Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    What’s Causing the Lapsang Souchong Tea Shortage?

    The infamously smoky tea is increasingly hard to find. That’s not likely to change anytime soon.
    Feb 22, 2024#food

    Recently, the British broadcaster and columnist Adrian Chiles wrote about his challenges sourcing one of his favorite teas: the distinctive, not always pleasingly smoky brew known as lapsang souchong. After being unable to find it on grocery store shelves, Chiles is gifted a box of Twinings’ “Distinctively Smoky” tea, which the brand claims was “inspired by lapsang souchong.”

    Unsurprisingly, the imitator proves disappointing, and Chiles is left to bemoan the “supply problems” that have cost him a beloved beverage — or at least, forced him to consider buying the leaves in loose form. What he may not realize is that the shortage goes beyond pandemic-era bugaboos like snarled supply chains or soaring labor costs: Authentic lapsang souchong is on the verge of extinction.

    Even by the standards of tea, the origins of lapsang souchong are murky at best. In the village of Tongmu, located deep in the mountains of southeast China’s Fujian province and where the best lapsang souchong teas are produced, locals chalk it up to an accident of history. In the mid-17th century, as the Ming dynasty was collapsing, a group of soldiers supposedly stopped in the village during the tea-harvesting season. Seizing a tea-processing facility, they drove the workers out and made beds for themselves out of the leaves they found scattered over the ground. The next day, after the soldiers left, the workers returned to find the tea dried out and blackened by the soldiers’ body heat.

    Wanting to save their crop, the crew decided to cut down some of the Chinese red pine trees native to the area and smoke the leaves over an open fire. The dark, smoky leaves that resulted were wholly unsuitable for sale on the domestic market, but they managed to sell them to Dutch merchants, who in turn unloaded them on the British.

    To everyone’s surprise, the British lapped them up, and soon returned with an advance order for the following year at two to three times the tea’s original price.

    Separating fact from fiction in that account isn’t easy, but in at least one sense it rings true: lapsang souchong has always been more popular abroad than in China. The differing tastes of tea drinkers in China and overseas led to the creation of distinct varieties of lapsang souchong, catering to different markets. The version enjoyed abroad emphasizes the tea’s smoky flavors, with many producers opting to smoke it twice.

    This lends itself well to the British habit of adding milk and sugar to their tea, though even Chiles would likely agree with the tea’s Chinese critics that its taste is reminiscent of an old campfire.

    He’s less likely to know that Chinese have strong opinions about where proper lapsang souchong can be grown. Although it is typically labeled as made in China when sold abroad, to be considered authentic in China, lapsang souchong must be produced within a roughly 50-square-kilometer stretch of the Wuyi Mountain Tongmu Nature Reserve.

    The problem is that growers in this area — one of the traditional centers of China’s tea trade — now have far more lucrative options than lapsang souchong. Since 2015, the rising popularity of high-end, unsmoked jinjunmei black tea among wealthy Chinese has lured local growers away from its humbler, smoked counterpart.

    Liang Tianmeng, who helps run a tea factory in the region, told me that the traditional smoked lapsang souchong now only composes about 30% of his output, while new, non-smoked teas, including jinjunmei, account for 70%. He estimates that only around 20% of tea produced in Tongmu Village is smoked using traditional methods.

    This has pushed prices for lapsang souchong upward: In China, the average price for a kilogram of lapsang souchong grown in Tongmu has risen to around 1,000 yuan ($140), while foreign brands like Twinings typically sell it for about $23 per kilogram.

    “In the past, the lapsang souchong from Tongmu Village was sold overseas, but since the appearance of jinjunmei, none of it is exported,” says Liang Tianxiong, Liang Tianmeng’s brother and a manager at the same factory. “The main reason is that foreigners can’t accept this price.”

    Rising costs aren’t the only threat to lapsang souchong’s future. An even greater risk is the collapse of Tongmu’s pinewood forests. Traditionally, only teas processed in traditional smokehouses known as qinglou using wood from Chinese red pine trees grown in Tongmu are believed to have the unique longan fruit flavor and smoked-pine aroma that made lapsang souchong famous.

    Chinese red pines contain a special component called longifolene, which gives the tea its distinctive resiny notes. But an outbreak of pine wilt disease, which kills trees with alarming speed, has devastated the forests around Tongmu. This, combined with an epidemic of pine wood nematodes, led local authorities to ban the importation of Chinese red pinewood to Tongmu in 2020. Liang says that his tea factory and perhaps two or three other larger factories in the Tongmu production area still have a small supply of wood stockpiled before the ban went into effect, but it was unclear how much longer they could continue making lapsang souchong the traditional way.

    The good news is that researchers are working on an alternative to pinewood, made from pine gum, turpentine, rosin, and other raw materials. But progress has been slow, and growers like Liang say the replacement can’t capture the unique flavor of lapsang produced using the real thing.

    In other words, the supply problems Chiles mentioned in his column are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Fans should drink up, while they still can.

    Translator: David Ball; editor: Cai Yiwen.

    (Header image: Lapsang souchong tea. VCG)