Updated: Apr 30, 2020
The warm, dry leaves are bursting with aroma. A full, baked sweetness offers comfort and anticipation. Juxtaposed against it is a curious sourness that doesn't wasn't to reveal itself fully just yet. It's the first hint that this tea is unorthodox and will challenge your perceptions... and so the excitement begins! At least, these are my thoughts after tasting this tea multiple times. I love this tea and really look forward to drinking it every time. In fact, I tend to keep it for the more special moments where I know I'll be able to concentrate and appreciate it. Honestly, it wasn't like that at first. It's almost hard to recall, but when I first received this text wasn't love at first sight.
This is The Alchemist - a black tea from Phoenix Mountain, Chaozhou, from our Dancong oolong suppliers. It's made from lao cong, or old tree, material. Trees that are over 100 years old, picked by workers climbing up into their branches and plucking the delicate slender buds along with some leaf and stem. From this information I began unwittingly building my expectation of what this tea would be like when I tasted it. I had tried hong cha from this supplier before and remember thoroughly enjoying it so I was sure I wouldn't be let down. With this old tree material I expected my tasting experience would be propelled to stratospheric heights. It's a long way down from there.
I don't know what I was expecting when I tasted. Mind blowing aroma that brought me to my knees? Perhaps levitation, or a genie offering three wishes? It goes without saying that my expectations weren't met. I felt like I'd made a huge mistake in buying it. I asked questions and demanded answers. The answers I received made me rethink my stance and took me back to the tea once more for another try the following day. And then it began to shine. The next tasting, with perhaps a little more concentration on brewing technique, unleashed an amazing experience of rich floral aroma and powerful flavour that I hadn't found at first. Essentially I had to tear down my preconceptions of what I thought this tea was going to be and build it back up from scratch.
This is a lesson I've learned a number of times while learning about Chinese and Japanese teas. Sometimes our cultural machinery works in different ways. What is highly prized to some may not make much of an impact to others. In the west, many of us overlook or lack appreciation for subtlety of flavour for example. I've certainly been guilty of it in the past, especially at a younger age, and I guess the appreciation of subtlety and nuance often comes with age if it's ever going to come at all. Another thing rarely considered in tea appreciation at an early stage is tea qi, or energy; basically, how the tea makes us feel in our bodies. This tea has a powerful energy, and that is most definitely a large part of its appeal. This type of energy can be wrought from terroir, from cultivar, and oftentimes from older trees, which reach more deeply into the soil with their strong taproots and stretch out a vast network of roots that draw in an abundance of nutrients.
So with this tea I had hoped for some kind of magic quality. That magic would strike joy into me immediately and I wouldn't have to think too much about it. I didn't get that. I got a challenge, and maybe a little reprimand too. A reminder to approach new teas with an open mind and always to experiment with brewing techniques to seek out better results or even just unlock different characteristics.
This is an incredible black tea. One tea fried called it a "mad genius" for its ability to throw complete confusion into a blind tasting. It has potent, rich aroma, which is also quite delicate. It's full, sweet richness is best appreciated at the beginning of the sessions, from the dry leaves and the first couple of rinses. In the tasting, the Dancong heritage shines through the whole experience. It's floral with an orchid sweetness, rooted in a mineral foundation but emboldened by the fully oxidised processing. This creates a fullness and warmth of flavour that you'd expect from a black tea but with less of a malty heaviness that you'd find from, say, a black tea from Yunnan. Instead, the floral and plumy, dried fruit top end persists and a dense, woody mid range holds it all together. The old tree version compared to that from younger bushes brings forth a sour, tart acidity. Not sharp or harsh at all, but present and energetic. As brews go on and the logon fruit/lychee fruitiness starts to weaken, this energy remains strong and leaves a drier sensation on the palate. Although the more obvious aromatic and flavour experiences are best felt in the first 3-4 infusions, this tea has great longevity and a good 7-8 or more infusions can usually be enjoyed. The best brewing technique is to treat it like any other Dancong tea: Water off the boil, not too scalding; 8 grams in a taiwan or small teapot; short infusions of 3-4 seconds, building up slowly to 10 or 12 seconds. Treat it with respect as you would with anyone over 100 years old and you will find a lot of wisdom in these leaves.