[tea fundamentals] Feng Huang Dan Cong
FENG HUANG DAN CONG (PHOENIX WU LONG)
Fruity, floral, tannic and super aromatic, Feng Huang Dan Cong has such pleasant and showy qualities that are unparalleled by any other kind of tea. These qualities have led it to become one of the most popular Wu Longs on the market.
History and Legend
It’s difficult to talk about Wu Long (and not just Feng Huang Wu Long) without talking about the She people. Often stereotyped as dog worshippers by other Chinese, the She people’s mythical beginnings are traced back to a brave dragon-turned-dog-turned-dog headed human ancestor, who had four children with a princess, beginning the She tribe. Pan Hu, the dog-head ancestor, died by tripping on a vine that his brother, Black Dragon, aka Wu Long, had transformed into. Afterwards, filled with regret, Wu Long transformed again into a tea tree to provide for his brother’s offspring until the end of time. This ancestry lore is important, not only because it depicts the beginning of Wu Long (which was a tea tree, not a category of tea), but also because She people supposedly originated from Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain), marking Feng Huang the birthplace of Wu Long.
Later, due to war and other reasons, the She people migrated many times north to Fu Jian, Zhe Jiang and An Hui provinces; spreading Wu Long and tea culture along the way. Of course, this is just one of the many origin stories about tea, but it is often told as the standard story for the origin of Wu Long. Nowadays, Wu Long is indeed both the name of a category of tea based on the processing method, as well as the name of certain varietals of tea trees. Right now, there are approximately 260 She people live in Feng Huang, mainly in the village of Shi Gu Ping.
There’s also another story in Feng Huang Shan about a phoenix bird carrying tea in its mouth to feed the unfortunate 7-year-old last emperor of the Song Dynasty hiding from Mongolian soldiers. The major tourist attractions in Wu Dong pays tribute to this story, and many varietals of Feng Huang Wu Long are referred to as (roughly translated) “bird beak.” The oldest tea tree in Feng Huang Shan, estimated to be 700 years old, was also rumored to be descendant of the original Song Dynasty bird beak tea, therefore named Song Zhong.
Feng Huang Wu Long is the pinnacle of a subcategory of Wu Long called Rao Ping Wu Long — Rao Ping, because it is the district Phoenix Mountain used to belong to. It is important to clarify this change of jurisdiction, because nowadays, Rao Ping, with Feng Huang Shan no longer part of its territory, is actually considered one of the largest peripheral Wu Long regions, often viewed as the central hub for knock-off Feng Huang Wu Long.
Feng Huang is a township situated in Feng Huang Shan. There are 19 villages in the township, with Wu Dong (which refers to both the village and the mountain peak) being the most renowned location for tea. Wu Dong mountain, though at an impressive 1391m, is not the highest peak within Feng Huang Shan. It is, however, considered to be the best location for tea.
Feng Huang is a rare instance of a location outside of Yun Nan with a large number of very old tea trees. An early 1980s survey showed that there were over 3700 tea trees over 200 years in Feng Huang. However, there has been a rapid decline of the old trees since the 1990s, putting the current number much lower than that. A really old tree of any certain varietal is highly prized. The most desired Feng Huang Wu Long either comes from Wu Dong, or a village that is known to have old/originals of a particular varietal. For example, after Wu Dong Shan, Mi Lan Xiang trees from Bai Shui Hu village are more sought after than from any other location because Bai Shui Hu has the oldest trees of this varietal.
Varietal, Naming and Grading
• Dan Cong
Feng Huang (Phoenix) Wu Long is often referred to as Feng Huang Dan Cong, meaning “single bush.” The name is technically misused in most cases, because it actually refers to a specific grade of Feng Huang Wu Long. It traces its history back to the communal farming era where the teas were harvested and centrally produced, then blended and graded. Dan Cong was the highest grade harvested from very big trees (which means they are old) that have been individually picked, then individually processed, then BLENDED. Dan Cong is what made Feng Huang Wu Long famous, therefore the name became very well known. However, most “Dan Cong” nowadays are not technically Dan Cong. In fact this unique method of processing has been almost completely abandoned, now that the tea trees and activities have become privatized. The common practice nowadays is the following: the teas from very big trees are processed into Dan Zhu (single tree), which means that the entire batch comes from a single tree, and they are never blended; other teas, either old big trees or young trees, are picked and blended together before processing, which gives us single varietals, but not Dan Cong. However, the name has quickly become so commonly used in the market as synonymous to Feng Huang Wu Long, that now any tea that resembles the style is usually referred to as Dan Cong.
• Lang Cai
This was the second grade of Feng Huang Wu Long during the communal farming era, where the teas were mixed picked from various trees and then made by hand shaking the teas. While still available, it is not common to find Lang Cai anymore.
• Shui Xian
Shui Xian really is the collective name of the old varieties of Feng Huang Wu Long. It used to be the default name for Feng Huang Wu Long that was not shaken during the making, and thus results in a lowest grade. However, nowadays, it simply refers to Feng Huang Wu Long made with original varieties instead of a single varietal. Shui Xian is weighty, bold but soft on landing with sizzling sweetness.
• Single Varietals
Single varietals of Feng Huang Wu Long did not come around until the 1980s. Through selective farming, the farmers were able to distinguish and stabilize varietals through transplanting or cloning. Thus, starting the era of single varietals. Because varietal is a major factor in Wu Long’s price and perceived quality, the tea named after the actual varietals are generally considered better, in comparison to the ones named after its aroma. In all Wu Long regions, there are hundreds of varietals, some of the most common ones are:
• Ba Xian (Eight Immortals)
Supposedly named because there were only eight tea trees of this kind left at one point. This is one of the most prized varietals of Feng Huang Wu Long. It’s subtle, sweet, floral aroma is crisp and not overly showy, with substantial long lingering tannins. When made well, the varietal also gives a passion fruit/citrusy note.
• Song Zhong
Descendants of the old tree that is rumored to be from the Song Dynasty. It’s bold, blunt, floral with subtle herbal notes.
• Zhi Lan Xiang
Named after an orchid, this prized varietal is elegant, with subtle fruitiness and bright metallic taste.
• Bai Ye
Peachy and straight forward, this is one of the most common varietals for Feng Huang Wu Long. Bai Ye has high yield, buds early and is easy to make with reliable outcome. The highly pleasant notes also make it one of the most popular teas on the market. However, Bai Ye is often mistakenly sold as Mi Lan Xiang (honey orchid,) but is a more economical varietal. (Note that this is not the same as a varietal called Da Bai Ye.)
• Wu Ye
Another very common varietal for Feng Huang Wu Long, Wu Ye is grassy, refreshing with prominent floral notes. Wu Ye is often sold as Ya Shi Xiang and is also an economical varietal. Note that this is not the same as a varietal called Da Wu Ye.
• Ya Shi Xiang (aka. Duck Shit Fragrance)
Few teas gain their attention for their unusually foul name, and the Duck Shit is certainly one of them. There were efforts to change the name to a more sophisticated one, such as Silver Flower Fragrance, but Duck Shit still remains. There are many stories around how the name came about, such as a farmer that named the tea with a profane name to prevent it from being stolen. But, it really is just how the locals call many things. There’s actually a varietal in the region called Zei Shi, means thief shit. Ya Shi Xiang is buttery, bright, jasmine, and very aromatic with a pleasant sweetness.
• Ju Duo Zai (aka Almond Fragrance)
Technically, the translation is Apricot Kernel Fragrance, which in the West gets commonly translated as Almond. Ju Duo Zai is a cute oddball among Feng Huang Wu Long and is easily distinguishable both by the appearance and taste. Its leaves are tiny with very fuzzy edges. While Wu Longs tend to be floral, Ju Duo Zai is more nutty and has a weighty mouth feel. It is considered a prized varietal.
• Mi Lan Xiang aka Honey Orchid
Though the name appears frequently on the tea market, most Mi Lian Xiangs are actually Bai Ye. The tea is named not after the sweetness people usually associate with honey, but the waxy weighty notes farmers associate with honeycomb. This is a varietal that is not as easy to harvest and make as Bai Ye is. Due to the confusion, other varietals are sold or marketed as “Mi Lan Xiang,” however the actual Mi Lan Xiang varietal is still highly desired.
Due to the complexity of Feng Huang varietals, and the frustrating breath of characteristics the tea can have (not to mention the innate uncertainty that comes inherently with handmade teas), efforts were made to standardize the names of the teas solely based on their signature notes. This gave birth to the 10 Signature Fragrances of Dan Cong. However, since not everyone is on board with this naming method, and the aromas often overlap with varietal names, the debut of these naming conventions actually complicated the already confusing Dan Cong nomenclature even more. In general, teas named after the fragrance are considered less desirable than the ones named after varietals.
• Ten Signature Fragrances
Note that though some names look the same, they are NOT synonymous with varietal names, see the confusion?
Huang Zhi Xiang
Zhi Lan Xiang
Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid)
Gui Hua Xiang
Yu Lan Xiang
Xing Ren Xiang (Almond Fragrance)
Ye Lai Xiang
Jiang Hua Xiang (Ginger Flower Fragrance)
Mo Li Xiang (Jasmine)
Rou Gui Xiang (Cinnamon)
• Picking: Wu Long uses leaves only, no buds. Out of all Wu Long categories, Dan Cong picks the youngest leaves when the bud has just fully opened up or become frontal, called Xiao Kai Mian (small opening).
• Wilting: The freshly picked leaves need to be sun wilted first. The time required of this step varies depending on the weather, generally ranging from 15 minutes to 2-3 hours. Once the leaves are silky and soft, they are moved inside to continue to wilt under shade and gently flipped occasionally.
• Shaking/Tumbling: This is the signature step to making Wu Long, where the tea maker really shows their skill by regulating how the water travels from the stems to the leaves and out. It is traditionally done by shaking the leaves on a bamboo tray, but now commonly done with a tumbling machine. This step varies by tea and by the weather; it takes a thoroughly experienced tea maker to decide how soon and often to shake the tea. Usually it’s every 1-1.5 hours and repeat around 3-5 times. This is also a time consuming step that doesn’t finish until 3:00 a.m.
• Kill Green: After the tea has rested for a few hours to ferment, the leaves are then transferred to a firing wok or machine to have all the residual enzymes killed. This step usually happens early in the morning around 7:00 a.m.
• Rolling and Baking: The hot teas are then transferred to a rolling machine to be rolled into string shapes and then spread out evenly onto baking trays to be baked dry.
• Picking and Roasting: After the tea season, the refining process of tea making starts with the tedious step of picking out old stems and leaves, usually taking months to finish. Then the “cleaned” teas are charcoal roasted over very dim ash fire for 6-10 hours. Many teas need to repeat this step, with at least three weeks resting time in between each roasting.
The city of Chao Zhou, about two hours from Feng Huang, is actually the birthplace of the famous tea brewing method, Gong Fu Cha. The key to Gong Fu brewing is to use a lot of leaves, very little water and flash brew the tea, either using a gai wan or a small teapot. For a standard sized gai wan, the standard brewing dosage for Feng Huang Wu Long is 7 grams. Though generally fruity and floral, Feng Huang teas have the potential to get very bitter and tannic, and many of the locals sometimes prefer it that way. We recommend to not let the tea sit at all, and instead fill the gai wan with water and strain out with the liquid immediate. After five brews, the brewing time can be increased by a few seconds with each additional brew.
If not using the Gong Fu method, we recommend 200°F water with 2 grams of tea per 8 ounce of water, brewing for two minutes. The leaves can be re-brewed at least 4 times.