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Da Hong Pao

“Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea”

by on February 2nd, 2015

A personal response to the article in The Independent last week

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog. The Canton Tea Club is having a break, and I have been busy through January setting up a new tea packing business. But something happened last week that really got under my skin and has led to this short piece.

On Monday I was asked by a contact at Fortnum & Mason to help her prepare for an article on Da Hong Pao: a feature writer from The Independent was preparing an article about this legendary tea and wanted to do a phone interview. So I wrote as much as I could about the tea, about the legends, about how it feels in be the Wuyi Mountains, about the mother bushes, and above all about how to prepare this tea to really enjoy its complex and wonderful layers of flavour. We talked it through and she was prepared as she could be.

The phone call from the journalist never came.

On Tuesday the article was published. It was a celebration of conspicuous consumption – rare and exotic foods at eye-watering prices for people who like to show off their wealth.  The combined menu of ‘specials’ came in at just under £3,000 per head. I found it offensive, and it made me angry for all sorts of reasons.

I could have let it go and just moved on, but the fact that they included ‘the world’s most expensive tea’ on the menu just got to me. I joined the collective rant of outrage on Twitter with some of those who really know and care about tea, but I need to write this blog to help get it out of my system.

This is what was in the article:

“So to the tea. That £180 pot furnishes four small cups. The leaves can retail for more than £650,000 a kilo. They come from just three fabled bushes in Fujian province. The story goes that these same bushes produced tea which cured the illness of a mother of a Ming dynasty emperor.

As they grow, the leaves are wiped with goat’s milk to give them shine, then picked and baked in small batches over charcoal. They are left to gain flavour for up to 80 years.

And how does it taste? Its flavour is similar to that of Japanese brown rice tea. I imagine the woody, umami undertones come from the roasting. They are offset nicely by fragrant top notes – I taste peach. As good a way as any, I suppose, to round off a meal that will set you back something similar to your average family holiday”.

I don’t want to go into a pedantic analysis of all that’s wrong the in this, but just pick up on a couple of things.


The price

The leaves didn’t come from the three fabled mother bushes. It’s a good story, but in the same category as ancient religious relics (in my opinion) – the high value is attached to their supposed provenance, but really just depends on a bringing together a persuasive seller and a gullible buyer. Some people will buy anything, for any price, if they want to believe enough. Or in this case, maybe people don’t even believe the story: they just want an excuse to flash the cash.

There are expensive teas in China that have a more reliable provenance, and the prices are connected to the age of the tree from which the leaves are picked and/or the fame and skill of the tea master who makes the tea. But real care is needed to sift the genuine from the fakes.


The taste

“Its flavour is similar to that of Japanese brown rice tea”  (i.e. Gemaicha).

Now I would say that is a pretty lazy, lame and inaccurate description of one of China’s greatest teas. And referencing it against one of Japan’s less elegant varieties……

Yes, I know. This article was nothing to do with the tea.  But surely there might have been a little more curiosity?

“As good a way as any, I suppose, to round off a meal”.

In my personal opinion that is just smug, and also cr*p writing.


Why does this matter?

It matters because it insults the tea. Da Hong Pao is one of the world’s great teas and deserves to be taken seriously, to be respected, but above all to be appreciated and enjoyed.

It matters because it insults the tea makers. The best teas are crafted with great skill by tea masters who really care about what they do. In my experience they are reluctant to share these teas with outsiders unless they are sure that they understand them and know how to appreciate them.

It matters because it insults the price. It undermines the principle of paying the right price for top quality teas. It’s not about gimmicks, about made up stories. The best teas should be expensive, but for the right reason – a fair price that reflects the artistry of the tea master and the quality of the tea. This is what makes them rare and special.

It matters because it puts people off trying something new, something a bit better.

And it matters to me because I find the whole tone and values of piece completely offensive. And I think it is rubbish journalism.

  1. NigelMelican says:

    Phil, excellent response – hope you copied to the Independent?

  2. BenoitVantourout says:

    I totally agree with you no matter the price if the tea is good and the effort made for it worth more than the actual price! I’m currently working as tearista @ F&M and I’ve seen some of your videos I was currently searching information on the Da Hong Pao that will soon be part of the new tea list in the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. I heard you sometimes come into the Salon I hope to meet you there once!

  3. Phil Mumby says:

    BenoitVantourout Hi Benoit – yes I do come into the Tea Salon from time to time and will ask for you next time. It would be good to meet you. You should find information on Da Hong Pao on the information sheets but if that’s not enough please ask me.