Lapsang Souchong, better known in China as Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, has a very unique origin myth. During a time of upheaval in China, warlords and local bandit gangs had free rein to wander the countryside, looting and burning whatever was in their path. Despite the hazards of the time, many tea farmers still labored to eke out a living. One virtuous landowner employed many families in his village, making black tea to trade with the Dutch.
Our virtuous tea farmer paid his workers well enough to arouse interest from nearby bandits. “Surely,” they threatened, “anyone throwing so much money around can afford to pay double protection money for the year?” This terrible demand was practically a death sentence. Unless a miracle occurred, there was no way the farmer could pay both his fellow villagers and the bandits, but he promised to deliver, and prayed that he could.
He and his workers labored from before dawn through to sunset during the peak of spring to harvest the best leaves and get them oxidizing in a carefully vented pine shed before the final roasting and drying process. That spring was especially kind- yielding a huge harvest. If all went well, he would be able to fetch a high enough price from the Dutch to pay off the local thugs.
Unfortunately, the local bandits grew restless day by day, waiting on their payment while the tea dried and oxidized. Every day, the bandits demanded payment. “Your workers earn payment every day,” they reasoned, “so where is our share?” Every day, the farmer would promise to deliver soon, begging for more time to finish the tea. Finally, the bandits decided to teach everyone a lesson as punishment for slow payment and simply take what they could.
On the last night before the tea would have been finished and sold, the bandits rode through the village, stealing from every house. Even worse, they set the farmer’s workshop and tea storage shed ablaze. Hiding until the bandits left, the villagers ran to put out the fires as quickly as they could. Though the workshop was burned to the ground, the pine storage shed had survived and was only partially burned. While some tea was destroyed, the villagers hoped that much of it could be saved. They salvaged what they could, and finished their black tea with pans retrieved from the workshop rubble.
When they tasted their tea, their hearts fell. The tea tasted unmistakably of smoke, and everyone feared their hard work had been ruined by the bandits’ raid. Surely, no trader would accept such a damaged crop. “What can we do?” they cried. The farmer decided that he had no choice but to pack the tea up in crates and try to sell it for whatever price he could get.
At port, he was approached by a Dutch trader he had sold to in years past. Unfortunately, he asked to try the tea. The farmer prepared a cup in silence, his heart racing as he offered the tea. The trader scrutinized the color, smelled the tea and looked bewildered. He took a sip and jumped. “What is this?” Before the farmer could respond, he delcared “I love it! Nobody has ever tried anything like this before.” To the farmer’s surprise and delight, the Dutch trader – sure of his success – even asked to pay triple for his favorite new tea.
The farmer was shocked, and overjoyed. He promised the trader he would keep making more smoked tea, harvest after harvest. “The only problem,” he thought to himself, “is how to make this tea without burning down our sheds!”
That night he sat by a fire to celebrate, drinking with the villagers and passing out gold to all to make up for the bandit raid. They threw on log after log as the fire burned brighter, but he absentmindedly threw in a fist full of pine needles from off the ground and watched them smoke. “Of course!” he thought. “We can smoke the tea with pine and we won’t need to burn down our sheds.” The technique worked perfectly, and the method was soon perfected into the traditional pine smoking techniques still used today.
While many Lapsang Souchongs made now are artificially smoked or even flavored, farmers devoted to quality and tradition like the Li family in Xing Village still hand pick every leaf and smoke them using controlled pine needle fire. The subtle smokiness in their Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Smoked Wuyi Black Tea complements and brings out the beautiful mineral notes and florals of tea from the Wuyi mountains.