Selling Tea to China
Where do Chinese people go to purchase the best Chinese tea? Not China.
By ILARIA MARIA SALA
作者： ILARIA MARIA SALA
Mainland Chinese visitors to this former British colony are renowned for stocking up on luxury goods like Prada and Louis Vuitton handbags that are cheaper than at home, and less likely to be counterfeits. But now there\'s a new trend in trophy purchases to show off back home: top-quality Chinese tea.
Catherine Tam, shop manager at Fook Ming Tong, one of Hong Kong\'s best-known tea shops, explains that Chinese customers are buying up a variety called Da Hong Pao, or \"Big Red Robe.\" From the oolong (or semi-fermented) family, it\'s grown in the fabled Wuyi mountains in northern Fujian province. Shrouded in mist during most of the year, this area comprised of 36 stony peaks has been used to cultivate \"rock teas\" since the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907).
Rock teas brew a dark, reddish liquor, with an initially bitter, slightly woody flavor, that quickly metamorphoses into a sweet and lingering aftertaste, with delicate hints of honey and fruit. The leaves, long and twisted, can be infused up to 15 times. As is common with many products in China, Da Hong Pao is believed to have health benefits: \"It helps fight cholesterol, and has antioxidant properties,\" explains Ms. Tam.
As legend has it, Da Hong Pao derives its name not from the reddish hue of its leaves, or the tea liquor, but from an emperor\'s favor. The mother of a Ming dynasty emperor was cured of what today we would call high cholesterol by drinking Da Hong Pao. To thank the bushes that saved her, the filial emperor sent mandarin red silk robes to cover the tea trees—rewarding them, so to speak, by giving them scholar status.
The original handful of Da Hong Pao bushes, which have been harvested since the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1279, a golden age for tea appreciation), are said to produce the very best Da Hong Pao, and a few grams of it can fetch hundreds of dollars. Until 2005, these leaves were reserved for the Chinese government. Then, the tea plantations on Wuyi mountain were privatized, some cultivars removed from the original bushes transplanted to other locations, and a lot of different grades of Da Hong Pao have since been hitting the market.
Tea connoisseurs appreciate Da Hong Pao\'s finer qualities, but it commands high prices for another reason: the thrill of enjoying something that used to be reserved for the most exclusive elite due to its rarity. Previously, other than imperial and Communist Party big shots, the tea was reserved for visiting dignitaries. An oft-quoted story recalls that Richard Nixon was given 50 grams of Da Hong Pao by Mao Zedong in 1972. Shortly afterward, Nixon quipped with his aides that the Chinese leader must be quite stingy to part with such a small amount of leaves, but he understood the value of the gift when someone told him that what he had been given was half of the whole harvest of top-grade Da Hong Pao for that year.
As with many other coveted products in the freewheeling Chinese marketplace, however, there are now plenty of counterfeits swirling around. Unscrupulous suppliers have been packaging lower-quality oolong as Da Hong Pao, or enhancing low-quality leaves with chemical additives. Which in turn explains why Hong Kong is so popular as a place to buy it.
\"Mainland customers buy it from us in Hong Kong mainly because they trust our thoroughness with provenance,\" says Ms. Tam. \"We have very strict quality controls, with our own personnel at every step of the way, which guarantees that what we market as Wuyi Da Hong Pao really is what it says. We only provide 70 boxes a year, and no more, as this is the amount we can guarantee to be pure, high-grade Da Hong Pao.\"
Farther afield, too, Chinese shoppers stop at the best tea retailers. In Paris, you might be surprised to see the flagship store and tea room of Mariage Freres, in the trendy Marais neighborhood, packed with excited Chinese tourists, but Laurent Sonnino, the shop manager, is not. \"We stopped being surprised years ago. Chinese visitors just keep flocking in,\" he beams.
\"They are very brand conscious, in particular for gifts to carry back home that show refinement and luxury,\" Mr. Sonnino explains. \"Nowadays, a growing minority is buying the best teas imported from India and some of our mélanges, and, yes, increasingly, some of the top-grade Chinese tea as well.\"
As Chinese consumers remain weary of the countless food scandals that rock the country on a seemingly daily basis, tea, that commodity so coveted by foreign traders coming to China in the 18th century, is now making an unexpected round-trip journey.
Ms. Sala is a Hong Kong-based writer.