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Keemun Black Tea(祁红)

The history of Keemun Tea

keemun tea won the Gold Prize in the Expo held at Panama in 1915
  Photo2:In1915: keemun tea won the Gold Prize in the Expo held at Panama
the portrait of YuanLong Hu, the father of Keemun Black Tea

Photo 1:The portrait of Hu Yuanlong who is considered as the father of Keemun Black Tea


Keemun tea was made in year 1875 at Keemun County (祁门县 Qi-men Xian), Anhui Province (安徽省 An-hui Sheng). In fact, Qimen county produced only green tea until the mid 1870's. At that time a young man in the civil service lost his job. Being totally heartbroken and completely embarrassed by his shame, he remembered what his father told him - ‘A skill is a better guarantor of a living than precarious officialdom’. Following this advice, the young man packed up his courage and his bags to travel to Fujian province to learn the secrets of black tea manufacturing. Upon his return to Qimen in 1875 he set up three factories to produce black tea. The black tea method was perfectly suited to the tea leaves produced in this warm moist climate with well drained sandy soil. Before long, the superb flavor of Keemun tea became very popular around the world. It is reported that Queen of England counts upon Imperial Keemun Mao Feng as one of her teas of choice.

Despite its relatively short history, (for a Chinese tea!) Keemun tea became world renowned by 1915 in taste tests conducted by the leading tea companies of the day. It was preferred over Darjeeling Tea! 1915 also marked another milestone in Keemun’s history - it won the Gold Prize at the International Exposition in Panama. Even though more and more tea connoisseurs take to Assams and Ceylon black teas in recent years, Premium quality Keemun tea still remains "king of the black teas".

Keemun Tea has been awarded for many times in international and domestic tea contests. The main awards are:
1913: Keemun Tea was awarded the Gold Prize at the Expo held at Italy.
1915: Keemun Tea won the Gold Prize in the Expo (万国博览会) held at Panama.
1987: In the 26th World Premium Food Product Contest held at Belgium, Keemun tea won the Gold Prize.

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What is authentic keemun tea

In china, tea drinkers always like to judge whether the tea they are drinking is authentic or not. What is authentic? Why some chinese gourmet tea is much better than others? To many western tea drinkers, the idea of authenticity is foreign. Quality is quality. Does it really matter where it is produced?
Yes, it does. After all, tea is the by-product of the soil, water, air and light that sustain and nourish it.

In Keemun county, tea garden is scattered over the mountainous area which is covered by forest. In this area, there is sufficient rainfall and the atmospheric temperature is lower with higher humidity. One of the essential factors for good black tea is mellow taste. This taste originats from amino acid found in tea leaf, named as theanine. Young buds contain high level of theanine and when tea leaves receive sun light, theanine converts into polyphenol such as catechins. At high elevation, tea-planting area is often covered by fog which blocks the direct sun light on tea leaves. Consequently, tea leaves are very rich in theanine as the conversion to polyphenol is not effectively taking place. This is the first reason for Keemun tea being long-lasting fragrant and non-astringent but mellow.

The second reason for that is because of the cultivar of keemun tea plant named 槠叶种 (Zhu-ye-zhong). This is the only tea leaf in which an essential oil called myrcenal is found -- it also occurs in oil of Bay. At the same time it contains a high level of another substance called geraniol, one of the main aromatic elements existing in tea leaves.The content of geraniol in the keemun tea leaves is 40 to 100 times higher than that of ordinary tea subvarieties. The two elements, to a large extent, give keemun tea indescribable sweetness and aroma like a dried black rose, I think -- less poetic friends are reminded of toast hot from the oven.

The last reason of the keemun fragrance should be ascribed to the people who have been being dedicated to keemun tea production.This is a line involving much know-hows, skills,experience and sensory judgements which is gained by talent and through diligence and persistence.

All Keemun tea is distinctive and much of it produced in Keemun County is superior. Then you discover Keemun Mao Feng and Keemun Hao Ya, which are simply superb-perfectly formed leaf with taste as delicate as bird song. Keemun Mao Feng and Keemun Hao Ya features fine taut strips without breaking leaves so Keemun tea is also known as one of the congou-type teas; meaning its production requires a great deal of gongfu (disciplined skill). Their unique keemun flavors are so nuanced and layered that one feels adding milk or sugar would be sacrilegious, faint praise impossible. Both of them are handmade in orthodox processing ways resulting in low output. (of couse another reason is that Keemun tea is produced in a relatively small area confined in Keemun County and its neighboring area).

Annual output and falsification

the official document about the annual output of Keemun Black Tea
  Photo3:The annual output report of Keemun Tea released by Keemun Black Tea Association

The report released by Keemun Black Tea Association showed the annual output of Keemun Black Tea in 2006 amounted to 2409 tons among which the quantity of the first top grade HAO YA A(毫芽A) is only 2 tons and the second top grade Hao Ya B (毫芽B) 10 tons. According to the statistic we gathered, the year-to-year output increase is around 7%, with a growth rate of about 3% in both Keemun Hao Ya A and B.

Compared to Darjeeling teas or Ceylon teas, the quantity of Keemun Tea produced each year is very low, not enough to meet the huge demand.

The consequence…

Many factories take advantage of Keemun tea's celebrity status to profiteer. Their teas differ much in flavor and taste from Keemun tea, even not reaching the basic standards of Keemun Tea. I think it is why somebody told me "I can't see why Keemun is a famous tea?". The words really hurt me but also spur me to work against falsification and protect the fame of Keemun Tea. Now china has lagged behind India in protecting work. We should make efforts to make a change.

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The criteria of Keemun Tea grading

I often heard foreign tea drinkers said they easily got confused by Keemun tea's grading. Yes, this is a really complicated issue which profiteers tend to take advantage of to screw you. So if you are a Keemun Tea lover, you'd better gain an insight into it. Keemun Tea is graded in an unique way instead of the way of FOP, OP etcs,which is commonly used. Unlike FOP, OP to grade tea mainly according to the size of leaves (whole leaves, broken leaves, fannings and dust), the criteria of keemun tea grading is so complicated that it divides Keemun tea into up to ten grades: hao ya A, hao ya B, special grade,and grade 1~7. The highest grade is hao ya A while the 7th grade is lowest. In fact, it is quality inspection criteria. I gave the following chart only covering special grade,grade 1 and grade 5 to allow you a comparison.

Chart 1

The Criteria for Sensory Judgement on Keemun tea Grading
  Appearance Essentials
Shape of Tealeaf Integrity Consistency Color of Tealeaf Aroma Taste Water Color Brewed Tealeaf
Special Grade thin,slender,tightly rolled leaves mostly having sharp points and buds whole leaves of fairly even size free of extraneous matters jet-black,
glossy with luster
sometime pine and orchid


liquor with luster and bright reddish brown color bright brownish red leaves all appear to be buds
Grade 1 thin and tightly rolled leaves basically seen having sharp points and buds basically even sized whole leaves with negligible amount of tender stalks



and sweet

bright reddish brown color bright brownish red leaves most appear to be buds
Grade 5 a little coarse and loose leaves mixed with bold loose and large leaves or broken ones with small amount of old stalks and other matters such as wood flakes and sand black and a little greyish not so lively a little harsh,flat reddish brown color,a liitle bright red leaves
not having buds

By learning it, you will find the grading work is a refined art which encompasses a large number of variables. In fact it is conducted by tea tasters who use their sharp sense of sight, smell,touch and taste while judging the quality of tea. And the criteria shown in the above chart is just for general guidance rather than a yardstick to standardise against. The truth is the work is essentially subjective, depending on tea tasters' ability to register minute differences in Keemun Tea which differs from invoice to invoice. Knowing that, you will understand why distinction exists even between teas sold on the same grades. Prior to the transformation of SOE system in China, Keemun Tea is only produced by two SOEs so the unified grading criteria can be implemented. But as more and more non-public owned enterprises enter into Keemun Tea production, it became difficult to implement the unified criteria any more. As result, the grade of keemun tea isn't able to guarantee its quality in many cases.

ViconyTeas is the veteran keemun black tea producer and always likes to share knowlege of keemun tea as well as the line with you. ViconyTeas appreciate your comments and wish to answer any questions from you. Our tea experts are glad to help you. Welcome to exploring our Keemun Black Tea.

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Last Update: 2016.9
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