Thursday, February 21, 2013

Da Hong Pao • 大红袍

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One of the most intriguing of oolong teas, in taste and legend, is Da Hong Pao, 大红袍 (Big Red Robe), the most sought after of the Wu Yi cliff teas, 武夷岩茶.

Though there are at least a few teas that are claimed to be the first oolong, Da Hong Pao has a bit of history to back it up. I'm not saying that it is the first, but there's a high possibility. In the late 14th Century, Hongwu Emperor, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, announced that only loose leaf tea would be acceptable as tribute, the Wu Yi tea market, know for its Dragon & Phoenix tea cakes, instantly crashed. This prompted the local farmers to create loose leaf oolong teas, the most famous of which eventually came to be known as Da Hong Pao.

The legend of its name (at least the way I've heard it) has two parts. It begins with a young scholar on his way to Beijing to take his examination. Famished, he collapsed along the way, not far from Wu Yi Mountain and was found by a monk. The monk attended to him, nourishing him with tea until his strength returned.

When he arrived in Beijing, the Emperor's mother was ill. He presented he with the tea that he had carried from Wu Yi Mountain, and she, too, regained her health. As thanks, the emperor sent a gift of red cloth to protect the tea trees during the winter months. Eventually, the trees began to be know as Big Red Robe.

A few hundred years later, six of these original trees still cling to the cliff, huddled together, and produce the most expensive tea in the world. the yield is so slight that it mostly goes straight to the president of China and what's left may be auctioned for thousands of dollars per gram.

Considering you'd have to have some pretty fantastic tea karma to ever even catch a sniff of the real Da Hong Pao, there's really no choice but to go for opportunity cost and relegate myself to the lower grades of Da Hong Pao. Surrounding the original trees, several gardens have been developed over the last few decades, grown from clippings of the Da Hong Pao trees. These gardens are graded according to their similarity to the originals. How they compare, I'll never know, but even a fourth grade Da Hong Pao is still among my favorite teas.

Speaking of opportunity cost, once my talent in tea brewing had become more efficient, I'd inquired at the tea shop about purchasing some third grade leaves. The Tea Master actually told me not to bother since there really was very little difference. I thought that was very honest of him, considering the price difference was $20/100g more for the higher grade.

I would, one day soon, like to purchase a sample of high grade leaf to do a proper comparison, but for now, I'll trust my mentor.

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