Phoenix Oolong Tea, China's Fragrant Open Secret
Wu Dong Mountain's terrain is steep and draped in fog. Its tea trees are old and gnarly, their trunks checkered with moss and lichen, their branches kinked into filigreed silhouettes against the cloudy sky. When artists paint mystical landscapes of rural China, they're inspired by places like Wu Dong Mountain. If you haven't guessed by now, the tea grown here is extraordinary.
Phoenix, or dancong, oolong tea is only made in this small mountain range of northern Guangdong Province. The name dancong—pronounced "dan-song" or "dan-chung" depending on the dialect—translates to single bush, and refers to the somewhat mythical concept of producing teas harvested from single trees that boast unique and beautiful fragrances. In practice, phoenix oolong harvests are stratified by a wide range of cultivars, each named for a characteristic aroma that its leaves yield when processed. Honey orchid, yellow gardenia, and ginger flower are just a few of these carefully bred varieties. There are dozens of others. These distinctive leaves result in tea of astounding aromatic intensity, with a powerful finish that lingers deep in the throat. It's no surprise that the gongfu method of brewing tea developed first in this region hundreds of years ago.
Old tea plants aren't as productive as younger ones; this is the trade-off for trees with rich root systems that draw minerals from deep in the earth. There aren't that many of them, either, and farmers keep them more like a wild orchard than a neat plantation. What's more, the skill required to coax the proper flavor from these precious leaves takes decades to master, and there are few mechanized shortcuts.
So phoenix tea is rare. Until relatively recently, most of it was sold and drunk within the local area. This is still largely the case, but as China has advanced, the word has gotten out. It's hardly a secret—more a case of if you know, you know. Accordingly, true phoenix tea is expensive. It should be. Cheap dancong oolong merits a skeptical approach, as the inferior leaves often used come from lower elevations, or may have added chemical fragrances to simulate the real thing.
Our friend Kian is part of the fourth generation of his family's tea business on Wu Dong Mountain. For most of the year the family lives in the city of Chaozhou, but come spring, they return to the mountain to pluck and process tea. It's a frenetic time, equal parts agricultural work and family reunion as parents, grandparents and neighbors reconnect over bamboo trays of oxidizing leaves and endless gaiwans of tea.
"It's fun for younger generations," he says, "we get to meet each other, hop from one family to another. When the fresh tea comes in, you stay up all night with it. Usually an elder checks the leaves every hour or two. They roll the leaves, wake the tea up."
We first met Kian through Instagram. He reached out to us to share photos of a local tea competition and shots of his family's trees, and the next time we were in China, we arranged to meet. He was surprised we wanted to trek all the way up the mountains to taste production in person, but it's an opportunity any tea lover can't pass up. "When you step foot past the first gate," he says of arriving on the mountain, "you take a deep breath and you understand the meaning of qi. It's the breath of the trees mixed with the soil—the same as when you inhale the tea."
Kian and young people like him are the vanguards of this traditional tea, using new technologies and a world's worth of experiences to ensure that the old ways can thrive and improve into the future. Recent refinements include gentler heat during the kill-green step that halts oxidation, tracking the plucking time and precise location of harvested leaves, and slight alterations to the withering and rolling steps that develop phoenix tea's signature aromas. The production is part science, part alchemy; family elders still handle the most critical parts of the process, guiding the leaves by touch and smell. "Either you do it every year and accumulate experience, or people won't let you touch the leaves," he continues.
Once the tea is initially processed, it rests for some time, and then the family turns their attention to the laborious work of roasting the carefully twisted leaves over charcoal. Traditional phoenix oolong is heavily roasted, both to enhance its flavor and to better preserve it in the humid climate of Guangdong. More recently the family has favored lighter roasts that highlight more of the tea's aroma. "The dancong we taste today is a lot more floral and fruity compared to when I was little," he says.
As tricky as phoenix oolong is to make, it's also challenging to brew. A pot steeped too long can easily turn aggressively bitter. Modern processing techniques have helped, giving the brewer a wider margin for error. It also helps to have the proper equipment. Dancong is best appreciated with the gongfu method, using a small gaiwan or yixing clay pot and dozens of infusions. Using less leaf than you would for other oolongs and a lower water temperature (~190° F) will yield a sweeter note, though we'd encourage you to test your own limits. With all the symphonic flavors that emerge during a session of phoenix tea drinking, a touch of bitterness brings a welcome percussive structure to the cup.
In addition to Kian's family’s “Honey Orchid” Mi Lan Xiang oolong, we have two new experimental teas from the farm, both made from phoenix oolong leaf but processed in different ways. “The people in my generation, like my cousins, are looking for different varieties and different ways to make tea,” Kian says. The family reserves a plot of younger trees for these test batches, which may never be sold to customers.
Phoenix Iron is a guest production by a tea maker from nearby Fujian Province, who specializes in tieguanyin oolong. (Tie means “iron” in Mandarin, and Guan Yin is the name of a Buddhist bodhisattva sometimes referred to as the goddess of mercy.) The leaves were oxidized in a manner typical of tieguanyin rather than dancong, then lightly roasted to enhance their fragrance. When made from the traditional tieguanyin cultivar, this kind of oolong is known for a distinct orchid aroma and salivating effect on the tastebuds. Phoenix Iron, made with the bai ye (white leaf) cultivar of dancong leaf, has a fuller floral aroma that gives way to a balanced woodiness and sweetness in the cup. Notes of peach, melon, and parsnip linger through the aftertaste. The result is a truly unique tea: not tieguanyin, nor traditional phoenix oolong, but an enticing mix of both.
Kian’s family has been experimenting with black tea styles for a few years now, and this Phoenix Garnet from spring of 2020 is extraordinary. It was also made by a guest tea maker from Fujian, but this time one who specializes in jin jun mei black tea. When subjected to the full oxidation process of black tea, the bai ye leaf expresses a garden’s worth of floral and ripe berry flavors that evolve from steep to steep. True jin jun mei is made with young tea buds; this lot, made from larger leaves used for oolong tea, possesses a similar depth of character, but can be offered at a more affordable price. With notes of raisins, figs, and fresh baked pastries, it’s an experiment we think bears repeating.