Thursday, April 25, 2019

On Tea Evangelism

Originally published by TChing

I wanted to write a short opinion-oriented post for TChing for once, to get away from the interviews, research, and topic-summary themes.  I talk a lot about tea; why not cover how that goes.

Google + ending had me thinking quite a bit about social media, but I've posted before about places people talk about tea online.  This time I was thinking more of how it works to expand awareness through discussion.  The thing is, tea is experiential.  And people need to have a reason to go past trying bubble tea and tea-bag tea, and some guy mentioning the subject online doesn't seem to count for much.

Let's start with why I'd try to spread the word, since it's not clearly better that such exposure to tea awareness happens quickly versus slower, or at all.  Part of why I try to share the interest is because of how positively I see tea as a beverage choice, as much healthier than flavored and sweetened bubble teas or lattes, and more diverse and interesting.  This citation about Thai flavored teas (which are nice, and popular here) explains that first part best:

At one chain restaurant, a small Thai iced-tea beverage contains 280 calories, while a large one contains 410 calories...  Your tea may also provide 7 to 23 percent of the DV [recommended daily intake] for total fat, as well as 14 to 35 percent of the DV for saturated fat.

All that is fine for an occasional treat but my Thai co-workers are drinking teas like that on a daily basis.

this Thai tea flavor promotion had an effect on my cholesterol score

I'll start with what I've tried, and move on a little to the range media tends to cover.  I write a blog about tea but that's only ever going to be read by people already unusually interested in tea.  The same applies to answering questions about tea on Quora.

Discussing tea in other places is a next step.  The Reddit r/tea subreddit is a good example.  People would still need to already have some interest in tea to be checking that out but for many they've only been exposed to tea-bag versions.  The Tea Drinker's group in Facebook is similar, a beginner oriented group where most members are already interested in tea blends that might be found in a grocery store, but haven't moved on to interest in what some others would consider to be "normal" better teas.

It's hard to convey information about other range without coming across as talking down to people, as implying some level of expertise, or the claim that "my tea is better than your tea."  It comes down to communicating tone and intention properly, along with the core content, the ideas about the tea.

Next it's possible to mention tea reviews or themes in other places, other forums and groups, but that wouldn't be welcome in most.  Introducing Thai-produced teas in Thai themed discussion groups, for example.

It had seemed to me that presenting content about tea through normal media channels (eg. newspaper articles) might be another option, but it's generally not seen as news.  I'll mention a couple of newspaper articles--not written by me; I'm not still on that theme--to fill in what the exceptions are like.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran an article "Finding a haven at Tea Habitat, Alhambra’s secret shop for tea geeks."  That business and vendor overlap with a tea type that does occasionally come up in media sources, Dan Cong oolong, with the Ya Shi or "duck shit" version getting the most attention.  That tea type is sometimes referenced as news interest because the version is so exotic.  A quote from that article sums up how that is often framed:

...She was talking about the oolongs in which she specializes — teas that, through precise oxidation and roasting but without any flavor additions, taste miraculously of stone fruits and spices; multiple steepings can also coax out floral and mineral qualities. They come from farmers and producers who tend single trees, some of them hundreds of years old, grown in one location: the isolated Phoenix Mountain in the north of China’s Guangdong province....

They start at $20 for three ounces of good black tea; some dan cong can cost $70 or more for a single ounce; with numerous steepings, and astonishing flavor, that small quantity can go far, but it’s obviously an investment...

a Wuyi Origin Mi Lan Xiang version; pretty good tea

Dan Cong can be really nice, and better versions are better, but I can buy 100 grams (4 ounces) of a decent version here in a Chinatown shop for just over $15, with a better online version costing $36 for two ounces (50 grams, really).  The more expensive versions can definitely still be worth it, and can even be a good value, so one point here is that a range exists.

I'm concerned that this is how better tea is represented in media, the theme that rare, expensive teas exist that take years of training to appreciate and significant exposure just to brew.  That article author went out of his way to explain why he is a worthy student to undertake exposure to those teas.  Where does that leave someone considering a move away from grocery-store tea-bag teas?

Related to another potential angle, a recent local Bangkok Post article covered the theme of forest-friendly teas.  This is better, in one sense, for drawing on an interest in an origin story, which doesn't necessarily exclude or limit the audience.  But it's not really an introduction to basic, better teas either.  Background discussion of some teas being flavored and others distinctive for demonstrating natural flavors might encourage a potential audience to try one or both ranges.  As with the fair-trade oriented themes that arise more related to Indian production at least bringing up a subject related to tea also brings up tea as a beverage.

In the end I talk about tea where I happen to be, in real life or online, and to push it the next step once in awhile host free tasting events.  I'm not sure how vendors or other commercial industry interests could do better, and it's a little strange that people like me would even try to get the word out to the extent that I do.  Teavana had taken a novel and promising approach for adding stores in local malls and sending people out into foot traffic with samples but that didn't seem to work out.  Maybe bubble tea will serve as an effective gateway later on.

buying bubble tea in Shenzhen China last week

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

2007 CNNP 8891 sheng from Yunnan Sourcing

cool looking, nice color, a bit tight as compression goes

same photo with a light turned on; funny how background lighting shifts color

This is the last in a hectic series of review posts I started while I had a few days off with my kids visiting family back in the US, without my wife and I.  I'll go quiet again here for another week or two due to being out of town this weekend, but a TChing post I wrote on tea evangelism should post in that time, so I may add that in this blog too.

This is another interesting tea from a Yunnan Sourcing order.  I never did list what I bought or post a purchase photo anywhere.  I'll let a partial citation of their description serve as an intro (with the rest really worth a read; there's a bit more of an origin story there):

...this tea is incredibly good tasting and has a very unique flavor profile. It's been stored in Guangdong since 2007 in a dry-wet storage condition (wet stored but on the dry side of the wet storage spectrum). The raw material is from Nan Jian area of Yunnan which is technically part of Dali prefecture...

The tea brews up an orange-red tea soup with a pungent aroma of flowers, mushrooms and earth. The taste is clean with no musty wet storage notes, but does have some some earthy notes. There is a kind of pronounced spice and cloves taste and aroma with a strong viscous sweetness throughout...

No rambling from me this time.  I've tried teas of this age but I won't go through comparing them since starting point character and storage differences would cause that to not be meaningful.


The first impression won't tell a lot of the story but it is interesting.  There's a pronounced dry wood tone to the flavor, which could be described as mushroom and earth.  It strikes me more as the scent of an old barn.  Oddly my impression is positive though; that earthiness isn't where it will be in another infusion or two but it's paired well with general warmth and sweetness.  The aftertaste is pleasant, mineral intensive, even a bit towards natural spring scent or long-rusted metal, with a hint of the clove showing through already.  That's why I don't read descriptions before tasting though; that last part really could be suggestion.

Earth picked up a good bit in this second round; I'll have to keep these infusions fast since the flavor intensity won't balance well unless this tea is light, given how it's a bit intense.  I was reading some really interesting pu'er storage experiments in a blog by "M Gault" (Late Steeps) in which he describes flavors as geosmin.  I had to look that up; it's basically dirt.  It's not dirt, although some descriptions of the term tie it back to that, but here is Wikipedia's description (partial):

Geosmin is an organic compound with a distinct earthy flavor and aroma produced by certain bacteria, and is responsible for the earthy taste of beets and a contributor to the strong scent (petrichor) that occurs in the air when rain falls after a dry spell of weather or when soil is disturbed.[1] In chemical terms, it is a bicyclic alcohol with formula C12H22O, a derivative of decalin...

Seems likely this tea tastes like that.  Luckily I like that strange flavor aspect in beets.

The tea isn't musty but it is earthy; what could've been mushrooms but reminded me of well-aged wood has shifted a little towards well-aged hay, beyond fully cured into an old version of it.  Again though, it works.  I'm picking up a lot more mineral input than floral, although a little seems to be present, and the spice range isn't as pronounced as it might be, but it's a cool mix.  It wouldn't be for everyone.  It's funny I've taken to saying that lately; it sort of goes without saying, doesn't it?

Either it's the Bangkok-hot season heat getting to me or else I'm really already feeling this tea on the second infusion, which is not how that usually goes.  I'm not all that sensitive to "cha qi" effects but at their strongest I can notice it, but I'm at a pretty low dosage this far in for the head buzz I'm feeling.  Might be both acting together, the heat and the tea.

I lost focus and let this infuse for over 5 seconds, my typical timing range, a bit long.  It'll be nice seeing where that puts it and noticing the contrast with a flash infusion the next time.  The earthiness tie-in to mushroom makes a lot more sense on this infusion; that's what's going on.  The mineral has shifted to taste a good bit like potato skin, although still also a little like beet. 

It's funny how when I consider these terms (dirt, beet, potato skin, mushroom, well-aged hay, rock mineral leaning towards metal) it doesn't sound like a pleasant thing to experience, but it is.  It's still on the soft and approachable side, nothing is too jarring as flavors or other experience range, and a good bit of sweetness helps all that work.  It comes across as "cleaner" than all that would sound; aging-related flavors can be musty, and this isn't.  If anything the feel is pleasant; it intuitively should be edgier and a bit dry given all that flavor range but it's not.

Brewed faster, a quick in and out, the tea doesn't give up nearly as much intensity as you would expect.  It's not even all that different.  Sweetness plays a slightly larger role in the flavor balance, and heavier mineral drops back.  The aftertaste is still intense, and the feel is still an odd mix of hinting towards dryness and tightening across a lot of my mouth with feeling a bit juicy.  It will be really interesting to see how this changes after just a couple of years here, in a nice and hot, consistently humid place.  I'd bet all of Bangkok is firmly in the wet-wet storage condition per that description spectrum postulated.

It's 97 F here right not, around one of those temperatures I can convert back and forth from C to F easily, close to the 37 C of human body temperature.  Relative humidity is 57% right now, much lower than the typical 70% here, but I think that's because the amount of water in the air has probably gone up just a little but the carrying capacity at this hotter temperature is a good bit higher, hence the lower relative percentage.  I went through all that in this post, which cites this related graph:

Since I'm mentioning it I went a lot further with pu'er storage themes in this article I wrote for a vendor, for Moychay, mentioning a reference on how to make do-it-yourself humidity control packs and one on temperature related aging experiments.

Those black boxes (or whatever shapes) in this graph are recommended environments for IT equipment operation; never mind all that.  The other two colored versions were me messing around with where people say pu'er stores well.  I'd probably draw them differently now since that was from 2017 but the idea is the same.  The point here is that even a relatively small step up in temperature from 33 C to 38 (91 F to 100 F) changes how much moisture the air can hold at those levels.  The air I'm sitting in contains about 22 grams water per kilogram of dry air right now, or way above any of those boxes.

Really it's my understanding now (based on input from M Gault's blog, Late Steeps) that tea can age just fine at whatever temperature, even up to 40, which is good since it is almost that now.  That, and the sheng I have around (the limited amount of it) seems to transition well with age, maybe just a little faster than I'd expect.  The character doesn't seem to have been impacted negatively for it being so hot.  To qualify that, I don't have enough other baseline of experience to be a good judge of such a thing; it's more a vague and poorly grounded impression.

The tea is shifting a good bit over the next infusion, softening, with those different aspects integrating much better.  Clove really does start to make sense as an interpretation of part of the flavor.  The feel still has good complexity but it's different too.

Again on the infusion after it's still shifting; that's a cool experience, after a lot of young sheng I've been drinking lately staying more consistent.  The warm mushroom / aged wood or hay aspect is now as much like a bark spice.  The mineral is still on the deep and earthier side, still including a touch of "geosmin," but milder, different, and more integrated with the rest.

This lighter range is more familiar, not far off that in a couple of different 2006 Hong Tai Chang versions I compared at one point.  A more recent 2006 find in Chinatown had a really heavy earthy flavor, more on the musty side, which I took to likely be storage condition related (but again, I'm guessing at this level of exposure).  I never did report back that within a couple months of trying that tea I tried it again and it was much improved, probably benefiting from airing out a little.

It's odd that this local environment could count as "airing out" but who knows where that Chinatown tea was stored, or even exactly what it was, given the frequency of gaps in how teas are labeled and what they actually are.  As with those other inexpensive teas I just reviewed if you buy a tea labeled as something not overly desirable that kind of helps (with limiting concern about it being "fake"), because a producer isn't going to fake a tea being a relatively generic, lowly regarded, lower-cost source product.  At a minimum they would fake a tea being an in-demand but moderate cost known-vendor version.  If a tea is sold as a $15 cake of Lao Ban Zhang in one sense it's fake but in another it's more or less what it's presented as; as mis-labeled tea.

This tea might be transitioning to thin in intensity just a little; far from brewed out but fading in intensity.  It would have helped going with flash infusions from the start.  I suspect it has just as long a cycle to go, just either drinking it as moderate strength (which is probably better) or extending infusion time.  The leaves being more chopped than I'm accustomed to must have altered how it brews.  I've drank factory teas since first getting into sheng a half dozen years ago, some so finely broken it's almost as much a ground leaf, but more often I'm drinking more whole-leaf versions.

On the next infusion the last description mentioned still works; the tea is still pleasant (where I'll leave off description, something like 8 to 9 rounds in).  I'm happy with this tea.  I'm guessing that it will benefit quite a bit from another 2 to 4 years of getting a little further through aging here but I could enjoy drinking it like this, and will probably try it a few more times over the next year.

Later observation, some online review

I did brew that tea at least another half dozen rounds later and the flavor held up fine, thinning and changing a little but staying positive.  Even without any further aging or change I would really enjoy that tea, and that just getting used to the novel character a little more would already make it seem even more positive, when I already liked it to begin with. 

To some extent it must be a relatively basic tea compared to refined and highly desirable aged versions that get discussed in tea groups.  Since I'm still on the new side related to exposure to aged sheng it's still novel and probably more positive to me.  The cost is moderate, listing at $67 there on YS now; maybe they just forgot to add the standard per year mark-up in this case.  Then again I tried to look up alternative vendors selling it and saw a reference of the pricing from a couple of years ago; it just started really low.

No alternative sources turned up easily in a Google search but in looking that up I ran across a couple of interesting related references.  Tea DB (James) did a review of it; he liked it, especially related to value, but I didn't watch that video yet to get to the details.  The Steepster entry feedback was generally positive, which is probably as well taken with a grain of salt, listing these aspect in the main header description: 

Sawdust, Tobacco, Vegetal, Musty, Raisins, Whiskey, Sweet, Chestnut, Dried Fruit, Floral, Mineral, Mushrooms, Nutmeg, Rose, Spinach, Wet Earth, Caramel, Sweet, warm grass, Earth, Hay, Spicy, Stonefruits, Straw

Maybe it was like that; I'll have to taste it again a few times and try to sort all that out.  Odd that no one borrowed mentioning "clove" from the vendor description. 

Just to be clear, in tasting a tea that's in a less than familiar style, and a complex tea at that, interpretations could vary quite a bit.  I didn't notice that much fruit but about a third of that list appears by name in this review, and some of the rest overlaps a bit (saying it tastes a little like clove is close to saying it tastes a little like nutmeg, even though they're different, and so on).  Tobacco and whiskey are something else; I'll consider that in re-tasting.

talking to Kalani on video call

those two love messing with the app features

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Farmerleaf 2018 Mengku and Autumn Jing Mai gushu

I'm trying two samples sent along with a Farmerleaf order from not long ago.  To be clear only the second is presented as "gushu," with their naming as follows:

Spring 2018 Mengku Xiao Hu Sai

Autumn 2018 Jingmai Gushu

I bought a cake of Farmerleaf sheng in that order and reviewed a different Jing Mai sample of tea presented as a higher quality version, so this is tying up that cycle.

An autumn version tea should be less intense, and maybe slightly warmer in aspect tone, if what I've tried in the past carries over.  But I've not been through so many trials that all the typical patterns are clear just yet; it can be possible to include impressions only relating to coincidence across a limited sample size for aspect causation.  I'll add a Farmerleaf description here during editing, and do the tasting based on that much input.

Spring 2018 Xiao Hu Sai ($95 for 357 gram cake)

Xiao Hu Sai is located on the western mountain range of Mengku area. This village has the largest old tea gardens in Mengku. They grow between 1700 and 2000m of altitude. They are planted in inequal density and grow in open fields...

Xiao Hu Sai tea has a very good thickness and a delicate fragrance, which, unlike most other mengku teas, is not high-pitched but rather reveals itself slowly as the session goes. This is a tea enjoyed for its mouthfeel, heavy Huigan and calming Qi. Very brewable, it features a light bitterness which changes fast into sweetness. If you like Yiwu teas, you will very likely love this one!

Autumn 2018 Jingmai Gushu  (357 gram cake selling for 80 USD)

We sourced leaves from the ancient tea gardens that surround Jingmai village (Mang Guo, Weng Bo and some Da Ping Zhang gardens). Due to the good weather, the harvest was made at the beginning of the growth cycle, when the flushes are still tender. Therefore, we could source 1 bud/2 leaves and avoided having too much yellow flakes in the tea, this is why this cake has more buds than what is common in Autumn.

As usual, this Autumn tea has a good fragrance typical of the season. A medium-light body and good sweetness. It is more astringent than the Spring harvest and has a light bitterness.

Odd, it didn't strike me as very astringent, although the feel did have an unusual character to it, a dryness.


Mengku left, Jing Mai right

Mengku Xiao Hu Sai:  there's a really catchy fruity aspect.  It's in between a conventional fruit (a fruity or light version of one, something like peach or pineapple), a mixed artificial range like Froot Loops, and a mild and sweet spice instead.  For liking fruitier teas this really works for me.  Mineral rounds that out nicely, and a touch of bitterness.  The feel and structure seem decent too, although I'm still working from a limited strength infusion.  It's a bit juicy as feel goes, with some fullness, with pretty good aftertaste experience for a tea just getting started.

Autumn Jing Mai Gushu:  quite different; this is warmer in tone, still relatively soft and a bit subtle, but with a lot more mineral range than the other.  Mineral is not only intense but complex; it seems to span a lighter flint / limestone mineral range and extend into a warmer dark clay / Southwestern US sandstone range.  There's still some sweetness, and flavor complexity extends into a bit of floral range, which leans towards fruit, but with fruit essentially nonexistent in comparison with the other tea's level.  Both teas will probably show more of their real nature next round and evolve some after.

Second infusion

Mengku:  to me that flavor set is really catchy, although I guess maybe not everyone would even like it.  Fruitiness has dropped off a little already, moving towards a mild vegetal range, but it's still fruity.  The vegetal range includes a green-wood character and then some mild leaf vegetable flavor beyond that, maybe bok-choy.  It's pleasant but a little less catchy, hinting a little towards tartness or sourness in line with how green wood would taste, just not exactly tart or sour.

The way the feel comes across as "juicy" is nice, if that seems to mean anything.  I suppose it gives up some degree of structure for that, since it's a variation of being lightly textured, just in an unusual way.  Bitterness and sweetness round out the flavor positively, and again the aftertaste is reasonably well pronounced.  I wouldn't say it's "extended" but enough to add a little depth to the experience.

Jing Mai:  vegetal range picks up in this too, again towards green wood, and floral tone, but with that warm and complex mineral and a slightly higher degree of bitterness filling in beyond that, versus a fruit and lighter vegetable tone in the other.  This feel is quite different, a bit more structured.  In a slightly different form I'd describe it as dryness but as presented here it's just a tenseness across your tongue and mouth, which remains long after drinking it.  The actual flavor is a bit subtle so the feel remains more as an aftertaste than the actual flavor; that's different.  The mineral is so pronounced I could relate to someone interpreting that as including metal range as well.

Third infusion

Mengku:  not transitioning a lot, but the balance of those aspects does keep shifting.  It works well at this stage.  I bought a Yunnan Sourcing tea that I just reviewed, a  2017 "He Bian Zhai" Wild Arbor cake, that this reminds me of in some ways.  The feel is juicy or slightly sappy in a similar way, not structured in the normal sense but full.  The flavor isn't so different either.  That may be slightly more straight-vegetal, more along a wood and green-wood line, so this might work slightly better for adding that other depth.  It's probably more what I expected from that tea, although again the two are similar.  This still includes a hint of fruit and spice, even though it's more in the vegetal range now, which gives it a nice complexity.  I could imagine people really liking this or not liking it; it's different enough that it would just depend on a link to individual preference.

Jing Mai:  the intensity that I'd expect from a gushu and subtlety that I'd expect from an autumn tea play out in this version, kind of as one might expect.  It has a depth to it, a lot of mineral, and fullness of feel that extend relatively far.  On the other hand the flavor intensity, feel structure, and aftertaste are all limited.  It would be a lot brighter in character in a spring version, I think; floral would pick up and feel would have more of an edge to it, while retaining all the depth in this.

The warmth of the flavor tones kind of works for me.  That part might be extending from warm mineral to include something like tree bark instead, or along with it.  Tree bark itself can have a lot of different types of character, depending on the tree and it's condition, and this is more how slightly damp and aged firewood comes across, with a warmth, sweetness, and slightly cured character.  The other tea is also woody but in a completely different sense, more along the lines of green wood, maybe extending a little into a dry cured hardwood, but more the wood part of a cherry or hickory.  Both of these tea characters work but in different ways.

Fourth infusion

I'd been letting the infusion times run for closer to 10 seconds than to 5, a bit heavy given the proportion (the typical gaiwan 3/4ths full with leaves wetted), so I'll try a round brewed faster, still around 5 seconds for the pouring taking time.

Mengku:  this works better that little bit lighter, and it would still be fine pushing the tempo even faster, using closer to a flash infusion.  In a lot of cases that's used due to needing to moderate bitterness or astringency but in this case the flavor is plenty intense enough as it is, and the feel character doesn't necessarily dilute, so lighter is just better, even though both versions are drinkable. 

It has moved off of tasting a lot like Froot Loops but there is still a touch of that.  To me the sappy, juicy feel really works.  The green wood flavor has pushed a little into a resinous range, a bit like pine tree pitch, like the smell of rosin on a violin bow, I'd expect (although that's not exactly familiar to me).  It's not all that piney, there is just a hint of that. 

Jing Mai:  again for this tea being prepared light is better.  It had been intense in flavor and the feel was already full, so although again there wasn't bitterness level or astringency to work around it has decent intensity.  I might've been interpreted as just saying the opposite but I was talking more about a specific range.  That mineral specific earthy / metal component extends even further to seem to tie to a feel structure, especially given this is brewed so lightly, maybe now coming across as a hint of dryness.

I'm wondering how these teas would age but that I really don't know, and given that I'm working with samples I won't find out.  I've got enough other sheng around to check on transition patterns that I really don't feel regret about that.  Maybe I'd regret it more if I was more certain that either would improve a lot at some point with more age.  They both have plenty of intensity for enjoying aspects at this level and nature but swapping some out to achieve character change might have them come across as thin.  Or is it just a myth that teas need to be bitter, astringent, and over-bearing in intensity level to age well?  I'll know better in another decade; I'll get back to you.

Fifth infusion

This will probably be it for notes, even though these would easily go another 5 rounds, probably more.  I have a couple other things to do online and then in real life.

Mengku:  I've said enough about this tea that "complex" probably comes across as a description, but really the character seems simple and unified, just with depth over a couple of aspect type ranges.  The flavor is pleasant and the feel works.

It's not completely different in style than the Yunnan Sourcing  "He Bian Zhai" Wild Arbor Cake I mentioned.  I'm not sure that relates to this being "wild" in origin.  Tea grown more naturally tends to be more pronounced in flavor, milder in feel structure, giving up some overall intensity for more unique character.  Maybe that's the cause for this outcome too or maybe not.

Jing Mai:  Bitterness might be picking up just a little, but it's still at a level that just gives the tea balance.  Often that's a transition that occurs in later rounds, and it might be a lot more pronounced in two or three more infusions.  Oddly sometimes it's not even related to using longer infusion times to draw it out; whatever compounds tie to that impression can ramp up without that.  Which to me is counter-intuitive.  Caffeine is a compound that causes bitterness in tea and we know from studies of infusion rates that it extracts out relatively fast in the earlier infusions, and diminishes later, so that effect from that compound alone would cause the tea to be less bitter in later rounds.  We'd need to call in a tea geek expert to get more input on this; I just notice what I taste.

Feel still works well, in that form described, and aftertaste is more pronounced in this tea version.

Conclusions; about sourcing and value in mid-range priced sheng

Which is "better"?  Of course that depends on preference.  The Mengku version seems more unique, related to unusual flavor and feel.  The Jing Mai strikes an unusual balance for being intense in some ways but still soft and moderate in character in others.

Both seem like decent tea.  Neither seems to show the character appeal or markers for well above average quality tea, but both are pleasant and positive in their own way.  As an example sometimes transitioning a good bit across rounds can be regarded as a sign of a better tea (sheng), or overall intensity can be, or specific aspects like pronounced aftertaste, or a certain range of mineral component.

I only checked the vendor description and pricing after writing all the prior notes and description and it's all more or less what I'd expect.  The Mengku tea lists for $95, the autumn gushu for $80, both for full-sized 357 gram cakes.  I wouldn't be surprised if both are slightly better teas than Farmerleaf tended to produce 2 or 3 years ago.  If memory serves that price is 50% higher than their standard range back then, maybe because of that, and probably also because they've built up following and demand.

It just is what it is; you can't easily find teas that are equivalent for less either.  I've been trying versions from Yunnan Sourcing, Crimson Lotus, and Bitterleaf (some--not that many from each) and there are different trade-offs involved with buying cakes down in the $40-some range instead.  Vendors use lower grade material for blends to achieve that lower price level, combining inputs with slight flaws or limitations that balance well together, and you give up distinctiveness in character.  Autumn teas cost less, and are seen as less desirable, and reputable vendors usually would say when that's what a tea is, as in this case.

Mind you I still think Farmerleaf sells good tea at fair prices.  They probably are sourcing slightly better (and costlier) material now, and fine-tuning processing.  When I started reviewing their teas I didn't have the same baseline for comparison, and memory of versions from 2 or 3 years back only goes so far, even with reviews to go on, so all that is a bit speculative on my part.

It is possible to buy better, narrower material origin tea for less but it's not generally how that goes.  I just reviewed King Tea Mall versions that are on par with these, and also roughly equivalent in cost, so that doesn't work an example.  Only one source like that comes to mind.  I probably shouldn't say what it is because it's bad form in reviewing, and I want to order more teas from that vendor at some point, to stock up on some of their cakes, and getting the word out could jinx that.  I'll mention it anyway:  this works as an example, Teamania's Lucky Bee Yiwu (this tea the 2017 version, but maybe I've only tried the 2016).

I just bought a similar range $79 cake from Farmerleaf these sample came with, and liked it, reviewed here, but due to my budget being limited I won't be repeating that type of purchase pattern regularly.  Converted to sourcing advice, Farmerleaf is good about offering moderate cost samples and spans such a broad range of teas (including nice Dian Hong, Yunnan black tea, like this one) that it would make sense to try a dozen versions of what they sell first as samples, and then decide if any of those match preference enough to buy a cake.  It's a low cost approach that lets you evaluate the value proposition.

Related to that, I sent teas to a friend / acquaintance from Farmerleaf last year.  I'd kind of meant to go back and order the same for myself but never got to it.  This graphic shows that order:

Those particular tea versions are inexpensive due to mostly being black teas (Dian Hong, which either just means Yunnan black tea or can imply a style, with sun-dried versions often referred to as Shai Hong instead).  Pretty much all those teas are sold out, so the same approach--for black teas--would only be possible between when more 2019 versions are listed.

I've been helping water the plants this hot season, keeping it green

my outdoor tasting station; the shade makes it feel cooler than it is

the crows aren't all that concerned about this make-shift scarecrow

Monday, April 22, 2019

Comparing 2018 Yiwu sheng versions from King Tea Mall

Yiwu Ma Hei left, Huang Tian right

John of King Tea Mall recently shared some samples to try, with two 2018 Yiwu versions as part of that set.  These samples will help with knowing what I like best to buy later; starting with samples is a good strategy versus buying cakes based on descriptions.  Some of the samples look really interesting, since there is a Naka included, and Lao Man E, and a Nannuo version, an area I've had good results with.

I've tried a good number of shengs from Yiwu but it is a really broad area, and tea versions vary by lots of other factors beyond that.  The local area references don't mean much to me yet; I'm not there for trying to map out patterns:

2018 Spring "Yi Wu Ma Hei" gushu 200 gram [cake / bing size] sheng sample

2018 Spring "Yi Wu Huang Tian" gushu 357 gram sheng sample

There's a convention for tea presented as better material to be sold as that smaller size cake, with standard pricing for those often up around $200, with more medium level quality teas sold in the $40-$80 for a 357 gram version general range instead (or at least medium cost, but those should correlate).  I'm tempted to check the listings before trying them but it seemed as well to taste them without further input, so I didn't.

I did go back and add the descriptions and pricing after the tasting though, as follows:

2018 SPRING “YI WU MA HEI ” GUSHU 200G CAKE PUERH SHENG (listed at $52.99 for 200 gram cake)

MaHei(麻黑) is a popular tea region under YiWu town... located in the central tea area of YiWu... 

This tea is made from 2018 year spring gushu tea materials of MaHei.

Both the softness and fragrance are classical characters on this tea.

Bitterness and astringency are on low level even hard to notice that...

2018 SPRING “YI WU HUANG TIAN” GUSHU 357G CAKE PUERH  (listed at $56.99 for a 357 gram cake)

There are both pressed cake and loose leaf option for this tea.  It comes from wild GuShu in YiWu.

Character:  Wild flavor.  Lingering tea flavor.  Soft and sweet tea liquid.

The sub village of MaHei village, please refer to map below. [that part is interesting, so I'll add it here]

credit King Tea Mall site

It's jumping out of order to add a conclusion here but my tasting impression agrees with those descriptions (although they are a bit general), and the pricing of each seems fair for how good the teas are.


Ma Hei version left, Huang Tian right

Ma Hei:  even at the first sip it's nice to be drinking better sheng again.  I've been trying moderate quality versions related to picking up some low-cost options in China.  Those teas were interesting and show promise, and were a good value, but this is decent tea.  It's a little early for an aspect list to do it justice since it's just starting out, but it is clean and intense with pronounced floral flavor.  A vegetal tone joins that, along the lines of green wood, better presented than in what I've been drinking, integrating well with pronounced floral range.  Sweetness has a honey-like flavor.

Huang Tian:  this strikes me as similar to the other tea, with pronounced floral range and a secondary vegetal scope, both over some degree of mineral base.  Even brewed light and not really showing their full range yet the cleanness and intensity comes across for both.  Mineral is stronger in this version, in an unusual range, a sort of flint tied to a hint of fruitiness.  It'll be interesting to see how both evolve further.

Second infusion

I brewed both the first two rounds at around 10 seconds to get the process moving, and will probably shift that to faster for a number of intermediate rounds since I expect intensity will be optimum at less time.

Ma Hei:  this will do better with that infusion time cut in half, but altering infusion strength works for getting a look at the tea from different perspectives.  The character of this tea is unusual.  It's floral, but that really pronounced sweetness and unusual vegetal range make it novel.  There is some underlying mineral but it would be easy to miss that in a description, and bitterness isn't notable compared to a lot of young sheng versions.

The mineral is a stronger input than it seems at first; a warm version of it joins a lighter flavored version, tasting like two different kinds of rocks, so it comes across as mineral range complexity.  The vegetal range is hard to isolate and describe, and also the floral range, since that often comes across simply as bright or warm floral tone to me.  We've been eating a lot of Chinese vegetables with dim sum on that trip to Shenzhen and Hong Kong; it tastes like one of those, a relatively neutral version of a type I don't really recognize to put a name to.  Similar to bok choy maybe?  I can describe this further in a lighter infused version, and it will probably transition some.

Huang Tian:  this version is catchy in a way that will also defy description.  There is mild bitterness but the level is very low; floral tone is also a bit subdued.  Sweetness stands out, and a mineral range contribution.  It's all warm in tone, not that far off bees wax flavor, but it's not exactly that.  For lack of a better description dried persimmon is also not so far off.  A light astringency seems paired more with a warm wood-tone range, a feel aspect that comes across as a hint of dryness.  One of those inexpensive sheng versions I'd mentioned was piney and really dry; this expresses a small fraction of a related feel aspect, but in a more moderate balance and type that works better.

Third infusion

I brewed both versions for about 5 seconds.  Faster is possible, and these teas would probably still be fine brewed for only 2 or 3, an in and out pour time, but typically that fast moderates infusion strength enough for a tea that isn't challenging.  Using a slightly lower proportion would also work; I'm just in the habit of going with a similar proportion and using infusion time to adjust for varying tea character.

Ma Hei:  this infusion strength is about right, although shorter really would still work.  Astringency is picking up a little, or rather it's as pronounced brewed lighter this time.  Where the other feel aspect comes across as pairing with a warm mineral tone this vegetal related aspect comes across as a trace of flower stem, what it would be like to bit the stem or petal, but very light.  It's not really negative since the floral range and pronounced sweetness lend the tea a nice balance. 

I'm accustomed to some better Yiwu versions blasting straight floral tone, paired with sweetness, and light mineral range (moderate strength, I mean light in character, like limestone versus basalt or whatever else), and these two teas aren't exactly like that.  The vegetal nature in this, now coming across more like green wood, given how the astringency has picked up and flavor balance shifted, might not work for everyone.  I'd expect that the really pronounced sweetness would tend to universally be seen as positive.

Huang Tian:  this version is slightly more straightforward and narrower in aspect profile range but it's catchy.  There is plenty of sweetness, just not quite as much, and the warmth comes across as mineral, but again it trails over into what might be interpreted in different ways.  Dried fruit seems to work best to me but that's just an interpretation.  It sounds better to me, warm mineral and dried fruit, versus green wood or plant-stem range, but it is slightly thinner in aspect range, slightly lower in sweetness and intensity, trading off some character there.  Both are nice though; both are clearly better tea versions than I had been drinking on that vacation. 

That Farmerleaf version I tried not all that long ago, the one I bought a cake of, was pretty nice tea but it had its own issues, well-balanced but including a trace of character that might be seen as comparable to green tea, an unusual edge to it.  I still liked it but it seemed a little atypical.  That kind of result highlights why it can be better to show patience and drink rounds of samples prior to committing to cakes, since it could've as easily not seemed as positive to me, with just a little shift in mis-match to preference.  I'm in a slightly different place for wanting to see how sheng versions with different characters change over time, so having some that don't clearly match what I like best could be a good thing.  One of those Shenzhen teas tasted a good bit like mushrooms; maybe that works as an example, since I don't love sheng that tastes a lot like mushrooms.  Or maybe I'll come to, drinking more of that.

It's hard to really bring across how positive I see these aspects, how well it all works for me, since a list-style description does nothing for clarifying how well it all works together.  The part about seeing these teas as generally quite pleasant to experience and well above average in quality is about that, but it doesn't pin down why.  The aspects work together, the teas balance.  I'll use one more round for final thoughts, since I'm all but melting tasting this tea in 95 F or so Bangkok hot-season weather (at 35 C), and have stuff to do.  These teas will not be halfway finished yet, so in a sense that's leaving off early, but typically late-round transitions are subtle enough that there is less to say.

Fourth infusion

Ma Hei:  so much for that last idea; this tea did shift in character quite a bit.  The vegetal aspect drew way back and the overall flavor range warmed.  It had been tasting somewhat like a warm, rich version of honey and this shows through as a main aspect in this infusion.  The vegetal range seems to have mostly been swapped out for a warm version of floral (again with that description limitation).  The tea had been ok up until that transition but it's much improved in this round.  I will try one more after this to see how it changes, if at all. 

Sheng versions transitioning across the infusion cycle could be seen as a sign of quality but I'm not sure it actually directly means that.  Some do and it can be cool that they do; it can make for a more complex experience.  Some don't as much and I'm not clear on that meaning that they're not as good.  It gives up one more range of complexity if they don't.

Huang Tian:  that mild, warm fruit tone seems to be picking up a hint of dried citrus peel; this tea is better now too.  Astringency is limited to contributing a full feel in both of these versions since they're not edgy brewed lightly.  Aftertaste isn't insignificant for either but not as pronounced as "gushu" tea versions often can be; it doesn't really stand out.  It's as well to take plant age claims with a grain of salt anyway, but often vendors do sell better quality tea as that, whether the plants are actually older or not.  In the best case the description matches the tea inputs but in the end it's about results. 

Overall intensity is positive in both, and balance and character in general.

Fifth infusion

Ma Hei:  not so much change since that last shift in character.  This may have picked up a little depth.  It's probably just my imagination but it seems to be evolving to be similar to the other in some ways, gaining a hint of warm dried fruit and dried citrus peel, or really that could be a slight lean towards root spice.  It's definitely complex.

Huang Tian:  this has left off where it was too, maybe with the citrus aspect picking up just a little.  It could still be slightly narrower in range than the other version, covering less aspect scope, or less complex, but it has a good bit going on too.  The hint of dryness is moderate now but still noticeable.


I never did write this part up with the notes, so it's hard to reach back to the tasting a week ago and clarify a general impression, or place them in relation to each other, or compare value for each, to say if one costing more seemed justified.  I liked both.

From the review the Ma Hei didn't necessarily start out as more positive than the other tea but it transitioned to become so, showing more depth and aspect complexity, and moving from a more vegetal nature to include more floral and dried fruit range and more sweetness. 

The Huang Tian was a bit less complex but I did like the flavor and profile.  It's interesting looking back and seeing it was listed as having a "wild flavor."  I'm running through a lot of teas in a row since my kids are on vacation in the US, opening up time to do reviews, and that reminds me of another Vietnamese "wild source / old plant" sheng I've made tasting notes on, and had again a second time with breakfast this morning (or maybe third; I'm not keeping track, and it's not a sample, I bought 200 grams of the tea as maocha).  It was really complex and soft, with a lot of fruit, warm tones (it was a 4 year old version, 2015 tea--that can soften and warm character), and a citrus edge.  It wasn't all that different than this Yiwu version, at least as general character range goes.

I should probably hold off on saying more until that review but it was sold for $19 for 100 grams, equivalent to around $70 for a full-sized cake.  Given how Western vendors bump pricing year to year it would cost about the same as the other more expensive Yiwu version among these two, which equates to $94 for a 357 gram cake.  It's not fair to compare pricing and value for another reason, that supply and demand vary, it's not just about comparing tea quality or match to preference (although the last does relate to how you experience a version).  Yiwu sheng is in demand and not so many people are even familiar with Vietnamese sheng versions.  Kind of a shame, that.

Anyway, these teas I'm actually reviewing here both seemed quite nice, and quite reasonably priced for what they are, obviously pleasant and good-quality tea.  I've tried mid-range priced sheng and thought that I could sort of see why the vendor thought the tea should cost over $45 per standard sized cake, and could also relate to why it shouldn't, and this experience wasn't like that.  Then again some people just wouldn't spend $60 - 80 on a young sheng cake, and others would scoff at people wanting to drink such cheap tea (and do, in some tea groups).  It's all relative.

happy Easter!  it was yesterday anyway.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Yunnan Sourcing 2017 "He Bian Zhai" Wild Arbor sheng pu'er

Back to reviews!  Again, since I just posted about teas I just bought in Shenzen first, but I made these notes the day before those.  I ordered these Yunnan Sourcing teas awhile back, with this one recommended by a few people.  A YS site description says what it is, with the growing location a main point, along with some description of what they mean by "wild arbor:"

Entirely wild arbor tea from early spring 2017! Tea leaves taken from 30 to 80 years old tea trees growing in Xi Ban Shan area just southwest from Bingdao in the county of Mengku, Lincang. Full and stout one leaf to one bud ratio tea leaves. He Bian Zhai (Riverside Village) tea has been growing wild for decades and is picked by local families in the village.  Our friend Mr. Duan, oversees the picking and processing of this lovely tea.  No pesticides or chemical fertilizers are used in the production of this tea.

He Bian Zhai is a strong full-bodied tea that is a tea that I consider to be much better than it's price tag.  The taste is thick and vegetal with a sweet almost syrup-like body...

So there's that.  I'll skip the rambling on about different locations, growing conditions, processing, and aging potential and just review the tea.  It's been around here for a couple of weeks but I'd expect it might pick up a little more flavor once it airs out some and adjusts to a higher local humidity, but I can say more later if it seems to have changed much later on.

It's Songkran in Thailand now, the traditional New Year, and hottest time of the year, just now 34 C / 93 F even though it's only 11 AM.  I'd expect it to change more over the longer term related to that heat and humidity, to transition quickly, to ferment faster, but for all I know it may change character a little in the short term too.

my tasting space, just a bit hot at this time of year

tasting while lightly dressed works in 35 C / 95 F degree weather

Those "cheap" sheng versions that I picked up in China had me considering whether or not all the dire warnings by vendors about contaminant laden teas might be accurate or not, or what the risk level would be.  I'm not nervous about it, and I would still drink the odd random tea, but it does seem like a good idea to drink a good percentage of teas that seem much more likely to be grown under more careful, positive conditions.  As this one is represented, as I believe that it was.


just getting started

The first infusion I went fast on, trying it quite light before it really had a chance to get the leaves wet.  It already has an interesting flavor, with feel coming out a little too.  There is a thickness and sweetness to this version even prior to it infusing at normal strength.  Flavor leans a little towards spice, beyond the honey sweetness, warm and rich as young sheng goes.  I'll add more about that next round since it will develop.

It is interesting and pleasant, complex in a nice way, on the soft side with limited bitterness.  Tea from more natural growth plants does tend to turn out like this, per my experience, not as bitter and intense but unusual in flavor profile in ways that tend to be generally positive.  A version from Vietnam that strikes me as even more "local" in character I just tried, with a review in notes form, which explains further what that description would mean to me.

A flavor list won't really do the tea justice, but then in general those don't work well to pass on an impression.  It's woody, in a sense that spans a greener wood and an aged hardwood.  Honey-like sweetness joins that, and a hint towards spice that isn't pronounced enough to describe, maybe an aromatic version of a root spice.

From the sounds of that I should be adding floral or fruit description to it (with floral tones more common in sheng), in order to describe it positively, but it does balance and work without a lot of floral tone or other range.  The woodiness could alternatively be described as tree bark instead, but that's back to more of the same.  I'll try a shorter infusion now using fully saturated leaves and get a better sense of where this is going.

Really more of the same.  It's interesting the way that limited bitterness works out, with astringency that comes across as a sappy or resin-like feel, versus a more typical range seemingly tied to a stronger mineral tone.  It's a little like biting into a tree branch bud, the tip, the way a vegetal, slightly biting character comes across in that experience.  It's still soft, complex, and flavorful, nothing like trying a bitter and astringent version of relatively young sheng.  This tea is coming up on two years old now so it probably has softened a good bit, trading out some of that range for smoothness and different flavor range.  I suppose it could be the rare version of sheng that's best after 3 or 4 years, before it goes quieter due to aging, swapping out initial intensity for other character.

I say "rare" but that's an interpretation based on both limited personal background and also based on individual preference.  I've been drinking a good bit of sheng for a year and a half but that's still just getting started.  As further background for that statement I tend to like to drink sweet, soft, light, and brighter sheng within the first year or two and more bitter and astringent versions fully aged, and I'm still exploring what might fall in between.  At this point it would seem more common for a tea to hit some sort of good balance right away, within two to three years, or much later on.

The next infusion isn't transitioning a lot but the character is nice.  The feel is catchy, being soft but with a fullness to it, and an unusual texture.  That woody flavor range isn't exactly a personal favorite but it works too.  It's interesting how little bitterness is present in this tea.  There is a little, to give it some balance, but not much.  If it transitions towards deeper, warmer flavors over time it might be really good, although I can't guess how it will be different in a few years or 10 more.  Buying a few cakes to experience aging transition cycles is the page I'm on now.  I'll be mentioning quite a number of them over the next month or so, more than my wife would want to hear about me buying.

One of the two from the Shenzhen trip  had more pine character than I'm used to, and one was a bit mushroomy (one I've tried but not reviewed yet), with another an aged version including more dirt taste than I usually tend to notice.  It's all surely better than it sounds as one-word descriptions, but limited in positive character due to working from a tightly constrained budget.  This cake was around $90 and it cost around as much as the four I just mentioned together.

One might wonder, why spend money on tea purchased at Western retail online and then reign that spending in completely when actually visiting China?  My wife was with me; that's a main reason why.  $90 might have bought a really nice cake version there, or two, or I may have just wasted a lot of time trying fake 90's sheng.  Having a local guide along would've made a huge difference, and I didn't.

It's hard enough talking about tea to vendors here in Bangkok when their English is limited, and my Thai is all but worthless at that level of detail, but things were a lot worse in China.  I've noticed that I'm not familiar with tasting teas on the fly too, since I tend to go through it under very limited and specific circumstances here, taking a quiet hour to really get through one or two versions.  I can get a sense of a tea tasted in a shop but more detail fills in later, also in part because it's easier to judge without the variable of someone else making it using different parameters, water, etc.

Back to this tea version, the next infusion is just a bit softer, with the balance of what was already described shifting.  The wood tone might be moving towards pine, versus green wood spanning complex range across aged hardwood and tree bark earlier.  The warmth and depth of the flavor range (along with thickness of feel) is pleasant and promising, but it's hard to put labels to that.  On the next round I'll try mentioning alternate flavor and character interpretations to get there.

Flavor doesn't stand out as much as feel and overall effect as interesting or unusual; that makes it harder.  It tastes like something but the experience isn't centered on that.  For mineral range a warm version stands out, in between Utah slick-rock sandstone and a very mild version of rusted metal.  Or that part could come across like red clay instead.  Instead of wood the vegetal tone might strike someone as being like the scent of fresh tree leaves; not far off but different.  It hints towards spice but it's mild in comparison with the woody tone, like the one edgy aspect of nutmeg, but not the warmer and sweeter part, and nothing like cinnamon, where those two spices either seem similar or overlap a little.

As to changing feel description it coats your mouth, covering your tongue after you swallow, leaving behind an impression that's more feel-related than aftertaste related.  I could imagine people feeling all sorts of different ways about this tea, some loving it, some not liking it, and others just not completely getting it.  Someone drinking tea almost entirely for positive flavor range might not like it, especially if they wanted their sheng to taste more like an oolong, softer and in a different flavor profile.  Some Wuyi Yancha do drift into mild, complex, woody and aromatic liqueur flavor range a little but in general those are more straightforward and just different.

Around 8 or 9 infusions in the tea is still pleasant and intense (I've not went round by round in this description, and it's not transitioning that much anyway).  Flavor is still subdued in relation to the feel-character and overall effect seeming more complex.  It's an approachable, easy to drink tea; there's that. There is some bitterness to it; I may be understating how that aspect is represented and does balance the rest since I've become accustomed to drinking more bitter versions lately.  That can relate to very positive teas that age well, high quality versions, and also in a different form to cheaper, harder to take teas, just in different forms.


It's decent tea.  It's hard to not compare it to some of the rest I've been trying over the past week since it overlaps in character a little with some.  It might be better quality tea than it is a match to what aspects or style I like most.

That judgment naturally relates to considering value, if this costing around $.25 / gram stacks up well against other versions.  Value comes up especially since it was mentioned in the description, "...that I consider to be much better than its price tag."  One Farmerleaf Jing Mai version I bought a month or so ago cost pretty much exactly that but they're really different in character.  It might be possible to try to compare quality level or match to preference but I like them for different reasons, in different ways.  I can pick up quality level markers in some tea types that are familiar that places them at the next level up, what types sold as "gushu" tend to be like, but I don't necessarily prefer those aspects more, which makes the evaluation process a little odd.  I still need to dial in what I like best more, then compare more just across that limited scope.

In relation to those two teas from China (costing around $10, a complete anomaly) they're quite a bit better than 1/9th as good.  It's not fair comparing teas bought under favorable conditions inside China.  Or really with luck as a main factor, since those could've been pretty bad, maybe even the one I tasted prior to buying it, they just didn't turn out to be.

This doesn't strike me as better tea than would typically cost $90 for 400 grams.  The value is ok; the tea is pretty good, but I think this pricing isn't low for what it is.  That middle range for teas that are better than typical factory versions or blends vendors produce is a funny thing.  Blending more limited source versions keeps costs low and pricing around $30-40, with the trade-off being a loss in distinctiveness.  It's similar to semi-aged sheng versions; the supply and demand is a little odd because there isn't that much out there.  I have more to say about that related to two more such versions reviewed since this edit (mid-range priced versions) so I'll hold off on saying more until that post.

Related to the other running theme I have no idea how this will continue to transition over coming years.  Or if it will change any based on spending another week or two steaming here in the Bangkok hot season.  I tried it again with breakfast within a few days of doing this tasting session and the only additional thought was that I probably understated the level of bitterness, which was still moderate but seemed more pronounced then.

So far it has been my impression that compounds that cause bitterness and astringency in sheng enable transition to other forms of complexity, but I'm still at the stage of testing that out, and trying exceptions, and I can't judge expectations for this version.  For some teas I get the impression that drinking them within the next year would maximize their potential, before they change and become less positive, but I'm not as concerned about this one.  I'll keep trying it over the next year since it's pleasant now but will be in no rush to get through it before aging trades out too much early positive character.

Trying two low cost sheng bought in Shenzhen

where we bought one tea, a wholesale market in Shenzhen

that vendor had a range of different teas on hand

I wrote about buying a few moderate cost sheng versions on a trip to Shenzhen, China recently (in this trip summary post), and this is a first review of those.  One is from a wholesale tea market we visited (described a little in this Wikitravel entry), the first tea we bought in that place.  The second is a grocery store purchased version of sheng pu'er.

In part buying that second tea related to seeing what it was like as much as to having positive expectations.  There had been discussions of people buying cheap cakes in Chinese grocery stores in a Facebook group and I could relate to people gambling on tea they didn't expect to be very good.  It matched those circumstance so closely that it made me want to try it all the more.  Those people were talking about spending $20 on a cheap cake and this one cost around $10, this time in a Chinese grocery store in a different sense, in a normal version of such a shopping outlet that happened to be in China.

The other tea cost even less, if I'm remembering right, so my expectations weren't that high for both.  I've tried both, on that trip, so this isn't exactly a blind tasting, but it's easier to get a fuller impression in a familiar setting, in a quiet environment with a lot of time to focus.  I'm trying these at noon on one of the hottest days of the year in Bangkok, surely around 35 C / 95 F right now, so not necessarily under ideal circumstances.

The tea from the market, labeled as "300" plus some characters, was presented as a Bulang origin version, if I picked out the right term from the middle of some other things the vendor said in Chinese.  The other tea I didn't know, but there is a review section here with more of a guess.  The wholesale market tea is 2015 and grocery store version 2018 so it's not an ideal comparison in that regard; they'll differ from that one factor alone.

the tea label from the shop in Shenzhen

I'd really planned to skip going through the labels more closely for search terms (producer names), and to use reverse-image lookup approach and the rest, or draw on help from Chinese language speakers to sort out producer names, but I just did it.  Maybe the pine aspect I'm experiencing in one is type-typical for a narrow growing region, and I wouldn't know that for not looking into it. 

Of course most likely the best I could do is turn up Chinese versions of Amazon and Ebay shops selling the same teas (not necessarily knock-offs, since these are inexpensive teas to begin with, unless the one is a knock-off, which could be the case).  Almost every time someone posts a picture of some random low-cost sheng or shu label in a tea group one of two answers comes up:  either the label is completely non-specific or it's some general, low-cost tea manufacturer cited, without clearly identifiable product specifics, which is where this led.

Online search based on labels

I had written in an earlier review draft I wasn't going to try to research these teas, but instead I did just try to look up this tea version (the Shenzhen shop version with a "300" in it), using a reverse image search.  This Alibaba vendor / shop page lists something from the same producer as a National Tea Factory sheng product selling for 28 yuan / RMB, or US $4.20.  I think I paid more like 40 or 50, or approaching $8; maybe I overpaid.  Anyway, that product is listed as shu and the tea I've got is sheng (I'm pretty sure I can tell the difference), and the label seems to say it's by the same maker but the product name is different.  Description there is limited, and it looks like a random cut-and-paste of whatever sheng content they had around.  In one place it cites the Banzhang village, and also the product name "Bohai Qizi cake old class Zhang Pu'er tea."  I could swear that vendor said it was from Bulang.

Messing around with this for a half hour I also used a Chinese text image recognition and translator site ( to figure out that 布朗 山 translates as "brown mountain."  Maybe transliterating would've been more informative?  Passing that back through Google translate did render it as "Bulang shan," nice!  It's still just Bulang sheng, what it started out as, and probably a generic version of it.  Another shu version labeled similarly on Taobao lists for 97 yuan / RMB, for what that's worth.

勐海 古 味  kicks out as the read text (looks right to me), which isn't being translated for whatever reason, but Google Translate suggests it means "Měng hǎi gǔwèi."  That first part sounds familiar.  An alternate strategy is to read the rest of the label and see if a manufacturer name turns up, or anything else.

That sort of worked and sort of didn't.  There is a lot of information on the rear label but it's almost all in Chinese.  It's a 2018 tea version; there is that.  On a paper insert a longer name is cited, Meng Hai Lang He Cha Ye Youxian Gongsi.  That could potentially relate to a producer factory name, as cited from a Yunnan Sourcing reference:

Langhe 郎河 : Langhe is a factory of Menghai 勐海 that was founded in 1995. Since then it has built a strong reputation, won awards, and has become one of Yunnan's most renowned brands. Langhe ripe teas are the most sought after from this tea factory. Classic Langhe recipes include 9599, 9579, 9559, High Mountain Ripe, and Gong Ting Ripe. Langhe ripe teas are excellent for long-term aging because they employ traditional light fermentation "wo dui" technique. This light fermentation allows for gradual aging of the ripe teas and retain much of the character of a raw pu-erh tea.

So maybe it's that, but a sheng version.  It was sitting right next to a shu version labeled almost identically too, and I only picked up the sheng.  Dang! 

Further online search doesn't turn up much but this product comes up related to searching that labeled name I mentioned, a $21 250 gram brick of 2015 sheng, also identified as from the Langhe factory.  Who knows if it's even vaguely related.

It's not a given that I've cracked this case anyway.  That 65.5 yuan value converts to $9.77 right now, to be more precise.  A decent $10 shu cake is probably worth checking out, but at the same time I feel like shu tastes more the same across the entire range, where sheng varies more, so it was still a justified call.  It's just that if it turns out this was from a factory known for shu instead I'd have bought that too, and put up with that extra bit of static from my wife about going over 2 kilograms for tea buys. 

Who knows about the generic Tie Guan Yin; it was sitting right beside it, and I bought two packs of that too.


Shenzhen wholesale market "300" Bulang 2015 sheng

Shenzhen grocery store Langhe factory 2018 sheng

"300" 2015 Bulang version left, Langhe 2018 version right

300, 2015 sheng (these will go by nicknames; I'll stick with the initial notes versions):  it's not bad, just a bit light in flavor and overall effect during the first infusion.  Some of that I think is due to not fully infusing yet, so it's probably as well to hold off a round in detailed description.  Bitterness is moderate and tone is warm, not off in any way, just a bit vegetal, towards a warm version of wood.  So far so good but developing along exactly the same line wouldn't be great results, it would just be decent tea.

grocery store tea, 2018 sheng (this may be a Langhe factory tea):  as in tasting this at the hotel while there in Shenzhen the pine flavor aspect stands out a lot.  I guess that's a good thing.  Pine comes up as a flavor aspect in teas, just not usually this pronounced.  It's softer than it might be for a year old inexpensive sheng; it's a bit bitter but not overly so, and not really rough in astringency or other character.

Second infusion

Bulang left, Langhe factory right, a good bit of aging leaf color difference

I gave these around a 10 second infusion time to move through the beginning of the infusion cycle faster, but the next round brewed a bit faster will probably describe how I'd prefer to drink them better.

300, 2015 Bulang sheng:  this is still woody but there's a decent spice aspect coming in, a bit towards root beer (or sassafras).  For tea that cost under $10 a cake this is exceptional; for tea aside from cost considerations it's still ok, just not exactly above average when you fold in better versions. 

If that spice aspect draws out further as this ages a bit more it really could be quite pleasant tea.  The character is unified and distinctive enough that I'm not sure they obtained this result by blending a lot of types of tea inputs together (one main way that producers create decently balanced versions from inexpensive sources); it might just be how a more narrow source happened to be.  It would've been interesting to try it young and see how it got to where it is now, to see what rounded off or transitioned over nearly 4 years of aging, but of course that's not possible.

grocery store Langhe 2015 version (probably):  straight pine, even pinier brewed a little stronger.  Since it's not challenging across any aspect range it worked well that way, but would be optimum brewed slightly lighter.  Mouth feel is slightly dry in this, not exactly ideal, but then I did just brew a young sheng for twice as long as I thought would work for a more ideal infusion strength. 

Given all the vendor buzz about how if you don't buy their forest-source, arbor-grown, or organic-production versions you'll drink lots of pesticides I'm considering that as a possibility too.  I just can't place if it makes any sense that I'd taste pesticides, never mind guess at the flavor or feel that would relate (typically; of course there would be a range of contaminants).  Someone commented on a discussion thread not so long ago that a carrier for some materials would taste like petrochemical (so diesel or gasoline?), but that's just more random hearsay.  All that aside this tea would best be judged at a lighter infusion strength so I'll say more next round.

Third infusion

300:  this version is improving; that root-spice trace is catchy.  Beyond that a warm version of mineral gives it depth, a bit like the smell of a creek bed.  For urban dwellers who that means nothing to rocks have smell, but that varies a lot by rock type and individual setting.  In Pennsylvania (where I'm from) there is a specific smell to a very small flowing water feature, maybe more commonly called a stream.  The smell probably relates more to the local flora and micro-fauna than actual rocks, but at any rate this tastes like those smell.  It probably contains a hint of pine too, or it could just be that I'm "looking for" that aspect due to it being so pronounced in the other tea.

grocery store version:  different pine now, I guess, a bit warmer.  To add description this has moved from tasting a lot like pine needles (maybe spruce?) into picking up more of the resinous tree-sap flavor.  The other tea was soft with a bit of fullness (which I really might have mentioned in that part), but this has more of a resinous feel to it too.  It's not astringency in a typical presentation but it is a version of it.  It works much better brewed light; it's actually pleasant.  It doesn't seem off in any way, as if some of the aspects are negative, but it's unconventional enough that someone's take on how good it is would relate to a match to particular preference.

This reminds me of tasting a Yunnan Sourcing sheng version yesterday that I liked but didn't necessarily love (Yunnan Sourcing  "He Bian Zhai" Wild Arbor Cake), a tea that seemed generally positive but that was unusual enough in character that it would seem reasonable for someone to like or dislike it.  I think in that case some of the positive expectation would be built into the description prior to trying it (presentation as an "old arbor" tea).  If people tasted these three teas side by side they might just split on which they liked better, but knowing one cost a lot more and came with a better back-story would surely factor into that balance.

Fourth infusion

cutting infusion time back might've worked better; the rounds varied

I have things to do (water a lot of plants, mostly; my mother-in-law is out of town, so that's on me) so I'll probably cut this off after this round and drink a few more later, without making notes on those.  Funny, I was running late to getting to that in making initial notes and now I'm about two hours later in editing these same notes almost a week later.  It's 37 C out, a temperature I should be able to convert automatically since that translates to 98.6 F, body temperature.  It felt a lot hotter six days ago just because I wasn't used to it, just getting back from China.  Hong Kong was nice and cool, in the lower 20s (around 70 F).

300:  with a better back-story I'd probably really like this tea.  The feel is moderate in intensity but it works; it's not thin at all, not challenging, but it has some fullness to it.  Aftertaste is limited but it doesn't vanish when it leaves your mouth, it's just not extended or intense.  The flavor is nice, that warmth and root-spice aspect, supported by warm mineral with unusual range.  The woodiness extending into a trace of pine works.  As a main aspect, similar to the other, it would be more of a judgment call if that's positive or not but as a supporting element it's pleasant.  As for alternative reads (takes) on this tea it would be natural to emphasize woodiness more, to go on about tree bark and forest floor as I often enough do.  The sweetness and overall balance make it work, more so than any one or limited set of aspects working well.  A well above average quality level doesn't stand out, related to markers, intensity, or general character, but it still works.

grocery:  brewed lighter and transitioning a little this is better than it has been.  The pine is toning down, turning into more of a warm spice range aspect, trailing from resin over into a more complex range.  It's a bit like the scent of a pile of wood from an old lumbermill, the way that those fine particles of wood ferment and soften into a warmer, sweeter range over time. 

Again I'm guessing that I'm losing readers here.  As a child there was an old lumbermill site on our property, and we would go an play on an enormous pile of very old ground wood particles, which the forest was slow to reclaim.  The scent wasn't necessarily positive or negative to me back then, just normal, typical background.  Of course nostalgia paints it as positive now.  Back to this tea, the sweetness makes it work, it seems, tying together a complex but mostly wood-tone range.  I bet it would be better in another year once the youthful intensity tapers a little and warm tones pick up further, but we'll see.

Conclusions, speculation

I never did really factor in how one tea being nearly 4 years old and the other 1 played into this tasting.  To people brand new to sheng that would mean that the first should have improved to be much better than it originally was, and better than the younger version, and that unless it was quite inferior to begin with it should be better.  Really it's not that simple.  Sheng changes depending on starting point, and some versions are really nice a year or two in, or nearly brand new, and don't improve at all from there, they just change in character.  It can relate to more what someone likes than how objectively positive the transition is.  It's too much to get into all that here, and I couldn't do a mapping of characters to aging transitions summary justice anyway.

Both teas were ok.  I liked the "300" or 4 year old version better, at this stage, but maybe it'll just flatten from here, fade instead of transition in a positive way, and the other will improve.  I bought these inexpensive teas to see how different aging transitions play out, and of course also to try different teas, and to have them to drink, and I'm surprised they are as good as they turned out to be. 

Buying tea online is more completely random than the approach I used seemed to be.  The wholesale market shop owner was of course just trying to make a sale but he probably picked what he thought I'd like, what represented a good value.  The grocery store probably tried to carry a decent tea version, versus an Aliexpress or Taobao vendor maybe instead passing on whatever they could buy for the least.  Tourist-oriented shops are hit and miss; it just depends on the vendor focus and theme.  We didn't see a lot of that there, to be honest, hardly any tea shops scattered around, and less of it than you'd expect in Hong Kong.

Not spending much related more to my wife being with me than that playing any sort of direct role.  I made it out of China with around 2 kg of tea (although 800 grams or so of oolong was more for gifts; that doesn't count), and if I'd been buying more moderately priced versions she would've objected sooner.  As it was when we passed through Hong Kong on the way out her patience for picking up more had already been exhausted, which was unfortunate related to walking by a really promising looking shop in an older commercial area there.

just one more tuocha at least; that's how they get you