Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Pu'er-like teas in South East Asia

First published by TChing in three parts (here, here, and here).

I tend to talk about teas version by version, or maybe source by source, or at most type by type.  A question came up in a tea group (in the Facebook Pu'er Tea Club) about trying versions equivalent to Yunnan pu'er from South East Asia (so not pu'er, since that's a regional tea name).

In response I mentioned a number of sources, which works as an introduction to what the teas are.  I'll reference the general feedback there and what those sources sell, which will outline what is out there too (most of it; the range is quite broad).

The different versions vary a lot. Not all the styles are exactly the same as in Yunnan, and of course those vary a lot too, just in a different sense. Some versions can be just as similar to green or white teas, depending on the source. For all the ones I just mentioned the general style would tend to be familiar, quite continuous with the Yunnan processing and style conventions. 

It's hard to separate local character from processing variations, especially given that context. It had seemed to me that Myanmar sheng were very bitter, in general, but I just tried a 2018 sheng version that wasn't, necessarily, from Kokang. Compared to a Yiwu maybe it was but I mean it was quite drinkable and well-balanced for a young tea. More "local" sourced shu varies quite a bit. I've had great luck with Myanmar and Thai versions, and less with what I've tried from Vietnam [related to shu; sheng versions were generally quite pleasant], and less shu comes out of Laos.

It's a bit much to cite all those vendors but who they are and what they sell tells the story.

Hatvala, in Vietnam:  one of my favorite vendors for selling an interesting range of different local teas at a good value.  Vietnamese sheng is something of an anomaly, but really the tea traditions in this region extend back to well prior to when modern country divisions were settled where they are now.  Vietnamese versions vary but they're similar to Yunnan pu'er and in general a good value, from the right sources.  I have reviewed versions of their sheng but citing a description of one I've not tried might give some insight about the sources and into how unique those can be:

...from Y Ti in Lao Cai province. Produced in a Red Dao community where families live either side of the Vietnam/ China border which is separated by a simple stream here. This is another complex tea with a broad range of flavours – green plum, raisin, moss, stone, floral, mild spice and dried hay – that take turns to explode in the mouth. Pleasing bitterness and a very long sweet aftertaste make Forest Genie an extremely refreshing tea.

a Hatvala and local Hanoi shop sheng

That's marketing content, of course, but it adds depth to how flavor range can vary a lot in teas from vastly different sources.  That "Dao" reference relates to an indigenous people who live throughout the region, including in China.  I'm mixing themes a bit here but this Farmerleaf (Yunnan source) video about a Laos development project sheds more light on how local producers in SE Asia aren't necessarily as well organized and compensated as Yunnan pu'er producers.  This NGO reference covers more about that from a non-commercial perspective; the images communicated alone make that worth a look.

credit the Comite de Cooperation avec le Laos site

Tea Side, Thailand:  this is the main source for well above average Thai tea versions, selling a much broader range of sheng and shu than I've encountered across all the rest of all sources (and Myanmar versions, just not as many).  Again Thai versions can be distinctive but aren't necessarily uniformly different than those from Yunnan.  I own what's left of a 2006 sheng cake from Tea Side; Hong Tai Chang was an old Chinese producer who processed local Thai teas some time ago.  They're also working on small-batch shu production (well along with that, since 2013 per this 2017 article on the subject), and their newest sheng product line expanded a lot, so production of that must have changed recently too.

on Tea Side producing small-batch shu pu'er (photo credit and article)

Lamphang Tea, Thailand:  a real exception, a very small local producer.  There are actually a lot of these sources through Facebook pages, especially out of Vietnam, since tea culture and production is more mainstream there.  Such teas would less often be compressed, but this vendor does sell versions as tuochas.  Lamphang isn't in the remote North, where the older trees would tend to be found, so I'm not clear on how a producer from there makes sense, but the tea is nice.

Lampang sheng tuochas (credit their page)

Kokang, Myanmar "pu'er":  I just met this producer at a Bangkok expo, and reviewed the sheng and shu.  It's quite good.  The first two blog posts that turn up from searching that location are about a version a tea-expert contact passed on (Olivier Schneider), and a 2006 version I bought this year from Chawang Shop.  The 2017 shu and 2018 sheng I just tried are clearly well-processed teas made from good material, distinctive for expressing local character, but not quite as bitter as prior sheng versions have seemed.

meeting the Kokang producer at a Bangkok expo (description and review)

Kinnari Tea, Laos:  I love Laos teas.  This producer is a friend, and another friend and tea enthusiast travels in Laos passing on interesting versions that he turns up (Somnuc).  As with Vietnamese versions styles and quality levels vary a lot but also common to there the best examples can be distinctive and very pleasant, giving up nothing to Yunnan teas.  Kinnari isn't selling direct retail at this point (except for a new kombucha RTD venture) but reaching out to her online might work, instead of taking a flight to Vientiane to pressure her to sell some directly.  I just met Anna a few days ago; this first post is a start on reviewing some very interesting Laos versions from them in the next couple of weeks.

a small sheng cake Anna of Kinnari Tea passed on

I mentioned three other sources in those discussion comments, about buying a nice sheng from a Hanoi shop online, Hein Minh (old-tree slightly aged versions), about Farmerleaf (as I'd just mentioned), and about Moychay, a Russian vendor, selling really good Myanmar shu.  Options are around.  In an odd twist I tried Laos tea from another Russian producer in a tasting in Moscow once, but Laos Tea isn't so broadly available that it would be likely to turn up.

Laos Tea tasting in Moscow (with a rare Laos shu review here)

Black and green tea are produced in those countries too, and oolongs, even white teas; sheng and shu are just the page I've been on for around two years now.  It might seem like I would have SE Asian options somewhat sorted out but I'm not so sure; quite likely sources and types completely new to me will keep coming up.  I've heard of local Taiwanese sheng recently, and bamboo pu'er coming out of Laos (a version of falap, which is also produced in Yunnan), and sheng cakes from Assam (just outside the edge of SE Asia, really).

It's a shame that very few Thais know these teas are out there, or appreciate better quality teas of any type, but I'm working on that.

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