Chinese Red Tea: The Comprehensive Guide
Learn about Red Tea, its varietals, where it's grown, how to properly brew it, and discover tasting notes.
Known as black tea in the West, red tea is one of the most commonly produced style of loose leaf tea in the world.
A well-made red tea by definition is fully fermented – all enzymes exhausted – making it the sweetest, smoothest category.
In our Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Red Tea, we’ll give you a starting point to understanding this popular tea.
The History of Red Tea
Unlike other loose leaf teas, red tea has almost a linear history that’s simple, yet profoundly international and impactful.
The world’s oldest red tea is Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, aka, Lapsang Souchong.
The origin of Xiao Zhong is not very clear with its birth estimated from 300-500 years ago.
Before the 19th century, it was the only known red tea in existence (and many still argue it was Wu Long then).
In fact, Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (Lapsang Souchong) was so singular in its existence, the name - only given after other red teas started to come about - literally means THE small-leaf tea from THE mountain, to distinguish itself from the rest.
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong was the tea that Robert Fortune took from the still off-limits-to-foreigners origin of Tong Mu to India and what later became Darjeeling, ending China’s monopoly over tea in the late 1800s.
Exporting Red Tea from China
Because red tea was long viewed as a “messed-up” green tea by Chinese connoisseurs, its spread and production was largely organized for exportation purpose – quite a different route from the teas that were meant for Chinese aristocracies.
This is a very important distinction as it sets the parameter for the development of red tea’s terroir and making technique.
As beloved and popular as Xiao Zhong was in Europe, it has serious limitation to production and transportation due to its amazing, but secluded location.
The first Xiao Zhong substitute for organized tea production and exportation was Ning Hong – red tea from Xiu Shui, a city 360 miles northwest of Tong Mu, with easy access to waterways.
Built upon the techniques Xiao Zhong had, and made specifically for the Western market, Ning Hong went through an unique process called “Gong Fu”, opening an era of Gong Fu red teas.
From the late 18th to 19th century, multiple locations in China took turns to establish themselves as the central hub for red tea exportation.
Most notably are the Fu Jian Gong Fu Trio: Zheng He Gong Fu, Tan Yang Gong Fu and Bai Ling Gong Fu; and Qi Men Gong Fu, or known in the West as Keemun.
The Rise of Popularity in the West
Throughout the development of red tea - its popular rise in the West and the rest of the world, and its direct cause of the Opium War, (which marked the decline of the Imperial China) - few Chinese drank red tea.
Red tea remained primarily an export tea that sold for lower price than other categories of tea in China, up until 2005.
In that year, a new red tea called Jin Jun Mei, from the fateful location of Tong Mu – home to Xiao Zhong, was created using only single buds and debuted with some say the most genius marketing tactic in Chinese tea history.
Selling for a couple thousand USD a pound, Jin Jun Mei started what’s called the Red Tea Renaissance.
Since then, Chinese connoisseurs have started to appreciate red tea with enthusiasm unseen before, reviving many historical red tea regions and inspiring a few new ones, thus bringing the overall price of red tea up in China.
How Red Tea is Made
Please note that the following are best practices, not all tea makers follow them today. Also, in the video below you can see how red tea is sorted:
After the fresh teas are picked, the leaves are left out in a cool, shaded area to slowly lose moisture.
Some big leaf varietals are also sun-wilted first, which could take many hours.
Most makers now use oxidation beds to wilt the tea, drastically accelerating the process, but also compromising the quality.
After the stems have lost enough moisture to snap, the wilted leaves are then rolled vigorously to sufficiently break the membranes.
This allows thorough oxidation that will facilitate the fermentation later on.
Red tea is also rolled for the longest amount of time among all teas, often for over an hour.
The rolled leaves are shaken loose and evenly layered into a bamboo basket and then covered with wet clothes.
There are two methods of fermentation:
Warm fermentation is when the tea is left at room temperature over night, which is usually cold in tea country's spring.
Warm fermentation is when the tea is placed into a enclosed space with a maintained amount of moisture and temperature, which can be done through charcoal ash and water bin, or by machine.
There’s also the wet fermentation which adds moisture directly to the leaves, which is a new and controversial method.
The time to ferment the tea varies depends on the environment. It can be as little as two hours or as long as over ten.
There will always be strings that are not fermented, which will affect the flavor of the final tea. While the tea is still wet and the discoloration is easier to see, a tedious step where greener leaves are picked out takes place.
The teas are then evenly spread on baking trays and baked dry in the oven or over charcoal ash.
Some are also lightly dried and rubbed in the wok first for shine and aroma. But, the tea temperature at no times should be reach higher than 80-85C.
This is a baking technique that is designed to enhance and purify the tea’s aroma, WITHOUT altering its original flavor profile.
It is usually done at least three weeks after the tea has been baked.
It is a tricky step that many opt to skip, because if not done correctly can quickly ruined an otherwise mediocre tea.
On the other hand, sometimes a red tea can be Ti Xiang twice, with usually three weeks time in between.
Gong Fu Hong Cha
While it is also called “gong fu,” the term is not to be confused with either the martial art (written differently in Chinese) or the style of brewing that is called Gong Fu Cha.
Gong Fu in Chinese means time and effort, so it is not a surprise that it is used to describe the following time consuming tea making techniques.
Traditionally, after a red tea had been dried, it is then broken into small segments using a technique called Da Dai.
This is a highly skilled and interesting step where a tea maker swings a bag of tea in rhythm to make contact with a stone placed on the ground.
If not done correctly, the tea turns into dust and the person can hurt his or her back.
However, when done expertly, the teas are broken following the natural way a bud and leaf would fall off the stem, with rounded edges.
It is a disappearing art; most loose leaf tea makers nowadays chop the teas into smaller sizes using a machine, safe and fast.
The Refining Process
The broken teas are then sorted multiple times according to length and width, into the many grades the tea maker sells.
Traditionally, this is done using bamboo trays weaved with different sizes of slots on the bottom, so only the desired size falls through.
It is another highly skilled step that is very time consuming and can ruin the tea if not done correctly. Most teas are now sorted by machine.
The “refining” steps were necessary to making Gong Fu Hong Cha because mass production and exportation called for standardization – both in the tea’s flavor and price.
Counter-intuitively, the most traditional red teas are the broken ones, because it was a tea made with a defined end purpose in mind – mass production.
It was the very reason that made red tea popular internationally and simultaneously dismissed by domestic connoisseurs for centuries.
This is where the topic “does traditional means better” should be debated, or even more importantly, how do we carry on and improve without forgoing tradition.
Famous Chinese Red Teas
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (Lapsang Souchong) Red Tea
For a while there was only one Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, in the past decade there have been multiple styles of teas coming from the same region that a list is needed to understand what really is a Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong.
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, and its related teas, come from the restricted national reserve area near Tong Mu Guan with two villages within the checkpoint being the most famed – Gua Dun and Ma Shu.
Everyone not native to the villages within the area need a special permit to go inside and it is completely off limits to foreigners.
A overwhelming majority of Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong both in the Chinese and overseas market are NOT from Zheng Shan, which is part of the tea’s name to signify the importance of its location.
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, in the most traditional sense, means a smoked broken red tea made with Qing Lou.
Qing Lou, though in layman terms actually means a pleasure house/brothel (yes, there are many Chinese jokes about this), in the tea profession it is the name of a unique smoke house built for making Xiao Zhong.
The house is three-stories high, with flexible bamboo sheets tiling its floors - one has to be careful and strategic walking on it to not fall through, because it is not solid ground.
Down below, the Qing Lou is where a combination of local pine needles and pinewoods are burned and the smoke is channeled through brick channels that are similar to the underground structure of a roman bath.
Tea trays, depending on the stages of their making (wilting, drying, smoking), are “stuck” onto the wooden ceiling shelves right below each bamboo tile to be gently “flavored” by the smoke that comes up through spaces between the bamboo weavings.
However, the real Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong was facing an unappreciative market in the 90s and early 2000s with many criticizing its inferiority because it is a broken tea, and it is flavored (many claim it should not be considered a real tea).
The following variation of Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong since then was created with the debut of Jin Jun Mei, pushing red tea to a new height of awareness.
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Red Tea Variations
You Yan Xiao Zhong
This is the only kind that resembles the traditional Xiao Zhong where the tea is smoked.
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Smoked and Broken
Varies grades (consider this a prototype of Gong Fu Red Tea).
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Smoked but not Broken
More common now with less requirement on facility but a Qing Lou is still needed.
Wu Yan Xiao Zhong
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong not smoked and not broken.
Chu Kou Xiao Zhong
This is a touchy point, but there’s a Lapsang Souchong directly smoked with pine grease or with added smoke flavoring for export-only teas.
It’s easily identifiable with overly pungent smokiness. This tea is not sold nor drank in China.
Jin Jun Mei
Single bud red tea
Yin Jun Mei
Red tea with one bud and one leaf
Xiao Chi Gan
Red tea with one bud and two leaves
Da Chi Gan
Red tea with three leaves
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong Fermentation and More Notes
Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong uses cold fermentation, and because of its unique microclimate (above 1000m elevation in a relatively northern tea region, one of the coldest).
The red tea from the area has a subtle but lingering sweetness and often has notes of apple skin.
Jin Jun Mei is also known for being very umami.
It’s worthy noting that Xiao Zhong is also the name of the indigenous varietal in Tong Mu.
However, unavoidably, there are many new varietals now, including lots of cliff tea cultivars.
This adds complexity to understanding the teas.
Due to the very cold climate of the region and the late budding tendency of Xiao Zhong, it is usually the last tea region in China to harvest, even after the Wu Long season.
Old varietal Jin Jun Mei (buds) usually harvest around mid April and Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong in mid May.
Learn more (and taste) Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong (Lapsang Souchong) here.
Qi Men Hong Cha (Keemun) Red Tea
Known for the outstanding fragrance that’s unrivaled by any other red tea since its creation, Qi Men has occupied first place among red teas.
It is also the only red tea that has ever made the China’s Ten Famous Teas list – a prestige title.
Qi Men is a township in the Yellow Mountain range, An Hui Province and the red teas from the region are often referred to as Qi Hong.
The top prized locations in Qi Men are Li Kou, Shan Li, Ping Li - with Li Xi, Gu Xi, Ruo Keng of Li Kou demands the highest prices, in the said order.
Qi Hong started as a Gong Fu Red Tea and is still the most mature with its techniques such as Da Dai.
However, since the privatization of tea making in the 80s and 90s, Qi Hong had been continuously reinventing itself to keep up with the market, as well as work around the limitation of farmers tea making capacity (Gong Fu Red Tea needs space and additional labor).
Learn more (and taste) Qi Men Hong Cha (Keemun Tea) here.
Current styles of Qi Hong are:
Qi Men Gong Fu
Broken and sold in varies grades.
Hong Mao Feng (Red Mao Feng)
Red tea with minimum shape making (all red teas have to be rolled).
It is one of the most popular form of Qi Hong right now, and also a rough tea for making Gong Fu Red Tea.
Hong Xiang Luo
A red tea that’s been rolled into a spiral shape, its name drew inspiration from the famous green tea, Bi Luo Chun.
Hong Song Luo
A red tea that’s been made into a pearl shape, its name drew inspiration from the legendary tribute tea in Ming Dynasty, Song Luo.
The indigenous varietal of Qi Men is called Chu Ye, one of the most studied group varietal of tea, thanks to Qi Men being the home to An Hui Tea Research Institute (which moved to Tun Xi early 2016). Common clone varietals of Qi Hong are Hong Qi #1 and Da Bai.
Dian Hong Red Tea
Yun Nan Black
Every Chinese province has a one-word (single syllabus) acronym.
For Yun Nan, it is Dian. Hong means red.
Because red tea is known as black tea in the West, the translation for Dian Hong, though quite literal, is confusingly Yun Nan Black.
Like the name suggests, Dian Hong comes from Yun Nan.
In the video below, you can see Yunnan Red Tea being made.
Though Dian Hong is very much a new comer to the red tea scene - created in 1939 - it is currently among the most popular red teas from China.
Though originally developed in Feng Qing of Yun Nan, Dian Hong is now produced throughout the province.
Dian Hong price hierarchy currently follows the same convention as Pu Er, which is leading by terroir, then the age of the tea tree, then crafting.
Because the varietal of Pu Er is closely related to the age of the tea tree, it is an assumed factor.
The broad location reference of Dian Hong in the name suggests that it is a tea with lots of details yet to be classified and standardized, demanding a generally lower price than other red teas.
Dian Hong by default is a big leaf varietal red tea that takes a string shape. It is generally known for having more body than its small leaf peers.
Learn more (and taste) Yunnan Red (Dian Hong) Tea here.
One More Note About Red Tea
Though each style of red tea have its own characteristics, there’s still a consented flavor note hierarchy of red tea, following tea’s natural fermentation cycle.
They are listed below as a general guideline, in order:
Dry Red Dates
Fresh Red Dates (slightly sour)
Continue your Tea Education
Loved in the West, Red Tea is an excellent tea to know the history of.
But your tea education is only just starting.
Here are some other resources to continue learning about true tea.
Our Visual History of Tea article.
The Thorough Tea Brewing Guide.
Our Red Tea Shop (packed with information.)
And finally, our YouTube channel.
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