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Tealeafster - Lapsang Souchong, Part Three

Recently we had the pleasure of a visit by one of our favourite collaborators, Jelmer aka "Tealeafster", who supplies us with with some of our favourite chinese tea rarities.

In this last part of the conversation we had a talk about one of the teams long time favourites, Lapsang Souchong.



ANMO: Can you give a quick introduction on what a Lapsang is?

Jelmer: Lapsang Souchong is a black tea, or as they call it in China - red tea -, from Fujian province in China. Lapsang Souchong grows in Tong Mu Guan, a remote village on 1500m a 2 hour drive from the area where the yancha grows. Tong Mu Guan is famous for two different black teas: Lapsang Souchong, and Jin Jun Mei.

A: What is so special about Tong Mu Guan?

J: As with so many teas and also wines, the area that a certain tea grows in is essential for the characteristics of that tea. In Wuyishan, yancha oolongs have the features they have because of the rocky soil, giving it minerality, along with a ton of other features that let that tea thrive.

Tong Mu Guan is very different from Wuyishan, but it has its own features that make a great black tea. Tong Mu Guan is a very remote village that lies on an idyllic tea mountain. In tea books in China, Tong Mu Guan is often portrayed as the ideal tea village/mountain. It’s lush and green, but also cloudy and foggy all the time. If you’ve been to tea mountains this is often the case, but Tong Mu Guan is extreme in this. It’s cloudy and foggy all year round, and warm and moist. There is A LOT of rain, especially in tea season.

The unique environment is very good for growing, and the humid climate is very good for black tea oxidation, but it also gives a lot of problems for farmers.

A: Can you tell us a little about the history of Lapsang?

J: Lapsang is over 400 years old already. Yet the Lapsang we see in the market today only exists for less than 20 years: unsmoked Lapsang. For centuries, Lapsang was traditionally smoked with pine. This is still the case nowadays, but it is much rarer and most of the market is filled with unsmoked Lapsang as this is much more aromatic and flowery and therefore more popular among tea drinkers.

So why was Lapsang smoked in the first place? There is one legend that some of you may know of that tea sellers often tell you, and that’s this:

One day, while the Tong Mu Guan farmers were busy bringing the harvest in, an army regiment passed through the village and set up camp for a night or two to take a rest. They occupied the buildings the farmers lived in, used the processing facilities, making it impossible for the farmers to process the freshly brought in leaves. They crushed and bruised the leaves, basically ruining the harvest.

After the army left, the farmers had to do something to save their harvest. So someone came up with the idea to use local pine wood to roast the tea. One of the traders took a batch of the smoked Lapsang to the port where tea was traded, and he found that a lot of buyers, some which were western, were very excited about this tea. He went back to Tong Mu Guan and told this story, after which the farmers only produced smoked lapsang.

That’s one story. It’s never been proven, yet everybody keeps repeating it.

There is also another story, one of which makes more sense to me. And that is that the farmers who smoked the Lapsang in the old days did it for the same reason the farmers still smoked their Lapsang 20-30 years ago.

We’ve already discussed the weather conditions in Tong Mu Guan. After tea is picked, it needs to be withered and dried to reduce the moist in the leaf, preparing it for further processing. Imagine being a farmer in Tong Mu Guan, a village where it’s always foggy and where it rains almost every day in tea season. How do you ever reduce the moist in your tea leaves when it’s always moisty, always rainy, and in 2 months time there is no period of 15 days of good weather to process the tea?

So what they did and still do in some cases is that after picking the fresh leaves, they heat and wither the leaves using a fire of local pine trees. This way they absorb the pine flavor. And there is another step where they use pine. In the drying and baking process, pine wood is also used, giving it even more smoky pine flavor. This further enhances the smoke and pine characteristics of a smoked Lapsang. Years this was the way to make Lapsang.

Now fast forward to the 20th century. Lapsang was a popular tea, especially in the west, but it also had a very bad reputation. The leaves were cut into small pieces to make it easier to ship them, and for international trade it didn’t really matter what the quality was since the British were just steeping it for 20 minutes anyway and added some milk to reduce the bitterness.

In the 80s and 90s especially, it was not interesting for farmers to produce Lapsang anymore. Tong Mu Guan is a very remote village with a bad road to it, and very hard weather conditions to produce tea. The tea that was being produced was bought by the government for very low prices. Domestic interest in Lapsang was low because of the cut-sized leaves, not a lot of tea shop owners came to the village because of its remoteness, and there was only one phone in the village to directly trade. Farmers preferred a factory job with a stable income above hard work in the tea fields, depending on the harvest, for a low income. And so many of them moved away.

Especially in the 90s a lot of Lapsang gardens were not picked anymore. But in the beginning of the 00s this changed. It got easier for farmers to get directly in touch with the market, and listening to the wishes of the market they learned that there was a lot more interest in black teas that didn’t have that smoky flavor. In 2003, farmers started to experiment with unsmoked Lapsang. It took them a few years to get it right, and because of technology and better processing facilities, the smoking process was not needed anymore even in bad weather conditions.

A: You said Tong Mu Guan was also famous for its Jin Jun Mei. Can you give us a little more information on that tea?

J: Jin Jun Mei gave an incredible boost to the area. Where Lapsang has a long history, Jin Jun Mei is only 14 years old. In 2005 tea officials and the national tea association came together to experiment with a new cultivar, based on the Wuyishan native cultivar qizhong (or cai cha), that is also used for Lapsang. They came up with Jin Jun Mei, a tea that is bud only, so only the buds. It has an eye brow shape and looks a bit golden. Jin: golden. Mei: eyebrow. Jun: the tea master that worked on the creation of this cultivar.

It’s a very delicate tea because of the many buds in it, and therefore it’s one of the  most expensive, if not the most expensive, black tea in China. From 2009, more farmers were skilled enough to make this tea and Jin Jun Mei got in a bubble that is still ongoing.

So both the Unsmoked Lapsang and the Jin Jun Mei got Tong Mu Guan back on the tea map in China, and ever since prices are getting higher, teas are getting better, and popularity is growing more and more.

A: There’s also a category of the Lapsang called Wild Lapsang. What makes the tea “wild”?

J: Wild Lapsang is an unsmoked lapsang, that is picked from untended gardens in the forest. Not cared after. It’s a mix of varietes, so not only the original Cha Cai/Qizhong, but different varieties that are growing in the forest. As you’ll taste it’s often a lot more aromatic than regular Lapsangs, which a lot of flower and fruit, but also a slightly lighter body. Because of the aromas and taste it’s an easy to digest and easy to understand tea, making it popular among tea drinkers.

This concludes the last part of our interview with Jelmer. We hope you liked it and have learned something new in the process