Blog 68: The Authentic Lapsang Souchong
Have you ever wondered what exactly does “Lapsang Souchong” mean?
To non-Chinese speakers, this names simply doesn’t make sense. Neither “lapsang” or “souchong” has a meaning. This is because the name “Lapsang Souchong” is a direct transliteration of the original pronunciation in Chinese: Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (正山小种). Lapsang is Zhang Shan (正山), and Souchong is Xiao Zhong (小种).
In its native language, the meaning of Lapsang Souchong becomes clear. Lapsang, or Zheng Shan (正山), refers to the area where this tea is made (more precisely, village of Tongmu, please see our previous blog for more); Souchong, or Xiao Zhong (小种), refers to a type of local tea plants.
As its name suggests, the authentic Lapsang Souchong is only the black tea from the “lapsang” area. In “Provisions on the Administration of Marks of Origin” published by Ministry of Commerce of China, “lapsang area” is specified within 117°38′6″E～117°44′30E and 27°41′35″N～27°49′00″N, approximately 50 square kilometer/12355 acres in village of Tongmu.
Souchong, on the other hand, refers to a type of wild tea plants that grow in Tongmu. This tea plant is called “Xiao Zhong” (小种, literally means small cultivar) after it’s distinct small leaves. Most tea plants in Tongmu are not grafted. Those tea plants are wild because they actually sprout out of fallen seeds. Tongmu tea plants have a smaller output. Most Tongmu black tea on the market are in fact counterfeits from nearby areas.
Yes, the authentic Lapsang Souchong refers only to the black tea from a very specific location. Just as only the sparkling white wine from Champaign in France can be called Champaign, only black tea harvested from small-leaf tea plants in Tongmu can be called Lapsang Souchong. Despite many non-Tongmu tea producers now produce tea products bear that name, they’re simply taking advantage of the name. Once you understand the true meaning of Lapsang Souchong, you’d understand just how inappropriate for those products to claim that they’re also Lapsang Souchong.
Historically, Lapsang Souchong’s tea-making process transformed from smoking to very lightly roasting. The modern Lapsang Souchong from Tongmu is mostly lightly roasted. Few Tongmu tea makers are still doing smoked Lapsang Souchong due to health and market concerns. There’re many illegitimate “Lapsang Souchong” products in the U.S. are also smoked. Nevertheless, these illegitimate products are smoked very differently.
Traditional smoked Tongmu Lapsang Souchong is smoked with Chinese red pine which is native to the area. The smoking process is also done in a local style architecture called “Qing Lou” (Chinese: 青楼, meaning: black house). The final product would have the aroma of pine trees, the taste of longan fruits and candied date (jujube). However, due to the harmful smoke to tea maker’s eyes and the protection of Chinese red pines, modern Tongmu tea makers refined their techniques and transformed the tea-making to very light roasting. Tea makers outside Tongmu, however, don’t have the access to pine trees or Qing Lou. The best they can do is to merely imitate the process.
The modern non-smoked Tongmu Lapsang Souchong emphasizes more on extracting the aroma and the taste of the tea plant growing environment embedded in fresh leaves. The authentic Tongmu Lapsang Souchong can endure more than 10 infusions while still preserve the honey, floral and fruity tastes.
The next time you see a “Lapsang Souchong” in your local tea store, please remember that it isn’t just a type of a black tea. The name Lapsang Souchong is a specific location, a type of tea plant, and the work of generations of Tongmu tea makers who created and refined this tea.
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