Zomia Tea

Recent Tasting Notes

68

Had a round of this at the tea shop with a couple people the other day using good water in a glazed ceramic gaiwan. Slightly more crisp, but that’s about it. I’m leaving my rating higher than it might deserve, though.

Definitely not the most exciting around and it’s the sheng I’ve enjoyed the least so far of their lineup… Then why do I keep drinking it?

Chock it up to the fact I’m a sucker for gamey teas, coffees, wines, and foods. I like wooly, musk-like, leathery, earthy, mossy, and wet-wood characteristics as long as they are not completely over the top. I like bitterness to be present. I enjoy sour characteristics. This plays with all of them.
More importantly – and the saving grace from me chopping its rating down into the 50s, in spite of me liking technical defects from time to time – when brewed at different concentrations it shifts in overall expression and character. It should be expected that concentration shifts will dramatically alter a tea, but shifting between 4g/100mL and 6g/100mL gave a greater shift in fundamental expression than contrasting different types of tea in the same category. One was fairly clean, pollen-like, sweeter, gravelly, and with the mossy qualities while the other had little discernible sweetness, more tempura, wet wool, slightly singed scrambled egg, driftwood, pepper, and a slight citrus aftertaste with not much of a shift in body. Pretty much any characteristic present one way was absent brewed another (temp and time alterations mostly dealt in the same flavor sets but different expressions). Not quite as extreme a jump as many dancongs I’ve had, but I don’t expect young shengs to nearly as exciting as that group of teas… Heck, I don’t expect – only hope – that they are super drinkable in the first place.

So, excitement factor for me and my own selfish subjective preferences have tossed this tea a rope as it teetered on the edge of a cliff for me. I’ll probably be revisiting it again though I don’t expect my opinion of it to improve. Or maybe this one will just fall by the wayside for me since so many more of the offerings by Zomia are much prettier.

Preparation
195 °F / 90 °C 0 min, 15 sec

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34

There are much better Bulangs to be had

Preparation
Boiling 1 min, 30 sec

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39

My low rating is mostly because of the price. For the amount they are charging, they better be offering some really unique or excellent material, but this spring Bulang is not unique and the quality is pretty average. I have a few bulang cakes that are 1/3 of the price and the same quality as this cake.

Preparation
Boiling 0 min, 15 sec
Thomas Smith

I’m looking for other purveyors of cakes made of exclusively young material and would love some recommendations.

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68

Another of the Zomia Sheng Bingcha samples I picked up and the only other one I got that’s listed online – the rest are 2011 harvest and will not have a presence in the online store until the website is updated. Consequently, I will probably not post reviews of the others unless they are substantially better or worse… Supposedly they are all better, but that remains to be see- err, tasted.

This one is noticeably different from the Spring 2010 in color, compaction, and dry fragrance. This is somewhat darker with some deep green leaves (think lighter Dancong) attached to light buds with a lot of downy hair presence. I didn’t need to try nearly as hard to break this wedge down compared to the Spring cake, which required a couple insertions of my puer knife to get the material into loose form. For this one, just a little wiggling and then some lateral pressure from my fingers crumbled it into fairly intact loose leaf material. I’ll get to fragrance later, but I’ll say now that it had just as much going on as the Spring bing, but in a very different direction.

I used my trusty Duan Ni Shengcha pot with 8g of still-compressed tea per 220mL just like the last one. However, I ran out of good water. Sonoma County has some pretty darned good tasting tap water (even better than San Francisco, I feel, but heavier mineral content) and when run through a Brita filter it comes out really good. However, lately I’ve had to refrigerate and shake to produce the liveliness I’m used to getting. So since early May I’ve been using water from the machine in Oliver’s Market dispensed into large plastic jugs. I have personal reservations about storing in plastic, but I really can’t taste or smell any negative impact and the treated and somewhat aerated water from the machine is tasting a whole heck of a lot better for tea lately. Not as big of a deal with denser Shu Puer and lower elevation Indian/Sri Lankan teas or Dian Hong. But for many of the teas I love that are dependent upon crispness it is a pretty obvious difference. In the case of this tea, it fell flat. Really weird tasting a full-bodied tea with a lot of flavor and mouthwatering effect but lacking in liveliness. I had always assumed the drool-inducing effect of some teas was dependent upon the perceived acidity but tonight’s round of tea kinda scoffs at that notion.

The Dry Fragrance in my warmed pot comes as a base heady-vegetal smell. Heavy and with a menthol and hay twist. Very sweet, thick fragrance that’s very similar to sweet wheat bread rolls from the oven carries through as the most obvious character. Grape twigs and grape seeds are definitely bunched in with the vegetal mass of fragrance and accents of honey and raw cane stalk pop up. An oddly pervasive funky sour-sweet-musty characteristic had me scratching my head and sort of salivating over this very familiar smell for a little while. Pot was starting to loose heat so I put it down to start the rinse when I got a really good fleeting hit of that note and it sang Camembert cheese rind. Seriously – cheese. I laughed at the pretentiousness of picking out “a hint of cheese” in the movie Sideways, but here I am with that very familiar – though initially difficult to place – characteristic popping up in my tea. Fortunately the tea didn’t taste like it at all (though I do love Camembert and Brie).
I ought to note that while the fragrance was nice and heady in a warm pot, it is only lightly toasty-vegetal as a cake. I didn’t get “smoky” as the owner warned me. He actually was reluctant to sell me this sample in favor of the others until I said I wanted to send tome sheng puer samples to a lover of Lapsang.

Wet Leaf Aroma has a base of sorta musty old antique wood furniture. Musty wet cloth or a mop pops up. Musk like the smell from a weasel. Chewing tobacco. Sausage. Beef and seaweed jerky. Truffle Oil. Bacon. Honey Smoked Turkey… Kind of a tug-of-war between this and the sausage. Grilled onions. These gamy characters jumped out more due to their distinctness and pronounced definition more than their intensity or volume – the predominant aroma was a musty-sweet vegetal base that’s really similar to boiled/steamed cauliflower, carrots and edamame. Lighter notes of star jasmine, light maple syrup, hot mustard, and a sweet expression of black pepper like allspice or grains of paradise merge and dance about but are too heavy to call “fleeting” or to say that they “pop out”… More like swim to the surface in a current. Really has a ton going on in the wet leaf aroma after the rinse, where I’m not used to getting much in the way of distinction compared to the liquor aroma or smell from the lid.

Conversely, the Liquor Aroma is really simple across the board. Sweet, toasty grassland with oak trees and pollen. That’s mostly it until it goes in the mouth and characteristics are presented as the nose.

The rinse effectively breaks up much of the compaction and results in a very deep yellow infusion with little aroma. Kind of a difficult-to-distinguish cottony or dried out grassland smell.

All infusions shared the just about the same surface aroma and deep gold, almost-amber coloration. The pot took 20 seconds to pour each time so tack that on for the rinse time and for total contact times on top of the times I list below for when I begin to pour.

1) 83C, 1min
Buckwheat noodles, fried rice with stir-fried veggies (particularly mushrooms with a little brown sauce) and glazed barbecue pork belly. Freakin’ tastes like food. Bok choy and dried clay secondary characteristics. Very mouthwatering up front (drooly) and drying in the back of the mouth but severely lacking in crispness… Lots going on but kinda flat and I’m choosing to point fingers at the water as at least a contributing factor. Full body but the flavors are sort of muddled. I brewed this and the following three infusions in rapid sequence and decided to start at 1minute partly due to the deep color of the rinse, heady wet leaf aroma and fragrance, and the warnings by the purveyor. I feel I probably shoulda gone for 1.5-2min instead to push out the more aggressive elements and see how that potential smokiness may come to play.

2) 83C, 1min
Artichoke heart stem. More like egg noodles now instead of buckwheat. More buttery and a little less drying. Mostly the same mouth impression and dry grassland / oak woodland base character. Thistle flower afteraroma.

3) 92C, 1min
Leaves have really opened up and expanded compared to most puer. Flavor slackened but far more distinctive and the aftertaste lingers much longer. Wildflower, oak wood (plus leaves and flowers), pollen, willow, dry river rock, sand. Tannic aftertaste hangs in throat and breath with afteraromas of carnation and tulip similar to some Indian teas but there’s little crispness at all. There’s a light hint of smokiness once it’s started to cool and taken as a draught, leading me to believe a more aggressive brewing up front would bring out more of this characteristic that’s supposed to be obvious in early infusions and dissipated by the third.

4) 92C, 1min
Body and flavor thinner. Now at more of a moderate body level. Light mineral taste that I was expecting early on comes forward with a faint pleasant bitterness. Very similar to the third infusion but with more rocks and sand and less grassland and wood. This infusion sort of acts as a mid ground between the very similar first three infusions and the last two infusions I did.

5) 90C, 2min
Chicken soup with a bit of oregano and cilantro. Sandiness really comes forward a little while after swallowing. Overall smooth and comforting but lacking much distinctive character.

6) 86C, 2min
Sandy initial impression (now moved all the way from only in aftertaste to being the first characteristic tasted). Long lasting vaporous mouthfeel with little discernible quality aside from the smell of just-watered orchids that are not in bloom and a touch of raw kale. The aftertaste takes a long time to appear after swallowing and breathing deeply for a bit. Despite difficulty in picking out flavors, this infusion is markedly more crisp than the others while retaining the basic boiled veggie sweetness from the start.

Just as rich and warming as the Spring 2010 but a bit more heavy in vaporous quality in the throat. Much less in he way of snappy greenery character and closer to the impression of walking through a dry oak woodland savannah rather than freshwater marsh. I may have to keep track of my notes when I set the rest of this up in a cupping lineup against the other samples side-by-side so I may revise my score and impressions using different water, though that will be under more heavy-handed brewing parameters.

Preparation
185 °F / 85 °C 1 min, 0 sec

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80

Rich, smooth satisfying young sheng.

Got a 25g sample of this and five other sheng bingchas. The samples are nice, solid compacted wedges pulled from bings that were bisected lengthwise. If you are having trouble picturing what I mean by this, check out this video from “Mr. Cloud” Chan Kam Pong, the author of the book First Step to Chinese Puerh Tea, where he shows how to break down a cake for consumption once it is ready:
http://youtu.be/th86Ge4fFJs
The compaction on this is actually fairly tight for a stone-pressed cake, but you can chock a lot of that up to it being really young. After a rinse the compressed chunk I brewed showed a bit of separation uniformly around the mass and it broke up really well after just the first infusion (boy was I caught off guard when I opened my pot). I flaked the rest of the sample into loose tea so I could later taste this in a comparative lineup and so I could send some off in a box of samplers I’m putting together. Leaves are really consistent for a wedge off a bing and when the owner of Zomia was showing me various cakes I was thoroughly impressed by the consistency of the leaf material overall. No blending of young on the outside old on the inside for these cakes, they are uniform young leaves all throughout. Think about the leaf composition for a good Bai Hao Oolong or Bai Mu Dan White Tea for the leaves of most of the sheng bingchas offered by Zomia Tea.

I brewed an 8g compressed chunk in my 220mL Duan Ni Shi Piao pot for young shengcha. Only did four infusions… May revisit later. Seriously warming tea and it’s a very warm day.

Dry fragrance actually had quite a bit going on and really harkened to my days as a docent when I would lead ecology tours of the local wetlands. Smells very much of the cattails and tule when in bloom (predominant note is pollen), the breeze coming off a freshwater pond lined with willows, and just a hint of young redwood. There’s also a toasty grain note here – I’m going with millet, though sesame wouldn’t be too far off either.

Single rinse resulted in a brew for discard with only the faintest tinge of yellow-green and light sweet aroma somewhat similar to hay but really too light to point to anything for serious.
Wet Leaf aroma was rocky and toasty, as in multigrain bread being heated in a toaster oven. Vegetal blanket aroma is very hard to pin down (basic young shengcha base muted-veggie aroma) but an accent of wet moss on wet granite during a hot day pops out. As steam dissipates a tad I definitely get a bit of arugula and the smell of stir-fried noodles and bamboo shoots.

Liquor aroma for these first four brews were pretty close to one-another. Sweet, like the smell of simple syrup. Canned bamboo shoots and stir-fried water chestnuts. Fried egg. Wet lawn. Pear (particularly skin of Bartlett/William’s or D’Anjou Pears, but the flesh as well).

Each infusion had slightly different parameter sets, but not huge deviations. This pot takes 20sec to pour, so tack that on for total brew time.

1) 45sec, 85C
The first infusion had a nice, full body and a light astringency providing a pleasant itty bitty pucker that went well with the light rocky smell coming from the pot. Golden yellow, clear infusion with suspended downy hairs floating about. Predominant taste is cabbage – raw, cooked, red, white, green, whatever. Tasty cabbage, though. Toasted rice is up front but this gives way to rice pudding in the aftertaste. Mmmmm, rice pudding… Very mouthwatering (and not just from me now wanting desserts to make up my breakfast, lunch and now dinner for the day). Kinda gravelly impression – largely in the nose but also lingering a bit on the tongue as though I just hiked through a particularly rocky area.

2) 45sec, 87C
Second infusion is like the first but just a little more potent. Ever so slightly darker gold infusion (almost amber) and just as many little downy hairs – about on par with a tippy Darjeeling or Bai Hao Oolong in terms of suspended hairs making it through the fine mesh strainer and into the cup. Here’s where I figured out what kind of pear I was smelling earlier, as Bartlett Pear comes even before the cabbage in the flavor (this wasn’t present in first infusion). Also, some radish has come into the picture. Again I feel like I need to say “in a good way” since I tack a negative connotation to radish, cabbage, and Brussels Sprouts for some reason even though I like ‘em all, especially raw or pickled (um, there’s no pickled taste in this tea…). Sweet Brown Rice sweetness hangs around in this infusion, sort of making a mid-ground between the toasted rice and rice pudding expressed in the first. Slightly less mouthwatering than the first, but still up there but the pucker is ever so slightly increased. Fried egg pops up here and there as I drink this one – not quite oily, but evocative of having a whole egg cooked on a well seasoned cast iron griddle. This infusion is very warming. It would be incredibly comforting if I had this last night with the fog we got but right now it’s 30C inside my little poorly insulated cottage.

3) 45sec, 84C
Third brew has a slightly lighter yellow color and slightly lighter body. Distinct menthol quality comes up here, reminiscent of watercress. Other than that this is very similar to infusion #2 – very rich and satisfying. This is certainly brothy. Instead of egg I’m thinking closer to chicken stock for soup. Raw chunk sugar cane character in the aftertaste makes this seem slightly more refined in sweetness yet with a more protracted lingering toasty quality.

4) 60sec, 83C
Like the third, but markedly sweeter. Especially sweet and crisp in the aftertaste. Lil’ gherkin cucumber characteristic is present here as sort of an evolution of the cabbage taste. Makes for a bit more refreshing infusion, but this is still incredibly savory and warming. Gonna have to call it with this brew as I’m starting to perspire.

This is not nearly as bitter/bittersweet, minerally, or smoky as I’m kind of used to from young Bulangshan Puerh, but still very hearty and I think will do well to age based on richness in spite of slightly lower intensity of sharp characteristics. Supposedly 2011 was a better year across the board for Puerh, so we’ll see how this does against the 2011 Bulang Mountain Spring Bing I also grabbed a sample of. Overall this trended closer to the vegetal end of shengcha expression with all florals hiding in the background and mostly coming forward as pollen character. There were some wildflower and dry grassland hints to the base, but those are easily overshadowed by other characteristics.

Again, a very rich young sheng and very tasty even though it’s so young. Definitely in the running for my next full bingcha purchase, but that depends on how well I like these other samples I got. Unfortunately I don’t have the kind of expendable income I once had and have to be a little more choosy about plunking down for a bing, brick, or a full tong. Had I tasted this a few years ago I’d likely impulsively buy a tong so my indiscriminate drinking of young puerh wouldn’t dent the supply before it got some age on it.

Yummyyumyum I hope the rest are just as tasty or better.

Preparation
190 °F / 87 °C 0 min, 45 sec
Azzrian

You write AMAZING reviews! Thank you!

TeaBrat

do you know if they’re planning to offer the samples on their website anytime soon?

Thomas Smith

They currently do. For compressed Puerh, they offer either a full cake/brick or a 25g sample to brew and experiment with before committing to a full cake. For loose teas they will only offer 50g bags.

Kashyap

what are you using to control/monitor temp?

TeaBrat

Oh – thanks! I missed that the first time I looked since I did not click through to the detailed information. :)

Thomas Smith

I typically use one of those Taylor oven thermometer probes that have a temp alert and built in timer. I have a thermocouple for more precise readings but don’t consider it useful since there’s such a huge difference in temp from loss to the teapot and air while pouring that it’s pointless to measure to 0.1 degree resolution or higher in the kettle.

Kashyap

so are you measuring the tea, the stream of water, or the water prior to pouring? just wondering as you seem to be so controled and precise with this..

Thomas Smith

Taylor probe in the kettle, threaded through the spout on my electric or inserted through the lid in my large glazed ceramic teapot-style kettle. I use the thermometer primarily for cutting the heat when raising to a desired endpoint (which is why I mostly measure the mass of the water in the kettle rather than the infusing tea) and leave it to give readings as it cools so I know when I may need to extend the steep time or add cool water and reheat.
For vessel or parameter tests, I use my thermocouple inside the brewing tea but you will only find a couple of those measures on my Steepster reviews as it typically involves either flights or comparative tasting lineups among multiple teas.

Thomas Smith
  • when I said “mass of the water” I meant the bulk of heated water measured from near the center. Mass readings are taken using a +/- 1g resolution scale by measuring the grams of the pot and leaves on a scale then measuring the pot and leaves plus water and subtracting (same method with leaves, but on a balance with +/- 0.01g resolution). Volume measures I take are actually usually room temp water mass measures since 1g water at about room temp is about 1mL and I don’t much trust the accuracy of the various volumetric measures I have at home.

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73

This was an excellent introductory shou that is pretty well representative of Zomia, though the focus is more on the sheng side of things. Being served this tea in the shop pretty much spoke to the whole of the philosophy and focus of the tiny company (it was not the first tea served, but was more in line with the bulk of the flavor trends of the owner). This is essentially exactly what I hope to find to recommend to people looking to buy their first full Shou Bingcha, though samples are available both online and in the little shop. Not the best tea they offer by any stretch of the imagination but a great “House Puerh”.

I had a conversation with another buyer for a different coffee company a few months ago at the SWRBC. He pointed out what I was carrying around while watching the barista competitors and said “nice gaiwan,” naturally starting a lengthy discussion about premium tea while surrounded by some of the best coffee on the planet. When it came down to us talking about what we’d like our respective companies to move into, I said I feel any coffee shop selling tea ought to offer puerh, as it’s a terrific middle ground between coffee and tea. His nose got all crunched up and he said his company “doesn’t do earthy or muddled tasting coffee and tea.” Ah, he has not had decent puerh. I tried to hook up with him the following day to get him some of the basic shou puerh I happened to have laying about in my car, but oh well. Moral of the story: most people haven’t been exposed to clean tasting puerh. Now I’m tempted to send a bing of this down to that company with a post-it on it saying “try this” :p

Back to this thing.

Zomia Tea is only about 2 years old and they just opened a retail location right around the corner from the roastery for my work about a month ago. Well, I should say “he” not “they” – Barry Boullon is the sole proprietor, and I believe the one employee (though he has others do the website stuff, which is about to get a big face lift) so the guy you buy your tea from and chat with is the importer and owner.
Barry weighed out about 4g for his zi ni pot (looked to be about 100mL – he said he goes for 1g/25mL using a scale, which happens to be my starting point for both Shou and Sheng Puerh), dispensed hot water from an electric stainless steel samovar into a large earthenware kettle that he then set atop a hot plate to bring up to about a boil, and rinsed once.
I was caught off guard and a little disappointed at first upon taking in the aroma from the wetted leaves. Very earthy and a tad musty – very aggressive but at least it wasn’t smoky or loaded with the smell of ferment/compost. I’m okay with smokiness in young Shengs, but would rather not get that from a Shou. However, the wet leaf aroma did not carry through to the liquor.
The first five or six infusions were all around 30-60 seconds. No timer was used.
Very clean in aroma, appearance and taste. Vermillion-brown but pale and highly transparent coloration. Saigon Cinnamon (Cassia), and orchid bark with just a hint of peat moss were the dominant characteristics. Mellow and crisp. Not a ton of sweetness, which I kind of expect to find in any puerh… In the third to sixth infusions there was a slight rice-like sweetness and a hint of molasses to the aroma that sort of accentuated this, but nothing like the crazy sugar-water sweetness I get from time to time. I’m sure a longer steep or slightly higher concentration would push this while still remaining very pleasant. Very consistent from one cup to the next and always pretty light. There was one infusion that came out really dark (maybe the fifth – took a little while for the leaves to open) which was more in line with the appearance of my typical 2min initial experimental brews or 30-60sec at higher concentration but this was then diluted in the share pitcher with hot water before it was served, knocking it back down to the lighter character of the previous infusions but presenting a bit of tule and cocoa characteristics as well. While light in intensity, it had a good moderate viscosity and a hint of back-of-throat astringency in later infusions.

This wasn’t the most dynamic tea around and there were way better ones up on the shelf (this was also one of the few blended puerhs available), but it was very tasty and a good deal for the price.

I’m really pleasantly surprised by this company and will be buying a bunch of stuff from Zomia Tea in the near future. While this post is on a Shou Puerh, the focus is on Sheng Puerh and I was blown away by the consistency of the material making up the Sheng Bingchas that Zomia is offering… And then again when I saw the tiny little print on the signs indicating the very low price points. High quality with large selection at low price AND in easy driving distance? Yes please and thank you! This place is easily the highest quality shop in Sonoma County now and it is exceedingly rare for me to find a tea shop where I can walk in and actually learn stuff I was not privy to before. I have a small sense of the general character of a few isolated mountains in Yunnan due to personal tasting exploration of puerh over the course of the past seven years or so, but I’ve never been there and never had easy access to well-made isolated cakes of specific harvest periods all from the same small-scale producer who makes tea by hand. YIPPIE and pardon as I don’t bother to attempt containing my excitement!
I’ll be breaking into some of these Sheng samples in the next few days. Most of ’em are not yet available on the website because of the aforementioned update that is soon to come.

Preparation
205 °F / 96 °C 0 min, 45 sec
Azzrian

Can’t wait to get my hands on some of their teas! I am learning about Pu-erh at this time, just got my first yixing, and can’t wait to christen it this weekend! This sounds like a great starting point and a new company for me to try as well. Thanks for this review!

Thomas Smith

My pleasure. Zomia still has some stuff on the website but only a very tiny cross section of what they offer (and nothing that has been procured in the past year). The much smaller selections offered for greens, oolongs, reds, and herbals are pretty much exactly what I’d hope for and – very conveniently for me – their entire offering list is truncated where Tillerman Tea has expansive offerings and expansive where Tillerman’s offerings are few.

Another source you ought to check out for samples of puerh is Hou De Asian Art ( http://www.houdeasianart.com/ ). Their selection is a little puny right now, but they have really good offerings.

Azzrian

Thank you I will check it out. :)

TeaBrat

Sounds like I may need to make a field trip someday…

Thomas Smith

It’s definitely worth the trip from SF to swing over to Napa for Tillerman, at least (though the owner there isn’t staffing the stall as often as he once had to). For Healdsburg it is a bit of a drive and not as many nice restaurants to compliment the area, but I’d still say it’s worth it. If you also like coffee then it’s totally worth it since Zomia is right around the corner from Flying Goat so you can get both tea AND coffee that is just as good or better than what’s available in the city.

Thomas Smith

Lemmie know if yer planning on coming up so I can try and meet up with you.

TeaBrat

ok – I don’t make it up to that area too often since I don’t have a car… but it sounds intriguing

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