Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hobbes Searches for a Proper Englishman's Lapsang

Hobbes Puzzles over Lapsang
Is "Hobbes," author of The Half-Dipper blog, the best tea writer extant? Perhaps, though I have a few others in my must-read category. Unlike me, Hobbes actually puts pictures of real tea on his blog, instead of bits of pop culture or images tangentially related to Camellia sinensis. I do so because I am no photographer, and I cannot approach the beauties of a well-laid tea tray or capture the subtlety of the meniscus at the edge of a lovely cup of hongcha in a purple-clay cup.

And thus, back to Hobbes. He is an instructor at an eminent U.K. university, and I've delighted in learning much of what little I know about puerh from him. Last year, I participated in a tea tasting he hosted, for which I am still grateful.

Today, Hobbes is talking lapsang souchong. As my readers would know (and I invite you to look in my blog here), I had never enjoyed lapsang souchong until a tea friend, George Zhang from Green Hill Tea, converted me with the Bohea Lapsang  he told me came from the Wuyi Mountain reserve, and of which no other than Norwood Pratt himself said,

"I bet I know that Bohea you love--it's from the Jiang Family back in the Wuyi Nature Reserve if I'm thinking of the right stuff--simply the world's best."

Now, Hobbes is searching for a proper Englishman's lapsang, and finds some samples he's interested in. For him, this is a quest not unlike the endless longing for, "The Lost Chord," which Arthur Sullivan described in his tone-poem, composed in 1877. Do listen to the piece while reading Hobbes's article. I've had experiences like this myself: longing for a flavor or aroma only found in my childhood, inextricably linked to my memories of Grandma's cupboard, or Grandpa Allison's pipes, or Clear Lake afternoons. The longing for a golden past is a very English pastime, I believe, which is why Hobbes makes reference to his love for Tolkien (the sentimentalist di tutti sentimentalists, when it comes to his longing for an untouched Shire). But even a poor American such as myself can indulge thus and come away pining for that lost fjord.

I asked in his comments section something like, "So what makes a proper Englishman's lapsang anyway, you tea-swilling Brit?" Well, I asked with a bit more grace than that, but I'm still puzzled. I always thought Brits drank low-quality tea dressed up with pine smoke to cover the deficiencies of the leaves themselves. (But of Americans' tea palates, the less said the better, so no offense meant.) I searched his the archives, and I found the answer here. A sample quote:

This is a delicious hongcha, but it is not lapsang souchong.  Yes, I know that it was plucked by the thighs of young virgins from the finest tea-bushes in the Wuyi mountain range, and then was gently passed over the combusting branches of pine trees through which ambrosial scents whisper throughout the long, spring evenings.  It is an excellent "Zhengshan Xiaozhong".  It is first-class hongcha.
However, it is not lapsang souchong, as English culture has long appreciated it.  This is not to say that English culture has been raised on inferior product - merely that this particular variety is too light, not sufficiently pine-like, not sufficiently sweet-smokey, to be an Englishman's lapsang.

If you've never had the opportunity to read Hobbes's blog, please enjoy a wander through his archives at your earliest convenience. His knowledge of puerh is extensive, and he makes that difficult-to-understand corner of the tea world a bit more accessible. I'm glad to see him writing also about lapsang souchong, which can be an amazing tea when done right.


Alex Zorach said...

This is highlights how traits in a tea that might make that tea more desirable to certain connoisseurs might make it seemingly less "authentic" in the context of traditional British tea culture.

I've heard people make similar remarks about Assam or Ceylon tea that was just "too light" or "too mild".

Even though I don't really consider myself to have the aesthetics of British tea culture, I sometimes identify with these sentiments as well. Sometimes, the higher-grade and more expensive teas are too mild for me, and I like going for the coarser, bolder teas.