Awhile back I tried some really nice local Thai tea from Aphiwat Kokhue, a contact who is a member of a local indigenous group here, the Aker. I wrote about a version here (compared to a Farmerleaf Jing Mai Dian Hong version for reference), and shared some other pictures of where he lives here. After seeing a Facebook post about him selling recently produced sheng cakes I ordered some (through a FB contact, with that Gaw Khee Cha business page here). I thought I remembered trying sheng from them before, but maybe it was only black tea, the one in that post, and I was mixing up that memory with another version.
This tea is good (jumping ahead to conclusions), interesting in style, very pleasant, and promising in relation to changes with aging. It's not unlike other South East Asian "wild origin" versions that I've tried, which tend to be flavorful, sweet, complex in flavor range, and not so astringent. Bitterness is more pronounced in this than in many other versions, but that can vary, which I would guess relates mainly to tea plant genetics and processing inputs.
I only have one concern about this tea, related to it being a bit pliable as you separate out leaves for brewing. It may be more damp than is typical, and that potentially could be a risk, that it's not dry enough to store well, and may turn sour or mold. I doubt that it will, but it's a significant concern, and one that connects with two earlier examples I'm familiar with of that happening, so I'm going to delve into that before the review.
One well-documented example of this happening related to Mei Leaf communicating that a sheng pu'er and chen pi (tangerine peel) pressed cake they were going to sell molded. That's a little different, because the producer just didn't account for including fruit peel properly, which probably would dry differently than only tea leaves. I heard that a Thai producer making hand-made tuocha's experienced something related, not drying those enough, which caused big problems for them as they were stored.
The concern comes from the leaves being slightly pliable while pressed, which isn't common. Leaves are always a bit crisp, maybe so compressed that they won't separate well, but never as flexible as these. The tea won't naturally continue to dry out well here, even without humidity added as a storage environment control, because it's always humid here (in Bangkok), especially during this rainy version of a rainy season.
I could research how to make a low humidity salt pack and set this aside to dry, kind of the opposite of what everyone else does, conditioning cakes to add humidity. This Tea Forum reference would be helpful for that. I don't know that included moisture content is too high, and to be honest I'm guessing that it's fine, but if it is this tea could be worthless in a couple of months, and pose a mold risk for everything else. Just balancing moisture level with the rest of the tea I have stored might do the trick; some kilograms of tea in large storage containers should act as a humidity level sink, equalizing and shifting to get back to local quite-damp Bangkok conditions, which are seemingly never damp enough to ruin sheng. Or maybe just putting this in a small Lock and Lock style container with a baggie with some salt in it would do it, only drying it out, versus making some attempt at conditioning it to some level. Nothing ever goes bone dry in Bangkok; that salt would already be conditioned to holding 60-some percent relatively humidity, because it's always that humid.
Since it made for a cool science project sort of theme I did just that, roasting some salt in a steel bowl in a toaster oven for 10 minutes, to dry it, then wrapping that in a tissue and putting it and the cakes in a "tupperwear" container, more or less. The rest will be all guesses, if that was enough salt, if the process is even practical, and how long to leave it. I'm not so worried about over-drying it because whenever I open that container to check it plenty of moisture will enter, and it would re-condition automatically, when stored with the rest of my tea.
I doubt all that was necessary, but it doesn't really seem to involve adding any risk, and it may offset some.
First infusion: unusual! This has quite a bit of green tea edge, probably heated more than would be typical for a sheng (pu'er-like tea). The labeling sells it as a green tea, and that may be accurate. I'll still call it sheng in a title, and review it including commentary about which type it seems to be.
other than proportion being vague and timing seeming long the brewing instructions sound ok
Bitterness is noteworthy; that part ties to sheng character. Green tea can be a little bitter but essentially never like this. It might be in between the two ranges in style, just heated a bit much, which could negatively impact transition potential. Over 2 or 3 years that potential would be easier to estimate, and since full aging transition tends to take 15 to 20 years, or 20-25 under drier conditions, waiting to see how that goes is a long process.
Floral range is dominant, with some vegetal range. Green tea can be floral but typically not as pronounced as this. I'll do more of a flavor list next round, and continue to describe other aspect range.
Second infusion: evolving a little, but essentially the same. Bitterness definitely increased; I suppose that's a good sign, related to this seeming like sheng, and having aging potential. Quite often wild material sheng versions can be sweeter, more flavorful, and milder, not astringent or this bitter, which could really relate to differences in plant types or processing inputs. I'll often guess which in these reviews but I could never really know. Let's do that flavor list.
Bitterness, floral range (some warm and deep, some lighter and brighter), vegetal range (green wood, towards kale, maybe not exactly that), limited mineral base, warmer tones that are harder to split out. Those last two inputs might be easier to describe after it transitions across some rounds, but then they would also change. Sweetness level is fine, pronounced enough to balance the rest, with bitterness just a little heavy at this point. Feel has good thickness, just not much edge, and aftertaste is very pronounced. Most often bitterness will transition to a sweetness effect, the hui gan theme, but this is trailing the experience of bitterness over to aftertaste more than is typical. It's like biting a dandelion flower or stem; it stays with you.
There's a lot of contrast between this version and one from the Moychay joint forest preservation project, undertaken along with Leo Shevchenko. That was a more typical "wild origin" sweeter, less bitter version, leaning a little towards how fragrant, approachable, and fruity similar white teas can come across, just a good bit more intense. Per leaf coloring this could have oxidized a little, and the tea liquid isn't as pale a yellow as would usually be for a relatively brand new sheng, but that didn't ramp up warmth or heavier flavor range much, or offset bitterness at all. I couldn't be sure why. This material is a bit broken, versus that being about as whole leaf as possible; that would change things. Some of that could relate to separating the cake out; it seemed a little more tightly pressed than is typical, harder to split to whole leaves.
Plant material (genetics) are probably quite different from that other Thai "wild origin" version too, a factor I'll never really be able to develop. For processing difference who knows; maybe this just got a little hot at the very end, leading to some of that green tea vegetal range creeping in.
Third infusion: bitter! I might back off infusion times a bit. I'm brewing this for something like 10 seconds, but for this proportion fast infusions may be suitable. Warmth and balance is picking up though, it adds depth. Along with that intense floral range and good sweetness makes it pleasant.
Fourth infusion: I used a true flash infusion this time, a few seconds of brewing time. That still brews intense teas stronger than one might expect, since the leaves are still wet right now, after the water was poured off, just not submerged. That is nicer; bitterness drops way back at lower intensity, and there's still plenty of flavor to experience. That intense, complex floral range is able to show through better with bitterness blocking it less.
There's definitely a warmer side of flavor range to this tea, one that at this point really does adjoin the floral tones. As for the vegetal side minimal flavor seems to pair with the bitterness, maybe a trace of green wood or tree bud effect, with that largely dropped out already in relation to how heavy it was at first (strange). This seems like sheng, it's just a slightly green edged version of sheng. No green tea was ever this bitter or this intense, or as heavy on floral range, that I have yet to experience.
The leaf coloration I took to be oxidation caused by harvesting damage to leaves, bruising, which I would've expected to contribute even more warmer tone flavor range than I'm noticing. It could be inconsistent pan-frying instead, that some of the rounds going into this were heated quite a bit, pan roasted instead of just mostly fixed, resulting in it really including some green tea input (some of each type mixed together, as batches), even a slightly roasted green tea version, maybe. Then with that mixed with most of the material being processed exactly like sheng it would take on a sheng character with more complexity towards that other range, what I'm experiencing. All guesses, of course, but it's interesting to guess. There's one friend in particular I would like to have try this tea to pass on her thoughts, one who makes tea, but as she filters her image to a limited online profile I'll stop short of naming her.
Fifth infusion: not changing so much. A warm fruity tone is picking up, a complex version of it, like Fruit Loops. That's nice! Bitterness is finally easing up some, but then switching to faster infusions was part of that. Intensity is definitely there even so; this tea would probably brew 15 fast infused rounds. Bitterness and intensity is too much to go through all that without some food input to tone it down, so maybe a couple of years of aging really would help moderate character.
Sixth infusion: warm tones did finally pick up. That lighter fruit just shifted from Fruit Loops range onto dried apricot, maybe the strongest expression of that particular flavor aspect I've ever encountered. I was just about to say that's enough for taking notes on these rounds since this might have one or two minor transition surprises left but I'll keep going. The green wood range shifted too, onto more aromatic cedar or redwood range, or even a little towards spice. For this shift to be so pronounced one more significant change wouldn't seem so unusual.
Seventh infusion: oddly the way it balanced shifted, not individual aspects. It comes together. Feel seems a little more rich, and the fruit and aromatic wood range seems to integrate better, to work more as a set. It might be that mineral depth seemed to increase a little, and that ties the two, providing a foundation or interim range to experience. Bitterness has faded to a supporting aspect that's not at all dominant (related to sheng experience range; for an oolong drinker this is still as bitter as could be, with those early rounds unapproachable for that level, if someone strongly prefers oolong character instead). This is leaning a little towards oolong character at this stage: moderate bitterness, good sweetness, complexity, rich feel, but not a pronounced astringency edge, and limited range warm tones along with plenty of fruit.
If my earlier theory that inconsistent (mixed) processing input helps cause this unique character it could be that some of that range tends to "brew out" a lot faster, with other parts still intense. Or even green tea transitions across rounds, so it could just be that instead. From the wet leaf and brewed liquid color looks of this I had expected oxidation to be a significant input, but I'm still not so sure.
Eighth infusion: citrus tone picks up in this. That's not completely different than what I've been describing over the past two rounds but it's still quite odd to not include citrus as a description until round 8, and then to have that be this pronounced now. It's hard to identify as a particular citrus type, maybe closest to tangerine. Together with the mouthfeel and other flavor intensity, and aftertaste carry-over, it's all a quite pleasant effect. And of course strange that this is so different from the first four rounds.
At this stage it's not so different than more oolong character oriented younger sheng versions I've tried before. I love that range, but I suppose it might not be for everyone. It's not challenging at all, so I don't mean that, only that everyone could be on slightly different pages for main preference. It's not completely unlike a Moychay Nannuo version I loved, one of the first teas I ever bought from them, a random guess purchase in a store in St. Petersburg (mentioned here). That sheng style was not right for aging; the character did warm and deepen a little over a couple of more years but it was at its best right away. That Nannuo tea included a pear-like fruit aspect, and this is not so far off that for shifting between Fruit Loops, dried apricot, and citrus.
Ninth infusion: my patience is exhausted for taking notes, and this is finally fading just a little. I'll still figure out how stretching infusion times just a little (I'm brewing it at 10 seconds still) affects outcome. Often warm tones or part of feel range can increase as a result, but for this particular tea I have no idea. It might go through one more unexpected transition.
Really nice! I'm a little concerned that they might've left this a little damp during processing, as I mentioned, but otherwise it's quite novel, interesting, and pleasant. For anyone not able to relate to bitterness this tea is of no value to them. That will fade some over a few years, but it's not as if it's going to completely drop out prior to a decade of aging transition.
I just retried some of a Lao Man Er version, half a sample that I had left, not finished for no good reason, that had been part of a Liquid Proust set. That was from 2016, surely pretty bitter to begin with. Aging one single chunk in a sample packet is far from ideal, so I'm not claiming that it represents an optimum or typical change process, but it was interesting how flavors had deepened and bitterness level was more approachable but still intense. I probably got that set 3 or 4 years ago; who knows what else has settled to the bottom of a box of miscellaneous last bits. Some that I do know about is pretty interesting stuff, and then it's always interesting trying teas I don't recognize, when labeling isn't clear.
If this does store properly I think it might have great potential for gaining depth over a 4 to 6 year stored time-frame. That last Thai Moychay partnership wild tea sheng seemed better to drink just now, or might be optimum over 2 or 3, just settling and shifting some, but this has a lot of intensity and bitterness to support changing more. It would probably be good in 15 years too, but whenever these kinds of atypical versions make that potential seem less certain it could be harder to justify setting much aside to find out.
It should be atypical. Anyone trying Thai, or any SE Asian sheng versions, hoping to find one that is exactly like one standard form of Yunnan sheng would make no sense. Yunnan sheng versions are so diverse that mapping back the other way could work; atypical versions across a broad and diverse range would come up there too. But this doesn't seem like factory tea, or Western outlet commissioned versions, or higher end boutique styles, to the extent I've ever tried anything like that (essentially not at all for that third category, to be clear).
I tried this tea again the next day and it was really nice to experience without the extra work involved with making notes. This is no green tea, and people buying it to experience it as that may or may not like it, depending on how their brewing process works out, and personal preference, but it's pretty good as this type of sheng goes. It's not better than the Moychay project version, just different in style. People who like approachable, sweeter, complex, floral and fruit-oriented sheng might like that better, and for someone able to appreciate all that combined with really significant bitterness might prefer this version.
I think this will probably be amazing if it can rest properly over a couple more years, which is why I carried out that probably-unnecessary science project of drying out the two small cakes a little more. It's good now, and I could really enjoy drinking straight through it, but I think it will settle quite well, maybe even over just a couple of years.
that movie was nice