I ordered some tea from Tea Source a couple of months ago, and Big Red Robe was the one tea that I was looking forward to the most. Good quality Big Red Robe is generally hard to come by. This is because much of what is sold is actually mixed in with lower quality tea. People often do not notice because mixing of teas can be masked during the charcoal processing. Then its packaged as Big Red Robe, and sold at a good price. In general, one sign of a mixed sample is that the tea’s good qualities fall off the cliff after the first infusion. The subsequent infusions then take on a flat character.
The website mentions that the tea is hand processed in small batches by a couple in Fuding, Fuijan, China. Whether the tea is entirely, 100% hand processed, is hard to say. This rarely happens these days. But the description definitely peaked my interest.
The leaves have a very dark, twisted appearance. They don’t have a very strong scent of charcoal, despite being charcoal roasted. My preferred way to brew chinese tea is usually with a Gaiwan, and thats what I used for this particular tea as well. While someone could brew this western style (e.g. high water to tea ratio), I would definitely not suggest it with this oolong. I have a co-worker that attempted this and he was disappointed with the results. He felt that this tea gave everything on the first infusion. He thought that that the following infusions were weak and worthless. Oolong was developed along side with gong fu brewing, so gong fu brewing can really enhance Big Red Robe.
In this particular case, I brewed roughly 6 grams in a 150 ml gaiwan.
Brewing Big Red Robe from Tea Source
I generally brewed this tea at around 90-95 degrees celcius. First I gave it a quick 10 second rinse in order to open up the leaves. I infused the tea for 20 seconds in the beginning. This infusion was really good, but it was the best of all that would follow. I noticed a slight toasted taste (not an overwhelming charcoal taste), and picked up flavors that were similar to cooked apples. When I lifted up the gaiwan lid and inhaled, I noticed a nice aroma that was similar to chocolate. The viscosity of the body was very good, which coated the tongue and entire mouth. This was indeed very smooth.
The following infusions were the proof in the pudding. Was this a good quality sample or was it mixed with low quality tea leaves? I increased subsequent infusions times by about 5 additional seconds. By the tme I got to the 4th infusion, I was increased infusions by at least 10 seconds. I would say that the second and subsequent infusions were not as strong as the first, but the flavor notes were still good. The toasted taste had begun to die down, but you could really get a taste for the rich minerality of the tea. The tea liqour tasted like a wet slate. One thing that was present from the first to the last infusion was the smoothness of the tea. In all, I did nine infusions. I could have done more infusions for longer periods and with higher temperature, but I was quite content at this point.
I wouldn’t be so quick to say that this sample of Big Red Robe was mixed in with other teas. The flavor notes were still generally quite good throughout the entire time, even though the first infusion was the best. This tea definitely had good minerality and maintained a nice smoothness the whole time. That being said, this was a smooth, mellow tea with a nice dynamic flavor range that fits nicely on an overcast day. I have nothing against ordering it again, but I would consider tasting other samples of Big Red Robe through other suppliers as well.