Tong Mu Village in the Wuyi Mountains in China's Fujian Province

Canton Tea Club Week 39: Original Lapsang Souchong

Jen and I were lucky enough to visit Tong Mu, a small village in the heart of a protected reserve in Wuyi and the birthplace of Lapsang Souchong.

We visited tea Master Liang Junde, a highly revered master who is famed for inventing one of the most expensive and highly prized black teas available, Jing Jun Mei (this tea costs about £2400 per kilo). However, we were not on the hunt for Jing Jun Mei, but Lapsang Souchong. Mr Junde’s family has been living in Tong Mu for 250 years and making Lapsang Souchong for just as long. He began his career working in a nearby Lapsang Souchong ‘factory’ and later started his own small factory, which uses only the highest quality leaves and traditional techniques to make high grade Lapsang Souchong. Now at 65, he has begun the process of handing the reins over to the next generation, so we spent the day with both him and his son. The day began with a marathon Lapsang and Jing Jun Mei tasting session (what a privilege!), after lunch we were shown the fantastic traditional smoking rooms and his picturesque tea gardens.

The invention of Lapsang Souchong in 1610 was an extremely important milestone in the history of tea. It’s the first black tea in recorded existence; before the arrival of Lapsang, the Chinese only drank green and oolong teas and this new black variety proved extremely popular. From Lapsang came other famous Chinese black teas, such as Keemun and Bai Lin Gong Fu, and from China the popularity of black tea spread to other tea producing areas such as India, Africa and Sri Lanka. So Lapsang Souchong is the original and ancestor to all black tea.

Lapsang Souchong is made up of the cut leaves of the Xiao Zhong varietal which have been smoked over pine wood fires. Different kinds of Lapsangs are made for the Chinese and international market; the Chinese prefer a lighter smoke, so the tea for the Chinese market is smoked over young pine. The international market demands a much stronger smoke flavour, so the tea is smoked over aged pine which has a higher content of oils. The tea in your Tea Club selection is a lighter, fruitier Chinese version.

The smoking of the tea is done in two rooms (one on top of the other). Under the room on the ground floor is a fire pit, which is covered by a brick floor with gaps in it to allow smoke to rise through it. The room above has a permeable floor made of a bamboo matt which allows some of the smoke from the lower floor to pass through. The process starts off in the top room where the freshly picked leaves are laid on the bamboo floor to wither. As the green leaves wither slowly, the smoke can truly penetrate the leaves, meaning that the smoke flavour is not simply washed away after the first infusion. The withering leaves are then rolled vigorously to encourage oxidisation (which turns the tea black). The tea is then laid out over raised racks in the lower room. This is much warmer than the upper room (approximately 60 degrees celsius) and much smokier. The tea is left in here to smoke and dry out. The next stage is to chop the leaves and sort it into grades. Finally the tea is baked at a higher temperature to fix it at its optimum state.

Our delicious Lapsang Souchong is available to buy on our website.

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