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.


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.


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

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