Production of certain teas can wend their way deep into a region's history and dianhong- the malty Yunnan red tea - was surprisingly born out of WWII necessity. As the Japanese controlled the black tea producing regions of eastern China, a tea company sent the able Mr. Feng Shaoqiu west to Yunnan to develop a new base for black tea production. According to the Yunnan gov't site, black tea was critical for the Nationalist Chinese government/KMT to get the much needed foreign cash from the Western export market to fight against the Japanese invasion. The first shipment of dianhong was sold to England via Hong Kong as the middlemen for an astounding $8/lb. Life in a Teacup also has an interesting take on dianhong's origin story but omits the "dianhong=export $$$=guns against Japanese" angle. Regardless of where the tea revenue went, dianhong was a huge boost to the war torn economy not only to the region but the nation. Mr. Feng and his crew indisputably introduced a delicious new tea to the world and served the nation in one go.
I wonder if those tea vendors that label their high-end dianhong "imperial" know it doesn't apply to the Chinese end. The only Chinese emperor who could have drunk dianhong was the last unfortunate Puyi who obviously would not have been gifted dianhong during his tenure as a Japanese puppet nor as communist persona non grata. However dianhong was a gift for the Western royals including Queen Elizabeth II so the imperial designation as a marketing term has some validity. For imperial grade, I expect the golden tips to shimmer with a fine thick fuzz of golden hairs.
Most of the dianhong comes from Fengqing as the original region Mr. Feng chose supposedly for producing the highest quality leaf. I would have thought Mr. Feng more sensibly chose the region with the best roads and steady mass production over absolute best leaf but this source indicates he did choose an area for the impressive tea forest which had poor road access and facilities. His mandate was to produce the highest quality tea to fetch the highest market price. Still, there's no reason why you can't have dianhong made from tea grown anywhere in Yunnan as dianhong 滇紅 means red tea from Yunnan ( "Dian/滇" =short name for Yunnan and hong/紅=red tea). I've had dianhong from nearby Simao as well as the high altitude dianhong YS gets from Wuliang as well as supposed wild tree dianhong. Most are satisfying to pretty good but it's very rare I find magical dianhong. To those more in love with the wild mood swings of puerh, dianhong lacks such dynamism and behaves much more like pumpkin pie. About 8 years ago I had a compressed dianhong from YS that had a lovely smoky flavor and it was the closest any tea could come to tasting like bacon.
To rev up a sleepy Saturday afternoon, I brewed up one of the Teavivre samples Emmett included for me. Less than a decade ago I used to chug dianhong by the gallons. At first, imperial Yunnan gold used to be a special treat for me as I procured dianhong overpriced from western outfits like Adagio and Rishi. Then I found budgetlicious China prices on ebay and YS- I started glugging more dianhong than water. But familiarity led to contempt and I ran against a hongcha wall where for a few years I simply could not swallow any more Yunnan gold. It taught me if you really love a particular tea- don't drink your fill even if you can.
A few years ago I started drinking dianhong again- the lengthy hiatus made me appreciate dianhong's reliable malty goodness again. This sample is hand rolled into pearls. I brewed it in a glass teapot so I can peep in but I shouldn't have. It's not unlike seeing a lady's tight hair bun unravel in a messy way. The tea is comforting- solid and robust in the classic hongcha way. Thanks to Emmett.