Friday, May 28, 2021

Tea processing and demand shifts in China


photo credit Suzana, as usual

that one cup has an interesting story, here

This is really about input from another meetup, but since the points I found most interesting relate to tea processing and demand shifts in China the focus is on that.  Cindy Chen, the Wuyi Origin producer--also ran by her husband and family--talked about these issues mostly related to Wuyishan (Wuyi Yancha "rock oolong") and Chaozhou (Dan Cong) production, but really more related to Wuyi Yancha.  Earlier discussion on other themes was interesting too, and I'll add a little about infusing tea in oil and alcohol at the end, another main point.  To back up a bit related to this meetup context, we invited a number of people we've talked to in small previous group discussions to join together, which included one session with Cindy.  Eight people attended altogether; not bad.

Cindy started telling us about their business, about volumes produced, general background, how specialized orders work out, tied to general processing themes, and about changes in tea awareness and demand in China over the last decade.  Truly fascinating stuff!  Some of it was familiar but the part about a shift in demand and awareness was not.

we saw just a little tea sorting going on

She mentioned some production issues related to different teas, about how Wuyishan growing areas are laid out, and how micro-climate, especially in terms of sun exposure, changes final tea character a lot.  I wrote an interview post about those factors--Making Rock Oolong--based on her input awhile back, which overlaps, and shared some pictures of a harvest season since then.  

The short version is that not only do plant types and ages matter, and rainfall and other local climate issues, and local soil conditions, but sun exposure also does.  The same plants growing on a small valley floor and on ledges, or at the edge of that valley, would produce different character tea.  An example:  initial intensity varies, and the more forward oriented aroma notes, with those ranges more pronounced with greater sun exposure, with tea with more depth and subtlety resulting from partly shaded conditions.

Josh was trying to place this in relation to Japanese green teas, but we never really made a clear connection in discussion.  For those, per my understanding, partial shading prior to harvest greatly increases chlorophyll production, increasing flavor intensity across one range, and to some extent increasing bitterness.  But Wuyi Yancha oolongs are not bitter, at all, given how processing changes compounds that probably would come across that way if you chewed a fresh leaf.  It seems to contradict, to say that sun exposure increases oolong intensity, but restricting sun exposure increases Japanese green tea intensity, but it all must map out in a more complicated form than that.

Onto the awareness changes part.  It's my impression that Cindy was talking about awareness and demand shifts (increases) among a very limited subset of Chinese tea drinkers and consumers, her own customer base.  They are becoming more knowledgeable, and making more specific demands.  I think that the "average Chinese person" doesn't see tea so differently than they did 20 years ago, beyond more young people drinking coffee and bubble tea now.  

I'm basing that on visiting China three times (which is very limited input), and knowing three Chinese families, living here in Bangkok, as more in-depth feedback.  All three were close friends of my kids, and all three we joined for dinner parties, sports outings, attending local Thai holiday events, and to restaurants and the local zoo.  Those kinds of contact give you more time to talk about daily life.  All three drank tea but essentially knew nothing about the subject. They drank whatever local types were in a grocery store or local market, and couldn't describe those types in much detail.  The same was true of a Japanese friend, again the father of my daughter's best friend; he may or may not have been familiar with the concept of "sencha," and drank whatever he happened to buy at a grocery store.

two of those friends; they are missed, back in China now

looking like this isn't about cultural immersion, in the normal sense

Cindy's customers are at the other end of the scale; they know tea.  According to her it has went beyond just ordering much better versions for gifts and such, or liking those for daily consumption, some are onto special ordering very specific versions.  I'll get back to that gift idea, which ties to a broader transition theme.  In some very limited cases Cindy's family do produce "single bush / tree" tea versions, but that makes a lot less sense for Wuyishan oolongs, which tend to be from relatively small plants, that never grow to a size that supports that.  We've discussed how that works in relation to Dan Cong before but I'll stick to what was covered yesterday.  

Over time a limited set of her customers have learned how varying growing conditions inputs can change tea, and can specify which exact type they want.  Not just in relation to oxidation and roast level, but related to ordering specific versions from limited range growing areas, eg. from a certain growing field location.  On the broader scale a lot of customers are appreciating better tea too, without taking those kinds of next steps. They can seek out the types and higher quality levels from producers like Cindy, replacing earlier preference for well-known and mass-marketed volume production blended teas.  

my favorite picture of Cindy, showing one growing area

Cindy said that the status of giving main commercial brand teas as a gift has at least partly been replaced by giving better quality tea. That seems a positive step.  For those unfamiliar with truly high end Wuyishan oolongs, or Dan Cong, it won't work to describe what Cindy sells.  It's so good that I recommend that people exploring such oolongs don't start there, that they experience more moderate quality versions first, to identify the range, and experience some flaws, then move onto what the true potential is.  It doesn't work as well exploring in the other direction, and there's learning involved with drinking medium quality or even flawed teas.

All of this reminds me of some interesting input from a Chinese-Malaysian friend about tea service in a business context, more a formal entertainment theme than related to gifts.  It might seem like I'm jumping the track a bit, changing countries, shifting from personal preference and gift-giving to a third tea drinking context, but Cindy did actually bring up that tea can also play an important role in business interactions.  I'll cite part of what that friend said, a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur, William.  

The tl;dr version is that in business it's normal for higher executives to make an elaborate show of preparing tea for guests; it's expected.

In this message, I would like to share something about the various settings Chinese in mainland China drink teas.

Setting 1:

This setting is deemed to be the most elaborate form, favoured by the chairman, the chief executive officer 'CEO' of a corporation, for having a large room for workplace. The office is usually divided into two section, one part is for work, the other is designed into a room that resembles a teahouse. There is a desk, the height of and shaped like a dinner table, a seat is placed at one side, whilst two more seats are positioned on the opposite side of the desk. A thorough accessories, complete with a hot water kettle, tools and equipment for gongfu tea preparation is placed on the table.

The chairman or the CEO would be the host, serving tea via gongfu style, when meeting another colleague, discussing company matters or seeing a guest to talk over business partnership. It is through such reception with another entrepreneur or industrialist that business deals are entered into. Besides opting for a game of golf or to meet in a restaurant over a six course meals with tea or red wine, both outings are well-liked in Malaysia, as well, inviting another captain of industry for tea into this section of the office of a highest-ranking person in the company is also a very popular form of arrangement, allowing a formal dialogue be serenely engaged between both the host and his guest in the most private manner.

A man who holds directorship in his guest's company would also entertain his guest in similar environment if he himself is also the head or owner of his own company located elsewhere, away from his guest's home or workplace and has similar detailed set up for tea drinking, too, making conversation and even giving of advice and imparting his knowledge to his guest if his visitor is his junior or a newly appointed figurehead. The tea brewing could be put together, simply for the exchange of ideas or brainstorming for business planning and development between an 'uncle' and his 'nephew'.

not even close to the same theme, a corporate presentation I attended in China

This clearly ties into an elaborate gift-giving culture common in China.  There are three other cases (settings) that he described, extending to lower level managers hosting much less elaborate versions of the same process, onto tea house or cafe forms and expectations.  Suffice it to say that the elaborate nature of the forms and device use is only scaled down, but expectations about very particular types of experience remain in place, just in more casual forms.  The most informal form he describes is what goes by the name "grandpa style" brewing in Western enthusiast circles, coined by an influential tea blogger:

In China, the ongoing and trouble-free tea infused in a flask or teapot at home would be '龍井茶' or 'Loong Jeng Cha', also known as 'Dragon Well tea', a renowned roasted green tea from '杭州' or 'Hong Jau' or 'Hangzhou', using a huge wok for '殺青' or 'Saat Cheng', a process literally means 'to kill-green' those tea leaves with bare hands. It is observed that Loong Jeng tea has been a leading tea variety and a household name in China, prepared and served in many a Chinese home. I had personally witnessed Chinese strolling all over the streets in Guangzhou, China, carrying glass canisters of all shapes and sizes made for seasoning paste and sauce, being recycled into drink container, all filled with teas.

Of course we know that green tea type as "Longjing."

Rest assured that my friend is immersed in a form of sub-culture that's much more Chinese in origin than Malaysian, with plenty of direct contact within China.  He communicates that in every such message about those cultural issues.  We last discussed traditional Chinese medicine approaches to healing bone fractures, related to a US friend breaking her ankle recently.  He passed on a version of the Guan Yin origin legend in this post about reviewing two traditional Tie Guan Yin versions (which he gave me, along with a good bit of Liu Bao; he's both generous and informative).

Back to Cindy's input, I'm missing some ideas that connect these themes, about processing steps, and other broad demand shift details.  She mentioned that the main shift seemed to occur beginning about 10 years ago, when better tea uptake really took off, which has gradually increased ever since.  Kind of off subject, she said that the latest spike in demand seems to relate to white tea instead, with prices in Fuding-produced white teas shooting up about 30% this year.  For growing up so embedded in the tea industry and culture she would tend to hear about other areas and types, beyond producing both Wuyi Yancha and Dan Cong herself (her husband and his family is from Chaozhou).

This post is already running long, and heavy on tangents, but I wanted to share a description of Cindy I ran across awhile back, from Jeff Fuchs' Tea and Mountain Journals.  It will help fill in the part I can't do justice to, about how Cindy is, which I very much appreciate every time I interact with her:

Cindy is made of tea it seems. Rampant energy, talking of nothing else, she knows tea from the soil to the very skin of the leaf and through the various stages it is a subject that is part of her. Her entire family for generations has produced Rock teas (called ‘yen cha’ locally), named for the fact that the teas generally grow in small terraced plots amidst stone and shadows where the teas must struggle to find a root-hold in the soils...

She's like that, energetic, and a very pure and humble soul.  She shares this experience and information from a place of shared interest, not as a vendor promoting products, and not as an expert passing down wisdom from on high.  Jeff covers that context too:

On this morning Cindy uses a simple white ceramic gaiwan, or flared cup vessel, for ease of examining colour and rapid fire infusions. Rapid fire they are, but with Cindy every serving is something fresh and perfect, though she in all of her modesty claims that she is “only someone who knows tea a little”.

She was born into knowing and experiencing more than a little of tea.  Her young daughters could teach me about tea right now, a lot more than we could cover together in a lengthy span of time.  It's probably as well to move on to touch on a second sub-theme.

learning about roasting oolong as a toddler, with an unrelated boo-boo

Infusing tea with oil and alcohol

Josh--that Canadian tea somellier--and Suzana discussed this more than the rest of us, for Josh attempting repeated trials along this line, and Suzana experimenting with it just a little.  You can infuse tea in oil; who knew?  The tea cocktail theme, and infusing tea in alcohol, is familiar enough, even though I've never actually tried it out myself, since I really don't drink.  This is a nice summary interview article on the alcohol infusion / tea cocktail theme by Tony Gebely.

The main idea is that you can actually infuse tea leaves in oil, and get slightly different results than using water.  Of course that would relate well to cooking, but they seemed to be discussing it more as a way to just check how it works out.  Knocking back a small gongfu cup of tea infused cooking oil would seem a little strange though, and drinking a dozen probably wouldn't digest well, no matter what you ate with that.  They really did go into detail about which aspect notes came out the most related to using different oils, teas, and approaches, but I suppose I was tuning in and out of that for not planning to try it.  I'll just stick to using hot water.  

Josh mentions where he sees this approach going, which is a novel vision:

In my mind how I see my process working is that the taster will begin a session with an infused oil made from the tea leaf their session will be based on. They move it around to coat their mouth and swallow it. Then I make the tea, and using an atomizer to mist the alcohol essence onto or in the vicinity of the tea or taster I can combine the every soluable aspect of the tea in one sitting.

Infusing tea with alcohol seems more promising to me, if someone already drinks alcohol, I'm just not so sure about using it to scent the air.  It could add a lot of potential flavor range to cocktails, and I suppose the caffeine could be a positive input, like drinking Red Bull and vodka, which came up after my drinking days.  Earl Grey is described as suitable for that use, in Tony's article, and gin is described as a popular alcohol input.

Huyen mentioned trying tea infused alcohol in a separate message discussion after that meeting.  She was having some technical problems with sound coming through; not including it in the session may have related to that.  I don't have much to add about that but a picture she shared tells part of the story.  She claims that wine is used as in input in at least one of these, which would explain why the "gunpowder" version is amber, instead of the yellow-gold one would expect from a green tea infusion.  Then again the liquor used in these isn't specified, on the bottle labels.  Sugar and alcohol content are specified. 

photo credit Huyen; that tea infused alcohol she discussed

It's not as if we only talked about tea themes in China and the oil and alcohol infusion issue.  This session ran long, and Narendra provided thoughts and discussion related to other tangents, especially as they related to Nepal teas, which he produces.  An interesting sub-theme came up about how family production and sales seem common in China, with tea production based on a plantation / large-scale model in places like India instead, and in Thailand and Indonesia.  Tea just seems better integrated in Chinese culture, beyond forms like masala chai being prevalent in India.

Only Alexander Zhiryakov also joined, beyond my set of friends and the others I've mentioned, but he was balancing attention with some other demand. We never drifted onto Russian oriented tea issues, or Laos Tea, or the Tea ID testing program theme we talked about in that other session.

Alexander is really pulling off a pandemic look

I haven't mentioned that Ralph was married in the last week; congratulations to both of them!

I'm not sure where this meetup form will naturally evolve next, but this was a cool step, expanding range to include more participants and broader discussion scope.

Huyen wasn't in the other photos.  Teams mixes framing formats when people use phones.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Talking to Narendra, a Nepal tea producer


photo credit Ralph; everyone takes better captures than me

I wrote an interview post covering more standard background on Narendra Gurung awhile back, here (and white and black tea reviews, and a later black tea review).  He just finally met with that circle of friends for the online meetups I keep talking about.  

It's always nice talking to people I already feel familiar with and know a lot about, and also to new people, for learning from more of a blank slate, and this worked as a pleasant form of the first case.  I'll cover a few points we discussed, as usual with this not really intended as a summary.

Issues related to tea production in Nepal

Nepal produces some great tea, better than they really should be able to given their limited history, but according to Narendra their industry faces some serious challenges, especially related to small producers.  On the growing side implementing organic production is very problematic, both difficult and costly.  It's hard for growers to evaluate requirements for tea production in terms of soil nutrients, and soil compound level testing practices are not well-developed.  This is problematic enough for standard tea production, but all the harder for trying to balance organic inputs, for example substituting natural fertilizers for mass produced chemical versions.

Narendra's tea farm, discussed more in that earlier post

Another serious challenge relates to the business and regulatory infrastructure for export.  There isn't a mature wholesale network developed that makes it easy for small farmers to sell teas for export, or for domestic distribution, with domestic demand not able to support the highest quality level sale at sustainable pricing levels.  The same applies to development of tea processing businesses.  As things stand now options for both are limited, with regulatory constraints not set up to facilitate further development of both types of channels.

Of course all three of these factors mentioned also relate to a level of general economic development.  We didn't talk specifically about sales and distribution logistics, about specific infrastructure channel development for moving goods and supporting these steps, but issues like that have been developed extensively within Thailand over the past 20 years, and they were probably as far along as in Nepal now prior to that.  These problems also represent business opportunities, in addition to being current economic restrictions or roadblocks, but a global downturn from this pandemic experience doesn't help support making those development changes.  Prior shipping options narrowed significantly last year, and international demand for all sorts of goods dropped, along with the health of individual economies all around the world.

Most discussion was positive, to be clear.  We talked about how good Nepal tea is too, and how it can be so, even with these apparent limitations.  For me personally it's a main favorite category.  Especially their white tea versions tend to be distinct, and very positive, with great intensity and complexity, a nice mineral aspect base, pleasant sweetness, and floral and bright citrus range. We didn't really get into why that seems to be the case; it must be terroir related, and also tied to local processing styles.

that Nepal white tea, one version of it

It's no surprise that in Nepal more people drink plain, flavored, masala chai-themed, or CTC teas, versus the high quality orthodox tea I was just referring to.  I just mentioned this in relation to US demand in talking to Jason McDonald, a US tea grower, about how that same thing is a main demand limitation in the US.  It's true in India too; Darjeeling stands on the same quality level as most of the best orthodox tea produced anywhere (with some limited volume, truly exceptional range quality produced by longstanding tea traditions in China, Japan, and Taiwan), but CTC teas are most popular there.  It's also like that in Thailand, and in Russia; basically everywhere.

six years ago I reviewed a masala chai from a Nepalese intern at work

The divide implied here doesn't really hold up, that the amazing, exceptional oolongs, black teas, and pu'er produced in China is appreciated and enjoyed by most of the people there, or even a significant percentage of the population.  It's not like that.  People in China drink local teas, and as elsewhere "tea enthusiasts" seek out the best quality from that range.  It's just that this awareness and demand is based in an old, native tradition there, so it surely is taken up by a broader minority than in the US, for example.  But still by a minority.  

Several of my best friends in Bangkok have been the families of friends of my children, most from China and Japan, and in none of their cases were any of them remotely aware of high quality tea types.  They drank whatever teas turned up at their local grocery stores.  It's my impression that the "artisian / specialty / craft" food themes that became very common in the US in the 1990's is not really a global phenomena, and may or may not ever become that.

Huyen's capture version, with Ralph showing a Nepal tea he had handy

another of Ralph's captures

Tea evaluation

Back to talking to Narendra, an interesting tangent about tea description came up.  This is the kind of subject that no two tea enthusiasts, vendors, or other professionals would see in exactly the same way.  Intuitively it should be possible to clearly and objectively describe tea character, and this should support informing consumers about products and sales options.  The opposite turns out to be more common, and perhaps more true.  Tasting and description are at least partly subjective, so that an optimum for vendors might be to pass on a clear impression of a tea without committing to describing specific aspects, which consumers would interpret differently.  Which is tricky, of course.

On the one extreme evaluation processes come up, and use of tasting wheels to help clarify a range of potential aspects, along with aroma training kits to help train tasters to make those connections.  For me writing 1500 word tea reviews so frequently one might imagine that I'm "bought in" to such potential for objective analysis.  But I'm not.  I think that Ralph, Huyen, Suzana and I would describe the exact same tea experiences very differently, using different aspect descriptions, and focusing on different aspect category ranges within a given tea trial (feel versus flavor, for example, or seeing different aspects as quality markers).  Brewing process differences, and varying device and water types used, would probably lead to us not have the exact same experience, even if the dry tea product was identical.  We didn't really map out all those divides in discussion but we did talk around a little of it.

flavor / aroma wheel discussion keeps coming up, last covered here last year

It's hard not to drift towards a "what's next" context when discussing any problems or limitations related to tea production, marketing, sales, or tasting, especially related to themes about undeveloped potential.  We didn't really push on to that range so much. An hour-plus discussion only goes so far, and identifying the scope of issues comes before guessing at potential solutions.  

It's a real shame that Nepal makes such good tea, with international awareness of that still building, that small growers there face all the challenges they do, and then a Covid-related global downturn stalled all the development work people like Narendra were trying to do.  He's not bitter about it; past a certain life experience level it becomes comfortable to "work with what you've got."  He is looking forward to getting back to that work; that doesn't need to involve resignation to acceptance of current conventional limitations.  Economies will open again and more planes will fly, and experiences like tea drinking will seem more important to more people again.

Thailand takes the downturn on the chin but limited range of impact can make it seem more acceptable, or normal.  Foreign tourism has dropped out here, something like a 15% loss to the economy, but other sectors are doing better.  It's hard to get a feel for how other countries are doing, for example how this has impacted Nepal.  I suppose it would always depend on the business sector and the individual.  Tourism is probably less of a factor there but indirect or overall impact must be considerable.  Every country has restricted normal forms of life experience, out of necessity.  It was nice to focus more on tea in discussion, a happier subject, as we tend to in most of those talks.  

When Narendra asked Suzana about the pandemic status in India she was clear and direct about it; India experiences a complete nightmare now, an unthinkable death toll, across many local areas.  You can sense the stress she experiences from loss and concern over personal risk.  But Indians are grounded, philosophical, optimistic, and resilient, if a little prone to superstition in some personal cases.  They will be fine, as we all will be.  

It reminds me of updating my Mom about a personal trial related to my kids (which I haven't shared here; I could get to that), that it's all ok, even though it's not really ok.  My kids are grounded and resilient; they'll be fine. And Thailand will pull it together and get vaccination coverage ramped up, so we can move off this pandemic isolation theme that never completely ends here.

their bright spirits are consistent

Keo, looking older with really long hair

a mentos and Coke science experiment

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Using the term "oriental" in tea names

First published in TChing here.

I suppose this works as a part 2 covering the political correctness and tea theme, related to considering Ceylon last month.  Make no mistake, the non-PC term oriental is almost certainly on the way out, and it's only a matter of time until "Oriental Beauty" (Taiwanese oolong) is no longer an acceptable tea name.  For many people that time was probably around 10 years ago.  

Two opposing references brought up this subject since then.  A vendor mentioned his take on how "OB" had to go, calling his related product "Eastern Beauty." Oddly Don Mei of Mei Leaf--not the vendor I'm referring to--was way ahead of the curve in proposing this change, at least 5 or 6 years ago.  Another tea reference I was just reading used the term Oriental Beauty without even mentioning the controversy. 


For me personally it's a non-issue, but I want to delve into the two positions based on external summary before I get to why.  These aren't the most authoritative takes but Google search probably ranks them highly for a reason, and both are cited in other media references.

An NPR interview summary includes a statement by columnist Jeff Yang:

I have actually, I've heard it before, in not in a very sort of attractive light, used towards me. But I think that, you know, that's actually part of the rationale around this act here. It's a term that feels old. It feels antiquated, and for it to even be kind of contemplated occasionally and in casual usage is something which Asian-Americans certainly feel uncomfortable with, and you know, for it to be stricken from the public record just kind of makes sense in some ways.

I think it makes perfect sense to anyone open to regulating use of language, officially and through convention, and it would be opposed by people who hate the idea of dictated use of speech (opposing political correctness in general).  An opposing view is provided by Jayne Tsuchiyama, an Oriental medicine practitioner, originally in the LA Times:

As an Oriental, I am bemused. Apparently Asians are supposed to feel demeaned if someone refers to us as Orientals. But good luck finding a single Asian American who has ever had the word spat at them in anger. Most Asian Americans have had racist epithets hurled at them at one time or another: Chink, slant eye, gook, Nip, zipperhead. But Oriental isn’t in the canon.

And why should it be? Literally, it means of the Orient or of the East, as opposed to of the Occident or of the West. Last I checked, geographic origin is not a slur. If it were, it would be wrong to label people from Mississippi as Southerners.

One might think that maybe the second opinion is just an earlier take, a less developed position, but the second article came out in 2016, versus 2009 for the first.  It's interesting how a key point is that the first author felt oriental had been used as a racial slur against them personally and the second did not, and rejected that this is a common occurrence, probably mostly due to the obsolete status of the word.  As in the case of this blog reference a single negative use, cited in 2012 as occurring only once about a decade prior, could shift that impression.  The academic background that started this controversy (especially this text, Orientalism, from 1978) is a bit complicated, so I'll have to set that part aside.

To me another main interesting part is that in Asia this isn't even common knowledge; political correctness is a "Western" phenomena.  I just reviewed this in an online work meeting, a section for sharing personal thoughts, and none of my Thai coworkers had heard that "Oriental" is considered offensive.  A lot of business names here in Bangkok imply otherwise.  That second citation author had a personal interest in this, as an "Oriental medicine" practitioner:

In my field, the word “Oriental” appears in the title of 17 of the 58 accredited graduate-level schools, 21 of the 33 state associations and eight of the 24 national associations. Though the new federal legislation does not require us to act, it has increased pressure to toe the politically correct line.

Some of those school and agency names are surely different now, 5 years later.  Compared to that changing the name of a type of oolong seems simple enough.  It will bring up a before and after validity of reference content, which hasn't been occurring in tea writing before, but all vendors making that change in English language marketing descriptions would work.

Onto my take on this: I personally don't see "oriental" as a problem.  It's somewhat obsolete, for sure, but I never made the connection with it being offensive.  Here in Thailand, in "the East / the Orient" they still haven't even heard of that pejorative tone problem.  In other Asian countries where English use is less developed, which is most of them, it would be all the less so, if less than no awareness was possible.  Asian American experience is something else; probably liberals would completely reject the term and conservatives would completely reject the broader PC agenda.

the Peace Oriental shop in Bangkok, a chain established in 2014

I was active on an expat forum, Orient Expat, that had to change to (and then it folded; the forum owner lost the main ad sponsor and got tired of doing it).  There was no real debate then; the writing was on the wall, and that was the Western reality to be addressed.

Even though I personally think there is no problem with an oolong being called Oriental Beauty I don't think that my own opinion carries significant weight.  Unless the PC movement loses steam, which seems unlikely, the designation will have to go.  It's strange that it hasn't already.  I suppose one reason for that is the one that grounds my own opinion; it's just not regarded as a real issue, by many, certainly not in Asia.  

To say that Taiwanese people are racist--against themselves--for continuing to use a relatively old tea designation makes no sense.  They're just not keeping up with shifting English use, which doesn't actually need to shift, according to everyone.  It's also possible that the other Chinese language based tea names for that type, Dongfang Meiren and Bai Hao, are more common there, so it's a non-issue for only being the Western facing designation.

Editing note:  TChing didn't publish the last paragraph, which seemed too controversial.  I don't interpret this as being offensive to either the conservative or liberal extreme perspectives, but I suppose I could be wrong about one or both cases.  For living outside of the US for over a decade I'm not really "caught up" on changes in racial designations, because what one runs across on the internet isn't the same as being fully immersed in that culture.

I would imagine that most black people in the US still use the term "black people," not the newer "people of color," and that the "African-American" replacement failed to stick because it wasn't an improvement, not mainly because the structure of the term was flawed.  It's possible that "oriental" could hang in there in a similar way, so me speculating that it won't is just a guess.

personal connections don't necessarily prevent racism, but my two favorite people are Asian 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Meetup with Jason and Timmy of the Great Mississippi Tea Company


photo credit Suzana

That running meetup theme took a cool turn hearing about US tea production, in relation to meeting Jason and Timmy, owners of the Great Mississippi Tea Company.  As in other write-ups about meetups here this isn't intended as a complete or indicative summary of all we talked about, just some interesting parts.  Their general background is cover more in this prior interview post.

US tea production isn't a theme I'm well informed about.  I've never actually tried a US produced tea.  That's especially odd since I lived in Hawaii in the States last, where some tea is produced, but I wasn't into tea then, drinking tisanes instead.  I've tried some tisanes from Hawaii since leaving, sent by an "uncle" from there (reviewed here and here), a local family that more or less accepted my wife as extended family while looking out for her during our grad school stay there.

traditional Hawaiian tisane blends emphasized health benefit, covered in the one post

One main starting point for US tea production (beyond the background about preferences, awareness, types produced, and so on) is where the Charleston Tea Garden stands (also on FB).  They do sell loose tea, but it's not the range familiar to specialty tea enthusiasts, more about blends, with two basic, plain versions along the lines of English Breakfast Blend.  It is what it is; there are US based specialty tea enthusiasts, but not many by total count.  It's great that tourism can bring visitors to that garden (formerly a plantation, I thought), that US production can take one developed form like that.

The Great Mississippi Tea Company seems to be the second largest US tea producer, which to me is quite an interesting accomplishment.  To some extent they have to work around US tea preferences that lean more towards blends and teas that would seem "basic," or even low quality, to specialty tea enthusiasts.  It's great that Jason and Timmy split the difference though, producing interesting and higher quality blends and also plain and higher quality teas.  I'll cite more about that range at the end.

As typically happens conversation was a bit diverse, focused on different preference issues, stories, and tea culture tangents.  I suppose in relation to tea production in places like China or Taiwan, or even Vietnam, there just isn't much diversity in what is coming out of the US for tea.  In the sense of there being a lot of very small producers doing their own thing that's wrong, but in relation to the range and quality level of Chinese tea the US hasn't even started yet.  Or even compared to India, Thailand, and Indonesia, really.

without Timmy and Suzana but Kalani joined just then

The biased view I have towards tea awareness and preference in the US stands in direct contrast to that.  Facebook groups like Gong Fu Cha and the Puerh Tea Club collect together the limited number of people really into better tea, and make it seem like there are lots of people here and there exploring really good tea.  Those groups have thousands of members, as the International Tea Talk group I moderate does, so it's not as if there are only a few hundred such enthusiasts in the US.  But I suppose to some extent better Chinese tea is "sucking all the oxygen out of the room" related to preference focus.

Related to what teas they make a website or Facebook page content could cover, which I'll cover more in a following section.  They sounded nice, the blends and single type orthodox teas.  Jason also talked about ways they might expand on the business in the future as they are able to scale up production volume, maybe getting into making soap or such.  The production volume he mentioned already seemed scaled up, expressed in tons instead of the grams or kilograms I'm accustomed to.

We talked a good bit about the direction of tea preference in the US, if that really did seem to be expanding, or what would cause it to.  He didn't seem to be interested in changing the tide, maybe just putting enough information out and networking to distribute what they produce.  I think for being very active in online groups or platforms I experience a rosier picture of awareness transition, for seeing examples of it in personal accounts essentially every day.  But it's little by little, person by person.  I've done what I can to support that, adding thousands of suggestions and links in thousands of post discussions. 

The regular articles saying that tea is going to be the next big thing in the US never really describe a different situation from one year to the next. It's always something about to happen, or just beginning to.  For those individuals just getting into tea that's accurate; as a broad food preference trend maybe not.

Another interesting point was about how minor smaller waves of awareness can be caused by individuals.  It's a recurring theme most typically related to a local vendor putting a lot of effort into holding classes, doing tastings, creating content, and whatever other promotion goes along with all that.  Steven Smith was an example he mentioned, a familiar name from earlier pioneering in broad tea awareness recognition and development in the Portland area.  In glancing through his bio he founded Tazo in 1994; that was right around that time period that I first tried anything other than Lipton in the form of those blends.  I remember liking "Zen."  It didn't lead to exposure to better plain loose tea; that would wait a lot longer, after another very long cycle through drinking tisanes.  Anyway, Jason mentioned a few such influential tea teachers and the areas where uptake was stronger due to that input, areas where his tea is now sold.

I essentially never talk to people who have the same degree of impact as Steven Smith but we have been talking to "tea influencers" frequently this year, to people like Jason.  It seems like at some point that influence should pick up steam.  It probably has been; some teas that would've seemed quite rare a half dozen years ago are gaining limited traction today.  Huyen has mentioned that an increase in Vietnamese tea demand caused their wholesale level prices to spike, with teas that sold for way under $100 per kilo--closer to zero than that--now extending to whatever vendors can get, to lots more than that.

Broad US specialty tea demand is just something else, a more distant potential threshold.  But again, hearing a slight buzz in "online tea circles" may not amount to a shift in demand that really impacts farmers that much.  Interest in Nepal tea drew some attention some years back but I'm not sure that my friend Narendra, a small producer there, benefitted much from that.  It seems like as demand grows so does supply, and temporary imbalance that limits producers' commercial success is just as common as the opposite.

Great Mississippi Tea Company teas

I'm not going to run through their entire line, but I'll say a little about a couple of versions, which was part of what we discussed.  Later on I'll try some and say more in review form.  Let's start with flavored teas:

photo credit their Faceook page

The point here seems clear enough, to make flavored tea versions that aren't completely identical to what is already on specialty grocery store shelves.  Their description of these:  Mississippi Mint, Grilled Southern Peach, Mississippi Mud, and Colonel Grey.  Their Earl Grey variation describes how that works (from a sales page):

This is a Black Magnolia based tea that is flavored with premium bergamot oil then blended with orange peel, lavender flowers, and sage.

So a variation of Twining's "Lady Grey," using lavender versus cornflower, adding orange peel to the bergamot, and sage.  Plain sage is actually my overall favorite tisane.  It's nice to get a slightly better version than the ground stuff typically found in a spice jar but it's still well worth it to try dumping a teaspoon of that spice-jar version in hot water to see what comes of it.  This Earl Grey sounds nice; sage would complement the rest, and the two other inputs sound positive.  Maybe one more description of a smoked tea version before considering a plain one:

Grilled Southern Peach:  This is a pecan wood cold smoked black and oolong tea blend with dried peach pieces. The pecan wood smoke lends a vanilla note to the tea. 

So a Russian caravan blend theme with dried peach for fruit input; nice.  I don't think I need to tell any readers here how hard it can be to find a well-made and well-balanced smoked tea version.  The tea that sounds the best to me is a black tea version, kind of a personal favorite range, even though I'm more on sheng pu'er these days, and oolong might be a second favorite, in general:

Black Magnolia: This particular black tea is lightly oxidized to allow for its more delicate flavors to come to the forefront of the tea... This has flavor notes of sweet potatoes, molasses, malt, and stone fruit. 

their Black Magnolia, photo credit their sales page

It's always a judgement call whether or not to address value as an issue but let's do that.  This black tea sells for $45 for 4 ounces, or around $20 for 50 grams.  Is that a good value, in relation to a good Chinese black tea version?  In a sense no, but in a broader sense that's not really the right question.  You can find quite good Chinese black tea for around $10 for 50 grams, and $15 opens up the range to most of what's out there that's getting on towards as good as it gets.

Of course I'm mixing subjects here.  Saying that $8-9 can buy you upper medium level quality Dian Hong on Yunnan Sourcing isn't the same as comparing an option for what might be the best black tea being produced at any significant scale in the US (or maybe the only decent orthodox / specialty black tea version made in volume, so the best by default, and also the worst).  Let's compare it to the lowest price black tea out of a well-known Austin, Texas shop, the West China Tea Company--to those familiar with him, the one ran by So Han Fan, who creates nice Youtube content):  

Nannuo Sun-Dried Red 曬乾紅茶 (30 grams for $11.99)

...The oxidation gives this tea its refreshingly light astringency and its deep, sweet woody character. This tea was our introduction into the world of Shài Gān Hóng Chá ("Sun Dried Red Teas"). The juicy freshness of this uncooked red makes it a great starter red tea for folks just beginning their red tea journey or who might be unaccustomed to the astringency of small-leaf, cooked red teas.

I'm quite well accustomed to a broad range of black teas but I still like this style of Dian Hong; it's not necessarily mostly a "beginner tea."  But I do tend to recommend Dian Hong and light rolled oolong as two main starting points, so I agree.  The Great Mississippi black tea just mentioned is selling for 43 cents per gram (at the lowest volume), with this at 40 cents per gram, as the West China Tea Company least expensive loose black tea.  Fair enough.  

Comparing final tea experience results, the quality, between higher end, curated, Chinese specialty tea and that from a producer who started within the last decade isn't fair.  They should be granted a full decade of learning curve time prior to going head to head with the best from a 1000+ year old tea tradition.  Where the Mississippi tea actually stands for quality, in general, you need to brew and taste to find out.  That sales page mentions winning an award, which is a good start, but I say over and over here that I trust my own experience over stories, and recommend that others do the same.  

Novelty is something else though; you sometimes pay more to try something different.  I remember visiting Korea once, hectically looking for shops in an older part of Seoul, and in a rush I bought a couple of versions that cost in the range of $1 / gram.  In terms of experienced quality level versus all teas from other origins they weren't that good, but related to novelty they were worth it, to me.

Then you also have to consider how I'm still stuck in the context of someone who knows what Yunnan Sourcing and the West China Tea Company sells, and a crazy range of other vendors.  For $12 buying one ounce (28 grams) of tea you can brew a dozen large cups, the same expense for two Starbucks drinks.  Or maybe more cups than that; it gets complicated about brewing tea twice and people liking different infusion strengths.

It all sounds good to me.  The blends sound unique enough to bring something slightly different to the table, and even with a touch of minor flaw here or there, if it works out that way, the orthodox teas would make for a novel experience.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Phongsaly Laos Tea sheng "pu'er"


Very kind of them, the Phongsaly Laos Tea company sent me some tea to try and review, a Laos version of sheng "pu'er-like" tea.  This is going to be familiar to a lot of people from seeing a social media promotion campaign, and lots of mentions of their products.  I've tried a version before, reviewed here, and it was pretty good.  I'll place it in relation to other "border tea" later on (not what I tend to call that, versions from other places than Yunnan, which I usually just call sheng).

There are old tea trees growing in Laos, with specific plant age kind of hard to determine.  I have heard that the 400 year old claim does have a basis in a good estimate of when tea plants were first grown locally, which must have been backed up by a botanical study along with limited written history, given how things go in Laos and here. I don't think the modern Laos and Thai script even existed then, and related records in other languages probably didn't either. But that doesn't mean these leaves are from plants of any specific age, or even growing conditions.  I personally go with how a tea is anyway, versus the stories.

that's really "world," but not related to this blog

It would make sense to mention the "tea in the ancient world" part, given that it is the name of this blog.  Borrowing that phrase actually makes more sense than it first seems.  That name is a reference to something that my wife used to say, about how all sorts of things in Thailand are "from the ancient world."  That could be clothing styles, old-style markets, or just about anything with ties to older forms of culture.  It was funny how she put it, not clarifying that the practice or style is from the ancient world, not the actual item.  

Translating from a first to a second language works like that; slight bits of meaning get lost or shifted.  Her functional use of English is great, better than my Thai could ever be, but that kind of thing still comes up.  

Anyway, this "ancient world" theme seemingly isn't that common here but it's also not unheard of.  So it seems to me that this producer taking up this reference essentially means "traditional style."  "Tea from the ancient world" might work better; I had intentionally included the odd framing.

Maybe in the strictest sense it's not that, traditional style tea in Laos, because the continuous Yunnan, China tradition of making sheng pu'er has probably evolved over time, and seemingly was re-imported to the Phongsaly area quite recently, within the last decade.  That's splitting hairs though; sheng pu'er has been around, and I don't think anyone knows if it was being made in Laos in a very similar form 50 to 100 years ago, or prior.  If one person there said that it definitely had been, and another said that it hadn't, then you wouldn't really know which account was more accurate.  It's hard enough interpreting online feedback about standard versions today, in tea groups, or placing blog reviews.  

They were definitely making tea to be brewed for a long time, so I'm talking here about the style, to be clear.  Kenneth of Monsoon Tea claims that miang, eating cured tea in Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, predates brewing tea, partly a reference to a Tale of Tea text claim.  But who knows; tracing back oral traditions is problematic.

miang, cured tea prepared for consumption as food, not brewing

It's my impression, based on talking to Anna of Kinnari Tea, who is in the North of Laos right now on a tea related visit, that Laos tea traditions evolved as locally oriented, related to what individuals did more than mainstream preferences, at least in modern times.  That makes sense when you consider that there wouldn't have been as significant a national trade economy until recently, with products traveling from various regions to be sold in others.  Prior to relatively recently farmers would've made their own tea and traded agricultural goods with others locally.  Tea in Vietnam is still a lot like that; quite varied in style, tying to local themes.  A nice outcome is that although even general styles can seem hard to pin down, what a tea category is supposed to be, with some versions notably flawed, other versions can be novel, interesting, and very pleasant.

A bit more unrelated tangent:  when we first started traveling in Laos just over 13 years ago, my wife and I, and then her mother and our son with us, they were just then finishing putting in a national electrical distribution infrastructure, which surely still has limits today.  Oddly their cell communication infrastructure had "leapfrogged" ahead of Thailand's at one point, around the time of those early visits, eliminating the need to "wire" the whole country for land-line phone communication. 


First infusion:  this is a bit light, typical for my approach, using the first fast round as an early indicator.  Flavor is good; kind of what I expected from the sweet, rich, and warm but bright dry leaf scent.  It's slightly fruity, or at least fruity along with bright and complex floral tones.  It's also way too early for a flavor list to make sense, or to get into feel and aftertaste, so I'll just move on.

Second infusion:  mineral stands out as much as anything, ramped up a lot from a faint trace in a light first round.  It's a dry range mineral tone, towards limestone.  That aspect and effect seems to counter sweetness, as bitterness sort of can, but maybe more so, since bitterness and sweetness end up being a pleasant natural pairing.  It's odd noticing mineral as a dominant flavor that blocks out picking up the rest; it tends to not usually work out like that.

The flavor that comes across beyond that is pleasant, but non-distinct. It's not bitter.  I would expect that mineral aspect to loosen up a bit over the next couple of rounds, and other aspects to stand forward more, resulting in a more satisfying flavor list.  Feel is fine for this, a bit dry, but with a reasonable structure.

Third infusion:  it is balancing better.  For some this heavy mineral tone would be a great experience, for others not so much.  It can often stand out in older plant source sheng; maybe this really is that.  Complexity beyond that is fine, it's just that the rest mixes.  I'd put it more at vague floral range than fruit, or maybe mixed-input floral range.  A warm spice-like tone is pleasant.  That's probably complex too, with one component like a mild root (eg. ginseng) and a faint trace a warmer aromatic spice, one of the incense bark versions.  

It seems like good tea, just not what I expected.  It's odd that bitterness is this light; it would be easy to miss even mentioning it, except that I would tend to expect more from young sheng in general.  That mineral and a seemingly connected feel structure, and bit of dryness, imply to me that this has a type of depth that would transition positively, at least initially, not just fading out intense flavors over a few years.  For the long term I'm not sure.  Overall intensity isn't that notable, across any range, and after 5 or 6 years stored in Bangkok this might just be fading.

Fourth infusion:  I'm brewing this a little longer than I've been a lot of sheng lately, out towards 10 seconds versus closer to 5, because flavor intensity is limited, and none of the rest is too much at that medium infusion strength level.  It might be interesting to try a fast infusion and see how that goes.  This has really hit its stride, balancing the best that it has so far.  If some floral tone picked up a bit this would be a lot closer to what I expected; it seems like there's a slightly muted range that's typically well represented in sheng versions.  It has that subdued character that I've experienced in some aged Yiwu versions, how a sweet, initially flavor-intense sheng version might come across after a dozen years of aging, with plenty left to experience but most flavor range dropped out.

The other complexity and warmer tones do work, just in a different sense.  More bitterness wouldn't hurt but this very moderate level works for me, especially with level of sweetness moderate, and typical corresponding flavor range, the floral and fruit.  Aftertaste is not missing, just limited, not noteworthy enough to add much about that.  Feel also has some complexity but that's limited too.  It's not a throat feel that some people value highly, more a general structure, and touch of now light dryness across the center of your mouth.

It's hard placing this against my expectations for "gushu" versions.  I've not been drinking a lot of varied sheng over the last 5 months or so (some but not a lot), and I'm not certain how much of that was gushu, without much even being presented as such.  Pronounced mineral content and moderate overall intensity can match that range, related to what I've noticed in versions, but it's not as if that one input is something I've ever been able to peg to a set of clear outcomes.  Sheng versions vary related to a lot of inputs.

Fifth infusion:  I did brew this a little faster but it doesn't shift results that much.  That didn't resolve having sweetness and some flavor intensity range on the light side; it works better to shift the balance of aspects present, not to ramp up what isn't standing out at all.  Feel is still pleasant; not thin for this being brewed light.  I do like it.  There was a time a version like this would seem a bit unfulfilling or incomplete to me, but drinking aged versions with some parts dropped out developed familiarity with that kind of experience.  For someone who really loves pronounced sweetness or bitterness, or heavy floral or fruit tone, or even a normal intensity level, this may not seem positive.  If one is able to appreciate strong mineral input and complexity more in the range of a more vague root spice it's nice.  

To be clear this has lots more going on than drinking a ginseng tisane; it's that depth and complexity that makes tea a better experience, in general.  That hint of an aromatic spice really makes the rest work.  But then it is a little strange even bringing up that a tea version is more complex than a typical tisane.

Sixth infusion:  this isn't fading, it doesn't seem, so this is probably only at the halfway point, but it's not transitioning that much either.  Earlier in my blogging experience I would've been quicker to describe these flavors as wood tones, I'm just out of the habit of that as much as it doesn't make sense in this case.  It's like that; a relatively fresh hardwood, maybe maple.  That sounds more damning than I intend it.  If you say a tea tastes like cardboard, for example, that's a lot like saying it's just bad, and mushroom can be used in a similar way, depending on preference.  

It would be funny if I'm just now coming down with covid and part of my sense of taste dropped out first.  I shouldn't make a joke of that. Probably it's just more in a different flavor range.  Very old plant source tea being a bit muted across some flavor range doesn't strike me as unbelievable, or perhaps even as atypical.  I just would've expected a lot more bitterness, sweetness, and overall intensity from most sheng, with pronounced floral tone or some fruit kind of typical.  

Maybe I didn't give this enough rest time, or some factor had affected my experience of it, so I tried a second tasting, only some days later, still not really enough to account for most of a standard shipping rest.

Second tasting:

my tasting assistant.  she didn't try this, but did pass on negative feedback about aged Xiaguan.

I had tried this tea within a week of getting it; maybe a shipping related issue came up, a flattening out due to experiencing unusual storage or temperature during transit.  It had seemed unlikely, since it was shipped within Thailand, and wasn't in transit for long (about 3 days), and probably never flew, but it still could be a factor.  It could definitely have shifted temperature, getting hot rather than cold, or might've been stored a bit dry during order processing.  

Or I might have eaten breakfast too soon before trying it, fresh mango, and that might've shifted my palate related to the experience of sweetness.  Oddly that's just the opposite of Josh mentioning that trying strawberries after drinking matcha bumps the sweetness for those in a recent tea and food pairing discussion.  

I'll skip the formal, round-by-round structure and just pass on notes.  The first round seems the same:  heavy mineral.  On the second that spice aspect I had noticed earlier kicks in stronger and earlier this time, maybe into clove range.  By round two I'm not really "getting" that much sweetness, or significant floral or fruit range, but the profile does seem a little more standard for sheng, a bit more complex and intense.  I don't dislike any sheng that's not quite sweet, floral, or fruity but cut back those plus bitterness, intensity, and overall complexity and a version doesn't seem as much like sheng.

Sweetness does seem more pronounced, tasting this for a third round.  It is centered more on root spice and that clove range, along with mild floral background, like chrysanthemum, but it seems more intense.  I'm not sure if that implies that one of those two factors made a difference, or maybe both did, and in another week maybe this will be even better, more settled.  Again it hadn't seemed like flawed or poor quality tea before, just atypical in character, even for a Laos version, as much as it makes any sense to specify that as a consistent generality.

That reminds me of the general question about how "border tea" is in general, for sheng from outside of Yunnan.  I don't think it makes any sense to combine everything not from there into a category, or even from any one of those countries, really (Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar). I've not tried any sheng pu'er-like tea from India, and that would be something else for being a very new development, early experiments, with laphet not completely unrelated but quite different.  There does seem to me to be a characteristic bitterness in some versions from Myanmar but that's about it.  Plant types would vary a lot, and growing conditions, like micro-climate, soil types, processing inputs; basically everything.

Bitterness seems more pronounced in this version than I remember from Saturday.  I really do believe that people vary more in day to day perception than we tend to notice from within; that could be it.  I can sort of predict how a twice-weekly run is going to go based on how I feel but a lot of the time I'm wrong, and I have a great run or else struggle, for no clear reason.  To me single tea tasting reviews aren't necessarily meaningless but it's a limited input take on a tea.

It seems to be settling into warmer wood tones, that same shift.  It's more developed and complex than I remember.  Sweetness is only a bit more pronounced, not radically different, but it balances better.  All this reminded me to go back and check a review trying a version in 2019, and that was actually sweet and citrusy, so kind of completely different.  I'm interpreting the spice as more complex in this tasting than last one, still including some subtle ginseng oriented range, but now more into clove.  

There's still no typical floral range or fruit notes, or they are very limited as background elements, and bitterness, sweetness, and intensity are still moderate, just slightly more pronounced.  There is a chance this tea would be relatively different in another two weeks, given closer to a month of rest, but I doubt it.

This wouldn't register as a personal favorite, but it is good, in a limited sense.  It's hard to extend that to an objective, overall quality level assessment, due to some range not matching preference and some other parts relating to character gaps.  I suppose general quality expectations also tend to relate to price, which I'll not look up.  In some cases teas from outside Yunnan sell for less due to demand being lower, and in others for more due to supply being limited, so a price to quality level mapping tends to not work in such cases anyway.