The Tea Cupboard: Mystery Dian Hong

I’ve been drinking tea since before I went to kindergarten, so I can’t remember the first tea I ever tried, but I do remember the tea that converted me to a full-time loose leaf tea drinker: unsmoked Lapsang Souchong (正山小种, zhengshan xiaozhong). Looking back, the tea itself wasn’t that spectacular but I was cold and curious, and it was the perfect thing for the moment. That was almost 4 years ago.

Image of dry mystery dian hong leaves

Dry Mystery Dian Hong leaves. Note the thick leaves and the fuzz on the sides of the gaiwan.

Fast forward to last year when I tasted the Dian Hong (滇红) that changed my life. I’d been experimenting with herbal teas and other tea blends up until that point, but I hadn’t really looked into pure Chinese teas. Though I frequently discussed tea with my mentors at the Tianshan Tea Market and the Laoximen Tea Market, I stuck to my tried-and-true unsmoked Lapsang, Jasmine blends, and flower teas.


I have never forgotten the Dian Hong I tasted that day. Because it was served to me by someone else, I don’t know where it came from, when it was produced, or who sold it.


It seems that I have once again found a mind-blowing Dian Hong, and once again I have almost no idea where it came from.


Just before a school holiday in the autumn of 2016, one of my classmates told me he was taking a trip to Yunnan Province (云南省). He knew I loved tea, and also knew Yunnan is a major tea producing area. He left he asked me if I’d like anything. I told him to pick up some Dian Hong if he saw any, but to otherwise not worry about it. I didn’t want him to go around searching for tea during his vacation.


When he came back he presented me with 50 grams of beautiful Dian Hong. I offered to pay him back and he waved me away saying it didn’t cost that much (some people may consider this rude, but that’s just the level of honesty we have with each other. Besides, he was probably being modest). This Dian Hong instantly reminded me of the rainbow of flavors I tasted just months before. It seems I had found my new favorite red tea.


I like the tea so much I stored it with my other prized teas, never to be seen again until this summer, when I decided to compare it to the Teasenz varieties of Dian Hong.


image of jin jun mei dry leaves

Dry leaves of Jin Jun Mei (Beautiful Golden Eyebrow). Note that the mix of black and gold leaves are very thinly twisted. Image Source: Teapedia

Based on the color and shape on the leaf, the Dian Hong my friend gave me appears to be a Dian Hong Gongfu Cha (滇红功夫茶) which is a sort of middle grade Dian Hong. At some point I mislabeled the tea as a general Zhengshan because Dian Hong is similar to Beautiful Golden Eyebrow (金俊眉, Jin Jun Mei). Jin Jun Mei’s leaves are thinner though, and the taste of a Dian Hong is absolutely unmistakable. Dian Hong’s leaves also tend to leave behind a little bit of fur on my utensils. The fur looks something like Chinese meat floss.


Dian Hong Gongfu is actually only about a step below Yunnan Pure Gold, and commonly goes by the English name Yunnan Gold (confusing, I know). To me, it feels like a mix between a lower-grade pure black leaf Dian Hong and the superior grade pure golden leaf Dian Hong. The combination results in a balanced brew with both the vibrancy of Yunnan Pure Gold and the comfort heat of cheap Dian Hong. While I appreciate the delicacy of high-grade Dian Hong, low-grade Dian Hong sits better on my tongue, and is definitely my drink of choice.


When brewing this tea, I use 5 grams of tea and ~95 degree water. The dry leaves smelled like maple syrup and cream soda. I brew the first infusion about 30 seconds, then increase the time by about 5 or 10 seconds for subsequent brews. This tea’s wet leaves smelled like Earl Grey with hints of coffee with cream. I read somewhere that there’s this weird 40-60-40-50-60 second brewing scheme for red tea. To be honest, that variation seems totally unnecessary but who knows, perhaps it truly does make better tea. I might try it some day, but for now I have a system that works.


The first brew of Dian Hong Gongfu was extremely frothy and was a bright red-orange. It felt and tasted like molasses but still retained that characteristic flavor note that black tea has; I can’t describe it. There’s an underlying zest that fully oxidized tea carries. The aftertaste was crazy intense and continued to morph as I chewed on the flavor. As usual, this Dian Hong is slightly salty but isn’t bitter.


The way the tea settles on the tongue is astonishingly satisfying.


image of dian hong tea liquor

Dian Hong tea liquor

Each infusion of Dian Hong Gongfu becomes progressively redder than the previous brew. It seems that the redder the tea gets, the saltier it gets. I still have  not figured out whether the saltiness comes from my water (it’s possible the saltiness comes from the minerals in the water reacting with the tea) or from the tea itself. I’m willing to overlook the saltiness with Dian Hong though, because it is my tea equivalent of chicken noodle soup.


I wish I could tell you where to buy this tea. The best I can do is recommend you get your Dian Hong from sellers who source their tea in Yunnan. I’d be pretty wary of Dian Hong produced in other regions.


If you’re looking for more Dian Hong reviews, you can read my review of Teasenz’s Yunnan Gold.


As you can tell, I’m quite fond of Dian Hong. Please forgive me if I keep writing rambling posts about it. ;P

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