Those friends I keep mentioning and I met with Susmit Pratik online not so long ago, hearing about how new tea types and region developments go. I've received a really interesting looking set of samples since, and this is the first review of those, of an Indian version of sheng. That's right, sheng, but from wild growing Assamica plants in India.
before the others joined that session
It's going to be that much further from Yunnan sheng (which is really pu'er) for terroir differences, and especially related to the two versions of Assamica not being at all the same. Or so hearsay consensus goes. Genetics studies are something else; it's hard to place how the differences they cite would relate to processed and brewed tea.
I'll just say that it looks dark in the dry form, and get on with tasting.
first infusion: a little light, the standard approach, but enough to start on description. Even light it's clear this is different. It's not bitter, not really astringent, but a warm dried fruit aspect stands out, which I think might be closest to fig. Earthiness and warm tones fill in beyond that, including a good bit of mineral. There's enough bitterness to it that it seems in the general range of sheng but the flavors seem much different.
Terroir differences often seem to work out like that, that flavor range is what shifts across a tea type made in different places, and then base character beyond that can stay more common. Bitterness varies by a lot of factors, with tea plant type a main one of those. I should probably say more along with the impression of the next round. I could unpack the flavor that does come across more, which seems to include some cocoa, but that tends to shift over the first three rounds anyway, and what the tea expresses across a main infusion cycle seems more relevant.
second infusion: I let this brew for around 15 seconds to get through the early part of the transitions, even though it would've been more optimum to go with 10, at the typical high proportion I tend to use. Astringency and warm base mineral really come out in this; those will taper back brewed a little lighter. Bitterness is present but hardly at all in comparison with the level of those other aspects.
It's hard to describe what I mean by "astringency and warm base mineral." This tastes a little like water coming out of a rusty iron pipe, but in a good sense. I think there is more of that pleasant dried fruit and cocoa range beyond that, but the mineral really stands out. This mouthfeel is really in between what is typical of sheng and some kinds of black tea, along with the flavor tones mapping back to that just as well. I'm not saying that this is highly oxidized sheng, but I will add more about that.
When you first see this tea you wonder how it can be so dark. Black tea isn't always that dark, or shu typically isn't, and aged sheng might not get that black after 20 years. It's almost impossible for a typical sheng version to turn that color in 3 or 4 years time, regardless of storage conditions or starting point. So what caused it? I don't know. It almost can't be high oxidation level; it's too dark even for that, and they must have processed this in a way somewhat similar to sheng. If the leaves started out a dark purple that could be part of it. I really don't know; I'll try to ask Susmit.
Then I'm not saying it's not like sheng, or that it's right in between sheng and black tea. It seems mostly like sheng, but unique. I wouldn't expect oxidation as an input to lead to this result, or at least not that alone, so I'm not intending to even imply that was it. More oxidized sheng should lose most bitterness, and pick up sweetness, and maybe warm in tone a little, but not shift into black tea character range at all. It would have to almost be shai hong to get to that point, really in between sheng and lightly oxidized black tea. I think the next infusion, brewed lightly, will tell more of the story of where this is headed. I haven't really filled in how much I like it yet, and I'm still placing it, but that should work then too.
brewing to be intense in short infusions (and dark, for young sheng)
third infusion: the balance comes together brewed properly, and through an early opening up phase. That fig range fruit is present, and it leans a little towards cocoa. Warm mineral is really pronounced but in a nicer balance with the rest, not dominant. Bitterness is essentially as strong a factor as the mineral in this, not how sheng usually goes, with mineral more of a supporting base tone. And that's pretty much it. The astringency / feel is novel, a little heavy and structured, seemingly tied to the warm mineral tone. Something about the way it covers your whole mouth, towards the front as much as anything, feels like a black tea effect as much as sheng, but maybe I'm stretching interpretation a bit in saying that.
I like it. Novelty as an input is hard to place. I like novelty, so that makes this experience positive for me, but for others it could be off-putting. If it was supposed to be identical to Yunnan sheng it didn't work. Given plenty of allowance for terroir and plant type input difference, which I think one should expect to make the tea different, it's just as it should be, still sheng, but a unique version of it. Not "sheng pu'er" for the OCD purist language users out there, since it's not from Yunnan, but to me it's still sheng, "raw [something-similar]."
fourth infusion: more of the same, maybe evolving to a slightly smoother range, or the flavor could be picking up some depth. It's interesting considering what else what I've described as warm mineral might seem like to someone. It could be interpreted as a towards-inky spice range, or just ink, I guess. It's not completely unlike fruit, just way into a deep and rich dried fruit range. Fig is close enough, but it's heavier, warmer, and sharper. It's like that one warm catchy flavor in apple cider, but then many times over more intense, until it comes across differently.
It's hard to notice but sweetness is making this unusual balance work. Since it's not pronounced it's easy to miss, but drop that out and it wouldn't be the same. Adding just a little sourness might make it much harder to relate to as well; it's not sour. I suppose it could be interpreted as quite sour, but I don't parse interpreted flavor experience that way. I've stopped including cocoa / cacao in the description here because it's heavier into mineral flavor, or as I've been going on about something at least related, like a very warm bark spice.
fifth infusion: I see it as still improving. Bitterness has eased up, and astringency and the heavy mineral, leaving space for the other pleasant range to shine through. I think bitterness, astringency, and warm mineral had worked in this before in earlier infusions, but balanced more evenly with fruit it's even better. The fruit is close enough to dried Chinese date, jujube, which--unless I'm getting those wrong, which is possible--come in different varieties, with this more like the sweet version that's close to date than a more sour version.
Feel and aftertaste balance a little better too. It's coating more of my mouth than seeming sharper in limited range, and warm and pleasant aftertaste persists better. It's nothing like that bitterness turning to sweetness, or focus on the rear of the throat, so judged against a standard sheng pu'er expectation it might not seem a close match.
sixth infusion: catchier yet; this might have a few nice rounds of change ahead. I'll describe it more at 7 and probably not list out 5 or 6 more rounds of notes.
seventh infusion: this seems to be leveling off; it's still pleasant but the catchiest range might be thinning a little. Some of the mineral and astringency form seems to be drifting towards normal sheng range, towards a green wood flavor and feel, versus that very heavier mineral. Since I'm not really one for explaining late round infusions in the same detail, and tasting for over an hour isn't in my schedule, I'll probably leave it at that.
Definitely different! I really liked it, but it was hard to place if that related mostly to novelty or if it would seem even better once I adjusted to it more (or both, I guess). I think results could be even better with brewing adjusted to try it even lighter. I do adjust infusion time and strength round to round but I suspect that this particular tea might be good brewed very lightly.
I talked to Susmit, the vendor, about why this tea is so dark, and he thought it had to be mostly related to the novel plant type. That's really the only interpretation that makes sense, since this could be a bit more oxidized than typical sheng, but it still shouldn't be this dark, and the level of oxidation that would account for color and character difference should've dropped out the bitterness that still was present. It's just something different, related to plant type, terroir, and whatever else.
To reference Ketlee's description, I'm not sure which sheng version this was, and they have a few. I originally guessed it was their 2019 autumn version but it turned out to be their spring 2020 version, so this is revised:
The dry leaf smells sweet with notes of honey and almond desserts dominating it. The wet leaves after the wash have aroma of red berries and Indian gooseberry. The first infusion is of pale yellow colour and has notes of black grapes and walnuts. From the second infusion you start getting notes of ripe red berries, black raisin and a woody dryness on the finish. The woody character is more apparent in the third infusion with a stark cedarwood note which is minty as well as woody. The fourth infusion has a bit of spice, specifically cloves. These spice notes are present in all our wild teas and there is no doubt about the fact that they present themselves wildly different in different teas. The fourth infusion is also thicker in texture and you can notice that the leaves have opened themselves for a complete infusion.
As you go further into your gongfu session, you are greeted with various sweet and fruity notes like ripe plum, honeysuckle, raisins and honey. The woody notes are also better explored in later steeps with interesting woody notes such as sandalwood, cedarwood and even agarwood which develops into a lot more intense version of itself with an year of age!
That's about as close as vendor descriptions tend to ever get to what I write, which would always vary some related to varying interpretations of aspects. Brewing it a little lighter might make it easy to pick up fruit aspects, and would moderate astringency, which was at a good level as I experienced it.
Readers here would be familiar with how to relate to brewing instructions, but I should mention how I interpret their brewing guidance (which I didn't even check prior to preparing it; I just don't):
Steeping Time : 3 minutes western style, 20 seconds gongfu style adding 10 seconds every subsequent steep
Leaf Quantity: Treat it as a classic Indian tea, 3 gms per 120 ml for gongfu and 5 grams for 400 ml western style
Recommended Steeping Temperature : 90-95°C
Recommended Steeping Method : Gongfu style
Those last two lines work; I wouldn't expect this to give as good results brewed Western style, and using water a bit off boiling point temperature is probably fine (which a lot of tea drinkers have almost have philosophical differences in opinion about). It goes without saying but brewing this for one infusion only Western style would be madness; this is a really durable tea, as any variation of sheng always is.
Using 3 grams for 120 ml for a Gongfu approach is probably on the order of half the proportion I use, but I take it that the difference can be adjusted back out in changing infusion time. I tend to use around 10 second infusion times, adjusted in relation to how the prior round went, in some cases shorter.
I can never relate to those staggered progressions (add 10 seconds a steep), since the tea won't change intensity that fast. A 20, 30, and 40 second cycle of three rounds wouldn't be so different than brewing double that tea to water proportion for 6 infusions, but doubling infusion time over the first 5 and 6 rounds isn't how that normally works, even for teas that are less durable than this one, that "brew out" faster. Anyway, it's easy to adjust timing based on the last round, regardless of whether you are trying to follow a vendor's guidelines or just winging it.
Related to price this works out to 32 cents a gram (at full cake price; the 2019 version had been 25 cents a gram in the first write-up version). Since there are no other examples of this kind of tea there is also no market price. That seems fair, for as novel and pleasant as this tea is, and in relation to that not being atypical of Yunnan sheng pricing range, maybe just high in relation to the range of most Indian teas. That would work out to over $115 or so a cake (a standard 357 gram version). That would've come as a shock to me a few years ago, but that's in the general range of what vendors charge for good quality sheng pu'er versions now [a statement that worked better for the $90 range for the other 2019 version; over $100 is a bit high for upper medium quality Yunnan sheng].
That general pricing shift for sheng seems more fair if you consider that the range of "good quality" probably is different than teas offered a half dozen years ago. The range of versions offered shifts over time, and demand increasing pushes that pricing up too, so in the end it just is what it is.