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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.