Thursday, April 30, 2020

Tropical fruit flavored "wild" Assamica Thai oolong

named after the river that runs past Bangkok

Visiting with a friend awhile back the owner of Monsoon, who made this tea, stopped by and shared some samples with us.  It's the second time that I've met Kenneth Rimdahl (that owner); he seems like a really nice guy.  He talks about the forest-friendly theme here.

I could be clearer on the "Assamica" part in this title.  Old, wild-growing tea plants in the North of Thailand are exclusively Assamica variety, per my understanding, but my understanding wouldn't always be accurate.  There are so many tangents to get to in this post, along with the review itself, that I'll not dwell further on it here, or say more about the wild and "forest friendly" aspects.

Kenneth in white; Sasha (right) hasn't been mentioned here for awhile

I've written a little about that in this post, which related to meeting Kenneth the second time.  In that post I downplay the overall impact making a limited amount of tea from wild sources will have on the industry, but if the impact is still positive that's a good thing, and it sets up a basis for expanding that over time.  This post relates to meeting him in my favorite Chinatown shop prior to that, and we did talk about that background there. 

Of course wild sourced tea is a very positive theme; old tea plants really are growing in a natural fashion in different places (organically, in a biodiverse environment), and the tea from such plants tends to be mild in character (low astringency), intense in flavor, and very pleasant.  It's hard to not notice that the tin presentation, the container, contradicts the conservation theme, but this isn't a critique of how it all works taken together.

three years ago; the time flies

On the subject of tangents, I wanted to also share which flavored teas I've liked best in this post.  It's a subject that doesn't come up often here, not for a couple of years in any post, and one I tend to discredit or downplay.  But to be clear I think there's nothing wrong with people liking all sorts of different teas (even Lipton tea bags), and flavored teas can be interesting in diverse.  To me natural, better-quality, loose-leaf versions are more interesting, in general, but citing some exceptions helps place my take on all that.

I think this is lychee and mango


The first infusion is really fruity; it tastes like lychee and mango. Taste is clean, more natural in effect than flavored teas would generally be. A bright citrus aspect is a bit lemony but mango often includes something like that naturally, and lychee isn't far off that range either. Lychee is my overall favorite tropical fruit, and mango might be a close second. It's hard to get much read on the tea itself in a light first infusion.

More of the same on the second infusion, brewed for close to 20 seconds, a bit strong as other tea types go, for this proportion. Flavor is really clean; aroma is pleasant. Sweetness and other aspect balance is good. It's still hard to pin down what the tea itself is like beyond the flavoring but it integrates well. It's a light oolong, not dissimilar to a Jin Xuan, but since this should be Assamica it should be quite different.

Normally I'd only only provisionally like any blend or flavored tea, it could be fine for what it is, but this works as an exception. It's good.

Vegetal range is picking up as fruit drops off but this is still sweeter and fruitier than a plain light oolong. It's not vegetal in the sense of green beans or pepper picking up, more a floral range with just a trace of green wood. For as clean and pleasant as this is it had to be fine plain, but I get it why a lot of people would prefer it flavored. I'd have to try a plain version to know which seems better.

A touch of butteriness picks up; that might have been what reminded me of Jin Xuan, even though I didn't notice it in the last round.

The fruit flavor is hanging in there, two thirds dropped out, or so, but still a main component. The overall effect is still really nice, bright, sweet, fresh, and complex. These flavors must be extracts of some kind; there's no way chemicals would taste this natural. I should ask Kenneth but probably won't; blog posts take forever with Q & A back and forth as an input.  I'll do an interview post later if I get to it.

It's hard to do much with evaluating this as an Assamica based oolong, in part due to the flavoring layer input. It's clean, with good complexity and feel, a lot like a well above average Thai oolong.  This other post covers trying two of the very rare Assamica based oolongs I've ever had that worked really well, versions from Hatvala from Vietnam.  But those were more-oxidized in style, a completely different thing (what people often call "red oolong," a popular but less common style imported from Taiwan).

Later rounds:  3 more rounds stayed pleasant and well-balanced, with fruit tones fading and woody flavor picking up.  Even after 8 or so infusions the tea was still quite pleasant; interesting an added flavor would hang in there that long, even if greatly diminished.  I put the leaves in the refrigerator with lukewarm water after those rounds, to cold brew for an extra infusion; they still weren't done yet.

It would seem more conventional for people to brew this Western style, of course, for people more into flavored teas to just brew 2 or 3 rounds in a teapot or some infuser instead.  That would work.

I really liked it.  The color shows it's a very lightly oxidized oolong, which is either a good or bad thing, depending on how that suites the final tea aspects and character, and for this it worked really well.

Other flavored teas

There's nothing necessarily wrong with flavored teas, or liking flavored teas, but inexpensive, low-quality versions are often more a gateway to better tea than a final preference destination.  Artificially flavored, low quality tea based versions aren't like this blend, closer to how flavoring gas-station coffee with those artificially flavored non-dairy creamer cups comes across (which can be ok, for a road-trip caffeine fix).

I'll list a few flavored tea versions I've really liked, with these exceptions intended to fill in what I think represents the best of this category.

Earl Grey:  no need to go to far with describing this; bergamot essential oil (citrus) blended black tea should be familiar.  If not go try some.  Twinings loose version isn't too bad, but even better versions than theirs can be really nice.  I've reviewed a good bit of Earl Grey here but none of those reviews shed any more light on what it is, or how it is.  An interesting version from the Cordon Bleu cooking school was really maxed out for that orange citrus flavor, right at the balance point for being too much.  That seemed like a natural place to set that level, upon drinking it.  I think they stopped making it though; a later search about it didn't turn it up.

Monsoon coconut flavored black tea:  this really stuck with me (that post was from 2005).  This same producer made a relatively natural version (per my understanding) that worked really well as a winter / Christmas seasonal theme experience.  Some extracted, essential oil version of coconut really captured the flavor of toasted coconut (presumably it was that), combined with what seemed like a pretty decent black tea.  I'll drink that again someday.

Jasmine black tea:  my overall favorite flavored tea, probably.  To me jasmine works much better with black tea than green, and balances and complements it even better than bergamot essential oil.  A bad version might seem off, but even Indonesian grocery store versions were good.  Hatvala, a Vietnamese vendor, makes my favorite that I've tried (reviewed here), but Moychay also produced a really exceptional example.  It's hard to describe further than just saying that this particular floral range and good black tea work really well together, even better than it sounds.

the cacao nibs on the lower right; they work better ground a bit more, like coffee

Chocolate flavored tea:  I've not done much with this popular flavored tea sub-theme (maybe well represented by David's Tea selection).  Two Christmas themed blends, based mostly on a masala chai base, did use cacao nibs and actual chocolate.  Both masala chai and Christmas blends are promising directions for blends that aren't really typical of flavor-added teas.  The most basic version of the latter is something along the lines of black tea, orange peel, cinnamon, and mint, or just a twist on a masala chai recipe, maybe adding pine needles or something such.  Cacao husks would be a good way to add real chocolate flavor to any tea, probably as well balanced with a mild black version as any (the nibs, the actual "bean," can be hard to infuse).

fruit peels dried for one of those Christmas blends

That seems like a good place to leave off.  Blending other flavors into teas is promising, it's just that drinking single-type, narrow-origin, high-quality plain versions of teas is even more promising.  None of those blends or flavored tea posts are from the last two years; I've just not been exploring that lately.  I made a mostly herbal version of masala chai that worked well when I was sick last year; that's an exception (and tried chen pi then, from looking that up, tea stuffed in an orange / tangerine peel).  I really like masala chai, it just takes some messing around to make a version, and I don't get to it often.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

2016 Myanmar Jingdong Xiao sheng

label is white, except for this sticker

I just wrote a post with lots of rambling on about tea settling after shipping, and later transitions, so I want to keep this short.  I'll drink it a bit soon too but won't say much about that.  This won't cover anything about relative value either; as well to just talk about the tea experience.

It's a "2016 Myanmar Jingdong Xiao Bing Cha 200g."  I was really ordering black tea from Chawang Shop to pass on to my niece at a wedding (which of course I'm now not attending, and may be delayed), and I only picked up two sheng cakes from them (or 3 really; two of this version).  I bought her sheng, but from another vendor, Tea Mania.

Straight to their description then, Chawang Shop's:

The raw materials of this cake came from Jingdong, Myanmar, just west of the Xishuangbanna. The tea is not expensive but does not come by easily. Nowadays border tea is very popular on the market, Myanmar tea is very good to be used for blending. There is a particular recipe for "Lao Ban Zhang" is blend Myanmar tea with Naka and Lao Man E. 

It tastes a little bitter with rich aroma of mountain flowers. Mellowness with a pleasant finish, no astringent.

This tea is made by Mingshan tea house.

Back to that "border tea" subject.  I'm still not going there though, I won't be drawn into repeating that discussion here, since I just went through all that in a recent post.


First infusion:  a bit light, more about getting the tea to open up.  Very promising!  The tea is sweet and floral, bright, with good intensity, thickness, complexity, and depth.  And all that from a lightly brewed version, barely started.  Bitterness is present but moderate; this is a 4 year old tea, even if relatively dry storage will have slowed the transition pace.  Next round will work better for a flavor list and the rest.

Second infusion:  Bitterness did crank up a bit; this is more what I would have expected.  The overall balance is still really nice, and I'd expect after two more rounds and settling of initial transitions this will be even better.  Floral stands out, a nice, bright version of that (wildflower?; it seems a bit light in tone for orchid).  Mineral depth balances that well at the "other" side, a light mineral character, limestone or lighter granite.  Sweetness is good; that seems to link with the floral character, or maybe that's added in interpretation.  The degree of fullness and roundness fills in the experience; it's not at all thin.  

All the same this doesn't cover the same kind of scope of aspects that blends tend to; it hits a nice range of some positive notes fairly hard and there isn't other range beyond that.  I could see why this would work well in a blend, to support other teas missing some of those aspects.  

It's interesting how different this is than the other sheng I just bought from them.  That was made from a mix of inputs, from two different years, from 2006 and 2007 (so much more aged), a standard factory tea, a Jinggu Bailong.  It wass subtle, more so for me not letting it rest long enough after shipping yet (which I'll get to).  The same is true for this; it will pick up a little depth and intensity over the next two weeks.  It has probably been in Bangkok for over a week but time spend in local processing and sitting at a desk in my office doesn't count (I'm working from home, so a rare trip in let me pick it up).

Third infusion:  not so different, but mineral seems to still be increasing.  It's expanding to link up with other range, or maybe it's just really complex mineral.  The level of bitterness is pronounced but balanced.  Without that sweetness and floral flavor intensity it wouldn't be as nice, but with them it works.  The mineral isn't directly related, as I interpret the experience, but it adds depth, along with pleasant length aftertaste reasonable thickness of feel (which is structured in an unusual way, to be fair, full and rich but also with a touch of dryness).

It's as well that I bought two cakes of this.  I think this is at a great place now to drink straight through it, after another 2-4 weeks to settle more.  Then it will be interesting trying it once or twice a year, and drinking it later as an aged tea.  I'd expect this would be fine in another dozen years, and it would be interesting to see if that guess is right.  This tea is ten times more drinkable than the 2006 Kokang version from them, to be clear.  That tea has great intensity for being very pleasant in another decade but it seems between the relatively dry storage and very high compression it's taking a long time to age transition, to ferment.  I retasted that since making these notes, and cover at the end how it changed in the last year.

I don't tend to talk about color much but it's pale yellow-gold.  It's what I'd expect from dry-stored, 4 year old sheng.  This would probably be darker if it had spent 2 years here instead of 4 years where it did, and flavor range would shift to deeper, warmer, heavier tones, less bright and fresh.  If it had range that needed to transition to be more positive, as slightly harsher teas tend to, that speeded up fermentation would make more difference than it does for this.  To me it's fine.  For some bitterness would be a bit much still, but this is moderate as younger sheng goes (teas in the general range of 1 to 2 years old, stored in a more humid environment; this isn't really showing the typical amount of transition in character for a 4 year old tea yet).

Fourth infusion:  that mineral gaining depth has shifted to come across as including a spice tone now.  As I expected the balance is much nicer, really evened out, with flavor picking up more range, and feel settling to be broader and smoother as well.  It's still only hitting a limited set of aspect notes across a broad range, as flavor goes, but I like that effect.

Fifth infusion:  not so different than last round, but a gradual, continuing transition cycle is nice.  To me there is nothing negative about this tea; all the aspects balance well.  For anyone who doesn't like sheng the bitterness would still be too much but for younger range sheng versions it's quite moderate, and well-integrated.  That feel is nice, smooth and full with some structure, and aftertaste duration keeps increasing round by round.  It's still only noticeable a few minutes later, not the kind of experience where the taste is stronger after you swallow it, and not diminished that much minutes later.  Floral tone is probably just a little deeper, warmer, and richer, shifted a little towards lavender from the original wildflower.

Sixth infusion:  there isn't enough transition to say much more about; this might be a good place to only ramble for a round.  It's interesting how the tea yesterday (an aged, more blended, small commercial factory sheng) was lots less intense, at the opposite side of the scale, related to that and character.  I think that would work well for a daily drinker, as a tea to not pay as much attention to, but this might be a bit much for when you just want a tea with breakfast.  

I re-tried a 2015 Dayi (Tae Tea) Jia Ji tuocha a few days ago that might help place that idea.  It was good, softening and gaining depth to a pleasant and drinkable range.  It's still just as intense as this tea (the Dayi), maybe with a touch more rough edge, but more complexity for being a blend, and one that started out a bit harsh and softened to where it is now.  These share some scope (sweetness, mineral depth--but both are more pronounced in this) but this tea is more specific.

Seventh infusion:  I could swear a bit of berry sweetness is picking up in this; just crazy.  It's closest to dried blueberry.  That original bright floral range had been shifting to deeper floral tone, and it just kept going.  The warm and complex mineral had edged towards a spice tone but leveled back off as just being complex, and stayed more an underlying theme.  To be clear this isn't covering a lot of flavor scope, these are still a limited set of pronounced notes, but they're across a broad range, and the taste does keep shifting.  Feel and aftertaste range stopped transitioning as much; those are still where they were two rounds ago.

Eighth infusion:  right about now my patience for reviewing usually wears thin.  If there was a little less chaos in the house I'd be taking less breaks to settle a dispute over who plays with what matchbox car (not something I care about, but they seem to have strong opinions), or to see how many pull-ups the kids can do.  Then it would be easier to focus and meditate and bang this review process out in an hour.  

I think I went a little faster on that round; this is lighter.  I'm brewing these for just under 10 seconds, not for long, and it makes a lot of difference if that's down towards 5 or just over 10.  Intensity is still good lighter and the relative effect of bitterness drops.  It already had dropped a lot from the level of the first 3 to 4 rounds, as tends to happen, but it's easy to shift the relative effect using a shorter brewing time.  That trace of dried blueberry is still present; it's cool.  

I'll "push" the tea for a 15 second infusion time next round to see how that changes things.

Ninth infusion:  it changes a good bit; it's hard to summarize what though.  Feel is thicker, the moderate bitterness plays a stronger role in what comes across, and aftertaste ramps up.  I taste the mineral more than the now-diminished floral range, and the light dried blueberry gets lost in all that.  It's not really "too strong" brewed for 15 seconds but for me right around 10 might still be an optimum.  I'd expect that to change soon; it's nearing where slightly longer infusion times are necessary, not 30 seconds or anything like that, but bumped to 15 to get to the same intensity level.

10th infusion:  I think that's enough caffeine.  I tend to not talk about "cha qi" but of course I'm feeling this.  It's a nice heady buzz, with a bit of body dimension to even it out.  It's a clean and light feel, for the most part, but since I'm living feeling hazy that carries over.  Working from home has somehow bumped my workload and level of restriction a little.  At work if I'm there I'm doing the role, even over in the break-room, but at home somehow it seems I should be sitting right at that screen all the time.

11th:  crazy how this isn't thinning a bit; if anything it's better than it was for the first 5 rounds, for that shift in character.  An 11 year old, who isn't really supposed to be drinking tea, split this round with me, so the issue of too much tea exposure was cut in half.  I'll still probably throw in the towel after the next round.

12th:  it probably is losing just a touch of intensity; I'm now brewing it for around that 15 seconds to get the same infusion strength.  Mineral that had evolved to touch on spice is just starting to stretch out to seem a bit more like cured hardwood tone.  It's not finished but I'd expect that trend to become less positive over the next 4 rounds or so.  After another hour or so I could drink more to check but that's enough for now.


I tried this for another 4 rounds during an online tasting with friends in India and Germany, Suzana and Ralph.  For the first couple it was a good bit thinner than the first 12 but still fine, and for the last two it was getting stretched a bit too thin.  The character never really became unpleasant in any way, it just faded away.

A high infusion count like that tends to relate to using a high proportion as much as anything else, and short infusion times along with it.  Better tea will brew to be more intense, and will often stay more positive across late rounds, and hold up better for intensity (in addition to aspect range), but more than that just using more tea makes a difference.

It's interesting that the intensity issue that caused the last tea I reviewed to be subtle didn't repeat (maybe because it didn't rest long enough after storage, more likely more caused by where it is in fermentation transition, and relating to it fading with age).  This tea might fill in a bit more depth within the next month, but it had a lot going on, good complexity and positive character.

I re-tasted the 2006 Kokang Myanmar sheng over the weekend too, based on talking to someone about that tea online recently.  It's much more aged (transitioned, fermented) but it's not ready yet.  It's a lot more compressed, intense in character, and still slightly harsher, probably in part due to using more chopped material.  It's a bit like a Xiaguan version, as aspect range and intensity goes.  14 years old would typically be getting there for fermenting a good bit but again the dry storage slowed that, along with the really tight compression.  

I didn't take a photo; a before and after from a year back would be interesting.  It really needs a couple more years, where this version I just reviewed is fine now for drinking better as a younger version.

it's darker than this now, easier to see in broken off chunks and brewed leaves

that tea brewed one year ago; I'll have to do an update post at some point

Friday, April 10, 2020

Chawang Shop 2007 Jinggu Bailong TF sheng pu'er

looks ok, just a bit of stick, and my new phone has a photo water mark to get rid of

Not so long ago I ran across a sample of a sheng from a Chawang Shop order that I had probably overlooked for about a year, reviewed here, (a 2005 Bailong TF ShengTai Jinggu gushu sheng).  It was pretty good.  Of course good is all relative.

I tend to set aside expectations related to teas being "gushu," even though I do kind of get how general character typically works out for those.  Regardless of my impression it's now sold out anyway, of course, so I don't see any list price; it always works out like that.  Out of curiosity I tried checking the Wayback Machine for old pricing but it didn't turn up there.

I bought what seemed to be a producer-related cake version they carried with a recent order, intending to give away part of this set (two Dian Hong versions) and some other sheng from Tea Mania for a wedding gift for my niece.  Now that wedding probably won't happen, and even if it does my trip back there next month is cancelled, and it seems like global pandemic is probably slowing mail delivery a bit.  I also bought an interesting looking Myanmar sheng with it, but that other vendor order was more related to stocking up that tea type.  In retrospect, knowing this tea is ok, I should have bought them a cake of it too.

Enough tangent; the tea was this:

2007 Jinggu Bailong TF Raw Puerh Cake 357g

Let's get this part out of the way:  it's priced ridiculously low, for $18, like Amazon or Ebay cake pricing.  Their description doesn't really account for that, but let's consider it:

This is a good semi-aged classic Jinggu Bailong raw puerh cake, blend of different grades tea leaves from 2006 and 2007 harvest.  Silver buds and leaves have sweet and floral aroma. Brewed tea is smooth and fruity mellow. This tea is good to drink now or long term storage. This tea is relative cheap for its age and quality. Good choice to buy now and stock it! The quality of leaves is similar with 2003 Bailong "Jia Ji" cake we also offer.

Manufacturer : Jinggu Bai Long Tea Factory
Product date : 2007/9
Weight : 357g per cake

their photo, taken in 2014; it has definitely aged since

Obviously it's not the same thing as I tried in the last example, not gushu, surely not on the same quality level.  A blend of inputs is familiar, a tea made from two different years' materials is a little different.  That "floral" part seemed to have transitioned some but the sweetness still carries through, with more detail to follow about that.

One more critical detail:  this tea will be better in a month (I just got it), and I expect it will change just a little more within a month or two after that.  The common-knowledge theme that sheng versions need a month or so to rest when you first get them--or two weeks; versions of the idea vary--is right, per my understanding.

It just doesn't go far enough, as I see it.  The typical take is that teas will lose moisture or be affected by other unusual storage conditions in shipping, getting hot or cold.  It seems to me that teas also settle from the long term effects of where and how they were stored, beyond adjusting to a shorter transition period.  If a tea is a bit musty that may largely drop out over the course of 3 months or so, but minor variations in being flat or off in some way could resolve to some degree across different time-frames.  Being relatively dry stored I expect this will pick up a good bit of intensity and some depth over even half a year; it will really come to life.

Why taste it now, one might wonder.  Mostly out of curiosity; to see what it's like.  I'll figure out a reason to try it again, maybe along with some other tea, and pass on an updated impression within the next couple of months.  It won't work to guess how this tea will change over that two months but since I like to guess about things I have no basis for speculating about maybe I'll get to that anyway.  This post could make sense in retrospect for flagging changes across that shorter time-frame and again after another half a year.


could be clearer (the tea, not the photo), but that's not so pronounced

First infusion:  It's woody in an unusual way.  I often mention teas tasting like wood in lots of ways:  like greener wood, or in sharper form like tree bud tip, then sometimes more cured in character, or like tree bark, with dark tropical wood and aromatic woods like cedar and redwood all forming different ranges.  This is different than all that, but it's closest to cedar.

There's a specific smell that a turkey call has, which comes from the mild scent of that wood mixing with a pine resin scent, that is much more dominant; it's closest to that.  I've not seen or smelled a turkey call in about 30 years; it's interesting the association comes back.  The shorter version is that it tastes like pine resin (or the scent of it), with some undertone of cedar, aromatic lighter wood.

photo credit

Since this is only the first infusion this and the next one will be part of an "opening up" process.  So far so good, really; the flavor is relatively clean, and the range is pleasant.  It's not musty or on the more fermented side as teas in this age range are when stored here in Bangkok.  A trace of geosmin (beet or dirt taste) can definitely start in around the 13 year mark here, even if the aging transition isn't really finished yet.

much clearer already

Second infusion:  flavor is a bit subtle; this hasn't really developed intensity as a transition.  Young sheng could stay more unapproachable for the first few infusions, it might loosen up, but for older sheng it might need a couple of rounds to fully saturate and get the right timing dialed in.

Of course I had just said that I expected flavor range, and perhaps other character, to be a bit muted, to restore more within the next 2-4 weeks.  I suppose this is still within the range of mild aromatic wood and fainter pine resin at this point.  I thought it might seem a bit younger, given experience with teas stored on the dryer side for less time.  It's pretty far along towards completely aged but I suspect it's in that "in between" character, more subtle also for not developing fully aged aspect range yet, with the earlier time-frame aspect range largely gone already.

Feel is reasonable.  There is a hint of dryness that matches that pine resin theme, but beyond that it has a bit of thickness, just not a lot.  Aftertaste is on the limited side, but then so is flavor intensity.  I'm not exactly pushing the tea yet though; these infusions have been for around 10 seconds.  For a young sheng 6-8 seconds brewing time might have worked better to keep the character more mild, but intensity level can vary across lots of aspect range for older versions.

Third infusion:  I suppose it drifts toward tobacco just a little, not that aromatic wood and pine resin was that far from it before.  That's closest to pipe tobacco, not so far off chewing-tobacco range, nothing like a cigarette or cigar.

(taken with my other phone); leaves fully opened up

Fourth infusion:  it's not intense; that's consistent.  I do like the range that's present but it seems likely this will shift onto warmer tones that work out better for "pushing" the tea.  I think that will happen relatively quickly, changing over the next half a year, but time will tell.  I could drink it just like this anyway.

It's pretty far off older Xiaguan range, the intensity that can either lean towards rich dried fruit or else mushrooms and smoke in some.  Old Yiwu--based on limited exposure, but some--tends to go mild in flavor, but retains a really cool thick feel, with a hard to place aftertaste effect that's subtle and pronounced at the same time, in two different senses.

Fifth infusion:  there's an underlying sweetness that's making this work.  It's like a trace of molasses, tied to a warm mineral range, but one that's very subdued.  I don't get the impression that this is really exceptional quality tea but I do like it, and match to preference is the point more than some abstract quality assessment.  If the rest of that wood tone shifts to become warmer, and tobacco shifts into a warmer and sweeter tobacco range, this will be much nicer.

There is no flaw to work around, beyond character being subtle.  It's possible someone might not like the character, and then any or all of the flavors could be seen as negative.  I suppose a limitation in thickness and aftertaste scope could count as a flaw; it's hard to imagine this will continue to come across as thicker.  If taste-range is going through a "quiet phase" (even beyond that shipping issue; related to where it is in an aging cycle) then aftertaste might shift along with taste while drinking it.  I'll give it a little longer, out towards 20 seconds instead of the 15 or so I've been on, and see how that changes things.

Sixth infusion:  all the range keeps transitioning, even though it stays subtle; that makes for an interesting effect.  It's more onto a mild root spice range now, in between ginseng and sassafras.  To work through which parts are carrying over most a bit of wood does remain, which is subtle but also complex in tone, spanning a light greener range and cured aromatic scope.   

The tea kept brewing but notes stop here; I got busy with something else.  I'm isolated in the house with my wife and two kids or this description might have been more detailed, with less banging around and shouting in the background to work around.


Not bad.  I could drink this once a week just as it is with a breakfast and be happy to have it in that rotation.  It's not the kind of tea I think will be much better with age because some negative aspect needs to shift, or would improve a lot if it did.  I think it will shift and improve (the character), but it's already on the subtle side, and that might well resolve some when it gets accustomed to it's warmer and more humid surroundings.

Flavors should warm some too; I'd expect that light dryness of pine resin and cedar to switch to something a bit deeper and richer.  Just converting to more intense tobacco range wouldn't seem unlikely, but expanding into include something like a touch of aromatic spice, light dried fruit, or roasted chestnut depth might happen.

I just had a shou mei with breakfast and this isn't very far off that for range (I only brewed one round, in a rush for breakfast, so what I'm trying again just now is better than it had been hours ago).  That tea is two years old, so it has lost the initial freshness, and has only started transitioning to warmer tones, but it was mild enough to begin with that I'm not even curious about how it will be after 7 years.  It'll be subtle.  That tea had a trace of cinnamon and dried fruit creeping in (and almost a tea-berry related mint tone, which was cool), but not enough flavor intensity to support a lot of further transition (at a guess).  This sheng has a little more depth to it, not exactly bitterness, but what's left of that from a transition process shifting way off it, which isn't completely finished yet.

It's odd seeming to claim that this might be a good sheng for white tea drinkers; I'm not sure that would make sense.  Aged, subtle sheng is a funny range.  I get it why people tend to like moderate intensity character across a lot of range; more flavor, thicker feel, and more aftertaste experience, along with valuing "cha qi" effect.  This might pick up flavor intensity, or it seems conceivable it could just fade.

I've already made it clear but I see this as part 1 of a longer review, a way to assess how much a somewhat aged sheng will transition from just arrived to settled in.  There's no way I would remember all that detail I just mentioned, and keeping the information here versus some sort of note works.  If this tea gets no better, if it doesn't change as I've said that it might, it was well worth what I paid for it.  If it changes as I expect it will have been a steal.  I don't even hope that it will shift to become an even more exceptional aged sheng version over the next few years, but I can't completely rule that out.

About tea preference and expense

A Reddit post about some people doing a Teas We Like group buy got me contemplating this subject, which never completely drops out.  They are a non-standard vendor, some experienced tea enthusiasts using long-term sourcing efforts to sell interesting teas, and no doubt to fund their own expensive tea habits. 

That post was about 10 people splitting a $3000 tea order, amounting to a about 25 cakes, so the end result was a lot like an unusual form of sampling.  $300 per person sounds like a lot, to pick up 2 1/2 cakes of tea, but then again that's not really even close to the more expensive aged sheng habit range.  The two orders I mentioned cost around $300, with about $100 worth of that intended for my niece.  It's most of what I'll spend on tea this year, but then my own tea budget is limited.

It just is what it is, right?  People have as much to spare as they do, and their preference lands where it does for type, specific versions, quality level, and balancing out what they can afford.  In a sense I can afford to spend more than around $20 per cake; I tend to buy older, moderate quality cakes locally (CNNP and the like) for more like $60, which is still quite moderate.  I'd be drinking better tea if those were $120 curated versions from Teas We Like instead.

I can't complain.  Some vendors end up sharing samples, so I can trade time doing tasting and writing for broader exposure than a Bangkok low-level IT manager salary supports (with raising kids soaking up more funding than tea spending).  There's nothing wrong with people drinking even more moderate cost and quality tea than I do, or spending 10 times as much and experiencing a range a couple levels higher.  As a tea blogger I might worry about reaching some abstract level of experience and preference, except that I don't.  It's nice when unusual value offerings stretch what I can drink regularly a little, and I don't mind appreciating broader type range instead of focusing on what tea enthusiast trends regards as best.

I was just checking what a Yunnan Sourcing tea version cost that adds detail to that, from a year ago:

That order has relatively early sheng exploration written all over it (I mean in terms of preference evolution, but it's fairly young tea as well), and that's fine.  It's interesting how much range those teas cover for pricing, all less than what more developed or budget-unrestricted range might cover.  Since I've got the page open sampling a Teas We Like initial range might help place that:

It's probably good tea, and good value.  Of course the older tea pricing tends to run higher; the point here was comparison with a selection from Yunnan Sourcing, which may or may not be typical.

This stops short of any clear and final conclusion, as a lot of idea threads I take up do.  It's interesting the range a sheng habit can cover; I guess that works.

people who make noise, giving me a bit of stink-eye for some reason

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Kokang 2018 Myanmar sheng "pu'er," compared with YS Impression

Yunnan Sourcing 2018 Impression left, Kokang Myanmar dragonball right (2018, I think)

I found a set of sheng pu'er dragonballs I'd misplaced, passed on by the Kokang Myanmar vendor about a year ago (many thanks again for that).  Tying back to the theme of combined tasting, I just saw a post about the 2018 Yunnan Sourcing Impression cake selling out, and thought to try this Myanmar version along with it.

Why that makes sense:  both are from 2018 (I think), but both should be quite different teas, one from Yunnan, designed to be an inexpensive but well-balanced blend, the other made from narrowly sourced local tea (presumably).  So the contrast is the theme, to see if I can tell how much local character differs, along with spotting aspect differences related to a blend and narrowly sourced material.

Shape will throw things off; dragonballs aren't well-loved in tea circles because it takes some messing around getting them to open up.  You can only brew that one quantity, and even then the first few rounds don't match how fast other loose tea from a cake or tuocha saturates and opens up.  A lot of the early rounds tasting is going to relate to looking past infusion strength differences and these being at different places in an infusion cycle.  On to that though, with the usual amount of chatting about tangents.

It's odd that I just took a month off reviewing teas.  It sort of related to the pandemic, and also to running low on tea samples yet to try.  I could write another half dozen posts if I went back through everything, or an endless series with re-tasting as a theme.  I've been trying spare teas on hand that aren't interesting enough to write about, random sheng samples friends passed on, medium quality oolongs, or green teas from here or there.

I've been doing a lot of retasting too; I typically drink a sheng version that I've had around for a year or longer with breakfast, something different every day, with other teas mixed in.  Yesterday I re-tried a Vietnamese sheng version I really liked with breakfast (this one), and went off-script and had a wild plant version Thai sheng with lunch, produced by Kittichai of the Jip Eu shop.  That last tea has evolved to be much more positive since I reviewed it last year, dropping out an odd sourness, and touch of storage mustiness, and picking up floral tone that has somehow shifted over to fallen leaf character over the last two months.  I'll get back to that, passing on those sorts of updates in a review.

I can add a little about this Kokang tea from their website (not this specific version, but in general):

KoKang is one of the six self-administered zone in Myanmar located in northern part of Shan state... 

KoKang area being situated at elevation of 1800 to 2000 meters above sea leave, tea plants grow into century-old, big leaf tea trees since they were left undisturbed and no cultivation. KoKang tea plants are grow in perfect ecological system with no use of pesticides which can harden the soil and degrade the quality of tea leaves. Due to it remote location, poor transportation and special political condition and administrative situation, KoKang was left alone in undeveloped and therefore KoKang teas were left unknown to the world. 

The other teas I've tried from them really were worth checking out.  It's produced quite close to Yunnan, but I agree with the idea that comes up that it's not fair to think of this as "border tea."  It's just not from Yunnan, or China; related but different.  The tradition is older than the modern border; I think this had been part of China at one point, not that long ago.  And to me sheng being from other places gives it an edge for being novel, versus being close enough to the same thing.  Where it is from might be of interest, from their website:


a somewhat long soak for the dragonball really barely started it brewing

2018 Yunnan Sourcing Impression:  these first 2 or 3 infusions will really be about getting these to even up in a brewing cycle.  I infused this for around 10 seconds, plenty of time to get it started after a rinse, letting the ball sit for longer.  I'll probably use a flash infusion next time, for the Impression, to even out differences, since the dragonball still looks like a ball, only wetted related to outer leaves.  I last re-tasted this first Yunnan Sourcing tea in the last few days, so this will be familiar.

It's nice, a little light, slow to get started but pleasant.  Bitterness is moderate, and an interesting mineral and sort-of-towards-spice tone stands out.  Mineral is like rusted iron pipe, which is probably more pleasant than it sounds.  It would be natural to interpret the other flavor range as closest to cured hardwood, and that's part of it, but it leans towards spice in an interesting way.

To be clear I wouldn't expect anyone trying or reviewing this tea in the US to experience exactly the same character since this has been stored in quite hot and humid conditions here in Bangkok for the past year (related to reviewing this along with the 2017 version a year ago).  Teas transition fast here.  They tend to lose bright, fresh character quickly, which wouldn't be positive for everyone or in all cases, but if a tea (sheng) would've benefited from some transition that happens quick.  It seems to draw out warm tones, comparing changes to what I see in dryer storage versions I buy. 

Malaysian storage can easily include a musty edge, onto slate mineral, or the range of damp basement character, or even geosmin (beet / dirt) over a longer time period.  But to some extent air flow seems to be a critical factor along with storage temperature and humidity, so final effect can vary.  I think sheng stored by the local shop I keep mentioning, Jip Eu, is stored without significant air contact (relatively sealed up), so they tend to be a bit musty right away, which fades nicely over a few months.  All of this is speculation, just guessing, but it is based on experiencing a modest number of teas changing over a few years of time, and trying versions that have been set aside by others for a decade or longer.

2018 Myanmar Kokang sheng:  there's not really enough flavor extracted to say much about this yet.  It seems bright and sweet, with pleasant floral nature, but that could just relate to how a very light brew comes across.  I'll need to tear this apart and give it two more rounds to get a decent read.  To be clear I don't hate dragonballs, as some do, but to me they're not exactly the ideal form for experiencing sheng; they don't brew quite as well.  For moderately above average quality sheng examples it doesn't matter so much, but I get it why people really into optimizing experience could see that as a problem.  These are about the same amounts of tea (8 grams), but it doesn't look like that in the early pictures.

Second infusion:

2018 YS Impression:  I really brewed this for a half-dozen seconds, fast but not a flash infusion.  Bitterness has ramped up but this level works for me; it balances well.  Feel is reasonably full, with flavor complex.  Aftertaste could be more pronounced but it's enough to round out the experience, to add to it.  Flavor range isn't so different than last round:  bitterness stands out, and there is some floral range, and cured wood tone, underlying mineral (with a bit more dry mineral along with the warmer rusted iron in the first round), and a nice hint of a spice range.  I never really did clearly identify what that was in tasting it a few days ago, but then I was "off the clock" as far as even trying goes, just drinking the tea.

2018 Kokang:  a decent hit of smoke joins in this.  From the character I'd guess that will probably fade over the first few infusions.  There's one related smoke flavor aspect that tends to drop out, which I would guess is from charring the leaves in processing, an actual smoke taste, which is how this seems, and another different version of smoke that seems natural to some leaf input.  Again, just guessing.

Bitterness level isn't so different than in the Impression but the character is way different, across all the aspect range.  This is thinner, which probably relates more to it still opening up.  Floral tone is present too, as another primary range.  It seems as well to hold off on more breakdown a round or two until it gets wet.  I did manage to pull apart the outer half of the ball after the last infusion but that means that the inner core of the tea still isn't completely soaked yet, and won't be past a first infusion until the round after next.  The next round might be a good place to describe how that shifts early character differences.

Third infusion:

There is still an inner core of the dragonball, but due to pulling it apart that should get soaked over this next round (the fourth).

Impression:  to me this balances really well.  It's only as good a tea as it is (pretty good, I think, but upper medium), and it's a blend, but for being that it's quite positive, maybe better than it should be for the moderate pricing.  Scott had mentioned in one place the early idea was to create a moderate cost blend to compete with teas like the Dayi 7542 and I think it's better than that, or maybe it's just that I like the character type better.  7542 is barely drinkable to me within 2 years; it's more set up for drinking it as a young version after 3 or 4 years, with better character after 15.  Of course a lot of that has to do with the leaf not being nearly this whole; chopped leaves express more astringency, and come across as more bitter, requiring more aging time to mellow.

The base primary wood tone might not suit everyone, but there is nice floral aspect (a little), and that hint of spice as interesting and positive forward range, and a nice broad mineral base to add complexity.  Moderate and balanced bitterness, good sweetness level, rich feel (relatively), and some trailing aftertaste add to the overall effect.

Out of all that there's something novel about the feel, the way in which that is thick.  Without that cool hint towards a spice note (something along the line of nutmeg, but that probably isn't it) it wouldn't be as interesting, but it would still be positive.  It would be natural for people to interpret the flavor complexity and mild spice range as tied more to a root spice instead, I think.  The woody tones cover both cured hardwood, a richer, deeper range, and the bitterness seems to tie to a tree bud type of experience, a fresh sappy note with a bit of bite.

Kokang:  smoke is still dominant.  Even if that would tend to transition away to other range naturally in this dragonball presentation it's going to take a fourth infusion for all this tea just to start infusion (although the first round hardly counts; it had barely started), so the normal transition cycle is delayed.  Some of the leaf content has had two complete infusions already, so that transition will be inconsistent. 

The tea seems pleasant; it doesn't seem like interesting character and quality is an issue. I think it will pick up a bit of intensity on the next round once it's all brewing.  It shares some of the woody scope with the Impression, but that comes across more as green wood.  Bitterness level might be lower, although it is tricky identifying that apart from infusion strength differences, since changing infusion strength will shift the balance of which aspects you pick up the most.  Flavor comes across well beyond bitterness and astringency even in a lighter version.  Next round should work better for a fuller description, and it will also tell how that smoke effect is going to play out, if it really will drop out.

Fourth infusion:

Impression:  more of the same, really; I'll skip repeating all that.  Nice though.  I'm thinking I notice a bit of fruit, but then I did just eat a banana in between rounds, and someone is eating crackers and strawberry jam beside me, so maybe that's from thinking about fruit.

Kokang:  smoke is fading; it's a minor aspect now, maybe not even something one would pick up without "looking for it."  Mineral is really strong in this, again a much dryer version of it than stood out in the Impression at first, which shifted from warmer range to lighter in that tea too.  Sweetness is good, and a touch of floral range works.  The balance is good.  It comes across as slightly narrower in range than the Impression does, especially covering a little less flavor scope, with good feel structure but one that's less rich.  Level of bitterness isn't high but it's definitely substantial.  I get the sense this is still transitioning to where it will really be over the next two rounds.

It seems pretty good; I'd be open to buying a story about older plants and natural growth related to this.  The narrow-source versus blended tea character (in the other) didn't result in as pronounced a difference as one might expect.  I think this did naturally balance without the mixing that helped the other version, that it wasn't thin across any particular aspect range to begin with.  It was probably just a coincidence that there are as many parallels in the aspects present in both.

Fifth infusion:

Impression:  it's not transitioning fast, not changing to be something else, and the aspects present aren't weakening.  Sometimes an early-rounds bitterness and astringency will ease up over the first 3 or 4 rounds, and to some extent that probably did happen.  It probably is similar but slightly more approachable, which was never a problem anyway.   There's still a nice balance between the mineral range, warm wood tones, lighter floral range, and something hard to place, a lean towards spice.  It might be something along the line of dried tamarind, so really a darker (or warm), unusual fruit tone.

Kokang:  smoke seems slightly more notable than I remember from last round, probably shifting with infusion strength change.  Mineral is really strong, towards flint or limestone, almost leaning a little towards chalk, without that feel.  Vegetal range, only a minor supporting aspect in this, is in between green and warmer cured wood tone, with some vague floral range balancing that out.  All that balances and works better than it might sound.  It's clean, and sweetness and bitterness levels work well.  Flavor intensity is good.  That heavy mineral is characteristic of older plant input, and the moderate bitterness matches how that usually works out, more natural growth.

Later rounds can still tell a story, and a tea transitioning positively across more than a dozen rounds is a good sign for tea quality.  But I get bored making notes, even if those are limited to a half dozen words per series of rounds.  I'll probably taste these one more time and let the writing drop.

Sixth infusion:

Impression:  hanging in there; this is thinning just a little in range but it's still quite pleasant. As I remember from drinking this recently it will retain positive character for plenty of additional rounds but will keep thinning (in aspect range, and thickness of feel), and will pick up woodier tones.  Or the other range will drop back, and wood that's present will show through more, however one sees that.

Kokang:  smoke is quite faded again; strange.  I think the light mineral seems to form a linked range with that, so with minor shift in intensity it can come across different ways.  It would be possible for someone to interpret this wood tone as being more vegetal than I have, to say it leans a little towards kale or green tea.  I see it as more just wood, adjoined by floral tone, which is more dominant in many other sheng versions. 

It's interesting how the intensity of this is really standing out in comparison with the Impression.  Some of that could relate to getting a slower start, to being a couple of rounds behind, but I think it's also part of the natural character.  It covers a slightly narrower range (in flavor and thickness) but expresses a good bit more intensity across that scope.

Later rounds:

I tried a couple of rounds later and didn't take notes, but I can pass on a general impression.  The Impression version seemed closer to aromatic wood than I remembered from earlier, towards cedar or redwood.  That's not bad, just a slightly different interpretation than I'd been repeating, but still quite close.  The Kokang version included a relatively pronounced pine needle aspect; I think that was new, a late-stage flavor transition.  I probably liked that better than the series of aspect ranges that came earlier; it's nice when a tea keeps improving over late rounds.


I kept considering which tea I liked better.  I do like that Impression cake, and up until the later rounds I probably did like it better.  Right at the end it was fading a bit and the other Myanmar tea was still going through positive transition, so it was better, at that stage.  I'd expect that tea to work out well stretched for a long count of infusions.  The Impression hangs in there; it was just fading a little, and beyond the flavor moving into wood range it keeps brewing.

Maybe overall I liked the Impression better at this point, but I think the Myanmar tea probably has more aging potential.  Maybe brewing both another 3 or 4 rounds would change that (which I'll get to); if the Myanmar tea is just as positive over that many rounds, in a form I like even better now, my overall take on both might be even. 

I don't know why someone would want to keep 8 dragonballs around for a long time, but if they did those would probably keep improving.  They were wrapped in a light foil wrapper under that paper cover so maybe they wouldn't transition fast at all, isolated from air contact that much.  Aging 64 grams of tea packaged to take up a lot of space would seem strange anyway.  That tea is probably better than it was when first produced but I think this is probably a decent time to drink it, at this relatively early stage of changing with age.

It seemed like the Myanmar tea was probably made from really good material.  At a guess the processing worked out to make a quality tea but didn't exactly optimize that potential.  The tea was smoky originally, probably from being charred a bit during the frying step, and just slightly cloudy early on, which could relate to it not drying optimally at the end of processing.  Of course I'm guessing; I don't make tea.  I liked it, and it was interesting, clearly a good version of sheng, so I don't mean all that as criticism of how well it comes across in general.

having pizza for dinner outside during lockdown, with a good group to be isolated with