Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) is one of China’s ten most famous teas, owns a mythic origin story and is as close to a household name as exists in tea. Given this, it is unsurprising that the name Da Hong Pao is a great marketing term for purveyors of tea. The name Da Hong Pao or Big Red Robe simply sells. Vendors are well aware of this and tea marketed as Da Hong Pao or Big Red Robe is often the only Yancha offering sold by generalist tea vendors. Obviously these teas are not the Da Hong Pao from the original bushes of the legend. So, what are these vendors selling as Da Hong Pao? A simple question, but the answer is complex and often ambiguous.
It is very difficult and takes a discerning palate to actually distinguish between Wuyi teas; Vendors commonly take advantage of this when selling Da Hong Pao. Sometimes “Da Hong Pao” is simply what the seller considers their best Yancha, regardless if it is actually Tie Luo Han, Rou Gui, or some mixture. The most commonly marketed Da Hong Pao (~80%) is a blend using inexpensive and less famous bushes than Da Hong Pao. If you are buying a standard offering from a larger Chinese production, this is likely what you are getting! Some Wuyi oolong cultivars are even grown primarily for blends and are more commonly blended than not! The most common Da Hong Pao blend is composed of Rou Gui and Shui Xian, two of the most commonly grown types in Wuyi. More expensive and rare Yancha like Qi Dan, Bei Dou or Que She may be lightly blended in to add an extra kick (similar to the blending of gushu into pu’erh beengs)!
Note: In some sense, many Wuyi Da Hong Pao-producing tea factories are not different from Pu’erh factories Menghai or Xiaguan in making tea blends. Yancha blends just don’t have numbers like their cousins from Yunnan (7542,7532,8582, etc.)!
Da Hong Pao, the Myth, the Legend!
In the Ming dynasty, a tea farmer cured the Chinese Emperor (or his mom!) of illness by serving him Da Hong Pao tea. To show his gratitude the Chinese emperor ordered lavish red robes to cover the bushes. These original Da Hong Pao bushes are located on Jiu Long Ke (Jiu Long Cliff) on Tianxin Yan (Tianxin Rock) deep within the heart of the Wuyi tea-growing region. While this story is likely more myth than reality, what is known is that several of the original Da Hong Pao bushes are still in existence! Tea has not been produced since 2007, as it has been forbidden to pluck leaves from these bushes.
What is Real Da Hong Pao?
The answer to this question is extremely subjective and depends entirely on your definition of what constitutes “real” Da Hong Pao. If your definition means from the original mother bushes, this tea is no longer being harvested, very little of the tea actually exists, all of which is something extremely unlikely to change. Experts disagree as to what the most reputable “Da Hong Pao” surrogate still grown is, the general consensus being that it comes from the leaves of the clones of the mother bushes processed in the traditional manner of Yancha and Da Hong Pao.
Da Hong Pao Surrogates
With the loss of any new production from the original bushes, the closest to the original Da Hong Pao will usually fall into one of these categories. Many serious Yancha vendors (Essence of Tea, Vicony Teas) will often not even bother selling tea marked as Da Hong Pao and sell a Bei Dou or Qi Dan instead. The three teas are often blended with lower-tier Yancha to make more commercially viable Da Hong Pao. When unblended they are the closest many Yancha vendors get to actual Da Hong Pao. These teas should be produced in the same manner as traditional Yancha, heavy fermentation, medium baking and a final firing. It is also important for these teas to be grown in the Zhengyan region, as the biodiversity and microclimate of the Zhengyan terroir bear a distinct impact on the final product of the tea. Sadly most Da Hong Pao surrogate bushes really aren’t all that old; Older tea bushes will aid in the quality of the tea.
Note: It is much more useful to do price comparisons of these bushes, rather than the mess that is marketed as Da Hong Pao! Simply reducing teas to Qidan or Bei Dou helps to simplify and normalize the Da Hong Pao-like tea.
Note #2: The three cultivars covered in this post being recognized as Da Hong Pao substitutes is a relatively contemporary thought (<30-40 years old). There are several other closely-related cultivars that can be just as good as the cultivars covered here but are far less recognized.
Note #3: With hundreds of naturally occurring cultivars in the Zhengyan region, varietals and cutivars make a very complex subject!
Qi Dan is the original name for Da Hong Pao. Some researchers also believe that Qi Dan is one of the original three varieties for Da Hong Pao (source). Tea sold as Qi Dan tea are grown from stems cut from the original Da Hong Pao bushes (cloned) and planted elsewhere in the Zhengyan region (source). Qi Dan is commonly used as the kick in Da Hong Pao blends and is difficult to find pure-bred. This is one of the more common Da Hong Pao surrogates to find and there is an ongoing debate between the superiority of Qi Dan and Bei Dou.
Bei Dou Yi Hao (North Star 1st Generation)
Bei Dou Yi Hao is the most commonly available Da Hong Pao substitute to the west. Bei Dou was created in a Da Hong Pao research lab by Yao Yue Ming. After a great deal of adversity (his lab was destroyed and shut down in the cultural revolution), Yao covertly continued his research with very limited resources and produced a couple cultivars, one of them known as Bei Dou #1 (North Star Generation One). The number appended to the end stands for the generation (typically #1 or #2). Bei Dou is usually grown in the Zhengyan region, where there is also a Bei Dou Peak (Bei Dou’s original growing region).
Bei Dou Yi Hao Prices
|Vendor||$ Cost||Quantity (oz)||$/oz||# Offerings|
|Dragon Tea House||$44.99||1.76||$25.56||1|
|Life in a Teacup||$15.00||0.71||$21.13||1|
|Essence of Tea||$44.07||0.5||$88.14||1|
- Average Price: $28.99
- # Vendors: 7
- Average Price (minus most/least expensive): $18.99
- A Brief Analysis: Price-wise the filtered result places Bei Dou ($18.99/oz) in the middle of the other three famous bushes (~$15.40-19.80/oz) and well above Da Hong Pao ($13.07).
Que She (Sparrow’s Tongue)
Que She is a separate cultivar with a long history in the Zhengyan region. Que She has an unusually slow growth rate and is not commonly commercially available. Because of this it is rarely sold as pure Que She and is frequently blended (into Da Hong Pao blends), but can make for very good tea on its own.