39 Tasting Notes
Been enjoying a lot of this. Drank it again before going into work this morning. A few hours ago, I received an email from a certain lady that I’m very fond of. She asked me to send her a haiku. It happens that Shui Xian is her favorite of all the teas I’ve shared with her. On the bus home from work, I was thinking about the brief time she and I enjoyed with each other last night, and about the experience I had drinking Shui Xian alone this morning. The haiku came to me:
What could make this tea
more lovely? One thing. Your smile,
here, sipping with me.
Ah, I’m smiling because you are such a wonderful soul Geoffrey!
A tea and a woman that inspires poetry?! Next thing you know, you’ll be dancing a tango in the street!
Aw shucks, Bonnie. Thanks so much. And I’m actually going to get on a plane headed for Baltimore in a few hours to vacation at a tango festival. I’ll be doing more dancing than walking for four days straight. It’s gonna be great! And maybe I will just dance in the street for a bit at some point.
I feel like I shouldn’t even be talking about this tea. There’s really no telling whether we’re ever going to see it again. The Golden Fleece, true to name, has already developed a mythic eminence among those few who’ve had the opportunity to experience it. “Why?” is a question that recurs often. Why… this inexplicable privilege? And the apparent difficulty of obtaining even a small quantity of this stuff only intensified the pounding I felt in my heart at the prospect of parting with any of it. Truly, when we realized how little there was, the temptation to tell no one and keep this tea to ourselves was very strong. But David was adamant, and the best part of me completely agreed, that to not share this tea would do it dishonor.
It has been my good fortune and great pleasure to try many inspiring teas, but this Dian Hong, which we came to call the Golden Fleece, immediately stood apart as one of the finest things I’ve ever had the chance to drink. I’m sure this will all inevitably sound hyperbolic, and in any case, it is known that I’m nothing close to an unbiased source on these matters… But I just want to say, for whatever it’s worth, I’m writing this in earnest as an endeavor to draw out and unburden myself from the weight of the inspiration this tea has placed inside me. Apart from that, I can’t see any other gain in writing about a tea that we don’t have, and perhaps may never be able to obtain again. Whatever the case, I must speak… it can’t be helped.
A little back story. David first told me of this tea about a month and a half ago, while we were still hard at work getting the new Verdant website together. I was surprised to hear him emphatically going on about “the most exquisite Dian Hong I’ve ever seen”. It’s not common to hear David talk about black teas in this manner; most often he’s praising a Sheng Pu’er or a Dancong that has recently inspired him. I probably reach for the black teas far more often than he does, so this got my attention; but I was so busy at work on the website that I kind of had to forget about it.
Anyway, we finally got around to staying after work one Friday evening to relax and drink some teas, and he brought the sample of this Dian Hong out for us to try first. I remembered how he told me that the tea buds of this Dian Hong were extraordinarily beautiful. Indeed, on inspecting the plump buds closely I was struck by their beauty. Light shined off of them, glowing and golden, giving the appearance of something very precious. (Note: photos have yet to do them justice.) I observed closer and commented about how the downy filaments on the surface of these buds looked unreal, like I wasn’t even looking at tea, but rather was looking at the fleece of some enchanted mythical creature. Now, none of us really remember who said it first, but perhaps it’s most correct to say that the words appeared somewhere between the three people present at that drinking session. What we do know is that one of us then uttered the words “Golden Fleece”, at which point we all looked at each other and agreed that we couldn’t call this tea by any other name from that moment forward.
So then David brewed it. I took a good ten or fifteen seconds just to appreciate the aroma of it in my cup. As a serious fan of gourmet mushrooms, I melted in the sensation of this fragrance, which was like walking into a large room where a master chef was laboring to perfect the finest mushroom soup anyone had ever prepared. I gazed into the pure, liquid gold color of the liquor and imagined all the very best qualities of morel, chanterelle and truffle mushrooms synthesized to perfection. First sip… a moment of silence… then the only comment I could make…
“It’s not even fair.”
The texture of silk, a delicate effervescence, as if an exquisite sauce had been made from the very spirit of Yunnan and poured over that platter of incredible mushrooms. An incomparable tea. Only a few sips of this heady brew and I was tea drunk. The tail and aftertaste revealed a sweetness like vanilla and honey. These sweet things seem far away from the savory qualities described above, but somehow this tea manages to bridge, no… encompass the spectrum of all these flavors in a way that is completely integrated, and hard to comprehend. But how it works doesn’t need to be understood, because it works so magnificently. Further cups had me writing notes such as: feathery, lush, luxurious. And the spice of this tea, it’s like pepper, cinnamon and clove, but it doesn’t bite you – which I mean in the best way. The image that comes to mind is of a large and powerful enchanted creature (something like the forest spirit in Princess Mononoke) that has amazingly soft fur, and is completely at peace with letting you nuzzle and rest against it. That’s what this tea is like for me… an encounter with the forest spirit of Yunnan.
It’s only appropriate to know that all of this was wild-picked in Xishuangbanna. I asked David where Wang Yanxin could have possibly found such a tea, and he said she didn’t explain much about that first sample she sent us. She only sent this one Dian Hong and wrote on the label, “This is the one. Best Dian Hong. Taste slowly.” Indeed. There was no question in my mind about whether we should try to get more. Although, the possibility of sourcing this tea did raise some questions. We don’t do grades of tea; it just doesn’t fit into the curatorial rigor of our selection process and goal for the Verdant collection to carry more than one representative of a given tea, unless they’re expressing dramatically different things. We were already carrying another very good Dian Hong at an attractive price point, and it was popular. The Golden Fleece, because of its rarity, would have to be twice the price of our Yunnan Golden Buds. And at that point, we didn’t really know how much of the Golden Fleece we’d be able to acquire, much less how much was harvested to begin with.
After some careful deliberation, it was decided that the Golden Fleece was just so outstanding and unique that an exception could be made to source some quantity of it as a special limited offering alongside our other Dian Hong. The price and uncertain supply factors certainly made it out of the question for Golden Fleece to replace our other Dian Hong. And in any case, we found them distinct enough to exist side-by-side in a way that could be justified. So we ordered about ten pounds to be included in what was our next shipment at the time.
I vividly remember the day it arrived. I had more anticipation for Golden Fleece that just about anything else in the shipment. We were going through the box of sealed tea packages and pulled out all the ones that were labelled as wild-picked Yunnan budset tea. The red bags piled up in our office. We opened one of them to check, and in the first one found the Wild-Picked Yunnan Jin Jun Mei we ordered. Then we opened another bag and there was the Golden Fleece. The two Yunnan black teas were sent in the same colored bags with similar labels.
Anyway, I went home that night a bit drunk on the thought that we’d secured ten pounds of Golden Fleece. But then… The next morning I came to the office and David gave me the news. “I did a thorough inventory of the shipment last night, and it turns out that there’s only two pounds of Golden Fleece. The rest is the Jin Jun Mei.” Two pounds. That’s all we could get, and all that was available apparently. “Will we ever be able to get more?” I asked. David gave the answer I was most unprepared to hear, “Honestly, it’s impossible to say one way or another. When these two pounds are gone, we may never see this tea again.” It was at this point that the temptation to keep it all to ourselves had to be fought.
When you love something, and know how ephemeral your time with it is… that one day soon it will be gone… that it may never come back… and you’ll only be left with a memory to treasure… perhaps a pang of nostalgia… Well, let’s just say that it took some strength to come to grips with the situation, and accept the circumstances as they were. Ultimately, David made the point, which I already knew deep inside of me, that we should be grateful to have had the privilege to taste such a tea even one time – and not take that for granted.
That week we had scheduled a tea tasting for about sixteen guests at our office, and we had raised some anticipation for these attendees to try the Golden Fleece and purchase some if they wished to. It was before we understood how little supply we had. The day before that tasting, we were due to make the Golden Fleece available for purchase on the website, and I had to lobby with David for setting aside an appropriate amount of the tea to be available for our local guests. After that was done, we put Golden Fleece on the website with the limit of a two ounce maximum quantity per person and watched it sell out in a few hours. The most limited-edition tea we’ve ever carried.
As expected, the Golden Fleece we set aside for our local tasting was nearly cleaned out by the end of the night. I like to remember how, when we brewed it for everyone, a good friend of ours was at the end of the table and I only had about half a sip left in the serving pitcher to pour for him on the first round. He was still grateful, and appreciated what he had before him with no less care. This particular friend is a flavor aficionado, with highly developed taste from many years of developing an amazing talent for cooking, as well as from taste training in fine wines. The look on his face when he took that little sip for the first time… how to describe it? He ruffled his brow in a kind of quiet shock and consternation mixed with obvious signs of deep pleasure. He turned his face to me, wide-eyed, and whispered, “…the texture …this is wrong.” To which I replied, “Like I said… it’s not even fair.” He nodded, quietly repeating the words to himself.
I’ve now had four sessions with this tea, always preparing it gongfu style in a gaiwan. It blows me away every time, and what further bewilders me is that none of us have yet managed to exhaust all the flavor from the buds. I’ve steeped it out over twenty times in a given session and it just keeps going, even into the next day. We always get waterlogged long before we’re able to make the buds reach their limit… if they have a limit at all. My mother picked up some of this at our tasting, and she told me that she recently re-steeped it many times over for three days. The further I go into a session with this tea, the more its headiness gets to me; and in my tea-drunk musings I start to imagine that I’ll never reach the end of it… because it really may just be some enchanted mythic thing that always keeps one of its feet firmly planted in eternity.
There has been rumor from Wang Yanxin that we may be able to secure more of the Golden Fleece. But after all that’s happened, I’m not sure I’m going to really believe it until I see it. At any rate… if by some grace it does become available again, I can only suggest that you try some while you can – and taste slowly.
wow…such a spell binding review, cascading words that make me dream to even dwell on the idea of being inside the circle of those who have sipped from the edge of this cup…the formation of a regret that I was not able to hear even a single whisper of this tea from David or anyone, being that I’m such a Yunnan enthusiast and to dub it with the mythical reverence makes me even more captured by the elusive slyph…if only to have been able to draft a mote from such a cup…thank you for the seed of imagination and if this should ever grace the shore again, please keep me in the loop…
This is #1 on my list right now, especially given my recent fixation on black teas. Thanks for the substantive review, even if it made me green with envy.
Your review was so sensual and lovely that if I were a young woman and rich I would have invited you to run away to find that Golden Fleece! I mean this is the best of ways like reading a great story should make you feel. I hope I get to have an experience tasting such a remarkable tea before I die. If I do, it will probably come from Verdant.
What steeping parameters did you use, with the gaiwan? I don’t want to waste a single steep of mine – I keep waiting for the perfect occasion to bring it out, but it hasn’t presented itself quite yet.
@smartkitty – For this tea, in a given session I would use enough buds to fill the gaiwan to about 1/3 to 1/2 of it’s capacity (or by weight, approximately 1 gram of tea per 1 ounce of the gaiwan’s fluid capacity). I always eyeball it with these bulky budset teas, and find that about 1/3-full of a gaiwan is a reliably conservative measure for success with them. Try that and then adjust for your own taste as needed. I suggest using the best water available, which for me just means brita filtered tap. If you filter, make sure the filter is fresh and not an old spent filter. Fully boiled the water, reheating the kettle after every few steeps as needed when drinking many steeps continuously. I do an immediate first “rinse” on every tea I drink, for ritual sake, and to warm all the tea vessels, but it wouldn’t be necessary from a strictly flavor-oriented standpoint to do so. First three infusions, steep for only a few seconds (like counting 1-2-3 with my fingers). From then on I steep each infusion with an additional 3-5 seconds. Really, I do most of this intuitively though, based on what I’m tasting – the counts are just a general guideline for how it usually goes. So by the time I’m on, say, infusion #8 I’m steeping for about 25-30 seconds. The further out you go, the longer the time you might want to add to each infusion. After maybe 15 infusions I might start adding whole minutes to the steep time. And this one will keep going long after that. Like I said, I haven’t found the end of it. You can leave leave this tea and return to it the next day, and it will be in the same place waiting just where you left it, delicious and amazing. When refreshing a tea from this kind of break period, I make sure to boil up a fresh batch of water and then re-fresh the leaves with one immediate rinse before proceeding to steep again where I left off. That pretty much sums up how I brew this one.
How fortunate that you were able to acquire some in the brief window of its availability. I do hope that this perfect occasion emerges for you soon, and that you find it as inspiring as we have. When you find yourself in a quiet and receptive state of mind, and have a window of unhurried time, just make some space to sit down with it in undivided attention. I really think that will make the most difference.
And for all this is good in this world, I hope that we’re given the honor to offer this tea again – even if only a little more… as it’s clear from the responses here that we have number of people with a sufficient interest and reverence to give it that kind of undivided attention I mention.
Thank you all for the kind comments. It’s always fulfilling to know when someone has appreciated the words I’ve searched and worked for in trying to convey a suggestion of the experiences that have inspired me. Happy drinking to all! And mark my words, if the Golden Fleece comes into our hands again, I will personally make sure that each of you are among the first to hear of it.
i received this today
after reading this all i want is to drink it right now but…
i decided to save it for a special day, and sharing it with friends.
this was my first order from vd and i felt so lucky to acquire this tea…
@Geoffrey thank’s for the helpful brewing instruction.
Thank you so much for the tips, Geoffrey :) I feel so exceptionally lucky to have some of this tea at home. I can’t stop opening the bag to inhale the wonderful aroma.
k. I broke down and ordered this. After your romantic review, I couldn’t resist. Oolong is my weakness and I couldn’t bare to miss out on such a fantastic opportunity. I have so many excellent oolongs right now, there is no way I can justify this, but…
I posted a weak review. I don’t think anyone will ever be able to touch yours! So remarkable that this became available!
@Bob – Honestly, oolong is my biggest weakness too, strip style oolongs especially. I’m such a sucker for them. Every time we taste strip oolong samples at the office I’m in danger of going broke. It just happened again recently with a certain Shui Xian we tried that I just had to have in my private collection. It’s less often that a black teas makes such a big impression on me, but this Dian Hong and the Laoshan Black totally floor me. I’m really glad we were able to get more so that a good number of people could try it. I hope you love it as much as we have!
@ Bonnie – Aww, shucks. It’s not a contest you know. I enjoy everything you write. You’ve got a really great style of talking about things, marked with “what’s coming next” surprise, and you notice stuff that I don’t catch sometimes. It’s a joy to read your notes. Thanks again for the kind words though.
Don’t be afraid of this tea, we just get carried away by our tastebuds! I should write a review that says this is yummy, tastes great and you can keep steeping it and it will still taste really great!
Tea Trekker included this as a free sample with my last order from them a month ago. I had ordered 4oz of their aged 2008 Mi Lan Dancong Oolong, and a 15g sample of their curious Wuyi Shan Phoenix Oolong hybrid tea. I wasn’t expecting to get extra free samples because they offer ample-sized samples for purchase, so it was a pleasant surprise to receive this Dancong Black tea along with another free sample of their Shui Xian. After sampling all of these teas, I’d say that 3 out of the 4 of them definitely interested me enough to consider ordering more of them in the future. The outlying 4th tea was also interesting, and enjoyable, but just not suited to my tastes for regular drinking; I’m sure others would find it great though. Anyway, it all further nurtures the trust, sprouted from reading Robert and Mary Lou Heiss’s books, that they know what high quality tea is and are really striving to offer only that in their shop.
Anyway, this note is about the Fenghuang Dancong Black tea, which I found very enjoyable. The prevailing characteristics are a little hard to compare to other black teas. The main body of the flavor is unlike Keemun, Laoshan or Yunnan blacks. “Soft, sweet and fruity” is a pretty apt description on the part of the vendor. Those familiar with the basic Dancong profile will recognize its presence after the liquor has settled on the tongue for a couple seconds, or after a few sips. It’s a woodsy fruitiness that I’m very fond of.
In the more generic Dancong oolong this comes through as a fruitiness reminiscent of apricots, peach, and grapefruit floating over a distinctive woody base note. But here, when the leaves are fully oxidized into black tea, these characteristics take on a darker palette and the fruitiness reminds more of black plum, black cherry, black grape, and touches of pear. Heiss describes “currants” and this is probably on the mark from what I can remember of their flavor, but I haven’t tasted currants more than a few times in my life.
I got to try this two times in my gaiwan, steeping probably 10+ times each session. Honestly, I was sad when I reached the end of the sample, and took a mental note to watch out for other representatives of this one in my tea adventures. I’m very fond of this profile and like how it plays in a fully-oxidized context. Chinese black teas are typically the go-to thing for me to drink in the morning, and I like to have a variety of them on hand. Bring Dancong characteristics into the picture, and I’m going to keep coming back. I would happily add this one to my regular rotation.
On another note entirely… I’ve been MIA from Steepster for a little while, for a number of reasons, but most notably because I’ve just taken on a new full-time job that was extended to me shortly before the Xmas holiday, and I officially started it last Thursday. So I’ve been super busy. And if perhaps you’re wondering why I haven’t assigned a rating score to the present tasting note, it’s because my new job is in the tea business. I’m now the Business Development Manager for Verdant Tea, and as I now have a professional stake in the tea business I’ve decided to no longer participate in the score/rating aspect of Steepster for reasons of fairness and ethical accountability. I have no interest in manipulating the rating system in our favor or against other tea businesses. The ratings I put up before working for Verdant will remain, as they only reflect my personal opinions as a tea drinker, but I clearly can’t offer an unbiased score anymore and I don’t want to make any secret of that. In any case, I do hope to continue writing helpful and interesting tasting notes without ratings from time to time, for our teas and teas that I enjoy from other businesses. These will probably be fewer and far between though, as I’m much busier now than I used to be, and I’ll only be able to contribute here on my personal time. So that’s it… I’m a professional tea man now. Tea has truly, at last, conquered me.
Thanks, Amy. Those two qualities have always been very important to me. It’s always refreshing to see others appreciate them. Cheers!
From the way you describe your new job, I’m not sure if I should congratulate you or not. :)
I shall miss seeing your reviews more frequently.
@Mercuryhime – Ha! Believe me, it’s a great change from what I was doing. I’m really loving it actually. It’s refreshing to spend a great bulk of my time working so closely with something that I love. Anyway, I’ll surely be continuing to post, but it may be a few months until I can start doing it with any regularity again.
It’s been a while since I went for a tea blend, but the recent tasting notes on this one stirred my curiosity enough to give it a go. I asked David for a sample of this when I saw him recently, and he was happy to send me home with enough for two drinking sessions. I just brewed it up in the past hour, needing to shake off my grog from the long caffeinated work day and night of dancing that preceded my very reluctant rise from the bed this morning.
I put two and a half teaspoons of this blend in my Ruci pot and proceeded with my typical gongfu brewing routine for Chinese blacks: immediate wash, then 5-second first steep, followed by +5 seconds for each infusion following. My initial reaction, the moment the liquor passed my lips on the first steep, exactly echoed the one-sip-wow! that ssajami mentioned recently. There is a beautiful sparkling bite at the front of the tongue as soon as I take each sip. I implicate the formidable alliance of Laoshan Black, Big Red Robe and Xingyang Imperial in yielding this rich sparkle through their combined command of that quality. This is true synergy! The Yunnan Golden Buds further enrich and sweeten the deal, making for a very luxurious texture and flavor profile.
If my description of the above synergy is framed in the language of organized crime, it’s because drinking this blend has made me a bit shifty-eyed, as though it were too good to be legal. I have tasted each of the teas in this blend separately, and they are all great and powerful teas, but I wasn’t expecting (really… could not imagine) the indomitable strength that would come of their conspiring together. I imagine this blend is like an exacting and perfectly organized plot to execute a jewel heist of historic proportions… and all of its culprits managed to capture their loot and escape without a hitch.
This blend is super, and upon trying it I have new respect for David’s taste… which is something I thought I already had the highest respect possible for. What an excellent surprise this was! I will definitely be buying a supply of this blend, and exploring more of the Alchemy offerings.
Love your write up of this wonderful tea! The synergy in this tea is amazing. The cha qi in this tea really knocks my socks off. I love the organized crime angle… I found it nearly “sinful” it was so unexpectedly good.
When I first saw the blend described, I thought of that line in “Ghostbusters” where the heros had to remember not to “cross the streams” or suffer annihilation. These teas create streams that join up to make for an invigorating and satisfying brew.
Great image! Totally true. Do I sense major motion picture? Tea+Heist+Ghostbuster.. how could this go wrong?
Haha~! Great comments, everyone. Thanks for the appreciation. When writing some of these notes I just try to amuse myself, and it’s nice to know that others sometimes enjoy these little language games of mine.
@Spoonvonstup – So here’s my pitch… A commission of obscure underworld origin falls upon a small outfit of exiled Scandanavian hackers to hatch a plot against impossible odds to infiltrate the PRC Bank of National Treasures and steal the last legal harvest from the Da Hong Pao mother bushes. Suffering extreme adversity, including partial capture and loss of life, in the course of this operation, some members of the group succeed in escaping with their loot… BUT, needing resources to recover their imprisoned comrades, our protagonists try to collect on their commission, only to find that all trace and record of it’s source has vanished. The obscure director of their heist may just as well have never existed… Meanwhile, CRP secret services and Interpol are quickly closing in, as the hackers desperately hunt for the phantom author of their contract… until one of them stumbles upon the first sure lead, revealing that the man who ordered this heist has been dead for decades! And now, the hackers begin to realize that they have not only to elude the hunt of international agents, but as well a far more dangerous hunter within them: Madness.
Hah! I love it…. Did you ever see the movie Tea Fight? http://bit.ly/ua668h
Being a fan of Asian cinema, the drama you outlined made me think you might enjoy this! :)
It’s a night to yang my yixing teapots. I just brewed up this Song Zhong to feed my huangni yixing dedicated to Fenghuang oolongs. It’s really good tea, which I found more interesting and flavorful this session than the first time I brewed it. The first session was in my gaiwan, and I brewed it at the start of a gathering with tea friends the day I received the 10g sample of this from Norbu.
Honestly, that first time my friends and I all thought it was a pleasant and enjoyable tea, but nothing particularly captivating. This time, however, I found the tea substantially better. I’m not quite sure what the difference comes down to, but there are a number of possibilities that come to mind. Could it be that my young Fenghuang yixing pot is already giving back some of the flavor I’ve been feeding it? Could it be that the water I used that first time had been boiled even once before I heated it up (again) to brew the tea? Could it be that this time I was more attentive to preparing the tea along suggested guidelines for Fenghuang oolong? Perhaps all of these factors could have contributed something to the results.
The things I definitely did differently this time are the use of my yixing, the certainty of freshly drawn and freshly boiled water, and my following Imen Shan’s suggestions for brewing Dancong oolong. Her guidelines were pretty rigorous and I tried to meet them as closely as possible. With new (current year) teas, her suggestions were as follows. . . . 3-5g of leaf for no more than 120ml of water per infusion. Use water at rolling boil for immediate rinse and first infusion, specifying that the water should be poured from low to high to make sure that the leaves tumble around (I did this style of pour for every infusion). Quoting her instructions, “Force plus temperature will open up the leaves from aroma to taste.” For the next three infusions, she suggests using water at “crab eye” boil, which I assume is comparable to 190 to 200F. Then when the leaves have opened up entirely use water at “fish eye” boil, which I guess is like 180 to 190F. I don’t use a thermometer, so I’m just following my intuition with a boil-hot-warm progression in mind. For infusion time she provides a string of numbers that seems a bit overly-exacting:
infusion# / time-in-seconds : 1/15, 2/10, 3/10, 4/13, 5/13, 6/15, 7/15, then increase by +5 to +10 seconds for each additional infusion.
I have to admit I’m somewhat incredulous at the thought that Fenghuang oolongs are really so sensitive that 2-3 seconds of steep time can make a significant difference, but I recognize that Imen truly lives for (and by means of) these oolongs, so I’m willing to suspend disbelief to some degree. I thought it couldn’t hurt to at least try taking this seriously; if it might yield a better cup of tea, I’ll try it. Though for those first 7 infusions I basically figured approximately 10-15 seconds each time was acceptable.
As for the results, I must say that I found them to be deeply pleasing with this tea. As I said, my experience of it is noticeably better this time around. I think I’ll have to experiment with this approach further on other Fenghuang Dancong oolongs, such as the Huang Zhi Xiang I just wrote of.
But coming back to the Song Zhong… this tea really started to get under my skin around infusion #3. I think Norbu is accurate in saying this tea has a profile similar to Mi Lan Xiang. This session I found zero bitterness or astringency in the liquor. It was always a heady combination of woody, sweet, and smooth throughout the 20-something infusions I drank. Fragrance to match comes out heavily when you breathe in and out while appreciating the aftertaste. Whereas in the first session my friends and I thought the profile of this tea was a little disjointed, this time I found the profile fully integrated and delicious. Strangely, there was a significant citrus note that didn’t seem to mesh well with the woody base through the beginning of that first session, but I found that whole dynamic completely absent this time. It definitely has me wondering if the lackluster quality of that first encounter could really have just been an issue of fumbled preparation. Maybe those seemingly negligible seconds do make a difference?
In any case, this time around like last time, I thought at first that the tea lacked the complexity I appreciate in Verdant’s Huang Zhi Xiang, but the tea proved me wrong. It doesn’t lack complexity, it just takes longer than the Huang Zhi Xiang to reveal its complexity. The session was getting really heady around infusion #10, when I went to refill the kettle and wait for fresh water to boil. The aftertaste grew a lovely peachy quality given the time to unfold, then later it entered a very tasty lime-like territory. That’s when I started huffing “Woah…” This Song Zhong proceeded to go the distance for another 10 infusions, and when I thought I was done I filled my pot once more for a long steep. Forgot about the steeping tea for maybe ten minutes, and came back to give my pot its final coats. I decided to try a sip of this tail end 10-minute infusion out of curiosity, and to my very pleasant surprise it was really tasty with zero bitterness. That’s got to tell you something about quality here.
And in the end, I think my teapot was very pleased with the tea as well. I gave it two coats per infusion, and five or six coats on that last long one. It looks all fat and happy now. Nice find, Norbu! Wish I had more to try it again. Now my dilemma is what to drink next… Da Hong Pao or Shu Pu’er? Hmmm……
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!
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 … :)
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 – 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!
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…
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.
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.
I would just like to add that I feel this tea is very cleansing. Moments ago I finished drinking 15 gongfu infusions of it, back to back, in my gaiwan. I’d been daydreaming about it since this morning. Went and had the one big turkey meal with family this afternoon and started dozing off from the happy mammal syndrome there induced. Honestly, I don’t really care for the feeling of being that full, but in this case it was the day’s only meal. All the while I was thinking about getting back home and having a nice, long, relaxing session with this jasmine white tea.
And how completely fulfilling it was! I feel cleansed, vivified, and totally free of worries. The tea is so pleasantly intoxicating I should re-affirm that the Island of the Lotus Eaters is an apt association. A great relaxation ripples through my body and mind when I drink this stuff… like light, semi-transparent, silk brocade curtains are doing an unhurried dance with the mid-morning breeze and making a delicate show out of the diffuse rays of sunshine passing through the window. It’s enough leisurely beauty to make you want to lose the whole day in idleness. Today, I’m very thankful that I have this tea, as it has been a great highlight for me.
Seeing that my supply is going to be gone very soon, I think I must get more. As a final note, I’d like to say that the staying power of this tea has deeply impressed me. Fifteen infusions to exhaust a white tea is amazing, and the lovely jasmine element stayed with it to the end! In the later infusions a delicious creaminess develops, I recommend staying with it to the end for that quality. It’s hard for me to imagine ever wanting anything to do with a different jasmine tea after experiencing this one. SUPERB in every way! +1 rating jump.
OK. So I’m just finishing off the last of this tea in my cupboard. I’ve been using it to season and yang my young Huangni seal script teapot, which I’m dedicating to Feng Huang Dan Cong oolongs. ( http://www.hegathers.com/_images/ruci-close.jpg – the one in the middle ). I threw all the remaining leaf from the ounce I ordered into the teapot (7+ grams perhaps) and have brewed up about seven or eight infusions. I feel like the tea is spent now, so I’m presently doing a final long steep for one last infusion to yang the teapot before I clean it.
I have to admit that this tea was better this time than the previous session I had with it; the bitterness on the tail end I mentioned the last time I drank it was not present. Perhaps the preparation technique I used for the last brewing session was off in some way (Dan Cong oolong is said to be finicky in that way); or maybe my still young yixing teapot took off some of the sharp edges. In any case, it was a reasonably pleasant drinking session. This tea still doesn’t reach the sweetness that I want from a Mi Lan Dan Cong, nor does it have the complexity that I want from Dan Cong teas in general, but it’s okay. In any case, I think it has been redeemed enough from the bitter impression of the last session to warrant a rating jump. I’ve put it midway between my initial rating and the second one. This Mi Lan Dan Cong has given me a good sense of perspective for forming a clear sense of what I want and don’t want from this kind of tea.
My search for fine Phoenix Mountain oolong continues. . . .
It’s been about a week since I first tried this tea, and I’ve now had four extended sessions with it. Four times in one week. . . . that should say something about how much this tea has impressed me. It’s had the same effect on everyone I’ve showed it to. People put their nose in the bag, take a nice deep inhalation and come up looking like one of Odysseus’s doped-out sailors on the Island of the Lotus Eaters. This was exactly the effect it had on me too. Let me put it this way, with jasmine scented tea I normally take a whiff and think, “Bluh, jasmine, I don’t want any.” But with this one, I catch its fragrance, feel goosebumps, and think, “Mmmmm, jasmine, I must have some nooowwwww . . . .”
The taste delivers in spades. I would have to say that this is the most enjoyable white tea I’ve tried to date. Interesting comparison occurred today by happenstance. I brewed up some of this after I woke up, and did about 4-5 gongfu infusions in my gaiwan. Then I left the apartment to visit my parents’ house for the day, and while there I took the opportunity to try another jasmine scented silver needle white tea that one of my mother’s friends had sent her recently. The fragrance of that one did not inspire me, in fact it produced the normal reaction I mentioned. The taste was also nowhere close to being in league with this one, it was actually pretty bitter by comparison. Not entirely un-enjoyable, but it barely held a candle in the sunlight of this Verdant tea.
I came back home, now at the end of the day, and decided to brew up the tea still in my gaiwan until all flavor was exhausted. It took me another 5 gongfu steepings! So the general experience has been that this tea will typically give generously for about 10 gongfu infusions. There are so many things I love about this jasmine white, but I’ll reserve for you the pleasure of making your own discovery of most of them. One quality that I can’t help but comment on though is the exquisite texture this tea leaves on my tongue. The sensation is like a dusting of powdered sugar. It’s heavenly!
Oh dear… I’m brewing up the autumn batch of Laoshan Black in my new Ruci teapot ( http://hegathers.com/_images/rucipot.jpg ). This is the second time I’ve tried it now. I’m on ten infusions from two generous teaspoons of the tea. It has completely floored me! The first time I tried it, I think I suspected that this autumn batch was better than its spring predecessor, but it was hard for me to believe or imagine that the land and farmers of Laoshan could have taken my favorite black tea and improved it so wonderfully…
As I revisited that prospect this afternoon, the suspicion was unambiguously confirmed for me. At the third infusion, WHAM!, I was hit with that beautiful metallic sparkle dancing on my tongue that comes with Verdant’s Da Hong Pao. Add to the familiar direction of cocoa, honey and caramel, notes of black cherry, and everything else mentioned in Verdant’s own description (currants, hibiscus, buckwheat honey, cinnamon, raisins, and creme brulee crust… it’s all there!). And the aftertaste is sublime!
This tea is so good that I’m afraid I’ll want to start drinking it every day, and will perhaps become disconsolate if at some point I can’t get more…. I have to rate this higher than the spring batch, and foresee the real possibility looming before me that Laoshan Black may in a future iteration be improved further and enter the rarefied circle of teas I consider perfect. I never thought a black tea could achieve a perfect rating from me, but Laoshan Black may very well do it someday.