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