The trade of black tea accelerated with the opening of the port Xiamen in 1684. In 1732, Liu Jing, the mayor of Changan county, currently Wuyishan City, set an area of 600 sq kilometers with Tongmu at the center as the only authentic area where black tea was produced. Lui Jing specified what he considered to be fake black tea being made in neighboring areas. He stated that the color of the tea should be red, and his list of makers of real hong cha excluded the nearby Fujian counties of Shaowu , Zhenghe, Tian Yong, Piannan, Gutian, Shaxian, and the Qianshan county in Jiangxi. Issues of origin were important even then and this was perhaps the first attempt to protect an origin and a brand where international trade was concerned.
The evolution of the name, “black tea,” is a matter of controversy. Black tea, or hong cha in Chinese which means red tea, was first mentioned in Chinese in 1640 in the Qing Dai Tang Shi, being called Xiao Zheng Hong Cha (small leaf red tea). The people in Tongmu just called it Wuda. At that time the black tea that was being sold to the Dutch in Indonesia, and was likely called Bohea by them because of the similarity to the name Wuyi, referring to the Wuyi Mountains. The current name of Lapsang Souchong probably comes from the Chinese Lexun Xiaozhong (heavily smoked small leaf). It is a reference to its smoking process called songming or lexun, where aged dry wood is burned. Alternatively, there is still the process called songmu, where wet wood is burned is used to create a less smoky Bohea, and making for a tea much closer to the original.
The names Bohea and Lapsang Souchong have been used so interchangeably, that there is little wonder that there is such confusion. At one point when the English passed new tea import duties in the 19th century, it was noted that even the experts could not tell the difference between Bohea, Souchong, and Congou, for taxing purposes. The Oxford Dictionary defines Bohea as the worst grade of tea. It is perhaps a bit ironic that the only place where this old name is still used is to signify a better quality tea is in Tongmu.
Both Bohea (lightly smoked), and Lapsang Souchong (strong smoked), tea processing started out the same way, while Tongmu was still using local tea to make Lapsang Souchong. The process takes about 48 hours to be completed, from picking, to withering, to rolling, to oxidizing, and finally to roasting. At the end of this process the unbroken leaves are hand sorted out of the mix. The unbroken leaf represents the best grade, named Zhengshan Xiaozhong Tedeng. Then the next grades, three in all, are re-roasted using the songmu wood for roasting. They are called Zhengshan Xiaozhong Teji. For Tedeng and Teji, the smokiness in the tea is slight, with Teding having the least smokiness and a sweet fruity flavor like the Chinese fruit longan. It was probably Tedeng that first made it to Europe because we know it originally shipped in chests that only contained 17.5 kilos. That would have made it expensive. Besides, a cheap tea in the beginning would not have spurred the expansion of production that rapidly occurred. There had to be some financial incentive for the producers to take the risk of moving from green tea to black tea production.
Another interesting twist was added in that as demand increased, they began chopping the finished tea in order to get more into a chest. The chest weight almost doubled to 30 kilos. This is also when at least the first extra roasting between Teding and Teji started to become the practice, using the songmu roasting. The extra roasting helped to stabilize the cut tea because cutting added more surface area that was exposed to moisture, which would decrease shelf life. The extra roasting removed any moisture that might have been absorbed after the cutting, and was also thought to help protect the exposed surfaces.
In Chinese black tea production, the practice of cutting the tea happens only after it has been roasted. That is not true in Indian tea making where the leaves are broken up before roasting begins, dramatically changing the character of the tea. Perhaps that is why Chinese black tea is so different from black tea produced in the commodity tea model. It is hard to reconcile the difference in tea making techniques. Robert Fortune brought tea plants out of China that had origin in Wuyishan, and he also brought Chinese tea makers. Did they plan from early on that the tea should have more bitterness that would require sugar to offset it? Did the English want a browner color that would look more pleasing when milk was added? This change in the processing completely changes the character of the tea. Surely the world-wide proliferation of tea can be credited to the British production of tea in its colonies, but it is sweetened, spiced, flavored and blended the majority of the time. This is not true in China, where the tea is primarily unadulterated. You can certainly make a case that the strong smoking of the tea is an adulteration, and that may explain why the tea is rarely consumed in China.
MAIN IMAGE: Lainge Junde, inventor of Jin Jun Mei
IMAGE 1: Old Lapsang Souchong factory.
Both images courtesy of the author. Austin Hodge is the founder of sevencups.com.