Thursday, August 29, 2019

Russian tea culture

I've meant to write something related to Russian tea culture for awhile.  We visited Russia over Christmas and New Years of 2018, which led to more research, writing, and online contact related to that theme.  But never to a blog post specifically on Russian tea culture, except a TChing post about it, which was really to summarize a lot of other content in short form.

I'm still no authority on the subject, but one of the more interesting contacts I'd talked to online visited Bangkok not so long ago, Alexander Vorontsov, one founder of the Russian Tea Lover's group page on Instagram.  Or it was not so long ago when I started this post draft a month ago, since I kept adding to it.  That online group corresponded to a number of people who regularly meet and drink tea together, not stopping at online discussion, as many groups do.

with Kittichai, the Jip Eu shop owner

This covers my limited understanding of tea culture in Russia, what I took away as Alexander's input about that subject, combined with input from other discussions.  Any tea enthusiast active in related groups living in Moscow or St. Petersburg would have a more informed perspective, but then I do end up talking to Russians about tea more than most.  Part of that relates to this blog, and to talking to people in the role as admin of an international themed Facebook tea group.

the last Russian tea enthusiast to visit in April, Tatiana Zhukova

Background:  vacation experiences and other pre-conceptions

It goes without saying that I had no ties to Russian culture prior to visiting Russia, but all the same I'll say it.  I know two Russians selling tea in Thailand, one of those only through online contact, but to me that doesn't count as significant input about there.  That made visiting the country all the more interesting.

There was the Cold War background, since I'm old enough to have grown up during that (I'm 50; to save younger readers from doing the math I graduated from high school in 1986, five years before the end of the Soviet Union).  My family loved that vacation visit, which I won't go into here, sticking to the subject of tea (but I already did cover that other travel scope in this post).

lots of pictures like this in that post

Ceylon tea bag tea at reindeer farm (with great company)

I visited a few tea shops there but it didn't amount to much.  One interesting version was Perlov in Moscow, a truly beautiful place.  But the tea was on the ordinary side, mostly boxed versions with a good-sized set of one loose version per category type jar teas.  That's a great start for a tea shop but only a start.

a very helpful local, in the Perlov shop

Moychay shops went further; I bought tea in those in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Georgian black tea was the closest I came to finding Russian tea, except for a green version from Perlov, which sort of doesn't count since that's my least favorite tea category (although it was a good version).  One Moychay Nan Nuo sheng pu'er I bought a cake of on a whim was one of my favorite sheng versions I've yet to try, way fruitier and more intense than sheng typically ever is (and approachable in style as a young version; that wouldn't be for everyone).

a small Moychay shop; (you can interactively browse that shelf here)

friendly Moychay staff in a St. Petersburg branch

That link below the first shop photo goes to a page with a very interesting feature; you can look around the shelves and room of those shops, using what seems to be Google Streetview as a viewing platform.  It's especially cool for me because I've been inside those two shops, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and it's like stepping into them again.  Moving on.

Still on the subject of vacation outings and visiting, meeting the owner of Laos Tea at a tasting in Moscow stood out as a cool exception to the limited tea theme exposure.

Laos Tea tasting, Alexander Zhiryakov (left) and Dasha (smiling)

Onto more general starting points:  Russians are into tea but the tea enthusiast context is an exception there too, just a much more common and better developed exception than where I live, in Bangkok.  That's odd, isn't it?  Chinese culture underpins Thai culture, along with Indian influence and secondary local influences.  Tea probably played a bigger role in mainstream culture here at one or more points in the past but it's just not much of an influence now.  Bubble tea is popular.

It's especially odd given that Thailand produces tea, but then I'm not claiming that no one drinks any of it, instead that forms of what I would consider to be tea enthusiasm almost doesn't exist here.  If you ask 100 random people what Da Hong Pao or Longjing are maybe none will know, and for sure none could taste an example of a version and let you know if it's typical of either.  I know at least a dozen people who are probably exceptions to that in Thailand, but it took a lot of doing getting in contact with them, and half are tea vendors.  There's only one well-known tea cafe in Bangkok, in Chinatown (Double Dogs), with related shops scattered around, especially in that area.

Russians as a whole are more into basic Ceylon black tea; fair enough.  Back to the tea enthusiast scope Chinese tea culture has a strong hold there, and not much else.  I walked into a business selling Japanese green tea looking for one of those Moychay shops in St. Petersburg, and talked to the owners a little, but I don't like Japanese tea enough to have seriously considered trying or buying any.  It's clear enough why some people are on that page when I do taste those, and I've reviewed versions, but it's just not for me related to how my preference maps out, at least for now.

I researched Russian tea history related to a random contact asking what an East German tea blend might have been just after the Cold War started, covered in that post.  Not much new turns up in that, except the idea that at one point Russia consumed a lot of tea from Georgia.  This is the kind of idea that one runs across pretty early on in any exploration of Russian tea culture.  Other themes:  how a samovar works, how Russian tea was typically prepared, about mixing tea and herbs there, or stirring jam into it per one older popular practice.

old version of a Cold War tea (original source credited in an earlier post)

We even tried tea mixed with herbs prepared in a samovar in a visit to a dogsled camp in Murmansk.  It was ok.  The general idea is to brew the tea very strong, to "brew it out," and then to dilute it with water to taste, and probably add milk and sugar too given the flavor profile that results.  Adding herbs--particularly Ivan Chay, also known as willow herb, or fire weed--helps on two levels, making it more mild and further stretching the tea.

As to current Russian tea enthusiast context and forms of experience, I'll say more about that related to what Alexander mentioned.

Meeting Alexander Vorontsov; about Russian tea culture

We met at my favorite local Bangkok Chinatown shop, at Jip Eu.  The owners of that shop feel like family to me; they're great hosts.  I was going to say more about that shop in general but since I've visited there a few times recently I think I'll split that out to a later post.

meeting a friend from Laos there, within the last week (Somnuc Anousinh)

This also won't cover that visit in terms of most of the personal discussion details, beyond the parts about Russian tea culture, because it's running too long.  Alexander seems nice, and genuine; I'll mostly stop at saying that.  And he's genuinely obsessed with the subject of tea, so we have a good bit in common.  To shorten the rest I'll cover it by subject.

Tea groups:  this stands out to me as the main difference between Russian tea appreciation forms and elsewhere.  His Instagram page / group has 5295 followers (at time of first draft; surely some from overseas enthusiasts, since people tend to just click add related to their topic interest), so probably a lot of real-life local "club" members.  I don't know how formal that club really is or how many local active members ever meet, but all that isn't really the point here, at least in this section.

that's him, along with group stats and a cool logo

There are at least two other large groups of somewhat organized enthusiasts in Moscow:  Global Tea Hut more or less has a branch there, and Moychay operates a series of tea clubs (like cafes, but not like cafes), that seems to represent a fairly well organized social group.  And Tea Masters is there; that probably counts as a fourth, although it's something different than a social club, sort of a training organization that holds very formal, developed competitions.

The trend seems unique.  Eastern Europeans seem a bit more organized in forms of tea practice and social networking (as reviewed in looking into tea culture in Poland here and here), but seemingly nowhere else is on that level for group structures.

I'll clarify what I mean by that.  There are a lot of small, informal groups of tea enthusiasts in the US, and Facebook groups, and shops and cafes, but as far as I know almost nothing related to those forms of groups.  Tea Masters just started up there in the past year; there's that.  Global Tea Hut would have US followers, but as far as I know nothing like a branch outlet.  And no "tea clubs," in the sense the Moose and the Elks were US social clubs in the past (and still are, just "traditional" forms of them).

Global Tea Hut Zen tea master monk Wu De; different (story here)

Taking tea interest way too far:  lots of people in different countries go there, right?  Maybe not in the same form.  Beyond those clubs and the prevalence of shops and small vendors there's an emphasis on trying rare or interesting teas with developed back-stories, like those narrow regional theme versions tied to Longjing, Da Hong Pao, and the rest.  Everyone likes a good story, and an exceptional tea, but I get a vague sense that sub-themes take on a life of their own there.

In Western tea circles--which the Russian form could be considered a part of, but I mean elsewhere--there are one-upmanship games that get played related to experiencing high quality teas, possessing deeper knowledge, or owning teaware, a sub-theme that branches a bit.  Maybe I'm mistaken but I get the sense that Russians extend that to embracing stories more, to really appreciating traditional background themes and rarity in versions, and of course also tied to those other familiar forms.

Some Western vendors do use stories to sell teas (a number of examples come to mind), but it seems a minority practice.  Most would talk about the teas themselves, their positive attributes, and largely leave the claims about exclusivity and tea history out of it (beyond reference to legends of statues coming to life and such, good for entertainment value).  Except for claiming that sheng pu'er versions are gushu, from old plant sources, I guess; that's as common as grass.  There's some degree of push-back related to people flagging gaps in the stories that do come up, with tea tree age claims making up the main point of contention.  Not necessarily about pu'er being gushu, although low-cost gushu is often questioned, more about the 1000+ year old plant claims.

Or then again maybe I really am overthinking all this, or basing it on limited input, and Russian tea enthusiasts really are mostly just looking for interesting and higher quality tea.

Tea and popular culture, especially music:  I once saw a Russian rap music video of a guy stealing a pu'er cake, and the trying to smoke it at one point, that I'd love to find again.  It lost something for me not understanding the words or being completely into the music form but the impression stuck with me.  That's not necessarily an exception; there is a connection between the two themes and scopes there, popular music culture and tea.

One tea shop that comes up a good bit in images has a tie to a famous music performer as the primary owner, a type of association that I'm not familiar with in the US.  The shop is Gazgolder (with that link seemingly tied to the primary manager, versus a business profile page, and this a Trip Advisor link about visiting), owned by a rap star Basta, with this video on the tea club part there.  This is a music video (by Basta / Баста) with a connection to those other themes and tea.  With over 8 million views this isn't related to marginal following, quite mainstream instead.  Watching foreign language music videos typically doesn't go well but that one is worth a look.

Tea and prison culture:  Alexander told a cool story about what "prison tea" refers to, about how brewing up a large pail of very strong tea in prison works as substitute for alcohol.  I'm sure the stories of this connection go a lot further, and the real-life linkage does too.  It's hard to imagine the popular culture image of US prisons matching up with any form of tea consumption.

He mentioned a reference about this describing this connection, which I won't go into further here.

Tea sourcing differences:  I'll summarize prior discussion with Alexander and others related to this point more than what we actually talked about.  He had said before that Russians tend to focus on using Russian sources for tea, vendors that buy and resell Chinese versions.  It's my understanding that Yunnan Sourcing (a main US vendor) also sells a reasonable amount of tea in Russia too, but the ideas still don't necessarily conflict; the theme and generality is about relative proportions.

In fact smaller vendors or larger resale theme outlets are how consumers in the US obtain most tea too, by a large margin, so me expecting tea to be purchased directly from abroad instead probably just relates most to my own preconceptions and personal experience.  If we had more Thai shops and online outlets selling better teas maybe I'd not have expected that.

The amount of "better" tea being purchased and consumed in Thailand is probably negligible compared to in Russia, with most of that Thai-produced oolong.  It would be natural for some to see that as "not that much better," but the use here seems clear enough, better than what tends to turn up in tea bags or on grocery store shelves.  Which just depends on the grocery store too, I guess, as much as local culture and broader demand.  Grocery stores in Russia did tend to have slightly better selection for black teas, flavored versions, and blends than I typically see here, just a bit more limited range related to inexpensive oolong since Thai versions are around.

so many iconic places there (GUM in Red Square)

Moychay:  I've reviewed a lot of tea from this vendor and have even written some article content for them.  Their main owner, Sergey Shevelev, seems like a genuine tea enthusiast to me, surely focused on business goals, but also personally connected by the same interest tea drinkers experience (more obsessed ones; the people discussing it in more advanced theme Facebook groups).  That's essentially true of every tea vendor, but the form and level of knowledge and experience varies.  You don't need to take my word for all that; scan some related background videos on Youtube, which can even do automatic translation now to make that content more accessible.

Their diversified role as a main physical shop chain, online tea source, and provider of tea club experience (like a cafe, but not really that) stands out as something unique.  In the US this would almost seem to be too much influence for any one vendor to have, even beyond there being no parallel to the club theme.  But there, with tea culture a bit more mainstream, and options more diverse, the context is different.

helpful Moychay staff; meeting Russians made visiting Russia great

Why US popular tea culture and vendor concerns don't match up with those in Russia

There is an unrelated concern about Western (US and other) tea culture and vending, which I'll cover in the form of a long tangent here, since this helps place the broader context difference.

Teavana consolidated a lot of US physical shop ownership and sales under Starbucks at one point, only to see profit margins narrow, and then folded, leaving a gap in shop availability.  This is really only one individual concern, that one vendor growing too large and then failing could impact local consumption.  Prior to that Teavana put focus on blends instead of better individual teas, which can command a higher mark-up and profit margin.  This used their influence to offset what I see as the main opposite trend in natural personal tea preference transitions, moving from blends to original, single-type and source teas.

It's too much of a tangent to firmly establish here but it's my impression that T2 (a chain originated in Australia) represents a similar problematic theme, again related to a large corporate interest.  I bought good, single-origin, high quality teas at a T2 on a visit in Australia some years ago, and upon checking selection later after their Unilever buy-out those types I'd bought just weren't part of the stock.  That's too much to claim in a tangent, isn't it?  Judge for yourself; here's their current oolong selection page, and a version captured from July of 2012, a year before Unilever bought the chain.  You don't need me to interpret what changed.

they had a cool aesthetic going; it's a shame selection quality didn't match it

Of course I'm not saying that Moychay or any other large vendor there shouldn't be expanding or covering different roles for some reason; quite the opposite.  It's my impression that more large chains have developed there; that alone offsets this kind of risk and problem.  If anything I'm positively biased towards Moychay as a vendor, and the rule of supply and demand and open competition keeps their direction in check.  Their teas seem to represent generally good range and value to me, and to be sold with a reasonable degree of information about what products are, adding more value for educating consumers about tea options.  The two shops I've visited--smaller versions, per my understanding--were beautiful, with good selection of different types, sources, and quality levels of tea, and very friendly and helpful staff.

a Moychay pressed tisane; extending a current trend beyond "real" tea

Moychay did seem to possess the potential for a similar degree of local tea-culture influence comparable to all of the current US tea vending combined, since there's more developed tea culture there to begin with; that's what really led to this line of thinking and comparison.  It's just not as singular an influence as happened to occur with Teavana; a consolidation and unified development didn't occur in the same way.

Of course Unilever "gets" tea, just not the teas I drink, or what some of the range of tea culture is all about.  Offering flavored teas and blends to consumers based on demand is fine; that's quite appropriate.  Steering away from also offering the other range of "better" teas because per-unit profit margin is lower is something else altogether, especially if there wouldn't be other store options around.  Those other parts of the tea market should be supported, and expanded demand for Lipton and flavored teas should serve as a gateway to other types.  Both the demand and the shops would have evolved together more organically in the US, with the consolidation and then closure perhaps setting that back a bit.

I'll be clearer yet; it seemed short-sighted to me for large outlets like Teavana or T2 to disregard rather than embrace the entire range of teas produced and available.  It seemed likely that a single-minded focus on per-unit return and short-term profit offset educating consumers.  Or maybe that happened because demand would naturally extend onto what other vendors are selling, outlets like Yunnan Sourcing (and others), and it made more sense to restrict expectations to a narrower range than to try and compete across a broader scope. 

I really don't know the causes, but it is disappointing that more potential wasn't realized, to increase broader US demand and to help support specialty tea producer demand.  Large scale high volume producers, who make the teas used to make blends, are more securely positioned, and although surges in individual type demand could increase prices (an issue on the consumer side) small growers and producers are often working within narrower margins for success.  That's my understanding, at least.

Including so much discussion of a few particular vendors serves a secondary purpose; I see commercial structure and direction as one main underpinning condition for local tea culture, even if the internet helps broaden that back out.  If I were to talk further about present US tea culture, beyond discussing Teavana, I would explore why tea subscriptions have come to play such a large role in organizing consumers into groups, or why Yunnan Sourcing has a vendor themed Facebook tea group, what causes that to make sense and what it means.  I've discussed the problems and limitations with such a single-supplier theme in that group before; as you could imagine that went over really well.

It's a positive thing that the themes of people gathering into social networks and groups mix with those of vendors providing commercial services.  This only becomes negative when the normal forces of supply and demand become disrupted, and marketing issues steer people towards the highest return forms of tea, versus supporting awareness of options and naturally evolving demand.

Back to the main subject here, Russian tea culture.

Conclusions, and what I don't get

These are glimpses and fragments related to why I find Russian tea culture to be fascinating, even though to be sure I understand relatively little about it.

I really don't completely get the Tea Masters or Global Tea Hut themes at all.  I don't do much with formal tea ceremony, or tea in relation to religion or mindfulness practice.  That's even though I do have a long personal history with the study of Buddhism, and I'm sort of a part of an Eastern culture due to living in Asia (Bangkok).

more into religious practice at one point, but not drinking much tea there

Surely beyond these more formal forms or expressions of tea interest I'm not familiar with where other Russians fall, in between drinking Ceylon from a grocery store and the rarest of rare types, and training in formal tea ceremony practices.  Broad categories of ideas that would come up I've not addressed here, for example a demand for organically produced teas, concerns about health risks related to chemical use in production.  Alexander mentioned this is a significant concern among Russian consumers, but that there aren't always good ways to address risks related to different kind of growing conditions as teas are now sold, at least not in a lot of cases.

A lot of people there must just like tea, in a basic form.  One of the nicest people I met in visiting Russia (and most of the people we met were very kind) helped me check out what was in those jars in the Perlov shop, and he clearly liked tea but wasn't swept up with an obsession with it.  He probably would have passed that Da Hong Pao / Longjing identification test I mentioned, spotting familiar types.  But probably not in the same form Alexander and I would, related to really being able to place examples, and the next sets of main types as well.

This seems no suitable place to end, as if exploring disconnected themes just leaves off.  Learning about foreign cultures is like that.  My children have had a number of Chinese school friends (and from Japan, India, Taiwan, etc.), and as we get to know them and their parents better perspective and customs become more familiar, but the learning process is slow.  Visiting a place doesn't lead to as much insight as one might expect, because short discussions with locals only go so far, and local travel themes tend to dominate concerns.  I'll keep learning about tea culture related to Russia, and other places, as shared observations from others fill in details.

not a common type, not even a standard hei cha, but something interesting

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Tea Side 2016 Dragon Thai sheng

nice looking; this is how the camera saw it too, no editing

The owner of Tea Side sent some very nice looking samples for review; many thanks for that.  The newest additions to his stock looked really interesting, and I've been on the theme of South East Asian pu'er-like teas in general lately, so it's perfect timing.

I'll review this one alone, no comparisons, no tasting theme gimmicks.  Breaking form further I'll go ahead and cite his description of it before reviewing it, to support why I think these sound so interesting:

2016 "Dragon" Raw Pu-erh Tea

For this raw (sheng) pu-erh we use leaves from a garden with trees of different age, from 80 to 700 years old. The main age of trees from which the material for “Dragon” raw pu-erh is collected is 200-400 years. This is Chiang Rai province in the north of Thailand. The elevation is about 1300 meters.

2016 was very successful for Pu-erhs. Spring Mao Cha turned out bright, tasty and deep. So this tea immediately entered our collection of single cultivar sheng puers.

The aroma of the tea is bright, with the sweetness of tropical fruits. The taste is dominated by fruit jam, floral mix, and dried fruits. Tea immerses in a calm contemplative state.

I tend to never completely get that last part, the cha qi effect, but we'll see.  Fruit in sheng can be really nice; we'll see about that part too.  I tend to not make much of tea tree plant age claims; the tea is how it is, and maybe using older plant sources could've been a positive input.

great wrapper graphics (credit Tea Side site)

Three years old is a good age for sheng, typically, although that really does vary by the initial character.  For some they're best within the first year, by far, and for others they would need a lot more time for bitterness and astringency to wear off.  For a relatively intense, moderately bitter version three years is a good age to round off slight rough edges, to soften a little, and for initial intensity to transition to a milder feel and limited range of other flavors.  The main aging transition occurs after a dozen or so years but sheng can deepen and shift a bit in the first few, before typically going through a longish subtle period, kind of in the middle.  Of course timing and the nature of changes depends on storage conditions, in particular related to the humidity, temperature, and degree of air flow related to storage.

It doesn't work to say how Thai sheng tends to taste (or feel, etc.) in relation to versions from Yunnan or elsewhere.  Versions vary by individual growing location, weather issues, soil type, plant type, processing choices, and so on, so although some typical profiles for narrower locations can occur, as these tend to align, it doesn't work that way across an entire country.  Old Assamica plants are only located in the far North of Thailand but that's still a large area, and processing is probably less consistent outside of Yunnan.  Let's get to it.


The first infusion was for about 10 seconds, standard enough.  The tea is very pleasant right away.  Light astringency, moderate bitterness, sweetness, and a green wood vegetal note stand out immediately, with a lot of other flavor that may be fruit or floral range.  Or across both; the effect is complex.  Feel will probably thicken as the tea gets saturated but it's not thin at all now, and aftertaste lingers pleasantly.  I'll try to sort out flavors more in the next round; for now it just seems like there's a lot going on.

It's pleasant, and a bit intense.  This definitely didn't start out as one of those light, smooth, very approachable sheng versions that would have faded over the first three years, and it's not as if it really needs another decade to become pleasant.

Second infusion:

shading where I'm drinking this darkens it a little

Transition is positive; the green wood aspect pulls back and floral tone ramps up.  It still may show a good bit more fruit as it cycles through changes; for changing as much as it did over two rounds I'd expect a good bit more transition.  It's a warm, rich, and complex floral range, probably covering more than one flower type, or likely including a hint of dried fruit filling in that warmer range.

Bitterness didn't really pick up; that stayed at a moderate, well-balanced level.  Underlying mineral tone is pronounced in this tea.  That not only gives it a good effect of complexity and balance of flavors, it also typically pairs with extended aftertaste as an outcome of tea being from an older plant source.  Aftertaste effect is significant in this tea.

Feel is nice too; it has some structure to it, it's not syrupy or thick and smooth, but strikes a good overall balance, not coming across as overly dry.  A bit of dryness remains along your tongue and roof of your mouth after you swallow, but it's also a bit mouth-watering, slightly juicy in feel.

Third infusion:

Not so far off the last round.  Sweetness is still really nice in this; standing out just as much as the bitterness gives it a pleasant balance.  Perfume-like floral is the main dominant taste at this point.  Trying a flash infusion (versus brewing it for a bit under 10 seconds, as I have been) may shift the overall effect; I'll try that next round.  I probably pick up more fruit than I would've noted if I'd not read that description, citing that as the main range.  Given that as an input and direction it does seem a little jammy.  It's still more floral, I think, but it's probably fair to say that it's there.

The overall effect is pleasant.  Sometimes it can be hard to communicate that, how these aspects come together.  That green wood aspect (flavor, now a supporting aspect lower in degree than the floral) and hint of dry feel (maybe like biting a tree branch tip) wouldn't work as well if this wasn't as sweet and full and wet in feel, but it all balances.  I do also like sheng versions that are soft and sweet, more just fruit, with less bitterness, astringency (which is mild in this; I keep noting it because the form is novel), and without the green wood taste range.  At three years along such milder versions would've probably faded quite a bit, and this is just transitioning, and will probably be quite pleasant for the next two years or so, until middle-age does quiet it down.  Even then middle-age character may appeal to some, the subtlety that seems to result.

Fourth infusion:

I brewed this round for under 5 seconds, not really a true flash infusion, but close enough.

It might work better this way.  Flavor didn't give up any intensity and the feel softened, also not losing the thickness, just with that dry edge dropping out.  And plenty of aftertaste remains; the tea is intense enough that a short infusion time is enough.

Flavor is in an interesting place.  It's still as floral as anything else but lots of complexity is adding to that.  Berry works as a description for some, although I'm not convinced that's exactly it.  Maybe the complexity makes it hard to separate, to get a clear read.  Mineral is still pronounced, a light mineral tone, granite or something such.  The flavor picks up a depth that joins with the creaminess and sweetness to come across as along the line of macadamia nut.  Flavor seems to be transitioning though (although that could relate to the brewing time change too), so maybe it'll be different next round.

Fifth infusion:

It's nice drinking just one tea, being able to focus, not being overwhelmed by caffeine input after 4 rounds.  Background screaming is even moderate this morning, and I'm not yet running late for a Sunday morning swimming class, although I will be mentioning that in another infusion or two.

This was shifting a bit; it's different now.  The fruit description makes even more sense.  Berry or jam works, but it's really a bit non-distinct, layered together with the rest.  It's nice the way this is so intense, but also so pleasant in character, with bitterness and a light astringency edge now a minor balance point for intense flavor and moderate but more pronounced sweetness.  It's quite clean in effect.

If this mineral tone or what remains of the green wood edge (now more cured wood, and definitely a background element) were shifted a little they wouldn't be positive contributions, but both are very bright and clean in nature.  It hasn't lost a youthful vigor for having been around for 3 years, probably only softening and transitioning some.

Sixth infusion:

a little color beyond light green, but not so aged or oxidized

This has been a half liter or tea, which I know since I'm using a thermos to brew it outside.  Funny how in doing all those comparisons I tend to not think about that, the total volume.  The bottle may have been down a little (they may count to the lip), and there was a rinse, but 7 * x = 450 ml in these infusions calculates out to 65 ml of produced tea per round.  I thought these gaiwans were around 90 ml, something I checked a long time ago, but don't remain concerned about.  It's interesting to think I will have drank two 8 ounce cups of tea, and this will brew at least a third.

More of the same this round, really.  Flavor complexity is such that lots of people would interpret this in lots of different ways, as fruity, focusing on floral range, considering mineral input, noticing a pronounced green wood tone, and I'd mentioned a nut type (macadamia), etc.  I see it as mostly floral, but I could relate to other reads.  For fruit it would have to be a complex mix of fruits, including a deeper dried fruit aspect (like dried longan, or maybe dried mango) and a brighter fruit element for high end, like a sweet version of local tropical pineapple.  Pineapples are only tropical, but versions that make it back to the US seem to be citrus heavy, not as warm and sweet as local versions tend to be (some of them; it depends on what you like and what you buy).

I suppose that it's possible that eating mostly tropical fruits has me interpreting this complex and somewhat non-distinct fruit range as tropical fruit.  Often I would do alternative interpretations in these reviews, and you can imagine what all that would transfer over as, dried fruit closer to a dried apple or pear, that warm citrus more berry range instead.  Pineapple isn't exactly citrus, but the last version I just finished was in that range, and the other kinds I'm talking about share some common ground for character, they just don't taste that much like an orange.

Seventh infusion:

This isn't really fading, kind of what you'd expect for a tea that intense, complex, and bright in character early on.  Some of the brighter notes are transitioning to warmer tones.  Strawberry jam might work as a better description than a brighter berry, for example.  It's still really nice, and will continue to be, just changing and tapering off a little.

I am late for swimming now; I'm off.  There won't be that much to add for conclusions later, much as I rambled on so far.


That general impression of the tea related to aspects and how they balance seemed clear enough.  Maybe it'll help place that to talk about the style in relation to other teas, and the value.  That last part is complicated;  teas are worth whatever they're worth to you, and a match to personal preference is more meaningful than some general quality level, and broader supply and demand issues come into play, how much others want the same tea.  It's still an interesting point to consider.

This 200 gram cake sells for $60.  That converts over to $107 per a 357 gram cake.  There is a clear middle range of sheng pricing that tends to cover $70-90 (per that standard amount); I'm not sure why, just how things seem to have shaken out.  It's interesting considering if this really is that much better than that standard range, or if it's instead closer in appeal to the $1 / gram consistent range pricing for gushu sheng.  It's good tea, and non-standard in origin and style enough that it just depends on someone's take on the tea, how it matches their own personal preferences.

It's definitely as good as those middle quality level teas tend to be; it's complex, pleasant in character and balance, etc.  It fares well related to markers for better versions people tend to look for; the aftertaste is pronounced, mineral base gives it complexity, sweetness and bitterness balance nicely, and feel structure is fine.  That edge of dryness may be an issue with the last; teas can be full in feel with both structure and rich thickness, but without a touch of dry edge.  For me that doesn't matter, and the relation to seeing the green-wood tone as negative or the pronounced floral and fruit as positive would be more relevant (or the opposite, I guess, but to me that's how those would tend to arrange).  In the end it just seems like a normal market rate for a good and unique tea type, not selling as a value-oriented tea, but not above standard levels, beyond missing that standard middle range on the high side by just a little.

Three years of aging can be seen as a value addition, or at least that's often how vendors tend to interpret that.  They bear the cost of holding onto the tea for those extra years, of tying up investment.  Aging also relates to proper storage, adding operational cost for them, with some risk that something could go wrong, and some degree of added value if things go especially well (eg. it's not wet stored enough to be musty, or dry stored enough not really change, to keep an astringency and specific vegetal edge that's an indication it didn't ferment).  If you like the same tea younger on your end it's not much of a value-addition.  Shifting the pricing back just a little to account for that (extra cost, and potential extra value) it's right in that $70-90 standard size range (or 20 to 25 cents per gram, if that's how you like to think of it).

It's difficult to compare this to other versions or styles; it's kind of its own thing.  I have trouble holding a matrix of standard local source area profiles in memory as other people seem to, and I'm not sure this character or set of aspects would be quite similar to another anyway.  It's definitely not "off" in terms of being non-standard in style, related to Yunnan versions, just a little different.  It's good tea; that much I had expected, and wasn't disappointed.

Oiirabot Assam hand made black tea

Tippier version left (per description), but they look similar

I've written about this general theme before, about protecting small farmers by arranging growing and processing co-ops to produce higher quality, organically grown, orthodox tea, and preserve farmers' way of life by selling better tea more directly, to increase created value and the proportion returned to them.  One might wonder, how is this different?

It sounds a bit like the case of Assamica Agro, or Assam Teahaus, the venture by Maddhurjya Gogoi, the tea producer / coordinator I met here in Bangkok awhile back.  I'd be guessing to venture how this initiative it is different, but I will do that.

I just met one of the main people developing this visiting Bangkok, Jaba Borgohain.  I didn't see any web page references for the producer these are labeled under, Oiirabot, but Jaba's profile page did reference the Organic Assam Campaign.

Jaba is visiting the local university my family has the closest ties to, Chulalongkorn, my wife's former school, for an education conference event not related to the subject of tea.  The approach here is going to be for me to guess how these different ventures differ, and shed more light on hers, and then let her correct that by passing on more feedback in a later post.  The potential for adding some error is present, since I did just meet her for a few hours and talked some about this, after discussing it by message for a week or so.   But passing on an initial rough take is completely valid, as I see it.

To be clear these different ventures all are doing similar things in similar ways; I don't want to take away from that, or reject it.  The same is true of discussing this issue with Narendra Kumar Gurung related to Nepal, or that contact in the North of Thailand, Aphiwat Kokhue, or related to what Anna and William are supporting in Laos, through NGO development projects (covered lots of place in this blog, but last mentioned here, with links to follow).  This isn't about saying this project is somehow better or more important than those.  It seems unique, but only to a limited extent.  To me the general approach is great, and all of these initiatives sound uniquely promising.

Jaba is also trying to reconstruct past tea history, researching what was produced and how over the past, so that the end point isn't to produce Chinese style or fusion themed teas related to current market demand.  It's to produce the best possible tea using traditional sources and methodology, making some adjustments for optimizing results along the way.  She's not trying to import as much foreign processing approach or equipment as possible, or to change over types of teas being grown (again, all this is my understanding; maybe some retraction and clarification will follow).

These development themes always vary a little related to those sorts of focuses.  The work Anna and William are doing in Laos is more or less trying to bring Laos tea up to Chinese standards, for better versions from there, which would involve adjusting processing in relation to a foreign standard and type.  That's not such a bad thing, since those two tea traditions there are continuous, in an old form.  Probably processing has shifted to some extent over the last half a century in China (or improved over the last 20 years, as likely), but the style of tea hasn't changed as much as refinements have made best versions more universal.  Or at least that's my understanding.

Maddhurjya is trying to import Taiwanese tea production equipment (not just trying; he's done it); and probably is borrowing from foreign tea production styles.  That's also not such a bad thing.  A vendor in Indonesia related how they were going for a complete fusion of tea plant sources, processing steps, equipment use, and final styles outcome (Toba Wangi, with a vendor profile here; those teas I tried from them were great).  I can relate to why some people would appreciate the native-approach theme a lot more, but it's not as if it's the only valid starting point or input.

The tea itself will tell some of the story about how results go so far.  And Jaba can correct what I've said that's a bit of a miss, or fill in more details.  I'll let the package description add more background, to clarify that I'm not just re-interpreting discussion points as ran across them:

Handmade Tales is a specialty tea brand of Oiirabot, a tea enterprise based in tea city, Dibrugarh, Assam (India).  Oiirabot specializes in handcrafted chemical-free premium teas, cultivated in remote regions of Assam.

Oiirabot works in close colaboration with the small tea growers of Assam to create premium quality tea varieties and promote chemical-free tea farming among the tea growers of Assam.  Other range of premium tea products under Handmade Tales:

White Tea
Blue Tea [so oolong?]
Bamboo Smoked Tea [she passed on some falap / phalap, which I've never yet tried]
Green Tea with Silver Tips
Black Tea with Golden Tips
Assamese Traditional Smoked Dheki Tea

I didn't emphasize that organic theme, even though she and I talked a lot about the pros and cons of certifications.  In short I had told her that doesn't seem to be a primary selling point in the US, even though it is definitely a practical concern people are very aware of.


I'll prepare these Gongfu style, even though the package lists Western brewing suggestions.  It's my understanding that relates to that approach being much more familiar, and more relevant to a broader audience.  People already using a Gongfu approach for black teas would have an idea of how to go about that.

I did brew these for much longer than I typically would sheng pu'er or most twisted oolong styles, for around 20 seconds.  It would work well to limit that to 10-15 seconds, but the stronger form would be closer to the results from brewing the tea Western style.  It will help with moving through the initial saturation phase, going slightly longer, and I can adjust timing based on results from each round based on results from the last (all standard stuff, really).

version with more golden tips left

Assam Black Orthodox Tea with Golden Tips:  that's really interesting.  You would expect malt to stand out most in any Assam, and it never really drops out for any version, but in this it's only one part of a broader profile, not dominant at all.  If anything a flavor range similar to sun-dried tomato stands out more, a rich, almost fruity sweetness that includes a bit of umami.  Nothing like that aspect framed in a seaweed or "greener" context in Japanese green teas, but I'm interpreting it as related. 

This isn't so close to any other tea style I've ever tried that I can use that as a clear starting point, not even other orthodox Assam.  One part reminds me more of Jin Jun Mei, that warm, honey-way sweet and rich range.  There's malt too, so that's different from those, but barely present in relation to the typical role that plays in Assam versions.  Cocoa joins those; that's more common with other Chinese black tea range.

It's nice, just a bit shocking to experience so much complexity at first, so removed from any expectations.  There's almost no astringency; it doesn't even have a dry or rough feel, just fullness of body.

Assam Black Orthodox Tea:  presumably this is similar to the other but based on less tippy material, but that may not work to assume that.  It could be from a slightly different local area, made from different plant type sources, and processed differently; I just don't have that information.  Inputs are one thing and experienced results another anyway; in the end the tea speaks for itself.

This does overlap a good bit with the other version, only quite different for all the same aspects balancing differently.  Malt plays a similar but different role in this, or maybe it just comes across differently.  To back up and frame that, when you drink CTC Assam, or even better versions of orthodox Assam, it's typical for a blast of malt--in a very specific form--to define the experience.  Even when it balances well with the rest it still usually stands out as the single dominant aspect.  Not in these.  Related to good versions of Chinese black teas tasting a little malty these are comparable; it's still present.

It's as sweet as the other version, possibly slightly sweeter.  An aspect like sun-dried tomato is also present, that rich, warm, complex range, it's just not as dominant.  Cocoa and bees-wax (which I referenced as common with Jin Jun Mei) is also present, but again not as much.  Since it's just as intense as the other version it's hard to clarify what is filling in for the difference.  An underlying mineral structure may stand out just a little more, or a sweet version of dried wood tone, approaching that of bark spice, but leaving off where dried sticks tend to smell.  Or that could be tied to a version of tree bark, but only a very specific type, not the full, thick bark of mature hardwood, or the lighter, mineral intensive nature of peel-bark trees (aspen or birch), but instead a thin, dark bark common to other ranges of tree types.  Maybe "like sticks" is clearer than all that.

Related to feel this has a different kind of structure, a hint of dryness, but it's not astringent.  Malt in Assam usually seems somehow connected to a dry, structured feel, but these are a good bit softer and fuller than that, or "rounder" if a more vague, graphic comparison helps.

Right out of the gate these are on par with or possibly even better than any other Assam I've ever tried, and I've explored that range a bit.  Usually newer producers go through a "dialing-in" phase while they work out removing obvious flaws, but they're onto the next step already, optimizing results.  I was surprised that Narendra seemed to jump over that step in making Nepalese teas too. 

I think both may have been successful for a common reason; they're really not new to it, at all.  Both sets of producers (farmers, who also produce tea) were probably making pretty good tea before, and did go through some adjustment phase I wasn't in on testing, but were able to rush that process for starting out further ahead.  External input could also be a factor, as in William and Anna's case, drawing on one or more good reference sources.  Anyway, the teas are nice.

Second infusion:

I went fast on this second infusion, around 10 seconds.  That will soften mouth-feel even further, which wasn't necessary, but I'm curious about how the flavors and other aspects work at a light infusion level, around how I prepare a lot of Chinese teas.

Golden tips black (leaves and tips, the tippier version):  more of the same, only slightly lighter; it's not really developing to change.  That sun-dried tomato range umami effect is interesting; that just doesn't come up much in any black teas.  It's pleasant, just really novel.  An optimum infusion level (intensity) for this would be brewed for longer, as I expected.  It's interesting that the tea has reasonable thickness of feel, even brewed lightly; even some aftertaste effect occurs.  That mix of sun-dried tomato rich sweetness, bees wax, and cocoa is quite pleasant, with hardly any malt filling in for balance between an earthy and mineral range, but just a touch.

Someone looking for a blast of malt in this tea would be disappointed; for being more on a Chinese-black style range it works really well.  It's odd saying it but this probably wouldn't be ideal for making masala chai.  It's one of the better Indian black teas I've tried, so that's not really a natural connection anyone would make anyway, considering how simmering this with spices would work out.

Orthodox black (just less tippy):  this does transition, or maybe it's that it comes across much different at a lower infusion intensity, while the other just seemed lighter but with identical aspects.  I get a sense there's something I'm missing in this description, some way of portraying what it's like in a clearer way I've not considered.  It also contains a faint bees-wax aspect, and limited amount of cocoa, and a faint trace of malt, maybe just a little more.  Then there's a wood tone that's different, closer to tree bark or bark spice than fresh or cured hardwood or pine, nothing like those ranges.  It's not like forest-floor either, nothing like autumn leaves, or wetter earthier range.  Maybe leather, that sweet, rich smell from a bomber jacket, leather bound book, or baseball glove.  Framed within the rest of the complex flavors I'm not sure which it's closest to.

The feel has a hint more structure and dryness to it.  You can't really pick it up within the flavor range but it seems like maybe a touch more mineral (warm-toned mineral) is supporting that other mix, and that's why it comes across as complex in a different way, and why the feel character is different.  Or it could just be the malt-tone is different, but it's light enough in these that it's hard to break down.  A stronger infusion will help with identifying that difference.

It's a little known fact that Assamica plant types produce more caffeine than variety Sinensis, one of very few uniform inputs that identify a difference.  The other is that younger leaves and buds contain more caffeine as well; beyond that it just varies by case.  These teas really hitting me reminded me of all that.  For being two infusions in I'm feeling that caffeine.  Maybe some of what people write off as "tea drunk" in young sheng just is that.  Only some; I get it that people are having semi-mystical experiences of different types, not just caffeine buzzed.

Third infusion:

These I brewed for 20 seconds this round, twice as long as the last time.  I'd expect the teas to only produce a half dozen or so infusions using these longer times, or maybe 7 or 8 with stretching out long-brewed late rounds.  They will probably require longer infusion times by round 5 or so to keep up intensity, and will transition in aspects quite a bit by that or the next infusion.  All just guesses; interesting trying to see how teas match my expectations, or don't.

Tippier black:  intensity is back up but only in a normal range; these may be fading just a little already.  It doesn't help using up a lot of time between rounds to write, because in effect I'm letting the tea leaves cool, which cools the water I pour onto them.  Again that sun-dried tomato umami stands out, with the rest of the list as I had described.  It may be edging towards slightly earthier and slightly less sweet.  The cocoa and bees wax may be on the way out, with a mild dark wood tone picking up, closer to the form of the other, but not really the same.

Orthodox black:  the feel of this is quite different; astringency really did ramp up.  It's nowhere near the level of a CTC tea, or maybe even a more standard orthodox black range, but compared to both in the first two rounds it's considerable.  If anything the other tea lightened in character and feel, the opposite.  That stronger edge draws out more of the bees-wax impression, with malt tone picking up quite a bit; now it really is a main aspect, just not yet a dominant one.

The slightly dry feel that is common to Assam tea is more present, the structured feel / body that comes across that way, versus Chinese teas being softer (or often Darjeeling too, for that matter, but those vary a lot, covering many pleasant forms and aspect combinations).  This is probably the only infusion of the six I've tried that would be familiar to people drinking "more bold" and more typical forms of black tea.  Boldness seems to imply some degree of value judgement, and "briskness" overlaps with that a little, relating more exclusively to feel instead of also flavor.  I tend to not use those terms because to me they're not descriptive enough, and try to describe actual flavors and feel aspects instead.  But they could definitely be meaningful; it's a matter of preference of terms and convention.

Fourth infusion:

This might be a good place to leave off given that 8 small cups of tea prepared like this is a lot.  I'd expect that the story of round 5 is about how these transition towards the finish, with how durable they are to produce lots of consistent infusions more relevant than how that final transition sequence plays out.  It is nice when some Dian Hong (Yunnan black, my overall favorite black tea type, or range, as it works out) are still very positive in later round forms, so that stretching out 2 or 3 late rounds is still nice to experience.  You get more experience out of your tea that way.  It's more common for all black tea types to stay positive for a shorter run, to fade to become woody or something such.

Orthodox with golden tips:  this is thinning a little further.  The richness, round feel, thickness, and overall pleasantness is still present but it's fading.  A longer infusion time would bump that next round.  I'd expect that's not how the other version goes, that it's just changing form more, not intensity level so much, based on the last round.

Orthodox black:  it might be fading a little, but not like the other version.  It still has that astringency edge, although this is brewed too lightly for it to feel rough, it just has structure.  The balance isn't quite as positive as it had been, the level of flavor in relation to that feel aspect, and related mineral / malt flavor tones (seemingly related; maybe they have nothing to do with each other, and I'm adding the association).

This is much closer to other forms of orthodox Assam I've tried, as it comes across this round, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Those usually break into two sets of character types, as very intense and malt-heavy, and much thinner and softer and more subtle.  At a guess harvest season timing may have caused that as much as any other input, spring teas (the more intense versions) versus those harvested and produced at other times.  Of course that's just a guess.  Darjeeling second flush is just as intense as first, just different in character, related to picked leaf characteristics and processing differences.  I'm really not familiar enough with Assam "flushes" or harvest seasons to speculate, just mentioning the obvious, as I see it.

It seems like one more slightly stretched timing round would tell a more complete story, and since I'm just buzzed versus blasted on caffeine I might as well go there.

Fifth infusion:

These brewed around a minute, plenty of time to draw out more infusion strength, just maybe a bit much for the second.

Black with more golden tips:  the aspects are a bit more subdued but in the same range as earlier, just leveled off a bit.  It's still very positive, not picking up astringency, heavy mineral tone, or any woody flavors, still just as sweet, mellow, complex, and balanced.  Given how subtle this has become it might only work to run two even longer infusions, since it's staying so positive, with that seventh one pushing it a bit.  I never compared the flavor to honey, but I guess it went without saying that saying it tasted a bit like bees wax overlapped some with that.  This is more like honey than that bees wax now, which is also very pleasant, just subtle.  The sun-dried tomato flavor range dropped out (earlier in the rounds, really), leaving other warm, soft tones, closer to cocoa, but not branching into being woody.

I never did mention that although these two look kind of similar the character of this version is much closer to that of golden tips or buds-heavy tea versions.  That content difference must be right; both the label and corresponding character match can't be wrong.

Orthodox black:  the tapering off of intensity is in a positive place for this version too, with aspect balance a lot closer to the other than I'd have expected.  This has more astringency now, and malt is more pronounced, but the honey sweetness and soft, rich tones aren't as different as they had been.  The feel in this has more structure, at this point, but the other isn't thin, even for becoming lighter, it's just not as thick as it had been.


This already covered what I thought of the teas; they were really good.  It's tempting to say that they are better than the other two sets of versions of orthodox Assam produced by small co-op producers (Assamica Agro and Assam Teahaus).  It might be the case that I'm just trying a later, more-tweaked version of these teas, that from 2 to 3 years ago when I tried those others the ones made by this same producer wouldn't have been quite as refined.  And those other two producers may have made quality gains since then, and adjusted to make new types; in fact, I'd be surprised if they hadn't.

It's a little odd that all three seem to be on such closely related time-tables.  I don't think any of them were doing anything remotely like this 4 years ago (or maybe it's 5 instead, but I think it's not), and they've covered a lot of similar ground fast.  I like this individual theme, the idea of going back to earlier, traditional forms of tea, versus fusing other production methods along with what was already done.  Optimization of both may follow similar patterns; the outcomes may be more similar than one would expect.

This is only the beginning of this description.  I have one more green tea to try, and I want Jaba to help adjust what I've said to make it more detailed and accurate.  She has also been researching the history of tea in Assam, which can confidently be re-written from the present form based on citing clear and reliable text references.  I'll leave that part as a teaser, and won't share what I've already heard about that.

Jaba is here on a academic conference visit, related to a subject other than tea.  That's interesting to me, how people can bridge experience and strengths from other backgrounds and discipline to inform tea investigation or development.  Of course the tradition she is a part of, was born into, also related quite a bit to agricultural themes, and traditional tea production.  Academic research does open the door to exploring history in a different way, though.  Probably not in any way that made this tea as good as it is, but it's still an interesting sub-theme.

More will follow across those different scopes.

meeting Jaba at Jip Eu, my favorite shop, along with Ralph, from Germany

visiting Wat Pho, a main Bangkok temple

the main ceremony hall Buddha statue there

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Kokang Myanmar dragonball sheng vs. cake review

I just wrote about pu'er-like teas from South East Asia in general, here, and this is another example, from the Kokang producer in Myanmar.

These teas are probably not identical, besides the shape, but I expect the difference in brewing from the shape difference to be the main story.  They're both from the same producer, both from the same general area.  The cake tea (which I already reviewed) was from last year, and these dragonballs may be too, but I missed reference to that.

I checked the prior review to see if I was describing this cake-pressed version in the same way, and it mentions a hint of dried fruit (interpretation) that I didn't seem to include here, with the tea mainly floral for flavor range in both.  And quite sweet, with moderate, well-balanced bitterness; all that is relatively common.  The idea was to see if the shape really made any difference, in addition to comparing the two versions for style that might not relate to that.

This shape presentation gets mixed reviews in online discussion.  Some people like dragonballs--which aren't always called that--for the convenience of starting with a pre-measured amount.  Others can't stand them, probably related to being accustomed to using their own carefully controlled brewing process, which getting tea pressed into a ball saturated throws off, since beyond dictating the amount could need to be infused for a few rounds before the tea in the middle even starts brewing.  It's possible to tear them in two, or in parts, after a rinse and an infusion or two, and I usually don't wait however many infusions it would take for one to unfold on its own.

I'll focus on how this difference actually changes brewed tea character.  That will probably require using longer infusion times for the ball, initially, because it will need to unfold, while the other loose version will infuse to a good level in 10 seconds or less, at proportions I prefer.  To me this cake version amount relates to a standard proportion, not enough to crowd the gaiwan when infused, but not a lower proportion that will require extending brewing times.  As to how many grams that is I could guess but I've just been eye-balling sheng for years, not weighing it, so it would only be a guess.

a moderate length rinse didn't get far with the dragonball


a faster start than I expected for it opening up

I went with a 10 second infusion the first time, not short, but standard enough.  This dragonball probably won't be far along yet.  I tried to tear it in two but it was too early, and only split off some leaves.  That's not ideal because those leaves are probably more broken now, and brewing as loose tea while half the rest hasn't been exposed to hot water.

The loose version really is pleasant.  There's a way above average sweetness present that works well with the moderate bitterness.  Mostly floral tones dominate the flavor profile, which works.  Mineral is also notable, but as an underlying aspect.  Feel already has some fullness to it with aftertaste even more pronounced.  The way that heavy sweetness, moderate bitterness, and flint-mineral combine and balance makes this more appealing than the set of individual aspects would be otherwise.  It'll probably be even better in a year since it has intensity to spare and that floral range won't fade quickly, and swapping out some bitterness for warmer tones would probably work well.  Or it's quite good now; I'm not implying that it isn't.

The dragonball version almost has to be from a quite different leaf source.  All of those descriptions still work, sort of, but the aspects are present in a different form, with none of it matching directly.  Mineral range takes on an almost medicinal quality, sweetness isn't as pronounced, or the floral range, or bitterness, for that matter, and a hint of smoke seems to be included.  Natural smoke flavor, this seems, like the earthy/mineral trace that seems different in form than smoked teas tend to come across.  If it was really smoked that could be pine smoke.  A bit of pine flavor seems present, as strong as the floral aspect in the first, but here mixed with a different expression of floral range.

It is possible to pull this ball apart, not by splitting or tearing it, but just carefully pulling leave bunches apart.  There's a small core that's not infused yet but after the next round this will about as saturated as the loose tea already is now.  The leaves will have been infusing unevenly, across the rinse and first three rounds, but after that differences might level off quite a bit.  I'll go ahead and give both around a 10 second infusion time again.

the ball is coming apart already (right), with some assistance

Second infusion:

dragonball version slightly cloudy, but that was mostly cleared next round

The dragonball tea is brewing slightly darker, with just a trace of cloudiness in the liquid (not necessarily a good sign, but nothing to be too concerned with; the effect will show up in the experienced aspects).  It would've been possible to let this open on its own, to not untangle it, so that the process would have taken one or two infusions longer.  I see opening faster as a best case, of sorts, but that might be a judgement call.

The cake pressed version is about the same, maybe evolving a bit more warmth and complexity.  There's definitely bitterness present; someone trying to avoid that in sheng wouldn't care for this tea.  To me it balances well, with the form and level quite pleasant.  The overall effect is clean, bright, and intense; it's good.  Again the bitterness, pronounced sweetness, light mineral (now slightly warmer), and floral tone balance really well.  Most of that judgement is subjective, of course, that I like the mix based on my own preference.

Smoke picks up in the dragonball version.  It's heavier in bitterness, with stronger and different mineral tone.  The floral is almost not noticeable as a background aspect, with a green wood filling in more vegetal scope instead.  This tea also kind of works but lighter brewing would do it justice, and it has probably just finished an initial wetting process that will enable it showing its true character better next round.  Which can be a short one; the cake version is plenty intense enough for a 5 second infusion to work and this will be better lighter, it seems.

Third infusion:

The cake version isn't different, but it works well slightly lighter.  I don't remember that this character evolved all that much over the rounds in the first review; maybe it won't.  That's not such a bad thing, if it starts out positive.  The flavor range might still be warming slightly, with the more intense sweetness and floral tone drawing back just a little.

The dragonball version is slightly clearer; cloudiness is hard to notice in this infusion.  It's definitely darker.  One might wonder why.  It could be a year older tea version, not a 2018 but from the year prior.  Or the leaves could have oxidized a little.  Tea character can change a little during the processing steps, from what I've heard, but both of these were probably re-wetted (steamed) from a loose / maocha form to be made into these shapes.  It could have taken longer to dry, or the heating process (pan frying) didn't remove quite as much moisture from the leaves initially, enabling them to dry slower.  It could've just been a lot more humid out, which would make a change, with young sheng appearing this dark atypical but definitely not unheard of.

I just ran through all of this with Anna related to a Kinnari Tea sheng cake she passed on (compared to a second maocha version here).  She confirmed that her impression matched my guess about the oxidation level in that (with the rest about moisture levels I just expressed a bit beyond what I really should be saying anything about, since I have exactly zero experience with processing tea):

the batch they took for that pressing was autumn tea. especially the stems were probably not cooked quite enough during shaqing, a common occurrence especially in autumn when the stems are thicker, so they turn red (oxidize) early on during maturation. it's a point that is often criticized by chinese buyers of lao tea, and one of the points we try to address during trainings: how to manage the moisture content in the leaves during shaqing so that the leaves can be cooked enough before becoming too dry.

So this could potentially also relate to this tea being an autumn version, although that's not indicated as likely by this input, just possible.  In discussing it further Anna and I both agreed that a bit of oxidation present in sheng isn't necessarily a flaw, that a tea can be just as pleasant but slightly different in form with that, but that it probably does cost it a little in terms of aging potential.  But even that would be more clear after letting the tea sit in storage for at least a dozen years, and probably clearer yet after 15.

Anna mentioned that other Laos teas are on the way, but I still have three versions I've not reviewed yet from her; I should get on that [editing note:  the reviewed I already mentioned occurred the next day and was posted already, these are posted out of tasting order].  Two of the other tea versions she described are really novel (I'll get to explaining how), but it sounds like the best of the sheng they picked up in Laos might be the others.  Best is all relative, of course; I really liked both that I tried already. 

Back to this review.  The dragonball version expresses a different, stronger form of bitterness.  The other tea's bitterness is pronounced but lighter (not the level, the type), maybe a little "cleaner," although really no description probably does the distinction justice.  Bitterness in this version is like biting a dandelion flower or stem; heavy, but also specific in form.  It could just be an intensity issue and I'm adding bad judgement to isolating causation.  I still like this tea but it's not as light, sweet, floral, and clean, and swapping out floral tone for green wood isn't positive.  I don't like it as much.  These would also seem to have pretty good aging potential because intensity is definitely there, and bitterness level could reduce a good bit and still balance.

Fourth infusion:

The cake version is consistent.  The same aspects shift slightly in balance, giving the effect of not drinking exactly the same tea, which is nice, but it's not so different.  Which is good; it's quite pleasant.  Later editing note:  towards later rounds in the first review I interpreted the flavor as moving from only floral to slightly into dried fruit range.  It's easy to do a less complete review when trying two teas, especially when one is re-reviewed and used as a benchmark, versus that description being a primary goal.

The dragonball version cleans up a little and shifts some in flavor.  The earlier aspects set is still present (bitterness, which overlaps with an unusual pronounced mineral tone, green wood, light supporting floral), developing a little towards tobacco.  There's still a faint hint of smoke present; that works well with the tobacco range.  The aspect range seemed to "clean up."  The other tea is light in profile but intense in comparison; this is a little burlier.  Some people probably would prefer this version for that difference.  Put another way it comes across as less refined but it hits a little harder.  I can't imagine that this is an autumn tea, but then what do I know.

Fifth infusion:

the brewed liquid color evened up

I'll have to let this tasting go after this, off to a water slide outing today.  That would be more exciting if I was 5 or 10 years old myself but I do love seeing the kids go through all that.

Flavor range is shifting for the cake version; it's picking up some aromatic wood range now, along with warming in tone over the last couple of rounds.  It's still pleasant, just not improved.  The feel still has a nice thickness and it carries over to plenty of aftertaste.

It's odd how the smoke strengthened in this dragonball version, gradually over a few infusions.  It seems possible that's just a natural flavor aspect, since if it was from smoke contact it should have also stood out initially, maybe even more then.  The smoke along with tobacco earthiness (related to what was green wood earlier on) works well enough together.  Floral is not noticeable at this point, but then it also wasn't so prominent in the cake version at this round.

I'm curious how these will unfold for one more round so I'll rush it, but both will probably be what I expect, just woodier.  I'll let the infusion run well over 10 seconds, so not rush it in that sense, just make the tasting part quick.

Sixth infusion:

Brewed tea color evened up, with the cake version darkening over these rounds; I'm not sure what that means.

Wood really is picking up in the first version.  You can still pick up floral but it's in the background now.  For tasting like aromatic wood this still comes across as really bright and clean, and well balanced.  It's those subtle context forms that make it so pleasant; it's sophisticated and light but intense, not heavy but full and slightly wet, not overly bitter but the form and level of bitterness works really well.

The other is more intense related to flavor, that set of green wood, tobacco, and mild smoke that has more effect on the overall impression than the light level might indicate it would.  The feel has a touch of dryness to it, but decent fullness.  Aftertaste is pleasant but less sweet than for the other tea, more green wood and that hint of dryness and smoke lingers.  For someone on that page it would still work really well but for me the other cake version just works better.


The teas are both nice.  They share some similarities but are quite different.  I really thought the form difference would affect how they brewed more than it did.  The first couple of rounds unfolded differently but after that more differences seemed to stem from the tea itself, not so much from the shape.

It probably doesn't make sense to say a lot about value since I heard pricing related to these at a sales expo centered around wholesale pricing distribution, but for someone buying the tea at that range it would be a very good value (probably for both versions).  To me these teas are in that medium level quality range that tends to be priced way above the earlier $40 or so cake norm now, from the recent past, more typically selling for $70 and up.  Demand for versions from a local area factor into that, and I have no idea how that works out related to Myanmar teas in general.  As far as character related to a judgement about them being pleasant and of good quality level these are nice, with the cake version probably slightly nicer.  Or that could just be a judgement call based on personal preference, even though that's not how I see it.

about people visiting from Germany and India; I should write a post about that