I just got back from China a week and a half ago, and it seems like only yesterday, we were visiting the He family in Laoshan while they were busy with the spring harvests. There’s nothing like sharing tea with Mr. and Mrs. He in their living room: sharing cups as little Niu Niu impresses everyone with her gong fu skills, and smelling the wood fires and roasting tea from the workshop in the next room. No matter how many years go by, Mr. He always has great insights to share on the growing tea farms in Laoshan, and when he brews his fresh harvest, it’s as if we’re tasting Laoshan tea again for the first time.
Yesterday, the He Family’s 1st picking Laoshan teas came in to the office, so we got together for an impromptu staff tasting at our big tea table. Geoffrey (All things technology), Kelsey (Designer and Customer Service), Lily and myself (sourcing etc) were able to make time while Lauren (our head of logistics) stopped in briefly while working to get that green tea packed up asap.
We started with the fresh Laoshan Green, the first tea I ever tried and loved the very first time I went to China. Mr. He hand twisted this harvest so carefully. He loves his Laoshan green, and I truly believe you can see it in every leaf. When he brews the tea in Laoshan he uses about an ounce of leaf and steeps for a good full minute with cool water. His daughter Qingqing teases him about this potent brewing style; she likes to use about 7 grams, pouring back and forth between glass pitchers for about 10 seconds. I followed her advice so that we could get a bit more nuance and aroma out of the leaf.
Using about 5 ounces of water at 175 degrees, I got a really rich, aromatic brew. One of my favorite thing about drinking Laoshan Green is actually passing around the wet leaf before everyone takes their first sip. Smelling the wet leaf in the glass pitcher is so rich and potent, especially when the tea is this fresh.
For the first 30 seconds, everyone tasted the tea silently – concentrating on the brew and savoring the sip – before Lily encouraged everyone to share with the class. I was tasting thick honey, toasted rice and a big aftertaste. The aroma was almost like warm rising honey wheat bread.
Geoffrey, on the other hand, is a Wuyi Oolong fanatic. He breaks his Qilan and Big Red Robe habits twice a year- once for Dragonwell and once for Laoshan Green. He looked like a kid that just found the secret candy jar when he took his first sip. “I love Laoshan Green! Silky and crisp – what a crazy texture.”
Lily shared her notes of Grape Nuts, soy milk and kettle corn, which – as soon as I heard, of course that is what I was tasting too.
Later steepings started to reveal some incredible fruit notes- caramelized banana, and floral fresh chrysanthemum. Lily and Geoffrey picked up on cardamom and saffron spiced rice pudding flavors, and – in between capturing beautiful photos – Kelsey pointed out the tea’s texture: juicy citrus aftertaste, and a minerality that grows with each steeping.
Next we moved to the fresh Laoshan Black, picked from early young buds and carefully oxidized and finished by Mr. He.
Laoshan Black is such an iconic, singular tea: with its rich and unmistakable malt and chocolate notes, it’s grown to become the most popular tea we offer. We drink it so often, that it is sometime hard to write about. Part of me just wants to say, “It taste like Laoshan Black!” – but of course, I know that I need to go further.
I brewed the Laoshan Black in one of the new gaiwans that we just got in from tea ware pre-orders. The gaiwan has little glass windows in it so that you can see the leaves unfurl and appreciate the deep amber color of the tea.
When I passed around the wet leaves, we all smelled rich melted chocolate. It reminds me of making ganache out of dark chocolate. Behind the chocolate aroma there was a tart and floral hibiscus flavor coming through. The room was full of exclamations and disbelief. No matter how many times we drink Laoshan tea, the fresh harvest like this blow us away every time.
For me, the first steeping was full of malted milk and dried cherries. Later steepings had a toasty genmaicha-like quality to them and an aftertaste of jujube and crystallized ginger. The rest all tasted chocolate covered raisins, and made us all reminisce and compare notes on our favorite movie theater candies.
Drinking so much chocolate and malt flavor, we ended up getting into a full debate on the quality of milk chocolate versus dark chocolate. Ultimately, we could all agree: like most things in life, both have their place depending on context. On to more important matters: debating vanilla malts versus chocolate malts! Each of us continued brewing, sipping and debating until we had so much tea that we were hungry and decided to jump in the car and all go get malts together. You’ve got to love the power of suggestion.
I am so excited to send out these fresh harvests. Mr. He is one of my heroes. Despite the Chinese market demand for light, Dragonwell-like tea, he resists that pressuresand works to craft tea that he feels best expresses Laoshan as a place. This means making teas that are full bodied and confident, but still elegant and refined enough to live up to the rich history of his village, and of the mountain and fresh water springs that make life possible in Laoshan. He and his family are doing an incredible job so far!
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