Did anyone manage to squeeze in a little TV viewing last Thursday night on the BBC? If you did then you will have managed to catch Victoria Wood extolling the virtues of tea in Victoria Wood’s Nice Cup of Tea. You may have also seen the visit to the a Bhuddist monastery in Wuyi where monks along with the local Abbott create the famous ‘Da Hong Pao’ tea otherwise known as ‘The Big Red Robe tea’.
As much as it pains me to bad-mouth a British comedy legend, Victoria ripped me off! When I first joined Tate back in 2008 I also journeyed to Wuyi as a guest of Jing, Tate’s tea providers. It was here I heard the story of the Da Hong Pao tea and spoke with the local Abbott of the monastery who has been producing it for centuries.
The story goes that the original Big Red Robe trees gained their name after a member of the Ming dynasty was struck down by illness in the Wuyi Mountains on their way to Beijing. A local monk fed the sick traveller liquor made from the leaves of some tea trees growing on a nearby cliff. Following a miraculous recovery the traveller rushed back to Beijing to tell the emperor of his amazing story. The emperor wishing to preserve these hallowed trees, immediately dispatched his scarlet robe to lay over them, protecting them from the elements. Three of these bushes still survive to this day and produce a small amount of tea each year.
Da Hong Pao is considered one of the strongest full-bodied oolongs, comparable to an espresso in the coffee world. As with all oolong tea it is best drunk using a large amount of leaves over many infusions to bring out the rich aromas and flavours. It has an intense mineral depth with hints of cedar and a very viscous texture. As you would expect with a great wine, this tea draws you in and makes you search for the different flavours.
Its method the same as the taste, has hardly changed since the 1400s. After picking, the leaves are allowed to wither before being turned in a bamboo drum which bruises the leaves and encourages oxidation. The tea is then rolled individually by hand and is allowed to oxidize a little more before being lightly roasted. Finally, it is dried over warm, soothing charcoal fires (sometimes substituted for commercial use for electric heaters).
I spoke with the Abbot of the importance of the ritual of preparing and drinking tea, how it helps to make the mind quiet and focused. He also talked of the interaction between nature and man and how they are inextricably linked. The knowledge and methods behind the way the tea is made has been developed over centuries and represents local history and culture, while the environment expresses itself in the tea leaves.
You can now find exciting loose leaf teas ranging from Oolong to Lapsang Souchong in most local supermarkets. So next time you’re sticking your teabag in your mug in the morning maybe take a moment to put it in a teapot and actually taste the tea. You never know, you might have a better day because of it.
Benjamin Presland is Manager and Head Roaster at Tate