You know how you go on vacation, and it’s difficult to get back into the swing of things? Ever since my trip to the Northwest Tea Festival in Seattle, I’ve had trouble adjusting to regular life: regular sleeping and eating schedules, job schedules, and certainly blog writing. Hopefully you’ll forgive me for waiting an entire month before posting about this trip.
Seattle was an incredible opportunity for me because it was my first time traveling alone. My husband was stuck at home for work reasons while I got to make the decisions on where to go, when to go, how long I should stay, and how to get there. While I’m usually involved in some way in making most of these decisions when we travel together, there was just something different about not even having to consider someone else’s input. There was something thrilling about being in a completely strange place on my own, with the closest person I knew over a thousand miles away. If you’ve never traveled on your own, I recommend you try it at least once in your life.
Of course, one is never truly alone in the tea community; you’ll “know” people in cities all over the world from r/tea, steepster, or wherever you hang out. I think there were a good 5 or 6 teaple I knew either living nearby or visiting for the festival. You’ll have to forgive the quality of these pictures; I learned some lessons after being overwhelmed at all the action going on here!
The tea festival wasn’t what I was expecting. I’m used to those enormous gift shows in Atlanta, with rows upon rows of vendors offering up sales pitches and samples. This was more like a small town gathering, a festival, if you will, of people coming together to celebrate this hot leaf juice. The best part of the festival for me was seeing how people combine their love of tea with their artistic expressions, such as the steampunk tea booth with tea sold in test tubes by a man dressed as the Mad Hatter or the weekend-long gongfu session from the stunning tea table with Crimson Lotus.
My tea collection is getting a bit large for my taste, so I exercised restraint in my tea haul. The unsmoked lapsang from Phoenix Teas stood out among the three billion samples I tried while there. I had heard that Crimson Lotus Tea’s 2012 Bulang Gushu was the ultimate in shou puerh, so it was the perfect opportunity to pick up a sample without having to pay shipping. Floating Leaves Tea had too many good samples to name, so I picked up some house oolong and gyokuro, one of my favorites.
At the end of the day, in case I wasn’t feeling caffeinated enough, I stopped by Floating Leaves Tea (the store) and sat down with Noah for a couple of hours (turns out I even kept him past closing, poor guy). I ended up accidentally adding some Shanlinxi to my stash from that conversation.
If it’s something you have the opportunity to do, I’d recommend attending tea events, even if they are just in your area. It’s a convivial experience, getting together with a bunch of strangers and leaving friends because you already have this one thing in common.
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.”
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
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.
I have a special place in my heart for Verdant Tea. Their 5 for $5 deal for first time buyers is a great deal, especially as it comes with a $5 off your next order. I will say that I didn’t enjoy all 5 teas, but their Laoshan black sample opened my eyes to what Chinese black tea (which, by the way, is called red tea to the Chinese) can really be.
For those who’ve only ever had black tea from bags or even from most tea stores, you’re probably used to the drying, bitter, malty notes that aren’t without a charm of their own—the Indian blacks. It’s what casual-tea-drinking Americans consider the foundation of what tea is supposed to taste like. I drank and adored these teas from my first Lipton iced tea as a child, to my discovery of Twinings English breakfast with milk and sugar in my teens, to the loose leaf peachy black I discovered at Churchill’s Fine Teas in Cincinnati a year ago.
In this timeline of tea discovery, I believed that tea was tea-flavored, and if you wanted it to taste like something other than tea, you had to add flavors to it. Enter my sample of Verdant’s 2015 Autumn Laoshan black. My adventures in Chinese blacks from that point on showed me that black teas can taste malty, fruity, sinfully chocolatey, and even sweet potatoey.
Since that first sip, I’ve dedicated more than half of my precious cabinet space to discovering what black teas can really taste like. And since Verdant had a sale on all the tea from the He family, I get the perfect opportunity to compare the different Laoshan black teas. For today, I’m sticking with the 2016 regular and reserve Laoshan Black.
The Spring 2016 Laoshan black is currently going for $4.50 for 25g. For one of my favorite teas, I’d say that’s a pretty decent price. The reserve version, when it wasn’t sold out, went for $7.50 for 25g, which is quite a price hike. When these teas were released for the season, the most common question I heard was, “Is it worth the extra money to get the reserve?” That’s what today is all about.
Comparing the dry leaf, I’m not noticing too much of a difference. The leaf of the regular might be a tiny bit bigger, or maybe a tiny bit thicker on average than the reserve, but that may be because I am trying to find some discernable difference between them.
2016 Reserve Laoshan Black
The aroma of the dry leaves is stronger than the regular, sweet and chocolatey with a bit of a bread scent. I brewed about 4g in 50ml at 205ºF, ranging from 10 seconds to 3 minutes, and the color brewed into a nice dark, golden honey color that smelled of earth, yams, and chocolate. It’s a dark, seductive kind of flavor that comes up the palate and out the nose. There’s also a very slight bitterness and peppery flavor on the finish.
The cocoa and sweet potato notes are highlighted more on subsequent steeps, but caramel and honey are also introduced after steep 4. After a while, I started to lose counts of the steepings, but I got a little dark honey bread flavor toward the end.
It seems a pretty forgiving tea; even brewing at boiling and steeping for what seemed like forever only brought out darker flavors, but that’s pretty typical of a tea like this.
Looking at Verdant’s tasting notes, I feel as though they pretty accurately represented the flavor: cocoa, sweet potato, cranberry, graham cracker. I can never find fruit flavors in black tea, so I don’t find that particularly surprising.
2016 Laoshan Black
The less-often seen Pond cat has decided to join me for the rest of this tasting. She’s about five years old and is much less sociable than Milche, so don’t let the adorable triangle nose fool you. I’m the only one allowed to touch her, and she usually follows me around the house with Swim Fan-like obsession. She started off as Amelia Bedelia after my favorite childhood book series, but that morphed into Amelia Pond from Doctor Who, to finally just “Pond.”
Anyway, breathing in the dry leaf yields some differences from the Reserve. There’s the predominating aroma of cocoa, of course, but there’s an underlying sourness that reminds me of very dark brown honey wheat bread. There’s something yeasty about the smell. This aroma is reflected in the brew, as it has a bready chocolate scent.
The first steep definitely yields a less-sweet flavor, more like a gassy, yeasty dark bread with hardly any chocolate. This changes in subsequent steeps to a chocolate honey bread. Perhaps if they made a pain au chocolat out of a dark wheat flour and drizzled a bit of honey on top, that is what this would taste like. Stephen, my non-tea-drinking husband, took a sip and proclaimed that it tasted like a dark chocolate beer, so we’re pretty close in agreement.
Verdant’s tasting notes describe this tea as cocoa, malt, toasted grain, citrus, cherry, vanilla, and honey. Seems I did get some of the same things they did.
Comparing the Two Flavors
To compare the two teas, the regular is brighter colored than the reserve in terms of flavor, and less earthy. There is less chocolate, and no sweet potato in the regular brew. The brighter flavors are more like honey. The reserve brew definitely lacks the brighter flavors and goes deeper into the dark realms of sinful, dark, dark chocolate.
They were both fantastic teas, to be sure, but I preferred the reserve black. However, that difference in price tag may mean that I’ll be sticking to the regular Laoshan, or at least getting smaller batches of the reserve.