Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Comparing a Da Hong Pao and a Qi Dan; what DHP really is

Qi Dan

Da Hong Pao (blended version)

Some of you might be thinking, that's strange, Qi Dan sort of is Da Hong Pao.  It's the cultivar used to make it (the main one; the story isn't that simple).  I went through all that awhile back in this post.

The short version:  Qi Dan and Bei Dou cultivars are derived from those original DHP plants (the legendary but real ones, the plants that might have worn red jackets--the "red robe" part, but probably didn't).  Seems not that complicated, when you put it that way.  But different people mean different things by Da Hong Pao, and it's can also be a style or generic branding name, which I'll say more about after the review part.

As for what the two teas are (both from Cindy Chen, made by her family; see website for details); one is a Wuyi Yancha (Wuyishan area "rock oolong") made from the Qi Dan cultivar, and the other is identified as a blend, a mix of tea-plant types to produce a version of "Da Hong Pao."

The teas have a nice look to them, typical for the general type.  The Da Hong Pao smells a bit heavier on the roast, more dark toffee and earthiness, and the Qi Dan is a little lighter in color and smells more aromatic.  There's lots going on in the scents, and in the brewed tea leaves scents, but I'll take up reviewing with the brewed teas.

Qi Dan left, brewed lightly

The Da Hong Pao is complex, well-roasted for sure, still maybe only upper-medium though.  Dark woody tones are pronounced.  It has so much complexity one could go on and on, but it would be hard to completely capture it.  It's in that typical range:  dark wood, a touch of toffee, char effect (not burned, well integrated), underlying mineral, perhaps aged leather, extending a little into spice, towards cinnamon.

The Qi Dan is a lot more aromatic.  If I'm using that term right--it's from a Chinese description, not as common in Western tea circles, but surely some end up saying it--that aspect range comes across as a perfume or liquor-like trait, which doesn't really resemble perfume or liquor in flavor.  It's a flavor that comes across a certain way, resembling a smell, hence the "aroma" root.  It's also a bit woody, just in a different sense, a much lighter wood.

There's an interesting aspect I interpret as being close to a root spice, just not something I can specify further, which comes across as "round," if that helps.  Of course there is some underlying mineral too.  I won't make a lot of that in further description, but the typical, type-defining, base range of minerals is present.  The whole aspects range is more subtle than the Da Hong Pao, lighter, with a clean effect.  The Da Hong Pao wasn't unclean, not murky in any way, but a lot more forward, with a heavier roast driving a different range of flavors.

Might as well get this subjective judgement part out of the way:  these are good teas.  Typically it seems to not be my place to place teas on a quality scale, and this isn't a claim that I really know this general range so well I can pass an absolute judgment, but it seems to me that any part of a complete description should mention some of that personal take, for these teas in particular.  There was a time when teas this complex, and clean flavored, with this sort of aspect range would have seemed really exceptional, but after being spoiled by Cindy's teas I just come to expect it.  There must be range of even better teas out there, since that's always how that goes, but these are pretty good.

Qi Dan left, brewed stronger

This is nothing like that random-find Chinatown shop Da Hong Pao that you hope is nice and interesting; this is like the version where the owner goes out of his or her way to tell you what it is.  More than that, it's the type of version some Chinese shop owners won't even bring up unless they think you know your teas well enough to appreciate what it is.  Funny how that works out in those places; even someone that knows nothing about teas might well buy a more expensive tea if told it is really good, but for some reason there is part of a Chinese tradition of not "casting pearls before swine," even to upsell.  There's a story about a person not appreciating a horse that's difficult to manage that is suppose to explain that, but that story only makes it more complicated, once you sort through parallel structure aspects, figuring out what the analogy is or isn't covering.

On the next infusion things change a little.  The Da Hong Pao picks up even more complexity.  That dark wood shifts into a woody range that might instead be how a collection of different woods would come across.  The clean effect and sweetness really makes it work, and the way that integrates with the mineral base.  There's plenty of dark toffee sweetness and richness to connect the range of aspects.  It leans a little towards spice in effect but others might describe the mineral as more pronounced.  To me it's more an underlying context in this tea, but definitely there either way.  The tea tastes like rocks, in a good way.

The Qi Dan gets even richer, also more complex.  There's an interesting way it's not completely flavor intensive, also aromatic, but it's all so intense that at the middle of drinking and tasting it the tea almost overloads your palate.  It's not strong-flavored, in a sense, not as intense as the DHP, but there's a lot going on.  The effect impacts your whole tongue, and the rear sides of your mouth, and it almost seems like the top of your mouth is tasting the tea as well.  Of course scent also carries the taste.

There's one aspect in particular that's hard to describe.  "Floral" would be a good approximation, and maybe it is exactly like some sort of flower, but that doesn't clearly capture it.  Maybe just a little like cognac, without alcohol.  I'll continue to try to pin it down better.

They're completely different teas; that makes it interesting.  Often more similarity can help with a comparison tasting, to highlight the minor differences that do occur, but in this case it's about appreciating lots of aspects and character elements both don't share.  On a second tasting I tried to focus on aftertaste, to see if there is anything unique or interesting to that part, but to me the same flavors just trail for awhile.  I don't notice any odd sensation lingering anywhere, but then I'm not so into such things, and others might notice that.

Da Hong Pao brewed leaves (blended tea)

The Da Hong Pao might be tapering off just a little, only three infusions in, but still in the same range, still very nice.  It would be possible to stretch that process by brewing the tea a lot wispier, even without giving up range, but I've not been preparing these lightly to emphasize the aspects for description.  In a second tasting--with these notes based on the first, this sequencing--I tried them brewed a lot lighter, and that probably works better for appreciating what is going on versus noticing it better, if that makes sense.  Factors like infusion strength always come down to preference, and one person's "light" could be another's strong, or vice versa.

Back to that first tasting setting, the Qi Dan is not really transitioning.  I might mention this is pretty close to a Bei Dou I tried before, a really exceptional tea, with those two plant types supposedly closely related (more on that in the next section).  I was amazed by how aromatic that tea had been, but this time I'm more impressed by how that effect is balanced, how it doesn't give up flavors range, and how the different aspects integrate well into an overall effect.  I must admit, I'm absolutely not doing the effect of this tea justice in this description.  I tried a Qi Lan from Cindy not so long ago and I said the aromatic component seemed too pronounced versus typical flavor range for my preference, versus how others came across, but this Qi Dan strikes a really nice balance.

Qi Dan brewed leaves

After trying brewing the teas very lightly (in the first tasting, but also in the second) both teas worked really well on the wispy side.  Tapering off in intensity doesn't detract from either much.  That one effect I can't describe well in the Qi Dan is also present in a really light version, an aromatic quality, a roundness, or a complexity, a je ne sais quoi.  I think it might be as much how the aspects balance as anything, or a combination of the nice aromatic effect with an interesting flavor range.  Or maybe it's just a floral aspect, and I'm making it sound more complicated than it is.

On the next infusion both really are starting to fade (a half-dozen steeps in?).  The teas still have a few nice infusions to offer by lengthening the brew time, and per past experience mineral related aspects will pick up a lot due to doing that.


On plant types and what Da Hong Pao is, the background

I thought I had this settled in this earlier post.  Da Hong Pao is both a tea plant type, or more than one related genetically similar tea plant, and a final tea version, or at least that’s where I left it there.  DHP was supposed to be Qi Dan and Bei Dou (cultivars), with Qi Dan as the closest to the original version, and Bei Dou directly derived from closely related cuttings, second generation plants.

That legendary origin story traced back to a few specific plants, with all later related plants derived from these.  These plants weren’t said to be a gift from a god or angel, and no statues came to life, so it was basic enough stuff.  The Wikipedia version:

According to legend, the mother of a Ming dynasty emperor was cured of an illness by a certain tea, and that emperor sent great red robes to clothe the four bushes from which that tea originated. Six of these original bushes,[not in citation given] growing on a rock on the Wuyi Mountains and reportedly dating back to the Song dynasty, still survive today and are highly venerated.

That leads to considerations about genetic diversity and what plants existed prior to those few that I won't get into here.  A citation from Tea:  A Users Guide, a nice reference book by Tony Gebely, transitions this to the core concern:

Wu Yi Da Hong Pao;  (武夷 大红袍, wŭ yí dà hóng páo);  Wu Yi Big Red Robe
This style of tea is one of the two wulongs (Tie Guan Yin is the other) that make it to the list of top ten famous Chinese teas (see appendix). Big Red Robe is the most famous and widely produced of the Si Da Ming Cong teas. There is no specific Da Hong Pao cultivar; either Qi Dan (奇丹) or Bei Dou (北斗) are used or a blend is made from many different cultivars with the goal of creating a tea that best exemplifies Yan Yun (岩韵) or rock rhyme, the distinctive aftertaste of Wu Yi Yan Chas.

In that earlier post I had interpreted types based on unrelated cultivars as not being “real” Da Hong Pao, but if the actual common practice is that Da Hong Pao is a tea style, often a blend, then there are really two different and conflicting conventions to consider, as he says.  This would explain why a Bangkok Chinatown shop sold me a Bei Dou as Bei Dou (reviewed here), coupled with the claim that it is a version of real Da Hong Pao.

Those two teas, this Qi Dan and that Bei Dou, were very similar, but not much at all like other versions of Da Hong Pao I’ve tried, or this one.  I mean these two teas I just reviewed are similar to the extent Wuyi Yancha in general spans a common range, but quite different within that range.  Processing as an input further complicates things.  Roasted more this Qi Dan might have resembled a typical Da Hong Pao profile more.

Cindy, roasting tea

An interesting Global Tea Hut publication goes into what they identify as characteristic DHP (along with lots more background on types and the local growing area), based on assuming the tea type is from that limited set of genetically similar plants, not a blend:

The tea is full-bodied and has the fragrance of osmanthus flowers.  It is especially famous for the sensations (cha yun) it brings, especially to the upper palate, and a rich, long-lasting aftertaste (hui gan).  True Da Hong Pao is said to taste and smell of the citrus spray that flies off an orange as it is peeled).

So there's all that.  I didn't notice citrus in this Qi Dan or remember doing so in that Bei Dou but some of that general effect may match.

Cindy mentioned a bit about blending, about their approach.  None of that would be considered a standard, but the end aspects range does seem somewhat consistent, based on versions I've tried (aside from lots of quality variation):

About the blended DHP:  all family material included (versions) are different; you can choose any material you want to use.  My family includes some shuixian with very good aroma, that is not deep in the energy, some rougui with strong energy but not good aroma, mixed.  Of course you also need to include some Pinzhong like qilan or huang meigui (high aroma cultivars) to enhance the aroma.  For blending all of the material needs to be roasted to the same level, so their brewed leavs can be same color, it won't work if some is lightly roasted and some highly roasted. 

Her English is actually pretty good; that's not edited for grammar much at all.  Their website does mention that DHP version is a blend, and a little background on that.  That citation makes it sound like wine blending, doesn't it, the role different grape inputs play in the  Bordeaux blend?  The "energy" part is what you'd expect that to refer to, the cha qi / tea effect idea.

A friend once mentioned tea-type blending is only carried out to cover flaws in some or all of the teas used but as with Bordeaux that may not be a completely fair assessment.  Then again, it would have been a shame to mix that Qi Dan with anything else, so to a limited extent there could be something to that.

All this didn't head towards a conclusion, really, but at least the broad picture is a bit clearer.  For those that see Da Hong Pao as a closely related set of tea plant types it's clear enough what that means; the broader definition meaning might be vague.  It could also just be a nicer sounding way to sell Shui Xian, a re-branding.  That's a plant type often used as restaurant tea, generally lower quality examples, which can be made into very nice tea in better versions.


  1. Excellent post - I learned a great deal. Thank you.

  2. Thanks :) As with the first version of this subject research, which reached a slightly different conclusion, there isn't typically a clear-cut fact of the matter on such issues, but it's nice passing on ideas as I learn about them.

  3. Appreciated and i must say blogger did very good job because i have got lots of points from your blog for my research work thanks and do share more articles like this..