Friday, November 12, 2021

Ketlee 2020 Manipur (Indian) Spring Wild White Tea


Reviewing the last of a set of samples of interesting and novel Indian teas, provided by Susmit of Ketlee for review (many thanks!).  Earlier posts covered trying Indian sheng (a variation of Yunnan pu'er), Sikkim and Manipur origin Indian oolongs, with this a wild origin white.  We met Susmit in a meetup discussion described here, talking about changing Indian tea styles, and shifts in awareness and demand.  I'll add his description before posting this, and get right to the tasting part.

2020 Spring Wild White Tea (the Ketlee site listing)  ($7 per 25 grams)

Grown in the wilderness of Manipur, this tea from very old plants are mother nature's gift to us. It has been one of our most awaited teas yet, after the last years harvest sold out way earlier than expected!

The tea starts floral and fruity with hints of fresh coriander leaves and spearmint. The spice notes are soothing and present just on the finish. The fruit notes are reminiscent of litchi, green apples and kiwi. The flowery notes are dominant in yellow flowers with a hint of honeysuckle. There is a hint of sandalwood in the later steeps which blends seamlessly with the flowery character. The liquor coats your mouth and is extremely silky.

It's cool the way that the general impression and flavor categories are almost a complete match with the review that follows, and not one single individual description is common to both.  That's how that goes.  I don't necessarily see that as a problem with tasting skill or a critical limitation of tasting description, it's just that any impression isn't as specific as the descriptions and associations tend to sound.  It's an interpretation, and those would always vary.  Every part of what I wrote matches in general, about complex fruit and floral range, limited spice range, freshness, transition in character across infusions, warm tones, balanced and integrated individual aspects, and thick feel.

Related to accounting for real change in tasting experience, trying a tea a year later (letting it settle due to aging), brewed with different water, using a slightly different brewing process (proportion and timing) would shift results a little.

Related to value / pricing, $14 per 50 grams is getting up there, but for tea that there is only one version of available that's hard to peg in terms of a market rate.  Related to quality level and positive experience this is probably still a good value; it's that pleasant and unique.

It goes without saying, but for people not so familiar with this scope buying "wild" origin teas is a way to ensure they are not grown using chemicals.  There is no way that a producer is out spraying down the forest to protect tea plants already thriving within a balanced ecosystem.  You have to be careful that teas aren't misrepresented, that they're not really plantation grown tea that sounds better described differently, but I'm pretty sure there is no significant risk of that from this source.  If a vendor is buying and reselling something they didn't work closely with producers to have created they might just be passing on a story they heard, not necessarily making that up themselves.  

Evaluating tea origin stories can be tricky.  Hatvala of Vietnam, Kinnari of Laos (which doesn't necessarily serve as a direct retail outlet, but are out there), and Monsoon of Thailand are other examples of vendors who work closely with local producers.  They could all be relied upon to tell accurate stories about origins, because they all played a role in both sourcing and in initiating specific forms of tea production, working directly with local residents who actually harvest and make the teas.


First infusion:  there's a touch of smoke in this; that's different.  It's so faint that I don't expect it to hang around long as infusions pass, but it does affect this first infusion quite a bit.  It's relatively positive; in the right form and balance smoke can be nice.  The tea probably came in contact with smoke, versus that being a natural taste.  Beyond that it's sweet, rich, and complex, even for the first infusion often being lighter in flavor.  

I'll do better with a flavor list next round but for now a bit of warm depth compliments lighter and sweeter fruit range nicely.  This might taste a bit like peach and vanilla, with the depth relating to mild mineral tone and aromatic wood, which is towards spice.  Feel is rich, not so unusual for white teas.  It's great how warmth, sweetness and depth all indicate some degree of oxidation and freshness and brightness show that to be limited.  A great start!

Second infusion:  I didn't try to use a longer infusion time to bump up intensity, brewing this for no longer than 10 seconds, including the pours.  Again it's interesting how this covers so much aspect scope.  I suppose going from the appearance slight inconsistency in degrees of oxidation might have led to that (more apparent in wet leaves), probably more an accident than something intentional, which worked out well in this case.  

The smoke isn't noticeable at all, replaced by heavy and complex floral tones; it would probably take at least two flowers to describe that range.  Fruit is also present but less forward and intense, now maybe more towards dried apricot.  The warmer range is pleasant, still a light warm mineral with cedar.  As if that wasn't enough there is a vegetal range of aspects that seems to extend across both, as warm, sweet dried autumn leaf tied to the warm part, and towards an actual vegetable matching the lighter tones, or let's say a lot like holy basil (tulsi, to some).

This seems a good place to guess where this is headed; I'd expect transitions to level off this round and then stay stable for most of the rest.  Even minor difference in timing would change brewed tea effect so that could seem like transitions, but not really represent that, if I shift timing a little to longer or shorter.

Third infusion:  warmth picked up; that range increased.  It's interesting how there's so much going on in this that lots of interpretations would make sense [interesting that I wrote that in notes before reading Susmit's description].  This fruit tone could be regarded as any number of things, like dried mango instead, maybe part of that heading towards pumpkin, including citrus peel (a warm version; maybe even grapefruit).  Same for the warmer range.  To me it's quite close to cedar but it's not that far from dried tamarind, or "on the other side" not completely unlike metallic range.  

The floral range is a bigger part of the story I'll probably not do justice to.  One part is rich and heavy, like lavender.  It's more complex than that though, so a hint of sweet depth might seem like rose, or the brighter range like jasmine, just a subdued and integrated version of jasmine.  On the lighter and sweeter side it's more like orchid.  That's a lot of flowers; the range really does seem to cover a lot of scope.  Still it all makes perfect sense together; it integrates.

This is interesting for being one of the more flavor complex teas I've tried in awhile.  The great versions of Darjeeling I've been trying (most from Gopaldhara) were like that but they seemed to often hit 3 or 4 notes hard, with a couple of supporting aspects, and this seems broader, maybe even to represent a range of processing outcomes.  It's not like a blend though, since they probably "got there" by mixing plant versions that may be slightly different genetically (the plants shift in genetic profile as they grow in the wild, as people change in related background over time).  The leaves could've oxidized just a bit differently, as I mentioned, but were all grown and processed together.  Those Darjeeling got the most out of one type of material processed in one way, accentuating novel, positive aspects through consistent processing, which just happened to include enough diverse supporting aspect range to give those good balance. 

Fourth infusion:  this isn't so different than last round, but it did shift a little.  The fruit picked up, evening up with the floral, or maybe moving past it.  It tastes a little like juicyfruit gum, unusually bright and sweet.  I probably did accidentally brew this a few seconds faster, causing warmer range to drop back, and it probably would've shifted a little without that.  

This is the exact opposite of white teas that suffer from either being too subtle, not tasting like much, or not spanning much range, just covering some warm cinnamon with a touch of floral (for shou mei character), or bai mu dan that's floral and sweet with a good bit of melon, and that's it.  The only way that someone wouldn't like this tea is if they are really into other aspect range and aren't flexible about that.  That's wouldn't be as negative as it might seem; someone could get really hooked on sheng pu'er and only make exceptions for some oolong or black tea range, and that would still be plenty to experience.  And I suppose not everyone loves fruit range in teas like I do.

Oddly a Thai Oriental Beauty variation I tried this year isn't so far off this.  It always had reminded me of a white tea more than an oolong, and was heavy on cinnamon and floral tones, maybe with a touch of citrus or light fruit mixed in, but not covering quite as much range as this.  You would think it would've been much more oxidized, matching that typical style, but it really wasn't.  For being moderate cost tea I thought that was great for quality level and novelty, it just didn't land in the typical OB style range.  Then this part is crazy; I liked that tea even better mixed with another white tea to stretch out the range and give it a bit more depth of feel.

Fifth infusion:  I'll leave off here; it's enough to say about one tea, and later transitions won't change an overall impression by much.  Of course this tea will have good durability and will make another 5 very pleasant rounds, using limited timing and high proportion to prepare it.  Balance is just great, and it's still evolving.  The warmth now reminds me of cinnamon, with fruit on to more like cooked peach.  The earlier floral range gave way to that fruit, and the earlier cedar aromatic aspect faded to become that spice, but hints of both give it great depth (in the sense of complexity).

I've said that the feel is rich but I can add to that; in addition to feeling full there is just a hint of dryness that gives it a pleasant edge.  Aftertaste experience is nice, with parts trailing over to make the experience seem longer, for including an extra dimension.  This probably is one of the better white teas I've ever tried.  I expected it to be novel and pleasant but not this complex and refined.  They really nailed it, which had to start with high quality material suited to this plant type.  The best version of a wild source white Monsoon Thai white tea included some similarities, just not quite the same positive result across so much scope.  I thought that was really good even for that; white tea doesn't usually compete with good Darjeeling and fruity oolong for complexity and intensity.

I've not really said where the level of sweetness stands, but explaining a lot about floral and fruit range implied it was above average in level, as I experienced it.  That makes a lot of difference in final effect.  It's hard to imagine a tea including too much natural sweetness, although I suppose that's possible, but if the level is lower that causes tea aspects to not tie together as well.  For a tea like this it could swap out some sweetness for some savory range, like sundried tomato, and that would still work, it would balance.  In saying that this kind of resembles sundried tomato a little too, but to me this last round is closer to dried persimmon, which is related but different.  In between plum and prune works to approximate that, if dried persimmon isn't familiar.

All in all really nice tea.  I expected it to be pleasant but not like this.

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