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Tasting Journal: Laoshan Gongfu Black Taste-Off

Tasting Journal: Laoshan Gongfu Black Taste-Off

Tasting Journal: Laoshan Gongfu Black Taste-Off

October 14, 2020


This article is excerpted from our Daily Deal Newsletter.
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Originally shared in our Tasting Journal Newsletter, Tuesday 09/15/20


Hello tea friends!

So… it isn’t every year that we are able to get in a “special grade” designation from the He Family in Laoshan Village.

Weather in Laoshan is notoriously difficult for growing tea. The cold winters and hot summers are pushing the very boundary of where the tea plant can survive. These swings are part of what makes Laoshan tea so rich, so sweet and so incredibly unique among Chinese teas, but it also means an incredible amount of work for the He Family to protect the plants with greenhouse coverings in the winter, cut back plants to encourage deeper roots and healthier life cycles, etc. This weather means that growing seasons can come up fast and be over even faster, which means the slow, cool, and mild spring needed to get that early Special Grade harvest within a few days of the greenhouse covers coming off is increasingly difficult to rely on.

What makes a Laoshan Special Grade tea? These harvests are picked within the first week of the greenhouse covers being removed for the spring, meaning the tea plant has been growing in the shade for several months before getting just a few days of cool early spring sunlight. This sun starts transforming the tea plant’s leaves, and these early days capture a snapshot of the plant when it still has the delicate nuance of the shade growing season with an emergent brightness and life that comes from its brief sunlight. If the weather is too hot or too cold, this first picking may not be possible. The Reserve Grade has a slightly longer picking window, usually a few weeks while the mist of early spring keeps shade through most of the day, before late spring sun triggers faster growth, and the more plentiful classic harvests.

So what does this difference of a few days make to the final tea? Today, I am brewing up both the the Reserve and the Special Grade Laoshan Gongfu Black side by side to compare.

a cup of 2020 Special Grade Laoshan Gongfu Black Tea

Comparing the wet leaf aroma:

Reserve Laoshan Gongfu Black
Thick, perfumed undertone – cream and chocolate malt but with an almond extract quality.  Heavy, thick and billowing with a powerful undercurrent. Thick, sweet and cozy.

Special Grade Laoshan Gongfu Black
Lighter, higher aromatics, like a fine craft dark chocolate bar, deep berries, cinnamon, and a sweetness that seems to stick in the back of the throat and linger. Powerful, but so light on its feet

Comparing the Early Steepings:

Reserve Laoshan Gongfu Black
Nutmeg spice in the initial sips, followed by a thick creaminess that billows – like fresh homemade soymilk sprinkled with toasted kinako powder and brown sugar with a touch of earthy floral lotus.

Special Grade Laoshan Gongfu Black
Powerful, orchid-like floral undertones, remarkable sweetness, frothy and airy while lingering with a tingling sensation, a foresty fresh quality in the throat that is soothing and warming.

Notes: In the early steepings, the Reserve takes on a bigger, thicker quality; it comes on strong and fills the palate with creamy dessert goodness, while the Special Grade is lighter on its feet and goes more in the textural aftertaste direction while maintaining a powerful aromatic core.

Comparing the Mid-Steepings

Reserve Laoshan Gongfu Black
Expanding kinako (roasted soybean topping) dessert mochi quality – like a small bakery cinnamon donut, plus a touch of salt and minerality.

Special Grade Laoshan Gongfu Black
Comes together for a thick but delicate velvet-like texture and sparkling minerality. Honeyed florals fill out the sides of the palate, and an herbaceous mysterious forest quality that continues in the aftertaste.

Notes: mid-steeping, these teas keep diverging, with the reserve building on its decadent dessert quality to feel like a perfectly composed soft cream-filled mochi dusted with sweet roasted kinako powder and brown sugar, filling the whole mouth. The Special Grade’s florals open into full blown honey, and create a velvety texture that carries through to the real star of the show – the stronger and stronger forest-driven aftertaste.

Comparing the Late Steepings

Reserve Laoshan Gongfu Black
Classic beloved malty Laoshan flavors come forward as this tea keeps steeping out. The balance of chocolate, malt, and brown sugar with mineral undertones is a beautiful and satisfying brew. The lingering quality shifts from chocolate to deep minerality.

Special Grade Laoshan Gongfu Black
This tea keeps getting improbably sweeter, by late steepings seeming like honey and cream have been mixed in without weighing down its perfect velvet texture. The sweetness swirls together with forestry undertones to evoke cedar bark heating up in the sun after a rain.

He Qingqing with a handful of Reserve Laoshan Gongfu Black

Final thoughts
These are both exquisite teas, exploring different aspects of Laoshan’s terroir. In Mr. He’s masterful hands, both harvests shine as their true selves. For a decadent, creamy exquisite exploration of the dessert-like side to Laoshan Black, the Reserve Gongfu Black has everything you need. For a texture, aroma and aftertaste exploration of the landscape and forested hillsides around Laoshan village, the Special Grade delivers.

Happy sipping!

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