The Tale of Two Red Teas: Do you know what they are?

The Two Red Teas


What is it that you say?

There are two red teas?

Everyone knows the One Red Tea that we all adore and that is a Rooibos. Those of us in the west refer to this as “the red tea”.

There are other names that go along with Rooibos Red Tea such as South African red tea, red bush tea and bush tea. These red bush extracts can be found in South Africa near the Cedarberg Mountains.

From my friends over at Teavivre 

Red tea is generally pretty low in tannins and caffeine free (even though, there’s a hint of caffeine in them). The flavor of red tea is very sweet and fruity. It doesn’t quite taste like a lot of other teas. Different tribes in Africa actually believe this tea has healing powers. I do as well. Rooibos is not a tea because it does not come from the Camila Sinesis plant but from a bush.


Chinese Red tea can be traced back to the late Ming Dynasty, around the year 1590, when the first black tea – Lapsang Souchong – was produced in the area around Wuyi Mountain in Fujian province.  This high mountainous area was called Lapsang and the small leaf tea trees Souchong – hence the name.  Today China’s best and most well known black teas include Fujian Lapsang Souchong, Fujian Minhong, Anhui Keemun, Yunnan Dianhong, Guangdong Yingteh and Sichuan Mabian Gongfu black teas.

Surprised? I was when I learned of the Chinese Red Tea.

I did a ton of internet search to bring you the top blog posts combined on this one blog about Chinese Red Tea. I could try to write my own article but honestly, these are the master and their articles are in depth and superior. So, with that, let’s learn about Chinese Red Tea.

Chinese Red Tea


From our friends at: Chinese Tea


Chinese red tea is derived from the Camellia Sinensis tea plant which is found in quite a few different areas, especially mountainous areas, like most tea plants in China, so the Chinese Red Tea is actually a tea. You can find them all over the world in prominent areas like Japan, China, India and even Africa. Only when the leaves are harvested are they sent off for production and at that point, they go through a unique process that results in a dark colored tea. Black tea is the second largest category of Chinese tea. It is made from the new shoots of tealeaves, which are wilted, rolled, fermented, and dried. The resulting infusion yields a lovely red color and a subtle aromatic fragrance. Keemun is the most popular brand of black tea. Known as black tea in the West, red tea is one of the most commonly produced style of tea in the world. A well-made red tea by definition is fully fermented – all enzymes exhausted – making it the sweetest, smoothest category.



History of The Red Tea

From our Friends at Art of tea

Until the mid 17th century (Late Ming, Early Qing Dynasty), the only teas consumed in China were green (un-oxidized) and oolong (semi-oxidized) teas.

The tale goes that while a passing army entered the Fujian province, they decided to take shelter at a nearby tea factory. This held up production at the tea factory, where leaves were left out in the sun, causing them to oxidize for a longer period of time and resulting in darker leaves. In an effort to accelerate the drying time, they decided to smoke the leaves over pinewood, thus creating Lapsang Souchong, which became one of the very first black teas.

Although compressed, post-fermented teas (pu-erh) were already known as “black teas” in China, the term was usurped by Dutch and British traders who began identifying Chinese “red teas” as “black teas” because of the color of the dark, dry leaves. Even to this day, Chinese “red tea” is still referred to as “black tea” in the Western world.

The following is an incredibly in depth article from my friends and tea lovers Tea Drunk 

Unlike other teas, red tea has almost a linear history that’s simple, yet profoundly international and impactful. The world’s oldest red tea is Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, aka, Lapsang Souchong. The origin of Xiao Zhong is not very clear with its birth estimated from 300-500 years ago. Before the 19th century, it was the only known red tea in existence (and many still argue it was wu long then). In fact, Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong was so singular in its existence; the name – only given after other red teas started to come about – literally means The small-leaf tea from the mountain, to distinguish itself from the rest.

Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong was the tea that Robert Fortune took from the still off-limits-to-foreigners origin of Tong Mu to India and what later became Darjeeling, ending China’s monopoly over tea in the late 1800s.

Because red tea was long viewed as a “messed-up” green tea by Chinese connoisseurs, its spread and production was largely organized for exportation purpose – quite a different route from the teas that were meant for Chinese aristocracies. This is a very important distinction as it sets the parameter for the development of red tea’s terroir and making technique.

As beloved and popular as Xiao Zhong was in Europe, it has serious limitation to production and transportation due to its amazing, but secluded location. The first Xiao Zhong substitute for organized tea production and exportation was Ning Hong – red tea from Xiu Shui, a city 360 miles northwest of Tong Mu, with easy access to waterways. Built upon the techniques Xiao Zhong had, and made specifically for the Western market, Ning Hong went through an unique process called “Gong Fu”, opening an era of Gong Fu red teas.

From the late 18th to 19th century, multiple locations in China took turns to establish themselves as the central hub for red tea exportation. Most notably are the Fu Jian Gong Fu Trio: Zheng He Gong Fu, Tan Yang Gong Fu and Bai Ling Gong Fu; and Qi Men Gong Fu, or known in the West as Keemun.

Throughout the development of red tea – its popular rise in the West and the rest of the world, and its direct cause of the Opium War, (which marked the decline of the Imperial China) – few Chinese drank red tea.


Red tea remained primarily an export tea that sold for lower price than other categories of tea in China, up until 2005. In that year, a new red tea called Jin Jun Mei, from the fateful location of Tong Mu – home to Xiao Zhong, was created using only single buds and debuted with some say the most genius marketing tactic in Chinese tea history. Selling for a couple thousand USD a pound, Jin Jun Mei started what’s called the Red Tea Renaissance. Since then, Chinese connoisseurs have started to appreciate red tea with enthusiasm unseen before, reviving many historical red tea regions and inspiring a few new ones, thus bringing the overall price of red tea up in China.


The Making of “The Red Tea”

Please note that the following are best practices, not all tea makers follow them today:

Wilting – After the fresh teas are picked, the leaves are left out in a cool, shaded area to slowly lose moisture. Some big leaf varietals are also sun-wilted first, which could take many hours. Most makers now use oxidation beds to wilt the tea, drastically accelerating the process, but also compromising the quality.

Rolling – After the stems have lost enough moisture to snap, the wilted leaves are then rolled vigorously to sufficiently break the membranes. This allows thorough oxidation that will facilitate the fermentation later on. Red tea is also rolled for the longest amount of time among all teas, often for over an hour.

Fermentation – The rolled leaves are shaken loose and evenly layered into a bamboo basket and then covered with wet clothes. There are two methods of fermentation: cold and warm. Warm fermentation is when the tea is left at room temperature over night, which is usually cold in tea country’s spring. Warm fermentation is when the tea is placed into a enclosed space with a maintained amount of moisture and temperature, which can be done through charcoal ash and water bin, or by machine. There’s also the wet fermentation which adds moisture directly to the leaves, which is a new and controversial method. The time to ferment the tea varies depends on the environment. It can be as little as two hours or as long as over ten.

Picking – There will always be strings that are not fermented, which will affect the flavor of the final tea. While the tea is still wet and the discoloration is easier to see, a tedious step where greener leaves are picked out takes place.

Baking – The teas are then evenly spread on baking trays and baked dry in the oven or over charcoal ash. Some are also lightly dried and rubbed in the wok first for shine and aroma. But, the tea temperature at no times should be reach higher than 80-85C.

Ti Xiang – This is a baking technique that is designed to enhance and purify the tea’s aroma, WITHOUT altering its original flavor profile. It is usually done at least three weeks after the tea has been baked. It is a tricky step that many opt to skip, because if not done correctly can quickly ruined an otherwise mediocre tea. On the other hand, sometimes a red tea can be ti xiang twice, with usually three weeks time in between.

Gong Fu Hong Cha  – While it is also called “gong fu,” the term is not to be confused with either the martial art (written differently in Chinese) or the style of brewing that is called gong fu cha. Gong fu in Chinese means time and effort, so it is not a surprise that it is used to describe the following time consuming tea making techniques.

Traditionally, after a red tea had been dried, it is then broken into small segments using a technique called Da Dai. This is a highly skilled and interesting step where a tea maker swings a bag of tea in rhythm to make contact with a stone placed on the ground. If not done correctly, the tea turns into dust and the person can hurt his or her back. However, when done expertly, the teas are broken following the natural way a bud and leaf would fall off the stem, with rounded edges. It is a disappearing art; most tea makers nowadays chop the teas into smaller sizes using a machine, safe and fast.

The broken teas are then sorted multiple times according to length and width, into the many grades the tea maker sells. Traditionally, this is done using bamboo trays weaved with different sizes of slots on the bottom, so only the desired size falls through. It is another highly skilled step that is very time consuming and can ruin the tea if not done correctly. Most teas are now sorted by machine.

For full demonstration of how Gong Fu Hong Cha is done, please check out Tea-Drunk tea trip videos.

The “refining” steps were necessary to making Gong Fu Hong Cha because mass production and exportation called for standardization – both in the tea’s flavor and price.

Counter-intuitively, the most traditional red teas are the broken ones, because it was a tea made with a defined end purpose in mind – mass production. It was the very reason that made red tea popular internationally and simultaneously dismissed by domestic connoisseurs for centuries.


The “Red Teas”

Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong

Though for a while there was only one Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, in the past decade there have been multiple styles of teas coming from the same region that a list is needed to understand what really is Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong.

Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, and its related teas, comes from the restricted national reserve area near Tong Mu Guan with two villages within the checkpoint being the most famed – Gua Dun and Ma Shu. Everyone not native to the villages within the area need a special permit to go inside and it is completely off limits to foreigners. A overwhelming majority of Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong both in the Chinese and overseas market are NOT from Zheng Shan, which is part of the tea’s name to signify the importance of its location.

Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong, in the most traditional sense, means a smoked broken red tea made with Qing Lou. Qing Lou, though in layman terms actually means a pleasure house/brothel (yes, there are many Chinese jokes about this), in the tea profession it is the name of a unique smoke house built for making Xiao Zhong. The house is three-stories high, with flexible bamboo sheets tiling its floors – one has to be careful and strategic walking on it to not fall through, because it is not solid ground. Down below, the Qing Lou is where a combination of local pine needles and pinewoods are burned and the smoke is channeled through brick channels that are similar to the underground structure of a roman bath. Tea trays, depending on the stages of their making (wilting, drying, smoking), are “stuck” onto the wooden ceiling shelves right below each bamboo tile to be gently “flavored” by the smoke that comes up through spaces between the bamboo weavings.

However, the real Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong was facing an unappreciative market in the 90s and early 2000s with many criticizing its inferiority because it is a broken tea, and it is flavored (many claim it should not be considered a real tea). The following variation of Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong since then was created with the debut of Jin Jun Mei, pushing red tea to a new height of awareness.

You Yan Xiao Zhong

Is the only kind that resembles the traditional Xiao Zhong where the tea is smoked.

Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong

Smoked and Broken, varies grades (consider this a prototype of Gong Fu Red Tea).

Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong

Smoked but not Broken (more common now with less requirement on facility but a Qing Lou is still needed).

Yan Xiao Zhong Wu

Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong not smoked and not broken.

Chu Kou Xiao Zhong 

This is a touchy point, but there’s a Lapsang Souchong directly smoked with pine grease or with added smoke flavoring for export-only teas. It’s easily identifiable with overly pungent smokiness. This tea is not sold nor drank in China.

Jin Jun Mei

Single bud red tea

Yin Jun Mei

Red tea with one bud and one leaf

Xiao Chi Gan

Red tea with one bud and two leaves

Da Chi Gan

Red tea with three leaves


Known for the outstanding fragrance that’s unrivaled by any other red tea since its creation, Qi Men has occupied first place among red teas. It is also the only red tea that has ever made the China’s Ten Famous Teas list – a prestige title. Qi Men is a township in the Yellow Mountain range, An Hui Province and the red teas from the region are often referred to as Qi Hong. The top prized locations in Qi Men are Li Kou, Shan Li, Ping Li – with Li Xi, Gu Xi, Ruo Keng of Li Kou demands the highest prices, in the said order.

Qi Hong

started as a Gong Fu Red Tea and is still the most mature with its techniques such as Da Dai. However, since the privatization of tea making in the 80s and 90s, Qi Hong had been continuously reinventing itself to keep up with the market, as well as work around the limitation of farmers tea making capacity (Gong Fu Red Tea needs space and additional labor).

Current styles of Qi Hong are:

Qi Men Gong Fu – broken and sold in varies grades

Hong Mao Feng (Red Mao Feng) – red tea with minimum shape making (all red teas have to be rolled). It is one of the most popular form of Qi Hong right now, and also a rough tea for making Gong Fu Red Tea.

Hong Xiang Luo – a red tea that’s been rolled into a spiral shape, its name drew inspiration from the famous green tea, Bi Luo Chun.

Hong Song Luo – a red tea that’s been made into a pearl shape, its name drew inspiration from the legendary tribute tea in Ming Dynasty, Song Luo.

The indigenous varietal of Qi Men is called Chu Ye, one of the most studied group varietal of tea, thanks to Qi Men being the home to An Hui Tea Research Institute (which moved to Tun Xi early 2016). Common clone varietals of Qi Hong are Hong Qi #1 and Da Bai.


Yun Nan Black

Every Chinese province has a one-word (single syllabus) acronym. For Yun Nan, it is Dian. Hong means red. Because red tea is known as black tea in the West, the translation for Dian Hong, though quite literal, is confusingly Yun Nan Black. Like the name suggests, Dian Hong comes from Yun Nan. Though Dian Hong is very much a new comer to the red tea scene – created in 1939 – it is currently among the most popular red teas from China.

Though originally developed in Feng Qing of Yun Nan, Dian Hong is now produced throughout the province. Dian Hong price hierarchy currently follows the same convention as Pu Er, which is leading by terroir, then the age of the tea tree, then crafting. Because the varietal of Pu Er is closely related to the age of the tea tree, it is an assumed factor. The broad location reference of Dian Hong in the name suggests that it is a tea with lots of details yet to be classified and standardized, demanding a generally lower price than other red teas.

Dian Hong by default is a big leaf varietal red tea that takes a string shape. It is generally known for having more body than its small leaf peers.

Great thanks and respect for Tea Drunk and their in depth research for their article on Red Tea.


As you can see and drawn from many sources Chinese Red Tea is often called an American or Eastern Black Tea, drawn from the color of the leaves as to the color of the liquor. There is an amazing history surrounding Chinese Red Tea and I’ll probably always look at it in the historical sense now and consider Rooibos an herbal tea from a South African Bush.

I’m very appreciative of the hard work and effort that Art of Tea, Teavivre , Tea Drunk and Chinese Tea put into their articles and while I took bits and pieces and tried to sew it into one full article, I really do prompt you to check out the articles (just click on the links) and read in full what each vendor has to say.

It’s an interesting historical topic of the Red Tea and after reading this there really is only one red tea and it’s history is derived from China.

Be Well, Always.



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