2009 Spring Da Hong Pao - Wu Yi Oolong Tea
Da Hong Pao (English: Big Red Robe) is by far and away the most famous and revered varietal from the great category of oolongs known as “Wu Yi Yen Cha,” or Wu Yi Rock Teas. It was hand harvested and processed during the Spring season of 2009 in the Wu Yi Shan National Scenic Area of Northwest Fujian Province.
The name of this tea cultivar comes from a legend with many different variations. The main drift of these legends is that someone in the royal family, usually the Emperor, fell ill with a deep chest cough which was potentially fatal. To cure this illness, the Emperor was served a brew made from the leaves of a particular group of tea plants from the Wu Yi mountains in modern Fujian. The Emperor was so moved by the mystical life-giving powers of these unique tea plants that he had fine Royal Red silk robes, a sign of their divine status, made for the trees to keep them warm and protected during the cold mountain winters.
Three of the original Da Hong Pao trees are still alive in the Wu Yi mountains today, and they are a huge tourist draw for the region. Leaves are still harvested from these trees on an extremely limited basis, and are by far the most precious teas in the world. These rare productions from the original Da Hong Pao trees are considered Chinese national treasures and are reserved exclusively for the highest Government officials and visiting dignitaries. In 2004, 20 grams of tea produced from the original trees were sold at auction in Hong Kong. The selling price for this 20 grams was approximately US $21,000, or well over $1,000 US Dollars per Gram!
Cuttings from the original Da Hong Pao trees have been taken and grafted onto existing rootstock, creating exact copies/clones of the original plants that could be grown and harvested in more accessible parts of the the Wuyishan area. This is a very popular cultivar, and demand for Da Hong Pao is huge both inside and outside of China. This means that Da Hong Pao of varying qualities and price points is widely commercially available, and not all of it is produced by recent generation cuttings from the original Da Hong Pao trees grown inside the Wuyi National Scenic Area. This particular Da Hong Pao represents a moderately priced, but high quality offering from plants grown inside the Wuyi scenic area.
This tea’s dry leaves are the long and twisting shape and dark greenish red-brown color characteristic of traditional Wu Yi Yen Cha. The fragrance of the dry leaves is predominantly of dried fruit and roasted nuts…gentle but rich and intriguing.
This is a traditionally roasted or “fully” roasted Oolong, which serves the practical purpose of killing or deactivating any remaining oxidizing enzymes left in the leaves after they have been bruised and allowed to partially oxidize, creating the basis for the complex flavors in the finished tea. This roasting process traditionally happens using glowing (not flaming) charcoal covered with rice ash to prevent flame ups, but larger/more modern/less traditional factories use electric ovens for consistency and to prevent the accidental introduction of smoky tastes into the leaves. To use an example from western cooking, much in the same way as searing a piece of meat prior to cooking “browns” or caramelizes the proteins on the surface of the meat (the Maillard reaction) and creates complexities of flavor in the finished dish, this traditional roasting process caramelizes or “browns” the proteins in the surface of the tea leaves, creating an amazing layer of roasted/toasted richness & complexity in the flavor of the final product.
Flavor & Aroma:
The flavor of the deep red-amber tea liquor has sweet woodsy elements that are balanced out nicely with interesting fruity flavors…not exactly dried peaches or plums, but not exactly the rich perfume of pears, either. The caramelized/roasted elements of the overall flavor nicely balance out the sweet fruitiness that could have otherwise dominated the many layers of flavor that are present. The aftertaste is lingering and profoundly woodsy-sweet. This tea is good for at least 5 distinctive infusions when steeped gong-fu style before it starts to fade.
Wu Yi Teas are best suited to Gong Fu style preparation, but we have also had interesting flavors show themselves when steeping this tea western style. Rather than sticking to a specific weight of tea leaves to water volume measure, we recommend simply filling your gaiwan or Yixing style teapot 1/2 to 2/3 full of dry tea leaves, use water just under a boil and a series of short steepings. If you customarily use a specific guideline when steeping a tea for the first time, start with 6 grams of leaf in a 150 CC steeping vessel.
We strongly recommend using aroma cups when tasting Wu Yi Yen Cha because the sweet fragrance of the tea liquor clings to the porcelain for a surprisingly long time and the different layers & aspects of the complex nose will reveal themselves as the aroma cup cools.
For western style steeping, we have achieved dramatically different results with different amounts of leaf, but we suggest starting with 3-5 grams of leaf in a standard size (+/- 4 cup) teapot. Use water under a boil (195 degrees F), and steep for 5 minutes. Of course these rough guidelines are merely a suggestion, and individual tastes will vary. Adjust the amount of leaf, steeping time, and water temperature used according to your preference.