Thursday, February 20, 2020

Exploring sheng pu'er

a bit under 1 year old Farmerleaf Tian Jiang Jing Mai sheng cake; how sheng often looks

Another "basics" post, just an unusual version of one, about how it goes exploring this one tea type.

It's odd how people catch onto the idea that they are "supposed to" like sheng pu'er, then work out adjusting what they try and preference to try to.  There's no other tea type that someone would drink, dislike, and then think they were in the wrong for not enjoying it.  I'll mention the example that came closest to that for me for reference though.

Before I get to that, it has become clear to me why I rarely write these randomly themed reference posts.  No amount of writing ever seems to capture one narrow but linked set of ideas.  It's much more natural and organic to add a few short paragraphs worth of commentary on a theme, versus putting together a broader set of related ideas.

As further background context, sheng pu'er and oolongs do seem to be the two natural end-points for main tea type preference among tea enthusiasts.  Both are diverse tea scope, complex in terms of related variation, and also the potential character of better version examples.  Sheng versions can be just as complex as any other type of tea, but due to adding in the dimension of aging potential they are even more so.

Every individual version spans a range of character, from what it was when brand new to wherever that leads for fermentation / aging transition, which is never really a completed process.  Under the right aging circumstances versions can be relatively completely aged after 20 years or so but they still keep changing, just not as fast.  There is a common preconception that sheng is best when aged longest but really it's not that simple.  Some is great new, maybe per typical preference best then, some ideal after a couple of years, and from there it is most typical for older to be better.

2007 Tulin T868 tuocha; a bit compressed as those tend to be

On to an example of another type I took to slowly, which may shed light on how sheng preference curve goes (or may not; I tend to not always have a point).  I kept trying silver needle / silver tips versions and not exactly loving them.  Since white tea was a highly regarded tea type at that time (a half dozen years ago) it seemed like I was either trying bad versions or missing something.  I never cite really early posts, because they seem so rough-edged now, but one of the first few I wrote compared white tea buds-only versions from China and India.  Looking back that T2 tea version (the one from China) I bought from them the month after their company acquisition by Unilever, not exactly an auspicious transition for them.

In that case it wasn't that aspects like bitterness and astringency were an issue; flavor intensity often seemed limited instead.  I liked those two teas mentioned in that post; not always other examples from the category, back then.  In both the cases of silver needle / silver tips teas and sheng it helped to adjust preference to appreciate them, a process that happened naturally, with exposure.  For the white teas I learned to like teas with more subtle flavor range, for sheng to see bitterness as positive in the right balance with other aspects.  Not all sheng is very bitter (as some definitely is) but it tends to come up, just less so in aged versions.  I didn't like buds-only black teas as well as leaf based versions for quite awhile, and over time gradually adapted to that different range too.  It's funny how all those natural preference transitions go.

2007 CNNP "red mark" 8891; more compressed sheng after a dozen years of relatively dry storage time

Those issues

A few concerns seem to map together in ways that online descriptions don't do justice to.  Only experience helps make the sub-themes very clear, but something can still be said about them.

quality:  this means a few different things.  Early on it seems important to not drop it out as a concern but to keep in mind that it's not a simple concept, and it mixes with other themes.  It can relate to trueness to type, even though that's really something else, but as often it relates to a lack of flaws, presence of aspects that serve as quality markers (positive flavor and feel, aftertaste range experience, overall intensity, "cha qi" experience related, etc.), or aging potential, aspects related to how it will be later.  Old plant source (gushu) versions are better regarded, with some typical character tying to that, but it's not as simple as saying the two factors always map directly together, plant source age and tea quality.  Pricing would seem to imply that, but then pricing is about demand, and typical initial material sales price, in addition to how good a tea actually is.

local region / type / growing conditions related character:  this varies, and seeking out what is type-typical has to also pair with considering what is positive.  This could be a primary early focus, trying to separate out broad and narrower patterns in types, or someone could focus more on final aspects they prefer, even though the two would interrelate.  This gets a little complicated since broad region profiles tend to be discussed, but then better quality versions are more typically sold in relation to the narrow village area they come from.  No matter how narrow the origin area versions could still vary, and given that micro-climate is an issue (specific weather experienced by the plants; amount of sun, water, soil type, etc.) they should vary, there would just also be a degree of consistency.

loose Laos sheng (left), compared to a black tea version, both sold as wild-sourced tea

age / fermentation level (not the same thing):  sheng is complex because it varies as much as for any other tea type before aging transitions are considered, and then this dimension shifts a lot after that.  It's difficult to buy comparable teas that are new, and then also similar others with a bit of time on them, and relatively completely aged versions that were also close in starting-point character to get a sense of how this works.  Theme specific tasting sets might help, or trying a broad range of teas and keeping loose track.  People tend to overdo it with emphasis on "traditional Hong Kong storage," it seems to me, even though of course some range of conditions would be generally more optimum.

Tea Side Thai 1980 (left) and 1993 sheng versions

What the categories even are for storage conditions is hard to sort out, and people would use terms in different ways.  There probably is a best-case most-correct set of terminology usage out there, but really you need the experience to match the concepts anyway, so it works to put both together, learning the terms and experiencing what they mean.

This was a comment on a Puerh Tea Club discussion recently (which is hard to link to; the heading and question is "Tea cake that is stored in Hong Kong is alway wet storage??"), by Olivier Schneider, one of the better sources of information out there, and author of

"Wet storage" means artificially refined or fermented.

A tea naturally stored in the natural wet atmosphere of Hong Kong will be called dry storage.  Most of (nearly all) puerh before the end of the 90s have been (more or less strongly) wet stored (but there are some exception). Since the end of the 90s, there are more and more naturally stored puerh in Hong-Kong too.

Unless I'm mistaken usually Hong Kong storage is called "natural" when humidity level isn't adjusted, with storage region specified, and when controlled to be more humid "wet," and in drier climates like Kunming "dry."  Some time back the Pu'er Addict's Journal blog author proposed swapping out Hong Kong storage reference as "wet" for "traditional" would make sense.  Anyway, storage level and the actual effect relate to the tea's age, storage conditions (maybe even mostly that), and starting point character, the initial potential.

preference shifts:  this is as much a concern as all the rest, but it tends to not draw that much attention.  There's an old truism about how early on sheng drinkers, or tea drinkers in general, tend to prefer flavor aspects first, then move on to consider mouthfeel and aftertaste (in addition, or as more primary concerns), then "drink with their body," valuing effect.  For blog input Tea Addict's Journal goes into that (he's a good reference on lots of themes; check out this related selection of quotes).  It definitely doesn't help that your own preference makes for a moving target; trying the same teas over different times might output the same evaluation for aspects but a different one for relation to likes.

wild sourced tea, "pu'er" from South East Asia, outside China:  these themes aren't a perfect match for a broad overview post, since either set of ideas (about growing conditions and plant types, especially related to production outside Yunnan) could make for an interesting and lengthy isolated review.  Both themes are complicated by a lot of variation among individual versions that are either "wild grown / old plant" tea, or from a different country, or both.

It's tempting to want to generalize, to say that Myanmar sheng is a certain way, for example.  Based on only trying 2 or 3 versions it could certainly seem that way, or those could vary a lot.  Growing conditions vary a lot within as broad an area as a country, plant types aren't consistent over that type of range either, and processing is even less consistent.  I have my own impression of patterns among older plant or more natural growth sheng versions, but those are inconsistent enough that it may only be stories I tend to adhere to, rejecting the other cases as atypical or lower in quality based on that expectations bias.

Kokang (Myanmar producer and region name) 2018 sheng

It's interesting to try sheng from Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam (you can call it sheng, it is still "raw," you just need to switch that to "pu'er-like tea" for discussion in tea groups).  It's just as well to hold off on identifying clear patterns, or accepting vendor input about how those go, until you try a number of versions, and realize that exceptions to any standard themes would keep coming up.

approaches:  early on sampling a lot seems to make the most sense.  Setting aside a few cakes that seem like "basics" to experience transitions first-hand over the first year or two, and then after, also makes sense to me.  A Dayi / Taetea 7542 would be an example of a related factory tea, regarded as a benchmark version.  It's not as simple to identify what works as a region-specific "basic" related to other vendors, for a tea version that's not as blended, or based on use of more whole-leaf material.

Sampling could fill in an initial take on how aging transitions go, enabling buying more of a few versions that might improve later on, but piecing that together quickly is the problem.  Some vendors mostly or only sell blended cakes, versus narrow source region versions, or don't convey that information, forcing you to rely on knowledge and experience of how aspects identify what you have and where it will go for changes.

In discussing approach with someone online they mentioned seeing buying a cake as a sample (another Tea Addict's Journal reference), so that person had tried and also had bought something like 150 sheng cake versions.  That's one way to do it.  On the upside even if you didn't like a tea at all you could see how it changes, if you keep some around, and that leaves room for preference changes later.  The downside is obvious:  spending thousands of dollars on teas you don't like that much.

Tasting set sources

It works to consider a few options, and explore at positives or drawbacks of those options.  I'll start with mentioning a source I've actually tried tea from, and also cover several I've not.  To be clear this section is about themed sample sets, buying very small amounts of sets of teas designed for exploring a limited range.  This is mostly about fast approaches to getting started.

Yiwu Mountain Pu'er I didn't actually try this particular set; the ones I did try from them were themed around trying comparable teas of varying ages, but those are all sold out.  That's an underlying lesson that re-occurs related to all sorts of sheng options; they won't be available forever (a subject just covered in one of my favorite blogs, Mattcha's Blog).  The teas I tried from this vendor were solid enough that I'd expect a lot of what they sell to be of good quality.  That's all relative, and tracking value issues along with that can be complex.  But for samples pressure for a tea to be worth the per-gram price or a great match to preference eases; that's a lot of the point of buying in limited volume.

Yiwu Mountain Pu'er tasting set; different ages, and I think one was huang pian

White 2 Tea, TEA TERROIR RAW PUER SAMPLE SET:  to be clear I've not tried any teas from White 2 Tea yet, a bit of a gap I've been meaning to get to.  Who knows when I will; it's easy to develop a list of things you'd like from familiar vendors, and keep adding to those lists faster than you clear them.

There seems to be two general schools of thought or hearsay responses to this vendor.  One is that they sell positive teas that are relatively universally liked (across versions), representing a good value given tea quality.  The other is that the teas are overpriced, and not as interesting for being sold in a relatively generic form (eg. often without any description of material used, specifically omitting source location origin or degree of mixed content, potentially with a lot of versions being blends).  

This sampler set includes 4 100 gram small cakes for $69.50.  I suppose related to value alone, with only a guess at quality level, that sounds reasonable, since $70 for a 357-400 gram cake isn't so unusual.  For low quality new or young tea (or factory tea versions) that's too much, and any assessment of "medium" level is a judgement call.  It seems fair though.

As for a positive aspect, as they describe those are broad areas for there to be one typical character type, but the right person could select something relatively standard, or at least indicative.  Beyond that a limitation of the approach in general comes into play; it would be hard to separate issues of character type and quality level from source area nature early on.

2018 Yunnan Sourcing "Spring Jinggu" Raw Pu-erh Tea Sampler - Part 2 Yunnan Sourcing, as standard a vendor as there is, doesn't seem to sell that many sample sets, because they sell most teas as samples anyway; that's a standard purchasing option.  Or maybe they really do and I didn't put in enough time with the site search function (for example I didn't page through much in this sub-category, which includes other types).  Narrowing focus to explore a smaller region across 5 teas in this case, from varying background sources, should provide a much higher resolution take on inputs going into that regional general type.

they include nice background write-ups and photo content too (credit that related YS page)

Considering value (again impossible without trying the teas and factoring in quality level) 5 25 gram samples are sold for $44 (so around 30 cents per gram versus closer to 15 for the W2T set).  Maybe this is still a better value; quality level really does swing appropriate sales price by that much.  Clicking on the first type listed YS does sell a 400 gram cake of that for $108 (versus equivalent of $132 for 375 grams, multiplying the set amount and cost by 3), so to them the teas really are upper-medium quality level.  Or at least pricing implies that, and maybe that just relates to what they bought the material at, as covered in another recent Mattcha's blog post.

Crimson Lotus Aged Puerh Tea Super Sample Pack:  this is one more of those standard vendor names that comes up, and one more vendor I've never tried a tea from (or almost never, as it turns out; easy to lose track).  I have no idea where these particular tea versions stand; it just seemed in order to look up and mention an aged sample version.  128 total grams of 7 teas from between 2000 and 2018 are sold in this set, for a total cost of $59.  Even though this is selling for the highest per-gram price of sample sets I've mentioned ($.46 / gram) again it's still possible they could represent the best value.  Trying all three sets would seem to represent a running start; 16 teas focusing across different scopes for about $175.

There's no need to have the vendors put a sample set together for you; if they sell small amounts then you can try whatever sounds good, or some other theme, designed on your own.  Per-gram price is essentially always higher than buying by cake but it makes a huge difference buying what you like in quantity, which is an option if you try only a little first.  357 grams goes faster than one would think, but tea you don't like not quite as fast.

Farmerleaf (Yunnan producer / Jing Mai area specialist):  at one time Farmerleaf was one of the best-value sources for sheng and teas in general on the internet.  They've gradually increased pricing to match demand increase (probably related to source material pricing increases), so now it's just another good quality, fairly priced source option, which is already quite positive.  A lot of what they sell is on the unique side; that adds value.  Their samples are priced without a lot of mark-up over whole cake costs, so putting together your own sample set among what they sell would go well.  

I've tried a number of their teas, and ordered cakes and samples from them last year, but it seems best to stop short of recommending any, since I've only tried a small fraction of what they sell.  As an example, they sell this 20 gram sample of huang pian (yellow leaf) sheng for $3.  If you've never tried huang pian sheng it would be a shame not to try that.  It's milder in character than typical young leaves, sweeter, and not bitter, but also less intense.  Looking around at what else they sell I'm starting to talk myself into a sample order; it wouldn't be the first time that's happened related to recommending this particular vendor.

William, a main owner, produces great video content about tea processing and background issues.  I've never actually met him but per my impression from lots of discussion and first hand accounts he's a knowledgeable, decent, interesting guy.  Most of the tea vendors I meet or talk to by message or in groups seem quite likable and decent; that makes the exceptions stand out all the more.

Liquid Proust:  this may be the best source among all of these.  That vendor (Andrew Richardson; it's one person) supports group buy specials with his other tea sales, a tea evangelist sub-theme.  It's not really a new theme; I interviewed him about that subject three years ago, and tried two sheng sets with lots of review posts about the versions.  They are inconsistent, and span a lot of range, but that's sort of the point, providing broad exposure to a lot of different source areas, quality levels, storage age and condition versions, and so on.  Sets would vary a lot by theme too.

One nice part about buying other tea from him, using him as a source beyond sample sets, is that he actually does fund the tea evangelist theme through other sales.  You'll know what I mean if you do sign up for buying a set; the per-gram price of what I've tried as sample sets from him would seem unrealistic, if I'd kept track.  Even if you never do buy tea from him it's interesting to see him going on about what he's turned up through Instagram and other posts; he's definitely an enthusiastic tea enthusiast.

comparison tasting sheng from three Yunnan source areas from a Liquid Proust set

Those options are just a start.  All are certainly decent options, but they're represented here as both good starting points and to communicate how trying samples goes.  There would be other good options out there.  I've had great luck with buying tea through the Chawang Shop in the past year, and King Tea Mall is an interesting and novel form of outlet, also true in a different sense for Teas We Like.  To be clear I'm not sharing any secrets here (although TWL might be less better known at this point); these are all quite mainstream options.  Other exceptions might prove even more interesting, just with more "buyer beware" concerns related to product authenticity and consistency.

About sample pricing and value in general

I won't get far with this, because I can't lay out how value issues play out related to sheng across a broad range of types, origins, vendor sources, related to storage conditions, and so on.  I can separate out some comments made in relation to sample set pricing and clarify what I meant by those.  These sample set entries already included cost citations, but I mostly only compared costs to the other sets in those (with some exceptions).

To be clear supply and demand pull pricing as much or more than some general quality level value.  Yunnan Sourcing in-house brand versions are popular, which is why they can be sold between $80 and above $100.  It's probably not easy to peg that to a range of other open-market equivalent options.  Why would I single their teas out and that price range, and why not cite that as a price-per-gram value instead, which helps compare apples to apples?  There is a general point I'm trying to make.  A standard cake is typically 357 grams, although many of YS's are 400 instead, and 100 and 200 gram versions come up.  For that price range ($80 to 100) that amount (357 grams) works out to a range of 22 to 28 cents per gram.  Still, what does that mean though?

"Factory tea" versions tend to not cost that much; what I'm really saying is that there is a trend to better, differently sourced and produced teas that are more within a mid-range.  This example helps clarify that distinction:  Yunnan Sourcing lists a 2014 Dayi / Taetea 7542 (kind of a standard benchmark version) for $49.  That particular product version being so well known probably drives up price a bit higher than versions of similar quality would be, but the point is clear enough; well-known, higher demand versions still don't cost all that much (just under 14 cents a gram; equivalent to $7 for 50 grams, for people who are that bad at math).

A half dozen years ago, when I first started this blog, and when I bought the first cake of sheng I ever did, a $100 mid-range cake wasn't really how things worked out.  To be clear I'm not doing the subject of history / transitions in pricing justice here, or even starting in on it.  Demand for sheng goes up over time; prices increase.

Extending that theme a little beyond YS, upper range W2T options extend much further in pricing, but then maybe they are selling high-demand source tea in those cases, just not typically explicitly sold by source area name.  I think maybe word is supposed to get out, that being in the know about the code-names is part of the appeal.  It's this type of complication that makes comparing across source areas, vendors, tea age ranges, individual aspects and styles, etc., quite difficult. 

It takes time to sort out what the related factors are; it takes a lot more time to taste a tea and have some idea of what you are experiencing.  That's why I was emphasizing starting in with samples, then moving on to exploring directions with cakes.  You just don't want to wait too long, to spend a couple of years drinking samples, because it takes more exposure to really get a better feel for a version.  The 100 grams in a standard tuocha is gone before that process completely plays out, never mind the relation to seeing how it changes across some time.


This part seems fairly simple to me, and I'm only including it for completeness, since the idea here is that people with limited to next to no sheng exposure are the target audience.

Sheng works out best brewed Gongfu style, using a high proportion, a short brewing time, and hot water, at or very near boiling point.  A starting point ratio might be 1:15 grams per milliliter of water (so using 6 grams for a 90 ml gaiwan).  You can also try going slightly higher on proportion, as I tend to, but there's a limit to how much will fit once the leaves are wet.  Using a clay pot or other device also works, it's the proportion that's the thing.  But permeable clay needs to be "seasoned" or conditioned to the type of tea being brewed, so using a porcelain or ceramic gaiwan works better related to moderating expense and skipping that part, until it seems time to go there.

Timing preferences vary, but basing each infusion on how the last one worked out is effective.  For me it depends on the tea character, and I suppose some on mood too.  Every variable changes outcome a little.  Shifting the type of water used, varying the mineral content, might change things a good bit.  Small temperature shifts can affect outcome, or the shape of the cup used, or the temperature at which you drink the tea.  It's as well to keep things simple initially and explore as you like from there.  I definitely don't get the timing cycles I often see mentioned as recommended (10 seconds, then 15, 20, 25...), since sheng doesn't "brew out" or lose intensity that fast, but maybe that makes more sense than it seems to for me.

Rinsing sheng or shu pu'er is standard; throwing out the first short infusion, or for some a moderate length infusion, or two in some cases.  Fermentation causes a limited trace of toxins to be produced as an outcome.  And teas can be in contact with floors that might vary in cleanliness, or dust and foreign object can turn up in cakes; there's a sort of "just in case" factor to account for.


In a sense it's as well to never even get started on sheng.  Shu is nice too, and easier to brew, cheaper, and relatively consistent, it's just a bit earthy.  All that kind of also applies to hei cha, a broad category that gets relatively little respect (which sheng may or may not fall under, depending on how you take your categories).

Hunan Fu brick tea; not exactly the same, but pleasant in a different way

If you buy tea as you drink it, as would occur for oolong, black tea, and the rest, the cost for even relatively better versions can stay moderate.  You only end up ramping up expense to the next level once you try to buy and set aside tea for aging, to buy what you'll drink over the next 15-20 years.

As I've said it is a natural end-point for tea preference though, or so it would seem, along with oolong.  Messing around with storage and aging transitions adds a pleasant depth to the experience.  For me it's just that the higher level of expense and keeping kilograms of tea around don't sit well with my wife, and I don't have the tea budget to do a next level of exploration justice, to ramp up to trying out the next 50 cakes (probably a $2500 investment, as moderate priced sheng goes now, or that could easily be well over $5000 if you drink a different type range, with almost no upper limit).

Sheng drinkers don't want the demand to increase; there is only so much out there, and rising demand is already maintaining continually escalating prices.  In general new tea sources coming online will offset moderate demand increase (eg. orthodox Assam keeps getting better and better; Vietnamese and Indonesian teas increase in quality to match some Chinese offering range), but that happens less with sheng.  I've written a lot about versions from Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, but there's only so much growing out there, and not much of it ends up as a well-produced product.  I'll keep spreading the word anyway, to the limited extent people actually read this blog.

I've skipped more than I've covered here, to be clear.  I never mentioned how tuochas or maocha (loose versions) relate to cakes, or bricks.  That's more a story about conventions than shapes mattering, but I won't get into that.  I didn't mention how standard "factory" teas, by producers like Dayi / Taetea, compare or relate to custom produced versions, or what Xiaguan and other producer character is about.  I didn't even make a good start on describing "markers" for sheng quality, fleshing out how bitterness, specific versions of feel, flavor type and intensity, and aftertaste experience tend to be regarded.  Or cha qi; drug-like effect (not that anyone else tends to put it that way).

a Kokang Myanmar dragonball.  I also didn't mention shape exceptions, coins, witch's brooms, and the rest.

It's too much to get to.  Posts go into those themes bit by bit, but for the most part someone needs to explore it on their own one part at a time, to match experience to other people's shared understanding.

Related posts / articles:

It's best to keep in mind that I'm closer to the start of my journey with pu'er than the end, so anything I claim, or even refer to from another source, should be weighed against other ideas and opinions.  That kind of goes for everyone, even the best sources out there, but all the more so for a "path to tea" style tea blogger.

The first article (following) cites references from several other great blog sources:

-Tea Addict's Journal:  again!  I'm not really even online friends with that guy, but he's worth hearing out, standing out among classic blog references.  I already kept mentioning Matcha's Blog here too.

-Tea DB: a main video blog and pu'er researcher; they're also kind of "on the path" but quite informative.  And personable; that comes across better in the videos than through text.

-Cwyn of Death by Tea: interesting; any description wouldn't do her perspective justice.

-Late Steeps: about tea storage experiments, the part I cited in the following, but this includes interesting version tea reviews that links to a novel source.  this really works as a "classic reference source" category, but not much on this level comes to mind.

-vendor blogs and content:  I won't mention any, although I did say earlier that Farmerleaf Youtube videos are good, and Yunnan Sourcing is good about describing what teas actually are (funny that's an exception).  The obvious limitation applies; the content is designed to support their own sales.  It's still interesting to click that extra "blog" tab when you check out vendors to see what they're saying.  Many visit Yunnan, and the photos and their travel descriptions are worth hearing, but claims about tea plant age and the rest require a little filtering.

-online discussion:  that's another funny thing, how limited this really is, or maybe it's just that the diversity of channels waters each down a bit.  I admin for a Facebook tea group but the Pu'er Tea Club is a much better reference.  If leaning into this social aspect is of interest I wrote about more options here.  If you would like to offer feedback about this content, or just to get in touch, this link to a related Facebook page might be a good place for that.

My own additional writing:

Pu'er Storage Environment Part 2: References, Environment Maintenance (written for a vendor page, based mostly on external input quotations; a bit different)

Oolong pu'er, about sheng aging potential

Pu'er storage optimums, and relative versus absolute humidity

Pu'er-like teas in South East Asia

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