Thursday, February 28, 2019

Tea and stomach problems, as a cause and potential cure

I just passed on some shu pu'er to a co-worker having stomach problems, and wanted to share some thoughts on the types of tea that might cause the most impact or are most gentle on your stomach.  That's more relevant to people who already experience some type of stomach problems, which would vary in cause, since different people can tolerate different foods and eating related practices.  It seems like the kind of thing everyone would already know about, about how different teas tend to cause stomach issues or else don't, but common knowledge would vary along with personal exposure.

a Moychay buds-heavy version of shu, that tastes like cocoa (from here)

this version is sold out; there seems to be an increase in demand for shu in the past year

To preface the context this won't be a research post (although I do mention a number of sources), and my own take is a hearsay account, drawn from personal experience.  I don't have a sensitive stomach or stomach problems, so maybe that second part counts for less.  But at the same time I've been drinking lots of tea for a half-dozen years, so on the other hand maybe I'm getting some things right.

About that co-worker's case:  his doctor gave him the usual input, to avoid foods or drinks that can be hard on your stomach (coffee, tea, spicy foods, etc.), and to eat food with any drink that seems to pose some risk.  A good prevention or resolution really depends on the specific cause for his own case, and I'm not sure what the cause is, and he seems not to know it.  If he can't get it resolved by adjustments to diet that doctor will take a look in his stomach with a scope, which sounds like something I'd want to avoid.

He said that he's been drinking powdered green tea, which would usually go by the category name "matcha."  If that relates to Thai versions maybe it's as well to just call it powdered green tea, even though the designation can be interpreted as not limited to tea from Japan, per some people's takes (with a generally good Thai producer source here).  I personally don't find tea naming disputes as interesting as functional ideas. 

At any rate that seems like one of the worst teas to drink if sensitivity is a problem, even if consumed along with food.  An old Tea Chat discussion conveyed his experience isn't unique, titled "Matcha nausea?," but it doesn't shed much light on causes or likely extent related to other tea types.  Most people there suggested eating some food along with drinking teas, especially first thing in the morning.

Onto what I think might cause stomach problems (related to tea, which may not be a primary cause in his case), and what types I think would be the least likely to, broken down by topic category.

Shu pu'er:  this has a reputation as being easiest on the stomach, as tea types go.  It can be hard to align that type of hearsay input to actual facts of the matter, and drawing on one's own experience might only be valid for one individual case.  All the same it seems that way to me too.  I'm not as convinced that it can help people with problems with digesting greasy food, a claim that does turn up, but maybe that works.  It's probably better to just eat healthier food most of the time than to work around problems stemming from bad diet choices.  Check out this related article, if it's of interest:

One serving of fried chicken a day linked to 13% higher risk of death, study finds

Matcha / powdered green tea:  I've run out of the range of personal input here since I don't really drink matcha.  In tea circles that's crazy; it would make more sense to tell people that you don't like black tea (which would seem crazy to me).  I could easily pick up a preference for matcha if I drank it more regularly, since it doesn't seem bad to me.  I've tried ceremonial grade versions, twice in actual Japanese tea ceremonies even, both prior to 10 years ago.  So it's not that, more a matter of acclimation, at a guess. 

Since I like green tea the least of all kinds it seems as well to just pass on intentionally picking up an interest in one variation of one.  Of course I've tried cold matcha drinks and Starbucks' lattes, and they're ok, and love matcha soft-serve ice cream, so it's not as if I've never had any positive contact with it.  Hojicha flavored ice cream can also be incredible; keep an eye out for that.

Green tea (also tied to the last topic, matcha):  About the stomach concern green tea is said to the worst for your stomach, along with sheng pu'er, which is probably pretty close to green tea in terms of compounds present (although that isn't a given, and the main impact should be related to a very limited set of compounds found in tea anyway).  I don't talk about sheng here (in this post--in the blog I do a lot), or point out that aged sheng is probably much easier on the stomach, since all that seems to apply more to people further through developing tea preferences.

this sheng was already two years old, reviewed here 

a 12 year old sheng, if properly represented when sold (reviewed here)

Green tea is considered to be healthiest by many due to containing a lot of ECGC, which supposedly benefits your cardiovascular system health.  I believe that it probably really does, but looking into the research gets confusing.  Rats are taking tea extracts in a lot of related studies, which is only indirectly related in two different senses.  On the whole it seems like there is evidence for such claims, but then separating back out research funded by tea interests is tricky. 

It's not as if everything published as a "peer reviewed" journal article was confirmed or well-received by peers, and it's the results of that review that matter, not that a paper made it to be published initially.  Of course in the end people can just believe what they want to believe.

This interesting and helpful Specialty Tea Alliance article on tea compounds helps sort it all out:

In steeped tea, polyphenols are largely responsible for astringency... These compounds are plant metabolites produced as a defense against insects and other animals and are the most abundant compounds in tea comprising as much as 30-40% of both freshly plucked tea leaves and solids in tea liquor(1)... 

There are an estimated 30,000 polyphenolic compounds in tea(4), flavonoids are arguably the most important group of polyphenols in tea and are the source of the many health claims surrounding tea, and specifically tea antioxidants... 

Flavanols are also referred to as tannins, and during oxidation are converted to theaflavins and thearubigins—the compounds responsible for the dark color and robust flavors notably present in black teas. The major flavanols in tea are: catechin (C), epicatechin (EC), epicatechin gallate (ECG), gallocatechin (GC), epigallocatechin (EGC), and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). EGCG is the most active of these catechins and is often the subject of studies regarding tea antioxidants...

Reading the whole article is worthwhile; it's not that long, and only catching two thirds of what it means due to the compound types being unfamiliar doesn't diminish how interesting the rest is.  This citation of a study of compounds found in teas shows how those levels map out:

an edited table of compound levels findings from this research article

A few things about that reference: 

I had cited it in a Quora answer, to the question "I want to make it a habit of drinking green tea instead of coffee, but I do not like its taste as it is bitter; what should I do?"

The obvious answers are to brew the tea using cooler water (typical preparation for green teas), and to consider drinking other tea types, which is what my answer goes into.

The ECGC compounds--those said-to-be helpful ones--are shown in the last (right-most) column, in the form of levels of milligrams per gram of dry tea.  There is more ECGC in green tea than black; those results show that clearly enough.  Darjeeling black teas vary a lot due to oxidation level in those (shown in the results); that's kind of a long story to get into it here.

A bit of an aside about caffeine:  CA in that table relates to measured caffeine levels; that may be very interesting to lots of people.  It can be difficult to use it as an estimate for levels in tea since that's cited a mg / gram of dry tea, not as estimated mg / brewed cup.  Let's pick an average value and see if we can convert that over.

20 mg / gram might work as an overall average (see the "CA" column).  We can estimate 2 grams of tea are used to brew a single cup (although that's not a given; you could probably make a second cup with the same 2 grams you brew, but I'd use 3 grams or more if I wanted to make two good infusions).  We can estimate an 85% extraction rate based on a four minute infusion time (that's a long story; check out where I got that here).  20*2*.85 = 34 milligrams of caffeine.  A typical cup contains 30-50, per lots of sources, so it works out.

I also cited that tea-compounds article in that Quora answer, to work through reasons for why someone might drink green tea beyond the taste.  If someone was really committed to getting to the bottom of things they could spend a day reading up on health-claims research, then another day reading about tea compounds present in different types of teas.  Drinking sheng or light rolled oolongs might work as well, but someone trying sheng for the first time might be in for a long detour getting used to young sheng character (what it's usually like before aging), or sorting through types of it (differing regions, flavor profile ranges, preparation styles, sources and cost levels).

As a final aside that paper on tea compounds the table comes from was fascinating, just a dry read, even compared to the American Specialty Tea Alliance article on compounds (the organization formerly known as World of Tea).  But don't let the title put you off; it is interesting and informative:

The Joint Use of Electronic Nose and Electronic Tongue for the Evaluation of the Sensorial Properties of Green and Black Tea Infusions as Related to Their Chemical Composition

black tea, oolong, compounds causing stomach problems:  I never did really clearly pin down what compound was probably causing the stomach problems, did I?  To be honest I don't know.  Oolong and black tea seem to be more gentle on the stomach, but again that's hearsay input, not a research-finding evidence-based conclusion.

I told that co-worker that per my take (again, into hearsay, and personal judgement) it would be better to drink black tea made from more whole leaves, versus drinking tea prepared from ground leaf versions (CTC processed tea), or tea mixes in which the tea was powdered.  That's more of a guess.  Of course the flavor, mouth-feel, and compound range present vary, but I'm not certain that the advice works well as a generality.  Brewed CTC (ground-up) black tea certainly doesn't taste as good, so at least it works on that level, if only that.  Ground up tea or tea-bag tea is usually so astringent that it requires milk and sugar to be palatable, and those would help you stomach cope with the tea too.

broken leaf orthodox tea left, ground CTC produced tea right

Ceylon tea bag contents; tea so finely ground that it's more or less dust

a Laos version of black tea, on the more whole-leaf side of orthodox

what stomach problems?:  According to a lot of people there are no problems; you can drink as much of any kind of tea as you want, on an empty stomach or with food, and it doesn't matter.  Hearsay accounts vary though; stomach problems from drinking sheng pu'er on an empty stomach are so commonly encountered that there's a term for that:  sheng gut.  You don't want that; it refers to pain, not getting a six-pack / washboard stomach from fat-burning properties.

Researching potential links to stomach benefits and problems

WebMD has no take on this, so I'm at a loss for a standard go-to reference.  There are lots of blogs that pass on hearsay knowledge based on minimal training and background input (like I'm doing here); here's one, the "Best Tea for Gut Health" post by the Cultured Guru:

Easing your stress and anxiety, decreasing inflammation, boosting natural detoxification processes of the body, restoring a healthy gut lining, and strengthening your immune system all help to keep the gut microbiome in a balanced state. Eating fermented vegetables with prebiotic rich foods, and drinking beneficial herbal teas is a great way to keep your gut health in tip-top shape...

There's no mention of which teas might actually cause a problem versus fixing one, and she only talked about drinking green tea and tisanes in that post, the first the main one I'm claiming might cause stomach problems in the first place.  Related to that, let's check her credentials:

Kaitlynn is a Microbiologist specializing in gut health, microbiome health and vegetable fermentation. 

That first part might not connect as directly with the second as it first seems.  She mentioned resolving her own stomach issues through steps like taking pro-biotics but seems to have missed flagging green tea as a potential cause.  At least she wasn't drinking matcha, a powdered green-tea version in which all of the compounds in the leaves go down the hatch, not just what infuses out.

There's a simple test for what those compounds would be like, although it doesn't extend to evaluating stomach impact (unless you try it and drink the tea on an empty stomach; then it might). 

Brew a green tea tea-bag for 5 minutes, using relatively cool water (170 F / 70 C).  That's essentially completely extracted, related to any normal brewing approach.  Now brew it again using boiling point water for 5 minutes; that's what else you would take in if you drank that tea made as a powder, what you taste the second time.  Do it again, for a third round.  There is more astringency and bitterness left in that well-brewed-out tea bag, and in eating all the tea you'd be ingesting the compounds responsible for that flavor.  Within the 20 minutes that experiment took you would have some insight into what the compounds in matcha are probably like related to effect on your stomach.

That blogger might have picked up on a hearsay-claim based link identifying shu (pre-fermented) pu'er as a potential pro-biotic input.  I'm not claiming shu or aged sheng works in such a capacity but the idea gets mentioned, and for sure there are a broad range of fungus and bacteria responsible for that fermentation process, which are still present while the tea is stored and continues to ferment with age.  This study measures them, with some examples cited here (among pages of measured discovered bacteria results):

As to whether any of those would help restore a healthy "gut biome" if ingested from brewed tea, how would I know?  I wouldn't expect that most of the people typically making those "gut health" claims are all that familiar with what is present in kimchi, sauerkraut, or yogurt that may or may not serve such a purpose. 

If you read this kind of reference it all seems clearly spelled out; different strains benefit you in different ways.  Read this one instead and modern medicine is still sorting it all out.  On the positive side there is this:

We have hundreds of randomized placebo-controlled trials in humans that have shown safety and efficacy of many different probiotic strains. So to just … outright, those media headlines saying “probiotics are useless,” they’ll maybe strip some probiotics, but there are certainly many probiotics that have been shown in randomized controlled trials to have beneficial effects...

But some common applications may not work out as previously thought:

...So now we’re getting into some of the really surprising perhaps parts of of the paper, which is that probiotics may slow recovery of the normal microbiome after antibiotics... So most interestingly they found that treating the gut with probiotics delayed the return of the normal microbiota for as long as five months after stopping probiotic treatment...  Lactobacillus showed the strongest inhibition of the native human microbiome...

So there's that.

That initial blog-post source reminded me of other findings in trying to look up some wisdom about stomach problems on Web MD, which didn't work.  This Web MD article came up in a search, on When Opioids Become Tough to Stomach:

If you have severe pain, your doctor may prescribe opioids to treat it. These drugs can cause stomach problems like nausea, vomiting or constipation, which can make you feel worse instead of better. Some of these problems go away quickly. Others can be managed easily.

Nausea and vomiting often go away after a few days, but constipation caused by opioids tends to last longer because the medicine causes food to move slower through your system. This gives your body more time to absorb the water from your stool, which makes it harder to pass.

Depending on the type of trouble you’re having, your plan for relief may be different...

Guess what the article never even mentions?  Getting off opioids as an option. 

I just saw an interview with Dr. Phil (conducted by Joe Rogan, with that topic excerpt here), and he mentioned that short-term use of opiods for pain management is fine, but in the long term there has to be other solutions because opioid addiction causes as many problems as it solves.  Which includes death in a lot of cases; Americans more likely to die from opioid overdose today than car accidents.  Really; unfortunately that's not just more dodgy, poorly supported media content.

That's pretty bad when Dr. Phil has to be the well-grounded voice of reason, and Web MD overlooks that a "cure" has become a leading cause of death in America.  He wasn't saying that opioids shouldn't be used for pain relief, or anti-depressants shouldn't be used to treat that other range of disorders, but was saying that using both types of drugs for long-term management of such issues can be very problematic.  Here's one reason why so many people are dying.

comparing lethal dose quantities of heroin and fentanyl (credit)


more of my take, and common sense:  I mostly only ever drink tea with some food, or eat prior to drinking tea, because that offsets the potential for stomach problems.  The idea comes up that tea impairs adsorption of iron, and that's surely true to some extent.  I don't drink tea with every meal, or more than half of them, and take multivitamins (sometimes), so I'm probably still ok.

This next part is so deep into common sense the meaning and implications might not be obvious at first:  eating a varied diet is a good idea, and as part of that I also drink different kinds of tea. 

That co-worker (and stomach guru blogger) drank mostly one kind of tea, and that's a formula for the negative side-effects from that one kind to add up.  The dose makes the poison, and drinking or eating a lot of any one thing increases exposure risk from whatever might not work out well from what's in that food or beverage.  If you drink enough tea taking in too much caffeine would be a problem, or maybe even fluoride.  If you drink one type of tea all sourced from the same place any contaminant or trace element in that tea could add up to causing you problems, and simply varying range offsets the relatively low risk of that occurring.

To be fair (and slightly repetitive) the effects of tea or causes of any stomach issues would vary a lot by person.  To me it works best as a precaution to eat some food with tea (that includes either a starch or dairy component; just fruit doesn't seem to help), but if someone had no stomach issues it may not be necessary. 

Given that my co-worker faces recurring problems even if tea isn't a primary cause, or tied to a cause sequence (eg. he may have a stomach-valve problem, or a pro-biotics related stomach biome issue, etc.) he could reasonably still be careful about even potential stomach issue triggers.  He should lay off drinking a lot of coffee and tea, spicy foods, alcohol, avoid overeating, or eating a lot of greasy foods, heavily processed and preserved foods like fast-food, etc.  No harm would be done if none of those were actually causes; he would be slightly healthier for avoiding all of that. 

If one of those seemed critical to him, even if it was that high-risk fried chicken, he could always try removing it from his diet and going back to it to check on a potential related effect.  It would seem to work best to vary only one factor at a time, otherwise you wouldn't know which change had helped.  A friend living in Indonesia (at that time) had a skin condition he couldn't connect to any known source, and worked through changes in environment and diet until he finally figured out that a flavored jasmine black tea was causing it.  Who knows why, but he stopped drinking that tea and stopped having that problem.

Even if the two shu I gave him don't relate to resolving drinking matcha as a cause of stomach problems they were really interesting and pleasant teas.  I can't cite a review of the buds-intensive cocoa-aspect flavored shu version that I mentioned, but I did review the other Lao Man E origin huang pian shu here, along with two other versions of shu pu'er, and all those were really nice.

some of the producers develop cool tea-cake label graphics now too (Moychay versions)

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Google Trends review of tea trends

First published by Tching here and here.

This subject comes up at the beginning of every year:  what's new in tea, and what's changing (as this World Tea News article covers).  Usually that's none of my concern, but a passing mention of reviewing trends made me wonder if the Google Trends review of what is searched matches up with what is seen as popular. 

I first considered this sort of approach in January of 2014 when I wrote a post about the same theme, back when I was new to blogging.  It seemed there was a mild uptake of interest in tea back then but it wasn't easy to pin that down to a related hot search term.

I'll mostly use Google Trends results here to check on how searches match up with different topics.  In the relatively recent past matcha and boba / bubble tea were popular.  Maybe a bit over a year ago "cheese tea" seemed to come and go, the idea of mixing types of cheese with brewed tea. 

To start, the changes in interest in matcha are familiar to people in the tea industry, or even just from noticing it being sold locally:

Definitely a general increase over the last two years, with a good bit of cyclic variation and spikes over that time.  The same kind of trend occurs with bubble tea (or “boba”):  a bit cyclic, but showing less general increase, maybe not to the extent matcha created an upward trend.  I guess that bubble tea has been popular for awhile, so that a long and gradual upward trend is what one might expect.

I'll try to extract a few subjects to check on from that World Tea News article.  They cite this as a summary finding:

'...we now see the most significant expansion coming from two very distinct market segments: functional botanical blends and single estate artisanal teas."

That second part makes perfect sense to me, about single estate tea interest as a trend, but it's not going to work as a set of Google search terms.  I've written a little on researching functional tisane blends, related to a family friend passing some on from Hawaii, but I'm not sure any one search would capture results.  As with a “single estate artisanal teas” Google Trends doesn't show results for a search like "functional botanical blends" because there aren't enough results to graph, and narrowing it down by picking only some of the terms probably wouldn't be indicative.  A couple more specific references there are at least narrower:

"Flavored teas are very popular... Cold brewing is still a trend on the rise...."

As with functional botanical tisanes or blends flavored teas would be searched for related to too many different terms.  Someone could be looking for fruit teas, or just blueberry, or to replicate a specific Teavana blend, and the search terms would be different for each.

I did checking "cold brewing" but it didn't seem to relate to any trend.  People really could be doing a lot more cold brewing recently without Google searching the subject.  There has also been discussion of blue pea or butterfly pea flower tea becoming more popular, although that theme isn't new to me since it’s a standard tisane in Thailand:

According to this interest really did kick in as of two years ago, and it is possible that more and more people are actually drinking it over those two years while searches vary in number.  "Cheese tea" search results also show interest in that playing through awhile back:

October 2017 to May 2018 defines that period of rise in interest, dropping back to a more moderate level, but never really completely dying off.  I did not realize that “cheese tea” is still an interesting subject, not giving up much ground to matcha, if I’m reading these graphs right.

So trends review did show interest in these subject varying.  Searching terms like "oolong" or "pu'er" turns up flat results; at least according to Trends results input interest stays even for those.  As I think I mentioned five years ago a long, gradual gain in interest in tea might naturally show up as a flat curve in search results, so that's not so bad.

Did I miss checking on the real “next big thing” in tea?  Feel free to add that in the comments, if another more significant trend shows up that I didn’t check.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Liquid Proust Sheng Olympiad: 2018 Yibi Bi Yun Hao and Bitterleaf Yiwu

Yibi Bi Yun Hao left, Bitterleaf Year of the Dog right

I'm reviewing two more sheng pu'er that were included in the Liquid Proust Sheng Olympiad set, the second review after trying a pair from Crimson Lotus and Hojo earlier in the month.

I reviewed these teas with only the label names as background initially, but I'll add more detail to that cited from vendor sites here.

2018 Yibi Bi Yun Hao:  

A Tea DB reference describes this producer (briefly):  Small-scale Taiwanese producer focused on Mengla County productions.  

Another sales related reference by a vendor works well as limited background:

One of the tea farms that Biyun Hao focuses on is in Yibi (易比), a village in the southernmost tip of the Yiwu region. Mr Youquan has a long-standing relationship with a farming family here, which enables him to work toward optimal agriculture practices, leaf grading and, especially, processing techniques.  Biyun Hao uses traditional production methods: kill-green is done by hand in the wok, and the tea is sun-dried.  In this tasting opportunity, we offer four consecutive years of spring Yibi gushu tea: you will receive 1/8th of a cake of each of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 Yibi, for a total of approximately 160g of tea.

may or may not be closely related (credit the Teas We Like site)

That implies a good bit more than it actually says, but I'm fine with that.  That was selling for $80, by the way, which maps out to a rough-estimate retail price of a bit over $160 per cake (although they really should add more for collecting a set and selling it as such, and probably do).  There's more on that set and other options from that vendor in this Tea Forum discussion, if more background reading is of interest. 

Just for reference this Sheng Olympiad set cost $34 for 75 grams of tea, one of which may or may not have been identical to one from that set (or from the sounds of it the LP / SO version may not have been "gushu;" see following input comment).

Nothing like a review description, sales option, or retail priced turned up for a cake of this tea, or even a clearer description; nevermind.  Andrew did say this about it in the LP Sheng Olympiad description:

...While I have extensive purchases in the Taiwanese puerh market this is a brand that I have decided to step away from. This will offer a unique session as an upgrade from the typical material you find in a daily drinking cake because... well, to be honest this cake is inexpensive. 

That doesn't seem clear, though, does it, that inexpensive tea would necessarily be a step up from an ordinary daily drinker?  Again, nevermind.

Bitterleaf 2018 Yiwu:  

Andrew's description:  12g 2018 Year of the Dog from Bitter Leaf Teas.  That's going to help. 

That vendor description:

A contemporary classic, this proper Yiwu village raw puer is one of the best examples of a quality tea that fits any budget and that any level of drinker can appreciate.

Formerly known as our Year of the Rooster and Year of the Monkey, this tea is made from the same material as the aforementioned cakes and features a typical Yiwu fragrance, backed by a smooth honey-like sweetness. We highly recommend this tea for both beginner and experienced drinkers alike as its gentle and non-abrasive character make it easy to accept, while the depth and flavour will please any Yiwu fan. This tea also makes a good candidate for both drinking now and storing for the future.

The material for this tea comes from former terrace trees that have been converted to fangyang (放养, lit. “left to grow”) land for the last decade... 

this does seem to be the identical Bitterleaf cake (credit their site)

Sounds good.  It sells for $39 for a 357 gram cake, so at least the price-point implies that it's moderate quality material.  Pricing deals with supply and demand, and not just tea quality or style, but given this cake is Yiwu standard pricing would tend to run higher rather than lower per whatever quality it is, given that it's somewhat characteristic of teas from the region.  If it's even average quality that price is fair.

Onto review descriptions then.


I tried these without seeing any description, so I only knew the year, producer name, and one location (Yibi wasn't familiar, or really it still isn't, since this ran long enough with adding that).  Brewing approach was standard for how I prepare sheng, using very near boiling point water (with most heat loss in using a thermos and delaying between infusions), and a proportion nearing a gaiwan full after leaves were saturated.

YBYH left, Bitterleaf right (just getting started)

2018 Yibi Bi Yun Hao:  Earthiness stands out right away, but it's situated within a pleasant sweetness and other range that comes across as floral.  It's early for aspect descriptions, just opening up, but it seems like this tea will be approachable (not too bitter) and reasonably well balanced.  That earthy aspect is a little unusual, in between wet stone and pickle, so slightly sour.  Most likely it will all transition to become clearer in the next two rounds, in addition to changing, so it's as well to leave this at first impressions.

Bitterleaf 2018 Yiwu:  It's a little light yet, but already starting to show where it will go.  For Yiwu (most I've tried, at least) sweetness and pronounced floral tones are characteristic, often with more bitterness and astringency than a style of tea made to be very approachable generally comes across, but not so much so that the teas aren't good to drink right away.

Of course I've just mixed too many factors together for that assessment to make any sense; tea plant input factors beyond terroir and processing step inputs vary outcome, so identifying that much final tea character by region makes no sense.  To a limited extent local conventions about processing approach could be consistent across even a relatively broad area, so it might still work to describe sweeping generalities, but only to a limited degree.  It's generally best to just describe teas though, and if a comparison reference is really required to pin that down to resembling a specific tea version, one example.  Mild bitterness stands out initially in this tea version, with a decent level of supporting sweetness; it's a decent place to start.

Second infusion

YBYH left, Bitterleaf right

Yibi Bi Yun Hao:  bitterness and sweetness are balancing nicely, and there's plenty of floral tone to make for a nice context.  The warmer mineral and slight sourness are still present but the effect has shifted over to mostly mineral range instead, not one that's odd in any way, beyond a trace of a slight original sourness that carries over. 

Bitterness is defining the experience, which isn't all that unusual for relatively new sheng.  I've not done as much with exploring the range of teas that aren't necessarily ideal for drinking within the first year, and don't require a dozen years of aging to be pleasant, but fall in between.  Both these two teas might be examples of that, versions that could soften and lose the brightest intensity over the first two years but which have enough bitterness that this aspect tapering off some would be positive.  Or maybe not; this is relatively approachable now.  There isn't much astringency to this, compared to the moderate level of bitterness; the feel is quite soft.

Bitterleaf Yiwu:  a lot of the same applies for this tea too; bitterness stands out and defines it.  I'll have to mostly judge how both stand for drinking them now, since that's what I'm doing, although at the end I could guess out some aging potential projections.  It's also on the soft side as feel goes, but then that really could relate to the teas more or less just getting started. 

I think sheng versions tend to perform better when you aren't reviewing them, when there isn't a delay to type out these sort of notes between rounds, allowing the teas to cool again before hot water contacts them.  If true that would make for a considerable flaw in review input in general, wouldn't it?  All the same I'll try a typical short infusion time for both next round to get a positive balance of bitterness with other flavor out of them.  I can test that theory by rambling less next round, by getting on with it.

Third infusion

Yibi Bi Yun Hao:  complexity is more interesting now; using a fast infusion time did drop the bitterness back into a lighter balance, with plenty of flavor showing through.  That infusion time was well under 10 seconds but it could've been even faster related to the results.  Sweetness is nice in this, at a good level to match the bitterness.  The main aspect range is floral, just a bit non-distinct, maybe related to being complex, or possibly related to being underlied by mineral and joined by earthy range.  The earthiness is more towards tree bark now, not far off forest floor, or not too far off a wood tone, hinting a little towards a root spice.  Mineral is warm and complex.  It all works ok together.

Bitterleaf Yiwu:  this is a little brighter in flavor range but closer to the other than I would expect for Yiwu; it has a bit of warmth of character in the mineral, and slight trace of earthy range.  It comes across more as biting into a tree branch tip, a live version of a stick, more lively, different in range.  Again a non-distinct floral tone sets a context, versus that type of flavor aspect often standing forward in what you notice instead. 

Fourth infusion

It wasn't in the tasting notes, but judging from these brewed tea liquid colors the Yibi Bi Yun Hao might have been oxidized a little more.  That's a long story to get into, about why that would occur (a longer wilting cycle, referenced in the last Sheng Olympiad sample review related to a Hojo processing decision) and what it would change.  A lot of the effect would be what you might expect; the bitterness and astringency common to sheng would soften some, the tea would sweeten a little, moving just a little towards the character of black tea, but not really getting there, maybe drifting more into an oolong range.  It probably trades out some long-term aging potential for making the tea more pleasant right away, although that gets into a judgment call a little.

Yibi Bi Yun Hao:  I used the same infusion time, right in between 5 and 10 seconds.  Flavors seem to be "cleaning up" in this version, not that it was ever musty, or challenging in any way.  The earthiness tied to wood tone (and even spice) transitioned further in that direction.  It's not spice in a familiar, strong, clearly defined presentation but it is in that general direction.  I've been describing aromatic wood aspects a lot lately as towards cedar or redwood and it's not that, but not so far off it.  The woody tone is more like a relatively fresh fruit hardwood, cherry or something such.  As such it's fruity, but the scent of a fruit-bearing hardwood isn't fruity in the same way a berry or smoothie of some sort would be.  It's more like a wood-tone that hints a little towards cherry.

It's a nice effect, at this stage.  Brewed twice as strong I don't think it would seem like this at all; I think the bitterness would still seem to overtake the rest of the range.  Someone might protest that bitterness is tongue-based flavor, and I'm discussing olfactory perceived aroma, but as I interpret flavor experience the range isn't as distinct as people tend to describe.  Effects mix a bit, and seem to link, or crowd what you experience most, even if in a distinct range.  Or maybe I've just walked off the map related to making any sense about tasting experience right there.

Bitterleaf Yiwu:  Bitterness still stands out more in this, even brewed that fast.  It's not a bad thing; using an infusion time that fast shifts the range of what you experience, and the balance still works well.  Bright floral and sweetness counters and balances it; it's a typical but positive and pleasant profile.  It could be a little more intense but it's nice.

Fifth infusion

I went a little longer due to messing around; that will provide a different look at the teas, and see if my guess about how that changes things was right.

Yibi Bi Yun Hao:  Bitterness is a lot more pronounced at this higher infusion strength, and the mineral aspect ramps up.  The rest of the flavor is crowded a bit by that.  It's still not bad; the intensity works, and it's not really challenging, just in a different balance.  For someone not acclimated to bitterness as a primary flavor component of course it wouldn't work.  Aftertaste is stronger (which stands to reason), but the feel is still a bit limited as a tea this young goes for being brewed to this intensity.  With that as one of several markers for older-plant source, better-quality teas this doesn't seem to rank high on the scale (at least related to that factor), but it does seem like decent tea.  It's not flawed, or unpleasant in character.

The limitation seems to be that the aspects and overall effect are pleasant and positive but to me nothing stands out as exceptional.  One trace aspect was more interesting last round but it seems to mostly have generally positive character across a range of aspects and character.  I guess that always depends on preference, doesn't it?  Floral tone could be better defined, or stand out more, or the earlier earthy and wood range could be different.  It's not so much what's present that limits the tea, it's what isn't there, some additional distinctiveness in a positive range.  It's fine though.

Bitterleaf Yiwu:  the character of this tea is warming, including more deep earthy tones in the mineral range.  I suppose I do like this tea better but the floral range could be a little more pronounced, and the amazing intensity some better Yiwu possesses could ramp up.  It's fine in a different sense; I like it more than the other version but better Yiwu really tends to "pop" more.  Examples would clarify what I mean, but they would muddle things for being me describing aspects from memory, and dropping out an overall assessment of teas' characters for comparing across long periods of time.

Sixth infusion

Yibi Bi Yun Hao:  This tea seems to still be improving; that's a good sign, to get better as infusion count continues.  It's not that different than the last round, just dropped back in bitterness related to shifting the time back to less.  Within the next two or three infusions it will probably require more than a 10 second timing just to stay at this level but for now intensity is holding up, maybe just dropping slightly in how the balance comes across, but still in a positive way.  I do like the tea; the two versions are more even when brewed lightly at this count in the infusion cycle.  It's odd calling this tea mostly woody and then fruity since I don't think that would be a universal interpretation, or maybe not even a typical one, but that's how it comes across to me.  Seeing it all as a broad floral tone range instead would make sense.

Bitterleaf Yiwu:  the "warming" of this aspect range continues.  It's almost onto a toasted pastry sort of effect, a little towards how very moderately roasted rolled oolongs come across (but only sharing a little range; it doesn't taste like one of those tea versions at all, or feel like one).  Again that could be interpreted in lots of different ways:  as a different form of floral tone, as wood, towards spice, or as a warm version of mineral.  It's complex, so it's not as if there is a simple aspect range that could be interpreted in different ways, instead it's covering broad range that might stand out as different individual aspects, when in fact it covers some scope.  Brewed lightly the level of bitterness is nice, moderate, relating to a slight dryness in feel that is catchy (back to the theme of different and seemingly unrelated aspect ranges seeming to connect).

Again related to standard quality markers (intensity, sweetness, pronounced floral tone, pronounced underlying mineral, feel-structure, aftertaste) it doesn't come across as exceptional tea but it does seem nice, "good," in a more limited sense.

Seventh infusion

Usually right around now I'm set for drinking enough tea, but I'm not feeling the effects of these as much as I sometimes do drinking a single version.  The cha-qi or drug-like effect must be limited, for both.  All the same it is about enough tea.

Yibi Bi Yun Hao:  more of the same; the balance is fine, pleasant.  I wonder if these aren't blended-source teas, and that's why they seem generally good, decently balanced, pleasant, and made from decent material, but not as distinctive or intense across individual aspects as I'm used to from drinking more "local" versions of SE Asian sheng.  I'm guessing that no tea description will actually shed light on that, but I'll look into it during the editing stage.

Bitterleaf Yiwu:  this is nice too, settling into a well-balanced place.  To add more detail to the last comment the pronounced but non-distinct floral tone in this might be different, more notable, if it came across as more limited in range but still at this intensity level.  The tea is nice though.

Conclusions / assessment

These both seem like teas that might work well as versions that are above average as standard factory teas go (just in a different style; not as "designed to age"), and not as distinctive / sourced and produced differently as higher quality new versions (teas that you'd expect to pay over $100 / cake for).  A tea veteran just mentioned how he was trying to cut back a bit on the spending related to drinking $200 200 gram commission-produced cakes; these don't seem like that.  But they seem fine for what they are, if presented as moderate cost teas.

Then again I don't know what they're sold as, or at least didn't at time of making those notes.

I liked the teas, and if these are both $40 full-sized cakes (going from the listed price for the Bitterleaf version, and the "not expensive" description by Andrew of the other) then they seemed to be quite good quality for that price level.  Before I ran across that input (any guess about pricing) I commented in a Reddit thread about this Sheng Olympiad set that I didn't feel compelled to buy these based on tasting them, but if I was already ordering others and these were an option I might go with adding one as a "daily drinker" related to that quality per price ratio. 

They don't seem like they'll age well, necessarily, so I would try to drink at least half the cake right away, in case it just fades away later rather than transitions positively.  I think if someone didn't have many cakes around it might make sense to hold onto that last 1/3-1/2 to check on aging progress, but if they did they could just drink straight through these and skip that part without risking much in the way of potential loss.

I made the point earlier that if a style comparison was to be made it would work better to specify that as a comparison with a specific tea, not as related to all Yiwu versions in style, or splitting that into two type groups, "ready to drink / modern style" and "better with some age / more traditional style / more bitter and astringent."  It's a judgement call, and potentially bad form to go there, but I can mention a Yiwu version I like better, that I think is comparable in style but better tea at an equivalent price range.  This one, a Tea Mania Yiwu Lucky Bee version (2017 though, one year older, and $45 instead of $40).

Some clarification applies.  I tried the 2016 version, not this one (last year, reviewed here, so I'm projecting back that the experience of the 2017 would be similar now).  Inputs change from year to year; it could be not as good, or better, or just different. 

Stylistically the Tea Mania version slides a little down that scale I just mentioned too; it was a little more bitter and astringent than ideal initially, which I expected to wear off to roughly perfect later in this year or so (projected back; I tried the tea at two years old, and it wasn't quite as soft and easy to drink as these two as a two-year-old tea versus a one-year-old version).  It was also much more intense, more floral, sweet, and bitter, with a more defined underlying mineral layer. 

I'm assuming that the 2-3 year old aging ideal works in saying that (that both versions would be good in that age range), related to this tea and my preference.  In the past I've experienced the opposite, and I like relatively brand-new Yiwu better, because swapping out that initial intensity comes at too great a cost.  It was just an intuition, that the "sweet spot" for aging that Lucky Bee tea would relate to not drinking it brand new or waiting 12 years.

To be clear, I think both of these teas I might like just as well as the Tea Mania version if drinking them within 9 months of production, but it's my impression that the Tea Mania sheng has more potential to soften a little with limited storage time to become a more intense and better balanced version.  It's probably even better now; I haven't tried it in the last half a year.  I really should order the 2017 version too, if I'm going to keep mentioning that tea.

not related to tea; at a swim lesson (the one on the right is mine)

the other one on a swim class break

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Myanmar Keng Tung (Shan State) sheng from Noppadol

that outing

I met Noppadol again a month or two ago, the local Thai tea vendor who helped out in running a couple of free tea tastings last year (a part time vendor, who sells teas from Lamphang and from other places).  He passed on another sample of a Myanmar loose sheng that I'm only getting around to first trying and reviewing now.  All I know about the tea is that it's from Meng Pok District, Keng Tung city, Shan State, Myanmar.  That's a good start.  I've been talking a good bit about wild-growth, local-cultivar, old-tradition sheng versions and some of that source context probably applies to this tea but I'll probably never know how much.

Some of the other sheng I've tried from Myanmar has been on the bitter side, which was consistent enough that I took that to relate to an input of a local plant type (just a guess, though).  They were still pleasant, just more bitter than some other sheng versions, with good sweetness to balance that; probably good candidates for setting aside for a couple of years to mellow out a bit, if I had more than a sample of it.


just getting started

On the first infusion it's still a bit light, still opening up.  It's nice; light and subtle, not bitter, complex on the earthy and aromatic side.  It's probably as well to hold off on the aspects list until the next round though.  More naturally grown sheng tends to be milder as astringency and bitterness goes, with more complex flavor; maybe that pattern relates to this tea character.  Or plant type really could have been a main input related to that one aspect and this could be from a different tea plant version.

On the second infusion (brewed stronger, infused for just over 15 seconds to assure the leaves are started) a smokiness emerges.  In general I don't like that flavor aspect in sheng but it might balance out ok as mild as it is in this version.  It's my understanding that it can occur as a natural flavor aspect in sheng, which I assume this is (it seems to be), but it's hard for me to be certain that it didn't pick up any flavor from contact with smoke.  I've heard the claim made that it's easy to tell the difference but one would need a baseline of a couple examples that are definitely each to be more certain.

Beyond that astringency and bitterness are still moderate, lighter than I'm used to from Myanmar sheng.  The feel structure includes a bit of fullness and a slight dryness; that's not bad.  The rest of the flavor is light, mild, and earthy, in a range that would make sense with that smoke aspect.  A dry form of mineral underlies the rest, towards flint (not as simple, light, and dry as limestone, with a bit of unusual character and depth).  Beyond that a mild earthy range could be described in lots of different ways:  as dried wood, as dried hay, etc.

Sweetness and complexity picks up on the third infusion.  The dryness is still evident, and a pronounced underlying mineral layer, but the smoke aspect fades quite a bit.  To me the tea is better, and it may evolve further given it's this early on in an infusion cycle.  The description from the last round still works but the flavors "warm up" a bit; in the next round a different description and aspects set will probably work better.

It hasn't evolved much on the next round; the changes may be gradual from here.  The mineral seems different, warmer in tone.  It's easy to imagine the well-dried hay / aged wood aspect shifting just a little into a more aromatic spice range but it's just not quite there.  There might be a hint of sandalwood aspect, it's just faint enough that it's barely present.  The smoke is fine at this very light level, also hardly noticeable after fading. 

The tea is nice, I'd just prefer a slightly sweeter and more aromatic range more, a touch more floral or even a vague hint of light dried fruit.  Light spice would seem a more natural other range this might cover though.  The complexity is fine, and the feel is nice, and those and a moderate aftertaste make the experience seem to not be thin or shallow.  The flavor range just isn't a great match for my main preference in natural-growth style sheng.

Sweetness picks up even more on the next infusion; it's notably sweet now, especially for being in that general flavor range.  It helps the tea character quite a bit.  With a shift away from that sweetness and warm aromatic range and the hint of smoke and dry mineral increasing instead this could've come across more like the smell of an ash tray.  Instead it moves on to include a faint aromatic aspect just a little towards tobacco; that part works well.  It's not the just-like-tobacco range that some aged shengs pick up, but leaning towards a cigar-tobacco smell just a little.  Someone else might peg that as closer to cedar (aromatic wood).  It's faint enough and mixed in with enough other complexity that it's hard to isolate for a good read. 

It's nice that this tea keeps changing; if affords a chance to experience a broad range of character in the same tea.  It's not far off the last round but an aspect like aromatic wood picked up even more, now more of a dominant aspect.  That range could be interpreted alternately as cedar, redwood, aromatic cigar tobacco, or even sandalwood, although to me one of the first two woods is closest, potentially extending a little into both of the others. 

This is obviously good tea; well-made and from decent material.  The earlier smoke / drier mineral / dried wood flavor range wasn't a great match for my personal preference but it balanced well, the flavors were clean, and the rest of the character was positive, the sweetness, feel, and aftertaste range.  This infusion matches my preference better, and given that it has evolved this far I wouldn't be surprised if it ran through another change before fading.

I tend to not say a lot about "cha-qi" or drug-like effect even if I feel it since I'm not so into that experience but this tea is having an effect.  I just had breakfast too, so that's tempering how that would've came across; it would have been even stronger.  It's a heady sort of buzz, not as close to being stoned on marijuana as some even stronger young sheng versions can bring about, but still notable, and towards that type of experience.  I feel functional, like I could do a lot of different things "on" it.  I just tried a Tea Side 1980 sheng with my friend Sasha, a version he picked up from that owner (which I reviewed before here) and that had more of a sedative effect, a body-feel combined with acting as a tranquilizer.

Bitterness is picking up a little on the next round; odd that kicks in so late.  It always had enough to balance the other range but it's falling into more of a balance I would've expected all along, or maybe even slightly lighter, given that Myanmar sheng seems to include a good bit of that (from what I've tried of it, probably still less than a half-dozen versions of sheng).  Warm mineral still supports aromatic wood tone, not unlike the last round.  It may not have evolved into a range I'd see as a personal favorite but I like this character, more than the smoke and the rest earlier on.  It's warm, sweet, and complex enough that I could imagine someone interpreting this as including a touch of dried fruit as well.

It seems to have settled into a final character, a range it will just transition from due to changes brought on by using longer infusion times.  This must be around infusion 7; not bad.  It probably won't make it to 14, at least not without stretching it by just not giving up, but it's far from finished.  If the flavor stayed positive it would keep producing infusions for as many rounds as it has covered; it's just a matter of where one tends to give up on it and not see the rest as being as positive.  For me I tend to only drink 7 or 8 of these cups at one time, at the most, so I'll probably come back to this in the afternoon and try a few more to see what I make of it.  In that visit with Sasha we tasted 20-some relatively small cups but that was really a bit much.  I just don't feel compelled to get that blasted on tea.

I never did do this description justice related to pointing out how the mouthfeel evolved in an interesting way.  At this point you feel a tenseness at the sides of your mouth, with the main feel extending down the middle of your tongue, extending to a bitterness, tightening, and sweetness effect at the rear of your mouth that lasts forever after drinking the tea.  I've experienced a stronger hui gan effect before (the last part) but it's notable in this, especially so given that the tea doesn't come across as mainly expressing that range of characteristic mix of bitterness, flavor intensity, and sweetness.  It's good tea.

If I hadn't been spoiled by trying so many really nice versions from so many other places in the past half a year this would seem like that much more of a unique experience.  As it all stands I see it as novel, pleasant, and complex, but still kind of normal, and I tend to compare it with what else I liked best, maybe even instead of fully appreciating it for how it is.  The smoke probably helped push me towards that context early on; I'm not so into smoky sheng.  This isn't one, I don't think; in a sheng version I'd consider as smoky sheng that would've been much more pronounced.  I mean instead that it seemed to put me on that page, to set up how I reacted to the tea.

As to tasting process, it really is nice to drink teas a few times to pass on a more complete review impression, to see a tea from a couple of different angles, and account for variance in mood and random changes in impression, like that one.  But if I'm going to be reviewing one or two new teas a week it doesn't work that way, since I don't have that many completely blank one-hour time slots to work with.  It is nice just trying a single tea like this; that uncomplicates things, in relation to doing a lot of comparison tastings.

back at swimming class on a warm-up break

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Placing sustainable, forest-based tea agriculture

I've not met up with Sasha Abramovich or Nok recently, and I finally did again this past weekend.  A local tea celebrity of sorts dropped by, Kenneth Rimdahl of Monsoon teas.  I'll say a little about what we tried and then run through some news related to Kenneth.  He's been doing a lot with a sustainable, forest-friendly tea sourcing that's the main theme here, with just a little on that meeting covered first.

a first outdoor tasting trial awhile back, last year

Tasting tea and hanging out

Sasha brewed two Tea Side teas for us, a 1980 sheng (reviewed here) and a 2006 sheng (re-reviewed here, in comparison with what turned out to be a different 2006 HTC Thai sheng).  It was interesting trying two teas I was already familiar with in a different setting.  The second tea is the first aged sheng cake I ever bought, so I have some at home, but I don't drink it often.  It's nice tea.

Sasha also brewed a few nice sheng samples from Tea Dee, commissioned or shop-produced tea versions that represent the best respected tea shop in Bangkok, owned by Khun Zhang.  Double Dog is as well known but for being a Chinatown cafe, and they also sell tea, but no other Thai business comes close to matching that shop's local reputation related to pu'er.  Oddly I've only visited them once, in a location that has since moved (now in Thanya Park), because that shop is way out towards the airport from where I live and work in the city center.  There's a nice park out there we visit once in awhile, Rama 9 / Suang Luang, but I never get my wife to agree to add tea shopping to the list of days' activities when we visit it.

view from their apartment; that's Benjasiri, the park in the last photo

Not much of a review of teas we tried so far, but I didn't intend for this to go into that.  There's more I could say about the Tea Dee cakes but it would only be a general impression due to writing this days later.  They seemed different from each other, generally sweet and floral in different ways, and like quite good tea material.  They didn't seem to be made in a drink-right-now modern style (more traditional instead), but not overly bitter, astringent, and unapproachable.  They seemed to represent tea that could still be a good value even if selling for over $100 per cake when "young," before aging; that's probably saying enough.

Kenneth brought a couple samples of interesting Ceylon / Sri Lankan teas.  I probably shouldn't say more about one that seemed unique in style and appearance since it represents a work-in-progress for a new product development.  A second (green tea, I think it was) was unique for being able to change color, to switch from the pale gold that green teas are to pink with a little lime added.  That transition capacity is familiar from blue pea / butterfly pea tisane but I've not seen actual tea that does that, until this one.  I definitely like green teas the least of any broad category but that tea was fine too.  The black tea version was a good bit better than "fine;" it was quite nice tea, and not exactly like other better Ceylon I've tried in style.

Onto news about Kenneth then, which does skip a lot of what we discussed that day, and how it went in general.  It was a nice outing.  We drank too much tea but I sort of saw that coming and only tried a couple of tisanes with breakfast.

Kenneth and Monsoon update

Monsoon opened a Bangkok branch around three weeks ago.  I've seen news related to that, but just didn't get around to visiting there or mentioning it here.  It's way out in the South-East of town, not as far as Tea Dee, but closer to that than to city center, my job (the main site), or where I live.  The second main site for the company I work for (not related to tea; the subject is a hobby interest) is actually out in Bangna, on Bangna-Trad road.  It's even further out than that Monsoon shop, and a ten minute drive from Thanya Park (but I use the sky-train here for commuting).

Monsoon's primary theme is selling tea blends, with a focus on Thai-produced forest-friendly tea.  I reviewed a white tea version a couple of years ago and that was nice.  Kenneth talked about that at a TedX talk a year or so back, and the Bangkok Post ran a story on him and the forest friendly tea theme

On a related subject, I ran through details of a different type of related sustainable-production initiative carried out in Laos in this post (which reviews two local tea versions), with a website of the related participating NGO covering more details.

Laos wild tea, photo credit Comité de coopération avec le Laos website (used with permission)

I have mixed feelings about this forest-friendly theme, and the background can be a bit complicated, so that I'll say more about all that here than I did about trying 8 or 9 novel teas earlier in the post.  Kenneth is nice, and he seems genuinely concerned about that sustainability concern; at least that seems to be a good starting point.

Forest-friendly sustainable tea production

Let's get the reservation and potential problem out of the way first:  this theme is at least in part a marketing approach. 

Teas really are healthy, but when a vendor promotes how healthy a tea is they trying to make a sale based on ideas that aren't usually as well-grounded as they represent them to be.  I think there is a good chance that green tea is good for cardiovascular health, and there is some research evidence supporting that, but when a tea vendor makes that claim it comes across more as sales-pitch than them trying to be helpful and informative.  I don't drink green tea much anyway; I don't like it as much, and other versions would overlap in terms of beneficial compounds present.

Some of that type of concern probably applies here.  A complete critique of how the factors are likely to balance isn't possible, self-interest based marketing versus broader-interest based sustainability focus.  It is possible to run through my take on how "real" I think this particular sustainability theme is, so I will cover that.

It's real, but it's not an important factor if the consideration is limited only to being related to tea in Thailand.  Let's back up and examine why I think that (and note that it is only my impression, to an extent).

This 2008 research reference offers us a dated snapshot of tea production in Thailand:

This 14 year old production summary converts to a total land space of 75,076 rai used to make tea.  That converts to 29,600 acres, or 47 square miles, an area of 6 miles by 8 miles.  It's a good bit of land, but essentially nothing at all compared the land used to grow rice, fruit, or palm oil here. 

Let's check on that and use the latter (palm oil production) for comparison:

According to this reference there are (as of 2015) approximately 700,000 hectares of land in use in Thailand for production of palm oil.  That equates to 17.2 million acres.  Put another way there is 58 times more land in use to produce palm oil than tea in Thailand.  That's based on these numbers; tea production probably has increased, and I wouldn't be surprised if that palm oil estimate is on the low side, based on driving past palm plantations for hours in the South, lands that had been cleared of all native vegetation for that use.  The palm oil production growth and land-use are escalating much more quickly too, since the tea industry is probably quite a bit more developed and mature now, with demand leveled off, making it a lot more of a development concern, as shown by this reference:

That's happening mostly in the South of Thailand, related to what climate supports growth of that palm plant type best.  The general idea is that scale of tea production just isn't on the same scale as other agricultural production, so the risk for environmental destruction directly related to tea farming also cannot be.  For all I know logging impact may well be more of a competing concern in the North than other forms of agriculture are, and land-use study might not be as easy to pin down for that kind of thing.

That would seem to point back towards this being a good story that sells tea, a basis for presenting ideas through different channels to promote a business, but not mostly based on a real issue.  Not so fast though; there seems to be more to this, and it doesn't reduce to only being a factor related to tea.

Forest conservation as a broader trend

There are definitely competing interests that relate to land use and forest preservation; this much is clear.  Destruction of standing old-growth forests to produce tea may well be a relative non-issue, compared to the scale of other agricultural-use concerns, but preservation of those forests definitely is an issue.  Thailand, like most other countries, has set up environmental reserves and protections that tie to a broad range of concerns.  I highly recommend reading this background summary on Forest Management in Thailand, prepared by the International Forestry Cooperation Office, a branch of a government protection agency that also involves Thai Royal family support.  Their summary outlines the current status and goals:

...There is no doubt that remaining forests need to be protected and that deforested areas need to be replanted. Moreover, there is no disagreement that local people must be involved in conservation efforts if they are to succeed...

...Forest resources provide a multitude of goods and services, including pulp, timber, nontimber products, medicinal and edible plants, as well as other raw materials such as rattan and bamboo. More than 1,000 recorded species of plants contain medical properties and 30,000-40,000 households harvest them on a full-time basis. Furthermore, 60% of the rural population or roughly 30,000 communities living near forests rely on edible plants for their daily needs and more than 500 species of these plants are sold in local markets throughout the country... 

The past history and regulatory efforts in place described in that short work are too detailed to summarize here, even in citation sampling format like that.  One general theme meets back up with what Kenneth is promoting related to tea:

...Communities located within and near forests have been motivated to participate in the sustainable management of natural resources through well designed conservation policies and legal frameworks, especially those pertaining to forests, which have been amended to address rapid social change and emerging environmental issues...

...Thailand, which once exported timber, is now a net importer and has high expectations of the role forests will play in nature conservation. Since 1989, all natural forest (25% of total area) is protected by law from commercial exploitation...

...Community forests in Thailand are classified into two types: natural and rehabilitated or developed. They can be established on three categories of land: national reserved forest or public and overgrown areas; land under the jurisdiction of other government agencies (e.g., monasteries, educational institutes, military areas); and private locations.

The first type consists of natural forests where people in nearby communities join together to protect them in order to benefit from their productive capacity and to maintain their norms and culture... 

I'm sure that there are functional programs and other initiatives in place that support sustainable, natural-growth land use, even beyond what is described in that reference.  At the same time the more that minimal impact land use can enable economic development the more effective and functional those programs will be in practice.

One additional context detail:  the tea is already there

This part I almost left out, as familiar ground to me since I've been reviewing this relevant background for a couple of years (based mostly on input from Kenneth, and also other sources prior to talking to him), but it wouldn't be familiar to many.  The tea plants are already there, essentially growing wild.  Tea was introduced into areas in Southern China, Myanmar, Northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand well over a millenium ago. 

Which forms of the tea plants are the most original and native, and the role people played in distributing them are debated, but the consensus take is that wild forms of Assamica (one of two varieties of Camellia Sinensis) first originated in Yunnan, and that movement of the plants to a broader region was probably helped out quite a bit by people.  Thailand was settled by waves of people from China and other places extending back well prior to known history.

It's really something of an unrelated tangent here, but I'll include a citation about the plant-history of tea that relates, and a link to support further reading:

The tea plant was initially domesticated in China over 4,000 year ago (Yamanishi, 1995)... 

...we calculated China type tea and Assam type tea as having first diverged approximately 22,000 years ago, and Chinese Assam type tea and Indian Assam type tea as having diverged from each other approximately 2,770 years ago... 

There is a lot more to that story.  The short version:  tea plants are there, growing relatively wild in the North of Thailand, almost certainly put there by groups of people who aren't well-documented by a known history (but some pre-history is described here).  Kenneth emphasizes that earlier use relates to miang consumption, to practices of eating tea that are common to those in Myanmar (and in Northern India, I think?), and probably other places.  I'm not sure if eating tea really did pre-date brewing tea, locally or elsewhere, or if it's possible to place the two in relation to each other as regional traditional practices over a long time-frame.

Deeper detailed history aside, what I'm trying to summarize here would seem very odd if the idea was to plant some sort of community farms inside forested areas, versus using leaf material from plants that are already growing there (the actual case).  If these forests are destroyed for alternate use, or perhaps even just used for logging (depending on tree-harvesting process used), many of the tea plants and other useful bio-diverse plant-life might be destroyed.

Onto conclusions

It might seem like I'm concluding that every little bit helps, and that what Kenneth is promoting is one small step in the right direction, joining other government initiatives and land-use themes.  That seems at least partly true, if potentially a bit optimistic.  Not all government programs are effective at achieving intended goals, and I'm not sure how much economic benefit "wild" tea development currently has on such concerns, or what the future potential is.

All the same these ideas map together in an obvious way.  The theory and broad government-control directive requires other steps and drivers to support it; that much was cited here in that Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment summary.  It's not "sustainable" in one deeper sense for only government restrictions and NGO monitoring and education efforts to prevent high-impact forest land use; a positive economic driver could potentially also play an important role.

Is it better for the Thai natural environment to buy Monsoon wild-grown tea instead of plantation-produced oolong?  Maybe a little.  There wouldn't be a significant effect from that personal choice on a small scale but to some extent the small inputs would "roll up."  I suspect that Kenneth and Monsoon's efforts round down to making no difference taken alone, but that all such forest-use initiatives considered together are a significant factor, and one that can potentially be extended. 

To me this leads directly on to considering other factors.  If you buy a tea blend sold in a small tin, what about the pit-mine impact from producing that metal, versus use of some other type of packaging?  The mine for the metal ore might be in Laos, with the packaging production in China, and the likely end point for the tin as a landfill in Thailand, with transportation related impact all through those steps. 

This is part of our current set of challenges; sorting out which inputs and causal connections really do make a difference, and identifying how to maximize the cumulative effects of our choices.  It starts out as simply as choosing paper or plastic bags, or deciding to carry re-usable cloth bags instead.  If one person's choice in some regard extends to a factor of a thousand times more impact than which tea source they choose then more focus is better directed there.

In conclusion, how much difference this really makes is hard to place.  But it is one representative part of a very important subject that does need to be addressed.  Probably palm oil farming represents a real land-use issue that needs to be considered and monitored at a national level, more so than tea production.  Of course China is destroying natural areas much faster to ramp up tea production there, because tea is a much larger industry there.

clear-cut tea farming (but not in Thailand or China)

It would be nice if personal beverage choices could make a marginal difference in long-term land use in Thailand.  To some limited extent Monsoon products represent that potential, whether that is actually the main driver for their sourcing framework or not.  I think Kenneth's intentions are good, but of course businesses also need to be profitable, so goals tend to mix.  If profit is motivating this development and natural-growth forest preservation and use is also being supported then it represents a case of multiple forms of values matching up.

For me personally I try to remain skeptical about claims and background descriptions made about tea across a broad range, but also stay open to new ideas, and remain somewhat optimistic.  Drinking a different version of tea won't make much difference, but helping make a little difference could reasonably be experienced as a positive thing.