Smoke in the Water: Smoky Teas
People generally have a “love it” or “hate it” relationship with smoky teas. We’re talking about Lapsang Souchong and Keemun Mao Feng Black Teas. These teas have a distinct smoke smell and flavor; they are not for the faint of heart. Like a strong wine or a good whiskey, these teas are robust and malty. Like the black tea they are, they were meant for the strong-willed and adventurous.
All true teas come from the camellia sinensis plant including black, white, green, and oolong tea. The difference between these teas is in how they are processed. This, however, is not the only way to understand all of the varieties of tea. The region where the tea is grown, the soil conditions, the harvesting method, the way it is processed, and the stories about how they came to be, all contribute to their uniqueness.
What is Lapsang Souchong?
Lapsang Souchong’s origin story is a fascinating representation of how unexpected circumstances can create some of the best innovations. Let’s give you a bit of background first. This tea dates back to the 16th century during the Manchu Conquest, a war between the Qing and Ming dynasties that turned into a century-long conflict. During the same time frame of roughly 90 years, between 1620 and 1710, China experienced an extreme drop in temperature that negatively affected agriculture.
Lapsang Souchong is a black tea, meaning, it undergoes the same process of drying the leaves to achieve full oxidation. Traditionally, this drying process was facilitated by the warm temperatures of the sun outside. With the extreme drop in temperatures, many tea producers moved their drying processes indoors to dry within warmed rooms.
As legend would have it, high in the Wuyi mountains, Qing dynasty soldiers were making their way through the area and were looking for a place of quarter. The leader of the army commandeered a tea farmer’s factory just as he had finished the harvest of his tea leaves. The tea farmer had no space to roll and layout his leaves for drying and he did not want his tea to spoil. While the soldiers slept, he found a space off to the side of the factory to roll his leaves. As soon as the soldiers left the next morning he spread his rolled leaves on wooden racks and lit fires of pine branches beneath the leaves to dry them out quickly.
This is where Lapsang Souchong was born. The leaves had not been ruined but were embedded with a smoky, pine-sap flavor becoming some of the best tea he had ever created.
What’s in a name?
The trade name for this black variety of tea comes from the words La (pine) and Sang (wood). Souchong translates to mean “small sort” which is supposed to refer to the size of the leaf; however, the leaves for this tea are typically the larger and more coarse leaves of a specific breed of camellia sinensis. This helps the smoke to bind better to the leaves to lock in the flavor.
What is Keemun Mao Feng Tea?
Keemun tea is a famous Chinese black tea that originated in the 19th century and is exclusively produced by the southern province of Anhui within the county of Qimen. There are many different varieties of Keemun Tea with Keemun Mao Feng being the most popular and well-known variety. This high-grade variety is harvested earlier than the others making it a lighter and sweeter tea.
While each variety has its own techniques for production, each variety still undergoes the same slow-withering, oxidation process. This process yields a more nuanced flavor and a distinct aroma. The Keemun Mao Feng produces a malty, slightly smoky flavor with notes of stone fruit and cocoa powder. If you’re careful you can even find hints of floral notes beneath the surface.
Where does Keemun get its Smoky Undertones?
Keemun tea leaves are withered in direct sunlight and after they have fully oxidized giving them their deep, dark color, they are pan-fired over an open fire. This pan-fire process imbues the leaves with that subtle smoky scent and flavor.
Lapsang Souchong or Keemun Mao Feng?
While these two teas are both smoky Chinese black teas, they still produce two very different flavor profiles. Which one is right for you depends on your own personal preference. Since that doesn’t really help you make a decision, we’ll describe each tea and let you decide for yourself.
Our Lapsang Souchong Black Tea is definitely the smokier of the two teas with strong aromas and tasting notes of pinewood campfire. With its deep, dark caramel liquor and pine-smoke, dragon eye fruit flavor, this tea is one-of-a-kind.
Our Keemun Mao Feng Black Tea on the other hand is less smoky not only in the aroma but also in flavor. It offers a subtle smell of camphor and campfire with a bold, malty mélange of stone fruit, pine, and cocoa flavors.
When you think Lapsang Souchong, think campfire and when you think Keemun Mao Feng think whiskey and cigars. Either way, this tea may suit you well if any of that sounds good to you. We know some who prefer the Keemun Mao Feng over the Lapsang Souchong and some who prefer the opposite. Really, it is all up to you. We recommend that if you can’t decide, get some samples and give both a try.