Origin. Harvest. Varietal. Grade. Processing choices. These are some of the factors to consider when choosing an artisanal loose leaf tea. Depending on the kind of tea, these choices are generally more straightforward.
But teas like Dan Cong throw a wrench into the works. Dan Cong is a Chinese wulong (oolong) with a history that extends back to the Song Dynasty. There are extremely rare dan cong tea trees that date from that time, still producing treasured tea. Other tea bushes from the area are clones, daughters of those ancient mothers or other tea bushes of the area.
Sometimes dan cong (单枞) teas come from a single tree/bush. Sometimes they come from a set of bushes that are clonal daughters of the same mother bush. Some varieties have almond aromas. Others have peach, orchid, honey, magnolia, or osmanthus aromas.
With the staggering number of considerations to make, choosing the right dan cong can be challenging. So I asked some of my tea colleagues to talk about how to recognize and select dan cong teas.
Jason Chen (a.k.a. JC) is founder of C.C. Fine Tea Corp (broken link) and author of A Tea Lover’s Travel Diary: Phoenix Single-Tree Oolong Tea Tie Kuan Yin Oolong Tea.
Austin Hodge (a.k.a. AH) is President of Seven Cups Fine Chinese Teas.
Imen Shan (a.k.a. IS) is Owner of Tea Habitat, an L.A. based and online store specializing in dan cong teas. She has also blogged prolifically on the subject of dan congs. Some of this material is directly from her posts.
1. What makes a dancong tea true and authentic?
JC: Region, varietal and processing skill are critical. The rich, volcanic soil of Phoenix Mountain, its altitude, clean air, spring water, and weather all shape the character of authentic dan cong tea.
AH: The Phoenix Mountain Range covers a lot of ground, and the question of authenticity is a multilevel issue. The tallest mountain in the range, Wudongshan, is where dan cong was originally grown and some of the trees there date back to the Song Dynasty. There are 24 families that control Wudong, and all of the tea grown there comes through them. Starting price for those teas recently ranged $400 – $500 USD per kilo ($181 – $227 USD per lb). These teas are usually bought by collectors, tea masters, and private connoisseurs before they get to the open market.
Moving outward from the specific peak of Wudongshan, one can find dan congs in the larger Chaozhou “zone.” These teas often lack the maturity and depth of history as those original Wudong Mountain trees/bushes. This zone is also home to many of the “commercial” grade dan cong gardens consisting of multiple bushes cloned from a mother tree.
Good dan congs are very strong in taste with the astringent/bitterness as part of their complex character. The larger American tea palate may not be accustomed to this character profile, especially at such a high price. I don’t expect that this tea will be popular until the American palate matures, and people are willing to pay the price.
IS: They must be Feng Huang Shui Xian varietal grown within the Phoenix Mountain range in Chao An County. Wudong mountain produces the best flavor dan cong teas.
Cloning technology is widely used by tea plantations, but do not expect tea from cloned trees to taste exactly like that from the mother trees. The age of the tree dictates the maturity and richness of the dan cong’s flavor. Cloning allows for the production of dan cong tea for commercial trade. Because the clones come from dan cong trees, they are marketed as dan cong commercial products. It’s a commercial product name, just like commercial Da Hong Pao.
JW: It would then seem safe starting assumption that much of the dan cong available in the US and online is actually from the lower “Shui Xian,” or “commercial” grade being sourced from clonal gardens in the greater Chaozhou or Phoenix Mountain “zone.”
2. Why are there so many grades and flavors of dan cong? How do names like Huang Zhi Xiang (orange flower fragance) or Zhi Lan Xiang (orchid fragrance) relate to the tea’s grade or quality?
IS: There are 3 sub divisions from the main category Phoenix (Feng Huang) Shui Xian:
(1) Dan Cong, (2) Lang Cai and (3) Shui Xian by grade. Within each sub division, there are 4 more grades of each: special grade, first grade, second grade and third grade. Each grade has 3 ranks. This makes a total of 36 grade/rankings. In the ranking, Dan cong 3rd grade 3rd rank is better than Lang Cai special grade 1st rank.
Dan Cong is the highest grade due to careful selection from the vast number of Feng Huang Shui Xian varietal tea trees. In the past, single bushes were harvested and processed one tree at a time. Today, single bush processing is still practiced in some cases, averaging 3 lbs of final product per tree per year. Most of these limited production teas don’t travel out of Chaozhou.
In the last 50 years, the Chinese government has attempted to better systematize the use of fragrance names in the commercial market. 10 dan cong fragrances were recognized:
Yu Lan Xiang – magnolia flower fragrance 玉兰香
Huang Zhi Xiang – orange flower fragrance 黄栀香
Xing Ren Xiang – Almond flavor 杏仁香
Zhi Lan Xiang – Orchid fragrance 芝兰香
Mi4 Lan Xiang – Honey Orchid fragrance 密兰香
Gui Hua Xiang – Osmanthus fragrance 桂花香
You Hua Xiang – Pomelo/grapefruit flower fragrance 柚花香
Jiang Hua Xiang – Ginger flower fragrance 姜花香
Rou Gui Xiang – Cinnamon flavor 肉桂香
Mi3 Lan Xiang – Milan flower fragrance 米兰香
These are signature fragrance types of dan cong teas and commercial product names for clones. Old trees that have those same fragrances are referred to by their individual tree names.
To illustrate the confusing nature of this approach, consider Huang Zhi Xiang (orange flower fragrance). There are 40+ varietals that can produce the flavor of Huang Zhi Xiang (HZX). Each village named their own HZX after their village name or mountain name. There now exists Wu Dong HZX and Shi Tou HZX. There are also Qing Xiang (light fragrance) varietals, and Nong Xiang (intense fragrance) varietals. Overall, more Huang Zhi Xiang is produced than any of the other top 10 fragrances.
Names of old bushes can be anything you can imagine. These names do not change much. Thief Shit, Duck Shit, Old Duck, Big Dark Leaf, Song Zhong, Song Zhong Jai (Next generation Song Zhong), Jiang MuXiang (Ginger Mom), Red Lady Umbrella, Dong Fang Hong, are just a few of the many colorful names of old trees.
AH: Tea left to grow on its own, relatively untended for centuries, will be subject to a lot of cross-pollination. When the seeds are planted or are spread naturally, different unexpected varietals occur. Asexual reproduction (e.g. clonals) is the only way to ensure that you will get the same cultivar. Planting by seed is very unpredictable. It is not hard to find the tea plants growing in forest in the mountains of the Phoenix Mountain. Just because it is a unique bush doesn’t necessarily mean it is good tea. Aside from the commercially recognized dan cong fragrances, new varietals may develop. Sometimes these qi zhong (surprise, or unusual varietal) have excellent character, and sometimes they do not.
JW: It sounds as if the fragrance name gives no real indication of the tea’s origin (e.g. specific mountain peak) or quality level. Quality level could still vary greatly within a fragrance category as well.
3. Is this range of variation sustainable, or will we see a move toward more uniformity in dan cong being offered by tea retailers?
AH: I don’t think that you will find Chaozhou tea people being willing to do anything to change the market. Chaozhou is really a very tricky place to source tea. There is a lot of money being made the way things are. There is plenty of tea being grown at lower elevations that is getting passed off as the real thing. The only way that I would trust that a dan cong came from Wudong and one of the 24 families, I would want to be buying from them directly. I would also expect to be paying a high price. Dan congs are a very small specialized niche in the Chinese market.
IS: This is not a trend decided by the sellers. As tea drinkers become more educated about specialty teas they will better know what they like, and will most likely stay within a small range of quality grade teas.
4. How can a tea drinker know if she is purchasing an authentic dan cong?
AH: One of the most certain ways is if it was purchased directly from one of the 24 Wudong families.
JC: The best way to know if the tea is authentic is to know if the tea is from the origin of Chaoan Phoenix Mountain Area in Guangdong province. Finding a reliable tea company is another good way. For an experienced tea lover, learning the signature characteristics and flavor profiles will also help.
IS: The easiest way is by finding a reliable source and familiarizing yourself with commercial grade and single tree grade dan congs. Once you can recognize and memorize their characteristics, you can distinguish dan congs.
JW: Special thanks to Austin, Imen, and Jason for their eager participation in this dialog. In the process of researching, I also discovered a relatively newer form of dan cong from a location distinct from the Phoenix Mountain range. Ling Tou, or white leaf dan cong will have to be a topic of future conversation.
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