Tian Xiang left, He Huan right
I'm combining the themes of hectic work-day breakfast tea drinking with leisurely weekend tasting for review today, trying to do a quick tasting before I go with my kids to swim practice. It would make sense to taste just one tea but to up the stakes in being rushed I'm comparison tasting a Farmerleaf sheng sample sent with a version I bought a cake of and already reviewed. That other tea was a Jing Mai Tian Xiang, and this sample I'm just getting to is a 2018 He Huan version. I'll include how they describe that in with the review section.
Tian Xiang left, He Huan right
Jing Mai Tian Xiang: it's like I remember, pleasant, only slightly bitter, floral, perhaps just a little towards tart or sour, which comes across as a hint of green tea character. It's good though. The sweetness and complexity also comes across a little as fruit, just a bit non-specific in the early going, and more in the range of floral. I'll focus more on the second tea anyway, since I've already reviewed this in the last month, using it to judge how the other is different.
Jing Mai He Huan: the flavor range is warmer. I'd almost guess this had a little age on it given how only a year or so of aging can shift character in that direction, just to a limited extent, but then this is almost a year old now. The complexity includes floral range but it also hints towards spice. The teas are relatively completely different in flavor character. The feel and aftertaste vary less; they seem in the same range related to those aspect scopes. It's early to be concluding preference but I could imagine liking this tea more, even though the other is nice. It gives up a little brightness and intensity for being warmer and slightly fuller, in a different taste range, but that spice edge to the flavors is really cool.
Tian Xiang: still bright, sweet, floral, and pleasant, with a catchy honey sweetness joining a good bit of floral range, which also leans toward a fruit tone, maybe apricot, or something along that line. I scanned back through the last review when editing this (later in the day; usually I don't publish these reviews in one day but an exception seemed in order given the theme), and I kept trying to pin down that fruit related aspect in that. That made for a moving target as the tea transitioned, even though it stayed in the same narrow character range throughout.
He Huan: again quite a bit warmer. More mineral base comes across, along with a warmer tone, but using a slightly higher proportion (a bit more tea) is going to shift character in that way, unless I compensate by changing infusion times. It's odd how well I can guess out amounts, and this did look like the second tea amount might be a bit more, and indeed it was. Rushing the whole process changes everything, even though somehow being in a hurry also feels natural after a decade of going to work in a hurry, dragging a young child along with me to drop off at school for many of those years.
the warmth of that one last smile really sets a nice tone for the day
Honey can vary a lot in character, with some light and sweet, almost citrusy and bright floral, and with other versions of it warmer and richer, and these two teas taste like those two different opposite versions of honey, one brighter and one warmer. This second has a little bees-wax character to emphasize that connection, a flavor that Jin Jun Mei tends to express in better versions, or one that turns up in a limited range of other teas. A novel more-oxidized white that I tried not so long ago was a lot like that, even though the connection would seem more natural with black teas.
Neither of these teas seems challenging enough that they would require any age to improve. I'm also not sure either would be better in a few years, or in a dozen. This He Huan range seems more promising to me since a warmer-tone range is where aged sheng is going to head, and the bright intensity that works well in the other would largely fade, maybe shifting to something else just as positive, or maybe just dropping out. Both seem soft and approachable, just fine now, so waiting a decade to see if they improve or lose ground wouldn't be necessary.
Tian Xiang: feel is picking up, and complexity, even though this was still a quite-fast infusion, not much over 5 seconds. The tea has improved for adding that depth. It's hard to describe what filled in; more of flavors that would describe in the same way, and feel structure, and aftertaste. The taste range is a little more positive for adding just a trace of warmth with the slightly tart / sour green tea character related edge largely dropping out.
He Huan: warmth probably picked up a little more, but this won't be able to be much warmer and richer. I can't help but think that William probably should have recommended that I buy this tea instead. The other is nice but this character is really interesting. I checked their description, and this being priced at $58 per a 100 gram cake is one notable difference (the other was $79 for a 357 gram version, which seemed like a good letting-off point for what my budget supports). Here is his description:
The tea features an oily and active mouthfeel. The tea leaves your mouth with heavy sweetness and flowery fragrance. The tea has a good upfront bite, medium bitterness is present and remains just long enough for you to notice it. This is a fairly aggressive tea, not because of high bitterness and astringency, but because it feels active and dynamic in the mouth. You will notice a mineral tone as well, which makes you want for another cup. The tea can be brewed over fifteen times and performs well during the long end-of-session steepings.
I'm not sure I'd describe the experience that way but he's right, it's just a matter of how to best put it. Warmer mineral is definitely heavier, maybe bitterness is slightly higher than the other (although the two teas trade places in that regard later; the level varies across infusions for both), but both are still moderate related to that. It is a little thicker than the Tian Xiang version, but in an unusual way, not structured in the sense many younger sheng would be, but heavy, as he says maybe a little oily. It has depth in flavor range that doesn't describe easily; that's part of the appeal too.
Someone might really go on with a flavor list description, or maybe most people who write tea reviews would, spinning off into comparisons related to rich dried fruits and warm aromatic spices. Or to some it would just seem floral, just a warmer, richer version of that than in the other. Neither seemed particularly citrusy to me but it would work to say that one is a little like a bright version of citrus compared to the other being warmer and richer, the first out towards tangerine (just not that) and the other towards blood orange.
Tian Xiang: this tea does seem a little simple and limited in comparison, but it is still nice in character, and has its own different range of complexity. Someone would have to love that bright, sweet, floral / fruit range flavor intensity to really appreciate it. Feel isn't thin and aftertaste doesn't vanish quickly but it has slightly less going on across those ranges. It's flavor intensive, or maybe as some would put it aroma intensive.
I tend to not observe the split between flavor as a taste identified by your tongue and aroma as perceived through nasal passages as much as many do (or as seems standard in some strands of traditional perspective). Most of the heavy lifting in flavor is going on via aroma based compounds and it works to just describe sweetness, bitterness, and feel-structure separately (along with tartness and sourness, and other mineral tones, whenever all of that range comes up).
He Huan: this version is transitioning a little but the last description still fits.
It makes me wonder if I see this as a $200+ full size cake, but then I don't have enough baseline of that range to be as clear on it. Quite often teas are sold as $30-$80 per 357 gram cake with the next quality level up a $200 200 gram version, with less offered in between. I don't try all that much of that second level in comparison, or whatever comes beyond that, but it does come up sometimes.
This is pretty good tea; I don't get the impression that it's clearly not worth it. A lot of better versions that I've tried fit into a relatively narrow box for style, a profile that matches what is sold as gushu (which may or may not relate to any particular tree age; who knows). Those tend to be more intense teas, with a bit more bitterness, with sweetness pairing with distinctive flavors, and a higher level of feel structure and pronounced aftertaste experience.
A tea version that was supposed to be LBZ I tried recently was unique for the flavor range being novel; it just tasted different. This is a different paradigm, a bit closer to that form, a little softer in character and more unique, as more natural growth teas tend to be. Not that I'm offering that as a claim; William only wrote this for description:
He Huan is a lovely ancient garden located on a hill above the village. This is the eastern end of the Da Ping Zhang ancient tea forest. Unlike most of the park, this garden grows on steep ground. Yubai's uncle has a part of this garden and we managed to get his leaves at the peak of the Spring season.
"Ancient garden;" that implies different things. The main factor is about how it works out anyway, final results, and this tea is nice.
This will do it for final thoughts, the end of a busy half hour of speed reviewing.
The Tian Xiang isn't transitioning as much, but it is in a nice place now, slightly softer, decently full, still reasonably complex within a limited range.
The He Huan also isn't changing so fast I'd write a new description. That complex flavor, warmth, floral tone, rich honey sweetness, bees-wax taste and fullness, mineral base (an oddly soft and warm version of one) all do work really well. It's probably for the best this doesn't include more bitterness; it really works as it is. I'm not sure it's more than twice as good as the other version but it is better, at least related to my preference.
I brewed a few more rounds of both later and can pass on some last impressions. The Tian Xiang picked up more bitterness in those rounds, and it largely dropped out of the He Huan. The main observation is that this tea reminded me of something I was trying to describe recently, what Ya Shi / Duck Shit oolong tastes like. It's floral, but a warmer version of floral tone, that extends into a warm version of honey sweetness, inclined a bit towards fruit tone, something like cooked pear. The flavor of this He Huan sheng isn't a close match for that but it definitely overlaps a good bit. Now that I think of it that typical Ya Shi flavor set may well lean a little towards beeswax too.
What to make of that, saying that a sheng tastes like oolong? That alone is an insult and condemnation related to admitting it doesn't have the right structure and profile, or level of bitterness, even though I've just explicitly compared only part of the flavor scope, not feel or aftertaste range. It's not like oolong, but part of flavor is similar to one version of one. It is a bit soft, rich and full in feel, and limited in bitterness as sheng goes, so it's not unlike oolong either, as younger sheng goes, just not similar.
It would be interesting to see how this tea version changes over a dozen years. I wonder if that warmth and depth would transition versus fading, even though there isn't a lot of bitterness and astringency and that one limited range of intensity to alter through what I take to be more standard sheng aging transition patterns. It would seem a shame to buy a tea this good to experience it just fading away later on. Somehow I would guess that it would be subtle but still interesting, but that's based on next to nothing. It would seem best to at least drink a good bit of it young, to experience it at this stage.
one of the two swimmers on a break
it's a nice place to hang out for a couple of hours