Da Hong Pao, translated as either “Grand Scarlet Robe” or “Big Red Robe”, is one of the most famous types of Chinese tea. Legends and rumors abound about how this tea came to be cultivated and revered, and these stories often overshadow the factual information behind teas labeled as Da Hong Pao. With fame comes imitations, and this popular variety is no different.
Da Hong Pao Origins
In the most specific sense, Da Hong Pao is a variety of the Camellia sinensis tea plant that grows in the Wuyi mountains in northern Fujian. According to the legends, these were naturally occurring bushes, growing wild among the rocky cliffs and outcrops.
One common story is that a scholar drank some tea from these bushes on his way to the civil service exam, and when he was the only one of his class to pass the test, he returned to the tea bushes to drape his red scholar’s robe over them. Another claims that this tea was gifted to the Emperor, and cured his ailing mother’s illness, prompting him to send red robes to be draped over the tea plants. Whether any of these stories holds a grain of truth or not, a handful of ancient tea trees in front of a cliff face inscribed with the characters for “Da Hong Pao” now attract hoards of tourists as the mother trees for this famous Chinese tea.
Indeed, several cultivars in the Wuyi mountains trace their lineage back to cuttings of these few trees. In order to preserve these original plants, plucking leaves from them was banned altogether in 2007. Since long before this ban, tea farmers and researchers in the area have been cultivating plants bred from cuttings, in an effort to preserve the quality of flavor in less vulnerable plants.
Today, three Wuyi varieties are commonly recognized as close relatives of the original Da Hong Pao trees: Bei Dou (“North Star”), Que She (“Sparrow’s Tongue”), and Qi Dan, which is thought by some to include a few of the mother trees. All three are claimed as direct descendants of the mother plants, grown and developed from cuttings on tea farms within the Wuyi mountains to preserve the terroir of the original tea.
However, in an attempt to cash in on the reputation of this tea, many farmers in the Wuyi area, especially at lower elevations, concentrate on creating blends, using several more common varieties to create an approximation of the “true” Da Hong Pao teas that are no longer produced.
While the blending of tea is usually derided as the “masking” of flawed tea with fruit or flower flavors, blended Da Hong Pao teas may be better compared to a Bordeaux wine that is expertly blended from several varieties of grapes. Farms carefully select varieties to grow and use, ultimately achieving a balance of body and fragrance in the finished Da Hong Pao tea.
But not all blends are made with the same care and craftsmanship, and the Da Hong Pao name has been somewhat diluted over time. In fact, today the label is used ubiquitously on almost all teas grown in the Wuyi mountains, across all grades.
In these blended Da Hong Pao teas, the quality (and price) of the tea generally comes down to the elevation of the farm and the skill of the roaster. While high quality examples will have a full bodied, toasty flavor with complex flavor notes underneath, low quality versions are more likely to be over-roasted, resulting in a tea that tastes burnt. A zealous roast done correctly will mellow with time, but a burnt tea will never regain complexity of flavor, even if it existed in the leaf to begin with.
As with any tea, it’s important to ask about the variety, provenance, harvest date, and crafting style before purchasing. Among the flood of mediocre teas bearing this label are a few gems worthy of the name.
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