Sunday, December 22, 2019

Laos old-tree green, compared with Thai and Japanese green teas

Laos tea lower left, Thai version upper center, Japanese sencha right

Another tea comparison tasting that may or may not end up make sense.  I thought this was the last sample to try from Phongsaly Laos Tea but it turned out that a second black tea version was coupled with this sample, which I hadn't noticed.  This is getting to the end of what I planned to try this year, and there aren't any other sets of samples I've tried none of, so down the scale of what's left to try.  It made for a brutal year keeping up pace but around 100 review posts later I've done it.

On this tasting theme, the Tea Side Thai green tea version (reviewed not so long ago) was one of the best green tea versions I have ever tried, or at least it matched my taste preferences well.  Since green tea is a least favorite category it's hard to be clear on what that means; maybe it's just not so grassy or heavy on seaweed.  Which is odd, because it's a steamed tea version, so you'd expect that.  It's also from old, natural growth plant sources, per my understanding, just one country over, from the North of Thailand instead of the North of Laos.

The Japanese green is a completely different thing; that comparison does make no sense.  I had a couple of green tea samples from one of my favorite vendor sources, Peter Pocjit of Tea Mania, out of Switzerland, that I'd never got around to trying.  It makes even less sense letting green teas sit for half a year or longer after harvest, especially when you live in the tropics, and it's hot.  We'll see how that held up, and how the other two teas compare to that type.  I won't be trying to place that sencha version on a scale of how others go, in relation to quality, regional character, and such; that's not the point here.

As to methodology I plan to split the difference between a Gongfu approach and Western brewing, to drop proportion a bit (4 grams or so, not measured; nothing ever is here), and let the time run a bit long, out towards 30 seconds, adjusting per round as I go.  Lots could not work related to that (unbalanced brewing results, less optimum outcome from parameters, complete contrast in styles throwing off combined evaluation, etc.), but some story should emerge.  I'll do a short intro of these teas from vendor descriptions, but I don't have one from Phongsaly Laos Tea, so I'll skip that.

Tea Side steamed green tea:

For this tea, we used Japanese traditional technology for steamed green tea but adapted it to the specifics of the material from old trees. It took several experiments to figure out the optimum steaming depth in order to remove the astringency of a powerful pu-erh leaf but to preserve the freshness and aroma of light and delicate green tea...

The aroma is sweet, appleish and floral. On the palate is a beautiful, whole and full-bodied mix of fruity-floral tropical notes. In the foreground are apples, plumeria and a bouquet of garden flowers. The finish is sweet and oily. The infusion is light, transparent, with a light green tint.

We recommend brewing this tea by short steepings for 3-5 seconds, using soft water. The temperature is about 80 degrees. 

That last part is interesting, recommending Gongfu brewing that fast.  I did back off that 30 second intended brewing time, not because of that, because I'm adding this citation during editing, just because it worked better.

Shoju (Tea Mania Sencha)

Tea from Tanegashima is the earliest tea that is harvested in Japan. This is possible due to the mild, marine climate on Tanegashima Island which allows the cultivation of particularly early-budding tea cultivars. The cultivar "Shoju" used for this tea even thrives exclusively on Tanegashima. The exceptional aroma and the fact that this is the first Shincha of the year makes "Shoju" one of the most popular teas in Japan.

Harvest: 23. March 2019 
Taste: Sweet and fruity aroma.
Origin: Tanegashima, Kagoshima prefecture, Japan.
Varietal: Shoju
Steaming: Fukamushi
Preparation: Appx. 5g per serving, temperature 70 - 80°C,  time 1 min.
Tip: Use rather a higher leaf to water ratio and infuse repetetly for short time. First infusion max. 60s and all futher infusions only 30s as the leaves are already soaked. Use a Kyusu tea pot.

Interesting variation in brewing conditions, with more on that harvest season background here.  This tea turned out a bit unique; I speculate about how storage may have played a role in that in the review.


Laos left, Thai middle, Japanese right, in all photos

These probably only brewed about 20 seconds; I tend to like to try a light infusion first, to get a first impression based on a lower intensity infusion.

Laos green (big tree 400 year; or however old the plants are, as covered last time):  interesting.  It's definitely green tea.  Sweetness is good, and flavors are clean, overall balance seems ok, but the flavor is typical of green tea.  Pleasant complex floral tones are a primary note and vegetables fill in after that, grassiness, probably green bean and bell pepper, although those will probably be a little clearer once this infuses a little more.  Feel is ok; there's a little edge to it but it's fine, and the thickness present works.  Mineral undertone seems pleasant.  The make or break for this version--only so far; it's too early to call--relates to how one relates to that grass and vegetable.  I'm fine with it but don't love it.

Thai ancient tree steamed green tea:  this always was going to be stiff competition, if one looked at the comparison that way; I've already said that it's as good a match to my preference as any green tea I've ever tried.  The experience hits you on a few levels at the same time, sort of leading to a double-take.  Sweetness stands out, and a warm, sweet flavor range (maybe spice-oriented as much as anything), along with mineral base.

Floral tone is notable, but there's a rich flavor aspect that's almost like brandy, subtle, but playing a significant role in the overall experience.  There's not really much grass or other vegetable to speak of; floral covers all of that related flavor range.  Even brewed light the tea has a depth to it.  Feel works well, and aftertaste, neither so notable as in teas where those are stronger that it plays the same kind of role, but both support overall effect in positive ways.  It'll be interesting to see how these two compare in the next two rounds once they "get going."

Souju Sencha (all of these are spring teas, I think, which goes without saying):  absolutely no point in comparing this tea to the other two; not a complete surprise.  It's thicker, brothier, not with an umami pop like seaweed but instead like roasted seaweed (those sheets my kids eat).  I've never had a sencha in this range before.

This actually reminds me of a dried river weed sheet I bought in Laos an awful long time ago, more than a decade now for sure, which I was really uncertain of at first but came to absolutely love.  I still think about that river weed from time to time; it really made an impression on me.  This tastes a good bit like pumpkin, a mix of roasted pumpkin, along with roasted pumpkin skin and the seeds.  I tend to cook either a Thai version of pumpkin or less often Japanese pumpkin here, which are slightly less sweet, closer to a squash of some sort (which they may be?), and this is closer to the Thai version.  Roasting those skins is nice; I eat them with a warm yellow curry mix, roasted along with butter, sometimes cooked so much that they darken, if I don't watch them.  They taste great "roasted out" like that too.

I'm glad that I tried this just to see how it is; never mind the comparison.  It's odd that a tea could be so far off what I've experienced before like that.  I wonder if the hot climate storage and aging didn't shift its character?  It had to be really intense originally, with very pronounced umami, but it seems conceivable that the brighter tones might have shifted quite a bit.  If so I probably like it better like this, but the taste-perspective of someone who doesn't love green teas is a strange reference to work from.

I should ask Peter to describe this and include a quote; difference in interpretation would shift things a lot but some of that might come across.  Vendor sales-page descriptions are usually a few terms long, once you look past origin info and the rest.  Probably with good reason; including interpretation that everyone would differ on might not be helpful anyway. [The sales page description is cited here now; it is a little non-specific].

Second infusion:

Sencha (right) brewing faster, apparent from the color

I'll keep this around 20 seconds and see how that works; too much more intense wouldn't be positive.

Laos:  much better, and much different.  A faint hint of smoke joined in; that's different.  Richness and flavor intensity really ramped up.  Brewing this any longer would've been problematic.  Floral tones picked up more than anything.  This probably tastes like three different flowers combined, all of which I don't recognize with certainty. That rich, heavy, sweet range lavendar covers is represented, along with brighter tone in orchid or lotus flower, probably with some mild, earthier version filling in tone making it seem so complex.  Part of the astringency edge, and floral taste, could relate to dandelion.  It still covers some vegetal range but it's really muted related due to that stepping back while the floral tone increased.  It comes across more as green wood now, a familiar range in different types of teas.

Thai:  not to be outdone this tea shifted a lot too.  Something along the lines of spice is predominant, a complex taste that's hard to unpack.  Citrus joined in too, and underlying mineral and plenty of floral is layering in as well.  Floral tone is strongest, but in this version it's balanced with the rest.  It comes across more as one narrow high-note range, bright like a daisy (versus bright like lotus flower, which is lot richer, even though it's still light in tone and sweet).  The spice part, or what I'm interpreting as such, I can't sort out.  It may be two distinct and subtle flavors that I'm interpreting as one; that could be the problem.  It definitely seems somehow related to the citrus (like sweet tangerine peel).  That range I'm not pinning down could just be well-roasted sweet potato, which is warm in effect, so in between a fruit range and spice.

Sencha:  here we go.  The roasted pumpkin and river weed is still present but this also shifted and picked up a good bit of complexity.  If green teas were as good as these three I would stop saying that I like that range least, and would seek more out.  It's quite normal for those (green teas in general) to be vegetal, just grassy or like a mix of cooked vegetables, with an astringency edge that isn't positive, and floral tone that works but is also just sweet and non-distinct.  Nothing like these.  Even Longjing, which I love, can often just emphasize a much narrower range, a toasted rice / nuttiness with a bit of other pleasant range joining in to support that, with unusually thick feel for green tea adding to the appeal.

Floral tone ramped up, but I won't be able to split out what it's like with all the rest going on.  Vegetal scope still includes that river weed and complex pumpkin range but one particular cooked vegetable flavor joins that.  I can think of a Thai vegetable equivalent but I don't know the name of it, not that it would help everyone else.  Just to put a rough range on it it's more or less in between cooked kale and roasted zucchini, closer to the rich flavor of the roasted zucchini.  I never did explain how this really pronounced umami sort of comes across as salty, like actual salt.  To some limited extent that's just how umami always is but not like this.

This is the most unique of all three of these teas, at this point.  I like the Thai version best, but the Laos tea holds its own well, for how exceptional that Thai green tea is.  It's odd how much I like this sencha, given how far out there it is for unique character.  If it were any more novel it wouldn't seem like actual "real" tea to me.  Then again tisanes are almost always at the other end of the scale related to complexity and intensity, and no blend could be this distinctive.

Third infusion:

Laos:  really hitting it's stride now, the aspects set balances much better.  Complex floral is still dominant but richness in feel really picked up.  The one Laos black tea from them went through an odd transition like that, "burning off" some aspect range that wasn't really negative but not as positive through the first two infusions, only shining after that.  Background vegetal--sort of like biting a tree bud--is fine; it works in this.  A bit of astringency comes along with that but richness in feel is more pronounced.  It's still definitely a green tea but a much more positive version than the first round, with more limited improvement in relation to the second.  Given how this is going I don't doubt that both the other teas will have their own answer to that transition.

Thai:  not changed so much, but aspect balance did shift slightly.  Citrus is really pronounced in this, bumped a little after being quite notable in the last round.  The effect I can't pin down, which seemed vaguely like spice to me, might just be an odd interpretation of how underlying mineral, pronounced floral and citrus, and some degree of background fruit comes across together.  This is fruitier than it had been, beyond the citrus, more in the range of dried mango in this round.  I could see that being interpreted as peach instead; the two aren't so far off each other.  This is slightly less rich in feel than the Laos tea at this point but the flavor complexity and type-range is better, and lacking a bit of astringency edge that goes along with it.  It has some structure but no bite.  A dry underlying mineral range is playing more of a role in this, versus one tone that comes across closer to slight bitterness in the first tea.

Sencha:  this shifted to fruit range; interesting.  A little towards cantaloupe, seemingly just not exactly that, which is good, since I don't like cantaloupe.  Tasting it a couple more times it is that.  The sweet mellowness also reminds me of very ripe peach.  It's amazing it could change so much, although that pumpkin and roasted rive weed in the first round had shifted a lot in the second.  You wouldn't think this is the same tea it was in the first round.  Some of that could relate to parameter shift, timing or even temperature difference; I'm not careful about such things.  It had to transition a lot beyond that though, to get this far.

It's odd how it's losing intensity while the other two pick that up.  It's a much finer ground leaf preparation, and had been brewing stronger, even though I've probably used the least leaf for this type.  To some extent that was to be expected, perhaps also related to brewing this slightly over temperature optimum for this type (around 80 C), just maybe not around one minute into total infusion time.  I hadn't thought this through before but it should not just fade faster, it should also transition faster as a result; different compounds should extract earlier on than in a mid-point, for the leaf being chopped, not just broken.

Fourth infusion:

I think I'll let the notes go after this round.  I don't doubt these will produce three more interesting and positive infusions after, and keep transitioning, but having someone read two full pages of text / 2000 words in a review is too much.  I stuck with around a 20 second infusion time; these may be just a little lighter for losing some intensity but that timing was working out.

Laos:  savory range bumped up.  It's not exactly the hint of smoke I thought I'd noticed early on but not dis-similar.  It tastes a little like bacon, or at least as close to that, or as a more conventional read like dried seaweed.  Floral is still the main flavor aspect, with the other vegetal range transitioned to be very light.  Maybe I will try a round of these brewed for 35-40 seconds and see what that's like.

Thai:  floral, but different.  Shifting parameters along with these transitioning seems to be causing these to change character a lot.  This is quite light, with a lot of complexity but very subtle, with one bright, high note standing out.  It seems to be that daisy-like floral tone combined with the dried mango range.  This isn't as complex and balanced as it had been, much lighter now.  Feel retains a dryness edge that gives it some depth even though it feels really light.

Sencha:  fruit again, now more a mix of watermelon and cantaloupe, with some floral tone filling that in.  Not much for that savory range; odd.  I'll try these brewed a little hotter and slightly longer and see if they have one more surprise left in them.  Then go do something active, loaded up with 15 small cups of tea worth of caffeine in me.  Luckily I ate a pretty solid breakfast before these; all of this on an empty stomach would go really badly.

Fifth infusion: (brewed slightly warmer and longer)

Laos:  the intensity is back, but pushing the teas came at a cost, with a vegetal note and astringency increased.  Floral is dominant again; that was stripped out too.  It's not quite as positive as it was 2 or 3 rounds ago but still pleasant.  The vegetal taste is like plant stem, if that's familiar, not the harsh bitterness of biting a dandelion stem but related to a softer, only slightly bitter effect from other types.

Thai:  the same story for this version, but interesting experiencing that same effect across such a different range.  Fruit stepped up in this, along with mineral and light vegetal undertone, closer to well cured (aged) hardwood in this version. 

Sencha:  lighter than the other two, this also transitioned the least.  It's still in that cantaloupe and watermelon range, more centered on watermelon now.  You can almost taste the watermelon rind, pushed like this, but it's still soft and subtle.  This tea is essentially finished.  I ended up using slightly less of the leaf related to judging how the coiled Laos version would unfurl, originally erring on that side since I knew the sencha was going to be more intense.  It also would've worked to use much different brewing parameters, to go with half the brewing time for a more equivalent amount of material.  I don't overthink these things, working off instinct instead, which usually works out but often isn't ideal.


To quote Thanos, these teas have my respect.  I really didn't expect both of the other teas to hang in there with how my preference matches that Thai version.  It was pleasant really liking all three versions.  In that first round it looked like the Laos version was going to be just another floral intensive, cooked-vegetable green tea, but it added complexity and shifted way off that nicely, with positive transitions keeping it interesting.  The sencha version was definitely something different.  I should ask Somnuc to keep an eye out for that river weed for me, that it reminded me of in the first two rounds.

One of the more interesting parts was the role really bad storage conditions (Bangkok heat) probably played in changing that sencha character, in a way that I probably liked (just a guess since I never tried it earlier, when more fresh).  The other two teas spent time in Northern Laos and Thailand but at any elevation up there conditions would be much cooler than here.

This might well be the last post before Christmas, or maybe even New Year, so I'll sign off by wishing everyone a happy holiday season and exceptional New Year.  Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment on the posts, or in a related FB page mention or group discussion there.

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