Lapsang Souchong is a type of smoked tea first made in the Wuyi Mountains, the home of black tea. It has a uniquely rich and complex taste, and while it is not as popular here in the United Kingdom as it is in its native China, it is growing in popularity as consummate tea-drinkers seek new experiences.
In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at this tea, at how it is made, where it is sold, what it tastes like, and what health benefits it can provide you with.
History of Lapsang Souchong
This tea was first produced sometime in the late 15th or early 16th century. Legend has it that a passing army set up camp in a tea factory while the tea harvest was being dried. The tea leaves had to be moved to make room, and by the time the soldiers had passed through, the manufacturers realised they didn’t have enough time to complete the drying process and get the tea to market.
To speed it up and meet their deadline, they lit pinewood fires underneath the leaves, thus imparting the famous taste. Like all origin stories, this probably isn’t rooted in truth, and it’s more likely that the tea was invented out of necessity as a way to keep it fresh during long voyages (it was shipped to Europe and the United States on journeys that could take up to 18 months). But we do know that by the late 16th century, it was being shipped all over the world and first landed in England sometime in the latter half of the century.
How is it Made?
Lapsang Souchong is made like any other black tea to a point, but while black tea is dried using a slow and natural process, Lapsang Souchong is dried over a wood fire. Pine wood is often used, but other woods can be used on occasion, and it’s from this wood that Lapsang Souchong gets its unique flavour.
Some tea-drinkers are quick to dismiss this drink as being too strong, too smoky, or otherwise unpalatable, but as with any tea, there are many different varieties, and while some can be really strong and even harsh, others can be very mild by comparison. The amount of tea leaves used and the length of time it is brewed will also change the taste.
For a good loose leaf Lapsang Souchong, we recommend a brewing time of between 3 and 5 minutes and an amount of 1 to 2 tsp. If it’s your first time, we recommend starting with 1 tsp and a brewing time of 3 or 4 minutes. If you feel like it’s a little weak, you can plunge the infuser back in there and let it steep for a little longer, but erring on the side of caution like this will ensure you don’t over-steep, which is very easy to do with this tea.
Is Lapsang Souchong Good for You?
Tea is good for you in general, and you’ll get many of the same benefits from consuming Lapsang Souchong as you’ll get from black tea. The smoking process doesn’t impact significantly on the antioxidant level one way or the other, and you’ll also need to account for the caffeine content, which is the same as black tea.
Caffeine can be good for you in small doses, but not if you are sensitive to it, and not if it is consumed to excess. We discussed this at length in our guide to the side effects of caffeine, which is well worth a look for anyone concerned about their caffeine intake and the effect it has on their health.
What Does Lapsang Souchong Taste Like?
It’s a rich, smoky, peaty tea. It’s hard to describe in great detail, but it does have a tendency to divide tea-drinkers, and we have seen it referred to as the “Marmite of tea” on several occasions.
The best description we can think of it is that Lapsang Souchong is to standard black tea what a peated whisky is to a standard malt whisky. It also goes really well with a hearty dollop of honey and a splash of milk.
We have heard it described as being similar to Pu’er tea, another unique-tasting tea produced in China. But while they are both black teas produced in specific ways and have distinctive flavours, they are not alike. Pu’er has a very earthy taste and odour; Lapsang Souchong is very warming and almost sweet.
The only real way to discover if this tea is for you is to try it yourself. Just make it like you would a normal cup of black tea, maybe switching the sugar (if you take it) for a good dark honey.
What Does Lapsang Souchong Mean?
In China, this tea is known as zhengshan xiaozhong. The first part of this refers to the origin of the tea and roughly translates as “the original mountain”, or the mountain in the Wuyi region where it is grown. The latter part refers to the specific leaf on the Camellia sinensis plant. Outside of China, the word Lapsang is used, and as far as we can gather, this roughly translates to “pine smoked”.
If there are any Chinese speakers out there, please get in touch and let us know if we’re wrong!
Where to Find the Best Lapsang Souchong
We don’t currently sell Lapsang Souchong tea here on Shelgo Tea. It is something we have considered, but finding a good-quality organic variety that can be sold for an affordable price is not easy.
There are many great varieties out there, though, especially if you don’t have your heart set on it being organic. Many major UK tea brands stock their own varieties and we have tried most of these. We won’t name names, as we don’t want to discredit any competing brands, but we will say that it is very important to get a loose-leaf, high-quality tea. We’ve tried a few teabag varieties, and they make for a very bland and disappointing experience. It’s not the best way to drink this tea and it won’t give you the best first impression.
You can also find good, healthy varieties on sale at many tearooms and restaurants across the UK. If you’re not keen on buying a batch yourself because you’re not sure that the taste will be to your liking, then check out the menu of a local tearoom and order it by the cup. If you don’t like it, tell them to take it back and order yourself a premium black tea blend instead; if you love it, drink up and order a big bag when you get home!