Lapsang Souchong: A tale of Depth and Darkness in Tea
Without a doubt, the tea that most constantly draws sharp lines of love and hate, is Lapsang souchong. It is a tea that inspires emotions as strong as the distinct flavors of smoke and wood that pour out with its deep red liquor.
This is the famed smoked tea of Fuijan, in the Wuyi mountain area of northern China. In the story of tea, we know that the first teas grown and drunk were what we consider the “white” and “green” types- meaning that tea drinking people were not oxidizing their tea leaves before steeping. Over time, people started to learn that agitating the withered leaves, and allowing them to dry longer, could create new and intense flavor differences.
The current Lapsang Souchong teas come from the Bohea family of teas from Wuyi. The name Lapsang souchong means “Variety of tea from Lapu Mountain.” The Bohea teas are traditionally processed as Oolong types, which is how we might begin to see the eventual intense drying and smoking of these smoked teas to have been the genesis of Lapsang. But add to this another cultural element- the rise of black teas. Due to its ability to retain flavor and shape, and also because it is smaller and lighter leading to easier transport, black teas became very useful for trade as early as the Song dynasty (960 to 1279 ).
Lapsang origin legends have several different takes on the addition of the “smokiness” to the drying process of the leaves- but most of them align with this growing practice of creating red teas, with the use of pine smoke to quicken the process- often under duress at the hands of local warlords or bandits wanting to take farmers’ tea from them sooner than the natural processes would allow. When Dutch traders were given samples of the smoked leaves of these first Lapsang souchongs, the Chinese farmers must have been surprised.
What they thought of as lower quality leaves, dried “artificially”, was a revelation for the Europeans. The Dutch paid a higher price for the tea, leading to a brisk market in this unique new black leaf. In China Lapsangs, especially those still made traditionally with actual pine branch smoking, still receive high prices, relative to other teas of similar leaf quality. And for tea drinkers, they also engender strong reactions. Those who enjoy it find it filled with sweetness, flavors of malted barley, scotch and dark fruits.
The depth of flavor found in Lapsan souchongs go well with other ingredients too, that is why B. Fuller’s uses it as a center blend for some our more fanciful Botanical Teas. Currently you can try it in our Leprechaun blend- a mix of sparkling mints with smoky Lapsang. The wood smoke depth of flavor so reminiscent of a fine scotch is brought forward by the tang of two types of mint, creating a liquor of remarkable clarity.