Hi Phoenix Dan Cong lovers, if you opened this article, you have already made my day! Because that means you are curious about this complex oolong tea and you want to learn more about it :) It has come to my attention that many tea drinkers have a rough idea about oolong tea’s production, but they don’t seem to understand specifically, each step’s purpose, or the difference or similarities between oolong teas from mainland China and the ones from Taiwan. I will address all your questions and curiosities here.
First of all, let’s go over a short introduction. Phoenix Dan Cong or just Dan Cong is a type of oolong tea from Chao Shan, Canton Province in China. Its appearance is very similar to those of Wu Yi Rock Tea, and legend says Dan Cong tea is the ancestor of Wu Yi Rock Tea and hence the ancestor of all oolong tea. However, science has proved that the mother tree of Dan Cong comes from the mutation of the mother tree of Shui Xian Wu Yi Rock Tea. The first historical record that documents Dan Cong tea is dated about over 800 years old, and what makes Dan Cong really special compared to Rock Tea is its exceptional fragrances, its many varieties and long lasting brewing. So yes, I am biased towards Phoenix! If you wish to learn more about Phoenix Dan Cong, click here. Now let’s move on to production.
Wu Yi Rock Tea
Phoenix Dan Cong
Dan Cong’s harvest season generally starts by early April and ends by mid to late May. The leaf consists of one bud and two leaves. After the leaves are plucked, farmers first wait for the water/moisture on the leaf surface to dry out, then they leave the leaves under the sun to dry the moisture content inside and this is known as sun withering.
There’s no standard how long this process would be as it depends on the experienced farmer’s eye judgement, but the general standard is not to lose more than 10%-15% of water content in leaves. After that, the leaves are brought inside for indoor withering, during which process, the water content in the cell walls will be redistributed and it helps to regenerate more aromatic compounds to make the final product even more fragrant.
From here we have entered the most important and complicated step that solely depends on the farmer's judgement based on his experience, and this step in Chinese is known as “shake the green” and English’s translation is “rolling”. For Dan Cong specifically, farmers put leaves in a large round shaped basket made of bamboo, then they skillfully shake the basket and allow leaves to be tossed in a wave like form in the basket. What this process does is to let leaves' edges rub each other in order to break down the cell wall and allow oxidation to happen, and furthermore, allows even more aromatic compounds that’s distinctive to that cultivar to generate.
If you ever have the pleasure to walk into a room when the farmer is in the midst of rolling or shaking, it will be as if you walked into Parfumerie Fragonard in Grasse. This “rolling” or say shaking process will be repeated a few times and each time is about 10 mins. Ultimately it all depends on the farmer to judge the duration and frequency, but generally it should be repeated at least 4 times.
The reason why this process is translated as “rolling” might be due to the Taiwanese oolong tea production method. Instead of shaking, they actually do roll leaves into the signature pebble shape with their hands and they repeat the process as well. The purpose of that process is exactly the same as the shaking of Phoenix Dan Cong tea. In addition, you can always find the evidence of this step by looking at the wet leaves once you brew the oolong tea, whether you can find the margin of a leaf red but green in the middle or not (绿叶镶红边).
Red margin, green leaf
After this, things become much simpler and everyone can finally breathe. Farmers stir fried the leaves to prevent them from oxidizing, which process is known as “kill the green”.
roll the leaves into streaks
The second final step is the farmer will have to hand roll the leaves into a streak shape before roasting them. For Dan Cong tea, generally it requires 3 times of roasting at about 120C/248F, and since the temperature is not too high, each cultivar’s distinctive fragrance still overpowers the roasting fragrance instead of the other way around. Viola, we are done!
A Personal Note
Recently, I encountered a farmer who reached out to me on social media and asked if I would like to try their Dan Cong teas for sourcing purpose. Naturally I said yes and he kindly sent me Gardenia aroma, Duck Shit aroma, Eight Immortals, Fragrance Heaven (通天香), Mountain Egg Plant (山茄叶), and Honey Orchid aroma. I did a live session on Instagram while doing cupping so I could share the process with everyone, and here is a clip of me (see the video below) showing the wet leaves. I later rang up this farmer and asked why I couldn't taste much and how the steeping (I later brewed each one in Gaiwan after cupping) couldn't last more than 5 rounds. He said he believes the roasting level for those tea samples is too mild (for my taste), and how he decides this roasting level based on the "local market demands", as our tea market in the U.S., not China. This makes me both happy and sad, I am happy because Phoenix Dan Cong is showing up more and more in the U.S. and it deserves every bit of tea lover's attention, however, it seems like our "local market demand" is changing the dynamics and authenticity of such tea, at least for the ones entering the U.S. market.
For the past years, I consistently worked with farmer Liu and farmer Fan because they do not work with any tea companies abroad besides me, and hence they have never felt the need to oblige and change to the "American local market demand". I simply implore tea drinkers to taste more of what is out there and continue your learning about such teas, because I am sure it will amaze you and when it does, I hope you share your experience and your knowledge of such tea with even more tea lovers.