The Real Lapsang Souchong and the Dangers of Mistranslation
Lapsang Souchong is often referred to as campfire tea. It is common to find examples so heavily smoked that they are evocative of burnt rubber tires and tar. Did you know that this tea’s true origin is actually one of the highest quality teas that China has to offer? It is also widely believed to be the first black tea ever created. This is a long and confusing story but a recent Twitter exchange inspired me to try to tackle it here on the blog.
We’ve all seen versions of the tea leaf grading chart below. They’re copied in just about every book I’ve read around the subject. The trouble is that the words used are borrowed, and badly translated versions at that. If taken at face value, it makes it look like Lapsang Souchong is among the worst of the worst. I’m here to tell you that this simply isn’t the case.
|By Icetea8 at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0|
We must keep in mind that this method of grading is really only used in British colonial style tea plantations. Orange Pekoe is a term we all know in reference to black teas from India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya. These terms are very rarely used in China and if they are, the tea is most likely meant for western export.
A large part of the confusion stems from there being several systems for translating Mandarin into English. This is why you’ll often see multiple spellings of words that mean the exact same thing. It can make things really difficult for new tea drinkers to figure out what is what. Wade-Giles was in use prior to 1982. Even the Chinese postal service had their own system! Add in the multiple dialects and languages that occur within China and it becomes one big mess. The current method of transliterating, Pinyin, was developed in the 1950’s and adopted as international standard in 1982.
Disclaimer: A few folks have pointed out that not all tea words come from Mandarin. That is absolutely true. Cantonese and Southern Min Chinese also played important roles. I am not a linguist and I do not speak any language other than English. This post is meant only as a cursory introduction to this issue and it is based on what I was able to find in English. Tea can be a real rabbit hole at times, folks. I encourage you to dig deeper if you’d like to know more!
Pro Tip: If you have a tea company in 2017 you should now be using the Pinyin versions of Mandarin words!
Let’s dissect some of these terms a bit.
Pekoe is a term used to refer to buds, especially those covered in downy hair. This is actually a corruption of Bai Hao, which means white hair. Sound familiar? Bai Hao Yin Zhen, aka Silver Needle, is the highest grade of Chinese white tea.
So where does the smoke come in? As is often the case with Chinese tea history, there’s a legend involved. A passing army stopped in Tong Mu village, preventing the tea leaves that had been harvested from being made into green tea. The leaves had fully oxidized but they were quickly dried on pine fires to prevent them from rotting. Much to the surprise of the villagers, it was a big hit with Dutch traders and the rest is history.
During the final step in processing, Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong is fired in ovens that are fueled by pine wood. Anyone who has made a campfire before would know that young pine wood sparks and produces quite a bit more smoke than other types due to the sap content. Some of this smoke being absorbed into the tea is inevitable. This is where the difference comes in. Tea that is intended for the Chinese market is usually only lightly smoked. Think of it as the hint of peat smoke in Scotch Whisky. It’s not the main flavor but a subtle part of the overall experience. This tea is actually known for notes of dried longan fruit, a relative of lychee.
|Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, a lightly smoked black tea|
The western traders demanded a smokier tea so that is what they got. Tea drying ovens are adjusted to allow more smoke to come into contact with the leaves. Some vendors even go so far as to add artificial flavors to replicate this effect. A tea that is heavily smoked will most likely be made with lower quality leaves but it isn’t because any chart of antiquated and appropriated terms said so. It’s because that would be a waste of good tea!
There’s another tea called Jin Jun Mei (Golden Beautiful Eyebrow) that fits into this puzzle as well. It is essentially a bud heavy, unsmoked Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong. The same trees from the same region are used to produce both teas. It sells for quite a bit more money than the traditional version and is slowly replacing it in the market. You can read more details about that issue in this fantastic article on Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas’ website.
Have you ever tried the REAL Lapsang Souchong? How did your experience differ from usual campfire scented renditions? Let me know about it in the comments!