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Whether you are completely new to tea or already addicted, you will sooner or later come across a tea known as Da Hong Pao. Since you have landed on this post, I expect you want to find out more about this specific tea.
This post is about the meaning and unique origin story of Da Hong Pao, how it is produced and the typical characteristics – the smell, taste, and look of this tea. If that is what you are looking for, you might want to keep reading.
SHORT ANSWER – What Da Hong Pao Tea Is
Da Hong Pao is a special type of partially oxidized rock tea, produced in the Wuyi, China. Da Hong Pao is easily the most famous tea in China. The mineral taste is intense, with slightly floral and sweet fruit notes.
Characteristics Of Da Hong Pao Tea
What Are Wuyi Rock Oolongs?
Da Hong Pao, as all other Wuyi rock teas do, originates from the steep cliffs of the Wuyi mountains in the north of Fujian province in China.
Traditionally, this region was called Bohea. Tea that is produced from tea trees growing in this distinctive terroir is called Yan Cha, which literally translates to rock tea.
The Wuyi Mountains are a nature reserve listed as UNESCO world heritage since 1999. Dominated by the steep cliffs overgrown by bamboo forests, numerous rivers, and relatively high humidity, this region offers perfect conditions for wild and cultivated tea.
In Wuyi, tea has been picked for many hundred years, with the first production methods for oolong tea dating back to the 16th century. Of the oolongs produced in this area, Da Hong Pao is easily the most famous.
Since old tea trees in more remote areas are difficult to access and have lower yields compared to plantation bushes, Da Hong Pao produced from these trees can be very, very expensive.
To protect buyers from fake Wuyi teas, the Chinese government has put rock teas under the protection of “products of origin”.
What Da Hong Pao Tea Looks Like
Da Hong Pao is, as Wuyi oolong commonly are, a mostly homogenous and quite dark red-brown in color. Depending on how evenly the tea has been oxidized and roasted you may find purple, red or even green tips within the dry tea.
The leaves themselves, unlike with some other oolongs, are curled rather than rolled, which results in the distinctive look of Wuyi oolongs. When wet, the leaves are olive green with darker shades of purple and red on the edges.
The first infusions of a Da Hong Pao can be anywhere between an intense dark red or brown to amber in color.
This depends both on the oxidation level and roasting done in the production of the tea and the temperature and time chosen to brew the tea. Later infusions will be lighter in color, fading slowly from amber to a faint yellow.
The Smell Of Da Hong Pao
The smell of a Wuyi rock oolong tea is always a preview for the actual taste of the tea you are going to brew. Because of both oxidation and roasting steps, Da Hong Pao will rarely have any intense floral notes or any that would be associated with green teas.
What you will always find is a distinctive mineral and woody smell that is typical for any Wuyi rock oolong and especially intense with a Da Hong Pao.
Additionally, you might come across notes of ripe, dark fruits such as cranberry, currant or peach. Through the roasting and firing processes, you might additionally find tobacco, charcoal or hazelnut, layered by sweeter notes of vanilla and caramel.
The mineral and woody aroma is more dominant with the dry leaves, while the fruity and sweet notes are very noticeable with the wet leaves after the first infusion or rinse.
What Does Da Hong Pao Taste Like?
Da Hong Pao is a tea that really changes between the first few and later infusions. The first infusions are often clean and dry, with the mineral and woody taste dominating.
The typical intense mineral taste of Wuyi oolongs is called Yan Yun, which means “charm of rock” or “rock rhyme” and a distinctive feature of teas from this specific region.
Depending on the way you brew your Da Hong Pao, the first infusions may become pungent and mildly adstringent – layered with notes of tobacco, charcoal, and whiskey.
After the third or fourth infusion, the pungent taste will soften and your brew will become full-bodied and smooth in texture. After the mineral taste slowly diminishes, sweeter and fruity notes of caramel, vanilla, apricot, cranberry, and grapes will be more noticeable.
The last few steepings you will get out of this tea will mostly be caramel sweetness with less complexity. But a good Da Hong Pao will easily do more than 10-15 infusions!
The Story Of Da Hong Pao
What Does Da Hong Pao Mean?
Da Hong Pao is obviously the Chinese name for this tea. If directly translate the name means Big Red Robe. The character Da (大) stands for big, the character Hong (紅) is the color red and the Pao (袍 ) means robe or gown.
The name Da Hong Pao is said to originate from the origin story of the tea in which the original tea trees were so revered, that they were covered in red robes for protection. For me, it is hard to believe that plants that need the sunlight to survive were covered for protection, though.
Origin Legend – The Story Of Da Hong Pao
The legend says, that a contender for a trial made by the emperor was traveling to the capital when he fell sick in the Wuyi mountains in Fujian, China. A monk from a local temple passed by him and offered him tea from the temples tea trees. The student was miraculously cured.
Before the student left he thanked the monk for saving his life and swore that if he won the emperors trial he would return to repair and bring fortune to the local temple. The student then continued on his journey.
When the student took part in the emperors trial he managed to easily win. The emperor, being very impressed, decided that the student would be married to his daughter and become his son-in-law.
One day the empress fell sick with intense stomach pain. No traditional Chinese medicine was able to relieve her of this pain and cure her.
When the student remembered how the tea once saved his life in the Wuyi mountains he told the emperor the story and offered him the tea leaves.
After drinking the tea, the empress was no longer in pain and slowly recovered from the sickness. The emperor was both impressed and happy, so he decided to offer an heirloom, a big red robe to the tea trees in the Wuyi mountain temple as a tribute. The trees were covered and protected with the robe and henceforth were called Da Hong Pao.
How Da Hong Pao Tea Is Made
Harvest And Preparation
The leaves for Da Hong Pao, as for any other rock tea, are harvested from tea trees in the Wuyi mountains. The farmers pluck shoots with three to four leaves every autumn and late spring. Picking larger leaves of the shoots makes the resulting tea more robust and gives the infusion more volume.
The plucked leaves are then left outside in the sunlight to wither for about two hours. They are then brought inside and spread on bamboo baskets and stacked on special shelves.
This process allows the water content of the leaves to drop. The leaves are shaken from time to time for the water to evaporate evenly.
As soon as the leaves are dry enough they are dropped inside a rotating bamboo drum, which partially damages and bruises the leaves and allows the exposed compounds to be oxidized by the air.
Even though Da Hong Pao is very dark in color it is only oxidized about 40-50%. This process removes both the bitterness from the larger leaves of the shoot and gives the tea the characteristic earthy mineral taste.
When the tea master thinks the oxidation is perfect, the tea is roasted in large pans to prevent further oxidation of the leaves. The roasting is what gives Da Hong Pao the fruity and sweet notes on top of the dominant mineral taste.
This process is most often done by hand. The quality of the resulting tea can vary strongly depending on the talent of the workers. If your Da Hong Pao smells or tastes burnt it may be because this step was overdone or not done properly.
The roasted leaves are then lightly rolled to retain more flavor, which results in the curly leaves commonly seen with Da Hong Pao. Afterward, the leaves are dried further before the stems are removed by hand.
Finally, the leaves are once more roasted to develop the fruity and sweet characteristics further. If the tea is roasted more traditionally it is done over charcoal, which as stated before can either yield great flavor or ruin the tea depending on the talent of the workers.
The finished tea is then packed in large bags to be sold on markets or directly exported to tea vendors around the world – and you.
What Are The Da Hong Pao Mother Trees?
The Da Hong Pao mother trees are six tea trees that grow next to a temple in the Wuyi mountains. They are considered to be the origin of the tea leaves which in the story of Da Hong Pao miraculously cured the emperor’s wife.
Why Is Da Hong Pao So Expensive?
Da Hong Pao might be the most famous oolong in china, which drives up demand. Generally, rock tea oolongs are not the cheapest teas to buy, but Da Hong Pao is the most famous and because of that the most expensive of these teas.
There’s a lot more to learn about tea! If you are looking for a good place to start, I highly recommend the book Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties. You can check its current price on Amazon here.