Smoky Tea: History, Culture, & Food Pairings

Smoky Teas

People have been smoking food for as long as anyone can remember, and not just for preservation. The origins of different smoked foods range from deliberate to accidental, but in many cases the added flavor quickly became well liked and sought after. More than just being a delicious flavor that’s popular across the world, smokiness is almost entirely unique and can add a fun twist to just about anything, from marinades to cocktails and desserts. With Summer officially on its way, and Father’s Day around the corner, what better to bring back the smoky flavor of grills and campfires than some smoky teas? Fantastic on their own and with a meal or snack, these teas will give you the full range of subtle to bold smoky flavors in only the time it takes to heat your water and steep your tea. If you’re a fan of strong flavors like scotch or black coffee, or even if you’re looking for a stronger tea experience, these are the smoky teas for you.


But what makes smoked foods and drinks taste so unique? It’s a common observation that there is no good substitute for a smoked flavor. But why is this? A good deal of research has gone into the exact combination of flavor compounds that create smoky flavors, which include acids, sugars, alcohols, and certain compounds that can even change the texture of food. [1] Further, while it’s hard to say exactly how much smell contributes to flavor, the same smoke that flavors your food and drinks often gives off an unmistakable and mouthwatering smell, which undoubtedly adds to the flavor experience. More recently, a group of researchers from Kansas State and Southwest University identified a specific blend of fourteen different terms to better describe smoky flavors: woody, musty/earthy, bitter, and metallic among them. [2]


Lapsang Souchong—When thinking of smoke flavor, Lapsang Souchong is the first thing that comes to many tea drinkers' minds. The word lapsang comes from Fuzhou dialect Chinese, which roughly means “pine wood,” while souchong refers to the grade of leaf used. This tea is said to have originated around the 17th century during the Qing dynasty, when people in the Wuyi mountains in China used pine fires to speed up the drying process of freshly picked tea leaves. Stories differ as to whether they had to quickly leave an area or just didn’t reliably have time to wait for the tea to dry otherwise. What’s certain, however, is that instead of the quickened drying process and subsequent addition of smoke ruining the tea, Lapsang Souchong quickly became a favorite worldwide. The smoky flavor pairs well with just about any food you could make on a grill or campfire—red meat, eggs and bacon, barbeque, etc. If you’re looking for something lighter, chocolate also goes fantastically with this tea. For a unique latte, try brewing it a bit stronger than usual and adding warm steamed or foamed milk and sugar. If you’re looking for other fun ways to use Lapsang Souchong, the smoky flavor goes well in marinades, and can give tea eggs a unique twist.


Russian Caravan—A common story for how this blend came to be is that during the long routes trade caravans moving between Russia and China took around the 18th century, the smoke from the campfires mingled with the baskets of tea, slowly and incidentally smoking it over the journey. This blend also contains some Lapsang Souchong which has its own strong smoky flavor, though the other teas in this bold blend stand up to it remarkably well. Pu’erh, an aged black tea, is known for its earthy and fermented flavor. Assam is a phenomenal black tea with well balanced astringent and slightly sweet flavors. While highly-oxidized oolong can take on a smoky flavor of its own. Tea has been an important part of Russian culture for centuries, and with Russia being one of the countries that consumes the most tea per capita in the world, it should be no surprise that this tea pairs particularly well with Russian food. This tea is outstanding plain or, if you like sweeter things, in typical Russian style try a spoonful of your favorite jam.


Gunpowder Green— Originally called "pearl tea," Gunpowder tea is one of the older ways tea was produced. Ironically, this tea got its name from the association between the distinctive ball shape of the leaves and the shape of gunpowder grains instead of from the smoky taste of the tea. Though the shape of the leaves and the way they uncurl when steeped is certainly pretty, the rolled leaves also preserve flavor and allow it to stay fresher for longer. This tea tends to be more caffeinated and more intensely flavored than other green teas. For the same reason, depending on your preferences this tea can be steeped multiple times, with each steep giving its own flavor. The pan-firing process often used in the production of gunpowder green tea imparts a smoky flavor. The milder flavor of green tea tends to go well with chicken, fish, and vegetables, though the more potent flavor of gunpowder green tea stands up better to other strong flavors. Stir-fry, fried rice, or some of your favorite hard and semi-hard cheeses pair perfectly.


Moroccan Mint—Tea is an important part of many people’s lives in Northern Africa, and Morocco is no exception. While Gunpowder Green tea and spearmint are core part of this blend, Moroccan Mint tea is traditionally brewed at hotter temperatures for shorter times with sugar to cut the bitterness. If you’re looking for new ways to brew teas, or interested in exploring tea traditions across the world, Moroccan Mint is a fantastic blend to get started with. Traditionally, Moroccan tea is served with bread, dates, or pastries. Tea is a social drink, both in Morocco and across the world, and there’s always something new to learn in making it—try this one with your friends! In Morocco, it’s served at gatherings of friends, family, and before business meetings as a way to connect first as humans.


Adaptogenic Chai—A lot of hard work went into this blend, and that really comes through in the complex yet balanced flavor. Every ingredient was specifically chosen for both flavor and potential adaptogenic properties. The main “smoked” flavor in this blend comes from roasted dandelion root, though chaga mushrooms (often found on trees in cold climates such as Russia or Canada) give an almost smoky complex umami flavor, and the ashwagandha adds a pleasant bitterness. The traditional chai spices (cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves) in this blend give it just enough additional warmth. This tea is perfect for nights or late afternoons when you’re craving a cup of black tea or coffee but don’t want the caffeine—unlike most non-caffeinated chais, however, this one is both naturally non-caffeinated and stays true to the flavor profile of a solid black tea. Fantastic on its own or with your favorite tea biscuits, this is a wonderful and unique tea to add to your rotation.



[1] Montazeri, N., Oliveira, A. C., Himelbloom, B. H., Leigh, M. B., & Crapo, C. A. (2013). Chemical characterization of commercial liquid smoke products. Food science & nutrition, 1(1), 102–115.

[2] Jaffe, T. R., Wang, H., & Chambers, E. (2017). Determination of a lexicon for the sensory flavor attributes of smoked food products. Journal of Sensory Studies, 32(3).

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