A heart of darkness. Andy’s homage to lapsang souchong tea.
Intensely smokey, tarry, beguilingly dark…It sounds like the description of a fragrance I’d like to spray on my wrists, but instead these words are about Lapsang Souchong, perhaps my most beloved tea. It’s rare I select a singular favorite, but there is something so intrinsically satisfying about brewing a cup of broodingly dark Lapsang that I can’t help but come back for more.
Upon opening a tin of Lapsang Souchong, the aroma of spent ashes permeates the air, like smelling last night’s bonfire lingering on your clothes. Once hot water saturates the tea leaves though, the impression is that of a fire reincarnated—the fragrance rising from the cup is unmistakably that of fresh woodsmoke and crackling flames slicing through the flinty chill of a winter’s night. Lapsang Souchong is the tea equivalent to film noir, with the mysterious femme fatale, disconcerting plot twists, and menacing darkness and shadows condensed into a mere cup.
As otherworldly as it is, Lapsang Souchong tea is often produced from lesser grade leaves (such as those lower down on the season’s growth) that would not possess a fine flavor on their own. Instead, these teas derive most of their flavor from a unique smoking process, in which the tea leaves are laid out on trays and then set above a fire made from pine or spruce wood or roots. As both of these conifer woods contain their own distinctively fragrant resin, the tea leaves become richly infused with the aroma of pleasantly scented smoke.
In addition, the smoking process lowers the level of caffeine in the tea, making most Lapsangs suitable to evening consumption if you are not caffeine sensitive. Higher grade Lapsang Souchong teas are made with better quality tea leaves to begin with, and so are smoked to a lesser degree. However, many Taiwanese (Formosan) Lapsangs, which are often described as “tarry” and tend to be the smokiest, are also highly regarded.
Due to the variations in the smoking process, the flavor of Lapsang Souchong teas can vary greatly, from mellow and soft to intense. I have a preference for highly smoked Lapsangs, which in both dry leaf and brewed states allow an exploration of all the facets of smoky aromas—thickly rubbery and resinous, dusty and dark, woodsy and smooth.
Personal taste is the best judge when brewing tea, but I tend to use a larger measure of tea per serving size (instead of a teaspoon of tea per cup, I might use a rounded teaspoon and a half) when I am brewing a Lapsang Souchong, since the smoking process can lower the intensity of the tea leaf itself. Nonetheless, it is hard to forget a Lapsang Souchong once you’ve tasted it—there is simply no other tea quite as distinctive or polarizing. No matter what your taste for smokiness though, the recommendations below may help you to discover a new favorite tea of your own.
Historically, “Caravan” or “Russian Caravan” teas are said to have gained their slight smokiness due to being kept near campfires during the long trek from China to Russia. Today, however, caravan teas are usually blends that include some Lapsang Souchong to impart a light smoky flavor. If a mere wisp of smoke is what you’re after, try Kusmi Samovar for a caravan-style taste, or their Smoky Earl Grey for an update on a tea classic. Alternatively, try Le Palais des Thés Pointes Blanches or Upton Tea Imports’ Lapsang Souchong Black Dragon. Both are smoked black teas blended with beautiful silver tip white tea, and make for a perfect introduction to Lapsang Souchong with their slightly milder taste.
For moderately smoked Lapsang Souchong, try options from Mariage Frères such as the Grand Lapsang Souchong, or Le Palais des Thés variety by the same name. However, if you’re looking for a tea that is soused with smoky flavor, look no further than Thé du Tigre by Le Palais des Thés. It is an intensely smoked Taiwanese variety, and my favorite Lapsang Souchong to date.
In the Bottle
And if the tea itself doesn’t suit you, in the bottle it may. Bulgari’s edgy Black frames smoky tea with sweet resin and powdery vanilla to create a fascinating impression, while Comme des Garçons’ Series 1: Leaves Tea plays up the dryly tarry, burnt rubber facets of Lapsang. Now discontinued, L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Tea for Two underpinned smoky tea with honeyed spices. For a similar theme, try Viktor & Rolf’s Spicebomb.
Photography by Andy Gerber