This is part two of “An Exploration of Red Tea.”  

The Ming Dynasty saw many developments in tea processing, including Oolong Tea, Flower-Scented Tea and Red Tea. Later, in the Qing Dynasty, many of the teas developed during this age of innovation were evolved further.

As with any timeline detailing groundbreaking developments, there is some controversy over when the ‘first’ Red Tea appears. Accordingly, there are several origin stories about Red Tea. Some claim that the appearance of Wuyi Cliff Tea (also known as “Congou Black Tea” in the West, and as we discussed above not really a Red Tea at all) in the 15th or 16th century heralded the age of Red Tea, while others credit it to the appearance of Xiao Zhong (‘Souchong Black Tea’) in Fujian around 1730 or to various Red Teas that were developed in Qimen in the 1700s. Later, around 1875, the technique for making Gong Fu Hong Cha was introduced to the Anhui region, a major producer of Qimen (Keemun) Red Tea to this day.

Ultimately, which tea was the ‘first’ Red Tea didn’t matter much to the local tea drinkers of the time—in general, Red Tea wasn’t very popular with them. However, starting in the early 1800s the export markets in Europe, the American colonies and the Middle East couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Some attribute the international popularity of Red Tea in particular to Red Tea’s shelf stability (a necessity in long ocean journeys), while others say that it has more to do with the compatibility of the bold flavor profiles of Red Teas with the cuisines of Germany, England, France and other nations where Red Tea has become the default tea type.GTH red tea

It was this popularity that led to large scale production of Red Tea in China, and to the eventual theft of tea seeds, tea plants, and tea production techniques, which were taken by Scottish and English adventurer-entrepreneurs and transplanted to India and other colonial territories (such as modern day Sri Lanka and Kenya). These entrepreneurs took their limited knowledge of tea production and used it to fashion machines that replace the handmade aspects of tea processing. The availability of cheap Red Tea fueled its popularity as a tea type further, making it the most popular category of tea in the West to this day.

Today, Red Tea is produced using this machine-driven approach in many countries, including Brazil, India, Indonesia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. More recently, machine-made Red Teas have appeared in Japan (where they are called Wakocha or ‘Japanese Red Tea’), and machine-made Red Tea has even made its way back to China.

Red tea 2 GTHMeanwhile, Green Tea and Oolong remain the most popular types of tea amongst tea drinkers in China. However, in recent years the interest in handmade and more traditionally made Red Tea has seen a resurgence in China, Taiwan and elsewhere, resulting in a wider availability of handmade Red Teas from China and Taiwan (including the Sun Moon Lake Red Tea). For this and other reasons, the characteristics that Red Tea drinkers in China and Taiwan prefer tend to be different from the typical tea drinker in the West. Instead of looking for a dark color in the infusion or boiled liquor and a bold flavor that can handle milk and sugar, these tea lovers seek out beautifully shaped leaves and infusions that are best savored without any additives. Also, while most Red Tea drinkers steep their leaves only once, those opting for more traditionally made Red Teas prefer to let the leaves open up gradually with many short infusions, savoring their tea patience and their inner spirit rather than gulping them from a to-go cup while eating a pastry on the way to the office.

Fortunately, this newfound appreciation for more traditional Red Teas is spreading beyond China and Taiwan. It is our hope that you will be able to further your own growing appreciation and to perhaps even spread the love for Red Tea in general.

“Red Tea’s History” is part two of An exploration of red tea  by Lindsey Goodwin and originally published by Global Tea Hut in September, 2012.  You can read part one by clicking here.  Global Tea Hut has generously granted permission to T Ching to publish past articles from their publication each week.  These appear on Wednesdays.

Loading Image from T Ching archives.  Images 1 and 2 used with permission from Global Tea Hut.