Blind Tasting Set #1

This blind tasting set consists of four Dian Hong—yes, not only all black teas, but the very same kind. The taster may notice some remarkable differences, given that fact. So what do they have in common in the first place? Well, 'Dian Hong' means 'Yunnan red', so they do have the same terroir. Two were harvested in 2020 and two in 2021, and two share the same cultivar, so their provenance and material is a pretty narrow range. 

What sets them apart? Though all share some of the characteristic golden hairs of Dian Hong, the fine, pale trichomes (plant hairs) that color with oxidation, the appearance of the leaves is fairly distinct. The focus of this tasting is therefore quality grades, and the subtleties of processing that cause sometimes remarkable differences in flavor.

Tea #1: Jinsi Dian Hong

  • Meaning: 'golden thread', likely shortening of 'jin si luo', meaning 'golden thread snail', for the distinct curly shape of the leaves.
  • Origin: Pu'er City, Yunnan Province
  • Cultivar: Yunkang № 10
  • Harvest Time: 28 March 2021

Somewhat lighter in character than all but the Jin Zhen, this tea offers an intensely chocolatey aroma, reminiscent of sipping a cup of hot cocoa, though it is difficult to infuse just right for this effect, having some herbal notes that complicate the taste in a less interesting way. Being one of the more recent harvests, might need a little more time to put its best foot forward. The uniform curled and golden leaves suggest careful selection and processing.

Tea #2: Jin Ya Dian Hong

  • Meaning: 'golden bud'
  • Origin: Pu'er City, Yunnan Province
  • Cultivar: Yunkang № 10
  • Harvest Time: 17 April 2020

With some lovely notes of pepper and cacao, the flavor might remind one of a spiced chocolate bar. This is quite a solid Dian Hong, and the preponderance of bright golden leaves confirms the high standard of selection in its picking.

Tea #3: Jin Zhen Dian Hong

  • Meaning: 'golden needle'
  • Origin: Jinggu County, Pu'er City, Yunnan Province
  • Cultivar: Yang Ta Bai Cha
  • Harvest Time: 15 October 2020

In addition to the typical (and very well represented) Dian Hong flavors—chocolate, malt—we noticed a distinct sweetness in the brew, clear when comparing with the others. The leaves are only made of golden-haired buds, and uniformly rolled into needles, suggesting an attention to appearance as well as taste.

Tea #4: Nuo Xiang Hong

  • Meaning: 'sticky rice aroma red', presumably for aroma
  • Origin: Jinggu County, Pu'er City, Yunnan Province
  • Cultivar: Baima
  • Harvest Time: 27 April 2021

This is the most unusual of the sort, as the taster will no doubt immediately notice. Nuo Xiang is the name of a particular herb, sometimes used to flavor oolong teas in southeast Asia, though in this case, it seems to a describing unadulterated tea leaves. On the one hand exactly what it says (or, in this case, doesn't say) on the package, namely the particular aroma of sticky rice, its much more of a dish than that, a mélange of southeast Asian flavors that might provoke a hankering for your local dim sum joint. Unusual, and quite enjoyable if it's to your taste, the effect can be somewhat marred by an almost burnt aftertaste, common to teas so named.

Summary:

Measuring 'quality' is somewhat subjective, after all, given that what is good (and tasty) is measured in the eyes (tastebuds) of the beholder, but we'd rank #3, the Jin Zhen, as a top-quality Dian Hong, because of its sweetness and refined character. #1, the Jinsi, lighter in body but rich in cacao aroma and #2, the Jin Ya, stronger and spicy, are more difficult to rank, but we might put the former above the latter for its smoother character and, barring all else, its beautiful leaves. #4, the Nuo Xiang Hong, is very interesting and flavorful, but may be somewhat ruined by its aftertaste, and moreover uses obviously lower quality leaves.

That said, what did you, the blind taster, think? Different parameters can bring out different characters, including strengths and weaknesses, in teas, and your experience may have been quite different from ours. There is also a difference worth noting between what is refined and what is pleasing, and the hot cocoa-like Jinsi and the spicy Jin Ya would certainly have a place on our go-to list for certain moods; likewise, Nuo Xiang Hong could really hit the spot if a craving for that particular flavor develops.