Upon reading this post on twitter I was dismayed about the statements regarding blending. As a certified tea blender I take issue with this negative simplistic description regarding blending, as tea blending requires art, skill and a good palate.
That aside, the post also brought me to question the statement regarding Da Hong Pao and so I quickly sent an e-mail to one of my trusted sources of “all things tea”, Michael Coffey, Tea Geek, to shed more light on the subject.
His answer can be seen below:
“Uh…more true than a lot of things you hear about tea, but not necessarily 100%.
The original 4 or 5 or 8 Da Hong Pao bushes (depending on who you talk to) aren’t all the same cultivar. According to Austin Hodge of Seven Cups, there are three cultivars amongst the original set of bushes (I mention him only because I have been told by other equally knowledgeable people that there’s only one cultivar–Da Hong Pao). Those who talk about multiple cultivars name one of them as “Qi Dan.” So for now, let’s say that if you had Da Hong Pao it could have more than one cultivar, and one of those could be Qi Dan. If it had another cultivar as well, you could call Da Hong Pao a blend.
So far, so good.
As to “Bai Dou” it’s less clear. That probably should be spelled “Bei Dou” (e.g., “North” rather than “White”–same character as in Beijing which means “Northern Capital”). Bei Dou is the name of the North Star in Mandarin, and there is a cliff tea cultivar known as Bei Dou Yi Hao (North Star #1). But whether or not that counts as Da Hong Pao is a matter for debate.
Its story is that a tea researcher took cuttings from the original bushes and used them to “develop” Bei Dou Yi Hao in the 1950s. So that’s certainly a tea cultivar. It’s no doubt close enough to be called a cliff tea. It was developed *from* Da Hong Pao bushes…but from a strictly scientific/genetic standpoint, it’s possible that this development process crossed that original DHP plant with multiple others cultivars, potentially from different places as well. So the question becomes is it close enough to be called DHP, or is it too far?
Commercially, everyone’s going to *want* to call it DHP because that name results in higher prices. But think of it this way… If “development” simply meant making lots of cuttings and only selectively cultivating the strongest ones, you could say that Bei Dou is one of the other “original” cultivars because it would be genetically identical–a clone. If “development” involved lots of cross-breeding, it might be only distantly related to the original plants.
But let’s say we actually know Bei Dou is a clone. In that case, your statement could be 100% true. Da Hong Pao could be a blend of two cultivars: Bei Dou and Qi Dan. Or, it could be 100% false if you take the stance that there’s only one cultivar–in which case any blend whatsoever would not be Da Hong Pao. Most likely, it’s in the middle somewhere, and I’m leaning toward mostly true.”
Though his answer was thorough, I felt no closer to a definitive answer, much like in my college math class when told the answer was infinity I found it hard to grasp, I needed a concrete number to hold on to.
So in order to address my question regarding the differences in the teas, I placed an order for each to conduct my own study. (Typical of my inquiring mind).
So here is my take on what I received.
Region: China, Wu Yi Mountains
3 Grams, Brewed at 212 degrees, steeped 3 minutes
Yes, I am aware that the ultimate enjoyment of each of these offerings would be to steep a larger quantity in a yixing, for this test I used traditional tasting equipment.
Bei Dou Oolong
Aromatic, the roast and stone fruit could be detected from the dry leaf. Upon sampling I immediately got a side of mouth feel and a sense of salivation, you know, when the cup dictates, “some more please”. The wet leaves somewhat irregular in shape, and unevenly cut in both medium and large sizes.
Da Hong Pao
Although the package indicated full bodied, I did not find this to be the case. I have had other offerings of this tea and found it to be more robust; then again it could be the quantity of tea and the prep I employed. This tea was an immediate front of mouth experience. I immediately detected a smoothness and mild sweetness, leaning towards molasses. The wet leaf size medium to small and cut. Most Da Hong Pao I have had in the past was full leaf.
Wu Yi Qui Lan
I found this offering to have a very mild roast. Slightly sweet and nuttier than the others. The wet leaves, were broken and irregular and contained twigs as well.
Well my sampling over, what have I learned:
As with much of the tea information we receive, so much is unclear due to a host of reasons.
I will, as always, let my palate dictate what I enjoy.
Da Hong Pao is a cultivar that, due to restrictions, I may never taste the “Real Thing”
What I have had was possibly a blend.
Out of the three samplings I conducted my palate leans more towards Bei Do Oolong
I would be reticent in spending an increased price for tea listed as Da Hong Pao
I now have the ability to brew each of these in a more traditional way and to continue to conduct additional experimentation.
Oh, and please be sure to check out Tea Geek on G+, . If you really have an interest in tea join the crew at Tea Salon at 2:00pm Pacific Time, every other Sunday, next meeting will be April 6th, the conversations are very informative and time well spent steeped in tea.