Friday, April 29, 2022

Internet fame and tea awareness development


I've been considering writing about what it means to have been the subject of an interview related to being a tea blogger, or something along that line.  It doesn't mean anything in particular, of course, just a touch of exposure, probably partly as thanks for helping a tea vendor and friend with minor editing and online mentions (Sergey Shevelev, the founder of Moychay).

the unconventional grooming look has progressed well since then

I keep discussing a deeper and related theme, about people promoting tea awareness, across different channels and in different forms.  As it has always stood more discussion and group promotion occurs on an even and open basis among many participants, not as led by any one expert, or "cult of personality" center.  There are exceptions.  As much as many people question Don Mei and Mei Leaf's business orientation and ethics to be sure he has done as much as anyone in promoting tea awareness, through Youtube basics theme content creation.  The ethics issues were mainly about fair pricing and getting communicated details right, both kind of grey areas, with a take on the rest here.  The Global Tea Hut mixing of tea and religion themes ends up being criticized, which I addressed here, but as I see it to some extent it's really more about people with both interests sharing and developing those forms together than as a mainstream influence of tea culture.  

Others aspire to fulfill a similar role.  Most often that seems to stem directly from a strong personal interest in advancing tea awareness and culture, to help others, and of course also to business interest.  Sergey of Moychay, that interviewer related to the video I've mentioned, and So Han Fan of a Texas based tea business are good examples of this.  Both create online content to help introduce people to tea basics, and from there extend to exploring interesting aspects of tea culture and background.  It comes up in other places; this Polish vendor seems to have driven their business and tea awareness through Youtube promotion, seemingly with Rafał Przybylok filling the role of a high profile tea promoter.

another interesting tea persona

If we have an isolated few individuals stepping forward to serve as promising tea evangelists, and multiple platforms and channels of tea discussion groups, why is it that tea awareness spreads so slowly, that none of this ever worked as a stronger catalyst?  One can only guess, or identify likely partial causes.  One guess is that it's starting from so far from coffee preference scope that interest level doubling a few times isn't noticeable.  

I'm reminded of an interesting video example about exponential growth curves, which is worth watching, from back at the beginning of the spread of covid.  It explains why exposure doubling in a patterned way is especially problematic, just not at first.  The example was about what happens if we repeatedly double the amount of water in the Grand Canyon, on a set interval (I think starting from a low level, in the example, from a liter of water or something such, to make the point more dramatically).  Of course flooding would be severe right away, if you start from doubling a current river level, but if you start with periodically doubling a liter of water instead the doubling doesn't seem noticeable at all for awhile.  Then the second half of the canyon fills in the last time-interval unit, whatever that had been set to.  

So what feels like tea building to a critical mass of interest taking awhile may just be how a slow natural progression of increase would normally feel, in earlier stages.  On the opposite side we kind of get used to the "going viral" theme relating to everyone jumping on an interest, trend, or idea in short order.  But that pattern is something else, related to a fashion trend or app interest spreading faster, with tea preference uptake a different kind of thing.  It spreads through people having experiences, one person connecting through contact with another, not like memes do, where a cute image of a dog or The Rock making a funny face can be copied thousands of times in a week, or a limitless number.

To back up a bit, I've been considering lots of subjects in relation to Youtube content promotion, and it's interesting how the pattern of Youtuber popularity tends to happen.  The form of interest progression might connect.  It takes a content producer a long time to struggle to reach 10,000 followers, and from there the move to 100k can be much faster.  A local Thai lifestyle blogger commented a little on this, making a concerted effort to reach 10k viewers over the last half a year, pushing on to exchange following with other Youtubers doing a series of interviews, and they moved on from 10k to 16k followers within a couple of months.

It reminds me of the Matthew principle:

For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

— Matthew 25:29, RSV.

As I see it this is at the root of the problem people have with the "white privilege," that the real starting points for personal financial success in relation to having a favorable childhood, education, business starting point, and connections really relate to a main cause of someone already being successful prior to their actual business success.  It gets interpreted as the effect from not struggling with minority status, poverty, personal debt, a lack of early childhood support, and so on, but really the keys to success were built up across the first 20 years of everyone's lives, versus there being few limitations blocking them.  Or else they weren't.  Cases where Elon Musk or Donald Trump's parents granted them millions of dollars in start-up funding are something else, but the same pattern applies, that it would take over a lifetime for a normal person to collect together a few million dollars in seed capital.

Only partly related, and tying to another dimension, someone asked in a Quora question what made children stand out as popular, and many answered that wealth or attractiveness would cause that.  That's true, but it's also expectations, at least as I see things and answered that.  By the age of 5 this social role development is largely complete, and by 8 it's all the more solidified, based on what I've experienced from raising two children to or past that age.  I suppose it makes a difference if it really is physical attractiveness, wealth, or expectations related to parents implicitly emphasizing that their children will be social leaders.  It could be seen as their birthright, but only on an implied level; that's what I was getting at.

Really I'm still talking about two different subjects, wealth and class status as an input, and a set of social expectations that has a profound effect on young children.  So does this even connect back to tea themes, to awareness spreading, or to the influence of social leaders in driving that change?  Probably, but I would guess that the patterns aren't simple enough to be easy to follow.  To consider a natural evolution from early start-up to tea industry leader we need to consider an example case.

Yunnan Sourcing as an example

I've used this as an example of a successful tea business in a relatively recent post, and it will work again to support this related point.  I'll cite from external material cited in that post, about Scott Wilson's personal background and perspective, that business founder:

...I came to Yunnan in 1998 and just fell in love with the place, especially the tea and the food. In 2004, I got fed up with being in the states and decided to pursue my dream of living in China and doing something with tea... 

We have a tea room in the Kunming Wholesale tea market. It is a place solely to drink tea. We have a library of more than 600 pu-erhs that are available to try! Our eBay store is our only online presence at the moment. Most business is conducted outside of eBay. In fact, individual customers with small orders can contact me directly and get at least 10% (or more) off the retail price. We will open and before the end of 2009. The latter site will feature products that will ship from the USA instead of China...

So that content is from prior to the end of 2009, or at least 13 years ago.  I could develop my own interpretation of how Scott's personality and later business decisions inform this kind of narrative, but it's more interesting to me which parts of a business story followed, and which didn't develop.  He did use social media content posts to support those sales, but not to the same extent Don Mei and Sergey Shevelev did.  A Facebook vendor support and discussion group has expanded discussion of his business offerings, but that was started by an independent fan, per my understanding.  How could he and his business become uniquely successful then?

It was the right theme at the right time.  Sales site catalog and vending outlets are common now, for tea and any number of other goods, but they certainly weren't in 2009.  Beyond timing the broad product selection, value, and clear descriptions could only come from someone with that degree of product exposure, from years of working within a Chinese sourcing and vending system (5 years, it looks like in that source).

So it wasn't "cult of personality" driven (although Scott is interesting and nice).  Tea blogs and tea discussion circles were well-developed by 2009, but as I see it that was the beginning of a "golden age" for groups, the time of Tea Chat and Steepster, with Facebook groups soon to follow.  I joined my first FB tea group in 2013, and became a moderator for an International themed version 6 years ago, with that three years mapping out a lot of the ramp-up time of FB tea group.  Many thousands of people have mentioned Yunnan Sourcing as a good place to buy tea over this last decade, based on having positive experiences themselves; the success came from that.

Elyse of Tealet using a meetup channel form to connect and share information

All that makes it sound like women aren't tea subject social media influencers, or that one person sharing their own knowledge and perspective is a conventional form, versus podcasts, discussion groups, meetups, and so on.  Really the opposite of both is more true, that tea expertise isn't a gender-specific theme, and that alternate and broadly varied forms of information sharing are now the norm.  Sergey (again of Moychay) interviewing me is a standard theme in his channel, about showing different locations or events, or meeting with someone else offering their own input.

Connecting it further

It seems like there are next steps to follow that will drive tea popularity, and the industry, or else sales forms and uptake will continue as they have.  Not necessarily mostly from individual inputs, but that always could be a factor, some kind of visionary, high profile business developer doing more, or a popular celebrity adding exposure.

It's strange how the larger corporate inputs have stifled the growth of popularity of tea, instead of supporting it.  I'm not sure that's only a coincidence.  Starbucks bought Teavana, and let it thrive to a good sized mall chain, but the decline of mall popularity in the US seemed tied to shutting the entire business down.  Unilever bought T2, a small outlet chain poised to move an entire level beyond the scale of "mom and pop" cafe or dry tea outlet business, and shifted product focus to higher return blends, swapping out higher quality teas sold previously.  Covid hit that business hard, another casualty of negative external influence.  I don't think both large corporations killed the businesses on purpose, but shifting to a high-return, lower quality product theme probably didn't help either.

Oprah promoting tea might've been a main launching point, but instead she tried to sell her own herbal and tea blended chai product, which wasn't really universally well-received.  See a pattern here?  Oprah, Teavana, and T2 weren't promoting prior accepted tea versions, or the Chinese tea cultural experience, or pushing on to highlight more interesting and higher quality offerings, they were promoting specific lower quality products that they could potentially make a higher return on than those other types of products.  And that failed more than it succeeded in all three cases.

Expansion through small vendor sales has been the norm in the tea industry, with real significant growth limited to a broader wholesale layer ramping up.  This gives rise to the ability for new tea forms to appear and gain exposure faster, and also limits the degree of that exposure.  Hundreds of small businesses either are or are not involved in that successful marketing promotion, each with very limited influence, taken alone.  

It almost seems like an economy of scale limitation issue is holding tea in place in this current form.  Past a certain threshold tea might experience what wine did way back when (in the late 80s?), when a critical mass of interest might enable media channel development, and support a broader producer and distributor network.  I was interested in wine in the 90s, and there was a great local shop that sold all sorts of interesting versions in my small town (a ski town with a few thousand residents), but with no comparable tea shop there, I think even now.  There was an "alternative perspective" oriented health foods shop, so I did venture into tisanes a little, but not plain tea, which just wasn't around, beyond new tea bag offerings (eg. Tazo).

When I see tea related Youtube channels or groups grow to include much higher follower count it makes me wonder if we aren't seeing that slow progressive growth play out, now in that later form, onto doubling from significant numbers then very large ones.  I've just noticed that the Reddit r/tea group membership is unusually large, at 645,000 members, which one can assess better from considering my 2018 writing on that topic:

The main problem with online tea interest groups--beyond activity tending to drop off at some point--seems to be people being on the same page, sharing perspective.  Facebook groups work well for sorting that naturally; if you talk about scope beyond group theme interest you probably won't hear much back, or feedback could be negative.

That's why it's odd that the Reddit subforum works; it isn't sorted, beyond an emphasis on most people being newer to tea.  That's also probably why it has 120k+ members and almost none of them seem to be regulars, beyond the moderators.  There are some but they are exceptions.  Vendors had seemed to be more active in the past but a few scandals about product promotion inconsistencies may have threw off the friendly neighborhood self-promotion vibe...

So r/tea increased five-fold in under 4 years; not bad.  "My" FB tea group, really owned by a friend who runs a Chinese vending outlet and training organization, has levelled off at 25,000 members, still adding new ones, but not at the rate that brought it to that level.  I think the "new to tea" theme is more promising for broad membership.  For promoting advanced tea interest what the Gong Fu Cha group evolved to become works better, than for a general producer and vendor oriented "international" theme, even though both groups are about the same size now in terms of membership count.

One might look closer at group sub-themes and try to sort out the role they are playing through that lens, but that might miss parts of the larger picture.  For any number of reasons a half a million new Reddit followers joined that tea sub in four years, a group that isn't doing much beyond letting people express their own interest, post by post.  The average post has been and will continue to be images of boxes of tea bags sitting in a kitchen cabinet, the kinds I said were all that existed in the early 1990s.  But then maybe it's not an anomaly that finally in the last year that range has expanded, with "better tea quality" related posts only now turning up on a daily basis.

I think it's easy to misplace how Don Mei and Sergey Shevelev building up to over 100,000 Youtube followers changes things.  I watch Youtube content about some strange and random subjects, without much meaning, perspective, or connection to my life habits, but for sure those videos are helping people move on to buying and brewing a broader range of tea.  The channels alone must generate more video views ad revenue than most home tea businesses (unless ads are turned off?), which is partly beside the point, but also worth considering.

Let's back up to a level of assumptions I've not yet addressed here:  why would I want more people to drink tea?  If my own reader numbers double that changes nothing; there is no ad revenue from this blog, and no financial gain through another business function.  Topic bloggers can tend to tie their personal self-image to a subject theme; I think that's a lot of it.  Usually that plays out in a 3 to 4 year blog lifecycle, before it either leads to financial return or not, but in rare cases people might stick with it, for no normal reason.  Maybe there could be a perception that later gain could follow, that a different kind of meaning could evolve.

I like to think that I'm really still just sharing experience, except that I've moved on from basic exploration, what different kinds of oolongs are, to digging deeper into local production issues, or other background, like social media influence.

Given the range of broad speculation here I should end this with my guesses about the future of tea.  Do I think tea interest is "really about to take off," or that gradual and increasing rate uptake will have the tea sales, vending forms, common offerings, and interest groups looking about the same in another decade?  I think there will be a tipping point experience, I just don't know when, or what extra factors will seem to fold in.  Conventional media mirrors common perception in not caring about tea; maybe both will change together.  NPR ran some articles at one point, or moderate sized food interest pages also sometimes do, or a more mainstream newspaper might mention "duck shit" oolong as a novelty; that has been most of it.  

It might take a decade for tea to get where coffee was in the early 90s, for seeing an interest level spike, or maybe only half that long.  It's easy to forget that there were an awful lot of small but developed theme specialty coffee shops around before Starbucks arrived at a format that consolidated the interest trend, and put a lot of those out of business.  The changes in progress are complex in form, and take time.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

2014 Bada sheng pu'er from Chawang Shop

I'm kind of over the Chinese character labels

It's especially interesting trying these Chawang Shop teas since I don't remember what I thought sounded interesting it's been so long since ordering these, some months back now.  At least they're well rested, thanks in part to a covid-inspired break from tea, and a slow reviewing pace.  

I guess this version I'm reviewing sounded interesting:

2014 Chawangpu "Lao Yu" Xiao Bing Cha 200g

Lao Yu (老妪) : old woman

Material for this cake came from a small Bulang minority village in Bada mountain. This village have very small quantity of tea trees that grow in the forest. Trees are relative old, but farmers cut the branches when trees get too tall. Tea trees are kept at easy-picking height because the tea is picked and made by old women in this village. They follow ancient ways to produce tea. Many of them make tea only for themself. 

We selected and bought good materials from different families. They picked one bud and two leaves. This tea is nice example of old-time puer tea and traditions of Bulang minority.

2014 cake is a bit different with previous year. We keep nearly one year loose leaves "maocha" in Menghai town and pressed in Jan. 2015. Stone pressed in small tea factory. 

Taste of this tea is full, strong with bitterness, huigan is fast and sweet. 

Production date : March, 2014

Harvest Area : Bada, Menghai

It was really the overlap between sounding interesting, not costing much, and tying to a varying age theme that I was looking for, and this matched all of those.  The appeal implicit in that description would either come across or it wouldn't.  It's interesting considering that Bulang is both an area and an ethnic group, with a bit more on that here.

The subject of "middle aged pu'er" comes up a lot, something I've discussed recently in talking about storage conditions and aging inputs.  This will probably be young pu'er instead, although with 8 years of age it could be on the medium side instead, if it were stored in a warmer and wetter place (like Bangkok; it's over 90 F now at 10 AM, maybe a bit over 30 C, but it feels warmer for being soaking wet for humidity level, 63%).

I won't repeat much of all that about storage and transitions; this will just be about trying the tea.


First infusion:  it is nice, as the description called it.  Warm tones stand out, but there's a brightness to this too.  The warmth comes as underlying mineral, with brighter range harder to define as a light infusion.  Bitterness will ramp up with intensity, I think, but a sweetness while you drink it and afterwards both stand out.  The feel is not so astringent but includes a dryness.  

I've been starting to think that dryness is a main aspect related to dry storage, teas losing a harsher astringency edge, and softening, but heading towards an interim dryness instead of richness or fullness.  A limited range of wood tones might correspond too.  Or it could just be at a medium level based on a certain range of starting points you would get there, paired with other aspects depending on that set of inputs.

It's catchy, pleasant.  The warmth with moderate bitterness and long sweetness afterwards are all nice.

Second infusion:  intensity really ramped up, even for that infusion time being moderate.  I went with a maxed out proportion this time, noticing that it was a bit much for moderating intensity through brewing time variation, but I couldn't stop myself.  

Bitterness is significant; this is one of the most bitter teas I've drank in awhile.  It's an aspect range that I tend to not seek out, so I miss the most extreme examples entirely, but I can still relate to it.  As expected aging transition took a bit of edge off the character but definitely didn't get far through adjusting range.  It's kind of floral, the main flavor range, but there's a sort of bubble-gum fruit character too.  Warm mineral input is intense, along with bitterness, giving those a depth.

Third infusion:  I'm more or less trying a flash infusion; this is opened up and started already.  Vegetal flavor range increases, a plant stem / green wood sort of input that seems to tie to the bitterness.  There's still a cool floral range and harder to place fruit aspect, with warmer range giving this depth.  It packs a punch; bitterness hits hard, and even the sweetness afterwards is intense, with some bitterness joining that part too.  Feel develops a bit more sappiness, a fuller range of impact all across your tongue, with the sweetness moving towards the back as you experience it.  

I don't know how far I'll get in trying rounds without taking a break, at least for water.  For weather this hot it should be part of the tasting set-up.

Fourth infusion:  a spice range develops, extending from the earlier warm tones.  Green vegetal input and somewhat non-distinct floral range are still present, with bitterness and sweetness dominant.   Someone looking for that sweet-bitter smack in the palate would love this tea.  Astringency is nice at this stage; dryness has eased up, with more depth and richness replacing it.  I don't want to say that the bitterness is too much for me but it's kind of like that; it would help to love it more, not just as an integrated part but as a dominant main aspect.

Kalani joined and tried a few drops, after the round was finished, and spit it back out.  It's an acquired taste.  She also took a photo for me, so that one can not follow the standard form.

Fifth infusion:  lesson learned about moderating proportion; even brewed fast this intensity is off the scale.  Not everything is those mild semi-aged or more character neutral versions I drink more of.  No significant change; I'll go do a break, drink some water, eat a little of whatever is on the table in the house, and try a couple more rounds, before it's off to some play area.

Sixth infusion:  I didn't realize that my head was spinning quite that much until I took a break and laid down.  I don't keep track of which "cha qi" is the good version, but drinking this on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.  And I didn't; for breakfast I ate fresh pineapple, banana, and some traditional Thai baked good (that's hard to describe), but all that is lower on offsetting that drug-like impact than a bowl of cereal or toast and jam.  At most I'll drink two more rounds.

It's warming, settling into a nice range.  I suppose if this was much "younger" and bitterness was lower I'd guess it might've oxidized a little, for that warm tone matching how that input can go, but it had to evolve there through aging input, or the bitterness should've moderated more if they had let it oxidize during processing, not "fixing" it fast enough.  Just guesses, really.

I do like this tea but overall intensity and feel intensity are a bit much.  In a few more years this could moderate a bit, and be easier to relate to for me.  Maybe in another decade it would be really nice, stored somewhere it will actually transition, but for owning a half sized cake I'll probably never know, even if I just try this a couple of times a year.

Seventh infusion:  I rarely mention how much tea volume I'm really drinking, and don't emphasize parameters, but the .7 liter thermos I'm using is pretty much empty.  This had to be something like 6 grams of tea, brewed in a 100 ml gaiwan, using water not far off full boiling point.  Backing off that proportion would have made more sense.

I'm not doing justice to describing the complexity in terms of part of this flavor range being warm and part being bright, leaning towards fruit.  Warmth I've described as in mineral range, or towards spice, but aromatic wood is starting to apply more, cedar or something such.  Fruit is more onto dried Chinese date now, jujube, maybe with a bit of longan character.  Yesterday, and often really, I had a mixed Chinese and ice bean desert, one of my favorite Chinese-Thai food experiences, this time in Chinatown.  The range is not separate from that.

my wife (right) and her friend with me in the Bangkok Chinatown

Eighth infusion:  I took the cat inside to cool off in the middle of brewing a round, and diluted that--then brewed too strong--using the trick of doing an immediate flash infusion to combine with the other.  This is really catchy.  Floral tones are picking up, it seems.  It had always expressed a lot of nice floral range but it develops more richness (and intensity, the single word that describes this tea experience best).  A Bangkok summer day is ramping up here too, onto 95 F / maybe 35 C, so hot; it kind of works as a set, a lot of intense experience at the same time.


I like this tea but it needs a couple of years to settle to a range I can identify with better, or maybe 4 or 5.  I think astringency probably did moderate in the 8 years since it was produced but if bitterness eased up it must've really been something earlier on.  It's nice that the other character and flavor is positive, but it's all just so intense.

I got blasted on this tea and stayed blasted.  It can be hard to separate that effect from heat impact, but it seemed like both.  To stick with and extend that theme I went for an 8 km run at around noon, in mid-90s (upper 30s C) temperature, which really sets the tone for the rest of the day, themed around recovering.  After the usual couple of hours of fighting with the kids about doing whatever I think we will go to a water park; it's so hot that only that or being in AC makes sense.  I'm not so sure how climbing 30 flights worth of stairs to do slides over and over will go.

that outing went well, except for one scraped knee

It seems a little abbreviated, placing these conclusions.  If I remember right I tried a Bada origin version that was nothing like this from Chawang Shop a few years back (reviewed here).  Scanning through that it included bitterness, as a three year old version, but not like this.  It comes up that tea tree varietals vary, a subject that it's hard to delve into much.  I don't know what caused that difference, or if one of these is more origin-typical than the other, or if both represent styles that should mean something to me, related to processing themes or other inputs.  It's all a work in progress, learning from multiple varied experiences, and it's not settling towards conclusions just yet, more the opposite.

This was an interesting experience.  There seems limited risk of this tea fading to become bland and uninteresting if I leave it sit awhile.  I have one tea left in that set to try, and they sent no samples this order (so much for the theme of tea bloggers being "bought off" by free tea for promotional benefit).  They're on their own page there at that outlet; I like that.  Apparent bone dry storage isn't a theme that everyone else would appreciate, but to me it kind of works out, trying teas that are feel-transitioned some after 8 years but probably not so different than they started out.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Sheng pu'er storage, wet, dry, and optimum

first published in TChing here

I've been giving sheng pu'er storage conditions some thought lately, and recently ran across examples of teas altered by the two extremes.  One paradigm was in the form of two different 2005 and 2014 sheng pu'er versions stored dry, in Kunming, that were very well preserved, and the other related to two 2009 cakes that were far more fermented than either of those.  That 2014 version was from Laos, so I usually call the type "sheng" but not "pu'er," a naming convention theme I don't revisit every post.

I don't know where the second more fermented versions were stored, but since I live in one of the hottest and most consistently humid places in the world, in Bangkok, I can draw on plenty of experience about how wetter storage tends to go, and speculate about how artificially maintained conditions might be different than here (although I don't do much with that in this).  I've posted about an even more extreme example in trying a 2010 Nan Jian (Tulin) mini brick, after writing this draft, so I'll leave that out of this discussion.

that 2005 Menghai sheng pu'er; a bit age transitioned

the Nan Jian / Tulin 2010 version, kind of at a similar level

Of course all of this is speculation, pulling together perspective based on partial inputs.  I've only mostly been drinking sheng pu'er for 4 or 5 years, so I don't have any examples of cakes that I've seen transition through even a decade of aging cycle myself, with 15 years cited as a more common fully aged starting point.  I did buy a few sheng and shu cakes around a decade ago but finished them.  Of course that range of experience is all relative to conditions, mapping fermentation level to time period, as more about those examples shows.  This could run long, like a short booklet on these themes, so I'll try to offset that by breaking thoughts up by short section, and really only offer input about humidity as a factor in relation to these cases, even though more than one input came into play, with temperature and air contact other main concerns, and starting point, the tea material, is just as critical as storage factors.  

A bit of an aside, I first wrote about pu'er storage conditions when researching that subject in 2016, and updated that adding a bit on what relative humidity is all about in 2017, with more on natural climate area ranges there.  As you read those posts they shift from only referencing external input to adding more about what I've experienced.  I wrote about sheng storage in a summary post comparing Kunming, Hong Kong, and Malaysia standard natural humidity levels back in 2019 (with local area tables in that post from the Weather Online site); I guess it is time to get back to updating comments on this subject.

Let's start with filling in what those examples covered, then a few definitions, then on to those thoughts about transition patterns.

Two "wet stored" 2009 sheng cakes (reviewed here):  it's a shame not knowing the storage conditions, but those two had to be stored right at the edge of as wet as possible to get to well transitioned in 13 years.  They still had a touch of younger character in limited senses, a bit of vegetal range left, but heavy fermentation related flavors stood out a lot more (mushroom, geosmin--essentially dirt, heavy earth, wood, and mineral flavors, warm dried fruit, dark wood and aged furniture).  Lots of teas I've reviewed here shared some of that scope, but it takes a different kind of input to get that much geosmin emerging.  For intense, bitter and astringent teas, like Xiaguan tuochas tend to be, you really need a lot of transition to move off that range some might see as unapproachable, so 15 years of relatively fast aging might be just the thing.  I suppose that's jumping ahead though, on to the patterns.

2009 versions, much more fermentation transitioned than the other two teas

1980 and 1993 versions color comparison (from here), relatively fully transitioned, brewed fast

Two well-preserved dry stored cakes:  a 2005 Menghai version and 2014 Laos tea.  There's a common discussion point that a trade-off for drier storage, beyond not transitioning (fermenting) is that a sour or wood-like aspect can develop, and I keep coming back to whether that happens or not in examples like these.  Both were really well-preserved, aged to a relative degree of half that if they'd spent the time here, or even less.  Some degree of bright, floral, aromatic, and fresh aspects remained in both, of course more so in the 2014 version, with that 2005 more in a "teen years" sort of middle ground for aspects present.  Starting point changes a lot, and I can't be sure how they were initially, but Laos teas are essentially never challenging to begin with (per trying at least a dozen sheng versions from there), and for Menghai versions that definitely can come up, intense character early.  

2014 Laos version, a little washed out by high lighting level, but also light

Is that really a regional character aspect theme though?  I'm not sure.  Laos teas have to be made from wild-grown, naturally occurring material because they're not farming teas in the same monoculture forms that are common in China there yet.  Surely someone is replanting and growing tea through more standard farming, but I mean in general.  Mountainous areas in Laos tend to be cool as SE Asia goes, not like the hotter lower flatlands in Laos.  It's unlikely that heavy pesticide and fertilizer use would come up as often as in standard monoculture farming; the trees have been living naturally for decades, or more likely centuries (a general 400 year age range comes up for the tea growing practices, often extended to saying that the actual plants are often 400 years old, which isn't right, they would vary in age, most much younger).  Then plant types would vary; although parts of Laos close to Yiwu that's no guarantee that plant types growing overlap so much.

To keep this moving back to that one storage input range let's consider what those wet and dry ranges really mean.

Dry storage:  

Based on reviewing average local climate conditions it doesn't seem that dry in Kunming, varying from low 50s (RH %) up to nearly 80, as a monthly average.  It's not necessarily the outdoor humidity level as a relative value that's a problem in temperate locations (the US, Europe), but that if it's cool out and heated indoors then that relative humidity level of heating air that can hold a lot less moisture is dry, relatively speaking.

For indoor storage it's commonly accepted that if the range falls below 50% the tea fermentation will become inactive (whether that's actually right or not, but that sounds like a reasonable conventional understanding to me).  In March and April, stored at natural local humidity levels, Kunming stored teas wouldn't be fermenting much, but that's still perhaps not bone dry.  Since it's an average it's harder to say, and it's not easy to factor in how indoor temperature moderation would work out, if real indoor conditions wouldn't tend to be drier.

Wet storage:  we can cite Malaysian values as an example here, and compare that to indoor controlled conditions:

Malaysian local climate shows humidity level in the mid 70s to low 80s, all the time, that's humid.  That's based on an average temperature window of 24 to 31 C (75 to 88 F, surely often hotter at mid-day).  That's a little more humid than here (Bangkok), where it's quite hot and humid, but weather varies a little more, with both are in a similar ballpark.  

I was going to use here as an example, about how it's cooler now because it's 10 AM, and the value will dry a bit as temperature increases, but it's 32 C (89 F) and 65% now, pretty hot and humid (when I wrote the first draft).  Maybe the point would've worked better at 6 AM, back when it was still in the 20s (closer to 80 F).  I'm first editing this on the Thursday shown and it really did get up to 37 C yesterday, which is hot, human body temperature, so the units conversion to 98 F comes easily.  I ran yesterday, in the afternoon, and was really feeling it.  Due to bad judgment I doubled my normal route length, from 4 km to 8, and I still felt the impact in the evening as a result of both.

People discussing controlling temperature for sheng storage tend to fix on specific humidity level they feel is high but still safe from mold, often using 70% RH for that, or sometimes less.  70% is kind of the edge, although other conditions factor in too, temperature, and degree of air contact.  I don't think you could hold stored sheng at the Malaysian local maximum, 84%, without experiencing problems.  If temperature shifts just a little it would take time for the salt pack to adjust and any condensation is a worst case for tea (sheng pu'er cakes; other teas don't need to be stored in contact with humidity, perhaps with shu pu'er and hei cha as possible exceptions).

Ideal / natural storage (two different things):  I'll have to mostly speculate a little about this but wave off the subject more than I address it.  One idea behind "natural storage" is that you aren't holding the humidity and temperature at one set value, and normal fluctuations in range allow the tea to experience a more normal, organic sort of environment.  If I'm remembering right Marshal N, of the Tea Addict's Journal blog, has speculated that some degree of change could be beneficial, having moisture move in and out of the tea, letting microfauna experience more normal circumstances.  I'm not sure, even if that attribution is completely accurate, since I've not been reading that blog as much for awhile.

"Ideal" would be a tricky concept, since people might naturally want different outcomes based on having different preferences.  Or something that gets less attention, it might depend on the tea character starting point, with more aggressively bitter and astringent teas really needing a lot of transition, and others that don't changing more positively when the shift is slower.  I won't get far with speculating about that second point here, except to say that I have liked some teas that weren't changed much over time, like those two I mentioned earlier.  

That 2010 Nan Jian / Tulin version is probably an even better example, the one I didn't go into here.  But then maybe I would've liked both just as much "younger" and stored wetter, and the 2005 Menghai version did seem to need more time to get to a likely more optimum aging level.  I'm trying it again with breakfast, and after, as I edit this; it will probably be better in 5 more years.

It would be nice if I had more exposure to what others see as optimum results, trials of 20 year old teas stored in different ways, starting from different characters, that turned out very well.  I'll only ever get so far with that; I don't have the tea budget to approach it in the most efficient ways.  This is a hurdle that many could find problematic in relation to feeling like they have a moderate degree of exposure to the subject, that trying 100 aged sheng versions wouldn't necessarily seem like a good background, because then someone might just want to try 100 much better versions.  Or too see the patterns play out for themselves for a few dozen cakes, a project that would take that 15 years or so.

On the one hand this is exactly what I love about sheng, beyond the direct experience of drinking the tea itself, that the experience of these transitions and inputs is never-ending.  In a recent video interview (where I was interviewed, odd) I answered that this is what keeps tea experience so new and interesting to me, even though I've been drinking a lot of teas over the past 8 or 9 years, that sheng versions can change every time you check in on them.

It was interesting talking to a well-known US tea enthusiast about these issues recently in a meetup, with "Mr. Mopar," but it's hard to drill down to discussing these levels of inputs and outputs.  As general patterns you can, but not in relation to getting a sense of how any one tea shifted, where it ended up (at one given time), and why.  Online group tasting is better for that, but it would still go one or two examples at a time.

All this reminds me of a tea enthusiast commenting about trying to break into sheng pu'er in a group post, trying out 15 or so versions from Yunnan Sourcing.   He referenced that as his "ante."  It seemed that if he chose 15 of the same type of versions, younger or medium aged factory teas, dry stored so not age transitioned, he wouldn't really experience much of the broader range of sheng pu'er.  Acclimation to bitterness takes time, and the main way people seem to adjust to that, beyond continuing to try bitter tea versions over time, is to approach sheng through shu experience.  Or it can work to try aged forms first, or milder, sweeter sheng versionss earlier on (with Yiwu origin teas often more like that).  He didn't like many of the teas.

I wouldn't have liked the 2005 Menghai version I'm trying now five years ago, and I guess I still have mixed feelings about it now, about bitterness and green wood vegetal range standing out a lot.  Without knowing the background context I might have expected this to represent relatively aged (fermentation transitioned) sheng, but it's definitely not that.  Dabbling in sheng over time might be a better approach, rather than letting one set of samples from one vendor determine your final take.  

A local friend recommended getting a cake and drinking all of it, just to adjust to the range, and to get brewing down.  Oddly that's good advice, but it also delayed my exploration of sheng quite a bit, because in not understanding types I bought something comparable to this Menghai tea when it was relatively new, based on a recommendation from another contact who probably had little exposure to sheng, with no communication about that context.  I could endure the bitterness and astringency by the end of that cake, brewing it fast, but it wasn't a helpful experience.

Needless to say very little of this is actionable guidance, just scattered discussion instead.  Maybe eventually I'll be able to write a post that goes that next step, on to practical advice and promising approach points.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Andrew Richardson of Liquid Proust on tea culture


random captures never have everyone looking at the screen

That circle of friends and I met with Andrew Richardson, of Liquid Proust, not so much about any one theme, but this summary will narrow it down.  Huyen didn't join, busy related to observing Easter, and Suzana, Ralph, and Mr. Mopar (John) did, who I wrote about meeting with recently.  I was joining from a car and while out visiting local cousins, not really ideal, but beyond being a bit distracting it works.  We talked about lots of themes; the idea here is to pass on a bit of the perspective, not to summarize it, or even touch on most topics.

Discussion of how tea works out to connect people socially was interesting, about how individuals generally relate to the experience, and how that builds up and is supported by online social networking forms.  To be clear this is my own interpretation of a shared group discussion, not all what Andrew was saying.  I'll attribute a few statements to him but that's not meant to imply that the rest is also what he said.  The last part is all my commentary on some of the rest, not about the discussion.

Andrew mentioned how early on he connected with people through Steepster.  I was "around" for that, a bit active on Tea Chat and Steepster back then, on the order of 8 years or so ago, when this blog started.  Steepster came and went pretty fast; it has been a shell of its former self for a long time, and was new back then.  It was an interesting and promising format, combining the conventional discussion topic theme with a participant tea review database, so that people could share input and connect in those two different ways.  It made for a decent reference.  Coincidentally I cited Steepster reviews in my last post, checking on how a Tulin / Nan Jian 2010 Wuliangshan sheng pu'er might have changed over time, by checking on reviews there that were half a year, 4 years, and 7 years old there.

that Steepster format and content were both nice (this Nan Jian / Tulin Wuliangshan page here)

One problem with using the reviews as a reference is that you can't easily determine how much exposure any one person has to a range of a type, or how bias or personal preference factors in.  That's overcome by what Andrew was talking about, a group of people who talk regularly sharing input about a lot of teas, so that they could learn how each other describe versions they are also familiar with.  That could work, and I suppose that it did.  There's at least one tea app that tries to replicate and update this form now (I was thinking of My Tea Pal, described here).

Moving ahead to now Andrew has set up his own Discord server (group), around his Liquid Proust tea business, but also just for social connection and discussion.  His business page is here, and Etsy outlet here, both interesting for including unusual product range.  He mentioned how in-person social connection is a local theme he values, how others who are very active where he lives, in Ohio, take up and sustain that, and use his home and sourcing as a central base.  Cool!  I'm originally from not far from where he lives, in North-Western PA, a bit below Erie, and I get it how tea is not a popular local theme back there, how it would help to build that up.  Pittsburgh seems to have been developing that, but there the gains in local awareness and popularity still seem limited (a tangent I won't start on here).

Andrew and John (Mr. Mopar) discussed lots of individual teas and themes both have been experiencing over the years.  Some examples:  general storage and aging concerns, sourcing issues, how main "factory" teas are changing (especially Xiaguan), and how distribution of those teas changes.  One interesting theme was how mixed age material cakes seem to have worked out in the past (not well when new, but interesting later on), or shu and sheng blends, and the potential for that to be expanded upon.  I won't add too much about other vendors and sourcing here, which we discussed quite a bit, since all that gets a bit complicated, and a lot of it related to speculation about where things are headed.  Interesting stuff, especially tied to two perspectives informed by more sourcing exposure than typical tea drinkers ever experience, but most of that was scattered in range, and not suitable for broad summary.

Speculation about where tea industry sales forms are headed was an especially interesting subject.  An example:  it's a given that more and more small vendor exposure ramps up from producers or smaller sellers in China.  And there's no reason why new larger vendor forms couldn't change, eg. Dayi / Taetea couldn't change their approach, as they already did by blocking a lot of Taobao outlet resale, presumably to limit sales of counterfeit versions.  

Andrew covered in a bit more detail how overhead costs add difficulty even for a relatively small vendor, how just adding health insurance as an employee benefit for very few staff escalates overhead cost and required sales volume.  It's easy to overlook how all that would play out, since a lot of US based small vendors sell tea more or less as a sideline.  Factors like that account for why there seems to be a gap between very small sideline businesses and those that are more established, based on higher volume themes, without much in the middle.

Andrew mentioned that Steepster supported a lot of tea swaps, trades, and sample sharing, a practice which of course didn't end with the popularity of that platform dropping off.  He described that as an ethics common in tea sub-culture, and it does come up a good bit.  It's also routinely expressed how tea works well as a social drink that connects people, in some ways better than alcohol.  It doesn't drop social inhibitions in the same way but it sets up a more focused and energetic context.  An interview post here with Andrew covered his business direction of providing sheng samples to people, not really as a for-profit initiative, but instead as a way of giving back, or pursuing a direction that's not a direct financial input.  Keeping that up for over 5 years, when that was posted, is a significant accomplishment.

It is curious how so little of that general range of practices and perspective carries over to mainstream tea sales.  Vendors sell samples, of course, and monthly subscription services overlap a little in intended form (and I think Andrew offers something like that), but these develop community and awareness as clearly defined business functions.  Sergey of Moychay has shared how this is an important part of his business theme, that shop events, tastings, and presentations have to help develop these things, to drive tea interest and culture, and to connect people.  A few individual shops serve as bastions of local tea culture in the US but those are the exception.  Local Facebook groups do more, with Discord servers a newer similar input.  I experience a little of all that here in Bangkok, just not much.

Really discussion of specific teas, aging concerns, and vendors accounted for more of the discussion than these culture related issues, but again there were lots of points covered that didn't connect as themes.  It was discussed how storing cakes in leaf wrappers in tongs might change outcome, and how extra air contact could age the outer top and bottom cakes differently.  Andrew and Mr. Mopar have both experimented with different forms of storage related to how much teas contact other types, or are stored together, with interesting input on transfer of characteristics.  None of these issues are completely unfamiliar, if someone has been following tea group discussions for a long time, but it is interesting catching specific input based on informed perspectives.

A tangent and concern about tea culture transitions

One concern that I didn't raise, not really offering a lot of input about most of what we covered, is how tea culture is a positive factor in tea experience, in learning and adding depth, but how there are potential downsides to forms it takes on.  Sub-groups define shared experience and group inclusion very informally, but that tends to extend and become more exclusive over time, as an organic process.  Steepster moderation didn't naturally result in much of a member pruning process, as comes up elsewhere, but groups evolve to narrow scope, or in Steepster's case to just become inactive.  Andrew mentioned how interest changes are probably a main factor, but it seems to me the awareness and exposure curve / process itself could be another main part, a mechanism that drives people away.

It's hard to find an example that clearly defines this as a concern, beyond transitions in online channel membership and activity coming up often.  To clarify context further, in a recent video interview I said that the bottomless nature of tea exploration has been a main part of the appeal for me, along with sheng pu'er adding depth to that for adding storage and aging concerns as factors.  So far that's only positive, right?  But I suspect that an implicit average level of exposure in groups, not really formally required, but informally expected, "raises the bar" so that active social group involvement seems to become more and more demanding.

On to that example, there has been a lot of talk lately about Teas We Like opening a somewhat novel range of aged, Taiwanese stored sheng availability, with other small vendors copying this theme.  In some ways that can be regarded as positive competition (in some cases), or as negative, as less transparent and less functional derivative business models are developed.  Judgement errors in product evaluation can be a factor, with storage inputs an important consideration, even beyond the range of potential "fake tea" sales.  Other somewhat related format vendors like Liquid Proust (Andrew's business) and King Tea Mall fill in other range, and offer alternatives, beyond a large outlet like Yunnan Sourcing being a more primary source. It's still not clear how this is necessarily negative, right?  More options and more online discussion about those are both positive.  Combined with the subscription options I had mentioned, and vendor specific discussion channels, it all could add up to an unsustainable pressure to "keep up."

just a harmless joke here, but it is also a real part of the marketing

Of course anyone can limit exposure, to any extent and in any way they like.  Fewer people read text blogs now; that kind of change helps, to limit tea enthusiasts feeling put off by hearing about too much range, but Instagram exposure has replaced that.  My concern is that there is a natural slide to learn more and more, and to experience more, and the end result could come across as unsustainable.  Tea groups end up being themed around a "new to tea" context, or else one pushed pretty far to a high level of exposure, one that few participants could keep up with.  It builds in one more potential feedback loop to kill off the viability of any online group, as the most senior members go quiet due to dropping the channel or discussion form, with natural turn-over and new alternative channel forms already causing that life cycle effect.

It might seem odd that I'm raising this as a concern.  Surely I buy into pushing exposure further and further, right, for writing a blog about tea, and reviewing however many tea versions it comes out to per year?  In a sense, but at the same time my budget for tea exploration puts tight limits on that.  One recent controversial theme described one vendor selling a tea cake for $600, while another sold the same version--perhaps described as with better storage input, although that part was never clear--for $460, if I remember right.  I wouldn't even buy samples of teas selling at those kinds of rates, so I couldn't be part of that discussion, in relation to first-hand exposure. Taken alone that's not a problem, but it's easy for me to imagine others getting turned off by missing out on a lot of any one entire sub-theme range, or a lot of the whole.  People end up narrowing range by grouping by vendor following, which seems fine in general, a positive response.

I'm mostly addressing sheng pu'er concerns, right?  Higher quality oolong versions can still sell for $1 a gram or well over, or previously a race to brag about trying a broad range of fresh spring teas fastest was more fashionable.  Collecting teaware also never really drops out as a theme.  

Or maybe many subject interests work out like that?  That it's easy to start, with lots of subjects seeming inviting, approachable, and wide open, and then as you keep going it's harder and harder to match what others with a lot of exposure are doing.  For cos-play teens at the local university, where my kids take swim classes, would pin on some ears, a tail, and make-up, or carry a plastic sword, but at the "higher levels" those costumes involve a lot of creative input and expense.  

In a more closely related example I worked through a cycle of a few years of wine interest, pursuing different types range as my preference shifted, then eventually just dropped it.  There was no one reason why, I just tended to transition interests back then, before social media group reinforcement became what it can be now.

Maybe social group life-cycles decline relates to other factors more instead, for example in relation to a core group of participants just getting burned out on repeating similar discussions.  Maybe this exposure creep issue is a real thing, but not so negative.  Something new always comes along that restarts interest cycles, which is what Andrew, Mr. Mopar / John, and Ralph were also talking about, in relation to new forms of Xiaguan products coming up, or aged and new mixed input cake blends, or teas originating from "new" areas, SE Asian versions.  

A broad shift in tea demand could change everything, but we've not really seen that happen yet, just gradual expansion.  Maybe those new tea offerings and new vendor paradigms, those direct sales outlets, can keep renewing and expanding tea awareness and uptake, and moderating pricing, as fast as the natural evolution of preferences steers existing circles towards being defined by a spending divide.

It goes without saying that I've already mentioned routes to circumvent that buy-in divide, instead of just obtaining an IT job that pays $150k per year.  Tea bloggers are given teas for review, just not like in the past, and people acting as small vendors can offset their personal spending.  Group buys always factored in, along with trades and sponsored sample sets.  Personal perspective about one's own tea preferences also plays a lot of role in all this, emphasizing "horizontal" exploration of more range over just valuing higher quality.  Or becoming comfortable with exploring whatever range you get to, without seeing exposure to so much other scope in social media as a defined lack of many potential experiences.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

2010 Tulin (Nan Jian) Wuliangshan sheng pu'er brick


Trying another of a Chawang Shop order, with maybe two more teas to go from that.  It's this:

2010 Tulin Wuliangshan Organic Raw Puerh Brick 100g

This raw puerh brick is made of 2010 spring material from Wuliang mountain. Wuliang mountain is one of high mountains in Yunnan. Selected large-leaves and sun-dried material come from organic tea gardens. The same material were used both inside and outside this brick.

Brewed tea is aromatic, sparkish and yellow. Balanced, powerful with great floral sweet aftertaste.

I've liked a Tulin tuocha version that I keep buying in a local Chinatown shop, and that sounds interesting.  Again the dry storage issue will come up; this will be well-preserved for a 2010 tea.  It doesn't sound like it necessarily needed 15 years of moderate pace aging to be in a good range, so it might be fine now.  Or the usual could occur, that it has great potential for mellowing and shifting a few more years of mellowing here in hotter and wetter environment.  I would guess that this is about as fermented as it would be after 3 years of storage here, just getting started, but we'll see.

One might wonder how moderate cost factors in; this had been listed for $10, now out of stock.  I wouldn't expect it to be much worse based on that low pricing, as if it could only stay in their stock if it had been limited in quality in some way, or that Chawang Shop per gram pricing corresponds to their interpretation of tea quality.  It's probably just that they don't raise pricing that much year to year, which is for the best for a consumer.


First infusion:  color is a dark gold, so at least this has aged past the brighter yellow stage.  For this being 12 years old that limited degree of fermentation is amazing, or at least it would be if I hadn't experienced it in other versions, two fairly recently.  For many people that's a worst-case outcome, but I'm still sorting out if this is better or worse than it would be if it was much younger but stored wetter.  Maybe not so different, at least as far as total outcome is concerned, in the sense of added up positives and negatives.  I think the outcome is probably quite different though, a lot of small variations in what changed.

Interesting!  There's a lot going on.  A warm honey-like range stands out, and some floral tone, with a rich cured hay depth, and a warmer structure that's harder to place.  Mineral range would be a normal interpretation, and there is that too, at least.  There's an odd, warm, rich smell that a softball gives off, similar to that of a baseball, the smell of leather and cork (I think?)--it's like that.  It's odd saying that this tastes like drinking a baseball; it's more that it reminds me of that.  I guess then I'm saying that it reminds me of leather, that one range.

It would be easy to interpret that as saying that it's bad, sour, towards musty, in relation to the leather, cured hay, and cork description, but it's quite clean and pleasant.  There's a way that an aged Yiwu can gain a lot of depth and then sort of fade across a lot of range, a smooth richness that those can pick up, between floral range and something else, like cured, light wood, or some light spice.  This is like that, in relation to that depth, but the edge that remains is something else.  I interpret it as positive, because it gives the sweeter, lighter, and richer range some real punch, but it's just outside a range of what one would normally describe as astringency.  

Tons of honey comes across in the aroma, the kind of experience you get from smelling the empty cup, and that is one layer in the drinking experience.  It's really that complexity and the way it all integrates that's positive about the experience.

Second infusion:  this wasn't brewed long, not over 10 seconds, but I'd already had the impression that it was brewing fast, and this is intense.  It works "brewed strong," because the astringency is moderate, and bitterness has mostly faded, to the extent it included that.  Richer floral range picks up a lot, even a bit towards lavender.  Some of the deeper tone seems like warmer floral range, maybe chrysanthemum as a base, with some sunflowers filling in richer and sweeter tones (or what I'd imagine those to smell like; I don't have much reference to go on).  It tastes like bee's wax as a result of that input, if that helps, a flavor I find really appealing.  Feel effect and aftertaste experience are both pronounced and pleasant.

Now that I've considered that a vendor like White 2 Tea or Mei Leaf could market this under a bee's wax theme, it tastes so much like it.  "Bee's Knees Semi-aged Sheng," or something like that.  It's odd talking about this astringency level when it's not exactly in a conventional astringency range, more a fullness to feel that includes some drier range.  People would be divided on loving this or disliking it, I think.  If someone expected sheng to be either bright, intense, sweet, bitter and astringent floral range when young or warmer, deeper, complex, heavy and rich, dried fruit / camphor / aged input range when older this wouldn't fit either paradigm.  It's just something else.  I'll try a round brewed lighter, pulling timing back closer to 5 seconds, and see how that changes an aspect list.

Third infusion:  lighter, for being brewed faster.  Flavor intensity loses nothing; at a quick flash infusion this would still be quite strong.

What I've said worked better for describing what I like about the tea, now maybe I can fill in what others could see as more negative than I tend to, beyond just expecting something else, or not loving the general range.  That dry edge could be interpreted as connecting with a woodiness, or even with a touch of mustiness, although I don't see it that way related to the second.  This had to be more challenging when new, of course, and the astringency has only faded quite a bit and changed form, it's not gone.  Often I'll describe an aspect like that as similar to biting a plant stem, or tree bud.  You couldn't really experience positive feel and flavor in this range without some type of feel like that though.

Fourth infusion:  shifting a little, but it's hard to describe how.  Intense floral range still stands out, and a lot of bee's wax warm depth beyond that, with that dry edge filling out feel.  This most definitely doesn't seem anything like a low cost tuocha tea, punchy and intense, hopefully aging to be quite pleasant once all that settles out 15 years later, more where the Tulin version I've drank a bit of was.  This tea is better than it should be, related to my expectations.

Fifth infusion:  more of the same, which is good.  That floral intensity is crazy.  I suppose feel is cleaning up, not that it was off before.  The dry edge is moving more into a sappy / resinous range, which always had been part of it, I just didn't get around to expressing it that way.

Sixth infusion:  I was just thinking about a Tea Forum post about teas being flavored, about how this much floral could be interpreted as from an additive.  It seems too clean though, and too persistent, not rinsing off a bit.  And it's a 2010, sealed package (no guarantee there), super inexpensive tea, from a producer known for making solid and consistent but moderate quality tea versions.  It seems like they just used pretty good material for this.

Seventh infusion:  intensity is finally dropping so that a fast infusion (under 10 seconds) finally starts to come across as a bit light.  I like it this way, since flavor intensity is fine and aftertaste range is quite intense and pleasant.  Feel is rich now with no dry edge.  I'll try a 15 second + time and see how that goes.

Eighth infusion:  really nice this way, losing intensity but with longer time bumping that back to normal.  The list of aspects I've described shift in proportion but it's not worth going through how.

Ninth infusion:  bitterness is ramping up, as the balance of what extracts shifts with longer brewing times.  There was always some bitterness, I've just not typed out that inclusion because it's so moderate, in relation to sheng experience in general.  For a 12 year old sheng it's relatively bitter, but compared to most in the 3 to 4 year old range (not stored so dry) it's still pretty low.  I didn't mention sweetness either, even though that was pronounced, because I was focused more on floral and warm range being interesting and novel.  If I re-wrote these notes in a new tasting I'd probably include it all in a different order, and maybe stretch it out to 2000 words, if I tried to describe everything.  Better not to.


My own impression is surely already clear, that I really liked it, but I wanted to find out more about this, how it was "supposed to be" in some sense, or what others thought of it.  

I found a Yunnan Sourcing listing for a 2012 version of this, theirs selling for $11.50 (over 10% more, but in terms of cost difference not much at all).  Comments about it from others who bought it mention smokiness; this might've included that too, and it just dropped out over the dozen years of aging.  Those review comments were from 2018-2020, so not so old or new compared to the 2012 to 2022 current age of that version, but towards more recent.

This 2008 Nan Jian "iron cake" (listed by Yunnan Sourcing) sounds interesting too, and still reasonable, $60 for a 400 gram version, sourced from Wuliangshan and Lincang.  Aged in Guangdong, that one says; that might offset the effect of high compression cakes aging slower, but it could probably still use another decade to transition further.  Or it might be like this, at an interesting in-between state, pleasant without entering a more fully aged range.  My friend Ralph reviewed a variation of that in his Daily Tealagraph Instagram page, but it was the 912 version (which is now sold out), and that was 902.  His notes make it clear that aging input was a significant factor, perhaps part of a transition process that's not finished yet:

The deep fruity raisin notes are obvious with some hay and tobacco notes.  Bitterness joins while sipping the first cups. A very deep and intense aroma, although it stays very clean and kind of simple at the same time like factory teas usually do. It features some mushroom flavor as well, not so different to bitter mushroom tea like reishi (ling tsi) or Chaga.

Later steeps bring out an additional flowery camphor aroma that joins the fruitiness and a "chewing gum" flavor that I can only rarely find in some 15 year old factory cakes...

Looking around further it's interesting reading comments about a 2010 version of the one I'm reviewing (sold by YS) on Steepster.  So this same tea I guess, just surely stored in a similar way, with room for slight variations in outcome.  None of the people commenting really liked it.  It sounds like they're not even describing the same tea:  smoky, hard to brew, challenging astringency, limited complexity, bitter, vegetal, sour.  

So what's that about?  Hard to be sure.  I'm sipping this right now; I know what's in the cup, and I'm not insecure about my own preference or judgment being atypical, even though everyone's take is going to be a little different.  There's not much for negatives in this.  That feel wouldn't be for everyone, but dryness coupled with sappy character and rich feel is fine, to me.  Flavor range is good; sweet, intensely floral, adding warm bee's wax for complexity, with some vegetal range, with just a hint of underlying mushroom, so light I'm only noticing it as flavors shift now.

We can't assume that the teas are identical, and they probably do vary a little, due to the storage inputs (especially that; only one review was recent, from half a year ago).  I don't want to move on to conclude that these four people could only appreciate limited range in tea (in sheng pu'er, really).  Other preference and context issues must be factoring in.  Every person mentioned low expectations related to low cost, in their notes; they may have went into this looking for what was wrong with the tea, versus what they might like.  

Not using a (standard to me) Gongfu brewing approach would give bad results for this, for example, Western brewing it.  First comment listing preparation notes mention this, from that most recent tasting:

Steep times: 45, 15, 15, 20, 45.  I drink the wash, hence why my first steep is so long. Brewed in a clay teapot. [using boiling point water, 5 grams per 100 ml]

This would be hard to drink brewed for 45 seconds, and 15 is still a bit long.  Their flavor aspect summary includes "bitter, hay, astringent, vegetal," and hay matches the best to my experience, with not listing floral range as inexplicable if their experience was the same as mine.  Which it wouldn't be, even using the same brick of tea, for brewing it completely differently.  Let's check a second review, from 4 years ago:

The risky buy of the month. It is the cheapest 100g-brick of puerh on and for a reason.

First, the good stuff: it smells good. The wet leaf has a complex, multi-faceted aroma that is very enjoyable. No fishy smell, no pure decay.

Now, the bad part: it needs at least 5 more years to develop because the acidic taste of the fermentation is there, ready to pounce and overpower everything else. Which is a shame, because there ARE a number of more subtle, interesting flavors. Unfortunately, the only way to bring them all on the scene together is to do super-short steeps of 5-10 secs, and avoid the boiling water. So, you end up “savoring” a weak puerh for a 2-3 steeps – after that regardless of your efforts the sourness pushes everything else in far corners of the palate...

Sourness?  It's not as unreasonable as the two different interpretations make it sound, theirs versus mine.  Concern or expectations of fishy or decayed range from an 8 year old, dry stored sheng is odd (related to the review being from 4 years old).  It's possible that they were mostly right, and for me drinking this 4 years later a lot of what they thought might drop out after 5 more years already did.  One of the other reviews was also from 4 years ago, and not completely different than that one, and the other from 7 years back, which would be a considerably less transitioned version of this tea.

They all emphasize the tea being chopped material, and it is, one going so far as to say they had trouble separating out some to brew.  Chopped material can be fine, but it is typical for more aging input to help with the astringency that results from that, the way different compounds are extracted as a result.  I'm probably drinking a much better version of this for getting to it 4 years later than those last two.

I suspect that I appreciate a broader range in sheng than all of them, that I can enjoy drinking a youngish Xiaguan or Dayi Jia Ji when I feel like it, one 5 years old or less, which would include a lot more astringency edge and bitterness than this, although for this version 7 years ago who knows.  It's not necessarily better to be open to different astringency and bitterness exposure, just a difference.  This isn't astringent though, compared to younger teas, most kinds that are within 2 or 3 years old.  

Just expecting that dry storage is going to preserve the tea might make a lot of difference; if I expected this to be transitioned to a more typical 12 year level of fermentation, under moderate humidity conditions, versus dry, I could be put off by it not being what I thought it would be.

I found this tea to be significantly better than I expected it to be, kind of the opposite of those other reviews.  I thought there would be more limited quality material concerns, that it would lack that sweetness and floral range, replaced by smokiness (which others did pick up, earlier, and in a differently stored version), or mushroom, odd mineral, etc.  It's not strange that there was no mustiness; I expected dry storage to not lead towards that result at all.  I didn't expect it to be anything like the 2008 Nan Jian version Ralph reviewed, which is considerably age-transitioned.