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Where do I even begin? Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain) Dancong oolongs are probably the big obsession in my tea life right now. I’ve been gripped by a fascination with these teas since I tried my first sample of Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid Fragrance) several months ago. That first experience immediately plunged me deep into a research mission, needing to know as much as possible about this kind of tea, and desiring to try the finest representatives of it I can find. I’ve since acquired a yixing teapot to dedicate exclusively to Phoenix Mountain oolongs.

Feng Huang oolongs have been called the doppelgänger of teas, speaking to their almost bewildering capacity to naturally mimic the flavors and fragrances of completely different plants, foods and spices. There are something like 30+ distinguishable “fragrance” (Xiang) varieties of Feng Huang Dancong, each coming from a different small grove of old and rare tea trees. In the case of a few of these fragrance varieties, the seasonal harvest is confined to merely a handful of trees, and it is said that there is only a single tree in existence for the rarest of these varieties. Aside from these extremely rare examples, there are about a dozen more commonly known and accessible varieties, the most popular being Mi Lan Xiang.

Many of the Phoenix Mountain tea trees, at the highest elevations (1000+ meters), are centuries old; and I think this is a significant factor that contributes to the fascinating complexity of these teas. Like the old grove Yunnan tea trees that are harvested to produce fine sheng pu’er, I feel there is very deeply layered and complex terroir being expressed by these Phoenix Mountain tea leaves. The deeper I’ve gotten into tea drinking, the more I’ve become convinced that Camellia sinensis has a capacity to express terroir that is unmatched by any other plant. And it is staggering to imagine, in the case of old tea trees such as this, the consolidation of centuries of environmental effects, over the life of these trees, finding expression in the tea produced from them. Some of my peak experiences with tea have found this terroir expressed with a sensory experience that the entire landscape and environment of a given tea’s life is unfolding like a vision in my mind, at times becoming so vivid that I feel physically present in that place. One more thing adding to the fascination of Phoenix Mountain oolong is that the local communities of Chao Zhou and Shantou are reputed to be the birthplace of gongfu tea drinking. Given the nature and quality of tea that these communities had immediate access to, the possibility that gongfu cha first developed there seems reasonable enough to me.

So as for the tea in question, I’m writing my tasting note after having just had an hour-plus long session brewing this Huang Zhi Xiang over 20+ gongfu infusions in my Ruci pot. I’ve had about half a dozen sessions with this tea to date, mostly in my yixing pot, but I didn’t want to say anything about it until I could set aside some time to sit down and drink it with undivided attention in another vessel, as my yixing pot for this kind of oolong is still very young and gobbling up a lot of flavor. The glazed Ruci pot was a perfect alternative for this purpose.

The dry leaves smell like orange flavored candy. Immediately on touching hot water the leaves begin to release a woody aroma that I associate with green young tree branches that are pliable when you try to break them and somewhat wet when cut into. When the leaves are completely wet, there is also a vague aroma reminiscent of sandalwood bark and hints of seaweed.

In initial steepings, the front-end of the flavor has a woody base with dominating notes of orange zest, more specifically – zest of blood orange. There is a bright finish on the front-end of this flavor, which could at first be mistaken for bitterness by someone less familiar with the various qualities of texture that tea can have. It is not bitterness though. This finish is a textural quality similar in character to the fine effervescence of hard cider, which sparkles on the front central area of the tongue. I would also associate this flavor/texture composition to some degree with zhang, a quality more commonly found in sheng pu’er, which I would liken to the profile of fermented juniper that comes through in the pine-like quality of gin. Interestingly, the initial sparkle of this tea is wrapped in a silky softness that comes forward after a few seconds and enfolds the mouth.

My readings have indicated that an intense “finish” in the foretaste is prized by the Dancong drinkers of Chao Zhou, who prefer to drink these oolongs with a huge ratio of leaf to water, often filling a gaiwan up to the brim with leaf. This Chao Zhou style of brewing looks for an intense foretaste followed by a deeper appreciation of the complex and enduring aftertaste. For my part, I’m using enough leaf to fill my small 3oz. gaiwan 2/3 – 3/4 full, which is plenty for my tastes.

The overall mouthfeel of this tea is medium-bodied, being neither thick and syrupy nor thin and vaporous. It feels buoyant, as if its edges are round and won’t sink below the sides of the tongue without special movement to make that happen.

Aftertaste is huge, and unfolds over a very long time. This is apparently one of the sure signs of a quality Dancong. I’m convinced that if left to itself, and not covered by eating or drinking something else, this aftertaste could remain all day. The sparkle texture alone stays on the tongue for a surprisingly long time. Breathing stokes the aftertaste like a bellows, with the post-sip retro-nasal aroma release having potent effects. I feel there is a whole orange grove here! The woody bark, the ripe fruit, breeze and sunlight, even birdsong in the trees. Fantastic.

After ten or so short steepings, the tea seems to be waning, but don’t be fooled! It’s just changing and about to start giving out different qualities. In the later steepings, the sparkle texture expands to the side of the tongue , the body grows creamy, a melon-like flavor begins to develop, and then yields to notes of butternut squash.

This tea is invigorating, and will definitely wake you up and feel alert, but I feel it also has enough relaxing cha-qi to allay any sharp caffeinated feeling – like you might get with a CTC black Indian tea or machine-cut Japanese green tea.

All in all, I will say that I am deeply pleased with this amazing tea. For me this tea sets a benchmark for the complexity I want in a Dancong oolong. I love it!

Charles Thomas Draper

Brilliant. I have to do this in the Gaiwan. I think my Yixing gobbled up a lot of the flavor too….

Brooklyn

All of your reviews are a pleasure to read. Thanks for the insights!

Pamela Dean

Huzzah, huppa, and hooray! Geoffrey, I loved reading this! So good of you to describe the development of a connection to the source of the tea, imagining yourself there. I hope this will help others to expand their experience in a similar fashion. I, too, like to think of being there with the big old tea trees. I especially visualize hands, the hands of the growers and pickers and witherers and rollers, roasters and driers .. all of those beautiful hands working diligently to coax the best from their leaves.Every time we buy these treasures, we help to support the continuance of the craftmanship which produces them. I’m old, worn out and crazy …. but enjoying the hell out of the tea and my rituals. It seems that in entering my dotage, I’m doting on camellia sinensis … :)

Geoffrey

@Charles, Brooklyn & Dax – Thank you all for the kind words! And happy drinking to you!

Mercuryhime

You have a way with description. Are you a novelist by any chance? I’d love to read anything you write. I may actually buy your book instead of borrowing it from the library.

Mercuryhime

Also, the tea sounds awesome!

Geoffrey

@Mercuryhime – Actually, I’m a (very reluctant) poet. It’s a perilous vocation, and these days a very unrewarding one most of the time. I’ve been taking a long break from writing that stuff. Anyway, thanks for the compliment. It’s very kind of you. Maybe someday there will be a piece of decent writing out there that I had some hand in, whether or not I my name is on it. I learned well from my teacher… I was present when once he was asked, “Who is your favorite author?” Without hesitating he replied, “Anonymous.” I would have to respond the same.

At any rate, I do recommend giving this tea try. It’s super!

TeaBrat

It sounds great. I’ve had a few pu-erhs from old trees and I also like them very much.

David Duckler

Geoffrey, You are such an asset to the tea community- I am glad that you are in Minneapolis. Tea and poetry most certainly go together. Most of the tea people I know are secret poets of some kind, even in China. I too dabbled in poetry, but find myself much more at home in the poetics of flavor.

The Song Dynasty poets used to drink tea and compose rhyming couplets in competition with each other. Perhaps a Minneapolis Dancong-fueled creative meet up is in order…

Geoffrey

David, I’m all for participating in such a meet up. One of my last teachers at university, the one who taught me about Chinese poetry and poetics, and provided my first real exposure to East Asian tea culture, once gave a class-long lecture on the poetry competitions you mention. He even had us play at re-enacting one of these gatherings at the end of it. Too bad we didn’t have the fine Chinese tea in class to ignite our imaginations then. He was a good teacher. I think I’ll have to check and see if he’s still around, and maybe drop off a sample of your tea for him sometime.

Anyway, thanks again for the tea! And for your appreciative words.

Spoonvonstup

What a great tasting note! I am excited to eventually get my own thoughts about this tea out, but I still want to sit with it longer. It’s so intriguing.
Thank you for sharing all of these thoughts and research. You are becoming quite the Dancong initiate! I look forward to seeing where all of this takes you.

Tamara Fox

I’ve also discovered a love for dancong teas, but could never have expressed it so well. Bravo!

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Comments

Charles Thomas Draper

Brilliant. I have to do this in the Gaiwan. I think my Yixing gobbled up a lot of the flavor too….

Brooklyn

All of your reviews are a pleasure to read. Thanks for the insights!

Pamela Dean

Huzzah, huppa, and hooray! Geoffrey, I loved reading this! So good of you to describe the development of a connection to the source of the tea, imagining yourself there. I hope this will help others to expand their experience in a similar fashion. I, too, like to think of being there with the big old tea trees. I especially visualize hands, the hands of the growers and pickers and witherers and rollers, roasters and driers .. all of those beautiful hands working diligently to coax the best from their leaves.Every time we buy these treasures, we help to support the continuance of the craftmanship which produces them. I’m old, worn out and crazy …. but enjoying the hell out of the tea and my rituals. It seems that in entering my dotage, I’m doting on camellia sinensis … :)

Geoffrey

@Charles, Brooklyn & Dax – Thank you all for the kind words! And happy drinking to you!

Mercuryhime

You have a way with description. Are you a novelist by any chance? I’d love to read anything you write. I may actually buy your book instead of borrowing it from the library.

Mercuryhime

Also, the tea sounds awesome!

Geoffrey

@Mercuryhime – Actually, I’m a (very reluctant) poet. It’s a perilous vocation, and these days a very unrewarding one most of the time. I’ve been taking a long break from writing that stuff. Anyway, thanks for the compliment. It’s very kind of you. Maybe someday there will be a piece of decent writing out there that I had some hand in, whether or not I my name is on it. I learned well from my teacher… I was present when once he was asked, “Who is your favorite author?” Without hesitating he replied, “Anonymous.” I would have to respond the same.

At any rate, I do recommend giving this tea try. It’s super!

TeaBrat

It sounds great. I’ve had a few pu-erhs from old trees and I also like them very much.

David Duckler

Geoffrey, You are such an asset to the tea community- I am glad that you are in Minneapolis. Tea and poetry most certainly go together. Most of the tea people I know are secret poets of some kind, even in China. I too dabbled in poetry, but find myself much more at home in the poetics of flavor.

The Song Dynasty poets used to drink tea and compose rhyming couplets in competition with each other. Perhaps a Minneapolis Dancong-fueled creative meet up is in order…

Geoffrey

David, I’m all for participating in such a meet up. One of my last teachers at university, the one who taught me about Chinese poetry and poetics, and provided my first real exposure to East Asian tea culture, once gave a class-long lecture on the poetry competitions you mention. He even had us play at re-enacting one of these gatherings at the end of it. Too bad we didn’t have the fine Chinese tea in class to ignite our imaginations then. He was a good teacher. I think I’ll have to check and see if he’s still around, and maybe drop off a sample of your tea for him sometime.

Anyway, thanks again for the tea! And for your appreciative words.

Spoonvonstup

What a great tasting note! I am excited to eventually get my own thoughts about this tea out, but I still want to sit with it longer. It’s so intriguing.
Thank you for sharing all of these thoughts and research. You are becoming quite the Dancong initiate! I look forward to seeing where all of this takes you.

Tamara Fox

I’ve also discovered a love for dancong teas, but could never have expressed it so well. Bravo!

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Bio

Tea drinking, tango dancing, rock climbing, and reading are my main activities of interest.

Currently obsessed with Fenghuang Dancong Oolongs and Wuyi Yan Cha. My fascination with Pu’er is steadily growing, and I imagine it will take over one of these days.

I typically don’t feel ready to say anything conclusive about a tea (and thus, say nothing) until I’ve tried it three or four times, which helps prevent both false positives and false negatives, and offers a more comprehensive sense of a tea’s dimension and character.


As of 01/12/2012, I’ve accepted full-time employment as the Business Development Manager at Verdant Tea. From that date forward I’ve decided to stop rating teas on Steepster due to my professional stake in the tea business. I have no interest in manipulating the rating system in our favor or against other tea businesses. All my ratings on Steepster were made before my employment with Verdant Tea, and reflect nothing more than my personal opinions as a tea drinker.

I want to continue writing tasting notes without ratings from time to time, for both our teas and teas that I enjoy from other businesses; but as my life has now become much more busy, my activity on Steepster will be lessened. And in any case, my future contributions here will have to be made on my personal time.

Location

Minneapolis, MN, USA

Website

http://verdanttea.com

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