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 tea—produced 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. . . .