Wednesday, April 1, 2009

REVIEW: Lapsang Souchong from Dong Mu, Fujian, China: Green Hill Tea

REVIEW: Lapsang Souchong from Dong Mu, Fujian, China: Green Hill Tea

3 cups water to 3 tsp tea leaves, boiling water, about 3.5 to 4 minutes steeping time, in my great-grandmother's porcelain "Made in Japan" teapot from circa 1910 or so. I thought to make enough for myself to really "get" the tea, but not so much that the last cup will go cold. Remove leaves after steeping time is over to avoid overbrewing. I went with a shorter brewing time, specifically because I did not want to be overwhelmed by strong pine smoke flavor.

Before steeping, fairly strongly smelling of pine smoke, I think (isn't that the normal way that Lapsongs are prepared?). Tightly furled, black leaves. After steeping: I confess, I forgot to keep them and tossed most of them. Those that remained in the pot were dark black in color, fairly large leaf, but I couldn't discern the aroma from too few leaves. Some stems.

Very light pine smoke smell, not strong. A rich brown smell.

Transparent, dark golden-brown in color, smelling of the pine smoke.

The flavor is smokey, but like honey, too. It is not dry at all in the mouth, despite the smokiness. The smoke is really not overwhelming at all, though it is the most prominent flavor. After the tea sits in the mouth awhile, it starts to taste more like a nice Yunnan tea-- long in flavor, and the complex honey/herb taste starts to come to the front, as the smokiness recedes.

One must never judge a pot of tea merely by first cup. The second cup is where I believe the real nature of the tea is revealed, because the pot has allowed the antioxidants and so on to combine and recombine to add depths to the flavor that simply aren't there yet in the first cup. You'll have substance A combining with substance B, creating C. Then C and A combine for D, and C and B combine to create E, and so on. The heat of the pot allows all these complex chemical reactions to keep occurring, even after the tea leaves have been removed. Also, as the tea cools a bit, it allows your mouth to be able to notice the flavors more clearly.

To my mouth, the second cup seems more strongly flavored with the pine smoke. There is a bit more dryness on the roof of my mouth, which is quite pleasant. There's more of a golden flavor-- it's almost metallic-- hiding up behind the flavor of the smoke. That is very pleasant, indeed. It's good to stop between sips, to allow the flavors to unfurl. First is the pine, then the dryness, then this golden, metallic quality... then a very outdoorsy flavor, like taking a walk in the woods on a rainy day. The honey-sweetness (with no sugar or milk in the brew) is quite surprising in a Lapsang, and not what I had come to expect from this type of tea.

"Terroir" is French for, placeness. This is the word that describes how the environment the tea/wine/cheese is made make it unique and irreproducible in other regions. The Web site says:" Lapsang Souchong tea is really a black tea from its level of oxidation. It is grown in Fujian Province and a fine grade of this famous tea. It’s a pine-smoked tea that absorbs the scent during the drying process. It has been produced for centuries."

As mentioned above, when I first discovered my love for tea, I drank quite a lot of Lapsang Souchong. Of course, my palate was very uneducated, but I was having fun exploring everything I could find. At a certain point, though, I just burnt out on smoky teas and stopped drinking them.

However, George [redacted] on this Facebook board suggested this tea to me, from his company, Green Hill Tea. He said the Lapsang Souchong you typically find in a market is low-quality, not smoked over pine, and uses cheap leaves. I'll quote him (correcting some of his typos): "In the market, most Lapsang Souchong is smoked Lapsang Souchong. It's low grade and not smoked by pine. The real one costs more than $80 per LB, the smoked lapsang cost $12 per LB.The The leaves used to come from nature-reserved mountains and It's organic."

Further, he writes, "Thanks steven, This Lapsang Souchong from natural reserved mountain (DongMU villiage). It grows wild with grass and trees. The farmers pick it up during harvest season. It smoked use pine tree. (Now the sources is limit and the tree is very expensive.The price go up too.) .The finest Lapsang is very thin and in very small pieces. More over, It like wine, more years, It have more fine smells and more sweet taste. So the farmers sell it after 2-3 years to show the taste."

On the Seven Cups Web site, I found the following information about the tea from this specific region of China:
Day 11 (4/27) Daytrip to Tong Mu Village (Lapsang Souchong Black Tea)
We'll take a break from oolongs to visit Tong Mu Village, nestled in the Tong Mu Natural Preserve, which is the home of Lapsang Souchong. You'll meet the family who has been responsible for authentic Lapsang Souchong for many generations, and see a 100-year-old tea factory constructed entirely of wood. You'll learn why this tea is smokey and have an opportunity to witness the whole process of making this special tea, starting with the famous black tea bush, the "Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong," in family's wild tea garden.

Honestly, I'm quite surprised. As my tea discernment has grown over the years, I've become extremely fond of the lighter teas, such as the Darjeelings, Nilgiris, Nepalese, and Sikkim teas of the first and second flushes. The heavy, thick teas just have stopped appealing to me. I thought Lapsang Souchong was one of the teas I wouldn't enjoy anymore and stopped drinking it.

But as I sip here, I'm struck by how light and airy the tea is, the natural sweetness of the cup-- that honey, fruity note is very expansive-- and yet how smooth the cup is. You'd think something smoky would catch in your throat, but it's quite pleasant, even with the faint ascerbic, dry mouth feel. I think this is probably the first time I've ever had a first-rate Lapsang, so I'm not really sure if it's that my palate has developed, or my technique, or if it's just the quality of the tea that has made this experience different. I don't think it's dislodged Darjeeling as the Queen of Teas on the throne of my tastebuds (to stretch a metaphor beyond its usefulness), but as a diversion, it's very enjoyable.

In short, I like it. It's a good tea. Thank you, George, for sending it to me.


Upon rereading my post above, I'm struck by the fact that I don't really have very much experience at all with Lapsang Souchong. It's like giving a reviewer a great wine, and the reviewer says, "Wow, the wine is red! I had no idea wines could be red! How interesting. Is it made of grapes or something? Tastes like grapes."

I can't really compare this tea with other Lapsang Souchongs, simply because I have not drunk this variety of tea in the last 10 years or so. Not a very good basis for comparison.

Interestingly, I am still experiencing the aftertaste, some 45 minutes after I posted the review. The tea has taken on a fruity character in my mouth-- like bing cherries, with a subtle herb quality like maybe tarragon or anise. It's surprising to still be tasting a tea this long.