Thank you for drinking tea with us.
"Royal Banquet" aims to bring tea drinkers into the world of very fine and exclusive teas. These teas used to be inaccessible to commoners in time gone by, but today we are able to bring it to you via our network of sourcing direct from the farms and our friendship with the producers.
The three teas on feature are a black tea, red tea and wulong tea, namely:
- 2021 Xing Chun Scarlet Robe wulong tea (星村大红袍), 6 gm [Awaiting listing]
- 2021 Autumn Xi Gui Ancient Tree red tea (昔归古树红茶), 6 gm [Unlisted]
First, let us discuss the Scarlet Robe (Da Hong Pao, 大红袍) which was a tribute tea during the Qing dynasty. There has been a lot of misconception and myths about this tea, resulting from deliberate confusion as well as blurring of memories of distant events. We have done extensive research and now attempt to lay down the chronological facts regarding it.
The historical Scarlet Robe has been discovered by monks from Yong Le Tian Xin Monastery (天心永乐禅寺) inside Wuyi mountain, at Jiu Long Ke (九龙窠) Tian Xin Cliff (天心岩). In 1385 during the Ming dynasty, a local scholar called Ding Xian (丁显) from Jian Yang (建阳) at the south of Wuyi Mountain was travelling north to the capital Beijing for his final examination. While passing by the mountain, he fell ill and was picked up by the abbot of Tian Xin Monastery. The monk nursed him by simply feeding him tea brewed from leaves plucked from a particular tea tree at Jiu Long Ke. The scholar recovered in a few days and promised to repay the gratitude if he emerged from the examination with a title. Indeed, he was awarded top scholar by the emperor. Ding Xian went back to Tian Xin Monastery and the abbot gave him a cannister of tea leaves from the same tree. Ding Xian headed back to the capital Beijing and heard the news that the empress was sick without a cure. Recalling how the tea had once saved his life, he presented the leaves to the emperor, and surely the empress promptly recovered after drinking the tea. As a show of gratitude, the emperor instructed the scholar to return with a scarlet robe to hang around the tea tree, thus starting the trend of calling that tea by that name. 35 years later, the emperor then officially crowned the tea as Scarlet Robe.
From records, the historical Scarlet Robe tea tree is located at the foot of Tian Xin Cliff. In 1927, the monastery engraved the three characters of Scarlet Robe handwritten by the county chief Wu Shi Xian (县官吴石仙) on the cliff face to mark the location. This unfortunately led to the unforeseen consequence of inviting tourists to fanatically pick on it, bringing much harm to the historical tree. The local government subsequently erected a guardhouse to watch over the tree.
It was said that in 1945, three famous Wuyi varieties (unverified from literature today) were selected to be planted on the cliff face of Tian Xin Cliff. A fourth was subsequently planted but it could not be ascertained who and when it was planted. The large engraved words beside the plants gave the false impression that these four stocks were indeed Scarlet Robe, but the positive outcome was that tourists were diverted away from the actual tree. The guardhouse was subsequently made redundant since the plants were at mid cliff and out of reach without a tall ladder.
Famous tea master Yao Yueming (姚月明, 1932 – 2006) was an authority in Wuyi teas and he spent a lot of effort studying and cultivating the Scarlet Robe. During 1953 to 1955, he teamed up with two other tea masters to survey the famous varieties of Wuyi mountain. It was then that he cut 2 branches from the original Scarlet Robe and transplanted them at the back of his laboratory. These 2 branches successfully propagated and survived but were subsequently destroyed when the city built an airport where his office was located. Different accounts mentioned the locations of Scarlet Robe. One mentioned Tian Xin Cliff and Tian You Cliff (天游岩). Another account was from his survey in 1953 to 1955: Jiu Long Ke, Huo Yan Feng (火焰峰) and Bei Dou Feng (北斗峰), but the trees at the last two locations were waning and unproductive. During the years of Cultural Revolution in 1960s, he was forced to work in the paddy fields but managed to use his free time to cultivate the Scarlet Robe. He managed to cut 10 stocks from the three locations and 4 stocks successfully survived the vegetative propagation – one from Huo Yan Feng, one from Bei Dou Feng and two from Jiu Long Ke. He planted the two stocks each at two locations - Bei Dou Feng and Jiu Long Ke. In his records, he mentioned that the cuttings displayed different physical features, and noted that growing them at the same locations may narrow such differences, so further observations were needed. While it was unclear how he distributed these four stocks, the plants at Bei Dou Feng was named “Bei Dou Number 1” (北斗一号), a name once given by his teacher and modern Tea Saint Wu Jue Nong (吴觉农), and the other two stocks planted at Jiu Long Ke were called “Bei Dou Number 2” (北斗二号). Renamed to protect the plants, these names were not old style and would not arouse anyone’s suspicion during the turbulent times of the Cultural Revolution. Although it cannot be ascertained whether the cuttings were indeed Scarlet Robes, their names subsequently reverted to Scarlet Robe after the Cultural Revolution, thus propagating the conception that Bei Dou is Scarlet Robe (which was subsequently disproved).
In 1978-1979, Chong An Tea Institute (崇安茶科所) established the garden of famous varieties and reproduced a fifth and a sixth plant by using vegetative propagation method of burying the branches of the first and second into the soil. (In this sense, the fifth is the clone of the first and the sixth is the clone of the second.) These two new plants were planted next to the cluster of four plants by cutting descending steps next to them and filling these steps with soil. These six plants are now the famous six stocks at the most famous tourist site in Wuyi mountain today.
With the advent of modern technology, a large-scale DNA test was conducted in 1980s to ascertain the various Scarlet Robe cultivars distributed within Wuyi mountains over time. These included: the 6 stocks at Tian Xin Cliff, the Scarlet Robe stock and Bei Dou stock at Royal Tea Garden (御茶, established in 1301 at fourth bend of the Jiu Qu River (九曲溪) during the Yuan dynasty), the Scarlet Robe stock at Xing Chun Town Qian Lan Village (星村镇前兰村) Chen Qi Tea Garden (陈起茶园), the Qi Dan (奇丹) stock at Xing Chun Town Huang Chun (星村镇黄村) Lin Shi Zhong Tea Garden (林士忠茶园), Bei Dou stock at Shang Mei Township Xia Yang Village (上梅乡下阳村) Weng You Ying Tea Garden (翁有英茶园), Bei Dou stock at Xing Chun Cao Dun Village (星村镇曹墩村) Qiu Wei Dong Tea Garden (邱卫东茶园), Scarlet Robe primary and secondary stocks (transplanted in 1961) at Fu An City She Kou Town Fu Jian Tea Institute (福安市社口镇福建茶科所). It was not known why the cuttings by Yao Yueming were not included in this test.
The DNA tests yielded the following results: (a) All Bei Dou samples are the same; (b) Scarlet Robe from Royal Tea Garden, Chen Qi Tea Garden, primary stock at Fu Jian Tea Institute, Tian Xin Cliff #2, Tian Xin Cliff #6 and Lin Shi Zhong Tea Garden Qi Dan are the same; (c) Tian Xin Cliff #1 and Tian Xin Cliff #5 are the same; (d) Tian Xin Cliff #4; (e) Secondary stock at Fu Jian Tea Institute; (5) Tian Xin Cliff #3. This means that the original four stocks at Tian Xin Cliff (minus #5 and #6 vegetatively propagated from #1 and #2 respectively) are in fact all separate varieties. Next, it showed that there are no relationships amongst Bei Dou and any of the six stocks on Tian Xin Cliff. Last, the variety known as Scarlet Robe distributed in the various tea gardens in Wuyi mountain is in fact Qi Dan. As such, Qi Dan is referred to as pure breed Scarlet Robe (纯种大红袍). It cannot be verified whether Tian Xin Cliff #2 was indeed a cutting from the original Scarlet Robe, although it is widely accepted that this is the case. Based on records mentioned above, all known stocks of the historical Scarlet Robe at those named locations have already died, and there is now no way to verify whether Qi Dan is indeed the historical Scarlet Robe. To protect the 6 stocks on Tian Xin Cliff, the city has ordered no sale from them since May 1995 and no harvesting from 2006.
Based on historical records, Tian Xin Cliff #1 and Tian Xin Cliff #5 started harvesting from around 18th May each year, Tian Xin Cliff #2 and Tian Xin Cliff #6 from around 10th May, and Tian Xin Cliff #3 and Tian Xin Cliff #4 from around 6th May.
Last month, we enjoyed the Sparrow’s Tongue, which is the second-generation descendant of Tian Xin Cliff #1 stock through sexual reproduction done in 1980s. This month, our tea is Scarlet Robe – a blend. The concept of Scarlet Robe has been evolving. It was historically a famous variety (名丛) but today, the six stocks at Tian Xin Cliff are taken to be the authentic Scarlet Robe, of which Tian Xin Cliff #2 is the known cultivar of Qi Dan and thus taken to be pure breed Scarlet Robe. Today, it could also refer to Scarlet Robe blend (拼配大红袍) done by various tea masters or merchants using proprietary recipes of famous varieties. Following this rule loosely, all tea products from Wuyi Mountain can then be called Scarlet Robe. Such products are usually made for profits and termed Commercial Scarlet Robe (商品大红袍).
Our Scarlet Robe blend is made in Xing Cun by famous tea master Wang Guo Xing (王国兴). He is among the prestigious first batch of China government-appointed custodians for “Intangible Cultural Heritage” of the techniques for “Scarlet Robe” in 2006. Someone who loves tea deeply, he was asked why the tea he makes has no branding. He answered candidly that there is indeed a difference between a tea master and a tea merchant. He was a privileged member of the team which made tea from Tian Xin stocks before 2006.
We are brewing this tea using the same tea pot we used for the Sparrow’s Tongue last month - “Compass” zisha tea pot. This month, we will be using a distilled water (Life - NTUC house brand. If you have very small and thick-walled teacups about 50 to 60 ml, they could give an added dimension of roundness and smoothness to the tea, accompanied by a strong and lingering aroma. Using 6 gm of tea leaves to 150 ml of 95°C water for 30 sec, it can be brewed up to three times to a dark amber but transparent colour. Clean and light, it has a spectrum of delicate but complex aroma from hot to cold reminding us of yellow flowers, cream, condensed milk, roasted coconut, sugar cane, crème brulee, nut spread, mint, with hints of berry jams and brown spices. It is sweet and quenching with tantalising acidity, has smooth mouthfeel, slight roastiness accompanied by throat resonance. In short, a Scarlet Robe blend should epitomise “Rock Bone and Floral Aroma” (岩骨花香), a representation of the superiority of rock grown teas of Wuyi Mountain with the “rock bone” minerality and the floral aroma accorded by the wildness and great biodiversity of the terroir. It should be clean and harmonious to present one unified flavour from its component tea cultivars. If the brewing is changed to non-distilled type, you will experience heavier mouthfeel, more syrupiness and higher throat resonance but depreciating aroma clarity and shorter aftertaste as the water gets heavier.
Last month, we also drank another fantastic tea - 2017 Bangdong raw black loose leaf tea (勐库镇邦东基地生普洱散茶). This month, we will drink a tea from the same region but made in a different way – a red tea from Xi Gui. Looking at the map, Xi Gui village is on the Mang Lu Mountain (忙麓山) range of average 1,000 – 1,500 m at the west bank of the midstream section of the 4,900 km Lancang River (澜沧江) and on the east of the main village of Bangdong (邦东村). Extending northwest on the same mountain range is another village – Man Gang (曼岗) which is located at a higher elevation of 1,400 to 1,500 m. All the tea areas on this range have sandy red soil, and tea trees grow amongst rocks and boulders – a sign of good tea. There is a good biodiversity in the area, where half of the land is primary forest. The village is at a relatively low elevation of 800 m and is one of the few tea areas which defy the common saying that good teas can only come from high elevation. Coupled with the low annual spring production of about 2 tons from a tiny area of about 200,000 m2 (= 20 hectares), it is no wonder it is highly sought after and attracting astronomical prices. In the olden days, Lancang River was part of the water section of the tea transport route known today as the Tea Horse Route (茶马古道). Because the village is at the bend of the river where it was suitable to build a pier, it developed into a supply point for jute ropes used for tying tea packages. ‘A place to twine jute ropes’ is the meaning of Xi Gui in the local Dai (傣) language. During the end of the Qing dynasty, Xi Gui tea was chosen as official tea of the local government, serving visiting ranking officials from the central Beijing court and local generals. At that time, there were already 6,000 to 7,000 tea planting families, giving us a glimpse of the amount of Xi Gui teas produced and consumed then. Today, the number of families are much lesser, and tea corporations control a lot of the tea lands there. Initially, teas from that area are simply known as Mang Lu Mountain tea. As Xi Gui tea’s quality start to stand out from the rest, it was sold individually unblended since 2006.
Bangdong village is the midpoint of the road that connects Man Gang and Xi Gui, with a short distance between them of less than an hour of driving time. Man Gang and Xi Gui are located at the same Man Lu Mountain locality, and the entire area share the common stock of 200-year-old tea trees. This gives the possibility of including Man Gang teas into the more famous area of Xi Gui. Today’s tea is of this nature, cultivated in Man Gang part of the larger Xi Gui area. From the initial 2-ton production during spring, an extended area and with the addition of autumn harvest and red teas, the annual production of this extended area could reach 40 tons. This greatly reduces the price and allows accessibility to teas that offer similar flavour to the exorbitant Xi Gui teas.
Our tea today is a red tea of the autumn harvest. The increased exposure to sunlight since springtime allows the tea tree to develop more polyphenol suitable for making red teas. The tea is oven-dried which gives it higher aromas. This compares with sun-dried teas which is usually sweeter but less aromatic. Oven-dried teas are flavourful from the first year of production, while sun-dried teas are usually better enjoyed the subsequent year onward. Our tea today has been rested for 1 year and should overall be more rounded and sweeter. Teas from Bangdong area are assamica variety and are usually aggressive and bitter (but less so than from Ban Zhang (班章) area at its south). This tea is loosely shaped and has a good amount of tea buds and stems. The aromas of honey, candy sweetness and flowers are its main highlight.
Knowing the characteristics of the tea, we are brewing this tea using the new Parchmen glass gaiwan, at 100 ml to 3 gm of tea, with 85°C, and we pour out the tea once we reach 100 ml. We are using distilled water for clarity of flavour. The tea colour is reddish golden. We chose the gaiwan because the tea is unshaped and would be most suited to brew using a vessel with a big opening. The glassware retains heat relatively well, explaining why we choose to pour out the tea fast lest its aggressiveness shows quickly and masks the delicate floral sweetness. Using this brew method, we could get up to eight brews. We picked up the fragrance of honey, candy, chrysanthemum, sugared apricot, sweet ripe plums and hints of kyoho grapes from the dry tea leaves. We enjoyed a matching flavour in the brewed tea. The brewed leaves give off aromas of longan and plums.
The last tea this month reflects the coming of spring. We will be enjoying Taiping Hou Kui with two leaves wrapping one bud. Chinese green teas are usually highly priced if they are picked early in spring before or during Qingming and they are finely picked closer to the bud. Like the exception of Xi Gu, this green tea is also an exception. Due to misty growing conditions with the lack of sunlight, this tea is ready for harvest only at a later date after Qingming (in the first week of April) and before Guyu (in the third week of April). Its long leaves do not look delicate and hide the fact that it is not at all astringent but yet is forthcoming in its floral aroma. As seen from its slender shape, this tea is rolled by hand and not machine-rolled, preserving its delicate flavour. The traditional roasting technique further produces a nutty note amidst its innate orchid aroma. This tea has never been a royal tea but it did achieve the gold award at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. It was registered as a Geographical Indicator (GI) product in China in 2006, and in 2020, it was registered as a world GI product, further entrenching its global uniqueness of its style. Interesting to note, the ex-President of China Hu Jintao presented a gift of this tea to Russian president Putin in his first term in 2007. (The tea gift set had four Anhui teas, including Huangshan Mao Feng.)
We are using the Parchmen Tea Evaluation Set to brew this tea with long leaves. As the long leaves extend outside the cup, you can use a spoon to push the leaves into the cup after adding water. Or you can use a tall glass. We are using 75°C of 150 ml distilled water to 3 gm of tea, brewed for 60 sec. For strong umami, use a lower temperature of 70°C and maintain the same time, with a subdued aroma. Being a green tea, it has low brewing stamina and is best enjoyed for its freshness. It brews with a light greenish colour for three brews and we enjoy its treat of delicate flavour - smooth mouthfeel, sweetness and orchid aroma. There is some minerality in the aroma, a reflection of the good soil it grows on. For strong umami, use a lower temperature of 70°C and maintain the same time, with a subdued aroma.
Thank you for drinking tea with us!