Friday, May 29, 2020

Tea Mania 2018 Jing Mai Arbor sheng

There's a long back-story about this getting delayed in transit.  The short version is that it seemed to get hung-up in an unofficial queue somewhere, set aside during the pandemic while almost no one was working in offices.  Two and a half months later I got it.

It's odd that I'm ordering tea from Europe in the first place (Tea Mania is based in Switzerland), but this vendor sources great teas relatively directly, and sells them for about the best value of any sheng pu'er I've tried from anywhere.  Re-trying versions lately has only reinforced that.

Other back-story relates to timing in tasting it, since I think this has been "resting" here in Bangkok for a month or so, in a mail processing area queue, which probably isn't ideal in relation to settling.  The general idea seems to be that extreme shifts in temperature, pressure, and humidity will cause a tea (sheng or shu pu'er, really, not so much for well-sealed other types) to come across as flat, until it recovers.  So trying it now, a few days after getting it, may or may not be too early.

I just did a one-month split tasting checking on that, with a 2007 Bailong Jinggu version from Chawang Shop.  It changed a good bit over that month, in terms of picking up intensity, even related to some deeper aspects emerging.  All the same I'm trying this; I'm really curious.  If it seems more intense or different later on I'll mention that in a post.

This was supposed to be one of several teas for a wedding being held today (at time of first draft), in a much smaller form, back in Pennsylvania.  I bought two of the same cake; not this exact tea.  My sister's daughter will get married, the kind of event one would gladly travel around the world to join, and I did have plans and tickets for that.  The rest of the story is all too familiar.  Maybe I can join for a celebration for a one-year anniversary instead.  Ordinarily people might do a live-feed version but that's not likely, and perhaps not a good idea anyway, if those related aren't on that page.  It's as well to keep it small and intimate.

Drinking tea I will pass on, once more planes are back in the air, and mail is more reliable, is as close as I'm going to get to celebrate along with them (way ahead of their schedule; it's still last night there).

The tea is this one, a 2018 Jing Mai arbor.  People use terms in different ways, so their description fills more in on that:

Together with our friends, tea masters Yang Ming and Panda, we went in search of the ideal tea leaves for us. For this bingcha twe used tea leaves from autumn harvest of up to 100-year-old and high-grown tea trees (arbor) from Jing Mai. These leaves have been stone-pressed in Yang Ming tea factory to traditional 357g Bingcha.

Harvest: Autumn 2018
Pressed: 2018
Taste: Mild and fruity with a sweet aftertaste.

It's inexpensive; $39.  That partly relates to that autumn harvest date.  Autumn teas tend to be less intense, slightly different in other character, and cost less.

Two of those parts make it work out better as a wedding gift; I'm sending a few versions of tea to them, so keeping expense moderate helps, and a less intense version of sheng might be a better starting point.  I kind of want to say what else I plan to send but that seems wrong.  It's not as if they would be reading a tea blog, but still.  Regular shipping isn't working out now but I will sort out a workable way.

If they had planned to drink this once a year for the next 20 years, a wedding-anniversary theme of sorts, a more intense version would be better, maybe even one that kind of needs age to improve (this style should be drinkable when young), but for making a start on sheng pu'er and just drinking it (presumably) that could work out well.  It could be even better in another year or two, softened and transitioned a bit more by age, but it should be pretty good right now.

it was a judgement call not buying them a Yiwu version; I went back and forth on that


First infusion:  a bit muted still, but the character that is present is very pleasant.  Shipping impact may have offset this intensity.  It's an autumn harvest version, so intensity can be a bit lower related to that.  It's always possible to bump up infusion strength to account for some of that, but the balance is what it is, to an extent.

I talked with an online friend about preferences not so long ago and he mentioned not liking the pine aspect in Jing Mai.  I hadn't thought of it as such, so much, but in trying another version not so long ago it really stood out.  This tastes like pine too; maybe that's the dominant aspect, beyond some other range sweetness and brightness.  I like that though.  It's funny how I really don't like smoke or mushroom in sheng pu'er, even though I like those flavors in other presentations, just not so much the form and how it balances in sheng.

Sometimes when you first have a version with an aspect or range that clicks for you afterwards that makes more sense; that could happen.  I've experienced that more related to a type making sense than an aspect, but it should work out similarly.

Second infusion:  it's coming on nicely.  Pine stays a dominant aspect, not an overly dry version of it, kind of close to rosemary.  Some of the bright sweetness leans a little towards citrus, it's just not quite anything in that range (orange, lemon, lime, etc.).  It's closest to lime peel, but leaning a little towards grapefruit too (sweet white grapefruit, not the red kind), or maybe even right in the middle.

There's a rich savory aspect to it, which reminds me of pine nut, probably partly related to a mental association with pine needle.  Feel is unusual, the way that light dryness gives it fullness.  It causes a light tightening around the edges of your mouth, with the most impact in the rear center of your tongue, with a good bit of juiciness combining with that hint of dryness.  Aftertaste gives the experience more depth; it hangs in there, lingering on related to that pine flavor aspect.  A good balancing sweetness helps all the rest work.  The bright, fresh, clean effect also contributes; it's nice.

Third infusion:  not so different.  Warmth picks up a little; an underlying mineral tone (that I hadn't mentioned) shifts from light and lighter in tone to a bit warmer, from mild limestone towards granite or sandstone, or something such.  Feel structure gains some depth too; it fills out your mouth more, shifting from slightly dry to more full in a balanced way.  It didn't need to loosen up, as some young sheng do, but it is improving a little.  I don't get the impression this will change a lot over the next half dozen rounds, just more slight shifts like this, but we'll see.

I've been trying a couple of slightly older shengs (maybe only a year and a half old, to me, but several years aged versions) from this vendor (Tea Mania), as part of re-trying all the sheng pu'er I own.  They stand a bit above almost everything else I own.  I've tried samples of lots of teas, so what higher quality, gushu-origin (100+ year old plant source), varied source area, price, age, and storage background teas are like isn't completely unfamiliar, there is just some limited scope of all that in what I own cake versions of.  Tuocha versions can be quite decent and pleasant but that tendency for those to be ordinary quality range tea, when presented in that form, really goes without saying.  I was on an old CNNP cake phase for a bit too, after that Xiaguan / Tulin / Dayi tuocha phase, and that's completely different.

It would be easy to interpret this flavor aspect range in different ways.  Floral kind of works; to some extent that probably is "objectively" present.  The astringency is mild but it stands out as a somewhat unique component.  It has a light edge to it, like biting a tree bud, or flower stem.  Since I'm now stuck on interpreting the flavor mostly as pine that matches up well with that flavor and other character; expecting it to follow a themed pattern would cause someone to interpret that part as resinous, a match for pine sap, which works just as well.

As with any tea balance determines how well it works.  Pull out most of that sweetness, brightness, and freshness and the rest wouldn't hang together nearly as well.  On the whole it works.  I could imagine some others loving or really disliking this character though, based on personal preferences, the pine / floral / resin / light warm mineral / touch of dryness.

There is something relatively universal about the bright floral, sweet, rich, approachable range common in Yiwu.  To me those often aren't challenging in young forms in the right way to age to an intense, positive balance, but they can still work in a different final form.  One of the two I was mentioning, partly aged Tea Mania versions that were really good, was Yiwu, and it's in a great place now, and probably will be in other quite pleasant "places" as it continues to age.

Fourth infusion:  I think floral range is increasing, almost towards a dried mango citrus tone.  The increasing warmth pulls earlier pine sap and light mineral to a different balance point, coming across more like dark tropical wood, or maybe just warm mineral like a mountain spring source scent.  With a little more subtle shift that could cross into spice range.

Fifth infusion:  it's really shifting more to aromatic wood instead, cedar or redwood.  That range can be a bit boring in more one-dimensional versions, and it is often presented as the main range some sheng covers, given some starting point and aging conditions (fermentation transition).  Since the floral tone, pine, richness related to pine nut or whatever else, is all still present, just in a slightly reduced form, with aromatic wood tone primary (per my interpretation of this round, at least) it works.

Sixth infusion:  this round I brewed fast, more out of impatience than to see how it works light (brewed for around 8 seconds instead of 10-12), but it could work for that.  It's lighter, of course.  Being lighter shifts what you experience; it's the main way to "brew around" experiencing too much bitterness or astringency in some sheng versions.  Flavors in sheng tend to be intense (in younger sheng, at least, and in some older, relatively fully aged versions too), so cutting that back isn't usually a problem.  I suppose the brighter range comes through more brewed really light; I'll try it again brewed out towards 20 seconds and see how that changes things.

It's worth mentioning that it's conceivable to adjust brewing temperature range to shift aspects but it's not conventional to do so; using full boiling point temperature is normal, or just off that.

Seventh infusion:  pine does come through a lot stronger again brewed stronger, and the warmer tones.  I wouldn't see this as one of the most complex sheng versions that I've tried but the good quality is evident, and there's plenty going on to experience, and it's quite pleasant.


I should re-try this to add a conclusion about how it's shifting after another week of rest [I did, but since I didn't make notes the part to follow on that is limited].  It probably will pick up a bit more intensity.  I don't need to in order to make a general conclusion:  it's quite nice.  Someone might not like that pine as a primary flavor aspect, depending on personal preference, but otherwise it's just what it should be.  Feel thickness could increase, or aftertaste range, but those are quite positive for a moderate cost sheng version.

For someone new to sheng they would appreciate flavor most, especially balance of sweetness to mild astringency and bitterness, and related to that this works.  It would probably work even better in another year, but maybe they'll take time finishing it.

Storage is concern; in cold-climates like that one (around the Erie, Pennsylvania area) in the winter indoor heated air is quite low in humidity, which isn't good at all for keeping a microfauna that causes sheng to ferment healthy.  This would probably go a bit flat.  Then in the humid Spring it would come back to life, so maybe that wouldn't be so bad.

Related to value, tea quality for this price (the $40 range) this is exceptional.  To put that in perspective, something like a Taetea / Dayi 7542 might be available for a few dollars less but that's essentially what those cost.  Yunnan Sourcing Impression cakes are designed to be similar, and those are a really good value for slightly less.  Their 2019 is the only one listed now (besides some narrow location versions now sharing in that blended-cake style branding), selling for $28.  An entirely Spring material cake lists for $62, a Bang Dong (more region-specific) arbor cake sells for $70.

The Spring versus Autumn input I already covered, but broad blending of inputs versus selling a tea from a narrow source is another main difference.  You can balance aspects well that way, mixing together what works, but you can't replicate how a narrower profile really emphasizes the more limited range of flavor aspects that are present (and feel and aftertaste too, I guess).  I don't have anything against blends, it's just a different experience.  It helps if you really love the flavor aspect range that is present, of course; otherwise a version that's more broad in scope might seem nicer.

Second Conclusions

I tried this tea again; it did get better with some rest, more intense, with more depth.  As far as how good it is I have no reservations about buying this as a gift for someone.  Looking back though maybe Yiwu is a slightly better place to start with sheng; those typically have good sweetness and floral nature.

The older Lucky Bee (in-house Yiwu brand, 2016 version) from Tea Mania I have is about as good as any sheng I've ran across.  That's give or take a bit of intensity, aging potential, thickness of feel and aftertaste range, and other specific aspects one prefers.  I mean it really stands out, although lots of finer level judgments are there to be made.  And it's approachable, just with enough edge that it seemed it would support it aging well, and in fact it has, so that it's way better now than it was in 2018.

That's not buyer's remorse, and I did buy a later Lucky Bee version with this (2018).  It just seems like maybe I should have bought them that (that one is mine, and I bought two of this Jing Mai version; I could split off some though).  That "enough edge" part factored in; that 2016 one wasn't soft, sweet, and drinkable as some Yiwu is, it had a good bit of structure to it.  That, and I don't remember what I was thinking.

I tried both together in a tasting, this Jing Mai and the 2018 Yiwu, now two weeks after making these initial notes (I've been busy).  Another post will cover how that went.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Jason McDonald on The Great Mississippi Tea Company story

Jason; all photos from their business FB page or his personal profile there

If you look into modern trends in US-based tea production Jason McDonald's name comes up, and The Great Mississippi Tea Company (also on FB).

I keep seeing interesting posts about what he's up to, and eventually asked him to explain that background, and where US tea production stands.  He tells that story so clearly and completely here that no further introduction is required.

How did you get into growing and producing tea?

I was on a trip to Savannah and was served a Charleston Tea Plantation teabag. It said “The Only Tea Garden in America” and I was intrigued. I just figured tea grew somewhere in among the corn in Iowa. I had never really given it much thought. I wager that most Americans never really think about where tea comes from—they just drink it.

When we found out it was a camellia that needed high heat, humidity, acidic soil, and ample rainfall, we figured it may work here in MS. We bought 5 plants off of Amazon and made a deal that if 1 survived by the end of the summer, we would look into tea growing. Two survived and we went into the MSU County Agent’s (Rebecca Bates) office and said, “Don’t think we are crazy but we want to grow tea.” She responded, “Well, you are in luck! I know it comes from a camellia.”

It all went from there. We ordered 60,000 plants, were on the nightly news, and met Nigel Melican [a well-regarded authority and consultant on growing tea]. By December of that year (2012), we had our first in-person visit from Nigel. We had already begun breaking ground in November. We were well on our way.

Jason and Timmy with Nigel Melican (right)

processing equipment

Where does your production stand now?  Where you are in a journey, related to where you plan or expected to go, and what you are producing?

We have a little under 7 acres planted. We plan to get to 10 acres and stop for a while. We feel like that will be a sustainable number both physically and economically. We are at year 8 so we are starting to see a break-even point on some of our investment. We haven’t been able to draw salaries yet, but it is at least paying for itself now, which is nice.

We had envisioned hundreds of acres of tea by year 11, but that just really was not sustainable without a lot of other farmers involved. That is starting to make a turn in MS and LA (Louisiana). We have a nice little group of growers starting up. You never know, we may be an up and coming new producer region in a decade’s time.

We are currently producing 250-400 lbs a year. That number grows each year as our plantings are coming in to bearing each year since we are so new. We have produced 6 award winning teas (TOTUS pre-commercial: 1st black, 1st green, 2nd green, and 1st oolong, as well as Global Tea Championship: Delta Oolong- Silver, Mississippi Queen- Silver) in 8 years. We are also featured at Fortnum & Mason’s Rare Tea Counter and Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at their Piccadilly location in London.

So, we have really raised the standard level of US teas in a very short time.

Colonel Grey:  black tea with lavender, orange peel, sage, and bergamot

Does the style of tea you produce (or styles) relate directly to others produced in known areas?

Quite often, we are compared to Chinese and Taiwanese teas. We aren’t aiming for this on purpose, but it may happen, depending on who you ask.

Our technique of making tea absolutely does not mimic most people—or perhaps anyone at all. We use science based technology to try to best maximize the flavor and aroma compounds in the tea leaves. Although the tea world has started utilizing these sorts of “leaf hacks,” it is not at all widespread.

We like to think of ourselves as our own American Producing region with our own style. We are shaping what is to be expected of US Grown Tea.

Timothy Gipson working with tea leaves

Related to pursuing tea production in Hawaii as well as in Mississippi, are both pursuits currently active?  How does it work to cover such broad work scope at the same time?

At this time, both areas are active. The venture in Hawaii restructured and I am no longer in an ownership role, but I am still involved to some extent. They are nurturing the tea that remains planted and will begin harvesting, I imagine, in the next couple of years. That is the joy of tea plantings—once established, they can live for a hundred years or more.

Hawaii truly was a dream for tea growing. It grows year round and the conditions are just right for growing. Mississippi has a harsher climate (both cold and hot) but the right stress is good for tea flavor and aroma. However, in both places, tea can almost nativize itself after establishment. It can grow fairly unassisted for decades on end. We have run into abandoned gardens in both MS and Hawaii that have not been tended for 10 years.

I believe the most challenging pursuit in tea would be growing where tea just wouldn’t naturally grow. I have had a taste of it in Scotland. I was hired to help a group of growers troubleshoot some of their plantings. I continue to help along the way with that as well. Tea can grow anywhere in the world—the question becomes, “Are you willing to do what it takes to make sure it has what it needs?”

We chose tea as a crop because it suited our natural environment in MS. We do not have to make our natural environment suitable to tea. We get the question all the time that goes something like this, “We are in Upper Peninsula Michigan and we want to grow tea outdoors. Do you have any cold hardy plants that we can buy that won’t die in our winters?” I think people think if they find the right cultivar that it will grow, but sometimes, sadly, the answer is that tea just won’t grow where they are naturally.

with a bit of ash from a volcano eruption, per a photo comment

 A latest venture relates to tea education; can you say a little about that?

So, here is the official media bit about it:

The US Tea Experience was created as a way to extend agri-tourism during the age of COVID-19. With more people sheltering in place and with fewer people traveling, we wanted to create something fun, informative, and entertaining. We envisioned this for an audience of all types—beginners, enthusiasts, growers, processors, merchants, and many more.

The courses will become available every 4-6 weeks through August. These courses will take the participant on the journey from the field to the cup and all the things that go into producing and enjoying a U.S. grown cup of tea.

These courses are self-guided and include different media types-- videos, audio, pdfs, podcasts, etc. Once purchased, the courses and course materials are available to you indefinitely.

The focused tea courses will feature a box that will be sent to the participant to follow along with the course. It will bring the course to life through interactive activities which will appeal to all of your senses.”

It is a way that we have devised to introduce people to tea—namely US Tea. We are starting at the very basic level with a course starting June 1. It is called US Tea Basics. It will cover topics like brewing methods, water boiling, tea types, etc. We will also have a class that goes in-depth into our black tea, Black Magnolia. It will begin to be pre-sold on June 1 as well. It has a box that will be sent with the tea and other teaching aids that will make the course interactive. I can assure you—no one has gone this in-depth with black tea as we have with the details of this course.

It is all very exciting and we  hope it brings joy to folks who are indoors more with COVID-19.

Did some of the factors related to growing tea surprise you, related to those being different from other agricultural issues?  What tools or resources helped resolve difficulties or unique challenges?

I think everywhere in the world has unique challenges for growing crops. We did have to adjust some of the traditional growing areas’ advice on planting times and germination times because we have different conditions.

Nigel Melican and MSU [with more on cultivar study here] have been great helps in all of this. However, a lot of what we have learned has truly been trial and error and keeping good notes. We tried multiple pot sizes and shapes in the nursery. We trialed various fertilizers in the nursery and field. We trialed cuttings vs seedlings. We have trialed all sorts of data points and settled on the ones that worked.

If you aren’t keeping notes and trying new things, you can’t get better at what you do. If you fail or if you succeed, you can’t trace back where you went right or wrong if you don’t have notes. We also data log every point about our processing. I can’t stress the need to take notes enough!

If someone wanted to grow and produce tea can you offer some practical advice about that, at moderate scale or a plant at home? 

You know, I don’t really know on this because the terms of hobbyist vs moderate vs large scale are so vague. Most people think we are this huge producer, but it is two guys and a field. We sometimes have one other part time, seasonal worker to help in the summers. We would be a “small grower” to some producers and a “large grower” to hobbyists. It is all very subjective.

Moderate sized grower: If you are looking to grow commercially, put in a quarter to half an acre of tea properly spaced and planted. That would give you between 1250-2500 plants. See if you can manage that before you get larger. It is way more work than you realize. We ordered 60,000 plants out the gate. Don’t do that. Ha!

Growing at home: My main pieces of advice for hobbyists/backyard growers would be to plant atleast 20 plants. If planted properly, that will only be a 25 ft long hedge that can be trained to grow 6’ wide. If you only plant a bush here or there, you will never have enough leaf to really be useful enough even for personal use. You actually need enough leaf to get a proper roll because they roll off of each other. I get questions all the time about not being able to get a good roll and I ask how much leaf they are processing and they send me a picture of a handful of leaf. Main point of advice—commit to the hobby.

Some readers might be familiar with exploration of a freeze-drying processing step you were experimenting with.  Is this still something you utilize?

I am under an NDA on this. “No Comment”

One thing I can comment on is that there is a whole new world to tea processing and some of the science based experiments that we are conducting are resulting in some interesting new discoveries in the world of tea processing. We are understanding what tea qualities and aspects truly are geographical terroir and what is processing related. We will get into some of these discoveries in our classes at The US Tea Experience.

How do you see tea awareness and demand growing in the US? 

I don’t really know. I have been at this about 8 years. When we got into tea, Teavana had just been bought by Starbucks for a ridiculous sum and Harrods was selling Big Island Tea’s teas for huge sums. Everyone was proclaiming that tea had arrived in the US. It was about to explode in the US. Upward and onward! There’s gold in them thar hills. Ha! Well, we all know how the Teavana deal turned out.

While there has been a uptick lately for tea in the US because of health related claims, I am not sure if it is a trend or a blip on the radar.

I think what works well for us, being US producers, is more the farm to table movement. People want to know and support their local farmer. There are others who appreciate the artistry of what we do as well. I am not sure if it is more this influence or the influence of more people wanting tea in the US as the question supposes. Either way, we are seeing moderate sales and growth and we run out of tea each year so those are all good things!

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Huyen's family's trials in making Vietnamese teas

Huyen showing off a "witch's broom" home-made sheng trial sample

I've written about doing online meet-ups recently, mainly including four friends:  Suzana from India, Ralph from Germany, and Huyen from Vietnam.  This blog has included lots of mention of Huyen, from her visiting once and passing on lots of interesting and pleasant teas from Vietnam.

Her family has been making tea lately.  Vietnam is a main producer country, and they are from an area 200 km outside of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), so tea is around, live, growing plants.  Some of those plants are relatively mature trees.  The idea isn't to go into production as a business, just experimentation related to tea interest as tea drinkers.  This early post about Huyen's take on tea, reviewing a couple of samples, goes into some background.  This post ("Vietnamese trà chít (or trà bó)") is on that "witch's broom" tea.

This photo from that first post kind of captures what her family is like:

If I wasn't a middle-aged man I'd ask them to adopt me; no one has a vibe as genuine and positive as all of them, and that's how they always seem to be.  This picture of Huyen is one of my favorites:

That baby is a little boy now; time passes quickly.  Huyen recently shared these photos of collecting leaves for the early round of those processing trials:

some really mature tea plants growing near where they live

Their background goes a bit beyond just being typical tea enthusiasts.  Huyen's family works for (owns?) Tra Viet, a gift shop business that sells tea.  Her brother and sister-in-law are tea experts, of a sort, with her sister-in-law's case relating to success in competition in the Tea Masters organization.  I could do a post on all that, their background and other connections to tea, but this is mostly only about them trying out making a few versions of tea recently.

Huyen shows the leaves, and talks about what the teas are, how they made them, and what the end effect is like, the brewed tea character, in those meet-ups.  It has been a really interesting insight into those earlier stages of the tea production process.  I've heard a bit about how different types are made but I'm by no means well informed related to that, and having never actually made tea anything I ever learned from reading would just be academic.

I'll write out a short description of what I understood, and couple that with more input from Huyen, along with her reviewing my take, and photos.  In discussing tea with them and putting together her notes it strikes me that they tend not to describe teas in terms of flavors lists, as is common in Western tea blogs, and to a lesser degree in Western oriented tea marketing content.  I'd be speculating as to why, but I can do that.

Some people value mouth-feel and aftertaste aspects just as much as flavor (or cha qi "feel" effect); there's that.  Then flavor descriptions tend to be subjective, so you can describe the character of teas, but the flavor-list any one person outlines isn't the same list the next person would convey, even with both having appropriate prior experience.  One solution to that is to say a bit about tea character and then leave most of the experience as experiential; don't try to pin it down with analysis.  Character aspects like fresh, sweet, or intense also cover informative range, as discussing flaws also does.

Of course Huyen did say a little about these different teas in the discussions, even related to flavors, but since I wasn't really taking notes this focuses more on sharing photos and her input about processing steps, what they tried in making each.

It wouldn't really work to also cover how these trials relate to the most typical local styles, for the most part, and this doesn't attempt it.  The idea comes up that any tea plant type (variety Assamica or Sinensis, and specific cultivar beyond that) can be made into any final version of finished tea (black, white, green, sheng or shu pu'er, etc.), which is a bit too simple.  The opposite idea also comes up, that only very specific cultivars can be used to make specific types of tea, versions of one of those broad categories, and that's not exactly right either, per my understanding.

Compounds in raw leaves of different plant types vary, so different plant types are better suited for making particular finished versions.  To make a completely original version of any specific tea (eg. Longjing, Anxi Tie Guan Yin, sheng pu'er from a limited region) you would need to use the exact same plant type, and processing steps, and to make a completely original versioon to also grow those plants in that original location.  A version only grown elsewhere could be similar, and any changes to plant type input or processing would either shift the end result, a little or a lot, depending.

This will skip a lot of scope related to exactly what the plant type inputs are, and main local versions typically produced.  It's about how production trials were carried out and the end result, which is enough.  Mapping that back to see what might have been different is out of scope.  We talked about plant types a good bit in the video meet-up discussion but I wasn't really taking notes on it.

Huyen mentioned Shan plants, covered in this reference

Tea production trials

white tea:  Huyen showed a version made using the simplest production process, white tea.  The simplest version of this approach just lets the leaves dry; that's it.  Adding any heating or rolling steps (kneading the leaves), or shaping, would move away from the white tea type range.  The leaves looked colorful, and varied in color, as fresh versions of different white teas can. 

As I remember Huyen describing the tea it was subtle but very fresh and sweet.  She mentioned it transitioning, and some white teas with similar appearance can include fresh fruit or floral flavors, and then also run through savory range as infusions go by, like sun-dried tomato, with that varying as a relative input.

She added detail beyond that:

This is white tea version 1: 

Material: raw tea leaves from Shan tea trees which were grown by seeds (Vietnamese calls: chè (tea) hột (seed). 
Picking: 1 bud, 2 -3 young leaves
Processing: withering around 1,5 days and sun-dried in 2 days

Somehow I had missed that she really made two white teas; this describes the second:

This is white tea version 2: 

- Material: raw tea leaves from Shan tea trees which were grown by another variety - using tea stems to create new tea tree (Vietnamese calls chè (tea)  cành (stems)
- Picking: 1 bud and 2 young leaves 
- processing: withering 1 day and sun-dried in 3 days

You can see the different color of tea leaves from 2 varieties.

I don't remember hearing a version description related to that one.  Some white teas are a little subtle, and others are very subtle, with some of the paler white teas I've tried from Vietnam including an interesting dry mineral undertone, like limestone or flint. 

That extends to green tea range too; some versions described mainly in terms of being ancient-tree, high-mountain source teas, with no specific type offered, can seem to be in between green tea, sheng, and white tea in style.  Huyen has discussed how some Vietnamese teas are presented as "dried tea" (their translation), which does relate closest to sheng pu'er in style (per my understanding of old conversations; not the most reliable source), but may not necessarily be a direct match for a Chinese category or style of tea. 

This version from Huyen describes exactly what I'm talking about, while reviewing a related style of tea in comparison with a Thai sheng, and it mentions a separate Thai white version that looks exactly like that first white tea shown here.  This post from 2015 represents my first exposure to an "ancient source Vietnamese green tea," and this post about a "snow tea" from Vietnam (also from Huyen) is also related to that general theme.

witch's broom, multiple versions:  I reviewed a version of Vietnamese tea presented in this style before (from Somnuc, a friend from Laos, instead of Huyen), which is typically a variation of sheng.  It's not pu'er, since it's from Vietnam instead of Yunnan, so I'll just stick to sheng in further references, since "raw" isn't a regional designation.  In that post I cited the original local naming, as informed by Huyen: trà chít or trà bó.

One version (listed later) they rolled a little and allowed to oxidize, experimenting with a hybrid style, but these first two trials are just conventional sheng, per my understanding.  That would mean they are wok-fried teas that just aren't heated as long or as hot as green tea, using a more limited kill-green or sha-qing step to keep some enzymes active, enabling aging transition.

These descriptions cover how they made them, again with less for flavor-list descriptions.  Per trying two versions before--not enough for a blanket judgment, to be clear--a mineral aspect is really heavy in these teas.  That's kind of true of Vietnamese teas in general, although it can drop completely out in some oolong versions, and doesn't necessarily define or apply to all Vietnamese black teas.  Huyen did pass on her impression of both but I'd end up mixing them if I tried to convey them from memory, and I want to finish this post instead of continuing to add to it.

This is broom tea. There are 2 versions.

This one ☝️: picking 1 bud, 3-4 tea leaves (10cm) in tea stems garden.
- Processing: withering in 1 day, after that tighting it and sun-dried in 2 days. Then 
unting it (like photo you see) and sun dried continuously (not finished until now because of raining)

witch's broom, a more traditional version:  they only wok-fried this version, closest to sheng processing, with no step related to rolling or breaking up leaf cells.

This is the second one:
Material is same the first one
- Processing: withering in 1 day, tighting and sun dried in 1 day, then unting and continue to sun dried in 2 days.
- Brewing: we grill a little bit before brewing and tea color as you see
- Tasting: it is interesting about smoky smell and fresh together, little bit acrid, quite full body taste and more infusions

Unlike with conventional sheng they rolled a last trial version a little to break up the leaves slightly, and to let the tea oxidize some before the heating (wok frying) step.  If I'm matching up her discussion account with the right teas she said that the tea turned out well.

Actually, there is one more version of broom tea like the second one. The different point is after tightening we sun dried for 2 days, untying the tea to dry continuously by sun.  About processing we rolled tea leaves a little after withering.

As I remember Huyen said that she liked the effect of adding some oxidation input to the more conventional sheng style.  That would tend to add some sweetness to the tea character, and some warmth and deeper tones, a touch towards black tea range, but it could potentially also offset long-term aging potential for sheng (in general).  For samples made for testing out processing, in small quantity, that wouldn't really be relevant anyway. 

I've been trying a lot of sheng over the past five months, testing out everything I own at different ages, trying and re-trying versions (this tangent will connect).  One sub-theme that keeps coming up is that some sheng versions, many of them, are much better after a year or two of aging.  For teas stored in a dryer environment (like Kunming, where a number of my teas came from) that same fermentation level can be present after 3 to 5 years instead.  Presumably they will be trying and sharing these teas over the course of this year, but not keeping them around to try out over the following years (I would expect); but that would make for an interesting longer time-frame test.

Related to that pattern, I just retried a Kokang Myanmar sheng this morning, a 2018 version, that seemed to change character and improve a lot since trying it a number of times in 2019.  I should re-taste that along with a bit older Myanmar sheng (2016) I just picked up, to see if the pattern I described holds.  That would be a test to the extent that one can separate out one input--fermentation level related to storage conditions--from among all the others, especially the general character starting points.  I'll get back to that, but if the background is interest that recent 2016 version review post is here (a tea I bought from the Chawang Shop), and the 2019 review of the 2018 Kokang version is here.

Black tea, compressed into small disks; Huyen's description:

Compressed tea: same material like broom tea
Processing: withering in 1 day, then pounding it and pressing as you see the shape. Finally, sun dried in 2 days
We also grilled it around 3 minutes before brewing it.

As we had discussed in an earlier video meet-up session that last pre-warming or light roasting step I've only ever heard of in relation to dok-cha, a Korean variation of sheng or hei cha.  Huyen's brother was familiar with that type, and said that the preparation is somewhat common to both, and to some extent tea character related to Vietnamese versions they've tried.  This is black tea; it's something else, but they're preparing it in a similar way.

They tend to always heat water with charcoal, using decorative clay stoves and varying types of pots, so it would be easy for them to use suitable gear that is already on han for that roasting step.

Huyen did pass on a relatively complete description in an in-meet-up tasting, but that will be sparse based on my recollection.  She said that it tasted like black tea (of course), with warm and sweet tones, and good complexity, but with a slightly unconventional character that unfolded in the form of more than average transition across infusion rounds.  From the sound of it the tea might have been less than fully oxidized; brewed, wet leaf would tell more of that story, since a lot of dry leaves look much darker when dry than when wet.

More pictures from the meet-ups:

Some of these might actually show those teas, but I'm not going to try to do a complete mapping.  Again it's more about showing what the discussion experience is like (again photos courtesy of Suzana Syiem).

the sign-off, a good place to start (Ralph missed that day)

even without Huyen's smile that setting looked cool

it's always nice having guests join

showing Mandarin oranges to a sweet little girl, who spoke English well

that one black tea disk

I just noticed that's Elsa on Huyen's shirt

the brewed version of the black tea disk

the rest of us mention teas sometimes too

Monday, May 11, 2020

Switching to online contact during the pandemic

First posted to the TChing site, here and here.

It's not that novel an idea to ramp up online contact over this pandemic period; I'm mostly just passing on my own experiences with it.  This post was originally going to be about the potential to move expo / conference events online, since that came up in Facebook group discussion two weeks ago.  I've since seen just a little of an example of that, covered by Elyse Peterson in a post here  (called a Virtual Tea Festival).  I didn't see much of that event, only parts of two sessions, because it was held from 2 to 6 AM here in Bangkok, but the videos are now posted online.

Soo Chung, who was a presenter in the Tealet version, and who initiated that Facebook discussion, is also planning an online Nomad Tea Festival in July.  It would be nice if this pandemic was over by then, wouldn't it?

Beyond not attending online tea conferences in the past, I have very little prior exposure with online meetings or tastings related to tea.  It's a theme that has been coming up ever since Google Hangouts made that kind of connection relatively simple, which was years after Skype made basic two way video calling easy and free.  I just never got to it; I like drinking tea alone, and talking by text message is generally enough for me, maybe except for talking to my Mom.  I talk in online groups about tea, and of course write a blog, and have done real-life open tastings, and online work meetings; all those themes just never linked.  Until now.

I tried it, talking to online friends in India and Germany.  I've met both, that friend in India just the once, but we talk online, in part related to me being an admin for Suzana's tea group on Facebook (Tea).  I've met Ralph a few times here in Bangkok, maybe 4?  We mostly hung out at Jip Eu, the Chinatown shop I visit most, but also visited a Thai temple at one point, and did a tasting session at my office building.

meeting Ralph and Jaba Borgohain (more on that in this post, and this one about a cool wild Thai tea

Using Zoom worked out.  I've only ever talked through video using Skype, Hangouts, Messenger, Wechat, Line, Whatsapp, and Microsoft Teams before (the last we use for work).  It's odd discussing an experiential theme like tea drinking through an online medium.  We actually did taste some teas, although due to the time difference I ended up drinking a few extra rounds of a Myanmar sheng I wrote review notes for earlier, versus doing the whole tasting, since I don't usually drink tea in the late afternoon. 

Both of them tried samples I'd passed on, both Thai teas from the same vendor (Tea Side); cool it worked out like that.  One was a small batch produced Thai shu and the other probably a wild-source Thai black tea.  Of course it does work to share tea experience through discussion, it's just not as shared an experience without syncing the teas being tasted.

that first meeting with Suzana and Ralph (on IG here)

It was just as interesting hearing about how the pandemic goes where they are, and their own personal experience of it.  I'd talked with three tea contacts in Italy a couple of weeks ago (by text) and it had been interesting looking ahead to roughly what a lot of other places are experiencing now.  It's just what you would expect though; experiencing social isolation, anxiety, and personal loss.

In Germany they're a bit strict about monitoring the social contact restriction guidelines, and people are fined for violations.  Apparently in India getting beaten by a police officer is a potential form of reprimand.  Interesting!  Here in Thailand anything goes (kind of like always), with lots of people walking around in my soi (side street) not wearing masks.  So far that's not going badly, because voluntary isolation and company closures seem to have leveled off the spread of disease.  Malls and restaurants are closed here, except for take-out; I mean police don't check who is walking around, and why.

It's a positive idea that maybe many of us might gain exposure to some unfamiliar ways of connecting through this, a potential bright side to an otherwise problematic time.

more photos (courtesy of Suzana) from a later meetup, with Huyen (who is mentioned a lot in my blog)

Huyen's brother Dung and sister-in-law are local Vietnamese tea experts, too long a back-story to cover here

this session ran long; lots of tastings and showing off teas and gear

it's crazy the range of tea and teaware Huyen and her family experience and use

Ralph showed a nice collection of pots as well

other visitors dropped by

even Kalani sat in

the next meeting version