Which brings us back to Lapsang Souchong, the strong smoked version of Zhenshan Xiaozhong. The accurate name in Chinese is Yan (smoked) Zhengshan Xiaozhong, which is the most familiar in the West, at least in the present day. This tea comes from the lesser grades of the chopping that occurred after the first 48 hours of processing. If it were still Tongmu tea that was being used, it would be roasted with a more intense wood called songming to finish the process. Songming is horsetail pine that is allowed to season. Because of the knottiness of this type of pine, a lot of resin has hardened in the knots, giving the tea its distinct tarry quality (like certain single malt scotches) which some drinkers find strongly addicting. Tongmu tea is so rich, even with this strong smoke, that the fruitiness is still easily noted and its complexity is evident. This is a tea with very few ambivalent drinkers: either you love it or hate it. Be assured, those who love it are many.
When Tongmu was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site, it coincided with China opening up to international trade again. That brought authentic Tongmu Lapsang Souchong back into the global market. Having to compete with the commodity market made profits low, but demand was high. It wasn’t long before Tongmu reached its capacity, which is about 40 tons per year in sales. UNESCO restrictions blocked producers from expanding their gardens, so they looked to Hubei to solve their supply problem. Producers started buying cheap tea from Hubei and smoking it in their local factories. At its height, around 2000 tons of Lapsang Souchong from Hubei were being smoked in the village. Even with this production size, the profit realized was still very small – perhaps just a cent or two per kilo. Tongmu tea makers used their homegrown tea to make the better quality Bohea (Teding and Teji) using the songmu process, and still do at this time.
In 2006, another innovation took place in Tongmu. A Fujian official asked Jiang Yuanxun, the biggest manufacturer in Tongmu, to make some tea for a gift, using bud tea without the familiar smoking. The tea was made by Liange Junde, the tea master that worked for Mr. Jiang at the time, and the tea Jin Jun Mei was born. In 2007, it went into full-scale production and rapidly became the most expensive black tea ever sold in China. This tea and its lesser grade, Yin Jun Mei, have brought wealth to Tongmu. It is a village that cannot grow, but tea farms are getting the maximum return on their limited acreage. These teas have once again spawned many fakes, but the character of the local bushes and the local high mountain terroir are unmatched.
Over the years, factors have changed to make it no longer financially attractive for Tongmu to bring tea from elsewhere and smoke it, so even that practice has declined. It is still possible, in theory, to contract someone to use Tongmu harvested tea to make Lapsang Souchong from Tongmu bushes. The tea would cost five times as much, the buyer would have to deal directly with the tea maker in Tongmu and they would have to have a solid relationship to guarantee authenticity. This complicated process raises the question as to why a buyer should even bother doing that when there are tea producing areas outside of Tongmu (but still in the Wuyishan area) that are selling Lapsang Souchong at a lower price. However, even these areas have become scarcer in recent years.
Images courtesy of the author. Main Image: Lainge Junde, inventor of Jin Jun Mei; Image 1: On the road to Tongmu.
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts about Tongmu Lapsang Souchong. You can read Part 1 here; and Part 2 here. The fourth and final post of the series will publish next Thursday, January 23.
Austin Hodge is the founder of sevencups.com.