  If the tasting notes get to be a bit much it would work to just skip ahead.

On general tasting concerns

Tasting teas one by one works better in a different sense.  You don't get the same input about comparing fine levels of details in two, which can be helpful, but 10 or 12 infusions of a single tea is already plenty to take in.  If two teas are different and you comparison taste them together (side by side) you will pick up less detail instead of more; it will be too much to process.  To some extent tasting practice can offset that but only so much.  For tasting even a single tea outside inputs are problematic, interruptions, level of noise, limited time frame; for tasting two or three all the more so.

Eating food along with the tea is not a problem, if it's very mild food, and not mixed in bite for sip, more a counter to the effects of just guzzling lots of tea.  If you want to maximize the drug-like effect of teas eat no food with them; if you want to limit that eat some.  Comparison tasting a decent number of rounds of two or more relatively young sheng could be a problem for most people's stomach with no food input, but that would vary by person.

The idea of cleaning your palate comes up, both related to what foods you should avoid and which will help you get back to neutral between rounds if you are trying multiple teas at once.  Water that's cool but not too cold works well for that.  If a tea has a pronounced aftertaste (tied to the hui gan aspect / effect, which I won't get into more here) then one sip won't do it, and that will seem even stronger as you drink the water, but a few sips should tend to clear the slate.


Yiwu:  this round is a little light, and the teas are still opening up, so this will have to just be first impressions.  This could definitely pass for a Yiwu; it's sweet, floral, bright, with decent intensity, and not too bitter or astringent, with a decent balance, with mineral filling in a base.  It will be easy to place related to style and quality level since I've been drinking so many but I'll hold off a round or two to give an opinion.

Impression:  Interesting.  This has some floral range but more of mineral tone that's not uncommon in sheng.  It's not as bright and intense as the Yiwu but with these still opening up it's early for any comparison.  It's definitely clean and positive in character, with a nice aftertaste showing up even with it so light.

Kuura Vector:  much earthier than the other two, in a completely different range, although I suppose it works to see that as a continuum, of bright and floral to earthy and broader in range, with the Impression in the middle.  On the light side early on it's hard to place that; woody, maybe, more in the range of young tree bark than lumber, or probably just as much in the mineral range, covering both a creek-bed scent and some aged iron bar.  It's hard to place in what sense I mean that as "good" or "bad," but to me not either is intended.  I'll fill in more about preference later; for now I'm just flagging initial impression of aspects.  I'm pretty sure this isn't Yiwu; that's all I've got for interpretation so far.  It's a little cleaner in effect than that aspect description probably implies, with less bitterness and astringency than I'd expect for being in that range; it's quite approachable.

Yiwu, YS Impression, Kuura Vector, from left

Second infusion

Yiwu:  I brewed these for around 10 seconds and this isn't as intense as I would have expected.  It's pleasant; floral, sweet, bright, with a nice light mineral base, clean.  It does seem like a year old Yiwu to me, not all that changed by age but maybe softened and toned down just a little.  This isn't astringent at all, with essentially no aspects in any earthy range.  I really like this style of tea but it's starting to just seem normal to some extent.  It's a decent version, it seems, with intensity and aftertaste a bit more developed in better expensive versions but this is pretty good, not really a basics version.

Impression:  This changed and improved a good bit; I get the sense it's not really where it's going to be yet too, not opened up yet.  It's not challenging, not bitter and astringent; that works well for me for younger sheng character.  Again it's along the lines of young tree bark with mineral between rock and a little aged metal.  The warmth picks up and it heads a little towards spice though.  It has nice balance, good depth to it, and decent aftertaste intensity.  The metal and mineral really sticks around after you drink it, which is more pleasant to me than it might sound.  The effect overlaps with sucking on a penny; I suppose preferences would vary related to the taste of pennies.

Kuura Vector:  This develops too.  It's picking up more metal range, and mineral stands out more, with good complexity and warmth.  The slightly musty creek-bed mineral range has cleared up and transitioned (not musty in the sense people would probably take that; clean in overall effect, but more of a damp-rock range, that's different now).  Again the continuum idea of these teas seems to still work; this is more intense than the others, just in a different sense.  Where the Yiwu is bright and limited in scope and the Impression covers more range that's earthier and more metal oriented this goes a step further, in a similar direction.  It's probably as well to talk through a list more next round, since I don't like to repeat that, and it will be where it's going to go more then.

Third infusion

Yiwu:  This isn't transitioning much, but that goes along with the general type (per my experience, which I won't keep emphasizing, but I've been drinking a lot of Yiwu this past year).  People might interpret that flavor range as including plenty of fruit or none at all; it's a judgement call.  It's definitely floral, that doesn't seem a matter of interpretation.  The range warms up and deepens a little but otherwise it's not different.  At the same time it has plenty of bright, higher end range, which I interpret as towards a lemon zest citrus.  Body thickness and mouthfeel is decent, not pronounced, with aftertaste standing out more (long finish; however one puts that).  It's good, and type-typical.

Impression:  This tone is brightening a little instead of warming at this stage; it transitioned a decent amount.  It's not a stretch to say part is citrus related in this now too, with floral picking up.  The warmer mineral and metal range has dropped back, now just a lighter base.  The balance is nice.  Again feel could be more intense but for the tea not being overly bitter or astringent it's fine, with aftertaste drawing out pleasantly.  That's not the experience of a tea flavor being stronger after you drink it, or staying just as intense for 10 minutes or longer, but that aspect is significant, as it was for the first tea.

Kuura Vector:  This tea picked up a hint of smoke; that's interesting.  It also brightened a good bit, and bitterness picked up slightly, with earthiness dropping back; odd.  It's interesting the way these teas are drawing closer to each other, not really similar now, but not as different.  Unless I'm just imagining that.  I'll check back about it next round.

Yiwu, YS Impression, Kuura Vector, from left

Fourth infusion

Yiwumostly holding steady; that slight transition over the last couple of rounds hasn't extended.

Impression:  where it was last round too; complex, more floral now, well balanced, with the mineral and other range falling together nicely.  I didn't expect these teas to be quite this good.  Getting some feel for the range of what's out there is nice but I think these represent well above average versions, related to randomly trying moderate priced commercial teas.  Style varies, related to regional inputs, processing choices, growing conditions, how finely material is chopped, and all the rest, so it's not just about quality determining character, but these seem good.  And they seem like three styles suitable for drinking young, to me; not all sheng would be like that.

Kuura Vector:  more of the same for this one too; bright range stands out now, floral and even citrus, with bitterness up just a little but still balancing well.  These probably are most different related to the base layer of aspects, the underlying mineral range, or how much metal comes across in aftertaste, with flavor closer than they'd been except for in that last round.  This has more aftertaste effect, as with the second sample not far off sucking a penny, but stronger for this tea than that one.  It comes across as the most complex of the three, picking up intensity slightly where the other two mellow out just a little.  All three are nice though, just different in lots of subtle ways, as much the same than different now in a sense.  There's an earthier / mineral base tone in this that's similar to a mild version in the second and missing entirely in the first, that's a bit hard to describe, I suppose like some kind of rock.

I'll probably just give these one more round since that's plenty of tea to drink, and they'll start to taper off around now, not fading, but giving up transitioning as much.

Fifth infusion

Yiwu:  as I interpret it citrus is stronger than floral aspect range now, which is cool, and pleasant.  It might've seemed like lemon zest earlier but now it's onto an orange peel range, warmed up a little.  The tea isn't really complex but it has plenty of depth and it's nice the way the positive, pleasant aspect range that's there is so intense.  To me this is how Yiwu should be.  There's always room for intensity, feel, or aftertaste to ramp up but this is pretty good.

Impression:  it seems like I'm thinking "citrus" and could be adding that to the interpretation of these teas; it would be odd if all three had as much of a related aspect as I'm noticing.  That can happen; if you think malt, cocoa, or black cherry while drinking black teas you can tend to always notice pronounced traces of those, even if you wouldn't coming at them from more of a clean slate.  I'll do a second palate reset by sipping some water and check again.

Still there; I'm probably just stuck on that, with some of what's going on potentially interpreted as such.  Anyway, this tea adds a bit more flavor depth than the Yiwu, swapping out intensity and brightness for range, with more warmth filling in beneath that, hard to isolate for that brighter range standing out.  Both work really well.  Aftertaste isn't on the level of the third version but it's not gone as soon as you drink it.

Kuura Vector:  what I'd noticed reminding me of smoke has softened into what comes across as a maple sugar range now, tied to sweetness.  This tea is still picking up depth and transitioning, not at all tapering off.  One lighter part could be citrus related, getting back to that theme, but it covers a lot of flavor range.  The main version is an unusual form of wood-tone, a bit like biting a tree bud.  I get the impression that bitterness would seem a bit much in any of the three of these even slightly overbrewed, so I might mention that I'm not saying much about that because I'm still using 10 second or so infusion times, maybe on towards 15 in the last couple of rounds, but still short.  Overall intensity is plenty at that timing; for some I'd be brewing them too strong.  At a lower proportion it would work to double that timing, or more, depending on preference; I tend to go heavy on that out of habit.

I'm not saying which I like best, right?  They're just different.  In early rounds the Yiwu stood out for being bright, sweet, and intense but these other two evolved nicely to a great balance.  This third tea is best related to overall intensity, covering the most aspect range, and having the longest aftertaste, which often works as a marker for tea quality.  Really I think personal preference would determine which is best, that it doesn't work in these cases to say one is better than the others.  Intensity and positive aspect character stands out in the Yiwu, traded off for limited depth and aspect range, to some extent.  Any of these could be seen as very positive if someone loved the aspect set, and all three seem well balanced, lacking in flaws that would take away from the pleasant character.

I just went through a bit of discussion in difference of opinion related to aging with someone that I'll only touch on here.  To me these teas are pleasant, intense, and approachable now, and at a guess I'd like all three the most just as they are right now, versus in years to come, developing and changing through age.  To some extent that's a guess, but not a completely uninformed guess.

Others would not agree, based on likely transitions that would follow.  The limited bitterness present in these would diminish, and warmer, deeper flavors would emerge.  To some extent the bright range, the floral and that citrus, would probably swap out for other fruit or potentially earthier tones, a little more leather or trace of spice.  I suspect that my present preferences might shift over time; that's how drinking sheng tends to go.  Just two years ago I wouldn't have had the same tolerance and appreciation for bitterness as a component, so to some extent I'd have liked these better aged back then, but I expect I will pick up appreciation of another layer of more subtle complexity over time.  Of course we just experience teas with out present-day palate; it's a snapshot, of sorts.  I'm more into young sheng now.

I've had plenty of tea but I'll try one more round for last thoughts.  I might also mention that drug-like effect is something people seek out in teas, and tasting these combined I can't say to what extent any one contributes that.  The effect is moderate for any of these three, since it's not pronounced overall, which is still normal for typical decent quality teas.

Sixth infusion

Yiwu:  more of the same; very nice, just lighter.

Impression:  intensity may be dropping off a little but not so different than last round either, still very nice.

Kuura Vector:  given all three of these seem a step lighter my internal clock probably was more the issue, going with an infusion just over 10 seconds versus over 15, probably.  Often I'll brew one round strong to see how that compares but to me it makes more sense when I know I'll still like the tea as much, more for oolongs, white teas, or blacks.  I could swear this third tea is still transitioning, moving into a bit of pine-pitch range along with all that other list.  All three could potentially be seen as the best for different reasons, depending on preference, but this tea showed the most complexity, the strongest aftertaste, and transitioned across the most range.  All that is interesting, and cool to experience.

I have guesses related to why the character of the three were as they were, especially related to blending being an input versus a narrow range of tea source material being used, but for as long as this is I'll skip passing that on and move to the vendor descriptions.

Vendor descriptions and conclusions

Plenty of conclusions were already mixed in.  To repeat one, these are better than I expected, definitely not just type-typical but average quality tea.  For Andrew charging essentially nothing for these teas they're absolutely amazing.  They still would be nice if they weren't on this level.  There are other quality levels to be reached but these are reasonably far along that scale, definitely not standard, moderately priced factory teas.

Vendor descriptions:

I'll pass on even trying to look up the Yiwu source details or description (beyond Googling the apparent spelling--that didn't work); this will run long enough reviewing the other two.

The Impression rang a bell because it's one of Yunnan Sourcing's standard offerings; they produce a few in-house series based on different themes.  This one is described as designed to age, but I didn't notice as much bitterness as I'd have expected related to that.  Anyway, here is the YS (Scott's) description:

This year's Impression is unique for this year and consists of tea leaves from Spring and Autumn, originating from Mengku, Bang Dong, and Jing Gu tea gardens. The tea has been grown naturally and processed in the traditional method. We blended various teas together to achieve a powerful blend that has strong mouth feeling, cha qi and a balanced sweet, bitter and astringent profile.

In 2012 I created the first impression blend to be an alternative to a Xiaguan or Da Yi 7542, but it has far surpassed those mass market teas in both quality and value!  I also feel strongly that this tea being very strong in aroma, mouthfeel, bitter/astringent, infusability and Cha Qi, makes it a good choice for long-term aging!

2017 Impression cake label (credit related YS page)

I was just listening to Scott's video review of it, which adds lots more detail.  I'm not necessarily agreeing with the aspect-by-aspect description (that's normal; aspect interpretations tend to vary slightly) but the general impression matches up.  It's complex, well filled in across a range of aspects (balanced), reasonably intense, and good quality tea.  I've been tasting a 2014 version of that 7542 Dayi he mentioned, reviewed here a year ago, and I've tried it since, in the past month.  I'm still waiting for it to become more drinkable.  It's ok, hanging in there, improving, but still on a different scale for bitterness than any of these three versions.  If bitter is better that 7542 is better than these three, even after 3 extra years of mellowing out, but of course it's not that simple.

To me that Impression version wasn't that powerful, strong, astringent, bitter, etc., but it had decent intensity and balance.  Mouthfeel seemed a little light to me, and aftertaste only moderate, but for an inexpensive tea more than one would expect.  This being that blended accounts for the overall complexity, which does trade off a bit of aspect distinctness, but it wasn't muddled in effect, to me.

I wouldn't say this wouldn't age but the difference of opinion on bitterness and astringency level change that interpretation of potential.  It doesn't need age, and may or may not improve with it, since it seems mild enough to just flatten out over time instead.  I'd have to buy a cake to see.  For people with even a moderate tea budget it might make more sense to buy at least two of these, one to drink and one to set aside for a long while.

Onto the next tea then, which I'll limit mostly to the vendor description of the Kuura Vector, since this runs long.  That vendor page isn't pulling up at time of final editing, but an earlier draft did access their sales page description:

VECTOR is a raw (sheng) puer cake made from a blend of material from various regions of Xishuangbanna. We made this cake after our own tastes for high quality daily drinking raw puer; as much sweetness as we could cram in there, with a rich base to add complexity and strength. Over time the sweetness will only increase, leading to some dark ripe fruit flavours and a hefty body. Perfect both as a hold-no-punches intro to high quality raw puer, and a solid candidate for daily drinking, hoarding, and ageing, with plenty to offer for newcomers and jaded junkies alike.

As is our general approach, the teas used all come from carefully selected growing environments, with strong biodiversity and minimal-intervention agricultural practices. This tea has been tested for EU 440 MRL and passed.  The tea was pressed in November 2017, using a blend of material from Spring and Autumn 2017.

2017 Kuura Vector label (credit Steepster, with other reviews there)

Scott mentioned that his YS Impression version had been tested per EU standards too; that is a health concern, over the long run, and a real selling point.

A price difference stands out:  Yunnan Sourcing's Impression was selling for $23 for a 357 gram cake, with this at $33 for a 200 gram version (equivalent to about $59 for a 357 cake's worth).  Both are reasonable; costing twice as much can still make sense if the character justifies that, and it did cover a bit more range across some aspect dimensions.  Personal preference factors in too though; if someone likes that different aspect scope better or not (but they did share a good bit of range).

But what do I know about aging transition, really; those earlier comments are just guesses.  It seems you need some bitterness and initial intensity and depth to serve as a basis for positive transition, but I'm not really the right person to flag where any given tea is headed after aging.  I don't agree with the judgment that the Impression cake is quite bitter as it stands now; I'm just not tasting that.  It expresses some bitterness, it's the amount or level that I'm seeing differently.

Of course those teas would all still be fine in another couple of years, and one could judge then if transitions seemed positive or not.  Per a standard take it gets trickier to identify how they'll come out of awkward ages where the aspects intensity drops off after that before picking back up related to more fermentation effect kicking in later, at some point after a decade.  At $23 per cake if the Impression seemed to mostly fade versus improving after being stashed away it wouldn't be a huge loss; I guess more so if a whole tong did.

All in all a great start for trying this set.  Surely all of those other teas can't also be on this level (one wouldn't think), but aging transition will make some others even more interesting to experience.  And the few huang pian I've tried have been interesting so it will be nice to try another.  I'm very grateful to Andrew (Liquid Proust) for providing this experience.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Review of Narendra Kumar Gurung's Nepal black tea

I'm trying the second and last tea from Nepal from Narendra Kumar Gurung.  He's the tea grower starting into local production, with that story covered in this post, with a white tea reviewed in this one


The dry tea scent was sweet and rich, lots of caramel and sweet malt, with earthiness under that, and smells around the roasted sweet corn range.  We'll see how the brewed tea aspects complexity matches up with that.

The first infusion is a little light.  That's normal for me brewing tea Gongfu style, something I do intentionally, but since I'm brewing this Western style that will throw things off just a little, since half or a third of all the tea I'll be describing based on being that strength.

I never tend to go there but I sat the basket back in the cup for another three quarters of a minute to adjust that.  That's more like it; right in optimum range.

The tea is interesting.  Before the flavors-list approach I should mention that being made of bud content and fine leaves changes things quite a bit.  Across regions, tea plant types, and preparation styles that input pulls aspects towards a dry, pine-resin range, with good sweetness and complexity, and moderate but limited astringency, not exactly like leaf-only black tea.

This tea is like that.  Malt stands out, and the sweetness, a dark-toffee version, along with that pine-resin aspect.  Brewing the tea using completely boiling point water will accentuate the astringency, that pine nature, and the toffee / dark caramel edge.  Dropping temperature even a little, down to 90 C instead, changes a lot, and for many 95 C might be better, in the middle (203 F, for Americans).  With variations that small making so much difference pre-warming devices comes into play; a cold infusion device could absorb that much heat.

Maybe I'll do the free-association extended flavors list before the impression summary this time; mix it up.  There is a hint of roasted corn in along with the rest.  Mineral stands out too, a deep base layer that really spans dark clay mineral and iron bar.  I just tried a tea from Shillong, India, not at all one of the main producer areas below (South of) Assam, and some of the character overlaps in that regard.  This also hints toward the dark cinnamon version found in Rou Gui (cassia instead of true cinnamon, maybe that is).  It always sounds good to say a tea tastes like fruit, it adds to a list, and if this does it's more of a dried fruit, closest to dates, but also not all that far from fig.  Cocoa might work better as a description, folded in with the rest.  It's definitely complex.

This doesn't really closely remind me of any version of a different tea.  That Shillong version isn't too far off, in one sense, but still quite different.  If Darjeeling plantations prepared first flush versions as fully oxidized black tea I think they might turn out similar to this, but they don't, they process those to very low oxidation levels compared to normal black tea range.  It's not that far from some better Assam but lighter and more complex.  Buds-based versions of those tend to have a good bit of kick, more malt intensity, more of that pine resin, and more astringency to match for feel, even in good oxidized versions (based on what I've tried; of course styles and outcomes would vary well beyond what I've experienced).

The feel includes a mild dryness, not really in the form of a typical mouth-tightening astringency, but after your drink it your mouth tightens and drys just a little.  At this level that's quite positive; without that general range a tea can seem too soft, and the experience can seem to lack depth.  It's good tea.  I'll check on how it transitions on a second infusion.

More of the same; per usual the balance of those aspects shifts more than those change.  This tea would be interesting to try Gongfu style, to split apart all the range of transitions, I just didn't feel like going through it or doing that longer write-up.

I brewed it on the fast side again, a bit light, but it works well like that to me.  I'm using a pretty high proportion of the tea given how intense these buds and small leaves tend to be.  This kind of tea will brew a lot too, typically; well after leaf-only versions should be finished (or passed on into just being unpleasant) extended brewing times can continue to draw out very positive infusions.

The feel is lighter at this slightly lighter infusion strength, and it may have shifted some beyond that.  The dryness is diminished.  Complexity is still there; lots of toffee sweetness, layers of mineral and spice, malt, cocoa, and limited dried fruit.  That pine resin range dropped back along with the related astringency, and the malt is moderate.  It's not really a "basic" tea but it is approachable, easy to relate to, not challenging in any way.

Chinese black teas can be even sweeter and can express complexity further away from that base of malt range, but this is pretty complex with a good bit of sweetness as the range of related Indian style teas go.  Of course it's not Indian, but the general style falls closest to those compared to any others, in a sense in between a Darjeeling and better Assam to me in style, versus being more like a Chinese black tea.

I've mentioned different aspects serving as quality markers in different tea types before.  In sheng it's overall balance that matters, how the set of complex aspects works together, but aftertaste tends to mark out quality, along with mouth-feel.  In Wuyi Yancha it differs by type but usually subtlety, complexity, intensity, and ability to express a sophisticated aspect that identifies each type is the thing, maybe earthy cinnamon or fruit in Rou Gui (two styles), or aromatic components in some others, a liquor-like quality.  In Taiwanese oolongs often that relates to a pronounced characteristic mineral and floral-tone, a little flinty but intense and sweet.

For this general type "how good" it is depends on complexity, on being very clean in effect, and which flavors and other aspects it expresses.  It's quite nice; there is limited range for it to be any better within this style.  How someone would relate to the style just depends on preference instead.  For me there are Chinese black teas that I can't imagine anyone not loving, with rich, complex, very approachable Dian Hong as a personal favorite.  It's hard to imagine anyone not being able to relate to this style of tea, to not liking it.

Singapore expo event

This will work as a preview more than as a conclusion to the black tea review; I talked to Narendra some about visiting an interesting Singapore tea expo event, which just occurred over the past week.  Someone else I'd met during that first tea tasting event here in a Bangkok park, Cedric Teng, also attended that, and passed on some detailed input and pictures as well.  There was a unique twist of matching visitor tea style preference to suggestions about which booths to visit, which I'll mention cover more about later in another post.  It reminds me of an article and related discussion of whether or not it works to identify tea preference based on what flavors and style of wine someone likes (here), which of course is a much less sophisticated process than this.

this looks familiar; more to follow on its use

It's been interesting hearing about different tea events, how the themes go in different places.  The best documented similar event is the annual World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, since US based bloggers join that, an event with lots of seminar sub-themes.  But events go on in different countries, ranging from sales events to brewing competitions.  Also in the case of this Singapore event a good number of seminars delved a little deeper into selected subject matter.  There was just an event in Melbourne in the past two weeks too, but I didn't hear as much about how that went.  In a post about Polish tea culture (the second one with local blogger input) it came up that quite a bit of that same scope is covered in events there.

I've attended what should have been tea related expos here, always joined with the theme of coffee since tea interest and commercial scope can't support a dedicated event in Bangkok.  It's a little sad joining those, since there is typically not much coverage related to tea as standard vendors go, and none at all for presentations or seminars, with almost all the scope covered related to coffee.  It's always nice to hear that specialty / orthodox tea gains more traction in other places.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Three local Vietnamese sheng from Huyen

left to right, from Yen Bai, Ta Xua, and Ha Giang

Huyen's friend visited Bangkok a couple weeks ago so she sent some more Vietnamese sheng samples to try out.  I passed on some of what I have around to her; it's always hard to say if that's the right amount, or right mix, or if the person getting tea will relate to it.  With her I don't worry so much; she'll get it, and if she dislikes a version that would still probably be an interesting experience for her.

Someone not liking a tea wouldn't be a huge loss; it's never about going for one particular outcome.  That one guy I sent tea to in the North of Thailand (Farmerleaf samples) mentioned he and his wife liked them.  That's nice, when sharing the experience goes that way.

That recent local detox theme event got me thinking about who should be exposed to tea, or who would probably "get" it, and also who wouldn't.  It's a nice drink, probably very healthy, diverse in style, not that hard to brew, but it's still just a drink.  As I walk by the many bubble tea, matcha, or other flavored powdered tea outlets all over the city it reminds me of that one part of why I'm so obsessive; those people can do better, not just related to taste, but also to supporting their own health.

The main strength and main disappointment of that detox exploration was that so much boiled down to common sense.  Taking in a lot processed foods, sugar, artificial flavoring, and other chemicals, is not good.  Those inputs are components of relatively empty food, maybe at best not that bad for you and in significant quantity a likely health risk.  Drinking a powdered, flavored tea every other day wouldn't harm your health to an extent you might notice soon but swapping that out for real, higher quality, brewed tea would make a substantial difference over time.  Enough with the soap box speech; I've got tea to review.

Huyen's friend visiting Jip Eu in Chinatown, with the shop owners

nice being in the pictures sometimes

Huyen's description

She sent clear descriptions in with the samples, so I'll start with those:

1.  Green pu'er from the Yen Bai province [I'm skipping the diacritics; that's going to be hard to look up and add].  I bought it from the Hatvala shop.

Nice!  I've not reviewed one of their teas in awhile.  There's probably no need to keep running through how it might be "sheng" but not "pu'er" to people who respect China's exclusive right to label Yunnan teas as that.  That's kind of ironic given how the use of labels like "Apple IPhone" end up applied in actual practice there.  I'm pretty sure that I reviewed this tea before, a version from the year before, here, with that identification complicated by Hatvala not listing that tea yet early last year when I tried it (but now listed here).

2.  Super green pu'er from the Ta Xua mountain.  They have just finished it, so please keep for 10 days before drinking [it probably has been that long].  This type is not popular here so they are trying to make it by the Chinese way.

I take that to mean it's an attempt at traditional Yunnan pu'er style.

3.  Sheng pu'er from Ha Giang [sheng at least; people sometimes use the "pu'er" part only related to Yunnan].  A Tay minority's family made it.  They called it che vang (yellow tea).  It's not high quality but you can try.

Sounds interesting.  I've already tried one of these teas in the shop that day but I don't remember which; I'm guessing the third.  Onto review.

the second infusion, I think (from left Hatvala's tea, Ta Xua, and Ha Giang)


I'll taste the short rinses and throw them out; kind of an odd compromise to strike for using a rinse.

Hatvala's is going to be bright and sweet, a bit earthy, with good complexity and depth.  This probably is the version I tried a year ago.

This second Ta Xua version is going to be really nice tea.  It's not that it's so clearly better than Hatvala's but it has more depth and complexity, even at this flash brewed rinse try, at least this early on.  I can definitely see where this is going but best to say more next round.  Shengs open up a lot over the first few infusions so it matters more how that works out than the rinse or actual first round.

The Ha Giang version is smoky, a bit rough, definitely not on the same level as the other two (or two levels, it may work out as).  It's probably interesting for being rustic though, different.  This is what we tried in that shop, in Jip Eu when Huyen's friend passed these on.  It's no wonder that Kiatichai just didn't say much about it.  It's interesting, for what it is, for a more local version of tea.  Someone loving or not being ok with smoke would probably make or break their impression of it; that is a main aspect.  Of course it will evolve and change later too.

First infusion

Hatvala Yen Bai:  this is familiar ground; sweet, floral, bright, somewhat complex, but a pronounced mineral layer supporting that, and moderate bitterness, which works for me.  A warm aspect could get lost in the middle of all that, something that I'd interpret different ways at different times, depending on what I was thinking about.  I'd usually say it's in the spice range but today I'm pinning it as yeasty bread dough.  It's not bad; a touch of sourness joins in with the bitterness, related to that interpretation, but that can also be seen as relating to citrus along with the floral. 

Unless I'm mistaken a tea like this won't develop or transition as much as some other styles / types of sheng will.  Making predictions on the first round is probably unwarranted, especially since I may have reviewed the prior year's version of the same tea that didn't work out that way (of course I didn't check that).

Ta Xua:  not necessarily all that far off the Yen Bai in some sense, but completely different in another.  None of the actual aspects match up, just the overall impression and the way it fits is somewhat common.  This is warmer, earthier, also floral but different, not as bright, and more complex.  It's just as clean, with bitterness also moderate.  Extracting a description of a second aspect range beyond floral is harder.  It's more towards a hardwood range, but not that, kind of not far from warm mineral too, like the smell of an iron bar.  I think what's going on is that it's combining a lot of different secondary aspects that all nearly fit together to come across as one thing.  It might be hardwood, with some mineral towards rich metal, and spice too.  The funny part is that it seems simple in presentation.  I'll let that description go and get to other aspect range, feel and such, in the next round.

Ha Giang:  that smoke really takes over.  I suspect that will drop out, to some extent, that it has been input from contact with actual smoke over processing, not a natural aspect in this tea (although I suppose that is possible).  That's not necessarily a bad thing.  If someone loved smoked teas this balance is probably close to ideal; that should stand out, but give space to the rest to also come across.  Beyond that the tea is earthy, not bitter at all, warm, reasonably clean and complex.  It's not exactly like sheng.  It lacks bitterness, and the feel is smoother, not thin but not even a bit structured as those tend to be (to have a certain astringency, phrased a different way).  I'll get back to it.

Second infusion

Hatvala Yen Bai:  I brewed these a little longer to move past the really light infusion experience; not too long, but out around 10 seconds.  This tea character shifted a lot; I seem to have been wrong about one thing already.  It went from a bit citrusy to quite lemony.  It's a nice effect; different.  This might taste the most like lemon of any sheng I've ever tried.  It's complex lemon, even, like the tang of the rind and the smooth depth of juice, just not as sour as actual lemon, which is quite acidic.  I suppose there's a potential criticism that it doesn't come across as balanced, being flavor-heavy in that direction, but it's quite pleasant, and I wouldn't guess that will stay at that level.  But what do I know.  Mouthfeel is in a normal range, and a decent amount of bitterness pairs with all that, which balances nicely (assuming one is ok with bitterness; typically a given when drinking young sheng).

Ta Xua:  fruit picked up a little in this too but the character went in a completely different direction.  Brightness and intensity diminished, and warm, complex depth stuck as the main theme.  It has plenty of flavor but it's subtle compared to the Hatvala version, some related to just being in a different range.  It's more complex, even though less intense, with warm earthy tone, rich metal, hardwood, and hint of what might seem more like a root spice now coming across, with a decent amount of subtle floral top end.  It's soft in feel, not thin, but there isn't much astringency or mouthfeel to go on about.  There is next to no bitterness, compared to typical young sheng or the Hatvala version.  It all works, it's just unconventional, and thin across some scope depending on expectations for a more standard profile.

Ha Giang:  smoke is easing up; this works better.  Warm tones give it depth, kind of out typical sheng range, towards autumn forest floor.  It's "clean" enough that all that range really works.  Add just a little mustiness or an off fungus flavor and this would come across as really flawed tea, but as it is it's just unconventional.  It's not bitter at all, or astringent, so sort of closer to the second sample than the first in character, just different in flavor range.  These last two teas would probably be better brewed for around 15 seconds, versus 10, or maybe even longer, since there isn't that balance of bitterness, astringency, and flavor intensity common to most sheng to work around.

third infusion, in order from left

Third infusion

Hatvala Yen Bai:  not so different, although I suppose citrus did ease up a little, with floral filling back in, and light mineral undertone more evident in the balance.  I think this is the tea I tried awhile back.  I like the style, but of course that depends on preference.  Bitterness is pronounced enough someone needs to be able to relate to that but to me it's just in the normal young sheng range, light compared to many.

Ta Xua:  more of the same for this version too; it's nice, complex, decently balanced, a bit unique.  It isn't transitioning enough to go on and on about it but I expect if I was just drinking it alone I'd be talking about balance of aspects present shifting.  Oddly bitterness picking up a little is actually good in this; it loses some of the "really soft" feel but comes across as better balanced and more complex.  Wood tone (some of that in autumn leaf range, some in hardwood) and warm mineral might not suit everyone but some floral tone gives it a decent balance.

Ha Giang:  smoke picked back up; different.  Floral range did too, so to me it's the best it's been.  The character drifts towards a perfume-like range, that underlying hint of acetone, or whatever that one chemical is.  It wouldn't take too much of that for it to be awful but in this case it seems to give it depth; it works in it.  It's still really soft.  Lots of the parts of this tea or the overall impression could really put people off but if someone is broad in their range of what they can appreciate it's nice.  It's clean and complex; the general "rustic" impression can just as typically pair with mustiness of some sort creeping in, which hasn't come up in this.  One part probably does remind me of a tea sold as a South Korean yellow tea version some years back, but I can't really do justice to describing how that works in detail.  It ties to a root-spice tone that's one interpretation for the mild earthiness I've been describing.

Fourth infusion

This will be it, even though these are half finished at most; I've got stuff to do, and this write-up runs long anyway.

Hatvala Yen Bai:  this might be leveling off just a little but not transitioning all that much.  There's still lots of lemon citrus, supported by a good bit of floral range, with a bright mineral base, and it's still intense.

Ta Xua:  this does keep shifting in balance, and it's better now than it had been in the first two rounds.  It's transitioning enough that it seems different.  A richness that reminds me of a the buttery flavor you can get in some oolongs joins in.  It has some light bitterness and mineral too, just not much for a young sheng.  I'd say floral is still most pronounced but it hangs back, filling in a higher range context; it's non-distinct.  That's kind of odd, since usually light, sweet floral tone is more a top end (imagined spatially) that tends to come across first in tasting experience, not a non-distinct broader tone context range.  Here the floral being somewhat complex, subtle, and warmer seems to cause that effect; it works.

Ha Giang:  again this expresses warmer tones, deeper floral range, moderate smokiness, decent warm mineral complexity, with parts that might get interpreted as wood or autumn leaf.  I like it.  It overlaps in character just a little with the second version at this point but they're also quite different.

Aspect for aspect not much matches up in these last two teas.  They share the way that soft, warm, complex range comes across, a set of aspects that's sort of like sheng but not at all typical young sheng.  If you age sheng 3 or 4 years we're talking about something else, and that's going to be a more typical fit.  But these aren't aged; the second is brand new.  They're just softer, more complex style teas.  If you taste one of these then go back to the Hatvala it really hits you; intensity, sweetness, bitterness, citrus, tighter mouth-feel.


That was all a cool experience.  Many thanks to Huyen for sharing those.

Two key take-aways stand out:  Vietnamese teas come in a very broad, interesting range, which includes variations on sheng.  And Huyen is a good tea friend to trade with.  To me Vietnamese black teas are just as interesting, and really the green tea range produced is much more varied and impressive for people on that page.  She sent me a good bit of one of those too, which I probably won't review right away, but it's nice this hasn't covered everything yet.

I could try to place these teas related to other versions I've been trying from Thailand and Myanmar, since I've been reviewing a lot of those lately, or of course compare them to Yunnan sheng.  It's just too much ground to cover, and I'm doing the final edit of this more than a week after the tasting notes.  Individual versions of sheng vary quite a bit, in Yunnan and beyond.  I liked these three, and maybe eventually I'll get back to that idea of sweeping comparisons.

Huyen, at that local shop awhile back

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Online social networking related to tea

Originally posted to TChing in two parts here and here.

Odd I've never brought this up before; there are lots of places to talk about and learn about tea online.  Writing a blog post about reaching a million answer views on Quora reminded me of the subject, so I'll start there, and list others.

Quora: you can ask or answer questions about tea on Quora, more or less an expanded version of Yahoo Answers.  Comments work out like discussion threads but it's not the same.  There is a personal messaging function, just no forum or thread-style discussion area.  I started writing about tea, and ventured into travel and culture related issues after.

lots of Quora stats to add a level of feedback, if one is interested

Tea Chat (forums): unfortunately this site has ran its course, related to online forums having a natural lifecycle, but this had been the main dedicated tea forum.  Tea Forum is a more recent spin off but it's not that much more active.  Steepster is really a tea review site, also with a currently inactive discussion section.  There's only so much tea discussion going on to support dedicated forums, and the next entry sucks a lot of the air out of the room.

Tea Forum; a new version of an old theme

Facebook groups: this is where people talk about tea online most now.  I co-founded one active group, International Tea Talk, which is focused on tea themes in different countries, but others have their own sub-themes:

handy that the groups, pages, and personal profiles all link in Facebook

Pu'er Tea Club: about pu'er, not as snobby as it might have worked out, but still what you might expect.

Gong Fu Cha: mostly US experienced tea drinkers, who don't favor Western style brewing

Tea Drinkers: my favorite beginner oriented group.

Local / city FB groups:  I'm in versions related to Thailand, NYC, LA, Colorado, and more recently Melbourne.  Groups like these are ideal places to ask for local shop recommendations.

Reddit r/tea: this subforum is unusual, in terms of format and for people not consolidating into a common-perspective group, but it works for a lower experience level general discussion group.  Just as Facebook links personal profile details and interest groups Reddit works to make discussion across a broad range of interest areas available in one place, typically more anonymously.  They just don't integrate.

Instagram: not a good place for discussion, just about pictures and limited video, but it's so active for tea themes that I'll mention it anyway.  I saw a really cool interview about tea culture in Russia by a Russian tea lovers page there but as far as I know those live "story" videos aren't accessible later.  They do also upload some videos to Youtube.  Youtube is a media channel but not set up for social networking in that other sense, related to interaction.  TeaDB is a nice blog there, and Tea Fix hasn't got far as a start on a podcast yet but they're working on it.

Twitter: I don't like Twitter, the format or the vibe (culture, as much as a grouping that broad has one).  It could work a lot better than it seems to for sharing information, but it can work out for sharing news links or as a self-promotion feed. Some "tea people" seem to use it for that, and to share other updates.

Google +:  that social networking site is nearly as dead as Julius Caesar, but it had such potential.  Google tends to really develop what it knows is going to work, like Maps, or Android, and throws the rest at the wall to see what sticks.  It would be possible to write an entire post about obsolete or marginal tea-themed social networking options but I'll stop at G+.  LinkedIn isn't marginal or obsolete but this would be a good place to add mention of it; tea industry professionals add profiles there, and some groups there relate to tea, as with lots of other subjects.

Tea maps:  this isn't conventional social networking, more like a wiki project, but the idea of groups communicating information overlaps.  Someone just mentioned creating a private version of one on a Steepster thread, a site that already has a map function, as Tea Chat did, both now obsolete.  This seems like a great idea but the details haven't come together for any version to get relatively filled in.

Reddit's tea map version

Issues with online groups

The main problem with online tea interest groups--beyond activity tending to drop off at some point--seems to be people being on the same page, sharing perspective.  Facebook groups work well for sorting that naturally; if you talk about scope beyond group theme interest you probably won't hear much back, or feedback could be negative.

That's why it's odd that the Reddit subforum works; it isn't sorted, beyond an emphasis on most people being newer to tea.  That's also probably why it has 120k+ members and almost none of them seem to be regulars, beyond the moderators.  There are some but they are exceptions.  Vendors had seemed to be more active in the past but a few scandals about product promotion inconsistencies may have threw off the friendly neighborhood self-promotion vibe.

this shaving forum previously had a developed tea discussion theme (here)

Related to self-sorting there seems to be a natural split in membership of people relatively new to tea or else really far along a learning curve.  That makes sense, that to everyone else in between there wouldn't be as much point.  Others who like tea could just drink it instead, and skip focusing on a learning curve.  Vendors make up half the people discussing tea on the experienced end, and the rest are probably a bit obsessive to take a drink interest so far.  Relatively few don't actually have some form of business interest.  Take me, for example; why keep going on about the subject?  I suppose it's a long story, only partly because I am obsessive.

Vendors account for a lot of the interest in social networking about tea, related to doing it, and providing content as a foundation, in some cases.  But even though tea is a potentially bottomless subject to learn about and experience for most people it's about drinking a version they know and like, so all that only goes so far.

Trying out holding tea tasting events recently reminds me of how important the real-life aspect is to social networking related to tea.  People can all talk about what they bought from Yunnan Sourcing together (in their FB vendor-theme group), but in general it helps really sharing the drink in person.

Someone new to tea can try a lot of types fairly quickly through some sort of meet-up or tasting, and experienced tea drinkers can share more interesting versions with each other.  Some teas just don't come up a lot, and even if the internet makes really local, rare teas available now the range of all types is so broad that you can't hope to try most of it.  Reading blog reviews only goes so far; sharing teas with each other in person covers a lot more ground, the actual experience.

The two themes can definitely work together.  Discussing tea online helps with reaching out to a broader group for more information and input, and networking there can help with finding local cafes, shops, meet-ups and events, to bring the experience back into real-life scope.

conference panel; online meets real life, from a post about Polish tea culture