This is the first installment in a trilogy of posts about Lapsang Souchong.
The Changing Face of Lapsang Souchong, Part 1: “Silver and Smoke”
Tong Mu Guan is a village on Wu Yi Shan (read: “mountain”) in Fujian province, China. It is considered the birthplace of modern day black tea. As legend has it, the first black tea (or hong cha/”red tea”) was produced by quickening the drying process by smoking the tea over wet pinewood. The result was something dubbed “Bohea”, at the time – a term that referred to simple low-to-mid-grade black tea in the 18th and 19th century.
Another variant came to pass, which was more smoked than Bohea – utilizing a process involving dried pinewood. That resulted in the campfire-tasting beverage known as Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, or more commonly referred to as Lapsang Souchong. There are many stories regarding its origin, some involving armies staying and armies passing through, but the end result is the same – heavily pine-smoked black tea that sold well abroad.
Lapsang Souchong is a love-it or hate-it affair. Believe it or not, the first Lapsang I ever bought was from the original Tong Mu village. I didn’t understand at the time how great a privilege that was. And I hated it. It tasted stale and burnt – old, even.
Later on down the line, I tried another Lapsang Souchong not from Tong Mu. Loved every sip of it. The hickory flavor gelled with me. Since then, every smoked tea variant I’ve consumed has been a pyromaniac’s palatial love affair.
Sometime in 2011, I happened across another Tong Mu-made black tea called Jin Jun Mei – roughly translated, “Golden Beautiful Eyebrow”. It was reedy-looking, gold-tipped like a Yunnan Jin Cha, and very young-seeming. I could tell they were young buds by the presence of some furs. Funny thing is, though, I don’t remember much about it other than it reminding me of Golden Monkey – another Fujian province black. Other than acknowledging its immediate deliciousness, I didn’t find anything extraordinary about it.
Then I read an article by Austin Hodge of Seven Cups. Apparently, I had tasted one of the rarest, most in-demand teas in the world. And it had wiped out Lapsang Souchong production in Tong Mu village. I will confess to having wept a wee bit while reading it.
Around the same time, Smith Teamaker’s tech guru, Alex, had teased me with a smoked tea sample they got in. I immediately hunted him and it down within that week. They gifted me a couple of servings of the stuff. The name for it was Yin Jun Mei.
This required some research. Putting my geek cap on, I looked up whatever information I could find on it. While doing so, I kept finding its name tied inexplicably with Jin Jun Mei. Both were considered Lapsang Souchong, and both hailed from Tong Mu. Apparently, Yin Jun Mei (read: “Silver Beautiful Eyebrow) was Jin Jun Mei’s lightly-smoked sibling. Whereas Jin wasn’t smoked at all, Yin underwent a process similar to traditional Bohea – smoked over wet pinewood, resulting in a subtler smoky taste.
I brewed it up the next day to find out.
The leaves had no silver tips among them, as the name would imply, but rather gold tips. They were small, curly and ranged from brown to gold. The overall appearance reminded me of Golden Monkey – only darker. I didn’t get much of an aroma from the sample, other than a scant shade of wood and malt. No actual smoky sensation – much like Jin Jun Mei in that respect.
For brewing, I went with a typical black tea approach – 1 tsp. in a 6oz. gaiwan, steeped in boiled water for three minutes. Tried and true method for anything Lapsang-ish. I hoped some smoke emerged from the infusion.
The liquor brewed to a foggy red-amber with a spry, almost Keemun-like aroma. Smoky yet sweet. The taste was the most surprising aspect. Smoke did emerge on the forefront, but not in that strong, hickory sort of way. It was understated but definitely there. What followed really had me floored. It was a sensation that was almost like a white tea – an herbaceous punch of zest coupled with a smidge of malt. Whatever it was, it was delicious. And I can see why this and its “gold” sibling are taking Tong Mu away.
That said, I still have a soft spot for the unsophisticated, pinewood punch of the ol’ Lapsang. So, I write this glowing approval of this Jun Mei type with a metaphoric tear of lament. Lapsang Souchong, I salute ye.
In all your forms.
For Part 2, go HERE.