Pinewood, Smoke, and Cigars: The Heated History of Lapsang Souchong Tea
Lapsang is having is having its moment. Though it might be said that it has been for several hundred years, it is particularly prized of late. Many period PBS TV shows set in England often mention the drinking of this tea. A common setting is the local Vicar enjoying a cuppa while being hosted by the local Lord- think Downton Abby.
Lapsang and is one of the strongest, most complex, and – frankly – strangest teas to be a worldwide favorite. Over the years, it also seems impervious to price increases: people noted the steady increase in price but purchased it regardless. A good firm scientific cause explanation exists. There is no way to recreate the experience of this unique tea in a very literal sense. The raw, rusted, warming, delicious character of a cup of Lapsang Souchong is as unique as bourbon, strong while somehow not tart, potent while still as crisp as a blast of air, and memorable while not easily described. It's even been said that the aroma is closest to the scent of an entire eastern market, dashed through in a sprint, from a perfumer to a leathersmith, the market air inhaled at once. In pure chemical terms, there is longifolene to reckon with: a smell that's partly so unique to lapsang because it is a component of pine smoke rather than tea leaves.
Lapsang also has resilience and toughness in its history. As told by Mary L. and Robert J. Heiss in their excellent book: The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide , the leaves of the famed Wuyi region (from which Lapsang Souchong and other teas must come to be true Lapsang Souchongs) used in this particular brew are not leaves considered to be prime. Instead they were the leftovers, farther from the inner bud (Souchong is their name) and porters who would hall mass amounts of goods up and down the Wuyi mountains, would bury them, not knowing how they'd sell them. Smoking in pine to cover the 'poor' quality of the leaves was seen as the only way to pass them off. Dutch traders were sold this tea as a lark, rather cheekily. Imagine the local merchants' astonishment when the Dutch returned, rather obsessed by the stern, beautifully tarry, heat-soaked Lapsang Souchong. The rest, as they say, is history.
Lapsang is a Fujian tea, from Wuyi in Fujian. Through and through. There is, however, exactly one legitimate alternative growth region, which is Taiwan, where Fujian Chinese migrants have longstanding production methods that are source-true. Taiwanese Lapsang is an even bolder experience for the even hardier tea lover: a flavor collection to rival the rowdiest moonshine.
Lapsang Souchong is the sort of tea that one mentions and is greeted with either silence (most often) or an immediate, excited widening of the eyes (a rarer but very real phenomenon). It's the kind of prized taste that demands to be discussed in a quiet corner when two people realize that they share it. It was a favorite of Winston Churchill. One can imagine Marie Curie, Ernest Hemingway, or Sabina Spielrein also enjoying it – it is a hardy tea for strong-willed deep thinking sorts, and a fine accompaniment for cigar smoke and spicy meals.
Lapsang Souchong is the id of the tea world, an unbridled source of power and grace. It is less elegant than insistent, and less delicate than obsessive, but it is nonetheless a ghostly and subtle thing to consume. Even the most monstrously rich of tea character is still ephemeral, passing, teasing, and private. Lapsang tea bears these qualities in uncommon clarity. To try it is to remember the first time you ever sipped that mysterious dark, herbal, soily concoction that father, auntie, brother, and grandma loved so much.
It's like drinking the earth and air.