Sunday, September 29, 2019

Dayi 2007 "Hong Zhuang" and 2009 "Hong Yun Yuan" shu pu'ers

a little bright out for taking the pictures

back to the outdoor tasting theme

It's a little odd reviewing shu after quite a break from the type.  I tried a Kokang Myanmar version this year, and beyond that it's probably been well over a year since I reviewed any.  I think I did try an exceptional version (also from Myanmar) a few months ago that I didn't mention here; so that can go.  That Kokang Myanmar tea was fine, just a bit plain and unexceptional, which for shu isn't such a bad thing, kind of par for the course.  I get the impression that lots of people use shu as a sort of daily drinker, as a tea that's easy to brew and appreciate without putting in a lot of effort and focus.  Or you could really focus on a better version.

For some sheng enthusiasts shu can be seen as inferior, as a copy of aged sheng that's not as good.  To me it just seems like a different thing.  The two types do approach each other in some versions but in general they're just similar, processed differently with different results.  I can relate to why people with a lot of exposure to aged sheng range and a lot of budget to drink whatever they like, and a personal history of setting versions aside to age, just wouldn't be on that page.  But to me shu is fine for what it is, a different type of tea. 

I tend to not experience much of the "fishy" character people discuss, which relates to drinking below average quality versions.  There's a convention that shu often tends to taste like that early on, that it's not such a bad thing for a version up to 2 or 3 years old to be like that, since it just hasn't settled yet, which can take 4 to 5 years.  It's my impression that the rough edges of a newer shu should be earthier and different, tasting like tar, petroleum, or peat, which will age-transition, but not like fish.

The best examples can really be something, when flavor complexity or novelty really stands out, or creaminess of feel is off the charts, or when the balance of some aspects really works out. 

John of King Tea Mall contributed these samples for review; many thanks for that.  A number of vendors have helped this exploration and review really work out, and have been very understanding about the reviews saying what I actually think, versus being edited down to marketing content form.  I do skip reviewing teas I really don't like, usually, which is why these are generally positive.  To me better versions are more interesting to write about and to hear about.

Time pressure isn't what it's often been lately but I do only have 45 minutes for this, so on with it.

Vendor description:

2007 Hong Zhuang:  oddly there is no price for this on the site; that's different.  It's listed, but only a sample shows a price.  It may be sold out.  The product description:

Product name “红hong妆zhuang” has three meanings in Chinese language,  adornments or makeup of women, beauty, beautiful flowers...

Character:  (words printed on the wrapper along with curve of wrapper above the big logo)

汤色红艳(tang se hong yan): red liquid

滋味甘甜(zi wei gan tian): sweet taste

Batch:  701

Storage:  Guangzhou stored till now. Clean and dry.

A nine gram sample sells for $3.99; let's just use another version as a baseline to guess at the cake cost.  This 2007 7572 Dayi shu lists for $59.99 per 357 gram cake, and a 9 gram sample for $7.99.  This cake probably didn't sell for that much, down in the $40 or so range. 

2009 "Hong Yun Yuan" 

Mainly used tea materials belong to middle grades and strong tea leaves harvested from Menghai tea region.

Character:  Medium-heavy manual fermentation.

Batch:  901 batch.

Storage:  Guangzhou city stored till now. Clean and dry.

Appropriate tightness of disc body. Thread has obvious hairs. Red tea liquor with thickness. Well fermented flavor comes along with mellowness and thickness. Brown near dark red brewed tea leaf with neatness.

This lists for $17.99 for 100 gram cake, how it is sold, with a set of 5 selling for $79.99 (500 grams, for those really bad at math). 

I won't place either for character related to Dayi numbered shu versions (I don't drink nearly enough of those, hardly any), or of course pricing.  Later on I speculate a little about where it fits in but that discussion is limited.


2007 Hong Zhuang left, in all these photos (which is starting out slower)

I went with a longer rinse and first infusion time than I normally do, around 15 seconds for both.  These are both relatively compressed into chunks, normal as shu goes, and I don't feel like messing around to break those apart.  Luck of the draw for how fast those unravel will affect the first couple of rounds.

2007 Dayi "Hong Zhuang":  this is quite pleasant shu, at least related to the initial cleanness that comes across.  There's some of that standard range profile to it, the "tastes like shu" character, towards peat and dark wood, not that far off a light roasted coffee, with some mineral base.  But it's very clean, and seems to show that it will be more complex than is typical right away, in the form of including a hint of spice.  Feel is creamy, and overall effect is positive, balanced and rich.  The flavor range isn't as heavy as shu often is, and definitely not murky.  I'll skip trying to unpack that spice aspect until next round, and see what else shows up.

2009 "Hong Yun Yuan":  also on the clean side, but with heavier, earthier flavors.  Some of that might relate to starting to brew faster, since infusion strength does adjust the proportion of what you pick up most in the exact same tea.  Don't take my word for that; try brewing some tea longer for any given round, and see if it doesn't come across much differently, with some of the same aspects much stronger in proportion, beyond astringency picking up and whatever else. 

This version is more in the dark wood towards leather range, a bit heavier.  That works well too, and might even be more what people expect out of a shu.  It would be quite typical for more average quality or younger versions to have a lot of rough edge compared to these; that much aging has surely worn anything like that off.  To me beyond 5 or 6 years doesn't matter as much but shu does keep getting smoother and gains depth, to some extent.

Second infusion:

a good bit stronger second round, letting the chunks open up

2007 Hong Zhuang:  more of the same.  This is quite pleasant for being a clean, balanced, smooth and rich, lighter shu version.  On the opposite side of that it could be interpreted as lacking complexity.  There are flavors there to be isolated, but splitting them apart is tricky, a difficult judgment task.  It's warm and earthy, just clean and light in relation to a lot of shu.  The spice hint didn't develop.

2009 Hong Yun Yuan:  this is more intense; whether that's a good or bad thing would be a judgement call.  It comes across as a little creamier, but then that does seem to work as a pairing with an earthier and stronger flavor, as occurs in Guiness Stout.  It's almost as it that flavor range plays a role in the effect, which doesn't seem to mostly be a taste aspect.  Warm mineral and other taste is closer to peat, where the other was a more neutral dark wood tone.  I'm not really noticing much light roasted coffee range; sometimes that comes up in stronger flavored shu, as lots of flavor aspects do.

I really thought this was going to be easier, that for working around odd aspects in sheng versions aged to different degrees, or subtlety related to partly aged versions going through quiet periods, that shu review would be straightforward.  It's not simple describing these flavors though, and the feel is just "rich," not complex enough to say much about, and aftertaste is quite limited compared to typical sheng experience.  I'm not sure if brewing these lighter or heavier would help, or if this is just how it's going to go.  I'll use around 20 seconds next round, trying out a little heavier.

Third infusion:


2007 Hong Zhuang:  this tea is pleasant, complex and well-balanced, not heavy-handed as shu tends to go.  It's creamy, a little towards cocoa, but not quite there for that to be a great description fit.  Probably that's about as close as I'm going to get though.  It hints a little towards root spice too, and the sweetness could resemble a dried fruit a little, a rich type of fruit leather of some sort.  It just comes across as mild, subtle, and a little non-distinct.

2009 Hong Yun Yuan:  mineral is ramping up in this; it tastes more like slate now, like a wet blackboard smells.  That's along with dark wood and peat; it's more intense.  These both aren't remotely murky compared to younger or lower quality shu range (to keep repeating that).

I'll try a faster infusion and see how that changes things.  Ordinarily related only to preference I would drink these brewed at exactly this past infusion strength level, for around 20 seconds, because there's nothing negative limiting that level, and the higher intensity is pleasant.

Fourth infusion:

Hong Zhuang:  it's not much different brewed lighter, infused only for 10 seconds instead.  Intensity is still fine and the flavor balance doesn't seem to shift, the proportions, just the feel thins a little.  The faint root spice aspect in this seems to be taking on more clarity, close to that one flavor in marshmallow.  I guess originally a mallow plant root?  I have looked that up before.  The main flavor beyond that is a mild version of cocoa.  If this were a little sweeter than might come across as dark chocolate but the sweetness level is just typical, fine for a positive balance.

Hong Yun Yuan:  still close to last round; it picked up more mineral, still close to slate, with sweetness, cleanness, flavor range, and balance all positive.  Feel is typical for better shu; a bit on the rich and smooth side.  To keep this moving I'll stop at saying all that. 

Fifth infusion:

Hong Zhuang:  that root spice aspect is still pleasant, essentially where it had been last round.  It's worth noting that reviewers who tend to describe a dozen flavors in every tea would have plenty to use imagination and riff off in these teas.  This could taste like any number of things:  a light version of coffee, root spice, underlying mineral, dried fruit, tree bark, stout (beer), etc.  Mostly like cocoa and that root spice to me though.

Hong Yun Yuan:  more of the same; not changed.  This is complex too, but I'll spare the list I've already mentioned.  It's only slightly more intense than the other tea at this level; they've gradually evened up some.


These teas weren't finished yet; they would have brewed another 5 or 6 pleasant rounds, by stretching infusion times.  That would've brought up more transition character to discuss, which stood a good chance of being positive.  I'll get to that later in the day but these posts run quite long, and it kind of doesn't matter how that goes, even if they drop off a bit early or change for the worse (which I don't expect).

These both demonstrate the potential and limitations of shu, to me.  They were quite pleasant, but not as complex, interesting, multi-layered, and subtle as some aged sheng would be.  They both exemplify why "high end" shu isn't that much of a tea category.   The type can vary in positive ways but it tends to be simpler and more consistent.  It's appropriate that pricing is moderate in comparison with sheng, even better young sheng, since it's fair to regard that as a limitation. 

The only potential exception I'd see would relate to rarity.  Running across a 25 year old shu version isn't common, and even though it makes little difference or sense to me--per what I've experienced, at least--to pay more for tea mellowing out and gaining just a little more depth the product would be rare, and therefore more valuable.  I've not checked the vendor description or pricing yet [at time of writing the notes version, which this content was in], but if these cost much over $60 or so it wouldn't make sense to pay that for this tea experience, since above average but still modestly priced shu versions tend to be like this.  Later edit:  the second version was right in that range and the first probably cost less.

Odd that I have standard shu character, availability, and pricing established as a set of expectations, isn't it, since I've already said that I don't drink that much shu?  I did try about 10 versions from Moychay back on that reviewing run that dropped off some a year ago, and for that matter started on standard Dayi shu cakes just before this blog started, 6 years ago now.  The only post entry related to those is a bit embarrassing; the "journey to tea" blog theme isn't pretty in the early stages.  Or maybe that's still true of the middle of the path, to some.  The odd twist is that once someone gets a stronger feel for teas they like and the range out there they tend to stop talking about it online.

The explanation for putting pricing range to a detailed character expectation is that I say what I think, even if the basis for that is limited.  It reminds me of a general criticism an Indian friend made about Americans in general, that they can form conclusions and have strong opinions about subjects they know almost nothing about.  Fair enough; it probably is like that.  Maybe these two teas are easily worth $90 per standard cake size, and I have no idea what I'm talking about.  If that is a standard retail price for these, and people are happy with that, then they really should have checked out Moychay's shu sales range, before a surge in demand cleared out a lot of it last year.

The King Tea Mall site lists a lot of aged Dayi shu versions, most of them numbered types.  The general range from this time period is $40-60, so there's that.  Again that's the nice part about shu, that it costs less.  All of those teas would vary some, just less than 2007 sheng versions would tend to, and they would all probably be positive in similar ways as these, with related limitations. 

In the end either someone likes shu or they don't, but it seems to me that preconception and shared group impression is more negative for shu among sheng drinkers than makes sense.  Part of that seems to relate to wanting it to be exactly like aged sheng; once someone gets past that they are more likely to appreciate it.  Not everyone sees it that way but to me it seems a good type to appreciate early on in exploring tea.  The earthiness can seem a little odd but versions tend to be very approachable, beyond that.  To me it would take less getting used to than coffee, and is closest to coffee in flavor range, just milder.

Friday, September 27, 2019

2009 Jinggu Cloud Mountain sheng compared to Mansa huang pian

2009 Jinggu left, 2017 Mansa huang pian right

On the face of it this comparison tasting makes no sense.  One tea is much older, 10 years aged versus 2, one is huang pian (yellow leaf, made from older leaves that have lost their green color, as one sees on other trees and plant types), and both are from different areas.  Maybe it actually doesn't work. 

Part of the idea is trying as similar teas as I have in sample sets (with these from Tea Mania, contributed by Peter Pocjit to experience and review).  It's not as much a stretch as it might seem.  Both should be on the mellow side, soft and approachable as younger sheng range usually goes, with earthy, complex, but perhaps somewhat subtle flavors.  Both should have a relatively rich feel.  They both just get there in completely different ways, assuming that all that is correct.

I like huang pian; the experiences I've had with it are positive (there are reviews of different versions in this blog).  Now that I think of it I have a nice version from Laos that I could taste this one alongside, that Anna of Kinnari Tea passed on awhile back (a fall 2017 version).  If I like a tea enough I feel bad about drinking the last of it, thinking that sharing it later could involve getting more out of the experience, so that someone else could try it too.  Huang pian are softer, not bitter, trading out intensity of young sheng to gain sweetness and approachable character, with flavor range varying a little.

I've reviewed a Jinggu Cloud Mountain version not so long ago (a 2011 version from Tea Mania here, and a Jinggu from a Liquid Proust sample set here).  It could be interesting to go back and check this result against that but direct comparison of different versions of different ages wouldn't mean much.  I could only guess how similar both were initially, so the aging factor would never really be clear either.

Even if both are quite different I've done so many comparisons that it's normal enough to relate how two very different teas are at the same time.  It involves using more mental and experiential space, to take it all in and relate it, and range of aspects covered tends to narrow a bit in such cases.  I often focus more on flavor, and let description of other range like aftertaste, mouthfeel, or balance of varied aspects drop out to some extent.  If two teas are very similar it's easy to relate what the shared range is and move onto much finer levels of details.

It goes without saying but the degree of aging in a 2009 version of sheng varies a lot, related to where the tea has been and what the storage conditions were.  Something about that will probably come up in the vendor description but I tend to not check those before tasting, and won't in this case.  To fill in expectation teas from this vendor are usually quite solid, relatively high up the quality level, typically with very positive character, also sold to emphasize value, based in part on a relatively more direct sourcing approach. 

Vendors can visit China, or elsewhere, and establish ties with local producers and still sell teas for the high end of retail market value, just increasing their own profit margin, or they can choose to make higher than average value part of the offering.  Sometimes vendors will sell teas for less initially, build up a brand and customer base, then increase pricing points to standard market levels.  I'm not sure if that approach makes any sense or not, but I have seen it repeat in a number of cases.

Vendor descriptions, what the teas are:

Jinggu Cloud Mountain 2009

For this Pu-Erh, tea leaves from the remote and lonely  Jinggu Mountains were used and processed into a blend with cultured tea. By using Gushu and Taidi (cultured tea) this Pu-Erh can be drunk young as well as stored.

The Gushu tea leaves come from a special mountain which is called Cloud Mountain and is located in the west of the district Jinggu. The tea gardens on this mountain were created and cultivated over 400 years ago by the Wai Minority. However, this area was abandoned over 100 years ago because of the adverse living conditions and the tea gardens were forgotten. Only a few years ago, the wild tea gardens were rediscovered.  

Every spring, the descendants of the Wai visit Cloud Mountain each spring to harvest tea and make Maocha. The harvest workers cover themselves with provisions and stay for about two months on Cloud Mountain to harvest and process the tea leaves. Because only once a year is harvested, the tea trees can recover well and do not need to be fertilized. This leads to a natural and mineral flavor which is further expanded by storage. 

This tea is sold out, but it had sold for $39 per 357 gram cake.  Blending inputs is one way to achieve more overall character balance and also drop the cost of the tea, versus using only the more expensive type version.  Kind of a shame this isn't available; that was a really novel tea (described following), and an incredible value for that pricing level.  This doesn't mention storage location but it seems to have aged well for wherever it was, transitioning quite a bit without picking up any sort of damp-storage flavor.  That doesn't necessarily have to be mustiness, or that touch of basement smell I've ran across in Malaysian tea versions; teas from here (Bangkok) often seem much more pleasant after airing out for a few months.

Mansa Gushu Spring 2017 Huang Pian

For this Zhuancha we used Huang Pian from the popular Mansa Gushu 2017. The tea trees in Mansa are partly shaded and partly at the blazing sun. This special condition results in a particularly balanced aroma. The shaded tea leaves are particularly flowery in the aroma, while the sun-kissed tea leaves provide a strong Cha Qi.

This tea was stored in Xishuangbanna for two years and is therefore quiet ripe for its age.

The sample label didn't mention gushu; it's harder to pin down the overlap in range from old-plant sources for yellow leaves anyway.  This tea is selling for $30 per 250 gram brick, about the same as the other version had.  This is still a great value tea, based on having just tried and reviewed both, but that other version was on another level, kind of just priced wrong, seen one way, way too good to be selling for that.  Huang pian tends to sell for less, and younger tea versions do, and for what this is moderate pricing is more than fair.


Jinggu left, Mansa right.  Normal that the older tea is darker.

2009 Jinggu Cloud Mountain:  I don't usually but I tasted the rinse to see where this is going to be.  It's quite warm, rich, and sweet.  This couldn't have been dry stored; no matter where it started out it seems too far along in aging level, only from tasting the rinse.

In trying the first actual rinse there's a really catchy flavor aspect to this, towards sweet and mild bark or root spice.  Or maybe spanning some range; it's complex.  The root spice stands out most, close to root beer / sassafrass, sweet and "round," not the dryer and more mineral range ginseng, or warm and earthier turmeric, which is almost a little towards ginger.  There's no astringency or bitterness, although early on (before it's the right time to tell, really) feel seems reasonably thick.  For being a 2009 version this is relatively fermented, but then I've been drinking some more compressed tuochas or dry stored teas that haven't changed quickly, and less of conventional (not dry) stored sheng from a decade or more back, so maybe I'm biased. 

It's nice how complex that flavor is, how a warm mineral base supports it, and how pleasant the complex spice range is.  It overlaps a little with warmer wood tones, damp summer forest floor, but not in the same way woodier versions of sheng come across.  The spice stands out most, which is a totally different effect than when cedar, cured hardwood, or greener wood tones are primary.

2017 Mansa Huang Pian:  this is in a similar general range for overall character but completely different at the same time; that makes for an interesting effect in direct comparison.  It is also soft, on the rich side, with a good bit of sweetness (not quite as sweet as the other, in this infusion at least), but with a lighter flavor range.  That other tea didn't age to become subtle, which can happen when a tea wasn't suitable for aging initially or when it's in an awkward in-between phase of switching over from a slightly aged tea to a truly aged version (or younger into teen years; it just depends on the version starting point and storage conditions).

Unpacking flavor range isn't as easy.  It's a bit more towards cured hay, with a very mild and subtle floral range aspect, in between chyrsanthemum and chamomile (which are sweeter and even more subtle, respectively).  Feel isn't thin but not as rich as in the other tea's case.  This might just be developing slower due to being compressed differently, pressed more into sheets, as occurs with shou mei white tea cake versions.  The other tea opened right up, not overly compressed as sheng goes, which probably supports aging faster, and definitely makes it easier to prepare the tea for brewing.

Second infusion

I'll give these both around 15 seconds to infuse, a good bit longer than I usually infuse younger sheng, related to using a moderate proportion, both being on the subtle side, and getting the huang pian to open up more.

2009 Jinggu Cloud Mountain:  earthiness picks up; the wood-tone overlap increases related to brewing this a bit stronger (and natural development across rounds, but I bet it would stand out much less brewed half as long).  It doesn't throw off the effect but this is brewed longer than optimum.  Root spice flavor is still a main component but earthiness ramped up, warm mineral is heavier (pushing a little towards rusted metal), and the forest-floor effect deepened.  Feel picks up trace of roughness; I think it would feel smoother at a slightly lighter infusion level too. 

This is definitely different as sheng goes, unique in character.  Sweetness level helps all that work. It seems less fully-aged in this form, showing this set of aspects, with a bit more of a younger vegetal edge, just nothing like the sheng I've been reviewing.  It comes across as more aged than the 2006 Fengqing tuocha I just reviewed, although there are parallels in character, and I like both.  It's odd saying that it's vegetal when I've only described forest floor as remotely in that range, which one would naturally see as "earthy" instead, so in that I'm talking about a trace of younger wood flavor and feel that is ramping up.  For as much as this transitioned I'd expect it will be different again in the next round, that it's "going somewhere" for evolving character.

2017 Mansa Huang Pian:  this has evolved too; a trace of a catchy spice aspect picks up, more towards a floral tone.  It reminds me of pandan leaf, one of my favorite Thai (tropical) tisanes, how that's a leaf that also tastes a good bit like Froot Loops.  This is still quite soft and subtle in comparison with the other tea version; it covers a good bit less range.  It's nice that the flavor gained complexity and became more positive but there's less going on.  The feel isn't thin, not exactly thick or structured per normal sheng range, but the thickness it has is positive. 

Part of that character reminds me of how white teas can come across, not the bright, more intense young white range, which can be quite floral or even fruity, but more related to aged whites.  It's not quite onto the war dried fruit range a more fully aged shou mei might exhibit, more like a 4 or 5 year old version, transitioned but not to that stage.  It would work much better for people who can appreciate a subtle tea version; it's definitely not intense.  Pushing it, using a higher proportion or brewing longer, would only go so far in drawing that out.

Third infusion

2009 Jinggu Cloud Mountain:  this balance is much better for using a more standard infusion time, around 10 seconds.  That spice range balances nicely with the sweetness, mineral range, and complex wood range, a touch of forest floor along with some hardwood, now more towards cherry.  Cherry wood, and other hardwoods, can and do smell quite aromatic and sweet; this matches that.  The effect varies a lot between fresh cut wood and that aged for a year or so and this actually seems to span that range.  It's a lot going on, root spice, underlying mineral, wood tone, a touch of fruit, with a very complex feel, and nicely extended aftertaste.  It's nice not saying "this will be really nice in a few years;" it's nice now.  I think it will keep transitioning and picking up depth, converting that younger wood tone to deeper and warmer flavors, and structured feel to a richer, smoother, but still complex feel.  But this balance works as it is, just in a different way.

2017 Mansa huang pian:  this is even fruitier.  There's an aspect I had trouble connecting at first, one that reminds me of a very pleasant experience from my past.  Outside the Sinclair library in the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus there's a type of fig tree that produces very sweet, rich, complex flavored fruit (not easy to sort out but one can explore plants on that campus more here).  It's not something you can actually eat, I don't think, but is very pleasant to smell when it's at the right stage.  That's it!  The overall range isn't as complex as the other tea, and the feel isn't as thick, but it helps that this taste is so pleasant.

I don't make much of it here but I attended UH Manao last, Colorado State University just before then, and Penn State awhile back, to study philosophy and industrial engineering.  No point related to tea, of course.

that library balcony; a favorite studying spot

maybe one of those two, or maybe I'm remembering wrong; you can "walk" around the area here

The next infusion wasn't so different.  These teas are going to keep evolving some, and minor variations in brewing approach will shift the balance of experienced aspects, feel, aftertaste, etc., especially related to the Jinggu version being so complex.  I got a little sidetracked looking around at maps and photos of UH and now I don't feel like grinding out another few infusions worth of notes that sound similar but not exactly the same. 

I'll strike a balance by describing the infusion after that one, up to round 5 now, and let it go after that.  It is interesting how late round transitions go in experiencing a tea, how different or positive, and brewing a lot of pleasant infusions is a good sign for quality.  But I can't relate to reviewers that describe 10 rounds of the same tea as all somewhat different; it just doesn't work out that way for me.  Each round connects to the last, and can transition some, but not so much that a brand new description ever applies for each.

Jinggu:  that spice range is different, it has transitioned, but again complex enough that a normal description of it would involve picking two or three related flavors that stand out.  To me it's closest to root spice, the main aspect range, still towards sassafrass, with a sweet and complex bark spice next as part of that range (not cinnamon; not a familiar spice taste).  It's all a little towards star anise but not nearly as sweet, and a little warmer, spanning more range.  It's cool the way the thick feel transitions to a pronounced aftertaste, the way that draws out.  The feel has a good weight and structure, rich with a hint of dryness, but not really dry.  Intensity is good, not a strong-flavored tea in the way some versions become overly earthy, or have rough edges that could smooth, but not subtle, it's flavorful.  It's quite pleasant. 

Mansa huang pian:  a different catchy flavor set, still towards a fruity version of an herb tisane.  It's not exactly pandan, as expressed in this round, but as close to that as anything else.  It's still a good bit like that aromatic aspect that fruit producing trees put out in Hawaii.  For a lot of tropical plant and tree range I've ran across the same examples of things here, but not that exact same thing.  This tea being more subtle with a little lighter feel wouldn't work as well for everyone, but then it's easier to notice that drinking these side by side, it stands out more.  It's pronounced enough that for drinking one a month later the other the difference would probably still stand out, just the degree of it wouldn't be as clear.

Jinggu left; not that much darker for having that character


Two really nice teas.  The comparison did make sense, although I could've lived with it working out the other way, if it hadn't.  The Jinggu version is at a great place for aging effect, seemingly quite far along that process, and should only improve from there.  The Mansa was quite pleasant too, also covering interesting flavor range, with positive but less intense feel as well.

I haven't mentioned a single negative aspect in either, at least as I interpreted the teas and the concepts, except for subtlety (a limit to aspects present) in the case of the huang pian version.  Two years of aging is a good level for rounding off astringency and bitterness, which that tea probably had relatively little of to begin with. 

Of course if the teas were the same cost I'd definitely buy the Jinggu instead (odd it worked out that way, before that version sold out).  Huang pian is nice for being a completely different kind of thing, than both young sheng or mostly aged sheng, for being mild, pleasant, and interesting, just more subtle.  10 years old isn't enough time for most people to consider any sheng "fully aged" but this Jinggu is in a pleasant place now, regardless of where it started out.  It's not fully aged; within a few more years in an environment that's not dry, well-suited for preserving sheng character as it is, it will be different.  It's just fine as it is now.

Monday, September 23, 2019

2006 Fengqing TF "Jiaji" sheng pu'er tuocha

well-compressed but easy to break up

I was up a little early for a run before work and checked out an aged sheng tuocha I'd been meaning to get to for awhile, the last of an order from Chawang Shop.  It's nice trying teas when I'm cycling through related versions, and I was curious how aging for a 2006 tuocha aging would compare with that 2006 China Tea / Zhong Cha / CNNP 8001 red mark cake I just reviewed.  There isn't much comparison so this post doesn't go into that; the teas probably started out different and that one was relatively fully aged, or at least quite far along, and this was only partly through that process.

That order list will say what it was (the first entry on that list):

Their sales page describes it:

2006 Fengqing TF "Jiaji" Tuocha Raw 100g

Jia Ji recipe is one of the classic products of Fengqing Tea Factory. 2006 is the last year of using bamboo boxes and also high quality spring materials which is mostly use for Fengqing red teas nowadays. 

Stored in clean and professional storage place in Fujian. After 9 years this tea lost most of the bitterness which is so typical for Fengqing TF raw products. 

Mellow, honey sweet with light bitterness and fast huigan. Can brewed many times. 

Yunnan Sourcing often includes more background on producers and products, so I checked if they listed a version:

2002 Feng Qing "Jia Ji Tuo Cha" Aged Raw Pu-erh Tea  $45.00 USD

Classic production under the Phoenix Brand by the Feng Qing tea factory of Lincang. Tightly rolled spring 2002 material was blended and pressed into these 100 gram tuo cha. Aged for 10 years in Kunming. This has a powerful cha qi and mouth-feel. 10 years of aging has made this into a delightful experience!

A bit odd they would sell a 100 gram tuocha for $45; the Chawang Shop version seems a steal at $10 in comparison, even for being 4 years younger.  A 2012 Steepster review of their 2002 YS-sold version sheds light on one person's less aged impression and their mark-up over 7 years since:

 ...complex aroma reminiscent of savory herbs with a touch of wet tobacco and a wonderful nutty aspect.  Can be smokey in the first infusions. This the oldest sheng I have tried so far. It is also one of my favorites, due its strong, savory-herbs flavor and aroma. $16 for 100g of a 10 year old sheng with strong flavor seems like a decent value.

Close enough to a 200% mark-up in 7 years; a bit aggressive.  This reviewer being brand new to aged sheng throws off them placing it across any typical scale but the pricing and flavor list impression still work.  Of course the starting point for a 2002 version and a 2006 product may not be all that similar, so this definitely doesn't work to indicate aging transition patterns, but it's still one person's impression, interesting to consider.  That tea was 10 years old back then, versus this being 13 years old now.


Initial flavors are clean, positive, just a bit vegetal. This isn't even close to fully aged, but not towards the beginning of that process either. Bitterness and astringency have tapered off, and if there had been any smoke present that's now gone, but there's still green wood flavor to this. That high level of compression probably slowed aging some.  It's promising though; texture is thick and it has complexity.  I'll add more on other flavor range in the second infusion.

Second infusion: there's no smoke, mushroom, or mustiness. Green and cured wood stand out, with a resinous feel to the tea. It leans a little towards pine. Sweetness helps make that range work, along with the thickness of feel (all relative; only "not thin" per a different type of judgment).

Third: wood, resin, and pine develop. I like this more than that flavors description would imply. It's not aged to an optimum level yet, I wouldn't think, but the cleanness and rich feel work well. Aftertaste isn't extended per a norm for young sheng but fine per the standard of the modest aged versions I've been drinking. It's probably the bit of pine that works well for me, in combination with the rest.

Fourth: minor transitions occur, but only the balance of prior aspects shifts in proportion a little. It's nice that this has no negative aspects to brew around, and no earthy rough edges. It just hasn't transitioned to warmer, deeper flavor range yet. Intensity is positive; younger teas or others in this age transition range could be more muted.

Fifth: it's picking up a little more warmth and depth, shifting into warmer wood tones, or towards spice or tobacco range. It would seem natural for this to have more astringency edge based on flavor range.  The thick feel is quite pleasant.

2011 Xiaguan (left) and 2007 Tulin tuo; both leaves a bit darker

More infusions along mineral depth picks up. It could be enjoyed like this, it's pleasant, but it seems a waste of the tea's potential. This probably needs 5 to 6 years to seem more like an aged sheng and even longer to fully ferment. Its potential seems great though, how clean, complex, and intense this is, without rough edges or negative aspects to wear off. That's assuming that the flavor range becomes more positive, instead of just different, but for as nice as this seems while so vegetal that seems likely.

Breakfast was a bit rushed at the end but I still managed to drink about 10 infusions worth, and it didn't require overly extended timing to maintain intensity at the end, and character was still positive.  It wasn't finished.


It seemed this tea would be even better when more fully aged but very pleasant and promising at this point.

It occurs to me that these Chawang Shop product reviews could have seemed negative since I keep going on about dry storage, and how limited aging transitions have been for the time-frames.  This tea is 13 years old; it could be a lot mellower, switched over to much warmer, deeper flavor range, into dried fruit or spice or whatever else.  At least bitterness has dropped out completely (assuming it included that initially, which seems very likely).

I don't intend the impressions that way, as negative.  I think the teas would've aged faster in a warmer, more humid environment, but all the versions I tried were very positive.  One Xiaguan tuocha wasn't quite as positive as the rest but that's how it goes, and evaluating a partly aged version of sheng isn't the best indication of where it will end up after more transition anyway.  It worked out well for the three year old cakes because then I had a chance to try them before they were far along through transitions, closer to where they would've been here at an earlier point if stored elsewhere.

Next the idea comes up that it's not just the speed of fermentation that varies, but the character of the tea, depending on those conditions, that it's not only about being further or not as far down the exact same path.  Flavor profile is different for teas stored in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Kunming.  Malaysia's effect might seem a bit musty for some, although it does push the teas to change the fastest.  For storage in Hong Kong it varies by conditions there, it's not all just one thing, but in general that range is regarded as striking a good balance, for allowing sheng to transition but not causing the same degree of mustiness or damp effect.  Dry storage results in a more vegetal range, not just transitioning slower but towards a different flavor range.

Of course my own experience with sheng aging and storage inputs is a work in progress.  The same general patterns that seemed evident in a Yiwu vertical tasting here two years ago do seem to keep repeating, reinforced as somewhat standard as I keep trying other versions.  But as years go by and counts of examples increase it will work better to map out different starting point inputs and variations in better and worse storage case examples, and those differences tied to climate.

This tuocha works as a semi-aged tea, it's perhaps just odd that's what it is at 13 years old, or at least that it's not very far along.  But then I would really need to try a number of 13 year old tuochas to be sure about that.

I did try another version of a 2007 tuocha yesterday, re-trying the Tulin version I bought locally, and reviewed here, compared with a 2011 Xiaguan cake version to check transition difference in that case.  The previous image of those helps show the fermentation / aging difference, in comparison with the wet leaves of this tea.

As I mentioned in that review (from May, so awhile back but not long enough for the tea to change much) that tuocha version is a little musty, probably tied to storage effect.  It didn't wear off quickly through the infusion cycle as apparent storage effect sometimes can.  That tea was much further through an aging transition cycle, even though it was only one year older, due to spending that time here in Bangkok.  A bit of mustiness was probably a trade-off for aging faster, which could've also related to storage conditions beyond local climate, to the degree of air contact it experienced.

Anyway, I really liked this tea.  It's good now but it would make sense to buy more of these and put them away.  That was part of the idea, to use this purchase as sampling, but it will remain to be seen how much I ever follow up on that.  It works better to buy teas locally and slip them in the house, since there is no paper trail to pick up related to cash transactions.  According to my wife I have enough tea, and should drink what I have before buying more.  She doesn't get the aging part, even though I keep explaining it.  I do have a lot more tea than I can drink over the next year but this version would be really nice in 5 to 10 more years.

That context makes me mentioning it odd, doesn't it?  I gain nothing by passing on this account and this tea version could be sold out when I do get around to trying to re-order it, potentially based in part on mentioning it.  So it goes with tea blogging.  This would be a good time to check how many views this draws without much link sharing.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

2006 China Tea (CNNP) 8001 sheng pu'er

This tea version goes back to when that new friend visited from Germany, Ralph.  He bought this China Tea Company / CNNP / Zhongcha 2006 8001 sheng pu'er tea cake at my favorite Chinatown shop, Jip Eu.  Not only did he say that he liked it but another friend visiting from Germany backed that up (if I know you a little and like you then to me you're my friend, as I use the concept, a bit loosely).  The curiosity got to me, and I also bought a cake.  This is the third version of a similar cake I'll have bought, with more on that in the following.

with Ralph and Jaba at that shop, and Kittichai, the owner

The research on what it is could have went better.  A few online sources mentioned the same version, but then you can find online references to tea cakes that are clearly not what they're labeled as, like that LBZ version I bought from a Chinatown shop here, or most of what's sold on Ebay.  That wasn't even supposed to be LBZ, given the pricing, just a random tea that happened to be mislabeled as that.  Next it becomes a concern not just if a cake is what labeling says that it is, but if that's even a reference to anything that it might actually be.  I'm not going to dwell on all that, but the number system story helps cover what I mean.

8001 refers to specific information, if it follows the convention, which not all cake numbers do.  The first two digits reference the year the tea recipe was developed, serving as a type number, the last a producer number, and the third a grading of leaves, more or less wholeness, but perhaps used in different ways.  So this was--if that holds--a type developed in 1980, from the "1" producer, Zhongcha, CNNP, or China Tea (one of the names of which dropped out at some point, no longer applying, if I'm partly remembering right), with a leaf grade of 0, the highest possible level.  Per input from that other friend, Jens, the third digit is also used to evaluate leaf quality in some instances, not just form / wholeness.  The date is something else; this has 2006 stamped on the label.

Sounds reasonable, right?  So why would I be uncertain that's it?  That probably is what this tea is, what it looks to be.  I just didn't turn up any familiar references, vendors like Yunnan Sourcing selling it, online discussion, and so on.  Dodgy looking Chinese vendors selling seemingly identical cakes isn't conclusive.  All the same the proof of the pudding is in the eating; it's real enough if it's pleasant to drink.  And this would be aiming a bit low for a tea to fake, since it wouldn't have been costly at all back when it was made, and it's not as if this shop just purchased it, so it can't well have been a very recent recreated version. 

There is a second concern, about image of this blog if I review or support a tea being something when in fact it's not that.  I'm not losing any sleep over that; as far as I know I don't have all that much public image to be worried about.  All this part is just framing what I'm thinking about the background.  Obviously I'm still exploring aged sheng, kind of just starting, even though there have been at least a couple of dozen reviews in that general range here.  It takes awhile to start on this particular subject.

I'm reviewing it alongside a 2007 red mark version from Yunnan Sourcing (reviewed here); that will help serve as a baseline.  I remember that tea being a bit rough-edged, extra earthy, but pleasant if someone was ok with that theme. 

This tasting was rushed , conducted in just over half an hour, limited in time due to a swim lesson occurring at 10 AM.  I had woke up early enough to use a full hour for it, about as long as note taking for a half dozen rounds would take, but used a significant amount of that time making French toast.  One has to keep priorities in order.  It wasn't mostly for me but the French toast was quite pleasant; we had it with ham, spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and cardamom, so a slightly non-standard version.

More sort of related background:

I'll cite a lot of that Yunnan Sourcing description of that first tea I tried with it here, not all that directly relevant to this different version, but it will describe half of what I'm tasting, the benchmark version:

8891 Red Mark is one of two 8891's released in 2007 by the China Tea Co (aka Zhong Cha/CNNP)... 

...Most importantly this tea is incredibly good tasting and has a very unique flavor profile. It's been stored in Guangdong since 2007 in a dry-wet storage condition (wet stored but on the dry side of the wet storage spectrum). The raw material is from Nan Jian area of Yunnan which is technically part of Dali prefecture. I suspect the given the name "Da Li Cang Shan Xue Yin Yuan Cha" (Dali Town, Cang Mountain, Snow Mark Round Cake) and the font used that this was pressed for the CNNP company by the Nan Jian Tu Lin tea company. The material is fairly tippy, large leaf and obviously pure assamica. Not only that, but the raw material used is not from young plantation bushes as it's quite burly and large in scale.

Compression is medium, not too tight at all and the leaves easily separate in layers from the cake. The tea brews up an orange-red tea soup with a pungent aroma of flowers, mushrooms and earth. The taste is clean with no musty wet storage notes, but does have some some earthy notes. There is a kind of pronounced spice and cloves taste and aroma with a strong viscous sweetness throughout...

It's great that Scott tells you so much about what you are buying, beyond the tea just being what it's supposed to be. 

I really rush the flavor break-down here so I don't get far with interpreting the spice notes, or pinning down earthiness level or type, and skip over doing much with describing feel.  I reviewed that tea initially here, in April, and used it as a benchmark against a similarly aged tea brick I bought in a market in Shenzhen (China) in June, but I won't go too far with cross-comparing the different impressions.  I mention at the end it's not exactly as I remember it, even though I've tried it again a few times between June and now.  The purpose here is for comparison, more than for determining if it's transitioning.

I briefly mention how this compares with another CNNP / Zhong Cha / China Tea company version I've tried again in the last couple of weeks or so, another 2006 version I bought in Chinatown at Sen Xing Fa last year, reviewed here.  That review doesn't say how much I bought that for; if I'm remembering right a bit under 2000 baht / $60, but then that tea is slightly flawed related to storage mustiness (or so it seems to me).  It cleans up in character after the first 4 rounds or so but it's not really as pleasant as this tea through the first 5 rounds, based on these initial tasting notes and my memory of it.

I mentioned the apparently identical listings of it that turned up online weren't promising related to offering background or clear descriptions, but didn't add that Ralph also reviewed the tea in his tea blog (the Daily Tealegraph).  He also lists three Chinese vendor references relating to this tea; anyone interested in checking on that can click through to those.


2007 8891 left, 2006 8001 right

8891 left, 8001 right (in all following pictures)

2007 8891, red mark:  first infusion is too light to do much with, but it should start to tell something about storage conditions.  This tastes really clean, light in flavor, a sign it wasn't stored overly wet, or even moderately wet-stored, I'd imagine.  To some extent I'm speculating here, in claiming that storage flavor would stand out immediately, pushing past experience into the range of guessing a little.  Flavor that does come across is pleasant, towards tobacco (not matching everyone's preference, surely, but pleasant as aged sheng tasting like tobacco goes).  Within a round or two that will probably shift some.

2006 8001:  completely different; pronounced mushroom and mustiness comes across immediately.  That's not a terrible sign; per past experience that might well clean up a lot over the first two rounds.  Other flavor is along the lines of old barn smell, versus tobacco in the other.  Of course it's not nearly as clean in effect as the other version but to me this is still very promising.  It has intensity and depth, and with some degree of transition it could be quite nice.

Second infusion:

2007 8891:  much improved, probably not completely ramped up yet but getting there.  Sweetness increased, in a toffee-like range.  Tobacco gives way to other flavor complexity, warm mineral base, rich dark wood tone, hinting a little towards aromatic root spice.  It's nice, just a little light still.

2006 8001:  cleaning up but not there yet.  Mustiness fades; it's no longer in the range of mushroom (as much, at least) but there's definitely an aged character to it, like stored items in an old garage or barn.  It's still promising, a bit clean for being that musty, with a lot of depth and complexity.  I expect it will be a good bit cleaner next round, and then more where it's going to be the one after.

Third infusion:

2007 8891:  this could've been brewed slightly longer than the 8 or so seconds I gave it.  Flavor level is appropriate and pleasant but it would be fine a little stronger.  Earthy range is evolving, but since time is tight I won't put effort into unpacking that.  It's clean enough, and pleasant.

2006 8001:  this version is around optimum for intensity level, brewing slightly faster, or else just more intense flavored tea.  It has cleaned up a lot; probably one more round to go for that process to complete, but the character balance is fine now.  If I had an extra half hour for this review (taking notes) it would be interesting to do a more detailed comparison of flavor, adding more about feel differences and aftertaste, but I'm running out of time, off to that swimming class.  Mustiness is still on an even level with the other flavors, even though I could enjoy it like this; we'll see if that keeps tipping next round.  I'll give these over 10 seconds to try them a little stronger.

Fourth infusion:

2007 8891:  more of the same, clean and pleasant, more into light toffee and root spice range now.  Earthiness is present but not necessarily woody or like tobacco, just adding some depth, along with warm mineral.  I think this might have improved since I've first tried it, cleaned up a bit. 

2006 8001:  much better; this did just tip over to tasting less musty and more into warm mineral, earth, and spice range.  It's similar to that other CNNP / China Tea / Zhong cha sheng cake I bought--at least that seems to be that--that needs 3 or 4 infusions to really settle off that initial musty range, but then brews another 10 or so positive infusions.  We'll see about that part, in the case of this version.  Complexity is quite good; that might include a bit of dried fruit, along the line of date, or maybe jujube, Chinese date.

Fifth infusion:

2007 8891:  nice, just a bit light as flavors go.  It's positive, what is there, and feel has a bit of thickness to it, but it's subdued.  Warm earth and mineral give it great complexity, it's more the front end that's a bit light.  It's not how I remember this; I thought it was earthier [and in going back to glance through a first review that description seems to say that].

2006 8001:  this tastes a bit like jujube, dried Chinese date.  It might keep evolving; that main flavor might be a phase it's going through.  Warm mineral is strong beyond that.


It's more or less what I'd hoped it would be.  I often end up saying an aged sheng version will probably be great when it just has a few more years to finish aging, and this is ready now.  The first two infusions are slightly musty, and that's still evident in the third, but beyond that the taste is relatively clean, balanced, and quite complex. 

It's comparable to the other CNNP version in character, seemingly just relatively different, probably partly tied to storage background.  It seems more fermented, further along in aging, but at the same time a bit more intense than the 8891, just not as clean in aspect range.  But then that other version did seem to improve related to earthiness mellowing out, and maybe some mustiness could fade from this.

It's interesting comparing this to Ralph's impression, from his blog review (an excerpt):

Out comes a dark orange liquid, which reminds of leather, honey, sweet-sour exotic stone fruits, sugary notes, a warm and comfortable tobacco aroma (not to be confused with a colder smokey flavor which I personally dislike) and a typical aged sourbittersweet aroma.

The brewed leaves have a leathery brown color, you can really see the 13 year dry warehouse aging process as this is a very post fermented tea already.

The brew is strong and thick, the steeping times can be kept short for 7-10 seconds. The aroma is wonderful, the honey sweetness in this one is outstanding and it should be a perfect product for further aging...

It seemed fine to me, a lot like that.  Where I left off the notes it was closer to a dried Chinese date than stone fruit but that flavor range was transitioning a good bit per round.  The tobacco distinction he makes is nice; there is a dry, light, flintier range smoke aspect common in some sheng that I also don't care for (although some people do), and this did include a warmer, sweeter, closer to pipe tobacco earthiness instead of that.

I tried both teas another half dozen rounds after the swim class.  The 8891 was still positive but fading, and this 8001 version picked up more mushroom again, maybe somehow related to lengthening infusion times a little, which can shift character, emphasizing some aspects over others.  It was really positive except for that one flavor aspect (dried wild mushroom, to be more precise, close enough to shitake).  The sweetness, depth of flavors, supporting mineral balance and light earth tones, complex fruit range, thickness of feel--all that was fine.  I don't necessarily expect that mushroom is going to drop out over aging for any reason, but I suppose stranger things have happened.

I hadn't mentioned cost, did I?  It sold for 2000 baht, $60, for a 400 gram cake.  I just checked the Yunnan Sourcing 2007 8891 (which I bought about 6 months ago) and it lists for $67 for a 500 gram cake; not so different.  Character is quite different, probably related to aging conditions as much as to the teas not being the same thing.  The leaves in this 8001 version are much more whole than the 8891, although it seems odd that both would be at the far ends of that scale (the 0 and 9, the third digits), odd related to appearance in both cases.

It raised the question, which do I like better?  They're kind of just different.  Not in completely different ballparks for character, but not really similar.  For being more intense and complex this 8001 is better, even though I didn't love that one mushroom aspect.  For being more subtle, a bit cleaner, and not including any rougher earthy aspects in the first three rounds, or towards the end, the 8891 is better.  Feel was fine for both, maybe with the 8891 thinning more later on.  It would really require a slower, more complete tasting session through a dozen rounds to pin down more differences.  I think the other Zhong cha / CNNP cake I'd mentioned might have been more positive in later rounds than both, maybe with this 8001 only clearly the best of the three for 2 or 3 infusions in the middle.

It will be interesting to see what I make of it over more tastings.  And nice to have over a kilogram of similar teas to mess around with, drink over a long time, check on aging transitions, and give away samples of.  It's nice having aged sheng that works as a daily drinker, as something to have 10 quick infusions of with a breakfast, stacking (mixing) some rounds during brewing to speed that along, without worrying about fully appreciating the nuances of the tea.  Shu works for that too, for rushing brewing as an easy to drink tea, but it's nice having a range of types on hand, to pick whichever sounds best that morning.

with her best friend at the swimming class (from that set of kids)

adding some silliness to a warm-up  walk

Friday, September 20, 2019

Tea Leaf Theory Arunachal and Mandal Gaon (Indian black)

I've been talking with another chance contact based out of Assam, the vendor who operates Tea Leaf TheoryUpamanyu Borkakoty.  He's a friend of Maddhurjya Gorgoi's, another producer and vendor I've met here in Bangkok before, which to me is a good sign, since Maddhurjya is a good guy.

credit his Facebook page

The themes keep repeating, about promoting smaller producer teas, in order to support local farmers and tea industry.  From what I've experienced quality level of small Assam producers has been improving quite a bit over the past few years.  For anyone who tried "more local" Assam in the past, but not recently, the range of offerings has expanded and improved.  I was just saying something related about tea types in general though, that trying a few versions of any given type might not lead to experiencing the above average versions in that range, or even type-typical examples.  Styles of Assam production seem to be evolving, so categorization as a narrow type probably doesn't work very well now.

I'm not completely sure that these are Assam.  I'd assume that, but the locations aren't familiar, and a vendor reselling different teas wouldn't need to narrow them to a range.  I think one sample in the set was a Darjeeling (to be clear Upamanyu provided these for review, and to support further discussion; that's much appreciated).  It ruins the blind-tasting effect for reading context, so I won't say here, but a section at the end covers what they really are.

He has sent enough pictures I should include those in another post instead (with more appearing in Instagram, or as video intro).  I'll skip venturing into prior discussion scope too.  It's what you'd imagine, that different farmers and producers are trying out different models and approaches, and all face similar constraints and problems, how to ramp up quality and consistent production, onto marketing and setting pricing that is sustainable, with a background context of moving towards natural tea production versus liberal use of chemicals.  I'm not making claims for the last related to these teas but their web-page introduction does:

Maintaining the sustainability and natural integrity the Tea Leaf Theory, a small natural tea grower's initiative founded in 2015 trains, support and promote the marginalized tea farmers across Assam and Darjeeling. It has spread to the emerging tea producing regions like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nilgiri, Manipur and Mizoram...

...The farmers enrolled in our group adopts traditional cultivation techniques which were passed on by their ancestors through generations, have shunned the use of harmful and expensive chemicals in order to preserve the soil for the future generations.

Most of our farmers doesn’t have an organic certification as we could not afford to get one owing to very high certification cost however, our cultivation techniques are far above organic standards and have passed chemical tests, hence we call it a natural way of farming...

This an interesting point, about how not all organically produced teas are certified, and not all certified teas are actually organic.  Multiple people have told me that here in Thailand it costs less to "work around" the certification process and still receive the attribution than it would to switch over production methods.  Take that for what it's worth; it is hearsay.  I work in a different field related to compliance and certification auditing myself, with IT ISO systems, so I'm familiar with how in even the best cases things can be less clearly determined than one might expect.

That web-page description context invokes another consistent hurdle, how to get small tea producers and vendors set up as Western-oriented direct sellers, or how to build comparable awareness and demand within the Indian market.  It's a completely different case than in China, where a strong degree of demand is long established.

Onto review though.  It's been nearly two weeks since the last review, related to clearing a sinus infection, which took forever.  Black tea will be a great way to start back in.  Novel, complex, and approachable black teas have always been a personal favorite, even though I've been leaning into sheng exploration quite a bit for the past two years, and was more on oolong prior to that.  I think I'm at least at 90% related to picking up flavors again; I might miss an aspect here or there but these descriptions should be in the ballpark.  I'm never at 100% anyway; funny how that works out.

This is what the teas are (label listings):

(Batch No)  TTLT 19 Pareng Summer Signature Black Arunchai 001

TTLT 19 Mandal Gaon Second Flush Signature Black D 003

This reminds me of a tea-buyer friend criticizing producers for branding teas as one product type per year.  It does work to meet consumers in the middle, to try to recreate large volumes of a single product, to support them being familiar with a single designation, but actual production doesn't work that way.  Teas are produced from very local areas, from farm sections within a specific producer range within a broader but still limited region, identified by harvest lot and time of production.

Those smaller lots could be mixed, with a goal of establishing a consistent, large-volume single-brand product.  But then some of the limitations of blending versus single-origin tea versions would apply, leveling out character and accounting for flaws at the cost of losing distinctiveness.  These tea versions will probably have strengths and weaknesses but unique style should stand out, distinctive flavor and other aspects.  It's not as if either is better, use of extensive blending or only appreciating narrow-range sourcing, but my personal preference and a general tea enthusiast expectation typically favors the most narrow possible type sourcing.

I'll brew these Gongfu style.  If there ever was a natural time to use a Western approach tea tasting an Indian black tea would be it, but it's not the page I'm on, so I won't.  The only way to know which way any given tea would be best is to try both, although of course some generalities for all that apply by broad type.

Arunachal left, Mandal Gaon right; some obvious differences


(Arunachal left, in all) brewing dark for using moderate infusion time

Arunachal:  from the dry tea smell this might be Darjeeling; that citrus scent doesn't usually occur in that form and level for Assam.   The Mandal Gaon version too; it looks like a Darjeeling, the mix of colors (some are like that), broken leaf form, and different but related dry tea scent, heavy on citrus.

The style is a bit unique.  It does include plenty of citrus, but there's a good bit of malt too.  A heavy mineral flavor takes over in this first round, not musty or off, but I get the impression that the tea will "clean up" and be lighter with clearer flavors in the next round.  It's hard to place this related to other Assam or Darjeeling I've tried, but I've been drinking so little Darjeeling for a couple of years that I don't much frame of reference from recent memory.  I'll hold off on a more complete description until the next round since it seems this will change a lot.

Mandal Gaon:  this kind of has to be a Darjeeling; it would be strange if a profile that's essentially just what that is were recreated from elsewhere.  It's stronger; this is going to need shorter infusion times than the other, related to both the broken leaf presentation and the mix of oxidation levels.  I gave these around a 15 second infusion time, long for Gongfu brewing, long enough to get early transition out of the way.  It was too long for this tea version.

The positives and negatives that arise from a lot of Darjeelings come up in this, familiar ground in the past, just not something I've been experiencing recently.  The fruit is nice, the complexity is great, overall feel and balance is fine.  It just has a bit of an edge.  It's nice the way that ties to a warm mineral tone, but it's still a little astringent for my preference optimum.

I should brew both to get to a more ideal balance and then do a longer description.  For the other tea that relates more to early transition, and moving through initial infusion cycle, and for this it relates to backing off the infusion time.  Temperature factors in too, but I'm brewing these at well off boiling point (probably around 90 C, or just over that, but it's not measured), and going cooler would be pushing it, giving up flavor range to adjust feel.

Second infusion

I went with around a 5 second infusion time for the Madal Gaon, with the Arunachal closer to 10, but the first still looks darker (even though the leaves are clearly less oxidized).  I may have to shift the first back down to flash infusions.

Arunachal:  this did change quite a bit, just not how I expected.  The heavy mineral faded back to a more approachable level, with fruit still really pronounced (citrus, close enough to muscatel, but maybe more towards tangerine), with subdued malt at a level and type that balances well.  A touch of mushroom joins in; that may be similar to what I was picking up in the first round.  It doesn't ruin the overall effect but it's not necessarily positive either.  That may transition away in the next round; unusual flavors more or less "burning off" over the first round or two can occur.  Take that away and this is a really positive, balanced, full version.  Sweetness level is nice, feel is soft but a bit thick and works well, complexity is good, etc.

This probably is Assam.  It's not as close to Chinese black tea styles as the ones Jaba passed on (not that they were necessarily "shooting for" that in those, maybe just how it worked out).  But the character is closest to other orthodox Assam versions I've tried, even though it's a bit novel.  I think it will really show it's potential more in the next round, that the natural transition will probably improve it.

Mandal Gaon:  this version is much improved for dialing infusion strength to the right level.  Citrus really pops in this, much more so than in the other version.  It really is straight muscatel, not a slightly warmer, sweeter, more mellow citrus version as in the other tea.  For anyone who loves Darjeeling second flush tea this would be good, and the opposite probably also applies; if that range isn't a favorite this wouldn't be.  Tolerance for a certain degree of astringency comes into play.  It's not remotely near a CTC black tea level, much lighter and better balanced, but for Chinese black tea styles it's quite pronounced (or for better orthodox Assam, for that matter), along with the citrus one of the two main aspects that stands out.

I like it.  The complexity is good; a strong hit of muscatel / citrus supported by mineral range and some other milder earthiness is nice.  Using half as much tea and the same parameters would probably be better; flavor intensity is stronger than it really needs to be, and the feel would soften.  For my personal preference it's right at the top of the range of astringency I would still like; stronger would ruin the tea.  Just backing off infusion time a little more would shift that.

Third infusion

Arunchal:  it is the best it has been.  That heavy mineral shifted to mushroom has now transitioned to a sun-dried tomato sweetness and savory aspect.  That doesn't come up a lot in teas but often enough it's quite familiar.  A hint of dried mushroom remains, but the citrus fruit and malt is just as strong, so it all mixes and balances.  It's hard to say for sure but this might be better brewed Western style; sometimes those layers that you can extract separately using a Gongfu approach are better mixed together.  To me the experience of the tea is more interesting this way, breaking apart what it includes.

It's really quite pleasant and well balanced this round.  Communicating how the sweetness level, feel, overall complexity, and underlying mineral base all combine isn't simple, but all that really works, contributing to a nice overall experience.

Mandal Gaon:  this is probably the best it's been too.  I didn't manage to shorten infusion time since pouring it out takes a few seconds, but the infusion strength works well in this (brewed for around 5-6 seconds).  It would work better cutting the proportion in half, making it easier to adjust that, giving more leeway for using an 8-10 second round instead.  Or using 2 grams per 200 ml, of course, a more standard Western approach.

Often I'll use a heavier proportion than is typical for Western brewing, even when going that route, more like 3-4 grams per that 200 ml (just under 7 fluid ounces), and use shorter infusion times, 2 1/2 to 3 minutes, adjusted per round by how the last turned out.

Anyway, muscatel and citrus really stands out.  The astringency ties to a green-wood or tree-bud-tip taste, kind of woody, but not in the conventional cured wood sense.  Sweetness probably also trails into floral range, sweet and heavy, in between rose and lavender, but it's easy to miss for citrus and that other bite standing out.  It's also easy to miss how overall balance helps this be so positive too, the role an underlying mineral tone plays, or that pronounced sweetness level, or the effect a pronounced aftertaste contributes, a trailing sweetness.  It's strange bringing sheng tasting expectations and experience back into evaluating Indian black tea, but it's not as if the experience of these very different tea types doesn't overlap at all.

There's a touch of aromatic, leather related range too, a flavor one might describe as "tastes like tea," something that stands out in Ceylon or even Lipton's.  This tea really spans a much broader range for flavor than the other version, probably tied to variation in oxidation level.  The first version (Arunchal) makes up for some of that with a pleasant and full feel experience, and related to a simpler experience not necessarily being worse.

Fourth infusion

These will keep going for a number of additional infusions, made this way, but I'll cut off notes after this round, since the main story will have been told.

Arunchal:  more of the same, but citrus is standing forward the most it has yet, now a dominant flavor aspect with the rest only supporting.  I can't pick up any mushroom aspect, now faded to more of a supporting earthiness.  This probably would be better prepared Western style, with all that rounding off and citrus standing out more.  Again the feel is really nice, right in a great balance for coming across as full body but not astringency edge.  And sweetness and overall balance too; it's good.

Mandal Gaon:  quite similar to the last round, with little to add related to that.  To me this represents a good example and version of a "greener" or less oxidized second flush Darjeeling.  Often oxidation level is higher for those instead, more towards a "true" black tea, but this style comes up too, and it works.  Anyone who had been drinking a lot of Darjeeling versions could peg this for being similar to other standard, better types, but I've not been on that page.  Awhile back I drank Gopaldhara and Rohini versions regularly (which were very nice), but their teas tend to not be made in this style, with second flush versions more oxidized to be more standard black teas.

If anything citrus pops in this more than would be typical.  That's odd, given that citrus (and muscatel, a grape, raisin, or wine-like flavor range) are primary Darjeeling flavor characteristics, but this is quite strong and distinctive.  It's right in the range of tangerine peel and fruit during this round, maybe just a little stronger and more distinctive than in the last.  Brewing it fast (at this proportion) lets the astringency balance, so sweetness and tangerine are the strongest aspects, with astringency notable but less of a factor than those.

Arunachal Pradesh left, Mandal Gaon (Darjeeling) right

Tea version background

It seemed as well to try the teas without that for context and come back to that.  I didn't find product descriptions of these but the Tea Leaf Theory site does mention who the producers are:

Pareng, Arunachal

A small newly plated tea farm up in the foothills of Himalaya at 3500 feet in the extreme interiors of Arunachal Pradesh has been planted by Mr Tabem in 2011 in a patch of land where he used to cultivate vegetable. Arunachal is a very thinly populated state, therefore the whole farm is looked after by Mr Tabem and his family right from plucking to processing. The farm is surrounded by rivers on 2 sides and covered by dense forests on all the sides. We have set up a micro tea processing unit in 2018 which also serves as the first experimental station for our Arunachal chapter. It does produce a very distinct cup of Black tea.

That was distinctive, not so different than Assam, but not identical.  And pretty good tea for an early attempt at growing and processing; round off a touch of rough edge and it's up there with the most exceptional orthodox Assam (even though it's not Assam).

Mandal Gaon, Darjeeling

A lush green tea village on the mountain slopes of the Himalaya in Darjeeling at 5500 ft above sea level, known as Mandal Gaon. Like any other small tea grower in Darjeeling Mr Moktan also used to sell green leaves to the nearby tea factory but he hardly had any control over the price. With the liberalisation of the tea plantation laws in Darjeeling, Moktan also took to tea plantation organically.

Even if someone isn't interested in local producer Assam versions those web-page stories are interesting, each covering a bit of a local development history of tea production and processing.  Again if this is an early attempt at tea processing (relatively speaking) it's an impressive one.  Tweaking brewing process for both these teas would probably lead to slightly better results, and both were really nice as it was.

Mandal Gaon tea growing (credit the Tea Leaf Theory site)

I would like to include more about their business model, how they sell teas, and what they're trying to do, but it seems to work to leave this post as an introduction that lets two tea versions speak for themselves.  I'll put together a pictures post and get Upamanyu to add detailed captions, and he can add a few sentences about mission statement or whatever else there.

He does have a blog section in his site, but most of that is about tea history, at least so far.  A subject I've been exploring lately is how old tea production is in Assam, which it is very difficult to turn up clear answers for.  No matter what details someone would identify there seems to be a reasonable chance that other historical input might tell a different story.  It seems clear enough that tea was not only growing but also was produced as both a food and beverage in Assam long before the 1830s when the British ramped up tea production there.

Here is Upamanyu's blog post input on parts of that story:

Contrary to the popular misconception, tea was not really an “imported/foreign” crop, but is an indigenous plant of India. If not for thousands of years, tea has been an integral part for atleast 900 years in different parts of India, the most prominent regions being Arunachal Pradesh & Assam which are the homeland for Singphos, the tribe which has been drinking tea since the 12th century...

...There have been documented evidences from the medieval period during which the Singpho King had offered “dark liquid brewed from local wild tea plants” as medicinal drinks to Dutch & Portuguese travelers. This further vindicates the stand that tea, if not as a beverage, has been in use in India as a medicinal drink for hundreds of years...

That's probably not going to be the final, most developed version of that history (and reference citation doesn't clearly justify those points), but this matches my hearsay-based understanding that a deeper tea history did occur.  Even that content matches what I've ran across.

They also mention selling a Singhpo falap in their site, they just don't really list product details, or anything like cost.  I tried a version of that for the first time recently (here), and it was more positive and interesting than I expected.  I thought it would be like a bitter, astringent, smoky form of sheng, but it was really in between sheng and hei cha character, warmer and softer, and more complex in a novel way.  I'm not sure about the Tea Leaf Theory version; of course I mean the one that I tried.

I'll probably be focusing more on developments in the local Indian tea industries over the past decade in further material from Upamanyu, along with letting the tea aspects tell part of that modern story.  But it's still interesting background context, that forgotten-history theme, and the details that do turn up.