Thursday, August 11, 2022

More Vietnamese sheng, 2022 Ta Cu Ty and 2020 Suoi Giang

I'm trying more teas from Viet Sun, provided for review by Steve Shafer, a contact I should've said more about in a review I wrote notes for yesterday (at time of tasting).  Steve is a former chef, an American living in Vietnam, which is all I was going to add here too.  We talk more about tea than our backgrounds whenever we have talked.

These areas don't mean much to me, but then even the most main areas, like Ha Giang province, I can't identify in relation to typical character or aspects, like flavors.  To a limited extent the plant types, local climate, soil type, and local conventional processing style could make for a local character to a tea version, but really any of these could vary over a very small area too, and teas could be dis-similar.  Microclimate would change with elevation, degree of sun exposure, etc., and growing conditions would vary in relation to other plant types around, how the land caught weather and held moisture, and so on.

The Son La version I tried yesterday was nice (these notes have been set aside for awhile).  A bit of smoke contact and flavor people would take differently, and the moderate degree of bitterness could seem ideal to people who value that, or high to people who try to avoid it.  Or not high enough too, I guess.  The positive tea quality was unmistakable; it was well made tea from good plant material.  I'd expect the same of these.

Let's add the vendor page descriptions of these for contact first:

Tả Củ Tỷ (I've skipped the accents in the other written versions; it's all spelled wrong, in a sense)

$23 for 100 grams (good value for tea this good)

The trees growing in this area of Tả Củ Tỷ have leaves that are longer and narrower than the typical Assamica-Shan varietals growing in northwest Vietnam. The leaves used to make this tea come from a mix of old trees (100+ years old) and Ancient trees (200+ years old)

The fragrance and flavor of this tea is complex and really interesting. Something like menthol with lotus and fragrant woods. You'll notice a building cooling sensation in the throat after a couple of cups of this tea. I'd say the bitterness and astringency is at a 6 out of 10.

It brews up strong quickly with a medium-thick body. Qi is energizing and focused without being overpowering. Floral cooling huigan lasts well after the session has ended.

Season: Spring 2022

Picking Standard: 1 bud, 2-3 leaves

Region: Tả Củ Tỷ, Lào Cai

Elevation: 1100m

I'm sure that what I've said in the following completely conflicts that description, but since I'm trying it two weeks later during the editing process it sounds right, versus what I just drank.  There's probably something subtle along the lines of dried fruit that I may not have mentioned either.

Suối Giàng 2020, ($38 for 235 gram cake, $50-some for a standard 357 gram amount, pretty good)

Suối Giàng is probably the most well known Shan tea producing area in Vietnam and this tea comes from in my opinion, some of the best ancient tree gardens there.

This tea was only produced two years ago (2020) but has already taken on a semi-aged flavor. There is a thick, complex, jammy plum sweetness aroma and taste. A pleasing gentle bitterness and astringency pairs nicely with the heavy sweetness of this tea.

Deep sweet plum huigan and relaxing qi.

This tea is quite flexible. Don't be afraid to push the brewing temperature and time. 

235 gram stone pressed cakes

Season: Spring 2020

Picking Standard: 1 bud, 2 leaves

Region: Suối Giang, Yên Bái

Elevation: 1400m

Sounds good.  I never will go back and compare my notes version to this, the usual process,  but the general character impression is similar.


Ta Cu Ty on left in all photos

Ta Cu Ty:  a bit subtle yet; I skipped the rinse this time, in part to vary approach, and in part because one of the two Thai teas I reviewed lost one positive round from that practice.  Warm tones stand out, for this being a 2022 sheng version, not so far from the Thai tea from Leo (the Moychay cooperative version).  It's as well to not add a flavor list given this is light though.

Suoi Giang:  even darker; two years is enough for aging to change a tea, under hot and humid enough conditions, or it could've been oxidized some too.  Of course it's hard to be clear on inputs, especially tasting a first light round.  Both could apply; this could've changed a lot in comparison to a normal 2 year transition, and it might've started out warmer and less bitter and astringent due to some oxidation input.  There's a nice fruit tone already emerging in this; we'll see if that develops or else more or less drops out.

changing lighting moving outdoors changes everything

Ta Cu Ty second infusion:  a bit subtle as sheng often goes, but it has plenty of depth, so that's more about the higher end / forward aromatic range.  The warm tone ties to warm mineral depth, but the rest leans towards spice input.  It's subtle enough that it's hard to describe; along the line of bark spice, in between an aromatic wood, like cedar, or an incense scent.  Feel has good structure, some fullness that's a bit dry, adding depth, since less intense flavor and limited aftertaste limit the overall intensity.

Suoi Giang:  definitely fruitier, with a bit more intensity.  It's still not overly bitter, not heavy on floral range, or significantly sweet, so it also comes across as slightly subtle as young sheng range goes.  It's more as I would expect a version aged for a bit longer to be, after 3 or 4 years of transition, or one that swapped out some sheng character for oxidation pulling aspects towards black tea range, warmer, with good sweetness, but more mild in nature.  Or both?  Probably that is it. 

For both of these seeming a little subtle it's almost as if I'm a main factor causing that, as if a touch of congestion or general fatigue is throwing off what I pick up.  I can't rule that out, I'm just not aware of any such factor.  I'm relatively tired from the last month being really busy, but that didn't seem to affect me yesterday, and it was worse then, Saturday after a busy work-week, the day after a hard evening run, a fast 8 km. 

I have also backed off proportion just a little, after not getting through more than a half dozen rounds of notes trying three versions yesterday; maybe a slight increase in timing didn't compensate enough yet.

Ta Cu Ty, third infusion:  it's interesting how dark both are, brewed a little longer, 15+ seconds instead of under 10, too amber for that to be from brewing time.  You automatically think of oxidation level in relation to that, unless tea age could be a factor (some maybe, for a 2 year old version), but scorching a tea during pan fixing could change color, essentially roasting part of it.  People sometimes guess that this might cause some common smoke input, but I would guess not, that actual contact from smoke would be a more typical source for that.  These teas were all probably wok heated, in the fixing / sha qing step, using wood heat versus gas.  There's no smoke though, not like the Son La version had been.  That would come from storage near a wood fired heating source, I would think, not from spending that few minutes in proximity.  These teas are oxidized more than is typical; it has to be that.

This is much nicer, having opened up, and being at a more suitable infusion strength.  A bit of dried fruit joins in, and the warm tones give it a nice spice range base.  It tastes like a sassafras tea, not exactly like root beer made later to mimic that general range of flavor, but like a more original version.  I don't remember ever actually drinking that tisane, to be clear, but a childhood of contact with trees, growing up in the woods, using them as play infrastructure, and being required to cut a lot of wood for firewood, brought me exposure to many.  There's a sweetness to sassafras that's unique to that tea type, like hickory possesses in a warmer aromatic range.  The fruit in this is hard to make out, but not so far from dried Chinese date, jujube.  Interpreting part as floral tone would be natural, or even all of it as a complex version of that.

Suoi Giang:  the warm tone and bit of dryness is unusual, really for sheng of any age or background.  I don't want to say that it's not sheng-like, but it's different.  There's an aromatic edge, beyond that warm mineral / towards black tea range, that's also hard to identify, in this case even related to general range, spice versus dried fruit and so on.  The warm tones give it a savory effect, like sun-dried tomato, just not as clearly heavy on umami, but that's not what I mean.  I guess it's just floral range I'm trying to pin down further, but not in a form I'm familiar with.  It's rich and heavy, like a heavier version of lotus, or not completely different than lavender.  It's quite pleasant, but appreciating it requires shifting off a normal range of expectations about how milder and warmer character sheng would generally be.  

This is probably a good place to mention that "wild origin" sheng versions tend to be more approachable than more standard range versions, less bitter and astringent, more flavorful, and more varied in flavor profile.  The intense simple notes version of bitterness, sweetness, and a narrow range of floral tone common to many sheng versions just isn't how they often go.  Some are fruity, some covering novel or broad mixed flavor range, some well into unusual spice tones.  Sourness can come up, which may or may not be natural plant type variation input versus a processing or handling flaw, for example too much humidity left in the processed leaves.  So it's not unusual that these are a bit atypical, in relation to ordinary commercial higher volume production Yunnan sheng; they're supposed to be like that.  Wild origin Yunnan sheng can vary in these same ways too; this Moychay Yongde version, a personal favorite, was like that.

Ta Cu Ty fourth infusion:  I'm burning out on trying these teas already; I seem to be working with less focus range to begin with.  Again character is interesting for this being relatively subtle, as sheng almost always goes.  Bitterness not being significant is normal enough, that can happen, or sweetness being moderate, or even this warmer tone range, but it's all a bit dialed back for intensity.  Still quite nice, that's just not how that tends to usually go.  

That could seem to contradict what I just said about wild origin material teas, but as I see that it doesn't.  Character range can be atypical but still intense; it's more that factor.  Yunnan black teas, Dian Hong, can be milder across some flavor range, not intense, but often still just great for including a nice base, and this is a bit like that.  There's plenty to the experience but flavor intensity is below average.

Suoi Giang:  some of the same applies to this tea, about it being warm in tone and generally not intense.  I'm not completely ruling out that an odd input related to me is causing this effect.  A lot of noise in the background can mute what you experience, I'm just not in that kind of environment right now, in the usual spot outside, on the cool side as Bangkok goes.  I've heard a theory that relative humidity and pressure changes can impact how a person senses things; maybe there's some of that happening.  Or I'm getting a cold, and just don't realize it yet.  I tried drinking a bit of water; sometime resetting your palate has a positive effect.

Ta Cu Ty fifth infusion:  warmer tones, some floral, towards spice range, a cool root spice version of that, with limited dried fruit input, the same as before.  I thought dried fruit tone might evolve but I'm not noticing that.  It's pleasant, just not within conventional sheng range, without much bitterness at all.

Suoi Giang:  like the other, with a different warm spice range, a different warm mineral base, and heavier on floral range, both maybe still expressing subtle dried fruit.  Still these are fairly similar, which is odd, for both being so unconventional.  Based on a scale of evaluating oolongs or black teas maybe bitterness is more pronounced than I'm describing; it's only against a conventional young sheng range that it's quite low, and there is a little.  I suppose this is a little more bitter than the other, with a bit more of a dry edge to the feel, with the other quite light and "round" in feel.  

It's odd that I'm not mentioning feel or aftertaste aspects more, but both of these have pleasant moderate fullness of feel but nothing too pronounced, and limited lingering aftertaste effect.  It's nothing like the gap in such range one experiences from limited quality range tea though; that's something else.  I just retried one I bought for very little in China 3 years ago, somewhat aged then, a couple years along maybe, in a decent place for being further along in aging transition than these, with even more warm tones and dryness, but it didn't express the depth that these do.  A rough general intensity level might be comparable, but these are both fuller in a way that's hard to describe.  Looking that earlier tea review back up it was a 2015 Bulang (and still is; I didn't finish it), that I bought in 2019, the "300" version.  I think the other tea I reviewed along with it then was better; I should retry it and mention it here.

I've had been giving these longer than average soaks but tried on at over 20 seconds next (round 6), but there wasn't anything new to mention.


I liked the teas, but this atypical range isn't one that I find that much more appealing than any other.  The Son La tea was nicer for the greater intensity level carrying through lots of infusions, but the smoke and bitterness level would divide people in that version.  And these are quite good teas but not the most exceptional, for any particular reason, beyond the milder tones and warmer range potentially being something someone else really loves.  I'm accustomed to a higher bitterness level, and higher flavor intensity level, pairing with more sweetness, so the two Thai versions that I reviewed with the Son La version are more familiar ground.

Then price enters in, and aging potential.  Related to the second these don't need to age, at all, and are fine as they are.  I suppose for someone not interested in holding onto teas that's a positive.  They might pick up a bit of depth over the next year or two but I wouldn't keep them for long expecting positive change.  Related to price they might be even harder to place, for not matching a standard style.  I don't see these as $100 a cake quality level, 35 cents a gram tea, but they're a lot better than factory sheng range, especially if one is seeking something to drink now.  That doesn't mean that they're  necessarily right in the middle, that averaging $40 and $100, coming out to $70 (for 357 gram amount) would make sense.  

Huyen has said that better quality loose sheng pricing increased a lot in Vietnam a couple years ago, and these are good enough to get swept up in that.  I wouldn't be surprised if this was selling as 40 cent a gram maocha, even though that's way off a normal competitive Yunnan version pricing, and a lot more than I would pay for Thai equivalents.  Laos and Myanmar versions are all over the map for pricing in relation to quality level and style now; it just depends.  Let's check those listings, and Steve's input on what this is.

Later input based on a second Ta Cu Ty tasting:  the tea is much better once you expect it to be as it is, if you can adjust expectations for that novel style.  I see it as really right in between sheng and black tea style, not just more oxidized as an input, but a lot more subtle than sheng tends to be (less intense), with aspect character in a warmer range.  Bitterness and astringency aren't significant.  I really like it.  

Again sometimes Dian Hong picks up a character low in front-end aromatic flavor intensity, but with good depth that compensates, and this is like that.  It's perfect for a breakfast tea, not challenging, distinctive but neutral enough to match with different foods, easy to brew.  It lacks the astringency edge and sharper flavors in a black tea that would really offset something rich, like a buttery raisin bun, but it would still be fine with that.  And it's good enough quality tea that it would hold its own in a single type tasting session, as the main focus.

It's interesting how this extra oxidation input parallels limited aging input, and how it is different.  Bitterness moderating and warmer flavors increasing is part of that, but for typical sheng even 4 or 5 years stored in a relatively wet environment won't change over character as much as this oxidation level input did (or seemed to; to some extent that's still just a guess).  Bitterness transitions to other aspect character gradually, for example, and this just didn't include it to begin with.  This doesn't taste exactly like a black tea or a medium aged sheng; it's slightly different than both.  It's good, as a unique and different type and style.  

I can also see why this style never really caught on within Yunnan producer or sheng drinker circles, since that character change came at the cost of losing so much intensity, without ever really achieving those positive black tea flavor range (dried fruit, roasted yam or sweet potato, cocao / cacao, etc.).  But then a bit of extra oxidation input seemed to change the Thai wild origin tea version I reviewed in the last review in a much different way, so it only goes so far mapping that as a consistent and necessary trade-off.  And both these teas are still more intense than average white tea range, so a lot of me going on about that as a potential limitation or trade-off relates to my expectations for the type, not to the tea not tasting like much.

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