Monday, June 29, 2020

Aran Tea Thai "Assam," compared to an Assam version

Assam Teehaus version left, Aran Thai "Assam" right

both used nice multi-layer packaging, and graphic stickers (not that such branding helps the tea)

I'm comparison tasting a Thai version of Assam along with an Assam version; that seemed a good way to establish a baseline.  I really liked the Thai sheng version from Aran (reviewed here); it just seemed a bit like green tea to me, in between type categories in style.  This struck me as quite close to an orthodox Assam, when trying it a week before doing a review, with this comparison filling in just how similar.  The outcome:  quite similar.

The Assam Teehaus product was a version that Maddhurjya Gogoi sent me last year.  His teas are pretty far up the scale for as good as orthodox Assam gets.  I think maybe versions from Oiirabot and Lautimi, sold by Tea Leaf Theory, might have matched my preferences just a little better, but that may have just related to being that much closer to Chinese tea versions in style, not to actually being better.  Dian Hong, Yunnan black tea, is a personal favorite, and tea really close to that in character might seem better to me, versus that actually relating to some objective improvement in quality.

meeting Maddhurjya (second from right) along with Sasha and Kittichai two years ago

I reviewed those Assam Teehaus versions here.   Comparing the label that version he had described as a "blended Assam orthodox."  From that review it sounded like I liked the other version slightly better, that a citrus aspect worked better for me than a more pronounced aromatic spice aspect.

For anyone into reviewing other range further this review from last year covered that Oiirabot version I mentioned,  and the Tea Leaf Theory Latumoni producer version.  Really good Assam is out there, there just can't be that many producers' versions on the level of all these.


Assam Teehaus version left, Aran Thai version right (in all photos)

I'll describe the Assam version--the one from Assam, India--first, since I'm using it as a baseline.

Maddhurjya's Assam (Assam Teehaus):  I didn't let this brew for long so it's a bit light.  The flavor is nice, complex and balanced, earthy with good sweetness.  Distilling that to a list will go better next round.  Some fruit and a hint of spice indicate it will show even better complexity as it evolves.

Aran Thai Assam version:  hard to evaluate in comparison for both being so light this early but this holds its own.  It's clean and full flavored, with some decent feel kicking in already, even though it's not fully wetted yet.  It's not so far off the other in character; more on that as a listing next infusion.

I tried to back off the proportion just a little from what I usually use to brew teas Gongfu style but in the end this was essentially that; the amount that would all but fill a gaiwan once the leaves saturated.  Too much tea to drink in one go too, especially since I just had some fruit with breakfast (fresh mango and banana with yogurt, a personal favorite), and drinking loads of Assam along with that doesn't work well.  Pastry stands up to lots of tea input better, or breakfast cereal.

Second infusion:

Assam Teehaus:  that is nice.  Warm sweetness kicks in, with lots of flavor complexity.  There is malt but it's relatively subdued compared to the level in a lot of Assam versions, that main-aspect, dry-feel related form.  Beyond the malt some molasses sweetness adds a dimension, and warm tones like aromatic wood or even mild spice contribute.

It would be possible to interpret some flavor as dried fruit, towards dried tamarind, but it's not pronounced, so it would be just as natural to leave that off a list.  I don't see it as floral but that also wouldn't be an unreasonable interpretation, along the line of rose petal.

Aran tea Thai version:  this experience overlaps a good bit with the other tea, more than I expected.  That malt is so subdued in this, and slightly different in form, that it stands out as a difference, but it is still common space, to a limited extent.  Complexity is on a similar level but the flavor range is different.  This leans more towards aromatic wood, or even cured leather.  That could easily be musty, but in this version expression it's quite clean.  It also hints towards a good bit of other range, the floral, towards warm and sweet dried fruit.  A little more dark wood tone seems to show through in this.

In tasting each back and forth the first (Assam Teehaus version) tastes more like dried cherry than it had without that direct comparison, a deep, rich flavor, more into fruit range than the other extends.  The feel for both is nice, and the way there is some pleasant depth of structure to them, but they're just soft and full, not astringent at all.  Even aftertaste range adds just a little depth to both, just not so much compared to how that often goes for oolongs and sheng.

Third infusion:

Assam Teehaus:  a warm aspect seems to bump up a bit, towards spice, but it's a little non-distinct.  The rest is similar, maybe just shifted a bit in aspect range.

This is pretty good tea, quite far up the scale of how Assams go.  Tea blog reviews tend to be about making minor distinctions, and that's what's going on here.  There's a good chance that I like this tea better than I did in the original review for brewing it Gongfu style instead.  For a lot of black teas it kind of doesn't matter, but for better quality versions being able to adjust outcome a little round to round, and experiencing the minor transitions, really can be more positive.

Aran tea:  similar; this is picking up a bit of depth too.  Given that I'm infusing both without using a timer that could also be it, a shift in brewing time.  Or maybe that's just how it would go for a tea like these being infused for around 1 1/2 minutes previously, where they would tend to be in a cycle.

Tasting one after the other the first (Maddhurjya's) is slightly sweeter and brighter, and the second (Thai version) a little heavier on dark wood tone, but again they are a lot closer than I remembered from the first try.  I tend to not frame interpretation as a clear "how good" judgement since that's just subjective, tied to preference, versus trying to communicate details of the experience, but both are good.

Fourth infusion:

I'll let these go longer to check on that effect, and probably let this drop after.  These will brew a couple of additional rounds, for sure, maybe even another three or four, but the point here is comparison, not adding every last detail.

Assam Teehaus:  more of the same, if anything slightly better, smooth, sweet, rich, and complex.  This tea really is better than I remember it last year.  Maybe it improved with age, or maybe brewing it this way worked out better than trying it prepared Western style in the first review.  Or other subjective differences always come into play, how I feel on any given day.

This house is a little chaotic this morning, making it hard to generate long aspect lists.  It would seem odd if that translated to liking the teas better, a slightly higher degree of background noise, but I guess you never know.

those noise-makers with cousins on a recent trip (mine are in the center)

Aran Thai black tea:  side by side differences stand out but tasted a week apart these could seem relatively identical.  The Assam version is slightly sweeter, a little towards dried cherry fruit versus dark wood tone, but they overlap more than they are different.

Both are good.  For the Assam I'd expect that; Maddhurjya has been working at making better and better Assam versions for a few years.  It's odd that a Thai producer could get so close to that in outcome.  Again I think there may still be just a little room for improvement related to the absolute best Assam versions I've tried, but these are definitely very pleasant.

I think the posing is about looking fabulous


Really good tea!  The Aran Thai version, I mean; the Assam Teehaus I liked slightly better but both were quite good.  In terms of value this tea is more than worth the modest pricing that I paid for it.

It works on so many levels; this style of tea is forgiving related to how you prepare it, with relatively little astringency to brew around.  Brewed very light the intense flavor still comes across, and relatively strong still works, although some sort of medium is best.  I suppose you could even add milk to this, although it seems better to adjust your preference to appreciate how it doesn't need it, and wouldn't be improved by that.  Brewed at really high infusion strength it would probably be great with vanilla ice cream, at the risk of disrespecting the tea.

This mentioned that I like this style best prepared Gongfu style, but really using a Western approach is fine.  For lacking much astringency it would also work made "grandpa style," brewed in a tea bottle, and drank without separating the leaves back out, adding more water for a second or third round.  That's a great way to bring tea for car travel; carrying a half-liter thermos along even gets you that next round without running across hot water somewhere.

I just tried that with the Aran green tea version yesterday (at time of editing this post), and it worked well, it was just a little bitter.

on a road trip way back when

Saturday, June 27, 2020

2003 Dayi / Taetea 7542 sheng (Sheng Olympiad sample)

that white part doesn't seem ideal; it was less apparent just looking at it but noticeable 

I'm trying a second sample from the 2020 Sheng Olympiad sheng tasting set from Liquid Proust.  The first version I tried, a 2005 Xiaguan "wild" sheng, was really interesting and pleasant.  This is a classic tea version that I won't say much more about; I've reviewed versions of it before, and those posts would go through what the tea version is about.  It's used as a benchmark of sorts, as a consistent version others can be compared against.

Andrew Richardson's description (the tea enthusiast / vendor who runs this shop and set offering):

~15g of 2003 7542 from Dayi: I'll let you all go research about the 7542 blend and Dayi, but I'll say one thing about this... I'm incredibly thankful to even have the opportunity to offer this to everyone let alone do it at a price that you couldn't even tell was added to the whole set. Oh, and I need to mention these are Hong Kong stored.

Sounds good.  It goes without saying that "Hong Kong stored" tends to be used as just one thing, as if every tea stored in Hong Kong is going to experience a similar environment, when in practice that would really vary.  Micro-climate in different places varies, humidity and temperature, and issues like airflow change things, along with those other two main parameters.  There's no reason a storage environment couldn't even control the humidity level, adjust that, but Hong Kong is said to offer pretty good natural conditions for sheng storage.

eating really delicious noodles in Hong Kong last April

it felt cold to me, being from Bangkok, but this rainy day speaks to how it can be humid

paying respect to a Guan Yin statue


First infusion:  plenty of wet slate / damp basement / cement block aspect range; I would imagine that's almost entirely storage related, and will fade, at least some.  This could pass for Liu Bao.  It's hard to get a read on what is going on beyond that.  It seems fine, not ruined by the relative mustiness, clean beyond that one dominant tone.  This will surely still be clearing out next round but I'll move onto trying it then.

Second infusion:  I went a little long on infusion time to get that initial transition moving, around 15 seconds, even though right between 5 and 10 would probably be enough.  It still tastes like Liu Bao but like a much cleaner, more aged, later-infusion round version of one.  The next round will really show where this is going better, but I'll describe this one too.  Old furniture flavor picks up; the wet slate / cement block range is giving way to that.  Sweetness bumps a little, a faint hint of molasses, maybe closer to Chinese date (jujube). 

Feel is decent; it's clean with a bit of fullness.  The lower quality older sheng I've tried tends to narrow down to a limited flavor range and lose feel fullness altogether.  Aftertaste length / duration is fine, but it will probably carry over a more pleasant range within a couple of rounds.

Third infusion:   this infused for a bit under 10 seconds, plenty of time for this proportion (backed off how I normally brew sheng, so just in a more conventional range for most of everyone else).  There is still some wet slate to this, but now it's balanced more evenly with the aged furniture, more complex for including the other less pronounced dried fruit range.  A deeper flavor edge resembles a bit of char, actual charcoal flavor. 

I get the sense that some part of all this could relate to what people tend to call camphor, but I don't.  Actual camphor is closer to what Vicks Vapo-rub smells like; this isn't that.  All of these other flavors do have an odd combined effect, and the feel is hard to describe.  I suppose it could be interpreted a bit towards aromatic, in the sense that furniture polish is that way, which would be related but different oil compounds.

This overlaps a little with the three aged CNNP cakes that I have (or whatever those really are; CNNP versions are said to be inconsistent in origin at best, and buying some of them from local Chinatown sources throws that consistency off even more).  It comes across as cleaner for having had a lot of that experience; those really can emphasize the damp basement range in different ways. 

Humid and hot Bangkok storage can be too much; it seems critical to allow the teas to have some limited air exposure, and if you just throw the in a sealed space for a decade they come out really musty.  Some of that can clear up after half a year of more air exposure but to some extent it's also a permanent change.

Fourth infusion:  the lower infusion levels people tend to describe using make sense related to how intense this tea is; it's brewing a bit strong at 7 to 8 seconds infusion time.  Cutting proportion back just a little would help with dialing lighter infusion strengths in.  At least there are no negative aspects to "brew around;" this would work at different infusion strengths.

It's nice, just at a slightly different balance of the same aspects.  It cleans up further, and the aged furniture and dried fruit range picks up a little.  It will probably just keep that up for another ten rounds or so, changing more at the end related to how extending infusion times to keep intensity up changes effect.  It's nice; standard enough range aged sheng, as it should be.  That balance of Chinese date / jujube flavor is nice, hinting just a little towards real black licorice.

I suppose the effect could be relatively different depending on the storage input, swapping out some of this depth and aspects that needed to clear off for a bit less fermentation-developed range if it had been stored dryer.  Given how musty older teas stored here in Bangkok could be, and how Malaysian storage examples have worked out, to me this tastes like a more moderate range natural storage version.  But then what do I know.

Fifth infusion:  even cleaner; this starts into more of an aromatic bark spice range, frankincense or something such.  I brewed this round slightly faster, maybe 6 seconds instead of 8, and to me that's plenty for this proportion.  Brewed this light it's also easier to pick up the now-faint trace of mustiness, since separating flavor range works better at a lighter infusion strength level, but it all works well.  I'll let the next round go just over 10 seconds to see how that shifts things.  The feel depth will increase a good bit, and experienced flavor range should shift.

Aftertaste experience is still nice, it's just moderate related to how that tends to go for other tea character range.  Feel fullness and creaminess is also fine but moderate in comparison with some other aged sheng range.  Since I appreciate flavor as much as the other aspects, and pleasant balance of all character range most, it's fine for me.

Sixth infusion:  brewed even slightly longer--ok, twice as long, but still a moderate timing--the touch of char comes out a lot more.  That effect tends to stand out even more after a dozen infusions or so.  It's pleasant how the aged furniture range comes across so strong in this.  Aftertaste experience does increase, of course, and feel fullness, which gains a trace of structure, along with the prior non-distinct fullness.  Complexity is pleasant, the way all the flavors and other aspects I keep mentioning combine.  There is room for improvement across a lot of the range but it's good.

Seventh infusion:  I'll let this go after this round, off to do the first yoga class I'll be back to after a 3 or 4 month break for the pandemic.  I don't love the experience of doing yoga but at my age it helps to stay a bit flexible.  There's more of a physical-health story to be told about a knee problem I've been dealing with, about how I took most of that time off running, and am only 5 runs or so back into it, but I'll close this with some more thoughts about this tea instead.

It's fine; not different than last round.  I drink teas a lot like this whenever I feel like that having experience, but CNNP versions instead.  The Tulin tuochas I have that are a couple years younger are not that far behind this fermentation level, well along related to that process, but the character is quite different.  I guess it's about what I expected.


I drank a few more infusions and it only seemed to be fading.  Some aged cardboard seemed to pick up as extending infusion times changed the flavor profile (where more often that's a touch of char that increases instead).  I liked the tea, it was an interesting experience, it just wasn't all that different or better than the aged versions I have on hand, which never seemed all that exceptional to me, but are pleasant.

I suspect that storage wasn't an ideal input for this tea version.  The touch of white in the photo, and evident from appearance, didn't make me too nervous, but then I wouldn't want to drink a cake worth of tea I was concerned about, versus not worrying as much about a sample.  The taste seemed to indicate that fermentation went a bit far, or was in a less than ideal form. 

All that can be a real balancing act, and what is ideal definitely could vary by preference.  If someone wanted to try a tea that's essentially completely finished fermenting, as this seemed to be, then either trying a 30 year old version or trying a tea that was stored on the more humid side would lead to that.  It's not as if that's a linear sort of scale; more or less humid conditions, and to some extent also temperature and air contact as inputs, would lead to different outcomes.

On a different subject, that of personal context related to trying aged sheng versions, I've ran into a roadblock in terms of trying better teas related to budget limitations.  Using a sampling strategy offsets that, but then instead of having moderate priced and quality cakes around to keep drinking as they age you've got 20 gram samples, which will be gone soon enough.  It really helps having a good bit of budget depth for exploring above average aged sheng.  Sample sets like this are nice; you might not love some of the versions for your own reasons, or some could really stand out related to what else is out there, or not match up well, but still you get to try different things.

For standard factory teas like this I could buy relatively inexpensive tongs of new versions and then wait a dozen years or so; that strategy is a gap in my current approach.  Having "only" 10 or so kilos of tea around already has my wife convinced that I own more tea than I'll ever drink, even though it's not that much.  Much better sourcing and networking is another alternative; two different online friends have mentioned buying through Taiwanese sources that sell for much lower pricing than standard Western outlets like Yunnan Sourcing.  That would involve some learning curve, and failures, probably ideally supported by basing it off what one of those friends are already doing.

For now I'm ok with drinking a good bit of younger sheng, and buying only slightly aged versions from outlets like the Chawang Shop, cutting the waiting time from a dozen years to more like half that.  Sample sets and running across versions in different ways fills in depth of experience.  I should be part of a local tea enthusiast network; that would help.  More will follow soon enough about a step towards that.

from the day after the last photo; he gave up his pandemic look

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Aran Tea Thailand produced sheng (pu'er-like tea)

An online contact mentioned producing Thai versions of Assam black tea and sheng (pu'er-like tea) in the International Tea Talk group that I admin for.

That's most of it for background.  They have a Facebook page, which would show some pictures and add a few product details, and would work for contact.

one of those Thai tea producers (credit their FB page)

I usually mention when vendors provide samples for review so I guess that I might add that I bought these teas, 100 grams of each, for a reasonable price, the standard range here in Thailand.  I'm not opposed to buying some tea, I just don't have budget to try a little of everything, so it's nice when some vendors help out with that.  The review will be the same; I'll say what I really think.

I've already tried the Assam (variety Assamica based black tea made in an Assam style, which kind of goes without saying) but starting with the sheng still makes sense, since I've been more on that page for a couple of years.  I've tried enough Assam in the past year to place the other tea against the best range of versions (I think), but maybe I'll do a comparison review post anyway, since it's interesting trying similar teas side by side.

It's strange skipping past the requisite claims about this being from ancient trees, wild grown, pesticide-free, and so on.  It probably is all that, although photos from their Facebook page show seems to show plants of different ages growing under different conditions.  It's as well to just judge the character anyway.  From the dry tea scent, which is rich, sweet, and complex, this will be pretty good.  The color is a bit dark; it will be interesting to see what that ties to in terms of wetted leaf appearance and brewed tea aspects.


First infusion:  this leans a little towards green tea character, a slight vegetal edge, and other parts it would be hard to completely describe, part of the feel.  That's not to say that "they've got sheng wrong," character can vary a lot for those, and it's impossible to identify related aging potential based on the first sip.  It tastes like an exceptionally good green tea, well balanced, very fresh, not astringent, with good sweetness, and complex.

The vegetal range is towards fresh green beans.  I think a lot of people would prefer this to even a very good sheng, if they just weren't on that sheng page.  Someone looking for sheng who doesn't like green tea wouldn't care for it.

Second infusion:  still mostly very fresh green beans.  A hint of bitterness is more into sheng range, but it splits the difference, between the two, to be honest closer to green tea in style.

It's the fresh and sweet version of green beans, prior to any cooking, nothing like frozen or canned types.  Ordinarily if I reviewed a sheng that tasted like vegetable the description would be more negative, but I do kind of like this tea.  I say over and over that green tea is my least favorite main type, and that's true, but I have tried some versions that work as exceptions.  One Thai version from Tea Side, a steamed green tea, was a good example of that.  I usually buy Longjing once a spring (a main Chinese type, a pan-fried flat leaf produced version), I just haven't got around to that yet this year.

that Tea Side sheng and green tea comparison (sheng left)

those dry teas (sheng left, green tea right)

Third infusion:  not transitioning so much.  It may not, since green teas tend to less.

It's obvious enough but sheng and green tea are two of the most closely related types.  Green tea is heated to stop enzymes from reacting to oxidize the tea, and sheng is just heated slightly less, leaving those compounds more active to enable aging transition.  Or so the general story goes, and also the actual reality.

This has pleasant character and good complexity.  It's bright and clean, and complex, with plenty of sweetness.  I'm not sure how it would age given the aspect range it's in, but it's fine as it is now, so maybe as well to not even check on that.

They sell cakes as well, compressed versions, and that complicates things a little.  This probably would still be quite pleasant in a year or two but I'm not sure it would improve.  It's conceivable that it could work for long-term aging, it just lacks the aspects I see as markers for what does commonly improve through that sort of transition (sheng fermentation).  Some degree of bitterness is a good sign, and a characteristic type of astringency, a structure to the tea. This has a touch of bitterness and a little dryness, rounding out a generally smooth and slightly full feel, but it's not in that other range.

To be clear on placing it this would be one of the two best Thai green teas I've ever tried, along with that Tea Side version.

Fourth infusion:  the feel and flavor are both gaining a little depth; if anything it's improving.  The aspect range is still quite similar though.  Floral range is a good interpretation of a lot of the sweet character; I've not mentioned that yet, and it's transitioning to play more of a role, to stand out most.  The "green bean" stood out more for being atypical, but floral range is stronger, a more dominant aspect.  The way that a bit of astringency and vegetal range pairs with a warm, sweet floral tone it reminds me of dandelions.

In the past I would sometimes use longer or shorter infusions to try a tea in a different way, to highlight some of the aspect range both can emphasize.  I'll try a longer infusion to check on that next round, increased from around 15 seconds up to 30 instead.

Fifth infusion:  that feel edge does ramp up a good bit; brewed for twice as long as this (for closer to a minute, at a high infusion proportion) this would be a bit harsh.  It's still pleasant like this; the feel still works well.  That feel is just as close to green tea as to sheng, or maybe slightly closer.

The sweetness, freshness, and pronounced cleanness make this tea work well.  Green tea can span a lot of range that doesn't work quite as well:  odd astringency, harshness, "straight grass," kale and other cooked vegetable range.  Again, this seems in between green tea and sheng range to me, just closer to green.

I'll leave off there; it's not transitioning much, so filling in how the next half-dozen infusions go won't add much.  It should be less positive towards the end, picking up other flavor range that doesn't work as well, or dropping out some of the positive intensity.


It's hard to place what it means when a sheng seems more like green tea.  I actually liked the tea; there's that.  I wouldn't expect it to age well, but then who knows, maybe after three years it would be even better, and after 15 just amazing.  Seems doubtful, but maybe.

On positive character alone this is quite pleasant.  It would be very difficult to buy a better Thai green tea than this; I've only ever tried that one version on this level.  Value is good; it's quite good tea for what I paid for it, or really just quite pleasant in general, and also an exceptional value.  Things seem to shift a little in relation to buying a cake of this (they also sell it compressed), since more or less drinking straight through that would seem advisable, versus waiting to see how it changes.

All of this is just one person's take; someone else might well try this and see it all very differently.  Others could enjoy it less if they don't care for this aspect range, and the judgment about type designation and aging potential might also vary.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Tea culture in Sweden

I was talking to an online contact about her own tea preference, a Spanish woman now living in Sweden.  A familiar idea came up, that coffee is typically preferred to tea there.  This is how things go in many countries, with tea enthusiasts in any of them dealing with not so many others sharing their preference.

It made for a potentially interesting starting point for exploring tea culture in a random place, where "specialty tea" awareness is in Sweden.  And for a potentially awkward process looking up people to ask about that, with mixed answers about their own preferences and local tea culture.

It seemed that one nice approach would be to describe the perspective of a number of "tea enthusiasts" there, both on what they like and how they see the local tea culture.  The answers should vary a lot by person, given that context, but the range should describe where it all stands, more so than any one interest-group's input would.  It all kind of worked.

It was a bit of a slog trying to turn up interviewees, and to get them to answer such limited questions, versus just talking about it all.  Here's how that went.

Northern Teaist

A conventional Western tea blog author writes based in Sweden.  I'll stick with the convention of adding no personal details, one way that some blog authors go, more or less how they all would normally have seen privacy concerns in the past.

What teas do I like?

Although my stash contains tea of all types from almost every tea producing area in the world, if I was to try to rank them then top of the heap would be sheng pu-erh, closely followed by white teas, then shou pu-erh. I'm also partial to an occasional Oolong, and I have a penchant for experimental teas, where a cultivar gets the treatment normally reserved for another class of tea, such as processing Yunnan Da Ye leaf like an Oolong.

Where do I see tea culture and awareness in Sweden now?

Fragmented. Even though tea shops offering decent quality tea exist and seem to be prospering, it seems as though the people who buy from them don't see themselves as part of a distinct culture.

Even when you consider the kind of speciality or boutique teas those shops don't deal in, the ones almost exclusively available from on-line retailers, it feels as though that scene is composed of a small number of individual enthusiasts with a limited knowledge of who else is out there, what they are drinking, and where they are getting hold of their tea.

Not to ruin the ending but that's pretty much where the rest of the input is going to lead too.  Maybe hearing that will be comforting to tea drinkers who are isolated in places with limited tea culture, and maybe other interesting details will justify reading the rest.

That blog is worth a look; it's really well done.  His intro / philosophy adds background to that:

This blog is about the practical and the metaphysical aspects  of tea. The how, the what, and the why.

It’s about the search for a better cup of tea, refining techniques, using better equipment.

It’s also about that elusive “something else“, the thing that is “there but not there” every time you drink tea, like your shadow on a sunny day...

Very Zen, like a practical New Age inspired version of Mattcha's mission statement.

David Qi, a Facebook tea contact 

David is one of those international type people, with ties to here and there.  I think maybe even the kind with language skills, so the other kind of international type than I am.

What teas do I like?

Definitely rock oloongs, Da Hong Pao and such, and also high mountain Taiwanese oolongs.  And also good sheng puers, and shu, but for that I need a certain mood.

Nice!   Add in Dan Cong, a bit of white, and some dabbling in secondary regions and that's enough for lifetime of tea drinking.  Or maybe already enough.

Where do I see tea culture and awareness in Sweden now?

Most Swedish tea drinkers have a sense that tea bags are not the real thing, but think that the caramel mango flavoured whole leaf which they bought in the specialty tea/coffee shop is.  The tea culture in Sweden is very elementary, and the gongfu people do not have a real market. The specialty tea shops mostly sell flavoured whole leaf, and maybe they will have a few cans of real tea in the corner, but mostly mid range and nothing fresh or exciting. 

I can only speak for the west coast and Gothenburg, where I am of course, but the situation might be different in Stockholm. Romania is basically the same, but Budapest has a living tea community and many great tea shops.

See, international.  His other comment on personal approach would ring a bell with some:

Since I’m working in healthcare and studying medicine, tea helped me to see the broader perspective of what health means, not only body but also mind. I love to set up a tea and meditation tent at gatherings or just with friends.

It sounds quite balanced, a well-grounded but open perspective.  I'd love to check that out.

Xenia Blanco, owner of the Japanese Tea Hub 

She's the one I was first talking to.  Again she's foreign (Spanish), and so far none of these people are Swedish, so I'll need to move on to actually mentioning a Swedish take on Swedish tea culture before this closes.

Her FB profile description is "Japanese Tea Evangelist. Matcha Advocate."  And vendor; that sets context a bit too.  She studied Japanese tea types and production under the Global Japanese Tea Association, formerly part of the Obubu Tea Farms.

what she looks like, photo credit her FB page

Her post "Everything you really need to know about Japanese tea" is probably a starting point on what she's into, but it's just background, about the types and processing.  This article covers more on different regions.

The background page / "philosophy" in the same blog is a bit general too, about making Japanese teas available outside Japan.

Japanese Tea Hub Instagram photos

All that covers what she likes in tea, the first question, except that her favorite tea type is gyokuro.  This covers the part about tea culture in Sweden:

Regarding tea  culture in Sweden, while I have noticed some shops sell some supposedly Japanese teas, they actually carry matcha from China, for instance, or teas that are generic & in bulk. And when asked, they don't know the names of the farmers, cultivars, regions and so on.  I usually source from small farmers as much as I can to help the shrinking tea industry in Japan. 

Swedish tea culture remains largely non-specialised & the use of lower quality teabags is widespread. Also, there are smaller more specialised vendors like myself, well hidden & scattered around the country. 

I run tea & food pairing sessions on IG daily. The reason for this is to promote tea through food since it will be much easier for people to accept Japanese tea if they can do more with it than just drinking it. This is how I intend to make Japanese teas more popular in Sweden. 

Catrin Ruding

She is both Swedish and a tea enthusiast, with a formal training background in tea, which is normal in some places and very uncommon in others.

Her take on the local tea culture issue:

Coffee is still far more popular in Sweden than tea. But on the other hand more and more people turn to tea, they are often fascinated by all the aromas and flavors, for health reasons or they simply want an alternative. Also the “new Swedes” that enrich our country in many different ways, are often very much more into tea than coffee. When I was a kid we were given tea when we were/had been sick.

Catrin is also a vendor; even the founder of a local branch of Tea Masters (which seems to not be related to either the one main training agency or the international competition group using that same name, and of course not tied to the blog and shop based in Taiwan).  Her website covers their general scope and mission statement:

We support customers in choosing the most suitable teas, building a tea menu for a brunch or afternoon tea service, train staff, certify tea sommeliers, create private label teas & herbal infusions, organize tea cupping events and more. We supply high quality, sustainable teas through a transparent supply chain from the plantations to your cup. The company behind Tea Masters was founded in 2007 by Catrin Rudling and we choose the name to honor how much there is to learn about tea and to acknowledge and remember to learn something new about tea everyday from both the old masters and present ones. 

Sounds good.

Kenneth Rimdahl

A Swedish friend (or contact, if you are conservative about that designation) owns a local chain of tea shops in Thailand, in Chiang Mai and in Bangkok, Monsoon Teas.

He hasn't been living in Sweden for awhile, so he really didn't have a lot to say about current tea culture back there.  It's more developed now than back when he did live there, he said.

meeting Kenneth--in the center--at a friend's place (Sasha's, on the right)

He recommended a local Stockholm shop that has good teas, In the Mood for Tea, and their website content does look good.  One might wonder, why not ask them about tea culture then?

Vendors kind of always are aware of culture related to their customer base, and that perspective can be a bit biased.  Of course they all say that high quality tea interest is somewhat developed and growing faster all the time.   Their website even agrees with me on that:

In a time when we are awash with advertising and everyone uses words such as quality, expertise, ecology and crafts for marketing purposes, we have let the teas speak for themselves since the store opened. We are happy and grateful for the ever-growing crowd that finds and listens to them.

To some extent this section entry is more about getting a mention of Kenneth in, since he is nice, and I've reviewed a number of his teas.  They're interesting, covering standard Thai oolongs, and "wild" sourced versions of different types.  Kenneth is into promoting "forest-friendly" teas, which he talks about in this Tedx talk.  Monsoon also sells better flavored versions than I've ever ran across elsewhere, using natural essential oils versus chemicals (like this tropical fruit flavored version).

I think, anyway; this is no ad promo or environmental impact endorsement, they just seem good.  I really don't even drink flavored teas much, beyond an Earl Grey or jasmine black here or there.  There's nothing wrong with flavored teas or herb blends, it's just not what I'm into.

from the Monsoon Tea mission description

Reddit's input

I asked in a Sweden themed Reddit sub-forum about tea there and they more or less told me to get lost.  At least as an American I can appreciate that directness, if not the tone.  The most upvoted comment, and the consensus take:

Sweden (like the rest of the Nordic countries) is a coffee country, unfortunately, so there isn't really a tea culture.

That said, further discussion led to the finding that some shops sell a limited range of teas, at local "Coffee/Tea/Chocolate" stores:

Usually they stock all forms of black, and green tea, as well as red tea (Rooibos), but you can also find white tea. All of these come in various flavors; such as fruit, flowery, mixed spices, herbs etc. Earl Grey is of course also popular, but you can also find Lady Grey, or local blends such as Söder Tea (Södermalm is an Island in Stockholm) which is a black tea typically flavored with tropical fruits and rose.

The only thing I have not been able to find (yet) is a high quality Ceylon tea. 

Sounds familiar, a bit like the old Teavana range, or David's Teas, T2 (the current incarnation of it), Adagio, etc.

a shop image referenced in that discussion


With all those exceptions turning up specialty tea interest must be cropping up here and there, just slow to take broad hold.  Language issues would skew what I find towards English, but beyond that it may be no coincidence that most of the tea enthusiasts I found there are foreigners.

Catrin even mentioned that, in relation to "New Swedes" preferring tea.  Is it just me or does that sound a little odd, that terminology?  Maybe Kenneth is a Swedish "New Thai," as I am, but we are just called farangs here, foreigners.

Scattered better tea interest is something of an exception here too, or really in any country where tea traditions don't have older roots.  It's a little odd that Thailand has been a tea producing country for well over a century (some of the tea plants are that old), with very old connections to Chinese culture, and most of that faded so much that bubble tea and matcha can seem like starting point introductions to the subject. Most of the people drinking those here have never actually soaked loose tea leaves in hot water.

It goes without saying that this is only part of the story about tea culture in Sweden.  I have surely missed more than I've ran across.  But it has been interesting filling in a partial snapshot of how tea culture ramps up in a mostly coffee-drinking country.

eating dinner at a Bangkok IKEA, my main contact with Sweden

beyond the furniture and the rest they have nice kids' play areas

Saturday, June 13, 2020

2005 Xiaguan wild sheng pu'er

I'm trying the first of a Liquid Proust sheng set, a unique way to experience different teas (with more on that here).  Tasting sets aren't such a novel theme (with more on that here on approaches to exploring sheng, including mention of his options), but Andrew Richardson's take on offering them is different.  And selection process, and set themes, which seems to relate to what he's exploring just then, or what he's happened to run across.

The year, maker, and even that vague "wild" theme add some for expectations.  Xiaguan is familiar; they make strong-flavored, relatively consistent teas, even across a quality range, that often are well suited for 15 years or more of aging.  More is often better, depending on the starting point for different versions.  I've reviewed a half dozen or so examples; not so many, for as big a name as that producer is, but being a complete generalist spreads coverage thin across any sub-theme.  Narrowing exploration down to "sheng" for a few years, as I more or less have, isn't really narrowing it down much at all.

I did look up his description, from the Sheng Olympiad sales page (after making these notes):

~20g 2005 Wild Xiaguan: this was one of the first sheng I really enjoyed and I have finished more cakes of this than anything. It is very unique in the lineup in the fact that it is the only yesheng cake which with a little smoke in the background creates a whiskey like cup.

Odd this review isn't very close to that, and mentions that this tea is really unusual in a couple of other ways.  I did like it too though; I agree about that part.

As appearance goes it looks like this is fairly well fermented for that timing.  In dryer storage conditions 15 years isn't nearly as long as in natural conditions (more medium for humidity, typically, but variable due to seasonal conditions changes) or wet storage instead (intentionally stored in humid conditions, or just held in a place like Malaysia).

It looks like there's a good bit of yellow leaf in this, sold as huang pian when it's sold separately.  Often that is sorted out.  It's what it sounds like, older leaves that have changed color due to dying off, that get caught in the harvest process.  They're not bad, really, lighter and sweeter, with a different overall character, so some added would make the tea seem a little like a sort of blend, a mix of inputs.


First infusion:  a little odd out of the gate.  It's not musty but close enough to that I'd expect that to be the most typical interpretation.  Fermentation input related to storage has soured the tea slightly (with the obvious condition that anything I say about causes is a bit of a guess), which I expect will "burn off" after another two infusions or so.  It tastes a bit like old leather, like an old saddle smells.  That sounds rough, not as clean, rich, and distinctive as someone would hope for in an aged sheng, and I suppose it isn't completely positive.

Since it's not exactly the "true character" of this tea I'll say a little more about it fading next round and get onto describing that.  Or this is going to be an odd tasting session, describing a tea in a range of earthy flavors I don't get to use very often, talking about cork and different ranges of wild mushrooms.

I might mention that I've been very intrigued by a truly wild sheng from Thailand, that I bought at my favorite local Chinatown shop (Jip Eu), when my friend Ralph was visiting once.  It had a really odd sour character that took a half a year or so to fade out.  Per some discussion with the owner that was made from a mix of local, wild plants harvested in the North of Thailand.

Ralph remembers some discussion of intentionally inoculating the tea with some sort of fungus starter, which I take to be a parallel theme as the "golden flowers" idea, that it's often added to hei cha versions (although it can also occur naturally).

Fu brick with golden flowers, grabbed from an online friend's FB page who sells that, Sophia Yang

I have no clear memory of Kittichai saying anything about that, but I'm sure that he did, if Ralph caught it.  What he meant could've spanned a broad range, since a lot gets lost in translation in talking to him.  If you are there in the shop and take your time talking through a point a bit further that clears up, but comments mentioned in passing can seem unclear.

At any rate that tea was oddly sour for a long time, then it switched to a sweeter, floral range, and after that it seemed to circle back to include a lot of forest-floor range.  I mean like slightly damp piled leaves; no sort of moss theme, or mountain spring range.  It tasted a lot more like a swept fall lawn than tea almost ever does.  That was with a bit of dampness input to those, but not much, not the crisp, dry aromatic range of bone-dry leaves, but nothing like cleaning out rain gutters, leaves that really have wet-fermented.

A bit of this flavor is just "tastes like Xiaguan;" I'll get back to what I mean by that.

Second infusion:  cleaning up nicely!  The harshest, mustiest of that range is all but cleared out, with a cleaner old-leather version remaining, onto tasting more like a bomber jacket, or brand new cowboy boots.  The sourness changed form to a bit of tangy range.  If this keeps shifting in the same direction that could move all the way to a really warm citrus aspect, I just don't think it will, it will probably make a turn and change to something else.

This really tastes like Xiaguan now.  It's hard to say how, what that even means.  There's probably some agreed-upon set of descriptions that has emerged over people trying to describe that for the past 20 years that really pins it down.  Adding more of my own descriptions is only going to go so far; it's like leather, or well-cured hay, with a bit of warm mineral range filling that in, like the scent of a rusted iron bar.  Some of the clean peat effect could seem similar to Scotch.

Fermentation level is pretty far along, in one sense, and not very far along at all for the age in another.  It doesn't look as reddish as it might (it's far from finished) but the tones are good and warm, and there is no bitterness or astringency edge left at all.  At a guess that apparent mild contradiction is because it didn't start out as edgy as a lot of Xiaguan (undrinkable, if one must), so basing a fermentation level mostly on what has already dropped out gets you to the wrong conclusion, because it could easily assume what was never there was present.

That "wild Thai sheng" had some astringency, just not much for being on the order of half this old, or maybe slightly younger.  It never did start out like a typical Xiaguan tuo, or a Dayi 7542; much softer than those.  And a bit odd, as this probably always was, but I personally like that, the uniqueness, and the aspect range this covers.  Or will cover; if it stayed exactly like this round maybe not so much.

Third infusion:  this pattern is quite familiar; this is right where that Thai tea was at one point.  It's in between tangy and sour, with a vague floral range picking up, with a lot more forest-floor showing through.  It's really complex; that flavor list could just keep going, and I'd expect interpretations to vary a lot.  The leather effect is dropping back, but that earthy-vegetal range is in between dry dead leaves, fermenting damp leaves, and cured leather.  I'd expect more people to dislike this than to love it, since it's in such a novel range.  Or maybe it's just that someone open to novel range might love this, and anyone looking for a type-typical mostly aged sheng range could be disappointed, or even put off.

Given experience with similar character in that Thai tea I'll have to modify expectations of how this is going to transition across later rounds.  It will shift, and improve, but I think it will stay weird.  It's interesting considering if maybe I didn't miss a lot of yellow leaf (huang pian) material input in that Thai sheng, accounting for why it is sweet and mild, and also a little odd, although that's surely based on different inputs.  I really like that Thai tea; maybe I didn't mention that.  Not so much for experienced aspects only, for appreciating the parts of what is there to experience, but for it pushing so far into a novel range.  Without "seeing" this Xiaguan version age over a year there's a lot less to experience, how this is going to go, I'll just get the sample-snapshot effect.

Fourth infusion:  this is through the initial phase, and in a decent, interesting place.  A lot is going on to balance:  some floral, heavier autumn leaf / cured leather range, a bit of cured wood, and subtle warm, underlying mineral tones.  It's cleaner and lighter than that description list makes it sound.  There's a creamy aspect that picks up; that part is hard to place, given the other context.

When someone says a buttery or milky oolong seems creamy of course that makes sense, but this isn't covering a range where it seems as naturally linked.  It's almost as if part of that earthy, complex, ever so slightly--at this point--range could be interpreted as close to havarti cheese (which is mild and sweet; people might see it as nutty but it's more just hard to explain), and it links with that.

Fifth infusion:  transition pace is slowing; it's closer to the last round than for any other infusion.  To me this works, it balances.  That laundry list of flavor inputs wouldn't be seen as a naturally balanced set to everyone; it probably helps having drank a lot of strange teas, some of which didn't work, to push that experience boundary out a bit.  This doesn't seem normal to me, in the sense of it being type-typical of any range, but it's definitely familiar ground.

The level of sweetness helps make it work; that's a common theme, and one that's easy to not repeat in every review.  It makes the floral and lighter other range come across differently; drop out the sweetness and it would all make a lot less sense.  The same is true of it being quite clean in effect, and pleasant in feel, a bit creamy, versus sheng often just developing richness of feel.

Sixth infusion:  warm, sweet autumn tones pick up.  This might keep going and settle into a nice spice range before it leaves off; I don't think it's close to finished yet.  The last flavor list still applies, but most of that has dropped way into the background, with a sweeter, dry-leaf tone picking way up.  Interpreted in one way this might even taste a bit like fruit now, along the lines of dried tamarind.

It's funny how far off this is from what I take to be normal Xiaguan range.  The intensity wasn't there, and it never could've started with that same roughness and edge, for being this approachable at this level of fermentation.  Some flavor range was common but this late shift doesn't remind me of any Xiaguan I've yet to try.  Then again out between 15 and 20 years rough edges would give way to lots of different flavor and other range, and I've not tried much relatively fully aged Xiaguan, more of what was just getting on towards that, but still more like halfway through the process.

Seventh infusion:  lightening a little, but I think I'll let this review go just to take it easy.  It was a rough week at work and my wife rattled off an unrealistic list of things to do to help her before she went out to check on school uniforms.  I told her which parts I would do and which I would skip and that didn't go over so well, but probably better for her thinking that was joking.

This tea is nice.  Odd, but I like this range.  It was really interesting owning a cake of a tea that's so close to this, given how unusual the character range is.

It will be interesting covering the other samples in this set, some pretty interesting looking aged sheng.

Additional conclusions:

I didn't address Andrew's description in this, because I read it later.  He said (cited earlier):  the only yesheng cake which with a little smoke in the background creates a whiskey like cup.

I didn't mention smoke or whiskey; interpretations do tend to vary.  And I'd expect this type of tea to shift a good bit over a couple of years, that it's fairly far along for fermentation but nearing a leveling off point, but not there yet.   Some of the description I did include of underlying warm mineral tones and aged leather wasn't so far from a "smoke" interpretation.

More interesting to me, later that day I had a headache, which seemed to relate to not ingesting much caffeine.  At first determining the cause for a headache isn't simple, and drinking a half liter of water often clears up one caused by dehydration.  The caffeine-withdrawal headache is a unique version though, probably a bit too familiar to many tea enthusiasts.  I hadn't drank that much dry tea quantity in trying this, and old-leaves would probably have a much lower caffeine content naturally (based on the well-known idea that buds and young leaves contain the most).  All the same I'm quite familiar with my normal reaction to drinking only one round of tea.  Taking a long nap and sleeping early yesterday reinforced that likelihood.

Where am I going with this?  When trying that Thai "wild sheng" a number of times I kept wondering if the plant type wasn't atypical in some way.  It was really wild-collected tea, on the far extreme of natural growth versions.  Flavor was the main input that had me guess about that; the character just didn't match any other tea I'd ever tried, although this now serves as a single exception.  I mean I think it probably was still "tea," camellia sinensis, but it might have been a slightly evolved variety.  It could've been similar to the cases of variety Formosa, Cambod, or Taliensis (or is Taliensis a different species instead?).

a table of some cultivars (plant types) from a source I keep citing

The rambling speculation cuts off there; I have no more background or conjecture to offer.  At a minimum the two tea versions were really interesting in a common way.  The Thai version has changed a lot over the last year; this Xiaguan may have similar potential, to finish off fermentation process by shifting more.  That Thai tea wasn't as old though, 8 years old now, so changing more would've seemed natural in light of that factor.

this family member never gets mentioned here, Sai Tong, our other cat

he sketched Kalani and the cat