Lapsang Souchong Revisited

House of Tea Lapsang Souchong - dry leaves

This tea and a 200g cake of shou Pu-erh made up my recent order from House of Tea. Also included in the same order was the featured tea of my previous post – a 3 gram sample of Jin Jun Mei.

For reasons I detail there comparisons are often made between Lapsang Souchong and Jin Jun Mei, so it was going to be interesting to drink them back-to-back.

As was the case with the Jin Jun Mei, these leaves come from the Tong Mu Guan district of Wuyi Shan, somewhere that Babelcarp calls the “canonical area” for Lapsang Souchong production.

As House of Tea say in the accompanying notes for this tea, its production is somewhat different to the usual methods used for black teas.

Firstly, the initial drying of the leaves is done over pine fires. According to tea-lore, this came about during the time of the Qing dynasty, when the presence of armies in the Wuyi Shan area delayed the drying of the tea harvest.

After cooling from this drying process, the leaves are then rolled for the first time, to kick-start the oxidisation process. When the tea has reached the required level of oxidisation, the leaves are fried.

Then comes a second rolling, which releases the remaining liquid in the leaves, which gathers on their outer surfaces. The tea then undergoes a final procedure known as Xun Bei, which entails a second drying over smaller pinewood fires. It’s during this step that the juices on the outside of the “attract” the smoky flavour from the fire.

When I’ve dealt with other Lapsang Souchongs in the past, I’ve had all kinds of problems in scouring the smoky aromas off of my teaware. Once bitten, and all that, so this time I pulled out my second best teaware just in case. Fool me twice, etc. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried…

Steeping method
Weight of dry leaf: 7 grams
Infusion style: Gong-fu / Asian
Steeping vessel: 150 ml porcelain gaiwan
Water temperature: 100°C
No. & duration: a flash rinse, then a 1st. infusion @ 5 seconds, then @ +5 seconds until 30 seconds, then @ 40, 50, 60, and finally 90 seconds for a total of 10 infusions

In order to explain how I perceive the difference between this and other, cheaper imitations of the same tea, I’m going to reference a skit by legendary British comedian Alexei Sayle, where he talks about cheap, supermarket’s own-brand whisky with schmaltzy Scottish names such as “The Laird’s Varnish Remover“, or “The Highland Toss“. I never fully understood the joke there until I’d drunk a real, top end, single malt whisky.

House of Tea Lapsang Souchong - a cup of

Ironically that came at a Swedish social evening in a room above an English pub in Brussels. I was in the hands of an expert, and discovered depths of flavour and body that I would never, ever have encountered drinking the cheaper stuff, even well know blends. After a revelation such as that, you can never look at the second tier stuff in the same way again, at least I couldn’t.

I think the same principle applies to this tea. This is the real deal, and you quickly begin to realise that although it does share some characteristics with other teas of the same name, what you are looking at is a major step up in terms of overall quality.

As always, that comes at a price. There’s a great demand for Wuyishan teas of all types, and that of course drives up the cost. Fifty grams of these leaves became mine in exchange for 189 Swedish Crowns, which at the time of writing equated to $21.47 US, £16.30, or €18.25.

Here, the smokiness is subtle, and somewhere towards the back of the mix. If anything, I get more of a feeling of pine wood itself, rather than the smoke from the same material being burnt. Together they give me an unmistakable sensation of what I can only describe as the interior of a Swedish barn, more specifically the wood store of the family house in the country. Even then, it gets more detailed – the memory buttons this tea presses puts me in this place during a sunny but extremely cold and dry late December morning. As Mr. Spock might say, fascinating. It never ceases to amaze me how a sip of tea can instantly transport you to somewhere and somewhen else.

It’s important to note that behind the woody, smoky flavours there lurks a very nice hong-cha in its own right, smooth and full bodied. I found that from the 5th. infusion on the pine-iness started to recede and allow the other components of the flavour profile to come through.

I think that what I was picking up was something you typically associate with Wuyi Shan teas in general, more often than not that means the Oolongs, something tied up in the terroir of the region, a mineral, darkly sweet kind of a thing.

Subtle is also the word of choice when trying to describe the cha qi at work here – it brought out a gentle, upper body warming sensation, as well as a noticeable raising of the state of one’s alertness coupled with an equally obvious dialling down of the stress level.

So, in conclusion then – I think this tea is going to float your boat depending on your previous experiences with the more generic, widely available, tea-shop-in-town kind of Lapsang Souchong.

If you’ve been put off by the smokiness in the past, then you might want to give this tea a whirl. It’s quite possible that you might be pleasantly surprised.

House of Tea Lapsang Souchong - used leaves

On the other hand if you really like the slap in the face effect all that smokiness brings, then this tea might not do it for you.

Personally speaking, I’m a convert. I reckon this tea is a shoo-in for all those upcoming Autumn and Winter outdoors sessions with water heated over the Trangia that I’m looking forward to.

Good stuff, etc.

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