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


  1. Fascinating stuff John, it's exciting to see sheng and other new teas from Vietnam. So curious to try sometime. I haven't tried any sheng from Vietnam but have had the opportunity to try some green and oolong from Yen Bai.

    I also appreciated your little soapbox about the purpose of tea - if we just switched out all the powdered mix in the world for decent tea (needing less sugar), would we see a better quality of life, I wonder? I'm biased, but I can't help but think "yes". And this is coming from someone who still loves a cup of brightly colored taro milk tea :)

    1. Nice to hear some feedback; I don't keep up with comments much since the filter is always only full of what spam bots have to add.

      It's funny how a bad diet would only be a really relevant factor once you took that so far you were essentially killing yourself, and funny in a tragic sense how common that is back in the States (no offense intended to any Americans, obviously). That only seems to be possible because one needs to go so far to experience what the limit is. Drinking quite a bit of soda or bubble tea would be no problem at all; basing a diet out of 711 and fast food outlets would be.