I'm reviewing the 2020 version of Wuyi Origin's Wild Lapsang Souchong, one of several samples Cindy sent, really to share tea, not so much for review. Looking back this will be the fourth year in a row I've tried this tea (with others here).
It goes without saying that the highest quality versions of Lapsang Souchong are not smoked, but I’ll still say it. That's not a knock on smoked versions, they're just not made from teas like this. The traditional story is that this was the first black tea type in China, "discovering" the processing approach, with leaves left in the middle of processing when a hostile group passed through. Then the partly finished leaves were later dried over pine smoke to salvage the harvest, already oxidized, and the effect turned out to be desirable. This is a fairly common theme in Chinese tea myths, that of accidental discovery. It’s missing the input of a local deity or statue come to life, the other most common theme.
It’s hard to imagine that with tea being consumed for centuries (or millennia, really) and oxidation occurring relatively naturally that it wasn’t long-since apparent that more oxidized versions of black or white tea could be produced. Black tea differs by adding a rolling or kneading step to bruise the leaves, then air contact, with a heating step used at the end to fix the oxidation at a certain level (or sun-drying, depending). Cindy mentioned that their Lapsang Souchong is also roasted, which I don't remember being typical for any black teas.
Before too much more rambling on I'll also mention Wuyi Origin's description of the tea:
This wild lapsang souchong , We call it as wild tea, because it does not have a fixed tea garden, just in a hill, and the tea trees are scattered around every corner. Before harvest picking every year, we have to go up the mountain several times to see the growth of the germinated tea tree. Our tea pickers always look for leaves in the weeds when picking this tea garden. I think there should be 2-4 different varieties in this tea. The spring of 2020 is relatively dry, and the germination of tea is also uneven. This year, the output of my wild lapsang souchong is 20% less than last year.
Black tea is picked and sorted by hand, so in terms of appearance, the tea strips are relatively uniform.
It was specially selected to pick the tea leaves in the sunny day , and after 12 hours of withering, half an hour of rolling and then 6 hours of oxidation The tea has a very obvious natural citrus and creamy aroma, slightly milky feel. Tea soup is as sweet as honey water.
That description works. There's a pronounced mineral base flavor input too, but the citrus, sweetness, and creamy feel really stand out. There's more on the different types and processing steps in this blog post by Cindy.
I wanted to mention how bias works out for me with vendor sources. Of course I’m biased towards vendors I’ve had a long and positive history with, as is the case with Cindy, who I consider a friend. To some extent I see my own reviews as objective, as not relating to bias as an input, but of course that probably comes into play. We tend to experience some of what we expect to. At times that can relate to a contrast from what is expected, adding the opposing type of input, potentially shifting a perspective to be even more negative if very positive results were expected, or vice-versa.
That extends all the way to the experience of individual tea aspects in tasting; if you expect to pick up citrus in a tea then if anything remotely like citrus is present then you’ll identify it as that, when a neutral, blank-slate take wouldn’t include noticing that. I wrote these notes before reading that description, to be clear; all the going on about citrus may have related to remembering it from last year, but it couldn't have tied to reading the vendor description that I only added here during editing.
That effect can relate to sequences of themes emerging across multiple reviews. Another tea blogger once mentioned getting into a cycle where he noticed cherry in every black tea review. He said that he had to go back and pull that back out of notes in cases where it wasn’t most pronounced, because his own expectation was adding it as an interpretation, along with the flavor aspects actually present. I tasted apple in this tea, similar to cider, and probably wouldn’t have noticed that if it hadn’t been present in a much stronger form in a black tea version that I reviewed yesterday.
Bias aside, Cindy’s teas, Wuyi Origin’s, are some of the consistently best teas that I ever have a chance to try. I tend to not buy teas on this quality level, because with significant awareness and demand paired with that quality--as would be the case for any main tea category type, as for these--the market price is higher than my budget tends to support. As an aside this tea sells for $34 for 100 grams, an absolute steal given that almost no tea I've tried selling for around $1 / gram is ever this good. General and specific type also affects demand, and pricing, but I don't think another version that's much like this would turn up on the Western tea market, anywhere, at any price.
In rare cases I’ll buy something that's not on the inexpensive side anyway, but that tends to apply more to impulse or special-case buying in person, when a tea that I’m seeing in front of me is priced beyond what I would normally spend. Shopping online the entire internet is the competitive environment, the marketplace. It’s easy to compare how $100, or whatever sum, would spend out in different places.
I wouldn’t even recommend people new to tea try versions at this quality level. It’s not that someone couldn’t appreciate the experience, and how the aspects come together, but instead that to me it makes more sense to explore a broader range and get personal preferences and brewing practice sorted out first. For example, it’s only a judgement call and not an objective truth, but to me brewing this particular black tea Western style would be a waste. That said if someone was committed to that approach and wanted to explore better tea range it would definitely work, and results wouldn’t be that different. They would be slightly, marginally more positive if you could control the brewing results more carefully, but the tea would be fine either way.
Someone could pick up a gaiwan and experiment on that with this tea, but it would seem more reasonable to explore other teas first, then get to this one once some of those themes are in order. To some extent I’m talking about getting the most value from it, so tied to cost, but really as I approach teas price is a factor but I’m talking more about what is appropriate for each tea. If you could happen to find an amazing Nepalese black version that is somehow on this general quality level for cheap, at the same cost as an upper-medium quality level Assam (which can happen; source types vary, and demand per region can be inconsistent), then that brewing advice would apply to it too. No tea of any type I've tried from Nepal is quite this good, but I mean in the general range, and Nepalese teas can be quite pleasant and refined, and distinctive.
Sometimes supporting a specific vendor can be of interest, even for reasons that fall outside tea quality concerns, or trust in relation to products being as-described. To me that range applies quite directly to supporting Cindy’s family, a true case of a tea producer selling products directly, so they are what they are said to be. It’s hard to imagine wanting any producer or reseller to fail in their business, but it’s also harder to feel a connection to supporting larger corporate operations, or tea vending based on multiple steps in a resale chain.
This also connects with a very pragmatic concern; once a tea has been bought and sold a couple of times--how that often works--the true history of what it is would most likely be lost. If this wasn’t a real example of wild Lapsang Souchong, or grown where it was said to be, or if pesticides were used in making it, then the harm in the difference would probably be limited (as long as your pesticide contact remained moderate), but the final experience wouldn’t be the same.
It's odd trying these teas out of the two different cups (per the last review Moychay sent me three devices along with some teas to try, two cups and a gaiwan). It seems it comes across as earthier, for using more earthen forms of cups. Then of course it's brewed a little light, as the first round almost always is as I brew teas.
It's great tea; that part never changes. The sweetness and refined flavors are amazing, the fruit hit, over a very positive other deeper toned flavor structure. Fruit includes a great balance of warm and sweet citrus, trailing into ripe peach. That earthier undertone is hard to describe. It's like molasses or dried fruit gives the rest depth. Mineral plays a role, but that part is harder to pick up in this round, at this light infusion strength. Of course there is nothing remotely resembling a flaw present, no sourness, no mustiness, or rough edged aspect.
Second infusion: intensity picks up. That fruit tone balance is just perfect. It's not fair comparing this to any other version of tea I've ever tried, so I won't. Saying things like citrus, peach, or honey doesn't make a start on describing the actual experience. A rich fruit tone with more depth reminds me of apple cider, probably in part carried over from experiencing a tea more like that yesterday, with more actual tartness and sourness. One part of what is going on in this tea could be described as tart, but not in the same sense those Russian and Yunnan black teas were. It's so moderate that it would be odd to make such a reference. Achieving this degree of balance, of flavor complexity, may have depended on including a little of that range, that is so well integrated and faint that it doesn't come across as tartness at all.
The feel seems to merge with the rich taste, as a smooth fullness that coats your mouth, a creamy feel. Then that carries over to an aftertaste range that still includes some of that creamy feel, along with the rich, sweet, intense fruit flavor carrying over. This is an exceptional tea. It may even be better than prior versions of it, although I can't judge across years like that, and temporary subjective impression varies for different reasons (mood, what I've been drinking, how much sleep I got).
Third infusion: this tea is just fantastic; it insults it in trying to break that experience into parts to describe it. Mineral is really picking up, adding depth. A rich range of mineral adds a nice base, with part of that coming across a bit like salt. The fruit tone moves off the sweetest, brightest range, but isn't less pleasant for transitioning to slightly deeper tones. A bit more fruit like dried mango is coming out. It gets repetitive saying that a tea version is among the best I've ever tried but this is definitely there. It's hard to imagine this particular style being any better.
That citrus tone really makes it all work, as all the parts do, integrated together. The citrus alone is complex, covering a higher end zest range, and deeper tones, some type of warm orange. Then there's slightly warmer apple, the dried mango, a rich mineral base, and some other aromatic tones rounding out the rest. It's a lot going on but it comes across as tightly integrated, and simple.
Fourth infusion: I think that mineral is maxed out; it can't increase any more. The rest hasn't changed so much since last round, so I'll leave it at that. I won't be able to cover the remaining rounds, at least until later, for going to a swim practice, and I usually just leave off the review notes at that point then, not picking it back up.
It's interesting using different teaware. I expected to not like using a different gaiwan but it's fine. The rougher cup is interesting, the way it feels, and it pulls out so much heat that tasting it immediately is fine. Being new to me I don't have a developed opinion on either cup. The smoother version has a much more conventional feel; I really do like it.
Just fantastic tea, one of the best versions of any tea that I've ever drank. I think this was marginally better than earlier versions, which were also fantastic. A few more rounds lost some range and intensity but the mineral really came out in later rounds, making those extra pleasant in a different way. I suspect that dry weather limited leaf growth (tied to Cindy's comment about picking less) but increased flavor intensity. But what do I know.
A bit of tragedy to round out this post: my wife broke the more conventional looking cup, on the very first day that I drank out of it. I'll go with the standard next thing to say and interpret that as a lesson in impermanence. The sting that remains is a further lesson in attachment, about how I'm not above feeling regret that serves no purpose. I loved that cup, just not for long.