Sunday, January 26, 2020

KL shop sourced loose shu pu'er

A friend in Malaysia passed on a set of teas awhile ago and I finally got around to mentioning another here.  I reviewed pretty good Tie Guan Yin versions here, a lightly oxidized and more roasted version, and what I take to be the most traditional style, one balancing moderate oxidation level with some roasting.  I'd meant to clear through trying the rest but was busy with sample sets or versions that I bought since then, over a year ago.

I'll be moving away from mentioning tea versions that aren't really novel in some way.  This is on the borderline; it's definitely not a typical shu style, at least in the sense of flavor profile, and it's a good version, but all the same to me shu varies less than many other types.  Mentioning it almost relates to having made notes, and it's a good chance to thank that friend again (thanks!). 

no detail in the labeling

I think this was from a gift shop type outlet.  The tea is quite decent given that.


First infusion:  a bit of char comes across; this tastes a good bit like a Liu Bao.  Even that slate-mineral range matches.  It seems like those will clear up and more smooth sweetness will emerge after the initial round.  Beyond that it's good, on the clean side.  Dark wood tones fill in, and a bit of peat, but it's clean in effect, not murky or muddled.

Second infusion:  flavors do evolve to clean up a bit, but otherwise not change.  Dark wood stands out more, along the lines of aged wood.  Not so much old furniture, an effect that crosses over from how old books smell, into a perfume-like range related to traces of aromatic polish.  Roasted chestnut warmth and richness picks up.  This seems a perfect tea to start the new year with (the Chinese version); an especially Chinese tea from a Chinese-Malaysian friend.  It's not completely typical of a lot of shu range I've tried, which works well the better the tea character turns out.  So far so good, but I think it will keep opening up and improving.

Third infusion:  this style is a little unusual, that dominant roasted chestnut aspect.  It's not as if that never comes up but other range seems to usually stand out more.  The supporting aspects are good, level of sweetness, clean nature, moderately thick feel, and some aftertaste.  As with shu in general the subtlety and depth only goes so far but the range really works.

Fourth infusion:  I'll give this a bit longer soak to mix things up, moving past the 15 seconds or so I've been using.  It should just intensify aspect results and thicken the feel.   There's no limit to how strong an infusion would work for this tea; it could brew for minutes and it would just be inky and intense, but still pleasant. 

It doesn't seem different; this might be losing a little intensity already.  It's unusual for being what looks like a true loose leaf shu, which seemed to let it open up right away early on, not to take a couple of rounds to start.  The leaves weren't even twisted or compressed in any way.  Beyond pressed versions needing rounds to expand back out even loose versions often seem to get a bit twisted or pressed during the fermenting process.

That roasted chestnut range seems to be adding a bit of fall leaf character; cool that I was just thinking about craving that recently, from trying a really strange tea years back that reminded me of sweeping up leaves in the driveway.

Fifth infusion:  this tea is wrapping up.  I brewed this for a couple of minutes and the infusion strength didn't increase.  Wood-tone picked up due to the infusion time difference; that kind of thing is normal.  Usually it's astringency that increases, or roast effect in versions when that applies, but in this case an underlying wood tone did instead.  It's still pleasant, just thinner, in spite of the long soak.

The tea isn't overly intense or complex but I like it; what is present works well.  I'll stretch it for one more long infusion but basically its story has been told; it should just fade a little.

On the positive side the flavor range was quite nice, and pleasant for covering that much roasted chestnut and fall-leaf flavor.  For limitations shu can be thicker and creamier than this was, and some is relatively intense, and brews a number of rounds consistently.  I think this faded faster for me using slightly less of it and for it being more like loose leaves than shu somehow typically tends to be.  I don't know what that means about how it started or processing steps, or if it's seen as positive or negative for any reason.

It's good tea, just a bit basic.  Anyone could like it, but I suppose people leaning towards aged sheng preference wouldn't.  Or maybe it would cross over well, for some, since it comes across as a bit simple but lacks any of really earthy range some shu possess (peat, etc.). 

In looking at the dry leaf photo as I edit this I'm reminded of how it seems likely this wasn't as fermented as many versions are.  Maybe this version would really develop over the next decade or so, if a less complete initial fermentation left compounds behind that could still transition.  I'll never know; I'll drink the rest of this or share it for someone else to try.  I need to clear out some extra samples I've kept around to keep the space tea is taking up reasonable.

Chinese New Year

No mention here of Chinese New Year yet, right?  Happy New Year!  I was in Chinatown that week for an outing but I didn't write about that, and avoided going closer to the eve or first day of the year.  It would be crowded, and my wife is paranoid about the corona virus.  I think only 5 cases have turned up here; risk seems pretty low at this point.

That outing related to checking out some bubble tea and odd pour-over tea set-ups in a mall shop.  I don't have much to say about that; it is what it is, not the kind of thing I typically talk about here.  It probably was and is generally better than typical bubble tea versions.  This second was a Thai tea, the orange flavored kind:

By the time you add cream, ice cream, and sweetened condensed milk to a version, as in that second, the base could be coffee instead and it wouldn't turn out so differently.  It would be good with coffee, or fine with different types of tea.  I think it would've been better infused by soaking it versus "poured over," but then again it probably hardly matters.  It's experiential; it was an experience to see it.

All that led me to think a lot about where specialty tea fits in related to commercial RTD / bottled teas and other types, bubble tea, Thai tea, and whatever else is in that range.  So few people even know it exists in comparison.  It has traditional roots, which could make it seem more valid, but in economic terms or related to being a social trend it's not on the same level as even flavored teas, never mind tea bags.  I like "better," interesting teas, they meaning something to me.  On that personal, subjective level there's that.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Tea blogging retrospective; four busy years

First published in TChing in two parts, here and here.

I just took about three weeks off blogging, maybe the longest break in the past 4 years, over which time I wrote 451 posts.  It's a good time to explain what I've learned, and to question why I posted that much.

Originally writing about tea was part of exploring social media and online groups, checking if blogging was a good fit.  I was just messing around for the first 2 or 3 years, starting in 2013, and at some point shifted gears related to exploration.  TChing helped prompt that; I started doing interview and research posts, moving beyond the review form, starting just over 4 years ago.  It's appropriate that an interview with one of my favorite vendors, Cindy Chen of Wuyi Origin (a business started well after that) was my second post.

There probably never was any one point.  I liked to write, and kind of needed a hobby, and prior interests like cooking, wine, exploring Buddhism, and outdoor sports had cycled through.  I'd already been drifting towards deeper tea exploration even 6 years ago.

Lots of tea exposure worked out.  My own style of reviewing developed, conveying experience in more detail than most people would probably want to read.  That can help me place what I experienced of teas years ago now, if I factor in changes in communicating experience, and the shift in expectations and exposure.  Research posts covered themes like caffeine level, fluoride risk (right, it's in tea), pu'er storage concerns, mineral content in water as a factor, and lighter topics like why it doesn't work well to microwave water for tea.  Interviewing producers has been nice, and studying cultivar background; reviewing processing inputs hasn't went as well.  Conducting group tastings has been more of a miss than a success.

I was lucky to visit a lot of places in that time, some especially related to interesting tea culture:  China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, and Russia.  Family vacations never centered on tea producer visits, but I did visit a farm and a small plantation in Laos and Indonesia, and tea oriented markets here and there.  Oddly that never came up where I live now, in Thailand.

It's hard to summarize what I've learned.  Many things; it works to place teas in relation to lots of other types, and identify layers of components going into every tea experience.  Sorting out variations in sheng pu'er, differences tied to source area themes, aspect character types, aging transition patterns, etc., has been interesting and involved.  I'm a bit over 2 years into mostly focusing on that, but the initial start predated my blog.

Exploring South East Asian teas has been an interesting main sub-theme.  A few friends in Laos and Vietnam (two in each country) have made all the difference in providing access to teas that are most typically very difficult to come by, with Hatvala's online selection a pleasant exception.  Last year I met a main Myanmar producer, Kokang, and a small local farmer and two other vendors in Thailand helped with the same scope related to here.  I really should name more names, and say more about Nepal and Assam, and have been considering doing a post that lists out thanks in that way.

Discussion never really developed much.  A few people a year offer thanks, related to blog information and discussion input, and I meet a number of visitors to Bangkok, but beyond that I don't hear much feedback.  It was never about praise, or even mostly about me, so it has all worked out.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Mandal Goan Darjeeling and Mawlyngot Indian oolong

first flush Darjeeling left, Mawlyngot Meghalaya oolong right

A friend passed on an Indian tea I've forgotten the background on (that turned out to be an oolong), which I'll try along with a sample of Darjeeling I've been meaning to get to for months, from Tea Leaf Theory.  It's a first flush Darjeeling that looks relatively completely oxidized compared to those sometimes being in between green and black; interesting.  The other tea is made from slightly more whole leaf material, and it's relatively oxidized too.

That background should be clear to most, about how many Darjeeling first flush teas fall in between categories, not fully oxidized as conventional black teas, and definitely not intended as oolong.  Some go by the designation of white tea instead; that would relate to passing on a bruising step, along with limiting oxidation.  This isn't a processing background theme post, more about these teas.

That friend, Suzana Syiem, is the founder of a Facebook Tea group that I'm also an admin for, although I'm not the most active admin there.  A lot of monitoring Facebook groups is about making judgement calls about posts or comments in relation to group rules, and it's easier to do that in the International Tea Talk group where I'm the primary admin, so the judgement call is however I happen to see it.  Even something as seemingly clear-cut as member approval may not be; it's possible to flag which profiles are less "real," typically created for commercial purposes, or maybe for trolling (not so much an issue in tea groups), or some are commercial versus personal accounts.

I met Suzana a couple years back; she's really nice

About the teas, Tea Leaf Theory only lists producer background:

A lush green tea village on the mountain slopes of the Himalaya in Darjeeling at 5500 ft above sea level, known as Mandal Gaon. Like any other small tea grower in Darjeeling Mr Moktan also used to sell green leaves to the nearby tea factory but he hardly had any control over the price. With the liberalisation of the tea plantation laws in Darjeeling, Moktan also took to tea plantation organically.

The other tea is definitely more of an anomaly, produced in a small village in India, Mawlyngot, located in the Meghalaya state.

I reviewed this having no idea what it was.  Indian oolongs tend to never really seem like oolongs to me anyway, more like a black tea with backed-off oxidation level, similar to how first flush Darjeeling comes across.  This "Tale of Two Backpackers" blog post fills in some background (just not about the tea, so much):

The story of Mawlyngot is like that of a phoenix. At about 45 km from Shillong lies this somnolent village in the East Khasi hills of Meghalaya. The locals believe that the people from the Indo-Bangladesh border had migrated down the River Umsong and settled down here. The early villagers cultivated corn, millet, potato, chilli and banana in low yields that were not sufficient for their daily sustenance. And to aggravate the situation, the men were fond of the local country liquor ‘pyrsi’ made from rice and millet. The villagers had very little education and fought with penury. The place was infamous for alcoholism and drunken brawls...

...From a failed village, Mawlyngot is now producing one of the best teas in the North-eastern region of India...  The Urlong Tea Integrated Village Cooperative Society now produces purely organic and high-quality tea and supplying their produce to different parts of India as well as in Australia...

Sounds good; let's check on their results.


Darjeeling left, oolong right

Mandal Goan first flush (Batch No. TTLT 19, Ramro Cha):  a little smoky; that's different.  Since that's not a natural flavor associated with Darjeeling (as it is with sheng pu'er, for example) I'd assume this has came into contact with smoke.  In the right type and proportion that can be positive, but it is unusual.

Beyond that the tea is very interesting.  Feel has some structure to it, and richness, but it's not astringent, edgy, or dry.  Flavor complexity is good, and the range is interesting.  Dark earthy tones stand out, along the line of dark wood or rust.  To clarify, rust is at the edge of a mineral tone, or is that instead, and dark wood in this isn't mahogany range, more oak tree bark.  A bit of fruit tone fills in behind that, light citrus, or something such.  This may be a much different tea once some of the early round related flavor aspects shift next round.

Mawlyngot oolong:  the color is a lot lighter; this isn't as oxidized a tea version.  Interesting that came up in comparison with a Darjeeling first flush [then again with the missing back-story filled in that makes perfect sense].  I've drank a lot of types and styles of tea and this just isn't familiar; it's cool how that can keep happening.  It doesn't taste like black tea, necessarily, not oxidized to that level, without the astringency edge or structure, with flavors in a different range.  That's not good or bad, just different, but it does make for a double take when you first try it.

The primary flavor range is closest to something like pandan leaf, subtle, complex, rich in flavor, but light enough it's hard to place right away.  I love pandan leaf tisane (herb tea); that's going to help in this case.  Oddly there really is no black tea edge to this at all, no astringency, none of the associated malt and earthy flavor.  Being well off the norm is one thing, not overlapping at all something else.  The feel is rich and smooth, a bit full, as can happen with some herb teas, but typically doesn't.

Flavor intensity is low; that doesn't come up all that often across all tea types.  For white teas it does, and an aged Yiwu had a similar effect not so long ago, diminished in terms of flavor intensity but not body / feel.  Oolongs tend to be milder in character than black teas, with some exceptions where the form is just different, but even most of those contribute more flavor intensity.  Someone not open to a broad range of tea experience wouldn't care for this; it's not within normal range.  Judging it without that as a factor shifts related context to personal preferences.  It works for me; I like it.  I don't love it; it's not pulling off being completely novel in a way that's well above average for match to likes, but then it probably has some character transition yet to go through.

Editing notes:  I really might have guessed that this was intended to be an oolong.  It hardly matters, if it's an oolong or a much less oxidized than usual black tea, since the two are the same thing in the case of Indian oolongs.

Second infusion:

Mandal Goan:  color has evened up; this is slightly lighter, the other slightly redder.  Smoke lightened up in this too, and it never was a dominant flavor aspect, just noteworthy, odd for being present at all.  There's still a faint hint of smoke but it's essentially gone.  It's interesting the way that mild astringency and warm mineral flavor range seem to couple, and carry over to an aftertaste experience.  It's cleaner than that probably sounds; not murky in any way, with a good level of sweetness for balance.  Earthy tone is still slightly cured hardwood tree bark, maybe more along the lines of one year old hickory tree bark than oak.  I worked with a lot of wood as a child; it's interesting how this brings memories of that back.  We grew up a bit like Abraham Lincoln.

"Behind" that there's what I'm interpreting as a light fruit aspect.  It seems to really be a complex range that's hard to distinguish for not being in the forefront, a bit of citrus, along with something like not completely ripe nectarine.  It all works well enough; it makes for an interesting mix.

Mawlyngot oolong:  this really sticks with the tisane character theme but shifts.  Pandan leaf range is still present, but it adds more along the lines of warm root spice, or maybe even mild tree bark.  Now I'm curious what this even is, or how it manages to fall so far from the entire range of Camellia Sinensis scope.  I think it really is "tea," from that plant, but it's odd that versions never get this far out of the normal character scope.  It has the depth and body that very few tisanes ever have, one of the main differences between real tea and every other kind of dried leaf that I've tried.  I want to say it expresses more flavor complexity too, but that's only true in a limited sense.  It hits on more levels but forward facing flavor aspect range is limited.  A tisane blend could match this.  One couldn't match both the flavor complexity and full feel; it tends to not work that way.

Editing notes:  it is close enough to oolong scope, just not like Tie Guan Yin, or Jin Xuan, Wuyi Yancha, Dan Cong, Taiwanese versions, and so on.  Low flavor intensity was different for those first two rounds but that shifts on the next infusion.

Third infusion:

Darjeeing:  quite a bit of shift in how this comes across, probably in part related to pushing the tea a bit, letting it brew for around 15 seconds instead of 10.  Feel is interesting; that one astringency related element definitely ramps up.  The warm mineral starts to take on a salty character a bit stronger.  Optimum for this probably was back in the 10 second range.  Sweetness and other flavor (wood, light fruit) still work, just not as well in this balance.

Indian oolong:  this is at optimum brewed stronger.  One part even starts to resemble black tea more, a warm mineral and woody edge.  It had tasted a little like hardwood before, or hardwood bark, but that's stronger in this round, more of a central aspect, with other complex tisane flavor range now filling in as secondary flavors.  Feel is just right at this level; thick, rich, and full, but still soft.

Again the interesting part of this tea is the novelty; it almost seems like someone's take on novelty would define their reaction to it. 

Fourth infusion:

I think this will tell enough of the story; I'll let the notes go after this.

Darjeeling:  the balance is nice again after returning to a shorter infusion time (around 10 seconds versus 15; it's not that different).  Woodiness and underlying mineral stand out, along with supporting sweetness and other complexity.  Full feel, cleanness, and aftertaste fill in the experience, they support it.  The fruit seems closer to grape now; that probably is transitioning.  Did I just review a Darjeeling version without citing "muscatel?"  Sure, like that.

I like this tea but don't absolutely love this character range.  I'm more a fan of the cocoa / sweeter roasted yam and sweet potato Chinese black tea range.  It's not the astringency edge causing that, just general character overall.  For Darjeeling my favorite experience has probably been Gopaldhara's autumn flush versions, which are a bit mild in terms of feel, with lots of positive flavor aspects, and some degree of overall subtlety.  This particular tea version I'm reviewing would work even better with the wood dialed back a little and the fruit cranked up, but it would still be in the same general range.  It's quite good tea, very positive, balanced, and refined; it just comes down to style preferences.

Indian oolong:  more of the same for this version; it hasn't transitioned.  The flavor and feel structure is a lot closer to a standard tea version than it was for the first two rounds; probably someone brewing this Western style would wonder what I've been going on about, or think I just had it all wrong.  Back to the idea of preference for styles, this works better for me than the other version.  I would imagine that's not a relatively uniform response, that people would vary on that point.

If this had any flaws the entire experience would be quite different.  By that I mean that I'm not interpreting the unusual character as a flaw, which I would assign to an off flavor, sourness or mustiness, texture aspect that doesn't work for some reason, sweetness missing, unbalanced effect from varying oxidation levels, etc.  Including smoke could be seen as a flaw; that would just depend.  Per my interpretation this is just an unconventional tea, not a flawed version, and it's instead very well made, and based on what seems to be good plant material.

both on the green side; that Mawlyngot version is relatively whole-leaf as Indian teas go

Many thanks to both the Tea Leaf Theory vendor and Suzana for passing these on; I might've added that earlier.  It will be interesting messing around with this second version to see how it reacts to parameter changes.  I don't get the sense it's even possible to screw it up, and careful brewing wouldn't seem to be required to work around any limitation (eg. pronounced astringency), but it might change outcome a little.

Oddly not much changes in interpretation or brewing process related expectations for not "getting" the tea category initially.  Some people think oolongs should be brewed using relatively cooler water (kind of a long story), but I'd use essentially the same approach for a black tea or oolong, water not far off boiling point, related to using a heating and dispenser system that doesn't maintain full boiling point temperature.  I always tend to go with a high proportion and base infusion timing off results the last round, across types.

my wife never makes it into photos here, and Keo never smiles for one.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Phongsaly Laos Tea old tree black tea

almost looks green in the photo, but light brown in real life

Not much intro for this tea version; I've reviewed sheng, black, and green teas from this Phongsaly Lao Tea producer (many thanks for sharing those for review).  It's supposedly old-plant, natural growth sourced tea, and it probably really is.  I take age claims with a grain of salt but those stand at 400 year old plant source estimates.  Sure, maybe, probably not but who knows. 

There isn't a website outlet to cite more details from, so this is just coiled style black tea, not unheard of from China, but a bit novel.  I do wonder about details but how it comes across is kind of the main point, and brewing it informs that.

compressed black tea (from their FB page photos); something different


First infusion:  a bit muted yet; I often do a short first infusion round for teas to let the start slow, to see how it'll go using that as much as a rinse, as I did this time (around 10 seconds).   The tea was a bit compressed, coiled into rings along the line of bi luo chun (a green tea type), so it will express more next round.  What is present is promising; sweet, complex, and clean flavored, just quite subtle as of yet.  A mild malt stands out, a version close to cocoa, not the Assam more dry-mineral type version.  Maybe actual cocoa and floral fills in beyond that, or it could be a light but rich fruit; it should be more evident next round.

Second infusion:  I didn't increase timing; the proportion is set for Gongfu preparation, and I think the flavor subtlety related to it opening up instead.  More of the same.  This tea is good, based on what it is expressing, but it seems that close to really developing a lot more complexity.  Clean flavored light malt, a bit towards cocoa, and underlying mineral works well, but moderate sweetness and only implications of other flavor complexity limits the experience.

Everything hinted at, which occurs in very subtle form, is very positive, it's just hardly there.  At this light level pinning down those aspects is a venture in free-association, using imagination as much as actual interpretation.  Cleanness saves the experience; this really lacks any negative character too.  Astringency isn't non-existent, but it has a soft, balanced body, with only a hint of dryness.  Even aftertaste carries over a little.  Beyond that at this round it's malt (in between Assam and Ovaltine), cocoa, towards aromatic wood (mahogany range; something dark), and maybe a hint of rose and dried tamarind.  That last part is more of a guess.

Third infusion:  wood picks up a little, a shift towards redwood instead of dark wood.  Cocoa might bump just a touch too.  If this were sweeter it would probably seem more like dark chocolate; that level being moderate keeps a natural overall interpretation closer to the wood and malt.  Mineral range helps the rest; I haven't really stressed that.  It's not exactly in slate range but towards that, in a warmer tone.

It might not sound pleasant, but to me it is.  Add just a little sweetness and a touch of dried fruit and this would be a really exceptional black tea, per my preference, but as it is it still really works.  The cleanness, balance, and novelty is nice.  It's not so far off orthodox Assam versions that stray from a more standard profile, at least related to one that's good, well-balanced, just not as distinct and complex in flavor as those get.  More body / astringency / dryness would ruin the effect, on the other side of expressing how this might be different.

I'll be clearer about how my own preference factors in:  I like Assam versions in the range I just described, but really love Dian Hong (Yunnan black teas) that are sweeter and more complex in flavor.  I think the other black tea I tried from this producer is an example of that general style.  That's not to say that I don't like this, but I do like the other version and general style better.

If this was comparable to sun-dried versions of Yunnan black tea, shai hong, there is a chance that it could pick up more flavor complexity with a limited degree of aging, over the next year or two, or maybe even more after 3 or 4.  Maybe not too (it does seem unlikely), but the subtle flavor profile reminds me of how things work out with young versions of those.

Fourth infusion:  the feel is even nicer; it picked up a touch more "juiciness."  Flavor range stayed towards cocoa, moving off the malt and wood a little, which I do like better than the round before last.  It is interesting how complex and balanced this is, with flavor range being a bit subtle, just like how brand new shai hong works out.  For people with a lot of exposure to versions of shai hong at least that comparison will fill in what I mean about the rest (maybe; all this is bit subjective).

consistent, strong infusions, just light as flavor intensity goes

Fifth infusion:  this tea isn't even close to being finished.  Part of that relates to using a high proportion even for Gongfu preparation (who knows the number of grams; I'd just be guessing).  Compression made a difference too; it probably wasn't really fully infusing the first two rounds.  And then it's just how the tea type and character go.  It's not really developing though; if anything it has just faded ever so slightly from how it was last round.  It will probably brew three more pleasant rounds that just taper off a bit.


This would be an interesting tea to buy two packages of, one to drink now and one to try in a year and a half.  Aging teas only makes sense in some cases but this may be one of them.  In a lot of cases versions just pick up a depth and subtlety, with more pronounced, fresh, and intense flavors rounding off (or aspects like bitterness, potentially less pleasant elements, which this doesn't include).  Shai hong is a notable exception.  Flavor actually intensifies for that tea type, and shifts, in addition to adding the depth. 

If I'm completely wrong and this just fades it would be a waste, because an even more subtle version of this wouldn't work as well.  It would still be that much more novel; not all that much old-tree natural-growth Laos tea is going around, outside of Northern Laos, and almost none of that is aged.

I suppose it is a little disappointing liking the style of the other black tea from them better, but it is nice liking this enough to use the notes for a post.  The clean nature and overall effect really worked.  Even on the sixth infusion, after the notes stop here, the tea is clean, complex beyond lacking flavor intensity, and well-balanced.  You would never know it was a tea that had already produced five positive infusions.  Often woodiness ramps up in late infusions, for a lot of tea types, even beyond blacks, but in this that faded over the first three, with cocoa and mild malt picking up.

In some cases some teas do better brewed Western style.  I'm not sure that's how this would go, just pointing that out for completeness.  It was consistent enough across rounds that I'm guessing it wouldn't vary much, not better than the way I made it instead.  Even at a more moderate, conventional Western proportion this would probably still make three good rounds of tea.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sheng pu'er aging check on two past favorites, Yiwu and Nan Nuo

It's about time to go back and revisit some favorites from the past few years and see if my expectations about them aging in certain ways was right.  One is a Nan Nuo, another a Yiwu, almost 3 and 4 years old.  Of course the comparison isn't a complete parallel.  I won't be reporting those sorts of results here too regularly, but it seems a good time for an exception.

That was as long a break from blogging as I've taken in awhile, about three weeks.  My family didn't get far for taking a break from Bangkok; my wife had started to plan a trip to Dubai, relatively last minute, then that fell through, so we went to Korat (Nakorn Rachasima).  It's a good sized local town at this side of Isaan, the North-East region of Thailand.  We did kids' activities, a water park, zoo, mall play area; all the things that they already have in Bangkok, more or less.

Back to the tea, these are two of my overall favorites in sheng range so far.  I've tried lots of really exceptional "gushu" version samples that vendors have passed on, many that were just as good as these two, but somehow these really clicked with me.  It's a little different having a cake of a tea; you can only get so attached to a sample.

The idea here is to get some idea of how they are changing.  I'll cite a short version of an initial review, ignoring if I've written about them since first trying them, if I did, and then check on results in comparison with that.

Nannuo Sheng Cha (, 2017, reviewed first here in January 2018

This tea I bought in a Moychay shop in St. Petersburg, kind of on a whim, since I don't typically buy full cakes I've not tried a sample from.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Citing from the earlier review notes:

The initial infusion the tea is nice, as I remember it, very bright and fresh.  Astringency and bitterness are a little more pronounced than I remember because I'm preparing it brewed a bit strong for this first infusion, using a relatively standard high proportion of tea for Gongfu brewing...out toward 30 seconds, as a result of talking to my daughter about something.

The tea was described as tasting like fruit and it really does, plum and white grape.  That bright, sweet flavor and overall freshness are so pronounced that it's hard to notice much beyond those aspects.  There is more going on; some warmer aspect range fills in more flavor experience grounding the rest, maybe towards a hint of nutmeg... 

I love the fruit in it, and that overall "bright" effect. Often when I'm drinking sheng made within the past year I'm saying this might be better in a year or two, a little less edgy, but in this case I'm not so sure.  If that brightness were to decline, as it would to some extent, the balance might be just as positive, or more so, or the tea could've been best drank when very young like this.  I'll have to try to not drink or give away too much of this tea so I can keep trying it over the next few years...

That's pretty much it; it seems really drinkable and pleasant, not bitter or astringent at all for sheng under one year old.  That "remember it" reference related to drinking some on that vacation.

maybe the day I bought it, maybe the next day

a park right beside that shop, on January 1st, 2018

I was concerned it might be better then than ever again, because it was so nice that way when young, so I "drank through it" more than I tend to, even for teas that I like.  I generally have a lot of tea around to choose from, so it's not as if leaving off a cake changes things much for selection.

Yiwu Lucky Bee 2016, from Tea Mania, first reviewed in July 2018

Both these teas are sold out; that's how that would go.  Both had next year's versions available, and soon enough both of those will be gone too, or maybe already.  It's not how that usually goes but the Tea Mania vendor sent me a cake of this tea (Peter Pocajt; many thanks again), who is on the relatively short list of tea vendors I've actually met in person from visiting here in Bangkok once.  He's nice.

This tea didn't seem to have the kind of character that was going to diminish rather than improve when I first tried it, not as bright, fresh, fruity, and sweet, but the character was positive, and the potential was clearly evident.  Earlier review notes again (cited from above linked post):

The style is unusual; it's very pleasant, but not similar to a lot of what I tend to try.  It has floral aspect to it, so it's not completely off what I've tried for other Yiwu, but even that comes across just a little differently.  I'm already getting the impression that this is better than what I usually drink.  The balance is really nice, the way it's even across that floral range, with sweetness that's pronounced but also moderate, not intense.  The mineral range is also prominent but in normal proportion.  The tea is a bit light on bitterness and astringency but both are present, to a degree that works.  I may not do justice to what I mean, about which part or which balance of typical aspects works out better.

On the atypical side there's a catchy aspect that goes beyond normal Yiwu floral tone, but related to that, that's hard to place.  It might just be a lighter, sweeter, more subtle, and brighter version of a floral tone, or it could even extend slightly towards fruit.  It's a short step towards lemon citrus or pandan leaf, the herb that tastes like Fruity Pebbles cereal to me, but it doesn't quite get to those...

...On the next round it occurs to me that part of what I like might be a lingering sweetness, that gives the experience an overall extra intensity.  It's not the form that seems to be what is usually referred to as hui gan; not so much tied to bitterness, extending into a taste that occurs on the back of your mouth and throat, a sensation that pairs directly with a taste.  It occurs throughout your whole mouth instead, a bit lighter, more bright-taste associated versus heavier and sweet...
It would seem normal for someone to interpret this sweetness as some type of bright, sweet, but mild fruit instead of a floral tone.  It's not completely dis-similar to dried mango but not quite that...

That could be it, that both included a fruit aspect, which I'm partial to, even in sheng, where it's not completely atypical but perhaps unusual.

I don't think those citations really caught my full impression of why aging the Nan Nuo seemed a potential trade-off of freshness and intensity that might not be positive, but that the Yiwu seemed to exhibit good potential for aging transition.  As far as long term aging prospects, where both would be in a decade, I just wasn't there yet, and I'm still really not.  I have a dozen year old Yiwu version (brick) that has interesting depth and fullness, but the character has thinned across other range, with flavor intensity not really standing out much at all at this stage.  Maybe both would be like that, or maybe both would just fade.

We're not there yet; I'm now tasting these as a nearly four year old Yiwu and nearly three year old Nan Nuo.  Both should be relatively fully aged related to that first stage of smoothening out initial bitterness and astringency a bit, and losing initial intensity, prior to the longer middle period where it changes a lot more over the first dozen years or so.  On with checking on that.

Moychay Nan Nuo; a good-sized chunk left

Tea Mania Lucky Bee Yiwu

Moychay label graphic copied on inner tag (small hands show scale)

About the cake / bing chunks left over, there seems to be a convention related to how to break apart sheng that results in those looking more like a big life saver at the end, whittled down to a thin, round section.  I tend to break off a piece when I share some, even though it's probably slightly more functional to separate off large flakes, to reduce ripping some leaves in two. 

You do you for breaking up a cake, I guess.  It's interesting how such things might mark out group identification as much as actually be functional, but I won't waste more time on that type of observation here.


Nan Nuo left, in all photos 

2017 Nan Nuo:  I let these go longer than I usually would for sheng, to get the process started, and not add "I'll know better next round once they start infusing more."  Of course the initial brightness and freshness from two years ago is gone (when I first tried it; this tea is 2 3/4 years old).  It went in an interesting direction; mineral picked up a lot, some of that range light, like limestone, and the rest more like drinking from an artesian well, heavy.  Brighter fruit transitioned to dried fruit instead, along the line of dried pear.  It's still quite nice, and it would be a matter of preference if it's better, worse, or equivalent but different.  I think I loved it more as it was; there was something really catchy in that flavor and character set, and the bright intensity.

2016 Yiwu:  this is nodding towards old sheng range already; odd that would come up this fast.  It has a deeper root spice and dark wood theme starting in.  The early forms of astringency have already mostly rounded off (as for the Nan Nuo; I didn't say that explicitly).  This could pass for where dryer storage sheng is after a dozen years, it's just different in character.  There is no mustiness, no edge of off storage related input, beyond that fermentation level range potentially being seen as undesirable.  It's clean in effect, but it is warm and has the depth of older tea, a "darker" flavor range.  It's not woody in the sense of tasting a lot like aged hardwood, as some teas really do, but the root spice flavor leans toward old tree bark.  Tasting back and forth a little the Nan Nuo does include a bit of cedar range too, that bright, aromatic, sharper wood range.

This second tea is thicker related to feel; it's heavy, and really coats your tongue. 

Second infusion:

Yiwu (right) leaves are darker and it's brewing slightly darker

Nan Nuo:  this is really starting to shine; brewing it for around 10 seconds after it had already started is much closer to optimum.  It's not really the set of aspects that makes this work, it's the balance of them.  Fullness isn't bad, and aftertaste adds complexity, it's just that neither stands out.  In flavor range a strong mineral element, some aromatic wood, and complex dried fruit range really hang together well.  It still includes dried pear but warmer dried fruit ramps up, maybe jujube, Chinese date.  It doesn't seem to include much for bitterness, but what's left of prior bitterness hasn't settled out completely, as I interpret it lending an edge to that cedar-like flavor. 

Really pairing up individual aspects as related in a tea version like that (a residual trace of bitterness and cedar wood) could just be my imagination, seeing flavor and feel aspects as combined, but joining two aspects that aren't necessarily related.

Yiwu:  I didn't expect this tea to be like this at all.  I've been drinking a few dry-stored sheng versions from Chawang Shop, from various origins, and they're nothing like this at the same general stage, not just different but completely different.  I think the versions from 6 to 8 years ago aren't this fully fermented. 

It brings up the idea, if this really is that far along the curve for transition, what about those "awkward middle years" that people often reference?  It should be just prior to that, give or take for normal variation.  Again bitterness and initial astringency may have only almost entirely subsided, now coming across as an edge to the flavor and tied to a bit of feel dryness.  At the end I'll conclude that maybe it's not necessarily that teas lose flavor and get it back, although to some extent I suppose that can happen, but instead that aspect range just isn't as desirable over some fermentation level span, for some versions, and also in general.

To be clear I tend to discuss that feel aspect and flavor aspect together (bitterness and astringency) because both tend to pair in teas, and come across as related.  The relation could as easily just be in my head, as a trace of bitterness and cedar flavor might've been in the last sample notes just prior.

As far as liking either more at this stage I really like both, so it's kind of a draw.  Again I think this Yiwu may be destined for a very positive future, just one that will play out faster than I expected.  Based on this glance ahead I think the Nan Nuo will be quite positive too, I just won't have any of it left for that experience, because I've drank most of it already.  No regrets; I really liked it as it had been.

Third infusion:

Nan Nuo:  what I'll interpret as root spice and a light aromatic wood picks up, with dried fruit and mineral pulling back.  It's nice.  Sweetness level isn't what it was when it was younger, but it works in support of this aspect range.  Thickness isn't as pronounced as in the other tea but it also works.

Yiwu:  wood tones picked up a little in this too.  Just to be clear on brewing process, both of these are where the normal fourth infusion would be, for rushing things on that first round.  The early transition cycle has played out. 

It's interesting how the earlier astringency in this tea has shifted to a dryness instead, paired with smooth fullness.  It has more of what was initially astringency left than the Nan Nuo, even though it's a year older.  For as fast as this is changing I'd expect that in two more years that feel will be relatively different, as will the flavor range.  It was tempting to try a third tea along with these; I'd spotted a Dayi 7542 baseline version when looking for them, from 2014.  It will be interesting to see how that's doing, but it's a different subject, a completely different tea type within sheng range.  These two are already different enough, just comparable in some ways, and keeping track of differences for two versions makes more sense.

Fourth infusion:

I'll probably leave off making notes here, since this story isn't about the full infusion transition range of either tea, it's just about where they generally are.

Nan Nuo:  still catchy and positive; the sweetness and fruit seems a little stronger this round.   That would shift a little based on minor differences in timing, just not paying attention.  This tea probably works better brewed a little lighter than I'm making it, closer to 5 seconds at a very high proportion instead of around 10.  Not to work around astringency, or moderate any other negative aspect or balance, as can occur for younger sheng, just to make the flavor and character pop best.

Yiwu:  warm floral range seems to be a little stronger than I've been noticing; interesting.  It seems possible that both teas will be just as good, or maybe even slightly better, and just different over the next 4 infusions or so [not really better, looking back later, but they still had positive character].  It's still too much work to keep writing notes, and probably too much to read. 

It has been really positive spending a few weeks just drinking tea, not writing about it, and it'll be nice to go through some of that with these after I put this laptop away.  I've been cycling through lots of sheng at various ages and from various areas, day to day, drinking whatever I feel like; it's been nice.

Still on general background, I think I'll probably review less tea this year.  I'd meant to do a post thanking vendors for contributing samples last year, and explaining where I am on exploration, and writing about what I try.  The short version is that it was nice to spend a few years doing 100 posts a year (4 years, actually), and reviewing more teas than that count given the comparisons, but it was a bit much.  What I was saying started to repeat a lot.  Work gets busier too; two projects will take up a lot of time over the first half of this year.  Those are ISO system implementations at my own company and one we will also support, IT services and information security related sets of control processes (policies, procedures, standardized records, risk assessment process--all the usual).  That's also why I never talk about work here; it's not engaging.

Not much for conclusions; results weren't exactly as I expected.  The Yiwu is aging faster than I remembered from trying it last (sometime last year, not that long ago), and the Nan Nuo has changed a lot over the same time frame, over the last 6 to 8 months.  I can see why; it's ungodly hot and humid here.  It's January--the end of the cool season--and somewhere around 30 C / 90 F right now.

91 F, and 56% RH.  The two air filters beside me say 65 and 67% RH (and 31 C); I'm inclined to believe them instead for how muggy it is.  It's not cool.

One last thing to mention comes to mind:  how do I like these teas versus when I first tried them, and in relation to tasting them last year?  I think they were both slightly better last year.  The Nan Nuo I think I did like best when I first tried it, as my intuition then concluded; that relatively new, bright, intense, sweet character really worked for me.  I've seen this Yiwu go from on the newish side to pretty far into fermentation and I think it hit an early peak for being positive around a year to year and a half ago, when initial rough edges rounded off but more early intensity and character remained.  As I thought of it then I still think it has loads of potential for being great tea after another half dozen years or so.

I'm surprised that the Nan Nuo is going in a positive direction, that although the trade-off isn't positive per my preference I can sort of "look ahead" and see it being quite nice after an equivalent half dozen years.  I think the Yiwu will retain more intensity and feel depth in the long run, probably tied to being more astringent and bitter initially, for being less positive in some ways then, in ways that seemed to indicate potential. 

I can set these aside for a couple more years and check on progress related to that.  It won't be surprising if this Yiwu tastes like some fairly mature aged tea then, a bit ahead of schedule, after being around for only a half dozen years.  There will probably still be some rough edges to smooth out, and maybe it will go a little quiet at some stage, but it should seem like kind of old tea within the first decade.

Of course all that aging expectations context relates to drinking plenty of dry-aged versions last year, teas that retained some fresh character after a decade or longer.  Some of those were more compressed; different factors come into play.  It will probably take longer than the half dozen years these teas need to transition for me to put all those factors together better in understanding sheng fermentation.