Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Phoenix Bird Oolong

Today I bought some Phoenix Bird Oolong tea from Silk Road Teas.

In Chinese, this tea is called "Feng Huang Dan Cong", or 凤凰单 丛 in Simplified Chinese, and fèng huáng dān cóng in Pinyin. fèng huáng means legendary phoenix, a mythological bird that is not related to the Egyptian myth. According to wikipedia, the bird symbolizes high virtue and peace, as well as the union between yin and yang. Interestingly, fèng by itself means male phoenix, and huáng means female phoenix, giving us both yin and yang. In the case of the tea, it refers more literally to the fenghuang mountains of the Guangdong province where this tea is produced. The dān cóng part of the name means "lone bush," referring to the fact that the leaves are harvested from old trees, purportedly more than 400 years of age.

The dry leaves are twisted lengthwise, and are quite dark, indicating high oxidation. It smells almost black, with a light floral hint. After 6 brewings, the leaves had still not totally unfolded, and were long and very narrow even when I unfolded them myself, being the narrowest tea leaves I've encountered. The grade of this tea is high, with almost entirely whole leaves, and few stems.

I pour a good 2 tsp into my teapot, and do several briefly steeped infusions with a modest 2-3 oz of boiling hot water each time.

First, a 5 second rinse

First brewing, 15 seconds
The liquor is a light honey color. Sweet at first, with a snappy bite to finish. The bite is brief and pleasant. The taste is woody, like toasted walnuts.

Second infusion, 15 seconds
"Hello!" the tea demands that its presence be harkened. The flavor has definitely opened up, and its freshness is vivid. Slightly floral--not like delicate orchid oolongs--but rather in a dark way, presumably due to higher oxidation. Every sip tastes different and has me probing to ascertain its complexities... or contrive them anyhow. :)

Third brew with fresh water in boiler, 15 second infusion
The snappy bitter bite is still there, is this the beak of the phoenix? I try sucking air to cool the tea in my mouth (even though I can't stand when folks make this obnoxious gurgling sound at tea tastings), and a whole bunch of flavors wash over my tongue as I swallow. Sweet, hearty, bitter, and a satisfying enough combination to cause a spontaneous "mmmm."

Fourth brew, 17 seconds
The bitterness dominates, becoming unpleasant. Is my water too hot?

Fifth brew at slightly lower temperature, 25 seconds
Less bitter, I think this helped.

Number six, even lower temp., 30 seconds
Less bitter, floral notes enhanced, but the tea is falling flat.

Seventh attempt, water not even steaming hot, 60 second
Eww, still very bitter. The phoenix has expired in flames.

Overall impression: 7/10. A quality tea, and another unexpected experience. This is the first time I have used such short brew times and small volumes of water. It definitely allowed me to see the tea evolve, and brought out so many characteristics that most of them fell off of the map of my palate, which was a welcome push into uncharted territory. I wonder why this got so bitter, though... is it because of the age of the tree? I don't think it was because of my brewing technique, however I do think the tea has far more potential that I was unable to unearth.

Will the phoenix rise again from its own ashes? ( subliminal plea for a thoughtful response :) )


Mary R said...

It seems like a quality leaf, and for the price ($35 per quarter pound on sale?!) I think we can make this phoenix soar yet.

Even though it is a darker-oxidized oolong, try brewing it at much lower temperatures than boiling. Maybe as low as 175˚F, but at least 180˚F to start. Try a 30 second steep, resubmerging the leaves for an additional 30 seconds until you've found your ballpark zone.

perpleXd said...

Actually, it's only $15 per quarter pound. Item O-PBO-15 on their site. I will try your brewing suggestions, thanks!