Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Anatomy of a failure: tea tasting

The most recent attempt at a tea tasting wasn't a complete failure, because I had a pleasant time having tea with two local friends.  We swapped teas to try, both there and for later on; many thanks to both for that, and for attending.  One was Danittha / Pop (Thais always have nicknames), who I've met a few times now, and also Noppadol, a local tea vendor who was at the two earlier versions.  He sells unusual teas here, and Lamphang Thai sheng versions here.

Related to sharing tea with people I didn't already know, people new to the subject, through social-media event notices, that didn't work out at all.  No one else attended, which wasn't a complete surprise.  It is an unconventional theme.

The tasting I'd set up due to a demand to meet four different people the week prior, for the most part initiated by them.  I did meet one guy, to pick up tea sent by a friend in India, but meeting three others separately within a week wasn't going to work.  As it worked out the two people I planned it with both missed it, and those two other local tea friends attended instead.

small tastings worked at Sasha's place; the "intro to tea" theme was always a stretch (Pop is on the right)

This post title is a reference to one of my favorite Youtube channels, from a guy who breaks down movie reviews as either successes or failures (always with the extremes, right?), related to film-theory expectations and overall results, as in this:

Why Captain Marvel Failed where Wonder Woman Worked

That analyst, who has a really cool accent related to this credential "Krakozhia's #1 content creator," wouldn't focus on the potential social-justice oriented issues that tend to get press in the Captain Marvel movie.  He explores film-theory informed experiential aspects, developing characters, story arc set-up, etc., as typified in another video about why Wonder Woman worked in spite of including one very significant story line flaw.

A concurrent sports analogy

Something my kids experienced this weekend reminded me a little of this tasting event limitation, the "failure" theme.  They've been taking classes on ice skating, after a class series on roller blading earlier in the year.  My wife enrolled them in a day-long competition event held by the Bangkok Skating School, the group that held their earlier roller blading courses.  The one instructor, Ash, is an interesting guy (a Thai from Saudi Arabia previously, but that's not part of this story), who both my kids love.  Based on that alone, and their overall competency, I'd highly recommend that training group.

teacher Ash, Kalani (in the University of Hawaii shirt), and Olia, a much-missed Chinese friend

That event was setting up to be a bust early on.  My kids had been off roller blades for months and doing ramps was proving too much, even though they could do that with ease earlier in the year.  That outing wasn't set up as training, as a competition instead, as a way for kids from different schools and class programs to meet each other and interact.  But then they warmed up to it, and both did ok in a slalom course race.  Not great, not "placing," but they were doing fine.

 I hadn't given thought to them representing Penn State and University of Hawaii (ramp on the right)


Towards the end there was a relay race, and for whatever reason they had Kalani next to last and Keoni as the anchor.  He was the tallest; maybe for that reason.  It was an exciting race, close to even, with a few falls balanced out by other falls.  Kalani held her own in her leg, giving up a bit of ground, so that Keo just needed to beat his opponent by seconds to bring home the win.  Heading out to a turn at the end it was his to win or lose, neck and neck, and he covered that gap by skating faster on the first outward stretch than the other kid.  Whoever made that turn faster might win it.

He didn't judge the maximum speed right and went off course, crashing, losing the race on that turn instead of making it to a race down the final straightaway.  Heartbreaking!

But that's what they were really there for, learning to compete, how to win and to lose, along with just to have fun.  Every other kid I saw who crashed that day cried as a result, probably not sure if they were injured, hurt, or if only their hopes and expectations were shattered in that fraction of a second.

It had to sting for Keo but it just was what it was; he was under-prepared and made a mistake.  It was a natural one to make; he had caught up to the skater he was going up against, and closed that gap, but was carrying too much speed to make the turn.  He's done a lot of sports for as young as he is, and although it doesn't seem like he's experienced his fair share of victories just yet the ups and downs are already familiar.  Both of them went back to practicing on a second ramp in a different area, until they could clear it with ease.

resting between rounds

My favorite tea blogger, Geoffrey of Steep Stories, would have set this up better, told it better, and would have synced up the lesson learned in the race with the tasting shortfall.  But they were also just different kinds of things.  I did feel some sting of disappointment in inviting thousands of online group participants through a few linked notices (narrowed lots through feed filtering), and not having any show up.  It's hard to place what this trivial degree of "blog celebrity" means (some people actually read this), but events like this clarify that it just doesn't carry much weight.

That's close enough to how the earlier tastings had went before, but having a couple extra local friends as a starting point and a few actually turn out made for a different result.  It wasn't like losing a race, but both relate to dealing with disappointment.  In a way experiencing that race has me questioning if quitting or some form of reset is best.  If the event theme doesn't make sense then dropping it works, but quitting anything one values over a minor setback should be thought through.

I always could've been clearer on why I value getting the word out about tea.  "To help the producers" kind of works, and I kind of just need a hobby, and an excuse to write, but there must be more to it.  In part I want to share tea that vendors share with me to review; it seems only fair and balanced to do so.

Why this event didn't draw interest

I've held two small tasting events before that drew around 8 participants, with that one local friend Noppadol at all three.  That's a reasonable number; a dozen or more would be pushing it for the outing form.  So what changed, or what could have been improved?

My friend Sasha moved; that alone dropped out him and his wife Nok joining.  Now that I think of it prior to any of those open tastings we did a nice practice run, joined by one interesting local guy, in a local Bangkok park, Benjasiri.

Noppadol offered the following suggestions / explanations, with some of this also relating to Pop's input:

Event location was too remote:  this was at a local school and Chinese language academy where my son was taking a Mandarin lesson on Saturday morning.  It's not far from BTS or MRT stops (sky-train or subway), but it still is in an unfamiliar part of town, for many.  It's right beside Chulalongkorn University, if that rings a bell, but I didn't make any allowance to draw student interest there.

I had no idea that many people joined to wait out their kids' Mandarin lesson

Event location (form) is not ideal:  I don't think people were planning to go or avoiding an outing considering this level of detail, more that specialty tea just wasn't something they were going to go seek out.  All the same this was held in a food-court area in a public school and language center, which was quite pleasant and on the quiet side, but also well populated compared to my expectations.  My wife takes our son there on the weekends, and this is the first time I've ever spent the three hours there myself, so that part came as a surprise to me.

I suppose something beyond the school canteen / food court theme could be more appealing; it's just rows of tables, not so different in appearance than at a Tesco Lotus (grocery store version).

with Noppadol and Pop

Tea theme too vague:  I mentioned in an event notice that we would try different types, especially sheng ("pu'er-like" tea) from Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar.  Pop mentioned that most people who aren't already into tea wouldn't be familiar with sheng pu'er.  Probably true:  I told the staff in the Oriental Cultural Association office--where my son took that lesson--about the event, and no one there had ever heard of pu'er.   At least they had heard of oolong.

Noppodol's idea was that mentioning specific tea versions, adding more detail, like a tasting list, could increase interest.  Maybe.  I'm not sure that a more detailed presentation of rare black teas or oolongs would've been received differently.

Insufficient marketing:  the odd part for me is that I'm giving away tea at these, sharing it, and shouldn't need to push selling for that.  I suspect that's not really a positive, for many, since there is no pre-existing expectation related to joining open tea sharing events.

It might work even better to make up a more developed event framework, and notice reference, and to charge for the experience instead.  Value can be associated with cost; if I were to charge 1000 baht ($30) I'd be promoting the event as worth that much, with the potential for the opposite assumption to happen in relation to not charging.  As a fight promoter and commentator once said (Chael Sonnen, for people into the UFC) "if you fight for a dollar then you are worth a dollar."  A free event could be seen as either not of enough value to include a charge for it, or could actually be selling something, or might be so unconventional that people couldn't place what to expect.

Tea gear isn't sophisticated enough:  this definitely didn't make or break the event, but it fits in this section in another sense.  I make tea in a very basic, stripped-down form for myself, using only a gaiwan and a cup when I brew tea for myself.  I simply don't own the equipment to change that for this type of presentation. 

This is basically a philosophical choice, but also tied to a practical budget concern:  I don't set aside enough money to spend on tea, and don't like owning things I don't absolutely need.  I took up running a year ago, and of course bought shoes for that, but haven't tried on a basic sports watch my wife bought me because I want the running to be about the experience, not messing around with a device to track timing.  I do run 4 1/2 miles at roughly a 7 minute mile pace these days (7.4 km at a bit under 5 minutes per km), typically twice a week, so it's working out.

Back to tea gear, I've seen the relatively universal bamboo slat tea trays sold locally for not very much, in the $30-50 range, but I don't own one.  Or want to, really; if it adds no practical function it's not of interest to me, and tea wouldn't turn out differently if I spilled relatively little and used a cloth or napkin to clear that up.  I own a couple of clay pots but never really got far with that direction either.

minimalist or undeveloped, depending on spin.  it's cool having Keo in a photo, doing what he does, and my wife is never in pictures here.

Gong Fu brewing, backing up a bit:  Gong Fu brewing really means two different categories of things.  One is mainly about the tea proportion to water, brewing temperature, and limited infusion time; this is the sense in which I practice it.  The second sense relates to an array of devices and a somewhat ceremonial approach to preparing tea.  Most of the devices and steps have a function, they're not just for decoration, but essentially very little of the outcome is changed if you don't follow all the steps or own all the equipment.

As an example, a hot water rinse step cleans the teaware and warms it, but that shift in temperature doesn't change much, and with enough delay for other ceremonial steps between the rinse and brewing it wouldn't change anything.  "Tea pets," small figures that you pour tea over, in one interpretation to support making wishes, can be regarded as purely cosmetic.  Maybe the use of bamboo tongs too; they look cool but you can just pick the items up with your fingers.  A sharing pitcher actually has a function, as does the straining step.  Of course there are Chinese terms for all that gear; since I'm not into that scope the names tend to not stick.

one of my first intros to tea, at a Huawei cultural presentation, 7 or 8 years ago

Outing details

We shared some tea; that was the point, and it worked out.  Rather than add more about time-line, or the role my kids played in visiting (not much, although they were both there at the end) I'll just mention the teas we tried.

2018 Kokang Myanmar sheng

Familiar enough to me, since I've been trying versions of Myanmar sheng ("pu'er-like" tea) for years, and I met this tea producer at an event, who gave me this tea in July of this year.  It's a bit bitter, and quite sweet, but on the whole very approachable and pleasant, definitely good quality tea.  The feel could be a little thicker and aftertaste a little more pronounced (tied to quality markers and what many prefer in sheng), but related to flavor, astringency, and overall balance it's quite good.

leaning into the retrospective theme; the Kokang producers at a Bangkok expo this year

I tried to pass on samples of a 2006 Kokang sheng version I also brought to try, that we didn't get to, but the high level of compression of that version made it impossible to do so in a hurry at the end of the tasting.  In part due to that high compression that tea really needs a half dozen more years to age to reach more of its potential, but it is interesting to check out in its current form.

Kinnari Tea Phongsaly Laos local sheng (2019, I think)

This isn't really a Kinnari product in the ordinary sense; Anna, the owner of that company, passed on an experimental local production version from a manual cake pressing training session.  It's pleasant tea, maybe only slightly more rustic and unconventional than the Kokang version.

That type of description tends to cover a lot of range, from a tea version only expressing a slightly different flavor profile and feel, on to one that's bordering on not being sheng at all.  This is the former; it's clearly a conventional sheng, just an unusual version of one, as much as any character can be unusual within the broad range those cover.  It was slightly less sweet than the Kokang version, slightly warmer toned, with more mineral base, not really lower quality or less well balanced in overall effect, just different.

pressing worked out; it's a cool small cake version

Yunnan version:  a tea version the Pop (Danitha) brought I don't remember the origin of, beyond it being actual Yunnan sheng, maybe one 4 or 5 years old instead.  With that as an intro and framing I'll keep the description here limited.

It was interesting, a bit subdued and earthier, much different than the other two tea versions, not necessarily clearly better or worse.  A match to personal preference probably would've outlined that differently for each of us.  Those standard quality markers (positive flavor range, balanced astringency, bitterness, and sweetness, fullness and type character of feel, aftertaste range experience) didn't seem to mark it as much better tea than the other two, but it seemed quite reasonable as quality level goes, perhaps most different related to age range.

It's odd that I don't even remember the broad area; maybe the village name cited wasn't familiar related to that, or maybe it was and memory just isn't my thing at this point.  Have I mentioned that?

Bing Dao huang pian, provided by Noppadol

The name of some higher-demand local tea areas immediately brings up the question of whether a version is actually what it's presented as, and this origin ranks fairly high as this factor goes.  I mentioned in discussion that I've tried tea versions presented as Lao Ban Zhang three different times and can't be sure if I've actually tried any tea from that area or not yet.  Maybe I did three times, maybe none.  One of those versions caused perhaps the strongest drug-like effect I've felt from a tea, and another had a really cool, distinctive, complex and sweet flavor, that included bitterness, and an unusual level of transition of the experience across drinking it.  At least they were all pleasant.

Bing Dao huang pian mini brick

This Yunnan Sourcing reference of their own Bing Dao version covers part of how that goes:

Made entirely from Spring harvested tea leaves! Bing Dao Lao Zhai (lit Bing Dao Old Village) is one of the two villages called "Bing Dao".  There is Bing Dao Xin Zhai (lit.  Bing Dao New Village) as well, which is the more famous of the two villages in the same area.  Bing Dao Lao Zhai trees range in age from 100-300 years old, and while there are older trees we were not privy to that material due to high demand and very high prices.   That being said this is still the most expensive Lincang tea we have ever produced.  It is also one of the best we have produced and if you want to drink Bing Dao tea from spring harvest and from old trees, then this is an excellent choice!

It's interesting that "Bing Dao" means "Ice Island" in Chinese, because this tea is very cool in the mouth and is at once subtle and powerful.  It's got a "creep up on you" cha qi and a powerful pungent mouth-feeling that will stay with you long after your session has ended.  There is is bitterness and astringency but it's never center stage and adds to the complexity of this tea.  One of the more difficult to describe raw pu-erhs I have had.  It can only really be judged by several sessions, so I recommend buying at least 25 grams to start.

That first sentence covers one way a vendor might source and sell authentic limited availability tea that costs below a typical market rate:  autumn harvest tea is lower in demand, and per most accounts not as intense or desirable in character.  Tea varies by so many factors it's always tricky isolating just one input factor as consistent, but some number of autumn harvest versions in that sorts of seems clearer.  Huang pian is usually lower in cost too, tea made from older or yellow leaves instead of the bud and first two. 

The rest is clear enough; local areas can have an edge, a slightly outlying area.  Or different source types can occur within a limited area, quite often tied to plant ages, with ways for demand level to vary by any of those factors, and for more inexpensive related versions to become available.

Sheng pu'er enthusiasts love to finally be able to flag a sales option that can't possibly be genuine, and tea-tree age and low cost selling points for a high-demand source area version are the two main triggers for that.  Especially tea-tree age; any claims of a source plant being over 1000 years old is very dubious, although I take most plant-age claims as meaningless myself, avoiding the grey areas of what to believe.  In earlier forms of vendor marketing that pattern wasn't so uncommon, as was parroting traditional health claims for tea (eg. oolong helps you lose weight).

My take is that local farmers and producers keep exaggerating source stories to sell the tea on their end, and resale vendors either actually believe absurdities or are complicit in passing on obvious falsehoods.  Verdant and Mei Leaf were swept up two of the main "scandals" related to this, with Mei Leaf going as far as claiming sheng was from 1600 year old plant sources, which is roughly the documented age of the oldest tea plants in existence.

Let's check Mei Leaf for a Bing Dao version description and see what they pass on:

Night Forest Muse

This tea was sourced from crazy old tea trees in the hallowed forests of Bing Dao - an area renowned for making potent tea. We estimate the tea trees to be between 500-800 years of age although this is not officially confirmed through testing.

Drinking this tea is a reminder of how PuErh is often judged by mouthfeel, finish and body sensation. The flavour and aroma are complicated and intriguing because of the level of minerality. I would say that the taste has fruits, flower, creaminess and sweetness but this is covered over by a layer of rockiness to make the experience altogether more 'mature'. So lemons become Limoncello, orange becomes blood orange, floral notes become dank, creaminess turns to burnt banana and dark toffee. All of these notes have to be uncovered through focusing beyond the mineral richness of the tea.

The party takes off after swallowing. This tea has such minerality that it makes your mouth fizz and there is a rising sweet and vaporous quality which feels like it goes into your head directly. It is pleasurable and at the same time a little overwhelming.

The body sensation is a potent one. In my experience, it causes excitability, giggliness and a floaty and shaking feeling in the legs with an almost narcotic dreaminess. This is a similar body high which I associate with Lao Ban Zhang...

Where to start.  There is no testing for tea tree ages, although the right plant experts could make very informed guesses, working with live plant versions.  Per some input even taking core samples won't work for plants of that type and age, and no one is going to drill a hole into a 500-800 year old tea tree to check anyway.  For the rest, sure, maybe.

It's interesting to note that both of these are priced in a comparable range (with the Mei Leaf version sold out); the Yunnan Sourcing tea is $150 / 250 grams (60 cents a gram), and Mei Leaf's had been 125 pounds per 200 gram cake (80 cents a gram, probably more before Brexit tore up the pound exchange value this year).

It's very difficult to find an online baseline example of what real Bing Dao is like or should cost.  This reliable puerh.fr reference sets up part of that background:

Bing Dao is now though and definitely the most famous village of Da Xue Shan, but also all the Yunnan and more than 2000 euros per kg of crude maocha (2014) , authentic teas Bing Dao reach prices which no young puerh could have asserted before. If it is less than a decade that we see such a craze around Bing Dao, the reputation of the village and its tea is not new and dates back to the fifteenth century...

...With only a few tons produced each year, the true teas village Bing Dao are found almost on the market where 99 % of what is sold as from Bing Dao is the best surrounding villages , and often not even Mengku . We must therefore go to the village Bing Dao, where cars are searched at the entrance to prevent the import of tea from the outside , but be prepared to put more than 1000 euros in a small pouch 500g of tea , to taste authentic teas old trees Bing Dao...

This isn't necessarily intended as a claim that the Mei Leaf version wasn't "real Bing Dao," but come on, it wasn't.  If it was from a nearby village it could still be exceptional, distinctive, even somewhat similar tea.  The problem comes up that if you buy a tea that clearly isn't what it's sold as, what is it then?  It could be anything.

This version from Noppadol was huang pian, older or yellow leaf tea.  It wasn't so exceptional in character or quality level, but then huang pian is a different kind of thing, mellower, often earthier, spanning a different aspect range.  It was interesting trying it; a nice experience.  Teas having a cool back-story can be nice, I personally just don't spend money on stories.  I barely have enough to spare on decent tea, given how other priorities work out.


I'll probably drop the tasting subject for awhile, maybe until some other external trigger brings it up again.  It really was nice meeting Noppadol and Pop again, and there's no reason why a two person tasting couldn't work out, why we needed to meet even that threshold of three people trying teas together.  I had brought tea to try alone to my kids' swim class a couple of weeks before, and that planned solo tasting outing was nice, something different.

It just doesn't make any sense as an open-event version, since it would take more extensive marketing to draw out participants.  If the demand isn't there then there is really no need to try and create it.  But  I do have a different idea to pursue on how to get the word about tea out.

meeting people this year; Kiattichai of Jip Eu ends up hosting limited notice, informal tastings quite often

The odd part is that I've met so many people visiting Bangkok this year, and have tasted teas at my favorite Chinatown shop (Jip Eu), or elsewhere, with so many.  Beyond that recent tea exchange I've also met an Indian visitor and a friend from Germany at that shop in the past few months, and others from those countries and also Laos and Russia, just between July and August.  The last meeting there with Sasha and Noppadol was early this year (in the one photo), awhile back now, but I think I've met both there two different times.

If I was in a social circle of even a half dozen local tea friends who were into outings this kind of thing would work out.  But I'm not.  That would be problematic, because I need all the free time I have to spend with my kids, who appreciate every moment together.  For many that would add up to a lack of balance, but for me the tea interest works for fitting into a limited space.

All the same if anyone who is local (or not local) has an interest in tea events I started a Bangkok Tea Tasting group to keep track of them awhile back, which others could use to mention their own events too.  That would be anticlimactic if that was the last planned event, but it probably won't be.

later that day; right back to practicing on the ice.  it's no easy life for these poor little buggers.

No comments:

Post a Comment