Saturday, September 12, 2020

2014 Ali Shan and Dong Ding oolongs

Getting to some samples that were included from back when I ordered teas from Tea Mania (provided by the vendor, Peter). To me their sheng pu'er are just amazing, and a great value.  That was covered in detail in this 2018 Jing Mai arbor review, and 2018 Yiwu "Lucky Bee," and many earlier posts, but this re-review of how the 2016 Lucky Bee Yiwu version is progressing really tells that story. 

I've come to expect that everything from them will be better than one would expect from even good sources. Then again there are levels to source types, and quality and pricing, so I just mean that the teas seem to be on the higher end for quality, while typically in the middle for pricing, a rare occurrence. 

Oolong being aged for 6 years is new to me. I've only tried a couple of examples of well-aged oolongs, over 20 years, and that aging effect wouldn't be the same over a shorter time period. I'll get around to guessing about expectations in comments about the experienced aspects, but without actual background experience to set up a baseline that's not worth much. 

Heavily roasted Wuyi Yancha are said to improve a lot over even a year or two, and would mellow and become more pleasant over this time-frame too, with the roast effect softening and diminishing. That's not how this will go; you can tell from appearance the Ali Shan was light to begin with, and the Dong Ding was never relatively fully oxidized or charred, as Taiwanese "red oolongs" and high-roast Anxi Tie Guan Yin can be, respectively. 

Vendor descriptions: 

This Qing Xin Oolong tea from Ali Shan is a classic Gao Shan Cha (highland tea). Ali Shan, along with Li Shan and Shan Lin Xi, is one of the three regions in Taiwan with highland tea plantations. 

The Ali Shan Qing Xin is warm, full-bodied and has a complex taste profile. The aroma is clearly floral but there are also notes of ripe fruits. The sweetness reminiscent of dark forest honey with a slight woody undertone. The tea is light and airy, but the sweet honey smell lingers in the empty cup for a long time. 

Harvest: Spring 2014 
Taste: Honey sweet with floral aroma and notes of ripe fruits. 
Oxidation: appx. 40% 
Roasting: light-medium Origin: Ali Shan, Nantou, Taiwan. 
Preparation: Per serving 5g, temperature 95°C, time 15s. Rinse leaves gently with hot water before infusing. 

That was selling for 20 CHF, or $20 US, for 50 grams. 

The next tea: Dong Ding  (selling for $25 /  50 grams instead)

Dong Ding is a classic and rightly famous Taiwanese Oolong tea. This Dong Ding is a good example of flavors that a highland tea (Gao Shan Cha) can develop. Delicate floral scents, honey notes and subtle roasted aromas delight the palate and linger in the mouth and cup long after the last sip. 

Like other famous teas, Dong Ding is often and often imitated. Dong Ding is a limited mountain area with limited tea production. Because of its special aroma, Dong Ding style tea is produced in many other tea growing areas. But, even if the cultivar, the style and sometimes even the tea master are the same as on the Dong Ding, its quality and aroma is never achieved. 

Harvest: Spring 2014 
Taste: Flowery, light toasted and delicate honey flavor. 
Oxidation: appx. 40% Roasting: medium Origin: Dong Ding, Lugu Xiang, Nantou, Taiwan. 
Preparation: Per serving 5g, temperature 95°C, time 15s. Rinse leaves gently with hot water before infusing. 

I should add a few thoughts about all that, without getting too far into covering review content, since I've already tried the teas and write this part during editing.  A lot of people would go with full boiling point water; that kind of goes without saying.  It's easier to recommend someone tries both and see what they think than running back through all that.  Given that these have smoothed out a lot with age and some of the more forward, "higher end" flavor has diminished it might be all the more true for them, that hotter water would work better.

It also goes without saying that the Qing Xin reference is to the main, older plant type used for oolongs in Taiwan.  Other posts have covered that; I'll skip going further with it here.

Qing Xin is a more updated transliteration of Chin Shin, table from here

It's not what I expected but not completely surprising that the Dong Ding is oxidized to the same level as the Ali Shan.  I'd have guessed that the Ali Shan wasn't oxidized that much, but this Dong Ding isn't pushing the envelop towards black / red tea range.  The roast input will change character in ways that isn't identical to more oxidation, but it can be tricky splitting back out the two inputs.

I think if I re-tried the Ali Shan I might be able to break down flavor range better, in relation to clarifying what fruit seems to be represented.  I agree that it's primarily floral, and that made it hard to get far with that secondary range, but I suspect that the flavors warming and deepening pull them more towards fruit than when this tea was on the young side.  That oolong version was complex enough that to some extent the broad range of flavor inputs seemed non-distinct, covering floral tone, some fruit, and a touch of supporting mineral, trailing into spice effect just a little.  The Dong Ding seemed to include more straight cinnamon, but it was complex too, with a lot going on in feel range.

I dropped out essentially all discussion of aftertaste range, probably mostly related to experiencing an unfamiliar tea type, and also due to rushing the tasting process.  My normal weekend morning routine is to wake up, eat something, mess around and become more fully awake, then to do a tea review with notes.  Yesterday I got a haircut instead after step 2, and went to a lunch, and then a play area with my kids at noon.  I am concerned about "doing the teas justice" when they are this good and this novel, but if I waited until I had a 3 or 4 hour block of free time I would stop review blogging.  This will be a bit quick and rough as reviews go, because I don't have that much time (so the standard process).


I let these brew for too long the first round, not because of some strategy of getting them to start faster, just due to looking at something on the internet for half a minute. Not an auspicious start.  This is a little later than I typically start the day for ingesting any caffeine, late morning instead of right away. 

If these had been sheng I'd be talking about how overbrewing teas lets you analyze flaws or limitations in different ways, but for these I'm not sure how it will work out. 

Alishan: very pleasant; floral and fragrant. I expected some of the high end to dissipate, with these evolving more depth to compensate, and it will be interesting to see how that goes. The most intense and forward high end is diminished, even though I let this soak a bit long (towards a minute). A warm spice-like character fills in other range; that's interesting. This is floral too, but it's a warm, muted floral range, shifted from brighter tones to a deeper, warmer floral type. There's no edge to this at all, even for being slightly over-brewed, but that's not really a surprise. 

Dong Ding: this is warmer yet, with cinnamon as the most intense flavor aspect. Again the sharpest, brightest high end flavors seem to have evolved out, with depth and smoothness filling in more character range. I must have mentioned it in the later intro but I have no experience with 6 year old Taiwanese oolong range, that I remember, so it's unfamiliar to me how these are "supposed to be." 

There's a perfume-like character to this that shows up in really good quality oolongs across a broad range. I've mentioned it so many times I don't want to go far with explanation, but it's a little like cognac, not just the floral tone a perfume brings across, but seemingly tied a little to the solvent range. 

This is full in feel in a really novel way too. It's creamy, but not in the same range of senses I would usually mean that. Real cream actually feels quite heavy in your mouth, related to the way it coats your tongue and the rest, and this matches some of that, almost a coating type feel. Lots of oolongs feel thick, and sheng pu'er exhibits a broad range of types of feel and structure, but this is different. 

Second infusion: 

Ali Shan: this picked up "higher end" floral intensity, or maybe that's just from the brewing time difference shifting balance (brewed for 20 seconds or so, drawn out a little to account for not maxing out the proportion). The feel has a pleasant thickness, just nothing like the other version. The warmer range depth isn't different, just less intense. There is some light mineral tone to this, characteristic of Taiwanese high mountain oolongs, but that seems to have softened with the aging process, along with the bright, intense floral range that always reminds me a little of new car smell. Right, like plastic, but more pleasant in effect, and somehow similar, in a way that I'm sure most people wouldn't see as associated. 

It works well; it's clearly very good tea. I personally probably would've liked this better when new; trading out that front-end intensity and brighter range for depth just doesn't improve things, to me. It is interesting experiencing a slightly different version though. This is amazingly clean and smooth; the character is just different. It's not "plummy," the flavor range that more aged oolongs tend to pick up (per limited exposure to those and hearsay input). 

Dong Ding: more of the same; very pleasant. Again warmer tones and cinnamon stand out in this. It was definitely roasted more, and while I'm guessing a well-balanced higher level of oxidation also led to this positive outcome. It is just a guess but I'd expect both contributed to this character, with anything remotely like a "char" edge having dropped out years ago. 

Again I'd probably rather try this as a slightly rougher-edged new version, trading out this smoothness and unusual depth for front-end intensity, even if a bit more astringency and some slightly rougher flavor comes with that. "Rough" is within relative standard range, of course; this had to start out very drinkable as sheng, green, and black teas go. I'll go back to giving these a longer soak for the third round to ramp up intensity (30 seconds), since there are absolutely no negative aspects to "brew around" in these. 

Third infusion: 

Ali Shan: floral range shifted in character. That will be hard to describe, since I've not even grappled with breaking down distinct floral tones so far. This seems closest to lotus flower in nature to me. Before it was complex enough that it probably covered a range, and two or three flower-type descriptions would've been required. That's still true, but that one lotus flower range aspect bumped up. It's not so different than orchid, and given how there are many types of orchid that's already a range, that must cover some scope, but lotus flower has a sweet, rich depth to it, and a unique character. 

It's interesting how this bridges over to spice range as well, with some warm, more neutral floral tones filling in the space between those. A hint of dry mineral gives it depth, but that's adjoining slightly warmer tones that drift into aromatic wood, towards cedar, just not exactly like that. It's odd how this comes across as somewhat simple and approachable but really there is a lot going on, when you focus in on noticing it.  Versus this being interpreted as covering a broad floral range with some mineral and spice I think that fruit tone interpretations would make sense too, related to ripe fresh peach or dried apricot, but it all integrates well enough and covers so much flavor scope that it's hard to break apart.

Dong Ding: straight cinnamon might have picked up a little. Again at first "glance" (in the taste-sensation range) this isn't so different than soaking a cinnamon stick for a minute or two, but really a lot more goes into underlying that experience. There is floral tone supporting that, and a creamy feel that teas almost never exhibit, never mind spices. Vanilla is an exception; real vanilla bean gives an infusion so much texture that it's almost too creamy, like a custard in mouthfeel, and this overlaps a little with that experience, except for the "going too far" part. That liquer / cognac / perfume like aspect isn't pronounced but it also rounds out the rest. 

I'll give these one more longer soak, up towards a minute, and leave off, because I'm due at a lunch today. 

Fourth infusion: 

Ali Shan: not so different than last round, so I'll just say that it's not transitioning much. 

Dong Ding: this also seems to have leveled off, and may even be fading a bit, with those longer infusion times taking a toll on it. These teas are far from finished but they may be declining from here on out. Transitioning aspect range through longer infusion time and more roasting seems to come at a cost for the number of infusions a tea can produce, so it wouldn't be that unusual if this was a round ahead of the other in terms of progression through a cycle. 


Excellent teas, interesting in style. Aging seemed to have brought on the changes I would've expected, with the teas picking up some depth at the cost of higher end intensity. They were interesting, novel, and pleasant, clearly very good quality teas, as I would have expected. For someone interested in owning truly aged oolongs, versions aged to older than a decade, buying some like this in a mid-range and hanging on to them might be a great option. Time passes quickly, and any 10+ year old oolong version is going to be really expensive. I didn't check yet what these are selling for but at a guess it's on the moderate side, for what they are.

(Back later) ok, they're $20 and $25 per 50 grams; how to place that?  I'd expect that's about what these would typically cost when new, based on an informed guess about quality level, and you just can't find aged versions like this easily.  When tea types relating to any factor are all but impossible to turn up supply and demand concerns become strange; if there is significant demand the price is whatever the vendor wants it to be, and the type could no longer be available at some point even given high pricing.  I reviewed a comparably aged Oriental Beauty version once and said roughly the same thing, but that was selling for an order of magnitude higher cost than this, several dollars per gram.

To me aged oolong is a strange thing to begin with.  Letting well-roasted Wuyi Yancha settle makes perfect sense but I don't completely "get" aged light rolled oolong.  That said, why not consider an opposing viewpoint from people who do get it.  James of TeaDB writes to advocate the general type here.  He never really gets far with describing that appeal, limited to this statement:

I enjoy drinking pu’erh and happen to own enough that I’ll be aging it for a very long time. But I I also really do enjoy aged oolong… And for partly inexplicable reasons have hardly even a pu’erh cake worth of oolong put away for the long haul.

Liking it is the thing, I guess.  He mentions his own criteria for what he considers as aged in that post:  15 to 20 year old versions.  Buying these particular teas, that I just reviewed, and waiting another 9 years would be a long term project.

Looking back through their earlier posts there isn't much describing what is commercially available for aged oolongs.  Those would tend to come and go, and be found in one-off examples that later disappear, many of which wouldn't necessarily be that exceptional anyway.  James reviews a lot of versions in this post, most contributed by friends, with this conclusion:

Sorry guys. I can’t really wholeheartedly recommend any of the available teas from this report. The western landscape is barren, even more so than matured pu’erh. It’s littered with re-roasted oolongs which can be OK and overly tart/mis-stored teas but aren’t really the same thing as un-reroasted oolongs. There are some OK options (Everlasting Teas, Floating Leaves, Chawangshop, and Tea Urchin) but you’re guaranteed to pay more and expect less.

With that advice being offered in 2016 all of the versions he mentioned as commercially available, and less interesting than the others he tried, would probably no longer be available.  Then again I just pulled up one of those vendor pages and found Tea Urchin still does carry a 1985 Dong Ding, selling for $1 per gram; a steal, if it's a good version.  It's a commonly encountered theme that storing an average quality tea for a long time never tends to convert it into an exceptional aged version, and anything short of relatively optimum storage conditions can turn out a lot worse than that, regardless of the starting point.  That Tea Urchin version description sounds great, and also addresses this point:

After first infusion, the gaiwan lid wafts with sweet notes of honey, toffee apples, salted fluffy white butter popcorn, mixed with heavier aromas of sandalwood, camphor, leather, musty herbal medicines. The tea liquor is a dark amber with the aroma of dried orange peel. The tea floats on the tongue - light bodied but viscous, with a smooth clean mouthfeel. There is very little sourness often found in teas of this age. 

Right, I like teas that are not so sour.  A comment on the first TeaDB post mentioned by Shah (one of those few real tea experts who turn up) covers all this in a short space:

Speaking as that proverbial hard-bitten veteran, who isn’t a huge fan of aged oolongs in the first place, a few comments:

1) Anything that can be said for oolong, can be said for hongcha and baicha. In my experience, hongcha is a better age-performer as a whole. Ie, my home aged hongcha is much tastier than my home aged oolong, for me.

2) Twenty years is not a realistic view of a hobbyist’ perspective of time. Not for puerh, not for wulong.

3) Initial quality matters. As a practical matter, given that aging rich and bitter/astringent puerh makes it more drinkable, you can start with somewhat lower quality and end up with better tea. Aging seems to erode an oolong’s harsh qualities much slower than it does for properly processed sheng. I have not enjoyed some 70’s yancha because of this. Which leads to the next point…

4) For me, age-worthy oolongs have only gotten in rough comparison to puerh within about the last four years. Cheaper yancha is much better processed than it used to be. And puerh is much more expensive than it used to be. I do not typically like aged oolongs much because they tend to be very one-dimensional, and if I want mellow, then I want high quality shu, usually. If one is going to age anything on purpose, it’s best to buy a kilo+ of the highest quality yancha/balled oolong you can afford...

Related to that last comment, then it's back to the same to waiting-game problem, that of setting something aside for 15 years.  I plan to still be alive in 15 years but I'm not setting aside anything but sheng to hang out for a long time and drink later.  Even for that type the quantity and range of what I have on hand is pathetic; I just don't have the tea budget to set aside some extra tongs.  I can buy a little more than I drink from year to year but that's about it.

Related to "setting aside a kilo+" it doesn't really make sense to buy a 100 grams of any tea to age it.  If you try it a few times to see how that's progressing only half would make it through the process, and then it would be gone soon once that extended time had passed.  Sinking $200 or $250 on an aging experiment to buy a kilo of these (or $225, to buy half of each) would be a reasonable expense to some, but for many it would make a lot more sense to set aside 4 or 5 $50 sheng cakes instead.  That would amount to a kilo and a half of tea that wouldn't just become a bit mellow and plummy, although depending on selection some versions might just fade over the long term.

Preference is a funny thing though, and I can definitely relate to the value of pursuing different experiences.  It was interesting trying these very moderately aged oolongs, and they were quite novel and pleasant.

that lunch; decent Thai food, great company

for some reason I don't remember seeing her in jeans.  she often wears dresses.

one part of that play area

I gave up the "second pandemic wave" look

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