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

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