Saturday, April 20, 2019

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

1 comment:

  1. That 300yo Bulang says also that material comes from 1st spring harvest ( the most expensive one in year ) and it's 100% pure material ( not mixed ) . Sometimes is good to don't know any Chinese . Just go to shop/s and try as many as you can until they hit your sweet spot. Problem in places like SZ is not the storage but high live expenses ( rent, services...etc ) . Writing from personal experience. So margin on any product must to be high. It's worth to make a trip to GZ by speed train and visit Fancun. Bigger competition and so the better prices. Also many tea vendors are not just vendors, but real tea specialists.