Lapsang Souchong – Smoky Tea

Lapsang Souchong was developed under Prince Regent Dorgon

Prince Regent Dorgon of the Qing Dynasty, China (Public Domain)

Lapsang Souchong is a smoked tea that originated in Wuyi Mountains in the Fuijan province of China. Today it is made in various tea producing countries. The story of its creation has a few different versions but they generally agree that the tea was created during the early part of the Qing Dynasty out of necessity to either save the tea from impending bad weather or to hide it from invading troops that had entered the region as part of the effort to unify China under Prince Regent Dorgon. Either way, the tea leaves where smoked over pine wood to speed the drying process and then packed in barrels to store in mountain caves. Eventually it was shared with Western tea merchants who bought the tea and found that the Europeans loved it. So the following year, the merchants asked for more of the tea and offered a higher price for it than the traditional teas and a new product was born. Sometimes you will find references to Lapsang Souchong as “Westerner’s Tea” and while that may have been true to begin with, it is also consumed in China.

Lapsang Souchong is often enjoyed on its own but is also found in blends of  Russian Caravan. By the end of the 1600’s Russia had trade agreements with China that included exchanging thousands of pounds of tea for furs. Included in those teas where Pu-erh and Lapsang Souchong, as both teas weathered the thousands of miles of travel on horseback well.

Lapsang Souchong Production

Lapsang Souchong is made from the 4th and 5th tea leaves on the stem, the same ones used in some oolong and pu-erh teas. These are bigger leaves, allowing them to withstand the pine smoke for drying without losing their shape or their tea flavor. Some people suggest that these tea leaves somehow are of lower quality because they are not as delicate in flavor as the bud and first two leaves, but they neglect to give credit to these leaves for having a more consistent brisk flavor and the capability to hold their form under long travel.

The leaves are withered over pine wood fires (cypress is also used but pine is the original wood for this tea). The leaves are then pan fried and rolled. The rolled leaves are then packed into barrels and left to oxidize. Once they have hit the desired oxidation level, they are pulled out of the barrels, pan fried and rolled into long strips. Finally they are put into bamboo baskets and hung over the pine fire to absorb the flavors of the pine smoke.

Steeping Lapsang Souchong

Lapsang Souchong Infused Leaf

Infused Leaf of Lapsang Souchong

Steep this tea just like a black tea. It should be steeped for 4-5 minutes in boiling water. If the taste is a little strong for you, cut back on the initial steeping time by a minute or so. This tea produces a reddish brown liquor with a smoky smell and smooth full mouth feel. Due to the strong smoky taste, it can be steeped anywhere from 3-6 times before becoming weak.

While Lapsang Souchong tea has a tendency to produce very strong responses of either love or hate from tea drinkers (I love it, but David is not a fan), it is worth acknowledging its place in tea culture and giving it a try.

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Pu-erh Tea and an Introduction to Dark Teas

Pu-erh Tea is truly fermented unlike other teas.

Pu-erh Tea (tuo cha) – Fermented tea formed into cakes and producing a very dark infusion.

If you’ve been exploring tea for a while you’ve undoubtedly heard a bit about pu-erh (aka puerh), or fermented tea, though you may not yet given it a try. If you consider yourself a regular tea drinker then pu-erh and dark teas really are a must for your tea ‘bucket list’. Originally from China, pu-erh and dark teas offer a very different experience. Smooth and earthy, this class of tea is produced using a very different process from other teas and offers a different taste profile which may even serve a as a great entry for coffee drinkers looking to add tea to their repertoire.

Unlike white, green, black, and other varieties of tea which are oxidized and heated or fired to stop oxidation, pu-erh tea is truly fermented. It develops, usually in the form of compressed tea cakes over years, developing flavor and becoming smoother the longer it ages. Unlike other teas, pu-erh is produced by partially heating tea leaves to stop most oxidation. Then they are rolled and bruised slightly before being processed into compressed forms. The compressed forms such as bricks, discs or cakes, and small birds nest shaped, called tuo cha, are then either artificially aged or left to age naturally, sometimes for decades.

Pu-erh Tea History

The development of pu-erh teas dates back many thousands of years to Yunnan province in China. The necessity of trade led to packaging of tea in compressed discs which could be more easily transported along the tea horse road and other trade corridors. At the time tea was traded for war horses and other goods and often traveled hundreds of miles over long periods of time. During the this time, in hot and humid conditions, the tea naturally fermented and turned into dark tea by the time it reached its destination.

Pu-erh and Dark Tea

Its often stated that the types of tea include white, yellow, green, black, oolong, and pu-erh tea. However, this isn’t really accurate. Pu-erh is actually one variety of dark tea, albeit the most famous one. In 2008, China recognized dark tea from Yunnan as being geographically protected meaning this is the only dark tea that can be called pu-erh despite the fact that a number of other provinces produce fermented dark teas using much the same process and tea plant varieties.

Steeping Pu-erh Tea

Steeping your pu-erh tea is relatively straight forward but is slightly different than other teas. While you should steep with boiling water like a black tea, you will likely be able to steep pu-erh at least four to six times if not upwards of 10-15 times depending on the variety. Wake up the tea initially with enough boiling water to cover the leaf and quickly pour off the liquor. If you are steeping in a pot or mug with infuser then use 3 grams of pu-erh or dark tea and steep 3-4 minutes and re-steep another 2-4 times. If you are using a gaiwan, use a bit more tea, about 5 grams, and steep the first time for 2o to 25 seconds. For each additional steeping at about 5 seconds more steeping until it becomes thin.

Although dark and pu-erh teas are unfamiliar to many western tea drinkers they can be a real treat. Unlike the other teas in your collection, if stored properly, with fresh circulating air, away from other smells and aromas, these will keep and mature for many years to come. And for those looking to make a switch from coffee, you may find both the color and flavor to be a logical first step.

There is much to explore with tea, and pu-erh as well. This was only an introduction to the world of dark and pu-erh tea. In the future we will explore more to include the world of counterfeit pu-erh, other regions producing dark teas, and more so stay tuned…

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Black Tea Risotto

As winter seems to keep coming earlier than I want, I went into the kitchen looking for something warm, soothing, and filling. Nothing fits that bill like risotto. Now, I will admit I am usually looking for ways to make the everyday recipes my own and that is why I thought to replace the traditional stock in this dish with tea.

In figuring out which tea to use, it is helpful to remember that risotto gets its creaminess from both the butter added at the end of cooking and the starch released from the rice during cooking. So whatever tea is chosen needs to hold up against dairy and nothing does that better than a good strong black tea. I am sure an Assam black tea or Yunnan would have done fine, but I opted for one of our favorites, Kosabei TGFOP, a black tea from Kenya with both a malty flavor and slightly floral notes.

Experiments with Risotto using Black Tea

Black Tea as Stock for Risotto

Black Tea Risotto

  • 4-6 tablespoons room temperature butter*
  • 6½ cups water
  • 1½ tsps of Kosabei TGFOP (Yunnan Sunrise, Classic Assam, or other bold black tea would work too)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1½ cups Arborio rice or another short grained rice
  • 1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

*You can use oil, just use a lighter oil like corn or safflower, olive oil will overpower the tea flavor

First you will need to brew up your tea. Using a small stock pot or sauce pan, bring 6 ½ cups of water to a boil. Once it reaches a boil take the pot off the burner and then drop in all the tea. Allow the leaves to steep for 5 minutes and then pour everything through a strainer into a pitcher. Wipe any residual leaves out of the pot and then return the liquid to the pot. Put it over low heat so it stays warm while you are cooking the risotto. The best way to guarantee success with risotto is having warm liquid to pour over the rice.

Dice the onion into small pieces. Put a medium to large sauce pan (2 quarter sauce pan will give you more room to stir) on the stove at high heat. Put in 2 tablespoons of the butter and allow to melt. Add the onion to the butter and allow to cook for 3 to 5 minutes (the onions should look translucent). Stir periodically so your onions don’t brown. Then add the rice to the pan and cook for another 3-5 minutes. Stir occasionally to get the butter over all the rice and to evenly incorporate the onion. If using Arborio rice, when the kernels become clear around the edges it is the signal to start adding the tea.

Using a ladle, scope in one ladle of the tea and then stir until the liquid disappears. Then add the next ladle and repeat. Keeping going until you have roughly ½ cup left of the tea. Your rice should look plump and by in a slightly creamy sauce (it should not look soupy and the rice kernels should be apparent). Now add in the remaining butter 1 tablespoon at a time. If you cut the tablespoon into quarters it will melt faster. Also, this is where it is time to take a small taste of the risotto and see if you like the creaminess. It is not necessary to add all four tablespoons, it is more of a personal preference. Next, stir in the cup of cheese until it is fully incorporated.

Black tea risotto with some peas and garnish.

The Finished Black Tea Risotto Dish

Now is the time to judge if the remaining ½ cup of tea is necessary. If the risotto is looking dry, try adding a little at a time until it looks shiny. You can also skip the last half cup and save it for the morning if you like the taste of the risotto and how it looks. Salt and pepper to taste and if you want you can stir in ½ to ¾ cup of your favorite vegetable and a couple teaspoons of herbs (rosemary and green peas is one of my favorite combinations in this dish).

I was surprised at how the warm malty flavor of a good black tea adds unique note to this creamy dish. Not to mention, it turns it a warm wheat brown color almost like a loaf of bread. I hope this inspires you to try using tea in one of your favorite recipes.

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