This is line-jumping some other samples and teas I've not made it to but it will be nice to round out that intro to meeting this Myanmar tea producer at an expo (their main site and FB page, for further reference), described in that earlier post along with a sheng review.
Do I really have to cover that "pu'er" is a restricted Yunnan (Chinese regional) designation in every South-East Asian version post? If you don't know that you probably also don't care. It's shu pu'er, in all but name, and I personally don't care if people call it that. To me there is no arguing over whether it is "shu / shou" or not since that just means that it's pre-fermented, and it is.
I've tried this tea; that's not normally how this goes. Except maybe when I'm reviewing what I've bought a cake of, but usually not even then. Reviews here are often a first impression, sometimes adjusted related to doing multiple tastings. There are limits to that approach, which I've discussed; an evolved impression over many tastings would catch more, and at times what gets missed early on could be significant.
Tasting it came up at the Bangkok Impact hall a week ago. That's crazy that it's only been a week; it's been a busy week. All this leads into a tangent, which is best kept as short as possible given the extensive scope of that particular subject. That vendor talked a little about water changing outcome, and that would be one of the main potential differences between what I'll experience this morning and a week ago. I think I vary a lot too, that different settings affect my frame of reference, and that potential parameter changes would make a difference, but I'm more concerned with my own take shifting than either of the others. All the same let's get into the water part.
A tangent about water as an input in tea aspect outcome
Water mineral content and other attributes makes a difference in tea aspects, obviously (although it's a point I won't try to establish here).
I use three-stage filter system to process Bangkok tap water at home to brew tea. It's not ideal; how well that works would depend on what was in that water for dissolved solids before and after filtering, especially related to the types (minerals), relative proportion, and total level of each and overall total, ph, etc. Of course I don't know that related to the starting point (although this research paper fills in some background on that, with real-time monitoring of some aspects).
ph is 7.02 at my house right now; that seems fine
It's very common for tea enthusiasts to experiment with bottled water types and then select a favorite, and in some cases people would use different sources for different teas, which would make perfect sense. Learning why the types work best (for them, per their preference), wouldn't necessarily be critical, since the final outcome would be the thing, the good results. One common point that comes up, to cite an example, is that reverse osmosis processed water with very low mineral content is typically rejected as an unsuitable alternative.
I've meant to get around to doing water taste testing, and eventually I will. I don't like the idea of adding to plastic waste by using bottled water sold in those. It's at least conceivable here to use a source that washes and re-uses glass bottles, kind of an older-world theme that still does make sense, or really makes a lot more sense than it has in the last half-century since the opposite practice of using plastic instead became common. It's funny how things can go in a cycle.
Whenever I talk to people about water for tea I end up referencing something an online friend says, since a guy who is active in a group I admin for is really into that subject, to the extent of being involved in university level research on it. That would be Peter Jones, of Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boulder, with that link to CU (I think; I could be clearer on the form of the last part). I'm going to just cite a comment from him and move on, but scanning through other discussion and comments is as easy as running a search in that group, or places like the Tea Forum get into that as well:
...Voss would throw it off because of the pH at 5.5, which is acidic and will impact the flavor (as you noted). The ideal water is yet to be found... the ideal water for matcha will be different then the ideal water for oolong, or hongcha, or puer. Probably not by much, but if we are talking about ideal water, then yes. I am working with a professor to map out water in a way that we can talk about how aroma and flavor are extracted from the tea leaf, which mineral salts do the work, and how to arrive at that perfect water.
We are still several months away from any conclusions. But basically you want your alkalinity to be 1/2 your total hardness, a pH in the 7s, and a balance of 2/1 of Ca to Mg. The other positive ion mineral salts also play a role in extraction. Attached is our water at my shop, which is considered very good for coffee and pretty good for tea from what tasters say. Will continue to share results when we learn more.
There you have it then. That stops short of pinning down actual levels for Ca and Mg and total dissolved solids that would be ideal, kind of the main things to look out for, but it's a great start. Again taste testing a half dozen types of water would provide good input on what works, it just wouldn't necessarily be consistent across tea types, so the matrix of testing one would do to get to their own working results could be a bit daunting. Rie Taluli started in on that in a blog post awhile back. It would be best to get on with tasting versus doing days of reading first but an account like that might make for a good short version.
On with tasting. It's interesting to consider if I could potentially taste any difference between this shu and the sheng from when they made it at the expo (related to water used, or whatever else). Probably that would work better for the sheng, since I tried it within two days of the event. I will mention any differences if they occur to me, but hold off on starting with that earlier impression.
The dry leaf looks nice; a reasonable amount of bud content is present, which often lends an intensity to a shu, and in some cases a nice creaminess to the texture. I'll start this brewed longer than I typically brew other teas, around 20 seconds, and get around to checking out what a light infusion is like before too long.
It is pleasant, especially for just getting started. The flavor range includes subtle versions of both light roasted coffee and cocoa. I remember it as being even more subtle in flavor than this; that could relate to brewing parameters, or trying it right after a young sheng version may have made it seem like it was missing some aspect levels. Talking a lot during tasting surely didn't help. The feel is moderately creamy, but it's probably better to let it run a few infusions prior to saying more about that.
I let this round brew a bit under 10 seconds, plenty long enough for using a full-gaiwan proportion. It can be interesting drinking shu a lot thicker, to experience that effect, and lighter, to help with actually separating out aspects in tasting. Shu is nice for being flexible like that; it can be very pleasant across a broad range of infusion strengths.
A touch of earthiness joins that cocoa and light coffee range, or maybe replaces the second. It's in the range of peat, or if it's more familiar a wet version of forest-floor. For shu that's not a bad thing. It can be interesting when versions are really creamy, even more based on cocoa, but I tend to appreciate a broad range of aspects in them. I could relate to why people don't like any of that range, if they would prefer that it's more like well-aged sheng. The two types tend to differ, with some limited overlap.
The creaminess is nice. It reminds me of the effect from Guiness Stout, with both that aspect and some of the other earthy and sweet range mapping over. It probably helps a lot to like Guiness Stout to appreciate this type of tea.
I brewed this third infusion at more like 5 seconds. It's still not really light in infusion strength; using half this proportion would make it easier to dial that back more. I like shu prepared stronger; that wasn't a mistake. Peat is strongest this round, with any tie to light coffee mostly faded, and cocoa reduced to a limited supporting flavor aspect. It's a clean form of peat; funny putting it that way. It might work to try to sort out how some type of well-fermented tree bark is really more what I'm talking about, something less related to actual dirt (which tastes clean), but that's probably indirect and unfamiliar enough to not be a good description resolution.
It is clean though; there is nothing murky about the flavor, or sour, muddled, related to odd mineral tones, etc. Based on a different interpretation mineral could be on even footing with the earthy aspects; it's definitely there, along the lines of how slate smells, an old form of chalkboard. At a minimum it fills in the experience of complexity, allowing it to be rich in flavor, earthy, and clean at the same time.
I liked it at that expo but it's slightly better than I remember, more complex. If I'd not been paying attention I might have tried a version that had already been brewed a few times; that would change things. I really thought not though, that they prepared a new sample for brewing right in front of me, but all the chatter could've made it possible to lose track.
There was an interesting guy visiting during tasting then, also named John, a Bangladeshi-German, and we talked quite a bit. Since that doesn't have anything to do with this tea it's as well to not drift to far into about what; more just adding color to how that visit went. Those staff were nice too, not less pleasant than Thais tend to be, which to me is high praise.
They had passed on a lot of good input about Kokang-Myanmar tea production as well, with most of that in that sheng review post. It's no wonder I was a little distracted to do the shu profile memory-capture justice. If I remembered tea profiles only as well as I do peoples' names I wouldn't remember what we had tasted that day. It was just a black tea in addition to this sheng and shu; I'll get to that review later.
This still is pleasant on the next round, but I can relate to my impression at that expo better; it's a little non-distinct, with the most pleasant cocoa aspect fading. I had the impression that it might have been more lightly fermented than some versions, that it could be more subtle for that. Then I wondered if that wouldn't give it more potential to evolve over the long term. The character that is present is great for shu, clean earthiness, supporting mineral, decent sweetness, cocoa, nice feel. It's just a bit standard, right in that "tastes like typical shu" range. I expected more intensity, since the sheng version is really intense, and since Myanmar shu have expressed that in the past.
This would be a great introductory shu; people often complain of versions being off in some way (tasting fishy at the one extreme), and this really isn't, at all. For someone well down the path of appreciating shu it could still be a great breakfast tea, complex and pleasant enough to be interesting, just not as novel as some (atypical in positive ways). To me cocoa in shu matches exceptionally well with a clean version of earthiness and mineral, and this includes that in the balance, just not quite as cocoa-intensive as some other versions I've tried. I can even like a touch of tar in a shu; that tends to fade over a couple of years of aging, and even when present it can be interesting. No tar in this; probably as well.
Dark wood may work as a good description at this later stage, mahogany or something such. Earlier in my reviews I might well have said that tastes like leather to me; for whatever reasons I seem to have moved off as seeing that as a close match to flavor aspect scope that's probably similar or the same.
I've not mentioned aftertaste. That is often more pronounced in young or old sheng than shu, which is the case here; it conveys some aftertaste effect but the full feel is a more positive supporting aspect. I get the sense that's part of why some people are disappointed in shu, that an extra dimension here or there can drop out.
If it really is milder for being less fermented it might have more potential to continue to evolve over a number of years, to add depth over some aspect range, but either way it's nice.
this leaf appearance may or may not indicate fermentation level