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.

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