39 Tasting Notes
As part of the #2016ShengOlympics organized by LiquidProust, I decided to do a side-by-side tasting of all three Verdant “old tree” shengs. I figured with 50ml gaiwans it should not be overwhelming (I was not entirely correct; it’s still a lot of tea!)
Here’s the teas before the start of the session:
And here’s the aftermath showing the most intact and largest leaves I could find:
I took each tea through 11 steeps over several hours in round-robin fashion using 3.5 grams of leaf in each 50ml gaiwan with 205F (+/-2F) bottled spring water heated in a clay boiler. I let the tea guide my steep times, ending up with 10/10/10/15/20/30/40/60/90/120/300 seconds for each one.
All of the teas were quite mellow with mild aromatics and easy on my stomach. And the energy imparted was moderate; I never felt too wired.
300 Year Tree: Light yellow liquor. Aromas of pine in the first half of the session, turning tart and fruity in the latter half. Medium bodied, slightly oily mouthfeel. The flavor started fruity, turned to sweet-tart citrus with slight spice in later steeps. Some faint astringency in the beginning and again near the end when I pushed the steep times. Overall a decent mild young sheng.
1000 Year Tree: Medium yellow liquor. Aromas of pine in the first half, turning to old books, then spicy-tart near the end. Medium bodied, fairly oily mouthfeel and a soothing feeling coating the throat in most steeps. The flavor was primarily sweet-tart with slight spice and pine notes appearing at times, and citrus and herbs arising in the later half. Faintly astringent in the longer steeps. I liked this one just a little better than the 300 Year, mostly because of the feeling in my throat.
1800 Year Tree: Medium-dark yellow liquor (but not quite amber). Aromas were primarily tart, sweet, faint pine, woody, turning fruity sweet in the long steeps. Medium bodied, slightly oily mouthfeel. Flavors started as a sweet-tart balance with faint pine, citrus emerging in the mid-steeps, some herbal notes, ending with light sweetness and slight pepper. No astringency. This one edged out the other two in terms of flavor, but just barely. My notes repeatedly show “a mellow, smooth cup”.
Any one of these would be a good beginner’s sheng since they were all quite mild and well behaved. In truth I cannot pick a winner since they were all so similar. I had to really focus to pick out the differences. Also I did notice some slight camphor mid-session, but since that can carry over in the mouth from one tea to the next I could not attribute it to any one tea.
So what did I learn after drinking about a liter and a half of tea in one night?
(1) When I closed my eyes I felt I was swooping around the cosmos with “Rocket Man” playing in my head.
(2) Drinking this much tea leads to truly epic pee sessions. (Wife: “Did someone leave the water running?” Me: “Go back to sleep dear”).
(3) A few of my Steepster friends keep weird hours on Instagram as well.
I tasted a lot of fermentation flavor in the first four steeps, which cleared completely by steep six. The fermentation on this one is very clean with no “off” smells or tastes. Spicy, woody and sweet were the dominant notes, with the sweetness landing between dark fruits and caramel for me. There were no bitter notes after the fermentation cleared.
I rode this session all the way down to thin brown water over 12 steeps just to see what subtleties the leaf held. It got sweeter and spicier as the session went on. The first nine steeps were the best. I picked up some mild astringency in steeps 10 and 11, but strangely it disappeared in steep 12.
The leaves were mostly broken, but larger than gong ting. As expected this tea is not quite as powerful as a gong ting, but it’s not too far behind. The leaf quality as expressed in the cup was very good to excellent, making this a cake I’ll stash in the “Florida pumidor” for two or three years and revisit with the expectation of it becoming something great.
Flavors: Caramel, Spices, Sweet, Wood
I’ve been lucky enough to score several harvests of this wonderful Dian Hong. This time I decided to revisit the oldest in my stash, the awesome Autumn 2013 harvest (now 2 years old), to see how it’s holding up. I keep these well-sealed and out of the heat and light.
Looking at my older tasting notes I see a few changes. The vanilla and slight tart notes are now muted, but the mouthfeel has thickened considerably to an almost syrupy texture. The honey and bee pollen notes are still present, as are the hints of spice, cloves and occasional cinnamon. Overall it’s a little less lively, but the mouthfeel is nothing short of incredible.
I took this through my usual 15 steeps and the flavor kept up right to the end instead of tapering off like it used to. I meant to cold steep the used leaves, but accidentally tossed them in the compost bin (it’s hell getting older).
There are other Dian Hongs I enjoy, but this one still tops my list. It is a truly legendary leaf and I never would have found it without Steepster, nor gotten to try it so long ago without the generosity of Terri HarpLady who sent a sizable sample from her stash to a relative newcomer. I’m bumping my rating from 95 to 100.
A thing worth 1000 words: http://instagram.com/p/9dcoVMliw0
Well after nearly two years in the “Florida pumidor” this tea has turned in to something quite nice! Gone is the dirt note in the early steeps. The flavor is less intense, but more complex with a very clean feeling on the palate. It tastes sweet with slight spice, figs, some cedar and citrus. The aromas mainly center around figs, raisins and sugarcane, with hints of vanilla and cinnamon popping in to say “hi!”.
It’s sold out now, so I’ll enjoy what I have left and I’m upping my rating on this :)
Flavors: Cinnamon, Fig, Raisins, Spices, Sugarcane, Vanilla
I decided to commune with the spirits in the wee hours, so I broke out my newly arrived Ta Oolong from Tea From Vietnam and started a session right at midnight.
The instructions on teafromvietnam.com only listed Western brewing and I was in the mood for a long gong fu session so I winged it by putting 5 grams of these little pearls in my 100ml gaiwan and steeped it 12 times at 10/10/10/15/20/25/30/45/60/120 seconds, finishing with 3 and 5 minute steeps as the leaves gave out. By mid-session the leaves expanded to fill the gaiwan. Many of them were intact and quite large.
The dry leaf reminded me of fresh cut grass. Once warmed, aromas of buttered popcorn, florals and sweetness emerged. About ten minutes after the 5 second rinse these turned to strong tart and sweet fruits with moderate florals.
Time to get busy! The first steep was a very pale greenish-yellow and smelled of sweet cream butter and florals.
BTW I’m not familiar with flower aromas so my notes are vague in that area. If you want a really good breakdown of which flower types are present in this tea you should read Amanda Wilson’s post on it here: http://steepster.com/SoggyEnderman/posts/316753. She can tell you not only what type of flower but also what month she smelled it and the type of soil it grew in. I’m exaggerating (slightly) of course, but she does have a great nose and a way with words.
So, back to the first steep. The body is very light but the flavors are distinct, with a buttery and lively mouthfeel. There’s a slight citrus tang with sugar sweetness, stonefruits and floral notes in the retro-nasal exhale. It feels like this tea is still opening up.
Subsequent steeps increase in body although it remains light, the liquid becomes a light yellow, the mouthfeel turns creamy and the flavors intensify to a moderate level. The main notes I find in the cup are tart citrus, sugar sweetness, stonefruits and spice, with the occasional appearance of buttered bread and fruity notes. There’s a moderate amount of florals in the retro-nasal exhale across all steeps. The first ten steeps were the best. The last two long steeps had a mild astringency and the flavors began to fade.
I felt the energy in this tea mainly in my heart and head, and it left me with a calm and clear mind. I usually drink roasted or aged oolongs, not having found a jade that really “wows” me. This one, however, turned my head. In spite of the light body the flavors, aromas and energy struck me in a most enjoyable way. I bought 50 grams so there’s plenty left to revisit this, and I will.
I was in the mood for tart cherries so I pulled out an old favorite oolong with that flavor. This was a particularly good harvest and I’ve dipped into the bag often.
I like to push this particular oolong a little and have it play out in 6 or 7 steeps since that intensifies the tart cherry note. For this session I did 10/10/15/25/45/90 second steeps.
The color of the liquor is a crystal clear deep amber that seems to glow when the light hits it. I find myself just mesmerized by it for a minute before drinking.
The aromas telegraph some of the flavors waiting in the cup: tart cherries, sweet stonefruits, vanilla and cinnamon. It has an oily mouthfeel when hot that turns buttery as the cup cools. The first steep has the most variety of flavors, with Meyer lemon, vanilla, tart stonefruits and spiciness. Subsequent steeps are all about the tart cherries, sweet stonefruits and cinnamon. Toasted nuts emerge about halfway through the session. I sometimes catch a whiff of florals in the aroma near the last steep, but that’s not really what this oolong is about. The aftertaste is long and tart.
I’m nearing the end of the bag and I’ll miss this one when it’s gone.
Flavors: Cinnamon, Nutty, Stonefruits, Tart, Vanilla
I’m reviewing the Autumn 2014 harvest (according to the Whispering Pines web site), purchased in October 2015. I brewed it gong fu style using the timings recommended by WP (10/10/15/30/45/75/120/180 seconds)
Tasting notes on Steepster from a little over a year ago speak of cocoa and caramel notes. Other than a hint of cocoa in the aftertaste on steep 2 and a whiff in the aroma in steeps 5 and 6, no cocoa notes were found in this harvest and no caramel notes at all. Early in the session I was disappointed by this.
As the steeps went on, however, I gained an appreciation for this tea. It has good balance, with no one taste really standing out throughout the session. It’s a medium bodied tea with a moderate intensity of flavor.
There are other China black teas I adore because of a particular dominant note, but can’t drink them every day because I get tired of that note.
I will have to drink this tea a few more times before I can say for sure, but this feels like one I might not get tired of. It has a buttery mouthfeel and complex aromas of sweetness, malt, tart stonefruits, occasional spice, dried apricots, vinegar, and a few faint cocoa notes. And on the last steep (3 minutes) I smelled sauerkraut. Yep, that’s in there too.
The flavors were primarily tart stonefruits, honey sweetness, some sweet fruitiness, and Yunnan spice.
I’m not going to rate this until I’ve had it a few more times, but my initial reaction is quite positive.
Received a 9.4 gram pre-production sample of this as loose leaves in my latest Mandala order. After three days of solid shengs, it was time for a shou. I spent half an hour waffling over how to best try this using several brew methods, but finally just threw the whole thing in my 100ml gaiwan and went for short steeps (5/7/9/11/15/20/30/60/120 seconds). That turned out to be a good choice.
Gave it a 5 second rinse, then let it sit for about 15 minutes. The tea was still opening up on the first steep, but steeps 2 through 5 were a rocket ride. The liquor was only medium bodied yet the flavor was intense. An incredible molasses sweetness was paired beautifully with a restrained Bu Lang bitterness that balanced the whole thing out. Around these two dominant flavors were notes of oak wood, leather and tobacco. Salivating citrus notes and hints of spice (felt more than tasted) popped their heads up a couple of times. The sensation was of a very clean shou with no off flavors. These early steeps had a heavy mouthfeel that felt like they coated my tongue, mouth and throat in rich shou goodness that lingered in the long aftertaste.
Steeps 6 through 9 tapered off in intensity and body, yet were very enjoyable. The Bu Lang bitterness tapered off a bit as well, yet remained present until the end. The sweetness became more like sugarcane. I caught a subtle note of chestnuts on the 8th steep.
I had a hard time sipping this tea because I could not pull my nose away from the cup. The aromas were intoxicating; powerful at first but significant all throughout the session. There was a super-intense sweet aroma that ran the gamut from sugarcane to molasses, with one steep having caramel and another pralines. There was also a strong, clean earthiness in the early steeps. I even smelled some cinnamon at one point.
I did two final steeps at 5 and 10 minutes, but they were pale shadows of the earlier session.
This shou really hit on all cylinders for me. The note on the sample bag said “soon in 200g cakes”. I hope soon really means soon. Assuming the final pressing lives up to the potential shown in this sample, this may be the best shou that Mandala has yet produced (no disrespect to the Original Phatty Cake).
Another nice medium-bodied sheng from Mandala with a spicy, sweet, mildly tart, and slightly citrusy profile. The aromas were hard to place in the early steeps, centering around tart / savory / spicy notes that I could not isolate. In the later steeps these became fruity-sweet, then tart stonefruits, green apples, and lemons.
I went with cooler water to try and bring out the sweetness, and short steeps (5/7/9/11/… seconds).
This sheng had an oily mouthfeel in a couple of early steeps, then became a rounded one in the mid-steeps. The spice note was not intense yet it was very present, if that makes any sense. In some steeps it was felt more than tasted, which contributed to a lively feeling in the mouth. I got a hint of pine sap in steep 4, but no smokey taste. When the sweetness made itself known it struck me as being similar to apples.
Not as energetic as yesterday’s 2014 Leaf Nei Fei, but still gave me a strong uplifting energy by the end of the 20th steep (which I did all in a single three and a half hour session … whew!). Mandala describes it as a feeling of “calm vibrancy”, which is pretty close to how I feel now.
Overall I really enjoyed this one, and will probably lay in a cake to age.
Leaf porn: http://instagram.com/p/9DSYJzli5Y
Flavors: Spicy, Sweet
A very nice medium-bodied young sheng with notes of pine, spice, citrus and tart stone fruits in the cup. On some later steeps I also picked up some Granny Smith apples and a faint herbaceous quality. The flavors were not too complex, but the aromas were! As the session progressed I smelled pine sap, split pea soup, cinnamon, apple pie, Meyer lemons, honeydew melon, lemon meringue pie and loquat. I did the session with fairly short steeps (5/7/9/11/… seconds).
The most outstanding quality for me is how this tea reacted with my Qi. After the first three steeps I had to walk away for a number of hours because I had so much energy I could no longer sit still. That happened again after the next four steeps as well, but to a lesser degree. I was able to finish the session (steeps 8 through 19) in one sitting since the energy had subsided a bit by then. This would be a good tea to drink when I have to get up and get things done.
Mandala notes that the tea is very young and not incredibly complex, and my session bore that out. As of this writing a 357 gram cake is only $37, so it might be worth putting one away for a few years to see what it does.
Flavors: Citrus, Herbaceous, Pine, Spicy, Tart