Sunday, September 1, 2019

Trying Assam falap, a variation of bamboo sheng

still in the bamboo cover, part of it

with cheap pu'er pick for scale; it's the size that you would expect

a bit different looking; hei cha versions tend to be like that

This reviews a type of tea that's new to me, falap, or the Assam equivalent of Chinese bamboo pu'er (per my understanding, at least).  It was passed on by Jaba Borgohain in her recent visit here from Assam, related to this black tea review.

I've heard about and intended to try this tea type for a long time.  I even ordered and paid for some once, the only time a vendor ever cheated me by not sending tea.  That was a special case, not worthy of a detailed tangent here.

Of course it's not possible to try good versions of every tea out there; it doesn't work that way.  There will always be something you just didn't get to yet, no matter how many teas you try.  Even if you are a completist with great connections and excessive purchasing habits new kinds would still keep turning up.  For example, sheng (pu'er-like tea) produced in Taiwan has been mentioned recently, and oolong made from Assamica plant types in Vietnam, and I've seen Oriental Beauty from Japan in photos (or tea made in a similar style; even for people who aren't type purists it wouldn't be identical).  I know of tea growing untended in a non-tea producing country, due to an aborted earlier attempt; as soon as someone picks some of those leaves, processes it, and puts the word out that will be a completely new origin category.

I expected it would be a bit bitter and a little smoky, not really approachable for being on the young side, but I didn't know the age when tasting it.

I don't have a vendor review or background to cite, because this was forwarded by Jaba without saying who made it, the producer.  Which reminds me of an earlier content error, the unrelated conference Jaba visited to attend wasn't hosted by Chulalongkorn (a main Bangkok university), it was only located in essentially the same area in Bangkok, which led me to assume that connection.  Or remember wrong; however that went.

Jaba mentioned that the tea is one year old, and also that it takes three months to produce the it, that it's not considered a finished version until after that processing time.

I have more tea from Assam to get to since, from the Tea Leaf Theory vendor, so I'll go ahead and cite their description of a different version instead.  I checked if they sent a falap version to try; they didn't, just Assam and Darjeeling.  That description:

The Singphos, a tribal community residing in parts of Northeast India, Myanmar, and China, are believed to be among India’s first tea drinkers. To this day, they continue to process tea by first heating the leaves in a metal pan until they brown, and then sun-drying them for a few days. To make the more flavourful, smoked tea, the sun-dried leaves are tightly packed in bamboo tubes and smoked over a fire. After a week of storing these bamboos, the processed tea hardens to take the shape of the tube. It can then be preserved for up to 10 years, with small portions sliced off with a knife to brew a fresh cup of tea. Like wine, the smoked flavour of the tea matures more with time and we choose to pick up the ones which were aged for 4 years. 

When processed and brewed correctly, a cup of Singpho tea, which is had without milk or sugar, is a lovely golden-orange colour. The leaves can be reused to brew two to three cups, the flavour getting better with each infusion. According to locals, the tea’s organic production and traditional processing retain its medicinal value. The Singphos say a cup after every meal aids digestion and believe it has kept the community relatively free from cancer and diabetes.


I used a rinse and went a little long on the first infusion, adjusting for brewing a smaller proportion than I usually do.  Instead of brewing for between 5 and 10 seconds for using more sheng (usually 10, first round, to get it started) I let this infuse for closer to 20.

And it's a bit strong.  I'll be able to back that off to 8 to 10 seconds and still get plenty of flavor out of this (and mouthfeel, and the rest).

redder color might indicate aging, or that could be oxidation

Of course bitterness is part of the story, but a novel flavor is more interesting.  And the form of the bitterness isn't completely familiar; that never really means just one thing.  I'll focus on the taste and probably never will do justice to what I mean by that second idea, but in a rough form it seems clear enough.  MSG is salty but it's not salt (mono sodium glutamate instead of sodium chloride); something along that line, about compounds and tastes being related but varying.

That flavor will be hard to pin down.  It's mostly mineral intensive but also vegetal, just not overly so.  It's a little like how the mortar used in laying bricks or cement blocks smells, but in a catchier, more pleasant, more food-like form.  I guess an unusual type of herb might be closest, or some relatively rare food item.  I'll try to do better on that part next round.

Brewed faster this makes more sense, only around 8 seconds or so.  Again bitterness is one of two main aspects you notice, but not in an identical form as in sheng, and not overly intense, at a level that does balance (so not what I expected).  I'll probably struggle with defining the main basic flavor of this for the entire review.  It's odd saying that it doesn't taste like anything in the food range but it is novel.  Do you know how bitter gourd tastes, beyond the bitterness?  It's not that, but not completely unrelated.   There's a lot of mineral.  That's not necessarily in a range that's familiar, maybe close to the smell of galvanized pipe.

It's funny referring back to my construction work days so much to describe this tea.  I helped my parents build their house when I was 13, which made for a year of long days.  It wasn't our first go at major renovation, and even then, with support from an uncle and a crew that actually did that work, it was all a bit much.  It turned out nicely though; it's a beautiful house.  It's integrated into that location (kind of along the Frank Lloyd Wright "Falling Water" theme, just not that integrated), with two levels on a higher side (on a slope), and the bottom two levels facing a lower yard slope, of a two story house with a basement.

building a smaller house might have been easier

This tastes pleasant; that could get lost in the building materials descriptions.  Mouthfeel and aftertaste aren't bad, not as pronounced as in the best examples of sheng but enough to fill in the experience some.  It's probably closest to hei cha, both in the tea realm and also related to how foods come across, I'm just not thinking of one that's similar.

I suppose it's like hua juan variants, Hunan Chinese hei cha from Anhua province, since those are similarly compressed versions, which are probably made in a similar way.  But it's different, at least than what I tried, lighter in style and flavor range.  There's a review of one related tea and another hei cha here, for reference.  This review of a compressed "mystery tea" version, of an unknown type, includes more of review of different hei cha versions and background.  That seemed to be related to decorative productions from tea by-products (extra dust), but was probably made to drink, so not exactly that.

That second post cites some of Tony Gebely's background from Tea:  A User's Guide, a very nice summary reference.  It just doesn't seem to mention either falap or Chinese bamboo pu'er (I just scanned it to check), so picking it up as background for these types probably wouldn't work.  Oddly Wikipedia's page on fermented teas (hei cha) includes reference to dok / ddok / tteok cha from Korea but not falap, even though it's probably a better known type; so it goes.

dust cleared already (why lots of people strain teas)

Third infusion:  I'm mostly not using these headings, but a place marker here or there can't hurt.  I'll give this an 8 to 10 second infusion too, to keep strength up but moderate it to that range.

This isn't transitioning in terms of being different but it is catchier, smoothing out a little, picking up some complexity and sweetness.  It's much more pleasant than I expected, closer to hei cha range but still more unique than I thought it would be.  Novelty can make new tea types seem that much more pleasant and interesting, but you have to be able to relate.  Without a bridge of experiences with hei cha this might not seem like a standard tea type.  Since it could be interpreted as between hei cha and sheng in style range it seems normal enough to me.

The flavor moves a bit towards spice range, trading out some mineral for warmer, earthier tones.  Following the earlier theme it's not an easy spice range to identify either.  It might be a little like birch or aspen bark, warm and aromatic, mineral intensive, but not a close match for anything in a spice rack.  It might overlap a little with turmeric, even though that's something else altogether, a novel root spice that's like a much different version of ginger.  It's that complexity that would make breaking the range of flavor down all but impossible.  I'm guessing that this is a good version of the type (or falap, which may or may not relate to including consideration of Chinese or other-origin bamboo pu'er), but with this being the first one that I've tried that would only be a guess.

Back on the subject of endless tea types that one tea friend from Laos, Somnuc, ran across a version of bamboo pu'er from Vietnam, I think it was.  I just saw him here in Bangkok in the last week but he didn't bring a lot of teas to try, since he'd only planned to visit the North East and extended a trip to Bangkok.

More of the same next infusion (4); it's softening, warming, and becoming more complex.  For as broken as the tea was the finer parts are probably already "brewing out" to some extent, and will contribute more of a woody flavor from here on (just a guess, but the trend comes up often).  Bitterness isn't overly pronounced in this, especially after the first 2 infusions or so.  That part was a surprise.  Maybe the spice / root part closest to turmeric is picking up a little, still with plenty of mineral supporting that, and a wood-spice range close to tree bark, not woody in any more typical sense (green wood, cured wood, sawdust, tropical or aged wood).

On the next infusion it's probably tapering off a little already, the effect of using 10+ second infusions versus the 5-8 for sheng (along with a packed gaiwan proportion; that's the main change, not tea intensity).  It will still brew a few more rounds but I'd expect flavor and character transitions to not be as interesting.  It's more or less just flattening out a little in this round, thinning slightly, pulling back to a narrower and more subdued range.

I'm off to a swimming class so I'll drop note taking and add some final thoughts later.  This was better than I expected, more distinctive and interesting.  I'm not sure why it was so much of a surprise that it seemed a lot like a hei cha instead of just like a sheng.  I guess I just didn't think that part through, and let the "bamboo pu'er" concept shift preconceptions.

leaf color in between new sheng and aged


It was nice, interesting and more positive than I expected.  It's odd that I didn't mention smoke in that review, at all, and bitterness was quite moderate, and well balanced.  I did try a few more infusions before the class and they were as I expected: still pleasant, but tapering off a bit.  Wood flavor might have picked up a little but less than I expected, for the finer bits of tea brewing out to the degree they must have by that many rounds.

I wouldn't expect smoke to drop completely out very fast; maybe it ended up not having much processing contact with smoke?  It is smoked, which may relate to a mild heating step as much as intending it to change flavor, since it is encased in bamboo (but not sealed well on one end?).

Jaba discussed how a platform and cooking area are part of a traditional kitchen design, but the ideas didn't really come together for me related to just how hot I expected this tea to get.  In comparing notes they do use bamboo to cook in a similar way there as here in Thailand, pressing sticky rice into those bamboo wood tubes to heat it.

traditional Mising (Assam) cooking area (photo credit)

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