A chance online vendor contact sent sheng versions being sold out of Taiwan to try. These are Yunnan teas, of course, which they've visited China to source relatively directly. This is typically where a wild-arbor or tea tree age claim goes, and I'll cite their sales description to include that part. For these notes I had just tried the tea without looking up what it is, as is typical for me.
From their Etsy sales page listing (although they do also have an independent website, but I think this is a newer product listing):
2018 Spring "Brown Mountain" Old Arbor Sheng Puerh 357g Raw Tea Menghai Yunnan Pu'er
Name: Brown Mountain Old Arbor Sheng Puerh
Year: 2018 Spring Harvest
Country of Origin: Yunnan Province, China
Altitude: 1300m above sea level
Flavor: Sweet Wild floral aroma
These tea leaves are picked from old arbor which are above 100 years old.
The brown mountain area is also one of the oldest tea area, located in the south east of menghai.
Dry tea leaves are tight and dark. The infusion is lightly golden with typical honey sweet aroma, excellent depth of flavor and a soft velvety mouth-feel, full, round and harmonious.
All that is a little generic; "brown mountain" doesn't mean much to me, although it seems like a translated version would ring a bell. Non-specific tea reference can be a bit of a red flag, since Amazon or Ebay tea listings tend to be like that, but in this case they'd mentioned they were directly involved with the local sourcing in China.
All of that is telling stories anyway, which I tend to not make too much of, one way or the other; the tea itself is the thing. A really convincing, detailed story can pair with pictures of a real local farmer pointing at older looking plants, and processing tea in a wok, and then the tea can still be bad, or potentially not even from those plants or that area. Or a vendor could skip all that and still sell good tea.
One of those Ebay-level vendors (with a name that would ring a bell, since they advertise) recently talked to me about reviewing their tea but it didn't work out. I was curious about how truly generic, low-cost tea might be, even though my somewhat pessimistic guess probably would've matched the actual experience. I think this case is something else, which trying the tea seemed to clearly indicate.
Can I really judge sheng yet though; has it been informative enough to try a couple of hundred versions (or whatever it amounts to), including ordering teas this year from Yunnan Sourcing, Chawang Shop, Farmerleaf, and a local Vietnamese source, beyond visiting China and shopping locally here, and Moychay and many others helping out with providing lots of samples? Hard to say. My impressions seem to be clearer and better grounded now. Sorting out typical aging-related transitions is something else; I've got a long way to go on that part.
It has always been odd that in a couple more years an impression would be even better grounded, which makes for a moving target. It's hard to imagine keeping up the tasting pace I've been on for the past two years though; eventually it would seem natural to cycle off sheng a bit more, or just not review as much.
another sheng to try, and a couple oolongs (it's really a 2018 version, right)
The initial flavor and character seem very pleasant. It's sweet and towards the fruity side; it reminds me of versions I've tried from Nan Nuo, that particular flavor range. Bitterness is quite subdued but it often takes an initial infusion for that aspect to develop more to where it will be. The taste is clean and the overall balance works.
That fruit-like flavor that I said reminds me of a Nan Nuo version is towards white grape, maybe a little closer to plum from there in this case. That connects with a light mineral tone, even though the link seems more a personal observation than a necessary association. The mineral is relatively pronounced in this; it seems that could develop in different ways.
Mineral did really shift, in this case linked with an unusual version of bitterness. It's a little dry in effect, like limestone. Fruit (or potentially floral range; interpretations could vary) is diminished, but that probably relates to letting this infuse for a bit over 10 seconds versus just under, so to me it's on the strong brewed side. This character still works; it seems like a reasonably good version, but that much mineral with a feel leaning towards dryness isn't completely conventional. In terms of bitterness the level is completely normal, just in the standard range, but the way those aspects come across together is unique. It would be better to judge those parts, how well I like it, or what quality level it seems to imply, on a slightly faster infusion.
That brings up a subject of brewing teas longer to determine character and flaws better. It's a standard technique, so standard that typical tasting process used in India or Sri Lanka relates to overbrewing teas, per what a tea enthusiast would typically judge as optimum.
The Tea Side vendor--probably the best online source for well above average Thai teas--brought this up as a tool for evaluation in a recent translation of a Russian reference on tasting approach (this aspect of it). The idea is simple: if you overbrew a tea it shows the character in a different way, better in some senses, if you are accustomed to that form of evaluation. I tend to brew a single round stronger than the others to "check" on how that goes, but I'm not sure that I'm using it appropriately, or that I typically tend to learn much from that. The main concern in appreciating tea relates to brewing it how you would like it best, so it's really something else, breaking down character in a different way.
It is better brewed lightly. Often I'd be commenting about how using a proportion that is pushing it for being at the "stuffed gaiwan" level is potentially throwing off results, but I was more careful to avoid that this time. I kind of prefer a lot of versions at a high proportion, unless intensity is an issue, but for more neutral evaluation backing off to a more normal level makes sense.
Fruit does stand out better, or really a complex range of flavor. It still resembles plum, to some extent, still with a lighter, dryer mineral as fairly pronounced. It could be a little sweeter; the level that is there works, but more pronounced sweetness, as in Nan Nuo or Yiwu versions, tends to allow a broad range of other aspects to seem to balance well. Those tend to not include challenging forms of bitterness, mineral, or astringency common in what I've tried from those two relatively narrow and quite broad areas, respectively.
I don't want to imply this tastes like green tea, because it doesn't, but that form of mineral, edging slightly into a vegetal range like kale, is common in Thai Nguyen green teas from Vietnam. Some of those are a lot like Japanese teas instead, quite savory, vegetal more towards seaweed even, but a lot are close to kale in flavor range, often with this distinctive mineral range as quite pronounced.
It's early for a judgment but this seems like an above average version, related to positive character and quality level, but maybe not much above it. That relative expectation is hard to place. For people who only ever drink a higher end range, gushu teas, or wild arbor versions, selected from growing areas that produce more positive versions (of course across a range of styles and character types), or sold through reliable vendor sources that select better quality teas, this is only in the normal range, and not at the top of it. Compared to buying random versions of moderate cost teas it's quite good, far above average; it just depends on the yardstick. I'll try to clarify that with more comparison at the end.
Match to my own personal preference is something else; I'll address that further in the next round or two.
The balance is improving; richness of feel is picking up and the mineral / dryness edge is giving way. Again I'm mixing flavor and feel aspects descriptions in that last note, which are completely different things, but we seem to tend to experience some natural links between those.
We were just drinking a sheng over the last weekend that seemed buttery; this works as an example. As soon as you taste a flavor that relates to how fresh butter tastes you expect a richness of feel, and it wouldn't be atypical to experience that. Some of that may just relate to the power of suggestion, of course; the typical flavor and feel association could lead one to look for it, and then to seem to experience it related to expecting it.
This tea isn't buttery but the balance of what I'd already listed works better; a touch of plum, pronounced mineral, light bitterness, vegetal character (with the kale moving more towards green wood tone at this stage, back to more typical for sheng). In addition to the balance working out, and the feel, the aftertaste experience is fine, not unusually extended but sufficient to add some depth to the overall experience.
Wood tone picks up; it's a touch towards aromatic wood, versus green wood at this stage. That works. Fruitiness has dropped off so that it's not really notable at this stage. This is a range that's relatively common for sheng, one that I've been running across a good bit. To me it's positive but it would just depend on preference. Feel structure is nice in this; early on it had a more unusual character but now it's in a more standard, positive range. Overall the balance is nice.
the rounds look the same after awhile, aside from exposure differences
Including this round in the notes is just for completeness; usually the later rounds story is of less interest to me, since it's rare that tea versions transition in really interesting ways in later rounds. And often I've just had enough tea, or am running short on time, with the second applying today, off to watch kids in a roller-blade skating class soon.
Intensity is still sufficient for shorter rounds to brew strong enough but before too many more lengthening that would come into play. That would probably cause a character shift in proportion of what was extracted, or at least that's my guess.
It hasn't changed much. If anything it's slightly sweeter than it had been in earlier rounds, not necessarily how that normally goes. Again aromatic wood tone is now the primary flavor range, the main thing you experience, balanced nicely by very moderate bitterness, and a now-diminished mineral range that's still present. It's a much more standard profile at this stage, one that works well enough for me.
I just tried one Yunnan Sourcing "He Bian Zai wild arbor" Mengku, Lincang version that's more in this flavor range across all infusions and transitions, which has been well received by others in discussion comments. I like that tea, just not as much as the YS-fans consensus. I'm not sure that means that this tastes like a wild arbor tea version though, or that the one sold as that I'm referring to necessarily does, or that the effect stands out so much related to other inputs it's easy to flag. I guess it is that, so the aspects represent it, and that there are parallels related to growing conditions as an effect across other factors. It's tempting to add if I liked this tea more than that one but even though I last re-tried it a week ago, and drink it regularly, it still seems like that would involve some guesswork. I like them about the same, but they're different, just overlapping some in character.
I tried a seventh round (as well to skip that section header) and the tone seems to be warming slightly. It's more that the wood tone has shifted to a darker wood version, along with some other prior aromatic wood input, versus the mineral tone changing form. It's nice that the tea character stays positive and continues to go through relatively positive transitions this far in. It probably would keep changing some; ending these reviews where I do doesn't imply the stories have been completely told, just all that I intend to get to.
I'd meant to compare this to some other mid-range tea versions to help place it, and I've already done that in the notes, mentioning a specific Yunnan Sourcing tea.
Prior to that, a couple of related concerns come into play. One is that multiple inputs each shift different aspects in tea: growing location, "wild arbor" growing conditions versus monoculture farming, plant / tree age, processing choices (a very significant factor), weather conditions during growth, storage conditions, etc. I don't think it's possible to clearly extract out an objective, separate quality level aside from style differences and match to personal preference. To a limited extent one could estimate some general quality level but I don't think that's as meaningful as a more comprehensive assessment of overall character.
An example might help explain what I mean. I recently tried a Farmerleaf mid-range priced tea (or an expensive version, per their typically selling point costs a couple of years ago) that I did like, which works as a yardstick for how quality level and value might play out. It was this one, a Jing Mai Tian Xiang, again a tea described as sourced from relatively "wild arbor" growing conditions. The vendor description (cited in that post) fills in to what extent that descriptor applies:
This cake was made from natural tea gardens located close to the ancient tea gardens and another group of gardens remotely located halfway between Mangjing and Jingmai. Because of their history and the current agricultural practices, these gardens make a tea of superior qualilty, featuring a thicker soup and more complex fragrance.
This tea was processed in a wok, in the same way as the Miyun cakes, but the raw material differs. The tea features a complex floral fragrance, with hints of tropical fruits. The soup is thicker and Huigan deeper than in the Miyun cake.
In terms of quality, this tea is a good middle ground between the basic natural tea gardens tea and the more expensive teas grown in the ancient tea gardens.
That tea character is quite different from the one I just reviewed and the Yunnan Sourcing version I'd mentioned, which is closer to it. They're likely all from relatively different locations; variance would be expected. I liked that tea, which did seem mostly floral and fragrant, with some pleasant fruit, and a positive texture and overall character, as that describes.
Why I'm referring to cost--or value, really--as much as I have already might not be clear. The idea is that vendors imply a range of quality level by tea pricing, even though it doesn't necessarily correspond with that. Demand for tea from a local area surely factors in just as much--or more--as final results related to some abstract quality level or character.
That said, let's move on with specifically referencing pricing then; no reason not to. The Yunnan Sourcing "He Bian Zhai" Mengku, Lincang 2017 (400 gram) wild arbor cake lists for $93, that Farmerleaf Spring 2018 Jingmai Tian Xiang 357 gram cake sells for $79, more or less the same given the difference in weight and a moderate pricing increase for one year older versions. Or I guess since the two work out to 22 and 23 cents per gram maybe the Farmerleaf tea costs more, relatively, related to being younger, with a year of aging mark-up not applied yet.
One more tangent; bear with me. It doesn't seem like vendors selling teas for 22 cents a gram was how typical in-house produced teas went just a few years ago. TeaDB did a deeper review of identifying those trends in as neutral and ground a fashion as possible not so long ago, and I won't say more about it here, or pass on what I think is going on with it. It is what it is; tea demand increases, and teas offered probably are getting better. I think the Chawang Shop teas I've been reviewing represent slightly better value, teas that are just as good or better for the same range or slightly less, but those two versions came to mind related to setting up a related ball-park for standard vendors and teas I liked roughly as well.
This Song Yi tea lists for $43 for a 357 gram cake. I think the vendor being new to sheng sales has a lot to do with that. Farmerleaf sold teas for closer to half current rates a few years back (not adjusted for inflation, which accounts for some of that). I think that relates to them producing better teas as time goes on, and also to increased market demand and brand awareness, and to using lower pricing to build up that demand, later leveled off to more of a standard market rate. It's normal for this cycle to occur with new tea vendors. Some other vendors over-price teas from day one instead too; it just depends.
I don't want to overdo it here with trying to make value a large part of the story. To me that does imply what the vendor is saying a tea is, related to quality level and relative demand for that tea type, but that's about it. Since I liked this tea about as well as those two from those other vendors (based on personal preference, not necessarily objective quality level) to me the value is very exceptional.
One more thing about comparing teas against each other: I bought full cakes of those Yunnan Sourcing and Farmerleaf teas, and have tried each around a dozen or so times. It really requires that extra level of becoming familiar with a tea version to place it better. These reviews are almost always written related to trying a tea once, or sometimes adjusted related to a second tasting, but it's just not the same kind of experience. That doesn't level off variations related to how I'm feeling when I try those teas, which makes a lot of difference.
To summarize, this is a really nice tea and a great value. Some limited degree of atypical feel aspect in early rounds and limited aftertaste effect offset an even more positive impression of it, but positive transition throughout a brewing cycle and pleasant fruit-related flavor balancing positive feel and other aspect range worked well for me. I'd definitely recommend buying a cake of this, maybe best sooner rather than later, before they get around to adjusting the pricing.
my munchkin representing one alma mater (right; UH), with a Chinese friend
all three doing early mat training (but Kalani can already skate)