Tongmu Village, high in the Wuyishan Mountains in Fujian Province, is the birthplace of black tea. It is Lapsang Souchong that made this area famous, with it’s strong smokiness giving rise to a fixation for many people, including Sherlock Holmes, the very archetype of obsession. It’s original popularity is part of what makes the demise of Lapsang Souchong Black Tea, one of China’s most famous black teas, so filled with irony. There is no longer any Lapsang Souchong Black Tea that is made from Tongmu-grown bushes. Tongmu today is prospering like never before because of a tea that has been developed only in the last eight years. This tea, Jin Jun Mei, has not only become the highest priced black tea, but it has also popularized black tea drinking in China for the first time in the nation’s 5000 year history with tea. This prosperity trend is unlikely to change since Tongmu Village has been a protected UNESCO site since 1979, although not because of tea but because of some rare butterflies that exist nowhere else.
Tongmu is in a high mountain valley with steep walls and a creek running through it. The people who settled it went to hide from the militarism that was rampant at the end of the Ming Dynasty. Ironically, it would be a group of soldiers on their way over a little- known mountain pass that would change the fate of Tongmu and would provide the spark that would eventually lead to tea being the most consumed beverage in the world.
At the time of its founding, between 1607 to 1644, a small group of people settled Tongmu. Because of the terrain, it was very difficult to farm and the only crops they were able to grow successfully were tea and bamboo. They needed to be able to sell tea in order to survive the cold winter in the steep valley because the land did not produce enough food to feed them. When they settled in Tongmu, the only kind of tea that they made was green tea because no other type of processing had been invented yet. The area, being high in the mountains, produced a very sweet tea. This is because the stressed tea bushes produced a lot of amino acids, and this flavor made it a good seller.
The tea making techniques the villagers used had been learned from Huangshan, following the ban of cakes by the Ming Emperor in 1391. The cakes, which were ground into powder like matcha, had become almost a shadow currency that the Emperor felt would destabilize the economy. The loose leaf tea that we now enjoy came out of that time. Tea making had to be reinvented and the Huangshan area had come up with a process that was much easier to manage than the 100% pan frying process that was popular further north. The Tongmu method was created using the technology which is still in use across China. The tea making process involved pan-frying and then shaping and roasting over a bamboo roaster that was fueled by an odorless bamboo charcoal. Still, all tea was green tea. Despite only having a small area to work with, they produced some truly great tea.
One spring, during campaigning season, a clever general skilled in mountain fighting decided to surprise his enemy in Jiangxi province by using a tough-to- navigate path that passed through Tongmu. As it happened, the harvest was at its peak. Towards the end of the day, as picking was being completed, the soldiers reached Tongmu. The villagers fled, hiding in the rugged mountains, leaving behind great piles of withering tea leaves waiting to be processed into green tea, which must be done soon after picking to keep the leaves from oxidizing. If the day had gone according to plan, they probably would have been up all night making tea. In the sudden absence of the villagers, the soldiers found what food there was and stayed for a couple of days, finishing off the food and using the piled tea as nice soft beds, while the villagers hid in the mountains with the monkeys.
Upon returning, the villagers found themselves ruined. The soldiers had left behind broken leaves that had oxidized and absorbed the stink of the soldiers. However, one innovative villager suggested that they could cover the smell by roasting the tea with horsetail pine instead of bamboo charcoal. Horsetail pine (a common tree in the Wuyishan area) was used to roast the first batch in hopes of covering the smell of the soldiers, thus giving birth to black tea.
The tea was brought to a small town called Xincun, a trading center. Xincun was on the Juiqu river which allowed merchandise to be sent by boat to the port city of Fuzhou. The tea was hand-carried from Tongmu, a distance of about 40 kilometers. They begged a Fuzhou merchant who traded with Indonesia to take it on consignment, doubting that it would ever be sold (and that even if it was, they didn’t expect to make the profit they would have if had it been their usual sweet green tea). The villagers struggled through the winter by hunting, and eating bamboo. The next year, the Fuzhou merchant showed up with not only a nice return on the original crop, but a request for more. After some time, and no one is sure when, an additional request came for added smokiness. This first black tea was probably first called Bohea when it made its way to Europe. Lapsang Souchong, or just Souchong came later.
To be continued: This is the first of four posts about Tongmu Lapsang Souchong. Part 2 will publish next Thursday, January 9.
MAIN IMAGE: Lainge Junde, inventor of Jin Jun Mei; IMAGE 1: Tea bushes growing on the Tongmu valley walls. Both are courtesy of the author. Austin Hodge is the founder of sevencups.com.