The Demise of Tongmu Lapsang Souchong Black Tea
Editor’s note: This post is a few years old. If you’re interested in learning more about tea, sign up here to be placed on the mailing list.
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 only been developed 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 that 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 its founding, around 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 successfully grow were tea and bamboo. They needed to be able to sell tea in order to survive the cold winter in the steep valley, as 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 could 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 becoming popular further north. The Tongmu was using that 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 to hide in the rugged mountains leaving behind a 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 would probably have been up all night making tea. The soldiers found what food there was and stayed for a couple of days, finishing off the food and using the 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. It was all hand carried from Tongmu, a distance of about 40 kilometers. They begged a Fuzhou merchant that traded with Indonesia to take it on consignment, doubting that it would ever be sold and that even if it was they would not make the profit they would have if had it been their usual sweet green tea. They struggled through the winter, hunting and eating bamboo, and the next the 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.
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 were 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) teas 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 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 be 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, were 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.
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 which would come from the lesser grades of the chopping that occurred after the first 48 hours of processing. If it where still Tongmu tea that was being used, it would be roasted with a more intense wood called songming to finish the process. This is horsetail pine that is allowed to age, and 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, the fruitiness is still easily noted and its complexity is evident. This is a tea with very few middle of the road 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. The UNESCO restrictions blocked them from expanding their gardens, so they looked to Hubei to solve their supply problem. They started buying cheap tea from Hubei and smoking it in their local factories. At its high point, around 2000 tons of Lapsang Souchong from Hubei was being smoked in the village. Even with this production size, the profit realized was always very small at just a cent or two per kilo. They used their homegrown tea to make the better quality Bohea (Teding and Teji) using the songmu process, and still do at the present time.
In 2006, another innovation took place in Tongmu. A Fujian official asked Jiang Yuanxun, the biggest manufacturer in Tongmu, to make some tea as a gift using bud tea and 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 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 they 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 somewhere else and smoke it there, so even that practice has declined. It is still possible in theory to contract someone to use Tongmu harvested tea to make Lapsang Souchong with 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 areas outside of Tongmu (but still in the Wuyishan area) that are selling Lapsang Souchong at a lower price, although even these areas have become scarcer in recent years.
Cheap tea will not become a thing of the past in China. However, there is a rising desire for better quality tea that is beginning to drive the market trends. This demand change will make cheap, lower-quality tea harder to find, with quality decreasing in tandem with price. This trend can be seen happening with gunpowder green tea.
Gunpowder green tea has been one of the staples of Chinese exports, and 5 or 10 years ago it was possible to get some pretty good quality gunpowder with the bulk of it available with international organic certifications. Try finding the equivalent now. Good luck. Pesticide use goes hand in hand with cheap tea because lower altitude summer leaves, which are plagued by pest problems, are sure to be used.
Probably the biggest buyer of gunpowder is Morocco, and when I talked to the head of the Moroccan Tea Council at a conference in China earlier this year, he asked me why it was so hard to get gunpowder. Not just good gunpowder, but simply enough gunpowder to meet the needs of the Moroccan market. This scarcity of product is because the biggest gunpowder producer in 2006 in Zhejiang no longer makes very much, and what they do isn’t profitable. Instead, they are making organically certified higher quality Longjing, and it is excellent.
At some point, Chinese tea producers started asking themselves, “Why make tea that wholesales for a couple of dollars when I can make tea that sells for a couple of hundred?” The Chinese domestic market supports the answer of higher quality at higher price as the middle class grows and is looking for a better quality life, and to be able to buy tea that had always gone to the nobility. This is a trend that will not change. Once you have tasted the good stuff, for most people there is no going back. It has become a matter of exposure and education, and a willingness to pay more for tea. Still, at todays prices even the most expensive tea is a bargain compared to fine wine.
This question is not only being asked in China, but it is also already being asked in India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, where the majority of growers are small holders that can pivot easier than large plantations. It is wrong to think that the world’s tea drinkers will not follow that trend. There are producers that are trying out white tea, and wulongs, as well as green tea, and there is no reason that I can see that tea which requires greater skill and cultivars that are focused on quality rather that quantity, will not spread every where as it has been with fine wine.
Tongmu Village invented black tea that became so popular, in it’s many forms, in the rest of the world to the degree tea is now the most consumed beverage after water. Tongmu hasn’t grown though, nor will it. Their village economy has prospered through innovation and applying their knowledge to produce incredible quality tea. They did that in a market place that had never had existed before, and not once but twice. First by making the best out of a bad situation and inventing black tea, and then by taking things to a new standard of excellence with Jin Jun Mei to elevate their invention to the highest level ever reached by a black tea.
*Authors Note: I am trying to write shorter blogs. This one was intended for 500 words, but I seems to have gone a lot further. I will keep trying in the future to be briefer, but I can’t promise.