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Tasting smoke in a teacup

  • Smoked teas have along histirical radition dating back to the Chinese Qing era
  • These teas have woody and tobacco flavours and can be balanced by mixing with other teas

Benedict Cumberbatch’s favourite tea is a mix of Earl Grey and Lapsang souchong
Benedict Cumberbatch’s favourite tea is a mix of Earl Grey and Lapsang souchong (Photo: Alamy)

If you have ever wondered what it must be like to wake up as Benedict Cumberbatch, you can try his favourite tea. Take two parts Earl Grey to one part Lapsang souchong. Leaves, not tea bag, please. Mix the teas, pour nearly boiling water, steep for 4-5 minutes. When you take a sip, know that you have experienced a cup of tea the way Cumberbatch likes it!

Lapsang souchong is a smoked black tea made from the larger leaves of the tea plant (not two leaves and a bud) and dried over pinewood. Like most tea discoveries, this too was an accidental invention. Its origins lie in the Wuyi mountains in China’s Yunnan region, and during the Qing era in the 17th century. Apparently, with the army camping near where the tea was drying, someone had to think of a way to hasten the drying process and had the ingenious idea of using wood smoke. The resultant tea was pleasantly smoky and soon became a flavour that was appreciated, especially in Europe.

A new type of tea was born. Lapsang souchong will be enjoyed by those who enjoy woody, almost tobacco flavours. Its aroma is fantastically smoky and the taste is neither harsh nor bitter. Should you find it too strong, the addition of Earl Grey à la Cumberbatch will bring a citrusy balance to it.

The Russian Caravan is another classic smoked tea. Its story is about how tea travelled along the Great Tea Road from China to Europe. As the caravan made its way 6,000 miles through the Gobi Desert and Mongolia, it stopped at nights, by campfires lit against the dark and cold. It’s thought that the teas acquired a smoky flavour from these campfires, and by the time they reached Russia, they were distinctly smoky.

The Russian Caravan takes inspiration from this story and blends the lapsang souchong with keemun and oolong teas. They come together harmoniously, with the sweet and malty flavours of the keemun offset by the lightness of the oolong, and topped off with the smokiness of the lapsang souchong.

The third smoked tea is probably the most interesting on this list. In interior Assam and parts of far eastern India, tea plants used to grow wild and were used to make a local brew. That it was a tea varietal was only discovered much later, when the British were beginning their experiments in growing Chinese saplings in the Indian hills. The discovery of this wild assamica variety was quite a game-changer; these flavours found many takers.

Wild tea plants grow in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh even today. What you get is mature leaves that are processed the old way. They are roasted in a wok and sun-dried, stuffed into hollowed bamboo and placed above the kitchen hearth. They remain there for a couple of months, absorbing the smoky flavours from the kitchen fireplace. The flavours are reminiscent of the lapsang souchong but gentler.

Smoked teas may seem like an acquired taste but you will be surprised at how easy it is to enjoy them if you like black tea.


Forest Pick for their brilliant wild smoked tea, and Chado Tea for their lapsang souchong and White Tip Smokey Earl Grey.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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