As I indicated in “The Ground Rules” I will be doing occasional reviews of teas that I find exceptional. These reviews will never include Tillerman Tea products. This is the first such review.
I didn’t go there to buy but, before heading out to the tea farms and factories of rural China, I always began my regular trips by visiting the vast wholesale tea market in Beijing known as Ma Lian Dao. This is where one gets an overall look at teas from a new harvest and where one learns of the peculiarities faced in the various tea regions during the growing season. It’s also where you get the gossip. If you are accompanied by someone like Xiao Cui, that is.
The whole community knows Xiao Cui. Happily, I do too for only a tourist, or a fool, would venture into Ma Lain Dao without someone like him. Alone one risked seeing nothing but counterfeits and, at any event, one would never see the best of what was available. As to the gossip – forget it.
Each time I arrived in the city I would be scarcely ten minutes in my hotel room, not far from the Beijing West Railway Station, when there would be a knock at the door. Xiao Cui had arrived to guide me through the stalls of the market. As usual, I had emailed ahead and given Xiao Cui an idea of the teas I would like to taste so that evening he had come to greet me and to take me out to look at some teas from a producer of Lapsang Souchong. It was, he promised, the real thing.
The real thing, not the foul, overpowering, liquid smoke versions seen throughout America, is not easy to find and it is never cheap when you do. That night, thanks to Xiao Cui, I found it; some of the best Lapsang Souchong I ever have tasted. Beautiful sweet smokiness integrated into some of the finest black tea available. Long, long lingering finishes that continued to fill the mouth long after tea itself has disappeared down the throat. Our hosts continued to brew various versions of the tea well into the night. Finally, around midnight, tired and a little “tea drunk,” I made my way back to the hotel.
Lapsang Souchong is a black tea produced in the rugged Wuyi Mountains of Fujian Province, China. Its most distinguishing characteristic is its rich smokiness and, much like peaty Scotch whisky from Islay, it is an acquired taste: you love it or you don’t. As you have seen, I do.
The name, Lapsang Souchong, reputedly, is an English transliteration from the Chinese 正山小種 (Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong in pinyin) that dates from early trading days. The Chinese name translates as “Zheng Mountain Sub-Variety.” Another possibility, one that rings true to my ear although I am no philologist, is that it is a transliteration of an older Chinese name 立山小種 which in the local dialect was “Lapu Shan Xiao Zhong” or “Lapu Mountain Sub-Variety.” In any event the name Lapsang Souchong is firmly ensconced in the English language.
As with many teas, the origins of Lapsang Souchong are unclear. And as with many teas there is a host of stories, likely apocryphal, that attempt to account for its existence. Mostly they run something like this:
During the fall of the Ming and the rise of the Qing, and at the peak of the tea harvest season, villagers in the Wuyi village of Tongmu, were confronted with the approach of a Qing army on its way to surprise Ming troops in Jiangxi province. They feared for their lives but even more so they feared for their tea. Before fleeing into the mountains, they rapidly dried the tea but rather than using the traditional bamboo they employed local horsetail pine to do the job. Once the army had passed through, the villagers returned to Tongmu and recovered their tea. However, they feared all was lost for it now possessed a pungent, smoky character.
Some of the tea was, nonetheless, taken downriver to Fuzhou where it was presented to the English, to the Dutch or to a local trader, depending upon who is telling the story. Rather than spurning the tea, however, the trader loved it, wanted more and offered to pay dearly for it. Being rather clever sorts, the villagers have been producing it ever since albeit in rapidly declining quantities. Finding true Lapsang Souchong today is, at best, a difficult business.
I was at the San Francisco International Tea festival last year and happened upon a stand manned by a colleague. The company was Red Circle Tea and they were pouring, among other things, a Lapsang Souchong. This tea was labeled as VS, for very special, but that doesn’t often mean much. I hardly expected anything “very special” but when I tasted it I realized that they had struck gold; this was the real thing. And I needed to taste it again, in a serious setting, not a crowded exhibition hall. I placed an order and waited.
Zhen Tea is based in Ottawa, Canada. It is a company about which I had heard many good things. Not long ago, when looking at their online catalogue, I noticed that they carried a Lapsang Souchong billed as “Top Grade.” This begged examination so I placed an order and waited (and not long, incidentally, as they shipped right away.) I now had two teas for a comparative Lapsang Souchong cupping.
Adjusting for currency differences and differing shipping policies, the two teas were almost exactly the same price, about $US28 per ounce (which is equivalent to 28 grams.) Good Lapsang, as I have noted, is not cheap! For the cupping, each tea was brewed using 3 grams in a 100ml tasting cup and steeped for 5 minutes.
There were clear differences noted in the dry leaf. The Red Circle tea had very dark, large, twisted leaves whereas the Zhen Tea example was made up of smaller leaves exhibiting a grayer hue. The brewed leaf showed the Red Circle tea to be entirely whole leaves. The Zhen tea was made up of whole leaves and some broken leaves.
Both teas showed rich smokiness on the nose but the Zhen tea was lighter in tone. The tea liquor in both cases was clear and bright although the Red Circle tea was not as dark as the Zhen tea. This, I suspect, is due to the smaller leaf size of the Zhen tea and the presence of some broken leaves. In the mouth, the Zhen tea showed a light smokiness and a pleasant sweetness but it finished a bit short and the smokiness of the tea did not linger. The quality of the base tea was very good.
The Red Circle tea showed much more “personality.” There was a full “tea” taste to the brew with a wonderful integration of the smokiness. The tea had a definite sweetness on the palate and wonderful floral hints – perhaps lilac. The finish was very long and rich. The tea left a pleasingly astringent tactile sensation in the mouth.
Both of these teas are very good but, I must say, that the Red Circle Lapsang ranks as the best one I have tasted since my evening with Xiao Cui. And that is high praise indeed.