Written by Will
Phoenix Honey Orchid, Spring 2019, produced in Shuang Ji Niang Mountain, Phoenix Village, Guangdong, China.
In this deep dive we get to know our current batch Phoenix Honey Orchid, a definitive example of the complex oolongs, known in Chinese as Dan Cong oolongs, from the mythic mountains of Guangdong province. We’ll be exploring what this batch is like to drink, how it compares to our other oolong teas and I’ll be sharing with you my favourite ways to enjoy this tea at home.
What we think makes teas truly standout and give long term satisfaction for tea drinkers is when they can achieve two things that are seemingly at opposite ends of a spectrum. For Phoenix Honey Orchid (let’s call it PHO from here on in) it is both layered and complex, but also accessible and satisfying; it has a honeycomb texture which gives it a refreshing bite, but it’s also has warmth in its baked flavours.
Origin: Shuang Ji Niang Mountain, Phoenix Village, Guangdong, China.
Cultivar: Camellia sinensis var. sinensis ‘Mi Lan Xiang’
Name: ‘Phoenix’ refers to the origin of this style of oolong and ‘Honey Orchid’ is a translation of the cultivar name.
Style: Medium oxidised, roasted oolong.
Terroir: Grown in an organic garden which is surrounded by lush green forest in a mountainous area.
Picking Season: Spring 2019
Leaf: Large twists of brown-black tea leaf.
Infusion: Light, glowing amber tea infusion.
What kind of tea does Shuang Ji Niang Mountain produce?
The tea gardens of Shuang Ji Niang mountain sit at an altitude of 1000m, high up the authentic home for this tea: Phoenix village in Guangdong, China. The mountains in this region are known as Fenghuang shan, which translates as Phoenix mountains, a name that refers to a mythic phoenix who delivered tea to this area in the Song dynasty. The unique style of teas produced here are therefore known as the Phoenix teas. They are a medium oxidised, roasted oolong that typically sit in the middle to dark end of the oolong spectrum. To give you context, green oolongs like Ali Shan and Iron Buddha are at one end, and teas like Wuyi Oolong and Oriental Beauty from Taiwan at the other end.
The terroir here is a mix of green forests and stony pathways and clearings, which lends the tea a certain minerality in flavour. Though mostly, the Phoenix teas are regarded for their complex fragrances, bright fruit and floral flavours and honeycomb texture. The best ones are highly aromatic – as soon as you add the leaves to a warm pot they’ll release incredible fruit and floral aromas.
There are many cultivars of the tea plant that are used to make phoenix oolong, each with its own lineage and each chosen for its specific flavour profile. Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid Aroma) cultivar is one of the most popular types used to make tea in this area, the flavours being accessible and appreciated. Some of the very old Mi Lan Xiang tea trees are left unpruned and so grow very tall, and the teas from them have become highly prized.
How did we source this batch of tea and who made it?
With so many varieties and flavours to be found among the Phoenix oolongs, it can be hard to choose a single tea to express this terroir. However, in 2019, Tom, our Head of Tea, discovered this batch by tea producer Yong Luo. Tasting Luo's spring production, Tom was blown away by the precise floral fragrance and strong peachy flavour; a true representation of the Honey Orchid cultivar.
Luo processed this batch in spring 2019 using the freshest leaves of the year. To begin making this oolong tea it is important to pick the tea leaves on a clear day with no rain, as too much moisture will produce bitterness during the processing.
The tea processing has quite a few precise stages – part of the art of creating a great oolong tea is controlling the level of oxidation in the leaves so that the characteristic fruit and floral flavours are maximised. Luckily for us, Luo has years of experience in doing this and carefully guides the processing of every batch. This is done by lightly tossing the leaves in a large bamboo tumbler or basket which bruises them or gently breaks their edges, so when they are left to rest, they slowly turn from green to red/ brown. Once the desired level of oxidation is achieved, the leaves are then heated up to stop any further flavour change and, capturing the initial flavour of the tea. This firing also giving the leaves their twisted shape.
The final baking stage of Luo’s tea processing is probably the most critical. This is what accentuates the flavour of the tea, adding a layer of complexity, definition and warmth to the infusion. Using electric ovens, the team lightly bake the leaves until they turn a dark hue of green and purple-brown. After this, the fully dried tea will be left to rest for a few weeks for the flavour to develop. Tom tastes a lot of oolongs which have been over baked – it’s tempting because it adds a very prominent flavour that tea drinkers can easily recognise, but we think it masks the high aromas and fruit and floral flavours, giving a one dimensional taste experience.
At the time of writing this, Tom is waiting for Yong Luo’s 2020 batch of teas to arrive for him to taste – as always we’re keen to see what the new season brings – but also, this being a team favourite we are looking forward to tasting some new cultivars and find more flavours from the Phoenix Mountains.
What is this batch like to drink?
I do this for all teas because it adds so much to the taste experience but as PHO takes aromas to a whole new level, it’s a must to heat the teapot before adding the dry leaves. The heat releases the tea’s heady aromas and you’ll get a ton of juicy, fruit notes like fresh peaches and nectarines, a layer of deep florality and hints of warmth from the bake. It’s certainly complex and highly aromatic.
When drinking the tea, the flavour is sweet at first and the texture feels like honeycomb in the mouth – a smooth layer that gives way to a very slight brisk feeling. This texture enhances the distinct taste of honey and peaches across the palate. As I drink, it slowly transforms into a very pleasing astringency with a strong peach stone minerality that lingers for a long time and leaves a satisfying, quenching feeling. It’s a very distinctive tea with a really captivating flavour.
Where and when is this tea for?
It’s a tea that works all year round. On a sunny day, it’s refreshing, and the bright fruit and floral notes suit the season. On a cooler day, the warmth from the bake is comforting – but the tea gives energy from its refreshing character. It’s an energising tea overall and often in spring as the mornings are warmer, I’ll replace a darker/ warmer breakfast style tea with this as my first tea of the day. It works well as an after lunch pick-me-up too.
It’s easy to make and get great flavour from. I also enjoy this tea as a cold infusion (check out the method below), as the lower temperature extracts more of the sweeter high notes and increases the cooling sensation. It’s an accessible but complex and satisfying tea that has many layers worth discovering.
What is it like to make and how easy is it to get a good taste?
Single Serve, One Cup Method using 250ml teapot and cup:
This is an easy tea to make and can be enjoyed in a glass teapot – we usually use our tea-iere. However, as mentioned above, the thing you must do with this tea is preheat your teapot (you can do this simply by adding hot water to your empty pot, swirling it around for 5-10 seconds and then pouring it away). A warm teapot will give you a superb hit of the fragrance when you add your 4g (two tbsp) of dry tea leaves. Once you’ve enjoyed that aroma, I recommend using water that’s just slightly cooler than boiling as it will accentuate the sweet flavours. I usually do this by stopping my kettle just before the boil, but it also works if you let the kettle cool for 1-2 minutes; don’t worry about being too precise.
Infuse for three minutes (don’t forget to set your timer) and then pour out the whole infusion into your favourite mug or glass. Explore the flavour more by re-infusing the leaves and adding 30 seconds on the next infusion to get maximum flavour the second time round – it would be a waste (and a shame) not to!
This is our go-to method: 4g per 250ml; 95˚C; 3 minutes per infusion.
Cold infusion – I do this as a 1ltr batch in our 1ltr Tea-iere.
This is an easy way to get a delicious and refreshing expression of this tea and to find the orchid note. I’ll do this at the beginning of a sunny weekend (once made it’ll last 24-48 hours) – or if I remember, I’ll make it and leave it in the fridge the night before a hot day. It takes a few hours to infuse.
The method is simple. I add 16g (8tbsp) of leaf to my 1ltr tea-iere. Then I top it up with freshly filtered and ideally softened cold water and pop it in the fridge to infuse. Without heat from the water to extract the flavour and structure compounds, the tea needs time! It tastes best if you leave it to infuse for 8-12 hours (ie, overnight), or you can try adding more leaf and reducing the time – try a minimum of at least 4 hours though. The cold water will extract the sweet and floral top notes of the tea, but much less of the compounds that give it structure, so you won’t get as much of that honeycomb feeling but there will be more space in your cup for the refreshing fruit and floral flavours.
Method: 16g per 1litre; 10˚C, 4hrs min.
Who is this tea for?
I’ve said it a few times now, but Phoenix Honey Orchid is really accessible – it’s not just for oolong aficionados. I often recommend it to anyone looking for a tea that will offer tons of enjoyment and satisfaction the more you engage with it – it’s a great one to take time to explore. The flavours are abundant in fruit, floral and honey notes, which I think are approachable and appreciated by most palates. If you’ve never tried an oolong tea before, then give this one a try to experience how broad the category can be. Equally if you’re a fan of oolong teas then you might already know how good Phoenix is – we think this batch is an exceptionally aromatic expression of the terroir.