Monday, November 26, 2018

Vietnamese trà chít (or trà bó), and local Laos sheng

trà chít (or trà bó), Vietnamese tea I don't know much about

that same bundled tea, the separated leaves

Phongsaly (Laos) sheng; it turned out "young" refers to the plant age

From talking to a random contact online, who sent some tea, I'm trying a type of tea that's new to me from Vietnam and a Laos sheng.  The contact is interesting (Somnuc Anousinh):  he's from Laos, but was visiting Vietnam, and had a chance to mail some samples from Thailand in a short visit to the North East (in Isaan).  It's cool talking to people about very local, rare tea types.  It's a bit much to ask them to actually send some, but he did offer to.  I need to get some of what's around together to send back, to turn this into a tea swap instead of just a random gift.

I get the sense he's just a tea enthusiast who takes a hobby interest to unusual extremes, but I'm not sure.  Maybe he does sell some of these versions to support a local travel habit, since these teas are coming from relatively remote places.

One I thought was bamboo pu'er but it's not (the trà chít).  It's not really compressed.  I've seen experimental Sri Lankan black tea leaves prepared in lots of unusual ways that this resembles (although I've never tried any of those), bundled up, or that plus some shaping.  The idea for Yunnan bamboo sheng and falap (more or less a local Assam version of the same thing) is compressing tea down into a bamboo casing then heating it, doing the kill-green step with roasting versus frying, adding bamboo flavor and smoke to the tea, to the extent either transfer over.  This is just bundled leaves instead.

I asked my Vietnamese friend Huyen and she said "we call it trà chít, or trà bó."  Few people in Vietnam would probably be familiar with it, but she had a picture of it, and knew who that other contact picked it up from, and had just been visiting there a week before he did.  It's a small world.  She had passed on some very rare Vietnamese tea versions earlier, so she also gets out (with two reviewed here, and about actually meeting her in Bangkok here).

That other version picture:

Huyen visited the same producer just before Somnuc did, so that tea she is holding should be closely related.  It's aged; 10 years old (which would explain the color difference).  Somnuc mentioned that the version I'm trying is from 2017, so it's had time to age (ferment naturally as sheng does) a little, just not that much.  The scale of that bundle she is holding is a little hard to identify since her hands probably are on the small side:

Compare that earlier picture to a five-year old holding this year's version bundle:

Huyen also shared a picture of Vietnamese bamboo sheng, which I still have to get around to getting ahold of:

I was going to just try the that first tea alone but after two rinses it still just tasted like mineral, like slate, and I wanted to get further with tasting range, to not just talk about why it's like that or mention some degree of transition, in case it didn't.  Combined tastings are nice for me, although it's usually a bit much tea.  My son did go to his Chinese (Mandarin) lesson this morning, and the entire household with him, so it's a quiet space here to taste and write.  On to what these are like.


Fermented Vietnamese trà chít left, Laos sheng right

Fermented tea:  I'm not sure to what extent or through what processing this is really fermented but since it was presented as such that'll work as a more familiar working label than trà chít.

This is on the second infusion after two rinses so it's clearing up in character a bit.  The last round had been really mineral intensive; it tasted like licking a slate chalk-board, with a trace of underlying char and old basement flavor.  It seemed it just wasn't there yet for "opening up."  For younger sheng usually that relates to bitterness and astringency easing up through the first few rounds but in this case more to clearing off age and mineral intensive flavor to get to a sweeter, milder, more balanced range.  It's not musty though, and it wasn't initially.

The slate / blackboard may have given way slightly to a touch more char, and it did sweeten and gain depth, but it's not there yet.  To me this tastes a good bit like a Liu Bao.  Those vary but the typical range is heavy mineral with a touch of char; just what this is.  Probably the best well-aged versions mellow out into a different range after a lot of years but I've think I've only ever tried younger or moderate quality level examples.  One that I tried was really musty from aging, probably stored in too wet an environment, or else the air-flow wasn't set up right.

Somehow I didn't think this was supposed to be pre-fermented (it seems it couldn't be wet-piled bundled like that), but that may be what it is; that would explain the Liu Bao similarity.  It'll be interesting to see where this goes from here.

The brewed coloring is odd.  One re-interpretation could relate to "fermentation" meaning "oxidation," as some Western vendors mistakenly use the term, more or less a case of bad translation.  It's not black tea, but it could be produced in a style that's supposed to be something like a more-oxidized white tea.  I came into the tasting expecting it to be like some type of pu'er, so that read on bad translation didn't even occur to me initially (or until the post editing step, really).  The brewed sheng is the color of sheng.

Vietnamese tea left (some leaves unusually dark), Laos sheng right

Phongsaly young plant sheng:  at time of tasting I wasn't clear on details but this is "young" sheng, as in from young plants, from around Phongsaly, Laos.

A bit of geographical aside:  that's quite close to Xishuangbanna (Yunnan) and not so far from Pu'er, which is a village name the tea gets that type name from, a designation also used to specify a broader area (prefecture) that also goes by Simao.  According to Huyen the bundled tea is from Ha Giang, which is on this map over in Northern Vietnam.  The Oriental Beauty version I just reviewed had been from Son La, which is closer yet, also in the North.

Luang Prabang is the coolest place I've been to in Laos, a really old, beautiful, quiet but lightly developed tourist attraction area, with lots of old temples and local markets.  Pak Beng is in the middle of nowhere, a small village we visited on a river-based travel leg.  They shut off the local power a bit after dark when we were there, and then depending if a generator kicks on wherever you are the nearby electric lights may or may not stay on.  That part was cool.  Laos is fantastic to visit, and it's nice that not so many people think so that it's ruined by tourism.  Back to the teas then.

This second tea is actually sheng; that much is clear.  It's really sweet and approachable for this being a first infusion after a rinse.  In some cases local tea versions can be whatever they happen to be, but this is normal sheng, not an interpretation, or a bit towards white or green tea.  It's earthier, sweeter, and more complex than most young sheng seems to be.  Wild-grown plants have a different taste to them, milder, towards fruit or spice, not so much just floral and bitter over light mineral tones as a lot of other sheng expresses (although sheng can include fruit, or smoke, or lots of different aspects).

One particular aspect in this I associate with wild-grown sheng (right or wrong; I've tried a good bit of quite varied tea but I'm no expert).  It's like tree bark, but sweeter, a little towards spice.  I've not been in temperate climate forest much for a long time but I'll go with birch tree bark, or maybe that towards hickory, something light and sweet and a bit aromatic (so nothing like maple or oak).  There is a faint trace of bitterness but that's really light, hard to pick up without trying to notice it, essentially none as young sheng typically goes.

I showed a picture of it to a real tea expert (of sorts; we're all just on a scale, even people at the further end), and she mentioned it hadn't been sorted to remove yellow leaves, which is referred to as huang pian when sold as a separate product.  That would make the flavor milder and sweeter, and cost the tea intensity in other range, since that's how huang pian goes.

Second infusion

Fermented tea:  this is still "cleaning up."  I don't mean that in the sense of odd fermentation or storage flavors wearing off, or in the case of young and astringent sheng needing a few rounds to be more approachable.  It's moving off that mineral with a touch of char flavor range.

It tastes more like tree root now, that mineral intensive odd smell you get when digging through roots in clay soil.  It's not that far from potato peel, to use a reference that might be more meaningful.  It's probably more positive than that sounds; who would eat raw potato peels, or want their tea to taste like that?  Slate-range mineral is still pretty heavy in the background underlying that but the char has diminished.  It's still a lot sweeter and cleaner in effect that the flavor range implies.

I'd like a Liu Bao that tasted like this, but if a sheng did I'd wonder what was going on with it.  Expectations do a lot in defining tea experience; it helps to have had mineral intensive teas similar to this before (other Liu Bao).  I thought this might be smoky but it's just not.  That trace of char could be interpreted as smoke but to me it's not that, it's a faint touch of charcoal instead.

Phonsaly sheng:  this is some really nice tea.  The first round hinted at that, the range being that positive, but this has increased in depth, complexity, and intensity a lot, in a very nice flavor range.  Tree-bark is still the main aspect but that description doesn't do it justice.  That leans towards root-spice, with so much sweetness and complexity that it seems after one more round fruit might evolve enough to put a label on it.  Or I could be wrong and it could add floral range, I just don't expect that. Some of the mineral layer isn't unlike the other tea's, that's just framed in such a different context it's more or less an opposite style.

I love this style of tea, the aspect set, the softness, and complexity.  I suspect not very many people are getting a chance to try teas like this, maybe not even that many experienced sheng drinkers.  It's kind of the opposite of factory tea for character, and not even close to commissioned sheng versions I've tried.  It has to be wild-sourced, locally produced tea, or at least produced from tea trees growing in a relatively natural environment.  Or I could be way off; what do I know.

Again if someone had no contact with tea versions like this I could imagine placing the experience as positive or negative would be harder.  It would just be unfamiliar.  The softness could be interpreted as a flaw, as a sign the tea is from younger sourced plants, when in fact that character seems to relate as much to a different range of plant types growing in a different type of environment instead.  This write-up would look odd if I included a description of the opposite origin and try to account for all the wrong guesses, but even after editing I never did hear more source details.

Third infusion

Fermented tea:  again it's milder and more approachable, although that was true of the last round too, just less so.  That root-mineral is easing up already, falling into a more balanced effect, and sweetness might be picking up a little more.  The flavor range is clean, just unusual.  The potato-peel flavor aspect (more tree-root) has shifted to raw potato a bit.  Slate is broadening in character, more to wet-spring rocks with a touch of corroded iron.  It's interesting.  This would now be more like a clean, complex, pleasant version of a Liu Bao, way off the initial char and heavy mineral.

Phongsaly Sheng:  that tree-bark root-spice effect has shifted, onto how pine cones smell.  It's rich, sweet, and aromatic, also woody but not in any typical sense one encounters in most teas.  I almost want to guess out which pine tree's cone this flavor aspect resembles but that really would be pushing it.  The taste resembles pine too, in between a blue-spruce pine flavor (light and sweet, but dry and mineral intensive) and the richer and sweeter range of pine-tree buds (which you can eat; they're delicious).

Both of these teas are more interesting than I expected.  Huyen shared some really pleasant and novel versions of Vietnamese sheng awhile back but in trying those the theme was more about how the style wasn't really exactly sheng, so the experience was about identifying what the character was, along with the novel aspect sets.  These are just as novel but the second seems completely like sheng to me, just not a conventional version of it.  I'd chalk the differences up to terroir and plant source issues more than processing (going off-script for typical production steps), but of course that's still a guess.

This second tea (both, really) doesn't come across as thin, or leave your mouth quickly, and there is some lingering aftertaste.  All that aspect range pairs more naturally with the mouth-feel, bitterness, and other flavor intensity blast you get from young sheng, from more conventional versions of it.  These just "aren't thin," which works for me.

Fourth infusion

These aren't transitioning fast enough to add a lot more description, given how long this is running.  It works to say the "fermented" version is pretty close to how it was in the last round.  The sheng too.  I think it's still picking up more complexity, kind of like how those Dragonball characters spend forever continuing to power up.  The pine aspect reminds me a little of tea-berry in this round, a sweet, aromatic, wild-tasting version of mint, with a touch of berry fruit (more or less).

Vietnamese trà chít

Laos sheng

Fifth infusion

I accidentally left these soak for awhile, distracted by something else.  I can describe what the effect of a really long infusion is at this point and given transitions had evened out anyway can stop there.

The fermented tea is just a stronger version of where it had been.  Oddly the balance still works; it had lightened enough, and never was challenging.  The root-mineral / potato peel effect is a good bit stronger but it's still pleasant, it doesn't really seem "off" for that.  That's an odd narrow aspect range to express, so this tea may not be a personal favorite for almost anyone, but it is interesting, and the balance works for me.

The sheng's greater intensity doesn't work as well as a more conventional infusion strength.  The pine aspect is a bit strong; it's like trying to eat a pine needle.  Brewing a tea that strong (which never comes up, just "stronger" does, when I get to it), allows you to identify feel better, and flaws, instead of being more pleasant that way.  None of the aspect range present (with flavors way too strong, made this way) is off in any way, beyond that intensity.


I really paid the price for drinking a triple-strength infusion that late in the rounds.  My stomach wasn't normal and I felt a bit off from overdoing the caffeine intake.  Oddly I could still take a nap (sometimes sheng works out that way, that you can sleep "on it"), but I didn't go back to feeling normal until dinner time.

Both were really interesting teas.  That "fermented" trà chít version wouldn't be a personal favorite related to that unconventional aspect range but it was nice for being so novel.  No teas I've tried were ever similar to that one.  The sheng was really nice for seeming like a good example of a wild-plant origin sheng (if it was that).

It would be interesting to know if the few guesses here were right about these teas, or to know more about the parts where I didn't even have a decent guess, like what "fermented" ever meant.  That tea couldn't have been wet-piled, and per the input from Somnuc and Huyen it wasn't aged tea, which rules out the two typical meanings.  Another tea friend said it looked like white tea to her, and that could account for a bit of oxidation, which would explain the dry tea look and brewed tea color, it just didn't taste remotely like a white tea.  At least it made for a very novel experience, positive as experienced aspects go, but even more interesting for being so unique.

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