Four Things That Make It Lapsang Souchong

Tea plus smoke equals lapsang souchong, yes?

Well, sort of.

This indescribably smoky tea is a product of its exact spot in the world! It is unique among teas.

Of course every fine tea has its particular processing method, which makes it one of a kind, and lapsang souchong does have its own, very specific, manner of production.

But this particular teaproduced only in China’s National Wuyi Mountain Nature Preservation Zone, and the first of the world’s black tea—is uniquely unique!

(See my last post for a description of what this tea is and how it is made.)

1. Tea species and growing environment.

Lapsang souchong is produced from leaves of the Bohea variety of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which is native to the forested Wuyi Mountain region. Every variety of tea has aroma constituents that are specific to it, and, as with wine, the terroir contributes to that.

But there’s more to the story. Researchers have shown (Yao et al. 2005) that the leaves of the Bohea variety absorb more of the elements of pine smoke than do the leaves of tea grown outside this region. Thus, the tea leaves themselves have a quality that heavily contributes to lapsang souchong’s final smokiness.


2. The wood used in tea production. Yep, it matters.

In the processing of black tea in the Wuyi region, native pine wood is used for the drying and smoking stages. Importantly, the oil of this pine tree—Pinus taiwanensis—contains alpha-terpineol, and this particular variety of pine contains more longifolene (a component in pine resin) than do other types of pine trees.

3. Tea leaves + smoke — OR — like bergamot makes it Earl Grey, longifolene makes it lapsang souchong!

When Yao and colleagues analyzed the constituents of lapsang souchong and smoked lapsang souchong, they found high levels of longifoline and alpha-terpineol in the tea. In fact, these were the “major components of volatile oils contributing to the odor of such teas,” and longifoline “can be considered as the unique constituent in such tea” (2005:8689).

While alpha-terpineol is also found in the tea leaves themselves, its high concentration in lapsang souchong and smoked lapsang souchong comes from the pine smoke.

Comparing the volatile constituents of lapsang souchong with smoked lapsang souchong: lapsang souchong contains more tea leaf than pine constituents, and smoked lapsang souchong contains more pine than tea leaf constituents.

This of course makes sense—the more smoke the leaves absorb, the more pine constituents there will be!

4. Products that form when pine is heated or burned, such as phenols, also contribute to both lapsang souchong and smoked lapsang souchong. There are more of these pyrolysis products in the smoked lapsang souchong, unsurprisingly.

Why People Love Lapsang Souchong Tea
(yes, there are some; I have met them)

When comparing lapsang souchong and smoked lapsang souchong tea to other smoked food, there is a definite difference. The tea leaves, specifically, have high terpenoid levels from the pine that itself has a lot of longifoline.

Thus, to have the real thing, you must first grow Camellia sinensis var. sinensis cv. Bohea within the Wuyi Mountain region, and then process the leaves per the prescribed method, using Pinus taiwanensis pine wood.

This results in tea with “mountain flavor,” as Yao’s team describes it, the “aroma of pine smoke . . . plus the sweet note of black tea” (2005:8691).

If you have some lapsang souchong sitting around your house, you may be happy to know that this tea can be stored for years. It can also be re-brewed a few times. And if you just can’t get past its smokiness to actually drink it, try adding the brew to sauces. Or use the leaves as a dry rub.

If all else fails, find someone else who loves this tea. After all, Yao et al. (2005:8688) assert that:

The quality of lapsang souchong is superior to that of other black teas. Its taste is rich, giving a harmony feeling, and its aroma is sweet and fruity plus a special flavor of pine.

Okay, if they say so. . . .

Source: Yao, S-S., et al., “Flavor Characteristics of Lapsang Souchong and Smoked Lapsang Souchong, a Special Chinese Black Tea with Pine Smoking Process,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53:8688–8693. 2005.
And no, I still do not drink lapsang souchong, although I have tried to, yet again, but nope, can’t do it. . . .

Curious?  Try China Lapsang Souchong from TeaHaus.


What Is Lapsang Souchong?

Smoky Tea (or, you mean you actually drink this?!)

Subtle tea smokiness may fall within meh territory, but:

full-blown-campfire-smoke-ingesting lapsang souchong 
can-it-get-smokier-than-this smoked lapsang souchong??

These intensely smoky teas tend to stoke a love/hate response—so how did they become a thing?

Wisps of Smoke

Some teas, of course, are intrinsically and pleasantly—lightly—smoky. These include keemun, first grown and produced in 1875 in China’s Anhui Province, quickly becoming a Western favorite.

Russian breakfast teas are blends that contain smoky tea (e.g., keemun and lapsang souchong). Some say that the typically smoky flavor of these teas originated from the 1700s, when the tea, transported by camels, was exposed to repeated campfires on the caravan’s months-long journey from China to Russia.

Another slightly smoky tea is black gunpowder, grown and produced in southeastern China’s Fujian Province, and given its name by ship captains, who thought that the tightly rolled “pearls” of tea leaves resembled granular gunpowder.

But these teas aren’t lapsang souchong, which is something altogether different!

Billows Fill the Air

If you have ever tossed some pine boughs into a campfire, you know what happens—a hot fire and a whole lot of flames and smoke! And sometime in the 1400s, tea producers in China’s Wuyi Mountain area started capitalizing on this fact, especially with the Ming Dynasty opening trade with the West in 1405.

To start at the beginning—

Tea has a long history in the Fujian Province, a region that encompasses Wuyi Mountain. We know that tea was grown here already during the Qin Dynasty in 221–207 BC, and Fujian later was a crucial stop on the silk routes. Although the Chinese drank mostly green tea, a more fully oxidized (black) tea traveled better—so it was in the Wuyi Mountain region where black tea, from the native tea species Camellia sinensis var. sinensis cv. Bohea, was first produced.

Its name—

Thus, lapsang souchong began, although not with that name.

lapsang souchong tea

Souchong is indeed Chinese in origin (mid-1700s), meaning “small sort,” but lapsang is an English “market name” that was invented in the 1880s, first appearing in print in 1883.

Before that, tea from this region was called Bohea, a word that derives from the Minnan dialect for “Wuyi Mountain” and accords with the Chinese method of classifying tea geographically (they also classified it by how it was prepared, its quality, and so on).

According to some, several types of tea, including congou and souchong, fell under the umbrella of Bohea. (For perspective, the first leaf below the tip plucked from a tea plant was orange pekoe, the second pekoe, the third pekoe-souchong, the fourth souchong, and the fifth congou.)

But Chinese researchers S-S. Yao et al. (2005: 8688) say that “the word ‘Bohea’ meant the black tea (lapsang souchong) produced in the Wuyi area in the early world tea trade.”

In the early 1700s, Bohea was reaching both Europe and America, but the English East India Company had a different method of classifying tea:  by color and appearance. That is, “black” and “green.”

Hence, the oxidized Bohea was known as black tea.

How it is produced—

Today, “black tea” broadly refers to oxidized teas, which are produced by many countries. But lapsang souchong is produced only in the Wuyi Mountain region.

To make any tea, tea leaves are plucked and withered, which is a light oxidation. By stopping at this stage or by tightly controlling how much more oxidation the leaves undergo, you end up with green, white, and oolong teas.

To produce black teas, the oxidation continues much farther, resulting in a very dark leaf. Basically, you oxidize a leaf by damaging it, so by controlling the damage type/level/speed/etc., you control the oxidation. Because you want a lot of oxidation, leaf cells are ruptured, either by cutting or rolling them (orthodox method) or by mechanically cutting them into pieces (crush-tear-curl or CTC).

But lapsang souchong is different.

To produce this tea, as Yao and his team explain, the bud and two leaves are plucked and withered, first in the sun and then, because the Wuyi Mountain environment is very humid, indoors at around 140°F. But for this second withering, the leaves are placed on a slatted floor above a heating room—containing a smoky pine wood fire—which allows the leaves to absorb the smoke.cup of lapsang souchong

The leaves are then rolled, fixed by pan firing, rolled a second time, and again dried. For this last step, the leaves are placed into bamboo sieves that are subjected to hot air and smoke produced from a pine wood-burning stove.

To produce smoked lapsang souchong, lapsang souchong tea leaves are sprayed with water, put into a bamboo basket, and then exposed to pine smoke. Interestingly, there is no flame in this process. Pine wood (without bark) is placed on burning charcoal that is in a hole; this creates high-quality pine smoke, without flame, because the pine is heated but not burned.

But only in the Wuyi Mountain area??? 

Okay, so oxidized tea + smoke = lapsang souchong, right?

Sort of, but not entirely. It turns out that this specific tea can be made only in this specific part of the world, or by using the specific tea and specific pine that are found in this exact area of the globe. Why is that?

Coming in my next post!

Try the gamut of smokiness for yourself! TeaHaus offers these high-quality teas:
China Keemun Finest Chuen Cha
Black Gunpowder
Russian Samovar
China Lapsang Souchong
(pictured above)

Sources: (1) Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Oxford University Press. 2016. (2) Yao, S-S., et al., “Flavor Characteristics of Lapsang Souchong and Smoked Lapsang Souchong, a Special Chinese Black Tea with Pine Smoking Process,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53:8688–8693. 2005.
And no, I do not drink lapsang souchong, although I have tried, several times. . . .