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

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