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Special guest Benjamin Presland tells us why he drinks fine oolong.

Benjamin Presland introduces Da Hong Pao

by on December 28th, 2012

Canton Tea Club Week 13: Da Hong Pao

Our special guest this week is Benjamin Presland, head of catering for the Tate galleries. Here he introduces his favourite oolong – Da Hong Pao – and tells us why he drinks whole leaf tea.

Ben: With all the talk of the weight-shedding benefits of drinking oolong teas, people are missing the main attraction – the taste. As with green and white teas, it seems to take a health craze or mention of antioxidants to get people trying something other than their favourite builder’s tea.

Oolongs offer some of the most interesting variations in style of any type of tea, sitting somewhere between green and black teas with varying levels of oxidation. Oolong tea may be light and fragrant (green oolong) or deep and highly roasted (dark oolong) or somewhere in between. The flavour profile will depend on the variety of tea plant, the area where the tea is grown and the goals and skills of the tea maker. The finest teas are picked during spring in South Eastern China and Taiwan.

In Taiwan, premium oolong tea tends to be very fragrant, with characteristics similar to green tea. A classic example of this is Li Shan, which is grown in a cool climate and is extremely floral. In mainland China, where the preference tends toward a more roasted style, the oolong teas are more full-bodied with a flavour that lingers longer on the palate. One of the most famous is Da Hong Pao, otherwise known as Big Red Robe, from Wuyi.

The story goes that the original Big Red Robe trees gained their name after a Ming dynasty mandarin stopped in the Wuyi Mountains on the way to Beijing after falling ill. A local monk fed the mandarin a liquor made from the leaves of some tea bushes growing on a cliff. The mandarin returned to Beijing after a miraculous recovery, telling the story to the emperor who immediately sent his scarlet robe to be draped over the trees, protecting them. Three of these trees survive to this day and still produce a small amount of tea each year.

The Big Red Robe tea is picked from tea trees located in the exceptional terroir of the Wuyi Mountains. After picking, the leaves are allowed to wither before being turned in a bamboo drum, bruising the leaves and encouraging oxidation. After rolling, the tea is allowed to oxidise a little more before being fired. Finally, it is dried over warm, soothing charcoal fires. These days, simple-to-manage electric heat is often substituted for charcoal, but the result is never as impressive. This whole process is, of course, rendered pointless without the use of exceptional raw tea leaves.

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.

I was lucky enough to visit a Buddhist monastery near the 400-year-old trees in Wuyi and enjoy the famous Da Hong Pao made by the monks with the local Abbott. He spoke 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 interlinked when producing tea. 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. Through drinking the tea, you are actually in touch with nature, history, culture, past, present and future.

Maybe these teas can offer health benefits but surely the benefits come from enjoying the amazing flavours and aromas and getting back to the ritual that is sometimes forgotten.

Why do you drink whole leaf tea?

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  1. adp3355 says:

    I’m no sure about this one.  It certainly has an intense flavour and aroma, which are long lasting through several infusions and in the mouth.  However, I am finding it a bit ‘tannic’.  If there is cedar there it is ‘charred’ or even ‘tarry’, rather than the perfumed scent of fresh-cut timber.   I’m not picking up much in the way of floral notes or sweetness to balance the predominant flavour.  Perhaps I am over-steeping the leaves / using water that is too hot? Next time I wIll try a brew at cooler temp, for a few seconds only, in a gaiwan rather than a pot.  Or perhaps it is that I prefer the sweet aromas of Ali / Li Shan and Mi Lan Dan Cong.

  2. adp3355 says:

    Plenty of tea, 20s in gaiwan, water at 80 degrees. Result completely different.  Sweet, complex, toasty, tasty and well balanced.  Key for me seems to be temp – not too hot!

  3. markporter says:

    @adp3355 I can see what you mean about the lower temperature. I find it’s missing the fruitiness to give it body at the lower temperature though and find that the higher temperature does a better job of bringing out the charcoal flavours that give it character. I wasn’t expecting to like it all that much, but I find I am enjoying those elements more than I thought I would.

  4. adp3355 says:

    @markporter  @adp3355 I guess it’s good that tit is complex enough to suit a variety of tastes, depending hou you brew it

  5. cantonteaco says:

    @markporter  @adp3355 This one can take a while to get into. Quite a lot of people that try it aren’t sure at first – but it tends to win everyone over by the second or third cup.

  6. adp3355 says:

    @cantonteaco  @markporter  @adp3355 Yep.  Either I am geting used to it, or I am making it better.  Now using a slightly higher  temp and getting the fruitiness anextra body Mark refers to, without it being unduly astringent and tannic.  It is definately winning me over and now on my (long) list of teas from Canton Tea that I am enjoying.

  7. adp3355 says:

    Definately growing on me – and not just according to Death in Paradise it is worth more than its weight in gold!