Tuesday, November 26, 2019

2013 Xiaguan Fei Tai blend, Love Forever


"Love" version right; the FT iron cake is much more compressed


This post is a bit different, reviewing a tea version with an interesting back-story.  That relates to there being a slight complication over two different versions of the same tea turning up.  Since I'm breaking with standard form and not describing the vendor source here (I just came by a sample) it could be clearer what this even is. 

This description from the Teas We Like vendor page (not the source this is from) offers more background that explains a variation difference:

Pressed in 2013 with older material, this Xiaguan Feitai blend is believed to contain some 2003 material from the Banzhang area.  Of the two versions produced, this is the significantly better one, packaged in a paper tong.  The tea has a thick texture, full satisfying and sweet flavour, lots of resinous aroma, and gives a very intense but comfortable experience.  Taiwan natural dry storage.


So far so good.  It's my understanding that this is the paper tong version.  But then a running sub-theme here relates to citing different reviews, and those don't really match this account, which could seem to call that into question.  This "Love" version doesn't come across quite that positively, and the aspects don't match that or other descriptions.  I'm not sure if the character difference couldn't relate to storage conditions input, versus this being that other "not significantly better" version, but it's not the type of variation I would expect to relate to a storage issue.  We'll get to that part.

The background between this tea version and US tea enthusiast interest relates to James Schergen of TeaDB being given a tong of this type for a wedding gift.  Somewhat related, TeaDB reviewed that tea here in 2017, and again in 2019.  Typically I wouldn't know or really care how many times teas have been reviewed elsewhere, but after checking back in on a review that split in the two versions drew my attention, and differences in review accounts seemed puzzling. 

As a start on that the tea sounds a lot different in the 2019 TeaDB review video version (just cited), compared to the 2017 one, but then sheng can evolve quite a bit over even two years time. 


Per normal practice (here, at least) I'm comparing it to a 2011 Xiaguan FT "Yun Mei Chun" mini iron cake, one I've reviewed here, with the Chawang Shop vendor listing here.  It seems much younger, and it is, so it sort of works for comparing general character but not really so well for considering aging / storage conditions input.

Review:

"Yun Mei Chun" FT left; more bits from using a tightly compressed version


Xiaguan FT Iron Cake (2011):  warm, rich, sweet, and complex, relatively clean for the range of flavors present.  This could be aged further; it's not even close to finished yet.  Astringency and bitterness aren't issues but a touch of green wood in the background remains.  I do like this tea; it's been my favorite among trying a round of Xiaguan tuos and small cakes, along with Tulin and other comparable versions.  To be clear all that was limited sampling, not a broad scale exploration.  This recent post covers review of three relatively young versions (2012-2015, to identify starting points), with other posts covering older related versions scope.


Xiaguan Love Forever (2003 material, at least some of it, pressed in 2013):  mushroom stands out at first; that changes a lot.  I think that's just from the tea input, probably not related to a storage effect.  The other 2010 Xiaguan tuocha I bought from Chawang Shop is heavy on mushroom too.  We'll see if that fades or shifts in proportion a bit; these aren't even completely opened up yet.  The mushroom is interesting for being in the range of those tree fungus, the white half-moon versions, not so much shitake or the rest.  Beyond that the flavors are clean and positive, with reasonable sweetness, and no notable mustiness.

Second infusion:



This was brewed longer, probably a bit too long, but that will help identify character and flaws (that's one theory and approach used, anyway), and will push through the rest of the opening up phase.

Iron Cake:  too strong like this; not unexpected.  The astringency works well for being a bit much; it's a little dry, and warm mineral comes across as strong, seemingly tied to feel, but the feel isn't bad.  The sweetness seems to evolve towards a dried fruit, maybe along the lines of dried dark cherry.  Mineral is at the other end of that, for flavor, a bit towards a warm version of corroded metal.  Green wood isn't pronounced but is present in mild form, to me signifying that the level of fermentation isn't relatively complete.  The overall balance really works, but trying it light next time will determine more about a match to my own preference.

In comparing it with the other version a turpentine sort of effect comes across.  It's hard to place where that fits within other flavor or character range, if it relates to storage (probably not), how it will age, or how negative it is (closer to neutral but not positive).


Xiaguan Love:  mushroom is easing up but that's still the main flavor aspect present.  Other warmer, sweeter, complex range fills in beyond that.  If that pattern holds and mushroom drops away further over the next two rounds this will be easier to appreciate.  Mustiness or geosmin (like beets, or dirt) can relate to storage conditions input and degree of fermentation (supposedly the main theme of this tasting set, kind of lost for trying these three weeks apart, or whatever it is), but dried mushroom flavor is something else.  Beyond that warm complex flavor range fills in, maybe dark wood, or maybe cured hay, with plenty of mineral range grounding that.

It's not really vegetal, beyond the mushroom and cured hay sort of being vegetal; I mean it's not in the sense of greener wood and the rest.  Both of these are pretty clean, both relatively positive.  Feel has decent fullness in this, and aftertaste adds complexity.

Third infusion:



Iron Cake:  a little smoke showed up; strange.  I guess that extends from the warm, corroded metal mineral and turpentine, as a variant of that range.  It works better for being located within a clean, sweet, well-balanced aspects context.  The feel is much improved, thicker and rich, even though this is brewed lighter.  That seems to relate to the prior astringency working well and coming across differently at a different level, in addition to infusion round transition, normal changes.  Fruit isn't heavy in this but that range works well to balance the earthier aspects.


Xiaguan Love:  continually improving; mushroom keeps falling into a lighter balance.  For someone who loves a mushroom consume (broth) maybe this would be a positive aspect, instead of a limitation or flaw, as I'm sort of assuming here.  The overall balance of the rest is good; the tea is nice.  It's clean in effect, with no problems or mustiness related to too-wet storage, and without a pronounced vegetal edge that mid-level aging can bring across.  It's probably not that far off the other Xiaguan tuocha I bought from Chawang Shop in character; heavy on mushroom, clean and reasonably well balanced beyond that, including a good bit of other range.  I just don't love mushroom.  Sauteed wild mushroom added to a grilled cheese sandwich I do; I mean how it tends to work out in tea.

The green wood / touch of turpentine effect in the other version is much more pronounced comparing these two directly.  To some extent knowing initial aspects would help out, but that green-wood tone seems to definitely be a vegetal range that fermentation would cause to drop out.  Feel should shift comparably, and the Love version is a touch softer.  But then it also gives up a little in richness, as I interpret these.

There's another significant input I've not mentioned yet:  the "Iron Cake" version is more broken.  This will change results in a way that's a bit complicated.  Astringency will pick up related to that; different compounds will extract, with flavors shifting some along with it.  In general more whole-leaf tea presentation is just better, it works out more positively, but to some extent it's also just different.  Aged versions of more broken teas can transition in ways that offsets that clear value judgment final assessment (being not as good); those same compounds can be more positive at higher proportions after significant age transition.  I'm not sure that it would ever be preferable to convert a whole-leaf tea source into a more broken or ground version, that results would ever improve in a way to support that being a positive factor.  There's also a related commercial concern, beyond that outcome difference:  more whole leaf tea is more desirable, and would sell for more.


Fourth infusion:




Iron Cake:  the balance of these aspects is the most positive thing, it's just the kind of effect that won't come across well in flavor-list description.  Sweetness, warm tones, rich feel, complex flavors; it all works.  On the downside the turpentine edge, tied to green wood effect, isn't necessarily positive.  It's my impression that this represents further aging potential, that it will actually be a positive factor in another 4 or 5 years once that transitions further.  If that was just missing instead the tea would probably have less aging potential; it would simply fade more, versus change in positive ways.  It's nice as it is now though; I do like it.

The way the warm mineral comes across reminds me a little of how Liu Bao tends to work out; that slate-mineral effect, that can trail a little into charcoal, corroded metal, or other range.


Love:  this is softer, and less complex and intense.  It definitely seems further age-transitioned, but then it should, being 8 years older (at least some of the material; that part could be clearer).  The leaf color also indicates the "iron cake" version isn't even close to as aged; it has retained a lot of greenness, with the "love" version moving on to a uniform brown color. 

There's a sweetness and richness in the other version this doesn't quite match.  I suppose if the mushroom aspect was present in a lower level (now much more balanced) then pushing it for infusion strength might allow the rest to come across stronger, without it turning into more of a blast of mushroom flavor.  I'll try letting this brew just a little longer than the other next round and compare results.

I had really expected this "Love" version to be a slightly higher quality version than the other, to be more positive.  That's not based on much; maybe just hearing something about the unusually branded version in passing and the "love" theme itself being catchy.  It's pleasant tea, just a little flatter than the other, seemingly more age-transitioned but not picking up deeper complexity to compensate for leveling out general intensity along with initial vegetal range.

Fifth infusion:



Iron Cake:  the way those warm flavors combine somehow shifted a little to come across more as spice in this round, a little towards clove, or in between that and an aromatic wood tone.  Fruit range always seemed a potential interpretation of a supporting aspect that never really developed enough to be clear.  It's still present, still open to being interpreted in different ways, and potentially tied to what I'm describing as spice now.  Or more likely the green wood / medicinal / turpentine range shifted a little to come across more as that.


Love:  Drawing out the infusion time just a little (to 15 seconds or just over) has improved results.  Astringency wasn't an issue, and that bumps up thickness of feel and intensity.  Mushroom (the story of this tea version) is still relatively moderately balanced, but still the main aspect present.  Sweetness ramps up along with the rest of the flavor intensity, giving it a nice balance.  Mineral undertone and an aged hay sort of effect fill in intensity.

Tied to a lack of astringency and overall intensity, this is seemingly far enough along in age transitioning that it would smooth out and deepen from here, lightening up a little in terms of flavor, but perhaps the main shifts in character have already occurred.  Of course that's just a guess; I'm in the process of sorting all that out.

Sixth infusion:


I'll probably let this go after this; writing or reading a page of text is enough.  This "iron cake" version seems to have the potential for late-stage twists in changing character but the "love" version seems inclined to just fade, since it hasn't really been changing as much between rounds.

Iron cake:  this seems to be fading just a little, losing some intensity already.  General character hasn't changed much, and being as intense as it had been it's not overly subtle brewed lightly for that, just not quite as intense, and a bit thinner.  It's a couple of infusions ahead of schedule for thinning like that but at least one was brewed stronger than optimum by a good bit.  It hasn't transitioned much from the prior description otherwise.  I like this tea like this but to me its real potential lies in aging more.


Love:  again not so different than last round.  It's really clean in effect, and flavor intensity dropping back can occur in a relatively long aging process, ideally with the tea picking up substantial depth to compensate, or subtle flavor range that is present being especially interesting.

I like this tea too but it really doesn't stand out related to others in a similar range, beyond offering a more fermented character example.  Thickness of feel could be stronger, aftertaste range could stand out more (both intensity and type), flavor complexity and balance could be improved.  One might naturally criticize that I'm mixing how lesser aged teas should be, in relation to fully transitioned versions; flavor intensity and complexity isn't necessarily a main part of that relatively fully fermented theme.

I'm not mentioning body-feel aspects, the effect of the tea, and that is something that is said to change over aging, in more optimum circumstances.  I tend to not "get" that, and combined tasting gives it up as something one could notice.  Doing a lot of combined tasting would explain why I'm never evolving that capacity, in part.  I'm not aiming to develop it; not enabling noticing it more.  I drink teas alone every work-day morning, so five days a week, but tend to rush that.  And I'm a little hazy around 7 AM too, not as open to minor shifts in internal state.


Further conclusions:


I really thought this tea would stand out as a higher quality version than the 2011 Xiaguan FT sheng cake.  Comparing 2003 and 2011 versions would tend to make aging concerns stand out a lot more than quality or other character differences, which is probably what happened.  Both are so clean in effect that the mustiness, geosmin, or heavy mineral range marking potentially problematic or undesirable input in the other two examples just didn't come up.

To some extent I like the FT version better, but that doesn't completely take into account that it's sort of not ready to drink yet, probably needing another 4 or 5 years of somewhat humid storage to show it's true potential (per my preference; some people might like it just like this).  This "Love" cake seems to more or less be where it's going to be now, close to an end point.  There is a huge convenience advantage to not waiting 5 years after you buy a tea to drink it, especially if someone lives in a place where dry climate would involve a lot of messing around just to get a tea to age transition at all, or waiting another decade instead if it's stored in a cool, dry environment.

Some of this "FT version" interpretation probably involved hopefulness; I'm expecting only the most negative aspects (the green wood bordering on turpentine) to switch to something I like even better, eg. fruit and spice to develop, and not expecting any positive aspect to fade at all.  Of course both are probably going to happen, and some degree of change I don't see coming.


To me if this "Forever Love" version swapped out some of the dried mushroom range for just about anything else that would shift this overall impression a lot, but then that's how personal preference goes.  I have a relatively high tolerance for some degree of storage mustiness, geosmin, or heavy mineral range that some might see as off-putting, but don't really love mushroom or smoke aspects as primary flavors.


It's not just that, related to not matching those other review takes.  Flavor intensity and aspect range, thick feel, and no mention of mushroom doesn't match.  I'll cite another review example from a source that seems pretty solid, M Gault's Late Steeps blog (the 2017 review summary):


What’s not to love? Thick texture, strong aroma with high perfume resin and low notes of tobacco and woody incense, flavour in spades, productive bitterness and extra juiciness on the cheeks, and intense but extremely comfortable energetic effects.  No off notes, no geosmin, no funkiness, and no smokiness.  It does have some astringency, which does not bother me.  It isn’t an extra-late steeper, perhaps this is due to the slightly chopped nature of the material (which is actually quite nice looking overall).


2 1/2 years later the tea would be different but that doesn't sound like what I just reviewed.

It seems odd that mushroom could be an effect from storage, as mustiness and some types of mineral scope definitely can.  I guess it's conceivable that it ties to a varying form of the tobacco M Gault mentioned in Late Steeps.  I'm just accustomed to teas stored here in Bangkok coming across as musty for the first couple of months, not to other types of flavor aspect changes, adding or taking away a main flavor component.  Bitterness dropping out is normal, and warm fruit tones (or menthol, or whatever else) picking up over a longer period of time would also seem normal, but not dominant mushroom being added.

There's no conclusion here; the idea was to pass on those findings.  If I were reading this I would either assume that one or more of the tea interpretations was way off, or that the tea isn't the same version, but I'm not sure of that myself.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Wild grown Thai sheng



just a wrapper he bought; no real meaning to this




In visiting that Chinatown shop I keep bringing up, Jip Eu, along with the fellow tea enthusiast I also keep mentioning, Ralph, it came up that I never try the same teas twice there.  Sometimes we try versions of what are standard for them, Wuyi Yancha oolong versions, inexpensive ones that are sometimes better than you'd expect, or moderately higher cost versions that vary a lot in character.  Or other more unusual teas they happen to have around; that included a Japanese version of sheng not so long ago.  I've tried and bought decent Dan Cong and Longjing there, and sometimes it's tisanes instead, or teas they don't even sell, an unusual hei cha or whatever else.  Once they had just finished trying a 40 year old version of Longjing when I stopped by.

Ralph--who also writes a tea blog--kept asking about different local Thai teas, leading to us exploring more of those.  Sometimes Kittichai even makes local Thai tea versions, not usually to sell, as a side project on an outing, but sometimes for selling them too.  They're usually pretty good; he comes from a tea producing family and made teas in Anxi and Wuyishan in his younger days.  He mentioned making cakes of sheng some years back, and we tried one, this tea I'm reviewing.



inexpensive Thai oolong, a shu pu'er (the mini bricks), and Chinese pastry



This is most of it for back-story; I don't even remember the age.  I asked Ralph again and he said that he thought it was picked in 2012 and pressed in 2014, or at least close to that.  7 year old tea can be relatively lightly fermented, depending on storage conditions, but here in Bangkok that's a long time.  Kittichai said more about harvesting the tea, about the source, but even that day I don't think I had a good feel for plant types or ages or the rest.

The character was really unusual; it didn't taste like sheng I've had before, any type of it.  It was a bit closer to sheng pu'er character than that Japanese version was (which I'll get around to reviewing; Kittichai gave me some).  I'll let the review describe in what sense that applies, and why I liked and was curious about how it would develop further.


Review:




First infusion:  part of the appeal and downside (both) of this tea is that it's unconventional, which already comes across clearly in the first infusion.  It's good, just unusual, and good is always relative.

Where to start; it has some thickness, but the rich feel is both less structured (toward dry) and full.  That aspect is sort of like how oolongs are, but present in a slightly different sense in some sheng.  Then it does include a slight resin-like feel, maybe closer to how some Yunnan black teas come across.  There is very little astringency and bitterness in this tea version, which could tie to age.

Flavor includes pleasant sweetness and decent balance.  It's further towards autumn leaf than sheng tends to get, not quite warm enough to match black teas with similar range.  There's a slight spice or medicinal edge to it.  I'll try to break that down further in later rounds.  It's there to be tasted now, it's making the association that's an issue, along with some background noise factoring in.  My wife thinks we should go see a Frozen 2 showing in one hour, but I think seeing one in 2 hours and 20 minutes makes more sense.

I think this unusual character must relate to using a mix of wild tea plant types (he harvested it himself, along with help, in the North of Thailand, from wild growing plants).  Those growing conditions probably affect flavor profile too.  And processing would factor in, but I'm definitely not going to guess further, and say which input led to what.  I try a lot of old-plant natural-growth sheng from a lot countries, kind of regularly even, and it can be essentially identical to Yunnan versions, this just isn't.




Second infusion:  that shifted a lot.  For someone not expecting that it could be off-putting, since the character is even more unusual.  When I tried this in the shop I was wondering if it would age well, and I really don't know, but curiosity got the better of me related to buying it.

What had been a dried leaf effect with a bit of medicinal edge turned into even more of an edge, not exactly conventional bitterness but towards that.  It reminds me of the smell of fallen and fermenting wet leaves, but leaves that are still in that process, like the smell of a very wet fall day.  What I'm calling a medicinal edge could be interpreted differently, as a slightly sour food item, as something lightly cured.  I tend to not use "sour" as a tea description much, and it would seemingly be negative if I did, but it fits here, since this is moderately sour.  It all still kind of works, although I expect later infusions to be cleaner in effect, and somehow suspect this will transition into something else over a few years.

At this particular infusion this doesn't work well.  The effect in between sourness and bitterness isn't way out of balance but it's unconventional and not necessarily positive.  I think it will improve, although I don't clearly remember a particular transition cycle.




Third infusion:  brewed slightly faster (a bit under 10 seconds) the balance is much nicer, although some of that still could have been early-round transition, since that comes up a lot with sheng.  The sour / bitter effect is diminishing, pulling closer to a light bitterness.  A vegetal range (the wet but not fully fermented tree leaf) is in a nicer balance, with sweetness and warmth picking up.  It's clean in effect; it would seem natural for this mix of flavors to not be that way.  A warm spice note picks up, not so far off clove, or really most people would probably just say that it's clove.


Fourth infusion:  even better, although not so different.  Rich feel picks up; the structure (feel) is novel but not far off that of quite nice Yunnan sheng versions.  A dried leaf version warms, shifting to be closer to a drier version of autumn leaf.  Spice is interesting in this, the "towards clove" part.  Mineral is pronounced, more so now, like a light stone (limestone?) leaning just a little towards corroded metal, but in a generally pleasant sense.  As is typical flavors being clean, sweetness helping, and feel-balance complimenting the rest makes it work.  It's a completely different tea than it was two infusions ago, although that unconventional range (slight sourness, unusual bitterness, partly fermented leaf vegetal range) only faded and expanded to balance better; it's still a part of it.  It'll be interesting to see how late rounds go; we didn't get to that in the shop.


Fifth infusion:  this shifted a little to include a different spice range.  It's towards a very aromatic wood, past cedar and redwood, onto closer to incense bark spices, frankincense and myrrh (which I can't distinguish separately; my own hippie days are pretty far back now).  Sourness has faded just a little more, still a contributing aspect that some people could find either pleasant or objectionable.  Related to expectations across other sheng it's not normal, and therefore mostly negative, but aside from that, tied to just how it comes across, it's closer to neutral, just different.  Related to considering how this will age, it would seem to be anyone's guess.





Sixth infusion:  it keeps improving slightly, becoming catchier.  The warm, novel spice range keeps ramping up, thick rich feel improves, and the touch of sourness and odd vegetal range fades as a lighter and lighter contribution.  To me this is quite pleasant just as it is now.  I could relate to a sheng purist not really relating to it; it's unusual.  Aftertaste is even pronounced in this, not at the far end of the spectrum as sheng goes, but above average.


Seventh infusion:  I'll have to leave off drinking this to go see Frozen 2; not such a bad thing.  It's quite pleasant at this round.  I did get back to trying it later but it seemed to mostly just fade past that.

Conclusions:


I'm not sure what to make of this tea, or where it will go from here, related to ongoing transitions.  For any sheng pu'er in a more typical range I can compare trying versions of different characters to older versions that I expected had been similar.  Not for this.

It's odd that the flavor isn't diminishing, if this had been closer to green tea at the start, or even black tea, for that matter.  It does seem like sheng pu'er, related to feel and aftertaste, and the way versions can be so complex across all levels.  The flavor range just isn't familiar, and the feel / astringency isn't identical, with no significant bitterness present (normal for sheng this old and fermented to this degree, depending on the starting point).  I wouldn't be surprised if that somewhat odd initial character diminishes, and flavor gains warmer tones and depth, with feel thickening.  I guess we'll see.






Sunday, November 17, 2019

Video interview with the Russian Tea Lovers founder


I just did a video interview with Alexander Vorontsov, the founder of the Russian Tea Lovers group (one founder, at least), with that video here.   I just realized that I'm sideways in that, checking it out to post about it.  It's always the little details.




I've met him before, and discussed Russian tea culture, most of which is summarized in this post.  It's a bit redundant to say a lot about the video since that content stands alone, but I'll introduce who that group is and what we talked about in order to help people determine if watching it would be of interest.

meeting Alexander at the one local shop I always go to, Jip Eu


That group holds local tea tastings, with members sharing both tea and information about exploring tea elsewhere.  Chinese teas have the most influence in Russia, I think, but there is local Sochi area production, and a deeper history of tea production in Georgia (with more on that history here). 

On my end we visited Russia a couple of years ago, with a travel oriented post about that here.  Russia is amazing, and the local tea culture runs deeper there than here in Bangkok, even though Chinese culture is the main influence on Thai culture, with Thais mostly descended from multiple waves of Chinese immigrants.  I've reviewed a lot of tea from Moychay, one of their main suppliers, who also runs tea clubs there (something different).  Their one Nannuo sheng pu'er I bought on that first trip was one of my overall favorite tea versions.


tea tasting in Moscow with Dasha and Alexander, the Laos Tea founder


In that video we talked about international tea culture themes, and how local perspectives go back in the US.  I mentioned what I'm up to related to tea, and my own favorite other tea blogs (Steep Stories, Tea DB, Tea Addict's Journal), and we discussed why Tea for Me Please is probably the most influential US blog, and how that subculture works out.  Then onto organic themes related to tea, online group culture, sourcing, and so on, pretty much all what one would expect.

so many cool places to visit there


Assam Teehaus orthodox Assam versions


orthodox Assam (left) and blended orthodox Assam


more sharing tea than samples in this case


I'm reviewing two more of the Assam versions passed on by Maddhurjya Gogoi, related to his cousin Chittaranjan recently visiting here to drop them off, and the earlier review of two others.  There's more on what they are doing, and photos of tea growing and production on his related Facebook page, and a vendor profile in this review post from last year.  The short version is that they're focusing on changing over to organic production methods, and using a local co-op style processing model.

I don't have more to share as an intro; these are presented as orthodox Assam and blended orthodox Assam.  Teas are ordinarily grown and processed by relatively small origin local lots and harvest seasons, and that must be what's going on here, just without those specifics.  They could as easily be presented along with invoice numbers or brand names, as the Enigma version was, but that doesn't change how they come across when brewed anyway.  Maddhurjya is probably selling more of this tea in a small wholesale vendor capacity than as an end-point seller, which would naturally relate to doing less with an online sales outlet site and branding themes.

Review:


blended orthodox right


Orthodox:  pretty good orthodox Assam.  Malt stands out, of course, but as is typical for better orthodox Assam it's moderate in intensity, balanced by other flavor aspect range.  A pronounced dark mineral tone grounds the flavors.  Sweetness, balance, and complexity are fine.  I'll do more with splitting out an aspects list next round.


Blended orthodox:  this is similar, it just has a different flavor aspect to it, some sort of spice or herb range.  It's hard to tell if it's identical to the other wild version I had already tried, which struck me as closest to fennel seed.  It might be that, or it may not be.  This version seems a little drier than the first.  The mineral effect is similar but the feel aspect is different.  Dryness is moderate for both, the way the feel structure extends to include that.


Second infusion:



Orthodox:  it's quite nice; the level of malt, feel structure, clean flavors, and overall balance.  It could be a little sweeter and a little more complex.  The flavor intensity coming across as malt and a warm mineral undertone is pleasant but more range would be more positive. 

At some point these descriptions and interpretations end up splitting hairs, pitting quite good versions of teas against the best versions that I've ever experienced.  This tea would be a revelation for a lot of black tea drinkers, breaking into new ground for striking the overall balance it does.  It's much better than any blend, Assam, or Ceylon that ever finds it's way into a mass produced commercial tin or grocery store shelf.  I'd probably like their Enigma version better, at a guess; I should try those two together sometime.

Blended orthodox:  again a different flavor aspect in this stands out, something else along the line of herb spice, which may be towards green wood, or really could be something closer to the fennel seed notable in the other tea.  It's not strong enough to be easy to identify.  It makes it seem like this might be slightly less oxidized but that flavor shift could come about in other ways (using a different tea plant type input, for example). 

The body seems lighter than the first in this round, as if part of the structure and dryness is common and another part is missing, so softer.  It's odd that I'd interpret that feel difference in two completely different ways across subsequent infusions.  This round I brewed a bit lighter, and that would shift how both come across, but it shouldn't relate to any secondary aspect inversion like that.  That could be tied to review error, or maybe just related to one brewing slightly faster than the other.  Bud content shifts feel quite a bit, along with changing flavor; that may be a difference between these.

Third infusion:


I'll try slightly longer to get a feel for how these come across at an infusion strength that might be more conventional for most people.



Orthodox Assam:  flavor complexity is really nice for this; the description so far hasn't done that justice.  Beyond the malt a citrus-like aspect seems to be picking up.  It's on the sweet and warm side, so may be in between tangerine and red grapefruit.  Warm mineral range still stands out.  Feel has softened just a little, with that moderate dryness easing up, settling into an even better balance.  Now it's more just full.  An aftertaste effect rounds out the experience, a trailing on of the malt and citrus.

Blended orthodox:  wood picks up; that herb spice like aspect seems more solidly within slightly cured hardwood range now.  A reasonable amount of sweetness offsets that, although a bit more sweetness and flavor complexity would really shift how this comes across.  There is a warmer spice aspect that seems to be picking up, not the "greener" or more herb range fennel seed as prior, towards an aromatic wood tone, or related bark spice.  It's not really cinnamon, or towards frankincense / myrrh, somewhere in the middle. 


Fourth infusion:




Orthodox Assam:  not so different than last round; citrus might have bumped up just a touch.  This is much nicer than in the first two rounds, with that touch of dryness shifting to rich fullness, and with sweetness and flavor complexity evolving.  Even a warmer touch of spice tone adds a bit of extra range.  This is on par with the better versions of Assam I've tried, probably with final judgment about it relating as much to personal preference for aspects and style as to quality level.

Blended orthodox:  also not different.  I don't care for the pronounced wood-tone as much as the added sweetness and fruit in the other version, but to some extent that's probably about preference too.  Feel still gives up just a little, with decent fullness and richness, just slightly less so in comparison with the other version.


Of course the teas were far from finished there, four rounds in using Gongfu style brewing, maybe about halfway through a typical cycle.  A couple of rounds later it seemed like I probably should have been adding cocoa to the flavor description list, but that doesn't change the overall account by much. 

Usually transitions vary less in the second half, so only covering the first four infusions gets the general idea across.  A tea brewing a large number of positive infusions is one sign of quality, and these did keep going, but it's a fine point trying to judge count and late steep changes as that kind of indicator. 

Conclusions:


I'm thinking that trying two of the best Chinese black teas I've yet to experience yesterday is coloring this interpretation (a Fujian Lapsang Souchong and Jin Jun Mei).  These teas are good, just not on that level.  There's no shame in that; almost no Chinese black teas are on that level either.  Those expressed incredible complexity and balance, novel fruit and honey flavors, and a really refined nature.  They were the product of generations of selection of plant types, growing and harvesting inputs, and processing skills, and also relatively ideal growing conditions for those plant types.  These two Assam versions probably stand head and shoulders above almost all the Assam tea versions produced a decade ago, helping set a new benchmark, holding their own ground against the progress other better local producers are making.

To some extent that's comparing apples and oranges anyway, since Assam tea styles are just different.  It's also true that I'm most attached to Chinese style teas, even though I can appreciate and enjoy Indian tea versions, black teas from Assam, Darjeeling, and other areas, and what other South East Asian countries produce.  One might wonder to what extent I'm mixing up "objectively better" and personal style preference, and I may not be able to draw that line myself.  These Assam versions would be perfect with food, a great breakfast tea, and are good enough that thorough experimenting with optimizing brewing results would still make sense.

I think it will help trying these alongside other Assam versions, to really place them.  I'm not going to review these samples every weekend for three weeks in a row but at some point it would be interesting doing a direct comparison, or maybe with a Darjeeling sample I have yet to get to. 

I'll try to get back to that, but there are some other really interesting teas around to try as well.  I picked up a really novel Thai version of a sheng ("pu'er-like tea") about a month ago, and I've had some aged sheng and shu to get to, and a Yunnan Dian Hong Chinese black tea version.  That might be interesting to use for comparison too.

I was talking in the last post about how people seem to fear tea supply running out too much, keeping sources a secret so that what they like is there to buy when they get back to it.  One part of that was the idea that other tea growing regions are developing better and better processing methods and tea quality output.  These teas represent part of what I was talking about.  These versions are really pleasant now, and given where they stand in relation to the last I tried from Maddhurjya--which were already quite nice--they'll probably just keep getting better.  Anyone who hasn't tried Assam in awhile probably isn't familiar with what the better orthodox version range is like now.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Wuyi Origin wild Lapsang Souchong and honey Jin Jun Mei


Lapsang Souchong left (or both, in a sense, but JJM is on the right)




I recently mentioned using a Wuyi Origin Rou Gui version in a water type comparison test, which sort of worked as a review, but not as an overly detailed account.  That kind of made sense but kind of didn't; to a degree that was disrespectful to that tea version.  Here I'm trying two really exceptional black tea versions from them (provided for review by Cindy, or really probably more related to sharing tea to try, since she is an angel among tea producers and vendors).

For anyone familiar with their teas or really exceptional versions of these two tea types these need no introduction, but I'll add their descriptions all the same:


Wild Lapsang Souchong 2019

Location: Tong Mu guan (桐木关)
Harvest date: 4/10/2019

This  harvest we did a more standard  picking, one bud and two leaves, more uniform  looking. It is from a more late harvest than most normal Lapsang souchong, so the leaves are quite thick. Using the traditional un-smoked Lapsong souchong processing skill we kept its natural essence.

Feature: Un-smoked with a ripe peach aroma, it has a very obvious Milky flavor. It last more than 10 infusions. There's no bitterness even when you steep the tea for a long time. It has a quite bright tea soup that's orange color.  


Thinking back on my review description(during the editing) I bet "caramel" would describe part of the range I didn't do justice to capturing, the warm, mild sweetness along with that creaminess.


2019 Jinjunmei (honey aroma)

Location: Huang gang shan (黄岗山)  of Tong mu guan 
Harvest time: 2019.3.19th
Cultivar: Fu yun #6  
Fermentation level: full-fermented 
Picking standard: Early spring buds ,using all the first infusion buds to be processed 


Feature:  Huang guang shan is the highest moutian in Tong mu guan (桐木关)which is the original place of the Jinjunmei and Lapsang souchong. It is about 1600m height, the whole year with foggy weather.  The special growing environment  creates this very exquisite tea.

Carefully picked and processed, each leaf is compact.  The liquid is bright orange color. With strong fragrance of Orchids, and the sweet "charm of Honey" after taste. Enduring many infusions, and stand steep, no any bitter feel. This is my competition grade Jinjunmei of 2019 harvest in my family. In 2017 and 2018 harvest this one Jinjunmei won different Titles in USA and Australia Tea Competition. This one 2019 Harvest I  think it  is excellent, from the looking, aroma, tasting, brewed leaves looking. Very delicate and exquisite tea. 

4.5g -5g  tea  into 100-110ml gaiwan  by 85-90 C water to brew.


Even though it might not seem possible both are a lot better than the descriptions make them sound, even the second.

These list for $18 and $16 for 50 grams of each, and as I see it that's almost giving them away.  Selling for double that these would be a great value for tea this good.  On my limited tea budget ordinarily I can't relate to spending 50 cents a gram and up on tea versions, even if variations in quality level and demand have that make sense for some versions, but these are that good but still selling in a different pricing range.  I just hope the people who buy it can appreciate what these are.

Reviews:




Lapsang Souchong:  it's always surprising how good this tea is; maybe it would be no matter how many times I tried versions of it.  Talking about tea quality levels drifts into discussion of versions being true to type, expressing clean and balanced flavors, appropriate sweetness, or thick rich feel, maybe onto aftertaste effect, or related to quality markers, aspects that serve as an indicator for that type.  Beyond all that teas that are truly on a next level just come together, and breaking it down doesn't explain anything, if anything leading away from describing the actual experience for boiling it down to a word salad of descriptions.  This tea is like that.

A primary aspect is a rich, warm sweetness, a fruitiness paired with a really well balanced lighter earthy range.  The fruit isn't so far from a warm version of citrus, not identical to the chen pi effect, but not so far off it.  It extends into something like ripe peach, just richer and warmer than that.  The earthiness is so clean, well-balanced, and distinctive that it's hard to describe.  It's a little towards a malted grain, leaning from there to a lighter cured leather, but it's none of that.

I'll do more with describing aspects next round, or take the opposite approach and switch over to writing poetry, describing only indirectly related experiences and feelings.  This tastes like a warm fall day feels; something like that.


JJM (right) brewed slightly stronger, but looked similar first round





Jin Jun Mei:  this has more body and warm mineral than I expected.  It's still sweet, similar to honey, and the closest aspect description I could give to that is the scent of fresh bees' wax.  Processed bees wax smells kind of the same, in a candle or a lip balm, but when you are near a piece or a large section of honeycomb a kind of different impression comes across.  Again this is clearly one of the best teas I've ever experienced.  It's funny how that's hardly even about subjective preference or a judgment call with these, it's just what they are.  If you don't absolutely love them then you just can't relate to that type range, but it's not a shortcoming on the tea's side.

This is slightly overbrewed, per an optimum.  I was thinking that as I was starting, that I've roughly matched the amount of dry tea but this will come across as more intense, throwing off a parallel approach to brewing.  It doesn't matter since this isn't that kind of comparison anyway; I just happen to be tasting them together.  I brewed these for around 10 seconds or so, which was roughly ideal for the first, but too long for this one.  It's not ruined, or off, or astringent, but an optimum would be slightly lighter.

Honey and bees' wax stand out, with a warmth and sweetness similar to malted grain beyond that.  It's not the malt in Assam, or Ovaltine, but still related to that broad set.  The feel is a bit thick in a unique way, that's not the exact same form you usually experience in other teas.  The body hints towards a light form of dryness but stops short at just being full, perfectly balanced.  Level of sweetness, overall intensity, complexity; as with the first tea version it's all perfect. 

Going back and trying the first version again it's nice how it trades out some of that warmth for a fruit tone that really pops, but both are amazing in their own ways. 

This is the kind of tea that people buy but don't talk about, loving it but not saying a word online, because there's only so much out there.  As demand goes up and it sells out faster pricing would probably creep up too.  I've reviewed these before; I have no concerns about letting the cat out of the bag.  Some of those people have me to thank for letting them know about it, not that I ever hear much of that kind of feedback. 

A bit on my understanding of how all that goes: Cindy (and her family) are selling most of what they produce within China, probably not really for any less than what these are selling for, because demand and awareness of tea is much, much higher there.  It's not as if the wealthiest level of society there can't afford tea that costs a lot more than this, or if that's a very small set of people.  Price could go up a little if level of demand shifts but producers like them could just sell more to "the West" instead. 

Related to an online discussion subject I didn't add a lot of input to, there's a different story about how there are other types of producers out there who could ramp up production if demand shifts a lot more than I'm talking about.  Countries like Vietnam, Nepal, and Indonesia are making a lot of quite good tea, but it would be possible for them to ramp that up fast.  The amount of old-tree tea that's growing wild and unharvested throughout South East Asia is only now coming to a lot of small producers' attention. 

No other country will be producing tea as good as these versions any time soon (except Taiwan and Japan; different cases), but it's just a matter of time until growing, harvesting, and processing skills draw closer to even, a trend that already shifts a little year by year.  This one Laos black tea was a bit stunning but that had to be a fluke.

Second infusion:




Lapsang Souchong:  this is brewed a little light, using a fast infusion time (maybe 8 seconds), and the balance is still great.  Probably closer to 15 seconds would be optimum, but this tea will work well at a range of intensities.  Feel is still full even brewed light, not structured, dry, or astringent, just with a light fullness.  I'm not really doing that fruit aspect range justice; it seems complex, but at the same time simple.  I just had a nice ripe mango with breakfast; those are similar, covering bright citrus range and deeper warm fruit.  It didn't taste that much like mango though, the comparison works better to describe the general range and complexity. 

There's a distinctive light wood tone that comes across in better Lapsang Souchong that this includes.  It's a little like balsa wood, a warm, kind of muted tone, hinting towards dryness, not far from aged hay.  In some versions without as much sweetness and fruit range that can make the tea seem a bit flat, emphasizing that particular aspect, in a less pleasant form.  In this it balances really well.  There is mild, underlying mineral range as well, and a darker wood tone closer to a spice or tree bark.  It comes across as simple but also complex, in a different sense, very clean and well balanced.

Jin Jun Mei:  warmth picked up even more in this.  It's still closest to bees' wax, along with a dark version of honey, but there's something else to it, another way to describe that.  Malted grain kind of works, it just seems a bit non-specific, and it's more helpful to use descriptions of actual common food items.  It starts in towards the rich depth of molasses, it's just hard to describe how that works at a much lighter level, well-integrated with other subtle flavor range.  It's interesting how the warm honey and wax range extends in one direction and a separate brighter tone gives it lots of range and complexity.  It doesn't quite extend to citrusy but part might relate to a warm, light floral tone.

Third infusion:




I'll try to brew the Lapsang a little longer and the Jin Jun Mei shorter this round, optimizing both.  To some extent one could arrive at similar results by adjusting proportion but for me it works well just varying infusion time round to round to get the level right.


Lapsang Souchong:  the balance of the earlier aspects may have shifted a little but this is most changed for getting infusion strength right, letting go just over 15 seconds.  The hit of well-balanced flavors is a great experience.  This isn't really what I'm talking about when I'm telling people still on tea bags or grocery store teas about how good better specialty / orthodox teas can be; it's at least a full level above that.  It would almost be a waste to even try this before exploring more of a medium level range of teas.  One wouldn't appreciate it in the same way, and then later on other teas wouldn't be on the same level (in some ways) before it was possible to even appreciate why it is exceptional.

I tend to recommend Dian Hong (Yunnan black tea versions) as a good starting point for better black tea instead, because those span a range of character types, are positive in lots of different ways, and lots of decent versions don't cost a lot.  Pretty good unsmoked Lapsang Souchong that doesn't cost very much would turn up but versions that taste more like cardboard would probably be more common.

Jin Jun Mei:  this does work better slightly lighter, although a balance right in the middle would be better yet.  It's a forgiving tea in terms of being very pleasant slightly too strong or too weak, without astringency as a concern, but optimizing it relates to letting it shine brightest.  There's a lot going on that could strike a great balance when dialed in properly, not just work well.  Buds-only black teas can not only be intense (although the opposite can be true, often more so for large bud versions) but they can also usually produce a lot of pleasant infusions, so this tea should be far from finished, probably not even half finished.

I don't intend to keep describing rounds though; aspects tend to shift in later rounds for black teas but it's typically not as with sheng pu'er, where transition can move into different ranges (or become far less pleasant, depending on the tea).  I'll try a couple more and if anything stands out I'll note it, but let the round by round approach drop.


the teas kept brewing lots of great infusions


I did brew more Lapsang Souchong leaves, but the JJM was more intense


Conclusions:


Not much to add; these did produce a lot of additional amazing infusions, but it was nice drinking those without making notes, focusing on the experience instead.  I've lost count and the teas aren't finished; it must be around 10 infusions already.  Out towards that the character changes a little for drawing out infusion time to keep the intensity up but they're both still exceptional.

I don't regret focusing a lot more on sheng pu'er over the last two years; it has been nice getting that partly sorted out.  I would've expected to get further so many examples and reviews along but exploring that range takes some doing.  Teas like these are great for cutting out that sort of process.  There are some variations for aspect range within these two types of teas but the main thing is trying higher and lower quality versions.  No tea is ever the best possible example of a type, there's always something else out there, but these are towards the high end for sure. 


my favorite picture of Cindy



Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Water testing, Alishan oolong using Volvic versus filtered local tap water




This is a follow-up to the prior water input testing, using Volvic and filtered tap water to brew both Rou Gui and sheng pu'er (a Lao Man E version, not the best choice, sorting out results past that bitterness).  In that testing Volvic brewed infusions were clearly better for both types in the first and second infusion, and not quite as positive as the filtered tap water versions in the 4th and 5th infusions.  I guessed about why in that post, but I'm really not certain.

It seemed better to try this using a mild tea version, something flavorful enough that results in that range would stand out, with feel and aftertaste aspects to evaluate, but with a generally mild tone making finer distinctions stand out better.  Alishan oolong should work better.  I had a couple of samples of what should be pretty good oolong left to try from Song Yi tea, the Taiwan based vendor source I'd reviewed a Brown Mountain (Bulang) sheng pu'er and Mannuo sheng from.

Those both were a lot better than I expected, and a good value for the quality level, so it seemed the two oolong samples they sent would probably be even more interesting, for actually being Taiwanese teas.  I just never got back to trying them.  Those reviews were in July and September of this year; it can work out like that, when lots of vendors send samples to try.


The earlier post on a water input testing outlines Volvic details, and as much as I know about the local municipal water.  I cited a lot of real-time testing (monitoring) results in that post, from over last weekend, but I'll skip that here.  Since it didn't list out mineral content as grams / liter amounts by type the half dozen factors they do monitor aren't really of as much interest.  Ph is always around 7 for that; it should be fine (although it is 7.25 right now at the station nearest to home).


I'm filtering this local water too, so whatever is in it is reduced, but I don't have measurements for anything but free chlorine and total chloride levels.  I'm more concerned with calcium, magnesium, and total dissolved solids measurements, which they don't provide.


the ph monitoring result just now


I did turn up a dated 2014 study of mineral content of water sources in Thailand, including Bangkok tap water, which may or may not pass on some idea of what was in that water:




There's really no guarantee that's at all relevant to what I'm using to make tea five years later, and again to repeat, whatever had been in that water was partly filtered back out.  The last water test review post included some real-time measurements (of free chlorine, chloride, and turbidity), just not including calcium, magnesium, and total dissolved solids values.


Background on the Song Yi Alishan oolong:



It would work to cite more input about the tea, even though I tend to see light Alishan as varying more by quality level than other factors, so basically it's something you judge for yourself once you try the tea:

Origin :Tea-growing region with gravelly soil
            Camphor Tree Lake Stone Table, Alishan, Chiayi County

Altitude :1,500 to 1,700m above sea level
Cultivar :Qingxin (Green-Core) Oolong
Flavor :Orchid aroma, Almond Peach scent
Fermentation :30%
Roast :Light


On their sales page 150 grams of this is selling for $45, so $15 per 50 gram amount.  In retrospect, after trying it, that sounds about right; the version quality is pretty good.  It would be a lot easier to find versions selling for in that range that weren't as good than it would be to find a better quality example selling at the same price, which would seem unlikely.

Versions can get better than this, emphasizing floral range just a little more, dropping back the limited vegetal range, bumping intensity or thickness a little, or that one characteristic mineral aspect, but this one seemed pretty far up the scale.  For sticking within a moderate price range this is good quality and type-typical, just what you'd hope it would be.

Review:


Volvic: flavor is nice; it includes that nice floral range that signifies Taiwanese high mountain oolongs. Mineral undertone is nice, pronounced.  This includes a little vegetal range that distinguishes the best light oolongs from quite good versions, or at least that's my take.


Filtered Bangkok tap water: not all that different. There might be a trace more vegetal range, slightly less high note floral, and a little more perfume base. For those minor differences it's about the same. Trying a faster infusion might help to tease out minor differences. Thick feel and pleasant aftertaste is common to both.


Volvic left, filtered tap water right


Second infusion:


There is a slight brewed color difference; the tap water version is slightly darker.

Volvic: slightly improved; floral range hits even harder, perfume like base is even stronger. Vegetal range is still notable, a touch of green wood. Feel is thick, and mineral and floral both trail after as aftertaste.


Tap water: maybe slightly less high end note, slightly deeper perfume base, more mineral tone. Those last two differences I'd expect related to brewing the tea slightly longer, just probably not the first. That one almost odd, characteristic mineral taste is stronger, not completely unlike new car smell, a unique mineral range. It's flinty, as much as anything.

Making a "better" judgement is tough; they're just different. The Volvic version is better for being slightly sweeter with a touch more floral high note. The tap water version has a lot more mineral base and perfume depth, a less bright floral range closer to lavender. Vegetal range shifts in form a little in each, slightly stronger and just different in the tap water version.


Third infusion



I think the tap water may be brewing stronger, based on color and also taste and feel aspects, but I'm not sure why. Proportion, temperature, and timing are definitely all identical, or at least very close to it, so it's not one of those.  The proportion is too high; I'm not as accustomed to judging rolled oolong amounts these days, and used the smaller version of tasting gaiwans, but didn't bump down the amount (probably a 60-70 ml version, versus the 80-90 ml versions I use more frequently).


Volvic: pleasant; sweet, rich, soft, intense but not overly so. Floral range is slightly different, but the difference is so subtle it is hard to pin down.  The point here isn't to derive a flavor-list as much as specify differences anyway.


Tap water: more intense; it pops a little more. A touch more vegetal edge goes along with that, and more mineral. It comes across as creamier. These are definitely different, but again which is better would be a judgment call. The higher intensity is nice but a touch more vegetal range comes with that.

Fourth infusion:


More of the same, and I won't trail this tasting out to 8 or 9 rounds to see the whole cycle. It's interesting that the prior pattern of tasting two other teas didn't hold, that the Volvic didn't seem clearly more positive early on, and then the tap water better after the 4th infusion.

I thought I probably did like the Volvic version slightly better on this fourth infusion, that being a little lighter and sweeter worked out better, versus there being a bit more vegetal and mineral range in the tap water version.  But the tap water version was fuller in feel, and on the fifth infusion I thought it was more positive for that reason, with flavor differences secondary to that distinction in that round.

Potential next steps:


Not much to conclude; the two outcomes were different, but neither was really notably better.  The Volvic version was a bit lighter and sweeter, the tap water outcome richer in feel, heavier in mineral, and in some cases it had slightly more flavor intensity.  More than that flavor aspects just shifted slightly, in ways that was about as neutral as related to being positive or negative.

I suppose it's some comfort that it seems to not make much difference.  Using Volvic, cited as some people's favorite in online discussion (which of course others disagree with) didn't prepare notably better tea than filtered local tap water.  Oddly it was a lot more positive for the first two rounds of brewing the Rou Gui in the last post.  And it was probably slightly more positive early in the infusio cycle for the Lao Man E sheng as well, but for both that bitterness hit so hard "better" was about sorting past that in those two infusions.  This oolong never really matched that outcome, or the tap water version becoming notably better in later infusions.

I think people could have expected one or the other to be better, and based on that expectation and a positive interpretation could have judged that either one of these outcomes was clearly better.  It seems natural to say "depends on preference" instead, but it's not as if flavor was better for one and feel better for the other, as if an aspect category worked out better using one of the water sources.  Although these seemed relatively different prepared side-by-side I think for tasting them days apart prepared using the two water versions it would be hard to separate out that difference.  The basic character and aspects profile was the same.

I could keep going, trying other versions of water.  This didn't cover RO (reverse osmosis) water, a version stripped of almost all mineral content.  There are other types of water at home (my wife is into mineral water these days, for whatever reasons), and I could run this again prepared using a number of different versions.  It would be interesting checking out results using a water type that's very high in mineral content, with this Volvic seemingly on the moderate end of the scale, especially related to calcium and magnesium levels.  I'm not sure that I'll keep on with this for now though; it adds a good bit of messing around to tasting, and I have teas around to try that deserve more attention than this tasting format allows for.


Water type experiments, with Wuyi Origins Rou Gui and KTM Lao Man E sheng








This is all a bit much.  I've been meaning to test the effect of using different water versions on tea for awhile, it was just always too much messing around to get to it.  Now that I finally did results were interesting, but one part related to sample type selection could have went better.

In retrospect it was odd using teas I hadn't reviewed before, and teas of this quality level for this purpose.  Cindy's Wuyi Origin Rou Gui versions are about as good as that type ever gets, and the fruitier version is a strong contender for my favorite tea among all types and versions.  I guess the reasoning was that using good tea is going to tell more of the story related to what input the water has, versus using teas that are of medium quality, and trying to extrapolate results to likely outcome if the teas had been better.  It was also about just using interesting versions that I had around.

The same concern and atypical theme applies for the King Tea Mall Lao Man E sample; this is a gushu version from a respected, in demand origin area.  It's questionable judgement, shifting focus off the tea onto the effect water mineral content variation has on preparing it.  One might argue that both can be covered at the same time, but per the actual experience a lot gets lost.

About water type / input testing in general, it had always seemed next to impossible to identify what a really good or ideal source of water would be.  Really doing that process justice would involve trying lots of water types, and then probably folding in how that varies across at least a few different tea types.  Online discussions of water mineral levels as an input have been interesting, and standard patterns of opinions do emerge, but nothing that works well as starting point guidance. 

Avoiding high levels of calcium is generally advocated, for example, but my own interpretation of what would be low, medium, and high based on sampling lots of hearsay may or may not be remotely reliable.  I mentioned some advice passed on by Peter Jones in covering some theory in this post, which was really about trying a Myanmar Kokang shu version:

We are still several months away from any conclusions. But basically you want your alkalinity to be 1/2 your total hardness, a pH in the 7s, and a balance of 2/1 of Ca to Mg. The other positive ion mineral salts also play a role in extraction...

The form I finally arrived on--definitely not a final word on a practical, functional approach--was to try two completely different teas using Volvic water (which gets mentioned as some people's personal favorite), compared to the filtered local Bangkok tap water I use at home.  It was a stretch but I picked two relatively random, opposite type teas I happened to have on hand, a Rou Gui and a sheng pu'er.  It turned out to be not the best selection because I didn't factor in the high level of bitterness in the sheng version (a Lao Man E); kind of an obvious mistake to make, in retrospect.  Trying an already familiar, milder version would've made a lot more sense.

I can't describe what the local water is like in relation to lots of other sources, but of course I have tried the same teas prepared using it and also other spring water, RO water, and whatever is being used in other places.  My friend Sasha had a favorite spring water he used, for example, and some of those teas I had tried at home, a number of versions tasted there many times.  A vendor at an expo had been using RO water, and I re-tasted the same teas I tried with them again at home within a couple of days, and I try teas in shops sometimes.  To really isolate differences trying the tea prepared together is all but essential; the point here is that how differences in water source work out in general, and how the local water compares, isn't completely unfamiliar.

Bangkok municipal water had been truly awful, years back.  It varied so much even the color and smell could be off.  We used bottled spring water for years, or at least local water sold as such, which really could be different things.  As of a few years ago we switched over to using a multi-stage filtration system, and the water seems fine.  Per online hearsay the tap water here is based on rainwater sources instead of natural spring origin, so it's low in mineral content, which makes sense given that it rains a lot and we're not exactly near a mountainous or even hilly area.  Per other hearsay local distribution systems are a main problem for water quality, the pipes from there to houses, not so much what the processing centers put out, or even use of old pipes in your house.  It probably helps to live right beside one of the main Royal palaces in Bangkok as we do; infrastructure seems pretty stable and well maintained.

One might expect the water quality and mineral contents to vary based on lots of local factors, and I'm not certain that it doesn't.  I've included a number of captures from the local Bangkok real-time water quality monitoring system, from when I tried these teas, but of course those don't include a measurement of contents broken out by mineral grams / liter at any given time.

It would make the most sense to run this type of comparison multiple times, evaluating tea types one at a time.  I didn't do that, I tried two types together.  That I still don't consider a mistake; I've been training to do comparisons that make sense, or else those that don't instead, for about three years now.  I've tried hundreds of teas over uncountable combined tasting sessions.  It's familiar ground.  If someone without that odd tasting habit wanted to get the clearest results I'd definitely recommend using the more intuitive approach, trying the teas one at a time, perhaps using 3 or 4 types of water to add review complexity.  Selecting mild, well-known versions of teas would probably work best, regardless of type; that part was a mistake.

I'll probably try this again with a rolled oolong version to see how it works with a very mild but complex tea, which should also help to isolate feel effect even better.


Review, comparison of Wuyi Origins Rou Gui with two water types:



Rou Gui with Volvic:  just amazing tea!  I'm not sure if that's the water though.  This didn't say if it was fruity type or cinnamon Rou Gui but judging from the heavy, warm cinnamon taste it's that.  Flavor is intense, feel is thick, level of roast is perfect, slightly noticeable but only complimentary.

Rou Gui with filtered tap water:  this is similar but the flavor may pop a little less.  It seems to be drawing out a lightly different vegetal note, as if the warm mineral resembles celery just a little.  Cinnamon is slightly flattened out.  This difference is so minor that tasting across different times it wouldn't really stand out as much, but side by side it does quite a bit.  Sweetness is down just a little too.  It's the same great tea, almost the same flavor profile and feel, just a little different.

an early round; color differences didn't seem to tell a lot of story, so I'll pass on adding more about that


Second infusion:


Rou Gui with Volvic:  this tea is just perfect as cinnamon intensive Rou Gui goes.  The balance, intensity, all the profile taken together; this is it.  The cinnamon part really jumps out.  It's warm and rich, almost connecting a little with a very subtle roast level, or maybe it only seems that way.

Rou Gui with tap water:  it's almost the same experience but it is missing some of the one high point that makes the other tea experience so special, the brightness, sharpness, and intensity of that cinnamon flavor.  The deeper tones and supporting elements carry across fairly well; fullness and body isn't bad, kind of similar.  The first version might have a slightly heavier, oilier feel, which is more positive.  It's a quite similar tea experience but funny how those parts that seem most interesting and critical are what flattens out.


It's too early for conclusions but the results already seem clear enough; this local water doesn't work as well.  I don't foresee buying bottled water to drink tea with though.  I wouldn't throw out a few large plastic bottles a week to get this effect difference, or probably even one 1.5 liter bottle a week to review using a different version.  It's a shame the local water isn't better but adding expense and impacting the environment to drink slightly different versions of tea isn't going to work out.  Maybe a charcoal treatment effect will help; that idea comes up a lot.

Later edit:  it was too early for conclusions; the opposite kind of trend turned up in the fourth and fifth infusions, a trend that was much more pronounced in the sheng version.

Third infusion:


Rou Gui with Volvic:  This tea is probably evolving a bit in character but I've lost track of clear prior impression to describe that.  It's still great, probably with a slightly shifted balance of aspects.

Rou Gui with tap water:  it's great with this water too, with less difference standing out than had initially.  It's still not quite as intense, giving up just a little sweetness, and more so dropping out just a little punch in the warm cinnamon aspect.  There is a very minor difference in the mineral tone, so subtle it would only come across in direct comparison, but it doesn't work to describe it or judge how negative it is.  I think it is slightly negative versus neutral, but that's a judgement call at this point, as much just a difference.


Fourth infusion:


Rou Gui with Volvic:  a slightly dry underlying mineral in this might have increased this round, it just doesn't stand out as much in this as it had for the sheng at this stage, or take exactly the same form.  The tap water version is just as good this round, or perhaps even slightly better.  So strange; I have no idea why that would be.  I would expect effects to shift a lot for increasing brewing time in later round but this isn't really onto that as much as it would be in two more infusions.

Rou Gui with tap water:  still really exceptional, not losing anything for intensity or positive range.  I think depth is picking up, that the one-note emphasis on cinnamon is deepening to include a lot of other warmer tone range, that it balances even better.  It was great the other way too though, focused more on that one flavor aspect.

Fifth infusion:


I'll lengthen infusion time slightly but these teas are holding up; adding a lot of time for that wouldn't be positive.  I'm brewing these over 10 seconds now, for what I'd take to be optimum, maybe around 15, but it goes without saying that I'm not timing this, since I just don't.


Rou Gui with Volvic:  mineral is a bit much in this, a dry version of it.  Looking at the mineral profile calcium and magnesium seem to be at the level I'd expect to work best, based on following online discussions about that (12 mg and 8 mg, respectively).  It's not "hard" water, but that should be enough to play a standard role in extraction and setting profile.  The rest, the total dissolved solids value, would be a bit much; there's lots of other minerals in this.  This is still really pleasant, and a very nice citrus aspect is ramping up in this tea, a "chen pi" dried mandarin peel type effect.

Rou Gui with tap water:  slightly better than the Volvic, for not including so much of that dry mineral effect.  The rest of the profile is similar.  The citrus part may be at a slightly lower level, so not as intense or positive, but the overall effect is better for not tasting as much like that dry version of mineral.  Mineral is great in tea, in the right balance; it grounds the experience.  Older plant source teas and natural origin teas seem to express a lot of that, an underlying mineral element supporting overall complexity.  It's just slightly nicer in this tap water version for balancing better, in this particular infusion of this tea, per my judgement.  The difference in extracting other flavor range hasn't dropped out but is has shifted in balance; it seems to matter less.

I didn't note differences or aspect range for feel or aftertaste much for these; that didn't seem to vary as much as flavor related to the water type input.


a later round; adjusting infusion times would change effect of color difference



Lao Man E sheng water source input testing:


King Tea Mall 2018 Lao Man E sheng gushu with Volvic:  bitterness stands out; to be expected.  One could learn to love that effect, even at this level, but I haven't.  If it balances well with the rest I can appreciate it, even like it, but this is a bit much.  The tea seems to obviously be good tea; all the other markers for quality work out, thick feel, clean flavors, depth and complexity, lingering aftertaste.  That front end bitterness really defines the experience though, then it trails on, not dropping that much intensity for awhile.  At least sweetness goes along with it, and there is plenty of other range.  I'd expect it to drop off a little by round 3 or so but I'm not sure how far past that I'll get.

Lao Man E with filtered tap water:  a touch of metallic taste seems to be added to the rest.  That extended aftertaste is going to make this a terrible choice for combined tasting though, about as poor a choice as one could make.  I might have considered that, but it's not like I'm drinking Lao Man E all the time.  Rinsing your palate with plain water (not warm, not cold) works, but it's a lot to rinse in this case.  Making mistakes to learn from can be a good thing, it's just more pleasant when they're less obvious, less stupid mistakes.

In general the flavor profile seems to pop a little less, again, with that mineral difference the main change.  Sweetness may be slightly reduced but bitterness is dominating the flavor profile anyway, so it would stand out less.

Second infusion:


Lao Man E with Volvic:  bitterness is easing up; it's balancing a little better.  It won't be until the next round this approaches a more conventional sheng profile though, more evened out.  The point here is the difference anyway.

Lao Man E with tap water:  beyond a touch of mineral difference in this (not really a positive one; a touch of metallic flavor) and a slightly reduced fullness of feel it's similar.  The other Volvic brewed version comes across as slightly sweeter.  In the case of the Rou Gui it's about a shift in the best attributes being slightly dimmed, but the character isn't so different beyond that.  In the case of this it comes across differently.  That shift in underlying mineral, slightly less full feel, and slight reduction in sweetness seems to add up to change the tea character more.  They're only small shifts, and the basic aspects are the same beyond that, the general feel, flavors range, aftertaste, feel, but the effect is more of a change, or a change at a deeper level.  Again the Volvic brewed tea is just better; there was no trade-off that benefited using this local Bangkok tap water, at least not yet at this stage of infusions.

Third infusion:


Lao Man E with Volvic:  this is much better balanced for transitioning over those rounds.  Not in comparison with sheng that doesn't emphasize bitterness, if someone doesn't like bitterness, but I'm fine with it at this level, it's just definitely not a close match to personal preference.  The thick feel is nice, how clean this tea is, how the different layers of aspects work together.  One part under that is actually a little floral, drifting a little towards fruit, but deeper light mineral is really stronger. 

Rich, full feel is nice.  Aftertaste works a lot better for dropping off.  Usually people would couple those last two descriptions with where the feel impacts your mouth or throat, with aftertaste also related to a lingering feel.  I'm never so good with all that, in part for not valuing it.  It probably is as much a valid quality marker as what I do pick up more, but it seems a developed preference that would be as natural to never develop.

Lao Man E with tap water:  this finally works about as well as the other version.  It gives up a little thickness in feel but somehow the fruit and floral range (complex, but subtle, hard to define) is standing out a little more in this.  It might be working out as well or even better for not stripping out as intense a version of that bitterness.  Feel losing a little thickness isn't as positive.

The floral and fruit range I can try to define, to describe, but it would be a guess:  it's bright and sweet, so along the line of plumeria and dried mango.  There are lots of types of dried mango, so those tend to vary a lot, but that gets complicated to wade into that.  The brighter, sweeter, more citrus oriented kind.  In retasting both that bitterness hitting a little harder in the Volvic version isn't quite as positive, to me.  It may make for an exception that stripping out a little less intensity wouldn't always be a bad thing.

Fourth infusion:


Lao Man E with Volvic:  it's really strange how this is exhibiting a stronger mineral aspect, a slight metallic range.  It's almost as if I've mixed up the water sources, but then this probably does have more mineral content, so maybe that makes sense.  I have no idea what that means.

Lao Man E with tap water:  it's nice how that balance evened out.  Bitterness is still pronounced but the proportion is more relatable now.  The complexity is nice, the range of flavor, and how feel and aftertaste contribute to overall effect.


Fifth infusion:


Lao Man E with Volvic:  a dry mineral input is much stronger in this tea version.  It tips just a little towards how chlorine comes, that's just not it.  It's much more positive to say it tastes like limestone, and to be fair it's really in between the two.

Lao Man E with tap water:  there is less mineral effect in this, making it come across as sweeter in character, and better balanced.  I don't know that it is actually sweeter; that may just be how it seems, without as much of the mineral input changing things.  The tap water version was actually slightly better over the last two infusions, but to be fair the difference is a bit minor.


Conclusions:


It's crazy that two main shifts occurred in difference, varying a lot in early and later rounds.  Volvic brewed tea was clearly much better over the first two infusions, and clearly not as positive in the last, probably more even in the fourth, with tap water working just a little better in that round too.  I can't really unpack or explain that.  Somehow a shift in flavor and feel proportion across rounds favored the Volvic earlier on, and the filtered tap water later (which probably contains a lot less mineral).

It's worth noting that different people can and do use completely different timing sequences related to brewing different rounds to different infusion strengths.  It's more common to use lower proportions and longer times, and then to extend the timing more across later rounds than I tend to.  Why that is becomes a lot to account for, and beyond citing personal preference some of the rest wouldn't be clear.  It's hard for me to account for why people like tea prepared differently than I do; to some extent I suppose I never could.

It could be interesting to consider the water mineral content though, starting with the Volvic listing:




I'm kind of guessing, since I have been involved with plenty of discussions about water content but haven't memorized ranges, but the calcium and magnesium levels look ok, if maybe even a little low.  Per discussions those two are the main factors, with a moderate amount improving results, and high levels throwing them way off.  Looking back through old discussions and references, Rie Taluli did a review post comparing tasting results using of a number of types for green tea, and in a discussion comment of that post Peter Jones (who is into reviewing mineral effect themes) cited listings of standard mineral content of a number of brands:


EVIAN - Natural spring in France - 290mg/L sodium bicarbonate, 81mg/L calcium, 27mg/L magnesium, 6.7mg/L sodium. 

AQUAFINA (Pepsi), DASANI (Coke) - Municipal water through RO - no sodium bicarbonate, no calcium, no magnesium, no sodium. 

GLACEAU (Coke) - Municipal water through RO - no data, but unlike Dasani, they then add back in for flavor the calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate. 

FIJI WATER - Natural spring in Fiji - 153mg/L bicarbonate, 18mg/L calcium, 14mg/L magnesium, 18mg/L sodium. 

NESTLE PURE LIFE - Municipal water through RO - no bicarbonate, 7.4-11mg/L calcium, 2.9-5mg/L magnesium, 4.4-9mg/L sodium. 

ARROWHEAD (Nestle) - Natural spring in Arkansas - no bicarbonate, 4-66mg/L calcium, 1.4-19mg/L magnesium, 3-17mg/L sodium.


I can't imagine that using Evian would work well, and it's odd that Arrowhead water is so inconsistent, but I'll leave off saying much more about the rest.  I do come back to the sodium level idea related to the local water version level.

About the local water description, some input is offered by Bangkok real time tap water quality monitoring (http://twqonline.mwa.co.th/EN/map.php?type=).  We live next to the Chitralada station, in the center.  These don't mean that much to me but they could to someone else:


free residual chlorine levels, Nov 9, 2019, 1 PM


chloride levels (mg / L)


turbidity (NTU)


ph


salinity, listed as g / L (seems wrong, too high?)


July 2019 ph capture (to show variability)


I don't know what was in that water, for specific mineral content, and I don't know what the filtration process would have removed.  Chloride level was around 4 mg / l in this water, versus 15 mg / l in Volvic, but what of that?  Salinity just seemed wrong; those readings would seem like way too much salt, in the 150 mg / l range.  What if that is right; shouldn't the water taste like salt?  As a baseline I checked how much is in seawater:

On average, seawater in the world's oceans has a salinity of approximately 3.5%, or 35 parts per thousand.  This means that for every 1 litre (1000 mL) of seawater there are 35 grams of salts (mostly, but not entirely, sodium chloride) dissolved in it.


So 35,000 mg / l, which still doesn't answer if I could taste 150 mg, but it's a context of sorts.  It occurred to me that salt is sodium chloride, so unless I'm missing something the two values don't match up, the measured amounts of chlorides and salinity.  That prompted me to look up answers to both questions, how much salt can one taste, and what are normal levels for these.  This WHO reference covers the first:

Taste thresholds for sodium chloride and calcium chloride in water are in the range 200–300 mg/litre (2). The taste of coffee is affected if it is made with water containing a chloride concentration of 400 mg/litre as sodium chloride or 530 mg/litre as calcium chloride (3).



I don't think we can take that second sentence as good input about coffee enthusiast perspective.  More input from that source pins down range of chloride in typical fresh water:

The mean chloride concentration in several rivers in the United Kingdom was in the range 11–42 mg/litre during 1974–81..


That still doesn't resolve the monitoring inconsistency between salinity and choloride levels, but it is interesting to compare that to sodium levels in the other bottled waters.


Further conclusions:


That last section was mislabeled, wasn't it; not much for conclusions in there, or even speculation.

I suspect this tap water version ended up with very little mineral content in it, due to starting out with limited amounts and filtration removing some.  It's interesting to consider that tea producing more positive infusions initially might generally relate to producing less positive infusions across later rounds.  At least that did happen here, per my interpretation, and it may work out as a somewhat uniform generality (or may not; that goes without saying).  This could explain why some people push teas to produce very long counts of infusions, and others tend to not like them as much after a much shorter sequence, although simple preference difference seems to be just as relevant an input. 

Then again, who knows.  Round after round of trying out lots of water and tea versions would tell a longer, more accurate story.  In online discussion it's not uncommon for people to claim that they prefer different water (mineral content, presumably) for different tea types, and that would intuitively make sense.

I've never ran across much detailed speculation of why soaking bamboo charcoal in water is said to improve the results for making tea with it, even though people advocating that practice comes up a lot in discussion.  Even when it's being sold for this use, as in the case of this Yunnan Sourcing version, there's not necessarily a reason for why it might make any difference.  It probably does, it would just be interesting to hear guesses about why.  Here is one that Google search turned up, Tony Gebely's input, but somehow it's not satisfying as a complete and plausible explanation:


The idea behind bamboo charcoal, and any charcoal for that matter is the fact that it is extremely porous and will absorb impurities in water. It really isn’t “filtering” water if you set a stick in the water, in order to filter the water, the water must pass through granulated charcoal or some other medium (this is how Brita filters work)...


It would seem that it could be both adding and removing minerals from the water, and that only testing, instead of speculation or traditional input, would shed light on this.  I would tentatively accept that it really does improve results, although that would be clearer to me if I tried it myself.