After the hype around this tea I was a bit let down. It is, indeed, a very nice dancong but it seems a bit… safe.
I’ve grown accustomed to a sort of tug in two directions from Phoenix Oolongs. On one side we have fresher, lighter tasting contenders that seem jubilant and crisp – really reminiscent of champagne to me. On the other side we have two teams pulling the same direction towards potent, mulling, and lingering tendencies with either a brooding mob-boss air (woody, cedary, cigar-tinged, with afteraroma that sits in yer throat for days) or a gruff fifties dad character (heavy fruits and a bit of pipe tobacco with a background of smells akin to a sawdust-littered garage workshop). Ultimately this side is more like port or brandy to me. This tea is coming off to me as some kid who sits in the middle of this tug of war and cries “Can’t we all just get along?”
Again, I mean no offense here and the rating I give is only representative of my personal preferences for character expression among Fenghuang Dancongs and excitement level when drinking this. It’s darned tasty, clean, and has definitive dancong character in spades. What catches me off-guard here is the lack of necessity of praying to the great caffeine overlords on high that you won’t screw the thing up by missing your mark by a second or two while brewing. The astringency is muted even when using boiling water. A variance of 4g per 100mL hardly put a dent in its character. Using 85C versus 100C made little difference. Tactile impression for nearly every infusion has been well-balanced throughout the mouth. And, unlike the description led me to believe, every cup up to the 9th infusion of second round was very consistent in base character.
It’s that consistency and balance that puts me a tad at odds with this tea. A tea that’s a pain in the arse to brew and jumps hither and thither whether you want it to or not is neigh impossible to replicate results with at times but it keeps it interesting. I love aggressive dancongs and yanchas that throw that at me. I like when every cup is a new adventure more than a steady flow from one character to another over the course of infusions. I definitely look for that in some (hmm, actually most) of my teas, but for dancongs I want a bit more excitement. Cup size matters here – when poured into a small gongfu serving cup there is far more deviation in character than in my cup that holds a whole 200mL, so this tea would be far more exciting when sharing amongst a bunch of people from a small pot compared to pouring it all into one for a single person. Now, I essentially got what I was looking for in my initial brewing round with this tea, where I approached cautiously – it’s my freakishly aggressive brew round that left me puzzled as to why I wan’t getting jumps and twists of fate in my cup.
First Round: Tommy’s Pussy Little Babysteps Approach.
This is my baseline method when I first meet a new Phoenix Oolong and the way I tell most people to start in on ‘em if they haven’t screwed around with these teas before. Even really aggressive, broken leaf dancongs can be easily approachable under these parameters, so it’s about the least risky brewing method I know for bringing out good flavor without producing overbrewed characteristics.
4g/100mL in a heavy glazed ceramic gaiwan
Typically I’d progress in 30sec intervals at the 2min point but the tea started dying fast on me at that point and the 4min infusion was severely lacking (3 min wasn’t much with it either).
While there were ebbs and swells of flavor intensity and aromatic expression, this was overall very mild and kinda buttery. Not Taiwanese Oolong creamy-buttery, o’course, but still smooth and “soft” feeling. The overarching base characteristics remained really consistent through each infusion. Gardenia and African Violet florals, Vanilla and Crème brûlée toasty-sweet nose/afteraroma, and a blanket lightly-toasted sesame seed nutty flavor foremost above everything in every brew. ‘Round the third-fourth infusion a secondary set of floral-vegetal characteristics akin to spices came through but they were not obvious enough to pick out and identify until I encountered them in the next brewing round when a touch of astringency helped key them out.
Highly approachable when brewed this way. Very consistent and clean. Sesame seeds really took the bulk of the flavor stage.
Second Round: Pack As Much Tea Into The Pot As You Can Approach.
This is how I generally prefer to brew these (well, with somewhat cooler water and without the break), but it requires a basic understanding of a particular dancong’s habits beforehand. There’s typically a risk to overbrew with this approach and it’s less likely to preserve light floral and fruity aromatics but it usually garners the greatest diversity of flavor for me. I’m using water just off a boil in the hopes of pushing the tactile impression on this tea since the safer brewing method produced such a light mouthfeel.
Used my 180mL Zi Ni Rong Tian pot for Fenghuang Dancongs in this round.
Using this level of concentration, leaves have a real tendency to displace water over time (more so with rolled oolongs), so later infusions are inadvertently brewed a tad bit stronger while more leaf surface is available to brew as well. However, pouring from the kettle into the pot with high velocity is sort of necessary to churn the leaves a bit.
Water shortly off a boil
9g leaf / 155g water
9g leaf / 135g water
Final infusion measured at 9g leaf / 120g water
Flavor smoothly progressed from one infusion to the next, sometimes with hardly a change at all. Probably the most consistent Huang Zhi Xiang cup-to-cup I’ve had. I suspect I could easily replicate the flavor sets I got out of these without much effort even if I push the first few infusions a bit harder.
Very first infusion probably shoulda gone for around 20sec and second-third infusions around 15sec. Mild. Little perceivable astringency. Most teas and most brewing methods I’d go for I hope to limit astringency, but in dancongs I feel it makes for a vital component that helps add mouthfeel since they have relatively little taste and rely predominantly upon aroma and nose. The 12sec and 15sec infusions were the most pleasant of all the expressions I’ve gotten from this tea and I strongly believe it’s more a byproduct of them being the fourth and fifth steeps at high concentration than the duration of the steep time. Greenhouse florals and faint mustiness come through nicely in the afteraroma and work well with the light acidity and faint astringency though the body could be thicker (again-longer brew time).
When I reached the 20sec infusions, I finally got those secondary florals again. I’m reluctant to say “smell” since the aroma was so light and you don’t get these from the liquor aroma – it’s going back through the nose from the mouth (the “nose” of the tea). So I’m going to say it’s the “taste” of the air when walking through an almond orchard mixed with that of an orange orchard (neither in bloom). Xing Ren Xiang frequently comes off as very much like the aroma of an almond orchard in bloom and You Hua Xiang has the aroma of a lemon orchard in bloom while this has more the leafy character of these from summer – essentially the taste of the air around a few street vendors I stop at when driving through the Central Valley. Faint Rosemary and Thyme spice notes fleet into this one. Later it is more of a shadow of spearmint, but really not obvious to me at all in the larger cup (only picked it out ‘cause I’m pouring ~10mL into a little cup on the side).
After the several hour break, infusions started moving towards a more mineral expression. Really not much flavor until it cools down and then the aromatic characteristics come back into play within the mouth. Soft and crisp with a light lingering afteraroma similar to tulips and violets in a greenhouse. Once the cup goes lukewarm, more gardenia, vanilla, and citrus orchard characteristics come out and I finally get some of the woody notes mentioned in the company description. Sweet, creamy taste very similar to sweet brown rice is noticeable once cooled in the second 30sec infusion and a tad more astringency helps promote a pleasant twiggy taste. The 45sec infusion is about the same as the previous one but with a bit more citrus peel and overall starting to fall a little flat so I ramped up the time a bit faster than I normally would (I prefer to progress in 10-15 second intervals at this concentration). Rice and sesame seed share dominance from this point on and the astringency provides a pleasant balance to the moderate body and vanilla-floral nose. Few characteristics are present in the liquor aroma – almost all identifiable aroma keys are from the mouth leading back up through the nose. The liquor aroma at this point is faint and kinda similar to “honey and cream” scented moisturizing hand soap… which isn’t really like honey nor cream in any way unless you boil the hell out of them. For the long infusions (2+min) the flavor is all cooking rice and lightly toasted sesame with some stir-fried bamboo shoots hiding underneath. It’s possible to get a wider range of character by pouring into a little gongfu serving cup since it cools down so rapidly, but inside a cup holding ~100mL the range of character is significantly truncated unless allowed to sit to a barely-warm temperature. Once cool, the long infusions are pretty uniform with a creamy-sweet nose, moderate body, very slight mouthwatering effect towards the front from light crisp acidity, lingering parching astringency across the tongue, faint sesame flavor and gardenia nose. Slurped from a small cup showcases some nice woody tones at this phase.
Flavor seeeeriously slacked off and started going pool-waterish at the 4min30sec infusion and the following 5min infusion wasn’t much worth drinking in spite of the tactile impression and taste not really changing… Loss of aromatics. Honestly, the final 7min infusion was more to weigh the pot than for taste, just ‘cause I was curious what the displacement wound up coming to by the end. Really it had little discernible flavor, the body was really light, and the astringency parched the tongue and throat uncomfortably so I just set it aside and used it to wash down some rice I went and made (so much tea with the character of sweet brown rice, I figured why not make some).
Very pleasant overall. If I had more I would screw around with a 9g/100mL concentration and a full minute initial infusion using 95C water right off the get-go. It’s good enough that I feel inclined to buy some to experiment with, though I’d feel guilty choosing this over the other teas I got in this package of samples from Geoffrey at Verdant.