Centuries ago Chinese emperors ruled by decree that certain teas, previously deigned unfit as tribute by tax collectors, were instead as precious than gold.
During the dynasties that followed these teas were elevated from ordinary beverage to a precious currency eagerly traded throughout Asia for essentials from horses to gems. They came to be known as tribute teas, the most celebrated of which is Da Hong Pao.
Each year at the beginning of the harvest print and television media worldwide identify the world’s most expensive teas. The tradition continues with a report last week by the BBC Travel on a vendor who charges $10,000 for a teapot ($120 per serving).
Wuyishan tea maker Xiao Hui told BBC Travel “It looks fit for a beggar, but it’s priced for an emperor and has the heart of the Buddha.”
The tea was picked from the ancient mother trees that survive on an outcropping in the Wuyi Mountains. The trees are protected by the government and were last plucked in 2005. In 2002 a small lot of 20 grams sold for $28,000. The price of this tea reached a high of $1,400 per gram, about 30 times the current price for a gram of gold. The small quantities that remain are periodically roasted to preserve the tea and enhance its flavor.
While this tea is no longer produced from the mother trees, cuttings have propagated the myth and insured its availability.
According to the BBC “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.
Retailers in search of the most valuable Da Hong Pao are cautioned to contact experienced brokers as some of the tea that passes as original tribute tea is of lesser quality. A good quality Da Hong Pao can be purchased for $100 per kilo. The Royal China Club in London sells four servings for $600.
Wuyi in Fujian Province is perhaps the most famous of China’s tea lands, producing a remarkable variety of oolong, roasted oolong and specialty black teas. Many compare this bounty to rival teas from Yunnan province in price and quality. In the recent past West Lake Longjing harvested near Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province brought several thousand dollars at auction and Shifeng Longjing, a famous tea from Weng Jia Shan sold recently for about 3500 RMB (for 500 grams which is the equivalent of $540 for slightly more than a pound).
These teas are often purchased for gifting, a practice that inflated the price until the Chinese government instituted strict austerity measures and prohibited outlandish payments. At the time, military, civic and high ranking officials bought these teas with government funds. As domestic demand fell, manufacturers have sought overseas customers at greatly reduced prices.