Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Meetup with Tristan, a Steeped tea app founder

photo credit Huyen

Suzana joined before her plane took off

That group of friends and I met with Tristan, one of three founders of the Steeped tea app, related to talking about online posts about related content (with a second Facebook page contact here).  They're based in Germany, with app versions available in German, English, French, Italian, and Russian (but I've not actually tinkered with it, to check on language form).  

Like many tea enthusiasts I first considered this tea app theme related to looking into timer functions long ago, and re-considered it when My Tea Pal came out, adding more of the functions that Steepster had, and still has.  Steepster just wasn't ever converted into an app form, as far as I know.

The Tea App theme was never of so much interest, because I didn't need a timer, I could keep notes elsewhere, and could already use Steepster (and did, a little).  But it's interesting to consider what other directions a tea app might take, which is exactly what we talked about.  Per my impression Steeped isn't in that complex and fully functional form now; the early version that exists provides some background information about tea brewing, and serves as a timer.  Per input from the developers that’s not quite the extent of it, since that makes it sound like a parameters table:

Steeped currently is a tea brewing app that goes beyond providing background information and a timer, onto including full step by step instructions for five brewing methods - Western Style, Gong Fu Style, Grandpa Style, Cold Brew and Matcha Brewing. The timer supports different steeping times for multiple infusions and automatically calculates the correct brewing parameters depending on the tea type used, water amount, brewing method, and intensity preference.

capture from their website

All the rest here will be about planned changes and developments, I suppose some of which are pretty far along in development, and others ideas that won't ever come to life.  We didn't really press Tristan about which were which, and I didn't keep track when any distinction was made.

One of the next two forms will add tea experience note taking functions, pretty much what one would expect a tea app to be.  Per my own expectations it would be hard to develop all of the product and review sorting and communication functions already on Steepster, messaging, the ability to follow people, and a forum function, but they wouldn't need to, depending on the intended range.

The other planned range, some already well under development, goes way beyond this, to include a marketplace function.  There has to be a commercial angle of some sort, right?  I like this idea of leaning into it, not just adding a subscription service (as I think My Tea Pal does), or some ads, but expanding light reviewing and informational functions to include a sales portal.  How would that work?  It's not finished yet, so what we heard of was development work, and current direction, not a final form, but I can explain my understanding.

Vendors would sign up to participate, to sell through that channel, basically, and then they could list products there.  In some form this could link to user reviews, so it wouldn't just be like a sales page listing.  This isn't functionally so different than Amazon including product reviews (or any vendor doing that).  The point came up that one main online tea vendor screens all negative reviews entered as product listing comments on their site, just not showing them below a certain score level, and reviewing them before posting them at an intermediate level (anything not highly positive).  Of course this would be a concern for Steeped too, not the screening, but people entering overly positive or negative comments or ratings for reasons beyond offering genuine personal experience feedback.  This is surely what is being restricted in that other case, beyond some genuine negative feedback.  I won't stall on that point here; it's probably familiar ground.

It must be a challenge to set up such a thing, since it would either be a central, unified, physical processing system (like Amazon), or else it would mirror external vendor functions, with plenty of drawbacks to both.  They're now setting it up as the second.  It would really be impractical for them to be holding on to dozens of vendors worth of product stock, or setting up a two stage order process, shipped to them then shipped to the customer.

All of this would be complicated enough to set up within one country, but that much worse dealing with international shipping and import restrictions, with taxation and such.  It can be workable for them since they limit it to within the EU, at least initially, which narrows down such complications considerably.  As I understand it that means vendors who participate could only be within the EU; maybe that wouldn't necessarily apply to where they could ship to.

We talked a lot about how they could adjust the form to optimize the experience, to add real value for users, but since the version is being developed it's all really about what is still being designed, or not under development yet.  There's a lot of potential, right?  And also a lot of potential for plenty to go wrong, for bad-faith participants to make app user input worthless, on both the positive and negative sides, related to artificial self-promotion or destructive campaigning.  Or it might not result in much more than a way to look at ads, which isn't a high-demand function.  Plenty of diverse feed algorithm potential we discussed would offset both risks, but there would be lots of extra challenges that come up.

One participant, Jan, who we've also met with before, is a German app developer based in the Netherlands, so his discussion input was especially interesting.  Or at times technical enough to be hard to follow, but that stayed limited.  Suzana was just about to fly, so we heard less from her, and Huyen could catch almost all of it but was out traveling and experienced some connection issues.  It is nice how those meetups don't necessarily require someone to be sitting in a meeting room type environment in their house, though.  I've never completely adapted to joining from a car but it came up often last year.  

I should mention something about Ralph for completeness; he expressed the concerns that plenty of vendors aren't selling high quality teas at good value, that their own descriptions might be misleading, and keeping the core site content about tea themes complete and accurate might be difficult, about types and brewing parameters and such.  Presumably an effective user feedback function could help with the first, product reviews.

It makes you think through what other forms of communication channels or technological tools might support tea interest and experience.  Or why people intentionally don't connect the two, beyond online group discussion, in lots of social media forms, with most people who love tea not even into that.

We talked about how tea experience seems to divide into people exposed to what is in grocery stores, and people who take it the next few steps, exploring more and more types, other brewing processes, cultural issues, making social connections, and so on.  Maybe new forms of online channels and tools can help people who wouldn't even consider joining a Facebook group to connect in other ways.  Back when I was starting out exploring tea discussion online it all seemed simpler, with Facebook groups barely getting started, and Tea Chat a main discussion channel, with Steepster entering in right about then.  Before all that text blogs played a larger role, a role that is quite diminished at this point.

I think it makes sense to explain why I'm "pro vendor," why I don't see a problem with so many people thinking they could make money off a theme that many of us tea enthusiasts try to keep as simple and removed from complications as possible, like commercial gain and social status issues.  Tea is only "in the West" because vendors are buying it in Asia and selling it there, with very few exceptions.  We definitely don't need tea apps to appreciate it, or to support that sales, but people exploring new forms and channels I see as a good thing.  Those that don't work, that don't help consumers, will fade away, and promising approaches that actually work in practice will be taken up and developed further by others.

It's interesting considering why Steepster became inactive, since it probably included a range of functions and built on a base of uptake My Tea Pal and Steeped probably won't match any time soon.  Of course I would only be guessing if I tried to explain that.  Social media channels just seem to experience a natural lifespan; there's that.  Tea Chat was never obsolete, but it went quiet long before controversy over management of the site shifted it from relatively inactive to very inactive.  Quora, another site I wrote answers for and started a tea space on, is on the declining side of such a curve.  For a limited range theme, like a Q & A site, somehow that makes more sense.  Or when a social media channel never draws a critical mass of uptake to gain momentum, as Google + didn't, that also seems understandable.  Other social media life-span themes are harder to place.

It will be interesting to see how far Steeped gets with these directions, and how they deal with the challenges, and developing a broad range of potential.  Tristan said that their next app version will come out within a few months, so some of that next range of functionality will be available soon.  It's possible to check it out now but at this point it's mostly just limited background information, brewing instructions, and a timer function.

I feel as if this doesn’t reflect just how positively I interpret the potential we discussed, which they’re working on developing into later finished app version functions now.  I think app marketplace forms like this will change how tea is accessed and sold, so it comes down to whether or not their version will become functional and adopted enough to fulfill that role.

There’s another part that relates to people reading text tone based on biases and expectations; everything is expected to be positive or negative.  What we write ourselves seems to naturally leave those out, from our own point of view, and cover a neutral and objective take, but of course that's just those being transparent to us.  I'm biased against timer and tea background apps being helpful, probably, because I don't even use a timer, and I'm more likely to write brewing advice content than seek it out.  Far more people are closer to the beginning of a tea experience learning curve, and this could be a novel way to present brewing information.  

Since brewing preference is subjective related content is always about starting points, and maybe this app form is a much better way to convey that than a brewing parameters table.  Then I would have to review the advice they’ve included to critique or praise that, and my own impression would have to be subjective too, related to matching or contradicting my own brewing preferences, so it seems as well to not go there.  People could download the app to see where they stand on that, and in relation to the form being helpful.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Gopaldhara second flush honey oolong


I suppose it's odd that this isn't a Spring tea / first flush review given that it's that season again, time for ordering fresh new versions, as Darjeeling goes.  I was supposed to receive some samples very recently but the local post office seems to have lost them, maybe delivered to the wrong house.  Odd that doesn't come up more often, given how inconsistent many things can be where I live, in Thailand.

In going back to try older samples I recently experienced how storage can affect teas like these, in a case of a 2021 first flush version.  Flavors mute a bit over time, and a heavy mineral aspect picks up.  It would depend on storage temperature, I think, with it as a given that complete isolation from air contact is in place.  It's hot here in Bangkok, and green tea freshness fades faster, or related character of first flush teas, whether those are grouped as lightly oxidized black teas or white versions.  I don't think that would've been as much a factor for a tea made later in last year, if it was a more oxidized version, but it's at least conceivable that this tea could've been better half a year ago.  

I think even a green or white first flush version, at their best drank freshest, would still be fine if stored isolated from air for a year, just not if room temperature made it into the mid-30's C / 90s F.  A bit of the fresh edge would wear off, which would be a shame.  Some teas actually improve with age, and oolongs can fall under that category, but how all that maps out can be complicated.  As I see it either well roasted oolongs benefit from rest or people can value a transition in rolled (ball-shaped) versions that takes many years, so although this kind of tea wouldn't degrade or change quickly I'd expect it would be better fresh than aged, for almost any amount of time.  Then the topic of aged Oriental Beauty does come up as a second kind of concern, so it might not be quite that simple.

Something interesting came up in checking a site listing for this:

Rohini Summer Honey Oolong – Bug Bitten Tea 2021 – Royal Series

This is one of the finest summer teas produced from high-quality AV2 bushes at Rohini Tea Estate. There is a reason behind the name ‘bug bitten tea’. During June, when the second flush teas are harvested, the rise in temperature also causes a rise in the insect population. The Tea Jassids also called green flies in Darjeeling feed on the tea leaves for a couple of weeks. During this time they suck out the moisture causing the leaves to shrivel downwards. The loss of moisture does not kill the leaf but rather stunts its growth leading to a concentration of flavors... 

This summer oolong consists of brownish-black leaves and a few silver tips. It brews into an aromatic bright amber cup with a very smooth flavor and no astringency. The tea has a mouthful of sweet and fruity muscatel character with a finish of honey and mango flavors. A compelling make and a true delight, it is definitely one of the best teas produced by Rohini Tea Estate.

I don't know if this really was a 2021 version, or if they made this in 2022, but it's not up on their site now.   The leaves look a bit darker than in that product sales page:

I could ask them but it's possible that it's not clear which tea version had been sent last year; little details like that can slip away over time.  Rishi does sometimes share versions sold only as small batches with me, since one main idea is to let me try them, and to hear feedback, more than for a marketing function.

It's odd not touching on the category naming of this being presented as oolong, which I'll mostly set aside.  This could be like an Oriental Beauty version, if the bug-bitten effect is similar, and the oxidation level also matches, as it seems to from dry leaf appearance.  It goes without saying but if this does seem a lot like a standard Taiwanese OB oolong version (which it isn't; tea plant type, terroir, and processing must all be different) citrus, spice range (towards cinnamon), and other fruit would stand out.


First infusion:  nice!  It does taste a bit like honey, with plenty of muscatel range too (or citrus / grape / liqueur), and other warm fruit tones.  It's probably going to pack slightly more punch after the first infusion but it expresses a lot of depth and complexity already.  I will hold off on a more detailed flavor list though.  Feel is nice already; it has a lot of rich structure, and pleasant trailing aftertaste that will probably pick up.  As a Chinese black tea drinker most into fruit and warmer tones in black tea this is a good style match for me.

Second infusion:  edge really picked up.  It's not a challenging astringency, always a concern with more chopped leaf versions, but it's significant, and will relate to using fast infusion times to moderate that character input.  At this high proportion that's normal enough, and doesn't relate to drinking weak tea.  Warm mineral base stands out more for that, but there is plenty of citrus still, and a base of warm fruit tone, that's still hard to break down further.  

One warm fruit tone is especially catchy, along the line of teaberry, mixing berry, mint, and an edgier range.  Mint is not really typical in Darjeeling, per my past experience.  Next one would consider what the mint range is like, wintergreen versus spearmint and such; maybe I'll get back to that if it gets stronger.

Third infusion:  nicely balanced for brewing that fast, maybe just seconds too fast.  Orange flavor increases this round, like the zest, the oil from the peel.  Mint is still there if you look for it but I wouldn't notice it at this proportion, without having it in mind.  The balance of intense and complex flavors, sweetness, warm base tones, limited astringency, and pleasant aftertaste work out really well.  Never mind the tea not expressing flaws, the rest really comes together.  There is other fruit range to consider, but it seems mixed in with the rest, not as distinct.  Maybe a red raspberry note stands out as much as any.

Fourth infusion:  brewed slightly stronger mint stands out more, and the balance of warm depth and astringency structure ramps up.  It's cool how brewing an extra few seconds changes the experience.  That mint tone is catchy, nicely complementing the rest.  I only remember pronounced mint in one tea, beyond Ruby / Red Jade, which typically seems more like eucalyptus or menthol to me, in a test batch version from Laos that my friend Anna shared.  I've heard it comes up in some Russian teas but I've not noticed it in any, that I remember.  

Fruit is a good balancing input for that aspect, and warm tones, a little towards cocoa / cacao.  Citrus is still present in this round but more as a part of the rest, on an even balance, where it stood out as primary in the last round.  I think that was probably due to the slight change in infusion strength more than a one-round aspect transition cycle variation (but who knows, really).

Fifth infusion:  fairly similar to last round.  I'll skip the notes and add if it transitions more next round.

Sixth infusion:  intensity is definitely fading, and some of the brighter fruit flavor dropping out faster than the rest, especially the bright citrus and berry.  Warmer and deeper tones will hang in there more from here, most likely, moving on towards a woody effect.  It's far from spent though; the remaining fruit still gives it a nice balance, and mint is still present.  

Later infusions:  it kept going, trailing off to similar character range, with fruit progressively getting swapped out for more woody tones.


One of the better Darjeeling versions I've ever tried.  I've commented before how that expectation context can throw off normal range of judgment for Gopaldhara's teas.  If one isn't among the best I've ever tried, at least at a 99% sort of level, it seems a little disappointing.  Then even if a version is that good without a novel new aspect experience included it can fall short of other versions experience.

Not all of their teas are absolutely fantastic; some are just quite good.  It's a good track record, one that can shift balance of interpretation.  The same is true for the versions being more whole leaf, with concerns over astringency generally dropping out; that's just part of the normal baseline.

Then style preference factors in, or relation to individual aspects.  I really do love Dian Hong, Yunnan black teas, for how those heavy, rich, complex flavors balance, range like cacao, roasted yam and sweet potato, depth from spice, and varying fruit tones.  I suppose that's part of why these Gopaldhara Darjeeling versions work so well for me, even though that heavy flavor range isn't the same, with the fruit tones and flavor context are all lighter.  First flush Spring versions are nice too, just in a different way.  That bright, fresh, intense lighter range compares more to what I like most in Nepal white teas, strong lighter citrus, brighter floral tones, supported by a lighter mineral range.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

A tea tour and conference event in Georgia (the country)

first posted in TChing here.

An online contact / friend, Alexander Zhiryakov, mentioned an upcoming tea conference event in Georgia, which reminded me that I've not ever mentioned trying tea from that country in a TChing post. What I have tried was nice. Some versions from a number of years back, from Moychay, were kind of mid-range for being novel or pleasant, but still ok, and unique in style.  More recent versions from Nika of Greengold were very unique, and better than still-being-developed styles should be, really exceptional. A couple of reviews are here and here.


That was because Greengold was working with a reclaimed old Soviet plantation, so the growing plants part was already covered, they had been thriving there under natural growing conditions for awhile. That just left processing, which went surprisingly well, related to them doing some networking and drawing on other resources and experience to replace processing development guesswork with experienced input.  All that will be part of this tour and conference event, since they will visit Greengold.

That friend mentioning the event, Alexander Zhiryakov, was the main founder of Laos Tea.  I met him in a Moscow tea tasting some years back related to that role and theme.  He's not the sole organizer of the event, but he is involved with that process.

Alexander is on the right

the version including Dasha

This doesn't really directly relate to Alexander working on different initiatives to set up tea testing based quality standards, overlapping with a broader evaluation theme. A group of friends and I talked with him and another Russian friend in that informal online meetup series last year, described in very limited detail here.

It seemed like an interesting event for combining a few main themes, the first of which is local tea background, drilled down to reviewing growing plants and processing demonstrations, including limited hands-on experience of tea making, and of course trying teas.  Then a second part related to tea judging tea versions, then auctioning some category winning versions and favorites. Then there was a related social outing afterwards, local gathering and hiking outing theme. It sounded great.

More specific details about that event (with meals and tea tastings along with event steps not mentioned in this summary):

Dates: 15 - 17 July 2022 

Place: Ozurgeti, Georgia (capital of Guria provice, the main tea region).

Travel related:  The nearest international airport is Batumi, 48km away from Ozugreti, with the Tbilisi and Kutaisi airports as alternatives.   

Day 1:  visit mountain tea garden (Greengold), learn about tea plucking and processing, how green and black tea are produced.

Day 2:  Travel to Anaseuly Tea Institute and Experimental factory, learn about Soviet tea science in 1950’s, and modern leaf compound analysis, with later sessions about tea tasting process and experimental processing techniques.

Day 3:  Tea fest opening in the Park of Culture, Ozurgeti, competition, awards, and beginning of tea auction portion.

Afterparty (separate):  in Bakhmaro, mountainous resort south-east of Ozurgeti, at 2000 m elevation, tea tastings and hikes.  

More information and related contact details will be posted in a Tea4b.com website notice, by the time this TChing article is posted.

two Greengold oolongs, really nice teas

It seems like in other tea areas local competition between producers tends to prevent these kinds of events being arranged.  Tea competitions or conferences are common enough, just not this scope, which overlaps some with guided tea tours, the parts about visiting producers and hands-on sessions related to making teas.  It would work in places like Wuyishan, or Assam or Darjeeling, but tea tourism is already established enough in many areas.  People already visit for vacations or to connect with producers, either related to a tour guided theme or else on their own.

Covid must have made it difficult to develop any new event ventures of most kinds over the last couple of years, unless those related to an online context.  It's nice to hear about a novel travel related theme, with great timing for shifting focus off other Russian news.  Potential disruption related to a "special military operation" being conducted by that neighboring country must bring up concerns about travel disruption, but from what I've seen of other recent tourism videos in Georgia there are great travel options there, and the country isn't experiencing any problems related to those events.

Friday, May 20, 2022

2021 Myanmar old tree sheng "pu'er-like tea"


I recently wrote about a Thai forest tea tree reclamation development project, although that's just one possible way of framing that.  Those trees are "wild," growing untended (with more on that here, or more pictures in a FB group post), but per my understanding they were probably brought there and intentionally grown at an earlier point, so they could be seen as "feral" now.  This post is about tea from another country and context anyway (from Myanmar, although maybe the origin conditions are similar), passed on with that Thai white tea by that contact who shared it, Leo Shevchenko.

I'll skip saying more about the origin, in part because I don't know more.  I'm not sure if it will relate to that forest growth development project to sell Myanmar tea versions too, or if he just had this, and was sharing it because it's interesting.  It's much appreciated either way; sheng versions from Myanmar are interesting to me, and the others I've tried were all uniformly positive, either good or really good.  I just looked back through what a search turns up in this blog for past posts and three past versions, reviewed between 2016 and 2020, were all distinctive and pleasant (and not more bitter than average, which comes up as a factor in this review).

There is basically a civil war still going on in Myanmar, per my understanding, but I'm not clear on the details.  My deepest sympathy goes out to the people there, and in Ukraine, and wherever else conflicts are impacting people's lives.  The world should be better than this.

I always say that I never weigh tea, and for once I made an exception, since there is scale in the kitchen, that my wife bought for cooking.  This is probably 10 grams of tea, prepared in a 100 ml gaiwan, so a really high proportion.  Using 8 might be more normal for me; it looks like I went a little heavier than usual.  I say "probably" because I washed the cup and gaiwan, restoring their color back to the original color tone after repeated use, and I think a gram of water might've ended up being weighed too, and it really showed 11.  

This will mostly fill the gaiwan when leaves are wetted, which isn't a mistake, that's generally how I prepare the tea (maybe using slightly less, but still roughly this).  I've just read a comment about how someone else thought a very high proportion negatively affects the aspect balance, not giving the tea time to soak due to the fast infusion times that result from using such a high proportion.  Maybe; it's not as if I feel that I'm dialed in on optimums.  It seems suitable and positive to me, and the general approach is developed habit.  For some sheng styles it works well, pushing the limit for proportion, and for others not so much, so we'll see.


Rinse:  it seems strange starting here, but why not.  Sweetness already stands out in a fast rinse, a step used to really throw that liquid away (which I see as probably unnecessary, but still conventional, perhaps tied to getting the leaves to unfurl, or to early fermentation by-products including toxins).  Mineral already stands out, and maybe even a faint hint of smoke.  The label did include that the tea was hand-made, using wood fire, an unconventional processing detail inclusion, but also a nice image.

First infusion:  bitterness really kicks in, and it probably will escalate one level higher next round.  It's fine though, not the overpowering version or level present in some sheng.  It makes it hard to pick up the rest, for the proportion of that flavor aspect being so dominant.  Mineral is definitely adding a nice base, and sweetness adds balance.  Other flavor might be mostly floral range, and a bit of vegetal range might enter in as it develops.  I think there is warm tone included too, along the line of aromatic cedar or spice, but it will be easier to label in two more infusions once early bitterness and astringency develop then even out just a bit.

Of course I'm brewing this relatively quickly, with this infusion pretty strong for it brewing for around 10 seconds.  At this proportion, for a tea of this character, it will work best to brew the first half dozen rounds at or well under 10 seconds.  Is that a problem; would it be better with 5 or 6 grams in this gaiwan, using 15 second times?  I should check that by trying it again, but I won't mention it in this post if I do, most likely.  It's only practical to write review posts based on one tasting, otherwise it relates to merging two sets of notes, and then an inclination to taste a tea a third time to see if variation came from differences in me, or related to slight approach differences.  Reviews are an impression and interpretation of a tea, not an objective, final description.  Really that's true of my reviews and also others', regardless of approach.

Second infusion:  much faster, only a 5 second infusion this time.  For how intense this is backing off proportion probably would be better, enabling dialing in infusion strength more.  For me that's only usually true of bitter and especially intense versions of sheng, which definitely come up.  One of the first Thai shengs I ever tried was a maocha that was a lot like this, so many years ago my interpretation baseline makes direct comparison impossible, which I tried prior to starting this blog 8 years ago.  For a milder tone Laos "wild origin" sheng that I tried last year this proportion would make more sense, pushing the tea to experience maximum intensity.

It's good.  Bitterness is balanced by honey sweetness now, and warmer tones are picking up.  On the deeper range it could be aromatic wood (cedar) or a non-distinct spice, but floral tones also seem to include fruit range that could seem warm, grapefruit or dried orange peel.  It's mostly floral though, and one could easily interpret some of the bitterness bite as coupling with a vegetal range, a tree bud tip or flower stem, or something along that line.  Actual foods like that don't come to mind; maybe my grandparents ate some bitter greens that were closer, but I can't refer back to foods I would avoid eating as a child as a reference.

Third infusion:  it's odd I've not been mentioning smoke; they seemed to be able to limit smoke contact with the tea material, which isn't how that always goes.  A little smoke can be fine, or a variation of that flavor aspect can seem to occur naturally, perhaps not from actual smoke contact, but I'm not noticing either in this.

Richness of feel picks up a lot in this round, and the extra depth in flavor experience is mirrored over to aftertaste more.  Bitterness still dominates the other aspects, as I suppose it will throughout the entire cycle.  That can be great if someone loves that experience, or it's a good sign related to intense range that can transition well through long aging.  I'm ok with it, but I suppose I like the sweeter and less bitter sheng range more. Those parts I already described balance well, and it's hard to describe how balance and depth make this a different experience than last round, based on roughly the same aspects.  I'll add more tied to a list or attempt at describing those "emergent property" sets of aspects next round.

Fourth infusion:  it seems like a fruit tone is definitely ramping up in this, edging into an already complex profile, that includes dominant bitterness, pronounced mineral base tones (which themselves cover a range, warm and also lighter), aromatic wood (alternatively interpreted as a spice tone), and plenty of floral range.  Richness of feel might have increased just a little too, but it was already rich last round. The one drawback of this tea experience is comparison with how much potential it seems to show, even for moderate aging changes, related to what it might be like in two more years.  That bitterness isn't going anywhere, at least not soon, but it moderating and allowing warmer and more complex range to develop could make this tea exceptional.  

Fifth infusion:  I don't mention the subject of hui gan much here, what sometimes gets translated as "returning sweetness," the effect of bitterness drawing out the experience of sweetness after you swallow a tea, related to aftertaste effect, seemingly combined with a throat or rear mouth feel.  If you drink water between rounds when experiencing a tea like this, as I just did, that causes a taste sensation of sweetness.  It's an interesting and pleasant effect, and it also clears your palate so the bitterness doesn't seem oppressive.  For me having mild food with a tea like this might make sense too, really limiting the build-up of experience of intensity, I just don't eat while I review teas.  Something like a neutral rice cake would really tone down that intensity level, which of course wouldn't be more positive for everyone.

The tea seems better balanced, maybe in part from giving my sense of taste a short break.  It's progressively warming in tone, so what I was saying was at the edge of vegetal range, offset by lesser inclusion of warm mineral, wood, or spice, is now shifted to that warm range being much more dominant.  To what extent that includes any fruit seems linked as much to imagination as actual experience; it could just be additional warming floral tones causing that effect.

Sixth infusion:  maybe as well to take a round off writing, to avoid this wall of text build-up.  Floral tone seems a little stronger, into more of a perfume-like range.

Seventh infusion:  it's not just palate fatigue that's going to be an issue; this is a lot of tea to keep going.  People discuss cha qi effect, which is surely a real thing, but let's just consider caffeine.  Typical tea versions contain 25 to 35 mg / dry tea gram, and this may well be on the higher side.  Even if it only contains 30, and even if the first 7 infusion only extracts two thirds of that, 10 grams of tea would've dosed me with 200 mg already, two cups of coffee worth.  With a heavy breakfast two cups of coffee, or a strong brewed large mug, isn't that noticeable, but I just had two sticky rice and banana (things?) for breakfast.  I'm at a loss for a category; it's this, khao tom mad:

I asked my son what that means, and through checking Google Translate it's "bundled boiled rice," which is hard to determine without typing that in Thai text to find out.  That's an obvious reference to the banana leaf wrapping enabling roasting of the mixture to cook the banana.  The beans should be black beans, as shown, and the linked recipe gets that part wrong.  I was living on those visiting Laos back when I was a vegetarian, happy to find such a filling, pleasant, and convenient breakfast food.

Back to the tea, warm tones might have evolved, a little.

Eighth infusion:  mineral range is more dominant now, even leveling up to on par with the bitterness, which has seemed to change to a deeper level experience, integrated with the rest differently.  This tea would probably be pretty good in 15 years, but I think it would change in interesting and positive ways in just 2 or 3.  It's fine now, if someone is ok with unusual bitterness and flavor intensity.  I've not been discussing feel so much; general richness stands out more than the structure that might also common pair with this flavor range.  It's not that it lacks pronounced feel structure though, it's that flavor intensity throws off me describing that, since it stands out so much more.

I'll let this go, and try a few more rounds I won't write notes for later.  For sure this can brew another half dozen positive rounds, and it probably won't be spent then.  [later edit]:  it brewed a lot more positive rounds, maybe another 8, not fading on a normal cycle time-frame, and still pleasant after it did finally lose some intensity.


At one point I thought all Myanmar sheng was quite bitter, related to the first versions I tried being like that, but later I encountered a range of different flavor profiles.  This one was definitely bitter.

It's more typical for wild-origin material to be flavorful, sweet, complex, and somewhat mild in character, but of course it varies.  A purple leaf type I recently reviewed (aged, so hard to say what it had been like as one year old tea) was sweet, fruity, and sour.  Of course I think that plant genetics must be a main cause of drastic variations in character, with growing conditions and processing other main causes.  I just can't make guesses more specific, to map aspects to likely causes within one of those ranges.

It would be nice to try this a couple times at lower proportion, and then set the rest aside for a year to see how it changes (Leo shared enough to try a good number of times, not a small sample).  I think people who really value bitterness in young sheng would love this now though, since it was clean, complex, well-balanced, and transitioned in interesting and positive ways across infusions.  Intensity was definitely pronounced.

I tried two inexpensive factory tea versions after this, a Xiaguan and Dayi Jia Ji from 2010 and 2015, both pressed in tuocha shape, and finished editing and posting in the opposite order, that one first.  As anyone familiar with these type ranges would expect this Myanmar version was more or less objectively better, although pronounced bitterness would determine match to personal preference.  Those teas were bitter and astringent, especially the 2015 Dayi version, just not nearly as bitter as this one.  This Myanmar version was brighter, fresher, more intense, and cleaner in effect, good tea, after setting aside bitterness level as either desirable or undesirable.  That one aspect won't exactly fade fast, but it will reduce and fall into a different kind of balance with the rest long before this tea is fully aged, in another 12 to 15 years.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Xiaguan and Dayi Jia Ji partially aged tuocha review (7 and 10 years old)


I talked to a couple of vendors about thoughts on a rapid increase in pu'er pricing, the average levels doubling over 5 or 6 years, related to this post, about Context and concerns related to high quality level sheng pu'er.  A few clarifications are required, ideas I thought generally covered in that content, but which may not have stood out or have been explicit enough.  The general theme was that consumer demand for better tea versions, coupled with overall demand volume shift and increased costs, have caused pricing to increase.  Then vendors or producers are probably making more profit too; that's how it would go when demand level (as volume, and also demand for higher quality range) and pricing both rise.

Vendor costs are rising too.  Not just for the tea material, which increases year to year, but nothing stays at the same price level, for processing costs, transportation, marketing related, etc.  Consumers would expect more sophisticated packaging and presentation, because that evolves too.  It's not possible to guess if, related to costs and demand volume increases, a general mark-up level remains the same, so that profits would rise as fast or faster than any other input.  In a sense it doesn't matter; market demand supports better quality cakes selling for $80 to 100 now, so that's what they cost, without any supply side correction pushing that pricing downward. 

Geoff of Hatvala mentioned a special case of changing pricing, which I had known about but hadn't considered as factoring in.  He adjusted shipping cost so that it's free past a certain volume level, a common practice now, which of course bumps the initial listed product pricing a little to compensate, just moving it from one place to another.  It's funny how that psychology works, that most people would much rather pay for a $150 order that has free shipping included than a $120 order without an extra $30 of shipping cost already included, resulting in the exact same total cost.  At some point in the volume purchasing range someone's order pricing went up a little and someone else's down, so that people buying $200 or more worth of tea at a time now probably are paying slightly more, and someone right over that volume threshold--whatever it is--a bit less, but it's all not so different.

I'm thinking of how all this works out in relation to what I was trying to describe as options, as ways to work around this rise in demand and pricing.  In that post I suggested that South East Asian tea (sheng) might provide a temporary lower cost alternative, with rising demand for that likely to offset that as being much of an alternative better value later.  So what else is there?  Factory tea comes to mind, buying what is considered to be a lower quality range instead, and a generally different type and style.  There would be other alternatives, like exploring more direct purchasing through Chinese and Taiwanese markets, or looking for other small-vendor exceptions, the first of which I've never really explored much myself.  I suppose King Tea Mall could be seen as a reseller option version of that; they buy from within normal Chinese market sources and resell teas, per my understanding (not retail buying to retail purchasing, necessarily, but closer to that form).

To back up to clarify the problem, it's partly like someone complaining that the cost of cars is sky-rocketing, because they bought standard sedans for much lower prices in the past, and now their SUV costs $50 or 60k (or hybrid, electric car, whatever it is, with those costing even more).  You can still buy a Honda Civic for $22k (of course I had to look that up), but it's not what they want.  The car companies aren't "taking advantage," they are selling at supply and demand rates, just in a broad range of options.  Tea is a small enough niche industry that temporary market rate positions can happen, so it's a little different.  I guess it is possible that in both industries there could be a higher profit potential to playing up bells and whistles, to adding marketing spin to make catchy, attractive features seem all the more so.  Maybe almost no tea sold as gushu really is gushu, and "wild arbor" doesn't actually mean much in some cases; who knows.

So I wanted to review what an option might be like, where factory tea offerings would get you if you try to drink those as "middle aged" versions, here also in relation to a modest quality starting point.  Obviously buying 15-20 year old, ideally aged sheng pu'er puts you right back in a supply and demand crunch, back in the $150-200 cake range, even for teas that were selling for $20 back at time of manufacture in the early 2000s (see future post correction comment about that being wrong, right?).

So I'll re-review a couple of moderately transitioned, inexpensive, large producer teas and see what they're like 7 to 10 years after production.  It's hard to find these teas at 7 to 10 years old, compared to buying them new, but someone very concerned about costs could buy a bunch that are a year or two old or so, and still around, and hunt for other exceptions closer to this range, maybe just not from Xiaguan and Dayi (what these are).  Within a half dozen or so years they could be having this kind of experience, which may or may not be a good thing.  I'll try to comment here to compare that to what different styles of tea better when drank young are like, and to what the aged versions I've been trying are like (without so much focus on the latter; that's too complicated for a complete mapping).

Let's get one last detail out of the way:  do I think these are higher risk teas related to pesticide, chemical fertilizer, or heavy metal contaminant risk, one selling point for more "natural origin" versions?  No, not really.  I think if you buy random $10-20 Ebay cakes you run the risk of that contact, since you would be intentionally buying the lowest cost and quality versions you could find, but I don't expect there is much greater risk from these versions than for the foods we all eat.  For sure many more chemicals were used in producing these teas than some real forest grown version, so I'm also guessing that limited exposure to traces of that would come up, but per my guess it's largely a non-issue, or at least not a greater risk than for foods.  But then that risk is hard to place; it might be common for people to suffer from the cumulative effect over decades.

One last, last detail:  this Xiaguan has been here in Bangkok, held by the vendor, for a long time, and this Dayi tuocha spent part of its life in Kunming and more than the second half here, so storage conditions aren't identical, but they overlap a lot.  I've reviewed both before, years ago, but comparison with those earlier impressions wouldn't be so helpful.  The "Jia Ji" branding term is more or a less a version tied to a somewhat consistent style, in theory, and Xiaguan makes a lot of tuocha versions, so really there is a lot more to be unpacked about what that version was like initially, and where it stands in relation to others, it's just not included here.


This Xiaguan version (right in all photos) is a lot more compressed, so it looks smaller for being left as chunks (and maybe it is less tea material; I didn't weigh these).  It'll be interesting to see how that factors into fermentation level, once both have a few rounds to open up, and the related slower start for it works out.  I'll compensate with slightly longer infusions for the Xiaguan for the first two rounds but transition pattern still won't be completely identical.

2015 Dayi Jia Ji tuocha:  the pleasant effects and limitations of drinking this tea only this fermented stand out right away; it would be normal to give it another decade.  At the same time warm tones are developing, and the earlier astringency edge and harsh level of bitterness have subsided.  Pronounced taste is a bit like pine resin smells, with a sappy feel to the tea matching that.  I like it, and I drink this version from time to time, just not very often.  I picked up a sleeve of these some years back and per usual I'll probably finish them right about when they're ready to drink, in 10 more years.  I have a small chunk of a 2014 version stashed somewhere but it seemed as well to emphasize the age difference for this.

It's hard to compare this experience to younger, different style tea, or older versions.  I'll hold of on making any start on that.

2012 Xiaguan tuocha:  it's more age transitioned, that's for sure.  Much more; warmer, softer tones stand out.  The sappy, harder edge feel to the Dayi, which included limited vegetal range, just isn't expressed in this.  10 years stored in Bangkok is probably more like 25 stored in a dry place in Kunming, beyond the type of transition never being identical, with that not working out as one equal, linear level.  

There is an equivalent to the pine-tree sap range in this too, but a lot of warmer, smoother, towards-spice range stands out instead.  I suppose it could be interpreted as similar to aromatic wood or leather, with some dried fruit input, closer to Chinese date than dried tamarind, but not exactly either.  Going back and retasting the Dayi after this makes that seem all the edgier, with bitterness and a lean towards vegetal range a bit harsh (with floral tone included; it's not just like eating a dandelion leaf).

After repeated tastings of expressing how using a maxed out proportion is problematic for getting through caffeine contact and other feel range you'd think I would've learned.  I'm feeling these teas after one round.  It just doesn't make sense to brew 8 or 9 grams (10?) of two versions of tea and see how far you get through that.  Live and not learn, it seems.

2015 Dayi, second infusion:  pleasantly intense.  Bitterness is at a higher level than I prefer but it's a lot lower than in a new maocha (2021) Myanmar version I just reviewed (although I may post these out of order).  It's transitioning, but to keep this readable it will work to do a next flavor list next round, once it has opened up and loosened up a little.

2012 Xiaguan:  intensity is at the other end of the scale for this; interesting it worked out that way, but compression level is reducing infusion strength too, in spite of going a little longer.  Bitterness and astringency largely transitioning is a lot of that, but tea quality may have factored in to, or other initial character at time of production must have.  This is pleasant too but some of that warm tone is towards wood and cardboard instead of spice and dried fruit (with the flavor list for both next round).  It seems like I might've used less tea for this version but chunks are still unfolding, so it might even up for intensity level over the next couple of rounds.  

2015 Dayi, third infusion:  it's in a nice place now, with vegetal range, and even floral tones, swapped out for deeper and heavier range.  Lots of warm mineral joins in, and sappiness similar to pine sap informs both flavor and feel.  The feel and aftertaste effect are cool, the way this really coats your mouth, and continues on as a taste experience that seems to happen all throughout it.  One part is a little like that edge in Ceylon tea bags, a black tea warmth and bite, not unlike Lipton, just framed in a completely different experience context.  It's crazy thinking that a Lipton tea-bag tea drinker might relate to this, but maybe, if they could tolerate the bitterness.  Intensity fading and feel softening will bring this to a nicer place, over the next few infusions and also years, if both work out like that.

2012 Xiaguan:  this finally opened up to it's normal range character, I think.  Feel did pick up a lot of intensity, in part probably related to letting the infusion run longer, out at 15 seconds or so ("long" is relative when proportion is this high).  These flavor tones are a lot warmer than people accustomed to drinking dry stored teas might expect for this aging time-frame; I tried 2005 or 6 versions from that Chawang Shop set that were much less progressed in fermentation level.  I'm not as opposed to dry storage as is conventional among pu'er drinkers, seeing it as a slowing of transition more than a clearly inferior form, but then again I'll know more about optimum transition patterns after another 10 years of trying teas, and I'll be able to place claimed negative outcomes better.  I just tried a half dozen dry stored sheng versions I've kept posting about, but it doesn't help not having tried the exact same tea versions a dozen or more years ago.

There's an unusual aromatic wood tone / spice aspect in this that works to tie the rest together, as I see it.  On the other side, I can also interpret this as showing potential for a full aging transition that's just not there yet.

2015 Dayi, fourth infusion:  positive transition continues, but for sure I'm tapping out early in this cycle.  A couple more rounds will tell two thirds of this story, and that'll be enough.  Sappy, towards pine-resin character is nice, but warm tones will be better in a few more years, more developed and dominant.

2012 Xiaguan:  better in relation to aging transition placement, but there's a funkiness to this the other doesn't have.  It's not musty, but vaguely towards that.  It seems like part of the range is missing, since the brighter and more vegetal range, and bitterness, in the other has largely dropped out, but it's only at the threshold of starting to express deeper tones and different character.

It doesn't sound like I'm describing these as a good, inexpensive replacement for what to drink right now, does it?  They're drinkable, and I think keeping one of these in the rotation could make sense, if you like that range, and can keep picking up $10 or $15 versions at a Chinatown outlet.  It probably makes more sense to buy them faster than you drink them, or grab a large set and hold that for a half dozen to ten years.  I don't love the "locking it down" idea, someone thinking that if $10-15 is a good value and these should age well why not buy 100 and sell them for $20-25 later on, or maybe more.  That would be possible, not exactly a get rich quick scheme, but probably a workable business model.  And a way to keep other tea drinkers from having the same access, unfortunately.

2015 Dayi, fifth infusion:  I'm brewing these out towards 20 seconds, to give an idea of how slowly I increase timing, although the point this time is to try them stronger than usual.  They would match my preference better, and probably most others' preferences, brewed for around half that long.  After this round and a faster infusion I'll leave off.  I've been drinking these teas for an hour, since I don't rush while also making notes, and my kids and my cat keep interrupting.  It's 98 F out now, the one temperature I can easily convert to C, 37, which is also human body temperature.  I've gotta be the only person drinking hot tea outside in Bangkok right now.

I like that sappy, piney character, although it is a little much tried out brewed strong.  This longer infusion approach probably works better for the other version.

2012 Xiaguan:  it's hard to really describe this flavor impression, either by breaking it into a set or as a general impression.  As a set it includes warm wood range, towards spice, with some dried fruit undertones, and some mineral base.  As a general impression it's like drinking the essence of that smell of really old books in a tea version.  It wouldn't be for everyone.  Again it will seem to soften, deepen, and sweeten over the next few years, becoming more subtle and pleasant (I think, as I would interpret changes).  It's definitely not fading away, but it's much milder in intensity than the other tea.

2015 Dayi, sixth infusion, brewed around 10 seconds:  to me this is a more standard brewed intensity.  Character balances as well as it's ever going to for this, with bitterness and feel edge strong but moderate compared to earlier, with warm tones a much more pronounced effect.  This needs another 7 years to really move into aged range though, as long as it has had already.

2012 Xiaguan:  that one odd edge becomes more pronounced as rounds go by; strange how that works out.  Quite often odd character, that might be seen as a flaw, comes and goes in early rounds, but this is the opposite.  It's towards a mineral effect, or that taste that I often describe as of aged furniture, or maybe less positively summarized like old books or cardboard.  I think it could potentially decrease and soften over time, as character keeps shifting, but I also think it's probably a side-effect of relatively wet and hot storage, so that it won't fully drop out, it'll stay like that.  It's not so separate from what I've experienced from heavy and wet Malaysian storage input, which I suppose I don't love, compared to other area forms I've tried different examples of (all a work in progress to map out).  It is what it is.


I definitely don't see 7 and 12 year old tuocha-form factory teas as a good alternative for daily drinkers, but both of these are drinkable.  Higher quality, whole leaf, more natural growing conditions origin teas (or at least those typically presented as such) tend to be better brand new, as newly made maocha, or even more so after 2 or 3 years of moderate aging transition.

There must be another range of "factory" (high volume production) versions that would work better for this purpose, to drink within the first 7 years of being made.  Origin area and other factors enter in, plant types, processing styles, and all the rest.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Context and concerns related to high quality level sheng pu'er


Two online discussions have approached this general subject, of sheng pu'er quality levels, from two completely different perspectives. Both map back to what I see as one concern in relation to tea enthusiasts naturally pursuing higher quality level tea experience over time, which also relates to other tea types.  

There is already a problem related to assumptions that are included, right?  How can we really define a higher quality level, or a general quality continuum?  Onto the end point instead, the main issue I'll map out isn't a serious problem that I'm concerned about, related to one outcome consideration, just the way a shift in trends in sheng pu'er demand and vendor offerings works out, which might become more extreme if current trends continue to shift in the present direction.  

Of course those starting point references will clarify how they are using that "quality" context, but this subject just came up in relation to a statement about oolongs in a comment on a post I made, so I'll start with that.  As background I was talking about the pleasant nature of a limited quality inexpensive tea, which does naturally lead towards questioning what the distinction is then, between pleasantness and quality level:

I use it [quality] as a broad blanket term with no clear meaning, not really even a clearly defined range of meaning. If I taste that shui xian beside a high quality wuyi yancha version a lot of specific meaning would come to mind. Such a tea would be more intense, complex, refined, and balanced, and it would brew cleaner from early rounds into a longer cycle of infusions than this one. One hard to grasp aromatic quality tends to stand out, a liqueur or perfume like aspect in better versions. But it's ok tea still, it's nice.

I see that as a discussion of "quality markers," aspects that naturally link to perceived higher quality for an individual tea type, even though it doesn't actually make that explicit.  It would vary by tea type, and different people might naturally see it as differing aspect sets per that tea type.  For sheng pu'er flavor range comes into play, with mouthfeel and aftertaste effect varying more than for other types.

A friend tried that tea that I was discussing, an oolong, and agreed that it was a lack of flaws that made it really stand out from what one would expect from that category, low cost wuyi yancha from a Chinatown shop. The character present was positive too, especially a nice inky mineral base and a tree bark sort of woody taste, with sweetness in a good level to balance the rest, and decent feel in relation to thickness.  But beyond that the experience was a bit general, not defined by significant inclusion of these kinds of "quality level" marker aspects.

Let's start with a discussion of pu'er types, quality levels, and cost, in this Reddit post, which is titled "So this is what straight edge rich people do," asking if pu'er interest replaces wine or drug consumption (more or less).  A comment there, cited in more complete form than is typical, defines quality context better, from an individual perspective on a mapping of levels: 

...here's my tier system (prices per gram):

0-5 cents: Aside from huge bulk buys I have yet to see anything aside from mass marketed tea that is low quality in every sense. I do not buy directly from Taobao or whatever. It is probably still very possible to find drinkable teas here if you know how to look.

5-15 cents: A gamble but you can find drinkable tea.

Up to 25 cents: You can get enjoyable tea from reputable vendors. The "daily drinker" marketing concept is probably right here for most people.

Up to 35 cents: Not very hard to find decent aged or otherwise "notable" teas in this range, but requires some connections or searching.

Up to 50 cents: Unless you are getting scammed, you should definitely be able to get some notable and exciting teas.

Up to a dollar per gram: There's still some overhyped tea here (as in all categories), but you can get most of whatever you might want in this range, aside from extremely hyped regions or very aged tea.

That "tier system" concept alone is problematic; there is just no way that typical experienced "objective quality level" teas would map over to clear cost-identified ranges like that.  If we shift that to a "good value" intended context instead, to what one might ordinarily be able to find, that represents good quality for that cost, then it becomes more consistent, and works better, it's just still problematic.  There would be a lot of less promising value range that isn't as good as it should be to fit into those defined ranges, related to those selling prices, and there would be another tail to the distribution, teas that are too good a value to fit in the normal category, really fairly competing with the next level up.

Does the rest seem to work, based on my own experience?  It's not so bad.  You have to correct the interpretation so much for "what is typical," versus actual sales offering range, that it almost relates to assuming that this works, and then squeezing experienced outcomes back to mapping to this division.  You have to do the same for preference, rounding off what you experience in relation to your own preference, and demand spikes affecting costs or limitations for individual types or versions, to get back to fitting this, so that only in the end do you find what you set out to look for by making a few adjustments.

Let's consider two examples, one in relation to some of the last teas I've been reviewing:

That's a recent Chawang Shop order (teas I actually bought), almost all sheng pu'er (one is shu), the type being discussed.  Right away a lot of people might see this example as invalid, because that vendor stores teas in Kunming, under relatively dry conditions, so to many people versions that are more than a year or two old are already compromised in relation to transition form.  Not just lack of appropriate degree of transition, but that is one potential interpretation, that it just preserves the teas, with another interpretation relating to the form of change being negative, not just slower.  I don't have a developed opinion to offer on this, just a guess, which I'll mostly leave out here.

I reviewed the Tulin Wuliangshan brick here, which works as a decent example.  I cited other reviews of the tea on Steepster (not necessarily a reliable reference, random input from tea drinkers with varying perspectives, with the same tea version but sold by another vendor), and none of them really liked it.  I did though; back to subjectivity being problematic.  It seemed like it had aged further after most of them had been trying it, and was entering an interesting character range, even though that aging process was unusually slow (it was nothing like a typical 12 year old tea).  That was selling for $10 / 100 grams, so on that person's tier system it should only be "drinkable," the second tier, but not yet "enjoyable," what he is explicitly framing as a daily drinker in that detailed comment.

Let's consider another range, before moving on, checking out Farmerleaf page offerings in relation to this matrix of cost to quality level, switched back to the topic of unaged / new / young sheng.  They are a reasonably well regarded sheng pu'er vendor, specializing in Jing Mai origin versions, that shifted focus on lower cost products to (presumably higher quality) higher cost versions around 5 years ago or so:

The range there is from $62 to $300 per 357 gram cake, 17 cents per gram to 84 cents per gram.  So that's back to the lower priced version--per that tier system comment--probably being enjoyable, if all went well, but not notable.  The more costly tea should be unusually "notable and exciting," beyond that of a 35 to 50 cent per gram range that's already at the minimum threshold of notable and exciting.

I'm not going to guess if those teas actually are like that; really so much subjective interpretation comes into play that it probably wouldn't be meaningful, especially for tea versions I've not tried.  I last ordered Farmerleaf teas maybe 3 or 4 years ago and one $90 cake example seemed pleasant, maybe not so much notable and exciting.  That actually works on this scale, putting it in between pleasant and unusually good or interesting in character, but not significantly related to the second.  

Presumably those teas are what well-informed tea drinkers expect in relation to that pricing, and compare reasonably well to what other vendors are offering.  Or again maybe specific styles come into play quite a bit, and demand per style, with a somewhat variable mark-up rate factoring in, so it's just not that simple.

Let's move on to the other citation to place this better, since what we are looking for in relation to quality levels hasn't clearly emerged yet in these references, limited to subjective impression only, relative pleasantness.

Peter Jones, manager of the Trident Bookseller and Cafe, recently posted these thoughts:

Most people seem to think they should only buy aged sheng puer, but that is a mistake. It limits their knowledge and understanding of the tea and the market. Buying sheng every year from the same farmer relationships allows one to gain a deeper understanding of why some sheng puers are priced the way they are and how the market sets the price. This year was a hit or miss harvest for many of the smaller villages and tea mountains in the Yiwu area, and in 5-10 years some of the smaller lots will command an incredible price due to specific factors from this spring. 

One example is Guoyoulin Gushu, which is located within a nature preserve. The harvest is only allowed to take place for 10 days, and rain and Covid impacted that time period. Here we are sampling the 2020 spring material, which is already outstanding. Young sheng can teach us many things that go beyond simply "flavor."

A few factors mentioned shed some light on this quality levels divide that haven't become explicit in the earlier content just yet:

-annual supply and demand shifts affect tea pricing, varying by type and local origin range.

-aged sheng and new sheng are two completely different subject ranges (already clear enough to anyone vaguely familiar with sheng pu'er, but the way the two pricing ranges relate to each other isn't as clear).  

-flavor isn't the only baseline for evaluating sheng pu'er.  Again anyone drinking sheng pu'er would already know this, but filling in what you personally value over time is a long process, probably a never-ending one, that varies by person.

-it takes a lot of exposure to sort out any patterns in pricing, related to what inputs cause what outcomes.  Fully identifying pricing inputs at any one level (eg. local wholesale maocha pricing) is probably all but impossible, and then it would be all the more complex to map out how varying mark-ups and pricing themes work out across end-customer outlets.  Just the local origin supply and demand part (input) would be hard to get any feel for, even in higher profile and more discussed cases, eg. in-demand village area cases.

-ideally aging potential is part of what people might value, or should value, another very complex factor to unpack. Two year old sheng is something else, not new or old, which under some conditions may be much better than brand new sheng, depending on the starting point.

Back to the broader analysis topic and breakdown, next one might consider other examples of what falls out related to better and worse value, which vendor sources are in the far tails for higher than standard range quality per price, or else lower.  For this discussion it works better to just set that aside, and arbitrarily accept that there is a normal range of vendors selling somewhat equivalent products and value versions.  

Quality level, origin, age, storage conditions input, and style really do affect what a standard market rate pricing should be, so it's complicated citing examples, since tasting the tea is necessary to identify some of what matters most related to that.  Considering a Trident sheng pu'er offering might help clarify that, a tea somewhat related to what Peter was discussing, just a different version also sold by them:

Is this slightly aged 200 gram cake a fantastic value, selling for $50, or is it only in a normal market range, or maybe a somewhat flawed tea that's not a great value at that rate?  Probably the first, per my guess, informed by trying other teas from them, but only through tasting that tea would one know, and even then developing good judgment to place sheng pu'er takes awhile to develop, and preferences vary by individual.


Going back to the first considerations, maybe it's all not as clear as that comment about tiers and standard character results described, and maybe preference throws off setting up such a structure, and value variations, but still there's something to that.  Higher demand teas do tend to sell for more, and there has to be some limited correspondence between preferences, quality level, and final consumer demand, with marketing branding another kind of related input.  But then vendors also definitely sell for better and worse value, over-hyping and overpricing mediocre tea in some cases, or selling at below market rates for high quality versions in others (but for sure the first paradigm is more common).

Where to go with all this, related to an ordinary exploration of sheng experience, and normal preference transitions?  Ordinarily people might pick a vendor like Yunnan Sourcing and first explore sheng pu'er by buying a good number of samples, whatever others happen to recommend, mixing cost levels, origin areas, ages of versions, and so on.  Then an organic exploration process would extend from there, related to whatever that person liked best, confined or relatively unconfined by budget concerns.  Only after that introduction phase could someone really interpret how good a version actually is, versus those other factors, style, local area typical character, etc.

The teas I mentioned buying were on the low price side, because of a self-imposed budget constraint (which my wife helps reinforce motivation for).  That introduces value issues as a priority.  People also tend to discuss sheng pu'er preference in relation to aged or relatively new versions, then origin areas, with a lot of reference to factors like tea plant age and natural arbor growth, and finally tied to experienced aspects they like or try to avoid, which to some extent should map to the rest.  Aging potential can be something of a guess and an afterthought but it could also factor in, or else it could be a primary concern, for many.

We might expect people to fall into a preference range related to their budget, and then stay there.  For people with an open budget they might experience a natural drift to higher and higher quality teas (or higher demand versions, which should correspond some).  Others could stick to a certain pricing level with the drift occurring in better and better sourcing approaches, getting better value for what they spend.  Here's that one point I wanted to add:

One overall concern is that social media influence pushes people to experience what others experience, and to value what they value, causing a general grouping based shift over time.  

If someone had very free budget to spend on tea they might buy the $300 and $268 cakes listed in that Farmerleaf page sample, to see what is so special about those, and looking for positive distinctions they might be more inclined to find them, than if tasting the teas without that bias entering in.  Then a status could adjoin that experience; they could post online about drinking teas that others couldn't afford to experience, back to the "what straight edge rich people do" context.  A 7 gram session of an 80-some cent per gram tea is still costing "only" $6 or so, back at Starbucks takeaway coffee range, but owning a half dozen $300 cakes adds up to an $1800 buy-in, which is where anyone on a more typical limited budget gets filtered out.

A different and moderate version could, and surely would, happen in relation to people wanting to experience what is valued by others in a more moderate price range, which could shift demand and available options as a broad shared preference, and then also standard pricing levels.

Getting into aged cakes brings up the same issues, and the same potential resulting divide between haves and have-nots.  Teas We Like stands out as a currently popular, well regarded curator source for aged Taiwan stored sheng pu'er, let's check a sample of their offerings:

To be clear their site is down for maintenance right now (when I wrote this first draft); that's from an April 2022 internet archive capture, which is what we would've seen clicking on the site a month ago.

The range seems to span from $165 up to $480, or just below 50 cents a gram up to well over $1 / gram.  Still, not bad for carefully selected and well transitioned (fermented) versions, given that lower level pricing is really more in the average price range for brand new Farmerleaf offerings (the $60 to $300 range sampled averages to $180, slightly higher).

Again, what's the point, the general takeaway?  With preference naturally shifting from moderate to higher quality sheng versions, which would apply across tea types, or from people experiencing limited aged versions (old Xiaguan tuos and such) onto more carefully selected, better versions sheng pu'er interest seems destined to guide normal interest towards a tea preference of 50 cents per gram or higher.  That would also map to style and type range preferences.  If broad demand patterns shift enough that pricing level would also shift, upward.  

It's odd how clearly that ties to what is portrayed as upper medium quality level tea, how the standard levels layering kind of does work.  This part is just hearsay that you can research for yourself, but upper medium quality level in-house Yunnan Sourcing new (young) sheng has settled to around a $100 per standard 357 gram cake range now, a pricing level that would've been unthinkable 5 years ago, when around half that was a standard norm.  30 cents a gram sheng is just normal now, somewhat notable per that one comment's scale, but still moderate in cost.

Is value dropping (quality level in relation to price), or are quality levels really escalating?  Maybe some of each.  Since I do accept that it's a mix of both, with higher demand pushing both, it's not accurate to simply say that it's unfair or opportunistic on vendor's sides, that markups or a spike in producer or reseller pricing are causing this.  You can still buy plenty of 20 cent per gram sheng that's still being sold ($30-some cakes), or $15 low quality Chinatown or Ebay cakes (at around 5 cents a gram).  Maybe it's more a concern that many of the $30 / standard cake offerings from 5 or 6 years ago are now replaced with a $50 and up range, that pricing for equivalent teas also goes up.  

I don't think the general increase is mostly about the same exact teas costing more though, it's that people group together in what they prefer, so higher demand for a narrow range can quickly increase pricing in that range.  It's probably more evident across a half dozen main Western facing vendors than across the broader range of what is out there.  More legitimate "gushu" is and has been selling for $1 / gram; a higher end isn't shifting as fast (or teas presented as such).  Then it's complicated how much more legitimate gushu is sold in relation to what is offered as such; maybe it's not so much.

It seems like I'm heading somewhere with all this, doesn't it, maybe to speculate that a consistent middle ground for good but not high-demand, trendy origin area and style teas might be a more natural end point for people to explore, than for sheng drinkers to accept that cakes just cost $80 to 100 now, or $150 and up for aged versions.  It seems like I might be narrowing a broad set of information towards a conclusion I already wanted to arrive at, if so.  Very little that appeared here suggested that there is a range of $50-60 more moderate sheng cakes out there to be experienced.  Even the Chawang Shop example required accepting relatively dry storage as a main input, a lower demand category, and the teas they sell priced at or under $50 per cake are on the way out of their stock, selling out and being replaced by others.  Their sales page, showing newer offerings:

The least costly of those cakes sells for $78 per 400 gram version, the next "cheapest" for $95 for that amount, and next a 200 gram cake at an equivalent cost of $116 (for the same amount, for two).

Again I don't doubt that Chawang Shop is sourcing better tea than they were 6 or 8 years ago, catering to a shift in preference and demand, and general acceptance of cakes costing $90 instead of $40, for better tea versions.  Why wouldn't vendors move to catering to a higher quality demanding customer base, since surely profit per cake must be higher, with overhead costs staying similar to before?

I'm not cherry-picking the costliest range or most extreme examples of pricing shifts to serve some sort of narrative, although maybe the Farmerleaf and Chawang Shop examples work better as the second than the first.

Another popular Western vendor, Bitterleaf, who I've never tried teas from, with sheng offerings shown (arranged by order added to their catalog, so recent).  

Earlier content correction:  with many of these 200 grams cakes and some tongs (cake sets) it's not clear from this form of listing what the tea actually costs.  From a post comment here (a bit atypical) that is clarified:

The highest sticker price on the page ($445) is for a 5 cakes of our most expensive sheng ($0.95/gram when purchasing a cake). The most affordable 200g cake (from 2021) would be $25 ($0.125/gram), with our sole 357g cake being $38 ($0.105/gram), or ~$21 if converted to a 200g cake. Overall the average $/gram is ~$0.35/gram.

That average is $100+ per standard 357 gram cake, they just sell more small versions right now, it seems.  10 to 12 cents per gram is atypical on the low side, so they are already addressing this concern and divide.

I've tried a good bit of tea selling for $1 / gram, so its not as if that range is completely unfamiliar, but still I tended to notice what others might be seeing in it more than appreciating it myself, in comparison to teas presented as good but not that high in demand.  If it's largely aging potential, one possibility that gets discussed, that I couldn't necessarily experience that directly, without a 15 year wait.  In aged samples maybe, but these are relatively new teas.

It helps to place this in perspective in relation to wine.  People are buying $200 new cakes of sheng now, or 3-400, but that relates to about 50 7-gram sessions, while it's not unusual for people to buy $100 bottles of wine to drink 4 glasses in one sitting.  Once related awareness and demand broadens there's no reason why that price range couldn't shift a lot higher.  More and more people actually buying $200-400 cakes drives that shift, demand leading to supply, and then scarcity of the supply.

As with wine interest tea drinkers without over $1000 per year to spend on their sheng habit will eventually be priced out of the above average range of products.  That already happened, related to this more expensive offerings, but if it keeps shifting it could slide more towards the most expensive third, or half.

On a personal level I'm not concerned about it.  I can drink what others see as moderate quality, less appealing, low status level teas.  Nothing in experiencing teas presented as better and more costly, which I've only been able to experience in relation to samples, most passed on by vendors for review, led me to see that as a particularly problematic outcome.  I can see why a range of types is regarded as better, and in general I agree there is real justification for those quality assessments, but I just don't need to experience that minor character difference.  To me different is interesting, and it also works well to shift to broader experience, not towards accepted and established "higher quality" range.

Let's make that clearer:  am I rejecting the importance of aspects Peter described as desirable, here:  Young sheng can teach us many things that go beyond simply "flavor?" Not exactly.  As I take it he is referring to moving past interesting flavor and a lack of flaws as identifying better tea, on to the well-known ranges of mouth-feel, aftertaste experience, and "cha qi," body feel.  Emergent properties like balance, refinement, intensity, and complexity relate to how individual aspects (eg. certain flavors) are perceived as a set of interrelated individual aspects; he probably means that as well.  Aging potential is something else, another broad and complex subject, which he also indirectly touched on.

Am I saying that people could just as easily make their peace with accepting a reduced set of these identified aspect-range goals, or selling points, to reject pushing on to experience the highest possible quality level in teas, or at least to not blindly demand what others also demand most, like rare and in-demand experiences tied to origin areas?  More so that.  Or at least it could work to explore and appreciate some of what others tend to appreciate most, and keep some $200 cakes around, but then also lean into other range, and see what else is out there, with emphasis on trying more types that involve moderate spending.  

It gets trickier to highlight how that might work with links and screenshots as examples.  That Trident tea probably worked as that, although to be clear that was probably a case of direct purchasing leading to lower markup, not an off-demand type costing less.  I've long since claimed that I've appreciated value and character in Tea Mania teas, a Swiss vendor, but it's a stretch to say that they represent an alternative that is completely different than all of these other vendors.  I think it works to say that staying in touch with "modest quality" range like Xiaguan or Dayi Jia Ji tuocha teas, or anything from Taetea that's not 7542, is also what I mean, just not "growing out of" that preference range through an exploration process, retaining it as one of many things you appreciate.

I'll keep saying more about South East Asian sheng, a topic that already made it into this post in relation to one CS example being from Laos.  It seems as well to stop short of claiming that other country origin versions are going to help partly resolve escalating sheng pu'er costs, but there is always that hope.  Let's take that one step further; there is one standard SE Asian tea outlet I mention more often than the rest, in relation to selling good teas at good value, Hatvala from Vietnam:

The second price listed is for a 100 gram quantity (it is sheng; calling it "dark tea" or hei cha is one possible work-around for avoiding the area-restricted term "pu'er"), making it easy to identify per-gram cost, at 33 cents, 28.5, and 18.5.  That would relate to 357 gram tea cakes costing over $100, or around $70 at the lower end, for the other example.  Is that a good value?  I've tried versions of those teas a few years ago, and in my judgement sure, it's fine.  Of course that's not an objective assessment; it's a statement about personal preference.  

Was I really basing a value judgment in the past on a lower priced rate?  This is a real possibility.  Let's check that with the Internet Archive, from the earliest backup page there from Oct. of 2019:

It's interesting looking back to realize I last reviewed a Hatvala sheng (dark tea) in 2019 as well, this one.  Those 2022 prices increased 40-some percent in less than 3 years, in relation to that 2019 page, well over 10% per year, not far off that doubling of general sheng pricing in 5 or 6 years that I've been describing.  My friend Huyen has said that Vietnamese sheng pricing has been increasing a lot at the producer / wholesale level over the past couple of years, so that's probably a main cause, not just final consumer sales pricing shifting.  If vendors and bloggers keep talking about SE Asian sheng demand will keep increasing, and pricing.  

It's another long story but I think there is room for greatly expanded production of higher quality sheng from Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, so that could lead to a correction on the supply side.  Per my understanding Chinese purchasing is already restricting what does or could possibly make it to the Western market, with some of that tea now being sold as Yunnan sheng, probably often after being mixed with Chinese material.

Now I'm just heading off on tangents.  To me it all connects; demand shift, style changes, quality level, potential new area sources and types, and pricing changes all link together.  A well-informed tea consumer can maximize their experience at whatever budget is available to them to do so, by considering and factoring in these inputs.  Following the latest, hottest trends is probably bad strategy related to that, going mostly by whatever draws out the most buzz on social media, or using catchy vendor marketing content as a primary information source.  It's too much work to read long text blog posts, for sure, but bearing this described context in mind could help with sorting out ideas from lots of other sources.