文 By: 許玉蓮 Hooi Yoke Lien
People who describe Lapsang Souchong as an unpleasant tea with brashly smoky smell probably haven’t come across the really good ones. Premium Lapsang Souchong yields an infusion with layers of aroma unfolding in an alluring manner. Slightly astringent to the palate, it has the intensity of black dates and sweetness of dried longan with a hint of citric fruitiness, making it a very enjoyable brew.
How does this unique aroma of Lapsang Souchong come about? Its production involves the not uncommon processes of air-drying fresh leaves, indoor withering, rolling, enzymatic oxidation (fermentation) and roasting. But what makes Lapsang Souchong this distinct is where the entire production takes place: the Green Chamber.
How does this Green Chamber look like? There are two levels in here; the upper and lower levels are separated by wooden planks. There is a withering room, and a corridor outside of it on the upper level; and a smoke-roast room underneath. At the back of the Green Chamber is a stove fired by pinewood. Wet pinewood is laid out on the ground, in ‘T’ shape or horizontally. As the wood slowly burns, the heat and smoke rises up through vents into the smoke-roast room inside the Green Chamber. The vents, covered by movable bricks, can be manually adjusted to control the indoor temperature. Hanging from the wooden-planked ceiling of the smoke-roast room are some racks.
Let us take a look at each step of the production. For Lapsang Souchong, the first step is air-drying fresh leaves. Only the top ‘two leaves and a bud’ or ‘three leaves and a bud’ are used as the raw materials. Harvested leaves, mostly covered in rain or dew drops, are spread on the corridor outside of the withering room. Without any application of heat, they are left to air-dry.
Indoor withering (heat-facilitated): After having some of the water naturally evaporated, the leaves are being moved into the withering room. They are spread evenly on the bamboo mat on the wooden floor planks for heat-facilitated withering. Oxidized leaves placed on the racks at the lower level of the Green Chamber generate heat that rises and softens the fresh leaves. At the end of withering, the fresh leaves will have lost their natural lustre. They will be soft and won’t break when bent. The veins have become clearly visible and there is a faint aroma.
Rolling: Withered leaves will be collected for rolling. Rolling is executed by alternating light and high pressure; the leaves are unclumped once during the process. Workers will roll until strips of tealeaf are tightly twisted, tea juice is released, and the strips won’t easily come apart when squeezed together.
Enzymatic oxidation (fermentation): Rolled tealeaves will then be placed in bamboo baskets reserved for enzymatic oxidation. A hole is made in the middle of the heap of rolled tealeaves to facilitate air ventilation. They are covered with wet cloth to promote enzymatic oxidation. The heap will be turned once during the process. When completed, the grassy smell will be replaced by a sweet and mellow aroma characteristic of tea.
Smoke-roasting: Oxidized leaves are spread evenly and thinly on bamboo sieves. The bamboo sieves are placed onto the hanging rack of the Green Chamber for drying. These sieves are stacked in such a way that they half-overlap each other, such as roof tiles or fish scales. The heat from the burning pinewood should not be too high; where necessary, bricks are used to block certain vents to lower the temperature of the smoke-roast room.
Drying of Lapsang Souchong must be done by smoke-roasting at lower temperature. The leaves should be dried by the heat from the smoke, and not by direct roasting with the burning pinewood underneath. That explains why Lapsang Souchong imparts a distinct smoky aroma that comes from deep down within, rather than just on the surface. It is no overstatement to say that the sheer joy of drinking Lapsang Souchong stems from its intertwining aroma and flavour.
The Green Chamber of Lapsang Souchong is essentially an architectural structure comprising a stove (for heat and smoky aroma), smoke-roast room (for drying of tealeaves), withering room (for dehydration) and the corridor (for air-drying and water evaporation of fresh leaves). What binds them all is the heat generated by the smoke of the burning pinewood.