In 2002, a wealthy purchaser paid 180,000 yuan – almost $28,000 – for just 20g of China’s legendary Da Hong Pao tea. Even in a culture that’s valued tea drinking as an art form for around 1,500 years (and has a system of tea classification that makes French wine look simple), the price was astonishing.
Original Da Hong Pao doesn’t just cost its weight in gold – it costs more than 30 times its weight in gold: almost $1,400 for a single gram, or well over $10,000 for a pot. It’s one of the most expensive teas in the world.
“It looks fit for a beggar, but it’s priced for an emperor and has the heart of the Buddha,” said Xiao Hui, a tea maker in Wuyishan, a misty riverside town in Fujian, southern China. She showed me the dark, tangled, unfinished-looking Da Hong Pao leaves from her family’s tea gardens in Wuyishan. Xiao and her family, tea makers for many generations, still go into the mountains every spring to call on the tea god, Lu Yu, to bring new shoots.
Wuyishan’s startling karst landscape has been famous for tea for centuries. The rain that pours down the limestone gorges and karst pinnacles, flooding the narrow mountain streams and tumbling waterfalls, is heavy with minerals that impart flavour. Today, every other shop in Wuyishan has a tea-tasting table set for the ritual of gong fu cha (kung fu tea) – the closest China comes to the Japanese tea ceremony –and shelves stacked with a gaudy selection of tea leaves.
Travelling to Wuyishan, I discovered that many Da Hong Pao teas are surprisingly affordable. Though aged or antique versions can sell for extremely high prices, a Da Hong Pao of reasonable quality can cost around $100 per kilo in Wuyishan. But every genuine Da Hong Pao originates with a cutting from a single group of mother trees. And it’s these original trees that produce the rare and sought-after original tea.
“The original Da Hong Pao is so expensive because there are hardly any of the original tea trees left,” explained local tea master Xiangning Wu. “And antique versions are very valuable, almost priceless.” In fact, it’s all so exclusive that specialist brokers navigate the rarefied world of China’s ultra-wealthy tea collectors, connecting those who need to sell with those who wish to buy.
But it’s not just the Chinese who value Da Hong Pao. In 1849, British botanist Robert Fortune came to the Wuyishan mountains on a secret mission, part of the agro-industrial espionage at which the colonial East India Company excelled.
Britons were, then, as now, obsessed with tea, and China – from where the Brits also bought silk and porcelain – was the only place they could get it. But Britain made little that China wanted, creating a massive trade deficit. An obvious way of resolving the balance of trade was to do what the East India Company had done with other valuable plants: steal the seeds (or, better, cuttings) and grow them elsewhere. If Britain could make its own tea in India, the nation would be that much less dependent on China.
But Britain couldn’t. The tea seeds that previous spies had sourced from Guangdong simply would not grow – and the native Indian tea bushes, a different type of plant to Chinese tea, just didn’t taste right.