Known as black tea in the US and Europe, red tea is probably the first tea most people in those parts of the world tried — and in many cases probably still the only tea that they’ve tried. It’s no surprise then that often when I talk to Western tea drinkers the topic of red tea often comes up. Luckily, this is an extremely interesting topic.
The world of red tea is becoming more complex as times goes on and new types of red tea are popping up everywhere. It is hard to explain everything about red tea, or to predict exactly where it is going, but I do want to take the time to share with you my observations from my travels around China.
I recently spent some time in the famous Tie Guan Yin oolong town of Gande, a place known for selling the most expensive Tie Guan Yin in the country. I had been living with a farmer there for a week, and just as I was leaving he smiled and handed me a bag — and all I could do for a minute was stare at him blankly.
The bag contained scoops of Tie Guan Yin red tea to try. I was baffled as to why a farmer who is from a world famous oolong producing area would try to make red tea.
Not long after, I stopped by my friend’s house in Dongting – home to the green tea Bi Luo Chun – to find that his family also makes red tea. “We do it with the leftover leaves,” he explained. “Unless specially asked for, Bi Luo Chun always get the best leaves and the most time. With what we have left, we make red tea”.
A red tea factory where workers curcle the leaves in the fashion of Bi Luo Chun green tea
All across China, farmers of different tea types are experimenting with red tea, with varying levels of success. I hypothesize that the farmers can do this for red tea and not a more renowned tea, such as green, because Chinese tea drinkers haven’t quite figured out red teas yet. For a long time red teas were used for export. In recent times though they have gained in popularity, partly due to the rise of Jin Ju Mei. Jin Ju Mei is a red tea from the Fujian region that is famous for its bud only picking and that has found favor among health-conscious individuals thanks to a belief that it has “heat”, and is therefore good for the stomach. Jin Ju Mei’s recent fame has brought more attention in China tea circles to red tea as a whole, and producers have been introducing a series of rapid changes to red teas in an attempt to figure out exactly what the market wants.
There are two changes in particular that stand out. The first change was to Qimen red tea. Traditionally Qimen red tea was broken into very small bits after the tea leaf was finished. This gave the tea a bold flavor that when paired with its natural sweetness produced one of my favorite tastes. The problem was, conventional Chinese tea wisdom dictates that broken up leaves are a sign of bad quality. In response to this, Qimen started to produce whole leaf red teas, such has Qimen Mao Feng, that may look nicer, but produced a softer flavor that does not impress this author.
Two men examining a red to see if it is ready
A second change to red tea actually happened in the last few years and I didnt see it until someone pointed it out — now I see it everywhere. A common misconception is that red tea is 100% fermented. This is a very simple way to explain red tea making and is almost true. Tea categories are based off their making and not the fermentation level; the fermentation level is a result of the making. So while most of the the time red teas are left in piles to ferment until they are fully fermented, this is not always the case.
Recently, tea makers have been playing with fermenting the teas less and less. The result is a lighter and sweeter flavor. You can tell which teas have been fermented less by the color of the liquid. A dark red color means it’s the traditional full fermentation. If the color comes out a golden yellow, this means the fermentation time was cut short. Level of fermentation aside, both of these teas are still considered as types of red tea.
The topic of red tea is hard to talk about in full factuality. For a tea that seems to be so solid in the West, in China it is actually in a much more fluid state of change and growth. Even the famous Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (lapsang souchong) is becoming more popular in unsmoked form, in contrast to how its traditionally been consumed.
The constant changes and market influences keep pushing red teas in new directions and it always feels like we are one tea season away from having someone do something completely different that totally changes red tea for ever. Maybe this tea season will be the one.
Photos: Caleb Miller.
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