May 15, 2010

Concept Tea (2) - Red (black) Tea Dan Cong (紅單欉)

Seriously! I am drinking a Dan Cong red (black) tea :-D

In early March of this year, many Chinese tea producing regions suffered from snow and frost. Mt. Wudong, home of Phoenix Dan Cong, is one of the regions that suffered the most.

These are some typical scenes of tea trees being frozen and withered leaves after thawing of frost. (Scroll down the page for photos.)

It's the worst natural disaster in tea plantations of Mt. Wudong since 1943. It's estimated that spring production of Dan Cong was reduced by more than 60% percent. Even worse, most damages happened to the best tea trees - those at 600m (1800 ft.) elevation or higher.

I was both glad and excited when Zhi, a young farmer of Mt. Wudong, told me about his Red (black) Tea Dan Cong. On the morning of March 10th, when he saw acre after acre of frozen leaves, Zhi's heart sank. It was the day when many tea farmers witnessed their tea leaves, even some tea trees, killed by ice and frost, just five days or so before spring harvest. On the day many people lost their entire spring production, Zhi didn't want to give up. He made a quick decision and did something I had never heard of. Actually it's something that even Zhi had never heard of. It was just a thought that came to his mind, and he grabbed the thought. Zhi called up all his friends and assistant works, and they spent the whole day harvesting on the frost-damaged tea leaves. Plant tissues respond to various environmental shocks, including freezing shock, with oxidation. Therefore, when the semi-frozen leaves were harvested, they were already heavily oxidized. Overly oxidized leaves are not suitable to make the delicate Phoenix Dan Cong. But they can still be used to make some tea. While rush-handling all the frost-damaged leaves in one day, Zhi and his companions didn't have time to categorize the leaves by cultivars. They had all the leaves mixed while processing them, and made this Red (black) Tea Dan Cong. Theoretically this tea is no longer "single cultivar", with leaves of various cultivars mixed together. But all the leaves are high quality, high mountain tea leaves which were supposed to be leaf materials for Dan Cong. Therefore I would still prefer to call this tea "Dan Cong".

As soon as Zhi told me about this tea, I decided to get some. I was very curious about how a red tea Dan Cong would taste like. And I was very much impressed by Zhi's creativity and decisiveness. In addition, this tea is much less expensive than regular Dan Cong products, because, after all, it's a product of accident. By making it, the tea farmer and his friends only expected to have some production, instead of nothing, from these frost-damaged leaves. It sounds like a great tea with very reasonable price. Besides, darker oolong and red tea both have relatively long shelf life. So I thought, I would like to get some no matter what. Even if it doesn't turn out as great as expected, I will just take it as souvenir of the historic frost calamity of 2010.

The dry leaves of the tea looks just like normal Dan Cong.

First infusion:

Seventh infusion:

The tea liquor looks bright and silky. The flavor is somewhat like Mi Lan (honey orchid) Dan Cong, and somewhat like Almond Dan Cong. Made with leaves of various cultivars mixed, this tea doesn't have as focused as a flavor profile as most Dan Cong products. The fragrance is not as prominent as high quality Dan Cong products. But the flavor is rich and powerful. The aftertaste has great aroma, and the sweet aftertaste is strong. It looks like that overly oxidation caused the tea to lose some fragrance, but the flavor of the tea was largely saved by Zhi's timely processing. Something else that I like very much about this tea is, the texture of the liquor is very smooth. It's the "rice soup" or "oily" texture as how Chinese oolong drinkers would describe it. Such liquor texture is only found from top level high mountain leaves with great inner characters. I enjoy this tea very much, and meantime, I can't help thinking what a pity it is - if it were not for the frost disaster, this tea could have been even a lot better. And then, I also feel lucky that after all, the leaves were not wasted, and were still made into good tea. Besides, as a product of accident, this tea does have some red tea characters that I had never seen from a Dan Cong tea.

I don't know yet if this tea will be made again next year when the climate is normal and leaves are fine. But anyway, I would like to include this tea in my "Concept Tea" collection, because I think it's really unique. Chinese people often say, "The taste of tea is the taste of life." Sometimes one may have the best qualities but not the best of luck, just like whatever good tea leaves there are, a snow storm can easily ruin them. Sometimes there is no way to argue with the nature or the fate, but it's possible to negotiate our way to get the best results within our limits. We all know it's much easier saying it than living it. Therefore I admire what Zhi has done with this Red Tea Dan Cong. From what I know about him, this young man in his early 20s has great expectations in tea!

Also worth mentioning is that all the tea leaves are from Zhi's plantation in transition for organic cultivation. His plantation has been on an organic transition certificate, and he plans to obtain the organic certificate in a few years when the transition period is finished. Zhi and I also exchanged some conversations about challenges in organic cultivation and possible solutions, which I will include in future blog entries.

I’ve set aside some samples of this tea for fellow bloggers. Please see recent events for blogger free sample information (you will need to scroll down to the bottom of the linked page).


This spring has not been easy for tea farmers. In southern Fujian, first, in early March, new leaves of Huang Jin Gui (Golden Osmanthus) cultivar were largely killed by the snow and frost. Then in early May, after several excellent sunny days with great Tie Guan Yin harvest, it rained for weeks. When the rain started, a Tie Guan Yin farmer told me, "Our most expensive leaves are still in the tea tree, and we can't harvest on them in the rain!" And yesterday he said to me regretfully, "Many of our best leaves grew old in the tree while it was raining!" But he also told me that we should feel grateful for the great weather from late April to early May, when harvest was smooth and great tea was made. He said, "If we don't get a lot of leaves good for light-oxidized Tie Guan Yin, we will make more medium-oxidized product. If we don't get as much Mao Xie and Ben Shan, let's hope we can still make plenty of Qi Lan." He was a little sad, but not gloomy. "Tea is a gift of the Nature. Sometimes we get more, and sometimes we get less. We have to take whatever it is, and life is going on." To me, what's great about getting into tea business is, I've come to appreciate the tea in my cup more than ever.


Ruqyo Highsong said...

I like this. Finding the positive in something negative. I would very much like to try this Red Tea Dan Cong.

Ruqyo Highsong said...

There. Just purchased two ounces of it on your site. I can't wait to try it. ^_^

Gingko said...

Oh it's you! I thought I would send you some samples first. Well, let me know if you would like try some other specific samples! Thanks!

flo said...

dan cong made into red tea seems to be, if not "traditional", at least not new.

I have been buying and drinking a red tea-dan cong for some time (for about 2 years), its name is Zui Jia Ren, I find it in Paris at my usual teashop.
There is another teashop in Paris that sells this type of tea (not with that name though, with no particular name in fact), but I have not tasted theirs.

It is a very fine tea, clearly atypical among hong cha, very smooth and oily texture; the one I have is more on the fruity side (with nutty aromas). long lasting flavor, delicate + yummy, and lots of brews!

I am not sure whether it is always a "secondary" product (I mean, the use of leaves that under other circumstances would have been processed >>dan cong), or one made deliberately that way. I would tend to think that usually, it makes sense eg that if a producer ends up with leaves oxydised more than he first intended, then he would decide to push oxydation and make hong cha. some producers might also sort out leaves with intention to make hong cha with them.

Akira Hojo has a tea which he describes as a hong cha from guangdong but made with a breed dedicated to this. a breed descending from dan cong arbor ? don't know.
It is then also imaginable that some species/small areas in guangdong got dedicated to such production with breeds not dan cong bushes, which would mean there are different kinds of "reds" in guangdong.

lost of "if" and "maybe", huh ?

Sir William of the Leaf said...

The process reminds me a bit of a Nilgiri Frost tea.
I actually enjoy the qualities that are brought out by that style of processing!
I assume many of the characteristics of Dan Cong oolongs are present in the taste?
That would make for quite an interesting tea!
Very informative post!
And to Fox; I am jealous. haha

Gingko said...

Hi Flo, you are right! I didn't know about the Zui Jia Ren and looked it up. It's a newly invented Dan Cong variety which came out in about 2005. I didn't hear people talking about it before and found very little information about it. I guess it's because the tea is made in small amount (by a famous Dan Cong expert) and doesn't circulate throughout the market. A few days ago I was thinking if red tea Dan Cong would be favored by western market, where people already love red/black tea. Probably that's why you found Zui Jia Ren in Paris!

In Chinese market, especially in southern China, usually red tea doesn't sell as well as oolong. The tea I wrote about, could have been sold for a lot more if it were made into normal Dan Cong. And probably that's why there aren't more people experimenting on making Dan Cong into red tea. But it's interesting to see that red/black tea techniques have been either invented or more developed in recent years in various tea categories (such as Long Jing, Bi Luo Chun, and now Dan Cong).

Gingko said...

To Sir William, I think the tea has most of the Dan Cong characters. But the flavor goes more to the back tongue than upwards to the nose. You know sometimes when you sip a good Dan Cong and close your mouth, the fragrance lingers between your mouth and nose for a long time. For this tea, such fragrance note is rather small. Instead, the back tongue and throat flavor is richer and stronger. Besides, the fragrance is a mixture of Honey Orchid, Almond and probably a bit of Huang Zhi Xiang, I think. In single bush Dan Cong, the fragrance is purer with clearer profile.

flo said...

thanks for looking up Ginko :)
I was not aware of when Zui Jia Ren started, thx for finding.

btw here is the page where Mr Hojo writes about his guangdong red tea :

it does not seem at all to be Zui Jia Ren.

it is true fine hong cha is much appreciated in France, as far as I can tell, but drinkers who practice gong fu cha and know about chinese teas will also seem to seek for high end, delicate hong cha. On the other hand, mass market carries lots of "thé noir" of all kinds.

it would indeed be interesting to have an idea of how old and how usual such use of dan cong leaves (the way Mr Zhi did) can be. I would not be very surprised if this was something farmers have been doing for a long time but also a type of product that did not hit the market beyond local for some reason.
Likewise (but on a different register) "huang pian" (the yellow leaves of pu er, correct if I am mispelling) do not hit the market but tend to be consumed locally (yet I saw young cakes on sunsingtea site that seem to be pressed with yellow leaves). It does not mean that these products are low quality, market life has its history and circumstances.

similarly (or nearly) I have heard of dan cong cha tou from Imen's site when she opened it, I was not aware of this before.

o brave new world
that hath such tea in it


Gingko said...

Hi Flo, the Guang Dong red tea in your link is Ying De red tea, which is made from red tea cultivar, very different from oolong cultivar. The one in the link looks very nice. And as they say, the "golden ring" in tea liquor is a mark of very high quality red/black tea.

Currently a problem (or maybe not exactly a "problem") in Chinese tea market is, there are so many tea varieties and techniques, and many of them don't get a good market share. On the other hand, the export of Chinese tea seem to includes only tiny amount of the very expensive tea and huge amount of extremely cheap tea (many of them are so cheap and entirely out of serious tea drinkers' consideration). I think there is a lot to do to get medium price products in western market.

flo said...


as tiny complement, just found this concise text on Ying De Hong:

Gingko said...

Thanks Flo, for the link and the information!