Conversation: On Lapsang Souchong

by Jason Walker on September 27, 2012

in black, Chinese, origin, Voices of Tea

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Lapsang Souchong is a tea that many people either love or despise, but what is meant by “lapsang souchong” can be widely varying. Given the range of teas that fall under the name, it is possible to loathe and relish lapsang souchong at the same time.

Lapsang souchong may be one of, if not the oldest of black teas produced. Its earliest recognized place of origin lies in Fujian province, and production often involves smoking the tea leaves using pine wood or pine needles in smoke houses.

I asked Hartley Johnson of Mark T. Wendell Tea Comany to share his and his company’s views on lapsang souchong. Mark T. Wendell has been providing tea drinkers with Formosan (Taiwan) Lapsang Souchong for about a century. Theirs is named in honor of Hu Kwa, (a.k.a. Howqua) a Chinese trade merchant influential in both China and the West.

Mary Lou Heiss and her husband Robert have been in the tea business for nearly 40 years.  They operate a retail store in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the online store TeaTrekker. They have traveled to origin extensively (including the Fujian villages that produce lapsang souchong), and have written books about tea.

A little more needs to be said about the use of the term “lapsang souchong.” In Chinese characters, it is most often written as “正山小种.” In standard (Mandarin) Chinese, this would be pronounced “zheng shan xiao zhong.” It is therefore possible for the same tea to be transliterated as “lapsang souchong” or “zheng shan xiao zhong.”

There has also been an increase in the variety of teas labelled as either lapsang souchong or zheng shan xiao zhong. Some of these have a smoky character, and some do not. The Chinese online encyclopedia Baike entry and books from the China Tea Museum in Hangzhou recognize further divisions, including smoky souchong and zheng shan xiao zhong. The Baike article explains the distinction as zheng (having a meaning of “authentic” or “accurate” or “proper”) shan xiao zhong comes from within a specific set of geographic coordinates and is processed according to the accepted, traditional Tong Mu village method. The Tea Museum classification system suggests a potentially different use of terms. The Baike entry implies that a lapsang souchong could be harvested within the designated coordinates and be processed “authentically,” but still result in a smoky or non-smoky tea. The Tea Museum classification system simply implies there is zheng shan xiao zhong, and then there is smoky xiao zhong.

So that means that Mary Lou, Hartley, and the rest of us may not use the same terms in the same way. Drawing from Mary Lou’s direct quotes below, I found her use of “Lapsang Souchong” to include, but not be limited to, the following:

  1. “To us (i.e. TeaTrekker.com),  Lapsang Souchong is a specific category of smoked tea which includes Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong.”
  2. “…two styles of Lapsang Souchong are made – the original Lapsang Souchong named Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (from the Tong Mu Qi Lan sub-varietal) and the Lapsang Souchongs for export (made from other tea bush sub-varietals).”
  3. Export Lapsang Souchong “… is also made in the same smoking sheds.
  4. Export Lapsang Souchong “… is made using different tea bush sub-varietals grown in various villages located on Tong Mu mountain, and from which is produced the more highly smoked, export-style…”
  5. ‘non-smoky’ Lapsang Souchong is “… not Lapsang Souchong tea as this transliterated term has generally been defined over the last 50 years in the West.”

Since Hartley and Mark T. Wendell source their lapsang souchong from Taiwan, he seems to use the name in a broader, more generalized fashion than Mary Lou.

Mary Lou’s and Hartley’s responses below reveal what characteristics, if any, are essential components of accepted lapsang souchong.

Why are some versions of Lapsang Souchong smoky, and some not?

Mary Lou: To us, Lapsang Souchong is a specific category of smoked tea which includes Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong. These teas are made in Tong Mu village in the Wu Yi Shan region of Fujian Province. Other black teas made in this region are different because they are not made in the smoking sheds.

We have had the opportunity to visit the Lapsang Souchong smoking sheds on Tong Mu Mountain. We learned that two styles of Lapsang Souchong are made – the original Lapsang Souchong named Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (from the Tong Mu Qi Lan sub-varietal) and the Lapsang Souchongs for export (made from other tea bush sub-varietals). It was here that we encountered and tasted Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong for the first time. This is a lightly smoked tea made from fresh leaf grown in the original tea gardens of Xingcun village. For Zheng Shan tea, the fresh leaf receives a light smoking over pine wood in the smoking sheds.

Recently, some teas from the same area have been marketed as ‘non-smoky’ Lapsang Souchong as a way to acknowledge origin while distancing these teas from their smoky cousins. However, they are not Lapsang Souchong tea as this transliterated term has generally been defined over the last 50 years in the West.

Calling these teas ‘non-smoky’ Lapsang Souchong is unnecessarily confusing, because Lapsang Souchong has traditionally been made in the smoking sheds of Tong Mu Mountain. Anyone who has been inside the smoking facility at Tong Mu will never forget how intensely saturated those old wooden sheds are with an accumulation of wood smoke smell from decades and decades of use. These buildings simply could not produce a non-smoky tea.

The strong, tarry, and sometimes overwhelming tea that is made for export and sold simply as Lapsang Souchong is also made in the same smoking sheds. This tea is made using different tea bush sub-varietals grown in various villages located on Tong Mu mountain, and from which is produced the more highly smoked, export-style Lapsang Souchong. This tea is exposed to more smoke, or a more dense smoke in the smoking sheds and is made after the manufacture of Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong is completed for the year.

Unfortunately, interest in Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong may suffer in the West from confusion based on potential association with the stronger Lapsang Souchong tea. Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong is a very delicious tea – it has a polite delicacy with just a hint of smoke. The leaf is small and thin, the finished tea may have tip or not, and the taste is reminiscent of qualities that I find in other eastern China black teas – fruit, mineral, sweetness and a complete lack of astringency. The balance of tea taste to smoke is in favor of tea taste, a quality that requires skillful tea manufacture to achieve.

Hartley: All traditional Lapsang Souchong teas should be smoky in character, although the scent moderates over time and some less smoky ones may fade to a very subtle flavor.

What are the more traditional tastes or characteristics of the tea? Have they been changed or modified much over the years?

Hartley: The characteristic of any tea will depend on the combinations of bush husbandry, microclimate, weather, soil type, elevation, season, and plucking. In Lapsang’s case, smoking time and wood type would also be a factor. For sure all these factors will vary with time – not to mention the actual style of the tea maker in the factory. I am not sure one could deduce any trends or patterns to the changes over the years.

Heiss: We learned that the original Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong was a delicately smoked tea. The heavily smoked Lapsang Souchong teas that we know today were first made as an export product to the West.

We began selling tea 38 years ago and had among our offerings a Lapsang Souchong that was typical for the time. Since then, the top quality export grades of Lapsang Souchong have become better (the leaf is more uniform and of a larger, whole leaf size) and the lower grades have become less desirable.

Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong has only become available in the US during the last ten years. Tea enthusiasts who have a history of drinking Lapsang Souchong still prefer the more highly-smoked style. Further, we find that fans of Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong do not tend to like the export grade, smokier Lapsang Souchongs.

Does it matter which varietals (or sub- varietals) are used to make the tea? Why or why not?

Hartley: All Chinese and Formosa Lapsang Souchong teas are made from Camellia Sinensis, var. Sinensis. This is a smaller leafed version than var. Assamica, although there are many (>200) local sub-varieties, which are used for specific types of Chinese teas including Lapsangs. Assamica and African hybrid varietals are too harsh in taste for Chinese style teas.

Mary Lou: When we are purchasing Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong we like to know that it was made from the Tong Mu Qi Lan sub-varietal. Export-style Lapsang Souchong can be made from several local Tong Mu Mountain sub-varietals, or even leaf brought in from other tea growing regions. As long as the taste is right and the grade is what we want (unlike our criteria for other types of tea where we are very specific about sub-varietal) we don’t feel that knowing the exact sub-varietal adds anything to the decision-making process for this tea.

How is it graded or evaluated? Are higher grades smokier or less smoky?

Hartley: Lapsangs are mostly graded on leaf appearance, subtlety and sophistication of the smokiness, including strength and the type of wood used. There is very little comparative grading that occurs, with most teas standing on their own merits regardless of what the next village factory produced.

Mary Lou: Over the years we have seen in some seasons more than 12 grades of export Lapsang Souchong offered to us. The top grades have larger leaves and offer more tea flavor to smoke flavor. They are also more costly. As one tastes down through the less expensive grades of these teas the taste becomes harsh and more strongly slanted to the smoke flavor.

We are only aware of a couple of grades of Zheng Shan and they are very similar one to another. As with most manufactures of high repute, the factory at Tong Mu only puts out on offer tea that will reflect well on the facility and be a consistent tea drinking experience.

What characteristics would you look for when choosing a Lapsang Souchong?

Hartley: Each spring when we look to procure our signature Formosa Lapsang Souchong, Hu-Kwa, from our source in Northern Taiwan, we look for yearly consistency. We require a bold leaf that is reasonably well rolled and conditioned to look attractive. Although we like to have background black tea notes, we look for a fairly strong and aromatic smokiness, without an ashy (over smoked) or harsh (wood was too wet) flavor. Some types of pine woods used can give a very harsh flavor. To pinpoint the characteristics, strong but smooth would be the best way to put it. Our customers are used to this flavor profile. It is one that varies from a “tarry” Chinese Lapsang Souchong standard.

Mary Lou: When tasting Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, we look for flavor more than smoke, elegance, aroma, leaf-size and overall good taste. We do not want an aggressive taste or strong smoke in the cup.

Our export style Lapsang Souchong, on the other hand, needs to have a certain assertiveness and deep smoke, while at the same time showing a quality pluck in the leaf.

JW: As Hartley and Mary Lou show, there are some variations in what each of us may mean when we speak of lapsang souchong. Hartley’s comes from Taiwan. Mary Lou distinguishes between the familiar Western version, and the traditional Chinese versions. Both recognize the value and enjoyment that can be found in the several versions of lapsang souchong.

Thanks to both of my contributors.

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