The East is Red: China’s Red (Black) Tea Renaissance

Black tea, or hongcha (lit. red tea) as it is known to the Chinese-speaking world, never quite hit the bigtime in its own homeland. That is, of course, until the meticulously-made and exorbitantly-priced Jin Jun Mei black tea showed up.

There was a positive side of the Jin Jun Mei mania, however. Jin Jun Mei’s success in 2006 with an unheard-of-price tag proved that high-end black tea could demand serious money. In the years since, China’s tea market responded to that demand with nothing short of a hongcha renaissance.

To appreciate the changes this renaissance brought, I’d like to first go back to describe the state of black tea in China in the early 2000’s, before Jin Jun Mei. The sense one got at the time was that black tea was either viewed as a regional oddity (when it was high-quality loose leaf tea) or a commodity style just made to suit the tastes of the international market.

We can see black tea’s marginal status in the 2001 edition of Zhongguo Chajing, a volume that stood as a corpus of knowledge on the overall Chinese tea industry when it was published. Within this book’s 675 pages, the editors devote a scant 18 pages to black tea. Compare that to the list of notable green teas which takes up nearly 100 pages in itself.

Similarly, in a sampling of commonly referenced “10 famous teas of China” lists published by the Chinese tea industry throughout the 20th century, you’ll see that black teas almost never made the cut, except for the occasional inclusion of Qimen.

By the mid-2010’s, tea makers all across China were chasing the popularity of top market black tea. New origins pushed out examples of fully-oxidized teas and they often used excellent spring leaf material from local tea bush varieties. For example, An Ji Bai Cha green tea producers developed An Ji Hong, a black tea made using Anji county’s albescent and amino acid-rich Bai Ye #1 variety. Similarly, in Chaozhou, tea makers used traditional dan cong wulong cultivars to craft fully-oxidized dan cong black tea. Even producers of extremely expensive and famous green teas like Bi Luo Chun and Shi Feng Long Jing, took the risk of making some of their valuable early spring leaves into black tea (marketed as Bi Luo Hong and Jiu Qu Hong Mei, respectively). In the times before, these origins would have used cheap summer leaf to make their black tea, if any at all.

The traditional origins of black tea were not resting on their laurels, either.

On the whole, the flavor of these emergent specialty black teas is regenerating towards something new and distinctly Chinese. These newer teas often emphasize fruit, floral, and sweet spice aromas. They eschew the full-bodied tannic smack we expect from our tea bags of “English breakfast” tea in the west and instead, modern Chinese black tea is trending toward a softer, less chewy body with a pronounced returning sweetness. This a great example of a product that illustrates how Chinese tea is in fact very productive and responsive to trends and consumer tastes — a contradiction to the common packaging of high-end Chinese tea as an ancient, traditional, and conservative product.

This is the Chinese black tea renaissance. A new wave of innovation has elevated the prestige paid to black tea’s quality and provenance, and this has benefited black tea making in general. Even the traditional styles like Lapasang Souchong, which you can now buy from Tongmu teamakers, seems to be more beautifully made than ever before, even if it does have to share the stage with a line of new styles. It turns out this story isn’t about demise — it’s about rebirth.

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