Tea, produced from the camellia sinensis plant, can be divided into 6 different types depending upon the processing and degree of fermentation of the freshly picked leaf. Oolong teas lie in the middle of the spectrum, being partly fermented. They are somewhere between a green tea, and a fully fermented black tea. Oolong teas take their name from the Chinese for black dragon, as the long dark twisted leaf is said to resemble a dragon’s head. There are three main oolong teas that are found in China. These are Iron Goddess (Tieguanyin), Phoenix (Fenshuang Dan Cong), and Big Red Robe (Dahongpao). This article will focus on the origins of the Big Red Robe tea, how to look for the quality in the tea and how to prepare and appreciate this tea.
Authentic Dahongpao tea originates from the small UNESCO heritage site of Wuyishan National Park in Fujian Province. Tea that is grown in this unique and stunning environment is also known as ‘rock tea’ as the tea bushes are planted high up in the rocky and mountainous national park. The rocky soil and misty climate gives this tea its smooth flavour. Poorer quality imitation Dahongpao tea, that is not grown in the small rock oolong area, is earthy in flavour as it grows on soil, rather than on rock. In Wuyishan, four characters are used to describe rock oolongs; alive, clean, sweet, and fragranced.
The mythology behind Big Red Robe tea reveals how the name was bestowed upon this variety of oolong. It is said that a travelling scholar was on the way to take some exams and was very tired. A monk gave the scholar some tea, which revived him and he went on to pass the exams, for which he was rewarded with a red robe. To thank the monk, the scholar returned to present him with the red robe. However, the monk declined the gift, saying that the tea bush should be thanked, rather than himself. So, the scholar threw the red robe over the tea bush, and that is how the Dahongpao (big red robe) gained its name.
It is said that the original tea bushes that provided the tea to revive the scholar still flourish in the national park at Wuyishan. The original Dahongpao ‘mother’ tea bushes are around 400 years old. These national treasures are guarded at night, and are only used to produce tribute tea; that is gifted to local and national leaders. These bushes are regarded as precious because they are the last of their kind. Any attempt to cultivate a cutting or shoot from the bushes, and therefore grow more of the same variety, has been unsuccessful. The ‘mother bushes’ are all that remain and if they are allowed to perish there will not be any more in their place. The tea institute has spliced the original Dahongpao ‘mother bush’ with other teas to make new generations of Dahongpao, many varieties of which have been cultivated in the Wuyishan national park.
These subvarieties of Dahongpao tea, growing in the national park, have given rise to many different types of the Big Red Robe tea. Of these the most popular varieties drunk in China are Shuixian (literally translated as ‘water sprite’ although often this tea is also called Narcissus), Rongui, and Qi Lan (Orchid). All Dahongpao teas are fermented in the same way. The fresh leaf is firstly dried in the sun to kill the natural green enzymes off. The leaves are then processed in a repeated series of heating, drying, and rolling, until the final shape is achieved and the leaves are baked over a wood fire until crisp.
Making your Big Red Robe Tea:
When tea tasting , start by appreciating the fine shapes and aroma of the dry leaf. The rich aroma of the tea must be appreciated fully. To do this you can place about a teaspoon of the dried leaf in the palm of your hand and breathe out hot air onto the leaves and then breath in through your nose, the slightly woody and malty aroma is amazing.
It is a great opportunity to use a Purple Clay Yixing or Zisha Teapot to make an infusion of Dahongpao tea. Typically the small tea pot (around 200-300ml in capacity) will be filled to one third with the dry tea leaf. Near boiling water is used to infuse Dahongpao tea. Pour the boiling water onto the tea leaves in the pot, and then throw this first infusion away. This is called ‘washing the tea’ and is done for any fermented tea. This will not only wash any fine sediment away, but also decreases the amount of caffeine in your final drink. The water you pour away can sometimes be used to warm the tea cups.
Next pour on the boiling water again and allow the tea to infuse for around 30 seconds, before pouring your tea out through a sieve into a sharing cup (a glass jug is typically used). We might use a glass sharing cup to make sure that everyone gets the same flavourful tea; the tea can vary in the strength of the flavour and the last cup might taste very strong, whereas the first out of the teapot may taste too weak. Usually the tea is shared into small sipping cups using the glass sharing cup. Dahongpao can be brewed between 6 to 8 times.
To appreciate the tea fully, firstly the fine colour of the liquor should be examined. It will be a lovely amber and golden clear liquor. Next the sweet and slightly woody aroma of the tea should be appreciated, before taking three long slurps from your sipping cup. Finally the wet leaf is sometimes examined. For a high quality tea leaf, you can expect to find a large leaf around 2-4cm long and 1-2 cm in diameter with a slightly glossy looking texture and fairly robust in structure.
Enjoy your tea!