This article is part of a series covering all of the major historic terroirs in China for tea. This time, we’re headed to Feng Huang Shan, the true origin of Dan Cong!
The Lore of The She People
The renowned terroir of Feng Huang Shan and the origin of Wu Long tea can be traced back to the mythology of the She ethnic group. This group has sometimes been unfairly stereotyped by others in China as dog worshippers. According to their mythology, the She people have a mythical ancestor named Pan Hu, who was a dragon that transformed into a dog-headed human. Pan Hu had four children with a princess, which started the She tribe.
One day, Pan Hu's brother, known as Black Dragon or Wu Long, transformed into a vine that caused Pan Hu to trip and die. Filled with remorse, Wu Long morphed into a tea tree to provide for Pan Hu's offspring for all eternity. This ancestral mythology is crucial because it signifies the origin of Wu Long as a tea tree, not just a tea category. The reason why this lore is significant is that the She people supposedly came from Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain), marking it as the birthplace of Wu Long tea.
Spreading Wu Long beyond Phoenix Mountain
Some She people migrated north to Fu Jian, Zhe Jiang, and An Hui provinces due to warfare and other reasons, spreading Wu Long (Oolong) tea and tea culture along the way. Although this is only one of the many origin stories about tea, it is a well-known narrative regarding the origin of Wu Long. Presently, Wu Long (Oolong) tea has evolved to refer to both a tea category based on the processing method and specific varietals of tea trees.
It is worth noting that approximately 260 She people still reside in Feng Huang, predominantly in the village of Shi Gu Ping. In this village, the She people still have a temple to honor their ancestor Pan Hu and tell the tale of this lore.
The Land of Feng Huang Shan
Feng Huang Wu Long, often known as Feng Huang Dan Cong, represents the pinnacle of the subcategory of Wu Long (Oolong) tea, known as Chao Shan Wu Long. While there are many Wu Longs made in this style, only the ones from Feng Huang Shan can be called a Feng Huang Dan Cong.
Feng Huang means Phoenix and refers to the Phoenix Mountain, which is the authentic terroir for this style of Wu Long. Feng Huang Dan Cong is beloved for its tannic, fragrant, floral, and often fruity profile. These are not teas that are shy to show you their personalities.
Chao Shan is a twin city comprised of the old city of Chao Zhou and the new city of Shan Tou. Chao Zhou is the birthplace of Gong Fu Cha, and Feng Huang is located in this culturally rich ancient city. As we often see in tea country, the name of the city and the name of the mountain overlap. The core township of where Dan Cong is from is called Feng Huang, which is also the name of the mountain range where the tea grows.
Feng Huang used to belong to the city of Rao Ping. It is critical to emphasize this shift in the jurisdiction since, today, Rao Ping is one of the largest peripheral regions for Feng Huang Wu Long. It is often viewed as the central hub for counterfeit Dan Cong.
Wu Dong Village
Within the Feng Huang township, there are nineteen villages, among which Wu Dong village and the mountain peak, also called Wu Dong, stand out as the most renowned location for tea. While Wu Dong Mountain, which stands at an impressive height of 4,600 feet, is not the highest peak in Feng Huang Shan, it is considered the best terroir.
While Wu Dong is the name of a mountain that has many villages spread out within it, only the teas coming from the Wu Dong village on the very top portion of this mountain can bear the title, Wu Dong teas.
For example, both of Tea Drunk’s Ping Keng Tou Ya Shi Xiang and Dan Hu Ao Fu Huo are from Wu Dong mountain, but villages right below the Wu Dong village. Therefore, they bear the terroir name of Ping Keng Tou and Dan Hu instead of Wu Dong.
The Ancient Trees (Lao Cong) of Feng Huang Shan
Feng Huang is a rare instance of an area outside of Yun Nan province that has many ancient tea trees, called Lao Cong in Chinese. According to a survey conducted in the early 1980s, Feng Huang was home to over 3,700 tea trees that had been in existence for over two centuries. However, since the 1990s, there has been a rapid decline in the number of old trees, leading to a lower current count, though the number is unverified.
Legend has it that the oldest tea tree in Feng Huang Shan is about 700 years old and is purportedly a descendant of the original Song Dynasty bird beak tea. As a result, this tree is commonly referred to as Song Zhong, which is a popular woodsy cultivar of the region. And unfortunately, this ancient tea tree now appears dead, we believe probably due to too much human attention.
When are Feng Huang Dan Cong Harvested?
As we discuss in our article A Tea Lover’s Guide to Harvest Season in China’s Top Terroir, two bulk factors that determine tea season are climate and style of tea. Even though Feng Huang Shan is of very high elevation, because it is more in the south, the tea still buds relatively early in comparison to other more northern Wu Long regions. However, Wu Long is a style of tea that harvests only when all buds have opened up and become leaves. This means that we must wait until the leaves have reached their desired maturity, which in the case of Dan Cong, is small to medium opening.
These two factors combine, Dan Cong tea season starts early April and extends to early May. This is on the earlier side for Wu Long, but much later in comparison with other styles of tea from comparable latitudes.
The same principle of outer mountain harvesting earlier than inner mountain still applies. We typically see a lagging of two to three weeks of harvesting time in Wu Dong in comparison to warmer, lower-elevation villages in Feng Huang Shan.
When we zoom into a given village, there’s still a variation in harvesting time among different cultivars. So let’s first take a look at the history of the diverse cultivars of Dan Cong.
The Ancient Practice of Jai Jie (Grafting) and Single Cultivar
Making tea from single cultivars didn’t emerge in Feng Huang Shan until the 1980s. However, the practice of stabilizing cultivars has a long tradition in the region. While most clone teas are planted with saplings into the soil, in Phoenix Mountain, farmers would graft desired cultivars onto the trunk of older tea trees to take advantage of their deep roots and more mature ecosystem.
Even though heirloom is a tradition for Dan Cong teas, tea makers of the region have long recognized the unique profile each cultivar delivers. Therefore in recent decades, there has been rapid development and appreciation for Dan Cong made from single cultivars. This is very similar to having wine from a single grape, such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.
Cultivars add an interesting dimension to a tea season. First of all, each cultivar has its micro tea season that starts at different times and lasts just a few days. For instance, Bai Ye, the popular peachy cultivar, is one of the earliest to be harvested. While an elegant Ba Xian cultivar from the same terroir would harvest 15-20 days later.
Even though there’s no set rule, there’s a strong correlation between cultivar harvesting time and price. Cultivars harvested later in the spring tend to demand higher prices, given the same terroir. Bai Ye and Ba Xian are great examples of this, with Ba Xian often doubling or tripling the cost of Bai Ye.
Secondly, some villages in Feng Huang Shan are better known for some cultivars than others. This causes the harvesting season in each village to vary due to the combined factors of their micro-climate and cultivars on their land. There’s also a correlation between the age of the tea tree and the harvesting season. Older tea trees tend to bud slower than younger trees of the same cultivar in the same region.
The most coveted Feng Huang Wu Long either comes from Wu Dong village or a village known to host old/original specimens of a specific varietal. For instance, Ba Xian from the village of Ya Hou is highly prized, even more so than a Ba Xian from Wu Dong. This is because the original eight Ba Xian trees are on this land and it’s a prime land for this cultivar.
When Will Dan Cong Be Ready To Drink?
Not only does Wu Long have a later harvesting time in comparison to other styles of teas, it is also a style of tea that is also traditionally roasted. After each harvesting season, where the tea producers have worked around the clock to ferment the leaves and bake them dry, a lengthy sorting process takes place. This can take a month to finish by hand and then the roasting begins. Roasting typically takes 6-8 hours per batch, but there is a three-week wait time between each roast for best practice. Because traditional Wu Longs are roasted at least twice, if not more, this pushes out the finish time for Dan Cong to late summer or early fall. Authentic Feng Huang Dan Cong will not be available in the market until at least late July.
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