Blog 130: The Origin of Lapsang Souchong’s “Smoky Smell”
When we discuss the history black tea, there’s one black tea we cannot avoid: Lapsang Souchong/正山小种.
To many tea lovers, Lapsang Souchong is simply the name of a black tea product. In today’s tea market, almost all tea producers have a black tea called “Lapsang Souchong”.
However, the name “Lapsang Souchong” is like “champagne”. Only the sparkling white wine produced in Champagne, France can be called a champagne. A Lapsang Souchong refers specifically to the black tea produced in its birthplace —— Tongmu village in the Wuyi mountains. In fact, in Wuyi area’s local dialect (northern Fujianess/闽北话), the pronunciation “Lapsang Souchong” reflects the place of origin and the type of tea plant.
Although not all black tea products can be called “Lapsang Souchong”, there’re still lots tea producers outside Tongmu (especially in south Asia) call their black tea “Lapsang Souchong”. Unavoidably, we end up with 2 types of “Lapsang Souchong”: the authentic from Tongmu, and others from elsewhere.
This creates an interesting situation. There’re two products on the market that share exactly the same name. How can we tell them apart?
In practice, many tea business owners in the U.S. like to call the original Lapsang Souchong from Tongmu as “non-smoked”, and other “Lapsang Souchong” as “smoked”.
Because of this preconceived idea, many tea drinkers believe that a Lapsang Souchong is either “smoked” or “not smoked”.
However, “the smoking smell” is actually a feature of the traditional Lapsang Souchong tea-making.
Here is the question: how come the original Lapsang Souchong becomes a “non-smoked” if the smoking smell is one of its unique features?
The answer is in the traditional Lapsang Souchong tea-making process. From fresh leaves to fully processed tea leaves, a Lapsang Souchong needs to go through a total of 3 steps that involve “smoking”.
The 3 steps are withering, drying, and re-drying. As you can see here, none of the 3 steps involves the actual “smoking”. As a matter of fact, all steps are closely related to “drying”.
Is it possible that the “smoking” is just a byproduct of “drying”?
The answer is YES. The traditional Lapsang Souchong tea-making uses a local Chinese red pine as firewood. Burning pinewood generates a light smoke. While being dried by the heat, tea leaves also acquire the smell of pinewood smoke. This is where the “smoke smell” comes from.
Since tea leaves are not intentionally smoked, the smell they acquire is not intrusive. The pinewood smoke smell of a traditional Tongmu Lapsang Souchong should be cloudless, warm, and comfortable. If you find a Lapsang Souchong with a pungent smell of smoke, it’s often purposely smoked to imitate the pinewood smoke smell of the original Lapsang Souchong.
In modern Tongmu Lapsang Souchong tea-making, the traditional pinewood burning has been replaced by more efficient electric tea-making machines. Because no pinewood, no smoky smells. Modern Tongmu Lapsang Souchong products can present us a whole new level of tea experience.
The advancement of modern tea-making is also a good news for Tongmu tea makers. Working in a smoke-filled environment creates a lot health hazards. In old times, it was common that tea makers went blind after decades of tea-making.
If you’re interested in experiencing our authentic Tongmu Lapsang Souchong, please see Little Chi-Gan and Big Chi-Gan for more. Our Lapsang Souchong is made by Mr. Fu Hua-Liang, the son in law of black tea pioneer Mr. Jiang Jun-Fa.
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