by Phil on August 1st, 2014
Canton Tea Club Week 96: Mi Lan Dan Cong
Each of us at Canton gets to choose a favourite during the summer, and this week it’s my turn. The tea I have chosen isn’t the rarest, or the most unusual, and in fact it’s one of the most popular teas that the company sells. I have picked it because it brings back some vivid memories of visiting the farmers, and because it is one of the few examples of true artisan tea making I have experienced. And it tastes fantastic – I have yet to find anyone who doesn’t like it.
Artisan? Or Not?
It’s not hard to find ‘artisan teas’ these days. The question is, what does that actually mean?
People seem to use it in a lazy way, and a synonym or ‘rare’ or ‘special’, but I don’t think that’s correct. I think ‘artisan’ means hand-crafted by an individual farmer using traditional skills. If that’s right, it excludes all factory-made teas, however rare they might be, and it excludes commercial tea gardens. So it’s extremely unlikely that you will find an artisan tea from Darjeeling, or from Assam, or from Sri Lanka (but there are a small number of exceptions).
Even in China, many of the most famous and popular teas are produced on a semi-industrial scale, including Bai Mu Dan, Tie Guanyin Oolong and even the remarkable Wuyi Rock Oolongs. It is still possible to buy hand-crafted green teas such as Long Jing, but many of these are also now mass-produced.
This is why my visit to the Phoenix Mountains (Fenghuang) in 2012 made such an impression. For somebody with so many years experience of mass-produced tea (see below) it was completely new, even shocking. Instead of troughs, rolling machines and huge dryers I was seeing tea made in tiny batches by hand, using only a bamboo tray, simple rolling table and charcoal oven.
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. We stopped from time to time to taste tea in people’s houses – everyone processes their own tea in their house. The process is deceptively simple but extremely skilled. The withered leaves are placed in a layer perhaps 10cm deep on a wide circular bamboo tray and turned over very gently. This bruises the edges of the leaves and allows a degree of oxidation to take place. The amount of oxidation varies for each Dan Cong variety, designed to optimise the individual flavours. When the leaves are ready they are heated to stop the oxidation, then rolled and baked. The baking process is also important in maximising each tea’s flavour. This produces the maocha, which is then set aside for cleaning and final charcoal baking.
On the trip we were in the company of Wu Jianzhong, and based at his sister & brother-in-law’s house. 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. Wu’s brother in law also makes his own tea, and it was a new experience for me – while we were eating our evening meal, he would break away every 20 minutes to turn the leaves, and then later they would be heated, rolled and baked. The aromas were unforgettable.
This is real artisan tea. To compare this with a commercial plantation and large factory is like comparing industrial mining and panning for gold nuggets in a stream. In fact, the gentle turning of the leaves on wide bamboo trays might well be described as ‘panning for gold’.
I made a video of my visit to Fenghuang:
A bit about me
I started my tea career in 1979 with Typhoo, and spent 20 years there, including many trips to India and Africa when I developed a real affinity with tea farmers and a love for being involved in tea making. This was always on a large scale, but there is nothing like getting your hands into the leaves and your nose into the tea as it is ‘fermenting’ (oxidising). The aromas inside even a large tea factory are intoxicating, and change as you follow the process from crushed green leaves to baked black tea.
After Typhoo I spent some time working freelance, and visited China for the first time – a real game-changer that started me on a new tea journey. I had five years with Ringtons, a family tea business in Newcastle that has a great quality philosophy, and the only teabag product I ever buy is their vacuum-packed Kenyan Gold, bought from smallholder farms that I have worked with for many years. I left the company in 2009 but still work with them as a speciality consultant and ‘rare tea hunter’.
And so to Canton, as I explained last week. After 30+ years immersed in mainstream black tea I feel like I have gradually been adding layers of finesse and sophistication to my tea knowledge and have started to get somewhere more special. Of course, the sensible people at Canton skipped all the years of boring stuff and went straight in at the top. I think they like to have me around as a bit of ballast, but they are kind enough to call it ‘wisdom from experience’.