Lapsang Souchong is either a love or hate thing for tea fans. A familiar refrain is that it’s like drinking a campfire. If Smokey the Bear had a favorite tea, perhaps this would be the one. With its famous smokey taste and aroma, Lapsang Souchong is produced in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian, China by smoking black tea in bamboo baskets over pine fires. Often made with old tea heavily smoked or blended with chemical additives to impart the unique flavor, the tea has had a reputation of suffering from poor quality. However, when sourced properly Lapsang Souchong yields a refined flavor that delivers notes of caramelized sugar and delicate smoke.
A good description of the history of the tea exists in The Story of Tea, A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou Hess and Robert J. Heiss. (Other origin stories abound as well.) Legend claims that the tea was created by accident. During the Qing Dynasty under emperor Shunzhi (r.1644-1661) the Qing army attacked villagers in northwest Fujian in attempts to integrate the provinces of Zheijang, Fujian and Canton into one region.
With little warning the villagers fled their homes but some decided to hide their tea from the advancing soldiers. Before burying it in the mountains, they were forced to quickly dry the tea by firing it over pine freshly cut from the forests nearby the village.
When the villagers returned to dig up their tea, they thought it undrinkable. Who would like dark, glossy tea that tasted of smoke from pine fires? Ironically, the Chinese decided to offer it to Dutch traders who had been buying tea for import in Europe. What do you know, the Dutch actually liked it and purchased the tea.
Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss write:
“The term bohea became synonymous for all of the high quality dark, leafy teas coming from the Wuyi Shan at that time. The term black tea was not in use yet. The smokey tea eventually became known in local Fuzhou dialect as La (“pine”) Sang (“wood”) or Lapsang. As the term bohea began to be used for more and more types of dark tea, it began to carry a generic meaning. Many of the finer teas from Fujian were renamed. Souchong was the term coined for quality large-leaf black teas from this region and their name Lapsang Souchong became the trade name for this tea.” (p. 132)
Today, Lapsang Souchong is enjoyed by those who like a tea with a bit of a twist. Often, the tea is combined with Assam tea to create a Russian Caravan blend. Cooking with Lapsang Souchong can be interesting too, especially if you use small amounts to impart smokey flavors to foods like tofu, fish, fowl or game. Instead of steeping the tea, you can grind up the leaves into a powder and use like you would a ground spice.
Whether you like Lapsang Souchong or not, it certainly yields a memorable cup. We sell an Organic Lapsang Souchong that produces a complex and flavorful cup.
So, any of you Lapsang fans? If so, happy steeping and enjoy your campfire in a cup.
Reference: Heiss, Mary Lou and Robert J. (2007). The Story of Tea, A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.