by Phil on September 26th, 2013
In China there is a saying: “High Mountains and Old Trees make the best tea”.
People often ask me to tell them my favourite tea, but it’s an impossible question to answer; it depends on so many things, and I don’t have a single favourite. However, I can say what tea has made the biggest impression on me, and changed my drinking habits.
At the start of my China visit last April, we spent the first few days in the Phoenix Mountains in Guangdong. We travelled with local tea expert Wu Jianzhong, and were based at the home of his sister & brother-in-law. Wu stays here during the picking season – he knows the local farmers, and they bring their maocha to him for tasting. If he likes the tea he collects it himself from the farmer, and then cleans and re-bakes it at the house in Fenghuang (Phoenix) Town.
It was a special experience to spend time with the family, sharing meals, seeing the tea being made and tasting it together. Tea making is done on a very small scale in Fenghuang, with each farmer making tea in their own home. The smell of fresh or baked leaves was always in the air, and we had to break off at regular intervals to turn the fresh leaves or remove baking trays from the charcoal oven. I became immersed in the process, and the regular tasting, and started to have a real affection for everything about it.
During the day we went up the mountains to see the tea trees and learn about the different varieties. Driving up into the mountains, you see tea leaves everywhere on the roadside, withering in the sunshine; sun withering is an important part of the Dancong process. The withered leaves are then turned by hand very gently for 3-4 hours before being heated to kill the leaf enzymes and final charcoal baking to bring out the flavours. All this is done in small houses, and we stopped from time to time to taste tea with the owners. All this seemed to be perfectly normal, but it was a new experience for me.
The word ‘Dancong’ is perhaps best described as ‘many tastes’, referring to the large number of different varieties grown in the Phoenix Mountains. Each variety has a different flavour, and needs to be treated carefully to bring it to the fore. The best known are probably Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid) and Huang Zhi Xiang (Yellow Sprig), but there are twelve in all. As my palate became accustomed to these teas, it soon became clear that the altitude of the village and the age of the local trees are significant factors in the quality of the tea. The combination of slower growth and long-established root systems seem to concentrate the flavour compounds in the leaf, and also give a thickness to the infusions that is quite hard to describe, but never forgotten once experienced. Teas like this were described as having very good ‘Chaqi’, explained as a thickness that coats the palate and lingers, and lingers…
This started me on a quest to find some Old Tree Dancong. I was taken to see a 350 year old tree, which is still picked every year (the mother tree is 700 years old, and protected by the government). The tea from this tree fetches a colossal price, reflecting its age and rarity as much as its quality, and is reserved for very special customers. I did eventually find something a little less venerated, a Huang Zhi Xiang made from 100 year old trees, and was able to buy a tiny amount to bring back. It didn’t last long, but some more was available from this year’s picking, and that is the tea in this week’s Tea Club box.
If you are in the Tea Club and have a sample, you will be able to enjoy what I think is the most remarkable teas I have tasted. It’s worth setting aside some quality time so that you can make the most of the experience.
Use a gaiwan or small pot, warm it, tip away the water, add the leaves to the warm bowl, and cover with the lid. After a few seconds the leaves will have warmed up and started to release their aroma.
Fill with hot water, cover with the lid and leave for 30 seconds. Then lift the lid and smell the inside surface, which will have the aroma of the tea. Pour this infusion into a tasting cup and add more water to the leaves. Repeat this process many times – the flavours will continue to develop, and each infusion will be slightly different.
When you think you have finished, leave one final infusion to cool completely and enjoy another taste experience. If you have enough cups and self-discipline, leave a little of each infusion to cool down and then make the comparison. This is a tea that has so much to give, so much to enjoy.