As the rarest tea on Earth, very few of the 6 billion cups of tea that are consumed in the world every day are of the virtually priceless Chinese tea, Da Hong Pao. Da Hong Pao is the most expensive tea in the world, and its price is only going up.
The Legend of Da Hong Pao
The history of Da Hong Pao is steeped in legend. It dates back to the 18th century when legend has it that a Ming Dynasty Emperor’s mother fell ill. The legend claims that it was the steeped leaves of four mystical and rare Da Hong Pao trees that cured her illness. The Emperor visited the trees that saved his dying mother and in thanks and to protect them, draped red royal robes over them. Literally translated as ‘big red robe’, this mythical story is where Da Hong Pao gets its iconic name.
Stealing The Best Tea in the World: An Espionage Story
In 1849, in an elaborate, politically motivated plot of tea espionage, a British botanist named Robert Fortune went on a very dangerous undercover mission to recover seeds and cuttings from the original trees.
At the time, The East India Company wanted a variety of goods, including tea, which had become the nation’s most popular drink. They were also keen to import other luxury goods from China such as silk and porcelain. China, on the other hand, didn’t want much from the Brits, which made for a trading partnership very much in favor of the Chinese.
Imperialist Britain wasn’t going to stand for it. Motivated by the problematic trade deficit with China, Fortune was commissioned to undertake a secret mission to recover the secret to tea cultivation.
The British had attempted to steal tea before, and succeeded, but their own tea-making industry was a failure. The problem was, the shoots and seeds they stole wouldn’t grow, and tasted off – not at all like the tea they coveted from China. As a result, Mr. Fortune’s mission became more complicated. He had to go undercover - not only to steal the seeds and shoots - but also to infiltrate the tea-growing regions to discover how to cultivate these sought-after teas.
China was, at the time, closed to foreigners, and anyone caught was likely to be sentenced to death. The tea heist was therefore extremely dangerous. Fortune was required to take on a disguise and alternate persona as a Chinese man.
Ultimately, he succeeded, and a billion-dollar tea industry for the East India Company was born. This was a huge relief for Britain, who no longer had to depend on China for at least one of its most coveted goods: luxury tea.
How Da Hong Pao Became The Most Expensive Tea In the World
Ever since these tea leaves allegedly cured the Emperor’s mother in the 18th century, they were considered a Chinese treasure. Up until recently, they were even protected by armed guards.
Found growing on temple land when the Monks were driven out, the production of the Da Hong Pao trees was, until recently, controlled by the government. All of the preciously small annual yield was reserved for the state.
Three of the four trees are still perched on Mt. Wuyi, in Wuyishan of the Fujian province. Alas, they are no longer producing new shoots or leaves. Dated loosely at about 350 years old, the trees were actually still producing modest yields until just over 10 years ago. The last time the original trees were harvested was in 2005.
The original Da Hong Pao trees will likely never yield any leaves again.
Influenced by its rarity and mythical past, the cost of enjoying the most expensive tea in the world is growing every day. Because the original trees are no longer producing, it means that with every cup consumed and thus removed from the market, this Chinese tea becomes rarer and more expensive. It has become a drink reserved for the mega-elite and is only accessible to those willing to cough up a hefty sum for a cup.
More Than Its Weight In Gold: The Price of Da Hong Pao Tea
Some records indicate prices as high as $1.2 million per kilogram for Da Hong Pao. That means Da Hong Pao is actually worth more than 30 times its weight in gold. To get a pot of this luxury tea is going to cost you about $10000.
That’s not to say this luxury tea is totally inaccessible to the tea connoisseur or curious tea historian.
Clones of the original Da Hong Pao oolong trees can be found in Wuyishan, and their leaves will cost you about $100 per kilogram. If, however, you wanted to source leaves from the original plants, you would have to go through a special broker to introduce you to a supplier.
Flavor Profile of the Most Expensive Tea in the World
Since so few have a had the experience of trying this tea, the question remains: what does Da Hong Pao taste like?
Like all teas, the taste and profile of this tea are influenced by the way it is dried and aged. As the leaves grow, they are wiped with goat’s milk to impart a sheen, and influence the flavor after picking. After the leaves are harvested, they are carefully baked over charcoal in small batches. From there they are left to age to gain flavor; some leaves are aged up to 80 years.
These methods offer a rich linger on the palate, complemented by lovely floral notes. Some reports say that you can still taste it minutes after drinking it. Some say it is comparable to the flavor profile of Japanese brown rice tea. The charcoal roasting gives it a woody umami undertone that is slightly smoky. The floral aromatics suggest sweet peach.
If you are lucky enough to be one of the very few who has the opportunity to taste the legendary and mythical Da Hong Pao tea you must remember one thing: whatever flavors or aromas you pick up, make sure you savour them, because Da Hong Pao is a rare treat indeed.