Thursday, December 5, 2019

Phongsaly Laos ancient tree sheng and black teas

sheng left, black tea right

Related to discussing a tea source (Phongsaly Laos Tea) that's been mentioned online that vendor offered to send samples for review.  Much appreciated; thanks!

The main back-story has been sourcing from 400 year old tea trees, along with winning an event award for a sheng version in a Hong Kong expo / conference.  The first plant-age part I take with a grain of salt, or essentially just set aside.  Maybe gushu typically is from plants 100 years old or over, and maybe these older plant age ranges were accurately assessed, or maybe that kind of thing tends to often not be true at all.  For me it's easier to just ignore it than to try to sort out who is probably right and who isn't, or to what degree.  It's probably not young-plant farmed tea, or then again it could be that, or a blend.  So it's as well to judge it on character, what it's like.

pictures of old tea trees (credit the Phongsaly Laos Facebook page)

I've tried about as much Laos tea as anyone living outside of Laos, and Laos was the first place I ever visited and saw tea growing, nearly a decade ago now, but that's not part of this story.  It shouldn't be hard to place this in relation to the rest, but only in general terms, since tasting across months of time doesn't work that way.  I last tried a locally grown and produced, likely natural-growth Laos sheng version within the last week (described in this post), so it does still come up once in awhile.

They sent a sheng (from 400 year old tea plants; nice), a black tea, and a green, so I'll try the first two of those together.  The black tea experience won't help in placing the sheng, it's just a matter of condensing reviews, and combining impressions.

This is the coldest day in Bangkok in about 12 years, per my recollection; very auspicious.  It's around 24 or 25 (C) since it's not that early in the morning (75 F, give or take), but for us that's pleasantly chilly.  It's nice to try the teas outside to catch the most of the experience.

it doesn't really look cold


sheng left (you could tell, right?)

sheng:  it's quite good; a sip confirms that.  There's a nice citrusy front end note, with depth and complexity hitting you at the same time you pick that up.  The citrus is sort of in between lemon and grapefruit, but paired with notable sweetness, which makes it come across closer to orange or tangerine.  A deep layer of mineral tone supports all the rest nicely, a light flint / granite range.  Feel is nice; full with a good bit of structure.  This ran a little long to get it started but balances well, so later short infusions will work better for pinning down feel structure.

Aftertaste is nice; it definitely doesn't drop away, with that mineral, the citrus, and some of the middle flavor range carrying over, so a lot of the experience.  Bitterness is present but moderate; astringency is also limited, just enough to support that full feel.  There's other intermediate flavor range, a sort of cured hardwood, which works well in combination with those two other ranges.  This is better than the Laos tea I tried this past weekend, although that was also nice.  Some of that sweetness and bright front end is comparable to a Kokang Myanmar version we also tried at that tasting last weekend, but this has more depth to it, more other layers going on.

I won't really need other rounds to decide this is what it's supposed to be, quite pleasant tea, but those will fill in more details.  If it develops further in positive ways and shows even more complexity, and brews very positively across a series of infusions, then it will be on the high end.  If this is somehow part of a first-two-infusions peak that drops out and turns less positive then it's still quite good tea.  As far as tea tree age I'd just be guessing.  Putting specific year counts to that is even more meaningless than claiming trees are 100 years old or over, so that part is a throw-away to me.  But it does comes across as older, natural growth source sheng, to the extent I can collect past experiences into a guess about that cause and effect.  The tea being good means a lot more than the tea being from old plants though.

Black tea ("red," to them, sticking with literal versus figurative translation from Chinese):  where the other is a bit strong this needs a little more infusion time.  I tend to never use a rinse with black teas but did for this, I guess just to connect both into parallel approach.  It's too early to judge it, and it'll be clearer on a next, longer infusion, but I'm underwhelmed so far.  It's soft, full, complex, and flavorful, but also non-distinct and not really intense, even taking infusion strength and infusion progression into account.

Still it seems nice; I like black teas in this style.  It just doesn't seem well above average as these go.  It seems clean in effect, with character and aspects in the right range (cocoa sweetness, underlying flavor complexity, etc.), just without intensity and distinct flavor and other character that stands out.  Maybe that's wrong, and it will develop in character along with picking up intensity; I'll hold off on conclusions.

To be clear even if this doesn't develop to become any better than I'm interpreting I'd still order 50 or 100 grams to drink if I was buying the other tea (if the price was in the right range).  If there's a decent looking Dian Hong style black listed along with whatever else I buy to me that's worth a try.  I have a Yunnan version to get to from the last tea I bought at least a month ago, now that I think of it.

Switching back to sheng after drinking the black it tastes quite bitter in comparison.  It's funny how that level of bitterness depends on expectation and preference.  A tea friend I keep mentioning, Ralph, has been discussing how funny evolution of tea preference is.  Do we like bitterness and sheng because it's a natural preference progression to go there, after exploring more approachable mild black teas and oolongs, or is it because we kept trying sheng because we were "supposed to" like it, and eventually did as a result?  Learned preferences are a funny thing, related to beer, scotch, coffee, spicy or bitter foods, cigarettes, etc.  There are definitely different ways to look at how all that works out.

Second infusion:

sheng:  more of the same, pleasant related to the same balance of aspects.  That one bright citrus note is really cool.  It works really well with the sweetness, mineral base, other flavor complexity, and feel and aftertaste range.  For as positive as all that is it might work better placing this to explain limitations, what is missing or could be different.

Feel is a little light; there could be more richness, thickness, and structure to that.  What is present works really well; it has a slightly oily feel that makes the part present work.  It's just not "structured," and it doesn't match the rich, velvety feel of some sheng.  Intensity is good but could be more developed.  Ramping up infusion strength just a little would help with that but to some extent how strong you brew it doesn't affect intensity in one other sense.  Aftertaste is pleasant but it's not the very extended effect in some sheng; it carries over so the experience doesn't just end but it trails on in pronounced form for a few minutes, not for a long time.

Back on the positive side the aspects pleasant balance really well; to me that's as critical as any one factor in sheng experience.  The catchy citrus note is paired with a nice level of sweetness that works well, and supported by other range that also matches, deeper mineral tone and some cured wood.  It's all quite clean; absolutely no flaw there.  There's a way the flavor experience transitions across the time-frame you experience it, an early hit, mid-range effect, and aftertaste that changes form enough to be interesting.  That experiential transition can be a lot more pronounced in some other sheng experience but it's there in this, in a moderate form.

Intensity is probably the main limit, but not notable enough to be considered a flaw.  Some sheng versions can pack a punch at exactly the right upper limit, and this is typical of the scale for how that often goes in a more moderate form.  Novelty and balance are the strongest points, and those are great positive ranges to cover.

black tea:  brewed twice as long as the sheng (about 20 seconds versus 10, counting the pours) this is still subtle.  It's nice though.  Cocoa stands out, with some non-distinct complexity supporting that.  The overall effect is positive, the character is nice, it's just not exceptional in any way.  "Pushing" this tea would probably draw out better results, using maximum possible brewing temperature and an upper range for proportion.  There is no astringency or any negative character to work around, so it could worked brewed light or as strong as one likes.  It's funny considering that this "cold" weather is probably cooling the tea leaves and gaiwan between rounds more than normal, given that it's around 25 C / 77 F out now.  Normal hot Bangkok weather probably does support brewing tea well, just not the part about drinking it.

For some people this black tea would be a revelation, a new world of potential to explore, but since I've tried lots just like this I'm being a bit critical instead.  It would be 10 times better as a breakfast tea than anything that ever found its way to a grocery store shelf.  Careful brewing could draw out slightly better results (than even I'm probably achieving, to be honest), but this would also work brewed Western style, an unmeasured amount brewed for an unmonitored amount of time, probably making three or four infusions that way, depending on proportion and timing.

For me teas like this are either exceptional or fall short depending on how they are presented, in relation to how they are supposed to be.  If it's sold for a moderate cost, presented as a well-above average version of a standard style, then it's great, actually slightly better than that billing.  If this is presented as some exotic, exemplary, novel form of the highest quality black tea available then it's just not that, at least related to what I've experienced so far.  This general style is one of my personal favorites though; there's that.

To place this, Somnuc--a Laos friend--passed on a Laos black tea that struck me as something really exceptional last year, like this, but that extra bit more distinctive, intense, and novel in flavor character.  This year he gave me a good bit of a different black tea that's closer to this in character, maybe a little better, or more likely just equivalent but slightly different.  That first version aspect set doesn't come up so often; out of trying a half dozen promising versions from very reliable sources--not just from random online outlets making bold claims--you might find one like that.  One Thai locally-produced black tea was like that too; a bit higher on the scale.  Almost every other Dian Hong reviewed in this blog is more in this tea's range; quite good, just not necessarily at the top of the scale.

Third infusion:

sheng:  again, good.  Feel probably is picking up some intensity, thickness and richness; nice.  Bitterness is also drifting towards a touch of sourness, not so positive.  Not the sourness that relates to something having went wrong with tea processing, just a hint of how dill pickles come across.  It seems to tie to that novel citrus transitioning; most likely that effect and what this has shifted to will change again next round.  We'll see.  It's still quite positive.

black:  this might be picking up a bit of depth; interesting it would work out that way.  The cocoa and non-distinct supporting range is shifting to more of a root-spice flavor aspect.  It had been relatively clean in effect, with just hint of dryness to the feel, but that has faded to a smoother, even cleaner feel.  It's still not astringent or structured, or thick in feel, but the moderate amount of body works.  It helps a lot that I love this general tea style.  I think it's a type that essentially everyone could relate to but it being a personal favorite might not be universal.

Again it's funny retrying the sheng after the black tea.  It sort of makes you question why you love that much bitterness in tea, which is hardly noticeable within the other framework of expectations.  It comes up in discussion that sheng drinkers move on to preferring feel or aftertaste effects, or learn to detect and appreciate how teas make them feel, "drug-like" effects, for lack of a clearer English term for cha qi.  I should know why I like whatever I like but I'm not sure that we can really fully sort that out.  Past experiences and expectations lead to wherever we happen to be.

Fourth infusion:

sheng:  the earlier citrus (still present, not so pronounced though) and touch of sourness shifted towards spice.  Not exactly clove, but that helps place it, since it's as close to that as anything else.  Interesting and positive transitions are a marker for a better tea; that works here.  It's strange thinking this tea being approachable (easy to drink, easy to relate to) is a negative, but per some sheng preferences this just wouldn't pack enough punch, either related to flavor or the rest.  I like it.  I tend to like Nan Nuo sheng, which doesn't match this exactly for flavor range, but some of that source area character generality seems common to there, fruit intensiveness, approachable character, positive sweetness, moderate bitterness.

black:  this is the best it's been; interesting.  Maybe it's time to take it back about this being a good but not great version.  The earlier cocoa was nice but cocoa mixed with root spice in a cleaner feel presentation works better for me this round.  It almost leans a little toward dried dark cherry at this point, picking up fruit range that either I hadn't noticed, or that wasn't there earlier.  I wanted to call it quits to keep this from running long but I'll brew both on the strong side and leave off final impressions with how that goes.

Fifth infusion:

sheng:  a bit paradoxical, this seems to be losing intensity even though it is clearly brewed stronger.  It brewed for awhile, over 30 seconds, but it's not that much more intense.  It's interesting that the bitterness and astringency still balance positively, that it's so pleasant like this.  It does seem like it's on the way out already though, that from here stretching infusions will allow it to produce a few more but not necessarily into the double digits (although I would have to check that).  I don't take high infusion count as a main sign of quality but it's a positive thing; it does seem to relate.

black:  thinning a little, but not so different.  Overall aspects are the same as in the past round, not so different than the one before, just narrowing a little, losing some depth.  This will easily stretch for two more positive infusions, since it's not drifting into any negative character range.  It's odd that it seems to be as comparable related to amount of tea produced with the sheng (number of infusions, although running through the rest would determine that better), since it was brewing for longer, and black teas tend to "brew out" faster.


Quite nice teas.  There is another level for Chinese tea version quality, complexity, and intensity above these but these both fall pretty high on the scale related to those.  Sometimes characteristic "rustic" character comes up in trying teas from other South East Asian countries but beyond somewhat unique flavor ranges these weren't like that.

The main limit for the sheng version was giving up some thickness of feel and intensity, versus some best-case optimum.  The black tea was more positive in later rounds, pleasant initially, but not quite as intense, especially related to flavors extending beyond cocoa.

If I hadn't tried a lot of related tea versions from Laos before (and Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar) these would both seem a lot more novel, and maybe even more positive as a result of being new to me.  Teas like these are out there, but most from comparable sources aren't on this level (although to be clear, some are).  How good they are kind of depends on how good they're supposed to be, which inevitably ties back to price.  To put a range to that I've bought "presented as upper-medium tier" $70-90 standard size cake versions from a couple of the main producers / vendors who come up this year, and these teas are at least as good as that, but different in character. 

It's harder to place these in relation to the standard $1/ gram Yunnan gushu versions, some of which aren't as good as this, but many of which share a defining range of aspects that this sheng overlaps with but doesn't completely match.  For example, underlying mineral tends to be really pronounced in Yunnan gushu sheng versions, and in this it complemented the other aspect range but didn't stand out quite as much.  I didn't miss it; some of that range may relate more to aging potential (that may not be clearly tied to any one marker) than to aspects being enjoyable in younger tea versions.

Preference for aspects and type complicates an attempt at assessing a general quality level.  To some degree dragging in pricing also does; supply and demand sets tea prices, not quality level, and to some extent that's as much a marketing decision as a clear claim about quality level or type. 

Regardless of how all those different factors play out for anyone these are definitely interesting, quite pleasant, good quality teas.

happy holidays!

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