Mengsong left, Dashu, Laos sheng right
This is crazy, trying these two teas together. I often say that it only makes sense to comparison taste very similar tea versions together, because otherwise it doesn't inform much, and only adds workload and difficulty. I expect this will make for a contrast though; these are from different countries, and I don't expect the style to be similar.
I've mentioned before that some people claim that drinking more than one tea at a time disrupts how aftertaste experience impacts the overall effect (or taking breaks also would), and an online friend just brought up that subject. I'll have to figure out how to use an experiment to place that, tasting a tea in two different ways and seeing if it's the same or different.
This comparison theme relates to often really liking local versions of sheng from Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam, about how the character can be very positive and interesting in different ways. Often that relates to old-growth or natural source production, teas not made in monoculture farming environments, which sometimes really are from old tea plants. It's as well to not overthink how much of those standard story lines are accurate in any given case but you can notice interesting variations.
So the point here is to do that, to notice differences. I'm guessing this Yunnan version will be a very refined, well-made, conventionally positive sheng version, in contrast to the other being slightly rustic. Even if they're opposite in most ways I can still see how much sense I can make of that.
Personal preference for aspect range can make for a twist. It's possible that the Mengsong could be much better tea but that I like the other Laos version better, for whatever reasons, for matching aspects that really click for me. Then describing that can be odd, trying to say that I think a tea version is better in certain ways and then describe why I like the other more. It's typically better to just try the teas one at a time and not get into all that, but this could be an interesting exception.
Or this could be muddled train wreck of a post; it'll be interesting to see which.
I last reviewed a different Mengsong version from Chawang Shop in the last two weeks, but that tea was three years old, which brings up a lot of other complications in direct comparison. I'll skip that part here then, trying to identify common ground between the two.
This Laos tea is the first of three versions sent by Somnuc, that friend who passed on some really nice versions before (with prior posts filling in who he is and about those teas). He gave me a lot of a black tea to drink; that's especially nice. I was just looking at the last of the sample he gave me from last year a few days ago, thinking how I like it too much to finish it and also too much to give it away. I'm not sure where that leaves that sample; I can just hold onto it until the flavor fades and waste it. If any friends visit Bangkok I'd share it with them, but that hardly ever comes up.
Chawang Shop Mengsong left, Laos version right
Chawang Shop 2019 Mensong: it's quite nice; that's the first impression. It hasn't really fully saturated or got to it's normal range yet but it's already sweet (with sweetness coming across as honey flavored; sometimes it works out that way), floral, light, bright, and very clean. I almost want to say that it's balanced in character but it's really too early to call that. Even very light notable bitterness comes through but in the form and balance it's in here it works; it's very light, and it complements the rest of the range. Unless this develops in an unusual way across infusions this will set a high bar for the other tea to match.
Phongsali (Dashu) 2019 Laos sheng: this is nice too, just nice in a different sense. The style is slightly closer to a green tea (or seems it now, but it's too early to call), but it's still definitely sheng. A bit of vegetal range is present. Local versions of sheng can seem to lean towards white teas too, probably not heated quite as much as normal sheng, retaining some of a different profile.
This tea really works though; I don't mean to say it's off. It has a nice clean feel and flavor range, a nice light structure, and bright character; only flavor tips a little in a slightly atypical direction. Even that's within a normal range of variation; it's still a lot more floral than vegetal. I'd expect the next round characteristic bitterness will pick up and the rest of the aspects will also shift a little.
Related to apparent quality level, and matching up with the other, it doesn't give up much, which is kind of amazing given how good a version the other seems. I don't throw around terms like "good" lightly; the first tea is clearly exceptional.
Mengsong: right on cue, this tea ramped up intensity a lot. It's very sweet, definitely a bright version of honey to the extent that applies. The main flavor range is floral so I'll be skipping a long taste-list related to describing that. For the flavor being this intense the bitterness is very moderate, truly at a low level and type that complements the rest. A sense of refined character comes across in this. A lot of teas I'd describe as clean in effect, or well balanced / positive in nature, but this is on another level. Even the expression of bitterness (which is light) takes on a very specific, interesting, and positive form, like that of biting a flower's leaf, lightly biting in a sense, but seemingly tied to an interesting complexity within the scope of being bitter.
Dashu, Phongsaly: this is really nice as well. If I was hoping for this to be rustic or unusual in some way that trace of vegetal flavor range is going to disappoint for getting there. Strong, complex floral range accounts for the flavor scope, with a bit of extended vegetal flavor potentially coming across, but at a proportion that I'd miss entirely in this infusion if I wasn't trying to notice it. Sweetness is nice, and positive in balance and how it fits with the rest. It's odd how both of these share a bit of feel and flavor range that's not easy to pin down, how the bitterness extends towards a "biting a tree stem or flower leaf" character that's quite positive as it fits in with the rest.
The feel and flavor of this version are both heavier. The Mengsong version works really well for being light but intense, in a way that comes across as finely balanced. With less feel structure or lacking that trace of bitterness and other range it wouldn't seem as refined and complete. The extra push into slightly heavier floral tone in this, with a bit more of a "plant stem" vegetal and astringency range isn't negative, it just lacks that exceptional balance.
It's clearly very good tea; no one would miss that. Whoever made this wasn't experimenting with processing to try to make something workable and pleasant; guesswork doesn't tend to work out this well. It just still seems possible that the other tea version might have been derived within a tradition that had really evolved just a little further.
Regular readers would already know that I'm open to tea blasphemy, right, that I'm fine with shattering conventions, if it happens to come up. I asked my mother-in-law if she wanted to try some tea (which she never does), and she said that since she's eating an oily form of noodles (for an early lunch?) it might help with that. I made a flash infusion of both of these, mixed them, and gave her that. I would never consider doing such a thing for tasting purposes, add in a quick round and mix that, but I separated some to try.
Of course it's good; these teas are pretty close in character to each other, and plenty of intensity comes across even brewed very lightly. She liked it; she noted that it doesn't have a bad smell. I've probably given her roasted oolongs or shu, or something such in the past that didn't work for her, that that's a reference to. People do more typically claim that shu helps digestion but I'm guessing it's just not her thing.
Third infusion (fourth, really, but that extra round was fast)
I'm brewing all of these rounds fairly quickly (appx 10 seconds, counting the short pouring times), since the intensity is already fine regardless of infusion strength.
Mengsong: again just great. It's going to be odd putting so much flavor-by-flavor range out of scope for just saying this is floral, without fumbling for what flowers it's actually like. That part would change over rounds too, with the character deepening and warming a good bit already, moving from light, bright, sweet flowers into that plus some richer tones. It's rich enough that it could be interpreted as fruity as well at this point, towards dried apricot, although I could relate to someone interpreting it as straight floral instead (but to me it really is also into fruit range).
Feel structure doesn't necessarily stand out, although it's not thin, and has a pleasant feel, but aftertaste definitely does. Often bitterness will transition and trail into a lingering sweetness that this expresses, but in this case there's just not much bitterness paired with that being so pronounced. The other flavor of the tea carries over a lot too, the fruit and floral range, not just a vague sweetness. Bumping infusion strength probably would add to feel-structure but the balance of this is so positive made this way that it would seem a shame to change anything.
Dashu, Phongsaly: I've gotta say I love this tea. It has somehow really came together in this round, ramping up intensity, improving feel thickness, adding aftertaste range, even shifting flavor balance--which was already positive--in a more positive way. I could imagine someone not liking the way the bitterness is tied to a moderate tree-bud vegetal taste but to me it works really well, a positive aspect rather than a limitation or flaw.
It's odd getting through this much of a review without mentioning mineral range at all. These teas are sweet and floral, with a bit of bitterness giving them balance; it's just not a main character attribute. I think if I were reviewing either alone I would have mentioned it though, as part of a more complete break-down of everything present, and an aspect range I expect to experience.
Part of the trade-off of comparison posts isn't just about when dis-similarity makes comparing them make no sense; you don't get quite as far for what you notice or describe for covering too much experience in one go. Differences and common space stand out (like the sweetness and floral overlap here, and how bitterness works differently, or a difference in a "refined" vague impression) but other context and character range can fall out of focus.
Part of why I'm experiencing these teas as simple but complex, relatively narrow in expressed aspect range but exceptionally well-balanced, is because there is other contributing range I'm not describing. The "vegetal" scope I've discussed in the Dashu version is really extra range that also covers mineral scope; the vegetal part just stands out for being unusual. I'd probably miss even more for description if I could unpack the floral range in each better, with focusing in on that coming at a cost.
It finally occurred to me to consider how the input of these teas being so "brand new" might have changed things. That vegetal edge in this Laos version might fade or transition some over a moderate period of time. There seemed to be more of a brightness and freshness that tied to a slightly unusual flavor range in those two earlier Chawang Shop maocha versions I tried, although both were great, and to be clear that aspect experience was also interesting and positive. This version may have "settled" a good bit over the past two months here (or so; I'm not good with keeping track of time).
In the interest of keeping this moderate in length this might be it. Late-round transitions could tell an important part of the story for some, and at 4 (or 5) infusions in these are barely halfway through this cycle, since I don't tend to cut that as short as some people do. It's the "wall of text" effect I'd as soon avoid, and adding 3 or 4 more "more of the same, but..." descriptions might not add much.
Mengsong: quite a bit different; maybe one more round would do them justice better. It's actually warming in tone and moving into more what I'd consider as a mineral range, although aromatic wood could also cover that. With the rich floral sweetness still present it still strikes a good balance, it's just broader in scope, and different. It would be a shame if that early-round light, bright intensity faded quickly, as an aspect range tied to this being so fresh, but this still works.
Dashu Phongsaly: this is slightly warmer too but floral range shifted more instead, to a different set of complex floral-range flavors. The connection to that vegetal / mineral scope changed along with the balance. It will be hard to describe how, and since I've just decided to go one more round in these notes I'll struggle with it next one. I'll let both go closer to 20 seconds to get a different perspective on them for infusion strength.
Fifth infusion (or sixth, really):
Mengsong: more of the same. It is cool how that warm mineral / aromatic wood falls into a nice balance with the now-richer floral tone. Again feel structure isn't as notable as it might be but aftertaste effect is cool, the way it all carries over. In some cases that can really draw out, seemingly just as strong as when you taste the tea nearly a minute later, but in this case it does actually keep fading, but it's still pronounced early on. The way that mineral and aromatic wood pairs with a light but interesting feel structure, and the way those flavors balance, is really catchy. It's almost like a metal-range echo that occurs as part of the experience, but one that works to make the rest more positive, versus seeming off. It's different.
Dashu Phonsaly: fruitiness picked up in this; it's still transitioning a good bit. The Mengsong has ramped up a fruit aspect like apricot a couple rounds back, and this isn't completely dis-similar, but not exactly that. Warm, rich floral tone also being pronounced makes it harder to isolate out. It's toward plum, maybe even a fresh version of one, although it also bears some similarity to how dried persimmons come across, which seem to essentially be the same as a different dried plum version would come across. It doesn't remind me of prune; funny how those similar flavor sets map out.
I think ramping up infusion strength just a little is drawing out more of a mineral input in both these. It's still within a standard range of infusion strength, not as if I've brewed it strong, but for as intense as they'd been in early rounds brewing them light matched my preference. It seems likely that using longer infusion times over the next half dozen rounds, especially in the last half of those, would allow mineral and probably even a different expression of bitterness to stand out more.
It is cutting it short to stop describing them here but I think up towards 1500 words is already too much for a tea review.
They're not so different, but different in interesting ways. Both are really good teas, as a match to what I like and related to judgement of some objective quality level. Depending on personal preference and how one sees certain aspects as quality markers the Mensong could either be seen as a well above average quality level version or as quite exceptional.
The Laos tea definitely isn't rustic, or atypical in style, and oddly didn't really fall short of the other in being a positive version. This is probably one of the best South East Asian sheng versions I've yet to try; it would stand up well in comparison with most from Yunnan, with one exception I'll for specific aspect preference I'll get to next. It would be cool to hear the back-story related to that; how did the people making it manage that? I'll see if Somnuc wants to share more about it.
I'm saying these teas are good, but I don't feel like I've really placed how good. Related to the overall character being very pleasant and novel, for them matching my preference, for flavors being nice, they're quite good (still not as specific as that might be). Tied to the theme of considering quality level markers in gushu sheng versions, to how pronounced the aftertaste is, related to notable bitterness transitioning to sweetness, and the feel-structure being full in certain ways, they could be further up the scale. It's been a little odd to me that I can identify patterns in versions presented as gushu but haven't necessarily learned to value those aspects. I like teas for striking a pleasant balance across all aspects, but not necessarily for expressing the most of those particular ones.
Related to value the Chawang Shop Mengsong seems amazing (to me), selling for $3.80 per 50 grams. That almost seems like they made a mistake. Multiplying that by 7 gets you to a standard cake quantity, to around $30, which still isn't enough for what this is.
It's a real shame teas like this other aren't being sold out of Laos. Another tea friend produces Kinnari Teas, and their versions are good, but good luck turning them up online; she doesn't have it set up as something she sells directly. If you really wanted to buy this particular Laos tea you could either run across a chance contact like Somnuc online (which is fairly unlikely, beyond checking in with him), or get on a plane, turn up a guide, and spend weeks in the North in Laos sorting that out.
At least good Yunnan versions aren't so different, so it's not as if there is so much gap in never trying one. Or the teas from other "local" countries can be nice in other ways; Hatvala sells some difficult to find Vietnamese sheng, and Thai and Myanmar versions aren't common but they're out there. Which reminds me; I bought one from Myanmar in this order I have yet to try.
trying teas on-location with friends, with Sasha and Pop