This is Part 2 of a trilogy of posts about Lapsang Souchong. For Part 1, go HERE.
The Changing Face of Lapsang Souchong, Part 2: “The Subtlety of Smoke”
The branding and categorizing of tea can get a little fuzzy, especially where China is concerned. The main reason being, a lot of the origin stories surrounding tea can’t be corroborated or catalogued. Many of them have fallen into myth and legend. Few attempts are made to say, “This is this because it comes from here!” And if they do, it’s very hard to back it up.
That’s not to say there haven’t been attempts to maintain brand integri-“tea” in China. Case in point, Keemun can’t really be considered Keemun if it isn’t from Qimen County, Anhui province, China. Pu-erh can’t be considered pu-erh if it isn’t from Yunnan province, China. And in 1732, the mayor of Changan County said that a tea couldn’t be considered real “hong cha” (what we call, “black tea”) unless it was grown/processed within an area of 600 square miles of Tong Mu village, Fujian province, China. (Source: Seven Cups)
Lucky for us tea drinkers, that last ruling never stuck. However, to a lesser degree, that category still holds true for Lapsang Souchong. If it is to be considered a smoked tea worthy of that name, it has to be grown from the rocks and cliffs of Wu Yi Mountain. Granted, Tong Mu Village doesn’t make smoky Lapsang anymore, at least not on the scale it used to. That isn’t to say other villages in the region didn’t pick up the slack. Enter Tong Cheng, one such village. And Joseph Wesley Black Tea, an eagerly experimental vendor.
I’m not sure what process they used for their Lapsang Souchong, or how Joseph Wesley Black Tea got a hold of it, but it differed from ones I was used to. The difference probably had something to do with the processing. Smoking tea leaves over dry pinewood led to a stronger, campfiery profile. Smoking them over wet pinewood yielded something subtler. Whether it was the wood…uh…wetness, or simply lighter smoke utilized, the results were a far different Lapsang paradigm.
The look and the smell of the leaves were different from any other Lapsang I’d encountered. Most are comprised of small black leaves and a pungently smoky aroma. The leaves here were larger and the smoky smell was much more subtle – like a ninja on a cigarette break.
It was a pleasantly earthy, malty, and distant-campfire-y aroma. I could’ve sniffed it all day.
There weren’t any brewing instructions on the Joseph Wesley page, so I had to go with my gut. (Never a good thing.) I did 1 heaping teaspoon of leaves in a 6oz. steeper cup, with water heated to boiling, and a three-minute steep. A good ol’ black tea standby. It wasn’t until I was done steeping that I saw brewing instructions on the tea can. Whoops.
The liquor brewed to the color of rust with a rustic and malty aroma.
Smoke did show up as an underpinning, but very mild in comparison to its forest-fire cousins. On first sip, the first thing I noticed was astringency – like a good Assam – and it quickly translated to a woodsy, roasty and surprisingly comfortable mid-note. The finish was like the after-effects of a business meeting in a comfortable smoking room underneath a Scottish bar. One can’t smell the cigars anymore, but there’s still an echo. Same with this tea. It’s a Lapsang, alright; it’s just sneakier about it.
Further infusions yielded smokier results. I, at least, got a good four more steeps out of a small helping of leaves. Granted, the liquor did lighten, but there was still nuance to be had. If you can call an echo of “brushfire” nuance.
For Part 3, go HERE.