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What Is Keemun Tea?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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Keemun tea is one of the most popular exports from the An Hui region of South China, ever since the days of the Qing Dynasty in the late 19th century. Translated in Chinese to "Great Gate," this red tea is often classified as black in western cultures, mirroring the deep amber hue of darker teas. Its distinctive flavor and aroma combine fruitiness, smokiness and sweetness, along with floral and wine-like tones, to create a well-caffeinated and flavorful force of nature.

Also known as Qimen, Qi Hong or Qi Men Hong tea, keemun tea was first manufactured in An Hui's Huangshan City in 1875, which lies in the historic county of Qi Men. After learning about red and black tea production in other regions, a former government employee named Yu Quianchen settled in Huangshan City to plant red tea plants instead of the green tea plants that until then had monopolized local tea production. The soil and rain-drenched climate of the area still produces a tea with few comparisons.

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Hints of several flavors combine in keemun tea, which is often thought to be a black tea but actually has a red hue. The major elements most detected are notes of orchid flower, a nutty pine, and fruits like plum or apricot. The dried fruit flavor leads some to note that keemun tea has similarities in taste to some darker wines. This tea's natural sweetness, however, pales in comparison to popular black teas, such as orange pekoe or Darjeeling varieties in India.

Keemun tea is among the highest regarded teas of China — black, red green or otherwise. It is on the country's centuries-old list of the "Ten Famous Chinese Teas," which is often revised for trading purposes to encompass the country's selection of tea exports. In western countries, many red teas like keemun are classified as black teas; however, Asian countries classify keemun as red.

The most prized grades of keemun are known as hao ya and mao feng. The youngest leaves of the former variety have a silvery hue; the latter type is made by twisting young buds before the drying process. Other varieties include xin ya, another early leaf variation, and congou, which cuts the tea leaves into uniformly thin pieces. Many steep keemun tea for as long as 10 minutes, which is longer than most teas, to fully reveal its bold-yet-mellow qualities.

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