In spring 2006, I travelled up into China's Wuyi Mountains in search of real Lapsang Souchong - or Bohea as we like to call it. This tea made up the bulk of England’s first shipment of tea in 1689. It is produced on a 400-year-old farm, set against stunning scenery of mountains, mist and hand-crafted wooden smoke houses.
Bohea is the rich relation of the tea we know as Lapsang Souchong. But to lump the two in the same sentence is almost a crime. The difference between Bohea and Lapsang Souchong is perhaps similar to the distinction between mass-produced whiskies and slowly-made, properly aged, artisan malts. Many Lapsang are heavily smoked by burning pine oil rather than using a special pine wood found only in the Wuyi Mountains. Drying the leaves slowly over pine wood fires gives Bohea a soft, lingering smokiness, making it an incredibly easy-to-slip down and sophisticated after dinner tea.
I met Mr Zhou, the 32nd generation to produce Bohea. In his opinion Bohea was the first black tea ever to be produced. But this happened by accident.
Nearly 400 years ago, in the late Ming Dynasty, Zhou's family would pick fresh tea leaves from the mountains and lay them out in a wooden hut to wither overnight. One night Army soldiers passed their village and slept in the hut, unknowingly lying on the fresh tea. When the soldiers left the next morning, Jiang’s family found that the fresh tea had been bruised and as a result had oxidised, changing from vibrant green to reddish-purple. The shape of the leaves had become distorted and pliable.
Zhou’s family couldn’t afford to throw the tea out, so to save it they decided to dry the leaves over pine wood fires – at the time this was a kind of common fuel in their village. The pine fire imbued the tea leaves with its delicate fragrance.
To their surprise the tea sold at the local market extremely well and they were immediately asked when the next batch would be ready. The Jiang family were fairly entrepreneurial and tried to market it elsewhere with success as it found its way to London in 1689.
The tea became so popular in Europe that other tea producers in China tried to copy the Jiang family’s creation. But they didn’t quite know the secret and to this day, as Jiang says, Lapsang Souchong ‘tastes little similar’ to their Bohea. He calls it ‘fake Wuyi Bohea’ and is saddened that Lapsang Souchong has become the most well known Chinese black tea in the world.