Sunday, August 7, 2022

Wild origin sheng from Thailand and Vietnam


We spoke to another two interesting tea contacts two weeks ago, one a tea vendor in Vietnam, and another an anthropologist doing research into tea culture patterns.  This post isn't about that discussion, or really even about either of them.  Eventually I will probably say more about that anthropology theme, since it has caused me to reconsider some assumptions about why tea culture gets taken up in different places, and why it takes on the forms it does.  And that other contact is really interesting, and nice.

image credit Suzana

This is about a Vietnamese tea instead, which was sent by one of those contacts, Steve Shafer, to give feedback on what I think of the versions, and the limited exposure reviewing teas here provides.  I won't cover much for his background except to say that he's American, and an experienced chef, who had lived in other places earlier, including in China.  He comes to tea with a perspective and palate informed by that culinary experience.  And he embraces the organic foods, local production, farm to table theme that has been popular in the US for awhile, applying some of that to tea.  These are organic, naturally grown and produced versions, not that production methodology changes much in terms of involving chemicals or problematic steps.  But as Vietnamese local teas they will probably vary in style from the most conventional Yunnan sheng versions.

Steve mentioned other factors, about his approach to tea interest and evaluation, framed in comparison to local Vietnamese tea perspective, but I'll not include that here.

They're not pu'er, since that naming is associated only with Yunnan, per a Chinese registration convention.  I'll just call them sheng; use of the term "raw" isn't restricted, although eventually maybe it will be.

I had reviewed two versions of Thai "wild origin" teas in the past month or so, so I've included trying both together with one of these versions as a review tasting.  One was from a local contact Aphiwat, initially reviewed in a pressed cake form here, with this a maocha (loose tea) variation he also sent.  It's great tea; I already knew that.  The second is a cake form of a wild origin Thai tea from Leo Shevchenko, produced through a cooperative effort with Moychay, initially reviewed as a maocha version here.  Again it's very good tea, very pleasant and distinctive, without a hint of a flaw or limitation that would make comparison as relatively more positive, or even equivalent, easier for the Son La version.  It was a bit more oxidized than is standard, I thought, but that can work really well for sheng versions, it can just cost them some aging potential.  I'll say more about that factor at the end, and addressed it at length in that first review.

For what it's worth I bought the cakes related to the Thai #1 version, and Aphiwat provided extra maocha to try (a good bit of it to, not the usual 10-20 gram small sample), and Leo provided the second tea for review (many thanks for that, of course), with Steve providing this and other Vietnamese teas for review (again which is much appreciated).  I see myself as objective in judgement regardless of who provided what but it's best to be clear on that background.

I'm trying a maocha version today, but this was that pressed version from Apiwat

the Thai version from Leo; the opposite this time, I wrote about maocha and this is the cake

I didn't check any background on this Vietnamese tea before trying it, but I'll cite what is in a website here to introduce it:

Sơn La (listing for $27 for 100 grams, $96 for a 357 gram cake equivalent)

A special tea from Sơn La province in northwest Vietnam.

This is a tea from one of the best ancient tree gardens deep in the forest in Sơn La province... 

This tea brews up a thick floral sweet liquor. The moderate astringency and bitterness pairs really well with the heavy sweetness of this tea. The fragrance of this tea is also unique to the area.

You can expect this tea to go many rounds...  Rich, lasting Huigan with a strong focused qi.

Season: Spring 2022

Picking Standard: 1 bud, 2 leaves

Region: Sơn La Province

Elevation: 1900m

Sound good; onto the edited review notes.

in the same order as reviewed L to R, Thai #1 left to Vietnamese on right


Thai tea 1, from Aphiwat:  bright and fresh!  It's almost lemony, or really that specific description works.  There's some vegetal range too, but not much, and it integrates well with the brightness, sweetness, and other complexity, the very moderate bitterness and pronounced floral range.  This tea would be easy for a broad range of people to love.  A lot of green tea drinkers might regard the experience as a wake-up call, that there is other comparable range out there that's perhaps far more interesting, and pleasant in a different way.  

On purely a quality level scale, as much as separating out that kind of judgment makes any sense, really good Chinese green tea versions are just as good, or maybe better, but per my preference they would struggle to match this tea for pleasantness of experience.  It's so intense, high in sweetness, and clean, while at the same time approachable.  Bitterness is quite moderate, hardly noticeable as young sheng goes.  Flavor complexity stands out, that pop.  It should be interesting to see how the others compare.

Thai tea 2, from Leo Shevchenko, the Moychay forest preservation initiative tea:  this doesn't even taste like the same category of teas.  It's far more oxidized, even just from appearance, brewed color.  That is atypical related to the style, but the character works well, which is the main point.  This tea is slower to open up (it's pressed), but it's already showing lots more warmer range and depth.  Spice notes already emerge, and dried fruit tones.  There's a pleasant aromatic wood base that could be interpreted as spice bark range instead, or as cedar or redwood like, taken the other way.  

This is quite clean and well balanced too, it just lacks that bright, sweet, floral and citrusy front end, so it doesn't pop in the same way.  Not that it has to; it works well in its own form.  Depth of feel stands out already, and the tea is hardly getting started.  Part of this turning out this well had to relate to drawing on processing skill, not just luck, then it's odd that it was oxidized that much, that atypical in that one way in final form.  It works for me for experienced character and aspects, again the main thing.

Son La Vietnamese sheng, from Steve Shafer of Viet Sun Tea:  also darker than usual, maybe just not quite as amber as the second Thai version.  This contacted smoke, apparent in the taste, so that's going to stand out as a difference.  And it's in a more conventional range for bitterness, which to me isn't a bad thing, since I've been drinking sheng for some years, but for some it would be off-putting. It's just how sheng more typically is, with bitterness, sweetness, and flavor complexity often balancing each other.  Sometimes that relates to versions needing a couple of years to settle to be better, but this isn't like that, it's fine.  It helps that it's whole leaf, changing character for the better, and that it's clearly very good material.  

As for the rest floral tone stands out the most, but a light vegetal edge related to green tea range is also present.  I think that's the type of early character that tends to "burn off" over the first couple of rounds in some sheng, even though it's more often feel related more than flavor oriented.  Together with the smoke the sweetness, bitterness, floral range (intense and complex), and light green wood edge are all pleasant.  

In terms of comparing to experience pleasantness with the others--too early to do that, really, but let's go there anyway--this needs to open up to match the others' level.  That's about style though, how different versions evolve across transitions, not how good the teas are.  That first tea got a running start on the rinse step, which I also tasted, but didn't review.  I wouldn't recommend throwing away the rinse for tea #1 given how that worked out, never mind concerns about whatever someone thinks they are rinsing off.

Thai #1 second infusion:  a bit light; I brewed this round quite quickly to see how that would go.  It's probably as well to skip adding detail and infuse it a little longer next round.  I used less leaves for this than the second, and only slightly less than the third, an easy problem to create due to brewing maocha and pressed tea together.  Later edit:  oddly once all three "opened up" levels in filling the gaiwans were almost exactly the same again; strange how that goes.

Thai tea #2:  evolving woody range a little; as well to keep this description short and let round 3 tell more of the story.

Son La:  smoke may be easing up a bit already; imparted additional flavor can work like that.  It will stay for many rounds, I mean that it has lessened in relation to proportion.  Again let's see next round.

Thai tea #1 third infusion:  I really love that character.  It's sheng range, no doubt, but bright, fresh, floral, and lemony, a cool mix.  Aftertaste adds complexity; that's nice.  Feel isn't substantial, but not thin either.  The moderate weight and mouthfeel impact matches the light flavor tones well.  Aftertaste almost has a refreshing effect; it's strange how that carries over to lead an experiential interpretation, or at least seems to.  Without so much sweetness it wouldn't tie together and have the same impact, but it's nice and sweet.  Then it's interesting how the other two are also appealing, but in completely different ways.

Thai tea #2:  the prior wood tone / bark spice depth picks up lots more floral range input, and leads into an aromatic, essential oil sort of direction, like a natural wood conditioning oil blend might smell.  Spice range is picking up too, a sandalwood / frankincense sort of range, which I'm not well versed on enough to really pin down.  Feel becomes drier, with more structure (where the first was just light, with decent intensity, but lightness matching the flavor tone).  Again that feel wouldn't work nearly as well paired with different flavor character, but with this it's perfect.  Where the other left you with a light, intense, sweet, towards-citrus aftertaste in this version the warm tones, towards dried fruit, but really still back more on spice, pair with that drier, quite different feel.  Dried fruit might really evolve in this over more infusions; that happened on the last tasting.

Son La:  smoke continues to fade, at a nice place for evenly balancing with the tea character.  By "smoke" people might be thinking of a tea that's almost ruined by a heavy input, an accidentally smoked tea, like Lapsang Souchong, but I'm talking about a level that matches the other flavor range, it doesn't dominate it.  This tea came into contact with smoke, it's not smoked.  It seems to fade at a rate that will have it be quite secondary in another infusion or two.  Floral range stands out in this tea, more than for the other two, so complex that it's really a range of floral tone, not a simple form.  Then that bitterness edge is a bit like flower stem, or something such, with a vegetal edge to it.  

This is probably the only one of these three teas with significant aging potential, that might well be quite good in a decade, where the other two will peak now or in a couple of years.  It's the most conventional style of the three, related to Yunnan versions.  

Of course if I owned 100 grams of this tea it probably wouldn't see the end of next year, whether I wanted to save it to experience aging transition or not.  That might be a shame, because it seems a good candidate for moderate aging too, that it might deepen and evolve in form over 3 or 4 years, versus a fuller cycle.  I think all three of these teas would be fine in 3 or 4 more years, but the first is so bright and fresh now that it might be a shame to allow it to transition like that.  

Thai tea #1 fourth infusion:  I'll probably only drink this and one more round, giving up the second half of the cycle in note-taking as a cost of trying three teas together.  And being in a rush to do other things, but 15 small cups of tea is a lot.  This tea picks up some depth while the brighter and sweeter fresh range fades a little.  Going with a longer rinse that you drink instead would maximize having that early experience.  It's still great like this; the extra depth leads into a bit fruity range.

Thai tea #2:  while the first loses some of the initial main appeal this is just hitting its stride, the best it has been, which will probably continue for a good number of rounds, or I suppose could potentially even improve.  Dryness eased up, with feel richer, and earlier wood tone swapped out for more warm dried fruit, a bit towards apricot, or maybe persimmon, that different range of lighter plum.  It's quite nice.

Son La:  floral range and touch of vegetal edge overtook the smoke, still present, but quite secondary already.  Bitterness is still at a much higher level.  It's funny saying that, that it's relatively bitter, since this is still towards the conventional sweet Yiwu range in comparison with bitter Myanmar or Lao Man E range.  The other two teas are atypical instead, in a more "drinkable when new" sheng range.

Thai tea #1 fifth infusion:  really just in the main part of the cycle, but I'm pretty much wrapped up for tea input.  Bitterness actually increases in this, since I've added a bit of brewing time compensating for it fading a little.  It's odd how the character is closer to the Son La version than it has been across all the other rounds.

Thai tea #2:  honey flavor picks up in this, probably present over the last two rounds, I just wasn't noticing it.  Along with that dried fruit range it's quite catchy.  Feel is richer and fuller than earlier, maybe just structured in a drier form than the first still.  Across this many infusions the two are better matched for pleasantness, for the initial most positive range of the first fading, and this evolving in positive ways.  This probably has another 5 or 6 infusions that would be this positive to go, before stretching brewing time to compensate for it fading changes character.  At a slightly lower proportion, that would speed up a bit.

Son La:  bitterness seems stronger in this than it has been, probably really related to slight variations in how I'm brewing it more than actual transition.  Of course it's that bitterness with sweetness effect that happens in sheng, hui gan.  It's just not overly centered on a rear throat experience, more across the middle or even front center of your mouth and tongue.  For anyone seeking to avoid bitterness in sheng (kind of an odd approach, really) the first two versions are a suitable match, and this wouldn't work; it's more bitter.  Smoke is hard to even notice now; heavy floral range and that bitterness completely replaced it.  Flavors are complex enough that interpretation as fruit instead of floral range might work; that story would be clearer over a few more rounds, or better evaluated over multiple tastings.

I wouldn't mean to say that this tea needs aging but I think it would be better in 2 or 3 years, per my preference.  For people into bitterness in sheng experience the opposite would probably be true; it would lose some appeal.


All three of these are so different in style that it doesn't work to say one stands out as better.  The version from Apiwat clearly won the early rounds for being a fast starter, and not needing to evolve past any bitterness or astringency edge, but the other two evened that up even across a limited tasting session range, five rounds worth.  Of course I came back to drink more of these later, and they had a lot of positive output to offer, but this summary won't really draw on that.

It worked out as interesting that the first tea is probably as good as it will ever be right now, and the second Thai version may settle into an even nicer place over another couple of years.  It's completely fine now too, and quite moderate in bitterness and astringency, what people often might hope to see transition, but given that brightness and freshness aren't as much of its appeal and depth and warm, sweet tones are all that range may deepen further, even over moderate time.

The Vietnamese tea will be even better in 3 or 4 years, I think.  Smoke input has a way of settling out, and bitterness, still not necessarily at a problematic level or form, will ease up as the tea gains depth.  It definitely has intensity to spare; that fading a little would be no problem at all.  All three kind of do, beyond the second Thai tea needing a couple of rounds to really open up.

I would need to keep re-trying these to accurately map them to my preference, and the aging potential issue complicates things, trying to fold that in.  

There's a catchiness to the first Thai tea that gives it a natural edge, and for the second Thai tea the late round fruit character really works for what I love in sheng.  For how the Vietnamese tea was I think giving it more focus over a full 12 to 15 round cycle would give a clearer impression, brewing it more carefully than I did to balance intensity and bitterness.  I suppose it's possible that the Son La tea would need a couple of years to settle to match my degree of preference for the other two, that if someone is more into drinkable sheng that they'll go through right now it loses comparative appeal, swapped out for greater aging potential.  I think saving the Son La tea for a dozen years would be overkill; it's just not like that.  A few years to transition some would be fine, maybe optimum at 4 or 5, depending on storage conditions and preference variation, but it would still surely be close enough after 2 or 3.

All three lacked limitations in terms of processing flaws or apparent limited potential related to material input.  They all started with very promising material, it seems to me, with initial potential differences and processing steps probably both causing the broad range of variety in outcomes.

These teas represent exactly why people should be trying South East Asian sheng versions, if variation from dialed-in optimums from their favorite Yunnan sources and narrow production areas is of interest.  If you could find "local" enough forms of Yunnan versions you could get close to how these turned out in styles, but it would be more typical to find blended-together, more conventional, and above average quality input mixes that are nice in their own ways, but not like this, not as interesting and distinctive.

really from tasting the next day, in the same spot

with the cat that keeps checking in to see how the tasting goes

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