Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Kokang 2018 Myanmar sheng; meeting the producer

I just met some of the staff from the Kokang Myanmar based producer at an expo (sales convention) this past weekend, and tried their 2006 sheng earlier that day; it will be a good time to keep going and review a younger version.  The first half of this post is a review, with the second covering ideas they shared there at the event.

Paging around their website and Facebook page doesn't turn up a lot beside some direct contacts, general background, and shared images, with this inner tea label filling in details along those lines:

Sounds good.  I generally take specific tea-tree age claims with a grain of salt, and they practiced some restraint in not even going there in this label.  There are really old tea trees throughout Yunnan (of course), Myanmar, and Northern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, so to some extent whatever age range people cite as a source-plant age could be partially justified.  It's probably also true that growers aren't out there in the forests scattering chemical fertilizers and spraying pesticides, that the vegetation in those environments has reached its own natural balance long ago.

Technically this isn't pu'er since that tea-type name is registered as restricted to Yunnan, but then this part of Myanmar was a part of China at one point before that restriction was ever in effect.  Locally it must have a different name in their local language.  As I take naming conventions it still is sheng, because the Chinese didn't register the modifier of it being "raw," as far as I know.

Full disclosure:  they did provide these teas for review (many thanks!).  I was going to buy some too, given the pleasant tasting experience and very fair pricing, which I'll skip citing here since it may have related to a promotional offering at that expo event, only discussing relative quality level and value in general terms at one point.


The dry leaf scent is sweet, bright, and rich.  In brewing the tea the scent of rinsed leaves is very sweet, with a strong honey-like smell.  I'll only pass on some first impressions from the first round (and I guess carried over from trying it two days ago) since it's not where it will be when fully wet.

It's sweet, light, and bright.  Bitterness doesn't develop much so early on but that will kick in.  That honey flavor is pleasant, joined by still non-distinct floral, fruit, and mineral range.  This is mostly floral but a light and dry version of mineral stands out already.  Even for being a bit light the feel structure is nice and aftertaste lingers, both so intense the tea experience doesn't diminish after you swallow.

This second round was brewed for a relatively short time, under 10 seconds, and it's still a bit intense.  Until the infusions lose intensity a half dozen rounds in, or later, using a 5 second time would work better.  It's not overbrewed in the sense of being unpleasant, or hard to appreciate or evaluate, just stronger than I prefer.

In that 2006 version review I'd mentioned how a mineral aspect reminded me of one in Vietnamese Thai Nguyen teas, a light and dry but relatively intense mineral aspect that seemed to tie to a vegetal range along the line of kale.  That's present in this too.  Sweetness stands out the most, warm like honey, and pronounced floral tone after that, and then next that mineral.  There is bitterness but that level balances reasonably well; it's still moderate.  It helps that I've been drinking an awful lot of sheng for the past year and a half; helping with interpreting a significant level of bitterness as "moderate," and enjoying that in the right balance.

This is probably not that far off the last version Noppadol passed on, which was a very positive tea (and one he gave me a sample of last year was as well).  I tried that first version again in the last two weeks, even though he gave it to me half a year ago now; I tend to drink the teas I don't like as much quickly and then hold onto the ones I do.  Backwards, right?  At some point to get the most out of them I need to share them, since me having the same experience again seems to add less value than someone else experiencing them.

Feel and aftertaste stand out in experiencing this; I've not done that part justice.  It's sweet to begin with, while you are still drinking it, but after you swallow that bitterness crosses over to a pronounced experience of sweetness.  I've largely given up communicating where tea feel-structure impacts your mouth, but this feels full throughout, with a good bit of structure coming across all across the rear of your tongue, mouth, and throat.  The feel isn't as rich, oily, and full but still soft as can occur but it's pleasant, not dry or harsh in any way.

leaves still unfurling; color a bit darker for being in shadow

Brewed quite quickly the balance works really well.  Somehow it's even sweeter; the flavor intensity in this is impressive.  Per splitting that to taste (as experienced by the mouth) and aroma / fragrance (as picked up in the rear nasal passages, as aromatic components) that sweetness is a taste, as the even more limited bitterness is, but the tea is also fragrant.  The floral range is very nice; that may even trail over to a bit of dried sweet fruit, like a light version of dried mango (of course there are lots of species of those).

The only negative might relate to someone not loving that form of mineral, which works for me.  Again it's pronounced, just not as much as the sweetness and floral range, a dry mineral (eg. limestone) trailing into a hint of vegetal range.  For the right green tea lover this tea could be ideal, although the bitterness may not match expectations or ideal preference.  Bitterness level drops a lot in comparison with the rest brewed lightly, so even though the balance in the last round worked ok for me this is much better.  It's a beautiful tea; it's easy to appreciate how good this is, how distinctive, and the quality level these experienced attributes represent.  Just not necessarily for someone at the start of their sheng journey; avoiding bitterness as much as possible early on might work better for many, and this might not be perceived as balancing well related to that.

A bit of a tangent, but it makes me consider how this will age.  It's more than intense enough to not simply fade over a normal span of limited aging, and could surely hold up to a long cycle, but being as approachable as it is may not be the most positive sign.  Then again I think with this degree of flavor intensity, bitterness, and structure it might come out the other side of dozen years of moderately humid storage just fine.  I should try explaining that to my wife, related to picking up a tong.  I already need to go through a tea storage re-configuration just to quiet her threats of either throwing out the tea or me along with it.

There might be a moderate-age sweet-spot this tea goes through on the sooner side.  At one year old it will have lost a little of it's youthful bright character and intensity but also would have swapped out some bitterness and astringency.  It might be really nice within one to two more years as that exchange continues.  Some people do seem to love middle-aged sheng, drinking versions between 3 and 8 years along, which makes less sense to others.  It would depend on the tea, and the storage.

Next round more of the same; I don't remember this transitioning all that much in that expo tasting session.  The flavor of the honey seems slightly more pronounced; the profile has warmed a little.  That kale-range vegetable, which always was a minor aspect compared to the rest, seems to be transitioning to hardwood, a more typical profile.  Mineral might be easing up a little, letting the honey and floral really take over. 

That honey-like warm sweetness and rich, mild, but still-fragrant floral scent overlaps a little with Ya Shi (duck shit) Dan Cong character, just framed in a completely different context.  For a Dan Cong oolong lover this bitterness may well be way too much, and the level of mineral unfamiliar, or at least unpleasant.  For someone who loves a broad range of teas for different reasons--how I see my own case--both could be great.  I'm not saying this is the Ya Shi of sheng, that overall place and character map over, only that one set of two different flavor aspects does.

I'd had a tasting-environment complication of kids out here using the trampoline beside my outdoor tasting location but things have went quiet.  It's a nice day, early in the morning, warm but not hot yet; it's hard to appreciate good weather in Bangkok unless a cool edge to the feel triggers it.

trampoline jumping and messing with electronics; not ideal

selfie version, with laundry drying

The next round is more of the same; not such a bad thing.  It's soft enough now that messing around with longer infusion times might work but the intensity is still definitely there brewed light.  I love the character of this tea but brewing transitions also relate to not drinking exactly the same thing 10 rounds in a row, experiencing that extra dimension.  That trade-out within the next year or two of aging might compensate for that, adding some other range that could evolve throughout an infusion cycle, along with trading out a lot of what is already present.  This tea definitely has sweetness and floral intensity to spare.

Wood tone picks up a little brewing it slightly longer next round.  It's still pleasant, still not completely different than it had been, but this seems to be the early part of it fading.  People who throw in the towel after the character changes to be slightly less positive might call it quits here; for others who would rather experience more a tea can offer could keep going for awhile.  To me it's still very nice; the overall balance is good.

All in all a very nice tea.  It can't be judged related to the price they were asking at a wholesale oriented sales expo but for value related to that factor it's an incredible tea.  This may not be on the same level as $1 / gram Yunnan gushu versions, related to sought-after character aspects unique to limited areas, but it shares some of the same scope for what it is, definitely at least an upper middle-level quality sheng version.  What I mean by that isn't that it's above average as factory sheng goes, an above average version of the entire category range beyond that instead.  Of course personal preference related to aspects and demand for tea related to location shift things, across a broad scope of how good it is and where a fair market price would be.

beautiful fully opened brewed leaves

2006 version.  much more broken, but almost the same color!

I'm tempted to compare it to that 2006 version, to say which I liked better.  At this point it's a bit of a toss-up because they're just so different in style, positive in completely different ways.  I think in 2 to 3 years that older version will be really nice, properly through it's fermentation transitions, or at least enough to bring that potential across, after steaming in Bangkok heat for that time.  This 2018 version doesn't necessarily need bitterness or astringency to drop out to be approachable but it may be just as pleasant in a different way at that time, and may also have good long-term potential, just based on starting in a different place (probably).

I like both, but the other is more interesting for being unique, and this version better for seeming a higher quality tea version, ticking more boxes related to how young sheng should be.  For whatever personal preference reasons I'm most drawn to sheng versions inclined towards fruit range, so this doesn't match my own best-case profile, but for the character range it covers it's quite nice.

Related to value, the price I bought the 2006 version for and what this 2018 cake were selling for were both amazing.  It often comes up trying to place if teas selling for $60-$80 per standard size cake amount (357 grams) really justify that upper-medium range of pricing, with a jump from there straight to $1 a gram for those presented as gushu.  Both of these were priced nowhere near that middle-range level but they hold their own for positive character.  From there supply and demand kick in though; putting "Yiwu gushu" on a cake links it to established high demand, especially if the source reliability implies that it really is that.

nice representatives (the one not wearing a badge was fellow visitor)

At the expo:

I can pass on some of what I remember the Kokang representatives mentioning at that expo, but of course I didn't use a recorder or take notes, so some of that recollection could be a bit off.

How old are the tea trees?

As good a place as any to start.  Of course they cited lots of different ages; some 200-300 years old, some younger or older.  It's my understanding that tea plants came to countries like Myanmar, Northern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam a very long time ago, and tea-tree age estimation is imprecise, so no one would really know for sure, short of calling in a biologist.  These teas are from the Shan state, where other versions I've tried from a local vendor friend (Noppadol) has passed some on, of course the region bordering China.  I should've asked about the conflicts there but got side-tracked talking about tea instead.

How long have they been making shu?

Not so long, starting in 2015.  This question occurred to me related to trying a pretty good shu from Myanmar relatively recently, a Tea Side version, and related to trying their 2006 version of Kokang sheng.  The one representative visiting, Maung Lwin, was described by another as a 5th generation tea producer (referenced on their website page), so apparently involved with the production and business ownership as his family has been for a long time. 

I'll review that shu before too long, and did try it there already, so I have a relatively clear impression of it now.  It was good; a bit mild and subtle, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  It might've been less fermented than some, which makes you wonder if it wouldn't have more potential related to aging and transitioning more over a longer time period.

In reference to why the teas are less smoky now.

The one representative showed pictures of lots of very large woks processing the leaves, all with smoke contained in isolation housings that ventilate the fires' smoke away from the tea, eliminating potential contact with the tea.  It makes sense that some of the flavor in teas (sheng) could be some version of natural smoke flavor (just how the tea happens to taste), but also that contact with smoke during processing and storage would also be a factor.  The idea comes up that it's not difficult to tell the difference between the two, and who knows, maybe with the right exposure that would go well.  I have trouble separating the input distinctions I think I can make from those that are actually reliable.

The effect from smoke contact would probably vary a lot though, depending on the form that contact took, type of wood, etc.  This sheng definitely isn't smoky, which already came up in the review.

they also produce dragonballs (not clearly identifiable in this, on the right)

Can people buy the teas online directly from them?

My impression is that they're just not set up for that, based on their response, and reviewing the website bears that out.  They must sell the tea but seem to not be using a direct retail sales model.  I bought an old version from another vendor (the Chawang Shop, an online outlet in Kunming), and someone mentioned another vendor selling that same tea elsewhere, so it's around.  This might make their teas a perfect opportunity for resale back in the US, since although they're not set up for selling a couple of cakes and samples they must be able to sell larger volumes.  They were at this expo to meet resellers to distribute at wholesale volumes, so now could be the perfect time for that.

Are the teas organic?

We didn't discuss this in the form of them guaranteeing that they are, but we did related to the perceived importance of certifications.  They implied that all the teas are naturally grown, without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but of course if they are producing a broad range of different products from differently sourced leaf material there seems a chance that inputs could vary.  The label print reminds me of this point (the one I posted an image of earlier):

"...grown in Northeastern Shan State in Myanmar, altitude mountain sea level at around 1800 to 2000 meters, never applied pesticides, chemical fertilizers..."

They specifically mentioned that the black tea they produce is from different plant material from a different area, so it may be that the claims and background don't carry over to those.  The black tea was ok, interesting and pleasant if not as complex as it might be.  It was really pleasant in terms of fragrance, but then a separate review will tell that story better.

I really appreciated the opportunity to meet and talk to them, and experiencing the teas has been a wonderful experience.  I think I'll appreciate the shu and black tea all the more for having a chance to mess around with brewing parameters, since to me if you infuse sheng fast and light at a high proportion that works well, but for those others varying inputs makes a lot of difference.

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