Revisiting the dahongpao

I went back to the same graduation dahongpao yesterday to try it again, since the last session was really not all that inspiring.  I wondered what brewing it in a single person pot at home would be like, versus a much larger pot for multiple people.  So, I opened up the bag that The Mandarin carefully sealed for me (thanks!) and took some leaves out.


Normally speaking I think the optimal ratio for yancha is about 3/4 full of dry leaves.  In other words, for the empty vessel the leaves should fill about 3/4 of the space, after shaking and settling.  Less, and the result is often somewhat insipid and the true essence of yancha doesn’t show up.  For this purpose, a flatter pot is generally preferred for ease of pouring in the leaves, if nothing else.


I was tempted to say that the colour of the tea coming out is darker, but I don’t think that’s actually true.  For one, I fill my cup with a whole pot of tea, since the pot is small.  Because the cup is relatively tall, teas often appear darker here.  When I was in New York the cups we used were the tiny ones that held about two sips.  They are really not that comparable.  Colour, in fact, is one of the most useless indicators of quality of tea, because it is affected by so many different variables, from the type of water used to the shape of the cup.  There are exceptions to this rule, such as the hue of the tea, which could tell you certain things about stored, aged teas, but that doesn’t apply here.


Many infusions later


The tea seems thicker this time around, and not as thin.  My water probably has a lot to do with that.  It also seems to have more complexity, owing to the same issue of water source.  I am also a believer that smaller pots always beat larger pots in terms of the quality of the brew – it is both easier to control and also, if you believe in such things, retains the qi of the tea better.  One of the Qing period tracts I’ve read talks about how the optimal size is really a one person pot, and everyone should bring their own to a gathering.  There’s some truth to that, I believe.

The most startling thing about this tasting though is the colour of the wet leaves.


They somehow seem a shade darker than when I brewed them in New York.  This is pretty much impossible, I think, but nevertheless it seems that way.  Perhaps it’s because the leaves haven’t unfurled as much as they did in New York, owing to the smallness of the pot, and therefore lending more credence to the theory that there’s something that changes from large to small pot.  I’m not sure.  You can see though that the leaves are actually not very heavily roasted — many are still a dark olive green, rather than brown or even black.

Contrary to the colour of the liquor, the appearance of wet leaves tell you all sorts of information about the tea itself, and to this day I see very few vendors showing wet leaves consistently.  Reading tea leaves is actually possible, and can be highly valuable as a skill in buying teas online.


In 2004 I bought myself a box of Dahongpao from the Best Tea House.  I told myself that this was going to be a tea that I will keep for the duration of my graduate studies, and that, when done, I’ll celebrate by opening it and drinking it.  The original plan was that I will leave it sealed until then, aging it for five or six years, and have something nice to drink at the end of it.  Since my school’s official colour is crimson, I thought it’s the most fitting tea, in many ways.  I ended up opening the box for MadameN‘s graduation two years ago, but finally, after many years of sweat and toil, I have a reason of my own to do so.


Now, owing to administrative silliness, I actually got my degree in November last year, but since it’s rather impractical to have three occasions a year that has people dressed in large, crimson coloured bags, everyone does it in May.

Likewise, the actual tea drinking didn’t happen the day of the ceremony.  Rather, it took place two days later, when I was in New York visiting the Mandarin’s Tearoom and friends.  It’s been two years since I took this tea out, and even when I was opening it, I was quite aware that I no longer hold this tea in as high regard as I used to – I don’t think it is that great anymore, certainly not for the price.  Whereas many years ago, when I bought it, it was something that I thought was truly good, now the tea seems merely decent.  The brewing confirmed it.  The tea still has nice qi, I think, which warms, but the mouthfeel is a little flat, and the taste slightly muted.  While I didn’t pack the pot to the hilt, it was enough leaves to make a decent cup.  Yet what came out seemed a little flat.

This, then, is also a graduation of some sort.  We all have moments like this at some point in our tea drinking career.  Teas that, when we were younger, we thought were great, full, and flavourful will almost always appear less interesting, less full over the years.  Some of us got started drinking flavoured teas but have long since swore off such things.  Others may occasionally return to the qingxiang oolongs or green teas that got us into tea in the first place, but find far more pleasure drinking different types.  Still others will turn to cooked puerh from time to time, but would much prefer aged teas, even though cooked puerh may very well have been the “gateway drug.”  The same can be said of vendors too.  Vendors who, early on, seem to offer great selections would often, upon closer inspection and more experience, look like overpriced teas for mediocre quality.  Drinking this dahongpao this time, some of these thoughts definitely crossed my mind.

While I don’t think I will buy another box of this dahongpao from the Best Tea House anymore, it doesn’t mean I will toss this tea — certainly not.  It’s still good tea, just not great, and factoring in the price, there are better options.  There is one more calculation involved though.  Even though it may not be the best tea, it was what I wanted myself to have all those years ago as a graduation celebration.  I have kept it all these years, hauling it around with me while I moved from place to place, and that sentimental value is not something that a far better dahongpao can replace.  Perhaps I’m overly sentimental, but even if someone offers me some dahongpao from the original three trees in exchange of what’s left in this box, I don’t think I’ll take that trade.  This is why many of us, even when we already have shelves full of teas of dubious quality aging, still have a hard time parting with them.  They are pieces of personal history and memory that, once gone, can never truly be replaced.

Three oolongs in comparison

I felt inspired to do a comparative tasting today, something which I haven’t done for quite some time.  This past March when I went back to Hong Kong I renewed my interest in tieguanyin, which for the past few years have been in the doghouse, so to speak, because most of the stuff you can buy in the US or in mainland China are so unspeakably bad.  They are, generally speaking, of the “nuclear green” variety where they are almost greener than green teas.  While some people like the fragrance of those teas, I personally find them awful.  Give me any traditional style tieguanyin anyday.

Having gone to a few stores that sold such things in Hong Kong this past break, including a great experience with a relatively cheap tieguanyin at the incredible Tim’s Kitchen (yes, restaurant tea can be good!) I was quite inspired.  So, I bought a bunch of things, and started trying some that I have leftover at home in comparison.  Today’s is one such tasting.


The identity of the teas are not terribly important.  The one on the left is a highly roasted, slightly aged (my own storage) oolong that I bought a few years ago.  It’s electric roasted.  The one in the middle is a recent purchase on this past trip, with the vendor roasting using charcoal roast and blending the end product.  The one on the right is what I think of as a typical green tieguanyin these days, still not as green as can be, but pretty green nonetheless.  I tend not to drink such things these days.

Closeups of each of the three:




You can see the blending in the middle tea – various colours are present in the dry leaves.  I brewed them in competition cups for five minutes each, and this is the result


Competition style really brings out all kinds of stuff you don’t necessarily notice if you were brewing them normally.  The middle tea ended up being the darkest, and the nose has a distinct charcoal smell that the other two don’t have.  The right one is obviously the most immediately fragrant, with a strong vanilla note.  The left one is in some ways the most subdued, but has a nice roasted fragrance.

In the mouth though is where they really differ.  I think with competition style, especially if you drink one right after the other, it is sometimes difficult to tell which one is giving you the strong, everlasting aftertaste, because you are drinking them in such quick succession.  However, it is possible to distinguish notes and especially body and mouthfeel very easily with this method.  Drinking it this way, it is obvious that the middle cup is in some ways the fullest — it has the most full bodied brew among the three.  It also has flaws, specifically it has a harsh and sour note, the harshness from the charcoal roast, the sourness from probably some improper storage.  The tea on the left is the most pleasant to drink for me, probably because it’s been aged slightly.  It has the beginning of an aged taste to it, and will develop it further if I were to leave it alone.  However, it is also in some ways the most boring, because the tea is more or less one-note, and is a bit hollow in the mouth.  The one on the right is clearly a different beast, and caters to an entirely different market.


The wet leaves also yield some stories.  You can see the mixed nature of the tea for the middle one, as there are leaves of varying shades and stiffness, whereas the other two are more uniform in their appearance.  The leaves on the left are a bit thin in comparison to the other two, perhaps accounting for some of the thinness that I’m noticing in the cup.

It is difficult to find teas like the two left ones in the US, at least, and in China, even.  In a big tea market in a major city, you may find one or two outfits that have some stuff that might be somewhat roasted, but by and large, if you walk into a tieguanyin store you’re going to find various shades of nuclear green.  The reason for this is simple.  It’s both easier and cheaper to make really green tieguanyin — less work, less processing, and they sell for more in China, where the taste is predominantly for lighter tieguanyins.  The same, I think, can be said of the US, and it is usually only serious teaheads who drink the roasted ones, which make them a difficult thing to sell.  In places in Southern China like Guangdong province, the tradition of drinking roasted tea is a bit deeper, so you will find more of these types of tea there, but even then you have to look for them, because otherwise it is very easy to end up with inferior roasted teas.

I like the tea in the middle when I drink it normally — the sourness is quite manageable, as evidenced by my session with friends this past weekend.  This is the other thing about competition brewing — you want to start with a tea that is both strong and has a good body/mouthfeel.  Particular flavours that may be unpleasant are entirely manageable through brewing techniques, but it’s easier for skills to manage bad traits than to concoct a drink out of a bland and boring tea.  Likewise, it makes me wonder about the usefulness of drinking single estate teas for any genre — blending requires skills and is an art, and I’m not sure if there are really that many people now who can do it right.  I turned down the offer to buy some unblended tieguanyin from the same shop, I should go back next time to do that for comparison.


Tea wise, I’ve spent more time in old Hong Kong shops this trip than anywhere else. This time I was actively looking at various options for roasted teas — suixian, yancha, tieguanyin, and the like.  It’s always interesting talking to these folks who run these stores, because each of them give you something new that you don’t know, and when you see where they have contradictions, you can then start figuring out what’s market-speak, and what’s truth.

For example, I only found one shop that insists that they only do charcoal roast.  In fact, the owner told me that “some charcoal just arrived — we’re going to start up the fires in a few days”.  The others have all pretty much moved on to electric roasting, both because of space and cost, as well as, I suspect, the erosion of skill and the lack of people willing to spend two weeks in sweltering heat in a closed warehouse with lots of smouldering charcoal.  I think it is indeed possible to taste the electric vs charcoal firing, having now tried a whole bunch of teas from different places, and I think it’s hard to say one’s definitely superior to the other.  It is clear though that there is a lot more to roasting than just putting your tea over heat and hope for the best.  Different people have mentioned the variations in temperature during the roasting of each tea needing to be refined so that you start and finish the right way.  If you’re using charcoal, you also need to figure out when your tea is going in and coming out — apparently, different days of the charcoal have different characteristics, and the roaster needs to pay attention to that.

All these are probably best left to the pros.  They have decades of experience and know how to do it.  One mentioned to me how, when he was transitioning from charcoal to electric, the first few electric roasts he did were terrible — the timing was all wrong, and the tea was burnt.  The same happened when teas got tighter in their rolling – it became more difficult.  Those people with lots of experience can quickly adapt.  DIY roasting is, I think, best avoided.

Tea with friends


It seems almost frivolous to talk about tea when Japan has suffered one of the biggest earthquake in recorded history.  I was on my way from LAX to Hong Kong while it happened, and when it struck I think I just got in the air, eventually flying through Tohoku, completely unaware that 35,000 ft below me was death and destruction on a scale that is hardly imaginable.

Traveling with me was some teaware.  I have virtually nothing here in Hong Kong to make tea with, and so I transported a few things so that it will be possible for me to host a few friends for some tea.  It is always difficult to devise a course of teas for people who have varying levels of experience.  In the group of five (not counting me) was one MadameN, a serious tea friend, and three relative novices.  Left to our own devices, the serious tea friend and I will probably drink a parade of young and old puerh.  MadameN normally humours my habit, to a reasonable limit.  Then you have the novices, who may or may not react well to any or all of the teas, and it’s always a bit of a crapshoot because of that uncertainty.  I settled on a menu of a green tieguanyin, a slightly aged baozhong, traditionally stored Guangyungong bits, and in the end, an impromptu Golden Needle White Lotus, courtesy of said tea friend.

It is always fun to drink tea with people you’ve never done so before, especially if they’re encountering something for the first time, or have very little experience with what they’re drinking, because all of a sudden you hear all sorts of new perspective on the drink that you’re so familiar with, and end up learning more about it in the process.  The green tieguanyin is the most familiar to all, I believe, and goes over as well as one would expect such things to do.  The aged baozhong received mixed reviews, not least because the tea itself is odd — aged, but not too much so, and the liquor was a nice reddish colour.  It is slightly sour, with that vaguely chemical smell that sometimes accompanies aged oolongs.  It was likened to paint thinners as well as meicai (preserved Chinese vegetables), which is quite apt, I think.

The Guangyungong bits elicited some interesting comments, ranging from a certain hollowness, to varying responses on the bitter/sweet balance in the tea, and the earthiness of the brew.  Some were very attuned to the aftertaste that both the baozhong and the GYG present, while others were less aware of their existence.  What I always find most interesting though is that what tea drinkers see as good tea is often not necessarily considered good by others.  Sometimes there’s a lot of navel gazing when tea drinkers talk to each other about teas, and forget that for most people, none of the teas we drink are actually good (i.e. taste good, in a juicy, flavourful way), but perhaps merely interesting.  The Golden Needle White Lotus, for example, does well up front, but when stressed to a slightly longer (1.5 minutes) steep alongside the GYG, it’s obvious that the GYG is sweeter and better.

What’s most important though is that everyone had, I think, a good time.  Tea is best drunk with friends, and if I could, I would do this every day.

Thinking about oolongs, part two

Although the natural environment in which teas grow obviously affect how they taste, processing, for oolongs at least, is king.  The sheer number of variables is astounding, and the range of tastes that are possible, from the really light and floral baozhongs to the really dark and heavy wuyis are what make oolongs so much fun (and why so many people drink them).

I’ll try to proceed in the order in which these things happen in the production process: oxidation, rolling, roasting, aging.

Oxidation is the first step in oolong production that makes it distinct from green teas, and it really happens immediately after the tea leaves are plucked.  When leaves get harvested, they usually go through a withering stage, and then they are bruised so that the cell structure breaks down, so that the enzymes can get to work and oxidation can begin. How much bruising, how much time for oxidation, under what conditions, etc, are the kinds of things that create particular flavours in a tea and are also the domain of a master tea maker. I suspect, for example, that darjeeling oolongs have generally turned out to be similar to their first flush is because they haven’t quite gotten the hang of the oxidation process yet, so everything still taste sort of vaguely similar.  I have talked to folks who tell me that they have to control for everything from weather, to time of day, to moisture level in the air, etc, and they know when to stop the oxidation process and start the kill-green by the way the leaves look and smell.  That’s stuff that I think I will only be able to learn if I become a tea farmer and work on it for thirty years.

The kill-green stops the oxidation process, and then you have to roll the tea — literally rolling them in the old days, in cloth bags with the farmer’s feet doing the rolling.  These days, that’s more often than not done with a rolling machine.  The purpose of rolling here is more or less like the purpose of rolling for puerh — squeezing out liquids, and basically allowing a lot of the dissolvable materials to stick on the surface of the leaves rather than remaining inside.  The rolling process can take a while, and depending on the area in which this is happening, rolling will also determine, to a large extent, the final shape in which the tea takes.  Just look at any dancong and compare it to a Taiwanese gaoshan oolong and you’ll know what I mean.

The drying and roasting process is then the step in which tea becomes tea — drinkable, brewable leaves.  This can be done in different ways, but generally speaking, this is mostly done through machines again.  At what temperature and for how long is really a matter of the craft of the teamaker again, because the retained moisture at the end of this process affects how the tea will taste by the time it gets to you.  Even though leaves look dry, there’s always some moisture in them, and the amount of drying/roasting that it goes through affects this value, which then changes the way it keeps and the way it ages through time.  That’s why, for example, vacuum sealed packs of somewhat wet leaves don’t keep too long and need to be left alone in the fridge — they go bad, fast.

Generally speaking, the drier the leaves, the longer/better they keep.  Roasting is a process through which moisture gets taken out of the leaves, and re-roasting, which was done often, was something that tea merchants would routinely do themselves in order to refresh a stock of leaves — reigniting (and changing) the aromas of a tea, and to take out excess moisture that usually ends up imparting a sour flavour on the leaves.  Oolongs can go from virtually no roasting to really heavy, pitch black roasting, and the skill of the roaster in handling this again has a direct and immediate effect on the way the teas come out.  There is also a regional preference here, with Wuyi teas generally being of higher roast, for example, and modern day tieguanyin from the mainland are increasingly little to no roast — nuclear green, in other words, which I personally find terrible to drink. There’s literally something for everyone here, depending on one’s likes and dislikes.

Then there’s the question of aging, which I have written plenty about before.  I don’t think all oolongs will age well — only a select few do.  Badly aged oolongs are usually sour and pretty disgusting, and sometimes re-roasting them will fix the problem.  However, there are lots of fake aged oolongs out there that are simply heavily roasted teas pretending to be aged teas.  They can be nice, but they’re not necessarily very old.  I personally find aged teas to be most fascinating, and since I don’t drink nearly as fast as I buy tea, I end up having some teas that I age myself without really having intended to do so — such as the cup of 2006 Beidou that I’m drinking right now.  Over time, a properly aged oolong should have a reddish appearance in both the leaves and especially the liquor, and the taste should be sweet and aromatic.  Then they eventually acquire the type of taste that all aged teas get — hard to explain, but you know one when you see one.

The interesting thing here is that the permutations of various factors – location, processing, aging – combine to form all types of flavours and aromas that you can get from oolongs.  I can safely say that almost no two oolongs are the same, and every time I go to a store in China that specialize in some type of oolong or another, each batch that I try are going to be different in some way or another.  Because so much of it also depends on post-processing and storage, even after the same batch of tea left the factory, the ultimate result in your cup may still differ.  I suppose that’s what makes it fun.

Thinking about oolongs

Of all the families of teas out there, oolongs are probably by far the most versatile and varied in appearance, aroma, and taste.  Situated between green and black, oolongs, by definition, are semi-oxidized teas that can be almost as green as green teas (very light baozhongs come to mind) or very dark, almost black tea like (oriental beauty).  By virtue of the variations possible, oolongs are complex and interesting teas that often bear little resemblance to each other, but offer the drinkers a wide range of possibilities.  Making sense of all this can be difficult; I’m going to try to at least systematically lay out what these various issues are, and what I have learned so far.

There are I think three different factors that go into the growth of oolongs that we, as consumers, need to consider.  Those are, in no particular order, terroir, varietal, and season.  Then, in the processing from raw leaf to the finish product, there are additional variables that a tea farmer/maker can manipulate to change how the tea comes out, and those variables can include oxidation, rolling, roasting, and in some cases, aging.  I’m going to just try to talk about the first set of things and worry about the second set later.

When dealing with terroir, to borrow a wine term, we are really talking about the soil, climate, and other environmental factors that go into the growth of the tea, which in this case would also include altitude.  I think we can talk roughly about large geographic areas, but also small microclimates.  For example, teas from Taiwan tend to share a similar set of taste profiles, especially in the aftertaste of the tea.  They could be from different varietals, using different techniques, and grown in different areas of Taiwan, but many Taiwanese teas end up tasting similar in some fashion, and are often easily identifiable as Taiwanese.  Likewise, Wuyi yancha can (and to many, should) have a similar taste, especially that fabled yanyun, which roughly translates into “rock aftertaste”.  Even when Taiwanese tea farmers make teas using Wuyi varietal and methods, they can’t achieve the same results.  That’s terroir for you.

Location matters though, so whether or not the tea you’re having is from a hilly slope or flat ground, high up or down low, moist or dry, well lit or not, and shaded or otherwise all have to do with how the tea comes out in the end.  So while we can talk about large swathes of land when discussing tea, we can also talk about smaller areas.  Anxi tieguanyin costs more than teas from nearby counties, and not all Dongding teas are created equal, as anyone who’s tried a number of them can tell you.  Things like that are hard to control, and often for the end buyer, relatively meaningless, because we rarely know exactly which farm a particular tea came from.  When we can find out, however, it often tells you something about what you’re drinking, and accumulating experiences in telling apart various kinds of growing conditions is a true mark of a tea expert.

Varietals obviously also play a role here, and the most famous of these is perhaps tieguanyin and all its imitators.  A maoxie or huangjingui might look and taste somewhat like a tieguanyin, but it never is one, and those who drink a lot of tieguanyin can generally tell you right away if the stuff is real or not.  Likewise, we all know the story of the original dahongpao, and all the generations that the originals have spawned.  Varietal matters, and also changes the way the tea taste in a fundamental way.  Unlike terroir, for the consumer, varietal is difficult; it requires a great deal of experience to be able to tell apart different kinds of oolong trees and their leaves.  Whether that is a jinxuan or a siji or a ruanzi or a taicha #18, is not something that a tea novice can do easily.  If you don’t drink it often, chances are you are entirely at the mercy of the vendor, who is often at the mercy of the maker.  I think this is why finding reliable and trustworthy vendors is so important — not only that you can trust them to not lie to you, but you need to be able to rely on the vendors to do the due diligence and basically fact check the maker of the tea.  There are many out there who merely parrot the story told to them when they bought the tea — that’s sometimes a recipe for disaster.

The season in which the tea is picked is the final big variable for those of us trying to drink oolong.  A spring tea is inevitably different from a fall tea, and mostly on Taiwan, you often see a winter crop as well that is yet again different.  In my personal experience, spring teas tend to be floral while fall teas often have more body, and winter teas have a unique fragrance and sweetness that is quite distinctive.  You rarely see anyone advertising summer tea, and there’s a good reason for it — slower growing tea tend to be better tea, and summer is usually when the tree undergoes a growth spurt, leaving relatively thin and uninteresting leaves for you to consume.

Already, we’re dealing with a dizzying array of possibilities that can significantly impact the teas we drink.  Puerh-heads spend a lot of time worrying about these issues all the time — where the tea’s from, what season it’s picked in, etc, but oolong drinkers tend to obsess a little less about these.  I think a big reason for this is simple: the lack of clear and obvious ways to tell different sorts of teas apart, and the importance of post-processing that creates the final tea.  Those are serious mitigating factors to everything I’ve just talked about, and can change the tea in drastic ways.  Not having an easy way to tell apart different kinds of teas sold under different names is obviously a difficult issue as well.  Just witness the number of teas out there that are advertised as tieguanyin or dahongpao — surely, they can’t be making that much of these teas.  Something obviously has to give, which means that there is a fair amount of false advertising out there.  Since it is virtually impossible for the regular consumer to compare two of the same sorts of teas from two vendors easily, it is all the more important to at least educate ourselves with regards to what may be out there, and in doing so, become a more discerning drinker.

To be continued…

Troubles with a bush

Recently there’s been some discussion of the nature of dancong online at various places, and one of the topics of discussion was the proper nomenclature of dancong itself.  I was not too convinced by what was being said, simply because some didn’t sound right, so I went and investigated.

The discussion centers around the word “cong” and which character should be used and what it should mean.  I first went to my trusted source, the Hanyu Da Cidian, which is a 12 volume monstrosity and is the Chinese equivalent of the OED.  I first looked up 叢.  Its basic meaning is “group”, and can also mean “a bunch of plants growing together”.  No surprise there.

Then I looked up 欉, which, to my surprise, is NOT in the Hanyu Da Cidian.

Now, of course, since 叢 simplifies into 丛, one would assume that 欉 simplifies into 枞, and it is extremely common to see 单枞 being used as the phrase for the tea we know as dancong.

However, there is a problem, because 枞 is also (or perhaps, only) a simplification of the word 樅, which means fir.  When you search for 枞 in the dictionary, you’re going to find the definition “fir”, but that’s because you’re actually looking up the word 樅, not 欉, which is what you should actually be looking for.  People write 枞 for 欉 because they assume that’s what it is, and indeed it might, but they are two distinct characters and when you search for words using simplified characters, you always run the risk of it returning erronous results because there are multiple “source” words for one simplified character.

Since the Hanyu Da Cidian doesn’t have 欉, I thought I’d look up 單欉 or 單叢, but it seems like the editors of Hanyu Da Cidian are not tea drinkers, and they are not in the dictionary.

So I went to another useful resource for weird words — the Kangxi Zidian, which was edited in the 1710s.  Here, we do find a reference to 欉, and the definition given is quite simple — In Jiangdong (an area roughly corresponding to the region around Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, etc), a group of plants growing together is called 欉.  The word, interestingly enough, is recorded as 4th tone in the Kangxi Zidian.  As for its definition for 叢, it is essentially the same as the Hanyu Da Cidian.  There’s no difference, basically.

I think what is clear is the following:

欉 has absolutely nothing to do with the fir tree.  We can strike that from the conversation.

欉 or 叢 have essentially the same meaning.  叢 has a wider range of meanings, but they are unrelated to plants.  For the definition that has anything to do with plants, they are synonyms.  In that sense, you can probably see 欉 as a variant of 叢.

There is absolutely nothing in the definition that implies anything growing from the same root or coming from the same plant.  The only definition given has to do with growth in groups and bunches.  One tree cannot be a 叢 because it is not part of a group, especially if it’s a taller tree that’s growing by itself.  It must be a number of plants, or a bush.

So to get back to our problem then — what exactly does dancong mean?  Aside from the very great possibility that it is simply some romantic, nice sounding name, as is so often the case in Chinese teas, we have the characters to work with.  “Dan” generally means lonesome, single, but can in some cases also mean thin.  Normally, we translate dancong to mean “single bush”.  Perhaps owing to the relatively rocky nature of the growing areas, dancong, as originally harvested, was indeed a collection of leaves from lonely bushes growing on their own.  That, to me, seems like a better explaination than some “single origin” theory, mostly because plants don’t work like that, nor do farmers who plant these crops.  So, instead of translating it as “single bush”, perhaps an alternative would be “lonely bush”, denoting the way the trees grow in the rocky setting.  Unlike tea farms in some other places, dancong trees don’t grow quite so closely and densely.


I bought some random tea recently from the local Asian market

This is Huangjingui, a variety of oolong that is often used to imitate tieguanyin. They don’t quite taste the same, and tieguanyin (real ones anyway) are better, but if you don’t know much about this stuff… you might just think this is tieguanyin.

It’s certainly hard to tell by looks

The tea is thinner, and this particular one is slightly sour. The taste is a bit different from tieguanyin, and that, I think, is the biggest marker of difference, but taste is a fickle thing, and as we all know, taste is relative and subjective. It can easily be sold at some “gourmet” tea shop as some “jade oolong” and cost you $10 per 50g.

It’s not the greatest tea… but probably worth the $3 I paid for it.

Will’s sample D

Back on the sample train — this time another sample (it does seem like they’re endless, aren’t they?) from Will. Sample D. I opened it and saw dancong leaves

So it must be dancong! Light fired, from what I can tell by the smell and look. And indeed it is

I think it’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of light fired oolongs in general, and dancongs in particular. I don’t find them interesting, and more often than not, they make me feel unwell. With that in mind, I brewed this tea fairly lightly, using only minimal amounts of leaves (pot maybe 1/5 to 1/4 full of dry leaves) and fairly quick infusions. The result is quite pleasant — it’s a nice tea, even though it’s not really my kind of thing. My fiance, however, really liked it, and said this tea “smells like a man”. It’s a mixture of “good natural clean scent and some sort of cologne”. No, I don’t wear cologne.

Obviously, such subtle aromas elided me. I only tasted a fruity medium (not quite low) roast dancong, processed fairly well so that the bitterness is not very evident, and has qi and tenacity. It lasted quite a few infusions, despite the fact that it’s a dancong — which generally don’t last as long. Perhaps this is one of Tea Habitat’s patrician level dancongs? Or one of Will’s many other hidden gems? Only he knows the answer.

This is certainly the best dancong sample among the ones that Will sent me, and gave me a good reason to use my severely underused dancong pot. I still remember once upon a time when I was drinking that sort of thing everyday. That no longer happens…