Saturday, January 23, 2021

Moychay experimental shu comparison

2017 cake version left, experimental batch right

This review is a little atypical, because I already reviewed an experimental Moychay shu (the #2 version), and it's good, but depending on interpretation described aspects could be regarded as flawed.  And I expect #3 to be similar.  All the same I've tried that #2 trial version a couple more times and it's interesting, and I wanted to revisit adding observations about that style, aspect range, and apparent aging potential.  Thanks again to Moychay for sharing a lot of tea to try and report on.

Later edit: I accidentally called this shu "pu'er," but of course as a Russian origin version it's "pu'er-style tea" instead.

There's something odd but catchy about it (that other experimental version), an unusual slightly sour, woody range, a little like a dark rye, but not exactly that.  I think that one aspect will transition a lot and drop out over time, that the version will improve a lot.  In retrospect, after reviewing this #3 trial version, that's a lot of what I end up saying.  It's interesting seeing how the other type I'm comparing it to has changed, almost entirely related to improvements.  That Moychay cake version was one of my favorite shus from them, and what I regarded as potential for positive change has translated to exactly that.

That #2 batch version review and the "Soviet guy" version review (really called "peace.  hard work. tea.") serve as background, but the post content here works without reading any of that.  I might add that this is really Russian tea material, grown and processed there, not just from a Russian vendor.  I speculate a little about that in that earlier post but there's not so much to say; I would need to try it made as a separate tea type to get a feel for what other tea plant character it resembles.  

A quote from that earlier (2018) comparison version review clarifies that transition projection, from when that 2017 tea was a year old:

...this tea [infusion round] is transitioning quite a bit; it's not what it had been.  It's moving towards a dark wood / spice range not so far off the first version's.  It just has an extra layer of depth to the range, and more intensity.  Mineral is much heavier, like that strange smell of a volcanic soil beach, or even that you might smell in the lava flow area, a very dark rock.  It works to interpret that as "peat" instead, but that shift from petroleum to peat seems to indicate it might clean up even more over the next couple of infusions, who knows into what range.  I like it but for someone new to shou this would be too much.  At the same time I suspect in another two or three years that story would change a lot, that this might just be a young version that has room to shift character and clean up a lot... 

similar description in a sense, just in completely different terms


Moychay Soviet guy (left in all photos):  really nice, rich a sweet, quite clean. There is a trace of off spice aspect, something unfamiliar, and fullness is limited, but in general it's great. There's a cherry sweetness to it, chocolate covered cherry even, and the heavier earth range is spice versus peat. This is probably much improved from when I first tried it, much cleaner, and I had already liked it then. That root spice is great with the rest.

Russian test batch #3: the funkiness present in #2 is even heavier in this. The catch is that I expect a lot of that to fade or transition over another year, and it's hard to project what it will be like then. Oddly I find the significant sourness and woody tone, close to cork, somewhat appealing. I'm not sure why; I guess that I like cork? It's a little like a dark black bread too, but maybe the #2 version is closer to that.

Again I think that's exactly the fermentation process related aspect range that will fade, the cork-like sourness. Or maybe it never will completely leave; maybe only time will tell. Beyond that some cocao rounds it out. It might be that part I like, the way cocoa and cork / dark bread go together.

experimental version (right) lighter, surely not as fermented

Soviet: color is much darker in this tea, likely tied to heavier fermentation level. One might expect lower funkiness from less fermented shu but I'm not sure it would be so linear, that a mix of factors would combine. It's hard to experience shu as an outcome of specific causes.  You just work with what is in the cup, and expectations about future changes are only guesses, at my experience level anyway.

More of the same. If I remember right both that chocolate and fruit have evolved from years back, and weren't there before [with the earlier review citation supporting that, added later]. Maybe a drier cocoa was, but this tastes like cacoa nibs, or like dark chocolate. It all seems like pleasant and fortunate evolution.

#3: funkier! It's probably a shame to drink much like this since that will probably wear off and change in a positive way. I'd expect that to take time though, about a year and a half for most of that change, with where it is headed evident after another half a year. All just guesses, of course. It's hard to place how positive or negative that funkiness is, and I think that's tied to preference, and openness to range of experience. I live in Asia; I'm relatively open, because that's how food experience here goes. 15 years ago this may well have seemed nasty to me; I could only appreciate a much narrower range of flavors and texture experience.

An aside:  my son just cooked bacon, eggs, and toast for everyone for breakfast, and did a great job. It's awesome how both kids are turning out, and amazing that the chaos they live through hasn't affected them more negatively.

Soviet: evolving, but it's going to be hard to say how. A warmer tone picked up. It's still from the dark chocolate / cocoa range but maybe towards mineral. Cherry dropped back a bit.

#3: not transitioning as much. This doesn't stand up to the other for positive character but again it's not a fair comparison. The Soviet guy version is better than it had been too; it didn't compare well to this in the 2018 form. I really don't mind that odd cork effect, with some cocoa; the novelty is positive, even though the range could be improved.

I might stop here, even though two more rounds would tell a fuller story. I want to add some rambling to these notes and have other things to do just now.

experimental tea right; lighter, made up of small nuggets


The rambling could've made more of the fermentation level difference; that was obvious, and it made for a change in outcome.  The main story was character difference related to a lack of rest time in the second tea, and probably in that being made from a plant type not typical for shu, probably not even Assamica.  It will take another year for this tea to be fairly judged.

Oddly the strange cork-like slight sourness and woodiness isn't unpleasant, to me.  It's a shame drinking much of this or the #2 batch like this though, since I expect both to change a lot over a year or two.  The "peace. hard work. tea." version definitely improved a lot, but I had also liked it with more rough edges and peat range.  I'm glad I didn't share or drink most of it, although between those two uses it is half gone now.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The middle of the tea experience curve

 First published in TChing here and here.

One year ago I wrote about intermediate level themes in tea, about people exploring brewing options and diverse types, or higher quality versions of one category.

Lately something related keeps coming up, about the experience curve itself, the order in which people explore tea, once they move past tea-bag and flavored blends introductions.  Of course everyone has their own path.  One new online contact / friend is completely jumping in, moving past initial Constant Comment / English Breakfast tea by exploring basic green, black, white, shu, hei cha, and even sheng, in one large Yunnan Sourcing sample order.  That's a great way to do it.  Ordinarily I wouldn't recommend even trying sheng pu'er before sorting out some other range but in her case I did suggest trying an inexpensive tuocha, to see what it's about. 

a smaller-scale venture into trying some hei cha and shu

Eight years or so ago, before I started a blog, I tried a set of 20 or so types from a Chinese vendor, an individual selling tea.  I don't remember much about those, but it was definitely a launching point for diverse exploration.  By chance a vendor sent a first sample set of Darjeeling versions around then, when I first started a blog (thanks much to the Lochans, who produce and sell novel versions of Doke teas).  You next learn that one step in any given direction isn't really the generality you might've imagined, that one sample never captures a type character, but still your tea journey is off and running.

Groups tend to see people bunching up according to preference, where they are on an exposure curve, or even by pattern.  Gong Fu Cha and Puerh Tea Club are at one end, Tea Drinkers at the other (where Harney and Sons is a main staple), with the one I moderate, International Tea Talk, settling on an outlier diverse member location theme.

It's interesting seeing people make their journey / exploration public, as bloggers do.  It's a funny thing, how there is no real threshold to arrive at before starting to write and share ideas and experiences.  Even now, some years later, I tend to point out that I'm nothing like a tea expert.

Liquid Proust comes to mind as an interesting case.  That vendor, Andrew, explored novel forms of blends, then jumped straight into aged sheng, one of the main natural end points (maybe only drifting through aged oolong along the way).  He was selling both of those; exploration rarely works out like that.  For being different than what most experienced tea enthusiasts drink the blends sounded good, teas like rum infused pu'er, and "French toast" Dian Hong.  His sheng pu'er taster sets help people take a similar step as he did, onto some complicated and diverse range.

To me exploring horizontally, across a diverse range, makes sense, minding per-gram tea price to enable covering a lot of ground and seeing what you like.  It's interesting how some people start with a flavor or character profile and go from there instead.  In discussion one guy just mentioned liking earthy tea range, shu pu'er (of course), and heavy black teas, exploring via flavor aspect range.  Hei cha would work along with those.  Another mentioned liking cigars and Scotch, and some types of roasted Wuyi Yancha and sheng pu'er mirrored that interest, related to profile.  Hei cha might not, so much, at least related to funky and earthy brick teas, but a mineral-intensive Liu Bao might resonate.

comparing compressed white teas of different ages, a good exploration tool

Pace is an odd component, not just related to making a broad start, or exploring a range quickly, or working towards the highest possible quality level versions.  On the positive side exploring moderate cost but diverse teas can add a dimension of change to a daily routine.  It's potentially negative that one could instead experience a constant state of lack, related to not getting to most of what is out there, or competing with countless others to experience what seems like a typical range or amount of exposure.  For me personally it's helpful to limit scope.  For example, I don't explore teaware or Japanese teas, just to keep the range more manageable.  Budget constrains that, mainly, but even aside from that exploring all there is for tea is problematic.

What about reducing scope to what is found in a grocery store?  What I say tends to discount that is valid, defining it here as just prior to a middle-level range starting point, but to an extent it's not.  It was disappointing for me to learn that grocery stores never stock teas that matched my type and quality-level interest at one point, a step that led to that vendor sample set evaluation.  That's not as true in China, and Russians seem to have access to better Ceylon in grocery stores, but in general grocery store tea isn't "good."  Not everyone needs to ever get to the middle of an experience / exploration curve though, just as for many sticking with box wine or Budweiser suits them.  Those are fine for what they are, with some thoughts here on where Lipton stands in relation to the rest, with input on some better black tea starting points.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Moychay Lao Ban Zhang sheng pu'er


Greetings for 2021!  I hope that it's a good year for everyone, once some after-effects of 2020 settle out.  It seems appropriate to start with reviewing an interesting tea.  Last year Moychay sent a number of samples for review, or really just some tea, since the amount added up, so I'll be continuing on with trying a varied range.  A lot of what they carry is on the basic side, good well-above average quality good-value types, but some is more rare, aged teas, from atypical origins, or experimental types, or even high-demand lower availability types.

This sheng type is unique for the starting point being justifying that it is really what it's presented as.  Same for Bing Dao, or 80s to 90s aged examples of almost anything; versions presented as such would more typically not be those things.  This won't be about establishing likelihood for authenticity, or building a case.  At a guess it really is LBZ.  My impression is that Moychay buys directly enough and knows background well enough that most of their teas would be legitimate.  "All" is probably a stretch; producers might often try to get something past buyers, and eventually something from a nearby area instead could get through.  My intuition isn't much of a guide though; like anyone else I buy into biases along with other evidence.  

My past experience only goes so far, related to this source area.  I wrote about buying a clearly fake Chinatown version once, but otherwise I've only tried tea presented as LBZ, and likely to be that, three times.  I can't really establish likelihood for those three times either, or judge character against a typical profile.  Once was a sample provided by King Tea Mall, described as an autumn version, explaining why the price was high but still moderate, and once in a Liquid Proust sample set, with the third case in a local shop.  Mention that in a more pu'er-specific group or online context and more than one comment would probably guess that it was all fake.  Those three impressions match up quite a bit, but I don't go into that much in this post.

I appreciate tea more for character and experience than story-value anyway.  If it's good then it's good, and that's real, even though framing does adjust both expectations and interpretation.  On to that, after two more tangents, about trying these teas in a random order, and the vendor input about this.

Related to trying these samples randomly, or by inclination that may not seem to show a pattern, people tend to ask in some online channels which tea they should try first in a large set.  One reasonable answer is whichever you feel like.  If that's too vague, and a methodical approach is the goal, one might drink the teas from lower quality range to higher.  Working from most straightforward and approachable into those that would benefit from more discernment might be good.  You wouldn't have to sort out brewing or wrestle with acclimation curve for a medium quality Tie Guan Yin, or a simple and straightforward Chinese black tea.  

If you are trying an LBZ sheng, or a tea presented as such, it might be good to have more reference exposure, and to get to it later.  Combined tasting can help with sorting out finer aspect details, trying two teas together, but with "cha qi" or feel effect as one significant factor that may not be appropriate in this case.

Moychay's description:

I was curious what this would sell for, but the listing is still pending, or rather it's there but the availability and pricing isn't listed yet; different.  Their description:

Laobanzhang is a village in Bulangshan Mountains (Western Xishuangbanna), known among connoisseurs as one of the cult places where the best Sheng Puer is producing.

In appearance: large, twisted tea tips with long cuttings. The aroma is restrained, woody-balsamic with a honey hint. The infusion is transparent, with a shade of white grapes.

The bouquet of the ready-made tea is fresh and vibrant, woody-balsamic, with floral, herbaceous and nutty notes. The aroma is multifaceted, woody-balsamic with nutty accent. The taste is refined, full-bodied and sweet, oily, a bit astringent, with a fruity sourness and minty chill, turning into a lingering juicy finish.

That works, it's just not exactly how I described it, but close enough.  That "mint" part is interesting; in trying a late infusion it is a little minty, just not as a dominant aspect.  And it's nothing like a menthol aspect in Ruby / Red Jade (a Taiwanese plant type that is often made into black tea), much more subdued, and in the range of light and sweet spearmint instead.  Rich sweetness stood out a lot in the dry leaf scent (which I usually don't even mention, since it's inconsistent how much that ties to brewed tea character), and honey came out later after it had transitioned for a few rounds.


it was a little bright out for ideal photography conditions

First infusion:  it's fruity, towards lemon, but not exactly that.  Again, I won't be able to pin any of this description on being type-typical, or the opposite.  I do remember two of the prior presented-as-such LBZ versions as being fruitier than sheng typically is, but that doesn't mean a lot to me.  For liking fruity versions of sheng I like this.  It's bright, with good intensity, and quite clean, with moderate bitterness, in a form that complements the rest.  This tea is just getting started though; it will transition some across the next couple of rounds.

Mineral is nice in this; it balances with the rest well, and gives it a dry edge that works well with the other fullness and sweet range.  It's quite pleasant.  Intensity really stands out, along with balance.

Second infusion:  that distinctive fruit aspect picked up.  And intensity did, even though I brewed that fast, under 10 seconds.  It won't really work to fully describe that fruit range, but it's close enough to say that it's somewhere between lemon and juicyfruit gum.  The rest of the description from the first round still works, intensity just bumped a little, and it was relatively intense in that round.  

The aftertaste is pleasant, how all of it carries across, just no so extended in length.  Feel has a reasonably full structure, maybe just a bit "dry" in effect.  A reasonably high level of sweetness is nice; to me that can tie together other aspect range well.  It's not so unusual for a sheng version to be bitter, or heavy on mineral, leaning towards a bit dry, or fruity and sweet, but I don't experience it occurring together so often, at least at this intensity level.  And floral range is probably more typical than fruit.  The way that interpretations can vary someone else might see this as only floral, and not fruity, but that would seem like an odd read to me.

It's at least possible that the rich gold color, off a paler yellow, relates to this oxidizing a little during processing.  If that's true--which I'm not claiming, just putting it out there--that would account for the flavor being so sweet and bitterness and astringency being relatively moderate.  Both of those tend to be character improvements, but per some standard hearsay that comes at a cost in relation to aging potential.  Or getting the fixing step wrong, heating the tea too much, can make it more similar to green tea instead.  All this is intended as discussion, raising an interesting tangent, not a guess about actual status, which I do commonly offer here in relation to tea character in different cases.  Color can vary a little and aspect range too; others might able to map back to likely inputs and project ahead to potential, but I'm really not there yet.

Third infusion:  I brewed this closer to a flash infusion than I usually ever tend to go, not rushed as much as is possible but covering only 5 seconds or so, with both pours spanning most of that time.

It's interesting how this evolves.  The heaviest fruit is backing off a little, with feel range shifting.  Mineral tone is picking up, but the adjoining dryness has changed, not completely different, but that description doesn't work as well to describe this effect.  Mineral is a lot more complex now, joined by what I would interpret as wood-tone.  Not "woody" like a cheap black tea version, like cut and somewhat cured (dried) lumber smells, more the bite and edge in a green tree.  Even that part is so complex that it spans a lot of range, linking with the fruit (diminished but not gone), and with the complex mineral, extending to an aromatic range like a pleasant version of turpentine.  Which makes no sense as a verbal conceptual description, of course.  It's probably better to say that the wood tone is in between something mild and sweet, like green maple tree sapling, and pine; it's not as close but more relatable.

I may or may not be feeling this tea.  My energy level and clarity are usually all over the map, related to not sleeping as consistently as I should be, and the effects of work stress combining with home-life stress.  Home life goes ok; I don't mean that, just that parenting and being married put a good bit of work-load on you, unless your focus is putting that on your marriage partner, or getting domestic help to cover it.  Or neglecting your kids; it would be possible to just hand them a tablet and check in a few times a day.

Beyond all that I may feel a bit of bright energy from this, not a stony head-buzz, of body-feel sedative effect, or the latter coupled with a bit of kick.  I might feel a little clearer, if anything.  The caffeine dose alone would pass some of that on, so I mean maybe beyond that normal positive side-effect.  Just being outside feels nice too, getting some sun and being around all the plants at the house.

Fourth infusion:  I never will really describe how that laundry list of aspects I've mentioned integrates into one really pleasant and intense experience.  Trying to break it all out probably downplays how it comes across.  It's good, and too complex to be described.

Lately I've been talking more than usual about a learning curve for tea, or what I take to be an experience curve, really.  If someone started into better loose tea on a version like this it might not seem appealing at all, which would almost be sad.  Not that the tea is wasted, but that they couldn't get it.  Then when I think about parallels in beer, wine, or liquor appreciation it makes me consider if people really need to be "getting" any of all that, if it's even better for them to.  

The rush you get from going on a nice run is definitely paired with other positive effects, and the euphoria you feel towards the climax of a hard night of drinking with friends comes at a cost.  But then maybe enjoyment itself is the point, not side-effects, and both are more equivalent than they seem.  This tea probably is getting to me, leading my mind to wander.

Fifth infusion:  still brewing this quite fast, intensity is in a good place, good and strong, but moderate.  A honey-like sweetness picks up.  It's odd how hard it would be to describe the woody character, again maybe closest to a faint experience of turpentine.  Put another way, interpreted differently, like that aromatic, warm, sweet, and rich twang from cedar, but just that part, mixed with other aspect range.  The flavor is complex enough that a more free-form review could be all over the map; this could be seen as tasting like blueberries, or metal.  A reviewer more prone to expressing free association could just keep going.  Feel is just as hard to pin down.  To me it seems to link to that flavor, a dryness, but not really "dry," more an atypical form of structure.

Sixth infusion:  I'll wrap this up, since it's transitioning but the description wasn't helping convey that anyway.  The feel is changing in a pleasant way, but I wasn't doing justice to that part.  Aftertaste experience is moderate, or even a little limited for a young sheng, in relation to how intense the flavor is.  I did go on to brew it a lot of times, maybe 10 more, since it was pleasant even after it had faded some.

This is my first tea review in the better part of a month but my wife thinks I've wasted enough time on it already, that it's time to move on to errands, or at least playing with the kids; back to that underlying stressful context theme, not having more than an hour to spend on anything.  Tasting outdoors has been nice today; cool weather meant that it was in the upper 20s / low 70s in the late morning, versus hot out already.  The air quality is bad in Bangkok now too, probably 170 or so (AQI value), but that effect kicks in over time, it's not something you notice over an hour in a tasting.  It could be muting my experience of this a little since it's been bad for a few days.

On the "cha qi" side I'm not sure; at most I feel a boost in a clean form of mental energy.  I didn't go through this tea as fast as I tend to at breakfast every day though, when I drink a quick 10 rounds or so, or dozen or more, before going to work.  The writing slowed that down, and just not rushing.

Confirming the part about someone not so into sheng probably not liking this, my wife's cousin visited and I gave a round to him and his wife, and they really didn't care for it.  Then again she said that she only drinks bubble tea.

Kalani and that cousin's daughter; she is so adorable

both kids really love her (photo credit Eye's cousin)

As far as judging quality level of this tea goes it seemed quite good to me.  Pleasant more than objectively "good," I think, since I've lost some faith in what I had previously regarded as sheng "quality markers."  Pleasant doesn't really capture it, how positive it is.  This tea is very enjoyable, refined, complex, and distinctive.  Sheng can be good in different ways, and guessing if it's good in a standard way seems odd, as true to origin type, or in general, in relation to what others like best.  

Aging potential is something else.  It probably would be just as good or better over the next 2 or 3 years, and beyond that, in the long term, I'm not the right person to say.  Heavier bitterness or astringency can indicate higher levels of compounds present that can change in positive ways, but the really pronounced mineral base in this, moderate dryness (unusual astringency character), and overall intensity may play a similar role, preventing this from just fading.