Keemun black tea is a bit of a paradox. It’s everywhere. You find on every grocery store’s tea aisle and every office break room. It’s a tea many people drink every day without realizing it, yet it’s also unexpectedly difficult to find, with many Keemun tea lovers in a constant search for it.
Keemun is certainly one of the most famous of black teas. It’s sometimes written as Qimen, named after Qimen county in the Anhui province of China where it originated, but much of it is now produced elsewhere. It’s made with a thin and delicate-leafed cultivar which can be rich in complex and subtle notes. Keemun tea is traditionally processed with a slower withering and drying stage than most black teas, which fully brings out the complex and prized flavors.
However, Keemun is best known for its unique dominant flavor note, similar to bittersweet chocolate. Some describe it as a slightly smoky stone fruit or cranberry flavor. It is unlike other black tea flavors and is immediately distinctive when you drink a traditionally-made Keemun. It’s a bold taste with a notable character that makes for an interesting tang when blended with other teas.
It is this latter characteristic that has brought Keemun to millions of households. While relatively few households have a box or tin labelled “Keemun” on their shelf, it’s almost certain most have a tea containing some Keemun, as is used as a blending component for a number of ubiquitous teas. The most famous of these blends are the English Breakfast teas, where Keemun is a vital ingredient to give the tea an interesting kick. At one time breakfast teas blends were predominantly made of Keemun, or simply made entirely of Keemun itself.
As one might expect, as Keemun grew in demand with the popularity of these blends, supply of meticulously hand-plucked and hand-crafted leaf fell short. Factory farming is now standard for the Keemun used in blending, both to meet the demand and to reduce the production cost significantly.
This has caused the Keemun family of tea to break into two very different forms. One is the mass-produced commodity tea used in blending, accounting for the vast majority of Keemun produced. The other is the orthodox Keemun which is still largely hand-plucked and hand-processed from start to finish. Everyone with a box of English Breakfast on their shelf has been drinking commodity Keemun all along.
Unfortunately as is often the case with mass-produced items, the quality of commodity Keemun has changed with time. When used as a blending agent it serves the purpose of adding interesting notes. But if one drinks a commodity Keemun by itself there is usually a surprising lack of that distinctive bittersweet chocolate note found in traditional Keemun. In a blind taste test it can be difficult to tell that it is a Keemun at all.
It is also unfortunate that since commodity Keemun is so much less expensive to produce, much of the straight Keemun on the shelf is also this style of tea. A drinker who has never tried a traditional Keemun may find it unexceptional and wonder what all the fuss is over this style of tea. Even specialty tea stores often now carry Keemun varieties that are closest to commodity tea Keemun than the orthodox Keemun of the past.
Fortunately with some searching one can find instances of truly traditional Keemun tea that still have the unique Keemun taste, and some variations that display a range of subtle and exceptional tasting notes. A very good example is our Competition Grade Qimen Black, which brews a chocolatey and malty cup with floral notes and a slight lingering sweetness.
It can be difficult to tell before purchasing a Keemun if it will be a noteworthy orthodox Keemun, or a standard commodity Keemun. It is one tea where sampling it first pays off, whether in person at a local tea store or through a sample size. Top tier Keemun can be very expensive, and trying before buying in bulk is sensible. Occasionally you can find notable oddities in the Keemun world, such as barrel-aged Keemun a decade old or more, the prices of which run well over a hundred dollars per pound.
However, there are some other indicators that can help you narrow down the search for quality traditional Keemun. “Competition grade” can be a good indicator, but it is unusual for a Keemun to be labelled this way and is more often found on Taiwanese teas. “Hao Ya A” Keemun typically denotes a higher grade, but strong-tasting variety, with “Hao Ya B” being very similar but typically less expensive. “Keemun Mao Feng” is a favorite for savoring as this label usually indicates entirely intact whole leaf from early season plucking and a gentler, more subtle Keemun flavor profile. You may see other Keemun labels like “Grand” or “Imperial Grade”, but they are likely just flavor text added to the names by the tea seller - they have little meaning in the tea industry itself, and may or may not indicate a higher grade Keemun.
I should also note another interesting aspect of traditional Keemun tea. The bittersweet chocolate note and strong base flavor makes Keemun an exceptionally good dessert tea. Try it in the late evening after a particularly good meal and it provides a satisfying warmth and happy cleanse of the palate. Keemun also pairs surprisingly well with chocolates, ice cream, cheese, and even fruit. You may want to save your most expensive Keemuns for savoring by themselves, but do try a Keemun sometime with a dark chocolate and vanilla Dove ice cream bar.
You’ll thank me later.
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