Some people spend time with their families on Labor Day. Some people drink a lot of chocolatey teas and do a lot of typing. Can you guess which I am?
Intro to Laoshans
Last week, I did a post on comparing Verdant’s regular and reserve grade Laoshans, and as you can see from my last post, I just got a shipment of blacks in from Yunnan Sourcing, which included both grades of their new Laoshans. Normally I wouldn’t buy both grades from two companies like this, but as Laoshans are my favorite, I thought it would be a good idea to really dig into the differences between grades and companies.
For those who don’t know, Laoshan teas are grown in the Laoshan region of China. I’ve seen greens and oolongs produced in that region (I have an oolong sample I can’t wait to try, but I wasn’t wild about the green), but blacks are my favorite from Laoshan. The typical flavor profile for a Laoshan black is cocoa to chocolate, dark to light breads, and yeasty. It’s about as close as you can get to a dessert without adding flavorings.
A Note on Bias
The great thing about being new to the world of tea is that I am coming in with my own set of expectations. I don’t really care if the tea community has something against an owner or marketing techniques. You can tell me that the tea comes from trees that were blessed by Jesus himself and then stored in the emperor’s private cave in jars made from the first yixing pots out of the famous Dragon Kiln, and I’m still going to be judging it on its flavor:value:feeling ratio.
That being said, accidental bias is still a thing. So I will be tasting all four teas: Yunnan Sourcing for the first time and Verdant as a refresher. Then I’ll do a blind taste of all four.
Prepping for the Showdown
I thought I had a lot of teaware until I started this experiment. Then I realized I don’t have enough gaiwans or enough identical cups to do a fair color comparison while brewing all these teas simultaneously. Though it isn’t ideal, I am going to have to brew these up one at a time.
While this is a lovely excuse to have to go out and get more teaware, I am going to see how often I run into this problem before going gaiwan shopping.
Dry Leaf Comparison
Visually, all four of these look pretty identical. There is some slight color variation, but the difference is so slight that it’s hardly worth noting. The real difference in dry leaf comes from the smell. I didn’t know that these companies sourced from different farmers when first began this test. I actually suspected that they came from the same location. But it’s immediately apparent from the scent of the leaves that these are NOT from the same farm. A little research as I am writing this up reveals that Verdant comes from the He family farm, and Yunnan Sourcing comes from the Liang family farm.
YS Classic vs. YS Imperial
The classic version smells a little like Hershey’s chocolate, maybe with a touch of raisin and a nutty, Halloween candy sort of scent. The Imperial grade is even sweeter, and it smells EXACTLY like the bottom of a Halloween candy bucket the night after a humid Florida evening of trick-or-treating.
YS Classic vs. Verdant Classic
The smell of these dry leaves is almost identical, but the Yunnan Sourcing smells just a touch stronger.
YS Imperial vs. Verdant Reserve
This comparison had the most distinct difference in aroma. Verdant is a dark cocoa butter where Yunnan Sourcing is that sugary Halloween candy. If I breathe in the Yunnan Sourcing first, my nostrils are so washed out with the Halloween scent that the Verdant no longer smells sweet at all to me.
Once brewed, the wet leaves lose their Halloweeny smell, for which I am grateful. Trashy American chocolate isn’t really my thing in either tea or food form. The aroma is more like a burnt chocolate pudding, a scent I can definitely get behind. I’m one of those people that actually enjoys eating the skin off of a cooling chocolate pudding.
The brew is a bit thin, lacking in body and depth, for a black tea. There is a light cocoa flavor, a sugary sweetness, and a hint of yeasty sourness. That hint of Halloween candy is back on the finish. As the brew cools, it gets sweeter. There is also some slight astringency on the back of the palate.
Subsequent steepings reveal a bright, yeasty honey flavor with a wash of cocoa on the finish. Though it’s still on the astringent side, the brew definitely thickens and sweetens as it cools. I’m still getting that Halloween candy flavor out the nose.
Though this tea is perfectly pleasant, I know I’ve had better Laoshans than this.
Yunnan Sourcing has this to say about the Classic: “Our Classic grade, although not as small and fine as its Imperial counterpart, it is more robust in taste and has more of a dark chocolate bite to it. It is very smooth with a golden yellow tea soup that is viscous and soupy.”
I could not disagree with this assessment more.
The brew to this smells more appealing after the Classic version—more like a chocolate biscuit. The wet leaves almost smell like a hot cereal with cocoa. There’s something almost liquor smelling about the brewing leaves that leaves me a little dizzy with anticipation. I’ve never had the Godiva chocolate liquor, but it’s how I would imagine it to smell.
The cocoa flavor is much more pronounced than in the YS Classic.; it comes out of my nose as I breathe out. The dark chocolate flavor becomes sugary as it cools, and the flavor turns a little bready. I’m getting chocolate croissant feelings from this tea. There’s a bit of astringency that brews out in subsequent steeps, and any bitterness is like that of a dark chocolate rather than a bitter black tea; it’s very faint.
Yunnan Sourcing has this to say about the Imperial: “The taste is sweet and voluminous with notes of cane sugar, chocolate and baked yams. The Classic Laoshan Black we offer is also excellent with a more robust taste and a little more of the dark chocolate bite to it. I recommend getting a little of each grade to start and then decide for yourself which you like best!”
I’ve already weighed in on the fact that I don’t agree with their assessment between Classic and Imperial. I didn’t really get much sweet potato from these, and even if I somehow missed it, it’s definitely nothing like you would get from a Yunnan black. I pretty much only agree with the chocolate and sugarcane notes.
Verdant Rehash and Comparison
As I pointed out in my post on reviewers, taste is determined by a lot of different factors. So I did a quick rehash of the Verdant teas not only so they would be fresh in my mind, but also in case there was something in my mood or environment affecting how I am tasting the tea today.
This has a very pronounced bready taste, but it isn’t like the dark bread of the Verdant Reserve. It’s more like a chocolate biscuit. There’s much more yeast and much less cocoa flavor than the two higher graded Laoshans.
This is definitely a very, very dark yeasty bread with a dark chocolate. The brew comes out much darker and redder than the other teas on the first steep.
Comparing this brew to the YS Imperial, the chocolate notes are more pronounced, and the brew is smoother without the astringency.
Blind Tasting and Final Rankings
I was thinking at this point that I had a pretty good idea where my rankings were, but it’s always a good thing to eliminate bias when doing a taste test. I assigned each tea a number 1-4 and mixed them up so I no longer knew which leaf was which.
I managed to correctly identify each tea, so I’m definitely not imagining the differences in taste. Here are my final rankings:
Tied for 1st and 2nd Place: Verdant Reserve and Yunnan Sourcing Imperial
3rd Place: Verdant Classic
4th Place: Yunnan Sourcing Classic
Bonus Neophyte Round
As I’ve mentioned before, my husband isn’t really into tea. I always give him sips of what I am drinking, and he usually responds with, “Tastes like tea.” I left the brews in the bubble cups out until he stumbled out of bed. The brews were cold, but that hardly mattered to him. There were no identifying marks on the teas; only I knew which was which. I had him rank them, and though he said he had some trouble distinguishing between the four, his final rankings were similar to mine:
- Yunnan Sourcing Imperial
- Verdant Reserve
- Verdant Classic
- Yunnan Sourcing Classic
I like to weigh cost vs. flavor, so let’s look at the rankings again with price per gram (note that these are bullets and not numbers…I’m not subliminally ranking 1st and 2nd:
- Verdant Reserve: $0.30 per gram
- Yunnan Sourcing Imperial: $0.19 per gram
- Verdant Classic: $0.18 per gram
- Yunnan Sourcing Classic: $0.12 per gram
In my opinion, this makes things pretty clear. Flavor wise alone, I would say Verdant Reserve just barely nudges out Yunnan Sourcing Imperial. But if you add in the price differential, I would say the final, final rankings are thus:
- Yunnan Sourcing Imperial Grade Laoshan Black
- Verdant 2016 Reserve Spring Laoshan Black
- Verdant Spring 2016 Laoshan Black
- Yunnan Sourcing Classic Grade Laoshan Black
I should note that I re-steeped all the used leaves western style separately throughout the day so I could get an impression of each tea on its own without a comparison. All of the teas were lovely on their own, with sweet, chocolate notes just like they should have. It’s only on sitting down and comparing them that I can find flaws and distinct weaknesses. So take from these reviews what you will. Whether you prefer the sound of a certain flavor profile I’ve described or you want the absolute cheapest tea possible, it’s going to be a pleasant experience.