Big Red Robe or “Da Hong Pao” is the signature tea of the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province, China. This tea is also known as “Rock Tea” or “Rock Oolong”, which can become confusing. It’s defining features are long, dark, twisted leaves that have been partially oxidized (like black tea) and baked (sometimes referred to as “roasted”). The flavors range widely from toasty and spicy to citrus and sweet.
Big Red Robe is said to have originated as two plants in the Tian Xin temple in Wuyi. The monks there spent a great amount of time and resources on these plants and the outcome was the now famous Big Red Robe. Though the plants do not exist in the temple anymore, it is believed to be the same plant that is growing out the side of a rock face nearby that is considered the official mother bush “Da Hong Pao” plant (Qi Dan cultivar). As to be expected, there is not 100% agreement on this as fact.
The official Mother Bush "Da Hong Pao" plant is a popular tourist attraction.
Though Big Red Robe is the source of many old and fantastic stories, a comprehensive written record of its production doesn’t appear until 1943. In 1949 the Chinese government took ownership of the original plants and placed strict protections over them, but in China’s reform era of the 1980’s the practice of using other cultivars to make Big Red Robe became routine. Now “Big Red Robe”, “Wuyi Rock Tea”, and “Rock Oolong” are all synonymous.
“Rock Oolong” and “Big Red Robe” are two different names for the same product.
The variety of cultivars used to make rock oolong will vary depending on the desired price and quality as determined by the tea maker. The most popular (and expensive) rock oolongs are made in the Wuyi mountains, but it is possible to produce similar styles elsewhere (often at lower prices and lower quality).
Wuyi Mountains, Fujian
The name on the package can lead to unnecessary confusion. “Rock Oolong” and “Big Red Robe” are two different names for the same product. This product is often a blend of cultivars that could be different from each tea seller and still retain the name “Big Red Robe”. There is also Big Red Robe made from Qi Dan or Bei Dou cultivars, each one considered the true Big Red Robe plant. However, if the rock oolong is made from 100% Rou Gui (“cinnamon”) cultivar or 100% Shui Xian (“water immortal”) cultivar, then it will usually be marketed as “Rou Gui” or “Shui Xian” and not “Big Red Robe”. These tend to be the only cultivars that get this treatment, but ultimately this is a marketing decision for the tea seller.
Rou Gui is popular right now and many tea farmers are removing Shui Xian plants and replacing them with Rou Gui. The difference between these two was summed up well by my friend when he said “Rou Gui will light you up while Shui Xian will lay you back”. Rou Gui tends to have a sharper, spicier, more intense mouthfeel where Shui Xian is softer, sweeter, and more subtle.