A recent online discussion amongst tea experts from China and overseas about the use of Lapsang Souchong as a classification of black teas from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province, China, highlighted for me just how confusing (and misleading) these classifications can be for a consumer. In this post, I’ll clarify some of the commonalities and differences of various Wuyi Bohea (black) teas: Lapsang Souchong, Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Cha and Jin Jun Mei!
The subject of the discussion I mentioned above was the fairly well-known term Lapsang Souchong - or rather the teas that this name describes. As the discussion unfolded, it became clear that there were two distinct schools of thought - both correct in their way, but with very distinctive implications. One faction (comprised mainly of Chinese tea experts) argued the point that all black teas from the Wuyi Mountains are called Lapsang Souchong and cited a well-known text book on tea as a backup to their claims. These Wuyi black teas include teas often sold under the names of Jin Jun Mei and Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Cha. The other group of tea experts (which included mostly tea experts from Western countries) argued that Lapsang Souchong is a specific (smoked) black tea from Wuyi Shan, which is distinctly different from the other two teas and it would be confusing to call all black Wuyi teas Lapsang Souchong.
So, what does this academic discussion have to do with you as a consumer? Well, possibly a lot. If you consider the price differences between some of these teas (more about that further below), I am sure you would want to know exactly what you’re buying. To help you be an informed consumer, I’ll introduce you to the three teas in question and you can make your own decision which side of the discussion you’re on.
As a bit of a background story, black tea as we know it today, dates back to the 16th or 17th century and it is said that it was discovered in Wuyi Shan City, Fujian Province in China.
Legend has it that a local tea-producer used a barn to store and process tea. One day, after having put a new harvest (intended for making green tea) into the barn, he was visited by a small group of soldiers passing through. The soldiers decided to stop for the night and slept in the barn, making their bed on the fresh tea leaves. The next morning, the leaves had considerably changed (they had oxidized). They were now brown, quite unlike the usual emerald green.
The family, not being able to process their harvest in the usual manner, decided to dry it using pine wood torches and try to sell it at the local market. This “special tea” wasn’t accepted by the village people, so they took it to a well-known tea trading centre and, after brewing some for people to taste this different tea, managed to sell the whole lot.
By the next season, the family’s special tea was in high demand by tea merchants and later became China’s first exported black tea.
This tea is still produced today and is called Wuyi Bohea (Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Cha). We are proud to be able to offer this historic tea (see our Chinese Black Tea section). The word bohea is believed to come from the pronunciation of Wu Yi which was the only region producing black tea in the early days of tea trade with the Dutch in the late 17th century and was then synonymous with ‘black tea’ and the name has persisted ever since.
Lapsang Souchong is a black tea with a very unique flavour due to its smoking over pine wood. It is hugely popular in the West and can be found at most tea shops. Kiwis often have a very positive reaction to Lapsang Souchong, as it brings up memories of campfires and happy times spent tramping.
As the debate, which inspired this blog post, shows, it can be a group of teas rather than one particular type of tea. But for the purpose of my description here, we’ll regard it as a very narrow group of tea that’s usually heavily smoked. This high level of smokiness is for me the main property that sets it apart from other Wuyi black teas.
In China, teas are most often distinguished by the leaves (shape, size, leaves per pluck, i.e. bud only, one leaf and the bud, etc.) used to make them. But if you compare the leaves of various samples of Lapsang Souchong, you will observe considerable variations. But they all have in common that strong smoky aroma. Often, the tea leaves used to make commercial grade Lapsang Souchong don’t even come from the Wuyi Mountains.
As a first indicator of whether your Lapsang Souchong is made from Wuyi material, look at leaf size and shape: tea leaves from Wuyi Shan are of a relatively large leaf variety and processed in a strip-shape with a slight twist and should be whole leaves rather than pieces (like in the image above). Small, straight leaves indicate that you’re drinking a smoked tea from somewhere else.
Tea sold as Lapsang Souchong is generally fairly inexpensive. It’s definitely by far the cheapest of the three teas I’m introducing here. Lower grade tea leaves (from the Wuyi Mountains or elsewhere) are often used to make it and sometimes, the strong smokiness is used to mask a bad tea. It isn’t the original Wuyi Bohea, but rather an imitation created to satisfy the large demand for smoked tea.
You can order our organic Lapsang Souchong (made from authentic Wuyi Shan tea bushes), made by Wu Yi Zheng Shan tea company which descended from the Jiang family who is credited with the original discovery of Lapsang Souchong, from our black tea page.
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Cha
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Cha (pronounced ‘jung shan shee-ow jong cha’) is the original smoked Wuyi Bohea. Xiao Zhong is the name of the varietal of tea bush that this tea is made from and it is made from the bushes growing around Tong Mu village in the Wuyi Mountains. The leaves are larger than most black tea leaves from India or Sri Lanka and show the long, strip-like shape with a twist that’s so typical of Wuyi teas. The leaf quality is generally high and the smoking level moderate. A good Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Cha displays a fine balance between smokiness and flavour of the tea leaves themselves, while in more ordinary Lapsang Souchong, smoke is the dominant (sometimes only) discernible flavour. A high-grade Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Cha is slightly smoky, slightly sweet and has a complexity of flavours.
In recent years, a modern - non-smoked - version of Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Cha was developed. It is made from the same leaves that would usually undergo smoking and displays the characteristics of the leaf itself unmasked. Notes of cocoa mixed with nuts and slight undertones of dried fruit are dominant. We’re proud to offer this tea, made by our friend Master Wu, so you can enjoy the flavour of a pure Wuyi Bohea. You can order our modern Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Cha here.
Jin Jun Mei
Jin Jun Mei * - literally Golden Eyebrows - is a very precious tea that has quickly risen to stardom amongst Chinese black teas since its development in 2005. At the suggestion of a guest during a visit of their tea gardens at Tong Mu village, the tea master of Wu Yi Zheng Shan tea company made an experimental batch of a early spring (harvested before the Qing Ming festival), bud-only black tea. The experiment was successful and resulted in the creation of what would soon become one of the most expensive black teas on the market: Jin Jun Mei.
When you inspect the tea, it is immediately clear that this tea is special - starting from the tiny, thin, slightly twisted buds to the powerful aroma of the dry leaves, this tea simply screams ‘precious’. If you consider that the buds are painstakingly hand-harvested and are tiny, one thought quickly comes to mind: You need an enormous amount of buds to make even a moderate quantity of this tea. In fact, while regular grade teas require on the order of 3,000-4,000 plucks to make 1kg of finished tea, Jin Jun Mei requires in excess of 100,000 (yes, that’s one-hundred-thousand!) plucks to make the same amount of tea. That fact alone makes this a much more expensive tea, but take scarcity into account and you’ll create a very expensive tea, indeed.
In 2007, we were very fortunate to be able to taste (and subsequently stock) the original Jin Jun Mei made by Wu Yi Zheng Shan tea company. It was a phenomenal tea that many of our customers have fond memories of. Since then, many imitations have entered the market and a large number of teas labelled Jin Jun Mei are available. But the real Jin Jun Mei comes from Tong Mu village and produces an infusion you’re not likely to ever forget: thick and full-bodied, with honey-like sweetness and a milky smoothness unlike any other tea we’ve ever tasted.
This year, we have decided to place another order for this very special tea to enable more customers to experience its magic. You can order our organic Jin Jun Mei black tea here.
Are they all Lapsang Souchong, then?
I will leave it up to you to answer this question for yourself. I personally agree with the opinion that - while technically correct - these teas should not all be called Lapsang Souchong, but rather be referred to by their real name. Anything else will be too confusing for consumers. But you should be well prepared now to make your own judgement.
And I would encourage you to ask your preferred tea shop about the provenance of their Lapsang Souchong when you place your next order for that type of tea.
* Not to be confused with the similarly spelled Yin Jun Mei (which means Silver Eyebrows). While still a high-quality tea, it’s a lower grade tea than Jin Jun Mei.