The Lab

Famous Tribute Teas of China

Tea in China has a long and storied history. Some of the most well known were those that emperors had selected to receive as Tribute. A Tribute tea was of exceptional quality and highly prized. Tea flourished under certain dynasties, but was less prized during others. The following Dynasties are referenced throughout the article:

Eastern Zhou: 771-256BCE
Western Han: 200 BCE – 10CE
Tang: 618-906 CE
Song: 960-1279 CE
Ming: 1368-1644 CE
Qing: 1644-1912 CE

Tracing the histories of these teas is difficult considering the lack of specific written records and the influence of folklore and myths surrounding them. The tea of several hundred years ago was likely very different than the tea we know today.

Xin Yang Mao Jian

Xin Yang Mao Jian has a tea history that dates back 2300 years. It is a green tea from Henan, China. In 1987 archaeologists discovered tea in an ancient tomb in Xinyang they believe to be a Mao Jian. This would date the tea to the Eastern Zhou dynasty when Henan was a political and economic center. It was recognized as a tribute tea during the Tang, but the Yuan and Ming Dynasties imposed heavy tea taxes that shrunk tea production in the region. One bud and one or two leaves is plucked. It is traditionally baked over charcoal in baskets three times and rolled.

The legend of Xin Yang Mao Jian tells of a village ravaged by plague. A young girl from the village came upon an old man, who told her that if she could cross 99 mountains to find a special tree and return to her village with the leaves in 10 days she would be cured. The village girl took up the crusade to save her fellow villagers. When she found the tree, she had no energy to make the return voyage. The guardian of the tree took pity and turned the girl into a bird so she could carry the seeds and leaves back to cure the village.

Meng Ding Gan Lu

Meng Ding Gan Lu is one of the oldest teas, first planted during the Western Han Dynasty. Tea Master Wu Li Zhen planted his first garden around 50BCE. It is also the only tribute tea from Sichuan province. The name Gan Lu is often translated as honeydew, but was more likely related to the buddhist sanskrit word meaning immortal. The tea was selected as tribute in the early 9th century during the Tang Dynasty. The processing of Gan Lu is extensive. There are three pan firing steps with a rolling step after each one. The final rolling is where the tea shape is formed. Afterword the tea is completely dried by baking over a charcoal fire. Brewing the tea produces a sweet and flowery, sometimes nutty cup.

Jun Shan Yin Zhen

Jun Shan Yin Zhen is another of the oldest tribute teas, being offered to the emperor since the Tang dynasty when Princess Wencheng selected to receive the elusive tea for her wedding. During the Song, it was described in Lu Yu’s Cha Jing or Classic of Tea. The tea was originally known as Huang Ling Mao or Yellow Tail Feather because of its appearance when brewed.

Jun Shan is a small island with 72 mountains on Dong Ting Lake in Hunan Province. It is covered by fog nearly year round. Unique varieties are native to the island that can be found nowhere else in China. The minerality of the soil imparts a heavy body to the tea. Production is incredibly low given the limited production capacity of the 1km island. When plucked, one bud and 4-5 young leaves are selected. They are pan dried before being wrapped and placed in a humid pot for 4-5 days. The process is repeated a second time which turns the leaves their characteristic yellow color. When brewed the liquor is pale yellow – smooth, delicate, sweet and crisp.

Huangshan Mao Feng

Huangshan Mao Feng is a green tea from Huangshan or Yellow Mountain in Anhui Province. Mao Feng means Fur Peak referring to the shape and downiness of the processed leaves. Production likely began in the area around the Song Dynasty with the arrival of Buddhist monks, but it was not until the Ming Dynasty it was refined and ordered a Tribute Tea. Modern Huangshan Maofeng can be traced to the late 1800’s when it was popularized by Xie Zhegan. One bud and two leaves are plucked. It is pan fired and rolled before being baked several times. Characteristics of Huangshan Mao Feng include a lingering natural sweetness with floral overtones.

The Legend of Huangshan Mao Feng tells of a young couple who fell in love. A local tyrant seized the woman for his concubine, but luckily she escaped. When she returned, she found the tyrant had slain her lover. The young woman wept and wept until she became the rain. From the rains a tea tree grew on the lovers grave and Huangshan Mao Feng was made.

Liu An Gua Pian

Liu An Gua Pian is a more recently developed green tea from Anhui Province, particularly the Liu An village in the Da Bie Mountains. This tea was named sunflower seed or Gua Zi Pian because of the leaves long rolled shape. As the tea grew in popularity, the Zi was dropped colloquially and was retranslated as melon seed tea as it is known today. The melon seed name is fitting considering the tea’s melon flavor. Gua Pian was chosen for tribute during the Qing dynasty and was especially enjoyed by Emperor Guaxong. When plucking, the second and third leaves are selected later in the growing season. It is a unique tea in that no buds are used. The stems are removed by hand and it is flash fired in pans dozens of times while simultaneously being rolled using short straw brooms. The cup is rich and robust with long lingering sweetness and fruit notes.

Taiping Houkui

Taiping Houkui is the largest of the Chinese famous teas. It is produced near the base of Huangshan. The area is misty with rich soil and contains a native Shi Da variety with large young leaves. It is a type of jiancha or pointy leafed tea. It became a tribute during the Qing Dynasty, but gained more fame by winning top prize at the World Tea Expo of Panama in 1915. Tea Master Wong Kui Cheng started to produce this tea after he noticed customers picking out a bud and less leaves from already dried tea, so he decided to pluck the tea in this style. The bud, first three leaves, and stem are plucked. The third leaf is removed by hand, elongating stem. The leaves are heated three times at cooler temperatures but only pressed into shape during the first two. The brewed tea is light yellow with a floral aroma. The flavors are slightly vegetal, honey, and mineral, but not bitter.

The legend of Tai Ping Hou Kui tells the story of the Monkey King. His son wandered off when a mist fell and he was lost. The Monkey King searched the mountainside, and over time grew tired, sick, and died. The body was found by an elderly man, who kindly buried the body of the monkey. The next spring, the old man discovered from the grave sprouted a tea tree; the long leaves and unique flavor were repayment from the monkey king to the old man for his kindness.

Longjing

Long Jing Tea is produced in the West Lake region of Zhejiang Province. Tea has been produced in the region since the Tang Dynasty. Dragonwell tea was named in the Cha Jing as well during the Song dynasty, but did not rise to prominence until the Qing Dynasty in the late 1700s. Dragonwell is traditionally produced using an old tree variety (Qunti) native to West Lake, but more recently developed is the Long Jing 43 cultivar. This cultivar spread because of the faster growth rate that allows it to be plucked 7-10 days earlier than the old variety. The old tree produces fewer and smaller leaves, which is considered a sign of higher quality. When plucked, the bud and 1-2 leaves are selected. They are pan fired twice with the second firing being responsible for producing the characteristic flattened shape. When steeped the brew is pale yellow. It is nutty and robust with a sweet aftertaste.


The legend of Longjing’s fame is attributed to emperor Qianlong. During one of his visits, Qianlong’s mother fell ill and he returned to Beijing. Qianlong stuffed the tea leaves into his sleeves to carry them back. During the journey, the tea had been compressed and flattened. His mother smelled the fragrance of tea and it was brewed for her. The more she drank, the more her condition improved.

Bi Luo Chun

Bi Luo Chun originates from Dong Ding Mountain in Souzhou, Jiangsu. The name translates to Green Snail Spring referring to the loosely rolled shape and bright green color. Tea cultivation likely began during the Tang dynasty and Bi Luo Chun was developed during the Ming. It has been a tribute tea since the Qing Dynasty and Emperor Kangxi. When picking, only a single bud or a bud and one leaf is used. It is extensivley hand sorted to make sure the raw material is consistent. The tea is then pan fired and rolled tightly. The rolling step is repeated many times until the desired shape is reached. Finally it is baked to remove the remaining moisture. When brewed the tea is rich and buttery with nutty and pleasant vegetal flavors.

The original name for Bi Luo Chun was Xia Sha Ren Xiang or scary fragrance. The story behind the name explains that a woman was picking tea and ran out of room in her basket. In order to pluck more tea, she began placing the leaves in her shirt instead. The warmth from her body made the leaves extraordinarily fragrant which scared the woman. Later, the Emperor Kangxi visited and tasted the tea. He believed the tea deserved a better name. He named the tea Green Snail Spring.

Da Hong Pao

Da Hong Pao is a rock oolong or Yancha from Wu Yi Mountain in Fujian province. It has been a tribute tea since the Ming Dynasty in the late 1300s. The original plants are said to be centuries old and can still be found on a cliff in the Wu Yi nature preserve, but they no longer produce tea. Purists allege that Da Hong Pao today must be produced from descendants of the mother plants produced from clippings. These are Bei Dou (North Star), Que She (Sparrow’s Tongue), and Qi Dan.

When plucking, Da Hong Pao uses the top 3-5 leaves. The tea is then roasted over charcoal flame at low heat for a long period of time, being shaken or turned consistently. The firing will occur 3 or 4 times with long periods of rest in between. This rest period can be 3-4 weeks long. When brewed, the tea is full bodied with honey sweetness, florality, and minerality.

The legend of Da Hong Pao is that a student went to take the imperial exam, but fell ill passing Wu Yi mountain. A monk found the student and helped him by brewing him a cup of tea at the nearby temple. The student was healed and later scored the highest marks on the exam. The student returned to thank the monk who showed him the tea tree. The student wrapped his big red robe around the tree and brought the tea back to the palace with him.
Later, the queen fell ill and couldn’t be treated. The student prepared the Da Hong Pao to her and she felt better and better the more she drank. The emperor sent people to care for the tree wearing red robes in memorium.

Tie Guan Yin

Tie Guan Yin is an oolong from Anxi county in Fujian Province. It became a Tribute Tea during the Qing Dynasty. It is traditionally produced using the Tie Guan Yin variety of Camelia Sinensis, but many consider Tie Guan Yin a processing style and not limited to a singly variety of tea bush. Three to five leaves are plucked with stems and no bud. Tie Guan Yin is heavily fermented, which occurs beause of the shaking of the leaves. The leaves are shaken in baskets several times, with a couple hours in between. A high quality handmade Tie Guan Yin may require the tea master to stay up all night shaking the tea. A sign of the heavy fermentation is a red edge on the leaves. In the morning, the tea will be pan fired to stop the enzymatic reactions, and beaten in a way that removes the red edge. It will then be rolled and baked. It is finally roasted and the stems are removed. a cup of Tie Guan Yin is golden and extremely fragrant with lingering sweet and fruity flavors.

The legend of Tie Guan Yin involves a devote farmer, who offered tea to his statue of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, everyday. One night, she came to him in his dreams and showed him the path to a tea tree. The following morning, the farmer retraced the steps in his dream and found a new tree growing where one had not been before, and so he name this tree Tie Guan Yin.

Tea is exceptionally diverse from terroir, variety, or processing style. These styles and flavor profiles have developed over hundreds or thousands of years. This list recognizes some of the more prominent teas across that diverse history. For more information please contact your trader at Royal NY.

Patrick McKeown

Patrick began his coffee journey on Long Island at a small coffee bar and roasting at home. Since then he has been a barista, manager, and craft roaster in NYC.