China's ancient tribute teas

China, the birthplace of tea, owes some of its most excellent cups to the ancient tradition of tribute teas.

Planted – or processed – to honor fine folks with rich coffers and refined tastes, tea makers across China would pay their dues and prove their loyalty by sending the Emperor select batches of their highest quality creations. A custom started during the Tang dynasty (600 AD), this clever blend of royal praise and proto-product advertising often paid off: While appeasing the regent, it also allowed tea makers to introduce their wares to the Imperial Court. Once tried and tested, the most delicious brews became court staples and earned their makers a generous reward.

This royal litmus test soon spurred healthy competition between China’s greatest tea makers – and helped to spread and standardise best practices throughout the entire production process. After all, no one wanted to serve a spoilt product – and the Imperial Court itself set ground rules based on the taste of the Emperor and his retinue of connoisseurs. Eager to perfect their product, tea makers would not only adopt and refine new farming, picking, processing, storage, transport and packaging practices – like the practical pressed bricks of today’s pu-erh – but also began to experiment with novel cultivars, oxidation methods and flavors.

At the same time, word of the increased quality and popularity spread far beyond the Chinese empire, turning tea into a precious export and welcome gift in cultural exchanges.

Established as simple farmer’s dues, tribute teas have come a long way – and become a movement that spawned today’s excellent types and strains.  To this day, China’s top teas can be traced back to tribute tea standards, paying homage to the merit of tradition and the craftsmanship of true tea mastery. Take Long Jing, one of China’s famous Imperial Teas: Even today, the original Qing Dynasty bushes are still alive and thriving – and their current yield is more than worth its weight in gold.