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.
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.
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.
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.
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