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Looking for a healing cup? Brew the Chinese tea Da Hong Pao

A mythical oolong from China has a compelling story about healing and royal patronage 

The Da Hong Pao is made from a bud and three-four leaves, well oxidised and baked in charcoal. (Istockphoto)

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Part 1 of my oolong exploration, which started with the fantastic Duckshit Snowflake and went on to the Oriental Beauty, concludes with a tea with a suitably grand name—Da Hong Pao, or Big Red Robe. It’s on the must-try list of oolongs and comes with a story that is, frankly, irresistible.

The story first. Legend has it that in the Wuyi mountains in China’s Fujian province, centuries-old tea bushes were tended by monks from a monastery nearby. One day, a scholar, on his way to Beijing, fell ill not far from the monastery. The monks offered him some tea, probably the one thing they had in plenty. It proved to be a miraculous cure. When the young man was in Beijing, the empress happened to fall ill; the man remembered the tea and recommended it to the king. The tea was brought, and, once again, proved to be a cure. The emperor is said to have sent big red robes in tribute to the tea bushes, lending it its famous name.

The Da Hong Pao went on to gain fame as a gift tea, its story and its flavours lending it wings. But there came a time when just six mother bushes were left. The tea was so rare it became phenomenally expensive. In 2006, the Chinese government decided to ban plucking from the mother bushes; they are now carefully guarded and protected.

I do think that story alone merits trying this tea at least once.

What is sold as Da Hong Pao now comes from the region, but from other varietals or cultivars, and is often blended to create the desired flavour. Ultimately, the Da Hong Pao is, as some say, a style rather than a specific tea from a particular cultivar. It is an oolong from the Fujian province that is highly oxidised and charcoal-roasted. Its relation to the mother bush is a mystery—and likely to remain one. Where you source it from will help you judge whether it is indeed a Da Hong Pao. This also means that there are superlative as well as mediocre Da Hong Paos, and plenty of iffy ones.

The Da Hong Pao is made from a bud and three-four leaves, well oxidised and baked in charcoal. The flavours should be woody, with some mineral and some sweetness, all rounded off with the roasted note.

I had a Fujian Da Hong Pao to taste. The leaves were well- rolled and there was a strong hit of charcoal. The texture was smooth and pleasantly thick. But I just never got past the dominant charcoal flavours. The gong fu style of brewing (short, multiple steeps) helped as the third and later steeps lost some of the sharpness of charcoal, bringing on an earthy, ancient mood to the tea.

They do say a charcoal-roasted tea needs to sit for some months to air out the flavours. So, that’s what I am going to do. An oolong, unlike a green or white tea, keeps well for longer, if stored right. Maybe I will revisit it again in a few months, once the monsoon begins and a smoky tea will make for welcome company.

TEA TAKES: A few brands, such as Chado, Mittal Teas, TGL Co., offer some speciality oolong. If you enjoy trying new teas, keep an eye out for the oolongs on offer.

Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1

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