Lapsang Souchong

lapsang souchong

1 tsp per cup | 212° | Steep for 4 minutes

There’s a campfire in our kitchen this morning, at least that’s what the upstairs neighbors must think. Meanwhile, 7,000 miles away it’s Wednesday or what I think must be too late for black tea, but in Boston the light still has the blue tint of late winter. I pour the kettle over a strainer filled with lapsang souchong. It’s smoky, like the lingering scent of campfire on cotton or like the things we don’t write down. I don’t know when this whole tea thing started, which gives me more grief then you might think because I have an obsession with origin stories. The footnote is my favorite form of procrastination.

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I was introduced to lapsang souchong while working in the South End as a barista during university, or should I say, it found me. I used to work 40-60 hours and go to school full time. I still have no clue how I made it all work. Magic, I guess. I miss the rhythm of café life from those days, sometimes. It’s hectic, but there is something comforting about the regulars – the opera student getting her masters degree, the writer who does more reading than putting pen to paper, and the guy who always ordered large iced Americanos, light ice. Years later, your barista will remember your drink, if you are one of the regulars. It’s funny, how a drink can match somebody’s mood or personality, how there is more predictability in our day-to-day then we might think.

I had to wean myself off espresso that year because people typically wanted single shot etceteras and I couldn’t let the other one go to waste. Needless to say, my afternoons become absurd crashes for a couple weeks. I replaced espresso with black tea and roasted mate, and then my favorite, lapsang souchong. Unfortunately, I couldn’t save the wasted espresso – I had to save myself!

Lapsang souchong is also known as Zhengshan Xiaozhong, which is a special black tea produced in the Wuyi Mountains in southeastern China. The shoots of a local tea species, camellia sinesis var. senesis cv. Bohea, have been used since the 15th century to produce an earthy and smoky tea. It’s no secret that I’m constantly craving the mountains. I’m seriously starting to reconsider this city life idea – been dreaming of a place where the mountains are closer, like home. It is easy to get disconnected from natural rhythms in the city, but I find that tea helps to balance my energy.

The rich campfire smell and smoky flavor reminds me of growing up with a wood stove in California and filling it with pine and cedar. This tea, which centers me in my origin story, has quite the tale itself. It’s rumored to be the first black tea and is till grown in the region where the first black teas were grown, now the National Wuyi Mountain Nature Preserve.

Sometimes, I forget about the handiwork that goes into crafting something as delicate as tea. Lapsang souchong is made from an intricate process that involves plucking, withering, rolling, fermenting, fixing, and drying the sprouts. In Flavor Characteristics of Lapsang Souchong and Smoked Lapsang Souchong, a Special Chinese Black Tea with Pine Smoking Process, Yao, Guo, Lu, and Jiang outline an extensive manufacturing process that involves both knowledge and craftsmanship. The smooth and smoky finish on this tea comes from pan frying and drying the sprouts over pine smoke.

This morning, I’m wrapped up on the couch watching the sun rise in late winter, a whole pine forest roasting in my lap. A cup of tea to bring me home, to meet the day with two feet on the ground. What are the stories you are telling yourself today? What are you going to write down?