Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) Tasting Notes

At long last, I'm here to present tasting notes for our two new Wuyi Yen Cha. I started introducing this tea in an earlier post, so I'll only add a bit more info with regards to its origins. As I mentioned in that earlier post, Da Hong Pao is both a "finished" tea type and a genetically unique cultivar of tea plant. However, the history and origins of the Da Hong Pao cultivar are labyrinthine and hotly-debated. Guang at Hou De Asian Art has written two extremely illuminating articles about the origins of the Da Hong Pao cultivar (Part 1, Part 2), so I won't go too in depth regarding the history. Suffice to say that, yet again, there are plenty of tea merchants in China who are willing to pass off cheaper, often inferior Wuyi oolongs as "Da Hong Pao" and selling them to ill-informed customers at much higher prices than they deserve. This problem is compounded by the fact that many skilled Yen Cha tea masters have different opinions about which cultivar is proper for making a Da Hong Pao. This makes Da Hong Pao shopping very difficult for consumers, especially in the West. After trying as many "Da Hong Paos" as possible, I'm beginning to gain a modest understanding of Da Hong Pao's unique flavor profile. To me, Da Hong Pao is typified by a fruity, floral flavor that comes across as very "high," and acidic (i.e. lively and stimulating in the mouth). Of course, these characteristics can vary based on the innumerable other factors involved in processing, but the best Da Hong Paos I've tried all seemed to exhibit this flavor while the others tasted like overly-roasted generic Yen Cha. Outside of searching for Da Hong Pao's unique flavor, choosing a good example is a matter of meeting the criteria that all Yen Cha should meet--balance between roasting and tea flavor, mouthfeel and body, and aftertaste.

Enough tea geeking--let's move on to the task at hand: tasting our new Da Hong Pao! As you can see in the above picture, the leaves are large, complete, and dark in color with a light frosting. Large, complete leaves is a good sign--it means the tea has been handled with care and will be much more forgiving when brewing (broken leaves make strong, astringent and bitter tea much more easily). After loading up the gaiwan and pouring off the first quick infusion, the leaves smell incredible--the roast comes through first in the aroma, with a gentle, warm charcoal note which is followed (especially if you inhale deeply) by a pointed touch of flowers. As the infusions wear on, the roasted aroma backs off quite a bit--by the second and third infusions, the floral and caramel notes begin to rival and overpower the roasted ones. The flavor of the initial infusions is less dominated by the roast. At the first brief steep, it's nice and light, with a bit of acidity edging in. Later, the acidity comes into its own, combining both aspects of fruit and flowers in a way that is unique to Da Hong Pao.

The final infusions begin to taper off in strength at just the right time--right when you're ready for the tea to back off. As you can see in the picture the infused leaves are a sight to see! Even with multiple infusions, the leaves of a good Yen Cha will retain their stripe-rolled shape, never fully unfurling without help. The unfurled leaf on the left is MONSTROUS. By far the largest leaf I've found in so far in the entire batch--it measured 4 inches! Also of note is the difference in coloration--this tea's heavy oxidation leaves some of the leaves greener while some take on a darker, brownish color. As you can see in the final picture of the gaiwan, by the end of a brewing session, the leaves are positively overflowing. In my experience, a lot of leaves is the best way to ensure a long session with a Yen Cha, but short steeps are a must. If you only want a couple of good steeps out of your tea, reducing the leaf weight and lengthening the infusion time will also provide very good results with this tea.

Finally, I'll draw attention to this close-up picture of one unfurled leaf. In the macro picture (please excuse my camera's quality) you'll see some bubble-like blisters on the surface of the leaf. This sort of appearance is evidence of the tea's roasting level--lighter-roasted Yen Cha will show pretty much no bubbles on the leaf surface, while "traditional" Yen Cha will sometimes be covered in such blisters. If flavor alone isn't enough to accurately reveal to you the tea's roast level, inspecting a nice whole leaf is usually pretty reliable. "Traditional," (in the parlance of Wuyi Yen Cha) means heavy roasting. As I understand it, most Yen Cha used to be heavily roasted, and lighter and lighter roasts have only more recently come into fashion. Today, "tradional" connotes a high roast. If the tea's good, though, you should be able to taste and smell much more than just charcoal without trying too hard! I would consider this Da Hong Pao to be a Traditional-style Yen Cha, though its firing wasn't extreme. Hopefully sometime in the future we'll be able to offer a lightly-baked Da Hong Pao--the difference can be very educational and can be illuminating for entry-level Yen Cha drinkers who might think all Wuyi oolongs taste the same! Stay tuned for tasting notes for our Wuyi Rou Gui and, more importantly, have a happy new year!


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