Steep Stories

of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: Lapsang Souchong Page 1 of 2

A Zombie Tea Blend Story

I remember the first time I learned of the existence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It was 2009, and I was perusing my local Powell’s. Back then, genre fiction was mostly dominated by steampunk and supernatural teen fair. This mash-up of period piece and horror tropes came at just the right time in literary history.

zombie book cover

But I’ll confess I rolled my eyes at first.

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Texans and Tong Mu

Let’s start with a simple introduction for the rookies: Lapsang Souchong is a pinewood (or pine needle)-smoked black tea, originally hailing from Fujian province, China. I’ve waxed manly-melodic about Lapsang Souchong (originally known as Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong) on two different blogs. Several, several times. And I’ve even paid homage to the li’l UNESCO protected village that created the smoky brew – Tong Mu. In more recent years, I also lamented that said village cut back its production of it in favor of a more profitable product; Jin Jun Mei.

That all said – even with the rarity of running into the true single origin smoky stuff – I’ve managed to do just that. On two different occasions. What’s even funnier is that I found the really rare Tong Mu produced stuff from two vendors . . . in the same state.

Texas.

texas

What. Are. The odds?

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My Tea Snobbery and the Source of Steampunk Whimsy

Almost three years ago, I wrote a rant about steampunk – a sci-fi sub-genre focusing on a fanciful Victorian aesthetic. It wasn’t very kind to the various gear-laden facets of the retro offshoot. I argued that the sub-genre lacked a key component that was the beating heart of any alt-history endeavor – a sense of whimsy. To be fair, I did point out its positive aspects, but I largely dismissed the sub-genre as a whole. Like some sort of tea snob hipster douchebag.

Well . . . then I went to a steampunk-themed concert featuring these guys/gals:

abney park

And I was forced to rethink my stance. I always enjoyed [most of] Abney Park’s work, but I was curious what sort of show they would put on live. That and what sort of people would attend such a thing. The answer was simple: Geeks. Lots of them. In every shape and size. Sure, there were some posturing goths amidst the rabble, but for the most part – retro-cosplaying geeks. The whole shebang was downright . . . whimsical.

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Whiskey Smoked Tea

Whiskey Smoked Tea – The Tea-Totaler Trilogy, Part 3

This is a parable about poor impulse control. I was having a conversation with Mizuba Tea’s Lauren Purvis about experiments regarding matcha, smoke and wine. She asked me if I’d seen a recent article posted by The Japanese Tea Sommelier. I’d heard of this blogger before, but hadn’t had a chance to visit his site, yet. Tea For Me Please had featured him on her blog once. The blogger himself was a certified tea sommelier – originally hailing from France, now living in Japan – that both wrote about Japanese teas and helped source them for the company, Thes du Japon.

florent.weugue

Florent Weugue – The Japanese Tea Sommelier

I gave the blog a looksy upon her suggestion. The article she had pointed out was about a Japanese black tea (kocha) that’d been smoked over chips of whiskey barrel oak. I read every description of it with rapt attention. Black tea . . . from Japan . . . smoked over whiskey oak. What was this magical stuff, and why didn’t I have it?!

Mere minutes after reading it, I bought it. Then messaged Lauren and blamed her for “making” me do it. The package arrived a couple of weeks later.

The leaves looked like brown chips and flakes shaved off spent firewood, and smelled kind of like it, too. However, instead of just possessing the scent of hickory and campfire – like Lapsangs of yesterbrew – this had new elements to it. I was a whiskey drinker at one time, and I know peat moss when I smell it. And it was there – subtle, but there. There was also a tremendously woody bend to the aroma, much like an oak-smoked oolong I tried from Assam.

loose leaves

Instructions said to brew this for only one minute with boiled water to start, and then progress upward with further infusions. I did exactly that. Japanese teas – green or otherwise – were known to be touchy.

At only a minute, the liquor brewed bright red, but I was surprised at how light it still was – like an under-brewed Keemun, in appearance. The aroma was anything but light, imparting an oak-smoked tendril of awesome up my nostrils like a manly handshake. It was like my nose was wearing its own smoking jacket in the private room of a whiskey bar, wearing a monocle.

Brewed

Further infusions with added time also deepened in flavor. Drinking it was like upping a workout regimen, adding more weights or an extra incline. Each sip was like a power squat. I think my mouth now has muscles. The smokiest was the final Western-style infusion. Any subtlety this had pretty much vanished after two minutes; straight ashen pipe tobacco. A very well-deserved addition to the smoked tea pantheon.

To the point where I’m now spreading the gospel of this process to other tea makers I know – to see if their impulse control is as poor as mine.

packaging

Epilogue

That concludes this little series on teetotaling with tea. So far, it’s been six months since “going dry” from actual alcohol. And, as you (fair reader) can clearly see . . . with teas like these, who needs missing hubcaps and dead brain cells.

I’m totally okay to drive.

A Saturday Evening with Friday Afternoon

It was a Saturday, as the title suggests. Saturday, March 21, to be precise. It was a really shitty Saturday, in other words.

The work shift was going frustratingly poorly. My student loan sharks announced they were tripling my monthly payment. And finally . . . a panic attack was looming. Not sure how that got there.

Amidst the chaos, I received a text from Misty Peak Teas’ Nick, informing me that there was a package waiting for me at Tea Bar. I kind of knew what it was, but it gave me something to look forward to. After the work shift, I made the trip out to NE Portland, sat myself at the bar like a regular, and ordered a Lapsang latte. My usual.

The barista handed off said Misty Peak mystery package. It was a giant bag of sheng pu-erh. That created an instant “happy”.

Misty Peak Teas

As I was about to nurse my latte, mood improved, I received a Facebook message. It was from someone I rarely heard from, a dude from my gaming circles. For those who haven’t figured it out, yet, I’m a bit of a geek. Occasionally, I’m easily roped into roleplaying and board game events. However, I’m what you would call a “casual”, at best. But I digress . . .

Said dude chimed in with, “Friday Afternoon Tea wants to meet you personally. She is at Gamestorm.”

My first thought was, “What’s a Gamestorm?”

He informed me that there was a gaming convention happening in Vancouver, WA. I knew of Friday Afternoon. I reviewed several of their teas when I still contributed to Teaviews. I remembered being particularly fond of their Snow Day blend.

I said to my gaming pal, “I can be there in twenty.”

It was the truth, I was in N.E. Portland, a mere skip across the river to Vancouver. He was a bit surprised at my impromptu decision, and so was I. But why not?! Up until now, my day had been shite. A little adventure wouldn’t hurt. (Much.) So, off I went to a gaming convention, to meet a tea blender op I’d never seen before.

When I got there, said friend met me at the front and directed me back to the vendor room. Toward the back was a woman with multicolored hair, decked out various pieces of geek flare (including Pac-Man earrings), chatting with other patrons. She was like a cross between Tank Girl, Kate Winslet a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Pinki-Pie.

Pinkie Pie

In a word, “Adorkable”.

She was the patroness of Friday Afternoon Tea, and her actual name . . . was Friday. I was not expecting that, at all. Apparently, sci-fi conventions, gaming events and other geek ephemera were her bread-and-butter; the demographic she catered to. That and her blends reflected this. She had blends themed after Harry Potter, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and so on.

We got along fine.

I arrived just as she was closing up her booth for the day. She easily suckered me into buying a blend dubbed, “Setting Things on Fire” – one of her “Cylons for Breakfast” line of teas. It was a fusion of cooked pu-erh, Ceylon, and Assam – with a little bit of Lapsang Souchong sprinkled in for good measure. It smelled divine, had a kickass name . . . sold, to the gentleman with poor impulse control.

Friday Afternoon

We talked about various things under the geek umbrella, as we walked her daughter – dubbed TeaGirl – to the video gaming room. Before I knew it, two hours had passed. Not quite sure how that happened. She and her young ‘un called it a night, and I (somehow) got roped into a LAN game of Artemis with various other friends of mine at the con.

Before she left, though, she said, “You do know we’re best friends now, right?”

I was too befuddled to answer eloquently.

The next day, I broke in a mug of Setting Things on Fire. (That sentence sounded far less silly in my head.)

Setting Things on Fire, Loose

This was an incredibly even blend. What I mean by that is, all the elements fused well together. They all seemed as if they belonged together. The smaller cut Ceylon and Assam leaf pieces worked well with the more spindly pu-erh strands. The color palette ranged from tippy beige to chocolate brown. Nothing seemed out of place.

That even-ness carried over in the scent – strong contributions of malt, earth, smoke and . . . something fruity that I couldn’t quite place. Maybe I mistook the floral bend of the Ceylon for fruit. Stranger things have happened.

For brewing, I went with a typical black tea approach – 1 tablespoon of leaves for a 12oz. cup, steeped for four minutes in boiling water. Usually, I do three, but for something called “Setting Things on Fire”, I thought an extra minute would be fine.

Setting Things on Fire Brewed

The liquor brewed cedar brown with an alternating burly and sweet aroma. Crimson lined the edge of the soup, while it transitioned into a pool of dark brown. As even a transition in color as I would expect from such a blend. What shocked me was the taste. Contrary to the burly bits in the blend, this was a deceptively smooth operator, starting off with a floral front, ushering in a hint of malt, segueing (or even Segwaying) in a dash of smoke, and ending with a sensation of napping on a forest floor. Very deceptive . . . like a Cylon.

The weekend went from shit to shine.

Scottish Grown Tea and Mystery Lasses

This all started with a forum topic. Tea Trade’s resident Smiling Frenchman – Xavier (of the Teaconomics blog) – had posted a discussion starter. It was aptly titled: “The First Scottish Tea is White and Smoky

That immediately held my attention. In the discussion, Xavier posted a link to an article about a new outfit dubbed The Wee Tea Company, who had set up their own tea garden. In Scotland! Not only that, but they had also brokered an exclusive deal with the British high-end store – Fortnum & Mason. The asking price? £35 for 15g. That’s, like, $53 in ‘Merican money.

To their credit, though, the two teas they were producing were quite special. One was a regular white tea, while the other was a smoked white tea. Yes, smoked! Like a Lapsang Souchong, but instead of using pinewood, they used beech trees.

The garden itself was called the Dalreoch Tea Estate (aka. The Wee Tea Plantation).

Banner mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page

Banner mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page

“Dalreoch” loosely translated to “the field of the King” in Scots-Gaelic. Said garden was nestled in the Strathbraan valley at the foot of the Scottish Highlands, just outside of the small town of Amulree in Perth & Kinross County. The garden was originally a test plot purchased by one Tam O’Braan geared toward the development of degradable polymers for agricultural use. Later, however, he teamed up with Derek Walker and Jamie Russell of The Wee Tea Company (based in Fife) to start a tea garden.

Image mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page.

Image mooched from The Wee Tea Plantation Facebook page.

They broke ground in 2012 with roughly 2,000 tea plants to start. While Scottish weather was temperamental at best, the lads developed clever ways to help the plants thrive. The aforementioned polymers helped the soil retain moisture, and kept pests from feeding on the young plants. As the tea bushes matured, they were then covered in UV-protective plastic tubes to restrict photosynthesis. During the harsher winter months, the plants were fully covered to prevent die-off. In 2014 – just a little over two years – they plucked their first leaves, for the first ever Scottish white tea.

Scottish white tea

The question wasn’t whether or not I wanted it, but how I could bloody well get a hold of it. Neither The Wee Tea Company or Fortnum & Mason delivered to the U.S. I wasn’t worried about the money, per se. I would’ve sold a kidney to scrounge up the cash, if I had to.

I did the only thing I could do. I played the ol’ “tea blogger” card and hoped for the best. That . . . went about as well as expected.

scottish mafia

After all, I was small-time compared to all the other outlets that were covering the garden – STiR Tea & Coffee, The Daily Mail. Hell, even The BBC.

My only answer was to utilize some of my (albeit few) UK contacts and see if they could make the purchase on my behalf. In the interim, I counted pennies. Unfortunately, that was taking far longer to do than I thought. My kidney was dreading my eventual decision.

A savior appeared in the most unlikely of places. For about eight years, now, I had a penpal. We’ll call her “Mistress G”. She was a tea drinker, but not one of my regular tea contacts. I’d never met her in person. Mistress G just happened to be residing in the U.K. In a passing conversation, I told her about my interest in the Dalreoch smoked white tea.

She said, “Oh, I can get that for you.”

I replied with, “There’s no way I can pay you back for that.”

She countered with, “Don’t worry about it, consider it a gift.”

I had my very own mysterious, tea-swigging, philanthropic Carmen Sandiego.

carmen sandiego iced tea

The package arrived in record time, a week later. In it, she also included a tin of chocolate pearl cookies, handmade Earl Grey shortbread from Edinburgh, and a tea napkin! All from Fortnum & Mason. My eyes glazed over.

gift

After making short work of the Earl Grey shortbread, I bee-lined to the tea tins.

side by side

Scottish White on the left; Smoked Scottish White on the right.

 

The regular Scottish white tea had beautiful young, whole leaves and stems with a bouquet of colors ranging from green to brown. The aroma they gave off was straight forest and mint, with a dash of earth. It reminded me of a Yunnan-grown Moonlight white. Yue Guang Bai was a very burly, salt-of-the-earth sorta white on first impression; so was this.

The smoked white was a different beast entirely. On appearance, the leaves and stems had a smaller cut, almost broken pekoe-ish appearance. It was more in line with a Bai Mu Dan, visually. As for the aroma . . . oh my, “Yum.” Smoked teas tend to have an alternating hickory, campfiery and peaty scent to them. This had that but with a slight fruity tang on the back-end. Like someone lit a caramel-dipped apple on fire.

Given the smaller leaf pieces and the scent, I could almost imagine how the conversation between the innovators went.

Brilliant!

And then they punched each other in the face for solidarity.

For brewing, I went with a typical white tea approach – roughly 175F water and a three-minute steep for each. 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves in a 6oz. steeper cup.

Scottish White Tea

white tea

The regular white tea brewed to a vibrant yellow liquor with an aroma of berries, apples and spring leaves. This impression also echoed in the taste, which possessed a medium-bodied, creamy and fruit-sweet mouthfeel. It ended on a smooth, almost velvety finish with a lingering aftertaste of wilderness.

Scottish Smoked White Tea

smoked white tea

The smoked white brewed considerably darker, approaching Darjeeling amber in color. As for scent, well, it should be obvious. Straight peat moss and burnt wood wafted from the cup, but it was far more muted than I thought it would be. Not a negative thing at all, but a thankful subtlety that I wasn’t expecting. On taste, I was first greeted by whiskey, which then opened the door for chopped firewood, and courteously escorted an herbaceous finish.

I honestly can’t pick a favorite. White teas were the first loose leaf type I appreciated when my exploration was still in its infancy. Smoked teas appealed to my visceral, inner almost-manchild. On the one hand, I always appreciated the delicate and fruity aspects of tea. On the other, I liked to be hit in the face with blunt, burning trauma to my palate. I can’t decide, but what I can say is that this fledgling garden is off to a fantastic start.

brewed side by side

Would I pay $50-plus for their offerings? No. Of course, I’m probably saying that because I’m poor. For the moment, the price is slightly justified – both for the novelty and the rarity. Given that they’re only working with 2,000 plants – young ones, at that – they can easily ask for a higher price point for their yield. My hope is that when the operation expands, and more plants are introduced, that the price evens out a bit. With gardens in Northern Ireland, France, Switzerland and Italy going in, competition is bound to be fierce.

But they’re used to competition, aren’t they?

Rock tosser

Photo by Gene Rodman. “Model”: Gary Robson.

 

I’m just grateful this landed in my lap the way it did. And I can’t thank my mysterious benefactor enough. My diluted Scottish ancestry salutes ye, Mistress G.

UPDATE: I was just informed by one of the growers that they are now delivering globally. The last remaining stock can be purchased HERE.

Fujian Face-Off! Lapsang Souchong Vs. Jin Jun Mei

I think I’ve made my point rather clear that I love Lapsang Souchong. Many of my blogs here, or on my manlier Devotea-backed side-project – Beasts of Brewdom – have extolled its virtues (and lack of subtlety). Maybe it was the campfire taste, or the trail of forest-fire it left on my tongue in its wake. Whatever the reason, it appealed to a side of me that – while small – was wholly testosteronal. Imagine my dismay when, after reading a blog by the estimable Austin Hodge, I learned that the pinewood-smoked black tea . . . was an endangered species.

Well, not entirely true. Anyone can smoke tea leaves (no, not that way), but it can’t be considered true Lapsang Souchong unless it’s grown and processed on Mount Wuyi in Fujian province, China. Of even greater value is Lapsang from the original village that invented it – Tong Mu. However, in recent years, production at the original site has dwindled. The reason? A newer, more marketable upstart – Jin Jun Mei.

Lapsang Souchong itself doesn’t fetch a high price in bulk. While it has an interesting story, and an even more fascinating processing style, it is considered a low-grade tea. In most circles, smoking tea leaves is a method for hiding any flaws the potential brew might have. It’s much harder to judge the quality of a leaf that is heavily smoked. Hence the reason the price per yield is much lower.

Jin Jun Mei, while a newer cousin to Lapsang Souchong, utilizes higher grade leaves. They tend to be younger and gold-tipped (as the “Jin” in the name implies). One could even compare the processing style to that of a gold-tipped Yunnan Dian Hong. I vaguely remember trying Jin Jun Mei several years ago, but it barely made an impression on me. Since then, the price per pound has sky-rocketed, and traditional Lapsang Souchong took a back seat.

A young, upstart tea nudging out one of my personal favorites? Not on my damn watch! It was high-time I gave this little gold weasel the brew-beating it deserved. As luck would have it, the wonderful company, Wild Tea Qi, sent me two teas to do exactly that.

It was time for a good ol’-fashioned . . .

In the right corner was a Wild Lapsang Souchong. In the left corner: A Tong Mu-produced Jin Jun Mei.

The “wild” in the Lapsang Souchong meant that the leaves were plucked from plants that were left to grow without much cutting. It, however, was not from Tong Mu.

The wild leaves were surprisingly thin, small and twisty – typical for a tea of its type, but there was something missing. The smell of smoke! Okay, not entirely true, it was sorta there but faint. It made me think back to another Lapsang that was smoked over wet pinewood instead of dry. Very similar aroma – woody, slightly sweet and malty.

The Jin Jun Mei? What the hell?! Okay . . . I know for a fact that it’s considered part of the “Souchong” family, but I was under the impression that it wasn’t smoked over pinewood – wet or dry. Its close sibling, Yin Jun Mei was. Heck, I’ve had it. But this?!

I digress.

When I tore open the bag, I was expecting tippy, young leaves – typical of a “gold” tea – but the ones I got here were darker and difficult to describe. Sure, there were gold-tippy pieces in the thin, twisty mini-pile of dry leaves. But here’s the thing . . . the aroma. Damn it, the aroma! It was smokier than the Wild Lapsang! How was that f**king possible?!

Calming down.

This required some background review of each tea’s profile. Wild Tea Qi said nothing about their Wild Lapsang Souchong being smoked. In point of fact, all they said was that it was “dried” over pine, then lightly fried. No smokeage. By contrast, their Jin Jun Mei was smoked, which went against everything I knew about the tea. (Granted, which wasn’t much.)

It was like I was about to brew up in a bizarro universe. All I needed was a goatee. I approached both teas the same way – a teaspoon of leaves in 6oz. steeper cups, infused for three minutes.

Wild Lapsang Souchong . . .

It brewed to a dark cherry wood liquor color with an unusually sweet aroma. Seriously, it reminded me of a chocolate bar melted on firewood. Taste-wise, the introduction was bitter, but it mellowed out quickly to a weird, almost floral middle before ending on a note of leather and ash. Just what I would expect a Lapsang to do, only with less burning.

Jin Jun Mei . . .

Holy crap! I mean, seriously. What the hell did I just taste? No, I’m not dissing it; quite the opposite. The liquor brewed up the same as the Wild Lapsang, but the aroma was fruitier – berry-ish, even. Also like the Lapsang, the flavor profile began the same way. The initial sip was smoke, which immediately transitioned to . . . cherries and honey dipped in burnt chocolate.

The winner? Damn it. I really didn’t want to say this . . . Jin Jun Mei.

It hit all the right marks, threw me for a loop in all the right ways. I loved the Wild Lapsang, but I adored the Jun Mei just a little bit more. This was seriously not how I thought this brewing session would turn out.

I don’t know what to believe anymore.

Prelude to a Tea Bar

This all started back in the Spring…with Instagram. I was still fairly new to the site, and had one specific goal for it – make my blog pictures look prettier. I was a crappy photographer at best; a passable one at worst. Never did I expect to actually use it to network. Social or otherwise.

Sometime that season, I was “followed” by an outfit that caught my eye, simply dubbed Tea Bar.

It was exactly as it implied, a soon-to-be bar focused on tea in North Portland. I was intrigued and started interacting with the outfit. As far as I was concerned, Portland needed more tea bars.

Shortly after that, a young woman friend requested me on Facebook. Women never add me on Facebook. (Unless I’m related to them.) Her default picture depicted her sunbathing in Mexico. My initial thought was, Fake profile. I’d dealt with Facespam before.

Before I inched toward the “Deny” tab, I looked at her employment stats. She was the owner of Tea Bar, Erica Indira Swanson. That caused me to arch an eyebrow or two. The woman looked old enough to be my niece. Soon enough, though, she confirmed it. Either tea entrepreneurs were getting younger…or I was finally an old top hat in the tea community.

Erica messaged me seeking advice about what to carry on the Tea Bar menu. While I hardly considered myself a professional anything, I agreed to occasionally give my teacups worth of insight. We agreed upon a meet-up at a tea place downtown to discuss this further.

Despite her age, she was professional and optimistic in person – personable and radiating enthusiasm. I…came across as a guy talking about his comic book collection. Logistics of tea were discussed, but I couldn’t help thinking I was geeking out a little too much over tea. Even down to our choices of beverage while talking.

I had selected some Nan Nuo sheng pu-erh and a first flush Chamong Darjeeling for taste comparison. Just because.

While we kept in touch, I didn’t see her again until the Fall. It was a particularly busy summer. In the interim, I kept tabs on Tea Bar’s development. The look Erica had in mind was one of – what I would describe as – comfortable minimalism in aesthetic. The proposed interior was inviting but not too busy; modern but not urban. It reminded me of an art gallery I used to work for.

In September, I finally set out to see the progress for myself. Erica agreed to meet up to show me around. The interior was about two-thirds the way done. Her pictures of the development were great.

Mine were…um…

We’ll just stick with hers.

Of the helpful pointers I could give her were potential tea-related contacts in the Portland area. Over the ensuing months, I had encountered both Lauren Danson from Mizuba Tea and Nick Lozito from Misty Peak Teas. Tea Bar needed a matcha and a pu-erh. I pushed for those to be added to the menu, and “softly” facilitated contact with them.

A couple of months after that, Erica contacted me to finally taste-test their proposed menu. Said meet-up was the weekend before their opening day. I had never sat in on product testing before. As a blogger, this was well out of my paradigm. I usually product tested at home. In my pajamas. Shower optional.

When I arrived, there was a group of them discussing finer business-related minutiae.

Mizuba Lauren showed up as well. I was the oldest one in the room by a good fifteen years. Dear lord, I was an old top hat in the tea community, now. All I needed was a monocle.

Of the items tried, the highlights were no surprise to anyone.

We started off with some 2014 sheng from Misty Peak.

It was just as I remembered it – fruity, floral and forgiving.

Second off was a trial whisking of Mizuba’s matcha.

After three tries, an ideal technique was agreed upon. It was a frothy, green blanket of awesome.

Those highlights aside, there was one thing I wasn’t expecting. One particular item on the menu that solidified my continued patronage. And I found out about it by accident as the group were playing with the milk steamer.

“You should have a Lapsang Souchong latte on the menu,” I suggested, half-joking.

“Oh, we are,” Erica replied.

My eyes widened.

“You want to try one?” she offered.

YES!!!” I think it was the first time I ever shouted in all-caps.

“Sweetened or unsweetened?”

UNSWEETENED!

It was…it was…*sigh*

Glorious.

Like…William-Wallace-leading-an-army-of-Scotsmen-on-the-fields-of-Sterling glorious.

And with that, I was sold on this place. The comfy bar stool, the farm-direct rari-teas, the smiling faces, the apparent camaraderie. This new haven, this Tea Bar had potential. And I was happy to see it grow from the bleachers.

As of today – Monday, Dec. 1st, 2014 – Tea Bar has opened its doors. I wish Erica and her crew much success.

Photo by Justin Bond

“The Subtlety of Smoke” – The Changing Face of Lapsang Souchong, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a trilogy of posts about Lapsang Souchong. For Part 1, go HERE.

The Changing Face of Lapsang Souchong, Part 2: “The Subtlety of Smoke”

The branding and categorizing of tea can get a little fuzzy, especially where China is concerned. The main reason being, a lot of the origin stories surrounding tea can’t be corroborated or catalogued. Many of them have fallen into myth and legend. Few attempts are made to say, “This is this because it comes from here!” And if they do, it’s very hard to back it up.

Marvin

That’s not to say there haven’t been attempts to maintain brand integri-“tea” in China. Case in point, Keemun can’t really be considered Keemun if it isn’t from Qimen County, Anhui province, China. Pu-erh can’t be considered pu-erh if it isn’t from Yunnan province, China. And in 1732, the mayor of Changan County said that a tea couldn’t be considered real “hong cha” (what we call, “black tea”) unless it was grown/processed within an area of 600 square miles of Tong Mu village, Fujian province, China. (Source: Seven Cups)

Lucky for us tea drinkers, that last ruling never stuck. However, to a lesser degree, that category still holds true for Lapsang Souchong. If it is to be considered a smoked tea worthy of that name, it has to be grown from the rocks and cliffs of Wu Yi Mountain. Granted, Tong Mu Village doesn’t make smoky Lapsang anymore, at least not on the scale it used to. That isn’t to say other villages in the region didn’t pick up the slack. Enter Tong Cheng, one such village. And Joseph Wesley Black Tea, an eagerly experimental vendor.

I’m not sure what process they used for their Lapsang Souchong, or how Joseph Wesley Black Tea got a hold of it, but it differed from ones I was used to. The difference probably had something to do with the processing. Smoking tea leaves over dry pinewood led to a stronger, campfiery profile. Smoking them over wet pinewood yielded something subtler. Whether it was the wood…uh…wetness, or simply lighter smoke utilized, the results were a far different Lapsang paradigm.

leaves

The look and the smell of the leaves were different from any other Lapsang I’d encountered. Most are comprised of small black leaves and a pungently smoky aroma. The leaves here were larger and the smoky smell was much more subtle – like a ninja on a cigarette break.

Ninja Cigarette

It was a pleasantly earthy, malty, and distant-campfire-y aroma. I could’ve sniffed it all day.

There weren’t any brewing instructions on the Joseph Wesley page, so I had to go with my gut. (Never a good thing.) I did 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves in a 6oz. steeper cup, with water heated to boiling, and a three-minute steep. A good ol’ black tea standby. It wasn’t until I was done steeping that I saw brewing instructions on the tea can. Whoops.

The liquor brewed to the color of rust with a rustic and malty aroma.

Joseph Wesley Lapsang Souchong

Smoke did show up as an underpinning, but very mild in comparison to its forest-fire cousins. On first sip, the first thing I noticed was astringency – like a good Assam – and it quickly translated to a woodsy, roasty and surprisingly comfortable mid-note. The finish was like the after-effects of a business meeting in a comfortable smoking room underneath a Scottish bar. One can’t smell the cigars anymore, but there’s still an echo. Same with this tea. It’s a Lapsang, alright; it’s just sneakier about it.

Further infusions yielded smokier results. I, at least, got a good four more steeps out of a small helping of leaves. Granted, the liquor did lighten, but there was still nuance to be had. If you can call an echo of “brushfire” nuance.

forest fire

For Part 3, go HERE.

“Silver and Smoke” – The Changing Face of Lapsang Souchong, Part 1

This is the first installment in a trilogy of posts about Lapsang Souchong.

The Changing Face of Lapsang Souchong, Part 1: “Silver and Smoke”

Tong Mu Guan is a village on Wu Yi Shan (read: “mountain”) in Fujian province, China. It is considered the birthplace of modern day black tea. As legend has it, the first black tea (or hong cha/”red tea”) was produced by quickening the drying process by smoking the tea over wet pinewood. The result was something dubbed “Bohea”, at the time – a term that referred to simple low-to-mid-grade black tea in the 18th and 19th century.

Image mooched from (and owned by) Canton Tea Co.

Image mooched from (and owned by) Canton Tea Co.

Another variant came to pass, which was more smoked than Bohea – utilizing a process involving dried pinewood. That resulted in the campfire-tasting beverage known as Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, or more commonly referred to as Lapsang Souchong. There are many stories regarding its origin, some involving armies staying and armies passing through, but the end result is the same – heavily pine-smoked black tea that sold well abroad.

Lapsang Souchong is a love-it or hate-it affair. Believe it or not, the first Lapsang I ever bought was from the original Tong Mu village. I didn’t understand at the time how great a privilege that was. And I hated it. It tasted stale and burnt – old, even.

magmin2

Later on down the line, I tried another Lapsang Souchong not from Tong Mu. Loved every sip of it. The hickory flavor gelled with me. Since then, every smoked tea variant I’ve consumed has been a pyromaniac’s palatial love affair.

Sometime in 2011, I happened across another Tong Mu-made black tea called Jin Jun Mei – roughly translated, “Golden Beautiful Eyebrow”. It was reedy-looking, gold-tipped like a Yunnan Jin Cha, and very young-seeming. I could tell they were young buds by the presence of some furs. Funny thing is, though, I don’t remember much about it other than it reminding me of Golden Monkey – another Fujian province black. Other than acknowledging its immediate deliciousness, I didn’t find anything extraordinary about it.

Then I read an article by Austin Hodge of Seven Cups. Apparently, I had tasted one of the rarest, most in-demand teas in the world. And it had wiped out Lapsang Souchong production in Tong Mu village. I will confess to having wept a wee bit while reading it.

Sad Smokey

Around the same time, Smith Teamaker’s tech guru, Alex, had teased me with a smoked tea sample they got in. I immediately hunted him and it down within that week. They gifted me a couple of servings of the stuff. The name for it was Yin Jun Mei.

This required some research. Putting my geek cap on, I looked up whatever information I could find on it. While doing so, I kept finding its name tied inexplicably with Jin Jun Mei. Both were considered Lapsang Souchong, and both hailed from Tong Mu. Apparently, Yin Jun Mei (read: “Silver Beautiful Eyebrow) was Jin Jun Mei’s lightly-smoked sibling. Whereas Jin wasn’t smoked at all, Yin underwent a process similar to traditional Bohea – smoked over wet pinewood, resulting in a subtler smoky taste.

I brewed it up the next day to find out.

The leaves had no silver tips among them, as the name would imply, but rather gold tips. They were small, curly and ranged from brown to gold. The overall appearance reminded me of Golden Monkey – only darker. I didn’t get much of an aroma from the sample, other than a scant shade of wood and malt. No actual smoky sensation – much like Jin Jun Mei in that respect.

Yin Jun Mei

For brewing, I went with a typical black tea approach – 1 tsp. in a 6oz. gaiwan, steeped in boiled water for three minutes. Tried and true method for anything Lapsang-ish. I hoped some smoke emerged from the infusion.

The liquor brewed to a foggy red-amber with a spry, almost Keemun-like aroma. Smoky yet sweet. The taste was the most surprising aspect. Smoke did emerge on the forefront, but not in that strong, hickory sort of way. It was understated but definitely there. What followed really had me floored. It was a sensation that was almost like a white tea – an herbaceous punch of zest coupled with a smidge of malt. Whatever it was, it was delicious. And I can see why this and its “gold” sibling are taking Tong Mu away.

Yin Jun Mei Tea

That said, I still have a soft spot for the unsophisticated, pinewood punch of the ol’ Lapsang. So, I write this glowing approval of this Jun Mei type with a metaphoric tear of lament. Lapsang Souchong, I salute ye.

salute

In all your forms.

For Part 2, go HERE

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