I recently ordered a few teas from Farmerleaf, a past favorite source for Dian Hong (Yunnan black teas), and a good producer and reseller for a range of Jing Mai sheng. And they sell others, white teas and such. I've been buying a few more sheng cakes to try different versions and to bridge more into experiencing how they age, trying them over time. I've been trying a lot of samples of sheng for a couple of years but don't own that many cakes.
This review covers a version that sounded good, a "Tian Xiang" cake. I'll cite the whole Farmerleaf description, in part to introduce the tea, and to explain why it sounded interesting:
The second edition of the 'Tian Xiang' cake is made from a selection of natural tea gardens from Jingmai Mountain. Each year, we research about the characteristics of each tea garden and some spots give teas with special traits. This cake was made from natural tea gardens located close to the ancient tea gardens and another group of gardens remotely located halfway between Mangjing and Jingmai. Because of their history and the current agricultural practices, these gardens make a tea of superior qualilty, featuring a thicker soup and more complex fragrance.
This tea was processed in a wok, in the same way as the Miyun cakes, but the raw material differs. The tea features a complex floral fragrance, with hints of tropical fruits. The soup is thicker and Huigan deeper than in the Miyun cake.
In terms of quality, this tea is a good middle ground between the basic natural tea gardens tea and the more expensive teas grown in the ancient tea gardens.
I talked to William Osmont, the Farmerleaf business owner, about the tea before buying it. He described this as a "daily drinker" in discussion, which raises some interesting considerations.
That simple concept invokes a lot of context issues. On the one hand it implies a tea should be inexpensive and moderate in quality, decent tea but not good enough to warrant lengthy weekend sessions focused only on the tea. "Inexpensive" is a matter of expectation too; there is a lot of sheng out there selling for around $40 per cake and this was $79, so double that. I've recently tried a Yunnan Sourcing "Impression" cake and Bitterleaf "Year of the Dog" cake that were blended tea versions that seem to fit that general type, and match that first lower price range.
One might wonder what William meant, and he clarified that to him it relates to a relatively inexpensive tea that is easy to brew, doesn't require too much attention, and may not be as strong in flavor or body as some other versions. That works.
I first took him to mean that other versions, in particular older tree / gushu plant source versions, can be more intense, perhaps more refined, and can require a different kind of focus, and can bring different layers of exposure to the experience. Tea tree age alone doesn't make a tea better; lots of processing inputs go into play, and growing conditions are a factor, and which plant type happened to stick around to get old.
As I interpret it the concept of a "daily drinker" is more about tea style than cost, although that is related too. I'll drink different types of teas when I'm rushing through a work-day breakfast than I'll choose when I have time to spend. It's nice to drink a well-above-average orthodox Assam on the fly, brewed as two strong infusions in two rounds in a large mug. It doesn't work as well to drink 12 rounds of sheng quickly, but I still do sometimes. Even if I only have even 20 minutes to brew tea with breakfast if I feel like it I'll have sheng, preparing 10 rounds really fast Gongfu style, mixing ("stacking") them as I go to moderate the temperature I drink it at. I wouldn't do that with a better version I was trying to get a clearer read on.
Given all that it will be interesting to see what I make of the tea, so on to it.
The first infusion is pleasant, on the light side still, but sweet and complex with good intensity. I should leave off filling in the aspects-list style description until next round and limit this to a first impression effect. It seems to work. Bitterness won't a problem in this tea, although there is some to balance the rest. It will be sweet, flavorful, and approachable. A hint of smoke stands out, even though it's a trace, there is a vegetal aspect, part of the sweetness probably does relate to fruit, and mineral fills in a nice base. It's good, of course with "good" being a bit relative.
It's funny how that general description could either be interpreted as sheng at its best or very limited quality tea, depending on how someone takes it, related to their expectations and preferences.
Of course it's a little more intense the next round; the leaves are closer to fully saturated. Drilling further into how the aspects break down is tricky; that initial take captures a lot of what I'm still picking up. There is a distinctive range of complex flavors that stands out, but it covers a lot of scope, even though it comes across as simple and integrated. That can happen. At first it comes across mostly as a floral range, since that's a default description (more or less), and general expectation. It resembles fruit too though. At this point a bit towards pear or white grape, so sweet and light, maybe even Asian pear (very light), but some of the warmth and depth does extend to how more typical US-grown pears are. Mineral range supports that flavor complexity.
Sweetness could be a little more intense, but there's plenty, and the mild bitterness works well as a counter. Feel is a bit light, and at least at this point aftertaste doesn't stand out. There's enough of both that it doesn't come across as thin but compared to a lot of young sheng range it might be judged as such. If I focused on that more than overall balance and effect (what I really value most about teas, in general) then it would seem more of a limitation. The style is such that this is a drinkable young sheng, which is fine as a premise, for me. It doesn't bode well for the tea to be as positive after more than a decade of aging, per my understanding, but it makes it stand out as pleasant now.
All this might sound familiar, about contrasting pleasant, drinkable young sheng with aging potential. It's a recurring theme I never drop lately, and one I'll be another decade sorting out. I just re-tried a Moychay Nannuo sheng yesterday that was one of my favorite shengs yet (with this a link to the next-year's version, 2018). I've finished 2/3rds of a cake of the 2017 cake, in part related to checking back in on it just over a year after buying it. It's fading; no surprise there. Or just transitioning, to be more positive about that, but it's definitely losing flavor intensity and sweetness, and it didn't have much astringency and bitterness that could drop out to improve the experience. It might sound like I'm saying this tea is a lot like that, and at the end I probably will, but I'll hold off on concluding that for now.
This does remind me even more of that tea on the third round; it has nice flavor intensity, sweetness, a good balance, and pronounced fruit. It's just not overly bitter, astringent, or structured in feel (all of which works for me; it still strikes a decent balance). I was just thinking of ordering the next years' version of that Moychay Nannuo sheng (and may still), but with this being as stylistically close, and matching in similar aspects, at least I have more to drink of something comparable. I just doubt that this tea will serve the initial purpose of buying cakes to age well (again at the level of conclusions best reserved to the end).
Mineral makes this tea pleasant; it really helps the flavor balance. That doesn't pair with feel-structure that tends to often couple with similar mineral range. I'd picked up a hint of smoke early on but that's not apparent now; it already dropped out. There's something unusual about the bitterness, which is often simple a one-dimensional, basic aspect, as sweetness sort of is, but both can vary in nature. The mild bitterness seems to have a complexity to it.
The fruit range seems to be changing most in this round, warming a little, shifting in type. Lots of flavor aspect interpretations might potentially apply, and since it's complex and linked to a lot of other flavors. To me it tastes less like white grape, and like a different kind of pear, warmer so further into a ripe, sweet, rich version. I'm not so good with pear types though; bosch comes to mind but I don't think that's it, since I think that's the one with a brownish skin that's simple in flavor but pleasant. They're more like this Harry and David gift-delivery version, which my Mom sent me once, some really expensive but pleasantly buttery and rich flavored pears.
Or that fruit also resembles how some mangoes come across, at least warmer, richer-flavored versions. It's a close to a move towards or into light spice range too, it seems. It could still be interpreted as floral, and at a minimum it seems to also include that kind of range.
from one of the trees at our house, very nice versions of mangos
On the next infusion (4?) it transitions less. Intensity picked up, but that probably relates to not paying attention to infusion time, to brewing it longer. Feel structure is much fuller and aftertaste runs longer. That's probably both a function of infusing this round slightly longer and a natural transition of aspects through the rounds, really gaining intensity across those ranges. It had to be that the character actually changed because the effect is too different, especially related to a trailing sweetness aftertaste. The feel / structure is still a bit light but the aftertaste is much more intense now.
It's interesting how variations in how it comes across at different infusion strengths might allow this tea to suite different preference for sheng style. If someone liked the flavor-based intensity, sweetness, and approachable nature brewing it very lightly enhances all that. Letting it run a little longer ramps up thickness and aftertaste effect. Lighter would be better for me; I can do without the rest as being pronounced, and brewing teas lightly allows you to pick up the finer aspects better, or so it seems to me.
More of the same on the next round; it seems like characteristic transitions across rounds won't be the main story related to this tea, even though it has changed in a couple of notable ways. Bitterness is a little stronger this round, but it still balances well. Now it's where a lot of younger sheng more typically are for how sweetness and bitterness offset each other, just still in the lower-end range for level of bitterness, but that much closer to moderate. Spice range never did develop into a notable aspect, or at least not yet.
This next infusion was on the fast side, back to just under 10 seconds, to gauge how much varying infusion time had been an input, versus the described transitions. I like the character better quite light. The flavor is moving towards a more vegetal nature, into a green wood range. It's not bad but I suppose I did like the fruit better. It's still complex, it still spans a broad flavor-aspect range, with green wood definitely standing out. Aftertaste and trailing sweetness is still really pronounced but not like in that last slightly stronger infusion.
My patience for making tasting notes is wearing thin, and this is probably a long enough read anyway. I'll mention the next round and drop it.
More of the same next round, although it is warming slightly, again. I bet it will go through one more minor transition in character before it starts to thin in a few more rounds and extending timing changes things again.
finishing a few extra Nannuo rounds (left) with this tea
It's nice. I'm not sure it will be as nice as it is now at any later stage in the aging process, although it will probably take another year for a lot of the flavor intensity to drop off and character range to go through an initial shift. I'm sure it will still be fine for a couple years after that, it just remains to be seen if it's not just notably faded between 5 and 10 years old, and if it develops an interesting character further along the aging cycle.
I definitely wouldn't put this away in storage to see how that goes; at a guess it might be showing its best character now. It's my impression that bitterness, astringency, and overall intensity enable a tea to transition positively over time and to age well, and this version is moderate related to all that range, more on the drinkable side now. Or maybe it could be on the mild side but still interesting and distinctive later on, for starting from an interesting range related to flavor profile. I won't drink it all so that I get to check back on changes over time but I will enjoy drinking a good bit of it over this next year.
The character doesn't seem too far off that Moychay Nannuo sheng. I really should pick up that next year's version, the 2018 tea, so I could drink a lot of both to compare them, and see how they both change. That other tea might've been slightly fruitier and more intense in flavor range, at least at first, even though some of the fruit aspects that were expressed were common to both.
I often skip the part about evaluating value, but will since that did come up explicitly in the initial framing. This does seem quite distinctive and pleasant, with the main drawbacks related to someone not preferring this style versus flaws or quality limitations. Versions get better for being quite different but for the style and character it is this one is very nice. I would agree that $79 per cake is at the top end for a "daily drinker," but other less costly cakes typically achieve quite different results, based on using blending to even out flaws from more limited quality material. Of course that's something of a sweeping generalization but that does seem typical. The overall effect is different for those fairly-priced value-oriented teas that I mentioned; they are "daily drinkers" in a slightly different sense.
The Moychay Nannuo sheng described as similar lists for $71.67, not far off this. I bought the version I had at the beginning of last year for around that and was very happy with the tea character and quality; it was an immediate favorite. I may still like that version just slightly more than this one but there's no direct comparison tasting to be done now that the tea has faded over the course of its second year of existence. It would take buying the 2018 version to settle it, and even then year-to-year changes wouldn't assure it's a close match for that 2017 tea. Both would make excellent versions to share some of, since they're pleasant and easy to drink, if I could force myself to part with some.