Jasmine, almond, orchid, and cinnamon fragrances are just a few of the numerous aromas that come to mind when we think of Dan Cong teas. In addition to the Shan Yun (山韵) or Mountain Rhyme felt with high-quality Dan Cong teas, the versatility they bring almost guarantees that you’ll find one to fall in love with. It is an exciting endeavor to attempt to taste them all! I’d like to provide a brief introduction into this vast and undoubtedly confusing tea category and feature a recent tasting of Duck Shit Fragrance Oolong.
Our journey begins in Guangdong Province, China. Specifically, it is the Feng Huang Shan or Phoenix Mountain that holds the magic of Dan Cong teas within its region. Wudongshan is a high-peaked mountain within the Feng Huang Shan area known for the highest quality Dan Cong teas. Dan Cong refers to a style of strip-shaped oolong production where leaves are plucked and processed from single trees or a Mother Tree. Growing into prominence from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the original plants are thought to have been bred by seed over ~700-900 years ago in the Phoenix Mountain region and have been harvested and processed individually since, hence the name, Dan Cong or, “single stem”. The name also shines a light on the tea tree trunk as opposed to terraced tea gardens; as a single trunk extends its roots deep within the Phoenix Mountain soil, picking up essential phytonutrients and aromatic compounds. Minerals such as calcium, manganese, selenium, and potassium provide a density of flavor not found in low-mineral soils. Nurtured by lichen, moss, damp vegetation, and a sand-soil mixture, the optimal conditions lend themselves to the renown status these teas possess.
Tea farmers noticed that each plant produced tea that tasted unique, providing a long list of varied options and experiences. Since the plants were named after the fragrance of the finished teas they produced, Dan Cong teas are a wonderful example of selective breeding.
Below are just a few of the common Dan Cong teas you can expect to find in your tea journey!
I’ve found it best to opt for early spring harvest for this one. As the temperature rises in the late spring and summer months, increased humidity, moisture, and insects result in a strong bitter and astringent brew. With solar withering contributing to a high increase in aromatic compounds, spring rain is highly unfavorable during the picking and processing of this tea, and significantly reduce the quality in a matter of minutes.
STEPS IN CRAFTSMANSHIP
Picking: Using leaves and no buds, Dan Cong is traditionally picked with the young leaves in mind – just as the bud has fully opened.
Withering: Solar withering ranges anywhere between 15 minutes, to 2-3 hours, depending on the weather at hand. After they are soft and pliable and curl at the ends, they continue to wither under the shade. Flat roofs 20 minutes of sun increase the flavor compounds of tea.
Shaking + Tumbling: This step in craftsmanship showcases the skill of the tea maker as they regulate how water travels from the stems to the leaves and then outward. Traditionally completed using bamboo racks, common practices use tumbling machines. Dictated by the weather and the specific tea, the tea maker is guided by experience and shakes the tea every ~1-1.5 hours and repeats this ~5 times. Once completed, the tea is allowed to rest for a few hours for chemical reactions to take hold.
Shaqing or Kill-green: The tea is transferred to either an oven or wok to establish the nature of the leaf and halt further enzymatic activity.
Rolling + Baking: Still warm, the leaves are placed onto a rolling machine, shaped into strips, and evenly laid out to be dried through baking. Completed by fire ovens or gas-lit ovens, any remaining moisture is drawn out. Afterward, the tea is sifted as old leaves and stems are carefully picked out.
The tea is allowed to rest for possibly weeks before the final stage in craftsmanship is begun.
Roasting: The finished selection is then charcoal roasted for many hours, in a process that can span several months. The tea is roasted, allowed to rest, then re-roasted, with weeks in-between each roast. You’ll find that many teas are roasted at least three times after its initial production. Now you may be asking, “why is this arduous process necessary?” This allows tea makers the ability to express their tastes, as many factors converge to determine the final flavor and experience.
Roasting Factors include:
- The temperature of the roast
- Duration of roast
- Number of roasts
- Duration of the rest between roasts
- Quantity of roasted tea at a given time
- Roast style
- How tea is stored between and after the roast
With this understanding expressed, I’d like to share a Dan Cong I’ve recently come across; a Ya Shi Xiang from Aera Tea. You’ll find a few new additions to my reflection format.
YA SHI XIANG FROM AERA TEA
Season: April 2020
Cultivar: Shui Xian
Origin: 80-year old tea tree, Guangdong, China
Picking/Processing: 2nd + 3rd half-mature leaves, medium roasted twice
Elevation: 800 m
My Brewing Parameters
Leaf to Water Ratio – 5 g for 100 mL
Starting Temp – 100°C
Infusion time(s) – 15 sec. +5
Eyes Dry: Long, slender, twisted charcoal grey and plum leaves
Nose Dry: blackberry, malt, stewed tomatos,
Nose Wet: Warm linen, petrichor, leather, wood, freshwater reeds
Eyes Liquor: lemongrass yellow, soft peach-orange core and green ring
Mouth Texture: Thick, smooth, and soft with a slight dry structure
Mouth Taste: buttered toast, floral, raspberry
Nose Cup: Melted butter
Mouth Finish: Juicy finish, lingering pinewood forest, flowery
Eyes Wet: Tortoise green and yellow, purple-brown tones
Body Sensation: Calming and light
1st Infusion: Wood and nut butter
2nd Infusion: Butter and petrichor
3rd Infusion: Mashed raspberry and buttered dough
4th Infusion: Petrichor
5th Infusion: Meadow grasses and river rocks
6th Infusion: Butter and barley
7th Infusion: Lilly flowers
8th Infusion: Floral and mineral
Early morning brisk summer air as I walk amongst coniferous trees. The rising sun’s warmth bathing me in light (circa 2007)
Color + Music Association
Both the color palette and the song ‘The Sun’ by Windy & Carl come to mind as I sip this tea. Click the palette below to listen.
Dan Cong teas are numerous with somewhere around 80 different varieties and deliver a treat for the senses. With its name meaning “single stem” or “single trunk” the Song Dynasty tea draws upon the terroir of the Phoenix Mountain area and Wudongshan to deliver exquisite aromatics and texture. Be wary of garden tea, and summer harvests, and allow your taste and body to provide signals on quality. Bitter and overly astringent experiences can be helpful signs something may be amiss. There are many steps and variables in processing and roasting that find its way into your cup, and I encourage you to ask for the details.
Ya Shi Xiang, or Duck Shit Frangrace possess robust attributes of honey, petrichor, and buttery warmth that lingers long after sipping. The crafting process for Dan Cong Teas is an arduous one, requiring diligence and patience to see the final result. The Ya Shi Xiang I’ve tasted as a part of this reflection is included in a Dan Cong flight by Aera Tea and provides a great foundational experience into the wider world of these Phoenix Mountain teas.
I’d love to hear what Dan Cong teas you’ve tried before, or your thoughts on this breakdown.