Hong Yue (红玉, “Red Jade” in Chinese) is unlike any other black tea you’re likely to drink, but it’s one I recommend trying when you can get it. It’s not commonly available outside of Taiwan, due to the small amounts produced each year and the relative lack of awareness among worldwide tea drinkers. That said, demand is considerably high among the people who know about it, as it’s a wonderful tea.
The export tea industry in Taiwan was established by the Japanese during their occupation of the country, which lasted from 1895 through the end of World War II, and included systematic attempts at assimilating the Taiwanese people into Japanese culture. Black tea production began in earnest after the Japanese brought the larger-leaf Assamica plants into the region from Burma in the 1920s. These plants were cultivated with the local Taiwanese wild plants to produce the bushes which now produce Hong Yue.
Naturally we wouldn’t even be discussing a black tea from Taiwan if the Taiwanese had not maintained and improved the local tea industry and trade following retrocession of the island to the Republic of China in the mid-forties. Within the relatively short span of time since the end of Japanese colonialism, Taiwan has built up a stellar reputation among tea drinkers, primarily for its oolong teas, such as the various types of Bao Zhong and high-mountain oolongs. While not as well known, Taiwan’s black teas deserve wider recognition for their unique character as well.
From the description on Rishi’s site:
“The five year old Hong Yue black tea farm in Nantou is too small for organic certification but the tea is still cultivated without any pesticides or harmful chemicals. Special yellow flowers are planted between the rows of tea bushes to help nurture the young tea bushes in place of fertilizers. Their roots aerate the soil and create an environment where beneficial bacteria thrive. They are mulched into the soil when the tea trees are older and stronger.”
For more details, including photographs and more about the nitrogen-fixing yellow flowering plant that is planted alongside the Hong Yue bushes, read the post on Rishi’s blog.
I brewed this tea using Gongfu methods, in a Taiwanese clay dragon teapot, with a high leaf-to-water ratio and 30-second steeps. The tea has a luxuriant red/orange color and yields a delicious, flavorful liquor through multiple steeps. As one would expect from a leaf with Assamica in its pedigree, Hong Yue produces a strong brew, with intense depth of character. I’ve read descriptions that compare it to brandy, which is understandable given its wine-like tones. It has a deep, slightly bitter woody quality, somewhat akin to the character imbued in a wine casked in oak rather than stainless steel. Even before the first sip, I recommend inhaling deeply to experience the rich complex aroma, which includes a slight note of peppermint.
Note, there is a limited amount of this tea available from Rishi, and I’ve been told it is almost sold out already.
For more on the history of the Taiwanese tea industry, read The Art of Tea on Cultural Taiwan, which is published by the Republic of China government.
January 3, 2011 at 3:54 pm
I am an active gardener and I love nitrogen-fixing plants. They have such a huge potential to reduce or even eliminate the need for nitrogen fertilizers. If you’re gathering leaves, you’ll always need to add something to the soil because of the loss of phosphorus and other minerals, but these plants can not only reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers, but also have side benefits.
I suspected that these plants and techniques were in use in the world of tea, but had not read a single specific documented use of them before this example that Rishi gives. I’m glad you’re drawing attention to this phenomenon, as I think it’s a key feature of sustainable agriculture practices.
January 3, 2011 at 4:27 pm
I hadn’t heard of nitrogen-fixing plants at all before, but I found it quite fascinating that they were being used with the Hong Yue tea plants instead of artificial nitrogen fertilizers so I wanted to make sure other people took notice. I agree with you about the significance of these methods of sustainable agriculture.
January 8, 2011 at 8:48 pm
I’ve been very interested in trying a hongcha from taiwan – have you sampled the hongcha listed on ishopo.com?
February 7, 2011 at 12:02 pm
Rishi didn’t transliterate the name of this tea right. It should be Hong Yu. (Lots of vendors make this kind of mistake, though.)
February 7, 2011 at 12:23 pm
Thank you for pointing that out. I discovered the error while I was reading other sites about the tea, and also when I looked up the Mandarin characters I needed. I probably should have noted it in the article rather than thinking of “Hong Yue” as a proper name so that the spelling error wouldn’t bother me. As you said, this kind of error happens pretty often in the industry.
March 18, 2012 at 10:36 pm
This tea sounds fascinating, will try!