What is Lapsang Souchong?

Lapsang souchong is typically fermented lightly in large barrels before being completely dried.

Lapsang souchong is a variety of Chinese tea very popular in southern China and some other parts of the world. Tea drinkers have a love/hate relationship with it, thanks to the very strong and highly distinctive flavor. A cup of lapsang souchong is certainly rarely forgotten, regardless of how pleasant it is. Many markets and tea shops sell a variety of lapsang souchong in both loose leaf and bagged styles, with loose leaf generally being preferred as it is often of superior quality.

A map of China, where lapsang souchoung originated.

Like all black teas, lapsang souchong is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. It is the handling of the tea leaves that determines the final flavor and, in the case of lapsang souchong, this handling is unique. First, the tea leaves wither slightly over fires. Then they ferment slightly in large barrels, before being completely dried in large open baskets, again over an open fire.

Tea plants, also known as camellia sinensis, are grown on a tea farm.

The result of this complex curing process is a very rich and steaming variety of tea. Many people describe the flavor as full and warm, very suitable for cold days. In addition to having a smoky flavor, lapsang souchong also has a very strong smoky odor that is immediately recognizable to people who are familiar with the tea. Since lapsang souchong means “smoky tea” in Cantonese, this is not surprising.

The origins of lapsang souchong are quite old. The tea originates from Fujian Province, along the southeastern coast of China. According to popular mythology, tea was invented when a band of soldiers disrupted the operations of a tea company. Worried that the tea leaves might rot, employees quickly roasted them over fires to dry, creating the first smoked tea. Another story suggests that tea was developed by accident, when traders threw packets of tea too close to the fire, resulting in a steaming tea at the other end of the trade route.

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This characteristic smoked tea is the original Russian Caravan, first brought over land to be traded with the Russians around the 19th century. The real lapsang souchong tends to be a little stronger than the Russian Caravan and when made from high quality leaves is a collector’s item. Some tea collectors also like to age their lapsang souchong for an even richer flavor that borders on creaminess when well brewed.

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