In the Phoenix Mountains of northern Guangdong, tea cultivation is a tradition dating back hundreds of years. Unlike other tea-growing areas, tea plants are not pruned into bushes or regularly replanted to increase crop yields. Instead, the plants are allowed to grow into full-sized trees, which are typically not considered mature until they are at least 60 years old. Over time, tea farmers in this area have cultivated a range of local tea plant varieties, using cuttings and grafting to preserve and curate specific fragrances from each plant. As a result of these traditional growing methods, Phoenix oolongs are one of the most intense, flavorful, and varied categories of tea in China.
These oolongs are often called dan cong in Chinese, which references the unique growing methods used. As with many other Chinese tea terms, however, translations are often imperfect. Today, with these teas gaining popularity in the international market, there is plenty of disagreement about what makes a “real” dan cong. Though it may seem like every vendor has a different definition, there are three main ways this name can be interpreted.
Purists translate dan cong as “single bush”, and claim that true dan cong teas must be plucked from a single tea plant. Some Phoenix oolongs are undoubtedly made this way, but a single tea tree is naturally limited in capacity. Despite their larger size, the relatively old age of Phoenix Mountain tea trees puts them well past the years of peak production. New leaves bud in smaller quantities each year, but become more concentrated in flavor as the plant invests more nutrients in each leaf.
Teas crafted from a single tea plant are not unprecedented. The legendary Da Hong Pao trees, for instance, were harvested and crafted independently until 2005, when plucking was finally banned. We have even met Chinese connoisseurs who prefer to purchase a whole tree from their favorite tea farmer, with all future harvests from that tree plucked and crafted as a unique batch for the buyer. Unfortunately, teas that meet this definition of dan cong are unlikely to find their way to a commercial market, given the necessarily small quantities.
Some online vendors claim that the dan cong name actually has nothing to do with the harvest process, but is instead a botanical descriptor for Phoenix Mountain varietals, which grow into trees with a single trunk rather than many branching stems. By this definition, the dan cong name could theoretically be applied to any type of tea grown on a tea plant with a single trunk.
In fact, many Phoenix Mountain tea trees grow from a cluster of large trunks, in much the same formation as smaller tea plants. Rather than a difference between varieties, the size and shape of Phoenix oolong trees is more likely a result of the plant’s age and the way in which it was pruned during early growth.
Finally, the most common interpretation of dan cong suggests that each tea comes from a single grove or garden. Each growing area is typically planted with cuttings or clones of a single mother plant and cultivated for specific fruit or flower fragrances. Therefore, leaves from a single grove have consistent flavor, but can also produce enough quantity for the tea to be sold commercially.
Some connoisseurs suggest that dan cong teas must be crafted in unique batches from each tea tree, but may be blended after finishing to create a large batch. If the leaves are blended before processing, however, they are no longer dan cong, and are instead only a single varietal tea thanks to their genetic heritage.
In the end, though, it is practically impossible to verify any of these distinctions in a finished tea. Certainly, no matter how it is defined, a dan cong label is not a guarantee of good tea. A single source of origin may make a good story, but overall quality of Phoenix oolong teas is much more dependant on the lineage of the plant, terroir of the farm, and the skill of the tea crafter.
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