There's probably not much need to set this background up related to who this vendor is but I'll add a little about that. Tea Side is a local Thai vendor that seeks out rarer and better Thai versions of teas to sell online. I've reviewed plenty of sheng and shu from them, which is not necessarily pu'er, given that those are from Thailand, which makes naming problematic. I guess calling it "pu'er-like tea" resolves that, it's just cumbersome.
I've reviewed black teas from Tea Side in the past, more or less in Dian Hong styles (including three I bought last year reviewed here), and well prior to that some oolongs, even a 20+ year old version. To be clear these teas I'm reviewig were sent as samples, provided by the vendor.
They started trying to produce their own shu in smaller batches than is typically used in the last couple of years, including these two. I can cite their own content background as reference to all that (which is interesting to me at least: tea-side.com/blog/craft-shu-puerh-tea-interview):
At first, of course, I was afraid that the raw materials wouldn’t warm up to the minimum required 50 degrees. As it turned out later, this problem do not arise at all. To warm up the pile, a small amount of leaves like five kilograms is already enough. There were other difficulties. For example, when you work with a small volume, it is difficult to keep its humidity within certain limits during the entire fermentation period. A small pile dries very quickly. Adding a new portion of water should be very careful. The overwatering leads to too rapid processes inside the basket. And there is a high risk that the material will "burn out"...
The actual descriptions of these two teas cover more related to that background, starting with the 2016 0201, leaving the aspects description in:
Experimental craft Shou (Ripe) Pu-erh made of spring 2016 material from Thai 300-500 year-old trees. Chiang Rai province, northern Thailand, 1300 meters above sea level. Fermented in September 2016.
Dry tea smells milky, walnut and conifer with hints of salinity. In the taste is interesting interweaving of coniferous oily tones with raspberries and dairy. Since the 3-4 infusion sweet woodiness and almonds appears. Aftertaste with pine and walnut tones, slight bitterness.
I probably would have matched that description more closely if I'd read that review beforehand (I typically don't and didn't, since that affects interpretation).
The other description, the 2018 0101 version:
Handmade Shou (Ripe) Pu-erh made of spring 2016 material from Thai 200-400-year-old trees. Chiang Rai province, northern Thailand, 1300 meters above sea level. Fermented in March 2018.
This shou pu-erh is new for our project. It is made of the same material as our sheng Dragon. It is presented in two different forms: classic loose tea and the heads (cha tou).
In a dry aroma there are dairy and woody notes with pleasant sea salinity. In rinsed tea, the woody background opens up multifaceted, berry tones of raspberries and strawberries with milk are added to it. The taste of tea is dense, even, and rich. Despite the youth (short time storage after fermentation), this shou pu-erh is easy to drink. The taste is dominated by woody tones with coniferous hints and a milky-berry theme.
They sound good, and they were nice in review tasting. I don't usually address tea pricing in review posts but just noticed both of these sell for $17 for 50 grams, kind of a lot for a shu (that would be a $120 or so cake). I'll consider that value issue further after the description write-up.
2016 left; odd it brews lighter but more intense in flavor
2016, 0201, loose shu: cocoa hits you right away in tasting this shu; that may be the most pronounced cocoa aspect I've ran across for this tea type. It can be the main flavor aspect in some black teas but shu usually mixes in other earthy range. Of course this includes other flavor aspects, the cocoa just stands out. It's almost like the effect of an actual dark chocolate bar versus cocoa often coming across more like the powdered, processed version. Beyond that the earthy range is typical, just lighter, cleaner, and sweeter than usual, the darker-range mineral and such. It hints a little towards spice; this could develop in different directions from here.
2018 0101, as "tea heads / cha tou:" this tea will need another infusion to really get going. It had been in the form of shu curds or chunks, and those aren't completely opened up yet, even though I ripped the large one that I'm brewing apart. It'll remain to be seen if I've guessed out proportion well too since I'm not into weighing amounts.
I was concerned that this might have some fermentation related effect left (a fermentation processing, or wet piling, or wò dūi effect), since that can be a bit rough for the first two or three years, depending on factors I'm not really clear on. It's not necessarily better that a shu tastes completely clean and easy to drink within the first year, and not necessarily better that it doesn't.
In looking that term up in Wikipedia I ran across an interesting reference to shu compounds:
Wet pile fermented pu'er has higher levels of caffeine and much higher levels of gallic acid compared with traditionally aged raw pu'er. Additionally, traditionally aged pu'er has higher levels of the antioxidant and carcinogen-trapping epigallocatechin gallate as well as (+)-catechin, (–)-epicatechin, (–)-epigallocatechin, gallocatechin gallate, and epicatechin gallate than wet pile fermented pu'er. Finally, wet pile fermented puer has much lower total levels for all catechins than traditional pu'er and other teas except for black tea which also has low total catechins...
The caffeine part just looks wrong, doesn't it? It doesn't seem possible that fermentation processing would increase caffeine level, and it seems unlikely that other factors that would cause that variation would cause that (eg. younger leaves and buds contain more caffeine than older leaves; shu is usually made from lower quality material instead, so if anything leaves would be older). If they took a small sample for that study normal variation could account for it, just random chance. Which of course would call into question the validity of the other results, if the sample size was small enough that random variation could be a main factor.
Anyway, it'll be easier to say more about this tea on the next round, once it's brewing more completely. It includes some cocoa aspect, just not as much, and it doesn't seem like strong flavors related to processing are going to be an issue (tar or petroleum, peat, etc.).
2016 left again; I let this infusion run a little longer to get them going
2016: this picked up a good bit of complexity, and it's probably not even fully expressing where it's headed yet. The cocoa dropped back a bit in proportion but it's still prominent. Whatever that one flavor is in marshmallow is present in this; that's catchy, in this context. Of course there is some warm earth and mineral range beyond that. The earthiness is woody but in an unusual sense, not at all how I would usually use that general range description. Part of that is like aged barn wood, that sweet depth that comes with extensive aging of wood, and a fresh and bright part more like a tree bud, but without the astringency edge of young wood. Next round I'll express that better, but the tea will probably have shifted in character a little by then.
I was concerned that these teas might not be on the same level of other shu since they're just ramping up processing (if I've got what they even are right) but that turned out to be no concern at all; these are great.
Specific expectations and preference always factor into that kind of value judgement. These being this drinkable right now imply that they might not be as intense in 4 or 5 years when a shu that's been developed in such a way that it's a bit much the first couple of years is settling out. That said, it's not my impression that negative characteristics after very little aging time are necessarily a requirement for shu to be good, or at some level for quality or intensity. I haven't fully sorted out how it all maps together, but a tea being very positive right now is a great sign, especially if the idea is to drink it right now.
2018: this version is finally coming online, only starting to fully infuse. It might run behind the other in the cycle then, as that worked out, related to the two being in a different form. This was essentially like brewing a compressed shu cake that I didn't bother to completely tease apart, thinking that it would unravel itself faster than it did. It's my impression that it's not even compressed, that the producer sent me the chunks that form naturally, which per my impression (informed only by limited hearsay) are prized for having a unique character.
Some of that marshmallow herb is present in this tea too, and the cocoa, but it's different. The balance is different, and the other aspects present, the context. I can't really say one is lighter than the other, or pin down a difference in other earthy range, or mineral, at least just yet. Both are complex, both have a nice rich feel, both very clean in effect.
When people say that they don't get shu, that it doesn't appeal to them, they may mean a few different things. Some people would be referencing never having tried a good version, but I think that might be a minority case. Regular factory shu is ok; any $35 cake should clue someone in to where the range is going, even if in below average versions it wouldn't come across very well. Others say that it lacks the complexity of sheng, or that they prefer the different flavor and other range, not so much missing bitterness, but the rest that can balance that in sheng. For others the comparison is with good aged sheng; that's too much to even get into, how that broad range of potential plays out. Of course that's quite different.
Trying a version this good with this particular character (related to both of these) wouldn't come up quickly in trying random teas. I'm not sure for how many people "not getting" shu this would turn out to be a revelation, or even just a different experience. For some, to be sure. These are still simple and approachable compared to good aged sheng experience; that goes without saying. But they're not simple in character compared to the range of other teas, or any less pleasant, just different.
While I'm on a tangent here I looked up what that "marshmallow" flavor is. In modern marshmallows it's only cited as "natural and artificial" flavors, and digging deeper doesn't turn up more about that. Of course it might and probably does tie back to an original plant type used to make marshmallows, as referenced in this Wikipedia source:
The word "marshmallow" comes from the mallow plant species (Althaea officinalis), an herb native to parts of Europe, North Africa, and Asia which grows in marshes and other damp areas. The plant's stem and leaves are fleshy and its white flower has five petals. It is not known exactly when marshmallows were invented, but their history goes back as early as 2000 B.C. Ancient Egyptians were said to be the first to make them and eating them was a privilege strictly reserved for gods and for royalty, who used the root of the plant to soothe coughs and sore throats, and to heal wounds...
But do modern marshmallows still try to match that flavor? This "Star" reference more or less claims that they do:
...Those bagged marshmallows, incidentally, are no longer made from marsh mallow roots. They are made from a mixture of sugars, egg whites and gelatin beaten together.
As you scratch into the soil at the base of a marsh mallow plant, the resemblance of marsh mallow roots to marshmallow candy becomes immediately apparent...
2018 (right) leaf looks lighter; less fermented?
2016: this hasn't developed much since the last round, so I'll just fill in details I'd missed. The tea is creamy in effect. It's an effect not so different from how Guiness Stout comes across, and some of the earthy range even matches, that touch that's a bit towards coffee in a flavor range that seems somehow related, but not quite to that. The marshmallow flavor is stronger than the cocoa now, the main aspect, with earthiness like aged barn wood behind that, but in a presentation that isn't musty in the slightest. One other flavor is like dark chocolate.
It's nice the way the feel is full (and creamy), and the taste range sticks around after you drink it; both add to the complexity of the overall effect. I've been drinking a lot of shu over this past year (mostly thanks to Moychay; they've been hooking me up with a range of good versions) and this compares well with that range. The character is a little different; it seems like most people might really like the way that sweetness, cocoa, and marshmallow herb work together, and some might not, expecting or desiring something else, more towards slate mineral, coffee, tar, or peat. It sounds odd saying that someone might want their tea to taste like a petroleum product or dirt instead but those earthy ranges can work well, in the right context and aspects balance.
2018: this isn't too far off the other tea, just a bit milder, more subtle. They both share some of the same sweetness, creaminess, cocoa range, and unusual spice range (marshmallow herb). This might have a touch more depth to it, and this tea might develop differently across the whole range of infusions related to that. It's more whole-leaf, so it might just be that it's releasing compounds (flavor and other aspects) slower, so coming across as less intense just relates to brewing process varying by leaf presentation, more cut up versus more whole.
This if familiar ground. It's possible to just let brewing time run longer for a more whole-leaf tea, to balance that out, but in general character won't be identical even with that adjustment. With sheng often the whole-leaf version is much more positive for that dropping back astringency and allowing other flavor to stand out more in proportion, but shu doesn't have that as a main aspect to be concerned with. If I'm just brewing the 2018 version slower, and to some extent that probably is the case, after a half-dozen infusions it would show up in the form of the tea continuing on more in the same intensity level and character range.
Again this doesn't necessarily reduce back to a "better or worse" consideration; the teas are just different. It can seem that the 2016 version is more intense, as I'm brewing it, but I'm pretty sure it relates to brewing process. I'm preparing these with very moderate infusion times, around 15+ seconds, but to me that's the right range, it's just odd that it doesn't match for tea leaf wholeness, so it's not identical. I'll use 10+ seconds for the 2016 and 15+ for the 2018 to match that back up next round. Both of these teas would still work well brewed between 5 and 10 seconds; it's just a matter of personal preference to brew them a little stronger than I prefer some other tea styles, as I do soft and sweet black teas.
a little redundant but these are cool looking teas
2016: more of the same this round; the tea really isn't transitioning. That complexity, balance, and character is really nice; it's as well.
2018: it's interesting how much aspect range these two teas share, and how they really are different. This version is still a little more subtle, even brewed for the extra 5 seconds, but it has a different depth to it. Again I think the full character difference would only come out related to brewing them through the full round, preparing another half dozen infusions of both.
I won't do that for these notes though because I'm off to do a "Fun Day" outing at Kalani's school, the kind of even where they bring in 15 or so play stations for the kids to cycle through (bouncy castle, face painting, etc.). That will be intense; a lot of children's joy to experience, to the point that it tends to seem overwhelming after a couple of hours. Or maybe that's mostly the Bangkok heat, but at least it's cool out today, probably around 27 C / 80 F right now.
To add at least one extra detail this tea might have less of a marshmallow herb effect and a touch more dried fruit going on, towards dried tamarind, but not that. The aged wood trace aspect in the first version doesn't really carry across to the second, but there is a good bit of complexity to it, subtle earthy layers below those that stand out more. In that relative "space," where the trace of aged wood aspect is in the 2016 version, the 2018 has a depth and feel that's relatively neutral in flavor range, but not completely neutral. I mean in the way chamomile tea has an intensity and complexity in flavor that almost seems like it's not there it's so subtle, but it is there.
Rambling on about these teas for 3 or 4 more rounds would've been nice, but that is the basic story. I suspect the 2018 version has more to show, that being more subtle in the early rounds would translate to transitioning differently later on, and that one part of the story is that the 2016 version would've played out a bit faster. I did try them again, with more on that added in the next conclusions section.
I really liked the teas. To me these are a good example of well above average shu, not just decent versions. Even for going on about complexity, interesting flavor range, feel, and aftertaste, there still is something to people preferring sheng for being more complex, beyond just being different. To me these teas are very positive for being more approachable than most sheng (perhaps even aged versions, depending on the tea quality and type), and easier to appreciate, but that would vary by preference.
In trying them later the 2018 version did evolve to be even more positive, and slightly different, while the 2016 version settled into more of an earthy mineral range instead, giving up some sweetness and positive complexity. The 2018 tea stayed creamy and subtle but intense, well-balanced, and complex in an unusual way, more pleasant than the other version across a number of additional rounds. I get the vendor reference to it being "resistant to brewing," which I didn't cite earlier.
I didn't interpret these as fruity to the extent the vendor did, but to some extent that's probably a matter of normal interpretation variance. These notes do mention an aspect coming across as tied to tamarind, or maybe undetermined fruit, and emphasize cocoa and an unusual herb input instead. Using different water or even drinking them brewed stronger or lighter would make a difference.
It's hard to evaluate general quality level of these teas, placing that in relation to their cost, mentioned earlier ($17 per 50 grams). They're unique in character. It's odd seeing shu selling for that but being a bit different, and in general better than shu's typically are justifies that. You just don't see small-batch, distinctive style, older plant source, outside-of-Yunnan origin shu coming up (except maybe from Myanmar, but that's another story). I guess the problem is probably more on the demand and expectations side; there might be a smaller audience demanding higher quality shu than for many other tea types. For people who are into better shu these are options to consider.
I'm not sure why the 2018 version didn't include more negative fermentation related aspects, that it didn't need time to settle, related to being made less than a year ago. It really could be more lightly fermented, leading to less of that as an experienced aspect. At some point it's just about enjoying teas as they are instead, not figuring them out.
Off-topic, about that kids' event
Kalani's two best friends at that Fun Day
Keo helping out in a magic show
the "Foam Party" section