Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Corax on Two Organic 2007 Dan Congs

My generous friend Geraldo, a tea-pundit of great eloquence and wit, recently shared out a few precious grammes of two teas obtained from Imen at Tea Habitat in Palos Verdes. A good Feng Huang Dan Cong tea is worth anyone's attention, of course, but these were both really extraordinary. Both were labeled organic; both from 2007 harvests. Moreover, Imen awarded both teas six stars (out of a possible six). So my esteemed colleague Monkeytoe and I brewed these two teas, cup to cup, and sampled them together.

After a brief rinse and a minute's rest, each was brewed in a porcelain gaiwan: 4 grammes leaf to 5 oz water (crab eyes), for an infusion of 3 breaths' length to start. The teas were tasted in cups of pure white porcelain, so as to get the clearest possible impression of the color of the brew.

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黄枝香 Huang Zi Xiang [Orange Flower Fragrance] Dan Cong

Imen's note reads: 'This tea is from a 50+ years old tea trea, strong orange flower fragrance, light roast, hui gan is fast and strong. It's another tea that can get you drunk.' [$19.00 per ounce]

INF1: The first infusion had a pronounced floral fragrance, edging toward that smell of indole that one associates with civet musk, jasmine flowers, and orange blossoms. Its color was a very pale golden/peachy hue. The flavor was very light -- even ethereal, as rose water is, and pitched very much toward the top notes. Fairly low astringency.

INF2: Here we began to taste the nutty flavor that one associates specifically with oolongs. The color deepened. The finish was long, lingering, and very much 'orange' flavored -- almost as if one had drunk actual orange juice that somehow had no sugar in it.

INF3: The orange-juice aroma was more present than ever. The flavor was a bit bitter this time, as if one had chewed the pith out of a pithy orange rind. Perhaps it needed an extremely short infusion for INF3, or cooler water?

INF4: This infusion was brewed at 'shrimp eyes' rather than 'crab eyes,' and a scant three breaths' time. The result was less bitterness, still very 'orangey' in flavor, and still tenacious in its aftertaste. As the brew cools, it has a hint of greenness -- rather like what one finds in a first-flush Darjeeling.

INF5: Back to 'crab eyes' and three full breaths for this infusion. The orange scent is delicate and quite attenuated now, but the first sip is very floral. The distinctive orange flavor of this liquor seems to emerge more as the brew cools in the cup.

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姜花香 Jiang Hua Xiang [Ginger Flower Fragrance] Dan Cong

This tea was labeled po tou, that is, 'ridge top'; these leaves, then, are apparently from the mother tree (mu shu, 母树) for Jiang Hua Xiang tea. (Perin's Babelcarp site [sub uoc.] defines mu shu as 'one of a small group of trees constituting the original gene pool for a cultivar, from which cuttings are taken for vegetal propagation.') And indeed, Imen's note reads: 'This tea is from a 200 years old tea tree grown organically, aroma is light, subtle yet strong and lingering. Ginger flower has a defined aroma that's powerful but not over powering. This is a BEAUTIFUL tea!' [$25.00 per ounce]

INF1: The liquor had the same pale-peach tone as the previous tea -- a characteristic hue of dan congs. This tea was silky on the tongue -- not quite like a 'milk oolong,' but with a thicker mouth-feel than the Huang Zi Xiang. Again a distinct perfume note, but not at all orangey: rather, for one evanescent flickering moment, like the sweetness of a shu pu'er. No bitterness and no virtually astringency. But also -- as far as we can tell here -- no fragrance that smells like ginger flowers, nor like actual ginger.

INF2: Again, one is reminded of pu'er -- a certain earthiness in the first taste, though this vanishes almost instantly. Still very silky. What is notably lacking in this tea so far is the nutty quality that shows up (one might say characteristically) in oolongs.

INF3: Here is where the 'oolongy' flavor emerges. What's more, the finish is the longest and most pronounced yet. The nutty oolong flavor seems actually to grow in the minutes after the cup is drained. This tenacity is one of the signs of power in a tea -- the sort of experience that simply does not come from tea bags. The odd fillip is the slight hint of soapiness in the flavor of this infusion, continuing also in the aftertaste.

INF4: The infused leaves, some of which are two inches or so in length, are a dull olive green in color, with blushes here and there of a dark maroon. Still a bit of soapiness to this infusion. Aside from that, the basic tea flavor seems to have been reduced to the stature of a fairly ordinary oolong. Is this tea spent?

INF5: The soapy quality is now virtually gone. Still a very silky brew. The aftertaste, though fainter now, is still tenacious.

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How to sum up? At first I was going to say, 'Feng Huang Dan Cong is not a beginner's tea.' But that sounds both condescending and fundamentally wrong-headed. Condescending, in its disregard for the fact that the most advanced Zen masters strive always to maintain a 'beginner's mind'; and wrong-headed, because neophytes to cha dao deserve, at least as much as anyone else, to be exposed (as often as possible) to the very best tea there is -- for the sheer glory of it, and in order to help develop their sense of what the highest quality in a tea can entail.

But it probably is fair to say that Feng Huang Dan Cong is not a tea to be drunk in a desultory or off-handed fashion, unless one's wealth is beyond the dreams of avarice. At its very best, this type of tea is one of the masterpieces of the tea-maker's art. It is not a big, brassy, stentorian tea: its notes are nuanced, subtle, sometimes ethereal. One must pay close attention in order to hear them, stilling the surrounding noises. Perhaps precisely because of its delicate nature, Dan Cong is (for me at least) a tea to be savored on special occasions, rather than as a daily drink.

These Tea Habitat teas were excellent examples of the well-crafted Dan Cong. They maintained their elegance throughout several infusions each, and proffered the hallmark Dan Cong aftertaste -- rarefied and tenacious at the same time. At up to $400 per pound, these teas are surely what most people would term 'high-end.' They are both gorgeously made (though I was a bit surprised to see a stem in the second tea) and each leaf, in its dry state, certainly resembles a wu long, a 'black dragon.' The long and the short of it is that this was a memorable, a luscious experience, for which I am most grateful.


Unknown said...


Your analysis is pellucid and elegant. Which one of these two DC's do you currently prefer-- orange of ginger? At first, I judged the orange superior, but as time goes by, the ginger noses ahead by a hair. Yes, comparison is crass. They're both excellent, and they both have much to teach. Best to you, wise crow-- ~grasshopper

corax said...

thank you, grasshopper, for your comment. i'm interested to hear that you are coming to prefer the ginger. of the two, i guess i favored the orange; but perhaps over time i would come round to your opinion. your palate was always subtler and more sophisticated than my own, so who knows ... but really, in this case, it's a win/win, i think -- these are two remarkable teas, and it's an extraordinary privilege to have a sip of either of them ...

Imen said...


May I ask what kind of water do you use? Ginger flower should last much more than 5 infusions. Soapy and buttery might be differ by personal interpretation, however if my assumption of soapy also include the smell of soap, than it's most likely the water.

Comparison will unfold the mystery. Try drinking hzx immediately after po tou, or any combination for that mater. :)

corax said...

imen, ni hao!

no, it did not smell soapy. and it could not have been the water [fiji spring water]. otherwise i would expect it to show up in *all* the infusions, not just INF3 and INF4. also presumably it would have manifested in the other tea as well. it was also not at all what i would call a 'buttery' note, as this is something i favor.

alas i cannot do any further comparison-tasting, as i only had small samples of each tea!

Imen said...


Ni hao!

Fiji is one of the waters I avoid, the other one is Arrow Head. Not just for Dan Cong either. I tested many waters with the same tea, Fiji did not turn out to be my favorite.

MarshalN said...

Imen, IIRC in your water test you did not taste your tea...

I actually quite like Fiji water for tea making. I find they bring out a lot of flavour that otherwise are subdued. Of course, this could all be due to personal taste, other teaware, etc. But maybe you should also try your water test with a tasting at the end?