When I read an article revealing that the Royal China Club in London was serving Da Hong Pao, one of the most expensive teas in the world, I was intrigued. It had then gone on to explain that the tea leaves are lovingly wiped by hand with goat’s milk, before being hand-roasted over charcoal.
Fascinated, I resolved to find out more. And so, a few months later, I found myself on a bullet train from Fuzhou to Wuyishan, the home of Da Hong Pao (Chinese for “big red robe”) – a startlingly beautiful landscape of narrow gorges, towering karst peaks, bamboo forest and sheer cliffs. It’s hard to escape tea in Wuyishan town. The grid of streets that flow down to the Nine-Bend River are dense with shops selling loose leaves from cartons, colourful gift packs and tea sets. Every hotel room comes with tea apparatus, while locals even cook with Da Hong Pao leaves.
Yet, while tea was everywhere, I had yet to spot a single goat. Confused, I consulted Xiangning Wu, a tea master from Hangzhou. He was not only sceptical about the use of goat’s milk in preparing Da Hong Pao, but also offended at the very suggestion of polluting tea with milk. “That’s a legend! They just use charcoal,” he scoffed. “Generally, red robe tea is not so expensive. It costs around US$100 a kilo,” he added. “But if the leaves are from the original trees, they’re almost priceless.”
Like a vintage pu-erh – the tea varietal mainly produced in Yunnan province – Da Hong Pao doesn’t expire with age, but only improves. It can be sold and resold numerous times over the decades, gaining in value with each transaction.
There was nothing for it – I had to go and see for myself. The next morning, alongside Spring Marshal – a slight but astonishingly fit personal trainer from Xiamen who was gradually working his way around his vast country by motorbike – I headed to the tea plantations to find out more.
Da Hong Pao still grows in traditional, small-scale tea gardens, and each spring the farmers still climb the hills to implore the tea god to bring new shoots. So precise is the terroir that it’s not uncommon to find four or five tiny gardens crammed into a narrow gap between the sheer limestone faces.
In fact, it’s the combination of rock and water that gives Da Hong Pao its rich flavour. The rain that pours off the sheer rock walls, flowing down narrow streams and pretty waterfalls, becomes imbued with minerals, which then impart their goodness to the tea.
The combination of rock and water gives Da Hong Pao its rich flavour
As we hiked up narrow, rock-cut steps into the tea gardens, we came across an elderly tea farmer, scrambling down the mountain with remarkable agility. Upon my request, Spring asked her about the use of goat’s milk.
“Goat?!” she exclaimed with a look of absolute horror. “We only use water. Pure spring water.”
The role of the goat may only be an amusing falsehood, yet there’s a tale behind Da Hong Pao that’s stranger than fiction. During the long rule of the British Empire, the colonial masters employed a series of botanists-cum-spies to help expand their reach and business interests. These plant hunters were sent on a mission: to break monopolies over goods, from spices to rubber and, of course, tea.
Europe’s thirst for tea shaped both world trade and international relations. It was tea that, in part, inspired the 19th-century Opium Wars: Britons drank phenomenal quantities of Chinese tea, and Europe lapped up Chinese goods, but China was largely self-sufficient, creating a trade imbalance. When the emperor banned opium, an export from British India – and about the only substance produced in Britain that China wanted – the colonial powers went to war.
The spy who broke China’s monopoly on tea was a man named Robert Fortune. In the late 1840s, Fortune travelled through China disguised as a mandarin, arrived in Wuyishan, and left with cuttings of Da Hong Pao. In due course, these precious cuttings – and the experts Fortune hired from China – would prove the foundation of India’s tea industry.
The mountains around Wuyishan are studded with monasteries, including Tianxin Yongle, which Fortune visited. Despite falling into disrepair during the Mao era, it’s now enjoying a renaissance. In addition to a traditional vegetarian restaurant, Tianxin Yongle’s expansive grounds are home to a series of tea rooms. Here, professional tea masters – typically young women who grew up locally but studied elsewhere – perform the gongfu (or kung fu) tea ritual. This involves handling cups with tongs, holding the tea vessel with immaculate grace and timing each pour to perfection.
“The first cup is for the water,” said an elegantly groomed tea master who’d previously studied international finance. “The second releases the flavour of the tea. The third and fourth cups are the essence.”
Although Tianxin Yongle dates back to the Tang dynasty (827 AD), it owes its current incarnation to the efforts of the abbot Zhe Dao, a small man whose serene, unlined face belies his years. He rebuilt the site from squatted ruins when he arrived in 1990, and knows the tale of Robert Fortune. “In the 19th century, plant hunters came and took the seeds,” he told me over a cup of tea. “But they didn’t know how to make tea, so they had to get coolies to teach them.”
A myriad of legends has sprung up around the original Da Hong Pao trees, which still perch precariously on a cliff face not far from the monastery. The site is a place of pilgrimage for Chinese visitors. Its teahouse sells delicious tea eggs and a watery version of Da Hong Pao for a few renminbi, and gift boxes that cost a factory worker’s annual salary.
Some claim the trees are 1,000 years old; others believe they’re a mere 350 years. They used to belong to the monastery, but the monks gave them to the government to look after. For many years, the bushes were so precious they were watched by armed guards around the clock.
Today, however, the armed guards are gone, and the reason for the original Da Hong Pao’s value is painfully clear. Whatever their exact age, these bushes are geriatric. They have not produced tea for over a decade, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever do so again. That means the few precious tea harvests they have produced are now priceless. Stored correctly, documented accurately and gaining value with every passing year, these batches change hands rarely – more often in deals brokered privately between wealthy collectors than at public auctions.
Yet, while only the world’s elite can now access those precious teas, in Wuyishan’s many tea shops a small packet of authentic Da Hong Pao costs just a few dollars. Far from being the world’s most expensive tea, it’s actually an affordable luxury.
High-speed rail has recently opened up Wuyishan. The 225km ride from Fuzhou takes barely an hour on the fast G trains. Note that Wuyishan North station is significantly closer to the Wuyishan scenic area and river than Wuyishan East. Buses run from the station to the town and the main scenic zones, while a taxi costs RMB70-100.
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This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine