Why the Smoke?
You either love it or you hate it. There's no way to get around it. If you don't hate it on first sip, there's a very good chance that you will actually like it. That said, if you're interested in finding out all that you can about Lapsang Souchong, you've come to the right place.
So, to begin with, we'll take a look at the beginnings of Lapsang and how it came to be; the method of making Lapsang; and finally we'll try to decipher the taste of Lapsang Souchong to help you in your tea endeavors.
The Happy Accident
There are two trains of thought on how Lapsang Souchong came into being, and both are equally fascinating. The beginnings of both tales are similar and start with the Qing Dynasty of China.
In the first version, the story tells of how a unit of soldiers was passing through the Xingcun village in the WuYi region, where they proceeded to set up camp in a tea factory.
The villagers, having received warning of the soldiers heading their way, fled to the surrounding mountains for safety. The soldiers made camp in the abandoned tea factory which was filled with freshly harvested tea leaves ready for processing.
When the soldiers finally left their village and the people came back, it was too late for the tea to be processed using the normal methods. There wouldn't be enough time to do this and to get the tea down to the market in time to catch the buyers.
So they decided to take a shortcut in their processing methods; bringing in many boughs of pinewood, they set fire to them. They smoked the tea leaves till they were dry and then processed them in the normal manner.
The villagers not only managed to get the tea leaves to the market in time, they also managed to create a taste sensation with the pine-smoked tea.
In the second version of the story, we are told that the Qing army was invading WuYi Shan region in the northwest of Fujian province.
In the same manner as the first version, the villagers received advanced warning of the soldiers heading their way and fled to the surrounding mountains for safety. However, and this is where the story deviates significantly, the villagers had sufficient time to hide their tea. This they did by burying it in the mountains near their village. The tea leaves were still raw however and needed to be dried out first before being buried.
The villagers knew that time was of an essence and used whatever they could to quickly dry the tea leaves. Using freshly cut pine branches from the surrounding forests, they set fire to these and used the resulting smoke to dry the leaves which they then buried before fleeing to safety.
Once the soldiers had passed through and all was safe once more, the villagers came back and dug up the tea from where it had been buried. Upon opening the containers holding the dried tea leaves they were vastly disappointed to find that the tea leaves were ruined. The tea was dark, and tasted smoky from the enforced quick-dry method over the pine boughs. It was not at all to their liking.
However, in a hope to salvage what they could from the situation, this pine-smoked tea was taken down to the market and presented to the Dutch traders who came each year to buy tea from China.
To their everlasting surprise the Dutch traders not only liked the tea, they came back for it the next year as well, and a new tea was born.
Whichever version you take, it cannot be denied that the beginnings of Lapsang Souchong were exciting ones and for an accidental tea it has gained great popularity among tea connoisseurs around the world.
...Read the next article in the series on Making Lapsang Souching Tea
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