First published in TChing here
The production initiative between Sergey (Moychay) and Leonard Shevchenko sent me a sample of Thai sheng ("pu'er-like" tea) for review. This should be interesting. Often new production initiatives are about working the bugs out, developing processing skills, but it seems like they're ramping up high quality results fairly quickly. That's based on trying a novel and pleasant white tea produced by them earlier, at least.
Their project involves preserving some of the oldest tea plants growing in Thailand (per the local back-story), in the Maetang mountain area in the North of Thailand. It's a development effort that also provides local jobs for indigenous workers who process the tea. This website covers some background, with this Youtube video an even clearer summary. People are welcome to visit them, and there's a support program where you can sponsor habitat support for one tree, and have it tagged showing that you did so.
This looks a bit brown / reddish; it might be oxidized more than a conventional sheng. That would be easy enough to cause; just slowing processing steps would give the tea time to naturally oxidize. It wouldn't necessarily be a significant flaw if so, but the tea could be in between a conventional sheng style and black tea style. William of Farmerleaf just produced an interesting video about producing more oxidized, long withered sheng pu'er, which talks through how that would work out, and how the steps vary.
In this case that black tea type (that it could be closest to) would be shai hong, a Yunnan version of sun-dried black tea, made out of the same material as sheng (just a Thai version of it, of course). I'm not saying that it's like that; the reddish brown color implies that it may be, but tasting, and seeing brewed liquid color and wet leaf color, will tell more of that story. Shai hong ages well, gaining depth, sweetness, and complexity over two or three years of aging, so the case may be different in relation to how this tea might change later. For drinking it this year all that doesn't matter; it is what it is now, with brewed tea aspects the only consideration.
I tried a nice Thai wild-origin sheng version a year ago that seemed to resemble this in a few ways, which I'll skip going into here, to keep this post length moderate. It was really nice though, it just might not age similarly to more conventional form sheng, for that clearly being more oxidized than is typical. Monsoon is the main local Thai company and producer that works with wild origin tea, but they've never made any sheng, as far as I know.
First infusion: this is a bit dark, but still in the yellow-gold range, not so oxidized that it turns to a dark gold. Brighter / lighter yellow would be more normal for this type, as a brand new tea.
It's good. Complexity hits you right away, that there's a lot going on. One warm tone range is towards spice or rich fruit, with supporting floral tones, and even a vegetal trace. That richness is novel; it leans a little towards a roasted yam or sweet potato. There's some bitterness, characteristic of sheng in general, but it's moderate. That aspect outcome doesn't necessarily need to tie back to a processing input; it varies by plant type, and growing conditions seem to affect that.
The feel is nice, with great structure, especially for this being a first round. Same for sweetness, and intensity; it's a fast start. It's not so unusual to be talking about a rough edged feel mellowing out over the first round or two, although that's really more of a common theme for plantation sheng, seemingly related to high sun contact, high temperature grown plants that were pushed to maximize output. Wild grown tea experienced something else entirely, and it's normal for more complex flavors to evolve, and for character to be complex but not as challenging.
Bitterness just depends on the plant type, I think. I tried a Myanmar sheng version passed on by Leo a month or so ago and it was quite bitter, with this at the opposite extreme. I've not tried much wild-origin Thai sheng that was that bitter, but one version like that does come to mind. It would just depend, mostly on plant type if I'm not mistaken, along with processing and growing conditions.
The vegetal aspect is also unique, a little like vegetables, or maybe like that deep forest earthy and aromatic plant smell. I grew up in Pennsylvania forests that typically had a very rich, damp, sweet scent, and spent a lot of time in dryer, lighter scent toned Colorado mountain forests, but the tropics are something else. Plant scents are heavy, diverse, and complex, with different flowers blooming and expressing scents every day, or at different times of the day. It will be interesting to see which aspect range becomes dominant over the next couple of infusions, or if it all continues to balance evenly.
Second infusion: bitterness evolved as much as anything else, still at a moderate level, in relation to the general type range. Other complexity isn't so different than last round, that same broad and balanced mix. Those warmer tones are atypical for brand new sheng, the part towards spice, or roasted sweet potato. To me it works really well with the rest that had to come from plant type and terroir related inputs, the overall complexity. If this is really a bit oxidized as sheng tends to go it would've picked up those warm tones, and some extra sweetness, dropping out some degree of bitterness, and giving up some long term aging potential.
relocated outside, with lighting difference one reason for color change
Third infusion: I brewed this round relatively quickly, in about 5 seconds, which may be most suitable for this maxed out level of proportion. It's habit to make teas that way, not an optimum. For teas that need to be pushed for intensity it works really well, but this isn't an example of that. It's also not an example of a less drinkable tea that needs to be brewed really light to moderate challenging astringency and bitterness.
It's falling into a more sheng-standard aspect set; bitterness has leveled off to a significant level, and I think floral tones increased. Richness of feel developed, even though I brewed this round quite light. I don't mean in terms of structure, in the sense of it coming across as dry or rough. Of course it's not as full and round as oolongs tend to be, but it's rich in a way that's towards that as sheng feel character usually goes.
Complexity is a strength of this tea; there's still a lot going on. And the balance works well. It's clean; there are really no negative aspects to throw off the overall effect. It seems quite suitable for drinking this young, but I bet this would pick up a nice depth and higher level of sweetness, and maybe even complexity, over the next year or two. You trade out some "fresh edge" in letting a tea settle that much, and that's a difficult kind of aspect range or experience to describe. That touch of vegetal tone might drop out a good bit, over the next few months; it may relate to an effect that's really less flavor-specific than that, more a general character range. Or I suppose I could be completely wrong, to be clear, and within a year a stewed-vegetable aspect could really pick up.
I don't talk much about cha qi in reviews but I'm definitely feeling this tea. Sometimes that effect is so aggressive that I don't like it, a bit towards your head spinning, but this is more of a body buzz with a distinct upper head lightness coupled with that. I suppose that it's pleasant. You can't fully appreciate those kinds of changes with background noise and distractions as an input, and my son is listening to a Youtube video about some video game within earshot, and loud construction is happening about a half a km away, saturating the entire neighborhood with hammering sounds, so this tasting context isn't really ideal.
Sourness isn't present. I've discussed before how some wild origin plant types tend to include a lot of that, maybe related to the tea plants not being as conventional in type, perhaps related to a genetic drift effect, or merging with other related plants, like camellia taliensis. Of course I really have no idea, it's just interesting to speculate. My daughter, Kalani, tried the tea and she said that it's both bitter and sour, so maybe I'm wrong about that part.
Fourth infusion: not really so different than the last round, but the balance takes on an interesting new form. Roasted sweet potato really did seem to transition to a more floral range last round, and now it's on to picking up more aromatic spice or wood tone depth. Where richness of feel increased over a few rounds now aftertaste really picks up. It could be that this different flavor range is suited for that, that it somehow lingers better. For bitterness being a bit moderate that "hui gan" effect of sweetness lingering is also fairly moderate; this is a flavor carry-over instead, or a balance of both. A little of the bitterness experience also trails on, seemingly connected with the complex wood, spice, and vegetal tone, a non-distinct forest plant character range.
Fifth infusion: it seems like a specific form of spice is evolving from that more general floral tone, woody, complex plant scent input. It's catchy, just hard to describe. It's not so far off a cedar or redwood wood tone, but it's definitely not that, also including more spice input, coupled with deep floral range. It's probably closest to an incense spice, I'm just not familiar enough with those to use them as descriptions (frankincense, myrrh, etc.). Even in my younger hippie oriented days I was probably burning versions of incense that were too cheap and mixed in scent to make for good examples. Floral tone is still picking up too, a rich version towards lavender.
darkening of some of the leaf material is evident (browning caused by oxidation)
Sixth and seventh infusions: intensity might be leveling off slightly, only making the infusion time judgment a bit easier, making out towards 10 seconds infusion time a good range for brewed strength. Maybe it already comes across in earlier notes but the balance of this experience is quite pleasant. It will keep shifting a little in aspect range, and will fade in some ways across another half dozen infusions, but most of the story has been told.
In later rounds a creamy feel seemed to stand out, maybe not exactly like I had described it as being rich in feel before. Part of the brighter tone fruit seems like citrus, which surely was one interpretation of what was there over the first 7 rounds. If I tried this tea a couple more times it's complex enough that my interpretation of it would probably change some; a review in this form only passes on a first impression. Related to that particular judgement and transition, it seems likely that the flavor tone lightened later on, coupled with me trying it infused a lot lighter, and that really brought out the citrus. Brewing this at a lighter proportion would make it easier to dial in a lighter infusion strength over the first half dozen rounds, but really infusion strength in relation to character type is based on personal preference.
This tea is as good, and as interesting, as I hoped that it would be. I can't really make a final judgement about whether or not a touch of extra oxidation changed character and might impact long term storage potential. Probably, but that's just a guess. Unusual plant type input and more natural growing conditions also affect outcome. Related to processing as an input, it is possible that this is roughly the best possible version of this tea material, that the touch of oxidation input, if present, added depth and complexity, perhaps at the cost of limiting intensity.
It might not hinder it picking up depth and complexity over a few more years, and the tea losing some of that age transition potential after 15 more years tends to be a bit irrelevant, in relation to how most people are going to consume it. You need to try a version in a novel style like this later on to really be sure, so it would be a 15 year long experiment to get to the bottom of all that. That's part of what is so appealing about sheng, which may not appeal to everyone, that some degree of uncertainty enters in, in relation to those long cycles of changes. This tea is nice to experience now, which is the main thing, at this point at least.
It's not unlike other versions of Thai or SE Asian wild origin sheng that I've tried. In general those tend to not be overly bitter and astringent, to include interesting and complex flavors, often fruit and other range beyond the most typical bitterness and floral flavors in a lot of Yunnan sheng, with pleasant rich feel often coupled with the rest. It's pretty good, placed within that range, a clearly much better than average version. It's the kind of tea that I would buy and drink quite a bit of, but again preference always enters in. Some people really would prefer that higher level bitterness and intensity in the Myanmar version that Leo passed on earlier. I would prefer novel and complex flavor range and more approachable character over that.