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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.

“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

Smoked Lapsang Porter – A (Manly) Tea-Beer Experiment

Back in April, a few of us in the Tea Twitterverse bestowed the rank of “manliest tea” (oft-considered a contradiction) on Lapsang Souchong. We even postulated on effects said smoked tea had on the unwitting imbiber. The Chuck Norissian dialogue that ensued was also the source of inspiration for my first foray into “tea fiction” – The Legend of Lapsang. I won’t pretend it was a good story by any manly measure, but it got the point across.

Lapsang Souchong – in Fukienese, “smoky sub-variety” – is a black tea from Mount Wuyi, Fujian province, China. The region is mostly known for producing high-grade, high-altitude oolongs. The black tea is made from the “Bohea” leaf cultivar, but its true uniqueness comes from the way it’s processed during drying. There are several origin stories of how this technique came about; whichever one is true, the effect is the same. The tea leaves are placed on pinewood fires and smoked. The result is a tea with a smell of hickory and a taste of campfire. In short, a very MANLY taste…but enough of the Tea 101.

I was inspired by a post made by the “teaviants” over at The Tea Blag to do an experiment with Lapsang Souchong and alcohol – my fifth of this sort. I had fused tea concentrates with beer on a few occasions and even wrote about two of the most successful attempts. I’m not sure what brought about this brainfart, but it was high-time to do another. For this round, I meant to combine a smoked porter with the infamous smoked tea.

Finding the beer I needed didn’t take long thanks to the Almighty Google. Stone Brewing was an op out of my old haunt of San Diego, CA. I never visited their actual HQ, but their products were quite known to me – particularly the delicious Arrogant Bastard ale. Among their wares was a Smoked Porter, and they described it as, “dark, smooth and complex, with rich chocolate and coffee flavors balanced by a subtle smokiness.” Sounded like a perfect match for what I had in mind.

I brewed the concentrate like I always did for tea-beers and/or iced tea – 2 tsp. worth of leaves in 8oz of water, Russian zavarka-style. The porter was kept on ice until the tea had about five minutes of steep under its leather-scented belt. It didn’t quite darken as much as I thought it would; Lapsang Souchong usually took on the color of crimson and “quantum singularity”. One could see their soul practically disappear into the brew. I wondered if it’d be strong enough to handle the porter.

Lastly, I whipped out a pint glass and poured the Stone Smoked Porter into half of it. When the tea was done fermenting its death brew, I plopped my ailing/aging Teavana steeper cup above the pint glass to drain. (Sidenote: That very steeper committed seppuku a week later.) Alchemy commenced as the contents collided. The void-black liquor didn’t water down or dissipate at all on splashdown. It was like staring into an alcoholic abyss.

To my surprise, the mixture didn’t bubble up on contact like with other tea-beer fusions. The porter’s foamy head remained as thick and even as it had before the tea inclusion. The concoction did threaten to envelop the spoon I used to stir the drink o’ damnation. I felt like an apothecary over a cauldron in some long-winded sci-fantasy novel.

Now, to taste…

The first thing I noticed when I put lips to glass was how lukewarm it was. Tea-beer experiences of past attempts yielded a brew with an average temperature of 150F-160F. That was one of the best parts of the combination, a warm beer that was still foamy and nowhere-near-flat. While this certainly wasn’t flat, it was maybe room temperature at best. Not exactly a bad thing. Dark beers were great at room temperature.

Secondly, the palette and palate; it was as black as night. I expected the porter to dominate the tea addition by a fair margin. Holy Hell, was I ever wrong! The mahogany, robust chocolaty notes of the porter were present only – and I do mean, only – on the initial sip. The rest – from top note to finish – tasted like charcoal, brimstone aftermath, death-by-Armageddon, post-war campfire, and nuclear fallout…with a floral finish.

I cocked an eyebrow, then the other. I think I twitched a little. My throat felt cold “burning”. The sensation trailed down to my stomach. Gurgling could be heard and felt. Some semblance of unrest was a-brewing deep within my abdomen. I pictured smoke-billowing hellhounds wreaking havoc on my intestines. I asked myself, Do I need to take a dump?

Before answering the questionable call of the wild, I coaxed my brother into trying the hellish hybrid. He sipped, he pursed his lips, and he pondered. Then he froze.

“It tastes like…ash,” he said flatly.

And after that second opinion, I entertained the “number two” that demanded my immediate attention. Once that was done, I came to the conclusion that this was perhaps too much manliness for one drink to possess. Either that or my sensibilities were far too delicate to handle the sheer potency of so firestormy a fusion. From a connoisseur’s critical tongue, it tasted awful. From a testosteronal standpoint, it was a necessary trial by fire.

I will say this. After finishing the last of the pint, I did feel like I could wrestle a bear. Unfortunately, one was not present. There was, however, a Saint Bernard puppy nearby. Close enough.

Christmas on FIRE!!!

I’ll make this quick, I swear. Well, quicker than usual. I know you all have Christmas/holiday shopping to do, or something equally as holiday-y. But I have a cute li’l holiday blurb to get off my chest . . . so deal with it.

At World Tea Expo in June, I tried THIS at the Nepali Tea Traders booth.

They called it “Green Pearls of Agni“, named for the Hindu fire god. (“Agni” literally translates to “fire”, from the original Sanskrit.) It resembled Bi Luo Chun (the Chinese green tea) in its visual delivery, but—unlike good ol’ “Green Snail Spring”—they lightly smoked the leaves over oak wood. The results showed up in the fragrance, campfire and cinders.

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Tea Tales and Mocktails

Two weeks back, I received an invite to go here:

smith-tea-hq-storefront

Okay, I go to both Smith Tea locations quite a bit on my own, but this was a special occasion. Like last year, this was their media-only holiday pre-release party. They were going to be showcasing their upcoming blends, partnerships, and limited edition holiday offerings.  And I was convinced I couldn’t go. Work and all that.

I was so convinced about my lack of attendance, I even shot off an e-mail to lead blender dude, Tony Tellin, to see if I could mooch some of pre-release batches for an article. Y’know . . . to pretend I was there. I’m good at pretending. None of that was necessary because I was magically able to convince my work to let me off early that day.

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A Kanchan View Darjeeling Pairing

The Kanchan View tea estate in Darjeeling has a rough history.

kanchan-view-of-the-hills

Photo by Rajiv Lochan

The garden was first established in the 1880s, where it first went by the name “Rungneet”. At the peak of its hundred-plus-year production, the 250-acre garden accounted for at least 100,000 kilos of tea a year. Now? It only does about ten percent of that. The reasons for this are long, complicated, and varied.

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A Tea Pairing in the Sky

Let me tell you a little about my “Tea Uncle”, Austin Hodge.

Austin and me

Austin Hodge and I. Photo by Nicole Schwartz.

Why is he wearing a Zhong Shan Zhuang, and how did someone convince me to wear a suit? I’ll get to that.

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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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Tan Yang Gong Fu Tea Achievement: Unlocked

The term “gong fu” translates to “achievement through great effort”. It’s the same word as “kung fu”, but spelled differently . . . because English translations suck that way.

tea achievement unlocked

Gong fu also refers to a method of brewing tea, signified by the use of short, successive steeps to bring out a given tea’s extra dimensions. The term also refers to a graded style of tea, often used interchangeably with the term “Congou”. Case in point, Keemun Gong Fu or Rose Congou.

It’s all kinds of an achievable headache, as Chinese tea terms often are, but it’s used most effectively to describe the grade and style of three types of black teas from Fujian province, China. There is Bai Lin Gong Fu, Zheng He Gong Fu, and Tan Yang Gong Fu.

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