I'd mentioned that on a somewhat recent visit to the Bangkok Chinatown the owners of my favorite shop there, Jip Eu, were nice enough to pass on some of a pressed silver needle cake, and another tea I didn't describe. This is it, a Da Hong Pao from one of the more original source areas inside the park area outside Wuyishan, from a location that Chinatown shop owner described as near Horsehead rock.
last year, but he and I are holding up ok and look about the same
This really is an ideal opportunity for a tea blog post to go through what cultivars go into making Da Hong Pao, what original versions are (like this one, earlier this year, about Qi Dan, or an earlier one comparing two Bei Dou versions). Or to show pictures or maps of the Wuyishan park area. Global Tea Hut did an issue on that area and the teas once, and different vendors add a bit of description, like this Seven Cups Da Hong Pao page. I checked the "Juan Yian Hong" reference through a quick Google search, which I think relates to a location origin, but didn't really pursue it. I'm going to skip all that this time and just write about the tea.
original Da Hong Pao bushes (credit Teavivre vendor page)
These shop owners have family in the Wuyishan area, so there's a good chance the tea is a relatively original version, a type that's not so easy to find. Kittichai (the owner) showed me a picture of him at his small family tea factory that had been inside the park reserve area but was removed when the Chinese government set restrictions for that natural area (in the 70s, maybe that was?).
Regardless of the source history of this tea the quality relates to what experiencing it is like, and not so much about some mystical forces based in a growing area. There are more or less ideal places to grow the tea, so all that isn't nonsense, but processing is an equal consideration, and final outcome is the main thing.
Just a little more on subjective factors, before moving on to tasting. One might think that having very high expectations--relating to having been told a story about the tea, paying a lot for it, or whatever else--means that you will interpret a tea more critically, that it really would have to be exceptional to live up to the hype. In my experience the hype becomes part of the experience, and expecting a very positive, high quality tea makes you judge the aspects that are positive even more favorably, rather than the reverse, being more critical about limitations.
In short, we believe what we want to believe, and it's not as hard as it might seem to get an interpretation of experienced reality to match up with preconceptions. If you try the exact same tea out in some picturesque remote mountain glade in China and in a small fluorescent-lit plain-themed strip mall shop you'd have two completely different experiences. You might well accept an average grade Da Hong Pao as something special in the former setting (or even a Shui Xian as a DHP), and it could be easy to miss that you've stumbled onto something exceptional in the latter (not that it would tend to come up often in such a setting). As a tea reviewer I could claim that I'm beyond all that, that more depth of experience in trying Wuyi Yancha has shifted my perspective to be more objective, but it's hard to pin down the limits of that. I can sort of tell what I'm drinking, to some extent.
like me drinking tea, but with kids fighting over a Lego batman in the background (credit)
The dry tea scent is really warm and rich, dark-toffee-like, maybe with so much caramel I was concerned about the level of roast balancing. It's a matter of preference how much is just right or too much but some teas go too far with that roast step. Tasting tells that story.
On the first infusion the tea is quite nice (brewed lightly, more a rinse I'm not throwing away, using boiling point water, related to all that discussion). This tea isn't exactly light roasted but the char effect blends right into the rest of the tea, and gives it sweetness, complexity, and depth. It's so smooth at the same time it's intense that I wouldn't be surprised if this tea wasn't from this year, if aging had let it mellow to where it is. Not that I've got that completely sorted out, how all of the range of aspects changes over that first year or two, or beyond that.
After opening up a bit the next round the tea is even better. This is clearly a really exceptional version of a Wuyi Yancha. They come in different character ranges, with different taste aspects, different feels, and emphasis on flavors or more subtle range, as more aromatic. Da Hong Pao can refer to a blended tea, but in original versions it's a full flavored tea that's also aromatic, a tea with intensity, complexity, and range. I can mention aspects into filling out a long list but those wouldn't do this tea any justice, or the experience. But I will.
The roast effect is well-integrated and balanced but it does stand out, mainly as a sort of dark toffee tone. That extends into a rich complexity of earthiness that's almost like a light-roasted coffee, adding a layer of flavors instead of one simple aspect. In other tea versions that would seem like a dark wood tone, meaning that it's in that same place in the rang of experience, but in this one more towards coffee. That also integrates with a pronounced mineral tone (it all integrates, really), that reminds me a bit of pen ink. It probably sounds awful, to drink something that's like coffee with ink in it, with a bit of toffee for sweetness, but that's really more a failure to bring across these flavors as aspects through individual description. It doesn't taste anything like sweetened coffee mixed with ink, but the range of individual flavors overlaps with those flavor components.
On the next infusion the flavors deepen even more, and shift in nature just a little. The character of the earthiness, which was almost like coffee initially, softened and became richer in range. It now reminds me a lot of that Rou Gui version of cinnamon, a taste range much richer, earthier, and darker than in the cinnamon we use in cinnamon rolls and other baking.
Cinnamon is really the name for one specific spice version of tree bark, although per prior reading the one we usually get in a grocery store isn't really "true cinnamon," and there is a range beyond the two. I've been focusing on the taste range, since it's so novel (interestingly novel, for being roughly in the same range as a tea type that's so familiar, but a bit different), but the other aspect range in this tea is cool too. The feel is nice and rich, and the tea doesn't just drop out of your mouth after you drink it, part of the experience trails off slowly. That happens more with young sheng but then there's also that bitterness and other mineral range, not necessarily my favorites. The part I interpret as "hui gan," a lingering sweetness, is an interesting effect but not necessarily more positive than the rest.
Since I've tried a few "Bei Dou" versions I'm trying to place this related to that. That type is also said to be from more original plant types, closer to the original strain genetics, and also a reference to an area in the park area (not that I remember those versions I tried as referenced by growing location; it's both a plant strain and an area, as I understand it). Those teas were on the subtle side, emphasizing aromatic traits over intense flavors (for Wuyi Yancha, I mean, since "subtle" comes in degrees; it's not like I'm talking about silver needle). This tea comes across as complex; it's expressing a lot of range. The flavor seems most pronounced, to me. A level of roast difference would shift that, I'd expect, and although this definitely wasn't over-roasted in a way that ruined it going slightly lighter might have brought out a different balance of aspects.
This tea is all about balance and complexity, on the intense side, but it's in no way challenging. It does still taste like rocks, as those tend to, but in a way that completely works, nothing like cardboard as lower quality versions might. As much as I've been talking about different flavors I'm not really doing that complete justice, not for effect but also range. There is more depth to it that could relate to some sort of different aromatic spice too, maybe a root version instead.
It's not really fading much yet (5 or 6 infusions in, but I went with a high proportion, so these are fast steeps), but I'll let it go a little longer to experience a more intense version, a bit over 30 seconds instead of more like 15. Even though the flavor intensity isn't greater in overall effect that does shift the proportion quite a bit. The more intense mineral tone that reminded me of ink picks back up at this brewed strength. That is not a negative experience; it's really catchy.
I think the flavor range is dropping off a little, along with the intensity, so that although the tea is far from done that overall effect of a high level of complexity has diminished. I would expect the tea to still make another really nice half-dozen infusions, but the pace of transition would normally pick up from here. Lower quality teas will just start tasting like wood, or towards cork, something like that, and better teas seem to maintain some of that original range better.
Of course it also depends on how you brew the tea. I'll skip over talking about temperature much, given I just did in this post about oolong brewing temperature, but going with slightly lower temperature (90 instead of boiling point, as I used) would change not just the initial aspects but also the transition pattern. This tea would work well using flash infusions, and you can actually separate out flavors better that way, brewed very lightly, and still experience the other aspect range. To me it's nice going a little longer, not brewing it "strong" but letting that intensity accumulate a little, using 15 or 20 second infusion times, based on using a relatively full gaiwan. The brewed tea liquid in that picture image above would've been a lighter amber-gold instead of reddish if I'd brewed it much lighter. I'll make this in a clay pot dedicated to Wuyi Yancha next time and see if that changes things.
I made another nice infusion of this, and then accidentally let another one go for over a minute due to paying attention to something online. It can still produce plenty of intensity, the range just does narrow, down to bringing back a strong version of the char effect, the mineral, and consistent spice range. It's still not exactly identical to that dark cinnamon tone in Rou Gui but pretty close to it. Per my experience these teas (medium roasted Wuyi Yancha oolongs) don't hold up to quite as many infusions as lighter versions of oolongs (less roasted teas, TKY or Taiwanese teas), less than ten in the same character range, but that intensity is unique when the aspects balance well, a more than fair compensation. It would go over ten infusions in same general character range if someone preferred brewing closer to flash infusions, which would still be very good, and it just comes down to preference.
Second try, in a clay pot
trying it at different infusion strengths
I tried the tea again, this time in a pot dedicated for Wuyi Yancha. It didn't really change much. I tried a slightly lower proportion, since going with a completely full gaiwan (full after the leaves became soaked) had been on the one extreme. This would likely involve extending infusion times beyond the 15 to 20 seconds, at least to maintain that same level of intensity, a bit higher than I drink some teas, closer to how I usually like black tea, just backed off a little.
Not that much changed. I think pushing the proportion to that higher level had worked out better, going with very short infusions designed to bring out a lot of infusion strength in that time-frame instead of letting the process run a little longer at slightly reduced proportion. I didn't notice the pot as a factor. It's nice aesthetically using those, it looks cool, and I suppose it's conceivable that tasting side by side with a gaiwan using identical parameters it may really make a slight difference.
Some people talk about certain pots matching certain tea uses better, but then others say instead that the input due to the fired clay being porous tends to be overstated, that even though a waxy coating of tea component oils will build up the input of the clay type and that layer tend to be overstated. People don't tend to discuss it as a factor but it would seem like the quality of other teas you are brewing in the same pot would relate, that any carry-over to flavor input would tie back to that. I don't drink much "bad" Wuyi Yancha but this version is above average per what I do drink.
I'm reminded of a tea shop owner once suggesting using a yixing pot makes a big difference, and offering to demonstrate that by pouring the leaves into a gaiwan for an infusion. She did, and I could taste no difference, even though it was one infusion immediately after another. That was before this blog was even started (brewing sheng, I think it was), and my palate really should be a little more developed since then, so maybe the error was really in what I couldn't pick up. I'm not necessarily claiming that my sense of taste and judgement has changed much; I'm saying that it should have.
This tea was still very nice, exceptional even, but I liked it slightly better prepared using a really high proportion. Or I suppose it could be that it seemed really novel that first time, something slightly different than I'd been experiencing for awhile, and that wasn't true the second time. Or I tend to vary a little day to day, really; I'm not a morning person, at all, and I mostly try teas in the morning. It helps letting that go until late morning on the weekends but my sensitivity might related to how many times kids woke me up in the night. The day after I wrote this as an early draft it was a few, last night none, for some reason.
One might wonder, what is really high-quality Da Hong Pao supposed to taste like? I'll start with a couple of references I've already mentioned and then give my own thoughts on that. Let's start with that Global Tea hut description (from page 19 in that reference):
Maybe that. I've noticed differing degrees of floral aspects and aromatic elements that could sort of be interpreted as citrus, but not so much citrus peel or the zest spray as a flavor aspect. That doesn't seem to exactly match my understanding of the concept of "hui gan," but that's a long story I'll just skip over here. Sometimes an aspect in Wuyi Yancha versions is closer to perfume or liquor, in a way that overlaps a little with that citrus spray more than it sounds like it would. Seven Cups' description doesn't go into that much detail:
Da Hong Pao is a tea made to represent the essential character of Wuyi Mountain rock wulong: a bold red infusion with layered mineral body with a sweet, enduring finish.
A tea blog I tend to mention, Steep Stories, reviewed a version from them, adding more detail to that:
There was a bit of tartness on introduction, a stone-fruity middle and top note, and a gradual, downward spiral into roasty-toasty madness. Further gongfoolish infusions alternated between sweet, floral, roasty, or—in the case of the last one—some combination or all of the above. Through it all, though, the fruity lean still remained ever-present...
I was really looking for a reference to the aroma aspect, but I must have been remembering that from another Wuyi Yancha version review (also from Seven Cups, if I've got that part right). Anyway, DHP can vary. A mineral base is consistent, some degree of roast-related contribution is kind of a given, and from there floral and fruit can occur and can be interpreted differently.
For my own conclusions for this tea, it seemed like a very good version of a Da Hong Pao, well-balanced and complex, with a well-integrated medium level of roast leading to that final character. It seemed a bit straightforward for emphasizing taste / flavor aspects instead of more subtle aromatic components (a distinction I talk through so often I'll skip doing that here), which someone may or may not regard as the most traditional theme for original DHP. Complexity and balance stood out as most positive, with mouth-feel and aftertaste in the right range, even if those can be even more pronounced than they were.
You don't tend to find teas like this walking into random tea shops. It might not be so unusual for someone to love Da Hong Pao, having tried a broad range of versions, without ever trying one on this level. Of course you never try the best possible version, and personal preference shifts which preparation and aspects are best (eg. related to level of roast), but this one was pretty good.