While we waited for Mr. Wong to arrive we also took some time to taste tea. We stopped by a teahouse to see Mr. Lu. Mr. Lu chatted with us for quite some time and we enjoyed some of his delightful tea.
We discussed this year's Wu Yi tea harvest. "Overall, Not good" he said. There's been a drought. This year's Wu Yi tea is generally not great. But you don't want this year's tea. You want last year's tea. The best Wu Yi teas come 6-8 months after they're picked. They are re-roasted in August and have rested for the last 6 months and right now, they're primed and ready to enjoy. They'll be tasty for at least another few years after this.
We also learned that with Wu Yi teas, it's the varietal that sets the price, which directly reflects the value and desirability of that tea. In order of price and desirability, first and foremost old varietals are valued. Shui Xian, Rou Gui, Tie Luo Han, and the varietal Big Red Robe etc. Then it's the Hybrids that are next valuable, cross breeds of these mother varietals. Then Blends, like Big Red Robe blends (I'll get to that in another post, but it's really important). New varietals are less prized followed by the least valuable teas in the area - anything low grown. Those teas are not fragrant, prone to disease, more often pesticides are used on them, and they have a rough and thin taste. They are generally used as filler.
He started us off with an impressive 6 year old Tie Luo Han. Talk about mind-blowing. This was picked and cooked just once, 6 years ago (and not re-roasted recently). It had notes of sweet roasted coconut and deep notes of sumatra coffee and an aroma of vanilla bean. It was more subtle than it sounds, and incredibly sophisticated.
Next we tried a 100 Year-Old Old-Tree Wu Yi Shui Xian. We learned that there are old trees and high trees, once Shui Xian bushes have grown tall, they're "high". After 60 years, the plant is considered "old". The plant that gave this tea was over 100 years old. It was extremely fragrant and extremely dark. It had an excellent "Am Wan", or rock taste.
What exactly is "Am Wan"? Well think of it this way: Ti Kuan Yin has "Wei Gam", or throat feel as it's signature. Champagne has a minerality that is specific to it's growing region. Wu Yi has a combination of these, its flavor is both an experience and a taste, and together they give Wu Yi tea "Am Wan".
This is a picture of tea growing amongst rocks, this is incredibly common in this area and I hope helps illustrates that mineraly rock taste.
Most interestingly, he had a delicious WuYi area tea that was uniquely smoky. It could have been an oolong tea, but I wasn't sure. I wanted to know more. When I asked the name I was taken aback, it was pronounced "Jeehn Sahng Seeu Zchong" and written properly it is Zheng San Xiu Zhong. No. Could it be? Was I tasting Lapsang Souchong?! The real Lapsang Souchong? Not the insanely smoky tea that smells like it spent a winter in a barbeque smoke house pit. No, this was sweet, juicy, high fired fully oxidized and then smoked with mountain pine wood. The smoke was a compliment to the tea and the tea was a compliment to the smoke. This was the original tea, the real-deal. And it was a high grade, and it was delicious.
Literally translated its name means Zheng mountain small varietal (or, sub-species). I realized how ridiculously lucky this find was considering I had no intention of looking for this tea or anything other than WuYi oolong teas.
This Lapsang Souchong was sweet with notes of tobacco and tea and had a distinguished "Am Wan". It had been smoked with mountain pine wood for an amazing smoky and fresh taste. I was smitten. I'd only ever had smoke flavored tea perfumed with artificial fragrance before and that's what 99% of the US and European market sells. Fake tea. Sometimes the smell is so strong it can make you choke- but worse, the 'best' part of that tea it's unique smoky fragrance, it dissipates after one steeping. But this tea was far better, steeping after steeping gave a gentle smoky taste because the pine scent is baked in.
This tea is a Superior grade (above grade 1) and while I wasn't expecting it at all, and I knew there would be more teas to come, this Lapsang Souchong would be my first prize of this trip.