The name,” Lapsang Souchong,” is the direct translation of 正山小种. The first two characters of this name, 正山, translate loosely into “The mountain” and 小种 means “small leaf varietal.” Therefore, “Lapsang Souchong” essentially refers to black tea made from small-leaf varietal trees that are native to the mountain of Tongmuguan County in Fujian. And while this is all very true, much more comes to mind when we say, “Lapsang Souchong”...
Tongmuguan is an extremely beautiful and secluded village tucked high up in the mountains of Fujian. The surrounding area is protected from tourism and only inhabitants of the village and their guests can enter it, passing through a checkpoint on the narrow, winding road that leads to Tongmuguan. This checkpoint is about one hour's drive from the Wuyishan Nature Reserve, another revered and protected area in these vast mountains. Where the Wuyi reserve is known for its spectacular landscape of cliffs and vistas, Tongmuguan has more of a dense and inward pull: waterfalls run continuously from many of its peaks, pooling in its deep valleys. It is lush with old forest that grows dense and verdant from the continuous flow of mineral rich water. For this, it is known as a “deep mountain, old growth” village.
On the steep slopes of these mountains small clusters of tea trees grow, together with bamboo and other indigenous species of trees. The mountains are steep and rocky, making it impossible to have plots of large numbers of tea trees. Therefore, most of the tea trees here are considered semi-wild and wild. In this terrain, weeding and fertilizing the trees is so difficult that most people leave them to grow on their own, and they do so successfully.
The tea trees in Tongmuguan are all of the indigenous, small-leaf varietal. Their roots grow deep between the rocks, making every effort to absorb nutrients from the soil below the stone. However, in this unique climate, the tea trees don't grow very tall; even after decades of age they will only reach 4 feet in height. For this, and for their relatively tiny leaves, the ancient people called the tea made here “xiaozhong,” or “small varietal.”
The earliest known black tea in the world originates from Tongmuguan. The story goes, that tea farmers in Tongmuguan accidentally over-oxidized green tea due to military disturbances, and so, in an attempt to remedy this error, they used pine wood to smoke the tea. Tea made like this eventually became known as “black.”
Many scholars have examined the origin of black tea, but it is still difficult to determine when, and by who, black tea was invented. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch merchants, and later British merchants, bought up a large percentage of the Wuyishan tea, including those produced in Xingcun (Star Village) and Tongmuguan. It is the tea that grows in the mountains and rivers of northern Fujian that lead to the tea-drinking customs of Westerners.
The English loved Lapsang Souchong so much that an Englishman named Robert Fortune took 20,000 tea plants from Tongmuguan and planted them in then Colonized Darjeeling, India. They grew well, as Darjeeling is at the same latitude as Tongmuguan, and this transplant marks the origin of Indian black teas.
The most traditional types of Lapsang Souchong, and also the most rare to find nowadays, are smoked in wooden huts that are built specifically for this purpose. Pine tree harvested from the forest of Tongmuguan is the only wood that is used to smoke these Lapsang Souchongs. For the most authentic and traditional lapsang souchong, the entire process of making the tea will be carried out inside these wooden huts.
This adds noticeable layers of complexity to the tea, and ensures that the smoke gets to the bones of the tea leaves. The aroma and taste of teas made this way will evolve over the next few years, after it has been made. We see many different shortcuts taken to produce what is sold as Lapsang Souchong today, and while they are enjoyable teas, none will have the sensation that comes from having the pine smoke entirely penetrate the leaves of tea.
At Cultivate, we carry traditional Lapsang Souchong that has been intentionally aged for 12 years, giving the pine smoke characteristics time to evolve and integrate with the flavours of the tea. This is a wonderful example of what is now quite a rare tea to find outside of China.
It comes from Mali Village in the Tongmuguan region of Wuyishan. At 5200 ft above sea level, Mali Village sits at the highest mountain peak within this area. This high altitude region, which sees a great deal of rainfall, suspended fog, and drastic fluctuations in temperature throughout the day, is known to this day for producing some of the best black teas in the world.
The leaves for this tea come from semi-wild groves of tea trees. Once picked, they are slow-smoked in the small, pine house built specifically for this purpose. The smoking hut for this tea was built in the 1930's and has been used continuously since, amassing the character of the scent it imparts to the tea.
Traditionally smoked Lapsang Souchong like this is distinct, but not overpowering. The notes of smoke, ash, and forest are integrated with the sweetness of the tea leaves: as much as we are struck by its ashy, incensed quality, we find its sweetness in flavours like longan and sap. This is a tea that will resonate with people who enjoy peaty scotch; its another approach to liquid smoke.
While being caffeinated, this tea is deeply soothing. Perhaps because its gentle warmth feels like a perfect inverse of the cool, wet, challenging conditions that produce it. As such, it is by nature restorative, and a transportive testament to both the place it comes from, and the cultural history we can attribute it to.