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.

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