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
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.
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.