Saturday, October 31, 2020

Kaley black and white Ceylon (Sri Lankan teas)

 

white left, black right


nice labels and packaging, simple branding; all good


I've tried and reviewed some Ceylon here before but it's probably the main growing area that I get to least.  I've tried lots more versions from places like Laos and Indonesia that aren't producers on that scale, without that same history.  Indonesia does have a long colonial history of producing tea, so that's different, but Sri Lanka had always been one of the main top-5 producer nations.  

Here's a list placing that better; those are always nice:





All of this is leading up to saying that I won't really be placing these teas, in relation to the general area they come from there, or against the higher quality level versions, typical types, or to plant-type input.  The general theme that seems to apply is that lower elevation teas are less well-regarded (there and in general), with higher elevation zones and versions seen as better in quality, and selling for more.  Ordinarily there would be an old post here going through a lot more background research detail on that but for Sri Lanka there's not.  So I'll just review how they are, and add some sort of vendor link and description in editing.

It's a little odd comparing black and white teas in a tasting but why not.  Prior to trying out tasting contrasting types that wouldn't be helpful at all, or as practical, but having been through it lots of times it should be fine.

The teas look and smell great.  There's always the concern that I might not want to use the review notes for a post, if I don't like the tea, but these seem to be at the opposite extreme.  I won't change a post to make it more positive but not putting one up because it doesn't tell an interesting story seems fair, and it's not typical that bad teas are interesting.  A tea can be bad in a novel way, for example related to a storage input, but usually positive aspects just fall short.  

The white tea appearance is unfamiliar, thinner needles than I remember seeing for that length, and dark green on one side and silver on the other.  The smell is really rich and deep; it shouldn't be too subtle, or flavorless.  The black tea is fine twisted leaves, with a rich, savory smell that includes sun-dried tomato range.

Kaley Tea background



I won't go very far with this, with more about them in a Facebook page and website.  Their intro there:


Kaley Teas come from a single garden in a rural village in the southern lowlands of Ceylon. Bright warm sunshine & tropical monsoons typical of the lowlands, cool mist that roll across sloping hills akin to the highlands, gusty winds a feature of the eastern slopes of the central mountains, protected virgin soil & crystal-clear water from streams & springs nourish our terroir. Multitudes of forests surround our garden & meander their way to Ceylon’s largest rainforest: the Sinharaja. 


Not an ideal set-up mentioning that low elevation = bad earlier, but of course it's not that simple.  Microclimate depends on a lot more than just that one factor.

I'm not really seeing a clear background description of these teas (about plant types and the rest), so I'll move on to review part.  Both the website and the Facebook page are worth a look; some images there definitely back up those idyllic location claims, like this one (photo credit their FB page):





A look at the tea as it grows might also be of interest:





Review:


white left, black right, in all photos


White:  that is actually fairly subtle, but then this is just the first round.  I'll probably need to use an offset timing for both, bumping this one a little and keeping the other quite moderate.  Both I brewed for around 15 seconds this round, which may have this one too light and the other about right, just subtle for being the first round.  It's interesting how a creamy fullness to the texture did come out but flavor range is limited.  What I do taste is creamy in flavor, with nice sweetness, and a hint of something along the line of pine.  I suppose the vague sweetness could be flagged as floral, since that's something of a default.  

It'll be interesting to see how this develops.  If intensity never does pick up this would probably need to be brewed on the strong side, to get flavor input to balance better.


Black:  really interesting.  That savory, sun-dried tomato aspect does stand out as primary, supported by a lot of warm mineral tone.  This is really clean and intense in flavor for this not being brewed strong at all on this initial round.  An astringency and dryness pairs with all that, moderate enough to work well, but unfamiliar now since I've been off better Assam and onto drinking Chinese black teas and Darjeelings this year.  It's not really the feel that pairs with distinctive malt in Assam, but it's not that far from that either.  Mineral is present instead of malt (with a touch of malt).

I remember a fellow favorite blogger saying that she didn't like Ceylon because it tasted like blood to her.  I get why; a warm mineral range can be something that might not work for everyone.  To me a pronounced mineral base is most often a sign the tea is of good quality, a marker for that, relating to older plant input or even to some degree of more-natural growth, versus forced rapid production through monoculture farming approach and use of chemicals to push yield.  This doesn't exactly taste like blood to me but beyond the salt level being lower I suppose that partly works.  

It all balances well enough.  It's a bit early for a lot of discussion of that, the conclusions, but even early on the sweetness, flavor tone, feel, cleanness, and overall balance work.  There's a touch of aftertaste that is a pleasant effect, tied to the heavy mineral and moderate dryness.  It will be interesting to see how this evolves too, but for a different reason, to see how the balance shifts.


Second infusion:


I did use a 10 second timing on the black and out towards 20 on the white.  Proportion probably isn't an exact match, higher for the black tea.  It's like magic how I'm usually able to keep that incredibly consistent without weighing teas but eventually it would be off a little.  I'm not accustomed to white buds not expanding much these days.



White:  really rich and creamy.  I tend to overuse that one term a little, mentioning it when any creaminess is present, but this is different.  Then again I bet that aspect stands out more because the flavor is still so subtle.  The flavor that is present is positive, warm in nature, with complexity but very low intensity.  Someone who loves subtle white teas would be delighted by this.  For people who tend to dislike them it probably just wouldn't work.  Pushing it further by extending infusion strength, going up to 30 seconds, would draw out more intensity, but the effect only goes so far.  Mineral tone (along with some added astringency) extracts more when you do that, versus some lighter range more towards vague floral.  The floral is along the line of chrysanthemum; a bit non-distinct.  

I actually like the tea, it's just not a personal favorite style.  That complexity (within a narrow range) and sophisticated layering only comes up in beyond typical quality level versions.  A little more sweetness would shift how the floral range is perceived, but it is what it is, positive in a different way.


Black:  a lot of clove spice joined this flavor profile; that's different.  That may be the most clove I've ever tasted in any non-flavored tea version.  I love it, but then I love clove.  This is brewed a little light, which for me is pretty close to optimum for what it is.  That probably increases the clove flavor effect, with warm mineral and astringency (related dryness) standing out more at a higher infusion strength.  It's such a cool effect that I want to say more about it but there's nothing more to add.  The scaled back warm mineral works well as more of a base context, and clove really stands out.  Sweetness, feel, and overall balance are good.  Onto the next then.


Third infusion:



White:  evolving, but within a narrow range.  The neutral flavors now include more of a milky tone I would associate with young tree bark.  I guess to put that in more familiar terms it's a bit like a mild root spice, like one part of root beer (sassafras).  It's cool how thick and creamy that feel is, with some base context flavor, a mineral range, without much for higher range.  I like it but there was definitely a time that I wouldn't have.  Sheng that ages to fade to a thick, smooth feel that lacks a lot of forward flavor can be like this.  At first the experience seems to be mainly that of a gap but once you can deal with the shifted expectations thick feel with more mild, somewhat floral flavor range can be pleasant.


Black:  plenty of clove, with more bite to the clove this time, not just the aromatic sweet range from those, but also the sharper edge that joins that spice.  Brewing it slightly stronger may have caused some of that.  

I'm not quite as focused in as usual today, so I'd expect variation in brewing approach to come up more.  The first thing I did this morning, after eating a bowl of breakfast cereal, was to go back to bed for another hour.  A run took it out of me yesterday, and it was a sort of busy week at work (although it seems odd saying that for all that I ever get done).  And all the noise of election news and political protest here adds up, with pandemic tracking a constant underlying theme.  We have no pandemic here; I think we've had 3 or 4 cases of in-country transmission in something like 130 days, exceptions coming up that shouldn't, from causes like people crossing borders through uncontrolled locations.  All the same I'm worried for people in the States and elsewhere, so I keep checking on it.


Fourth infusion:

This should work for final thoughts, even though I'd expect these to be about half finished.  There may be some interesting late-round transitions, but this is enough tasting, writing, and tea consumption for right now.


White:  if you strain to make it out some of the black tea character may come across in this, maybe even the clove, but especially that savory range.  That may be why the overall impression is that of being complex even though flavor intensity is so limited.  Whether that's true or not it does seem like the flavor is quite complex, just a bit muted.  And a full, creamy feel makes up for that, adding depth, and then standing out as the primary thing you experience.  It's interesting.

I did let the next infusion--the fifth, which I'll mention here--run a little longer, and the flavor and character seemed closer to a really mild black tea for that.  It was interesting how sweetness increased along with flavor, and a hint of dryness started toward the mild astringency character in the other.


Black:  mineral is really bumped up this round; that probably is tied to a timing shift.  Just a bit lighter would be more pleasant, letting the spice stand out more.  It's still nice though.  It helps that astringency is so moderate in this that it comes across only as a dry edge, shifting the feel, but not as roughness, so there's no need to "brew around" it.  This is about as much mineral tone as any tea usually has.  For someone who feels like they don't get what that description even means they should try this version.

A next round is much better brewed lighter again.  The clove is pulling way back, with some wood-tone filling in along with that and the spice and mineral, in the range of cured hardwood.  It's still pleasant, just moving towards a brewed-out character.  It should have a couple more really nice rounds in it before a transition seems a lot less pleasant.


Conclusions:


I'm not sure if a general quality level assessment came across as implied in all that.  These are really good teas; nothing like this will probably ever turn up in a grocery store aisle, in any country.  I've only checked on that in a dozen countries so far but it's a good sample.  As far as how good this is in relation to how good Ceylon could possibly get, or how close they are to a type-typical near-best Ceylon example I'm not as clear.  Reasonably far up the scale, I think; maybe not crowded towards the top.  That probably means less for white teas, because those would probably be a less-typical category type to begin with.  

The black tea seemed like really good Ceylon to me; there is that.  That mineral range stands out, kind of the equivalent to a heavy malt tone in Assam for Ceylon being distinctive.  From there refined character, lack of negative astringency, pleasant flavors, and overall balance all determine where the teas stand, per my limited understanding.  To some extent it works to jump from evaluating teas as type-typical and just judge quality; to consider where these stand in relation to Chinese or Indian versions (or from Nepal, etc.).  Preference for aspects that leads into preference for typical types complicates that.


This kind of theme came up in discussion with a vendor and blog author related to his claim that it's possible to do exactly that, to judge teas against an abstract quality level by a set of aspect categories:  Structural Tasting And The Quest For Quality Tea, in a Tillerman Tea blog.  I tend to agree with most of what that guy says, content-wise, and to partly disagree with every set of conclusions that he draws from those specific points.  It's funny how that works out.

He says that you can evaluate Balance, Complexity, Mouthfeel, Length, and Persistence (what I tend to call aftertaste), and also Value, and together those peg how good a tea is.  I would add "trueness to type" to that, but otherwise I'd just be quibbling over minor details and use of terms.  In a sense adding that throws off what he's trying to say, because the idea is that you can evaluate any tea in an abstract and objective way, be it something completely novel (a tea you grew in your basement and processed on your own), or a standard type version.  I guess that you could even run a tisane through the process, but he isn't really going there.  

I should add that "Balance" draws on sweetness level quite a bit.  Or maybe it's that there is an individual balance within how the flavor aspects hang together, and another over-all.  He mentions something about that, "the bitterness and the sweetness work together."  In retrospect that approach really does de-emphasize flavor being of primary importance, or even on par with other aspect range.  Maybe it's just that no one really misses noticing how teas taste, and at one stage in form of appreciation flavor really is seen as secondary.


I think that understating a match to personal preference doesn't necessarily work.  He's on a different sort of project there, trying to work out an objective quality level, but for a tea drinker that's kind of the natural end-point.  As a blogger and reviewer it helps to use that as a yardstick, although it has to be clear when it is the form of measurement being applied, since that would vary by person.

Together trueness to type and match to preference define the experience, along with the rest.  Of course sheng pu'er or oolongs are going to express completely different mouthfeel and aftertaste (or length) range than a Ceylon black tea.  Using something closer to a scale of 1 to 10 per category approach drops out that it's not just about expectation, it's about sets of aspects working well together, which is what is informing personal preference.  Preference for mineral effect makes or breaks one's take on this black tea, and openness to a very light flavor input, filled in by heavier mouthfeel, plays a comparable role in how this white tea will come across.

Based on this yardstick, it's natural to consider how I like both, judged against my preference for teas.  I've already said that I liked the white but it's not in a main range, tied to this factor, for being so subtle.  I love fruity and intense white teas best, like the ones Nepal produces, or Moonlight White (from Yunnan, typically).  For black teas I like fruit range the best for flavor character, along with rich feel, limited astringency, and overall complexity.  I'm essentially describing Dian Hong, Yunnan black, my favorite black tea type, but a good bit of that applies to a Lapsang Souchong that I reviewed recently.  Feel for that tea was structured, complex, and refined, but maybe not as rich and heavy.  Nepal and Darjeeling blacks can be sweet with plenty of fruit, and orthodox Assam covers lots of range these days too.  I guess I'm saying that good Ceylon black is enjoyable but not an absolute personal favorite.

In a sense that's not fair, because if I try a really good Ceylon black every two or three years it's not enough to get my preference to "click over" to focus on that.  I've drank a lot more of all of those other tea types.  There's also a strange thing that happens where you can try a version that absolutely works perfectly for you, then the rest of the range makes a lot more sense, and the same tea that you tried only weeks ago can seem much better.  I'm not sure what that's all about; some strange psychological twist.  There's a pretty good chance that if I tried another dozen Ceylon versions on this level one would prompt that shift, and this tea would seem more on par with other past personal favorites, even if it doesn't quite get there.

It's my take that both these versions aren't giving up much for quality to other teas, although of course the continuum for that just keeps going.  Using Tillerman's approach (not really his name, just the blog name) that could relate to another aspect range filling in a little better.  Maybe, but the theory and models for appreciation only go so far, and in the end you just know how much you like a tea.  I think it's helpful to think through some basis for interpretation, which is why I keep referring to those types of aspect categories.

I really did like these, and it seems like this description probably overkills how much, and in what form, or related to what limitations.


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Tea group themes; Great Value black tea


It has always been interesting to me how some tea group participants, self-admitted tea enthusiasts, can prefer lower quality grocery store teas.  Most typically their preference would evolve beyond Lipton, on to Harney and Sons blends, for them to feel connected enough to the interest to go out and join a social media group.  Not always though.

A recent Reddit post brought all this to mind:



The one other part that strikes me as odd is how that resonates with so many others.  This post could as easily have drawn 1000 upvotes by the time it drifted out of feed sorting.  I'll get back to critiquing the tea preference shown in the photo more after checking in on another post that just brought this up:




This was actually cool for showing a time-lapse brewing process.  But the tea itself was almost certainly awful, one of those tablets of highly ground and compressed shu pu'er.  All the versions I've yet to try, that were presented that way, tasted like drinking hot water out of an ashtray that had been wiped out but not completely cleaned.  Almost no one who drinks shu prefers it at that infusion strength, brewing to the similar color of lightly brewed black tea, versus turning out darker.  If that person had swirled the tea in that French press at a minute or so in results would've been much better.  Probably using better tea would be better too.

I reviewed a shu pu'er version recently that's a good example of a very low cost tea that's much, much better, a Moychay (Russian vendor) version selling for around $20 for a 357 gram cake.  More typically outlets like Yunnan Sourcing would sell good, standard versions for $30 or so (or less; this is a standard-source standard type version for $24).


I don't care that these people drink low quality tea, or that others feel positively about that, and no doubt share their preference.  The only thing that strikes me as odd is that they join and follow a social media group to express that.  It would be like drinking instant coffee and joining a Facebook group to express that shared interest.  Why do that?  Are there groups out there for people who drink instant coffee, boxed wine, or Coke?  I looked it up on Facebook:  no.  There is a Coke drinker's group in Argentina but the focus is on collecting limited edition cans and such.  Of course I could cite other tea groups with a focus on what I might see as "lower quality" teas, but that would come across as more negative than I would intend it.

To some extent I'm critical of these types of preferences because the people expressing them haven't put in any time or effort to improve their awareness, to explore better versions of teas and then change the form.  But maybe there's a gap in my reasoning.  They would need to add expense too, and maybe "leaving off" at that level of expense and type-preference is fine.  In some limited sense of course it's fine; it's their beverage.  If they want to drink instant coffee or Kool-Aid that's on them.  Or if they want to drink hot water out of a mostly clean ashtray, savoring that smoky aroma.

Maybe even the step before the social media participation seems strange to me:  self-identification as a tea lover, or tea enthusiast.  I can relate better to the people who feel that way who are onto high-tier grocery store tea and tisane blends, but not related to someone buying the cheapest black tea on the market.  Is it really that bad though?  I looked into that.


Great Value tea review:


Let's start with more critique of that first photo.  The "messy shelf" theme is fine.  Leaving two of the tea boxes partly open is less functional; the tea would air out a lot even with the boxes closed, and lose flavor, and that's a good way to make sure that happens as fast as possible.  The Celestial Seasonings preference I can actually kind of relate to; it's not the highest quality tisane blends one could buy, but their products are novel, and decent.  An inexpensive tea-bag version of green tea sounds awful to me.  And then there is Great Value black tea.

I've not tried it; maybe it's not bad.  If it's a lower-cost and slightly lower quality version of Lipton then it's probably quite bad.  Walmart lists a 100 bag box of that tea for $1.94; at least in terms of low cost it is a great value.  The same size (count and volume) Lipton product Walmart sells for $3.48, coming up on twice the cost.  I guess it depends on how good it is.  This review shares one opinion on that:


Rate Tea Great Value black tea review:

The small bags are well-packed with tea that has been ground practically to dust. Still, my low expectations were met or slightly exceeded. First, it tasted like tea and not some other substance or chemical. That's a fair start. The aroma was weak, the color and flavor each moderate in strength, but the taste rather bland in character. 

While not competitive in overall flavor with most branded black teas I've tried, it's actually a decent value for the price. I recommend it for those who are addicted to tea and have run out of everything else, and the aisles at WalMart have likewise exhausted all their supply of name-branded teas.


So it's not as good as Lipton, in their opinion, but if saving that $1.50 on a box of 100 makes a lot of difference then it's fine.  Opinions on teas are subjective, so I looked up a second review, to get a more complete take:


Tom's Tea Reviews, Great Value black tea

...As teas go, Great Value black tea equals the best I’ve tasted.  I like its clear, deep orange-red color with virtually no bitterness.

...Great Value black tea resembles the Red Rose Original Tea (reviewed here) in terms of taste, aroma, and appearance in the cup.  For most intents and purposes, this tea appears to be a less costly version of Red Rose.  Yet it does not shirk on flavor or overall tea quality.

...Particularly when I’ve not taken any tea in recent days, I can become “wired” when I again consume it, and can feel sick when riding in a car after drinking it.  It can make me feel quite nauseous when I’m gone without it for several weeks.

...It’s a perfect beverage and a great buy.  So I’d therefore rate it at 99 out of 100.


He loves it; a different take.  The tea potentially making him feel sick doesn't factor in; presumably all tea that he drinks makes him sick if he's been off tea for awhile.  Switching to a more whole-leaf version would probably drop out that stomach effect, and experienced astringency (mouth-feel related to some types of polyphenol content, what end up being called tannins, which really could be flavonol types, or else may be theaflavins and thearubigins).  His review for Lipton is almost identical, so for costing two thirds as much the Great Value brand really is a good deal, per his opinion.


That's probably saying enough about tea-bag teas.  At this point it may help to point out a favorite of my own, to provide a different benchmark.  I bought a couple of Dian Hong versions earlier in the year from a China-based vendor; one of those will do:


2019 Bao Shan Ye Sheng Hongcha (Dian Hong), my review, and vendor listing



The Chawang Shop vendor description:

Baoshan is one of largest wild tree (ye sheng cha) area in Yunnan. Growing wild and naturally in the forest. This material come from April harvest, processed as red tea in small batches.  The taste is rich, full, sweet, no astringency. Complex and rich aroma. 


Part of my review:

It includes sweetness, and some fruit in that peach range, but also a lot of warm mineral depth, which extends towards a mineral effect close enough to table salt.  The fruit comes across as dried fruit.  I guess potentially as dried peach, matching the dry leaf scent, but warmer, more like dried tamarind (or both; it's complex).


That tea cost $6 for 50 grams, on the outrageous side compared to just under $2 for 226 grams of the Great Value version.  For not being ground to dust one would typically use 3 grams or so to brew a couple of strong infusions (the process take longer, maybe using 3 and then 4 minute infusion times), versus one tea bag (2.26 grams) being mostly brewed out to make one large mug.  So kind of even for output?  Cost is more a factor; this Chawang Shop version costs 12 cents per gram, while Great Value costs under 1 cent per gram.  It's almost free; 1.94 cents per bag.

Then there is shipping cost to content with, if you buy a tea from China.  Let's check on a tea I'd expect to be roughly equivalent from a US source, which to be clear I've not tried:


High Mountain Red Ai Lao Mountain Black Tea (from Yunnan Sourcing)




Scott's take (the vendor):

High mountain tea grow at 2000 meters on Ai Lao Shan in Zhenyuan area of Simao.  Picked and processed only from the first flush of spring this black tea is lightly oxidized and processed similiar to Taiwanese black tea or Wu Yi Rock tea.   There is a still a greenish tinge left to the leaves!  The brewed tea is rich and thick with hints of dried Longan fruit with a protracted mouth feeling!

The tea is grown at almost 2000 meters making it one of the highest black teas we offer.  Mr. Guo was born and raised in central Taiwan and his father had a black tea factory there.  Mr Guo, traveled to Thailand and eventually decided on Yunnan.  He was always a big Pu-erh tea fan and decided to spend time learning about Ai Lao area pu-erh since it's one of the remotest and untouched places in all Yunnan.  He met many local pu-erh growers and worked with one in particular (Mr. Feng) to introduce a Taiwanese style processing which marries black tea and oolong in a sweet and fruity style!


It is helpful to hear other takes on teas, since all that can be subjective.  Oddly Stephen Colbert (the talk show host) passed on his thoughts on this version, in a Tea 4 Tuesday segment they do.  But he usually just confirms which parts of the vendor description he agrees with, eg. if it really seems fruity or not.

Reviews on the site all pretty much liked it, but that would be a biased set of opinions, since mostly only fans of the vendors tend to share reviews.  I'll cite one anyway:


This hongcha is one of the best I've tasted so far, and definitely the best bang for your buck. Strong and fruity aroma, super smooth, roasty and buttery taste with a looooong and delicious after taste reminiscent of nuts and pastry. Forgiving to brew, and probably my number 1 recommendation for people who are new to proper black teas. Everyone who is new to the world of tea and Yunnan Sourcing should order some of this stuff! 


Only two reviewers gave it 3 of 5 stars, with the rest 5, and only one made a negative comment (it's a little sour).  No doubt it's lightly oxidized black tea, as the vendor description claimed, which wouldn't be familiar to everyone.  It may or may not actually be sour; people unfamiliar with reviewing often mix up interpretations for the flavors that they really do experience.

With both these Yunnan black teas (Dian Hong) costing $6 for 50 grams, coupled with my own claim that 3 grams or so can brew two pleasant and intense cups, each cup would cost about 18 cents.  For a college kid that could be a significant expense, but for most others spending $6 on 30 or so beverage servings is on the low end for cost.  Walmart sells 12-packs of Coke for $5; that's lots more.  It would be better to never drink any Coke, related to the sugar content, and tea probably is healthy, but sorting out any health claims is essentially impossible.


On tea evangelism


I think this tea evangelist role I've taken up works out, but I'm not reaching very many people.  One by one people might see a post, or check out a review, and tea awareness and interest spreads.  Maybe Stephen Colbert is helping with that too.  Not so much in the Reddit r/tea group; people seem to be on whatever page they are already on there.  They might eventually try something different that they see in a grocery store, or maybe not even that.

One might wonder, why try to convince others to drink better tea?  On the positive side it could be to share an experience that I found to be positive.  That could pair with health interests, helping others make better choices related to that goal.  Not as positive, people tend to validate themselves based on being seen as knowing more, or making better choices, so maybe I'm only doing that.  

I could go on to make the claim that I'm more aware of my own motivations than most due to practicing an unusual degree of introspection, guided by formal meditation and study of Buddhism, but that just shifts ground to another unsupported claim.  I see it as trying to help others, but it really is whatever it is.


I tend to share tea in person too; anyone visiting Bangkok could look me up


Follow-up:  one day later that post did cross to well over 1000 upvotes; algorithms in social media platforms tend to show what is popular to more people, pushing results to either draw no feedback and response or else to receive a lot of it:




Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Biodiversity research and wild origin teas

First published in TChing here and here


These types of themes usually run in just one direction, tied to a vendor claiming that their tea is “wild sourced” from naturally growing plants in the jungle.  Sometimes it really is.  Monsoon Tea in the North of Thailand specializes in that theme, and has worked with a Russian researcher, Alexey Reshchikov, who is doing research on assessing biodiversity and forest health, based out of China.

I just attended a talk by Alexey at a Monsoon location in Bangkok, with a video of that presentation here.  I won’t get far in covering what he said, and it’s easy enough to watch it, but a bit of summary will make a start.  Just bear in mind that I won’t do the fine points justice, this only comments on some parts.



Alexey does research into the health of ecosystems.  It’s possible to assess this by trapping insects and evaluating which ones are present.  Of course that would mean a lot more to a very specifically trained ecologist, which he is.  The idea is that the health of a forest depends on the balanced diversity of all forms of life present, the plants, the insects, and everything else living there, but the insects can provide a window into how the rest is going.

As an interesting related tangent, one particular kind of lack of health in a forested environment can occur when a new species is introduced into an ecosystem that isn’t already in balance with that insect (or animal or plant).  The US sees this happen from time to time.  There was a type of silk worm (gypsy moth) spread that destroyed a lot of Pennsylvania forests when I was younger, with that not an uncommon event, per this reference:

 

Collectively, oak, elm, ash, hemlock, butternut, dogwood, redbud, and chestnut trees died at a rate several times greater than that of unimpacted tree species. From 1991 to 2013, trees attacked by invasives accounted for about 25% of all tree death, measured by the amount of tree biomass lost…

 

trap system used to collect insects


Alexey mentioned a case in which a novel form of resolution for this had been utilized; researchers introduced an insect that disrupted the invading insect’s lifecyle, stalling the progress of destruction of entire forest areas.  In discussing a similar theme with Kenneth Rimdahl of Monsoon, related to Alexey’s research, he covered how one type of insect is actually a sort of guardian of the tea plants (trees).  It feeds on other insects that would feed on the leaves, protecting the plants, when present in significant numbers.

Truly natural environments find their own balance.  The role pesticides play in monoculture farming, moderating impact of insects, is replaced by naturally established relationships between organisms.  Alexey described how in evaluating the role pesticide plays in monoculture farming it is helpful to understand what that not-as-natural environment is like, what insects can live under such circumstances.  That would mostly be relevant to organic farming, since enough pesticide use strips the environment of most types of insects.  Such study is occurring through the Dali University that Alexey is a part of. 




Alexey and Kenneth discussed a related concern:  when farming using pesticide controls as soon as an insect gains tolerance for the chemicals it has unrestricted access to feed on the plants, requiring different chemical treatment to eliminate it.  It could potentially become a vicious cycle, requiring a series of changes over time, one with health impacts for consumers eating or drinking products made from those materials.

All very fascinating!  The entire talk is worth a watch, to catch the original form, or a related Tea Fauna Facebook page covers more, or the related Instagram version tells the story through photos.


In the end the goal is to promote preservation of truly natural wildlife areas.  Being able to assess the health of a local environment and knowing more about stages in between balanced, natural forests and ecologically stripped, monoculture farming environments could support this.  This early research work isn't necessarily building directly into a way to transition from monoculture farming back to more varied, organic approaches, or to use of truly natural environments as food sources.  It's about developing understanding and tools for analysis.


Beyond leading towards more natural organic approaches, another more extreme idea is that if wild forests can provide economic support, income for local people, that provides more incentive for protecting those environments.  The links and supports between original forest, least environmentally friendly farming (mono-culture approaches), more organic approaches, and re-forestation (the interim steps) make for a longer story.


Related to that one end point goal and sub-theme, Monsoon sells “wild” origin versions of Thai teas, as are produced all across South East Asia.  I'll mention a lot of examples of related teas here, without going into detail about character or background, with more information about them in linked materials.

The "wild" teas can be unusual.  Many of those have an odd sour taste, which is better once you are expecting it, and have a chance to acclimate a bit to the different style.  It’s not unique to their versions; I reviewed a wild Xiaguan sheng pu’er that was similar here (a 2005 version, so with some age), and a locally made sheng version produced by my favorite Bangkok shop owner (from 2012, so not “young” either), which I really liked.  


wild tea search in Laos, covered here, photo credit the ComitĂ© de coopĂ©ration avec le Laos



I just reviewed a Yongde “ye sheng,” or wild origin material Yunnan black tea not long ago, but in that case I was talking about an unusual degree of tartness, not sourness.  It would depend on the mix of genetics in the plant material, and of course processing always affects outcome.  I reviewed a hill-tribe producer sourced Thai black tea last year that wasn't tart or sour, just quite good tea, maybe only a little more "rustic" than some more refined versions.  And I've reviewed a comparable themed version from Vietnam.  Again, differences in plant types and processing would factor in, so resulting character varies.

Those references relate mostly to black teas, since that's the general type I started on discussing, but wild and plantation produced sheng "pu'er-like" types come up across South East Asia too.  As of now the production and market for those probably aren't extensive enough to play a significant role in preventing further de-forestation.  But lots of little steps could add up, and help support retention of natural areas, including appreciation for forest-origin products.


a small tasting gathering after the talk


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Myanmar sheng "pu'er-like-tea" gushu from Alex Phanganovich

 


I met a nice Russian guy recently at the Monsoon biodiversity study themed talk at a local Monsoon Tea shop.  Not Alexey Reshchikov, I don't mean, that researcher who presented there, although he definitely fits that description too.  There is a post in the works about that event, and forest biodiversity research.  Since that outing Alex and I met again at my favorite local tea shop, Jip Eu, and swapped some teas, and again between this tasting and the final post edit.  I'll try some of a tea that he passed on now, a Myanmar origin gushu sheng (which isn't pu'er, but it's made from the same plants in the same way, just one country over).

The gushu theme brings up some associations.  Of course it means old tea tree, and as I recall from back when I tried to pin down terminology more the age cut-off for the type can vary (normal usage; there probably is one clear convention).  Alex didn't play up the "wild" origin claims related to this, but if a tree really is over 100 years old it tends to not be growing in a plantation context.

There was a time when I thought I could identify aspects that were common to old-plant source sheng, more so than now.  The problem is that there are so many inputs related to final sheng character:  age of tree plant (it would make a difference), plant type, growing conditions (rainfall, soil related, sun exposure, etc.), and of course processing makes a lot of difference.  Storage changes a lot, even within a few months, but to a limited extent you can sort of "look back" to where any given aspects set probably started.  With that many variables it would be easy to get parts of it wrong, related to guessing out all causation, why a version is like it is.

I had thought that gushu sheng tended to be more intense in a limited sense, with more mineral undertone, often not quite as astringent, and potentially even slightly mild in flavor, again in a limited sense.  I thought that mouthfeel and aftertaste varied in characteristic ways, but then again the inputs all kind of mix.  I don't "get" feel effect, cha qi, enough to have ever been clear on that part.  The "wild plant" genetics issue complicates things, and variations in processing styles also do.  And trying teas presented as gushu that aren't really from old plants could throw things off; you can't identify clear patterns if your basic data set is corrupted.  

Now I tend to just not overthink things, going with whatever the experience is.  It helps in this case that I can't spend $1 / gram on teas I drink, so the subject comes up less frequently, and I don't have as much "skin in the game" as I might.

This is an odd case for me having tried this tea before, that day in the shop.  My reviews tend to never work out that way.  It's not because I think the more blind tasting is somehow better, although there are pros and cons to that, as there are to comparisons versus single tastings.  It's just how it seems to go.  If I buy a cake of something I could just as easily taste it a half dozen times before reviewing it, I just don't.  For samples there often is only two tries to work with.

This tea starts out really bitter, then that eases up after a few infusions, and really keeps mellowing out beyond that.  At one time I thought Myanmar sheng was like that in general, but I've since tried versions that aren't.  I think it relates to a plant type input difference, as with Lao Man E, but I don't know that.  Maybe I was more interesting to hear out when I thought I had more answers.  On with the re-tasting then.


Review:


First infusion:  brewed quite light, but still very bitter.  That's just getting ramped up too; the next round will probably be much more bitter.  I've made my peace with sheng versions being bitter but on the extreme side of that I don't like them as much.  The intensity and overall character is pleasant, beyond the bitterness, if that's not seen as an issue.  Related sweetness is nice, and flavors are clean, and overall balance is good.  I will surely like the range of effect after the third or fourth infusion better, once that intense bitterness plays through.  It's odd how it dropped out in this, the degree to which it did, in that earlier tasting session.  It's normal for some sheng to "loosen up" and be more approachable after 3 or 4 rounds but not so much for them to completely change character.  Transitioning a lot can come up though.

Maybe "bitter" is too vague; it comes in both degrees and types.  This isn't nearly as strong as I expect next round will be, but the actual taste is like biting into the flower from a dandelion.  Not as medicinal as taking an aspirin, but as pronounced in sharpness of the effect, just a little more vegetal.


Second infusion:  intensity picked up.  I went just over 5 seconds for brewing time, not short at all related to expected outcome, but I want to keep this part of the cycle moving.  It's actually slightly better for other range picking up, even though the bitterness did too.  Some vague warm tones increased, mineral range, and beyond that.  I suppose a warmer floral tone is the best description for that, with the sweetness of the dandelion (one other part of the floral experience) being joined by warmer toned floral.  This still needs two more infusions to be where I'll actually like the flavor.

This is a good place to re-visit how some people wouldn't focus on flavor at all, more on the body effect, or at least valuing mouth-feel and aftertaste a lot, the overall experience.  It might be possible for me to change lifestyle and become more in tune with the drug-like effect of teas.  Sitting at a desk for a work-week seems to not help, the mental sluggishness that goes with that form of unnatural experience, and the effect on your body that pairs with it.  I exercise a little to offset that, running, mostly, and had been doing yoga, but my instructor is back in India for now.  Meditation would probably help.  During the pandemic I had been meditating for 20 minutes most days, a fruit of recovered time from my commute dropping out.  Maybe I felt a little clearer then.  

Yesterday I went through an odd experience that is dropping my energy level a little this morning.  There are political protests in Bangkok now, related to people claiming that the last election wasn't fair.  The military oriented government just shut down the train system yesterday, during the Friday rush hour, to prevent access to those protests.  I walked 8 to 10 km through crowded streets and rain to get home (5 to 6 miles, for Americans).  I'm feeling it.  

Ordinarily grabbing a taxi would make sense, and it probably was possible to walk a mile or two directly away from the disruption, and then take an indirect route home, but I'd planned for my wife to pick me up in the middle, and complete gridlock extended to that area too.  Bad traffic is normal here but it was strange seeing block after block of cars just parked,  for miles.  The government had shut down some subway access too, and local bus service, intentionally crashing the public transit infrastructure; not so nice of them.  Luckily I like to walk.  This will just delay a run I would've probably did today.


it did take about that long



Third infusion:  coming together nicely; the next round will probably be more where I enjoy the aspects.  This is brewed for about 5 seconds, fast enough to be light, but even shorter would work at this proportion.  It's just a matter of habit to always brew the same tea proportion (a high one), but I could vary that.

It gains a little more depth, with that bitterness softening and integrating.  It doesn't have a strong floral punch, or a lot of sweetness, or intense flavor beyond those ranges, but that's not so unusual.  It could be gushu, or maybe it's not; I don't think I'd know.  Aftertaste intensity isn't really what I would expect for that.  Bitterness trails on after you swallow it but the general effect is a bit light.  Mineral depth is notable but it could ramp up more than this.  Really judging how the bitterness ties to the rest is what evaluating this tea is about, and quite-bitter sheng isn't my thing.  Personal preference isn't a necessary condition for evaluating a tea but it doesn't hurt if it works out to use that as a yardstick.



Fourth infusion:  this is more in a range I like, with the rest ramping up while bitterness drops off.  Probably one more round will be even better, with that transition that much further.  This includes warm mineral and floral range, along with bitterness, but the balance is still tipped towards that one aspect.  It's nice how much depth joins that, and overall intensity, and how clean the overall effect is.  It picks up a richer, "rounder" feel.  Aftertaste gains more duration and intensity, and it's less of just that one note coming across.  I'll break down next round to more of a list, given how I'm saying the transition stands.


Fifth infusion:  just as the tea is getting to where I like it more I'm losing attention span for making notes.  It still lacks some of the range that makes sheng really work well for me, the sweetness, floral and fruit complexity, hints of spice and such making flavors interesting, rich creamy feel adding depth, etc.  It's pretty good tea, it seems, but much better if someone is ok with bitterness playing a dominant role in the experience.  Which I don't love.  It's more balanced now, more complex, so there is more to appreciate, but mineral and very mild floral tone fills in along with the bitterness.  A neutral sort of fresh cut wood vegetal range adds more beyond that, but it's mostly the experience of depth, not so much that being positive, or leading to a great overall balance.

I think this does contribute a bit more heady feel than I usually pick up.  I eat along with teas in order to cut that range back, because I'm not into drinking tea as a drug-like experience, but I get it that many people tend to be.  My life's ordinary mental or physiological experience balance is fine, so I don't crave shifts in it.  If I want to relax I just relax; if I want to feel excitement or energy I do something exciting.  My kids are all about being on that latter page; I could go chase one of them around.

That reminds me of a funny micro-game my daughter has taken up playing.  She's on the agile side, a natural dancer, and has long since loved games where she just vanishes and hides.  Her latest twist is that she hides right behind me, out of my field of vision.  It sounds like it wouldn't work, and it doesn't when you know it's coming, but if I'm not thinking of it then it can, and she can mirror my movements.  I can't tap into quite that level of ongoing spirit of play, but it's literally going on around me all the time, so I can, through them.  For this moment zoning out seems nice, recovering from the long march home, and enjoying the ever-present monsoon rain.  I should probably be drinking a black tea.


yesterday's game was rolling them up in blankets like a burrito


Sixth infusion:  the best it has been, per my preference; I think it will level off for a few infusions like that.  The bitterness has eased up substantially, and that cut-wood tone is giving way to more mild but light floral range.  The balance works better.  I'm still done with taking notes, tired of writing.  You can imagine how I'd enjoy these next few rounds even more, and then stretch it out for a few more after that.  

It's good tea.  It's not a perfect match for my preference, and doesn't strike me as really high quality tea, the kind of version that really stands out, but it might be gushu, and it definitely has good intensity, clean character, and balance.  

Pairing that much bitterness with no traces of negative flavor or other range isn't a given; just a touch of off mineral or fungus would ruin this effect, or the wrong kind of smoke input would.  A little more sweetness would also improve it by the same amount; it is what it is.  To be clear I think my personal preference for type limits this more than the general quality level.


Conclusions:


Trying a different Myanmar sheng helped place this, a version from Chawang Shop that I reviewed awhile back.  Glancing through that review I think I like it a lot more now; it might've needed more time to settle after shipping in April, or maybe it just developed a bit for ramping up to this humidity level.  The short story is that it wasn't overly bitter; it balanced sweetness and floral tone, and overall flavor complexity and moderately full feel with a bit of bitterness.  At the same time the range it covered was also a bit limited, and all of those positives were only relative; it was good but not great. 

I'm not sure which tea was better in terms of some objective quality level.  Thickness of feel and aftertaste can serve as markers for identifying that kind of thing, or overall intensity, and sometimes a strong base mineral tone is present in gushu versions.  

That one bitterness note being so dominant in Alex's version made it hard to really appreciate the rest as much.  In those later rounds, even past the ones I made notes for, some creamy feel and a touch of lemon flavor stood out a little more.  Positive later-round infusions are a good sign, and it's more to enjoy.  It does kind of work to keep track of how many rounds a sheng brews, that are positive in character, and use that as a quality marker, but me not paying much attention or making notes for late rounds throws that off.

It doesn't seem like this ends with tidy conclusions; the teas were what they were.  Myanmar sheng is usually pretty good, relatively speaking, and these count as that.  This Kokang version also works as an example, which I didn't get around to mentioning here.  There is really positive other range, or greater depth and refinement, that the best Yunnan versions can exhibit, but that doesn't detract from how pleasant these two teas were.

Alex will move to the Chiang Rai area soon; stories about tea harvests and such should turn up as a result.  If you have leads for what to check out there pass those on and I'll let him know.  This blog doesn't have a "contact" section but the related Facebook page would work for that.


visiting with Alex at swim class; that avoids cutting a tasting short to go there


he met Kalani there; that doesn't come up too often


Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Gopaldhara winter harvest and Emperor's Choice

 

winter harvest left, Emperor's Choice right (in all photos)


Two more interesting teas from Gopaldhara.  The last teas I reviewed from them were really novel, two Indian oolong versions, among the best Darjeeling teas I have yet to try.  The Summer Beauty Muscatel and China Muscatel were also really exceptional.  Two others before that were closer to standard styles for Darjeeling, but again quite nice.

One of these is a little unusual in background, an early season tea made from the old leaves of winter growth, trimmed to clear the plants for new growth for the true first flush harvest.  It wouldn't be listed on the Gopaldhara website, more something different to try.

The Emperor's Choice was unusual for there being two samples of it included in that set (provided for review).  A second sample--that I didn't try yet--was listed as "rare," with their descriptions saying more about that:


Emperor's Choice:

Emperor’s Choice is a unique Darjeeling finest First Flush Tea from Gopaldhara Tea Estates, located in Mirik, is one of the highest elevated tea garden in this region & stretches up to 7,000 feet...

This Darjeeling finest First Flush Tea has a bright, rich, sweet, balanced cup layered with honey sweetness, in the floral range & is balanced by a complex flavor structure.The tastes is very clean & refined, simple in a way, but complex in a different sense. There is no astringency in the tea, and the flavor comes across as full with many notes.

The top elevation of Gopaldhara Tea Estates which stretches from 5500 to 7000 FT is planted with the best quality clone AV2. Also the bushes are fresh as they have just come out of hibernation from the prolonged winter of almost 4 months from December to March. During the first flush which also known as spring flush we have 100% growing shoots and get excellent buds with either single leaf or two leaves and a bud. The flavor is prominent as the weather is also very dry and cool which ensures very slow growth.

...The garden workers are very careful in their plucking by hand to make sure only the best shoots with prominent buds are plucked. Darjeeling First Flush Teas are known to be slightly oxidized. This tea is also made in the same way but it is sufficiently oxidized to ensure that all the exquisite flavors are prominently present.


I don't really get far with the theme in this review but that last part was a little unusual, placing this tea, because it's not as lightly oxidized as first flush tends to be, or as fully oxidized as second flush often are.  It doesn't include the heavier flavors of a typical second flush, but the character is different than a typical first flush for it being just a little more oxidized.  Not much more, as you can see from leaf and brewed tea colors, and flavor description.

A sample set description covers what the other "rare" sample is, that I didn't try yet:

Rare Emperor’s Choice White – Finest Darjeeling First Flush Tea Made from the best quality AV2 bushes at Rohini Tea Estates, finely plucked tippy whole leaf with a silvery appearance, A lively cup with traditional spring character having a tantalizing sweet aroma of ripe fruits with a finish of honey...


So from Rohini instead, a related estate, and white tea instead, so probably a bit lighter and fruitier.


In discussing this other "winter" version with the head of the plantation the character isn't typical of either first or second flush Darjeeling, because of the material type difference.  I didn't know that prior to tasting, and these tasting notes covered both without any background review first.  And they were a little rushed, because I was off to a swim class with my daughter


Review:



winter harvest:  bright and sweet.  This has an unusual combination of floral and vegetal tones going on.  It's pleasant, just not what I would've expected.  Straight-floral and high level of citrus have been standard in a lot of the other versions, but the vegetal range carries a lot of this experience.  It's like how a dandelion smells, the vegetal part, that edge.  

That's towards a spice too, something like fennel seed.  With the rest being light and floral, and it all being clean, it works better than that description would indicate, but then I feel like I have been spoiled by the blasts of sweet floral and citrus tones in their other teas.  I might stop short of saying this isn't as good, but it doesn't match my preference as well, at this stage.  The fennel seed part is interesting; mineral towards actual salt is probably pulling my impression in that direction, along with other flavor range.  It will be interesting to see how it changes.


Emperor's Choice:  warmer; in a completely different range.  A good bit of honey flavor comes across in this; it's rare for that to stand forward as a main flavor as it does in this.  Rich, complex floral tones fill in the rest.  From the look I thought this would be the normal story about one tea being more oxidized than the other, and warmer in tone, covering deeper flavor range, etc., and some of that story line plays out, but it's not just that.  This is pretty light in tone too.  

Interpreting this as fruit and floral range would work, along the lines of very ripe pear.  I say "very ripe" because the light, bright-flavored Asian pears are something else; this is the deeper, richer flavor that only ripe versions of Bosch pears bring across.  And floral, and warmer supporting tones.


Second infusion:




winter harvest:  very interesting.  This gains depth and complexity but across a similar flavor scope.  A bit of lemon fills in at the higher end; that works well. The fennel seed / trace of salt eases up, and vegetal range gives way to the floral scope.  It's better.  

There's a lot going on.  Floral range is probably the strongest, but that vegetal-into-spice range is on par with that.  Feel gains depth; there's a richness and smoothness to this.  A bit more sweetness might shift impression a lot, making it seem a lot more floral.  That being moderate (for their teas; still high in relation to some others) makes the other range stand out more.  An unusual form of mineral depth rounds all that out, making for a very complex experience.


Emperor's Choice:  also really interesting, also quite complex.  This also includes a lot of mineral depth that rounds out a lot of the rest.  It's hard to place this floral tone, and the other supporting range, although it does taste distinctively like Darjeeling to me.  I've not been saying terms like citrus and muscatel, and to some extent that applies, but not in relation to their other versions blasting out that range.  This seems closer to the grape input than the grape-wine input I take to represent muscatel (wine made from a muscat grape).  

It works well, the overall balance.  I'm not sure it's quite on the level of what else I've tried in earlier samples, but those had set a bar really high, being among some of the more positive Darjeeling versions I've ever tried.  These are both quite good, and only suffer in that particular comparison.  [This last statement seems more like a quality level assessment than it was probably intended; more at the end covers how a style issue changed interpretation of this tea experience.]


Third infusion:


surely brewed stronger, but using my old phone throws off consistent light interpretation



winter harvest:  maybe filling in just a little more.  It's interesting the way that fennel seed spice aspect combines with the rest, the floral tone.  This doesn't remind me of any other tea I've ever tried.  It wouldn't be for everyone but to me this balance works.  It's clean and well balanced, with decent sweetness, just not a lot of it compared to the others I've tried from them.  The feel is positive.  

I can't count that fennel spice aspect as a flaw, but it is unusual, and how someone takes it would depend on preference.  Other floral tone fills in beyond that, harder to split out, with a nice mineral base adding depth.


Emperor's Choice:  there's a nice warmth to this.  That could be interpreted as coming from warm floral tone range, like sunflower, but warmer.  Or from a warm mineral input.  Extended in the same direction by a lot it might tie to a dry feel, but it just doesn't in this.  The balance is really nice in this tea.  Including just a bit more sweetness than the other really shifts the overall effect.  The flavors are just completely different though, so it doesn't work well to compare the two.


Conclusions:


It's a little early for conclusions, based on writing this as notes before trying more rounds later.  These are still transitioning in interesting ways, and to some extent still improving.  I'll probably drink a couple of rounds and get back to write final notes, but I'm off to swimming class so I'll do the main editing while here, filling in the vendor description, smoothing out errors in the notes.

The main take-away, for me, is that the other versions of Gopaldhara teas I've tried recently were so exceptional that it just wasn't going to work to keep liking versions more and more.  These are good examples of Darjeeling, very positive and distinctive, and pleasant to experience.  To me they're not quite as much so as the last two rounds of other teas that I reviewed.  Then again to some extent different is better, and it doesn't really work to just expect more sweetness, more mellow character and fullness of feel, more citrus and muscatel.  

To experience that a few times is novel and very positive, the dialed-up range of most pleasant Darjeeling aspects, but variety is what makes teas interesting, and pleasant to drink and explore every single day.  


[Later]:  I tried both again for a number of additional rounds, and the first version fared less well through those for astringency picking up with extending the infusion times.  The leaves being a bit more broken would tend to lead to that.  It wasn't anything like the "this needs milk added" level; I mean in relation to teas I tend to drink.  Feel thickness was fine though, countering some of that for filling in depth of experience.  The Emporer's Choice stayed quite positive, maybe not really transitioning in any way, beyond fading later.

I never really did get around to sorting out the second version related to first or second flush character.  The oxidation level threw off a cue I tend to expect, with first flush being very low and second relatively complete.  It worked for where it was, in the middle, with "warmth" placed between the two.  

I suppose someone could potentially like that better, or feel that it didn't match up well with one or the other sets of expectations.  It might have seemed slightly more subdued, as it turned out, since typical first flush range character includes bright, light intensity, and second includes heavier fruit and deeper sweetness, with this splitting the difference, to some extent, and not necessarily achieving either.  I liked it, but maybe not as much as the last four offerings I've reviewed.

The other tea demanded a more complete reset for expectations; it wasn't exactly in the broader range for typical Darjeeling character.  I liked it too, but it will be nice to get back to trying other samples more on full blast for sweetness, intensity, and fruit character.




Saturday, October 10, 2020

Moychay Pu’er Fields Menghai Shu Pu’er


their labels are great; this isn't even an above average example




some bud content, usually adding a sweeter flavor, towards cocoa


I’m reviewing another tea from Moychay, from a large set that they sent for review.  This is a shu, from Menghai; familiar ground, but not a tea type I drink so often.  At first I thought this might be a Myanmar version, and I considered trying it along with another from there, from Kokang, but since it’s a Menghai (Yunnan) tea it'll be nice to do a single tea tasting.

Here is their description:


Shu puer "Fields" from Menghai tea region, 2018 harvest.

357-gram cake of medium density consists of pressed brown and reddish tips. The aroma is restrained, woody with nutty hints. The infusion is dark, reddish-chestnut.

The bouquet of the ready-made tea is mature, nutty, with hints of herbs, exotic resins, autumn leaves and dried fruits. The aroma is rich and warm, nutty. The taste is full-bodied, velvety and sweet, with nuances of spices and sourness of dry berries.

Brew tea with hot water (95 ° C) in a gaiwan or a teapot made of porous clay... 


Since I only ever add those descriptions during editing I already know how that compares to my impression, but it'll be clear enough in the review part.  

At first I read that last sentence and wondered why they would recommend brewing it in a gaiwan made of porous clay, since those do come up but tend to be uncommon, but that was probably intended to refer to the teapot.  I brewed it using a porcelain gaiwan, which is ideal for tasting, and about as good an approach for keeping tea simple and getting good results as any.  

If people like to experience teaware for aesthetic purposes, or choose to explore how clay pots might improve their results, then there's lots of range related to that out there.  Moychay has been producing their own lately; I mentioned them sending a few pieces last time.  I get why that could add an interesting and pleasant extra dimension to tea experience, and I'm also quite clear on why avoiding that could make perfect sense.  It seems like a budget issue tips the balance; if someone has extra funds to keep going past tea expenses why not explore that range, and if it seems like a lot to just cover a lot of the tea part then why go there.  Next you might be buying special natural-fiber earth-tone clothes to drink tea in, and who knows what after that.


it is something though, isn't it, artwork to drink tea out of?


Review:


First infusion:  a good bit of dark rye bread / pumpernickel effect; I like it.  For people not so into dark bread this might not be as good.  That flavor is clean in the same sense that pumpernickel bread is, sweet, towards a rich grain, not musty or heavy on mineral or petroleum or the like.  One part could remind someone of a dried fruit, but it would have to be a really “dark” version of a dried fruit, definitely not dried mango and the like.  I always imagine that the betel nut flavor people talk about is a lot like this, but never get around to tasting it.

I went a little heavy on proportion (the usual for me), and the infusion time, at 20 seconds or so, and it really doesn’t need that long.  It pushes the earthy flavor out towards roasted coffee; strong.  Now that I think of it this tastes about as much like an upper-medium level roasted coffee as any tea ever does.  It just doesn’t have that coffee edge, the additional bitterness, and sharper feel, some astringency.  I’ll go lighter on the next round to see what that changes.


slight color variation in the leaf is unusual but not meaningful to me


Second infusion:   I brewed this for about 5 seconds but it’s far from light, based on appearance alone.  Maxing out the proportion means that this just won’t be brewing lightly.  It’s good that I like shu on the strong side.

Again towards dark bread, although an interpretation of this being like a mild form of coffee would make sense to me.  Even brewed light the mineral seems to play a slightly stronger role, adding a touch of char, matching up with that roasted coffee range.  I guess this is a lot like having a piece of strong black bread with coffee for breakfast then.  I’d definitely eat that, probably for weeks straight before getting tired of it.  I’d probably add a good bit of butter to the bread, shifting it off this flavor profile a little.  I don't put in the legwork that's required to eat interesting types of bread in an Asian country, so the last time I had decent dark bread was on a visit to Russia, 2 1/2 years ago now, in Murmansk of all places.


I took no pictures of that bread, but this tea break there was nice



just before that break, riding a reindeer sleigh


I get a vague sense of some fruit but it doesn’t really come across as significant, compared to the other flavor levels.  It’s like a hint of blackberry jam.  I really could be imagining that part, but there does seem to be more depth there.  The char I’ve described could easily be described as peat or even a hint of tar instead.  It’s earthy.  I would imagine most shu drinkers would like this, but someone into the much milder, lighter range in shu might not.  It’s not edgy in the sense that some lower quality shu can taste like a cement block smells (or Liu Bao, shu’s cousin), but it’s not exactly smooth and light either, compared to the most subtle examples of the range, which aren't really my favorite.  The way that tippy shu (gong ting) versions have a main cocoa effect comes across in this, but it’s integrated with the rest.

It’s interesting how I’ve just described quite a flavor list--black bread, coffee, warm mineral, trace of berry preserve, peat, pronounced cocoa--but the tea comes across as simple in character.  All of those are close to each other (except the berry); the end effect integrates to a profile that doesn’t span as much range as I’m making it sound.  

I just met a Russian guy here, Alex Panganovich, who would probably like this; he’s into shu, and checking out different teas.  I feel way too lazy to get out today though, for keeping really busy for a few weekends in a row.  I might brew a couple more rounds and drop making review notes on account of that.


visiting with Alex in my favorite local Bangkok shop, Jip Eu


Third infusion:  this really looks tar-like; I wasn’t rushing the infusion enough and the time crept closer to 10 seconds.  This tea would work just as well brewed at two thirds this proportion, probably, so that the times could draw out a bit longer.  I really like sheng pushed for infusion proportion then brewed fast but shu varies less related to how you make it.  This would be fine brewed Western style, or grandpa style, or thermos brewed, as long as you back off the proportion enough for each.

The same balance repeats, just shifted in order of proportion of flavor aspects.  It moves towards spice range some though, a heavy, woody, bark spice.  Or just fermented tree bark; that could be it.  Or wet forest floor, people might describe the same range as.  I could easily imagine people loving or hating this tea, depending on preference.  It would be odd for someone more on the oolong page to also love this, since it’s the opposite of lighter, refined, fruity or liqueur-like profile, but for a hei cha drinker this should seem great.  Or if someone loves the rough edges of a low cost, well roasted Da Hong Pao that’s not so far off.  I’ve drank so many tea types over so long that I can appreciate most of it, just green range less than the rest.  I do like slightly rough Da Hong Pao, tea versions that are probably a mix of whatever oolongs had came through the shop recently, blended to balance as well as possible for being less refined teas.



Fourth infusion:  I finally brewed this fast enough to be average infusion strength.  It loses something made that way; it seems thin.  I think this tea could be most appealing brewed on the strong side, to provide that earthy blast, within a narrow but complex range of flavor.  It still works like this but the flavor profile seems much thinner.  

Feel isn’t bad; it has some thickness to it.  That’s all relative; it’s just a bit of creaminess, not really a full feel as shu can potentially possess.  Aftertaste range is limited, not even that pronounced when drinking it stronger.  I kind of am of the “shu is shu” perspective anyway, that someone would be drinking it because it’s simpler, more approachable, and has that heavy earth range punch.


Fifth infusion:  this will be enough of the story for me, even though the infusions related to stretching the tea a bit are yet to go, probably a good number of them.

This tastes more like grain now, off the pumpernickel range, onto a more malted grain range.  To me it’s still pleasant, just losing some of the intensity, and flavor complexity.


Conclusion:


A nice, basic, earthy shu; how those should be.  I think having more rough edges might indicate this has more aging potential; as this stands it should just smooth out a bit from here on.  To me there are no negative aspects to fade, no fermentation range that needs to drop out, so it’s fine to drink like this.  I drank another five infusions during editing, or in between, and it's just thinning a bit, holding up ok.

I don’t always mention price but there’s a story to be told related to that; this is listed for $17.15.  To me it’s a great value for that price; anyone who like shu who is already buying teas from Moychay would be crazy to not add this to their cart.  It would be even crazier to buy a smaller amount of it than a full cake.  A few teas like this would more than justify placing an order, never mind whether something more unusual or refined turned up or not.

One nice part about Moychay’s selection is that pricing usually reflects quality level, so that you can tell what you are getting from that indicator.  As teas push upwards towards 50 cents to $1 a gram they really are that much better.  Not so much a clear indicator in this case; this would be a good tea selling for twice that, and it’s probably comparable to what a lot of vendors are selling for slightly more than that.  Based on trying a number of their teas I could probably make a list of some of the absolute steals in their listings, for teas that punch way above their weight.  I won't though; I'll just mention one.  Along this character line a compressed Da Hong Pao bar worked as another good example; that was way better than it should’ve been for moderate pricing.

I get it why not everyone is searching for exceptions like this, why people with a looser tea budget are seeking out the higher end range, at fair market values or even relatively higher cost, paying whatever they have to pay for getting unusual versions.  Even for someone in that position I’d think having “basics” like this tea around for when you feel like one would still make sense.  

The idea of very high quality shu tends to make less sense to me, although a German tea friend I've mentioned many times, Ralph, has passed on that a Myanmar version from Moychay struck him that way, as unusually good.  I just tried a Myanmar "wild gushu" sheng pu'er version that Alex passed on, which I'll probably get around to reviewing.  I think the plant types there that are on the bitter side probably provide a good leaf compound base for fermenting into a really intense and pleasant shu.  Or that's a guess for why some versions have stood out, at least.


Today the power went out, making for a good reason to do a tasting session outside.  It's the Thai rainy season but the weather held up for that long, to taste tea in the usual spot.



it's so green out there during the rainy season