"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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.