In a recent post on shopping for tea in New York City I mentioned gambling on a lapsang souchong (smoked black tea) in a visit to the New Kam Man Chinese grocery store there (on Canal Street in the Manhattan Chinatown).
New Kam Man shop in the Manhattan Chinatown
A bit of background first: lapsang souchong has been getting a remake for some time from unsmoked versions becoming popular. Around three to four years ago I first tried an unsmoked and supposedly higher grade version. I liked that tea, but had mixed feelings about the lack of smoke since it somehow did seem on the neutral character side. A great black tea doesn't need smoke flavor, but that is part of the point of the type, traditionally. I more recently tried one that was a truly great black tea (from Cindy Chen--my favorite Wuyishan tea farmer and producer) and it would've been an outrage to smoke that, to cover up the great balance or obscure the nice citrus element that came through.
packaged commercial teas, lots of them
Lets go back to that moment that I decided which teas to gamble on, and why it was a gamble in the first place.
just looks like a black tea, only a little broken
Large jar storage issues
It's obvious why that's a bad idea for storage, isn't it? Every time that jar is opened fresh air full of oxygen and moisture is mixed into the empty air space, more of both to degrade that tea. The tea might've been in there for a couple of years, put through lots of cycles of that. Lots of the green teas looked a bit brown as a result. Aged green tea isn't as horrible as hearsay would let on; it looses the freshness that is typically part of the appeal, but to some extent the flavors just change rather than transitioning straight to horrible. I visited a shop Chinatown shop here once where they were drinking 40 year old Longjing, as black as this tea, although I didn't try it. But some other teas would age better, or I should say, deal with non-optimum storage better.
jar tea in a different shop; the green is looking a little brown
I'm not the best person to say which teas change in which ways--I just learn about teas as I go, and I'm not a novice but closer to that than an expert--but I'll take a really complete guess anyway. Let's format that as my guesses as to which teas hold up to storage best, in order.
1. Pu'er (either type, sheng or shou): kind of a given, since both are said to improve with age. Sheng is supposed to change more, to some people to require aging to improve and lose some characteristics that young sheng possess that aren't as interesting as aged (fermented) sheng. Of course that's too simple. Some people love brand-new sheng, which is more like green tea, fresh, if potentially a little edgy. It's not as if every new sheng starts from the same set of characteristics though. The opposite is just as true, or maybe more so; versions vary in lots of ways. Shou is described as changing less, requiring a couple of years to settle and lose newly-fermented tastes that aren't favorable, but lots of people prefer older shou too.
I wrote a post on fermenting pu'er that goes into parts of this, but really I just dabble a little in pu'er, so my own experience isn't a reference in that. The interesting main point: fermentation is caused by micro-organisms, bacteria and fungus. It's as well to not dwell on that being too unusual; some micro-organisms are our friends, and yogurt is normal enough. This means some degree of air contact is absolutely necessary for fermentation, along with humidity, since those organisms are going to need both for their own life processes. Too much or too little of either and the tea is ruined, potentially, which is what that post is about, a debate over the best conditions.
2. Rolled oolong: to some extent this applies to twisted style oolongs too, but to some greater extent intentionally aging rolled oolongs is seen as an improvement. Some of the same qualifications apply as with pu'er; it's not a given that any aging helps any oolong, with personal preference dictating which outcomes are better. Maybe loosely corresponding to the shou issue--in outcome, at least--darker roasted twisted Wuyi Yancha teas are said to improve after a year or two of aging to let the "char" effect settle, even though there is no close parallel as to what's going on between those two teas and aging processes. Unlike with pu'er ideal air contact is typically described as none. The teas aren't fermenting, they're sort of resting, although I've not ran across a description of what changes in them. Some compounds must become other related compounds over time, but I'd not know how, or which.
the kids playing violin with a Central Park performer
3. White tea: this is a judgement call, putting white tea next, but it is also intentionally aged, sometimes, so why not. More often it's not intentionally aged, and how it changes and which white teas should be aged, and how, is more than I'll go into here. Even if you leave a well-sealed pack of silver needle sit off to the side for a year it will change a good bit, or at least that has occurred in my personal experience. Conditions must play a role, and living in Bangkok the naturally high heat is probably either good for aging or terrible for it depending on what one means by "good" and preference. Green teas loose their freshness fast stored in the 90 F / 30 C range; that probably wouldn't be seen as good. It's interesting that some white teas are even pressed into cakes, as with pu'er, in a form that's supposed to better support aging, but I won't get into more about that here.
This seems a good place to mention that I also bought a white tea, a peony / Bai Mu Dan style, because it seemed it would hold up ok. It had degraded, to some extent, it was darkened a bit, although I guess it might be possible to see the aging / changes as neutral. The freshness and sweetness gave way to a lot more earthiness and mineral tone. I liked trying it, and it was quite drinkable, just surely different than where it had started. Based on the traditional saying for aging whites "three years medicine, seven years treasure" maybe it just needed a couple more years, but I think it was getting too roughed up a little by periodic air contact to really blossom into something special. Also who knows what these teas started out as; mediocre tea isn't going to turn into great tea by sitting around, or at least so the common understanding goes.
Times Square! (also not about tea)
Given all that about types and aging I bought a black tea (lapsang souchong) and that white tea. A pu'er or rolled oolong would've made more sense but I was about to go to Taiwan in a few days and would stock up on oolong there, and I'd just bought pu'er (two versions) in Sun's Organic Tea garden. I'll definitely let you know how that goes with those in later posts.
Follow-up: transportation issues and tasting
I'll come right out with it: this tea smoked my luggage, not a good sign. After not very long I noticed it was giving off smoke fumes and wrapped the package in a number of plastic bags, and separated it from all other teas I'd bought. Me smelling like smoke is no big deal; converting all the teas I'd bought to smoked teas--even through their packaging--would definitely not be an improvement. I was concerned that meant it was chemically smoked, since it seemed unlikely that stored tea could retain smoke so strong it blasted straight through plastic packaging. But then ordinary types of plastic bags are a lot more porous than one would think. One take-away: don't store your tea in zip-lock baggies.
The tasting notes here aren't going to go far, I'm afraid. It tasted like smoke. A lot like smoke. If you took the cinders from a campfire and brewed them they'd be just like this tea. It wasn't bad, given all that.
the basic set-up my grandfather used (photo credit)
I'm not sure that I could detect a difference between a chemical smoke flavoring and real smoke, but of course I feel as though I might be able to. I tried lots of crazy smoked foods my grandfather made when I was a child, so I was familiar then with outrageous levels of real smoke on foods. He smoked things like cheese, fish, and venison bologna, things that it made sense to smoke. It was just the over-smoking that wasn't conventional, going way past adding a subtle earthiness to cheese straight on to blackening it.
My grandfather passed on a rule of thumb for which types of wood to use: if a tree bore an edible fruit it would be fine for use for smoking. Hickory and cherry are good (which supply nuts and fruit). Maple is ok, kind of an exception given the sap is used to make a food, syrup. He made that too, by the way, and my own Dad still does. That's a fascinating process but this is already running long; lets just say you "tap" the tree to steal some sap and boil that awhile, and voila, maple syrup. Pine smoke, supposedly used for lapsang souchong, is a funny exception, but then I guess you could eat pine nuts, for some trees.
I miss those two, just great people
So it seems like real smoke to me. I hoped to say more about the character; is it sour and sharp as one would expect from pine, or warm and rich as one would expect from maple or hickory? In the middle. Or maybe I'm just not a great judge of smoke. I tried to see what I could pick up from the tea but the smoke was too strong. I probably could've brewed smoked copy paper and I couldn't detect a lot of the difference, although then again there probably was some tea taste layered way, way under that. The smoke was too strong for it to be a good lapsang souchong but it was still drinkable, still ok. I just wouldn't want to drink much of it.
I reviewed a smokey lapsang souchong from a local Bangkok cafe that was probably nearly as smokey, but that came across more in the finish. In retrospect that might've been more likely to be a chemical, or chemically enhanced, since it's unnatural for a taste to get stronger well after you drink the tea.
This tea might be better blended in some way. I've tried using lapsang souchong in making masala chai before and that works out, a nice layer added in with spicing. Of course this one would have to be "cut" with a normal tea or that wouldn't work, unless someone tried to take it to a daredevil level of flavoring. At that point you might as well add dried roasted peppers and just go crazy with it, and probably more layers like dried orange peel to give it depth and soften the blow. We'll see, but I probably won't do all that. Even for masala chai I like the way the different taste elements merge into a harmony, and I don't think that would translate if you cranked up the volume to 11 for all of them.
I'm not saying it was a gamble gone bad but it wasn't exactly a clear success story. I even tried the lapsang souchong a second time and really had trouble with the strong smoke aspect again, so I'll either drink it mixed or give it away. I mentioned in a forum discussion I could use it for a meat rub, not entirely joking. I think it might be nice as part of a base for a turkey noodle soup, giving it that campfire effect such soup had when we would take that out hunting when I was a child. A child, out killing animals for food, good times, but that was life in the country, and it still is. I spent nearly two decades as a vegetarian in part as a result of that but now I see the bigger picture, and it is a positive, ethical alternative to factory farming. But I digress.
The tea cost so little it was still worth it (in the $5 for 50 grams range, maybe), and in retrospect I really should've picked up a pu'er and rolled oolong too, and spared the extra $10 or so to try two more types. The peony was just so-so too, but experiencing more-aged white tea was interesting enough, and it was more drinkable.
It might seem like I'm more critical of that store and that experience than I really intend. If that store was here in Bangkok with the same selection and same pricing I'd keep sorting out what worked and what didn't from there, and be happy to have the option to do so. It's nice having better tea options, in the kind of shop where a kind owner sits and talks tea with you along with doing free tasting before you buy; all that is ideal really. But trying random and unusual medium or even lower quality versions of tea can be really interesting too, not always only informative when it works out well.