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  1. Lapsang Souchong
  2. Joseph Uhl
  3. Artifact: Canister of Lapsong Souchong
Jaunt Editors

The Smoke of Pines

The Myth of the World's First Black Tea

The Smoke of Pines
The Myth of the World's First Black Tea

Here’s a question Joseph Uhl gets pretty often these days:

How does a corporate lawyer--one with nearly eight years of experience under his belt at Detroit’s largest law firm--decide to leave his job (the one with a six figure salary) to start a tea business out of the basement of his home with two young daughters running upstairs?

“I hate to get spiritual here,” says Uhl, who founded Joseph Wesley Black Tea, a Detroit-based tea importer and retailer, in 2013. “But I don’t know any other way of explaining it.”

Uhl’s journey with tea begins over a decade ago, around the year 2000, when Uhl was granted a year-long Princeton fellowship to teach philosophy at a small college in Western China. After class, feeling somewhat lonely and lost, Uhl would wander down to the local marketplace. There, he struck up an unlikely friendship with a few local Taiwanese tea merchants. Uhl was never particularly interested in tea, but these conversations resonated deeply with him. The merchants weren’t just immersed in the trade and sale of tea--they were steeped in its tradition in China.

“It was that education--that knowledge--that started making me fall in love with tea as not only a nice drink, but a drink with historical and cultural significance,” he says. “I started to really relate to it.”

And not just "spiritually," but biologically as well.  Black tea, particularly, is rich with vitamins and antioxidants. Brewing it with hot water kills off any bacteria. One tea metaphor that sticks out in Uhl’s memory is that of the “mother pot:” You take these essential elements, you combine them, and then you share them with your children and those around you to give them life.

“It was that metaphor that really spoke to me culturally about tea,” Uhl says. “And it became that metaphor when I started asking myself where I’m getting stuck in an office job, where I knew I wouldn’t be happy and I kept finding myself back. I had always been missing something in my life, and tea just made sense to me. It’s what I was missing. I was never able to create that healthy life, and I was always yearning for it.”

Uhl worked as a litigator at Miller Canfield, one of Detroit’s largest law firms, but quit in 2012 to pursue his idea for a tea business full time. He became enraptured.  He traveled back to China to the tea gardens and estates, where he met with growers and producers. Today, Joseph Wesley Black Tea sells a variety of Chinese and Indian loose-leaf black teas. The teas come in 50 gram cannisters and costs between $10 and $15.

One of the teas Uhl sells is Lapsang Souchong, one of the first black teas ever made.

Lapsang Souchong is a black tea that’s harvested in the tea gardens of the Wu Yi Shan rock cliffs in the Fujian province of China, a region located about 500 miles south of Shanghai. According to some, it’s the first black tea in history--a smoky, flavorful blend that’s dried over smoking pine fires.

Once the leaves are plucked, the tea is placed in wooden barrels, and eventually placed into bamboo baskets (called honglongs) over smoky pine fires. Once finished, the tea leaves are black, and after about 3-5 minutes of steeping at 212 degrees, produce a savory orange-red hue.

According to an oft-told legend, this smoking process was discovered by accident during the early years of the Qing Dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1912.  One day, soldiers were camped in a village tea factory, displacing the tea factory workers for the morning. When the workers could finally enter the factory to begin work for the day and process the tea, they realized that in order to get the tea to market in time, they’d need to dry the tea leaves faster than normal.

Men laden with tea in Sichuan Sheng, China, 1908.  Taken by Ernest Henry William, a botanist who explored East Asia extensively.  His notes accompanying this photograph (taken from Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum/Horticulture Library collection) read:

"Western Szechuan. Men laden with 'Brick Tea' for Thibet. One man's load weighs 317 lbs. Avoird. the other's 298 lbs. Avoird.!! Men carry this Tea as far as Tachien-lu accomplishing about 6 miles per day over vile roads. Altitude 5,000 ft."

So, rather than fanning the tea, they decided to light fires, fueled by pine wood, to accelerate the drying process. As luck would have it, the tea took on a distinctive and popular smoky flavor--and the method stuck.

As a small but important chapter (possibly the first chapter) in the history of black tea, Lapsang Souchong has a mixed record.  It is viewed as inferior within China - a tea mainly for foreigners - as "souchong" refers to the fourth or fifth level of leaf picked from the tea plant.  The bud, or pekoe, is the most prized part of the plant and is only picked with the soft tip of the finger to avoid being jarred by a fingernail or mechanical picking instrument, which can cause brusing.  

The smokiness imparted by the pine fires further adds to this tea's edginess.  A 2005 study titled "Flavor Characteristics of Lapsang Souchong and Smoked Lapsang Souchong, A Special Chinese Black Tea With Pine Smoking Process" published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry identified several compounds (longifolene, longicyclene, guaiacol, 4-methylguaiacol, and 4-ethylguaiacol, to name a few) that are found in no other tea.  Over the course of smoking, the "aroma constituents of tea origin decreased" while derivatives of the pine (pine terpenoids and the byproducts of burning organic material, called pyrolysis) "increased markedly."  One could say that, chemically, Lapsang Souchong is less "tea" than its brethren. 

"People either love it or hate it," says Chas Kroll, Executive Director of the American Tea Masters Association.  Kroll has been involved in the tea industry for 15 years and recalls the first time he tried Lapsang Souchong, "Years back, one of my tea suppliers suggested that I add a Lapsang Souchong to my tea inventory and offered to send me a sample. I tasted the sample when it arrived and did not like it at all.  Both the aroma and taste were overpowering."

This image problem is not reserved solely for Lapsang Souchong, especially in the United States, where tea consumption is 10.3 gallons per capita per year compared to 18.5 gallons of coffee, according to a 2010 report by AdAge.  For Uhl, this is a trend he wants to see reversed.  

Unlike most other places in the world, in the United States tea takes a back seat to coffee.

"Most tea suppliers simply adopt the language that has been used for hundreds of years to allure new and old consumers to their product.  Pictures of pretty flowers, lush landscapes, sun, healthy activities, losing weight etc.  As such, those who don’t 'like' tea are those that don’t associate with the message of wellness, healthy lifestyles pushed by the tea companies," says Uhl.

You don't have to practice yoga or drive a hybrid to love tea.  Winston Churchill preferred black tea - Lapsing Souchong, specifically - as a smoky compliment to his cigars.  Uhl continues,

"There are masculine traits unique to tea — it’s not all feminine.  It’s an extraordinary labor intensive craft.  Tea has interesting and complex tastes, aromas, but that doesn't mean tea has to be intimidating.  Tea can be as simple as a cup of coffee.  Yet, if you are so inclined tea can introduce one to a very unique part of art, history and humanity."  

Uhl's commitment to tea is scribbled across every aspect of his enterprise.  Uhl hand-packages the tea in Joseph Wesley's Black Tea HQ: his Detroit home. He hand-cranks the labels in the basement. He spent months working with a designer (Foundry Co. based in Dallas) on creating his brand, which was featured on The Dieline, "the most visited website on package design on the web," according to their About Us page.  Uhl has one partner, who has a minority interest in the business, and in the spring of 2014 he is considering launching a line of tea drinks. He is relatively quiet about how many shipments he’s made so far, but says he’s shipped to most states in the US. Uhl admits that launching the business was--and is--a stressful, fraught journey. But it’s a journey he’s happy he’s made.

“By getting involved in tea, I was really just trying to become the person that I wanted to be all along,” he says.  

Artifact: Canister of Lapsong Souchong

In your box is a 50 gram canister of Joseph Wesley's Black Tea No. 7, Lapsong Souchong.  Uhl describes the tea as one that "balances its smoky undertones with rich malty plum and chocolate overtones."  The tea itself is a piece of history and is imported directly from China where it is harvested from the Wu Yi Shan rock cliffs in Fujian Province.  Even for the non-tea drinker, the smokiness endowed by the pine fires is a marked departure from more common black teas.

It is recommended that you brew 1 teaspoon of tea per 8 ounces of water.  Heat the water to 190-195° F and steep for 2-2.5 minutes.  For each subsequent steep add 30 seconds.  We tried icing the tea at the Jaunt HQ and enjoyed it that way as well, though we cannot speak to whether such a method is considered faux pas.

Did you find a creative way to use your tea?  Marinade a steak in it (yes, this is a thing) or use it to make frosting?  Tweet us @jauntco and tell us about it.

Publisher's Letter | Sole Searching | Feather Lines | City of Glass | Pickle Wars | Detroit's Denim | My First Duel | The Smoke of Pines | Pieces of Road

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