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.
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