Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Banzai 2017 Shan Myanmar sheng

Back to this subject, regional versions of sheng.  Noppadol Ariyakrua passed on another Myanmar origin sample two weeks ago at that last tasting in a Bangkok zoo that I'm finally getting to.  It has a cool look, with long, twisted leaves that are mixed in color; should be interesting.

I'll comparison taste it along with some of the 2018 version Lamphang Thai sheng Noppadol gave me awhile back.  He sells both versions, I think, that Thai version through a Lamphang Tea business, and this through Exotic Teas Thailand (with that second group FB page only in Thai).

Thai Lamphang sheng left, Myanmar right.  Both have a cool look.

It might make more sense to compare it to the other Myanmay sheng that I just reviewed but this Thai version should make for an interesting baseline.  It's light and sweet as new sheng goes, intense but not bitter, and complex in flavor.  The Myanmar sheng I tried not so long ago was nice too but a bit heavier on mineral content and bitterness.  It seemed like hanging around a couple years might take the edge off that version a little, even though it was quite drinkable now.

If this tea is very close to that one then the comparison will be more of a contrast, and won't inform anything, but either way I would still get to try the Thai version again.  I think I'll pass on the last of what I have from the loose sample to Huyen, who will be swapping some more Vietnamese sheng with me while someone she knows well visits, a perfect chance to work around shipping.  I'll try to keep this basic; the page and a half flavor by flavor descriptions can be a bit much to write, and probably also to read.

Noppadol at the park tasting (with Sasha checking out a squirrel)

One quick tangent first:  I more or less did a short version of a caffeine detox yesterday (at time of initial draft), all but going off it for one day.  "Detox" isn't the right word; that's a reference to people drinking whatever it is they drink to do more of what the liver and kidney already do.  I'll go to a Bangkok group meeting about that subject in a week; should be interesting.  It seems possible for people to take part in practices that are really healthy, even though they get the reason for why the steps taken are healthy completely wrong, which may apply in this case.

About the caffeine part, I only drank a little tea in the morning and decided to go with a tisane with lunch, that Russian willow herb I have left at work (aka Ivan chay, which I reviewed while investigating Cold War Eastern Germany teas).  A headache set in during the evening, which I wrote off to drinking wine at a parents meeting function at school, but in retrospect I was going through withdrawal.  I really should step the caffeine intake down over this weekend but I'll limit that to just not going overboard.  A few days later, since writing this draft, I've only been drinking tea once most days, and tried out having a tisane with lunch one day instead of tea.  It seems a good idea to offset the normal tendency to keep ramping up caffeine intake by taking a step back once in awhile, not necessarily going off it "cold turkey," but dropping the level enough to only experience limited withdrawal.


After a fast rinse I gave the first round about 15 seconds, slightly on the long side as timing goes for a higher than average proportion I usually go with.  I moderated that for this tasting; the results will be as good and I can get further through rounds drinking two teas, without getting blasted by caffeine intake.  I don't expect much of that crazy cha-qi drug-like effect that came up with tasting aged Thai sheng recently.

Thai sheng left, Myanmar version right (and in following photos)

The Thai version is nice, still a bit light but sweet and pleasant, with good intensity even for being brewed lightly.  That's more why I'm drinking it than to help with comparison, which may or may not work out.  Bitterness is quite moderate, on the low side compared to a lot of young sheng, lower than for some new Yiwu versions.  It's catchy; the floral tone leans towards fruit, or may just be fruit depending on interpretation, maybe closest to dried mango.  There are a lot of kinds of mango, so lots of versions of dried mango too; this would be one of the lighter, brighter, citrus-oriented ones.

The Myanmar version has a really interesting character.  It's more intense, just not in that same bright fruit and floral range.  Part of what is there is floral, but a deeper, richer floral tone.  The main aspect that stands out, not for being strongest but for being the most novel, is a perfume-like effect.  Perfumes span a broad range, depending on what's in them, of course, but they share a common character related to how distilling a scent into an alcohol based carrier limits or changes what was there, funneling it into either a certain range or a certain form of presentation.  This is like that.  There's an interesting earthiness too, a tree-leaf sort of effect, the version that's like freshly fallen leaves in autumn.

Given how sweet and bright that is as forest scents go you can imagine how rich floral tone, fresh fallen leaves, and a bit of distilled essence of lots of things can more or less align.  Not match, but make sense together.  It's a novel effect.  No one would be drinking sheng to seek that range out, because it's not common or typical, but for drinking tea to experience something novel it's perfect.  I'll add more about other aspect range and fill in the rest about taste in the next round.

this Myanmar version (right) is a good bit darker

Second infusion

This really isn't mostly about the Thai version, since I've already reviewed that, so I'll keep this limited about that half.  It's moving towards even more citrus, now a bit lemony.  The sweetness is nice, and intensity, and there's a bit of fruit, floral range, and even a slight creaminess beyond that lemon zest standing out.  This Myanmar tea is interesting, novel, and pleasant too, just in a different way.  Bitterness is limited, with just a little, not like the other version earlier.  Some light astringency gives it a fuller feel, and ties in with the flavor that remains on your tongue after drinking it.

The Myanmar sheng isn't transitioning as much as the earlier range just developing, ramping up.  The overall flavor and feel is really bright and clean; it wouldn't take much mustiness at all to completely ruin the effect of that novel aspect range, but there's none there.  Again the floral tones are rich and perfume-like, maybe as deep and intense as lavender.  What I was interpreting as fallen leaf doesn't ramp up as much, so it's harder to notice, coming across more as part of a warm mineral range now instead.  Some of the feel remains after swallowing the tea, the thickness of it, not so much even a slightly rough astringency, but the flavor lingers on as a much more intense effect.  Again there is a touch more bitterness than in the Thai version but not pronounced as in the other Myanmar sheng I reviewed.

Both of these are those kinds of teas that more poetic reviewers could really do a lot more with describing.  Maybe I'll try that next round; let imagination take over and list out a lot of what may or may not be there, just to communicate the general effect through those.  It doesn't seem to work to address feel and aftertaste very well along with such free-form musings, which seem to more naturally focus on flavor.

Third infusion

Thai version left, Myanmar right

It's interesting that this Myanmar tea is a bit darker (the leaf), and brews a bit darker.  It may have experienced some very wet storage and fast aging in it's first year of life.  It's a 2017, and the Thai version 2018, which may have shifted aspects more than it would have stored elsewhere.  I just saw a description of those Tea Side sheng as being dry-stored in Northern Thailand, which seemed a little odd to me.  In slightly higher elevation areas well away from any sea weather patterns could have it a good bit drier up there, than where I am right now, in Bangkok.

That's 89 F, for people in the States.  63%  RH doesn't feel right at all; it's been raining continually for the last week, including all day yesterday, and it's as muggy as it could be.  They might be measuring that somewhere outside of town where everything being soaked is less of a factor, where fresh air carried in is not affected by that.  Back to the teas.

The Thai version shifts to pick up more mineral; not a bad change.  It gives it a slightly drier effect, but it's still on the soft and somewhat "juicy" side.  The flavors in this version aren't as quite as well-suited for free associating connections as in the last round but here goes.

Citrus is pronounced, still like lemon rind, but moving a little towards sweet grapefruit, the red kind.  It's floral, which I'm not good at connecting to specifics.  The mineral is bright and flinty, towards the edge of metallic, but in a pleasant sense.  Some of the other range is a light, clean, warm earthiness, a bright woodiness a bit like popsicle stick.  It's hard to connect a flavor to the sweetness; it's just sweet, but I suppose closest to sugar cane versus honey.  A different interpretation of some of that range could be a bright, light version of vegetal scope, along the lines of fresh tree leaves, which we can call sugar maple to fill something concrete in.

So why didn't I mention some of that initially?  It's an interpretation, as much as what I actually experience.  Anyone else could "take" all that in a completely different way, and not be more or less right.  It helps describe what the experience is like at the cost of maybe going too far; it's like that, but that's not necessarily a clear and completely accurate description.  Let's leave aside feel and aftertaste and apply the same approach for the Myanmar version.

Perfume like-floral range stands out.  One part of that is rich lavender, another trailing into what the solvent base might contribute, which leads towards an old books scent.  Not the mustiness of a tropical library (like where I used to love studying in at UH Manoa, in Hawaii, where those books were fermenting from being too damp).  It's more like in your parents' attic, or in the old Penn State stacks.  Floral has depth in this; a personal limitation crops up related to covering all that's there.  That fresh fallen leaf effect really did trail more into a warm mineral range, not quite as pronounced as sucking on a penny, but between there and digging up old, wet sandstone.

It would be easy to miss the earthy range in the middle of all that, which is hard to describe.  It's back towards aged leather, connecting with the old books tone, very subdued compared to the floral, and even lighter than the mineral.  The light bitterness isn't so different than biting a tree bud, probably a light hardwood, like hickory.  But if you've tasted a pine needle bud (blue spruce, especially) just subtract some pine from that and the sweet richness and tanginess aren't far off. 

I'll probably just do a fourth infusion and mention additional thoughts, since this seems long enough to me as it is.  Not rambling on and on didn't work out.

Fourth infusion

These lower than stuffed-gaiwan proportions, or really the related slightly extended brewing times, around 15 seconds each, are causing these teas to transition faster than I'm used to.  The Thai version seems to be leveling off a bit in terms of intensity, far from finished, but it's already time to increase infusion timing.  It hasn't transitioned enough to say much more about it; it's still like it was.

The Myanmar sheng too, although that unusual balance of aspect range keeps shifting a little.  This is an unusual tea.  I wouldn't be surprised if something atypical about storage was an input, not in the sense of ruining the tea, or even throwing it off, but related to changing it.  The ordinary continuum of dryer to moister storage conditions has a range of effects that I'm not completely familiar or unfamiliar with, and I can't really pin it down as tied to that.  If I were drinking it blind I might expect it to be 2 or 3 years old versus one.

I say that just because I've been drinking a lot of sheng from different places in Yunnan, and from Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, lots over the last year even, and this is novel compared to all that.  That novelty could be very pleasant or a bit off depending on preference, but typically tea versions aren't out there on their own like this for character.  More wild growth conditions changes things; that might have been a related input.  It works for me.  I probably like this Thai version a little more but thinking I like it going in carries in a bias.

One more tangent (just not the last, related to this post):  Jeff Fuchs just made some interesting comments about varied inputs leading to sheng character in that tea group I admin for, International Tea Talk, in this post comment:

What my own experiences have been based on have been as much about chatting to locals as they have my own palate experiences. Generally, I'd agree that 'if' all tea was produced (and stored) equally, there are some definite qualities from the more natural environments. I'd agree that they tend to have some softness initially, but carry a second hit at the back of the mouth and tongue, which for me feels like some strength, though the flavours are mild. The 'qi' factor I'd also say carries through more in these natural environments into the bloodstream. Many will say that the Bulang Mountains have some of the most intense red/orange clays of southern Yunnan's tea regions that also affect the mineral and vegetal contents which we may or may not feel. 

Another factor that isn't talked about much is the varietal of the Big Leaf. In Yiwu and parts of Jing Mai, a smaller leaf and generally milder version of the leaf dominate, and thus are known for more mild profiles than the larger 'Menghai' leaves. So much too in the Mandarin vernacular of descriptives that isn't yet widely translated that link the soil, the finish, the initial hit on the palate. Have to say that generally I'm a fan of the Menghai zone of growth and what comes out of the genuinely unmolested mountains. One last little thought from a local buyer in Jing Hong...he mentioned that generally speaking Yiwu teas needed more time to age (if one is interested in aged teas) than did the Menghai offerings. 

If you don't know who Jeff Fuchs is you might look into that; he helped found a tea business, and has written some interesting book and blog content, and recently he's better known for "The Tea Explorer" documentary about the living history of tea.

Jeff Fuchs with a Tibetan Elder (credit the Tea and Mountain Journals)

Conclusions, and a bit about perfume

Not much for conclusions; those teas were nice though.

I gave them another longer infusion and they really are fading.  When people brag of how a tea can stand up to a dozen or more infusions one of two related things may be going on:  they might be using a really high proportion of tea (as I tend to), and flash infusions, or a more typical proportion and but they've just adapted to drinking the tea brewed very lightly, again infused fast.  In my experience it's normal to prefer teas brewed lighter over time; there's a natural transition to being able to experience the aspects better that way, with practice.  Or if someone appreciates feel and aftertaste more than flavor maybe not; they might then continue to go with stronger, longer infusions to accentuate that, at the cost of not optimizing the flavor of the tea.

All that talk of perfume had me look into the subject a little, not in any way that connected directly back to this tasting, but it was interesting, and the themes overlap with tea description.  A sample of some very introductory ideas on it from Wikipedia sketch out where the range of ideas leads:

Perfume oils usually contain tens to hundreds of ingredients and these are typically organized in a perfume for the specific role they will play. These ingredients can be roughly grouped into four groups:

Primary scents (Heart): Can consist of one or a few main ingredients for a certain concept, such as "rose". Alternatively, multiple ingredients can be used together to create an "abstract" primary scent that does not bear a resemblance to a natural ingredient. For instance, jasmine and rose scents are commonly blends for abstract floral fragrances. Cola flavourant is a good example of an abstract primary scent.

Modifiers: These ingredients alter the primary scent to give the perfume a certain desired character: for instance, fruit esters may be included in a floral primary to create a fruity floral; calone and citrus scents can be added to create a "fresher" floral. The cherry scent in cherry cola can be considered a modifier.

Blenders: A large group of ingredients that smooth out the transitions of a perfume between different "layers" or bases. These themselves can be used as a major component of the primary scent. Common blending ingredients include linalool and hydroxycitronellal.

Fixatives: Used to support the primary scent by bolstering it. Many resins, wood scents, and amber bases are used as fixatives.

The top, middle, and base notes of a fragrance may have separate primary scents and supporting ingredients.

Interesting stuff.  The idea of layers and of a top, middle, and base relate to what is recognized first versus later (and also molecule weights, which tie in with that), with some of the rest more about main and supporting scent components.  To some extent what we experience in tasting in tea relates to similar perceived layering or temporal sequence patterns.  But all of these are natural results of the plant character and processing effects, not designed by mixing ingredients.  In terms of temporal sequence I tend to say more about how aftertaste varies from the flavor while drinking a tea (which I don't usually split into parts).  Interpreting flavors as layered or analogous to physically arranged also works, with mineral tones often seeming to function as a base, and bright floral and fruit aspects standing out as a higher range.

We are doing something similar to smelling when we taste tea, or other foods.  Scent is picking up an impression that informs the overall flavor (sensation in the rear lower nasal passages; not exactly the same thing as smelling something), along with what our tongues pick up.  There's only so much the theory, communicated in how perfume development and experience works, can be helpful in the experience of tasting, but tea review descriptions do often draw on those idea frameworks.

Scent training to recognize distinct compounds is something else; that would be interesting and could be potentially useful.  But that would relate more to practicing sensory identification than learning the theory behind it.  I've ran across an interesting looking workshop in Darjeeling that relates to this, borrowing from scent training background to inform tea analysis and blending.  An analytical understanding of how we experience things would seem to only go so far in supporting the subjective appreciation or "liking" part.

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