Blind Tasting Set #6

In this blind tasting set, the taster encounters four teas from the same category, three of which share a cultivar; the task is to identify the odd one out, and, if possible, to identify the four as much as possible.

Working—or rather tasting—completely blind, it will take at least some exposure to the world of Chinese teas to identify the main category here as Wuyi yan cha (a.k.a. 'rock' or 'cliff tea'), but as the common scent of charcoal roasting with a light minerality in the aftertaste is a hallmark of these oolongs, the tea adept might find themselves quickly wondering which of the region's many famous cultivars could these teas be? Let's dive in: 

Tea #1: Organic Rougui

  • Meaning: 'cassia'
  • Origin: Tian Xin Yan, Wuyishan City, Fujian Province, China
  • Cultivar: Rougui
  • Harvest Time: Spring 2017

Perhaps the most average in flavor of the teas here, this Rougui, harvested in 2017, has a little of everything: a medium roasting, touch of sweetness, subtle minerality, and, of course, its namesake cassia note. Though a strong brewing can bring out more intensity, a lighter hand keeps it balanced and pleasant.

Tea #2: Zhu Huo Rougui

  • Meaning: 'high fire cassia'
  • Origin: Xiao Wuyi, Wuyishan City, Fujian Province, China
  • Cultivar: Rougui
  • Harvest Time: May 2015

Referring to a relatively strong roasting, one can still definitely taste the eponymous 'high fire' even after several years. It brings out a more caramelized, sweet character to the tea and deeper flavors that almost hit chocolate and liquor.

Tea #3: Da Hong Pao

  • Meaning: 'big red robe'
  • Origin: Dashuikeng, Wuyishan City, Fujian Province, China
  • Cultivar: Qi Dan
  • Harvest Time: 3 May 2020

The most famous of Wuyi yan cha is also something of an exception: Da Hong Pao variously refers to a particular subset of cultivars, their derivatives, a blend meant to emulate the taste of these, or even any tea produced in the same style, as we covered in a video on the topic. This tea, in any case, is produced from Qi Dan, a cultivar derived from one of the original Da Hong Pao bushes, and offers a mélange of fruity and floral notes. Produced in 2020, the charcoal roasting has not had as much time to dissipate as the others, but letting the brewed liquor rest briefly seems to allow its complexity to come through.

Tea #4: Hua Xiang Rougui

  • Meaning: 'flower scent cassia'
  • Origin: Xiao Wuyi, Wuyishan City, Fujian Province, China
  • Cultivar: Rougui
  • Harvest Time: May 2015

A milder treatment of the Rougui cultivar, this tea emphasizes the floral aspects within, remaining lighter and sweeter and pulling the cinnamon taste in the direction of orange peel. It is in fact a sibling to #2, the Zhu Huo Rougui above, having been made from the same leaves by the same producers with merely a different treatment.

Summary:

Yes, three out of four were the fairly well-known Rougui cultivar, and the fourth, the most famous of yan cha: Da Hong Pao (a.k.a. 'big red robe'). But given the amount of influence the processing, particularly the strength of the roasting, has in the tea's final taste, how best to filter the one from the three?

Once the general category of yan cha is identified, looking out for this and other known characteristics of the cultivars is a good strategy. Most helpful will be identifying the commonalities: if well-brewed, each of the Rougui here does take after its name, and share a note of cassia (a.k.a. Chinese cinnamon), the woody-spicy and almost sweet burn on the tongue most noticeable in the aftertaste, when other, more dominant flavors have disappeared. If this is observed, teas #1, #2, and #4 may then become apparent as different takes on the same material, and a familiarity with Rougui may help the taster even name it. The Da Hong Pao, or rather the Qi Dan, is a lot trickier, not being known for a single particular flavor, but the rich aromatics may be familiar to those who have tasted other exemplars. In any case, despite this richness, the aftertaste tends toward the floral and fruity, and cinnamon, if present, is not so obvious.

This is, of course, on the level of subtleties, and even experienced tea drinkers will not find identifying the exact cultivar (which itself represents a variety of exact plants that may diverge from their clonal 'parents') of a finished tea easy. We hope, however, that the focus of trying to differentiate teas within a given category to that end has been instructive, and helped refine your palate. Even with their identities revealed, it may be interesting to brew the teas once again with different parameters, to see their range—or just to enjoy some quality Rougui once more!