May 01, 2021 8 min read2 Comments
Introducing Dan Cong Oolong
Oolong (or wulong) tea refers to a semi-oxidized class of tea. There are many different varietals that fall within this class of tea; though, when speaking about Chinese and Taiwanese oolong, most varietals may be grouped into four main geographic regions: southern Fujian province, where Tieguanyin is produced; Wuyi yancha (rock) oolongs from northern Fujian; Taiwanese oolongs; and finally, the Phoenix Mountains (Fenghuangshan) of Guangdong province. Known for their complexity and floral fragrances, Dan Cong or 'single bush' oolongs can be recognized by their long, twisted shape. In this post we'll be covering the basics of this renowned tea, including origin, processing techniques, and takeaways when exploring Dan Cong oolongs yourself.
Phoenix Mountains, Guangdong Province, China
What Is Dan Cong Oolong?
Hailing from Guangdong province in southern China, Fenghuang Dan Cong or Phoenix Dan Cong finds its humble roots at the end of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The original plants were cultivated from seed ~700-900 years ago in the Phoenix Mountain region. Today ancient tea trees can be found in the Phoenix Mountains, one of the few places outside Yunnan Province where ancient tea forests exist. Dan Cong means “single bush” and, in the strictest sense, refers to tea that was made from the leaves of a single tree. Today, dan cong more commonly refers to leaves that were harvested from trees of the same cultivar and processed together to make a specific subcategory of Dan Cong, which is typically named after the tea’s fragrance or “xiang”.
Ancient tea trees, Phoenix Mountains (Lin family garden)
To understand why there are many subcategories of phoenix oolong, it’s important to understand how tea is cultivated and the difference between a variety and a cultivar. There are three main varieties of the tea plant: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, Camellia sinensis var. cambodiensis. Within these three principal varieties, there are hundreds of sub-varieties that have developed naturally, through hybridization or genetic mutation, or were developed through human intervention. The latter is known as a cultivated variety or cultivar. Each cultivar has unique traits that influence the aroma, texture, and flavor of the tea. These traits are not necessarily passed down to offspring, unless the cultivar is reproduced via cuttings.
There are two ways to propagate tea: by seed or clone. When the tea plant is grown from seed, each generation of offspring has a unique genetic makeup. The genetic characteristics of the plant translates to a unique flavor profile. Thus a new generation of tea propagated from seed may have a different flavor profile from the previous generation.
The second method of propagation, known as vegatative propagation, preserves the genetic makeup of the previous generation. This is done by clipping a shoot from the plant, which may then be further cut down into two or three “cuttings”. A cutting typically consists of a section of stem and two nodes (where the leaf attaches to the stem). The cutting is placed in soil and if the conditions permit, roots sprout from the cutting and a new plant is established. This method of propagation is also known as cloning, as the genetic makeup from parent to offspring is identical.
Bringing it back to Dan Cong, each cultivar has a distinct flavor, texture, and aroma. Chun Xue Mi Lan, for example, is a cultivar that translates to “Spring Snow Honey Orchid” and has been named for its orchid fragrance. Another well known varietal, Ya Shi Xiang (duck shit aroma), was supposedly given its name by farmers who feared their prized tea trees would be stolen, so they named the cultivar to deter would-be thieves.
Tea Master Song Lin
Last year we began working with the Lin family, who manage a tea garden in the Phoenix Mountains and specialize in making Dan Cong. The tea master, Song Lin, was trained by his father and is currently teaching his children how to cultivate and craft Dan Cong. Song Lin and his family follow organic practices and preserve the livelihood of the tea trees by harvesting leaves at a rate that does not overwork the trees, typically only once or twice per year for the oldest trees. It’s been a true pleasure working with the Lin family.
Tea Master, Song Lin
Upon trying the tea crafted by Song Lin, we were struck by how profoundly complex it tasted. Smooth, creamy, and aromatic - we knew we had to buy it. The only question was which varietals to choose. We eventually narrowed it down to three Dan Cong teas, which were selected to display a range of aromas and flavor profiles:
Ya Shi Xiang 鸭屎香 (Duck Shit Aroma)
Chun Xue Mi Lan 春雪蜜兰香 (Spring Snow Honey Orchid)
Da Wu Ye 大乌叶 (Big Dark Leaf)
It’s been a true pleasure cooperating with the Lin family. We look forward to growing our relationship and continuing to learn from them.
Lin family tea garden
There are nine steps involved in making Dan Cong. We’ll cover each step below. The images are of the Lin family tea garden and factory.
Harvesting leaves from an ancient tea tree (Lin family garden)
Picking: When harvesting the green leaf, the first three leaves are selected. This is known as the “picking grade”. The leaves are plucked once the bud has fully opened. Dan Cong is generally made from leaves picked from mature trees, typically upwards of 60-years old. As the tree ages, the rate at which it produces new growth slows, yielding fewer leaves during a harvest season. While the older trees produce lower yield, their leaves fetch a higher price - valued for the more complex flavor profile that results from slower growth. The oldest trees might only be harvested once a season, a practice held by the Lin family to maintain the health of the tree.
Withering: The object of withering, also known as wilting, is to reduce the moisture content of the leaf. This stage occurs in two phases: outdoors and indoors. The leaves are first placed on bamboo mats and exposed to the sun. Once the leaves have begun to wilt, they are moved indoors to continue withering in a cooler environment. The duration of withering depends on the weather conditions of the day.
Shaking / Tumbling: Once the moisture content of the leaves has been reduced and the leaves begin to curl around the edges, the leaves are ready to be tumbled. Traditionally the leaves are tossed by hand using bamboo trays, though a more common practice today is to use machine tumbling equipment. The purpose of this step is to gently bruise the edges of the leaf, priming the tea for the next step: oxidation.
Oxidation: This step in processing plays an integral factor in determining the 'class' of tea. These teas are semi-oxidized (25-50%), and the length of time it takes is dependent on the humidity and temperature levels present. The tea master will periodically turn over the leaves, releasing heat generated during the oxidation process and helping the leaves oxidize uniformly. Each of the oolongs in our Dan Cong flight have been oxidized at 25%.
Fixing: Also known as kill-green, heat is applied to halt the enzymatic activity taking place in the leaf. The leaves are placed inside rotating ovens for this step.
Rolling: After the kill-green step finishes, the tea is placed into the rolling machine and shaped into long, twisted leaves. The tea is then spread out evenly onto trays to be dried.
Drying / Roasting: Traditionally completed in a wood-fired oven, this step extracts final moisture and brings out the floral nuances of the maocha 毛茶 or unfinished tea.
Sorting: Stems and leaves that are too mature are removed from the maocha by hand. Large operations may have access to optical tea sorting equipment, though most small operations rely on hand sorting.
Roasting: The final stage in production consists of another round of roasting. The sorted maocha is roasted in bamboo baskets placed over charcoal embers for a duration of approximately ten hours per roast. It is an arduous process as the tea master has to monitor the temperature of the leaves, often during the middle of the night, and ensure the charcoal does not begin to smoke.
Once completed, the tea is properly stored and packaged. At this point, it is in the hands of the consumer to bring the best out of the 'made tea'. One of the ways we can do this is by how we choose to brew the leaves. Let’s look at our preferred method below.
Brewing Dan Cong Oolongs
Western-style is most common and consists of a lower leaf-to-water ratio, and a brewing time anywhere from 2-6 minutes depending on the tea type, picking grade, and additional factors. This creates a large infusion that yields a wholesome extraction of flavors and compounds.
Our preferred method for fully appreciating Dan Cong is Gong Fu Cha or gongfu-style brewing. Commonly regarded as originating in Chaozhou city in Guangdong, China, the modern utility is a blend of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese practices. This method uses a higher leaf-to-water ratio, encouraging smaller, successive brews that are steeped for short periods of time. This results in concentrated flavors and aromatics that evolve over the course of each infusion. This brew method is particularly helpful in detecting subtle notes and complexities less distinguishable when using Wester brew style. You can read more about this brew style in our blog post on gongfu.
Considerations When Shopping for Dan Cong
Season of Harvest: Spring harvest is prized for the robust flavor produced after the dormant period in late winter. March/April is the optimal time for spring harvest, before the monsoon season begins. This being said, do not be afraid to try autumn and winter teas.
Garden Management: Are pesticides used in the garden? Are organic practices followed? It’s important to note that small-scale producers often cannot afford international organic certifications, such as USDA or EU Organic, though many choose to practice organic garden management.
Age of the Tree(s): As mentioned above, older trees are prized for their flavor profile and scarcity. While the age of the tree has an impact on the resulting taste, we’ve found great gems as early as 40 years of age.
Harvest Details: Is the Dan Cong tea picked from a single tree or is it a blend of leaves from multiple trees or bushes? It’s helpful to know this as it may be reflected in the price.
Elevation: Generally speaking, as you go up in elevation tea grows at a slower rate. This is due to many factors, though the cooler climate is a primary driver. The slower growth rate and temperate climate has a noticeable impact on the quality of the leaf. High elevation teas tend to be more complex, smooth, and aromatic. High elevation gardens are also less likely to be impacted by pollution and may have an easier time managing pests.
Tea Master’s Skill: This is perhaps the most important factor in making high quality tea. While it’s difficult to make good tea from poor quality ‘leaf material’, it’s impossible to make good tea from the highest quality leaves if you don’t know how. Elevation, terroir, tree age, harvest season, all play a role in the quality of the tea, but there are many low-elevation teas made from young trees that will knock your socks off when made by a skilled tea master. The teas offered in our Dan Cong flight were not grown at the highest garden elevations in the region, but you wouldn’t know that just by tasting it. If you’re new to Dan Cong or are trying to stick to a budget, our suggestion is to look for spring harvest and not focus too much on the age of the tree.
We’ve covered a brief overview of the history and origin of Dan Cong, what distinguishes them from other teas in processing, and the family we work with to bring three distinct experiences. We hope this provides insight into why we love this tea so much and encourages you to explore the vast world of Dan Cong.
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