Da Hong Pao Wuyi Oolong — the Big Red Robe Tea of Fujian Province
Tea is deeply rooted in the Asian tradition for thousands of years, rivaling the role of wine in shaping the European culture. As with wine, the quality of tea is best expressed with a proper drinking ritual, and relies very much on the importance of terroir, the variation among different vintages, and proper storage. For me, tea is a morning/early afternoon beverage while wine works its magic in the latter portions of the day through to the night. Let’s start our tea section of the blog with one of the most beloved Chinese Oolong teas of them all — Da Hong Pao or the Big Red Robe.
Da Hong Pao tea is a semi-oxidized tea, which means that tea leaves are bruised after the harvest so to allow enzymes in leaf cells to cause national oxidation. The resulting chemical reactions forever transform the appearance, aroma and flavor of the tea. As a general rule, tea tends to become darker in color as it oxidizes, due to the presence of tannin, dark chemicals absent in unoxidized tea. With Da Hong Pao, the fresh green color typically turns into darkish brown, the depth of the color depends on how much oxidation is allowed. Moreover oxidization tends to destroy the natural aromas and flavors of grass, vegetation, and freshness in tea, in their place we find more autumnal and floral aromas. The oxidation process is put to a halt with heat typically through being hand-pressed in a hot pan, hence semi-oxidized tea. Subsequently, the leaves are rolled and sun-dried to further enhance the flavor and help preserve the tea leaf for long term storage and consumption. Last but not least, the rolled up and dry leaves are roasted either traditionally with charcoal or with modern electric heat, the process which gives the tea that smoky and fruity aromas and flavors as well as a satisfyingly long aftertaste.
The name — Big Red Robe — comes from a Chinese tale which traces a story of a Ming Dynasty emperor who was so impressed by the tea’s apparently special healing power which helped his mother recover from a long illness such that he sent large red robes to cover the bushes from which the tea was taken. Another variation of the legend speaks of a sick scholar who did not only recovered his health by drinking this tea but was able to pass the difficult imperial exam with the highest score. As a token of gratitude, he used the red robe he received from passing the exam to cover the tea bushes.
Grown in the Wuji Mountains of northern Fujian, Da Hong Pao is planted in one of the most forested parts in the Chinese coastal region. Geographically speaking, the mountains have experienced high volcanic activity. Most of the peaks consist of plutonic rocks and red sandstone. The formation of large fault structures and natural erosion creates a picturesque landscape characterized by beautiful winding river valleys sandwiched in between columnar or dome-shaped cliffs. The region is subject to relatively mild climate (average temperature around 60 F) benefited from the natural barriers in the Wuyi Mountains against the bitterly cold wind from the north. As a result, the area enjoys a unique micro-climate of relatively high humidity coming from moist sea air flowing in and trapped by the surrounding mountain range.
Better plots of tea are planted on steep slopes which had poorer, rockier (but richer) soil, as well as cooler and drier climate than on the valley floor. Moreover, a higher elevation encourage tea bushes to grow more slowly while developing more amino acids and hence more flavorful tea leaves. Labelled the King of Tea, aged high quality Da Hong Pao can fetch an extraordinarily high price in the auction market. Particularly those tea leaves that were harvested from the original Da Hong Pao bushes planted in Tianxin Yongle temple and believed to be over 350 years old. While the last harvest was the 2005 vintage and the straggly tea bush is unlikely to make tea again, many of its cuts were planted around the valley and continue to make sumptuous tea for a long time to come.
I bought my Da Hong Pao from a local establishment down in West Village called McNulty’s. They are a reliable old timer having been in business since the 19th century! Nevertheless, I would love it if they divulge more information regarding the making process as well as the source of the tea. For instance, I would love to learn the level of oxidation, the roasting technique, the date/year of harvest and the village/town it came from. This is especially when the quality of Da Hong Pao can vary quite significantly depending on the age and location of the tea bushes. Old growth bushes from a well respected plot can express a lot more complex characters than younger bushes from newer plantations. Consequently, this leads me to believe that the tea might be a blend from various years and plantations.
The color is deep golden amber, much more intense than Taiwanese Tung Tung Oolong which tends to express more greenish hue. This tea is intensely aromatic with hey, autumnal flowers, potpourri, wet leaves, and a hint of smoked log. The palate shows a perfect combination of floral and fruity notes achieved through oxidation and roasting which also lend themselves to an extremely long aftertaste. This tea does not have a high amount of tannin and therefore can be drunk on its own i.e. without either milk or food/dessert pairing. But if you are so incline, I would recommend having it with nut-based and/or caramel desserts. Alternatively, Da Hong Pao works perfectly with subtle flavored dishes such as grilled white fish or tofu.
Quantity: one teaspoon per 250 ml. (approx. 8.5 fluid oz) of water
Water temperature: 200 F (93 Celsius)
Steeping time: 3–5 minutes
Milk and sweetener: no and not recommended (if need be, honey preferred to sugar)